Sunday, August 20, 2006

Railyard platforms on W. Side and Sunnyside get critical look, but Brooklyn?

The potential for development over Metropolitan Transportation Authority-owned railyards is all over the news these days, and that raises a question about Brooklyn: why doesn't the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard, the key component of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards plan, get the same treatment?

Spitzer questions West Side proposal

An article headlined Spitzer Steps Up Criticism of City’s Railyard Proposal in yesterday's New York Times reported how gubernatorial candidate (and Attorney General) Eliot Spitzer called the city's plans to by the MTA's West Side railyards for $500 million "woefully inadequate." It stated:
In a letter to the transportation authority, Mr. Spitzer said that the best way to move forward was to conduct a new appraisal of the 26-acre property along 11th Avenue, between 30th and 33rd Streets, and to sell it to the highest bidder at an auction. He also asked for an engineering analysis to determine the cost of building platforms over the railyards, something that would have to be done before developers could erect any buildings there.

Spitzer said in his letter:
Only by a thorough, fair and open process can we be certain that the MTA receives full value for these extremely valuable assets and fulfills its fiduciary duty.

He called for:
A full new appraisal of the Western Rail Yard based on a range of zoning assumptions... an engineering study that determines the cost of a platform over the Western Rail Yard... a public auction once the property is rezoned.

And in Brooklyn?

All the above requests have been missing from the MTA's posture toward the Vanderbilt Yard. Eighteen months after Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project was announced as a fait accompli, the MTA put the railyard out to bid; even though a rival bidder, Extell, offered $150 million to FCR's $50 million, the MTA chose to negotiate solely with FCR, which raised its bid to $100 million, well under the $214 million appraisal.

The developer argues that the contribution toward a new platform should be added to the value of the bid, but there's been no engineering study, as Spitzer demands for the West Side Yards.

As the New York Observer pointed out:
More significantly, the letter drips with distrust: First, Sptizer suggests that M.T.A. staff, and not Kalikow, conduct the negotiations with the city, which are taking place this month and early next.

Kalikow infamously dismissed the MTA's own appraisal as "just some guy's idea of what it's worth."

Note that Spitzer has expressed support for the Atlantic Yards plan, though he hasn't publicly confronted the parallel issues in Brooklyn.

New platforms coming?

The Observer's Matthew Schuerman this week described how the city is working on what Mayor Mike Bloomberg described as a “sweeping interagency, five-borough Strategic Land Use Plan," aiming to provide, among other things, housing for the city's inevitably increasing population over 20 years.

One solution involves platforming over highways and railyards:
One way of increasing prime real estate would be to build a platform over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Carroll Gardens, where it now lies in a ditch. The move would bring the Carroll Gardens waterfront, presently isolated from the rest of the neighborhood, within the burgeoning and rapidly gentrifying reach of neighboring areas.
Similar platforms will be considered for the M.T.A. rail yard in Sunnyside, Queens. That site has been under consideration for numerous housing plans over the years but none of them were judged very feasible.


The Sunnyside solution

Aaron Naparstek's StreetsBlog got a preview of the plan developed by Alex Garvin & Associates. Naparstek quotes the Garvin Report: "The city must invest in its public realm to prevent unplanned growth from undermining its competitive advantage." Besides platforms, the city could built on underused waterfronts, and invest in surface transit "to stimulate development in areas without nearby subway service."

The chapter on platforms suggests that the Sunnyside Yard could support a 168-acre development, with 18,000 to 35,000 new housing units. That's a ratio of 108 to 211 units per acre.

Even at the highest density, that would be far less dense than the Atlantic Yards project, which would have 6860 units over 22 acres, or 312 units per acre.

Extreme density on the way?

Still, a density of 211 units per acre, as with the proposed one-third Atlantic Yards scaleback proposed by Assemblyman James Brennan, would still be much more dense than other major housing developments in the city--and likely the densest development in the city, and country.

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