Monday, April 30, 2007

Reference or fantasy? The (projected) ten-year Atlantic Yards timeline

(Click to enlarge)

Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards is supposed to be completed in a decade, by 2016, according to the construction schedule (document at bottom) included in the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement issued by the Empire State Development Corporation.

Graphic designer Abby Weissman has combined elements of the construction schedule with the Atlantic Yards site plan. Time will tell whether it's a valid reference or a fantasy.

Project landscape architect Laurie Olin said it could take 20 years. Chuck Ratner of parent company Forest City Enterprises said it could take 15 years. Such schedules would delay the provision of promised benefits like affordable housing and open space and cause "interim surface parking" to persist.

Behind schedule

When Atlantic Yards was announced 12/10/03, backers said that arena would begin development in 2004. It's more than two years late.

Beyond that, the project is likely well behind the stated timetable. Demolition of buildings in the Phase 1 arena footprint was to be completed by 7/2/07; several of those buildings almost certainly will remain enmeshed in litigation beyond that date.

The Carlton Avenue bridge between Pacific Street and Atlantic Avenue was supposed to be closed from November 2006 through July 2007; it hasn't been closed yet.

(Note: no completion date for Building 10 is listed on the construction schedule. However, a completion date of 12/30/16 for Building 10 is listed on p. 7 of the Appendix, which includes the much more detailed master plan for construction.)

Construction Schedule

A subtraction from the Ward Bakery

What's missing from the Ward Bakery? A two-story, seemingly-improvised temporary cinderblock wall that rose above the western segment of the building, in the foreground of the photo above, forming a link of sorts with the adjacent building and creating some additional interior space.

That wall existed after 200 feet of the parapet tumbled on Thursday, as shown in the bottom of the two photos below. It likely was less stable than the rest of the building and demolished on Friday, the same day the scaffolding was installed. Update: the demolition was at the request of the Department of Buildings. (Photo above taken Saturday by Jonathan Barkey)

Today we may learn more from the Department of Buildings about its investigation into the incident and when and under what circumstances it may allow demolition to proceed on the proposed Atlantic Yards site. (Photos at right by Robert Guskind of the Gowanus Lounge. See NoLandGrab for the three photos combined.)

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Clinton Hill the "bloggiest" neighborhood? Nah, it's Prospect Heights

[Note: This post has been updated.]

Outside.in, an innovative, venture capital-funded way to organize neighborhood information by collecting work by "placebloggers," has issued a press release claiming to identify America's Top 10 Bloggiest Neighborhoods.

The number one neighborhood: Clinton Hill.

Nah.

Here's Outside.in's methodology:
The results below are based on a number of variables: total number of posts, total number of local bloggers, number of comments and Technorati ranking for the bloggers.

That assumes that blogs are about one specific neighborhood and that the blog is included in Technorati. It also confuses the home of the blog with the subject of the blog.

Clinton Hill & AY

Here's what Outside.in says about its top-ranking nabe.

1. Clinton Hill, Brooklyn
The Neighborhood
The rapidly gentrifying tree-lined blocks of 19th-century townhouses are also home to the Pratt Institute of Art.

Local Blogger
Jonathan Butler, creator of Brownstoner, who quit his Wall Street job earlier this year to run his popular real estate and home renovation blog full-time.

Local Obsessions
Will the nearby mega-development Atlantic Yards destroy the neighborhood's quiet charm? Is the still-hot Brooklyn real estate market headed for a crash?


While Brownstoner is an interesting and popular blog, especially because of the robust comments section, it is hardly a blog focused exclusively on Clinton Hill. (Butler's based there.) Rather, it's a blog about Brooklyn real estate and neighborhoods faced with development.

And Atlantic Yards is hardly the "local obsession" that distinguishes Clinton Hill from other nearby neighborhoods. NoLandGrab is clearly the comprehensive source for Atlantic Yards-related information, with far more posts per day than Brownstoner's total on all topics.

Outside.in relies most heavily on NoLandGrab in its Atlantic Yards section. Its press release didn't mention NLG.

