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The silence of PlaNYC regarding Atlantic Yards (and the right way to develop railyards)

Yesterday, when discussing PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York, Mayor Mike Bloomberg called congestion pricing "the elephant in the room." When it comes to the housing section of the plan, however, the elephant in the room is Atlantic Yards.

Among the tactics to create hundreds of thousands of new homes are upcoming rezonings to direct growth; the use of transit extensions to spark growth; the pursuit of partnerships with City and State agencies, identification of underutilized areas across the city that are well-served by transit; and exploration of opportunities to create new land by decking over rail yards, rail lines and highways.

While numerous examples of past, present, and future projects are provided in the Housing chapter, Atlantic Yards is conspicuously unmentioned.

Given that the project remains high on the mayoral agenda, the omission is curious. Is Atlantic Yards so controversial that it's wise to avoid it?

Or has the production of the new plan pointed out the flaws in the process that led to Atlantic Yards? Indeed, the report recommends a planning process before decking over a railyard--a distinct contrast to the city's embrace of one developer's plan for the Vanderbilt Yard at the heart of the Atlantic Yards plan.

Appropriate growth

"Not all growth is equal," the chapter states. "Between 1970 and 2000, many of our greatest areas of growth have been underserved by transit; many of our most connected urban centers have either lost population or experienced only modest growth."

Arguably, that includes the failure to rezone and plan for significant growth in the area around the Atlantic Terminal transit hub.

Emerging initiatives

Cited among "private zoning applications to change the allowed uses and densities on their sites" are the former Domino Sugar Factory on the Brooklyn waterfront and the former Con Edison site on Manhattan’s east side. The rezoning of Greenpoint-Williamsburg is called "one of the biggest transformations of the city landscape since the rezoning of 1961."

The combination downzoning/upzoning in Park Slope gets a mention. Investment in transit will help the city "turn about 300 acres of rail yards, auto repair shops, and parking lots in the Midtown Manhattan area known as the Hudson Yards into a mixed-use commercial, residential, and hospitality district."

A state-city partnership, a cousin of sorts to Atlantic Yards, is Queens West, which gets some proud promotion: "Clusters of tall skyscrapers are starting to rise in Queens West; since the first apartment building opened in 1997, developers have built 1,000 units, with more than 4,000 units either planned or underway. The City is slated to transform the remaining land with 5,000 new units—60% of which will be affordable to moderate and middle income New Yorkers. The former commuter outpost and industrial center is becoming the newest neighborhood in New York, just a five-minute ferry or one-stop subway ride from Manhattan."

The plan gives examples of transit-oriented development (Jamaica, Coney Island), where new investment would be welcomed. Underused areas, such as "portions of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn" (location unspecified), are ripe for development.

Building decks

The report's discussion of decks deserves much exposition, given that the effort to deck over MTA's Vanderbilt Yard, the heart of the Atlantic Yards project, isn't mentioned:
We will explore opportunities to create new land by constructing decks over transportation infrastructure Throughout the city, in all five boroughs, highway and rail infrastructure is essential to life in the city. But for the most part, they are places where communities stop; where neighborhood is divided from neighborhood. This need not be so.
Exposed railyards, highways, and rail lines that cleave neighborhoods apart have periodically been built over to open up surrounding land for development—most notably along Park Avenue in Midtown. Just a few blocks west sits Caemmerer Yards in the Hudson Yards area, which will be decked over for housing, offices, a cultural center and public open space. There are numerous opportunities to reknit the city’s neighborhoods together.

As our search for land becomes more pressing in the coming decades, we must be prepared to work with communities to explore the potential of these sites.
Probably, the most frequently cited opportunity to use existing infrastructure sites more creatively is the Sunnyside Yards in Long Island City, Queens. With transit access nearby, and new commuter rail access planned as part of the East Side Access project, it has often been looked to as a potential development site. The open railyards span nearly 200 acres; developing even the first section could create hundreds of housing units with stores, schools, playing fields, and parks.
The site could also include an intermodal transportation facility at the intersection for seven subway lines, the Long Island Rail Road, and Amtrak. Residents could walk directly and safely to the shopping on Steinway Street in Astoria; residents in Long Island City could commute from an LIRR station within their neighborhood and children from the surrounding communities could play on new ballfields.
By developing the site, the City could create an entirely new neighborhood, connect long-separated communities, eliminate the noise and blight of an exposed railyard, and provide a transportation hub for anyone traveling to or from Queens and Long Island.
...Other examples of possible platform projects are the former railroad space adjoining the Staten Island Ferry that could be used to connect the St. George neighborhood to its waterfront, and the 36th Street Rail Yards on the southern edge of the Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Building on a platform over it could result in substantial new units of housing.

Exposed highways offer a similar opportunity. One such site is over the Brooklyn-
Queens Expressway (BQE) between Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill also in Brooklyn. Just south of Atlantic Avenue, the BQE dips into a depressed section of roadway bordered on either side by Hicks Street. Continuing straight through to the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, this sunken highway divides Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens from the river and the community along Columbia Street.
A platform could be constructed over the below-grade section of the BQE to create nine new blocks of housing while reconnecting two neighborhoods. Another example of a disruptive highway that could potentially be covered over includes the Gowanus Expressway.

Some of these areas may be better suited than others for future development due to
their accessibility to rail and mass transit, and the physical configuration of the sites. Given market conditions, some may not be able to support development for many years while others may make economic sense sooner.
We know that the one-size-fits-all approach of earlier eras will not work. Building communities requires a carefully tailored approach to local conditions and needs that can only be developed with local input. We will begin the process of working with communities, the agencies that operate these facilities, and other stakeholders to sort through these complicated issues.

(Emphasis added)

How to do it

On p. 2 of Appendix B, the city further lays out the process for the possible construction of new decks:
1) Identify railyards, rail lines, and highways that coincide with sustainable development and have the capacity for anticipated growth
2) Conduct feasibility assessments and identify opportunities for rezonings and required infrastructure investments

There was no pre-Atlantic Yards feasibility assessment for the Vanderbilt Yard (remember, the city had no plans for it before Forest City Ratner proposed Atlantic Yards), no effort to foster a rezoning, and no announcement of infrastructure support before the city and state had embraced the developer's project.

And, of course, there was no local input until after the project was embraced by the city and state.

[Update 9:30 a.m.: Community planner Ron Shiffman, a member of the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn advisory board, told me that yesterday at one of the briefings he asked if, based on the template above, the city agreed to not bypass ULURP, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, in future projects regarding decks. Rohit Aggarwala, head of the mayor's sustainability office, responded that he couldn't make such a statement at this time, according to Shiffman.]

In his speech, Bloomberg said, "But our most important tool – and the way to achieve our goals while still fighting over-development is to re-zone areas with good access to mass transit, which are best able to absorb additional growth. That is why 95 percent of the sites that we propose for new housing development are within a short walk to mass transit. Some of these sites are brownfields that have taken too long – much too long – to clean up."

For Atlantic Yards, the state would override city zoning--not just the height and bulk of the buildings but also the prohibition against placing an arena within 200 feet of a residential district.

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