Monday, July 31, 2006

Push poll (likely from FCR) boosts Boyland against Montgomery in Senate race

Sometimes the news just falls into your lap. When I got a call yesterday from a pollster from Pacific Crest Research, the name rang a bell. The same company conducted a push poll last year to gauge and change attitudes regarding Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards (AY) project, almost certainly on behalf of the developer.

I was asked numerous questions, some quite general, but most focused on the race between last-minute challenger Tracy Boyland and longstanding State Senator Velmanette Montgomery for the 18th Senatorial District.

The point of the push poll apparently was to see if the information provided--including leading statements, with incorrect information--would nudge listeners into supporting Boyland, who backs the AY project, against the incumbent, who opposes the AY project.

In the end, Montgomery was portrayed as an ally of those "who have million-dollar brownstones and want to preserve their exclusive neighborhood."

A member of a Brooklyn political dynasty, Boyland held a City Council seat from 1997 until 2005, when she was forced out by term limits and ran unsuccessfully for the 11th Congressional District seat held by Rep. Major Owens. The 18th Senatorial District is shaped like an “F” with the tine reversed, from Sunset Park in the south straight up to Downtown Brooklyn and Prospect Heights, then east to Bedford-Stuyvesant and Ocean Hill—and with a southwest jog to Red Hook.

Besides information on the Senatorial race, the pollsters also gathered information on attitudes toward the highly-contested 11th Congressional District race, as well as opinions regarding the AY project. Cross-tabulate the responses with demographic information, and that's a handy snapshot--and fodder for future marketing.

Enter the Ratner candidate?

There’s been widespread speculation that Boyland is the “Ratner candidate.” At the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn rally on July 16, Montgomery took a swipe at Boyland. As noted by the Courier-Life chain:
“I don’t care if he [Ratner] wants to put some money up on a puppet [Boyland] to run against me,” Montgomery told the crowd.
[Update: A reader points out that there's no evidence in campaign filings of Ratner campaign contributions to Boyland.]

Circumstantial evidence suggests FCR is responsible for the poll. The pollster told me it was not conducted for any particular candidate, just an unnamed regular client.

Though Pacific Crest Research previously conducted a push poll about Atlantic Yards, neither the polling company nor FCR would confirm that the poll was conducted on behalf of the developer. “We don’t discuss our internal research,” FCR’s Barry Baum told the Brooklyn Papers last year, avoiding the opportunity to deny responsibility.

(Here's another account of a push poll; the writer says he heard "PCR Polling" and "FCR Polling" and concluded it was the latter. I think it was likely the former. Note that a Forest City Ratner spokesman charged that the report was wrong, but hedged: "I didn't say there wasn't a poll that went out.")

Pacific Crest Research last year also conducted a mystery poll that portrayed Democratic challenger Freddy Ferrer as running “a divisive campaign that is tearing the city apart” while Mayor Mike Bloomberg “has tried to bring people together.”

Bloomberg denied responsibility and Pacific Crest owner Matt Hewitt wouldn’t identify his client. Jonathan Trichter, who runs the Pace Poll, told the Politicker that it was likely “a special interest group” trying to figure out whom to endorse. Though Ferrer at that point had only expressed qualms about Atlantic Yards—his stated opposition was announced late in the campaign—it’s just as likely that Forest City Ratner paid for that poll.

Most vital issues

After asking if I was registered to vote, and in what party, I was asked, “Do you think things in Central Brooklyn are on the wrong track?”

[I didn’t tape the call but I did take notes—I type pretty fast and asked the pollster, C.J., to repeat himself a few times to make sure I got things right. I've paraphrased sections when I didn't get verbatim quotes.]

Then he asked my level of concern about several issues:
--the need to clean up corruption in Albany
--the quality and cost of health care
--the threat of crime
--traffic and congestion in Central Brooklyn
--high taxes in New York City
--the need for more parks and green space
--the need to maintain the character and neighborhood feel of Brooklyn
--the lack of affordable day care
--the need for more jobs and economic development in Brooklyn
--overdevelopment in Downtown Brooklyn
--the need for more affordable housing in Brooklyn
--the need to improve New York City’s public schools

Then I was asked which one or two of the issues would I pick as the biggest priorities.

Gentrification & parking

“There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the so-called gentrification of Brooklyn,” C.J. continued. Some people say it’s been good for Brooklyn, because it’s improved things, but others say it’s been bad, because it has priced many people out, instead of leaving room for everyone. Is this good for Brooklyn or bad for Brooklyn?

On this question, as with some others, I had to ask if there was a third option, a mixed opinion. The questions seemed designed to create stark opposition.

Then I was asked my opinion about neighborhood parking permits limited only to residents. Such permits have been proposed as one way to fight the parking problems created by Brooklyn’s growth, including the projected increase in traffic if the Atlantic Yards plan proceeds.

Atlantic Yards in “Central Brooklyn”

Then I was asked about a major development project “known as Atlantic Yards that has been proposed for Central Brooklyn,” containing an arena and a number of high rise apartments.

Note that the State Senate race is in Central Brooklyn, but Forest City Ratner has long located the Atlantic Yards project in Downtown Brooklyn, though most would be in Prospect Heights.

State Senate & AY

Then I was asked about the State Senate race. Would I prefer a candidate who has served in Albany for a long time, “or a candidate who would be new to Albany and try to shake things up?” (Montgomery is at right)

“Would you be prepared to vote for a State Senator who supports the Atlantic Yards development project or someone who opposes it?” (Boyland appeared at the May 2005 press conference announcing the Atlantic Yards affordable housing agreement. See p. 2 of the Brooklyn Standard.)

Then I was asked whether Montgomery has performed her job well enough to ensure reelection.

A curious list

Then I was asked my opinion of several public figures, some of them elected officials, some not. My parentheticals were not part of the call

--William Boyland, Jr. (Tracy Boyland’s brother, and an Assemblyman from Brownsville)
--Mike Bloomberg (Mayor and a supporter of the AY plan)
--Velmanette Montgomery (State Senator and opponent of AY)
--Letitia James (City Council Member and opponent of AY)
--Rev. Herbert Daughtry (supporter of AY, signatory to the Community Benefits Agreement, and recipient of FCR funds)
--Rev. Al Sharpton (ally of Daughtry, supporter of AY, recipient of FCR funds)
--Nydia Velasquez (Congressional representative; she hasn’t been vocal about AY, but her district overlaps with Montgomery’s in Red Hook)
--Marty Markowitz (Brooklyn Borough President and prime booster of AY)
--Tracy Boyland (at right)

The question about William Boyland, along with a respondent's zip code, should help the pollsters understand the resonance of the family name, especially in the eastern portions of the State Senate district.

Congressional race

Then I was asked about the four candidates who are running for the Congressional seat that Major Owens is vacating. Interestingly enough, the candidates were not in alphabetical order.
--David Yassky (who has ridden the fence on AY, but has gone to bat for some AY Community Benefits Agreement signatories
--Chris Owens (opponent of AY)
--Carl Andrews (AY supporter)
--Yvette Clark (AY supporter)

Back to the Senate

I was again asked my opinion in the Montgomery-Boyland race, asked to rate the job Montgomery has been doing, then asked how much I felt I know about Montgomery and the issues facing the district.

Then, in proper push-poll tactic, I was given more information. C.J. read a brief bio of Boyland, which cited her City Council service and previous jobs as a legislative assistant for the Congressional Black Caucus and as a public school teacher. Supporters, I was told, say she is a young, energetic, and effective advocate for affordable housing, education, and women and familes. “She is running because it’s a time a change…We need some new energy and new ideas.”

