City Council Recap: 77 Commercial Street ULURP

by GWAPP on

Earlier this month, the City Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning & Franchises met to discuss the 77 Commercial St. ULURP requests. There is a video of the meeting online. I’ve included timestamps on the recap (not a transcription) below, so you can jump through the video to the parts that interest you. Use the links below to jump to a section of this post:

Meeting begins (3:17:30)
Presentation (3:18:15)
CM Levin Statement & Questions (3:29:05)
Affordable Housing (3:58:40)
Environmental Issues (4:07:38)
CM Reyna Questions (4:29:20)
CM Levin Final Questions (4:41:38)
CM Reyna Final Questions (4:49:58)
Public Testimony (4:54:32)

Meeting begins (3:17:30)
Not much said here. Chairman turns it over to the 77 Commercial presenters.

77 Commercial Presentation (3:18:15 – 3:29:05)
Simple request for height and setback, this is not rezoning. It’s merely clearing one site of the FAR for a public park promised in 2005. Our client bid on an RFP to buy the air rights of the adjacent site. We’ve done as much community outreach as possible in a short period of time, since last May. Even in disagreement, we’ve been respectful.

The height and setback is what allows the FAR to transfer — bottom line: 200 units of affordable housing, $8.2 million for the park. Without the full FAR, those items are reduced, or probably eliminated.

[3:19:50 – Displays of maps of the area, current zoning, proposed vision, renderings etc.] Site plan calls for c-shape development with three interconnected buildings. Two towers with 30, 40 stories. Lo-rise building of 6-8 stories fronting Commercial Street. We’ve separated pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The building will have 1st floor commercial space and a community facility space that can open up onto the park. There is also a “get-down” area where boats can be put into the water.

These actions are an opportunity for the City to make good on the promises of the 2005 Rezoning. This project makes that [affordable housing/open space] happen. No up-zoning is being requested. In order to have one location be vacant as a park, you need some height/setback relief to use that floor area effectively. Asking for a 30 story tower of about 305 ft, a 40 story tower of about 405 ft, and the base. Permitted as of right are 15-story towers. In addition to the special permit, we’re requesting a text amendment (co-authored with the city) that will allow the MTA site to continue generating floor area even after it’s developed as a park. Lastly, seeking authorization for flexibility of waterfront design so we can do waterfront resiliency work.

Levin’s Statement & Questions (3:29:05 – 3:58:40)
On its own this project will have significant impact on Greenpoint community. A community that has experienced significant hi-rise development including: altering the skyline, adding thousands of new residents and burdening the already over-burdened infrastructure. [Reiterates the proposed requests.]

I want to be clear, the developer is zoned so that they can build as-of-right two 15-story towers, no affordable housing and no funding for the park. However, I’m not convinced the community needs to accept this plan for more residential density to get the open space and affordable housing previously promised. It’s been a frustrating experience regarding what the city has promised and delivered since 2005. I want to acknowledge Carolee Fink who has made a real effort to jumpstart delivering some of those commitments.

Before we can include more development, we need to improve infrastructure, fix the transportation problems, build out the park land, addressing the widespread environmental needs and hazards, and ensure that long-term residents are not displaced.

[3:35:05 – Begins questions]

Levin: This property was specifically left out of the 2005 Rezoning. Can someone explain why this property was left out and then why it’s different now?

77 Comm Rep: It was part of the 2005 Rezoning. Rezoned from Manufacturing to R6 (not R8 like Greenpoint Landing.)

Levin: I apologize, I have to leave to cast a vote. I will be right back. Picking up, where we left off. Can someone from CPC speak to the issue?

CPC: This site was zoned from Manufacturing to R6, but not R6/R8. Like everyone here, I wasn’t there at that time. But we make regulations based on existing land-use and what would be appropriate there. It wasn’t until the end of the process, and the Points of Agreement statements, that we started looking at competing locations for affordable housing and open space. Selling the air rights of the publicly owned air rights for the MTA site, allows it to act as both affordable housing and open space.

Levin: Yes, but the residential impact…

CPC: The residential impact is not increasing. The form of the density is changing. The total floor remains as what is analyzed.

Levin: But 65 Commercial wasn’t viewed as a residential site in 2005?

CPC: Yes, it was. It wasn’t called a projected site that’s the development program that’s laid out. This is more likely to develop, this is less likely to develop.

Levin: Let me take a step back. Why was this zoned for R6 and not R6/R8?

CPC: I assume, that it would be coming at a later point. Greenpoint Landing had a developer with a plan out in public while the rezoning was taking place. But at this point, these sites were not out there, and the context around it was lower.

