CB3 Tells City: Commit to Real Community Role in Deciding Fate of Former Trolley Space

Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal space. Photo: NYC EDC.

Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal space. Photo: NYC EDC.

Members of Community Board 3’s land use committee last night pressed city officials for a more robust role in deciding the future of the former Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal below Delancey Street.

In November, the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) put out a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) for the site. After the community board complained about a lack of local consultation by the city, the EDC extended the deadline for submissions from Dec. 23 to Feb. 1. Last night, EDC Assistant Vice President Lusheena Warner and Merik Mulcahy, an associate who drafted the document, came to CB3’s land use committee to talk with board members about their concerns.

The forgotten trolley terminal space was not on anyone’s radar until September of 2011 when James Ramsey and Dan Barasch went public with their proposal to create an underground park using sunlight channeling technology (The Lowline). They have spent the past four years lobbying the MTA, which controlled the 60,000 sq. ft. terminal. It was a surprise to everyone two months ago when the city announced that it would be seeking proposals from interested developers. The RFEI asks for “plans involving the long-term lease and activation” of the site with an eye towards enhancing “connections to, and accessibility for, the surrounding community;” meeting community needs; and promoting economic development.

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

Last night, land use committee members said they appreciated the extension of time but also called for a lot more outreach in the community. One meeting, they told the officials, is just not enough.

The key question, said board member Damaris Reyes, is, “What constitutes a ‘community benefit’ in the publicly-owned site?” “Who gets to decide?,” she asked. She said the board has asked for a true community-driven process that goes well beyond the membership of the land use committee.

In response, Warner acknowledged the concerns and said. “There is definitely a role for the community.” When Reyes coyly asked, “Did you say you would involve us in the selection process?,” Warner replied, “I did not say that.” The officials said they would come back to the community board to “talk about the proposals.” But citing the city’s confidentiality rules for public bids, they said it would not be possible to discuss specific applicants. “We are not trying to select someone behind you back,” added Warner.

Committee members agreed that it was premature to tell the city their preferences for the space below Delancey Street. They pointed out that little is publicly known about the engineering constraints of a site that’s been dormant since 1947. “It’s not quite right,” said Harriet Cohen, “to start throwing around a lot of ideas” in the absence of details about what’s possible “in this very specific piece of real estate.” The EDC team acknowledged that there would be no city-driven analysis of the site; they’re relying on applicants to spell out what they think is feasible.

Dominic Berg, a former board chairperson, strongly encouraged the city to work with CB3 on a series of workshops/visioning sessions to solicit opinions about the site. “It will be easier for the EDC to have community buy-in (for the project that’s ultimately chosen) if we have workshops,” said Berg. “The EDC really needs to plan for that. Short of doing that, you’re going to hit a wall.” Mentioning that he’s been supportive of the Lowline, Berg acknowledged there could be other good ideas. “Everyone should understand the options,” he said.

Last month, CB3 approved a resolution urging the city to rescind the RFEI, giving the local community an opportunity to reshape the document to its liking. Warner made it clear the city would not be entertaining further delays. But she suggested there would be many more opportunities for community engagement. She was noncommittal about workshops, but said it’s something the EDC would consider.

After proposals are received, the city could take a variety of steps to activate the space. Last night, the officials said the site would be subject to ULURP, the city’s land use approval process. It requires consultations with the community boards and borough president, and the approval of the City Council. It remains to be seen whether the city will issue a separate Request for Proposals (RFP), or begin negotiations with a developer responding to the RFEI.

A new resolution approved by the committee last night called for a real “community process” to develop local priorities for the site and to guide the selection of a developer. It memorialized EDC’s commitment to come back to the board with information about proposals under consideration. And the resolution stated that community engagement should inform both the selection process as well as the implementation of the winning proposal.

The elephant in the room last night was, of course, The Lowline itself. Some members of the panel are supporters of the underground park proposal. Others are skeptical of its merits. But that debate will take place another day. First, the community board wants guidance from the EDC about the range of possibilities in the former trolley space. Then it will start to develop guidelines. It has been three years since the board voted unanimously in support of the Lowline project. Eventually, board members will be called on to reaffirm their support or to reverse their earlier position.