Then came a biographical sketch of Montgomery, who was a teacher and day care director before her election in 1985. In the Senate, she has focused on improving social services, I was told, and she's been named one of the area's top business and professional women; she's running for reelection to continue to provide service to Brooklyn.

Then a repeat question: If Democratic primary were held tomorrow, who would I vote for?

Accentuating differences

Then C.J., reading his script, sketched out several differences between the candidates, including Montgomery’s statement that “she has been a strong candidate for reform” and Boyland’s counter that “the state government is in desperate need of change, but nothing will be done unless we elect new representatives.”

Then I was told that Montgomery says “she can get more done as an experienced Senator, but Boyland thinks “Montgomery has been in office long enough...[and] opposes projects that would’ve brought thousands of jobs and affordable housing to Central Brooklyn.”

The AY focus

That previous statement was a thinly-veiled reference to Atlantic Yards, but soon the focus on AY became clearer. Montgomery, I was told, strongly opposes AY, because it would be "wrong project for this part of Brooklyn" and destroy the character of neighborhoods.

Boyland, however, supports the AY project because it would “bring badly needed economic development to Central Brooklyn and create as many as 18,000 new jobs… [and] would provide over 7000 units of housing, with over 2200 set aside for affordable housing, which we desperately need.”

“Desperately needed affordable housing” is a quote that’s been used by Forest City Ratner and elected officials at least since the May 2005 press conference for the affordable housing Memorandum of Understanding. Note that at least half of the affordable housing wouldn't help people on the waiting list for public housing or Section 8 vouchers.

Also, the claim of 18,000 new jobs includes 15,000 construction jobs over ten years, or an average of 1500 jobs a year. Nor would all the jobs actually be created rather than retained, since some would represent jobs moved from elsewhere.

Class war

Finally, after about ten minutes on the phone with C.J., came the money shot: “Boyland says Montgomery is siding with people who have million-dollar brownstones and want to preserve their exclusive neighborhood instead of looking out for her own constituents.”

While class certainly plays a role in shaping attitudes toward the AY project, that’s a highly reductionist view of a complex issue, and a stilted sketch of Montgomery’s supporters.

Then again, it's a push poll. The question likely was meant to inflame opposition to the incumbent among less-affluent (and less-informed) members of her constituency.

Then I was asked my final opinion on the race, if the Democratic primary were held tomorrow.

Finally, I was asked, “for tabulation,” my age, education level, general political orientation, homeowner or renter, race, religion, and household income.

Who’s in charge?

I asked if a candidate was behind the poll. “We’re just an public opinion research firm,” I was told. “We’re not hired by either of them. We just have a client who gives us these jobs."

I got a supervisor and asked who was paying. “We’re never provided with the client’s information,” she told me.

C.J. told me he was calling from Seattle, where Pacific Crest Research apparently has a call center. But the phone number he gave me, 707-432-0374, is the company’s headquarters in Fairfield, CA. The web site is just a homepage, so there's no list of clients.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

A not-quite-correction in the Times

A Times editorial in the Westchester weekly July 16:
At another huge development in Brooklyn that Mr. Ratner proposes to build, an amazing 50 percent of housing units will be sold to low- and middle-income residents.

The correction published July 23:
An editorial last week about the Ridge Hill Village project in Yonkers mischaracterized the units earmarked for low and middle-income residents at another project, the proposed Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn. These units will be rented, not sold.

While that correction is technically correct--yes, the affordable units would be rented, not sold--it still leaves the impression that 50 percent of the total number of units would be rented to low- and middle-income residents.

Rather, 50 percent of the 4500 rental units would be affordable, while the project would include another 2360 market-rate condos. The affordable housing percentage, announced and pledged at 50 percent, applies only to the rentals.

How big would "Miss Brooklyn" be? Look across the river

So how big would "Miss Brooklyn," Frank Gehry's flagship tower for the Atlantic Yards project, actually be? At 620 feet tall (actually, 650 feet with mechanicals) and 1.1 million square feet, it would loom over its neighbor, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which is 512 feet tall but less than one-third the bulk.

Look across the river

So it's hard to get a sense of scale in the immediate neighborhood. But head for the the South Street Seaport and you might see a substantial glass-clad office building, 180 Maiden Lane, which stands between Front Street and the FDR Drive.

Could this building serve as a cue?

Indeed, the building includes 1.08 million square feet and stands 554 feet tall over 41 stories. So it's not quite as tall as Miss Brooklyn would be, but it's nearly as bulky.

So if you're crossing the Brooklyn or Manhattan bridges, or just looking over from the Brooklyn shoreline, a view of this building gives a whiff of the future--at least as currently planned.

Transfer of air rights

According to Emporis, the "building's large internal floorspace was made possible by the transfer of air-rights from low-rises in the South Street Seaport Museum area."

By contrast, the large internal floorspace in Miss Brooklyn would be made possible by the Empire State Development Corporation's override of local zoning.

(Emporis photo (c) Nate Lindsay)

Each AY tower would dwarf (in sf) that 31-story public housing tower

I've already pointed out that, even though Frank Gehry's proposed "Miss Brooklyn" tower would be only 20 percent taller than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, it would be three times as bulky.

But what about the tallest established residential building nearby, Atlantic Terminal Site 4B, the city's tallest public housing tower, at 31 stories and 310 feet. It's located across Atlantic Avenue at Carlton Avenue, opposite the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard, the site for several proposed towers.

Atlantic Terminal Site 4B covers 252,500 square feet, which makes it smaller than any of the proposed 16 towers in the Atlantic Yards project, including the six that are shorter. That's a testament to the density proposed in the Atlantic Yards plan and a reminder that height provides only a partial sense of a building's impact.

On the Brian Lehrer Show in June, Daily News columnist Errol Louis, a stalwart supporter of the Atlantic Yards plan, pointed to the presence of the 31-story tower as a cue for high-rise development in the area.

I pointed out that it was anomalous and, if you calculate the number of apartments per acre, the Atlantic Yards plan would be twice as dense as the public housing tower.

And the proposed square footages, released by the Empire State Development Corporation as part of the General Project Plan, offer further evidence of "extreme density." (Click on the graphic to enlarge.)

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Shadowy AY open space OK, says DEIS, because it's better than nothing

Yesterday I walked through Peter Cooper Village (PCV) in Manhattan in late afternoon, mindful of the warning by the Municipal Art Society that the open space at PCV's similar and co-managed neighbor, Stuyvesant Town, was more building backyard than true public park.

I was struck by how so much of the green space was in shadow--and from buildings only about 15 stories in height, less than half the height of most buildings proposed for the Atlantic Yards project. (And some AY buildings would be three times taller, at least.)

Would the seven acres of publicly-accessible open space proposed for Atlantic Yards be in late-afternoon shadow, when students return from school and adults from work?


The limits of the law

But that's not a problem, according to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement issued by the Empire State Development Corporation, which measures environmental impact within some very specific legal boundaries.

The reason: this would be new open space, and something is better than nothing.

