At City Hall, a Brooklyn waterfront project inches across the finish line
The City Council hearing on the development plan proposed for the Domino Sugar Refinery site started four hours late. Or, taking into account an official postponement from 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., three and a half hours late. Instead of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchise, which was to vote on the project first, the Committee on State and Federal Legislation was scheduled for 11, though at that time, in the Council chamber at City Hall, no one was holding any kind of hearing. By 11:30, there was something taking place, but it was clearly not the Domino vote, as there was almost no one sitting in the seats set aside for the public, or at the desks provided for the press; a security guard and a police officer loitered near the doors.
The decision on the Domino project was a big deal in some circles. After the factory shut down in 2004 and was sold to developers, a casualty of a diminishing industrial sector, it became a symbol of the city's development fatigue. Sentimentalists, preservationists, nonprofits trying to counter the rising cost of living in the city, residents who resented newcomers, newcomers looking for what they characterized as an authentic—that is, "gritty"—New York experience, and people in all groups trying to keep up with rising rents saw a highly visible target for frustration. Partly a result of a an enthusiastic campaign to "save Domino," it took roughly six years to get "New Domino"—the name of the development plan—in front of the City Council, which had final say on whether or not it could go forward.
I was in my seat at 11:30 anyway, because it was oppressivley hot outside. Instead of the zoning subcommittee, at 12:15, the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses held a vote on a "green" middle school to be built in the Bronx. All parties said "aye," except Maria del Carmen Arroyo, whose district the school would be built in, who said, "Oh, yeah."
They adjourned. After a few minutes, I asked the guard managing the rope between the public and the Council what was happening with the zoning committee meeting. "Yes they are going to meet," he said. "I don't know when but, they are going to meet."
At 12:30 a staff member put a name plate for Mark Weprin, the head of the zoning committee, in front of the chair's seat. It seemed like a good sign.
That morning, The Brooklyn Paper had published a story about a deal being worked out between the project's main supporter in the Council, Diana Reyna, and its main opponent in the Council, Steve Levin.
But nothing happened. A few people wandered in and out. At 12:55 a woman walked to the front of the room and banged a gavel. "This meeting is adjourned," she said, though it was not at all clear what meeting had just occurred. The man sitting behind the plaque that read "Mark Weprin" was not Mark Weprin. Councilman Charles Barron wandered into the room from a side door, carrying a cup of coffee, and spoke to not-Weprin for a few minutes, before wandering back out the main entrance. An inquiry to not-Weprin yielded news that meeting had not happened, but to get ready because it was going to.
I stared at the ceiling, which was so badly in near of repair it looked like the bark of a birch tree.
At 1:30 a couple of men in suits came in and stood around in front of the door. At 1:32 not-Weprin stood up and walked to the back of the room. At 1:47 Councilman Dan Garodnick, who sits on the Land Use Committee (though not the zoning subcommittee, which is a subcommittee of the Land Use Committee) wandered into the chamber wearing a shiny gray suit with a white shirt and tie. As usual, he looked clean-cut and boyish, and like he'd had a very good night's sleep.
Then nothing happened. A reporter I was sitting with climbed over the velvet rope to talk to not-Weprin, a Council staffer named Alonso who nevertheless had no idea when the hearing would start. Alonso said that "negotiations" were still ongoing.
At 2:03 one of the reporters sitting in the press section got up to leave. Then a woman in gray pants and a white shirt, wearing a staff pass around her neck, started putting packets of paper in front of the desks where committee members would sit. The reporter who had left came back. Things looked up.
Councilwoman Gale Brewer came in and took her seat at her regular desk. Brewer is on the Finance Committee, which had a hearing originally scheduled for 1:30, but she is not on either the Land Use Committee or the subcommittee on zoning. Things looked down again. I heard a man behind in the public-seating section say, "Don't make any predictions today."
At 2:08, Charles Barron, who is on the Land Use Committee (though not the zoning subcommittee) came back in and exchanged a few words with the security guard.
At 2:16, an intern for Garodnick who had been sitting in the room most of the day told me he had no idea if the hearing was going to happen at all.
At 2:22 the reporter who had returned left again.
Councilman Lew Fidler arrived three minutes later; like Gale Brewer, he is a member of the Finance Committee, and of the Committee on State and Federal Legislation, which was also scheduled to meet, but not of the Land Use Committee or its pertinent subcommittee. Larry Seabrook, member of the Committee on State and Federal Legislation, took his regular seat in the chamber.
At 2:33, Helen Foster, chair of the state and finance committee, took her seat.
The actual subcommittee vote, once the members were convened, happened quickly and without drama. The project was approved by the subcommittee, per a deal reached by Levin and Reyna and each of their allies.
The two 40-story buildings would be 34 stories, though the number of units—2,200, with 660 preserved as "affordable"—would remain the same. The developer would provide shuttle buses to the JMZ stop under the Williamsburg Bridge (Levin had expressed reservation about putting more pressure on the Bedford L stop). And there would be a community advisory board to oversee the project. Levin made an appearance, even though he was not on the subcommittee.
"Since I began working on the New Domino project almost four years ago..." he began, mostly referring to the period of time, until just last year, when he was elected to the Council, that he served on the staff of Vito Lopez.
"The goal has always been to bring the maximum level of affordable housing units," he said. "I’m pleased to say that we have come to an agreement with the developer to continue to provide the 660 units of affordable housing while reducing the heights of the larger two towers, which would have blocked the waterfront."
Reyna, in a quiet, short speech, said, "I believe in this project...We're happy to see that this has reached a level of satisfaction. I want to thank Council Member Levin for his extraordinary work."
Moments later the full Land Use Committee gathered to meet. There wasn't much suspense—there was very little chance that the committee would reverse the vote of the subcommittee. One by one the members said "aye."
When Leroy Comrie, the chair, got to Charles Barron, Barron said he'd like to explain his vote.
"We cannot keep having the affordable number at 30 percent," he said, though the 30 percent the developers offered was more than the standard 20 percent. "I think we need to be very very careful when we talk about affordability, and define it more." He went on. "The other thing is the jobs. Oftentimes we see things listed like '100 percent permanent jobs,'" but then "these developers come in with their general contractors," and "these jobs never reach the 'hood."
"That said, I vote 'aye' on all," he said.
Levin gave his "aye" too, sounding a little down.
The meeting was adjourned.