Levin: That’s what I’m getting to. It was envisioned as being a step-down from the height and density allowed by the rest of the rezoning. That’s why, I imagine, it was only given an R6 zoning.

CPC: That may be the reason. The other reason might be that GMDC was next to it in active manufacturing use. The concern was to not disrupt that in some ways. I don’t know the reasons. There was a conscious decision to not go to R6/R8 at that time. By the time City Council approved this, this option was on the time.

77 Comm Rep: Can I offer a more logical explanation. The city owned site was zoned for residential, and the R6 allows us to purchase those rights. If we were already R8 and purchasing the air rights, it’d be something even bigger, taller. The City Council put us into a box so that we can only be R8. Not one more person is going to live in this area with these requested actions then was planned for in the 2005 rezoning.

Levin: And we do in Greenpoint, welcome new people. [Applause.] The issue is the scale of development. We’re a neighborhood of 3-4 story buildings. We just don’t have the infrastructure to handle much more. We only have one train line that doesn’t go to Manhattan. The 7 is in another borough. We have serious challenges.

77 Comm Rep: It’s been a great dialogue we’ve had with the community, community board, yourself, etc.. The idea that infrastructure needs response is something we’re committed to and prepared to discuss solutions, and I think the city wants to address it too. We can build two 15-story towers as you said, once you’re up at 15, it’s hard to perceive there being a meaningful difference.

Levin: I perceive the difference between a 15-story tower and a 30-story tower. And a 30-story tower and a 40-story tower. To go back to the 2005 Rezoning and the Points of Agreement, on page nine of the POA:

The Administration and Council agree to allow the sale of air rights from the MTA Commercial Street site to an adjacent owner. The sale will require a follow up ULURP for the disposition of those development rights. This disposition will require the purchaser to create 200 units of affordable housing as part of the disposition. The revenue from the sale, projected to be up to $12 million will be used in two ways: Waterfront Affordable Housing and Infrastructure Fund, and Greenpoint Williamsburg Tenant Legal Fund. [See document for descriptions of WAHIF and GWTLF.]

The backstory of the tenant legal fund was provided by the city up front ($2 million) and then used up. The sale in 2005 was projected to be $12 million. Why are we only at $8 million?

Mayor’s Office (Carolee Fink): I wasn’t there, not sure who did it. This came along pretty late in the Rezoning, so I doubt they had time for full analysis. I don’t know if the appraisal included the discounts for the affordable housing units. We’re subsidizing the affordable units and not assigning value to them, instead of via HPD capital. We’ve done an independent appraisal for the development rights that confirms our price.

77 Comm Rep: The estimate ($12 million) doesn’t take into account air rights vs. land and air rights have different values. Our client was not eager to go through this process, and was convinced to do it and to have the benefit of a park next door. So the number is a true reflection of the market, and all the plusses and minuses.

Levin: It’s something I’m going to continue to look into. The market in that neighborhood has gotten out of control. My concern is that the city is not realizing it’s full potential value. In the POA, the funding would be used for these two other uses, not Box. St. park. Because on page 2 of the POA, there is stated:

The Administration will include approximately $14 million in capital budget appropriations in the FY ’07 Executive Budget for City Council approval for the creation of this open space [Box St. Park] and the relocation of the current MTA facilities.

Can you tell us what happened there? And why it’s appropriate to use this funding to supplant the city’s commitment?

Mayor’s Office: In 2008, we had to make capital cuts across the city. We had to make really hard choices, and there were no relocation sites for the park, it wasn’t shovel ready. The choice was made to reduce the funding.

Levin: But now that the project is ‘shovel-ready’, wouldn’t it be appropriate for the administration to put that money back in? It was a commitment made by the Deputy Mayor at the time.

Mayor’s Office: Our budget situation is better than 2008-2009, we’ve tried to solve this problem a different way. Rather than taking the proceeds of this sale and giving it to the developer to build their waterfront esplanades. We’re using the money to build site. The $14 million was written for everything—the relocation of the transit facility, the relocation of the ERU and the build out of the park. I wasn’t there, I don’t know how those numbers are calculated.

Levin: There’s a difference of $3 million still. I’m glad to work the administration in finding $3 million from a $70 billion budget.

Mayor’s Office: We’re happy for you to make any capital allocations in your member items too.

Affordable Housing (3:58:40 – 4:07:38)

Levin: Another issue in the POA—page 9, letter D—

Commitment Public and Partner Sites:
The Administration commits to developing affordable housing using available public sites and to work with the existing owners to develop affordable housing on the partners sites listed below. The Administration anticipates these sites will generate 1,345 affordable units. These units will target the following income groups: 20% between 20-30% of AMI, 40% between 30-60% of AMI, 20% between 60-80% of AMI and 20% between 80-125% of AMI.

