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ACORN's Lewis, MAS's Barwick debate AY plan in City Limits

City Limits Weekly, the urban affairs publication with a strong grassroots following, yesterday ran two long but still not comprehensive pro and con articles regarding the Atlantic Yards project, featuring Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN, and Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society (MAS).

Lewis mostly reiterates arguments for the importance of affordable housing and pragmatism toward the AY plan, and Barwick mostly repeats the MAS's critique of the project's design principles.

However, Lewis adds that the rental units would be randomly distributed on each floor. [Update: It had previously been reported that they would be distributed throughout the development, and "randomly" is likely just another way of saying that.] Barwick adds some new advocacy regarding affordable housing, suggesting that all new high-density development in New York include some affordable housing. It may help nudge the debate a bit.

Stakeholders in 'conversation'

City Limits explains its offering:
The proposal by Forest City Ratner to build a professional basketball arena for the NJ Nets plus a large housing, park and retail development on 22 acres of downtown Brooklyn has generated intense controversy as it has evolved over the past three years. Now that the plan has taken form -- with Community Boards 2, 6 and 8 holding simultaneous public hearings this Thursday, Aug. 3 on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and General Project Plan -- City Limits invited the leaders of two stakeholder groups to inaugurate our “City Conversations” series with their divergent analyses of what’s right and wrong with this borough-shaping plan. If approved, Atlantic Yards’ first phase would be built by 2010, with the entire site developed by 2016.

Note that, while the project would include seven acres of publicly-accessible open space, it would not be a public park; rather it would be managed by a private company and keep more limited hours.

Also, Lewis, who is contractually obligated to support the plan, is more clearly an advocate than Barwick. The ACORN head has negotiated the affordable housing agreement with Forest City Ratner, while the MAS spearheaded discussion of design principles for the project. Still, Barwick is not an announced opponent and--since he represents a citywide constituency for good urban design--a stakeholder only in the broad sense.

The Marty Markowitz-Ron Shiffman point-counterpoint in the Daily News on July 23 was more brief but did better balance the adversaries.

Lewis leads off

In SUPPORTING ATLANTIC YARDS: 'SIMPLY NOT ENOUGH HOUSING IN BROOKLYN', Lewis makes some compelling points, but also leaves out some vital context:
Low-income black and Latino families invested their life savings and their sweat in rebuilding neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn, setting the stage for the current Brooklyn boom.
..The housing crunch is creating an affordability crisis. Between 2002 and 2005, real median income fell 6.3 percent for New Yorkers, yet monthly rents increased by more than 8 percent. Over a quarter of a million families are on waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers and public housing.


All true, but it's also important to point out that low-income Brooklynites and those waiting for Section 8 vouchers and public housing would not be eligible for half the affordable housing proposed for the Atlantic Yards project (1125 out of 2250 affordable rentals), because their incomes are too low.

Yesterday's news

As the New York Observer pointed out, Lewis's commentary was published the same day that the city announced a new affordable housing initiative, with two special emphases.

One would be on serving the very poor, those earning under 30 percent of the median income, who would not be part of the Atlantic Yards plan. The other would be serving those in the moderate income category, families earning 60-80 percent of the median, which, at AY, would be 225 units--half of "Band 3" in the chart above. (Click to enlarge.) HPD will use $70 million towards the development of an estimated 2000 apartments for these "hard to reach" families, the city said.

Affordable for-sale units

Lewis continues:
In addition to the affordable rental housing, Atlantic Yards will mean 600-1000 affordable condo units either on or off the project site – a significant increase in the number of for-sale units available to working families in Brooklyn.

Indeed, it's progress of a sort, but context is also important. The Housing Memorandum of Understanding states:
It is currently contemplated that a majority of for-sale units will be sold to families in the upper affordable-income tiers.

Those would be people making well over Brooklyn's median income, because there's a significant distinction between the Area Median Income as defined by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, and the local median.

No segregation

Lewis writes:
More then anything, in an era of increasing housing segregation, Atlantic Yards will be one of the only neighborhoods in Brooklyn where families of all backgrounds will be able to really live and grow together. That’s because ACORN insisted, and Forest City Ratner agreed, that the affordable units be spread throughout every rental building at random on every floor. In Atlantic Yards, if the elevator works for the rich folks, it will work for the poor folks. For the first time in a project like this, low-, middle- and upper-income people will live -- literally -- together. And unless you put your pay stub on your front door, your neighbor will never know whether your unit is market price or below.

