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Lobbying Ms. Burden: DCP gives up on WillyB blockage, mall "overbuild"

So what did Forest City Ratner get from having Fried Frank lawyer Melanie Meyers, a former general counsel (1994-1998) to the Department of City Planning (DCP), lobby her old agency last year regarding Atlantic Yards? (Fried Frank had the largest single lobbying contract in the state.)

We can't be certain, but documents acquired via a Freedom of Information Law request show that DCP in 2006 backed down from two requests--including a request not to block the Williamsburgh Savings Bank--made by City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden in the previous year.

Moreover, DCP last year participated in a clear charade--a "recommendation" that Forest City Ratner reduce the height of several buildings, even though the developer had put most of the cuts on the table several months early.

The New York Times even considered the proposed cuts--which would only bring the project back to the originally announced square footage--front-page news and the lead story in New York.

The Atlantic Center mall "overbuild"

In that 8/5/05 letter to Forest City Ratner President Bruce Ratner, Burden wrote, "The project includes not only the Atlantic Yards Project, but also the 'Overbuild' site at Atlantic Centernorth of Atlantic Avenue, and ATURA Site 5 at Fourth, Atlantic and Flatbush avenues." (Click to enlarge)

A 9/20/05 “DCP Checklist” that otherwise focused on AY stated: Review of Atlantic Center (AC) overbuild. Want AC buildings at the same level of design detail as Atlantic Yards (AY).

DCP, however, has said nothing about the overbuild since then. I queried DCP spokeswoman Rachaele Raynoff about the letter, and she responded, "As we understand it, the overbuild is not part of Atlantic Yards. At the time Ms. Burden sought to look at the design relationship between Atlantic Yards and Atlantic Center."

Burden's original letter, however, acknowledges that the overbuild is not part of Atlantic Yards. It uses the term "project," not unreasonably, to describe the concurrent work in the same area being done by Gehry for the same developer.

The overbuild outraces Atlantic Yards

Indeed, while the overbuild may not officially be part of the Atlantic Yards project, it deserves scrutiny, since architect Frank Gehry is working on it and it could add 2000-plus new residents across the street from a project that already promises "extreme density." Forest City Ratner has hardly mentioned it publicly, much less confirm Gehry's role.

A photo of last year's model (right), published by the Courier-Life chain, showed three towers.)

Forest City can build some 1.3 million square feet of office space and housing over the mall, likely in three towers, without any further city or state approval. More importantly, Forest City has made no commitment to affordable housing at the site, which means the deal could be quite lucrative and not depend on negotiating subsidies.

According to the Land Use chapter of the Final Environmental Impact Statement, Atlantic Center would include 850,000 square feet of residential space and 550,000 square feet of commercial space, with the retail space remaining unchanged.

While the project would be complete five years later than initially projected, by 2013, that means it would be finished after the promised end of Atlantic Yards Phase 1 (2010) but before the end of Phase 2 (2016).

Given that most of the affordable housing would be in Phase 2, and the developer likely will wait 15 or 20 years to finish Atlantic Yards, it's likely the Gehry-designed overbuild would be completed first.

Don't block the clock?

Burden also wrote, "The Towers on the Arena Block along Flatbush Avenue should be located or massed in a way that assures the visibility of the Williamsburg Savings Bank clock from Grand Army Plaza/Flatbush Avenue. This might be accomplished by providing additional setbacks of the tower portion of Tower
1."

Tower 1 is Miss Brooklyn and, as I've written, Forest City Ratner promised in its 12/10/03 project announcement that the clock would remain visible. In the end, the height of Miss Brooklyn, once projected at 620 feet, was reduced to just a foot below the 512-foot bank, but it still would block the clock.

I asked Raynoff why DCP didn't press the issue. "These changes were not made," he said. "Forest City Ratner advised that there would be structural issues in doing so."

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), also observed that moving the building east wouldn't be feasible from an engineering point of view. That of course raises a question about the sincerity of the developer's pledge in the first place.

But it's hardly clear that structural issues--more than financial ones--would impede the introduction of additional setbacks, or why Burden did not subsequently express any public concern about the outcome.

Reconfiguring the towers?

Burden also commented that a configuration of three towers on the arena block, as originally proposed, would be "superior to more recent proposals with four towers [2005 version at right] because it provides greater separation between buildings and improves their relationship to each other, the arena, and the adjoining neighborhoods.... In our view, the four-tower arrangement as currently designed would result in a massive presence on Flatbush Avenue, with the potential to block light and air at the street and neighborhood level.

(Above, the tower configuration from the October 2005 Draft Scope of Analysis, a prelude to the Environmental Impact Statement.)

Burden continued, "Should four towers continue to be part of the proposal, there should be a greater separation between Towers 2 and 3 to avoid creating a 400-foot wall along Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street. As an alternative to greater separation between Towers 2 and 3, consideration should also be given to combining them."

As shown in the
current rendering from the Empire State Development Corporation (right), there is indeed some greater separation between Towers 2 and 3, notably along the southern border, Dean Street.

It's unclear, however, whether DCP considers that separation sufficient. I asked Raynoff, who responded, "City Planning's views about the project as approved were set forth in the letter on the GPP [General Project Plan]."

In that 9/27/06 letter, the department does not address the separation issue, but does recommend that Tower 3, planned at that time at 428 feet, be reduced to approximately 220 feet, an option presented by Gehry in a 1/12/06 meeting. That recommendation was met.

DCP's influence

You can't say that Burden and the Department of City Planning had no influence on Atlantic Yards. The department offered extensive commentary on the design guidelines for the project, so much so that architect Gehry groused about it. And Burden, in the one City Planning Commission public session devoted to the project, seemed quite concerned about street-level retail.

Also, the recommendations made on page 2 of the above letter regarding "Tower Height" seem to have been followed. Burden wanted Towers 2, 3, and 4 not to exceed 425 feet, 330 feet, and 500 feet, respectively. They're now planned to be 322 feet, 219 feet, and 511 feet, respectively.

Still, DCP never solicited public input , and at its one public meeting last September, Burden and staff were with the Atlantic Yards program and most other commissioners generally uninformed.

And we know that Forest City Ratner was long ready to make concessions about the heights of some buildings. Some more fundamental concessions, however, were taken off the table. [Revised:] Maybe DCP managed that on its own. Maybe a well-compensated lobbyist with an insider's understanding had an influence. And maybe Forest City Ratner's general lobbying effort got the mayor and his deputy to ensure that City Planning got with the program.

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