Friday, December 08, 2006

Atlantic Yards, 2026? Business leader doubts ten-year buildout prediction

As the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) prepares today to approve the Atlantic Yards project, we should consider the very real possibility—echoed yesterday by a prominent project supporter—that it could take twice as long as promised.

If so, that raises significant questions about the delayed provision of open space and affordable housing, the persistence of a large interim surface parking lot, and the adequacy of the ESDC’s review of the project.

According to developer Forest City Ratner, “assuming the project receives the needed public approvals, FCRC anticipates breaking ground in late 2006 on the arena and at least two residential buildings. The construction will be phased over 10 years.”

In its environmental review, the ESDC used a ten-year analysis, saying it was conforming to state law—despite requests that the agency should take a broader view. (The ESDC approval must be followed by approval from the Public Authorities Control Board, which may stall Atlantic Yards at least until the term of incoming Governor Eliot Spitzer.)

Transportation effects

The time frame affects the analysis of the project's impact on transit and transportation. While a slower buildout means that the effect of the development might be absorbed more slowly, that longer time frame also would include more developments in the area. Transportation experts say the ESDC already low-balled the number of projects it included in its environmental review and thus underestimated traffic problems.

Yesterday, I caught up with Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, which represents the city’s largest private-sector employers.

She was participating in a breakfast discussion of congestion pricing, an idea, already implemented successfully in London, that’s been embraced by business groups, transportation wonks, and leftish types as way to limit traffic into Manhattan’s Central Business District (CBD) and steer more money to public transit.

The peak-hour imposition of new tolls, charges for using reserved highway lanes, or increased parking charges in the CBD could stem some of the traffic coursing through Brooklyn on the way to free East River bridges. The counter-argument is that it’s a burdensome “tax” on outer borough drivers. (StreetsBlog has a solid report on the session.)

Congestion pricing & AY

Congestion pricing, the ESDC said in its Atlantic Yards review, is "beyond the scope of this project."

To what extent, I asked Wylde, does the absence of congestion pricing make her rethink support for a project like Atlantic Yards. (“Unlike many other developing areas of the city, the transportation infrastructure needed to accommodate Atlantic Yards is largely in place,” she had testified.)

“Well, Atlantic Yards development is over a long period of time," she responded. "So hopefully we’ll have some solutions on the congestion side before we hit that critical mass, in terms of additional traffic."

"You’re talking about a 15-year, 20-year buildout,” she added.

“They say ten years,” I pointed out.

“Not a chance,” Wylde responded, with a smile.

More than a decade?

Indeed, Wylde merely articulated what many believe. After all, as the New York Observer recently reported, Forest City 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.

The Observer reported:
“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.”

Phase 2, the 11 buildings east of Sixth Avenue, would contain all of the eight acres of publicly accessible open space and more than 75% of the 2250 affordable apartments. And if an underground parking garage isn't built, then the interim surface parking lot planned for the southeast block--between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street--could persist for a while.

And wouldn't the construction of Phase 1, the arena block, generate significant traffic itself? Transportation analysts Carolyn Konheim and Brian Ketcham this week warned that the proposed traffic mitigation for the arena would affect only Nets games, not other events.

ESDC: ten years

The ESDC, however, isn't buying any of this concern.

Both the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) and Brooklyn resident Margot Gibson both raised the issue of the ten-year buildout to the ESDC:
The dates for analysis are inadequate. Community responses to the Draft Scope proposed looking 20-40 years ahead to assess potential impacts. While such lengthy time horizons may not be feasible for every measure, they are essential to assess major project impacts. The most glaring error is that the DEIS fails to measure project impacts beyond the day the project is completed. A longer time frame is also needed to take into account the probability (and likelihood) of delays in development, and changes to the phasing.

The agency responded:
In accordance with established CEQR Technical Manual methodology, the DEIS analyzed the proposed project’s effects for the 2010 and 2016 analysis years, which is when the proposed project’s Phase I and full Build program, respectively, would be in full operation. Analysis of its impacts in the 2016 build year discloses the long-term impacts of the project. Further unrelated changes in Brooklyn outside the project site may occur after 2016, but impacts from such changes are not ascribed to the project, in accordance with the analysis methodology set forth in the CEQR Technical Manual. Should the project phasing and/or program change in a magnitude necessary to warrant a modification of the General Project Plan (GPP), the proposed project would require additional environmental review to reassess the impacts on environmental conditions.

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