According to Chapter 9, on Shadows:
The proposed project’s publicly accessible open space is designed to take into account the location and heights of the proposed buildings and the shadows they would create. Major landscape elements, such as the oval lawn, primary pathways, and water features, would be located to receive the maximum exposure to midday sun throughout the year. The location of other landscape elements, such as the north-south pathways and smaller passive use areas, would be sited and oriented to receive sunlight when other areas of this open space are in shade so that sizable portions of the entire open space would have access to sunlight during the late morning through early afternoon hours.
The proposed project’s publicly accessible open space would receive shadow from Buildings 3 through 15 throughout the day in each analysis period. The incremental shadow would be greatest in the early mornings, when the shadows would stretch east and late afternoons, when the shadows would stretch west along the open space. During those times, most of the open space would be in shadow. Shadow is not generally expected to adversely affect active recreational uses such as volleyball, bocce, and the half basketball courts. The shadow would diminish the attractiveness of the passive recreation areas to their potential users. Were it not for the development of these buildings, this publicly accessible space would not be created. Therefore, the shadows on this public space would not be considered significant adverse impacts.
(Emphasis added)

The argument is similar to that made in Chapter 6 of the DEIS, Open Space, which acknowledges that the amount of open space provided for the new population (much less the surrounding population) would be far below city guidelines:
In sum, because the proposed project would provide more open space to users than is currently available, no significant adverse impact on open space and recreational resources would result.

Was ATURA planning for (part of) the AY site--or just a framework?

It's already been established that the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA) would incorporate less than two-thirds of the proposed Atlantic Yards site, and an even smaller proportion of the properties subject to eminent domain.

So the incomplete coverage is an argument against ATURA being cited under the standard set in the Supreme Court's Kelo decision, which said that a community planning process was a prerequisite for the use of eminent domain.

(The project site is in blue, and ATURA in red, including the dark red, so the overlap is striped.)

But was ATURA actually a planning process? While it incorporated a broad area into a framework for urban renewal, the disposition of individual parcels was subject to specific planning decisions.

No look at the Vanderbilt Yard

And the main component of the Atlantic Yards plan that sits within ATURA, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard, has been a functioning railyard. There had been proposals for decking over the site, including a possible campus for Baruch.

However, in recent years, there were no attempts to market the site, and no requests for proposals, as Winston Von Engel of the New York City Department of City Planning said in March.

"We didn't decide to take a look at the yards," Von Engel said at a meeting of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee. "They belong to the Long Island Rail Road. They use them heavily. They're critical to their operations. You do things in a step-by-step process. We concentrated on the Downtown Brooklyn development plan for Downtown Brooklyn. Forest City Ratner owns property across the way. And they saw the yards, and looked at those. We had not been considering the yards directly."

So there may have been a framework for planning, incorporating the northern segment 60+% of the Atlantic Yards site, but there was no specific planning. And there was no planning at all for the buildings on Dean and Pacific streets, some of which were renovated following rezonings.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Spitzer, local officials tell ESDC: Give community more time to study DEIS

Eliot Spitzer, state Attorney General and frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for governor, has joined local elected officials and a community coalition who say that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) should offer more time for review of the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). In other words, the scheduled August 23 hearing is too soon.

Not only does Spitzer's statement reflect the concerns of numerous Brooklynites--not just opponents, but also members of community boards and civic groups--but it also has a practical implication. A delay makes it even less likely that, in a best-case scenario, departing Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, will preside over a groundbreaking.

Spitzer, who generally supports the project, sent a letter--[Update: note that it was on his campaign letterhead, not his official letterhead] today to Charles Gargano, chairman of the ESDC.

The letter was hailed by a coalition of local elected officials who represent constituents living close to the project. "It is imperative that enough time be allowed in the process for the public to review and respond to the DEIS," said Councilwoman Letitia James.

Assembly Members Joan Millman, Jim Brennan, and Roger Green also praised Spitzer and called for a delay. Millman and Brennan have been critical of the project, at least in terms of scale, while Green--whose district encompasses the project--supports the project.

Last week, the two leading contenders for Green's seat, Bill Batson and Hakeem Jeffries, called for more time.

Spitzer's letter

Spitzer's letter said, in part:
While I strongly support development at the Atlantic Yards site, I believe it is vital that there be adequate opportunity for public review of this project. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which was released on July 18, 2006, is approximately 1400 pages long and deserves the careful review that is essential for a project of this magnitude. In addition, the three community boards that represent the immediate neighborhood of the project are in recess until September. For these reasons, I believe it is appropriate that the public hearing associated with the DEIS, that is now scheduled for August 23, 2006, be postponed for at least 30 days, leaving a total of not less than 90 days for review.

Spitzer noted that "it is not uncommon for a longer period of time to be granted," citing the example of the Belleayre project in the Catskills, for which the community was given at least 140 days. Spitzer said that an extension of the public review "by at least 30 days is indispensable."

The Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) has suggested a 60-day extension. The three affected community boards--CBs 2,6 & 8--have also called for an extension, according to the CBN's Jim Vogel.

AY plans revealed: temporary parking + staging slowly eclipsed

Now we know what the Atlantic Yards site might look like--at least in part--thanks to graphics released with Draft Design Guidelines that are part of the General Project Plan.

Five buildings and the arena would be built in the first major stage, leaving the entire eastern segment of the site for temporary surface parking and staging. Then, according to the draft plans, buildings would be constructed one by one in 11 phases, moving east and then clockwise, each time reducing the amount of space for parking and staging.

Curiously enough, the last building to be built would be east of Sixth Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets. That space--just across from the arena block--also would provide persistent temporary parking. Permanent parking would be built under that building as well, as shown in the final graphic below.

11 phases, one missing

The Draft Design Guidelines illustrate 11 phases of construction, all after the first major stage (five buildings + arena). Scroll down for each phase and click to enlarge. Pink=temporary surface parking and staging.

Note that there's no official rendering of what might be called phase zero, which would show the entire site east of Sixth Avenue as either surface parking, staging, or railyards. Phase zero would persist during the construction of the first stage, over four years--so the first graphic below is adapted from the Laurie Olin renderings provided by the ESDC.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

"Miss Brooklyn" would be 3X the Williamsburgh bank (in sf)

"Miss Brooklyn" would be huge. While it would be the only building in the Atlantic Yards project taller (by about 20 percent) than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank nearby, architect Frank Gehry's flagship tower would be three times larger than the iconic bank, in square footage.

In fact, ten of the 16 buildings planned, including each of the five slated for the first phase, would be bigger than the bank, in bulk.

Developer Forest City Ratner has regularly cited the bank as a cue for the size of the Atlantic Yards project. It even released a rendering (below right) from a perspective that shows the bank looming over "Miss Brooklyn" in the background.

In an FAQ on the project web site, the developer states:
Miss Brooklyn," the building proposed to be located at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, will be the tallest, at 620 feet. As a comparison, buildings located nearby include the Williamsburgh Savings Bank which stands at 512 feet.

But height is only one measure. A document listing square footages, released by the Empire State Development Corporation last week as part of the General Project Plan, shows how bulky the buildings would be.

"Miss Brooklyn" would contain more than 1.1 million square feet. The bank, which is under conversion to luxury housing, contains 362,269 square feet.
Among the other buildings in the first phase, the building slated for Site 5, currently home to the low-slung P.C. Richard and Modell's, would be 695,750 square feet, nearly twice as big as the bank in terms of bulk. In the graphic at the top, this building is on the right.

Other buildings on the arena block would be 380,687 square feet, 650,437 square feet, and 824,629 square feet. (Click on the graphic for a larger version.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

“Friendly condemnations” (but not for renters): ESDC plans eminent domain for most of AY

So now we know what Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) Chairman Charles Gargano meant when he used the term “friendly condemnations” two months ago regarding the Atlantic Yards project.

