Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Community Board 1: It's all about the Equity

This is as close as any of us will get to a Greenpoint-Williamsburg Rezoning Cake

There’s a lot on the agenda at tonight’s Community Board 1 meeting, but little actual substance beyond the board’s cross examination of HPD Deputy Commissioner Holly Leicht over the Greenpoint Hospital project. That should be fun.

Meanwhile, dozens of St. Nick’s staffers and local residents are outside, in matching lime-green GREC shirts. Is there a development-related softball league in Williamsburg that I don’t know about? Tomorrow night on the Keyspan field, it’s GREC v. Domi-Yes! Also, someone should tell Esteban Duran that he’s wearing the wrong shirt.

Speaking of St. Nicks, Michael Rochford and Frank Lang are here with prepared speeches to address the Greenpoint Hospital decision. Michael also wants to update the community on superstar organizer Alison Cordero’s condition. Cordero suffered a stroke several days ago and is in a coma. She has not awakened but her eyelids are moving. There’s a somber mood in the room, as her presence is sorely missed.

CB1 member Julie Lawrence comes by to say hi to Press Row, and wants to talk about Red Gate Garden (aka Nick’s Garden) and the tennis bubble. Unfortunately I don’t know anymore beyond what has already been printed. Perhaps there will be an update from Parks official Stephanie Thayer. Meanwhile, Mieszko Kalita is wearing a bowtie and a snappy blazer. I ask CPCR’s Barbara Baer to take a picture.

6:45 PM: While Chairman Chris tests the mic and kicks the meeting off. Chairman Emeritus Vinny Abate is here. Frank Lang escorts him to the Green Room. District Manager Gerry Esposito takes the roll call. It’s sitting room only tonight.

Chairman Chris turns the mic to HPD Deputy Commissioner Holly Leicht for a presentation about the Greenpoint Hospital. And this is much less a presentation than an intense, hour-long cross-examination period. After last year’s Broadway Triangle decision, HPD might be Community Board 1’s least popular city agency.

Let’s see how Holly explains the city’s decision to award the contract to Queens-based developer TNS Development Group/ Lemle & Wolf:

“We have now designated the site to TNS development and Great American Construction. They have proposed to do 240 units of affordable housing. They will have a senior component as well, and some mixed income. I know we have heard some concern that the company is a for-profit, that they were upstate, but they are not upstate. They are in Queens but have done work in Brooklyn, but not in Greenpoint Williamsburg.

It is extraordinarily difficult right now to get financing to get projects done. Projects being done are with developers with a lot of equity. This is not an ideal situation, one that residents are not happy about, but it is difficult to get financing right now, and this is how this project got done… as a result, we are not issuing many RFPs right now. This one has slowed down considerably.

We went with the one with the most equity, we went with the team that we felt had the best chance to get financing.

GREC is not impressed by Holly's explanation.

Board members have lots of questions and I will include a sample. Land Use Chairman Ward Dennis asks Holly to compare the numbers.

Holly: The selected group got 240 units. Others ranged between 215 and almost 300 units. 300 was Ridgewood Bushwick and Bluestone. 260 was GREC/ St. Nicks.

Karen Leader: Why did this site go through an RFP and other sites did not have to go through an RFP?
Holly: The only times we don’t do an RFP is if the developer asks for a contingent site to apply for state funds. In the Broadway Triangle, the developer [had applied for state funds]. If they hadn’t gotten competitive state funds, their application would expire. This project would be big. My guess, a senior component will go for federal or state competitive funds. TNS did not ask for a lot of competitive sources and some other teams had much more reliance on competitive RFPs.

Karen: I don’t understand, it’s like a slap in the face for the community. You just disregarded what the community asked for, the letters you received from CB1 in support of that plan. I don’t understand how you came to that decision. You disregarded that. I don’t think your decision was clear.

Holly: While the community was not part of the selection process, all the things that came out of the RFP came out of the community’s points of agreement which came out of the Greenpoint Williamsburg rezoning.

6:58 PM: Chairman Chris has a follow-up, admonishing HPD for not considering organizations with long-standing track records in the neighborhood, and asks to why that wasn’t considered in the RFP

Holly: There wasn’t anything in the RFP for preference for local groups.

Chairman Chris: They have already proven they’re worthwhile. Doesn’t that play into a decision by HPD?

