Zoning in on DUMBO How ‘Light Bridges’ became the ‘J’

How ‘Light Bridges’ became the ‘J’

The Brooklyn Paper
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The original co-developer of what was considered by many to be an architecturally dazzling — if oversized — residential development planned for 100 Jay St. in DUMBO, says he was wronged by his former development partner.

Light Bridges at Jay Street, as the project was called when it was presented to the community board and neighborhood groups in 2001, was the first residential skyscraper proposed for the formerly industrial neighborhood.

After gaining the city’s approval in 2002 of the grand-scale zoning change of the site — on a block bounded by Jay, York, Pearl and Front streets — from a light manufacturing district to a high-density residential site with lower floor commercial, the project paved the way for the currently under construction era of skyscrapers in DUMBO.

The 375,000-square-foot condominium development was to have consisted of two connected, 20-story towers with a common two-story base and an interior courtyard. In addition to luxury condos, the complex — situated next to the Manhattan Bridge overpass — would have contained retail space on the first two full floors and commercial space on floors 3 and 4.

It was never built.

Jeffrey M. Brown, who was brought on to oversee design and development of Light Bridges, now charges that his partner bargained in bad faith.

Brown was brought in as a co-developer of the project in 1999 by developer Charlie Cara, according to court filings.

At the time, Brown said, he didn’t know Cara, or the architecture firm of Sharples, Holden and Paquarelli, known as ShoP, which would design Light Bridges.

Ever since negotiations to develop the site fell through in early 2003, Brown and Cara have been embroiled in litigation over whether or not Brown, a Philadelphia-based developer and designer, has any right to what gets built there.

Since Light Bridges fell by the wayside, Brown has continued to work with SHoP on award-winning buildings, including one on Ninth Avenue and 15th Street in Manhattan and several in Philadelphia and New Jersey.

Cara, meanwhile, is building a taller but less adventurous luxury condo on the site, called the “J Condo,” which, at 33 stories and 337 feet, will be the tallest building in DUMBO. It will house 267 one- to three-bedroom apartments and ground-floor retail.

On July 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed several causes of action made by Brown against Cara regarding 100 Jay St., but upheld one claim for breach of contract. That suit is headed back to Brooklyn’s Eastern District federal courthouse.

In an interview with The Brooklyn Papers, Brown explained why the much-anticipated Light Bridges never saw the light of day.

“He [Cara] just retracted the deal after I did all the rendering and work,” Brown said.

“We spent a tremendous amount of time and money on preparing this [design], and the community loved it,” he said, pointing out that Community Board 2 voted 30-0 to approve the zoning change, which has now allowed Cara to expand a development on the same site by 10 stories. The City Planning Commission voted 13-0 to approve Light Bridges before it was passed by the City Council.

“They all loved it,” Brown said. “It was better than we could’ve imagined.”

The support drummed up did not help the Court of Appeals, however, in determining how meaningful Brown’s Memorandum of Understanding was when Cara allegedly walked out on their contract negotiations in March 2003. Brown claims he hasn’t a clue what caused Cara to change his mind.

The background summary in the 2003 court filings stated: “Negotiations proceeded through 2002 and into 2003. During the spring of 2003, Cara requested from [Jeffrey M. Brown Associates] a proposed construction management agreement. [Brown] complied, but Cara was not pleased with the terms described in that document.

“[Brown] claims the wrong document was sent to Cara and that Brown so informed Cara at the time. However, Cara’s displeasure and offense were so deep that he refused to continue with negotiations, and ceased all communication and collaboration with [Brown].”

Brown, who repeatedly called Light Bridges a “community driven” project, complained that his former partner didn’t care at all for any of the groundwork he had done.

“He has really no appreciation for what good development is. He acted in every way, shape or form as if [Light Bridges] was happening, and then said, ‘I don’t want to go through with it.’ He left everybody nowhere.”

Reached for comment, Cara responded, “I don’t think he should be talking about it, it’s still in litigation.” He further referred matters to his lawyer, Don Schneider.

“It is my client’s policy not to comment on pending litigation,” said Schneider.

“It’s not surprising the timing when Mr. Brown contacted you,” Schneider said, pointing out the decision by the Court of Appeals to toss most of Brown’s motions against Cara. “You’ll see who should be happy and why,” he added.

In the suit, Brown argues that the Pearl, York, Front and Jay streets site, which until recently held an outdoor parking lot, was prepared for construction of Light Bridges by Brown, who, with the SHoP architects, submitted all the zoning applications, under the belief that their development would be built on the site.

“We were so excited about this project, passionately excited about the project we did,” Brown said of Light Bridges. “It would be a landmark. We spent an inordinate amount of time — over a year — with the community and opened up our ideas for the building to them. And it worked.

“We came up with a fine plan that everybody was thrilled with.”

At least some of the community was excited.

“We did have numerous meetings about the project and they all centered around the design,” said Marcia Hillis, a visual artist and a member of the DUMBO Neighborhood Association, who reviewed the project when she sat on the Land Use committee as a member of Community Board 2.

“We were relieved,” Hillis said, to hear from a developer. “And there was kind of some excitement about the project, that there would be an architecturally significant building in the neighborho­od.”

Nicholas Evans-Cato, also an area artist, agreed, but said Light Bridges was not entirely well received.

“They made a very interesting presentation for a project that didn’t really get off the ground; and at the time it was very clear that it was just a design,” he said.

“Approaching the community and giving a presentation doesn’t mean we approve of it,” Evans-Cato said. He called Light Bridges too big.

“In the years since this happened, the lore has been a kind of bait and switch story,” he said, but refuted that notion as inaccurate.

“We understood very well at the time that zoning changes don’t approve buildings, per say, they approve building envelopes. That’s business, that’s how New York has always been built,” Evans-Cato said.

He acknowledged that the approval likely set a precedent that would forever change the face of DUMBO.

Proposals by Two Trees developer David Walentas to heighten a building at 38 Water St. — which was turned down by the city — and plans for four towers on a massive tract of land at 85 Jay St. for the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, he said, were “the two inevitable next steps after Light Bridges.

“It was Light Bridges that moved it up there,” he said. “It naturally followed from that bid that [the other developers] came forward with their bids.”

Two high-rises under construction by developer Shaya Boymelgreen, one on just the other side of the Manhattan Bridge overpass, from 100 Jay St., at Adams and York streets, and the other on Front Street at Washington Street, peak at 23 and 11 stories, respectively.

The Watchtower project’s application for rezoning, submitted in November and passed under ULURP, even cited Light Bridges’ rezoning as justification for their height requests.

“Across the street and to the west is 100 Jay St., a site recently rezoned from M1-2 to an M1-5/R9-1 mixed-use zoning district to facilitate the construction of a 23-story, 269-foot-tall apartment building,” stated the application.

What made Light Bridges appealing, said Evans-Cato, was that “it wasn’t just a given number of installable square feet on a given footprint, which, I should say, is what most building is these days.”

The proposal, he said, “At the very least testified to the fact that this was architecture with a capital ‘A.’ These designers and developers were trying to do something interesting.”

Hillis described the new J Condo building as less than eye-catching.

“It’s a generic brick box, and it’s unfortunate,” she said. “It cheapens the whole neighborhood, really.”

She said the neighborhood did in deed feel “tricked,” but said there was a lesson to be learned.

“I think going forward, we’re much more careful about our rezoning applications and we’re much more focused in getting in the comprehensive rezoning that the neighborhood needs so that there’s actual planning happening.”

Evans-Cato agreed. “The Light Bridges rezoning kicked everyone back into action in terms of the DUMBO Historic District and the comprehensive rezoning effort.”

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