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.

New Restaurants From Forgtmenot, Dudley’s Teams Get Green Light From CB3 Panel

49 Monroe St., the site of a new restaurant from the Forgtmenot team.

49 Monroe St., the site of a new restaurant from the Forgtmenot team.

In the past year or two, the Lower East Side’s robust nightlife scene has gradually drifted down below Canal Street. At last night’s meeting of Community Board 3’s State Liquor Authority (SLA) Committee, residents showed up to voice concerns about what they see as a threat to one of the last uncharted areas in all of Manhattan.

The panel ultimately approved a proposal from the Forgtmenot/Kiki’s team to open up a new Southern European establishment at 49 Monroe St. (near Market Street). The fact that these two Division Street spots are seen as community-oriented and unusually responsive to neighbors pushed the application over the top. But there was still a spirited conversation of the potential impact in the Two Bridges neighborhood.

The restaurant will cover the first floor, plus the mezzanine, and include 22 tables and a u-shaped, 40-foot bar. Last night’s presentation was led by co-owner Paul Sierros, who said the building would be fully soundproofed. The team received key support from Emma Culbert, head of the SPaCE Block Association. She lives on Division Street, where Forgtmenot opened in 2012 and Kiki’s debuted last year. Speaking of the owners, Culbert said. “They have been nothing but accommodating.” The staff, she said, is incredibly diligent about keeping noise to a minimum and dealing with late night crowds.

Pamela Yeh of the Orchard Street Block Association also acknowledged that the existing businesses are run responsibly. But she challenged representations about the building’s certificate of occupancy allowing 110 people; (CB3’s district manager said her research found Sierros’ plan is legal.)

Another local resident, a man who lives at 41 Monroe St., said he welcomed the new venue because the area is dangerous after dark and the block would benefit from a nighttime business. But others argued that the location, across from the Coleman Skatepark and a recreational area, is an inappropriate spot for a restaurant serving liquor. A few people mentioned the sceney bar, Mr. Fong’s, which opened last summer and began attracting large crowds almost from the start. Locals, some of them residents of nearby Knickerbocker Village, said they were speaking for Chinese neighbors and seniors who fear going public with their concerns. “Do not mistake silence for support,” one speaker asserted. “The area is diverse, low-income, working class… This is not the kind of community where people need a place to get drunk at 1 a.m.”

Sierros said people waiting for tables would not congregate outside. He also pointed out that the block is not exactly tranquil. One of the reasons he’s soundproofing the building is that the train rumbles across the Manhattan Bridge every two minutes. At the request of the committee, he agreed to close on weekends by 1 a.m. (the application proposed a 1:30 a.m. closing time.


A new plan for the old Winnie’s space (104 Bayard St.)

The former Winnie's space at 104 Bayard St.

The former Winnie’s space at 104 Bayard St.

Longtime Chinatown residents came out last night to protest a plan from the team behind the popular Orchard Street cafe, Dudley’s, to open a second restaurant on Bayard Street. While the owners said they were trying to honor the previous establishment, Chinatown mainstay Winnie’s, locals called their plan an insult.

The partners applying for a full bar (and a 4 a.m. closing time) were listed as:  Mateusz Lilpop, Ben dos Remedios and Gerardo and William Davidson. Winnie’s, known for its karaoke and very diverse crowd, was forced to close after 28 years when the owner was unable to negotiate a new lease with her landlord. The new team said they wanted to keep the old name and the karaoke as an homage to the original spot, while adding an innovative menu; the chef from El Rey on Stanton Street has been hired to run the kitchen.

But many of last night’s speakers were unimpressed. One lifelong resident of Mulberry Street said he’s tired of the late night crowds coming in from other neighborhoods, of the taxis lined up, of the public urination, etc. Others said they were offended by the use of Winnie’s name. Community Board 3 member Karlin Chan submitted a letter from Winnie, who was sitting in the audience. “A 4 a.m. karaoke bar should set off alarm bells for everyone,” he argued. “This concept does not fit the culture of the neighborhood. You can’t just take someone else’s brand.” Another speaker said, “We don’t need another hipster bar in Chinatown… We don’t need privileged and entitled people exploiting our neighborhood.”

The applicants, however, received an important vote of confidence from Andrew Chase, co-owner of Orchard Street’s Cafe Katja (Chase is a public member of the SLA Committee). He said Dudley’s has a “very subdued clientele” and that the owners do a good job of handling crowds. “I feel they are sensitive to the neighbors,” said Chase.

In the end, committee member Carol Kostik acknowledged the concerns local residents expressed about gentrification. But she added, “I’m not sure we’re the arbiters of ethnic purity” in the neighborhood. The team agreed to drop the “Winnie’s” name, to cut back their weekend closing time to 2 a.m. and to serve a full food menu during all operating hours.

There was more news from the committee last night. Jerome Barnas won approval for his new cafe at 26 Canal St. (at Rutgers Street). The proposal was supported by the SPaCE Block Association. The cafe will open at 7 a.m. daily, offering coffee and an all-day menu. Closing time on weekends is 1 a.m.

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