Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Yassky calls (almost) for a 50% AY scaleback

City Council Member David Yassky, a contender for the open 11th Congressional District seat, has publicly called for at least a one-third reduction in the size of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards complex—but privately he’s been telling potential constituents that he thinks the project should be cut in half.

On August 9, at a debate among the four candidates for the 11th CD, Yassky, who's had a "mend it, don't end it" posture toward the Atlantic Yards project, declared that "the current project is way too big."

I caught up with him afterward to ask him to amplify his statements, and to address reports that he'd told constituents he supports a 50 percent cut in the project.

Q & A

Q: So the question is, have you thought about how big it should be?
DY: I’ve said very clearly that it’s way too big now, it’s got to be taken down very substantially. I’m going to testify certainly at the Empire State Development Corporation hearing coming up, and I will have a full statement then.

Note that his oral statement at the hearing did not address specific numbers.

Q: You said to the Brooklynite something about 33 percent, one-third.
DY: I think it should be brought down more than that.

Q: So how much more? I’ve heard from four or five people that you’ve said 50 percent.
DY: I think 50 percent would be acceptable.

Q: Do you think it should be?
DY: Oh, absolutely.

We were walking, so I wanted to make sure Yassky really meant it.

Q: It should be cut 50 percent, is that what you’re saying?
DY: It has to come down substantially. I don’t know if there’s a magic number.

Yassky’s had to play a cautious game regarding Atlantic Yards, expressing dismay over the potential impact on traffic, yet welcoming the concept of development, and even going to bat for BUILD, seeking city money to fund obligations announced under the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

A 50 percent ceiling

Would a 50 percent cut--to about 4.35 million square feet--make the project palatable to community members who oppose the project? Perhaps, for those whose main concern is scale, rather than those who object to the use of eminent domain and the no-bid, no-planning process.

Right now, the project, in terms of population, would be twice as dense as the densest census tract in the country, as the New York Observer has reported. Halving the size of the project would bring it to the level, perhaps, from where the discussion should have started.

(Note that part of the population density would be attributed to a shift from office to residential space. That could shift back somewhat, and Atlantic Yards could have more square feet but a lower residential density if a commercial variant of the project were chosen.)

Backwards planning

Forest City Ratner has said that criticisms of density don’t acknowledge the developer’s significant investment in infrastructure.

And supporters of the project, including Borough President Marty Markowitz and ACORN head Bertha Lewis, have noted that the market-rate housing supports the affordable housing.

But that’s backwards. Infrastructure costs shouldn’t be used by a developer to justify an out-of-scale project. Rather, if development costs are so high, they should be subsidized from the start, by the MTA or the city, which then could have prepared the site for bids—a tactic much like that contemplated for the Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side.

In this case, however, the Empire State Development Corporation overrides city zoning and the density issue is one of tactics rather than benchmarks.

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