Holly: That’s definitely important. This doesn’t mean that St. Nicks couldn’t do this. Their track record in recent years is a very different thing than this project. We’ve seen a lot of projects stall and sit because there isn’t financial capacity to get banks to finance that.

Esteban Duran: In the past, HPD and the city, local preference was important. This GREC plan here has over 20 years in the making. People were bewildered by this decision. Despite the fact that this was a long wait, it just so happened. This decision came on a Friday. Community Board members did not know until Monday. Why isn’t HPD not looking into financing from GREC, which got $500,000 grant for the project. Why aren’t community groups preferred? I think there needs to be some type of answer

Holly: The other bid had considerably more equity. Considerably.

7:04 PM: GREC leader Tish Cianciotta, sitting at the Hasidic table, reads a statement about the bid.

HPD never communicated with our community in Greenpoint and Grec. We fought diligently for 28 years, and nobody was here when we had an issue. Right now, I want this reversed because we live here we fought for this community for years. And to see HPD finally arrive after the decision has been made is kind of insulting. It is an insult to our community, to me and my husband, and to everyone who worked on this plan. We fought for that site. We should have gotten it. It is similar to what we planned for. We wish that decision was turned over. It has to be reversed. What happened her was really bad. You should reverse this decision. It was wrong.

Rob Solano asks about permanent affordability, precedence with Yuco, a Westchester-based development company, on several small buildings in Williamsburg, and why St. Nicks wasn’t considered.

Holly: I’m not here to say bad thins about St. Nicks. It’s about banks and their balance sheet. (on the Greenpoint Hospital). I can’t honestly say what the POA (permanent affordability) is on that project, and that answer receives catcalls.

Holly answers a question whether an RFP could be reversed and she says “yes”. Her answer gets cheers from the GREC softball team.

Del Teague: I am very distressed that this project did not go to a local group and urged that the developer make the affordable housing permanent.

Holly: It is certainly a goal and we’re trying to figure that out.

7:14 PM Chairman Chris denies entertaining a community board motion to dunk Holly in the East River to see if she floats, resolving that the river is too far away from the meeting and that there is other business on the agenda.

7:15 PM: Council Chief of Staff Antonio Reynoso has a comment on behalf of Councilwoman Diana Reyna:

We too are appalled at the decision that HPD has made and we are going to fight with the community to make sure that the decision that was supposed to be made will be made. (Applause)

To choose another organization completely turns its backs against the community and we will not accept that.

It’s just that we seem to be facing constant neglect from HPD and the city of New York. We’re talking about a local organization that has a long track record. Now it seems like its all politics and we can’t stand for that.

HPD has come here after the fact.

Even The Chairman Emeritus wants to pile on:

I was shocked at the decision that HPD did on this wonderful plan that St. Nicholas had and completely just threw it out to complete strangers. To people that never knew this neighborhood. I’ve been here for 92 years practically. I was born in the hospital. I was chairman of the advisory board for Greenpoint hospital. I played ball next to the lots. Every time we got hurt, we went to the Greenpoint hospital to get treated. Seeing what has happened now…

I just want some community to come up with a plan for the people in our neighborhood. Our neighborhood, no place else. Whether a senior center or housing, people in this neighborhood shouldn’t have to travel to see their friends. They’ll be right here.

What did happen? I resent the fact that complete strangers are coming in and preempted one of the best organizations in our community. This is a complete slap in the face. We want to take over this building. You can rest assure its in good hands.

Finally, GREC leader Jan Peterson adds her two cents:

If we’re at a place where people are talking about money. We have thousands of hours of community people working on the redevelopment of this building for the past 28 years That’s worth something. Going to institutions where you know the people who are there, that’s worth something. It’s all about the money and they can’t even prove that St. Nick’s cant’ get the money.

We’re down to a fact of governance. If the community board cannot be heard. If the CDC, St. Nicholas, is acted as if it is just one of any number of competitors and they don’t matter, how can that not undermine democratic practice and community. If this mayor does not understand that communities are what makes most things work.

If we’re talking about delivering, that is not going to move really quickly.

How do you give public land to a private developer, then this is it.

Why is a private developer there, when we don’t even know if they are going to keep it permanently affordable. We’re here in Swinging Sixites Center. Who’s going to listen to the seniors? They can build the building, but they can’t operate the building without Swinging Sixties or Cooper Park Houses.

