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UNITY 2007 plan for railyards gets started

Some 70 people gathered on Saturday for UNITY 2007, the start of an effort to craft a community plan for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard, should Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project fail, stall, or be partly built.

“It’s not about ‘no’ or NIMBY,” said architect Marshall Brown, lead designer of the original UNITY (UNderstanding Imagining and Transforming the Yards) plan in 2004, which included mid-rise rather than high-rise buildings, was limited to the 8.5-acre railyards, and, rather than demapping streets, extended the street grid from Fort Greene to Prospect Heights. “It’s about saying yes to responsible development.”

Planners aim to draw on Saturday’s work over the next six week to draft a plan to take to community-based organizations and local elected officials, explained Tom Angotti of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development, which convened the session with the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN). “It’s not a done deal,” he insisted. (At right, Angotti is at center, flanked by Ron Shiffman (left) and Brown. Photos by Jonathan Barkey.)

Rather than directly build on the 2004 version of UNITY, the participants, working at Hanson Place United Methodist Church in Fort Greene,
started from more of a tabula rasa. That offered the advantage of fresh thinking, based on updated context, and the disadvantage of revisiting some topics already treated in details. Such charrettes often take days, and this one lasted only five hours, with about half of that time for intensive topic analysis.

By the end of the day, the group had made some progress, but also had left some key questions open. Notably, planners were not yet ready to estimate the size and scale of a potential development—a crucial factor given the cost of decking over the railyard.

Long history

Angotti walked participants through a timeline that included the establishment of the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA) in 1968, plans announced and discarded for Baruch College to move to a site over the railyard, and what he called “Forest City Ratner’s engulfment of Brooklyn,” beginning with MetroTech in 1991 and continuing with the Atlantic Center mall in 1996, the Atlantic Yards project announcement in 2003, and the 2004 opening of the Atlantic Terminal Mall.

“This project is promoted as downtown development,” Angotti said of Atlantic Yards. However, “its context is mostly residential. It’s at the edge of Downtown Brooklyn.” Development in Brooklyn has stalled in the past, he noted, citing a parking lot at Hoyt and Schermerhorn streets that lasted 40 years.

The principles of UNITY include appropriate scale and density, welcoming public places, and creating neighborhood connections. (Click on graphic to enlarge; note that even those planners called it "Atlantic Yards," even though the term actually describes Forest City Ratner's 22.) The buildings sketched in 2004 were five to ten or five to twelve stories. With such smaller buildings, and without an arena, the cost of a deck and other infrastructure would be lower than the Atlantic Yards project, and significantly less underground parking would be needed.

Emerging from the earlier UNITY process were Principles for Responsible Development, including an agreement not to use eminent domain and to go through the city’s land use review process rather than the state’s fast-track process that bypasses City Council. The process was launched by City Council Member Letitia James, the leading elected official opposing the project, who appeared on Saturday to offer encouragement: “I’m with you all the way, no matter what my future holds.”

Updated plans

UNITY and those principles served as the basis for the unsuccessful 2005 bid made by Extell for the MTA’s railyard, which included some high-rise housing, up to 28 stories. (Forest City Ratner’s plan had for 18 months been publicly supported by the city and state before the MTA issue an RFP.)

Also submitted to the Empire State Development Corporation last year was the Pacific Plan (see slide 36) developed by local architect Douglas Hamilton, which, unlike the plans from UNITY and Extell, followed FCR's footprint, including blocks south of the railyard, leaving space for an arena at either the west or east end, but emphasizing smaller plots and open space at street corners rather than behind buildings.

One new piece of context, suggested transportation analyst Carolyn Konheim (below, right) of Community Consulting Services (CCS), is Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 sustainability initiative. PlaNYC “validates” CCS’s critique of the Atlantic Yards Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), she pointed out; CCS had endorsed congestion pricing, which the EIS did not addressed, and called for a longer period to analyze project impacts, as with Bloomberg’s 23-year time horizon.

Among other things, PlaNYC2030 endorses community-based planning for projects to deck over railyards, a departure from the process that led to Atlantic Yards.

Size questions

Before the attendees broke up into groups, I pointed out that Forest City Ratner claims that the cost of the deck and the relocation of infrastructure drives the density. Brown responded, “We’re going to have to take a hard look at the density—it’s probably going to have to go up” over the initial UNITY plan.

Angotti suggested an alternate perspective. “If there’s an expensive project built over public land, what’s the public benefit?”

It was suggested that the Vanderbilt Yard might not need to be retained as a storage and cleaning site for trains, if a rail link were established—obviously some years off, with much investment required—to lower Manhattan and the Long Island Rail Road integrated with either the New York City Transit System or with New Jersey Transit.

Konheim pointed out that some infrastructure cost is driven by the arena: “Those kinds of things muddy the waters.”

Quantity vs. quality

Scott Turner of Fans of Fair Play suggested it was unwise to try to match Forest City Ratner’s plan in terms of affordable housing, density, and scale. He characterized some supporters of Atlantic Yards as suggesting “this is the panacea” for affordable housing, when it’s really a citywide challenge.

Brown followed up: “We shouldn’t be looking to compete in terms of quantity. We should be looking to compete in terms of quality.” Now based in Cincinnati, he returned to Brooklyn for the workshop.