It's news to me that the affordable units would be spread at random, and that sounds like a victory. On the other hand, it's quite possible that neighbors would in fact know who has the affordable units, since those units would be notably small in size.

Unless Forest City Ratner offers two-bedroom market-rate rentals at a snug 775 square feet, there would be a distinction between affordable and market-rate units. I've calculated that the affordable units, while nearly 33 percent of the number of apartments in the project, may take up only 22 percent of the space devoted to housing. That's a rough estimate, but it suggests that, unless the market-rate condos are notably large, the market-rate rentals would be larger than the affordable rentals.

Infrastructure costs

Lewis writes:
Critics of this project and of ACORN’s support suggest that the housing could be even more affordable or that the public dollars being invested in Atlantic Yards could be put to better use elsewhere. Those critics fail to understand both the economic reality and the context in which ACORN negotiated this agreement.
The cost of acquiring the MTA land, moving the rail yard, doing environmental remediation and building infrastructure combine to make this an extraordinarily expensive development site. These costs would need to be borne by any developer, even a nonprofit or public entity that sought to develop the site.


Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey has regularly cited infrastructure costs, and some of those costs are undeniable. On the other hand, why does the cost of infrastructure drive the cost and scale of the project?

For the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Hudson Yards in Manhattan, the city is considering paying for the railyards, then building a platform so the property could be further prepared for an open bidding process.

Defending density

Lewis writes:
That also leads to the other bogeyman of the Atlantic Yards debate: density. In order to make the cross-subsidy between market rate and affordable units work in this project, you either need to allow the developer to build more, which means taller buildings, or to replace the cross-subsidy from market-rate units with more direct subsidy from government. Currently there is no other existing model for building affordable housing in New York City.

Indeed, the inclusionary zoning model, as demonstrated in the rezoning of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront, allows for greater density if affordable housing is added. The difference is that the rezoning was negotiated by the City Council, and the Atlantic Yards density is what I've called a privately-negotiated affordable housing bonus.

Sure, there's an argument for density at the railyard site, especially near the transit hub and along broad Atlantic Avenue. But, as currently configured, the AY plan would be "extreme density," with more than twice as many apartments per acre than other developments in the city, and with more than double the number of people in the densest census tract in the country.

Better than elsewhere

Lewis reprises some compelling arguments about the failure to build affordable housing elsewhere around Downtown Brooklyn:
Let’s get real. All around Atlantic Yards developers are building luxury condominiums without a lick of affordable housing. In March, ACORN examined 87 new development projects in various stages of development in downtown Brooklyn, containing 5,934 housing units. Our report found that only 201 units, or 3 percent of the total, are affordable to moderate-income people. Only 266 units, or 4 percent of the total, are affordable to low-income families. In almost all of those projects, city tax dollars are being used to subsidize luxury development in the form of 421a and J-51 tax abatements for purchasers of luxury housing. The result: between 1990 and 2000, the African-American population of Community Board 2 (including downtown, Fort Greene, Brooklyn Heights and Boerum Hill) decreased by 17.2 percent.

Does that justify an out-of-scale Atlantic Yards project, or does that instead point to a forceful effort to reform misguided and counterproductive city subsidies?

All rent-stabilized?

[Update] Lewis writes:
Beyond building new affordable units, all 4,500 rental units at Atlantic Yards will be rent-stabilized

That must be a typo--the 2250 market-rate rentals would, by definition, not be rent-stabilized.

[Updated]Actually, the rent increases for units would be at levels under rent stabilization, though the starting rent will be way over the threshold for such units.

The real world

Lewis closes:
Advocates and activists who oppose the project will point to its flaws, but present only false solutions. They have the luxury to demand the impossible, to oppose something because, in an ideal world, it’s not how things should be.
We don’t have the luxury of the word “should.” Being an organizing group made of nearly 40,000 low-income families in neighborhoods across this city means dealing with the world as it is and the needs of real people. It means fighting like hell every day to get the best deal you can to move the ball forward for working families. It means knowing a victory when it’s staring you in the face and having the maturity to take yes for an answer. Ultimately, when you get right down to it, that’s what the Atlantic Yards debate is all about.


Atlantic Yards may be an improvement in some ways from Downtown Brooklyn development, but is it really a good deal? The project, in a best-case scenario, would be finished by 2016. That means 1125 apartments would be made available to ACORN's core constituency over ten years, or a little more than 110 apartments per year. Is that what this debate is about?

