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03.05.2014
De Blasio Wins at Domino
New York mayor scores first major victory in fight for affordable housing.
Courtesy SHoP Architects

After years of failed attempts to transform the defunct Domino Sugar Factory on the Brooklyn waterfront, the New York City Planning Commission has voted unanimously to approve the $1.5 billion, SHoP Architects–designed project.

In a statement from the mayor’s office ahead of the vote, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alica Glen said the plan “is a win for all sides, and it shows that we can ensure the public’s needs are met, while also being responsive to the private sector’s objectives.”

This vote is not just significant for New York City development—it is a key political victory for the new mayor. And it sets the tone for his administration’s aggressive approach toward city planning.

Just days before the vote, the project was at risk of collapsing entirely as the site’s developer—Jed Walentas and his family’s company, Two Treesthreatened to walk out over de Blasio’s last-minute request for more affordable housing. In return, the mayor said his administration would grant permission for him to build taller towers.

 

Walentas said previously that he’d already included enough affordable housing and called the mayor’s demands “not workable.” He threatened to scrap this plan and revert to an older less-architecturally distinct scheme that included even fewer affordable housing units and less public space. After what can only be assumed as tense negotiations, the mayor announced a deal. His high-stakes gamble paid off.

The final plan does not include everything de Blasio wanted, but the talks garnered an additional 110,000-square-feet of permanent housing for low- and moderate-income tenants. This equates to about 700 affordable units, or roughly 30 percent of the site. De Blasio also succeeded in boosting the proportion of larger affordable units, which can better accommodate families.

In return, Walentas has been granted approval to build 55-story towers—20 stories taller than previously allowed on the site. “We are proud to work with Mayor de Blasio’s team and the City Council to get this project across the finish line, get shovels in the ground, and deliver the housing and jobs this city needs,” Walentas said in a statement. “We hope this can become a model for what we can all achieve together in the years ahead.” Two Trees told AN that today's vote does not change the project's design.

 

The deal was also lauded by housing advocates, and advocates for the poor. “This is the kind of initiative the city should be taking to ensure that the affordable housing component in major developments is maximized,” said David R. Jones, president of the Community Service Society of New York. “The mayor has raised the bar for future developments and signaled that he intends to fully incorporate affordable housing into his policy vision.”

This high profile back-and-forth between Walentas and de Blasio represents a dramatic shift in city development, and city politics. But the mayor’s approach to Domino should not come as a surprise. He did exactly what he promised during his insurgent mayoral campaign.

While the progressive mayor has frequently critiqued developers for building so many “multi-million dollar condos” for the global elite, he’s made it clear that his affordable housing agenda relies on increased development.

According to the New York Daily News, de Blasio told a group of developers at a closed-door event, “The only way I can achieve my [affordable housing] goals is if we are building and building aggressively.”

The 11-acre Domino plan is certainly aggressive, and so were de Blasio’s demands. While neither side got exactly what they wanted, the project will move forward—taller and more affordable.

Henry Melcher