No Smoking Please
Residents and developers battle transgas for the north Brooklyn waterfront

There’s an optical illusion visible from the intersection of Manhattan and Greenpoint Aves. in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It appears as if there’s a power plant at the base of the street, on the waterfront: Four smokestacks churn out cartoon clouds that swirl over the brownstones, row houses and warehouses.

The vision is, in fact, the aging Con Edison facility at 14th St. in Manhattan, just across the East River. A state agency will soon decide whether to turn this illusion into reality by paving the way for another plant on the Brooklyn side. It is a decision that locals hope will end what has already been a fierce two-year battle for the future of the North Brooklyn waterfront.

TransGas Energy Systems first proposed building a $1 billion, 1100-megawatt power facility on the East River at the Greenpoint/Williamsburg border in September 2001. Since then, the story has been characterized as everything from syncretic community coalition pitted against evil outsider to nothing more than quixotic idealism coming from waterfront advocates. The real story resists such simplifications.

At stake is the future of the waterfront. Will a new TransGas facility spew toxins over the area? Or will parks and housing bloom in the now-vacant lots without the shadow of smokestacks?

The TransGas proposal interrupted a more than decade-old community plan to revitalize the waterfront by rezoning formerly heavy industrial sites for residential and light manufacturing use. To meet the TransGas challenge, the community mobilized quickly and enlisted several real estate developers to influence officials, particularly Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff. This alliance between housing developers and community leaders has temporarily set aside another central concern for locals: the exorbitant cost of housing. The struggle against TransGas isn’t just about defeating the plant, but how to beat it without betraying the interests of the people of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

Nobody denies that the city needs energy. Just how much and by what means, however, are questions obscured by a messy mix of politics, economics and ideology. New York Independent System Operator, the group that oversees the state’s deregulated energy market, projected in March 2002 that in-city energy needs would increase by 580 megawatts between then and 2005. Yet that report recommends an additional 2000-3000 megawatts. A spokesman for the NYISO did not return calls to explain this discrepancy.

"We build power plants to meet demand [based on] a few [peak] hours a year," says E. Gail Suchman, Senior Environmental Counsel with the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a group that represents low-income communities on environmental issues, referring to the broiling summer afternoons when around-the-clock air conditioning causes energy usage to spike. "Most of the time, the base load is substantially lower than the amount of available capacity."

In other words, the future demand estimates are too high.

So why have over 4000 megawatts of new energy been proposed along the East River, from Sunset Park to Astoria? Seven potential energy projects have queued up in the siting process, and the state has already certified four of these. The Polotti Station expansion broke ground in November, while the Ravenswood Cogeneration Project is expected to go online by the first quarter of 2004. The other two are in Astoria and lower Manhattan. Two other projects, in Astoria and Sunset Park, have filed for approval. At the end of the list is the proposed TransGas facility in Williamsburg/Greenpoint.

"The common thread," says Suchman, "is these plants are virtually all located in low- income communities of color, and they all emit fine-particulate matter [that accumulate in human lungs]."

After public health, the other central concern is the effect the plant will have on plans to develop the waterfront. "If this power plant goes up and you don’t save this waterfront, it will be dead," 50th District Assemblyman Joseph Lentol warned Gov. Pataki last November. The occasion was a press conference held aboard a ferry in the middle of the East River. He spoke facing the proposed TransGas site, against the backdrop of the Bayside Fuel’s hulking white gas storage containers and the twisted, rusted skeleton of Greenpoint Terminal Market.

"The power plant will kill it. It’s right smack in the middle, as you can see right here. Right smack in the middle of all of our plans, all of our hopes, and all of our dreams," said Lentol.

These dreams envision a complete transformation of the waterfront: a U.S.S. Monitor Museum at the Bushwick Inlet (where the Civil War ironclad was launched), a combined state park and NYU facility at N. 7th St., Olympic fields at N. 9th St., waterfront promenades, including one under construction at Java St., and affordable housing. All of this to rise from vacant rail yards, abandoned warehouses and trucking lots.

