Affordable Housing Returns to Williamsburg, But There’s a Catch (There Always Is)

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The first couple of months of the de Blasio administration have marked by plenty of #welcometodeblasiosnewyork jokes and citywide gripes about the relentless snowfall. But while de Blasio has proven powerless to combat Mother Nature (step up your game, Bill… it’s still REALLY cold), there are other ways that the mayor has demonstrated that he intends to make his own mark on Mike Bloomberg’s New York as quickly as possible. First on the docket? Confronting the very developers that Bloomberg used to cosset, and guaranteeing that the Williamsburg waterfront will soon welcome middle-income residents. This is going to have an even bigger impact than that carriage horse ban! (Wait, did that ever happen?)

Yesterday the New York City Planning Commission unanimously approved the designs for the Two Trees funded (full disclosure: Two Trees is our landlord in DUMBO) $1.5 billion redevelopment, paving the way for this 2,300 apartment, waterfront project. But because of de Blasio’s last minute interference, the project will differ from its original design, and instead will include additional green space on the waterfront and residential towers standing up to 55-stories high, instead of the original 30-40. The reason for the extra-high towers is not an aesthetic one, but a practical one: these new towers will now house an additional “700 below-market-rate units—40 more than Two Trees originally offered and 260 more than an earlier approved plan by a different development firm.” And not only that, but there’s a provision that the apartments low prices can’t be deregulated for decades to come, allowing low- and middle-income residents to feel a greater sense of security, and have the assurance that they won’t be kicked out of their homes because of a sudden spike in rent. And the only catch is that the towers in this already idiosyncratic straight-up peculiar SHoP-designed complex are going to reach higher up into the sky than they were before.

Some people are worried about this trade-off, though, because it seems to indicate that de Blasio prioritizes function over style to a degree that might have the effect of turning New York into a city of, well, ugly buildings. Critics note that “Bloomberg’s city planner Amanda Burden notoriously weighed in on pavers and benches,” while de Blasio “cares a lot about affordable housing, less about how high the towers grow, and not at all about the minutiae of design.” But does this mean that we’re going to soon have development after development go up that looks like WPA-era housing projects? Hardly. De Blasio isn’t (and never was) the communist ideologue that his detractors always made him out to be. Hell, he’s not even ushering in a new era of rampant crime! (Murders are down by almost 20% from this time last year.) All that it means is that our new, progressive mayor is much more flexible about tower height than he is about making sure the people who need affordable housing can stay in this city. It’s a positive change and has the potential to usher us into an exciting new era of the development of New York City, one in which much-needed affordable housing stock increases and, hopefully, one in which architects will respond to the challenge of building said affordable units with innovative designs.

*The NYC Dept. of City Planning got in touch with me to say this about the development:

Two Trees proposed those heights for their buildings in November 2013 when the project certified into public review. These were as much as 20 stories taller than the previous plan for the site that was approved in 2010. The City Planning Commission’s modifications and approval of the application did not change the heights of the buildings; rather, the modifications ensured that nearly 110,000 square feet more would be dedicated to permanently affordable housing than proposed by Two Trees in their application. Additionally, the amount of open space did not change. The City Planning Commission report should be posted on our website later today and you can refer to this chart which should help explain the evolution of this project.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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  1. Am I reading this right? You’re worried about developers putting up ugly buildings? Have you EVER gotten off the L train in Brooklyn?