Beyond Clinton Hill

When CNET followed up, in an article headlined Report: 10 communities most likely to spur a blog post, the summary erred:
No. 1 is Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood. The proposed $4 billion Atlantic Yards project has burned up the blogosphere, said John Geraci, Outside.in's chief product officer. The plan calls for the building of a huge commercial complex, which includes a sports arena, hotel and retail shops.


First, the project would be mostly housing.

Secondly, if Atlantic Yards burns up the blogosphere, then Clinton Hill and Brownstoner are not the main entry point to the controversy.

The press release got picked up by mediabistro, the New York Press blog, Brownstoner, the Brooklyn Heights blog, Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, the Clinton Hill blog, and many more.

Park Slope slighted?

The New York Post, in a 4/25/07 article headlined BROOKLYN HAS NATION'S BLOGGIEST NEIGHBORHOODS, added an interesting observation from Outside.in founder Steven Johnson:
Park Slope and other brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods were almost as bloggy, Johnson said, although the official second place went to Shaw, D.C., followed by downtown L.A.

Hm--does that mean that they left out other Brooklyn neighborhoods because they wanted a national list? We can't be sure, because Outside.in hasn't published its methodology.

The home, or the subject?

Putting aside Outside.in's research methodology, I'd say that, for substantial and original content, Park Slope-based bloggers surely surpass Clinton Hill. The Park Slope-based blogs include my Atlantic Yards Report, NoLandGrab (weekday), and Gowanus Lounge--and several other bloggers who post regularly.

But Prospect Heights, because of the Atlantic Yards project, is clearly the most blogged-about neighborhood. The blogs mentioned above, plus Brownstoner, Curbed, Gothamist, Brooklyn Views, Picketing Henry Ford, and more all cover Atlantic Yards.

Why has the project received such blog-based scrutiny? I'll remind people that Brooklyn College's Paul Moses, a former New York Newsday reporter, has said of Brooklyn and the press:
Nowhere in the country do so many people get so little local coverage.

Where to go for AY

And Outside.in posts text ads when you search "Atlantic Yards" on Google, claiming to offer "News and inside info on Brooklyn's most controversial development."

You may indeed be able to find news and inside info, but there's no original content. All the content is coming from somewhere else, notably sites mentioned above.

Following up

Outside.in's Steven Johnson comments below that the list was "more fun than empirical science" and explains that the list "began by counting the location of individual posts, not bloggers."

While I appreciate the spirit of the exercise, I still think it falls short. First, the press release claimed to answer the question "what exactly are America's bloggiest neighborhoods?" I think the word "exactly" was obviously overstating things.

More importantly, if you look at posts grouped under Clinton Hill on Outside.in, a significant number of them--a majority on the home page as of April 30--are about Prospect Heights, especially Atlantic Yards, not Clinton Hill. So proper identification of "the location of individual posts" is crucial to determining the bloggiest neighborhood.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Atlantic Yards pause isn’t enough, groups say, seeking more oversight

City Council Member Letitia James may be the elected official most clearly opposed to Atlantic Yards, but her reaction to the incident Thursday at the Ward Bakery—calling for a suspension of demolition work—turned out to be exactly what the Empire State Development Corporation and developer Forest City Ratner agreed to late yesterday morning. That meant James was ahead of Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who issued a more cautious statement Thursday, and other elected officials who were prepared to ask yesterday for such a suspension.
(Photo by Robert Guskind of the Gowanus Lounge.)

Still, the Atlantic Yards pause isn’t sufficient, said elected officials and representatives of community groups at two press conferences yesterday. They want a significant amount of oversight beyond what currently exists; an ESDC spokesman yesterday hinted that some increased oversight was coming, but wouldn't specify it.

It's an open question as to whether that oversight will come before the completion of Department of Buildings investigation into the causes of the collapse of a 200-foot parapet, which rained debris five stories down on cars and the sidewalk--and, fortunately, no people.