Assemblyman Lentol grew up blocks away from the waterfront on S. 2nd St. He rarely visited it, though. The factories and warehouses blocked any access to the river. It
wasn’t until industrial businesses fled the city, and the waterfront literally collapsed, that he and other residents saw what the factories had obscured.

"People realized that this beautiful waterfront [is] laying fallow and nobody’s doing anything with it," he said. "Why can’t people enjoy the most magnificent view of Manhattan from anywhere in New York City?"

Mostly because the lots remain desirable for other uses, including waste transfer, fuel storage, light manufacturing and power generation. In his 30 years as assemblyman, a position his father and grandfather both held, Lentol has watched what he calls "corporate predators" like USA Waste and Con Edison try to capitalize on the neglected waterfront. Though both companies were ultimately deterred from building on the river, it didn’t take long for another firm to make a bid on the land.

Neighbors first heard of the TransGas plan on Sept. 13, 2001, when the smoke and dust of the World Trade Center was still visible from the proposed site on N. 12th St.

In its statement, TransGas announced plans for "a state-of-the-art electricity and steam production facility to rise on the site of a 100-year-old contaminated oil storage facility in Greenpoint, Brooklyn." They proposed erecting the plant on the almost nine-acre Bayside Fuel Oil site, complete with a 300-foot smokestack. The only nearby structure comparable in height is the Williamsburg Bridge.

Adam Victor, the president of TransGas, says the plant will rely primarily on natural gas in generating electricity and supplying Manhattan’s vast steam system. The real benefit, he argues, lies in the competitive threat that TransGas will pose in an energy market dominated by facilities built forty years ago. Plants like the proposed TransGas facility, he says, could ultimately drive the dirtier Con Edison plants out of the market.

"We are in the 80 percent efficiency range, meaning 80 percent of the [total energy units] that go into our plant will come out as useful energy, whereas the most modern electrical plants you have [now] are in the 50 percent range, and the typical power plant you have in New York is in the 20 percent range. So we are three to four times more efficient," Victor says, characteristically referring to the as yet unbuilt plant in the present tense. If TransGas lives up to Victor’s hopes, the facility will one day generate 10 percent of the city’s total projected needs.

Victor is singularly confident that the TransGas facility won’t poison the neighborhood. "There’s no other community that is going to benefit more–simply from an environmental point of view–than Greenpoint and Williamsburg," he maintains.

Few residents agree. To locals, the plant just means more deadly pollution. In its Preliminary Scoping Statement–required by law for an air quality permit–TransGas admits that the facility will emit 300 tons of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides and particular matter each year. These pollutants are linked to a variety of health problems, including respiratory and pulmonary illnesses and the aggravation of existing cardiovascular disease. Greenpoint and Williamsburg have already housed two small power facilities, 23 waste transfer stations, a sewage treatment plant and Radiac, the city’s only radioactive waste storage facility. Greenpoint also suffers from the city’s highest asthma rates, and community members worry that further toxic emissions will aggravate the situation.

"They’re basically a Johnny-come-lately," says Adam Perlmutter, a member of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Waterfront Task Force (GWWTF), the community group leading the charge against TransGas. Perlmutter is an attorney who has lived in Greenpoint for six years, and is representative of a rising generation in the community that shares Lentol’s hopes for the waterfront. Many members of GWWTF–artists, attorneys, business owners–are veterans of an earlier power plant fight in 2000, when Con Edison sought to build a plant at the Greenpoint Terminal Market. ConEd pulled out of the project and the residents claimed victory. That fight taught them how to unify and educate the community while preparing for an impending legal battle.

In December 2001, Victor was jeered and heckled by a community audience at the Polish National Home. With the TransGas chairman stood Stephan Solzhenitsyn, the son of Nobel-winning novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a consultant on the project. Shortly after, GWWTF countered with its own p.r. offensive, recruiting Patti Smith to take the same stage at the Polish National Home for a New Year’s Eve concert.

