Saturday, October 07, 2006

Planning group says AY "raises serious questions"

Calling the Atlantic Yards project "overwhelming," the New York Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association (NY Metro), which includes more than 1200 planners, offered a highly critical take on the project, if not fully opposing it. The testimony echoed some of the criticisms made by organizations like the Municipal Art Society and the Regional Plan Association, through the latter, a group with strong backing from business, was overall far more encouraging about the project.

Testimony submitted by NY Metro president Ethel Sheffer stated:
As planners, we welcome grand visions and ambitious designs to bring higher purpose to underutilized portions of the city and help shape the future of New York. However, this proposal raises serious questions of good planning and design, public process, appropriate scale and density, respect for surrounding neighborhood character, and adequate transportation and infrastructure -- all of which deserve careful study and modification.
(Emphasis added)

In the testimony, NY Metro pointed out that the state review process hardly matches that required by the city:
The DEIS comment process is not as rigorous, or as inclusive, or as extensive as a full mandated public review process and the absence of the full process, together with the very short DEIS comment period, is a serious planning and procedural omission.

Density and scale

While the group acknowledged that the project location near a major transit hub is an argument for higher density, there are limits:
This is an enormous project and though some of the buildings and the sports arena are located at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn’s bustling downtown, the majority of the new buildings are adjacent to streets and neighborhoods that are low-rise and architecturally very different in character, activity and use than the proposed new skyscrapers.
New buildings on Carlton and Vanderbilt Avenues, on Deane and Pacific Streets, on Sixth Avenue and elsewhere, will rise hundreds of feet higher than the tallest buildings on these streets in Prospect Heights and surrounding neighborhoods. The scale of the 16 buildings taken together will have an overwhelming, permanent visual and physical impact on these vital and distinguished neighborhoods.


The group urged a more extensive discussion and analysis of the impacts of such a large number of residents on the infrastructure, schools, and on the surrounding neighborhoods.

Public streets?

While the group saluted Frank Gehry as a great architect with an innovative concept, it stated, good planning should precede architecture.

Citing concerns already expressed by the Municipal Art Society and others, NY Metro criticized the demapping of public streets and the likely private nature of open space, expressed "serious reservations" about the proposed superblocks and internal pedestrian walkways, and called for a significant revision of the street designs and connections, as well as an enhancement of the open spaces proposed and a harder analysis of the impacts of this massive development on surrounding green spaces and parks.

Eminent domain

NY Metro, which has offered measured support for the use of eminent domain in the aftermath of the Kelo decision, again offered a balanced position:
Although we recognize and support the use of eminent domain as a vital and important tool in large-scale project developments which usually require the assemblage of large contiguous sites, we are equally concerned that this project permits the acquisition of property by Forest City Ratner for new private projects.
(Emphasis added)

The group also referenced the issue of adaptive reuse:
Since this is a long-term project we recommend that every effort be made to allow existing uses to remain through a modification of the scale and scope of the project.

Comments on transit

NY Metro also issued several comments regarding transportation and traffic. For example, given the promise in the DEIS that "police and traffic control officers would be deployed at key intersections in the vicinity of the arena," the group wondered if this was a financial commitment from Forest City Ratner or not.

The group recommended that the additional demand for on-street parking spaces during peak hours should be met by increased on-street parking fees that are returned to the local area.

Because traffic was analyzed at individual intersections, This does not account for vehicular queuing to upstream intersections, NY Metro said, recommending a more sophisticated network analysis.

Community benefits

While the group did not comment on the adequacy or substance of the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), the first in New York City, it noted that such CBAs are likely to become more frequent. Even now some elected officials are saying that the promises regarding housing and jobs should be enshrined in a governmental document, not a side contract.

NY Metro commented:
[W]e urge that these arrangements become part of a major dialogue among city government officials, communities, developers and civic and professional groups, before they become a de facto component of negotiations in major development projects. These arrangements raise questions about the distinctions among amenities, mitigations, exactions, contractual obligations, enforcement, legal standing, and existing regulations, and should be widely discussed and debated.

Housing questions

The planning group also raised questions about the affordable housing:
More than 2,200 apartments of the projected 6,860 will have rents targeted to middle-, moderate-, and low-income families. We commend this goal, although we have grave concerns about the realistic enforcement and financing of this objective.

City officials have said that the number of apartments would be guaranteed in the financing documents. However, there's no assurance that housing subsidies planned for Phase 2 can guarantee the timing or construction of that phase, and the housing subsidies haven't been made public yet.

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