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Doctoroff's discomfort: Atlantic Yards is an "extreme case"

Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, who in February told the New York Observer that there had been an "enormous level of community input" regarding Atlantic Yards, seems a little less comfortable these days.

Listen to his appearance yesterday on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show, where he discussed Mayor Mike Bloomberg's sustainability initiatives. Doctoroff was generally unruffled, layering a slightly folky, almost professorial air over his investment banker's confidence, as he discussed Mayor Mike Bloomberg's sustainability plan. However, when pressed on Atlantic Yards, he quickly moved on to less controversial issues.

And, just as Atlantic Yards serves as an example counter to those practices cited in PlaNYC2030, so yesterday did Doctoroff's examples contrast with the story of Atlantic Yards.

Either developer Forest City Ratner is thankful that Atlantic Yards moved forward before the city promoted more transparent development procedures, or the city's new push will help the plaintiffs in the Atlantic Yards eminent domain case argue that the Brooklyn project was a sweetheart deal.

AY and congestion pricing

Doctoroff handled the first Atlantic Yards-related question, from a caller (at about 13:10 of the show), with aplomb.

Lisa in Brooklyn: I love the idea of a greener city, but what I really fear is that this is going to really affect Brooklyn unless this administration changes its position about the Atlantic Yards arena.

Brian Lehrer: Is this a congestion pricing call or an Atlantic Yards call?

Lisa: I think that it is a congestion pricing call. We already have a tremendous amount of gridlock in the Downtown Brooklyn area. Forest City Ratner is tearing down two city blocks to create big giant parking garages.

BL: So what about the parking garages….

Note, they would be "interim surface parking" lots, not garages.

Dan Doctoroff: It is actually a huge win for Downtown Brooklyn…. One of the great benefits of this plan is, right now, there are enormous volumes of cars and trucks that drive through, particularly Brooklyn and Queens, looking for free bridges. As a result, if you look at Flatbush Avenue, some estimates say that more than 50% of the traffic on Flatbush Avenue alone is attributable to people searching for a free bridge. If we can eliminate that by essentially making the cost to enter New York City the same from no matter where you come, then Downtown Brooklyn will be one of the greatest beneficiaries.

While I'm not sure about the source of that Flatbush Avenue statistic, even critics of Atlantic Yards think congestion pricing is needed to make the transportation plan work.

[Update: One source is the 2005 Downtown Brooklyn Transportation Blueprint, which stated As anticipated growth in the downtown core and the greater downtown area is realized, the dual role of the roadway network in serving through and local traffic will become intensified (it has been estimated that approximately 43% of the morning rush hour traffic, and 45% of the midday and evening traffic in Downtown Brooklyn is traffic bound for either the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridges.]

Appropriate density

At about 20:20, Lehrer brought up the idea that most New Yorkers resist increasing density.

DD: I think that’s not actually true. We have rezoned—gone through a number of rezonings through the city, we do it in a collaborative process with the communities. Some communities understand that they can accept more density. They tend to be the ones that are closest to subway access.

Doctoroff's response was reasonable; however, as noted, Atlantic Yards is not a rezoning. Lehrer then brought up the poster child for overdevelopment, a project that, though he didn't say it, would constitute "extreme density" and twice as dense as the densest census tract in the country.

BL: Look at Atlantic Yards, all that opposition.

DD: Clearly there’s concerns in Atlantic Yards, but in fact there’s people on both sides of the issue.

He then distinctly speeded up, racing through the next sentence.

But I think that’s an extreme case, probably. We’ve rezoned the waterfront in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, the Hudson Yards on the West Side of Manhattan, where we, significantly, in a negotiation, by the way, with the local community, significantly increased the density, and part of it was to extend the subway over to the area which made taking that kind of density feasible. So we don’t do anything, any more, really, without consulting the community. I think we’ve gotten a lot better at that over the course of the past five years.
(Emphases added)

Was Doctoroff calling Atlantic Yards an "extreme case" of density? I don't think so; rather, he was calling it an "extreme case" because the controversy is so heated. Note his last two sentences; the implication is that, earlier in the Bloomberg administration (like, perhaps, when the city got behind Atlantic Yards in 2002?), the city wasn't consulting the community sufficiently.

Decking over railyards

The conversation segued into the city's proposal to deck over railyards and highways to build new housing. Lehrer seemed a bit incredulous that the city might want to build platforms over railroad tracks. Doctoroff again spoke confidently.

DD: We’re doing it on the Hudson Yards on the West Side right now. Next month, with the MTA, we’ll do a Request for Proposals for 12 million square feet of commercial and residential space that will include thousands of apartments, many of which will be affordable to people who otherwise wouldn’t’ be able to afford to live in Manhattan. The main point, though, is, everywhere we turn, it looks like we’re running out of land. If we’re going to accommodate a million people in this city, we have to be so much smarter about the way in which we use land, and we’ve got to do it in an environmentally-friendly way…

Note that no developers have been selected by the city and state for the Hudson Yards; rather, they all have a fair start with the RFP. By contrast, the RFP for the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard, the key component of the Atlantic Yards plan, was issued some 18 months after the city and state backed Atlantic Yards.

Too much growth?

Lehrer raised the question of whether the city could get too crowded.

BL: We have 8 million [people] now, anticipating 9 million by 2030… Is there a point where we, as a city say, 'Sorry, folks, New York is full,' and not build more housing to accommodate newcomers.

Doctoroff again handled the question well.

DD: Growth , if it’s done well, can be an incredibly, an incredibly valuable thing…I don’t know what the number is… When we do accommodate it, the additional tax revenues that we generate can be used for lots of other important priorities… Growth is good, but only if it’s smart.

Would Atlantic Yards be smart growth?

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