Over the course of 2002, TransGas continued to reach out to the community with gestures viewed by GWWTF as attempts to buy legitimacy and divide the opposition. In one case, the company offered the local Polish- American Leadership Council $10,000 to study the potential impact of the power plant.

"We wanted to see if the idea of a power plant was sound," says Marek Tomaszewski, a member of the council and a reporter with Nowy Dziennik, a large Polish-language paper in the city. "We knew GWAPP [the umbrella organization of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Waterfront Task Force] was against it, but we wanted to have our own opinion." The Polish group backed away from Victor’s offer before a check was cut, Tomaszewski says, "because GWAPP is a very powerful organization and they started to attack us and call us sell-outs."

"We recognize that not all groups have the technical experience or ability to review a very arcane technical document," TransGas said in defense of the offer. "We therefore offered to any group that would listen $10,000 for them to go hire their own engineer."

The waterfront fight flared up late last summer when the Trust for Public Land’s bid to purchase 2.6 acres of overgrown waterfront property surrounding the Bushwick Inlet adjacent to the proposed TransGas site fell through. The Trust sought to buy the land for the community and develop a park and U.S.S. Monitor museum on the site. Motiva, the Shell Oil affiliate that owns the property, terminated negotiations with the Trust. GWWTF saw TransGas’ hand in Motiva’s pullout, believing that the inlet is vital to building the plant.

Victor denies the charge: "We were not involved in those negotiations. We were actually talking to Motiva well before the Trust got involved. When we were told by Motiva that they were in a deal with the Trust, we backed off and refrained from talking to Motiva about the site." Victor also denies the GWWTF’s assertion that the inlet is essential to the TransGas project.

Assemblyman Lentol’s office has since pleaded with Motiva to restart negotiations. "We’re waiting to meet with [them]," he said. "My sense is that they’d rather be out of this mess. They don’t want to be involved in a fight between us and Adam Victor."

Behind the scenes, members of GWWTF have also attempted to negotiate with Qorvis Communications, the public relations firm representing the Saudi government, in an effort to influence Motiva’s decision on the inlet. Their hope was that the Saudi government would benefit from the publicity of pushing for a park and museum in New York City. As of now, the inlet remains in limbo.

The fight for the waterfront is now entering the legal stage. New York State’s Public Service Commission (PSC) must determine that the TransGas application is in compliance with Article X ("Article Ten")–that there is environmental compatibility as well as a public need for new power facilities. The final decision will be made by a board consisting of the heads of the New York State’s Public Service Commission, Dept. of Environmental Conservation, Dept. of Health, Economic Development Corporation, and Energy Research and Development Authority–all Pataki appointees–as well as two ad hoc members representing the community. Based on the recommendation of an administrative law judge overseeing the application, these representatives will decide the fate of the proposal.

"It’s a very political process, although you do have a chance to present your testimony and try to get some leverage with what the applicant has already been getting ready for a while," said Victor Tafur, attorney with the Pace Energy Project, the legal team representing the community in the Article X proceeding.

Once the clock begins ticking, Tafur explains, the community’s defense takes two paths: one in the form of public hearings and another, a legal course, wherein the community will present evidence to the Public Service Commission. At the outset of the legal battle, the parties must define what will be litigated with the commission. Tafur expects the major issues to be the incompatibility of the plant with the waterfront and the potential environmental impact.

The Greenpoint/Williamsburg Waterfront Task Force is now playing catch-up in countering the proposed utility’s environmental data. Within weeks of TransGas’ Article X application–assuming it’s compliant–$300,000 in intervener funds will be dispersed to groups seeking independent environmental impact studies. With the community coalescing under GWWTF, the hope is that the organization will receive the entire $300,000 to conduct their studies.

The fact that residents of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, including large low-income and minority populations, have endured an environmental mess for generations won’t figure into the proceedings.

"New York State does not have an environmental justice review, so we’re really lacking any legal support and that’s very unfortunate," says Tafur. Environmental justice calculations cropped up in the TransGas bid–but just barely–when the company applied for a federal air permit. TransGas’ application concluded, "portions of the study area exceed EPA Region 2 thresholds for minority and low income representation." The message was not lost: minority and poor communities would breathe TransGas emissions.

