In the past five years, one industrial site after another along the Williamsburg waterfront has been demolished and inevitably replaced by a high-end apartment tower, gradually adding a new skyline across the East River. The Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal became the Edge; a trash transfer station became Northside Piers; the onetime hulking Schaefer Brewery south of the Williamsburg Bridge became the 25-story Schaefer Landing; and now the owners of the former Domino Sugar factory are fighting to put 2,200 apartments on their site.
And for more than five years, Isack Rosenberg, the owner of the giant Certified Lumber warehouse just to the south of the Schaefer property, has wanted to do the same to his waterfront land, currently a sprawling, low-rise, red-brick building and a parking lot littered with lumber. He drew up plans and began a lengthy approvals process for a three-tower complex, dubbed “Rose Plaza on the River,” with 801 apartments that would rise around an open plaza and esplanade.
But just weeks away from facing a must-win approval from the City Council for a rezoning of his land, the plan appears imperiled, due in large part, according to one side, to a religious rift between two of Brooklyn’s most powerful Hasidic factions.
The standoff also involves the newly elected councilman for the area, Stephen Levin, who has taken an unusually forceful stance in opposition, displaying no eagerness for compromise in the face of community resistance to Mr. Rosenberg’s development. The stage is set for a high-profile rejection of a major development by the City Council, an extremely rare occurrence in New York City, particularly along the former industrial waterfront.
Much of the public opposition from Mr. Levin and other community groups has been directed at what is said to be too little affordable housing—160 units, or 20 percent, would be for low-income residents—in addition to concerns about overwhelming the neighborhood.
But running as an undercurrent in the drama is the complex world of Williamsburg Hasidic Jewish politics, with two bitter rival factions of Hasidim’s dominant Satmar sect staking out opposing positions on the issue.
Like oil and water, the two factions frequently take opposing sides in the community, supporting rival political candidates and warring with each other over proposed developments. The split initially formed over a succession fight after Grand Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum, the sect’s leader, died in 2006, leading both his sons, Aaron and Zalman, to claim leadership. Their factions together have tens of thousands of members.
Recently, they stood in virulent opposition to each other on the hard-fought Broadway Triangle affordable-housing development planned for East Williamsburg, with the locally dominant Zalmanite faction strongly urging the plan, backed many Brooklyn Democrats and Mr. Levin, and many Aaronites working to defeat it.
MR. ROSENBERG, who bought Certified Lumber two decades ago and has sat on the land since, is a Satmar who is a follower of the Aaronite faction. His proposal, not surprisingly, enjoys the support of leading members of the Aaronite community. The Zalmanites’ opposition is led by the influential United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, which has ties to the local Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Vito Lopez, among other elected officials (Mr. Levin was Mr. Lopez’s chief of staff).
The developer charges that it is the rivalry, not a lack of merit, that is fueling resistance.
“Unfortunately, as a result of the politics in Williamsburg and the split in the Satmar community, I believe the opposition has developed regarding Rose Plaza,” said Howard Weiss, Mr. Rosenberg’s attorney, who has been leading the project through public approvals. “It’s simply the local politics that’s driving the opposition.”
Mr. Levin, the local councilman, insists that the issue is far more complex—he said any intra-Satmar disagreement “has no bearing at all” on his position—and his opposition is rather a reaction to a developer who failed to listen to the broader community.
“You have people on the community board from all over the district that voted against this thing, and I share their concerns,” Mr. Levin said. “This is a much bigger issue. People in Williamsburg are upset about overdevelopment, and about over–luxury development.”
For his part, Rabbi David Niederman, president of UJO, denied that religious rivalries played any role in his group’s position, saying he was simply pushing for more affordable housing, consistent with concerns of non-Hasidic groups. “The overwhelming opposition came from outside of the Jewish community that has no interest in this internal rivalry,” he said.
Indeed, the developer did a poor job of winning over the community board, which felt Mr. Rosenberg was unresponsive to its concerns and voted 31-8 against the project; the board also urged him to boost affordable-housing levels.
Mr. Rosenberg is new to the world of large-scale development, with no experience to his name of something on this scale, not to mention a set of bankruptcy problems—not the most desirable quality for a developer trying to round up votes. The only comparable development he has done is Warehouse 11, a new, boxy 120-unit Williamsburg condo building developed at the peak of the market. The high cost of the loan for the project—$50 million—sent Mr. Rosenberg into bankruptcy; only in recent days has he negotiated a settlement with the main lender, Capital One, although other issues may remain. This was not his first time in financial trouble—in 1999, Mr. Rosenberg pleaded guilty in federal court to bankruptcy fraud, receiving two years probation.
BUT MR. ROSENBERG’S financial woes aside, what makes the opposition of Mr. Levin so unique is that it appears unwavering, a rare occurrence when a project moves this far along in the public-approval process. The City Council is the last stop in a seven-month review process—a hearing is set for next week—after the City Planning Commission and the local community board, which very frequently recommends “no” votes on projects. At this point, developers traditionally unveil a compromise plan to assuage the local member’s concerns, inevitably leading both sides to declare a “win-win,” and the rest of the Council duly approves the development.
In another unusual move, it was nearly voted down at the City Planning Commission after representatives of the Brooklyn borough president pushed for its rejection.
But Mr. Weiss, Mr. Rosenberg’s attorney, said that at this point he views Mr. Levin’s eventual support as unlikely, as he met with the councilman on the issue and was not offered a clear path to winning his support.
“He listened, and didn’t indicate that there would be any basis for him to support the project,” Mr. Weiss said. “We’re not even able to identify precisely what the issues are.”
Mr. Weiss now plans to try to sway the rest of the Council, pointing out that the project has the same amount of below-market-rate apartments as other private waterfront developments in the area. In coming days, he said, his client plans to increase that number.
Still, it is highly uncommon for the Council to vote against the will of a local member on land use, as members don’t want the rest of the body to turn around and do the same on a development in their districts.
Mr. Levin did not rule out a compromise entirely, although his language suggested he did not see one on the horizon. “I’m always open to having a dialogue,” he said, cautioning, “I have not seen any meaningful concessions on their part.”