Saturday, March 14, 2009

At the City Planning Commission Hearings on Proposed Dock Street Project: A Reprise

(Click on any image to enlarge.)

At last week’s City Planning Commission hearings we reprised our Noticing New York testimony on the proposed Dock Street project that would put a building of substantial height and bulk next to the Brooklyn Bridge in the Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO. Previously we testified on the subject at the hearing Marty Markowitz held as Brooklyn Borough President. (See: Wednesday, February 4, 2009, Reject the “Bundle” Bungle: Saying “No” to Walentas Dock Street Project Next to the Brooklyn Bridge.)

Our Reprise

Our testimony this time was essentially the same as last time, confining itself to the error of bundling approval of the project with the community’s opportunity to get a new school. This time, however, we had the opportunity to also attach to our handed-in written statement, a copy of our above referenced post which, not being subject to the three-minute oral testimony limit, provided additional analysis about how the Brooklyn Bridge should be revered as special while the Dock Street developer should not be made special, and made the case that the Brooklyn Heights Association’s opinion that a new school should go elsewhere is probably correct.

Others Reprise

Others also similarly reprised their testimony. Testimony in opposition to the project predominated.

The key new element in play at this Wednesday, March 4 hearing was that the preceding week at the Brooklyn Heights Association’s annual meeting, held Thursday, February 26, the Brooklyn Borough President revealed his recommendation for a proposed compromise. His suggestion was for a taller, skinnier tower which he said would “reduce 57 percent of its girth.” (See: Marty: Yes on Dock Street (sort of), By Ben Muessig, The Brooklyn Paper.)

We wondered whether Markowitz’s “compromise” was an example of what we see as the increasingly ubiquitous politicians’ dance, with politicians inevitably providing support for special projects but only after there has been a reduction from what a developer has requested. Accordingly, these dances always seems to be initiated with developers requesting more than they reasonably expect, sometimes with conspicuously awful proposals up front that allows the politicians to heroically claim credit for forcing a subsequent cut-back.

We wondered about this all the more because at the Brooklyn Heights Association meeting Borough President Markowitz specifically said that his approval had not been influenced by the proposed inclusion of a new middle school, which he said had to stand alone as a separate decision he couldn’t comment upon. He thereby directly addressed our Noticing New York testimony given at the hearing he held. But if he was not being influenced by the school’s inclusion, why was he now favoring a project that was otherwise so substantially similar to a prior edition of that project which he had rejected?

(Building rejected in 2004.)

There was a certain element of suspense to the hearings because the borough president’s proposed compromise had been released such a short time before the commission’s hearing. Our suspicion that this was a political Kabuki dance was challenged (though perhaps not refuted) by the negative reactions it received. The Brooklyn Paper observed that the proposed compromise united everyone, developer included, in opposition. (See: March 5, 2009, Marty’s taller Dock Street tower unites everyone — against it, By Ben Muessig, The Brooklyn Paper.) It may have generated negative reactions, but by proposing a compromise the borough president did something less than oppose the project outright.

Others Testifying

We were pleased to see that City Councilman (and candidate for Mayor) Tony Avella testified eloquently against the project and the travesty of obliterating views of the bridge. You can expect Mr. Avella to be dependably on the right side in so many issue like this.

City Councilman (and candidate for Comptroller) David Yassky also testified against the project mentioning that there were better places to put the proposed school.

Models and Renderings (& the Battle Between Them)

(Jed Walentas of Two Trees Management showing the CPC commissioners the developer’s model of the project.)

A model of the project in the DUMBO neighborhood brought to the hearing by the developer was discussed, as were renderings brought by representatives of the DUMBO neighborhood Association (see the rendering behind Mr. Yassky in the photo where he is testifying). The question arose as to whether they showed the same thing and specifically whether the renderings provided by the DUMBO Neighborhood Association were fair. We think they were fair based on photos we took of the developer’s model that essentially duplicated the DNA renderings. We refer you to the picture of the model at the beginning of this post as it compares to the rendering behind Mr. Yassky. We could not precisely duplicate the image because we could not get the camera to a postion as low as the level of pedestrian walkway and could not get the lens of the camera as close to the model of the proposed project as a person standing on the walkway would be. If we had been able to, the new proposed structure would loom larger in the photograph with more stories below the rooftop being visible. When we were taking pictures of the model, a representative of the developer was suggesting that how many floors of the building can be counted is important.

