A Manhattan developer is angling to purchase a small, city-owned green space in Downtown Brooklyn and apply its air rights to a proposed 49-story mixed-use tower. The equity firm Savanna purchased 141 Willoughby Street in 2014 for $28 million, and the green space adjacent to that address could allow for an additional 19 stories on the project if the city votes to up-zone—a move locals and council members caution could set a dangerous president.
The triangular, tree-dotted area at the intersection of Gold Street and Flatbush extension, valued at $4.8 million, currently belongs to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. A deed restriction would require the land, which comes with 47,718 square feet of air space, to remain a public open space.
Savanna's development proposal is a joint proposal with the city's Department of Economic Development. "EDC and Savanna signed a contract in May 2016," said Jeffrey Nelson, EDC's Executive Vice President for Real Estate Transaction Services, at a city council zoning hearing on Wednesday. "The development program adds much needed office space, delivers ground floor retail, and provides an enhanced public open space."
The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce testified its "full support" of the project, citing the seven stories of "critically-needed" office space.
But City Council Land Use Committee Chair Donovan Richards reprimanded the EDC on Wednesday for throwing its support behind a plan that many local residents oppose. While the EDC has heralded the project for bucking the trend of unbridled residential development in the area, many neighbors have countered that the 270 proposed apartments—81 of them below-market rate—will further saturate the neighborhood's overcrowded schools, as well as public transit and utilities. According to the New York Times, there are 19 residential towers either recently finished or in development in the 10-block Downtown Brooklyn area between the Barclays Center and Myrtle Avenue.
Many locals would sooner see a new elementary school included in the project, though the EDC says the site is too small to accommodate a school.
The plan "is sort of being forced down the council's throat in one sense, to say we need to make a [zoning] exception here," Richards told Nelson. "I hope that if there are other joint applications, we are having these conversations much earlier [in the process]."
According to Richards, thanks to the EDC's early endorsement, the up-zoning plan is "already halfway baked."
Throughout Wednesday's hearing, community members and members of the council, including Downtown Brooklyn Councilmember Steve Levin, expressed concern that the proposal—which has been rejected by local Community Board 2 in its advisory capacity but approved by the City Planning Commission—would inspire future developers seeking to maximize their profits.
"Every developer who owns a site in Downtown Brooklyn is going to see what we do here—is going to point to the city's actions on this site—and say, 'We want that.' And there's still no elementary school in Downtown Brooklyn," Levin said. "You can see why this causes concern."
"On the surface it might seem like it's no big deal: one 49-story tower," said Brooklyn Heights resident Allan Rosen, adding, "But the skyline of Downtown Brooklyn could end up looking like that of Hong Kong or Dubai."
"It's like having two kids right?" Richards added. "If you give one a lollipop, you have to give the other one a lollipop."
The city-owned plot that Savanna would purchase in order to increase the height of its proposed mixed-use tower (Google Maps).
The 141 Willoughby Street site is directly across the street from City Point, an in-progress mixed-use development that will eventually include a much-hyped dine-in movie theater, a Trader Joe's, and a 59-story tower at 138 Willoughby Street. Two blocks south, at 9 DeKalb Avenue, developers have approval to construct Brooklyn's tallest residential tower, clocking in at 73 stories.
"The building would not be out of scale with the neighborhood," said Greenberg Traurig attorney Jay Segal, who represents Savanna. "There will be several other buildings that will be taller than us."
"What options exist to make school seats?" wondered an exasperate Levin, as testimony wore on. "What mechanism does EDC even have?"
While Nelson was quick to assure Levin that adding new school seats is EDC's "first and foremost" priority, he alluded to a lack of incentive for developers to build school space under the current zoning in Downtown Brooklyn.
"That school would be taking up [land] that would otherwise be residential, or retail, or commercial. So one would expect that the developer would want to be compensated for that change in use," he said. "And that's an expensive proposition."
Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to the public land Savanna hopes to acquire as a park. The technical term is actually "public open space," as NYC parks are managed by the Parks Department, and do not confer air rights.