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Density? FAR is elusive at hearing; Marty offers traffic soliloquy

The confirmation that the city made no effort to develop the railyards at the heart of the Atlantic Yards footprint was just one troubling aspect of the discussion last Thursday at the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee's final meeting. The city has not yet tried to measure the density of the proposed project, a city official acknowledged and Borough President Marty Markowitz, in semi-disparaging style, described opponents of the plan as people worried about adding a single minute to their daily commute.

Numerous observers have commented that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) can't do justice to the project if it looks at impacts within the proposed primary study area of one-quarter miles and secondary study area of one-half mile. After all, that would exclude the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and other arteries certain to be impacted by an arena.

Markowitz asked if there was any precedent, for a project of this size, for the study area to be extended beyond the half-mile boundary.

Winston Von Engel, Deputy Director of the Department of City Planning's Brooklyn office, said he wasn't certain. In the EIS developed by the city for the redevelopment of Downtown Brooklyn, the study area was a half-mile, "but it does not mean you don't analyze, for traffic purposes, intersections further away... The further away you get from a project the less you notice it." (The EIS for the Atlantic Yards project is being developed by the Empire State Development Corporation, a state agency, and Draft EIS is expected first.)

Markowitz went into a soliloquy: "I'm acutely aware that, for many who oppose this project, nothing is more important than traffic. If it meant a difference of... one more minute in their travel time, they would choose not to have that additional minute. So my question is: it's not just Atlantic and Flatbush.... Events may be such that traffic comes to a halt beyond the designation of a half a mile. That's a concern of those who've raised the issue, that it should be studied from Grand Army Plaza, and all the way down to the water. There's no question it's a legitimate concern. And one of which, I must tell you, all of us working towards the most creative out-of-the-box solutions."

"Traffic is definitely going to be an issue with this project," Von Engel responded, stating the obvious. But he observed that he was there to discuss land use, and that traffic and transit are dealt with in other sections of the EIS. (Indeed, they was a previous hearing on traffic, and also on transit.)

Markowitz's "one more minute" comment contrasted with the concerns raised by others, such as Council Member David Yassky, who recently called traffic and parking issues "a first-order obstacle.” Speaking at a forum sponsored by the Park Slope Civic Council, he said, “unless there’s a serious and concrete plan” regarding traffic, “I think the project has to be resisted on that ground alone.”

Assemblywoman Joan Millman picked up on the issue. "We just heard that all sanitation trucks" would go to Hamilton Avenue. "That's way beyond one-half mile." Similarly, she noted sewage runoff to the Gowanus Canal would have an impact beyond a one-half mile.

Rezoning coming?

Millman wondered whether, should such a large project be built, there'd be a new push to rezone Atlantic and Flatbush avenues to accommodate more high-rise buildings.

Von Engel responded, "That's hard for me to say... We live in a changing world and changing city. Certainly changes are possible." He noted that the railyards have been zoned for manufacturing, but would become residential and commercial. Other developments nearby have changed from manufacturing to commercial.

For upzoning, how does the Department of City Planning determine the appropriate density, asked Shirley McRae, chair of Community Board 2.

"In general, you look at whether the infrastructure can handle the density," Von Engel said, citing such elements as mass transit, street capacity, and open space--or if a proposed project adds enough amenities such as open space of community facilities. "There is no formula, per se. We upzoned most of Downtown Brooklyn based on the fact that most of Downtown Brooklyn has fantastic mass transit access."

McRae pressed on, pointing out that Atlantic Avenue is close to major transportation. Could it be upzoned?

"Possibly, but there's no proposal to do so," Von Engel said, adding that it's not city-owned land. Private owners are free to propose rezoning. But he said there were a lot of variables to consider, including economic factors.

How dense? Don't know

Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is the way to calculate density. For Fourth Avenue, the border between Park Slope and Gowanus, the FAR is 6, Von Engel said. In Greenpoint and Williamsburg, it varies, from 2 to 8, in part because high-rise development on the waterfront includes an affordable housing bonus.

What's the FAR for the Atlantic Yards project, asked Kate Suisman, aide to Council Member Letitia James.

Von Engel replied, "I don't know what that is. It's a large project. You have to take the floor area and divide it by the lot area." (Architect Jonathan Cohn has attempted to do just that, and comes up with figures different from those used by Forest City Ratner.)

He said the figure currently being evaluated in the state environmental review (9.1 million square feet) is a limit, "so you know the outside envelope of the impacts."

City role?

Jerry Armer, chair of Community Board 2, asked, "Since this is an ESDC project, does New York City zoning come into play at all? Basically, they override it.... I'm really curious--what role does City Planning actually play?"

Von Engel replied, "ESDC has the ability to override local land use regulations. It is my understanding that ESDC does not like to do these overrides without consultation and concurrence by the local municipality. The support of the local municipality is important. The mayor has preliminarily indicated his support for the project. Our department obviously works for the mayor. If he asks us to look at this project, certainly we will. The zoning does play a role in the EIS."

"They will look at the current zoning. Clearly the zoning is different from what is proposed. The density that's being proposed, without putting a number on it, is high," he said. While the railyards are zoned for manufacturing, with a relatively low FAR, "to the north, there's a commercial district that allows an FAR of 10, and higher, with bonuses." He was referring to the Downtown Brooklyn redevelopment--which Forest City Ratner has also cited as an argument for the density of the Atlantic Yards plan.

Millman asked Von Engel how property owners can get variances to build higher on their land. "It has to be in character with the surrounding area," he said.

"You're talking about a neighborhood where we have dramatic change," Millman observed.

Von Engel said that variances are usually evaluated in the context of the street itself, not necessary the surrounding streets.

Street closings, not demapping

Does the City Planning department have a general policy on street closings, Suisman asked. (Pacific Street would be closed between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues, and between Sixth and Flatbush avenues, and Fifth Avenue would be closed between Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.)

Von Engel said a bit ruefully that he had been asked about it previously, and quoted. "We look at it on a case by case basis. As I said the last time, when we did Downtown Brooklyn, we did demap some streets and we mapped some new streets. What our chair and the mayor care about is that there's life on the street, that the sidewalks are alive, that they're exciting and interesting. It depends on the case." (He didn't address how demapping Pacific between Carlton and Vanderbilt would increase street life.)

Suisman asked if the closing of some streets in the Atlantic Yards plan would increase traffic. The closing of streets for the arena, he said, would not be too dramatic--"generally they're not very active streets."

He explained, to the surprise of some, that no streets in the Atlantic Yards plan would actually be demapped. Rather, they would be closed. Demapping requires a decision under ULURP, the city's land use review process, but this is a state process. "Chances are they'll still appear on the city map," he said.


  1. You write that "It is my understanding that ESDC does not like to do these overrides without consultation and concurrence by the local municipality." But who determines what consultation and concurrence is? Does that simply mean Bloomberg says he likes it? Or on the other extreme, does this mean that the ESDC has to come and get approval from the local community boards? Is there legal precedence on this question?


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