The proposal put forth at this point does not reflect those numbers. Why not? And what course of action do we take here?

77 Comm Rep: What’s before you is what’s contemplated by the law, not the POA. Our approach is that there are unanticipated issues—raising of the site, etc.—we’ve been discussing the best ways to lower AMIs. Depending on what the final site could look like, there’s willingness to produce lower AMIs. These are economic issues—and we’re willing. We’re in discussion with a community based affordable housing entity. Senior housing might help us achieve those AMIs.

Levin: What are the proposed unit sizes?

77 Comm Rep: 200 affordable units would follow HPD guidelines. All of the finishes would the same as the 500 remaining market rate units. 30% – 1 bedroom, 40% – 2 bedroom, 30% – studios. No 3-bedroom units at this time. Same unit sizes for affordable and market-rate units. Once we understand what can be approved, we’ll be better prepared to discuss that question.

Levin: How will the units be integrated in the buildings?

77 Comm Rep: This is a unique project. These are three distinct buildings, so we do achieve that stand alone affordable housing unit, but the entrances are integrated, the amenities are identical, the views of the river and park are comparable. We’re achieving in spirit what they’re asking for. We’ve taken a one project, three buildings, equal access and amenities approach.

Levin: Sometimes there are reasons, like the HPD program requirements, where the units have to be a stand alone building…

77 Comm Rep: Not at this time. We have the capability to accommodate senior-202 money through a separate building. We understand the issue and tried to address it in a practical way.

Levin: There is nothing preventing having the affordable units fully integrated throughout the development?

77 Comm Rep: Other than economic impacts. We could discuss more once we know what we’re acquiring.

Levin: If you go down the waterfront, you have distinctly market rate/affordable buildings. It creates a tale of two cities.

77 Comm Rep: We’ve done everything we could to avoid that. If this smidge of a difference is worth talking about, we’re happy to talk about it.

[4:17:00 Jumps back to Affordable Housing]

Levin: [Reading from a document signed by Mr. Bishiner [sp?] to the Borough President speaking about community preference] To the extent permitted under applicable law, we’d agree to commit to give preference to 50% of the affordable housing units to current residents, NYC police officers, municipal employees, and any individuals who are mobility or visually impaired. Can you speak to this?

77 Comm Rep: I think those are HPD guidelines. We’ll reserve any affordable units as permitted under HPD guidelines and law.

Levin: What amenities are being contemplated at this point?

77 Comm Rep: Indoor swimming, lounges, fitness areas, recreation areas at the top of the 6-story building, which will be accessible to all residents, including those in affordable housing units. It’s unclear if there will be a charge for amenities yet. Our approach is to make it equally available to everybody without stigmatizing anyone.

Environmental Issues (4:07:38 – 4:16:50)

Levin: I’ve heard quite a bit from the community about environmental concerns. The community has a long history of industrial use. You’re on a federal superfund site. There are a myriad of concerns that are growing in intensity. On this site, have you done an extensive environmental round of testing? What have you found? Where have you done it?

77 Comm Rep: This site requires development of a remedial action plan and a construction health and safety plan and a full testing site plan. Before any soil is disturbed, we’ll be working with DEP to do a very extensive, boring plan. We’ll do the tests, they’ll be sent to independent laboratories for analysis, results will be delivered to DEP, we’ll determine if there are hazardous materials on site. And if there are, we’ll develop this remedial action plan and construction health and safety plan to remove those materials in a way that doesn’t harm workers or people who live in the area. There are very strict rules about this.

There’s no evidence in the history of any of the databases or the environmental analysis that was done as part of the rezoning, that suggests this site has any unusual hazardous materials.

Levin: I’m sorry, can you repeat that last sentence?

77 Comm Rep: There’s nothing in the 2005 EIS and other analysis that have been done, nothing has come up saying there’s particularly dangerously materials. There are two spills both petroleum related in relatively small amounts, both of which have been closed. One was for a gallon of petroleum, I think. There are plenty of areas in the neighborhood with significant hazardous materials, but there’s no record that it has happened on this site. And if there were, we’d uncover during the testing process.

Levin: Which you have not done? You’ve done no testing yet?

77 Comm Rep: As much as we want to take credit for the bells and buzzers that ensure our safety, the law really straps us in. The people who have doubts have to go to the government and say we have doubts about the government process and the government findings. Obviously no developer wants to develop on a dangerous site or endanger renters. There are laws that you enacted with the E designation are the insurance policy we all live by.

