Greenbelt final stages of construction image from curbed
Derek Denckla, a musician, attorney, and environmentalist with a background in community organizing, is not your everyday condominium developer. His new 8-unit building in Williamsburg, is the first LEED-certified residence in Brooklyn. The building, called Greenbelt, offers an example of green development that provides not only sustainable living space, but also a gathering place for people concerned with the environment.
Denckla and his architect Gregory Merryweather first conceived of Greenbelt as an antidote to the detrimental development they saw elsewhere in the city. They wanted to help protect Williamsburg from the kind of development seen in Tribeca and Soho by "turning the usual real estate development on its head." By building green and providing space for artists and for green movement gatherings, Denckla and Merryweather have done just that. Greenbelt's ground floor is reserved for events like the Greenhouse Effect Open House, which allows visitors to tour the green homes, and for the Center for Performance Research, which will present showings and performances. The building offers 40% energy savings and 30% water conservation, and uses 40% recycled or rapidly renewable materials. In addition, residents can be confident their homes will be free of toxic chemicals and full of clean, filtered air.
Denckla and Merryweather saw a cautionary tale in what had happened to Manhattan's Soho and Tribeca neighborhoods. In Denckla's words, both areas had become "like suburbs for one class of resident." As New Yorkers know, Soho is now basically a shopping mall, while Tribeca mainly provides homes for the rich, and these changes happened fast. Basing his vision partly upon the complaints he had had as a community organizer in the 1980s opposing badly conceived and realized development in New York City, Denckla sought to do right by avoiding what he had seen others do wrong. He wanted green development that would invigorate and not detract from the Williamsburg scene that he had come to know as a musician. Denckla launched the Propeller Group, a real estate consulting and development firm, to partner arts, non-profit, and community groups with for-profit investors in a mutually beneficial relationship.
The siting of Greenbelt is significant, and perhaps represents an ideal for other green developers wanting to balance various interests. Though the Manhattan Avenue property was originally a plumbing warehouse, it is situated in an area zoned for residential purposes. Denckla mentions that "like farmland, once industrially-zoned land becomes residential, it rarely goes back to being industrial." However, Denckla and Merryweather felt assured that the building was not big enough to be sought after for industrial use, and therefore they would not be displacing indsutry in the neighborhood. By building with the context of a neighborhood that was already residential, they would not help to change an industrial area into a residential one, and so would not be contributing to a loss of industry and jobs in Williamsburg. It was also important to them both that a lessor had not been pushed out by an opportunistic landlord—the previous owner already wanted to move to Queens.
The resulting green building is attractive, sustainable, and useful to the community. On a recent chilly February night I attended a panel at Greenbelt on the environment. Entitled "Green, Greener, Greenest: Approaches to Living Green in New York City," the panel drew an audience of about 50 environmental enthusiasts into an airy room with nice wood floors. Upstairs the apartments were set up as showrooms, the bathrooms had attractive green or blue tile, and the kitchens had special countertops decorated with butterflies made from old records. Born out of frustration with development as it was proceeding in Williamsburg and elsewhere, Greenbelt offers condo-buyers, and those of us well below that economic threshold alike a chance to be greener.