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The unexpected housing boom in Downtown Brooklyn, some curious statistics, and an Errol Louis misreading

The Downtown Brooklyn redevelopment story suggests that markets can be very hard to predict and that the city has prioritized development over equity.

The Downtown Brooklyn Development Plan certified by the Department of City Planning on 12/1/2003, revised slightly five months later, and approved 6/28/04 by City Council, was supposed to give Brooklyn a dramatic boost in competing for back offices lured to New Jersey from Manhattan. The plan was mostly about jobs:
The public investment provided for in this plan would act as a catalyst to generate an estimated 4.5 million square feet of new commercial office space, creating 18,500 office jobs and 8,000 construction jobs. It would add some 1,000 new housing units and result in the addition of new, vibrant public spaces and cultural resources.

Since the plans were formulated at the turn of the decade, however, the regional economy has shifted, and developers instead have found the rezoned Downtown Brooklyn, with new opportunities for density, prime territory for luxury condos. Only about one-third the original amount of projected office space, 1.584 million square feet, is planned, and only one-fifth of that is currently under construction. Oddly enough, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP) documents count Atlantic Yards office space as already under construction.

Meanwhile, more than 7500 housing units are in process, according to press reports. However, a 4/11/07 summary distributed by the DBP indicated 565 units completed, 1515 units undergoing approval/review, and 8473 units under construction. The latter number, according to the DBP, includes the 6430 units at Atlantic Yards, which, under the best-case scenario, would take a decade and still face legal hurdles; the AY territory is actually outside the area that was rezoned but DBP considers the project within its bailiwick.

The Village Voice, echoing the views of some businesses facing eviction and activists seeking more public benefit, points to the contradictions in the city's plan. Joe Chan, president of the DBP, looks on the bright side, suggesting that there are opportunities for new "creative" industries. And Daily News columnist Errol Louis, ignoring the contradictions, sees only positives, a posture reminiscent of his Atlantic Yards cheerleading.
(At right, the future Willoughby Square, according to the Department of City Planning.)

Pointing to the irony

Neil deMause's Voice article, headlined On the Outs in Brooklyn: The city's complicity behind the borough's soaring eviction rate, points out the irony:
"There was no constituency that had a vision of downtown Brooklyn as a high-rise bedroom community," notes Robert Perris, the district manager of Brooklyn's Community Board 2, which covers Brooklyn Heights, downtown, and Fort Greene. "Even people that were pro–economic development are disappointed that what we've gotten instead are 40-story residential buildings."

That's because, however much such buildings contribute to short-term construction jobs, additional retail customers, and street life, they don't produce the nearly the economic boost that jobs do (see, for example, the fiscal impact of slicing office space from Atlantic Yards plans).

Also, the city didn't think to try to extract affordable housing as a tradeoff for giving developers more space to build. The failure to do so makes the privately-negotiated affordable housing component of Atlantic Yards seem more enlightened, though arguably any public process regarding the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard would have included some affordable housing, and would have publicly tried to balance the tradeoff between increased density and stress on local infrastructure.

Office space challenge

As has been previously reported, the office market is in trouble, and the Voice follows up:
The Brooklyn commercial market has stubbornly refused to rebound; MetroTech itself saw both JP Morgan Chase and Empire Blue Cross move out last year, leaving some 350,000 square feet of vacant floor space. Chan, looking on the bright side, told the Real Deal recently that this presented "a real opportunity to draw in new industries." Chan tells the Voice that the "renaissance" of the surrounding neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, and Fort Greene presents special possibilities, creating "a residential base that translates well to the employee base" of "creatively driven industries" like graphic design and architecture.

(At right, a revamped Flatbush Avenue median, according to the Department of City Planning.)

deMause also points to "the incestuous nature of the planning process," involving public-private organizations led by staffers who worked for Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff or Borough president Marty Markowitz.

Defending development

Council Member David Yassky defends his vote for the plan, saying it was to keep businesses from moving to New Jersey. The changes in Downtown Brooklyn, he says, have less to do with zoning than market forces.

However, deMause points out the hand of government:
It's a market, though, that was largely created—or at least abetted—by the city's own rezoning. "We had a significant jump in developable floor-area ratio in some of these areas, so some of these buildings would not have gone up without that incentive," says CB2's Perris. "When you increase the size of the building by 50 percent, it changes all the numbers."

The city's ability to create tremendous wealth for landowners simply by tweaking a few floor-area ratio numbers is one reason many urban-planning advocates have pushed for something called "inclusionary zoning," in which developers must agree to provide a certain percentage of affordable housing in order to exceed the existing height limits.

Activists in Williamsburg and Greenpoint later got inclusionary zoning as part of the rezoning there, but there was no organization to push for it in Downtown Brooklyn--arguably, few were anticipating housing--and Brad Lander, then head of the Fifth Avenue Committee (and now of the Pratt Center for Community Development) tells deMause that a Downtown Brooklyn Council official suggested the city wouldn't buy it.

(At right, another example of how plans change; the Department of City Planning included a rendering of the Brooklyn Public Library's planned Visual and Performing Arts Library, aimed for the wedge of land just west of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, and part of a planned Brooklyn Academy of Music cultural district. That library plan is on hold, and does not even appear on the DPB's map at top.)

Louis's take

In the Daily News yesterday, columnist Errol Louis wrote Yes, in my backyard: Atlantic Yards is one plan that will boost jobs & housing downtown:
Almost lost in all the hoopla over Atlantic Yards - the junk lawsuits, futile protests and other antics of the project's publicity-hungry opponents - is the fact that an even larger, more dramatic cluster of homes, office towers and hotels is already rising a mile away, in downtown Brooklyn.

(Perhaps he can't be blamed for the headline that refers to Atlantic Yards rather than Downtown Brooklyn, but his disparagement of "junk lawsuits" might be news to the state judge and federal judge who seem to be taking them seriously.)

He writes of the new development:
That's far more than the $4 billion sports arena and housing complex planned for Atlantic Yards. And plans call for more than 7,700 residential units and 1,253 hotel rooms, dwarfing the 6,430 condos and apartments slated for Atlantic Yards.
The explosion of new development, set off by a sweeping rezoning approved by the City Council years ago, will alarm those who'd like to freeze the area's rent, income, building heights, shopping choices and quality of life where they are right now.

While more than 7700 residential units may be planned by developers, they certainly weren't part of the city's plan and projections, as detailed above. And Louis sets up a straw man, suggesting that critics and opponents of the Downtown Brooklyn plan are NIMBYs living in the past; the challenge is equitable development.

Without pointing to the issue of inclusionary zoning, Louis points to one downtown project that will provide 200 housing units for the formerly homeless and another, with 50 low-income units in Bedford-Stuyvesant, as part of a deal to build a luxury building downtown. The question, again, is the balance.


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