Are you actually going to say or do anything based on what you are hearing here? We want a dialogue now and we’d rather dialogue now rather than take the next step.

Holly: I’d be happy to hear the conversation well before ULURP

Chairman Chris: I think the deputy commissioner has heard that this community would like the agency to seriously consider this decision and reverse it.

7:30 PM: The GREC trial is over and Bill Carbine, Assistant Commissioner HPD talks about the 27 Hooper Street office relocating. Instead they will be providing mobile units, helping people out in a library, and in other locations at a regular basis. Team GREC, nearly all of it, files out of the room into the hallway.

7:37 PM: There’s a motion for a sidewalk café for a new thai restaurant on Bedford Ave between N. Fifth and N. Sixth Street. Ward says this stretch of Bedford is very crowded and there isn’t enough sidewalk to begin with.

7:40: Who likes zoning text amendments more than A Short Story? Answer: No one. Facial Hair All Star and City Planning liaison Steve Lenard mentions the City Planning’s Comprehensive Waterfront Plan (, while also mentioning a new zoning text amendment about car-sharing. This is going to be riveting. I can feel it.

Lenard explains that car sharing is like car rentals but with two big differences. You can rent a car by an hour. The car sharing organization can take care of gas, insurance, and all the aspects of owning a car.

Rich Mazur: Is this a car rental? You rent by the hour?
No, Rich. It’s car sharing.

Lenard: This is a private operator. This is not a city program. Currently there are three companies operating in New York City…

This sounds like a commercial for Zipcar. In fact, let’s just run a commercial for Zipcar while Rich tries to open a window because it is 80 degrees inside.

Steve sums up: We’re basically fixing up the zoning to recognize it and clarify when it is appropriate in off-street parking facilities.

Heather asks the benefits of this zoning text amendment and the limits that they are placing. Steve answers that some buildings consider it an amenity and explains that zoning does not make it clear where car sharing is permitted while Rabbi David Niederman stands up to squint at Steve’s Powerpoint slide.

I ask Frank Lang what he thinks and he says the amendment will allow City Planning to move away from requiring so much onsite parking in new developments.

8:00 PM: Time for some internal business. Chairman Chris takes nominations for the board’s executive committee. Yes it’s that time again. Everyone is re-nominated for their positions, except Land Use Chairman Ward Dennis, who declines. Yes, Ward decided to step down from the Land Use Committee since he has become Co-Chair of NAG.

8:08 PM: After District Manager Gerry Esposito asks for a moment of silence for Marie’s husband, St. Nick’s Frank Lang, on behalf of Michael Rochford, gives a presentation about an idea to deck the Brooklyn Queens Expressway to create a park on the south side.

“I am the guy that HPD said doesn’t have any money to develop the Greenpoint Hospital site,” says Frank.

Frank explains that St. Nicks Alliance and El Puente will be working on a project called the Green Light district. Councilmember Diana Reyna will support a study to look at the BQE north of Broadway to S. 3rd Street, particularly the South Third-Fourth Street block.

There’s a community meeting at May 20 and May 26 at PS 19 235 S. Third Street to talk about improving and expanding parks on the site while looking at a pilot on what it would take to deck.

Rob Solano: I applaud you for coming way way early with this and not after the fact. Ballpark this. When do you think this could happen?

Frank Lang says this is preliminary and can’t give a figure, but says that the study will cost $100,000 after Simon Weiser asks.

Lincoln Restler joins Press Row, notices the blog and mentions that he used to get the Fred Savage look-alike comments when he was a kid. As opposed to Ben Savage. Is this because his face is shaped like an upside-down Hershey’s kiss drop?

8:18 PM: Councilman Steve Levin arrives and shakes hands with City Planning’s Steve Lenard. Chairman Chris calls the roll and public session ends with, 30 members are present. Steve Levin has the floor:

Last month has been a busy one, particularly CB1. I want to thank everyone for coming out to testify on Domino for the City Planning Commission. I encourage everyone to come out and make their opinions known. That’s the best way to influence public debate.

Levin notes several pubic forums his office will organize in the neighborhood, including one on McGuiness Avenue.

“McGuinness is a impossible, dangerous place from one end to the other. DOT needs to seriously reconsider how to do safety there,” says Levin.

