Massive Williamsburg towers get approval from Council sub-committee

Rendering of River Ring
Two Trees’ proposed development, River Ring.
Two Trees

Two massive towers slated for the Williamsburg waterfront got one step closer to reality on Thursday, as the City Council’s Land Use Committee voted to approve the plan with slight modifications. 

The proposal, officially dubbed River Ring, now heads back to the City Planning Commission for review before a full council vote next week.

If approved, the developer behind the project, Two Trees Management, will erect a 64-story tower and a 49-story tower that would house a combined 1,050 apartments, with 263 units earmarked as “affordable” under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Program

Those below-market-rate units would be permanently affordable, and most would rent for an average of 60 percent of the Area Median Income ($71,580 per year for a family of four), while some other units would go for 40 percent AMI ($47,720 for a family of four). 

The development would also include commercial space, two waterfront beaches, a new park, climate resiliency infrastructure, and other public amenities. 

The mixed-use development will have its own on-site wastewater treatment and reuse system, and Two Trees is working on development of an independent electrical “microgrid” for the complex, which would generate and store power for River Ring off the municipal system.

The current proposal for River Ring includes sprawling beaches at the Williamsburg waterfront. Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations and Bjark Engels Group.

As part of the agreement with the City Council, Two Trees agreed to pour an additional $31 million into a fund, which will help build an additional 200 affordable housing units for seniors off site, somewhere else in Williamsburg. 

“The commitment that we were able to reach with Two Trees, the developer, whom I give a significant amount of credit to working with us, is that they will contribute $31 million into a fund for acquisition for senior housing,” said the area’s councilmember, Stephen Levin. “The fund will be designed to acquire land, which will then set up that land to be developed for senior housing.”

“The priority for me at this point in my tenure in the council, and as it relates to the Williamsburg community, is affordable housing, in particular senior housing,” Levin said.

The fund will be used to acquire land, which would then be turned into housing, and will be managed by Joint Ownership Entity NYC, a group that “acquires and asset manages affordable multifamily properties” on behalf of nonprofit developers, according to their website.

“Our expectation, based on land prices in Williamsburg right now, is that it will produce an additional 200 units of affordable housing, bringing the total number of affordable [units] in this project to 463, approximately, out of a little over 1,000,” Levin said. “So, close to or around 40 percent affordable.”

Levin, who holds outsized sway over the proposal’s fate due to an unwritten practice called “member deference,” argued that construction of 463 below-market-rate units was ample justification for giving the proposal a green light. 

“In my opinion, after doing these land use projects for 12 years, 40 percent affordable in a private development is really the best that I’ve been able to get, and is worth approving,” he said.

Rendering of two high rises at River Ring
A rendering of the proposed River Ring development on the Williamsburg waterfront.Two Trees

The final agreement also includes subsidized training for 2,000 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs for people hired from the community, according to Two Trees, to be provided in partnership with local workforce organizations like the St. Nicks Alliance and NYC District Council of Carpenters.

“Two Trees Management and the Carpenters Union have had and are poised to engage in meaningful and regular discussions about future community union career opportunities for this project as well as other upcoming projects,” wrote Sinead Wadsworth, a representative for the carpenters union, in a testimony submitted to the council last month. “The New York City District Council of Carpenters is proud to lend our support to this important project.”

A new, 50,000 square foot YMCA complex with a “full service community swim program” be built in one of the towers, and Two Trees said in a release that they will be providing $1.7 million to support “community initiatives” including an environmental benefits fund to retrofit older buildings in the neighborhood, and a “major open space planning study” of CB1 to connect the district’s parks.

“After more than two years of conversations with residents, stakeholders and leaders, we’re grateful to Council Member Levin, the Zoning Subcommittee, and the Land Use Committee for their support of a precedent-setting project,” said Two Trees principal Jed Walentas. “We look forward to the full City Council vote next week and to continuing to engage with this community over the long term as we fulfill our promises to Williamsburg and New York City.”

While recent public hearings have been largely positive about the work Levin and Two Trees had done to address community concerns, some residents were still wary on the eve of the vote.

“We encourage you to seriously consider all of the conditions, however we want to emphasize the density condition, which we fear is not being taken seriously by our city council,” wrote a group of neighbors including CB1 members Cory Kantin and Steve Chesler, as well as the advocacy group Sustainable Williamsburg, in a letter to Levin.”We understand that there needs to be a balance between the affordable housing request and the density reduction, and that is exactly what we are asking for, a balance.”

If CB1’s request to reduce the size of the project by one-third was not possible, the letter asked for “at least” a 25 percent reduction in size and density, with 40 percent affordable units. 

“I understand the community’s concerns about additional density — this will bring  additional density to the neighborhood,” Levin said at the subcommittee hearing. “This is an already dense neighborhood. It’s a marginal increase, but it has real impact. But I do believe that on the other side of that equation, bringing a 40 percent affordable development to the community will have a meaningful impact, particularly where it really counts, which is in senior housing, affordable housing, through the [Department of Housing Preservation and Development] SARA (Senior Affordable Rental Apartments) and ELLA (Extremely Low and Low-Income Affordability) programs.”

He encouraged his fellow council members to vote “yes” on the project. Both the subcommittee and the full Land Use committee voted to approve with modifications, and the entire city council is expected to vote on the project on Dec. 15.