When the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint were rezoned in 2005, a parade of luxury condominium towers were expected to replace moribund factories and warehouses along the North Brooklyn waterfront. Few of those towers materialized before the collapse of the real estate market, though, and with thousands of apartments already under construction in the area—and many sitting empty—it could be years before developers renew their march to the water.
But this is New York City, where developers never cease to dream. And so, up in the far reaches of Greenpoint, first-time developer Jonathan Bernstein is plotting what would be the tallest tower on the waterfront—nearly 20 percent taller than current zoning allows—making it among the most audacious projects in the borough to date.
Located two blocks from the last G-train stop before Queens, the project is being designed by marquee firm Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. Adjacent streets would be transformed into parkland. Piers would be built to accommodate historic ships, ferries, and Water Taxi service. A new beach would offer sorely needed waterfront access. And all of these perks would help blunt community concerns about the project’s blockbuster proportions.
So far, the plan seems to be working.
“It’s a beautiful project with a hard sell,” Ward Dennis, chair of local Community Board 1’s land-use committee, said in an interview. “What the community needs to decide is where that balance is between density and open space and affordable housing. And really, that’s what all of these projects come down to.”
For a 100,000-square-foot lot on India Street currently occupied by a warehouse, Bernstein—who was once Donald Trump’s personal attorney—is proposing two muscular glass towers, one rising to 470 feet, the other to 200 feet. As with all new projects on the North Brooklyn waterfront, the towers are surrounded by a base of more contextual row buildings that rise no higher than 65 feet. And the project is not only taller than zoning allows but also bigger, containing roughly 890,000 square feet, as opposed to the 660,000 square feet potentially allowed as of right.
“We are asking for radical changes to the zoning, but we do think it’s way different than anything that’s been proposed on the waterfront,” Bernstein said during an informal presentation to the community board’s land-use committee last week. “We think it will be a gateway to Manhattan and Greenpoint.”
Bernstein has employed some clever zoning tactics to make his radical moves. Under the 2005 rezoning, the most a developer could expect to build would be two towers, one at 400 feet, the other at 300 feet. More typically, buildings top out in the range of 300 feet and 150 feet, as is the case at the Edge condominiums further to the south. So far, no building has even reached 400 feet, though a third tower at Northside Piers is planned for that height.
Even more unorthodox is Bernstein’s proposal to demap all of neighboring India Street and part of Java Street. Bernstein wants to turn these streets into parkland that connects with a larger-than-required park on the waterfront, replete with an amphitheater, sand dunes, and wetlands designed by W Architecture and Landscape Architecture. By incorporating thousands of square feet from the roadbeds into his project, Bernstein would significantly increase the project’s density, and hence the tower’s permitted height.
Bernstein said he must build big in order to afford his project, citing the expense of creating required public amenities, even arguing that zoning restrictions are one of the main reasons the waterfront remains under-developed. “We have to pay for these things,” Bernstein said. “We’re trying to create something that is good for the community and yet financially feasible.”
While the tower would be an eye-popper for such a lowrise neighborhood, it would not be the first in the area to exceed zoning restrictions. This spring, 155 West Street, an Ishmael Leyva–designed project proposed for a site directly north of Bernstein’s, won approval to rise to 400 feet, instead of a permitted 300 feet.
On that site, however, a sewer easement prevented the developer from building out the entire lot. Instead of a 300-foot tower and a 150-foot tower as of right, the two were combined into a single, 400-foot tower, plus a $2 million waterfront park. Moreover, in this case the developer was simply shifting density, unlike Bernstein, who is seeking to increase it.
Bernstein has yet to seek the numerous city approvals it would take to realize the project, including permission from the city planning, transportation, and parks departments, and one of his associates emphasized that specifics could still change ahead of public review. Bernstein said he has spoken with these agencies, though, and that they’ve expressed enthusiasm for the project. (He has even signed a contract with the city’s Economic Development Corporation to serve as the Greenpoint stop in an East River ferry service program.) Representatives of the agencies did confirm such meetings to AN, but said it was premature to make any judgments before a formal public review.
Elected officials, including local Assemblyman Joseph Lentol and Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman Vito Lopez, have expressed reservations. A Lopez spokesperson said that he is particularly uncomfortable with the project’s height: “He’s against anything that’s not contextual with the neighborhood, especially a 45-story tower.”
Some in the community believe this opposition is why Bernstein has come to them first, seeking their support ahead of a formal public review expected in the next few months. And despite reservations about the project, locals have been keeping an open mind, such as Christine Holowacz, co-chair of the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning. “I love the open space on the project,” Holowacz told AN. “I’m not so sure about the tall towers.”