Tonight, River Ring, the next big project that developer Two Trees Management is trying to build on the Williamsburg waterfront, will go before Community Board 1 — one of the first major hurdles it has to clear in the city’s approvals process. Two Trees is touting River Ring, which comprises a pair of futuristic-looking towers designed by Bjarke Ingels and a circular breakwater structure jutting out in the East River, surrounded by salt marshes and tidal flats designed to soak up storm surges — as “a new model for urban waterfront resiliency.” Naturally, the renderings feature kayakers and lots of egrets. Here’s what we know about it all.
The project’s big selling point is its resiliency.
Yes, River Ring would add more than 1,000 apartments to a flood zone, but it’s designed to soak up storm surges and with a series of saltwater marshes and tidal flats, the kind of soft landscape that is considered the future of sustainable design. (A similar arrangement at Hunter’s Point South helped preserve Long Island City during Hurricane Sandy.) According to Two Trees, the design would protect 500 inland buildings from flooding and provide a protected inland water park for kayaking and maybe eventually, swimming. The project also has lots of other environmentally-friendly design elements, including an energy microgrid, a wastewater-recycling system and a pop-up park with urban farming, beehives and an 18-hole mini-golf course (Two Trees also set up a temporary park at the Domino Sugar site; that one also had an urban farm and a bike track.) Of course, there’s an argument to be made that maybe we should stop building waterfront highrises. But it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen anytime soon.
A quarter of the apartments will be what’s called “deeply affordable housing.” The whole complex includes 1,050 new units of housing, and 263 of them will be designated deeply affordable, half of those reserved for those already living in the community. Most of those — 236 units — will be set at 60 percent of the area’s median income, with monthly rents ranging from $909 for a studio to $1,366 for a one-bedroom. The other 27 will be priced at 40 percent of AMI, according to the developer’s current projections. There are, of course, those who say this isn’t nearly enough; on the other hand, a recent Brooklyn Paper editorial pointed out that “clearly asking all private owners to only develop low-income affordable housing is not a realistic request.” Other community sweeteners include a new YMCA and a three-acre public park with three additional acres of protected water access.
Will people actually be able to swim at that beach? Maybe someday, but it’s still the East River. “River Ring beach will not officially be a swimming beach. The hope is that as the water quality continues to rise, it will soon become one,” according to Two Trees.
Two Trees is also the developer working on the Domino Sugar site next door. Two Trees’ David Walentas is generally credited with creating DUMBO as a neighborhood, and the firm, now run by his son, Jed, is also behind the 11-acre megaproject just to the south of River Ring. The redevelopment of the site includes four new high-rises — one of them the distinctive donut-shaped building at 325 Kent Street designed by SHoP Architects — as well as turning the landmarked refinery into offices and commercial space and adding the six-acre Domino Park. If the industrial remnants and greenery remind you of the High Line, that’s not surprising — they hired James Corner Field Operations, the same landscape architects. (Field Operations would also be designing the River Ring park, but in response to community input, this park would, according to Two Trees, allow for “more direct interaction with natural East River habitat.” The design of Domino Park is a little stiff.) The project also includes a lot of buzzy retail and restaurants: Misi, Meckleberg’s, and Roberta’s, to name a few.
The project is rushing to make it through the city’s approval process before Bill de Blasio and Stephen Levin, the local councilmember, leave office. As Two Trees knows from its experience with Domino Sugar, a change in leadership can mean having to renegotiate a rezoning. With the Community Board hearing scheduled for today, though, the project may have just enough time to squeak through the land-use approvals process before de Blasio and Levin are gone. (It’s likely that de Blasio would also like to see the project gain approval on his watch, since the affordable units would be added to his overall count.) If the rezoning doesn’t pass, Two Trees has said it will sell the site, a former ConEd oil-tank-storage lot for which they paid $150 million—most likely to an industrial buyer that would use it as a last-mile delivery facility.