As explained in a public hearing notice released yesterday, the ESDC will acquire nearly all the property in the Atlantic Yards site via eminent domain, including the 90 percent owned by Forest City Ratner. That includes city streets but not a few properties needed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

ESDC spokeswoman Jessica Copen explained: "When a development site is assembled by eminent domain, it is typical for the condemning authority to run any properties already owned by the developer through a 'friendly' condemnation, so as to clear any title defects that may have accumulated over the years."

Getting rid of renters?

Copen's statement does reflect typical practice. However, George Locker, a lawyer who represents 15 of the remaining 55 tenants in the project footprint, contends there's another reason: to evict his clients, who live in FCR-owned buildings but are protected by rent-stabilized leases.

"This is about getting protected residential rental tenants out of buildings," he charged. "ESDC is condemning rent-stabilized leases, contrary to the MOU [Memorandum of Understanding], and in violation of the tenant's rights and benefits, and the landlord's obligations under rent-stabilization. All of this chicanery will be the subject of litigation."

Typically, a landlord who wants to demolish a building containing rent-stabilized tenants to build another building must apply to a state housing agency for a demolition permit and satisfy several requirements--a process that would take much longer than the projected timetable for approval of the Atlantic Yards project.

Property ownership

While Forest City Ratner says it owns or controls 90 percent of the project site, that percentage is a bit misleading; of ten buildings that still contain rental tenants, six are owned by the developer. Even though those six buildings are counted in the 90 percent, FCR has not yet gotten tenants in those buildings to move.

The General Project Plan says that the site includes 73 individual tax lots (not including 53 individual tax lots for condos). Some tax lots contain multiple buildings. (Click on the graphic to enlarge. Note that only the west sliver of Block 1128 is part of the proposed project.)

The project site initially included approximately 26 rental buildings, 66 commercial properties, two medium-sized residential buildings with owner-occupied units, and four other buildings with owner-occupied units. (One rental building had one owner-occupied unit, while another had 11.)

Of the commercial businesses, 13 have not signed relocation agreements with FCR, according to the ESDC. Five owner-occupied units remain; some of those owners have agreed to leave, while Daniel Goldstein, spokesman for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn has publicly vowed to fight eviction.

Above is an ownership map adapted from the ESDC map, while the list of occupied residential buildings is on p. 9 of Chapter 4 of the DEIS.

Plans announced?

The ESDC's plans regarding eminent domain were announced but not fully confirmed on July 18, when the agency's board met and the General Project Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Statement were released. A memo to the board from Chairman Charles Gargano suggested two options:
With respect to Forest City controlled properties, it is expected that Forest City will either convey title to ESDC at no cost to the Corporation or that ESDC will, with the consent of Forest City, acquire title by condemnation, also at no cost to the Corporation.

The General Project Plan was more explicit, stating:
All of the properties within the Project Site would be acquired by ESDC... through uncontested condemnation in the case of properties owned by the City or FCRC, or through exercise of eminent domain in the case of properties and interests in properties that FCRC has been unable to acquire through negotiation.

Tax exemptions?

One source suggested that the use of eminent domain would secure additional tax exemptions. The ESDC's Copen said no, that the tax exemptions wouldn't derive from eminent domain.

"In most ESDC real estate projects, the land is owned by ESDC and leased to a developer. When land is owned by ESDC, that land is exempt from real property taxes," she said. "The exemption derives from ESDC ownership--it doesn't depend upon whether the land was acquired by eminent domain. If the land owned by FCRC simply was conveyed to ESDC (instead of condemned), that land similarly would become exempt from property taxes."

She continued, "Whether the developer pays mortgage recording taxes also has nothing to do with condemnation. With ESDC projects, such as Atlantic Yards, whether the developer benefits from a mortgage recording tax exemption is an issue negotiated by the developer with ESDC and NYC."

Previous promises

Locker called the move "a textbook explanation of the benefits of condemnation, not a response to clear public documents and public statements that say it will not be used on Forest City Ratner properties." He pointed to the 2/18/05 MOU signed by the city and state regarding the project, which stated that the ESDC would acquire "portions of the Private Properties... necessary to facilitate the Project."

Locker says that suggests the ESDC would condemn only properties not owned by the developer. Now, however, it seems that the ESDC has deemed nearly all the "Private Properties" necessary to the project. [Addendum 3 pm 7/26] However, as another clause (right) of the MOU states, the developer was to convey the properties, not have them condemned.

Locker also pointed to Forest City Ratner's PowerPoint presentation to the New York City Council on 5/26/05, which stated that the developer has "substantially reduced the need for condemnation."

In retrospect, the term "unfriendly condemnation" would have been more precise.

"Near the planned Atlantic Yards"? The Times resists another correction

The caption on the photo in yesterday's New York Times blight story read:
This portion of Dean Street, between Flatbush and Sixth Avenues near the planned Atlantic Yards, is in a part of Brooklyn that a state agency has defined as blighted.

But it's not "near" the project site. I e-mailed the Times:
The caption for the article incorrectly described the portion of Dean Street pictured as being "near the planned Atlantic Yards." Actually, the street would be included in the project, with towers of 322 feet and 428 feet replacing the current buildings.

The Times responds

I got a quick response from Senior Editor Greg Brock, who oversees corrections:
I think you misread the caption. It is talking about Dean Street in the present -- as it exists now. Not what it will be in the future as part of the Atlantic Yards. Here is the caption: "This portion of Dean Street, between Flatbush and Sixth Avenues near the planned Atlantic Yards, is in a part of Brooklyn that a state agency has defined as blighted."
Delete the location and you will see the point of the caption: "This portion of Dean Street is in a part of Brooklyn that a state agency has defined as blighted."
That's talking about the present, and is correct.
The location: "between Flatbush and Sixth Avenues near the planned Atlantic Yards" is also referring to its present location. And that is correct, also.
Your note said: it would be included. Once it is included, we will refer to it that way.

[As the graphic above shows, Dean Street would be the site of two towers bordering the arena, in the southwest portion of the project site.]

Near the planned AY

I responded quickly:
I have no disagreement with the truncation: "This portion of Dean Street is in a part of Brooklyn that a state agency has defined as blighted."
But the addition of "near the planned Atlantic Yards" renders the sentence incorrect, since it suggests that the "planned Atlantic Yards" would be somewhere else. The planned Atlantic Yards would include the street.

Huge contrast

I didn't get a response, and no correction appeared today. But a correct caption would have better signaled the huge contrast between the row-house scale of Dean Street and the planned project.

The houses are roughly 50 feet tall. The planned arena would be 150 feet tall. The towers would be more than twice as tall. As architect Frank Gehry said last year, "Everything we’re building is out of scale with the existing area."

Building 2, just below the center of the arena, at Dean Street and Flatbush Avenue, would be 322 feet. Building 3, at the corner of Dean Street and Sixth Avenue--replacing the buildings in the right corner of the photo at top--would be 428 feet.

Those two buildings would be just to the right of the center in the rendering at right. The scale of the surrounding neighborhood is suggested by the tiny blocks in the lower right.

Showing the real scale

I regret having to wrangle about obvious corrections, as I've done regarding "rezoning" and the "open railyard." It distracts from the more important challenge--for me, for Times editors--of looking at larger issues. But if the Times prizes the "journalism of verification," the newspaper should be accurate.

Also, it's notable that, for whatever reason, the Times has yet to print a graphic rendering of the true scale of the project.

What if the caption had pointed out that the buildings in the photo would be replaced by an arena three times their size, and by towers six and eight times their size?

Or if the Times had produced a montage with the Dean Street buildings and a rendering of the proposed scale of the street?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Tenants' rights activist disses AY affordable housing program

On the Housing Notebook show Monday night on radio station WBAI, host Scott Sommer, a tenants’ rights activist, offered forceful and sardonic criticism of the affordable housing component of the Atlantic Yards project.