The New York Times today focused only on the temporary stoppage of work, as did a widely-distributed Associated Press article, while the Post cited the additional request for oversight.

CBN press conference

The first of the press conferences near the site of the damage was held by the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) at noon, with representatives of community groups, James, State Senator Eric Adams and a representative of State Senator Velmanette Montgomery. I couldn’t make it, but I spoke afterward to some participants and got the prepared remarks of CBN co-chair Terry Urban.

Urban was forceful: “We are not going to allow anyone to reduce our community and our laws to rubble, like we saw happen yesterday right behind us.” On Monday, she pointed out, CBN participated in a demonstration protesting demolitions as premature, and a hundred people marched past “this very spot” on Pacific Street, where, had the parapet fallen then, many could have been injured.

Urban criticized Forest City Ratner’s Community Liaison Office as ineffective and pointed out that the developer’s web page that’s supposed to share vital information with the community had not been updated since mid-March.

Dan McCalla of the Four Borough Preservation Alliance told me afterward that an independent engineer was needed to provide a second opinion in the investigation. “They’re saying rain caused that,” he scoffed, referring to speculation by a Fire Department representative that the heavy wind and rain two weeks ago jeopardized the building. “The building's been up for 97 years.”

Oversight questions

Urban further criticized the ESDC for failing to appoint an environmental monitor and hiring, as an interim, the consultancy AKRF that produced the Environmental Impact Statement that CBN and 25 other groups are challenging in court. “But where are they? Nowhere to be found!”

“The ESDC approved this project and authorized a State override of virtually all local laws,” Urban noted. “It cannot now put the entire burden back on the City to safeguard the community.”

Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors, pointed out that, last summer, the ESDC gave the public 73 days to respond to the 4000-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement. However, “81 days ago, ESDC issued an RFP for an environmental monitor, and that critical position has yet to be filled,” he told me afterward.

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) also asked for more oversight.

Unauthorized demolition?

Urban also pointed out that a community member had shot video of workers hauling huge bags of debris from the Ward Bakery building, but the Department. of Buildings and Dept. of Environmental Protection didn’t want to hear about it.

“And just what was in those huge bags of debris?” Urban asked. “Either this building was built out of 100% asbestos or some unauthorized demolition was going on in violation of the law.”

(I missed the incident in which workers at the Ward Bakery site apparently called the cops, misidentifying the press conference as a demonstration, as reported on NoLandGrab.)

BrooklynSpeaks press conference

Less than an hour later, there was another press conference, sponsored by BrooklynSpeaks. Why were there two press conferences offering similar messages, albeit with different tones? BrooklynSpeaks’ Gib Veconi chalked it up to having a short time to prepare and coordinate.

It's not unlikely that some of the elected officials willing to stand with the more moderate BrooklynSpeaks, which has called for major changes but won’t challenge Atlantic Yards in court, want to steer clear of CBN, DDDB, and fellow plaintiffs in the lawsuit calling for the environmental review to be thrown out.

The distinction was lost on most of the press covering the Atlantic Yards issue yesterday; the CBN press conference drew a much larger turnout, likely because it was earlier.

LDC wanted

“We’re relieved that the State has halted work on the Atlantic Yards site in light of yesterday’s accident. But halting demolition alone does not go far enough. Work must not resume until an oversight mechanism for construction has been established,” said Michelle de la Uz, Executive Director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, in the BrooklynSpeaks statement.

BrooklynSpeaks has long called for a local development corporation or similar body to oversee the project and involve community residents. Such LDCs, Veconi told me, are common in ESDC projects around the state.

BrooklynSpeaks, as had CBN, pointed to some past incidents around the project footprint that have received too little oversight and also noted the ineffectiveness of the Community Liaison Office.

Those at the press conference included City Council Members James, Bill de Blasio, and David Yassky, Assemblyman Jeffries, and State Senator Adams, along with the Rev. Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church.

