Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Observer warns about AY delay; dailies tell us (duh) scaleback means little

An online article in today's New York Observer, headlined In Big Slow Brooklyn Build, Is It Affordable Housing Last?, has some real news, while two daily stories tell us what the New York Times should've told us in a lead story yesterday: a six to eight percent cut in the Atlantic Yards plan means little.

Matthew Schuerman's Observer article expands on some issues I raised last Friday:
More than four-fifths of the subsidized housing, as well as seven acres of open space, will begin construction only in the second phase, between 2011 and 2016. That’s only if the project stays on schedule. State Assemblyman James Brennan, who represents neighborhoods to the west of the site, said he believes that Mr. Ratner, the chief executive of Forest City Ratner, will only follow through on the affordable housing if he makes enough money in the first phase.
“The point is that if the venture is not successful or not as successful as planned, much of the affordable housing will be at risk or not happen,” Mr. Brennan said. “The real-estate market is softening across the nation, interest rates have gone up, and three million square feet is a lot of feet to sell.”
In a Sept. 1 letter to Charles Gargano, the state official in charge of reviewing the project, Mr. Brennan asked the state to “enter into arrangements with Forest City Ratner to assure the public that the 2,250 units of affordable housing will be developed as planned and that construction of all of these units will be included in Phase 1 of the project, scheduled to begin in 2007.”


Forest City's spokesman Joe DePlasco said that the developer "is committed to building affordable housing as part of the Phase 1 plan," but wouldn't say how much. And, Schuerman points out, if the developer goes for a version of Phase 1 with more office space, the amount of lower-rent subsidized housing would decrease.

As for ACORN, which will market the affordable housing, they're not complaining--a sign that the overall deal must be more important than delivering many affordable units soon:
“Right now we are absolutely comfortable with the phasing assumptions that are being used by the ESDC,” spokesman Jonathan Rosen said.

Schuerman states as fact basic information that others in the media seem compelled to ascribe to "opponents":
Still, even an 8 percent drop would only bring Atlantic Yards in line with the eight-million-square-foot project Mr. Ratner first announced back in December 2003.

Financial viability?

The Observer quotes a developer:
“When you add a projected 50 percent affordable housing—whatever that means—and when you include a money-hemorrhaging sports franchise, the economics of it are illusory to me,” an experienced developer who has done work in Brooklyn said. “But I hope it will happen.”

But Forest City has a history of moving slowly:
“The quality that Forest City has is that they are very disciplined about moving forward in stages,” said Rich Moore, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets who covers Forest City Enterprises. “They build one office tower and see if they are doing well, and if they are not, there is always the option of waiting until the market catches up to them or of altering their plans.”

Indeed, Ratner's MetroTech Center project in Brooklyn was supposed to be finished within five years after groundbreaking in 1989, but the last building originally planned didn't open until 2003, nine years late. That pattern could leave construction staging areas and parking lots on the Atlantic Yards site for a long time.

Times gets reaction in Brooklyn

A New York Times article today, headlined Developer’s Plan for a Smaller Yards Project Matters Little, More or Less, in Brooklyn, quotes some people near the proposed project site, and finds few are impressed with, as one called it, "a non-change."

While the article points out how the project size had actually grown since announced in December 2003, it doesn't explicitly state that the proposed reduction would bring Atlantic Yards back to its originally proposed square footage.

The article does offer some basic wisdom that should've been in yesterday's lead story:
“With practically every large development project, people ask for far more than they need,’’ said Ron Shiffman, a former member of the New York City Planning Commission, who recently joined the advisory board of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, an umbrella organization for groups opposed to the project. “The city is never really very good at setting their own standards and criteria for scale.”
Mr. Shiffman speculated that the small reductions being contemplated are “more of a show than a substantive reduction,” aimed at politicians who do not want to stop the project but do want to claim credit for having gained concessions from the developer. “This is similar to the playbook and strategy that Ratner has used for all of his developments,” Mr. Shiffman added. “I think this is predictable, and that they concluded that the politicians needed something to go back to their constituents with.”


Metro gets it

A story in Metro today has an apt headline: In Atlantic Yards dance, return to first position?. It points out that size of the project would be the same as initially announced and offers some criticism from urban planners:
“Having something to give up is not a highly unusual tactic, and in this case, it doesn’t address the issues,” said Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society. “It’s modeled on projects that have proven not to work, with its private but seemingly public space, like a campus.”
...Jeremy Soffin, a spokesman for the Regional Plan Association, called these changes “clever,” adding they have not addressed concerns about the public space, especially in its eastern portion, which will contain the bulk of the apartments and open space. Because this will be part of the second phase of development — not expected to begin until 2010 — Soffin said the plans would inevitably change in response to shifting real estate demands and that while the current open space design “nicely hugs” the buildings, if they change, the open space may get lost in the process.


Daily News says Marty's fine

A Daily News article, headlined Ratner offers to downsize again states:
A source confirmed yesterday that Ratner is now considering chopping an additional 500,000 to 700,000 square feet as he negotiates with the city, which critics noted would bring the development to just over or under its original size.
"It's obviously not enough," said City Councilwoman Letitia James (D-Brooklyn). "They've got to really go back to the drawing board and dramatically downscale this project if they want support in the community."


Borough President Marty Markowitz, whose mild but substantive criticisms at the August 23 public hearing were almost certainly cleared with the developer, said he welcomed the changes.

About that poll

Both the Times and the Daily News quote the Crain's New York Business poll as evidence that the project has widespread support, but without any analysis of the poll's flaws.

A Daily News editorial, headlined Develop, don't delay Brooklyn (Editorial board member Errol Louis is obviously quoting himself), also relies on the flawed poll:
Still, the project is a hit with New Yorkers: A poll by Charney Research shows that 71% of Gotham residents view Atlantic Yards favorably or very favorably, and 86% see its affordable housing and construction jobs for local residents as an important benefit.

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