Development: How Much Is Too Much?

Home Brooklyn Life Development: How Much Is Too Much?


Sometimes small streams unite to form a river. In the case of opposition to what some New Yorkers see as unrestricted and rampant development in the city, nearly 100 community groups joined forces this fall to form a new group—New Yorkers for a Human-Scale City— to try to put the brakes on such building. One of them was Steven Guterman of Brooklyn Heights.

Guterman has been a Brooklyn resident for the past eighteen years. He walks regularly along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and enjoys views of the Brooklyn Bridge, a national historic landmark, and the Manhattan skyline, including the stately Chrysler building. But he is afraid that he won’t be able to enjoy these views anymore.

Pier 1—which is between Guterman’s apartment and the East River at the intersection of Cranberry and Middagh streets—used to be the site of a cold storage warehouse. In 2005, the builders Toll Brothers Real Estate Inc. and Starwood Mortgage Capital LLC set out to construct a hotel/residential complex, called The Pierhouse, in place of the old warehouse. The property is in what is now Brooklyn Bridge Park.

As the construction progressed Guterman began to believe that the builders were not keeping to the promises they had made. The buildings were rising twenty feet higher than what had been agreed in what is called the Modified General Project Plan, he says, thereby blocking Guterman’s view and that of others. Guterman formed a group—Save The View Now—an unincorporated association dedicated to protecting and preserving views from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Doing the battle with the project has not been easy. For one thing, the ownership and regulation over The Pierhouse is quite complex. The development is in the hands of the New York State Urban Development Corporation, which functions as a quasi-government agency of New York State for this project under the name of Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). ESDC, in turn, has a subsidiary, Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, which has been responsible for overlooking the project. Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, meanwhile, is a not-for-profit corporation controlled by the New York City.

The plan for The Pierhouse included two buildings. The Northern building was supposed to be 110 feet tall, according to the plan formulated by the Empire State Development Corporation. The Southern building was to be 55 feet tall.

In April 2015—employing Matter of Save the Pine Bush, Inc. v. Common Council of City of Albany, a precedent that states “a person who can prove that she or she uses and enjoys a natural resource more than most other member of the public has standing…to challenge government actions”—the group filed a state Supreme Court suit against Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, the New York State Urban Development Corporation, Empire State Development Corporation, Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, New York City, Toll Brothers, and Starwood. Guterman argues that the buildings are too tall and are obstructing the scenic views.

But so far the case has not changed the fate of the development in Brooklyn Bridge Park. On June 12, State Supreme Court Justice Laurence Knipel decided against Save The View Now and allowed Pierhouse construction to proceed, on the grounds that the group was four months late in replying to a government action.

Guterman has plenty to say about the state of development in the city. “We are now at all time high with rent prices in New York, along with a weak set of corruption laws on the books and a very high level of contributions by real estate interests to the mayor. Cumulatively these factors have empowered developers to go as far as they can,” he says. “They are attempting to relax the zoning rules to all 30% greater density, completely weaken the landmark regulations, and in general ignore good planning in the name of maximizing today’s profits. This has created a reaction in every neighborhood in the city.”

Interestingly, Mayor Bill de Blasio defended his development and rezoning policies on December 4 on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, saying at one point, as quoted by Politico on Twitter, “I believe fundamentally that taller buildings is what gets us to more affordability.” The administration has attempted to make deals on scale with developers in return for more badly needed affordable units.

Some New Yorkers don’t buy it, though. Lynn Ellsworth who heads Tribeca Trust—another neighborhood group opposed to what members see as uncontrolled development—started the New Yorkers for a Human Scale City coalition. The coalition is focusing on city-wide issues and trying to stop, as its ongoing petition puts it, “The proliferation of dramatically over-scaled buildings that ignore the historic context of our city.”

Ellsworth argues that the overdevelopment issues facing Tribeca are occurring all over the city, which led her and Mario Messina of the 29th Street Neighborhood Association to bring local community groups together. The idea caught on. Other groups that have joined include, for example, Save Cobble Hill, Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus (FROGG), and Gramercy Park Organization.

Ellsworth says that the umbrella organization is not about the “Not In My Backyard” syndrome or anti-development, but about finding a vision for the future of the city that honors its neighborhoods and the city’s historic fabric—one that aims for livability and is driven by residents making democratic decisions for city planning.

The group is planning to host a conference to answer the question, “What policies would promote a human-scale future for New York City?” Among the topics: affordable housing, zoning height restriction, demolition moratoriums, view corridors, historic preservation, and public space management.

Guterman and his supporters in Save the View, meanwhile are filing a new case in the State Supreme Court. This time they have hired a surveyor who he says has confirmed that the Southern building of the Pierhouse has exceeded height restrictions.

But meanwhile, Justin Donato, who works as the sales manager at the Pierhouse, says his team has been receiving positive response from the public since last Summer, when the units of the Pierhouse went on sale. As of November 28, 65 out of 106 units—mostly two- and five-bedrooms apartments—have been sold. The building plans to open in Spring 2016 for residents. The average price of a one-bedroom apartment—with an average square foot size of 1,522 feet—is $2,72,5000. A five-bedroom unit, meanwhile, goes for more than $10 million.

Guterman says that his group’s supporters now include a New York State Senator, Daniel L. Squadron; a New York State Assembly Member, Jo Anne Simon; and a New York City Council Member, Stephen Levin. “Council members have been powerless since the Mayor’s office controls the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation,” he says. “This is something that should be changed.”


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