Looking forward

“The current plan to demolish the Ward Bakery and other structures to provide over 8 acres of surface parking for 1600 cars that will be with us for decades is deeply troubling. This kind of poor planning is the direct result of the public not being involved in the decision-making for this project,” said Jo Anne Simon, District Leader for the 52nd Assembly District, on behalf of BrooklynSpeaks. (The organization sponsored the "No Demolition for Parking" rally April 15.)

A lingering question is whether the damage to the bakery will accelerate plans to demolish it, rather than shore up efforts by preservationists to keep the building.

One voice silent so far has been Borough President Marty Markowitz, a fervent supporter of Atlantic Yards. What will Marty say?

Today, a wide variety of community members, including those from components of CBN and BrooklynSpeaks, are expected to participate in UNITY 2007, an effort to produce a plan for the MTA’s Vanderbilt Yard should Forest City Ratner’s project not proceed.

The Ward Bakery and a tangled tale of blight

After 200 feet of parapet fell Thursday from the Ward Bakery, there are understandable suspicions about the condition of the building. Had it deteriorated rapidly because of weather, as a fire chief speculated? Had any work on the building affected its integrity, as some in the neighborhood wondered?
(Photo by Tracy Collins.)

But another curious tale regards the Empire State Development Corporation's Atlantic Yards Blight Study. While the bakery was deemed blighted in part because of an open building code violation, rendering the building hazardous, that violation actually had been resolved well before the Blight Study was concluded.

On p. 182 of the study, it states, regarding the Ward Bakery:
Building Code Violations
Lot 25 has 5 open building code violations on file with DOB (see Appendix B). The most recent violation was issued in January 2005 for failure to maintain the exterior building wall. The violation indicates that the current condition is hazardous.

(Emphasis added)

The blight study is dated July 2006. However, Appendix B catalogs open violations as of November 2005. In other words, it wasn't up-to-date. It was wrong in July 2006 to call the current condition hazardous based on the evidence cited.

Looking at the violation

Let's look at the page describing the violation:
Infraction Codes:
B6A 27-127 FAILURE TO MAINTAIN EXTERIOR BUILDING WALL (HAZARDOUS)

Description of Violation:
FAILURE TO MAINTAIN: DEFECT NOTED-AT FRONT OF BUILDING (PACIFIC ST. IDE) ARE LARGE VERTICAL AND HORIZONTAL STRESS CRACKS APPROX 1/2"WIDE AT VARIOUS LOCATIONS FROM GRADE TO PARAPET. REMEDY: MAKE ALL REPAIRS.


The page shows that a hearing was held 8/15/05 and an $800 fine paid. By 1/17/06, some two months after the mysterious November 2005 cutoff date to examine violations and more than four months before the July 2006 issuance of the Blight Study, the respondent was deemed in compliance.

The respondent was 800 Pacific LLC, with an address of 535 Dean Street--in other words, Shaya Boymelgreen, the developer who in April 2005 sold the building to Forest City Ratner.

Through the looking glass

Let's recap. According to the outdated blight report, the building's condition was hazardous.

According to the Department of Buildings' resolution of that January 2005 violation, the building's condition was not hazardous.

According to some projectiles coming off the roof on Thursday, the building's condition was quite hazardous. Exactly why that occurred remains to be discovered.

The DOB issued another violation for failing to maintain an exterior wall, which hints at another question: was that previous violation truly corrected?

Hard to check?

Why was the cutoff date to examine open violations pushed back more than six months? Presumably a more up to date review might have found certain open violations resolved, but new violations added--a bit of a wash. At the least, however, the use of the term "current conditions" would've been more credible.

How hard would it have been to go back and recheck open violations in Appendix B just before the Blight Study was completed? Not very. (Had the Blight Study been in the can for a while?)