Levin: I’m confused—why haven’t you done…?

77 Comm Rep: Because we haven’t started any development.

Levin: But wouldn’t you want to know before…

77 Comm Rep: The E designation is in place. We know what we have to do. There’s nothing in the previous analyses that indicate a hazardous material concern here.

Levin: Thinking about the federal superfund site to your north. You’re in a zone-A flood zone? [Yes. Part of it.] How do you plan to address those issues? I was there during Sandy, and there was water up to Commercial St. How are you addressing another flood of that magnitude? In terms of building the site and dealing with the building itself. Do you feel the need for flood gates?

77 Comm Rep: During the design FEMA published new flood elevations of 12.75 ft. The existing waterfront is about 9 ft. No residential usage below 13 ft. In conversations with parks, we’ve talked about elevating the adjacent waterfront esplanade to come up to 12 ft.

Levin: The issue of the building itself—electrical?

77 Comm Rep: All the utilities will be above 12.75 ft. We have space within the base of the building for that.

Levin: How high did Sandy go? It was higher than 12.75 ft right?

77 Comm Rep: I don’t know, but these are the new requirements. Nothing will be below 13ft, so we have a significant cushion from what’s currently on the site. There will be mechanical space at the top of the towers.

Levin: There’s still the issue of being on a federal superfund site. What about the community’s concerns of sitting atop one of the most polluted sites of the city as determined by the EPA?

77 Comm Rep: The main area of concern is further upstream in Newtown Creek. We’re on the edge of it. Our building is set back 60ft from the water. We’re not building in the water. Contaminants tend to be sediment at the bottom of the creek.

CM Reyna Questions (4:29:20 – 4:41:38)

Reyna: A lot of the development will exasperate the displacement of residents. How does your sale of this property contribute to any mitigation regarding displaced residents? To decrease the impact of that?

77 Comm Rep: To state the obvious, our site is an industrial site, so there will be no residential displacement, same for the adjacent site. Nobody is being displaced currently from this project. There could be some secondary displacement, which is an issue we’re prepared to have some discussion about. There are city funds to anti-displacement and harassment issues. The risks you site are there, we’re happy to find solutions to minimize that. Obviously, the city grows and you hope everyone can afford how it grows.

Reyna: There was a displacement fund created with the air rights. Clearly, there is a need for a monitoring of these issues. Even when residents have tenant protection they have trouble keeping their rights. Who will be doing the marketing of these units?

77 Comm Rep: We’re in talks with a local affordable housing sponsor with a track record in this area. Back to your earlier question—the 200 units, which might be more than the required—is supposed to make the project affordable, and if we could we’d make it a local preference for everybody but the law doesn’t allow that. It’s good for the community when they can move into new projects that they can afford. Third, in 1982 I sponsored the bill that made it a crime to harass tenants in the way you described.

Reyna: It becomes challenging to do this without the resources. As part of the marketing, a project like this, needs to recognize what would be displaced former residents. We wanted that in the 2005 POA.

77 Comm Rep: We hope the local organization has a databank that would be helpful in that with the lottery. On these issues, we are on board to do what we can.

Reyna: Our problem is even with a document spelling out details, there seems to be a failure. Points are not reached because the outcomes are poor, and being able to review how we ended up with poor outcomes, begins and ends with monitoring the lack of. How are you monitoring the 50% preference and the displaced residents?

77 Comm Rep: Anything we agree to, we will make as legally binding and as enforceable as allowed by the city.

Reyna: Who approves the application?

77 Comm Rep: There’s another document. We have another contract with EDC that we can put into the document to make it legally enforceable.

Reyna: It’s always an issue to abide to a POA without legal binding.

77 Comm Rep: We really think the contract we entered in with the city will ensure that that park gets built. The money is escrowed until benchmarks have been made with the park. Every issue you cited, there is an opportunity to put it in the sale agreement.

Reyna: One of the key factors is the inclusion of displaced former residents. It’s a direct opportunity for the developer to push HPD to recognize that they were going to do that. Issues brought up by the Community Board, in regards to affordable housing and their other concerns—how much of this has been reached?

77 Comm Rep: The CB recommended subsidizing the purchase price with lower AMIs. We’d be happy to entertain that if the City wanted to do that. Otherwise it’s not economically feasible to do. If there are economic ways, we will lower the AMIs, but getting it done through this body is likely difficult.

Reyna: This isn’t going to separate the affordable housing from the luxury housing?

