Story & Photos by Benjamin Lozovsky
Dennis Farr has an opinion. Actually, the vivacious, scholarly, hulking Brooklyn native probably has a viewpoint on just about everything, but this specific one stems from an idea that has captured his fascination for over 30 years. “It’s all about gentrification, man,” Farr exclaims in conversation.
It is his pivot point, his launching pad, and his inescapable shadow, all at the same time. Farr, of Puerto Rican descent, has fought the changes to the Southside of Williamsburg in a dramatic fashion for a long while. His latest battle against the New Domino proposal has perhaps been his largest.
Regarding this latest theater of engagement, Farr says, “[The New Domino]’s bound for failure, and it’s going to have disastrous consequences on the economy of the neighborhood.”
Frank Ortiz has an opinion as well. A resident of the Southside for 30 years and a former employee at Domino Sugar for nearly as long, he too strongly opposes the New Domino proposal presented by developer CPC Resources (CPCR), the for-profit arm of the non-profit money lender Community Preservation Corporation (CPC). As a single disabled veteran in a rent stabilized apartment just down the street from the site, he worries about the unsustainable price hikes in food, water, housing, bills, and more that might come with the development’s arrival. He’s also concerned about CPCR’s seeming disinterest in obtaining some sort of housing priority for ailing former servicemen.
Both Ortiz and Farr have been following the controversial plan since its inception back in 2005, but it wasn’t until an organizing meeting held on April 14 by New York City Council Member Steve Levin and New York State Assemblyman Vito Lopez that the two community members stood up and made their views clear.
In voicing their opposition, Farr and Ortiz sit in stark contrast to the majority of Southside Latino voices heard throughout the New Domino debate. Judging by the consistent outcry at numerous community board meetings and public hearings, an outsider might be convinced that the Southside Latino community is unanimous in its unquestioning support of CPCR’s proposal.
For the most part though, these fervent voices appearing regularly in favor of the project have spoken on behalf of the same community groups and religious institutions that have recently come under scrutiny for previous and continuing financial dealings with CPC. Community Board #1 residents affiliated with local organizations like Los Sures and Churches United for Fair Housing have been vociferously omnipresent throughout the debate. Even more encamped behind CPCR’s proposal have been the members of Saints Peter and Paul Parish. Led by Father Rick Beuther, congregants from the influential Catholic church have come in droves to chant and demonstrate their support for affordable housing units and new jobs that have been promised. For the March 9, CB #1 vote (which saw the board rejecting CPCR’s Domino Proposal 23-12), an even larger than normal contingent of church members arrived on chartered buses in a coordinated effort by CPC and Father Beuther. It raised questions about how fully informed about and engaged around the issue the supporters were.
But an even larger question is posited when discussing the Church and Domino within the context of the “current” Latino population. Does the Roman Catholic Church represent the 2010 Latino population and have their best interests in mind? With the neighborhood filled with Pentecostal churches, and now younger more agnostic Latinos, the developers may be pandering to what has now become an outdated assumption.
On that night, several meeting attendees unaffiliated with any interests on either side of the debate, including Williamsburg resident Martin Brierley, witnessed Father Beuther distributing what appeared to be scripts or talking points to his bused-in congregants. According to sources like Brierly and fellow local Greg Barsamian, the priest then provided coaching and explanation as to the relevance of the information on the sheets. When Brierley approached Father Beuther to inquire about the origin of the scripts, the Parish leader pointed to CPC representatives.
In a phone conversation, Father Beuther was unabashedly frank in describing his Church’s connections to CPC. “I speak to them [CPC] all the time,” said Beuther. “Have they [CPC] donated to our church? Yes.”
For Beuther, it isn’t a problem that the developer of the defunct sugar factory is directing arguments supporting the project. However, it is another instance of CPC’s vigorous public relations campaign influencing public discourse.
In 2007, Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder reported on a full-page advertisement taken out by CPC and the lack of clarity associated with its claims. The ad, which ran in several Williamsburg newspapers, presented positive yet vague statistics from a 500-person poll taken around the neighborhood surrounding Domino, as well as uncorroborated statements like “support for the Domino plan is strongest among residents who have lived in the community the longest.”
When Oder contacted CPC asking for the data behind the survey, a spokesman declined to provide it, stating the organization’s decision to “not release the poll to the general public.”
More recently, “The Daily News” printed two largely inaccurate editorials wildly in favor of the development earlier in the month, which lifted phrases and quotes directly from CPCR’s promotional materials. Rumors have since circulated that CPC representatives were the actual authors of the op-ed pieces, which, in addition to touting the purported benefits of the project, managed to be highly critical of the most outspoken politicians opposing CPC, Levin and Lopez.