In the space of 16 minutes, I checked on all the 2005 violations cited in the Blight Study:
--a 5/4/05 violation at 475 Dean Street remains open
--a 5/4/05 violation at 754 Pacific Street was dismissed 1/23/07, after the date of the Blight Study
--a 5/4/05 violation at 754 Pacific Street was dismissed 1/22/07, after the date of the Blight Study
--a 5/4/05 violation at 754 Pacific Street was dismissed 1/22/07, after the date of the Blight Study
--six 1/31/05 violations at 768 Pacific Street remain active, but a 5/4/05 violation was dismissed 12/29/05, well before the date of the Blight Study
--an 11/3/05 complaint about after-hours work at 523 Carlton Avenue was resolved 10/12/06, after the date of the Blight Study
--a 1/12/05 violation at 2 Fifth Avenue/620 Atlantic Avenue was listed as remaining open; however, the Underberg Building was demolished in March 2006.

If after-hours work counts as a contributor to blight, then a lot of New York City should be on notice. In fact, a complaint filed in June 2006 against Forest City Ratner's own contractor might count as well.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Department of Buildings statement

A statement from the Department of Buildings:
Buildings Department engineers are on the scene today, monitoring the building owner’s contractor, Gateway Demolition, as the remaining portion of the parapet walls on 800 Pacific Street are brought to a safe level.

A preliminary investigation is underway to determine the cause of yesterday’s parapet wall collapse.

In the coming days, the Buildings Department will be meeting with the developer’s engineers to review demolition plans for the Atlantic Yards sites to ensure safe means and methods are employed.

ESDC/Forest City suspend all demolitions; more oversight coming

All demolition activity has been halted on the Atlantic Yards site for a period of time until city officials provide a go-ahead.

A statement from the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC):
The partial collapse Thursday at the Ward Bakery building created serious disruptions. We’re thankful that no one was hurt and we recognize the need for the Atlantic Yards project to continue to progress safely, without causing disorder in the lives of residents in the surrounding neighborhoods.

To that end, the Empire State Development Corporation and developer Forest City Ratner have agreed that the developer will temporarily suspend all abatement and demolition activities until the City’s Department of Buildings concludes its preliminary investigation or the City directs us otherwise.

This incident requires a reassurance to the community of the buildings’ soundness before work can proceed at the site. We are in frequent contact with the developer and various city agencies to make sure that we have fully addressed all safety concerns before activities resume. The State remains committed to the project and to its timeline for completion.


More oversight coming

I asked ESDC spokesman Errol Cockfield whether there was more oversight coming, as requested by numerous community groups. His response indicated a yes, though the ESDC is not ready to announce specifics.

"We have an interim environmental monitor in AKRF and we are on the verge of selecting an environmental monitor," he said. Beyond that, he added, "There have been exhaustive plans under way for some time to provide increased oversight for the Atlantic Yards project."

Details, comments, questions emerge about the falling parapet at the Ward Bakery

The city's Department of Buildings has issued a violation to Forest City Ratner for failing to maintain the exterior wall of the Ward Bakery, though no shed was required. Meanwhile, more than 300 people from the adjacent homeless shelter had to evacuate, and questions remain about how and why the 200-foot stretch of the parapet fell yesterday, and what oversight agencies will do.

According to NY1:
"Parapet walls exposed on both side over many years, and we had heavy rains, so it very well could be a residual effect of the heavy rains that we had,” said FDNY Assistant Chief James Nichols.
In response to the incident, Forest City Ratner vice president Bruce Bender said:
“At the time of the purchase, (in March 2006) the building was already in a state of disrepair. We will of course work very closely with the Buildings Department and other agencies to determine the cause of the collapse and to ensure public safety."


[Update: The purchase was in March 2005.]

There's a difference between disrepair and unsafe, and the developer last year got permission to demolish buildings deemed unsafe by its own inspectors.

FCR speaks... to some

While Forest City Ratner has not posted any statement nor responded to my inquiries, its spokesman did speak to others in the press.

The Times reported, in an article headlined Parapet Falls From Building to Be Demolished for Atlantic Yards that Forest City Ratner said its workers did not cause the incident:
Loren Riegelhaupt a spokesman for Forest City Ratner... said the workers on the roof were using “hand-held chippers” to remove asbestos, but were not working on the parapet.

