Seasoned Brooklyn Paper readers will remember the long and controversial history of the development at Dock and Water streets that is suddenly back in the news — one that involved both secret internal memos, first-rate investigative journalism, and documentarian Ken Burns — but for those who don’t, here is a refresher.
Prolific Dumbo developers David and Jed Walentas of Two Trees Management first proposed erecting a 16-story apartment complex at Water and Dock streets in 2004. But both the local community board and then-Borough President Marty Markowitz rejected their bid to rezone the land for residential use on the grounds that the building would block neighbors’ views of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the father-and-son real estate magnates ultimately shelved the project ahead of a doomed Council vote.
The Walentases then acquired more land near the site and returned with a new plan in 2007 — this time an 18-story building farther from the bridge, with some below-market-rate units and space for a 300-seat middle school to sweeten the deal.
But many locals once again railed against the project, claiming it would still block views of the bridge — which an investigation by this paper disproved — and also that the subsidized school space would stop the city considering other options for a new middle-school in the area.
In June 2008, the city’s School Construction Authority told them this wasn’t an issue, as the neighborhood didn’t really need a new public middle-school at the time, but then changed its tune in August, when it came out in favor of the project.
But in March 2009, internal School Construction Authority documents obtained through freedom of information requests revealed the authority was actually negotiating with the Walentases behind the scenes when it said a middle-school was not needed, and debate raged as to whether the city had seriously considered other sites in the area.
Several celebrities then joined the fight against the high-rise — including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, who penned “The Great Bridge,” Ken Burns, who made a documentary based on the book, and actress Helen Hunt, whose interest remains unclear to this day.
But the Council nevertheless overwhelmingly approved the rezoning in June 2009 — a rare instance of council members voting against the wishes of the local member — so long as Two Trees shaved one story off the tower, following green lights from both the community board and Markowitz.
In October that year, more documents came to light revealing the School Construction Authority’s own architect had in 2007 deemed the Walentases’ middle-school plans “compromised” by city standards, as the 46,000-square-foot educational center offered limited space and a “gym” that did not live up to its name due to low ceilings.
The authority claimed the architect had raised the concerns early in the negotiation process, and they had since been addressed.
Activists then sued to halt the development, claiming the developer and several city departments colluded to win the zoning changes and that city officials didn’t conduct a through examination of the school proposal. But a judge ultimately dismissed the suit, and the city and developers officially inked a deal for the new middle-school space in 2011.