Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reject the “Bundle” Bungle: Saying “No” to Walentas Dock Street Project Next to the Brooklyn Bridge

Here is Noticing New York’s Testimony presented last week at the Brooklyn Borough President’s hearing on the proposed Walentas Dock Street DUMBO project next to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Noticing New York’s Testimony

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January 27, 2009

Hon. Marty Markowitz
Brooklyn Borough President
Borough Hall
209 Joralemon Street & Court Street
Brooklyn, New York 11201

Re: Today’s hearing on 18-story Dock Street DUMBO Project just east of the Brooklyn Bridge
Dear Borough President:

This testimony is presented in the name of Noticing New York, which addresses itself to issues of what is good public policy and planning critical to New York development issues.

Rather than address the particular merits of the project, its proposed size or the merits of building the proposed school, our testimony addresses the public policy wisdom of bundling choices together, what the New York Times referred to as “a Faustian bargain,” approving a school if a developer is allowed to build a project of extra height.

1. Why not consider the school and the project as separate decisions? The Walentases are good and capable developers, some of the best in the city. Surely they can build a project that would pass muster without the tacked-on enticement of a school.

2. Is there wisdom to the bundling of these decisions? Does the bundling enhance each choice or just cause each choice to be suspect? Shouldn’t we now ask, if the building is a good size, shape and height, if it has to be “sold” to the public by incorporating a school? Is the school really good planning or the one that the public actually wants if it is being tacked-on to “sell” a project of a likely unwanted size, shape and height?

3. Involving school construction in these bundled decisions seems to be popular these days. Not only do we see it here; it was also done on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge with the Beekman project. There we saw that the tactic backfired and the public was hurt when, with construction underway, the developer, Forest City Ratner, blackmailed the public and the community board for extra subsidy. Though it is not, per se, the same kind of bundle, the Rudin development organization is offering to help build a school at the same time it is seeking approvals to eliminate a portion of the Greenwich Village Historic District to build an extra-large, extra-dense development. (These “Faustian bargains” tend to be about giving developers the right to build extra density.)

4. Bundling of decisions puts too much power in the hands of those who bundle the choices and creates questionable equations which cannot necessarily be defended. The Brooklyn Bridge Park is another example of such bundling. To say that a park should be expected to pay for itself does not mean that such a newly invented equation makes sense, merely that it is being proposed as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

5. When we shop for computers we don’t like our software bundled. We prefer to get the programs we truly want. But if you buy your software programs bundled the worst thing that happens is that you waste hard drive space. Hard drives get ever-larger and you can always migrate to larger ones. But with the decisions that involve how the public realm is dealt with, there is a limited amount of density that can be squeezed in. Corrections are not possible afterward.

6. Accordingly we urge you to consider that the “bundle” may instead be a “bungle” and let the public make its decisions, as they should be made, separately.


Michael D. D. White

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Some Background on the Brooklyn Bridge No Longer Being Background to DUMBO

A lot of people have the idea that the proposed new Dock Street project, which can only happen if a zoning variance is granted, is too massive to be placed, as proposed, so close to the Brooklyn Bridge. By one report, three-quarters of those attending the hearing testified against the project. (See: Full House at Dock Street DUMBO Hearing.) Though we testified at the hearing we did not attend it in its entirety. From what we were able to discern, more of that testimony that favored the project was by those who showed up early and the later testimony was increasingly weighted against the project.

Previously Rejected, Sugar Grows a Preciously Rejected Project

As testimony at the hearing indicated, the project is an enlarged variant of a project that was rejected by Community Board 2 about two years ago for being too large. The odd thing is that, although it is now larger, Community Board 2 voted 30-7 to approve this enlarged edition. It was the apparent sweetening addition of the school that makes the now 18-story development acceptable when the previous 16-story incarnation was not. (The new proposed school would occupy one story of the new version of the project.)

The New York Times article which we quoted as describing the school as a “Faustian bargain” in our testimony is: Wondering if a New School in Brooklyn Is Worth Blocking the View, by Christine Haughney, January 20, 2009.

