The Developers Who Came in From the Cold

jameswalentas The Developers Who Came in From the ColdLetitia James is not generally known as a friend of the development community. Thus far, the Fort Greene lawmaker’s five and a half years in the City Council have been defined by unwavering opposition to the planned Atlantic Yards housing and arena mega-project.

But, on May 21, she was leading a rally and a press conference on the steps of City Hall with the sole purpose of calling for a development—a project that has an uncertain fate as it nears a Council vote.

“This is an issue about blocking the views of some, but, I believe, for the greater good,” she said, speaking to a handful of reporters before calling on a series of business owners, parents and other project supporters.

(She then proceeded to lead the exact same press conference again, as NY1 showed up too late to catch the first round.)

Such is the fight over the so-called “Dock Street DUMBO project,” a planned 17-story apartment tower that would rise next to the Brooklyn Bridge in the chic artistic neighborhood of Dumbo.

The Two Trees Management–owned project has upended the traditional political story line of the New York development battle. Traditionally on development issues, the entire Council defers to the local member, who wrests concessions from a developer before ultimately voting for a project. But, this time, the local councilman, David Yassky, says he sees no room for compromise, and is therefore on the defensive against his colleagues, scrambling to win support for his position while he tries to ward off the traditionally development-wary Ms. James and her allies.

Noise surrounding the issue has been crescendoing since it began the public review process half a year ago—opponents of the project enlisted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and historian David McCullough to join the fight—and with a vote due by June 16, it’s set to soon reach its peak.

The tower’s foes are an active and highly vocal group of mostly nearby residents who protest its proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge, and say it would ruin views of and from the historic structure. (A slogan from their Web site: “Save the bridge, stop this building!”) Still, their numbers are relatively small, and the local community board actually voted in favor of the project—with conditions—a rare feat for a developer with a controversial project.

 

IN SELLING THE DEVELOPMENT to the community and the Council, the Walentas family, which owns Two Trees, has included two carrots: a school and subsidized housing. One-fifth of the building’s 325 apartments would be for moderate-income families, and the developer has an agreement with the city to create the core and shell for a school, where the city would then build out a 300-seat middle school.

If the Walentases are victorious, it will be in large part due to these inducements. After all, the family has been here before, as the father-son duo of David and Jed Walentas sought in 2004 approval for a similar, though less dense, tower on the same site, only without the school. In the end, it became clear that Mr. Yassky was against the project, and his colleagues had no reason not to follow his lead, so the Walentases withdrew their application before a Council vote.

Mr. Yassky’s position has not changed, but the developers now hope to circumvent him should he stay firmly opposed, a very rare action by the Council and usually done on issues that are considered of citywide concern. The inclusion of the school has won the Walentases the support of Ms. James, as new classroom seats are in high demand among her constituents in the neighboring district.

The developers also have a few other things going for them. For one, they seem to have a good relationship with the Council’s speaker, Christine Quinn—they were donors to Ms. Quinn when she was considering a run for mayor; she just approved one of their projects in her district; and she has praised them publicly—though she has not yet taken a public position on the matter.

Further, the project is no glaring, hideously out-of-context eyesore, making the debate one of whether the building detracts significantly from the Brooklyn Bridge. (At the City Council on May 21, members had to interrupt the Walentas family’s architect midway through a presentation to find just which building on a 3-D model was being proposed.)

For supporters such as Ms. James, this puts Mr. Yassky’s position in the extreme category. Taken with the school and the subsidized housing, they feel there’s enough reason to buck the local member.

“Normally we respect the opinions and the positions of the local council member,” Ms. James said. But “when it comes to matters related to at least education, there’s an overriding consideration.”

Ms. James said she is urging her colleagues to support the project, and expects the matter to pass the Council.

This has put Mr. Yassky, the often wonky candidate for city comptroller, in a race to round up the votes for his own position.

“Either me or my staff have called every one of my colleagues in the Council,” he said. “I’ve explained my position; I’ve made it clear that I oppose it, and that I’m asking for their support in opposing it.”

A few members—like Bill de Blasio and Tony Avella—have backed Mr. Yassky’s opposition, though he acknowledged that most of the Council has not yet decided whether to support or back him.

The uncertainty over the project in the Council also raises another issue: While controversy is common, the Council almost always ends up supporting proposed large developments, at least those that come this far in the process. The familiar dance of real estate development fights—in which the local council member opposes a controversial development until the developer agrees to concessions like affordable housing—has led to a small handful of “no” votes on land-use matters in recent years.

As for the chances of Mr. Yassky following suit, he insists his position is firm. “The case against it is extremely strong,” he said.

ebrown@observer.com