Sommer's monologue began at about the 15:50 mark of the show, after he talked about the increasing pressure on rents and the prevalence of luxury housing among new construction. You have to listen to get the flavor of his sarcasm.

He began:
We are seeing the whole--the unraveling of the promise of the 50% of affordable housing at the Atlantic Yards Project, a project that should be condemned and destroyed. You know, the unraveling of that.
You know, it's now down closer to 30%. And some of the affordable units are going to be going for--affordable, affordable--the affordable units are going for over two thousand dollars a month. They just had a dog and pony show, sham information session, recently, about the affordable housing units, describing how that's going to work, and it's not even going to be around for, you know, well towards the end of the project, should this project ever get approved.

His point, I think, was that much of the affordable housing wouldn't be built for years, and a majority not until 2016, the completion date under the most optimistic scenario.

"Your tax dollars"

Sommer continued:
It's a sham what is happening down there with your tax dollars, by the way, and the use of eminent domain. They're gonna build a stadium for the Nets. They're gonna build luxury housing for the rich. And they're gonna throw some crumbs to the poor and the working poor and middle income people. And then higher middle-income people are going to be fighting for these two-thousand dollar apartments--for like two-bedroom apartments, three-bedroom apartments--absolutely insane. So this has nothing to do with the building of housing. These rent guidelines have nothing to do with that. Because the new units--anything built since 1974, unless it's built with government subsidy, is built outside the rent regulatory scheme, the eviction prevention scheme.

Actually, Forest City Ratner has announced that the 2250 affordable units would be under rent stabilization. (Click on the graphic for details about the rent.)

Bashing Bloomberg

At about 23:44 of the show, Sommer took off on Mayor Mike Bloomberg:
His fake words every now and then, about being concerned about all New Yorkers. The Atlantic Yards project, which is a boondoggle for rich developers, on tax money. His attempts on the West Side to go ahead and to build that stadium--that is the truth of Mike Bloomberg. Those kinds of--the mega-developments that he proposes, that will not benefit the working poor in New York.

It's interesting to note that another left-wing activist has criticized the housing deal brokered by ACORN and Forest City Ratner. Last year, Mark Winston Griffiths, on the DMI Blog, launched a contentious debate among progressives about ACORN, with some questioning ACORN's dealmaking and others defending it.

ATURA, crime, and the Times's blight story

In an article today headlined Blight, Like Beauty, Can Be in the Eye of the Beholder, the New York Times does a reasonable job surveying the issues regarding blight at the Atlantic Yards site, quoting a range of voices, even Assembly Member Roger Green, who supports the project but has said the site isn't blighted.

(The photo shows part of the block on Dean Street between Flatbush and Sixth avenues, probably the best-preserved part of the proposed footprint. The caption in the print edition, on the front page of the Metro section, incorrectly described the portion of Dean Street as "near the planned Atlantic Yards" rather than within the proposed project site.)

In two aspects, however, the coverage falls short. The first involves the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA). The article states:
The study also dwells in some detail on the eight-acre railyards that make up about one-third of the site, and which also fall within an urban renewal zone the city established along Atlantic Avenue in the late 1960’s. The railyards hindered hoped-for development in the renewal zone for decades, the study notes, and continue to do so on those blocks to the south and west of the yards where the project would be.

That's questionable, since if the city had wanted more powers for redevelopment, it could have extended the boundaries of ATURA beyond the Pacific Street streetbed to include buildings on Pacific Street and then further on Dean Street. (The project site is in blue, and ATURA in red (including the dark red), so the overlap is striped.)

However, there were functioning manufacturing businesses on those blocks through the 1990s, including the Daily News printing plant and the Pechter (formerly Ward) Bakery. A process of individual rezonings had begun, and the Daily News building was converted into the Newswalk condos, on a plot of land cut out of the proposed project footprint.

ATURA likely will be cited to justify the use of eminent domain, given the Supreme Court's ruling that such use must be preceded by a governmental planning process. But what if the planning process excluded more than one-third of the project site?

On crime

The Times article also touches on the crime issue:
The study also included a look at crime in the area. Because the Police Department does not collect crime statistics block by block, the study could measure only indirectly whether the site has more crime than the area surrounding it. AKRF examined three police “sectors” in Brooklyn, each of which overlaps parts of the site but extend well beyond it. The study compared the combined crime rates in those three sectors with the combined crime rates for their respective police precincts. Finding the precinct numbers lower, the study declares that “residents and businesses on the project site are more susceptible to crime” than those in surrounding neighborhoods.
Overall crime in the three precincts, however, decreased slightly between 2004 and 2005.
“They make the footprint sound like it’s a Lower East Side slum,” said Daniel Goldstein, the spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, an umbrella organization for groups opposed to the project.

But neither the overall crime numbers nor Goldstein's statement offer a sufficient rebuttal to a sketchy thesis. As I pointed out, the crime rates in two of the individual sectors were lower than in the larger precincts. Thus, the apparent crime increase could be attributed to only one of the three sectors, 88E. And there was no evidence that the footprint itself contributed to higher crime.

In fact, I recently searched the articles in a local Brooklyn newspaper regarding crime in Sector 88E. Of the crimes reported in 2006 that could be isolated to that sector, all were north of Atlantic Avenue, above the railyards. Of course, that evidence is anecdotal, but it's at least as solid as the ESDC's speculation.

About AKRF

The Times article refers to the authors of the DEIS, AKRF, as "a consulting firm with long experience in land use and environmental engineering."

True, but lobbyist Richard Lipsky of the Neighborhood Retail Alliance (who in this case is lobbying for Forest City Ratner) has previously written, "The AKRF folks are simply rationalizing their job which is to make a great deal of money by minimizing impacts and conducting dishonest research.

And the Brooklyn Downtown Star has written of AKRF, regarding the possible Underground Railroad history at Duffield Street properties slated for eminent domain:
This is the same firm that was publicly exposed two summers ago during City Council hearings for being either incompetent or intentionally misleading

Instant gentrification? DEIS says no, statistics say yes

Would the Atlantic Yards project cause gentrification, also known as "indirect residential displacement"? The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) issued last week by the Empire State Development Corporation says no, in part because of ongoing gentrification, because new housing units could relieve market pressure, and because most of the at-risk households would be more than a half-mile away.

Those arguments, however debatable, can't be dismissed. The fourth reason, however, doesn't pass the laugh test. The DEIS suggests that the new residents would be similar economically to current residents in the area. But it fails to point out that the cost of the new housing would ensure that most new households would have to earn above-average incomes.

So the numbers back up City Council Member Charles Barron, who has long criticized Atlantic Yards as "instant gentrification."

Looking at the document

Chapter 4 of the DEIS states:
Similarities between the proposed project housing mix and the housing mix currently present in the ¾-mile study area indicate that the socioeconomic profile of new households and existing households would be comparable.

However, the DEIS lists the median household income for that ¾-mile study area as $46,208, based on the 2000 census. A rise since then by ten percent would bring the median income to about $50,000.

People earning $50,000 would have a chance at only a fraction of the 6860 apartments planned for the project. A large majority, 4610 units, would be market-rate condos and rentals, likely geared to people earning six figures and more.

The 2250 affordable rentals would rent at 30 percent of a household's income. However, more than half of those units (Band 5, Band 4, and at least half of Band 3) would got to families earning more than $50,000. Some of the affordable units would be aimed at people earning over $100,000, more than double in income in the study area.

