Broadly speaking, there are real estate developments that are easy to cheer for, and ones that are impossible to cheer for. That the latter are the ones that manage to get built, more often than not, is not so much causal — this isn’t a sports column in the New York Post, so we can drop the Nice Guys Finishing Last pretense — as it is correlative with the fact that these unlovable, inevitable developments tend to be the kind bankrolled by bigfoot mega-developers. Make a development big enough, and it develops its own gravity. For instance, no matter how bad it got, how excessive or dishonest or generally skeevy the project became, it was obvious that New Domino was going to get built, or that Forest City Ratner’s disgraceful Atlantic Yards boondoggle would go forward — there was too much money behind both, and too little willingness on the part of the city government to keep either from happening. Cheer for them, cheer against them — at some point, there will be a bunch of Tampa-style luxury condos on the East River and a useless arena stopping traffic on Flatbush.
And on the other side of the coin are developments like Jay Amato’s ambitious net zero Redhook Green project. We’ve covered Redhook Green fairly extensively at gbNYC — one post that will be brought over from the never-got-transferred-to-Wordpress Forbidden Zone eventually, and this update from a few months ago — and it’s safe to say that it’s one of those developments that was easy to cheer for. Between the project’s obvious and manifest virtues — which began with its ambition and Amato’s uniquely DIY and transparent approach and extended to include the funky, shipping container aesthetic — and Amato’s play-by-play at the Redhook Green blog, this was pretty clearly One Of Those gbNYC Buildings. So, assuming that you’ve already read the headline and know how this worked out, let’s just get to the next paragraph, shall we?
It’s bad enough that the NYC Department of Buildings rejected Redhook Green on Saturday. Bad for Amato, bad for Red Hook, bad for those of us who care about a more efficient and green built environment in New York City — if you’re reading gbNYC, you don’t need us to tell you this. But the DOB’s (bad, if you’re just joining us) decision to rule against Redhook Green is even harder to take in context — while Bruce Ratner continues to plumb new depths of clumsy malfeasance at Atlantic Yards, while New Domino calmly bails on its solemn commitments to affordable units without censure or consequence, Amato’s small, ambitious live-work space was rejected for narrow, legalistic reasons during a tele-conference. The issue, to greatly simplify Amato’s heartfelt post on the DOB rejection, was zoning — with Redhook Green devoting much of its square footage to office space and garages, Amato believed the DOB would give him approval to built on land that’s technically zoned for manufacturing. The board didn’t do that. This is a dramatic truncation of a fairly convoluted decision, but the presence of living space for Amato in Redhook Green made it too mixed-use for the zoning board’s taste.
I’m reluctant to bash public employees in general, just because it strikes me as kind of a cheap, cheesy Chris Christie move. But the poverty of vision and general decontextualized legalism on display in this decision is exactly why the city’s bureaucracy is every bit as feared as it is unloved. More damningly, it reflects exactly the sort of bias against smaller, more ambitious projects that will lead to the sort of New York City we don’t want — one rich in New Dominoes and identikit luxury towers and short on the sort of human-scale green developments that keep NYC unique.
In short, it’s not a decision anyone likes. The blogger Adam A, of the Red Hook watchdog-blog A View From The Hook, may like it the least. “This is a problem not only for Jay Amato and Redhook Green, but for Red Hook as a whole,” Adam fumes. “How can this archaic zoning and the Dept. of Building’s strict adherence to it serve our community’s need for more housing and residential regeneration? Our own 197a Plan has laid out the need for supporting residential uses in Red Hook, as have Community Board 6 recommendations. [These] recommendations have been often ignored by City planners, the NYC Economic Development Corporation and others, [but] it’s not an excuse for these anti-residential attitudes to continue.”
Amato is more succinct, if no less damning, in his Redhook Green post. “It seems like the DOB no longer exists for the individual, but only for the largest developers and their deep-pocket[ed] political contributions,” Amato writes. “I wish I could let our Mayor know that a prime example of his green vision PLANYC 2030, died on the table of HIS Building Department, mired in bureaucracy.” Hard to improve on that, clarity-wise. Amato could apply for a zoning variance and another crack at getting his project off the ground, for the low, low price of $100,000 or so in professional fees, and in the way it’s easy to write things like this when it’s not your money at stake, we hope he will. The cost to Red Hook of not having a landmark green building on Conover Street — let alone the cost to all of us when the next Jay Amato doesn’t pursue a project like this — of course, is notably higher than $100,000. It’s hard to put a number on that kind of chill, and harder still to put a happy face on any of it.