"You’d be taking a really dilapidated waterfront and turning it into potentially beautiful apartment houses and open space," says City Councilman David Yassky, who shares the vision most locals have of a rejuvenated riverside community. "Now there’s just zero public access to the waterfront throughout Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Part of developing it for residential use would be creating some park space, and a long promenade along the waterfront. I [also] want to make sure that there’s a range of housing built in terms of affordability and that it’s not all luxury housing."

Politicians like Yassky and Lentol now find themselves in uneasy alliances with developers driven by profit, rather than the community’s interests. Lentol assembled the five principal waterfront developers to meet Deputy Mayor Doctoroff last fall. They included George Klein of Park Tower Realty, Norman Brodsky of CitiStorage, Louis Silverman of 4G’s trucking, DUMBO loft-lord Joshua Gutman and Michael Kay of Levine Builders. All have made the case for housing development in lieu of a power plant, and each has acquired large tracts of waterfront property. A sixth, B&H Photo, has since joined the group, purchasing the Consolidated Freightway trucking depot on West St.

"There are few places in New York City where you can talk about real estate by the acre," says Perlmutter.

The Bloomberg administration has identified the waterfront as prime for developing his $3 billion affordable housing plan. The shift from industrial to residential use of the property is nothing new, and has been under way since illegal loft conversions lured artists and professionals to the neighborhood from Manhattan during the late 80s. When Williamsburg’s housing market exploded in the 90s, the boom priced many longtime residents out of the area. Greenpoint now faces the same trend. Commercial realtor Anthony Yazetti watched converted commercial loft spaces peak at $2.30 per square foot in 1998, while the same loft used as a warehouse or manufacturing space would have rented for $.75 per square foot.

"Their manufacturing business is not good," he says, explaining why landlords illegally allow tenants to live in buildings that are zoned as commercial. Provided the landlords keep up to fire code, says Yazetti, the city won’t bother them.

This trend worries Paul Parkhill of the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a nonprofit concerned with retaining light-industry and artisan spaces in Greenpoint and Williamsburg.

"Our long-term concern is that small manufacturing businesses will be able to continue to do work in Greenpoint," says Parkhill, who has been working with the community board’s rezoning task force. "There is a sense of people who actually make stuff being able to do that here."

Development also threatens to drive rents upward. "It’s obvious that rents are through the roof," says Assemblyman Lentol. "The price of housing has skyrocketed to such an extent that you can’t afford to buy a house or rent an apartment. We have to think of more creative ways to deal with that."

Lentol is proposing a bill that will give tax credits to landlords who retain tenants rather than seek out higher-paying ones. Similarly, his colleague Yassky hopes to incorporate "zoning" tools into the rezoning plan that will allow developers to build more units, provided a portion are lower income.

Then there’s the problem of independent developers–particularly Joshua Gutman. His two Water St. loft buildings in DUMBO drew media attention and prompted an updating of the Loft Law when residents were summarily evicted. (They settled for $35,000 last summer with Gutman after a two-year struggle.) Since the 1980s, Gutman has also racked up dozens of Dept. of Buildings violations, many for working without a permit. But the main concern with Gutman in Williamsburg/Greenpoint, a community member says, is that he will flip the property as soon a decision is made on the TransGas situation.

Greenpoint and Williamsburg face a decisive year. TransGas’ certification will be decided by early 2004 (the entire process is meant to take no more than 14 months). In the meantime, the final rezoning of the waterfront could be finalized within 14 months. Residents will continue to work, pay their mortgages, renew their leases and shop and linger on the strips along Manhattan and Bedford Aves. Meanwhile, the future of their community will hang in legal briefs, PowerPoint presentations and vapor stream analyses.

The decisions will determine who ultimately benefits from the waterfront–the community, housing developers or an energy firm. But whatever the Public Service Commission decides, it’s the residents–not Joshua Gutman and not Adam Victor–who must live with the long-term consequences.