So 5735 units--4610 market-rate and at least 1125 affordable--would go to households earning over $50,000. That means that nearly 84 percent of the new households would not be so comparable with the surrounding area.

Statistical leaps

How did the DEIS reach such a wrongheaded conclusion? The writers of the DEIS first pointed out that the distribution of the rental units, as a percentage of the total units, would be similar to the distribution of rentals in the ¾-mile study area.

Then came a curious formulation:
The distribution of affordable and market rate rental units would also be similar on the proposed project site and in the ¾-mile study area. A housing unit is generally considered “affordable” if the household occupying it pays 30 percent or less of its income towards housing costs. As of the 2000 Census, approximately 59 percent of all renter households in the ¾-mile study area were spending less than 30 percent of their household income on housing costs. This is similar to the proportion of affordable units planned as part of the proposed project.

Yes, 50 percent of the project rental units would be affordable. But that doesn't mean they'd be affordable to the same group of people. If the median household income in the study area is $50,000, current affordable rents are much lower than the affordable rents that Atlantic Yards renters would pay.

The segment concludes:
In tenure, affordability, and apartment size, the housing stock introduced by the proposed project would be similar to the housing stock in the broader ¾-mile study area. This indicates that the socioeconomic characteristics of the new population (e.g., in household income and household size) would be similar to the characteristics of the population living in the broader ¾-mile study area. Therefore, while the proposed project would introduce a substantial new population, that population would not be markedly different in its socioeconomic profile than the existing population, which would eliminate one of the underlying conditions for indirect residential displacement. (Emphasis added)

There's no evidence that the household income would be similar. By ignoring the actual income figures and relying improperly on affordability as a proxy for income, the DEIS avoids confronting "indirect residential displacement."

Real housing for the real Brooklyn? Half of the affordable units--or less

On July 17, in an editorial headlined Real housing for the real Brooklyn, a Daily News editorial recounted how more than 2,500 real New Yorkers packed a ballroom at the Brooklyn Marriott to hear a presentation on the estimated 2,250 units of low-cost housing that would be built as part of Atlantic Yards, benefitting families who languish for as long as eight years on waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 vouchers.

I already pointed out that most Daily News readers would hardly consider the subsidized housing uniformly "low-cost," since some 40 percent of the affordable units would rent for well over $2000 a month (for a four-person family.)

But the editorial deserves a closer look, especially since it suggests that the 2250 units would be benefitting families who languish for as long as eight years on waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 vouchers.

Section 8 limits

For Section 8 assistance, $35,450 is the maximum income for a four-person family. That means that only 900 of the 2250 units would be available to people now waiting for Section 8 vouchers.

Public housing limits

City public housing rules set $56,700 as the maximum income for a four-person family. Because $56,700 is about halfway through Band 3 ($42,540-$70,900), that suggests that half of those 450 units could go to those seeking public housing.

Thus, a total of 1125 units might be considered "Real housing for the real Brooklyn." Or maybe just 900, as noted below.

AMI blues

Part of the problem is that the city's affordable housing plans are geared to the Area Median Income (AMI), which is set by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.

The New York AMI is $70,900. However, that figure incorporates not only the five boroughs of New York City, but also the more affluent Nassau, Putnam, Rockland, Suffolk, and Westchester counties. The way AMI is calculated has drawn criticism from local officials and housing advocates.

Meanwhile, the median income in the city itself is much lower. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Atlantic Yards project, in Chapter 4 (p. 34), cites the median household income for Brooklyn as $32,135 and for the city as $38,293. Those statistics come from the 2000 U.S. Census and thus are somewhat outdated, but they still suggest that Brooklyn's median income is significantly less than the New York AMI calculated for the region.

Bottom line

It's not Forest City Ratner's fault that only 40 percent (900) of the affordable units would be geared to average Brooklynites, since the income ranges are related to the HUD guidelines and the mix of units geared to the city's New HOP affordable housing program.

On the other hand, when company executive Jim Stuckey says "we're trying desperately to address the affordable housing crisis in New York City right now," that statement must be seen as political spin, not accurate description.

And so should the Daily News's claim that the affordable housing would help people waiting for public housing or Section 8 vouchers. After all, the Daily News has editorialized vigorously in favor of the project.

But if 900 of 6860 units are truly affordable, that would be 13% of the project. If you count 1125 units, the ratio nudges past 16%. (I'm not going to add the 600 to 1000 affordable for-sale condos planned, because most would be aimed at those in the upper affordable-income tiers.)

The affordable housing ratio would be higher than at several other projects that include no affordable housing at all. But that doesn't make it "Real housing for the real Brooklyn."

Monday, July 24, 2006

Daily News champions eminent domain, misreads ATURA

The Daily News editorial page seems committed to leading the charge on the Atlantic Yards project. Two editorials, plus a column by Errol Louis, have already been the subject of e-newsletters sent by developer Forest City Ratner within the last ten weeks.

Today's editorial, headlined Eminent sense in Brooklyn domain, likely will be no different. It states:
The United States Supreme Court has ruled that public agencies can invoke eminent domain to purchase land from holdouts and make it available to private developers, provided the project in question follows a preexisting governmental planning process and the public good is served. Atlantic Yards meets both criteria.
In 1968, most of the area was so blighted that city planners officially declared it an urban renewal zone, restating that designation as recently as 2004. The thousands of jobs and the subsidized housing the project would create represent a clear benefit to the public.

As Lumi Rolley pointed out first on NoLandGrab, key blocks in the footprint were never part of the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA), in solid blue, and many of the properties subject to eminent domain are on those blocks, including properties needed for the arena. (ATURA is in red, including the grayish red, while the project would occupy the blocks in blue and blue stripes.)


The editorial concludes:
Eminent domain is the power that brought us Lincoln Center, the new Times Square and affordable-housing meccas like Melrose Commons in the Bronx, which had long been a moonscape of burned and vacant buildings. Atlantic Yards foes might make better use of their time by negotiating to, say, scale down the project or change the traffic patterns. They should not be holding Brooklyn's future hostage with a frivolous lawsuit.

The reference to negotiating recalls Louis's column that suggested that politicians should try to negotiate jobs at the project, even though they can't. There's no negotiating to be done regarding the scale of the project; objections and criticism can be voiced, but there's no forum to evaluate them. As Kent Barwick wrote in a letter published in the Times today:
The fact is that state-regulated projects developed in association with the Empire State Development Corporation provide for no serious opportunities for citizens to become engaged in planning for their neighborhoods.


On WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show last week, Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey said:
This area has been considered blighted since 1968 when the first Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Plan was adopted. About 60, 65 percent of the area fell within that urban renewal area and was considered to be a blighted area. Those findings when the Downtown Brooklyn plan was approved two years ago were reaffirmed. These are not new.

But 60 to 65 percent does not a whole site make.

Supreme Court said

Was ATURA a "preexisting governmental planning process"? Only if looked at loosely. Justice Anthony Kennedy's concurrence in last year's Kelo vs. New London case raises some questions:
A court confronted with a plausible accusation of impermissible favoritism to private parties should treat the objection as a serious one and review the record to see if it has merit, though with the presumption that the government’s actions were reasonable and intended to serve a public purpose. Here, the trial court conducted a careful and extensive inquiry into “whether, in fact, the development plan is of primary benefit to . . . the developer [i.e., Corcoran Jennison], and private businesses which may eventually locate in the plan area [e.g., Pfizer], and in that regard, only of incidental benefit to the city.” The trial court considered testimony from government officials and corporate officers; documentary evidence of communications between these parties; respondents’ awareness of New London’s depressed economic condition and evidence corroborating the validity of this concern; the substantial commitment of public funds by the State to the development project before most of the private beneficiaries were known; evidence that respondents reviewed a variety of development plans and chose a private developer from a group of applicants rather than picking out a particular transferee beforehand... (Emphasis added)

In Brooklyn, the beneficiary would be Forest City Ratner, and there was just one development plan.

