Monday, July 10, 2006

AY affordable housing session: why now? (It could take six years, for 280 units)

"Learn more about affordable housing at Atlantic Yards," reads the announcement for the Forest City Ratner/ACORN information session scheduled for Tuesday. (Note: correct image as of 1:20 pm 7/11/06)

Given that the project hasn't been approved, and the first units wouldn't be built til 2009--and possibly much later--this session seems to be another Forest City Ratner public relations move, furthering the notion that Atlantic Yards is a done deal. (By the way, we haven't seen an issue of the promotional Brooklyn Standard since October. Is one on the way?)

I have some questions, but, despite my swift RSVP, haven't gotten a confirmation that I'll be allowed in. I'm not optimistic. Given the prescreened nature of the meeting, Robert Guskind at the Gowanus Lounge calls it "the Norman Oder Verboten/Nicht No Land Grab/Nein Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn Clause."

How soon might the units be built?

According to Forest City Ratner's AtlanticYards.com FAQ:
After the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] is complete, and assuming the project receives the needed public approvals, FCRC anticipates breaking ground in late 2006 on the arena and at least two residential buildings. The construction will be phased over 10 years.

If the arena opened in 2009, as planned, that means two of 16 buildings (one-eighth) might be completed in three years. One-eighth of the proposed 2250 affordable housing rental units would be 280 units available by 2009.

That number might be higher, if more buildings were built in the first round, but it also might be lower, if the project's "extreme density" is reduced. But that timing is optimistic, given the potential for continued community opposition to the project, including litigation. Note that the Nets, as Newsday reported Friday, whose lease at Continental Airlines Arena is to expire after the 2007-08 season, are discussing an extension through 2011-12 with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, a person familiar with the talks said.

So if the arena isn't built until the fall of 2012, then the other buildings likely wouldn't be built until then. That means the first units--280?--would arrive by 2012.

Will going to this information session give people a leg up?

Will those who get in to the session on Tuesday have an advantage over others who didn't make it? No.

As Forest City Ratner executive Bruce Bender recently said in a press release, "the affordable and middle-income housing program will be handled via a lottery system as required by City rules. People who have sent back a reply card or have sent an email to housing@atlanticyards.com asking for more information about Atlantic Yards housing will receive a letter outlining the program and next steps in the coming weeks."

When are the affordable condos expected to be built?

According to the developer, "FCRC has also agreed to build between 600 and 1,000 affordable condos on or off site."

Given that there's no mention of this in the announcement of the housing information session, let's assume they would be built sometime later. It's worth asking for some more specifics.

Why now? A p.r. effort

The battle over the Atlantic Yards project is entering a new phase. On Sunday, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn plans a rally against the project. Recently, teens have been collecting signatures in support of the Atlantic Yards project and bringing the Nets to Brooklyn.

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) is expected to issue a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) soon, possibly July 18, which will lead to a public hearing and comment period. Then a Final EIS can be issued and the project moved forward for approval by the ESDC and the state Public Authorities Control Board.

Voices for the scale

The scale of the project will remain a huge point of dispute, and it's likely Forest City Ratner will be recruiting more supporters Tuesday to argue that the project should remain as large as possible.

Given that the number of apartments per acre would be more than double that of other major projects, the extreme density of the Atlantic Yards project has been justified by developer and project supporters as necessary to include the affordable housing component.

Cut the density and some of the affordable housing may be cut. Exactly what kind of cut Forest City Ratner would accept is a mystery, but don't assume the current project size is the final version. Remember, the developer recently cut 440 market-rate condos without cutting anything else, and took about $440 million in gross revenue off the table.

Many attendees at the session Tuesday will argue--understandably, because it gives them a better chance at the lottery--that the project should stay at its proposed size. But that's developer-driven planning, not the transparency and public input that the city seeks for the West Side railyards.

And even though Empire State Development Corporation spokeswoman Jessica Copen told the Courier-Life chain, "It is possible that all required governmental approvals could be in place by October or November 2006," an eminent domain lawsuit and likely other litigation would push back the plan--probably why the Nets are hedging their bets.

421-a reform a faster solution

The meeting Tuesday will draw hundreds of Brooklynites--among the thousands upon thousands--who care about affordable housing. Any development built over the MTA's 8.3 Vanderbilt Yard would include affordable housing, and though it may not be as much as Forest City Ratner's larger (22-acre) and denser plan, it's not a zero sum game. There are other ways to build affordable housing, and faster.

The city's 421-a program, which provides tax breaks for new construction in the outer boroughs (and parts of Manhattan) without requiring affordable housing, will cost the city $320 million this year, according to a report issued in April by the Pratt Center for Community Development and Habitat for Humanity-NYC.

A city task force is considering reform of 421-a, and their report is expected later this year. ACORN, Forest City Ratner's partner in the Atlantic Yards affordable housing program, also has pushed for 421-a reform.

"I would wipe the program out, take the $320 million and have a dedicated source of money for housing subsidy," Roland Lewis, executive director of Habitat for Humanity-NYC, told the New York Times.

Reforming 421-a would produce a lot more affordable housing, and faster, than the Atlantic Yards project. It will be interesting to learn whether ACORN also mentions reform of 421-a at the session on Tuesday. That action could bring more results to ACORN's constituency, though perhaps not to ACORN itself. ACORN stands to gain in prestige, clout, and operating revenue by negotiating the Atlantic Yards affordable housing component and processing the applications.

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