But beyond the cloud of misinformation and conceptual gerrymandering, there is a more nuanced picture of how residents of the Southside feel about the New Domino—and the inevitable changes it will bring to the neighborhood.
Councilman Levin has experienced it. “You hear a divergence of opinions,” Levin said at the recent rally. “You can walk on the same block and have 15 different opinions.”
What about the constituents that have actually reached out to him? “On balance, I’d say I’ve gotten more emails from people saying they are not in favor of it,” continued Levin.
Unfortunately, many of the Southside Latinos have been somewhat removed from the political process, but voices, thoughts, and projections still ring out on the street.
There’s Charlie Custudio, bodega clerk at Jesus Mini Mart on Bedford Ave. and South 4th St. “They’re [CPC] trying to make it into Manhattan, and I’m not for it,” said Custodio, who acknowledged knowing little about the Domino debate, but who still felt “big equaled bad” in this scenario.
Or the bodega owner of Millie’s Snack Shop (she asked her name not be mentioned) who welcomed the new residents and businesses that would inevitably surge from the proposed development. “People always forget to buy certain things at the grocery store, so then they’ll come to me.”
And Fira Agosto. While doing her laundry on Bedford Ave., she expressed some of her feelings regarding the proposal’s potential for secondary displacement. “The Community is changing, and we can’t afford it,” said Agosto.
Agosto would still love to live in one of the apartments, but unlike many others desperate for a spot of low-income Shangri-la on the water, she knows she probably won’t get it. She likes certain ideas within the project, but according to Agosto, “It’s only promises, nobody knows.”
Whether Agosto—or for that matter nearly anyone with even the smallest knowledge of the New Domino proposal—knows how unlikely they are to land a low-income apartment at the New Domino is probably the crux of the misinformation that has pervaded the conversation.
Northside activist Phil Depaolo and his community group New York Community Council have helped to set it out in plain numbers. The Average Median Income (AMI) of CB #1 is $35,300. The AMI of the Southside, specifically, is much lower, sitting in the $19-29,000 range (taken from the 2006 Census Tract). Of the 660 units penned affordable by CPCR, only 100 units are set to rent at the AMI of $19-29,000. Only half of all the available low-incoming housing units are reserved for CB #1 residents, however, so really only 50 units are available at the AMI level that many of those fighting so hard for Domino’s existence fall into. Then there’s a lottery for final claims to the apartments. So just like 660 goes down to 50, so too go the blissful hopes of the Southside residents honorably determined to start a better life on the waterfront.
There are other incongruencies in CPCR’s proposals, like the 150 affordable home ownership units slated to be sold at 130% of AMI (the state mandates a level of 80%), units that will still probably get public subsidies because of loopholes CPC has constructed.
But the number of affordable units available is by far the central focus of everything that is Domino, besides perhaps the slowly decaying yet solemnly grandiose Domino Sugar sign, which itself at one point became a fractious issue.
When these more realistic numbers come up in conversation, however, many Domino enthusiasts begin to rethink the merits of the proposal.
Take Robert Peguero, for instance. Peguero made his first real estate deal in Williamsburg when he was 18, buying a whole building right across from Domino in 1980. Since then he has seen his 30 years of local real estate experience grow into the successful Bedford Reality Corp., all while participating as an essential player in the neighborhood’s transformation. “I’ve been part of everything that’s happened in Williamsburg,” said Peguero. “I really do love the change; it’s been good.”
For Peguero, the New Domino is the next important step in keeping the momentum rolling for what he considers community revitalization. “Domino is part of the change; I think it’s a positive change and a balanced change,” said Peguero. “Because it’s inclusive to a lot of things, and a lot of people are being considered.”
He too supports the proposal largely because of the affordable housing element. “Honestly, I feel badly sometimes that I can’t help my own people when they come looking for an apartment,” said Peguero. “I have to go to Bushwick.”
Even with such an entrenchment in the Williamsburg real estate market, as well as having close friends active on both sides of the Domino issue, Peguero was surprised by the possibility that the numbers and promises CPCR has championed might be less genuine than they seem.
“I thought we would get this and that, and it would be good eventually in the long run,” said Peguero. “Maybe I haven’t done as much as I should have in questioning [the proposal].”
