Balancing the Burg

Balancing the Burg

Rose Plaza might look like yet another luxury condominium on the Williamsburg waterfront: a trio of towers planned for a former lumber yard not far from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But after last-minute concessions won by local City Council representative Stephen Levin, the project can also be seen as a beacon for less density and more affordability along the north Brooklyn shore.

“The world around us has changed,” Levin said this morning after a 19-1 vote by the council’s Land-Use Committee in favor of the project. “As community residents have seen a glut of luxury apartments spring up around them, I think people, to an extent, feel like the community has not seen real benefit or is not convinced there’s a real balance there.”

With scaled-back density and affordable units climbing to 30 percent of the project’s total, Rose Plaza may herald a new wave of lower-scale thinking in response to the city’s 2005 rezoning of the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfronts. That ambitious rezoning allowed 30- and 40-story towers to rise in the formerly industrial area, with only 20 percent of units required to be affordable. But so far, only two major projects, Northside Piers and the Edge, have gotten off the ground, while the upland portion of the neighborhoods have been flooded with lowrise buildings, few of them containing affordable units as the city had hoped.

Rose Plaza, comprised of three towers designed by Gruzen Samton and ranging in height from 24 to 28 stories, is located on land to the south of the rezoning area, hence Levin’s greater leverage over it. Initially, its 801 units included numerous studios and one-bedrooms, which locals, particularly in the neighboring Chasidic community, saw as a further invasion by the hipsters to their north. Only 20 percent of the units were affordable, and while that complies with the rezoning and other inclusionary housing bonuses in the city, Levin demanded more.

As of last week, the developer Isack Rosenberg had agreed to increase the number of affordable units to 28 percent and reduce the total unit count to 776. But it was not until an agreement reached last night that the council member was satisfied—30 percent affordable out of 754 units, including dozens of three- and four-bedroom apartments.

Howard Weiss, the developer’s land-use counsel, said Rosenberg was happy to have reached an agreement on what will be a landmark project. “There’s no question Rose Plaza sets a new benchmark for affordable housing in privately owned projects,” Weiss said. (One waterfront project, Schaefer Landing, located directly north of Rose Plaza, has 40 percent affordability but was built on city-owned land on the site of the former Schaefer brewery.)

The one dissenting vote at today’s hearing was Brooklyn council member Charles Barron, who argued that the project still remained at 20 percent affordability because one-third of the affordable units were set aside for people making 120 percent of the area median income. “In an area where a family of four only makes 30 or 35 thousand dollars a year, why would we take away from the affordability?” Barron asked. The other units are split between one-third at 40 percent of the area median income, with the remaining third at 60 percent.

Levin, who entered office in January, said that he was satisfied with the mix, and that it provided ample opportunity for both working- and middle-class families to remain in the neighborhood. “I want to make sure that when development happens on the waterfront, families can participate,” Levin said.

Other compromises for the deal included the removal of an urban beach—part of a 33,000-square-foot open space plan designed by Thomas Balsley—and the elimination of restaurants as a possible use within the ground-floor retail. A vote by the full council is expected today, when, based on this morning’s outcome, the project will almost certainly be approved.

Today’s approval looks to be a new precedent for the waterfront, as well as continuing the council’s new-found ambivalence toward development. Even though most projects within the rezoning can be built as of right, any developers looking for zoning modifications will have to deal with Levin, who has made clear he expects more for the community than has been agreed to in the past.

The next mega-development in his sights is the massive 2,200-unit Domino redevelopment designed by Rafael Viñoly and also wending its way through the public review process. The sugar refinery was left out of the original rezoning as it was still in operation at the time, and like Rose Plaza, it requires its own set of public approvals. Levin has been particularly critical of that project, which has half-a-dozen towers surrounding the refinery on as many blocks.

UPDATE: The project passed the full council this afternoon by a vote of 47-1, with Barron the loan member in opposition.