Oversight & planning

Some two-and-a-half hours later, after the attendees had met in six groups with consultant-facilitators, it was time to report back. Many of the guidelines were predictable, such as the need for greater governmental oversight. (At right, CBN's Jim Vogel coordinates the reports.)

Subsidies, declared Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors, are leverage to demand certain standards regarding jobs and wages. A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), if included, should be clearly enforceable, a contrast to that signed by Forest City Ratner, his group concluded.

Shiffman observed that development should go through ULURP, the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, subject to community board and City Council hearings. “Any site like this should be subdivided,” he said, emphasizing the importance of multiple developers, who could work faster than a single developer. “We didn’t want to have a CBA,” he noted, suggesting that any such benefits—affordable housing, job preferences—should be part of public policy.

Transportation issues

Any transportation plan, Konheim noted, would have to involve not just congestion pricing for traffic into Manhattan, as Bloomberg has proposed, but also parking pricing and perhaps also the addition of Downtown Brooklyn to the congestion pricing zone.

Her group suggested a multiplicity of traffic and transit improvements, including traffic calming, the expansion of bus rapid transit, an expanded bicycle network, and the possibility of a downtown Brooklyn transit loop. “The Second Avenue subway has to come into Brooklyn” to relieve system stresses, she added.

Atlantic Yards, said CCS in a presentation distributed to attendees, fails every test of sustainability and should be recalled.

Housing issues

Michelle de la Uz (right) of the Fifth Avenue Committee described how her group sketched a model affordable housing policy—75% affordable, with the affordability extending in perpetuity rather than expiring after 30 years. Of the affordable housing, 40% should be for sale, 60% for rent.

The income range should emphasize a larger percentage of households below Brooklyn’s median income than in the current Atlantic Yards plan. It should be in the hands of a locally-accountable organization, with an affordable housing mission. The goals sounded admirable, but, as with Forest City Ratner's plan--for which housing subsidies remain yet undeclared--the devil is in the details. Indeed, de la Uz acknowledged, “This would take a significant commitment on the part of government.”

Design questions

Planners working on open space suggested that a park could be built at Vanderbilt Avenue between Pacific Street and Atlantic Avenue, and serve not just the new development but the surrounding area. Any open space would be accessible from the street grid.

The corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, mostly owned by Forest City Ratner, nearly razed by now and scheduled to be turned into the Urban Room, could offer space for a plaza and greenmarket. (Obviously, this element of the discussion ranged beyond the publicly-owned railyards.)

There has been too little emphasis, planners said, on the experience of a development from the street-level perspective. (Indeed, it's difficult to understand such a perspective from the renderings released by Forest City Ratner.) Atlantic Avenue, currently a barrier between the railyards on the south side and the malls and housing on the north side, could be made more pedestrian-friendly with extended sidewalks and a landscaped median, creating more of a boulevard. (Above right, Ethan Kent describes potential places for parks.)

The big questions

A final group on overall planning, disagreeing somewhat with those working on open space, suggested that the main park space could be at Atlantic and Flatbush, with higher density at the Vanderbilt Avenue end.

This final group had the challenge of dealing with the largest questions, and they weren't ready to make some decisions quite yet. The density should be based on what the infrastructure can support, suggested architect Ethan Cohen, citing the impact on community facilities such as schools and the hydrology of the site.

Regarding the latter issue, Forest City Ratner’s plan has added a complication. The developer proposes to build "a major sustainable design element—water features that serve as detention and retention basins as part of a comprehensive stormwater management system," but to do that, according to the ESDC, existing buildings like the Ward Bakery must be demolished and Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenue must be demapped--both violations of the principles prevously based on UNITY.

The group on Saturday suggested the city needed to do more planning for the wider area to better incorporate any development on the Vanderbilt Yard. Should the rail system be further integrated with the city transit system and New Jersey Transit, it was suggested, it might be possible to retain part of the below-grade cut and construct buildings there rather than build a deck. Then again, that's less realistic, and planners likely will have to calculate the cost of a deck.

Looking forward

Brown noted that there’s a “development spine” on Flatbush Avenue descending from the Manhattan Bridge, including buildings proposed and under construction in the past few years. “I agree with Tom [Angotti] that the site is not necessarily Downtown Brooklyn, but it does have a relationship because of Flatbush Avenue,” he said, suggesting that the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues might take some cues from “intersections like Union Square.”

Brown gave a general guideline for diversity on the site: part open space, part development with similar density to surrounding blocks, other parts with much greater density. He also pointed to the relationship with the Gowanus Canal and the area's capacity for water and sewer runoff.

Angotti observed that, the smaller the plot of land, the easier it is to solve certain problems regarding issues like hydrology: “The real carrying capacity limits are those of the borough and city.”

Over the next few weeks, the organizers and specialists will digest the suggestions and flesh them out. If there weren't firm conclusions yet on the path forward, there were some notable omissions; nobody, Turner pointed out, proposed an arena, skyscrapers, and eminent domain.

Forest City Ratner’s plan wasn’t developed in a day, but took many months before it was unveiled--and later altered. The more transparent UNITY 2007, it was clear, needs some further incubation.

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