Batson, Jeffries say AY review deserves more time

They have different positions on the Atlantic Yards project, but Bill Batson and Hakeem Jeffries, candidates for the 57th Assembly District seat being vacated by Roger Green, at least agree that August 23 is too soon to hold a hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project.

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) “has insulted all of Brooklyn” by scheduling the hearing during the last week of the summer, when many families go away with children, said Batson (right) at a candidates’ forum Thursday night at the Duryea Presbyterian Church in Prospect Heights.

Jeffries said he though the process of public review should be extended for six months. (The DEIS was released last week, and comments will be accepted only through September 23.) “It is problematic that the two public hearings are scheduled at times that are inconvenient,” he said, noting that the follow-up community forum is on the day of the Democratic primary election.

Freddie Hamilton, the third candidate in the race to succeed Roger Green, who is running for Congress, was less critical. “I think the Atlantic Yards project has been a learning experience for each and every one of us,” she said. “I believe that going forward, we will be able to put different and additional oversight into the process. Having said that, my experience in life is, no matter how open the process is, some people will not see it as that.”

Opening stakes

Batson, a longtime legislative aide who has significant backing from Atlantic Yards opponents, has strongly criticized Forest City Ratner's plan, saying in his opening statement that “16 skyscrapers would just be a stake through the heart of Brooklyn.”

While Jeffries, a lawyer, emphasized “neighborhood-friendly development” in his opening statement, he didn’t mention Atlantic Yards. Hamilton (right), who cited affordable housing as one of her priorities, ran into trouble with a few audience members. “I am a signer of the Community Benefits Agreement,” she said, and because of that, “I will not address Atlantic Yards.”

“That’s not acceptable,” boomed Schellie Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, who was wearing a Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) t-shirt.

“If this is a Develop Don’t Destroy rally, I’m at the wrong meeting,” said Hamilton, Hamilton, a Democratic District Leader for the Assembly District. “I’m not a spokesman for Bruce Ratner and Atlantic Yards."

“Then don’t be running for office, taking money from him,” Hagan countered.

Ironically, the forum sponsor, the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC) has distanced itself from DDDB, notably in a press release regarding the Municipal Art Society session last month on design principles for the project.

Security issues

The longstanding state law governing the environmental review process does not incorporate post-9/11 security issues and, despite the entreaties of several community groups and community boards, the DEIS does not address security. The candidates were asked if the review process should be broadened.

“I would say absolutely that this is something that should be included, Jeffries (right) said, adding, “I’d like to make sure that any environmental assessment not just consider security concerns but all the public services.” Actually, the DEIS does address police and fire services, for example, and found no significant adverse impacts.

Hamilton said she’d support adding post 9/11 security issues. Batson said, “We need to stop this mock environmental impact process.”

Eminent domain

The candidates seemed to agree on the issue of eminent domain, notably the Kelo vs. New London case in which the Supreme Court last year narrowly upheld the use of eminent domain for economic development.

“I certainly believe eminent domain should be limited and curtailed,” Jeffries said. “I disagree with the Supreme Court’s most recent decision. I’ve come out against the use of eminent domain to build a basketball arena.” (What that means regarding the Atlantic Yards project is unclear, even after I asked for amplification.)

Jeffries added, “We need to redefine the issue of blight”--which is part of the justification for the Atlantic Yards project.

Batson said that Kelo should be reversed and contended that eminent domain was already driving warehousing of properties throughout Community Board 8, on which he sits.

Hamilton added that she opposed Kelo, said the powers of eminent domain shouldn’t be abused, and agreed with Jeffries that blight should be redefined, though she didn’t mention Atlantic Yards.

Congressional candidates on ED

In the later segment of the forum, featuring three of the four candidates for the open 11th Congressional District seat, the eminent domain issue recurred.

David Yassky cautioned that a law limiting eminent domain could limit “the government’s ability” to build projects, parks, and roads. Still, he acknowledged that “I am troubled by that aspect of Atlantic Yards.” If a project is in the public interest, he said, “you auction [property] off to the highest bidder, not transfer it.”

“Are you against the project?” someone in the crowd asked. The question went unanswered; Yassky has both supported and criticized the project.

Chris Owens said he opposed eminent domain and emphasized his stand: “I am the only person who opposes Atlantic Yards as proposed.”

Carl Andrews acknowledged that eminent domain “is very controversial.” He went on to say, “I support Atlantic Yards, but I realize that Atlantic Yards is not a perfect development. In order to make it a perfect development, you need to have more community input, and hopefully [the developer] will take into consideration those concerns.”

Yvette Clark didn’t attend.

Support & spin in the 57th

Jeffries has raised more money than Batson, and has the support of the county political organization, even though he was an insurgent in a previous candidacy, then saw his residence cut out in a redistricting. (Hamilton’s fundraising lags.)

Batson asserted that he was the real independent, and Jeffries responded that he had support from a variety of groups (including seven unions to Batson's one) beyond the county organization.

See the comments section on the Times Empire Zone blog for more discussion. Jeffries supporters highlight a Batson verbal slip—he said he had graduated from Pratt, and then caught himself to acknowledge that he hadn’t finished the degree. Batson supporters argue that Jeffries, however polished, may not be trusted to take a clear stand.

No eminent domain for arena, says Jeffries, but for AY?

Hakeem Jeffries, a candidate for the open 57th Assembly District seat, is against the use of eminent domain to build a basketball arena, as he said in an advertisement in May and at a forum last Thursday.

But what exactly does that mean? I caught up with Jeffries after the forum to ask him to amplify his statement. That produced some musings, but no definitive statement.

“I’m opposed to using eminent domain as it relates to this project,” he said. “I don’t believe it should be used by a private developer to build a basketball arena.”

“I've encouraged, from the very beginning, the notion of looking at a project that focused exclusively on housing, or focused predominantly on housing," he continued. "I’ve yet to see the connection made with the necessity of the arena and tying it to making the development of affordable housing economically feasible. I'd be interested in seeing that argument made, but until it's made I can't really comment any further on the issue of how eminent domain relates to the entire project."

Eminent domain for what?

“What’s important to have happen is to see whether the developer can make the case that there's an absolute and explicit and necessary connection between an arena and the housing,” he said. "The eminent domain, in my understanding, is what's necessary as a result of the arena, not as a result of building the housing along the railyards."

I suggested that eminent domain would be used for both the arena and housing. "That's something I would be interested in looking at, but I've got to see that information," Jeffries said.

(Indeed, the housing would be built not only on the railyards between Pacific Street and Atlantic Avenue, but also between Pacific and Dean streets. Some properties on yet unsold to Forest City Ratner would be in the arena location, while others would be in areas slated for housing. Negotiations are ongoing, so it's unclear which properties would be subject to eminent domain other than the condo owned by Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, who has stated his unwillingness to sell; it would be located within the arena segment.)

Broader impact

I pointed out that part of the subsidies for the arena would go to infrastructure that could support the larger project. "The case that an arena is going to be an economic benefit to the community is one that's very suspect," Jeffries said. I noted that that the Independent Budget Office predicted a modest fiscal gain.

