By Christine Chung, THE CITY
This story was originally published on July 25, 2019 by THE CITY.
Queens community board members met privately last week with a developer seeking their approval on revised plans to build luxury apartment buildings at the old 5Pointz graffiti hotspot, THE CITY has learned.
Three people, including developer David Wolkoff, gathered at Manducatis Rustica, Italian restaurant, on July 16. The session came less than two weeks before the board’s deadline to weigh in on an expanded version of the two towers Wolkoff hopes to build.
The board is under no legal obligation to be transparent. But news of the session rankled good-government watchdogs and opponents of the plan, who are still furious nearly six years after Wolkoff whitewashed the street art that drew visitors from around the world.
‘We Don’t Hide’
Community Board 2 Chairperson Denise Keehan-Smith previously told THE CITY a meeting was scheduled — but did not address subsequent repeated question on what was discussed at the restaurant or who attended the clandestine get-other.
“We are preparing our recommendation” for the revised plan, Keehan-Smith said on Monday, declining further comment. Lisa Deller, the board’s Land Use Committee chairperson, said at a June meeting that a letter of denial already had been drafted.
Wolkoff, who co-owns the property with his father Jerry, did not respond to a request for comment. Jerry Wolkoff told THE CITY that he didn’t see anything wrong with the covert meeting.
“I encourage my son and myself to meet with anybody in a community or anybody in the city… Why shouldn’t we?” Wolkoff said. “I wouldn’t do anything where I would hurt a community or hurt individuals.”
“My son is the same way,” he added. “He will reach out to people to meet because I’ve always done that. We don’t hide. I’m a different developer. We meet, we listen, and if it makes sense we’re going to do it.”
Not all in the community feel the same.
“Hopefully, history does not repeat itself, and the [community board] stands its ground, and attempts to make the developer accountable for what was promised when applying for [a] variance in 2013,” said Marie Cecile Flageul, a spokesperson for the 5Pointz artists.
Playing by Their Own Rules
Community boards craft their own bylaws. CB2’s version, which dates to 1999, does not include any language prohibiting board members from meeting privately with individuals seeking approval for projects.
When asked if such meetings were generally prohibited by other city guidelines or policies, the Queens borough president’s office referred the inquiry to the city’s Law Department. The Law Department referred the inquiry back to the borough president’s office.
“Community board members are selected and appointed by the borough presidents,” noted Jose Bayona, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
David Birdsell, dean of Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, said the circumstances surrounding the closed-door meeting “provoke some concern.”
“What [the community board members] are talking about with people who have the capacity to make a permanent or semi-permanent impact on the district should be known,” Birdsell added.
“There are business advantages in being able to curry favor with decision makers in a process that isn’t, strictly speaking, regulated.”
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Long Island City and Sunnyside) said that “we’ve all been burned before by” David Wolkoff, referring to what he called the developer’s broken promise of employing exclusively union workers for the project.
“I wouldn’t believe anything Wolkoff said to me or anyone else,” he added.
A Quest for Two Towers
The private meeting at Manducatis followed CB2’s Land Use Committee meeting on June 20, when David Wolkoff and a team from GoldmanHarris LLC, a law firm specializing in land use and zoning, presented the highlights of a request for modifications to the project.
The initial plan, approved under a 2013 city special permit, allows Wolkoff to construct 1,000 apartments across two towers — 47 and 41 stories — along with 12,000 square feet in artist space and 32,000 square feet in public open space.
Despite erasing thousands of graffiti pieces from the former sprawling warehouse complex in 2013 — a controversial move that’s still being litigated — Wolkoff said he’s calling the project 5Pointz Towers.
Wolkoff is now seeking to secure new approvals for a 48- and 42-story towers with 1,122 total units, 15,000 square feet in artist space and 32,245 square feet in open space.
The number of one-bedroom units to be constructed was boosted, apparently at the expense of planned three-bedroom apartments.
Following the presentation, committee members said they wouldn’t support the project unless Wolkoff meets certain conditions — including restoring the number of three-bedroom apartments and meeting commitments for additional affordable housing units.
Members expressed concern about whether Wolkoff’s assurances could be trusted, citing his previously nixed pledge to hire only union workers. Jerry Wolkoff told THE CITY on Monday multiple unions picketed the project, forcing the developers to rely on other labor options.
Community Board 2 has yet to issue its advisory recommendation, which is due by July 29, a City Planning spokesperson confirmed.
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.