77 Comm Rep: Luxury might be a bit much. This project is three buildings in an integrated hall. The lower building has the affordable housing. We’re open to discussion to shift things around, but we don’t feel we violated the principal.

Reyna: Is this a rental?

77 Comm Rep: Expected to be rental.

Reyna: In which case, I’d expect it to be integrated.

77 Comm Rep: Well it is integrated in the sense of the project.

Reyna: What about the unit sizes? Is this determined by community need?

77 Comm Rep: We’re meeting HPD standards only going up to 2-bedrooms. 30% studio, 40% one bedroom, 30% two bedroom. Based on what the market will support, and so we can have identical percents between market and affordable.

Reyna: If 70% of the affordable units are under two bedroom, it supposes that we won’t support and preserve a family-oriented neighborhood?

77 Comm Rep: We didn’t approach it that way, but we can discuss it more.

Reyna: I’m always concerned we’re pushing families out of CB1. We need to understand, in need of providing affordable housing and what would be non-affordable housing to families. Because there’s an engineered influx of a singles neighborhood and that’s not who this community is.

77 Comm Rep: The focus of these requests are really about height. We are allowing the intended density to occur. We don’t know what if anything we would acquire. There’s no intent to make this a singles villa. I think all problems of this nature could be resolved.

Reyna: All the money for the park will be earmarked for the park and not put into the city’s general fund. Will OSA be the entity driving…?

77 Comm Rep: We have contracts to hold the administration’s feet to the fire to put the money where it’s supposed to go. How it gets there isn’t up to us.

Mayor’s Office: The park is material to the transaction. We have agreed to escrow the funds from the transaction until the park is built. The city is fronting that capital.

Reyna: It was originally $14 million? Why not front that original $14 instead of the $8.2 million?

Mayor’s Office: We are spending about $10 million building the relocation facility in the Bronx.

CM Levin’s Final Questions (4:41:38 – 4:49:58)

Levin: The as of right development allows for retail and community space. But under the proposal—while there is an increase in space, the retail and community footprint is staying the same. If you’re increasing the residential floor area, there’d be an analogous increase of community space?

77 Comm Rep: Under the zoning, different floor area ratios are allowed. You can pick and choose among those uses. One issue, is where you would locate it. This project is difficult because there is a limited amount of street frontage for commercial space and community space.

Levin: I would think it would be appropriate to have more commercial/community space in the proposal, since you’re getting more lucrative floor area for residential.

77 Comm Rep: We can look at it more. Instead of getting commercial space, you’re getting a lot of open space. We’ll take a look at it. In fairness, we’re providing additional public open space that’s not part of the as of right.

Levin: As of right, is it contemplated that the developer would be accessing a 421a tax abatement?

77 Comm Rep: It’s not contemplated to date.

Levin: If they did, there would be a requirement that 20% of the as of right units would be around 60 units.

77 Comm Rep: We estimated about 275 units in the as of right, so 20% would be 55 units and that was for purposes of the environmental study. What the actual number is, we’d have to wait and see.

Levin: My point being that there is a mechanism where affordable housing could come into play through inclusionary and 421a which provides for a bit over 50 units as compared to 200 units.

77 Comm Rep: It’s sort of like a hotel room. If you don’t build it now, it’s gone forever. It’s something the city has imposed on but something we’ve become proud of to say that we’re adding 200 units of affordable housing to the pot.

[Levin leaves to go to GPL presentation.]

CM Reyna Final Questions (4:49:58 – 4:54:32)

Reyna: How will the open space be programmed?

77 Comm Rep: It’s pedestrian space and a promenade. It’s passive open space. It’s probably more beneficial to the community than trying to build a room somewhere.

Reyna: I look forward to the opportunity to discuss the unit breakdown to better meet the needs of the community. To bring back families, we have to consider a model with more 2 bedroom apartments. I have great reservations of what’s being presented meeting the goal of our community’s needs. As well as take into the consideration of the integration of units. We don’t want to start the precedence of separating the market rate and affordable housing units.

Public Testimony (4:54:32 – 5:29:24)
I’m not going to write out the testimonies for and against the requested actions. I strongly encourage you to watch them and hear what your neighbors, fellow residents and others involved in the project have to say about 77 Commercial.

If anyone who provided testimony (for or against) would like to share their testimony on the blog, please e-mail and we’d be happy to post it.



The Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks & Planning, Inc. ("GWAPP") is a not-for-profit group, 501(c)(3), comprised of individuals, community organizations, religious institutions, and concerned citizens from the Greenpoint-Williamsburg communities dedicated to the development of parks and public access on the Greenpoint waterfront.