Docked! Walentas in the fight of his life on DUMBO tower

Walentas’s Dock Street school moves forward
Beyer Blinder Belle

A proposal for an 18-story tower next to the Brooklyn Bridge has bitterly divided Community Board 2 on the eve if its controversial vote on the project — and the fight has riven the community amid charges that each side is lying or intentionally manipulating the facts.

The coming vote follows a 7-6 decision last month by Community Board 2’s land-use committee to reject the project — which calls for luxury and below-market-rate housing plus a public middle school on Dock Street in DUMBO. But central to the battle is a critical piece of evidence that was barred from being introduced at the deeply divided committee hearing, and what some say is an overstated fear campaign that suggests that the building would forever ruin views of the historic Brooklyn Bridge.

Supporters of the project dispute the notion that views of the bridge would be tarnished by a building whose height is comparable to others in the former warehouse district between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges.

They also point out that developer Jed Walentas could build an equally tall, or perhaps even taller, hotel or non-residential building on the site without a zoning change — an assertion which undermines the view argument. And those supporters cite the neighborhood’s need for a middle school and below-market-rate units that Walentas has promised.

Next Wednesday’s full board vote is the first step in a seven-month public review process required whenever a developer seeks a rezoning.

The project is the Walentas family’s second go-round: an earlier, bulkier version pushed by David Walentas failed in 2004 — and many community members are still deployed along the same battle lines, despite a plan that now comprises a less bulky main wing that is further away from the fabled span, a 300-seat middle school, 65 below-market-rate housing units and a “green” design.

Beyer Blinder Belle

The view

Leading the opposition is Councilman David Yassky (D-Brooklyn Heights) and members of the Brooklyn Heights Association and the DUMBO Neighborhood Association, who fear that the building will ruin Brooklyn’s ever-changing skyline.

“The Dock Street tower would impose itself into — or intrude upon — everyone’s view of the Brooklyn Bridge tower,” said BHA Executive Director Judy Stanton, who is not a member of CB2, but whose status as a voting member of the land-use committee swung the vote against Walentas during a rare Saturday morning meeting on Dec. 20. “It’s a shame to wait until things are built to say, ‘Wow, who let that happen?’ ”

But when The Brooklyn Paper repoters walked the streets of DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, the result was objectively different from what opponents say.

The only direct views of the bridge that would be blocked by the Walentas building are at York and Front streets — a view that is not popular with tourists because Manhattan itself cannot be seen in the distance. The much more crowded tourist vistas from the Fulton Ferry Landing would be virtually unchanged by the Walentas building, which would rise behind the bridge’s spider-like cable array.

Walking on the footpath from Manhattan, the Walentas building is visible to the left, though it is in scale with the surrounding warehouses.

And while pedestrians heading from Brooklyn to Manhattan will have their view of the Manhattan Bridge and East River obscured, shutterbugs need only walk several more feet toward Manhattan and the blocked view clears completely.

David and Jed Walentas say that this schematic view of building heights in DUMBO shows that their Dock Street building is in context with others in the neighborhood.
Two Trees Management

When shown the results of The Brooklyn Paper investigation, Stanton and Yassky were unmoved.

“It’s not so much the views of the bridge as it’s the experience of being on the bridge,” Yassky said, likening the Dock Street project to the giant windowless Verizon building in lower Manhattan that shows up in everyone’s pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge. “If there was the tiniest chance that you’re creating another one of those, you don’t really want to take that chance.”

After its rejection of the Walentas proposal, the CB2 committee passed a resolution seeking a 75-foot height restriction on Walentas’s property to block not only the currently-proposed 183-foot structure, but other tall structures that Walentas could build as-of-right. That resolution, which had not been on the agenda for the virtually unattended Saturday morning hearing, passed 10-1.

Jed Walentas said that a shorter building would eliminate the project’s public benefits.

“The 75-foot height limit would mean that we could not build the school and the affordable housing proposed,” he told The Brooklyn Paper.

School daze

The main carrot that Walentas added since 2004 is the free public middle school, an offer that would save the city $50 million in construction costs, though opponents say the city was wrong to put the school into its capital plan before it even crossed its first regulatory hurdle.

But not everyone wants a middle school in DUMBO — at least in Walentas’s Dock Street project.

Two years ago, Yassky created a task force to identify sites for a neighborhood middle school. The panel so strongly opposed the notion of a Walentas-built school that it even considered urging the city to create fifth-through-eighth-grade space in the Brooklyn House of Detention.

More recently, Yassky and the Brooklyn Heights Association have focused their attention on getting the city to expand the currently K-5 PS 8 on Hicks Street into a K-8 facility.

But the city has rejected that suggestion, most recently in a Dec. 19 letter to Community Board 2 — a letter that was not read at the Dec. 20 committee meeting on the Dock Street proposal, despite (or perhaps because of) its power to persuade waffling Walentas opponents.

“We have reviewed proposals to convert PS 8 to a K–8 school facility and have concluded that this idea is not feasible. The site cannot support an addition of that magnitude,” the letter stated.

The letter was not read aloud at the land-use committee meeting because board chair John Dew said he feared project opponents would “automatically assume [that the letter] is being done to promote the project.”

This letter, which explains that the city will not build a middle school at the K-5 PS 8 on Hicks Street, was not allowed to be read into evidence before last month's vote on Jed Walentas's bid to build a residential tower with a public middle school in DUMBO.

Yassky backed Dew in not reading the letter, saying it is ultimately irrelevant. “If [the Walentas] deal is unavailable, as I think it will be, then School Construction Authority will have to look at other ways to create a middle school and I think they’ll look seriously at our option.”

Anti-project forces will rally on Sunday, Jan. 11 at 10:30 am at the corner of Washington and Prospect streets in DUMBO. The full community board will vote on the proposed rezoning on Jan. 14 at 6 pm at Borough Hall (209 Joralemon Street, at Court Street).