Board to death: Community members outraged at huge presentation held in tiny meeting room

Picture of people cramped in a community board office
Some community board meeting, like this Jan. 2020 meeting at Brooklyn Community Board 1, draw large crowds to small spaces.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Dozens of Williamsburg residents found themselves left out in the cold as developers presented plans for a 60-story waterfront development inside a cramped meeting room at Community Board 1’s Graham Avenue office Monday night, which simply could not fit the throngs of concerned locals who came seeking answers — but left hopping mad. 

“The idea that you’re going to have a discussion about a 60-story building in a room the size of my bedroom is stupid,” said attendee Zora Rasmussen. “Wasting everybody’s time, making them all stand outside, because what, because the community board doesn’t have any cojones to go and get a big space and hear people get mad — like me.”

Dumbo developer Two Trees Management — including its CEO Jed Walentas — presented their plans to the board’s Land Use subcommittee to build two 600- and 650-foot towers in place of vacant lots at a former industrial fuel-oil-storage complex once owned by Con Edison, located on River Street between Grand and N. Third streets.

But the meeting room used to accommodate the board’s sub committees — as opposed to its full monthly meetings, for which a larger room is rented — filled to its 30-person capacity before the presentation began and a line formed that stretched down the cramped halls and out the door onto Graham Avenue.

The line ran out the door of Community Board 1’s Graham Avenue office on Jan. 6.      Photo by Kevin Duggan

Several residents left shortly after they arrived, turned off by the massive crowds, while others jostled for position and strained to hear what was said. Most found it impossible to meaningfully participate in the public hearing, and the crowd quickly became unruly, with one man shouting, “This is a sham, they don’t want any discussion!”

Some community members were peeved that civic honchos announced the Two Trees’s presentation less than a week before Monday’s meeting, giving locals the impression that the board — which infamously spent $26,000 in taxpayer money on a Toyota RAV4 for its highest paid staff member — was run by amateurs. 

“It was either incredibly incompetent or so short-sighted in order to shut out a large part of the community,” said Matthew Emmi.

Yet others flatly accused the board of batting for Two Trees, saying the smaller meeting room was chosen as an intentional scam to stamp down on community protests. 

“They’re trying to push through their agenda and bypass all the community meetings,” said another Williamsburg resident who gave his name only as Kurt, before shouting “The committee’s for the community, not Domino,” in reference to the nearby former Domino Sugar factory Two Trees is also redeveloping into residential and office towers.

After the crowds had endured about an hour of meeting that they couldn’t fit into, the board’s District Manager Gerald Esposito agreed to schedule another gathering with the same presentation for Wednesday, Jan. 15 at 6:30 pm at the Swinging Sixties Senior Center at 211 Ainslie St., where the civic panel usually hosts its monthly full board meetings.

Two Trees plans to erect two 60-story towers fronted by two beaches.Courtesy of Two Trees Management

Two Trees wants to install new beaches and parkland fronting the sloping skyscrapers, along with a YMCA pool and commercial space on the ground floor, but Rasmussen said the company’s vaunted public amenities do not compensate for the hordes of newcomers the development would invite to the neighborhood.

“They’re going to have a 60-story building and 1,000 apartments and they market it as, ‘Well there’s going to be a YMCA and some kayaking’ — give me a break,” she said.

And the Williamsburg resident is not alone in her opposition. A neighborhood group called Sustainable Williamsburg — formerly Friends of the Northside Waterfront — formed earlier this year to oppose a residential rezoning on the site, arguing the area’s infrastructure could not sustain a dramatic population increase, and that the site should instead host retail, office, and light manufacturing, as allowed under its current zoning.

Walentas first told a small group of community members about his plans to acquire the site from the utilities company at a closed-door meeting back in July and hosted a media presentation at architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group’s Dumbo headquarters to the press on Dec. 12, one day after buying the site for $150 million.

The community board did not immediately respond to a request for comment.