Dashing the Dish Idea

The general view of those opposing the project is that the Brooklyn Bridge is a special architecturally beautiful landmark, the view of which should be preserved. The view is perhaps especially important to maintain on the Brooklyn side of the bridge. The thinking is that the Brooklyn tower of the bridge should essentially be visible in the middle of a dish shape cityscape with buildings rising taller as they retreat further away from the bridge. Sounds like a plan! Right now, the current zoning restricting heights surrounding the bridge is consistent with preserving view lines in this way. Sounds like a plan implemented.

The proposed Walentas Dock Street building rises up as a tower close to the bridge in a way that is inconsistent with that plan or the preservation of sight line views of the bridge. Sounds like spot zoning. That’s something a lot of people testifying at the hearing said.

Brooklyn Bridge: Exceptionably Special

We hold the following to be self-evident: Not all bridges are created equal. Elsewhere in New York, for another bridge, Noticing New York might take the position that tall buildings should be encouraged next to the busy footings in areas where other bridges touch down; for instance the area east of Bloomingdale’s where the 59th Street Queensboro Bridge touches down in Manhattan. But we agree that the stone towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, celebrated like no other in the city and representing a momentous change in the Borough’s relationship with the rest of the city, is an extraordinary viewing experience that ought to be preserved. It opened in 1883 as the longest suspension bridge in the world and a few short years later, in 1898, the City of Brooklyn consolidated to become part of the rest of the city.

But the Developer Should Not Be Made Special

Our opposition to the project is not NIMBYism. It is more about process and procedure with a mind to what bad process and procedure lead to overall. The proposed Walentas building, itself, does not seem to be that much more of an imposition than we as New Yorkers are often asked to bear for various reasons. But the only reason we are being asked to bear this particular imposition is in order to specially benefit a particular developer in a way that is not envisioned we would want to accommodate other developers in the same area. . .

. . . The project alone does not completely block out all views of the Brooklyn Bridge but the experience it creates, if replicated by other adjacent buildings receiving equal treatment, would entirely change our relationship with the bridge. Rather than having elected to uphold the bridge in a position of respect we would be relegated to catching mere glimpses of it between the blotting-out expanse of large new buildings.

School Construction Authority Out of Line On School?

That is were the question bundling the school into the building comes up.

The School Construction Authority has acted to tilt things in favor of the development. It “signaled its support for the Walentas project, by putting the school on its property list even before it’s officially approved by the city.” (See: December 11, 2008, Walentas ready to ‘Dock’ with 18-story tower, by Sarah Portlock, The Brooklyn Paper.) Previously, before this was part of a proposal to bundle benefits so a developer could build bigger, the School Construction Authority was not in favor of providing a school:

For too long, the School Construction Authority argued that a new middle school was not needed in Brooklyn Heights or DUMBO because the city had excess middle school seats district-wide.
(See: January 29, 2009, Editorial: Yes on Dock Street, The Brooklyn Paper.)

Materializing as a seeming bribe to the community, the timing of School Construction Authority’s actions are especially unhelpful to the integrity of the process. Those actions bear examination.

Brooklyn Heights Association’s Commitment to Schools

We put great stock in what the Brooklyn Heights Association has to say about schools because for years they have been deeply involved in focusing on just what is needed in the neighborhood in terms of schools. They have been involved with the fight for good and appropriate schools since long before it was proposed to bundle a school into this project as a sweetener. Their testimony, presented by several coordinating representatives, covered a number of separate aspects concerning whether the project should be approved. The Brooklyn Heights association opposes putting the bundled school in the project as inferior to more desirable alternatives.

We think the Brooklyn Heights Association’s position is more sincere, neutral, informed and consistent than those who would favor the project because of the school, including the School Construction Authority.

Brooklyn Papers Editorial Position

We note that we often place much stock in the reporting and positions of the Brooklyn Paper and that the Brooklyn Paper is editorially supporting Dock Street (see the link above). We also note that those opposing the project have pointed out that the Brooklyn Paper is a tenant of the developer.

For more information and links to other reporting on the subject, go to the site of the DUMBO Neighborhood Association.

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