A key City Council committee this afternoon backed — by a surprisingly wide margin — DUMBO developer Jed Walentas’s controversial bid to build a 17-story tower next to the Brooklyn Bridge, hours after Speaker Christine Quinn reportedly had given her OK.
The Council’s land-use committee voted 17–4 to support Walentas’s request for a rezoning on his Dock Street site so that he could build a 300-unit tower — which includes a public middle school and scores of units set aside as below-market-rate rentals — a project that opponents claim will forever damage views of the historic and landmarked span.
“I have to vote yes … because it’s in the best interest of the community overall,” said Councilmember Robert Jackson (D–Manhattan), speaking for many on the panel.
The support for the project came on the heels of a fiery committee hearing last week, at which several councilmembers slammed the city’s school building agency over internal e-mails that cast doubt about whether or not the city actually considered other sites for a public middle school.
At that hearing, Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Queens) said called one of the e-mails “the most disturbing document that I have seen in my eight years in Council,” he said.
Gioia hammered this point on Thursday afternoon, reminding his fellow committee members of the e-mail in question, denying that the missive could be understood in the larger context.
“Unless the next e-mail was, ‘Just kidding,’ I don’t know what would put that in context,” he said.
But Gioia — joined by Councilmembers Charles Barron (D–Canarsie), John Liu (D–Queens) and Tony Avella (D–Queens) — lost the larger battle to the other committee members, who did insert rare language into the rezoning that requires Walentas to make good on his promise of the middle school and the affordable units.
That addendum to the bill did not satisfy Avella.
“I am thoroughly disgusted,” he said, his face reddening like a cartoon tea-kettle.
“People are going to go by and say, ‘Who the heck allowed this building to get built?’ The Brooklyn Bridge is a national treasure. It should be protected — that is the bottom line.”
Longtime project foe Councilman David Yassky (D–Brooklyn Heights) echoed Avella’s point about the view, but continued to stress his belief that the city could get a better deal for a middle school from a different developer.
“It is clear that there are plenty of other places to build a school in [Downtown Brooklyn],” said Yassky, who task force has proposed many locations — including inside the soon-to-reopen Brooklyn House of Detention — all of which have been shot down by the School Construction Authority.
On Thursday, Walentas said he was “pleased” by the committee vote.
“It’s a great project,” he added. “We have worked hard to demonstrate that Dock Street DUMBO will be a thoughtful, contextual, positive addition to the neighborhood [that will] provide the community with a new middle school and DUMBO’s first-ever affordable housing, all in an environmentally friendly green building that respects the surrounding neighborhood and its historic character.”
The committee vote in support of the project was a rare instance when a council committee opted not to defer to the wishes of the local member, in this case, project opponent Yassky.
It would be equally rare if the full Council, which is expected to vote on the development next week, overturns such an overwhelming committee vote.
The Council approval — which the New York Observer reported on Thursday is nearly a sure thing, thanks to Quinn’s support — is the final hurdle in Walentas’s hunt for a zoning resolution that would allow him to build residential apartments on a site currently reserved for manufacturing or hotels.
Borough President Markowitz (who called for a taller and thinner building) and the City Planning Commission (which suggested a slightly shorter building with other minor alternations), have already approved the rezoning.
The Planning Commission version is the one on which the Council committee voted on Thursday.
Opponents have rallied repeatedly and compiled a list of celebrities, such as Ken Burns, Gabriel Byrne, Helen Hunt, Gary Sinise and David McCullough who object to the project.
A review by The Brooklyn Paper earlier this year revealed that very few public views of the bridge would be obscured by the tower.
But Gus Sheha, president of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance and an opponent of the project, was livid after the vote.
“It’s clear that this committee today sold the Brooklyn Bridge,” he said.