Wednesday, May 17, 2006

More on the Atlantic Center mall towers: hints but no details

During the Brian Lehrer Show Monday, the host asked Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey about the company's plans to build new towers above the Atlantic Center mall, which were hinted at by models displayed at the press conference last Thursday. (Photo of 2005 model from Courier-Life chain.)

Stuckey replied that, when the Atlantic Yards Memorandum of Understanding was signed in February, 2005, "we signed a Memorandum of Understanding to build over the Atlantic Center mall as well." What he didn't say was that the first MOU was announced publicly, and the second--which transfers some rights to build at Site 5 across Flatbush Avenue (currently home to P.C. Richard/ Modell's)--was not announced until Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn discovered it through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Downtown Brooklyn EIS

Stuckey told Lehrer, "The fact is that this was studied in the downtown plan’s EIS." Well, the proposed construction was incorporated into the baseline condition for future downtown development, but the Environmental Impact Statement provides few details on how closely it was studied.

In Chapter 1, the Project Description of the Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Final EIS, dated 4/30/04, includes only a brief mention (p. 27) of the Atlantic Center mall and Site 5:
The additions include the projected development of two sites within the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (noted in Table 1-7 as Atlantic Center and Shops at Atlantic Center, Site 5). Although these developments were proposed last year, discussions with the City did not reach the level that would require incorporating the potential projects into the No Build condition. A potential developer of these sites has since made a firmer proposal, and the sites are now included in the baseline condition in order to be as conservative as possible, while remaining focused on realistic development. The programs listed in Table 1-7 represent the maximum build-out possible under current zoning and the ATURP [Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area Plan]; there are no detailed design plans for the sites at this time.
(Emphasis added)

In Chapter 2 of the DEIS, concerning Land Use, Zoning, and Public Policy, there's a sentence (p. 15) about Atlantic Center and Site 5: While there are not yet any design plans, it is anticipated that Atlantic Center and the Shops at Atlantic Center will be developed to the maximum extent allowable under current zoning and the ATURP.

Indeed, when the city issued the DEIS, there was no timeline for development at Site 5, while new development was projected for 2008 at the Atlantic Center site. Notably, the 308 residential units then planned for Site 5 would occupy the already allowable 308,000 square feet; the second MOU has shifted 328,272 square feet from the 1.586 million square feet allowable at Atlantic Center, so the building at Site 5 (right) would be much bigger.

Why it's relevant

While there were "no detailed design plans for the sites" two years ago, given the presence of Atlantic Center towers in the Forest City models presented publicly, and Frank Gehry's statement that he was designing 20 buildings, it's reasonable to ask what the plans are now, so the additional development can be discussed publicly as well as evaluated for its environmental impact.

The Final Scope for an Environmental Impact Statement regarding Atlantic Yards indicates (p. 13) that the Atlantic Center development--now due in 2013--will be studied as part of the baseline conditions for traffic and other impacts. The project has been reduced from 1.586 million square feet to about 1.25 million square feet because of the shift of some development rights to Site 5.

In process for a while

According to Jim Vogel, Secretary of the Brooklyn Vision Foundation, while FCR hasn't discussed the Atlantic Center mall towers in public recently, as early as a neighborhood meeting concerning Atlantic Yards, held by the Park Slope Civic Council in March 2004, the mall towers and the Site 5 tower were in the models. (Photo of 2006 model from New York Times.)

"When I saw the models I asked one of the 12 FCRC people at that meeting what I was looking at," said Vogel, who was representing Brooklyn Vision, which monitors development and planning issues. "At that point they said there would be four towers: two 12-story ones over the 'uphill' section and two 16-story ones over the Atlantic Avenue section. That's how far back the planning for these buildings go: they were there from the very start."

Because there is no EIS that specifically addresses the new towers over Atlantic Center, Vogel--who now also serves as Secretary of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods--wonders how the Atlantic Yards EIS can accurately estimate their cumulative effect. "If they are serious about these towers they have to be declared and their effects in relation to the Atlantic Yards development properly evaluated."

If Atlantic Yards doesn't get built, he noted, the city has already agreed to modify zoning to allow for development at Site 5. "I don't understand how that works under ULURP [the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure], but the whole document refers to the governing laws as being part of ATURA, the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area, which does allow for such things." Vogel pointed out that, while the ATURA enabling legislation was supposed to expire in 2005, the city in 2003 pushed for a 40-year extension, so it ATURA can still enable construction.

While I speculated that the mall might be razed for new construction, Vogel suggested that Forest City Ratner "seems to have been preparing the interior of Atlantic Center for tower construction for the past year." New reinforced security doors along the upper hallways of the second and third floors allow the various sections to be closed off from one another, he said, which means the mall might continue to do some business while towers are being built over another part.

Perhaps the developer will answer some questions about its plans and timetable for towers at the mall.

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