Jeffries added: "To me, the case to be made and the common ground here, even if you look at the UNITY plan project that was supported by others, would be the affordable housing. Everyone agrees that what should be built there is some housing, and some housing that deals with the affordable housing crisis. And we should all be looking at finding the common ground, as opposed to the issues that are dividing us."

If he were in the state legislature today, I asked, what would he tell Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who controls a key vote on the Public Authorities Control Board, which must approve the project after the ESDC votes.

"As a lawyer, I've learned never to answer hypothetical questions," Jeffries responded. Pressed by the Times earlier this month for his stand, Jeffries said that he would "be more inclined to support it than not," mainly because of the affordable housing.

What remains unclear in the discussion about affordable housing in the Atlantic Yards plan is the value of the public subsidies.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Is AY right for Brooklyn? In Daily News, Markowitz, Shiffman disagree

In the Daily News today, two brief but telling paired opinion pieces. Is Atlantic Yards right for Brooklyn? Yes, writes Borough President Marty Markowitz. A key line:
Without serious leadership in Washington or Albany, we must look to public-private collaborations such as Atlantic Yards to be part of the solution - that's reality, not theory.

Is Atlantic Yards right for Brooklyn? No, counters Ron Shiffman, professor of architecture and urban planning at Pratt Institute's School of Architecture (and also a Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn advisory board member). A key response:
After the West Side stadium debacle, the city now wants to buy rights to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Hudson Yards and then have developers make proposals for projects that would go through the city's planning process. In Brooklyn, the city has endorsed a single-source deal. It's bad planning and deceptive decision-making and unworthy of a world city.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The housing switch: more affordable units would go to the middle-class

There's been a small but significant switch within the allotment of affordable housing promised for the Atlantic Yards project. No longer would 900 of the 2250 affordable apartments be promised to moderate-income households earning 60%-100% of the Area Median Income, or AMI.

Rather, only 450 units would go to moderate-income people, and 900 would be aimed to the middle-class, earning above the AMI. Thus, some 40% of the units in the affordable allotment would have relatively high rent; a family of four would pay more than than $2000 a month.

The scenario currently proposed was, in fact, one of three anticipated in the Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that the advocacy group ACORN negotiated with developer Forest City Ratner in May 2005.

However, this scenario, which would reap the highest rent, was not the one the developer promoted on its web site for three months. No wonder some of the attendees at the affordable housing information session on 7/11/06 looked askance at the rents being discussed.

No matter the scenario, each unit would be rented at 30% of the tenants' family income, which is the definition of affordable. Each of the three scenarios would reserve 900 of the affordable units to low-income households earning 50% or less of the AMI.

This conforms with the New York City Housing Development Corporation's New Housing Opportunities (HOP) program, which supports developments with 50% market-rate units, 30% moderate- and middle-income units, and 20% low income units. The New HOP program would involve only the 4500 rental units proposed for Atlantic Yards, not the additional 2360 market-rate condos.

It should be acknowledged that any of the three scenarios negotiated by ACORN would in some ways improve on the New HOP program. (I'll discuss that in greater detail below.) It's just that the current scenario would offer the least improvement.

Best deal

The first scenario in Housing MOU set the income limit at 140% of the AMI. (When the agreement was signed last year, the AMI was $62,800.)

The scenario included five categories, or "bands," in which the third-highest band (450 units) would encompass people earning 61%-80% of the AMI, the fourth-highest band (450 units) would be for those earning 81%-100% of the AMI, and the highest band (450 units) would be for those earning 101%-140% of the AMI.

Next deal

The second scenario set the income limit at 150% of the AMI. The third-highest band would encompass people earning 60%-90% of the AMI, the fourth-highest band would be for those earning 91%-110% of the AMI, and the highest band would be for those earning 111%-150% of the AMI.

Highest rent

The third scenario was for an income limit of 160% of the AMI. Of the five"bands," the third-highest band would encompass people earning 60-100% of the AMI, the fourth-highest band would be for those earning 101%-140% of the AMI, and the highest band would be for those earning 141%-160% of the AMI.

In short, those earning 60%-100% of the AMI would gain access to 450 units, rather than 900 units, as anticipated in the first scenario.

Best deal promoted

When Forest City Ratner debuted the new web site in April, the housing chart promised a version of the first scenario, with 900 units offered to moderate-income renters. This was actually slightly better than the first scenario, since the third band encompassed those earning 51%-80%, not 60%-80% of the AMI.

(Note that the chart below is no longer on the web site.)

Best deal shelved

When it came time for the affordable housing information session on 7/11/06, however, Forest City Ratner had replaced the first scenario with the third scenario.

Instead of having 900 (40%) of the 2250 affordable units go to people earning between 61%-100% of the AMI, only 450 units would go to those in that category, and 900 units would go to those earning more than the AMI.

Moreover, the AMI in the past year has risen from $62,800 to $70,900, thus raising rents all around.

Still an improvement

This actually remains an improvement over some other affordable housing configurations. As City Limits reported last year:
What ACORN won was a commitment to devote most of the middle-income units to households earning significantly less than the maximum HDC allows, and to limit rents to 30 percent of household income. Usually, HDC New Housing Opportunity Program [HOP] apartments are open to renters earning up to 175 percent of area median income, or, averaging for household size, about $94,500. Ratner agreed to lower the cap to 160 percent, and possibly as low as 140 percent, depending on project financing and market conditions as the new towers get built.

So project financing and market conditions now seem to be driving a cap of 160 percent, not 140 percent.

Low-income boundaries
(Updated) The Atlantic Yards program would be within the typical income ranges for low- and moderate-income households.

The New York City Housing Development Corporation (HDC) says that 20 percent of the units in the New HOP program should be affordable to those earning at or below 50% of the AMI, and gives examples of 40% and 50%.

The Atlantic Yards program would go down to 30% of the AMI--though that "band" is typically 30-40% of AMI.

Moderate-income levels

Also, HDC says that 30% of the units would have to be affordable to those earning at or below 130% of the AMI. The three examples provided are 80%, 100%, and 130%.

The "band" for the Atlantic Yards project involving those earning 60%-80% of AMI would not have been atypical for the range,.

What would the rent be?

It's unclear, however, how much the Atlantic Yards affordable housing would do for the middle-income people who need a boost. Yes, only those earning up to 160% of the AMI would be eligible for Atlantic Yards, while the standard New HOP cap is 175% of the AMI.

On the other hand, the rents may not be lower. Affordable rents proposed for Atlantic Yards would range past $3000 for a family of six, and to $2658 for a family of four. (Click to enlarge.)

However, the June 2006 term sheet for the New Housing Opportunities Program sets maximum rent levels at $2334, or 130% of AMI. (My assumption is that would be for a family of four.)

Note that, in the third scenario of the Atlantic Yards Housing MOU, the rents would go up to 150% of AMI.

Bottom-line issues

So what does it all mean? These adjustments within the proposed affordable housing scenarios likely are linked to the available financing for affordable housing and the overall cost of the project.

Does the presence of the arena and high infrastructure costs mean that Forest City Ratner can only promise the third, rather than the first, scenario regarding affordable housing?

Does the presence of affordable housing drive political support for a project far more dense than any other in the country?

Would the rent for the higher-end affordable units be above the New HOP guidelines?

How much would the public pay for the affordable housing, and what is Forest City Ratner's contribution?

Is there a justification for a greater public investment?

Or how might the same public investment in affordable housing play out in a different project?

All these are unknowns until more figures are on the table for public discussion.

What is clear is that affordable housing means a rent set at 30% of a family's income. It does not mean low-income housing, and it does not mean moderate-income housing. The details matter.