Raising our camera up it was clear that the new building was blocking views of the same Manhattan Bridge tower and buildings as shown in the before-and-after DNA renderings.

The Argument in Context: It’s About Seeing the Bridge

The community’s argument is that they want to continue to be able to see the Brooklyn Bridge and to see a sweep of historic Brooklyn from the bridge. The suggestion is that there should be preservation of a bowl-shaped view such as now exists with low buildings close to the bridge and taller buildings farther away. The developer’s arguments dispense with these desires and argue that his new building should be considered a contextual addition to the historic neighborhood if it is of comparable height to buildings which, because they are substantially farther away, do not crowd the bridge.

Predicting the Outcome: Some Indicators Including Strange Coincidences

Can the outcome be predicted? On one side, opposing the project you have Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning, historian David McCullough, author of The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, standing together with virtually every recognized neighborhood and historic organization from the national level on down to the local level. The only exception is that the Pratt Institute did not take the postion in opposition to this project that one would normally be expect them to take.

The project’s opposition explained away the anomalous Pratt postion, pointing out that: 1.) David C. Walentas ownern of Two Trees Management Co., LLC, who is developing the project with his son Jed, is on the board at Pratt, and 2.) Mr. Walentas has donated money to Pratt. (It makes a lot of sense for Mr. Walentas to be on the board at Pratt. We have said before that the Walentases are, this proposal notwithstanding, good developers.)

There are few icons like the Brooklyn Bridge, and the alliance of luminaries like McCullough and all the heavy-hitting premier historic organizations should, under normal circumstances, predict success for the opposition. On the other hand, there are some competing indicators. When it comes to politics a good guiding axiom is that “there are no such things as coincidences.” Maybe coincidences do exist, but in politics you are better off assuming that anything that looks like a coincidence is not.

The following coincidences are therefore unnerving. The School Construction Authority until recently used to say that the neighborhood did not need a new middle school. Now the School Construction Authority has suddenly backed the idea that there should be a new school in precisely this spot and precisely in this building. Next, testimony at the hearing by Historic Districts Council President Paul Graziano made clear, with the use of a map, that while there is a confluence of designated landmarks and historic districts where the project is proposed to go, there is also an ominous hole in their contiguity that surrounds the project site. Creating such an absence of historic designation takes a certain amount of political artistry.

The hole is even more apparent when you remember that the Brooklyn Bridge is itself an individual landmark and that the presence of the new Brooklyn Bridge Park means that the historic landmarks and districts where they otherwise don’t continue abut parkland.

(Green above shows park areas.)

We have previously pointed out how this kind of gerrymandering by the Landmarks Preservation Commission should be regarded as jigsaw piece clues to political deals. The last time we wrote about this was about the failure to preserve the Ward Bakery and its block being cleared for Atlantic Yards. (See: Wednesday, October 29, 2008, Puzzle Pieces: Proposed Prospect Heights Historic District, LPC Public Hearing.)

It is not easy to get the School Construction Authority to specially designate developers’ projects or the Landmarks Preservation Commission to create special holes in the weave of historic designation fabrics. You can expect these things to come from the mayor. And if you have any doubt about this ominous likelihood, we have already pointed out that City Council Speaker Quinn, the mayor’s close ally on development issues, has already tipped her hand (the mayor’s hand) by making “glowing comments” about the Dock Street project. (See: our Monday, February 23, 2009, Un-funny Valentines Arriving Late: Your Community Interests at Heart and Brownstoners’ February 12, 2009, Speaker Quinn Bears Bad News for Real Estate Crowd.)

So, predictions anyone? David McCullough and the powers of light and enlightenment on one side and some interesting political “coincidences” on the other.

(Picture from Save the Brooklyn Bridge.)

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