Tuesday, December 05, 2006

At the Dean St. Playground: how FCR's $20K offer became a $1.25M comfort station

The folks at Forest City Ratner are pretty good negotiators. After all, they managed to convince many in the press and public that they’d made two significant cuts to the Atlantic Yards plan, when those cuts 1) amounted to a return to the originally announced square footage and 2) mostly represented options the developer had put on the table in January.

Negotiators generally offer less than they’re willing to give up, so it’s safe to assume that the developer has another change or three at the ready, to be announced when the time is right, to move the project forward.

Negotiating at the playground

Consider the developer’s agreement to provide a comfort station at the Dean Street Playground, in partial mitigation for the excess noise the playground would experience due to the project construction and traffic nearby.
(Photo & simulation by Jonathan Barkey)

It turns out that Forest City Ratner agreed to pay much more--62.5 times more--than the company initially offered. The New York City Economic Development Corporation set up a meeting with the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). Initially, FCR offered just $20,000, Martin Maher, chief of staff in DPR's Brooklyn office, told the Friends of the Dean Street Playground at a meeting on Saturday.

"We said the community really needs a comfort station," Maher said. The comfort station, which would cost at least $1.25 million, had been on the Friends group's wish list for a while.

Forest City Ratner officials agreed, Maher said. Apparently, the developer wanted the problem to go away, and $1.25M+, as part of a $4.2 billion project, was within their comfort zone.

Parks improvements

“It’s an exceptional deal,” said Regina Cahill, co-coordinator of the Friends, though she acknowledged, “It clearly doesn’t address the larger issue.”

Those using the playground know that a comfort station doesn't solve the problem of noise. "It doesn't mitigate," observed Patti Hagan.

"It's an offset," mused Robert Witherwax, of Community Board 8's Parks and Recreation Committee.

It’s part of a package of improvements, including a reconstructed playground, a new ballfield, a revamped seating area, and upgrades to basketball and handball courts. Some $1.4 million has been pledged by another developer, Shaya Boymelgreen, in response to taking away formerly accessible open space at the Newswalk building nearby.

DPR doesn't have discretionary funds for improvements at parks, so such improvements often depend on allocations from the local City Council Member or sometimes the Borough President. "It's tired," said Maher of the Dean Street Playground, but it's not the worst" in City Council Member Letitia James's district.

Group not so pleased

I initially wrote that the group was "generally pleased," but co-coordinator Peter Krashes pointed out today that, despite the deal that DPR achieved, the group still remains quite frustrated with the overall challenge.

"They don't have community consent," he said. "There’s been no real meaningful process to discuss how the playground can be adjusted to the impact of this enormous project."

He noted that the Friends' group's wish list for the playground was developed without an understanding of the impact that the Final Environmental Impact Statement describes. Indeed, those walking from the arena to parking lots would be passing by the park. "The playground can be very degraded in quality, because of the traffic noise, and the pedestrian noise, which is not described in the FEIS," he said. (The FEIS says that pedestrian noise would be drowned out by traffic noise.)

He also noted that, while the Atlantic Yards project would increase the use of the playground, DPR's agreement with Forest City Ratner doesn't mention that mitigation.

"I think they have achieved something good," he said of DPR. "But they’re letting FCR off the hook for these big questions. I want to see impacts addressed meaningfully with mitigation. I don’t want to see mitigations that don’t address the problems."

Process issues

Is it normal that the Community Board isn't part of such negotiations? Maher responded, "This is something that happens; they come to us." While the issue will be brought to CB 8 next month, he noted that the board is only advisory.

Witherwax noted, "I was a little surprised to find it in the FEIS rather than in an email from you, but no hard feelings."

Looking ahead

Maybe, said some Friends members, they could fund staff to monitor and maintain the comfort station. It's unclear where that money would come from, and DPR removed or closed bathrooms when they got too dangerous.

"That's a nice thing to say," Maher responded, "but the reality is, we have a pretty good deal here."

The larger lesson

The playground mitigation raises a question: what other changes in the Atlantic Yards project is the developer willing to make in response to pressure?

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