Alternatives and activism

Lewis criticizes the "so-called alternative plans advanced for the site" as not dealing with the economic realities of providing affordable housing. Maybe she's right--and maybe there should be a new planning process, a la the West Side.

She begins her article by noting, In 1982, ACORN opened its first office on the third floor of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene.

It should be pointed out that the Rev. David Dyson, pastor of that notably progressive church, has taken a stand against the AY project. He told Norman Kelley of the Brooklyn Rail in April 2005:
This project has actually split lifelong partners in the progressive movement. We feel that Reverend Daughtry and ACORN have been brought in by Ratner not as advocates for the community but as private business partners in the deal.

Barwick on balance

In OPPOSING ATLANTIC YARDS: 'FAILS TO ACCOMPLISH A DELICATE BALANCE', Barwick proceeds from the MAS's critical but moderate position:
For all its potential, “Atlantic Yards” as currently proposed would not work for New York City. Successful urban planning is a question of balance, and the project fails to accomplish a delicate balance of bringing density to the area while fitting in and integrating with surrounding neighborhoods. The project also raises questions about how New York is addressing its critical need for affordable housing, designing new areas of its public realm, and involving the public in its decision-making for major projects.

Barwick suggests that AY follows the pattern of incentives created in the rezoning of Hudson Yards and Greenpoint-Williamsburg, as the excessive scale of the project -- the developer has proposed 8.7 million square feet, the equivalent in floor area to three Empire State Buildings -- is clearly only acceptable to the project’s political sponsors because of the inclusion of affordable housing.

How big should it be?

He continues:
But Atlantic Yards will still overwhelm the surrounding neighborhoods even as it houses residents with a mix of incomes, and New York should not have to sacrifice neighborhood character to get affordable housing.

Note that Barwick is unwilling to suggest how big the project should be. Would a one-third cut, as proposed (unsuccessfully) by Assemblyman Jim Brennan, be sufficient?

Doesn't the density issue point to a 50 percent cut as a start? That could still leave the Atlantic Yards project as the densest residential community in the country. Note that an alternative, which would replace some of the planning housing with office space--a reversal of the office-to-housing switch announced last year--would produce a lesser population density but not smaller buildings.

A new policy

Barwick suggests several advantages to a mandatory affordable housing requirement:
First, we could set density and height limits according to what is right for neighborhoods and the city as a whole, instead of what we think is required to get developers to build affordable units. Second, we would generate far more affordable units: if this policy were in place today, thousands of the units that are being built across the city today -- notably in Downtown Brooklyn -- would be affordable. Finally, the approach would establish a level playing field. A developer building in Queens would be required to build affordable housing just as one in Brooklyn would, and there would be no need for negotiations to establish the quantity he or she needed to build, which instead would be established by the city's zoning resolution or state law.

Is this a failure to "deal with the world as it is," as Lewis declares ACORN is doing? Well, the policy is not in place, even though Barwick argues that the policy has worked in Boston and San Diego, albeit with only a 10 percent affordability requirement.

Then again, a changed policy could produce more affordable housing than the Atlantic Yards plan, especially if the latter is delayed by inevitable litigation over eminent domain and perhaps the Empire State Development Corporation's environmental review process.

Who's in charge?

Barwick, as MAS has before, takes aim at "developer-driven projects like Atlantic Yards," criticizing the loss of public streets to create superblocks and the developer's plan to create open space that, like that at Stuyvesant Town, would serve residents more than the public.

He concludes:
Finally, good urban planning cannot be separated from a good public process for deciding what gets built in New York City. So far, the public process for Atlantic Yards has been lamentable. The project’s passage through the state's land use approval process means that no Brooklyn official will get a vote on the project, and the state's efforts to solicit feedback from the public have been disappointing: recently, the state both released the environmental report and scheduled a public hearing for the project in the middle of summer, when many New Yorkers will be on vacation.
The state’s lack of leadership and failure to establish a real public process has alienated local residents and pitted communities against each other. In addition to establishing a better planning framework to create affordable housing and great public spaces, the city and state need to demonstrate they can listen to New Yorkers, and establish opportunities for them to shape the major projects that will affect their lives. It is not too late to do this for Atlantic Yards, but time is running out.


His criticism of the public process leads, however, to some questions. How could the public process be modified to lead to a better outcome? How should the density be negotiated? Who decides how to create better public spaces?

And, lingering behind all this, does the single-source deal with Forest City Ratner doom--or at least delay--the project under the guidelines established in the Supreme Court's Kelo eminent domain decision?

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