One thing Peguero does flatly reject is CPC’s supposedly meager profit margin projections. While CPCR has maintained a number around 15-20%, some insiders assess it at the much higher rate of 40% profit per luxury unit. The claims of low profits have been central to CPCR’s demands for higher density rezoning to offset the costs of the proposed affordable units. “I don’t think they are going to go out and do that project and make that low a percentage,” said Peguero. “I think for sure that the profit margin is going to be bigger than that.”
Jenny Ramon was spending her usual Sunday at her favorite beauty salon on Bedford and South 4th Street when she talked about Domino. While she never counted on getting anything directly out of it, so far Ramon has been happy with the proposal. She wants the parks for kids, and the beauty and open space it would bring to the neighborhood. “If it’s going to benefit us, I’m for it,” said Ramon.
After hearing that Council Member Levin has often said that the actual amount of open space that CPC is providing will actually cause the average amount of open space per person to decrease because of the population increase, as Levin said at the April political rally, Ramon seemed to metaphorically scratch her head.
“Honestly, most of my experience with the project has been through the Church,” said Ramon. “If [the project] is something else, I don’t know.”
The Church Ramon referred to is Saints Peter and Paul Parish. Having grown up on the Southside, she continues to attend services with her mother every Sunday at her long time Williamsburg religious institution, even though she had to leave the neighborhood some time back to find an affordable apartment for her and her child in Queens. She traces much of her knowledge of the issue to a meeting and presentation CPC held back in 2007 at Saints Peter and Paul. “I really never knew much about how they will be distributing apartments,” Ramon said.
Even in the beginning of the debate, CPC seemed to have established the firm objective of stirring up an often misinformed community in support of their plans. But Farr and Ortiz differ in their view of how knowledgeable Southside residents really are regarding Domino.
Farr envisions a more mobilized community that is aware of the consequences of the New Domino Plan, more so than many outsiders give them credit for. Longstanding connections to the old Domino Factory, which at one time employed a large percentage of the Southside, as well as a distaste for the gentrification of their community, have begrudgingly led them into the hands of the developers.
“CPC is playing off, and manipulating, a very genuine resentment that’s felt in the Puerto Rican community,” said Farr. “Ultimately though, the people are aware of the manipulation, but going along with it,” Farr said, “for lack of a better plan. Never discount peoples’ bitterness.”
Although less entrenched in the Spanish speaking Southside, the half Mexican-half Native American Ortiz and his native Puerto Rican friends like Diosdado Ramos have the heard the sentiments of their long-term neighbors for years. According to Ortiz, there’s a dearth of information for and involvement by the community because of a lack of leadership.
“Participation in the Hispanic community, I don’t see it,” said Ortiz. “I think there’s not enough announcements, there’s not enough people who go out of their way to represent the community.”
The voices he does hear strongly are the same ones that have been loudest since the beginning. “Here you have the religious organizations representing a small group of people that attend the church,” Ortiz said. “I can’t speak for all of them, but I think they’re [the parishioners] being excluded indirectly.”
Farr and Ortiz also share a collective guilt. Both take personal blame for the lack of political and social organizing in the Southside, a crucial element for a balanced and complete assessment of the situation by the local community. “That is the failure of people like myself, and other voices, because there isn’t someone to make people come correct,” said Farr.
The politicians involved are quick to dispel any perceived divide. “I think there’s a consensus in the community that A) we need affordable housing, and B) our transportation system and our infrastructure is overtaxed,” said Council Member Levin. “I think those are two things that everyone can agree on.”
As the final vote approaches in the City Council, scheduled to take place in July, participation in Williamsburg at large seems to be on the rise. Things might only get more divisive for the home stretch. “This is really getting on people’s radar now,” said Council Member Levin. “This is going to heat up very quickly.” (The City Planning Commission hearing takes place Wednesday, April 28.)
So at the political meeting on April 14, Farr came with his usual opinion in hand. But for the first time in the public arena, he translated it into an idea, unique in its vision. Farr’s suggestion? “An autodidactic, auto-generative Community College of Urban Design,” as he calls it. It would grow from the community members, “building itself from within.”
In other words, Farr is proposing a university. The idea was met with stirring interest from the overwhelming majority of both the Southside and Northside residents in attendance, as well as from Levin and Lopez. The Southside might have finally found a unique, informed, and unflappable voice to represent its best interests. Farr’s activism has also implied that the long-term residents of this ever-changing neighborhood might not be as suggestable and inadvertently self-destructive as CPC might have wished for throughout their ongoing effort to forever alter the landscape of the Williamsburg waterfront. As the evaluation and decision process nears completion, opponents of CPCR’s proposal can only hope this precedent hasn’t been set too late.
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