Two Trees’ massive project eyes “mad dash” to approval

River Ring poised to run the city’s approval gauntlet in record time

New York News Analysis /
Aug.August 27, 2021 08:00 AM
A rendering of River Ring and Two Trees' Development Principal Jed Walentas (River Ring, Marc Skrivo)

A rendering of River Ring and Two Trees’ Development CEO Jed Walentas (River Ring, Marc Skrivo)

Eight years ago, a politically savvy developer made a beginner’s mistake. Two Trees Management waited too long to get its rezoning application into the city’s public review, and by the time it reached the end, a new mayor was waiting with a meat cleaver.

Instead of flying through City Hall with Michael Bloomberg’s blessing, Two Trees’ Domino Sugar Factory redevelopment hit a roadblock in Bill de Blasio. Fresh off his unlikely election and eager to prove his progressive bona fides, de Blasio demanded far more affordable housing than Two Trees’ Jed Walentas was prepared to include. What the mayor wanted would cost Two Trees many millions of dollars.

Walentas balked, and things got ugly. The dispute spilled onto the front page of the New York Times, with Walentas furious that his glorious project was being held hostage by a career politician whose development career ended with Tinker Toys.

Few remember this, but de Blasio had been burned by the same approval process as a City Council member and was determined not to let it happen again. In 2003 he and colleague David Yassky let Bloomberg rezone Fourth Avenue in Park Slope without requiring affordability in the big, boxy buildings that would spring up a few hundred yards from de Blasio’s two row houses.

Instead, developers had to kick money into an obscure fund for affordable housing. Politicians get no ribbon-cuttings out of that.

Walentas and de Blasio eventually agreed on terms on the Domino redevelopment. But it was a painful experience, one that Walentas would surely never risk happening again.

Except he did.

This time, the problem is not the presumptive next mayor, Eric Adams, but Lincoln Restler, the Democratic nominee for City Council in the northern Brooklyn district where Two Trees aims to build River Ring, an 1,100-unit residential complex. Like de Blasio in 2014, Restler will take office next year determined to wring precedent-setting affordability out of developers. And with the Council’s tradition of member deference, Restler will have that power.

Officially, Two Trees is agnostic about which Council member decides River Ring’s fate. But surely it would rather deal with the current member, Steve Levin, a known quantity who has hammered out deals with Walentas in the past. The problem is, Levin leaves office Dec. 31, and the just-begun review process generally takes several months.

How did it come to this? First, Covid slowed everything down. Then Two Trees underestimated how long it would take to get its application certified by the Department of City Planning, starting the review process known as Ulurp. Pre-certification takes months and sometimes years of behind-the-scenes work with the agency.

To be safe, developers figure the public review itself will take seven months, based on the schedule laid out in the City Charter. That means Two Trees needed certification no later than May for the decision to fall to Levin.

But May came and went. So did June. And July. Walentas’ application remained in line at short-staffed City Planning, which was deluged with applications, as it always is in the final year before the mayoralty and most of the Council turn over.

Finally, halfway through August, the de Blasio administration started the clock on River Ring.

Beginning a seven-month process three months late would seem to rule out any chance of getting to a Council vote this year. Ulurp, though, is a strange animal. The community board is not required to take its full allotment of 60 days (plus an extra 15 if it’s summer) to render an opinion. The City Planning Commission and borough president — Adams — can take less than their charter-granted maximums too.

When applications get fast-tracked, it is usually no accident. And you can bet Walentas has let all the players know that he wants River Ring to move. Experts have looked at the calendar and concluded that the application could reach the Council by Thanksgiving. That would be a record — or close to it.

Ross Moskowitz, a partner and land-use attorney at Stroock, told me he once got a project through in four months. “Everyone wanted it done,” he said. “And the calendar lined up perfectly.”

The local community board already knew about the project and met to consider it just three days after receiving the application. From there, everything fell into place.

Could that happen for Two Trees? “It’s going to be a mad dash,” said Moskowitz, who is not involved in River Ring. “But… it can be done.”

It takes more than good timing. Preparation and politics matter. On both counts, things bode well for Two Trees.

The Dumbo-based developer held community meetings on River Ring before it even bought the project site in 2019. It briefed Brooklyn Community Board 1 on River Ring early last year, just before Covid hit. De Blasio and his planning staff, led by Marisa Lago, want River Ring done on their watch, so the City Planning Commission (which they control) figures to act fast. So does Adams, who will be busy readying his administration.

The next step after that is Levin, then de Blasio, who will not threaten to veto River Ring as he did with Domino. Why would he? River Ring is meeting the affordability level required by the mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program. Not only that, but Two Trees has chosen the program’s option 1, which devotes 25 percent of units to households averaging 60 percent of the area median income.

Few if any developers have chosen that path, preferring instead to make 30 percent of units income-restricted but at higher rents than option 1. The choice of the first option is a win for de Blasio.

The local politics also line up for River Ring. Two Trees is promising 263 low-income apartments on the mostly white, high-income Williamsburg waterfront — exactly what Latino activists and elected officials of South Williamsburg want. Their constituents will get preference for River Ring’s housing lotteries.

River Ring would certainly be helped by a hurried review. But either way, it is going to pass for the same reason the Gowanus and Soho/Noho rezonings will: The political establishment sees it as diversifying an area that has gentrified. And opponents will be seen as not-in-my-backyarders clinging to their privilege. Indeed, many of the objectors to River Ring are white folks who would lose a bit of their harbor views. Not a winning argument.





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