Levin also notes a construction worker killed on a site on Meserole Street in Greenpoint and says his office will look into the site. He mentions tomorrow’s Council meeting, which will address day care, and future budget meetings where a number of city services could potentially get cut. Also… Car Sharing!

8:26 PM: Chairman Chris gives his report, noting that funding for community boards is pending.

“The last voice of people living in our communities is the community board process. Because boards are so important, we need to have good people taking on leadership positions. One committee that still needs to be filled is the environmental committee. We need people to step up to the plate here. I’m looking for someone to think this through.”

Gerry Esposito pipes in that Community Boards have not had an increase in their budgets in 20 years.

“When I started in the 1970s, I had five employees. Now I have two. But I have the power of fifty. The wind beneath our wings." It's official. Gerry is the Bette Midler of Community Boards.

8:36 PM: Committee Reports! Sylvia from the Historic Preservation Committee, a Land Use Subcommittee, is addressing the renovation of a church. The motion is approved.

Transportation Committee’s Karen Nieves actually tap dances during her report and mentions the blog. This is getting weird.

Karen mentions the Sparta Cycling road race proposal on Bedford Avenue for September and the Brooklyn Greenway meeting which happened last week. For the record, this report is not as long as her first report.

Public Safety Committee Chiarman Mieszko Kalita takes the floor.

“Last meeting of the Public Safety was the most crowded, 56 people, more than there are here right now. Apparently people do need a drink in this neighborhood.”

Mieszko reads off the list for sidewalk cafes and those are approvals. Approved.

Now we’re into liquor licenses. There’s a lot of them and this report beginning to drag

Mieszko explains that the committee will not consider any property where there are two

He also explains The Woods’ expansion efforts to open a bar in the rear of a property, for a community group to distribute a CSA.

Del Teague quietly slips out of the building. Both Rob Solano and Esteban Duran are gone, and I don’t even see Ward anywhere. Everyone is checking out. This is the longest board meeting in recent memory where absolutely nothing happened.

9:04 PM: Public Session! We’re almost done. Let’s just stick to the highlights.

*Joseph Garber is pissed at everyone. First he lambasts Chairman Chris for cutting public session speakers from 3 minutes to 2 min. Then he lambasts Rabbi David Niederman for being selected to the attendance committee even though he showed up late tonight. Then he tells everyone who all the new Deputy Mayors are and he has copies of two hardcover books that the former Deputy Mayors wrote.

“A lot of stuff is happening!... I attended two of the charter revision meetings!...”

The bell rings, but Mr. Garber continues anyway and he insults Jan Peterson for speaking for ten minutes about GREC and the board again for not letting him talk for three minutes.

Someone shouts, “Now you’re turning everybody off.”

Garber: “What’s an extra minute! That is not democracy!”

*Guido Cianciotta: “We know just what HPD is trying to do. They were disgraceful. After 28 years of fighting, they came along to give to somebody upstate.

Nobody paid attention. They look at you and play you for a fool. It is up to this community board, to make sure that this person who wants this property should not get this property. He destroyed the things that people believe in. There are some people who stab you in the back, that you’re not going to get this, we know him, or we want the mayor. We want Greenpoint hospital for GREC and this board needs to make sure that it goes that way.”

*Michael Rochford has some remarks:

Thank you all very much and thank you on behalf of Alison Cordero who is in the hospital recovering from a stroke. I want to thank the board for saying so many kind things about St. Nicks.

We faced so many challenges when people said we couldn’t do things. We have people fighting to change redlining. When we had garbage, we went and fought garbage…

That’s the part of the dividends given to the community.

When a developer has been put in more equity. When they put in more equity, they’re going to be looking for more return and that means more risk.

Not only have we had a benefactor come forward with half a million dollars, a gift to the project. We also found two developers, private developers, we have built over 10,000 units of housing in the city. If there is any question about the financial viability of our organization I think we are ready to answer every question from HPD.

Stephanie Thayer offers updates for Transmitter Park, and a comfort station on Greenpoint Playground. She thanks NCMC and Barge Park Pals for the playground. Also, on India Street, the planters are in and a pier could be built soon. On McCarren Park, OSA has hired workers to supplement their work to keep the park clean. Also the McCarren Tennis association held its own fundraiser and resurfaced one of the courts. There’s also a fundraiser on Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday.

That’s pretty much it. Next month’s meeting is on June 3 and there will likely be a two month summer break. Maybe by then, we’ll have a rezoning cake.

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