As for the citation, the Times reported:
Such citations are not unusual, and property owners are often able to avoid fines or other penalties by demonstrating that repair work has been completed.

It will be interesting to see if such repair work obviates a fine for an incident that could have caused significant harm had anybody been walking nearby.

What about the shed?

And why was the shed gone?
[Riegelhaupt]said the removal of the shed was necessary to allow access to sewer lines under the sidewalk that the city will require to be blocked before demolition of the building is begun.

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn took aim at Riegelhaupt's claim that "Our focus is on the safety of the community," suggesting that the sidewalk shed should have been replaced before asbestos abatement began.

Newsday and AM NY ran an article, headlined Building at Atlantic Yards site collapses that quoted Council Member Letitia James about the lack of oversight and a "developer running amok."

The article stated:
A sidewalk shed was removed from the sidewalk in front of the Ward Bakery in March. A new shed was being constructed yesterday, but a shed was not required for the asbestos abatement, [Department of Buildings spokeswoman Kate] Lindquist said.

Other coverage

The New York Post ran a short article, headlined ATLANTIC YARDS BLDG. COLLAPSE, that cited James's call for a halt to demolition. The New York Sun article, headlined Part of Roof Collapses At Atlantic Yards Site, didn't quote any individuals.

Metro's article, On the street: Collapse at Atlantic Yards site forces evacuation, quoted the Empire State Development Corporation's statement that it was on the job.

The Daily News ran a more substantial article, in its Brooklyn edition, headlined Homeless flee building collapse: Mishap comes weeks before Ratner wrecking ball. It cited the effort by preservationists to maintain the terra cotta-covered building and quoted opponent Patty (actually Patti) Hagan as saying, "That building was extremely sturdy. I'd call what happened an awfully odd coincidence."

A piquant detail:
Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, whose name is scrawled on the building in graffiti form that reads "Hakeem [heart] Ratner," stopped short of calling for a demolition freeze or an independent monitor.
"This incident further highlights the need to proceed with extreme caution," said Jeffries (D-Fort Greene), who has been criticized for his support of the project.


The Daily News noted that the ESDC wouldn't say whether it would halt upcoming demolitions, as James has requested.

Doctoroff (sort of) says city didn't "reach out" regarding Atlantic Yards

Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff continues his semi-apologies for the lack of community outreach regarding Atlantic Yards. On Monday, he told radio host Brian Lehrer that Atlantic Yards was an "extreme case," given the heated controversy. He continued, "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."

Yesterday, answering questions during a forum on community development at the New School, Doctoroff returned to the same theme. A questioner asked Doctoroff about the proposal in PlaNYC 2030 to deck over railyards for housing.

While the questioner did not point out that the document issued Sunday points to a community planning process for railyards vastly different than that for Atlantic Yards, he did pose two important questions: “Do the economics of that require very high density? And so, what have you learned from Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards about navigating the politics?”

Reaching out

Doctoroff didn't answer the density question with any granularity. He responded, “The first thing we’ve learned is that it’s absolutely critical to get the communities involved right up front. I will be honest—to the extent that we’ve made mistakes in the past, it’s because we haven’t reached out early enough or aggressively enough to communities. There are a certain number of opportunities, we think, where the cost of decking is naturally lower than the cost of land in the city today and therefore it will make sense. That isn’t true everywhere, but no matter what we do, it’s going to have to be done in close consultation with the local communities. That’s one of the things we’ve really learned to do very effectively over the last five years. We start out, before we even go public with even an idea, reach out to the local community.”
(Emphasis added)

Of course, there's an inherent tension between community consultation and the decision not to press the state to let at least part of the Atlantic Yards project go through ULURP, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. And the city agreed to support Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards via a February 2005 MOU months before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority issued a request for proposals for the Vanderbilt Yard.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

From AtlanticYards.com, no "construction update" yet

There's a page on AtlanticYards.com for Construction Updates, but those are just links to Forest City Ratner press releases.

The most recent:
March 22, 2007
Demolition to Begin on Ward Bread Bakery - 800 Pacific Street.


Given the events of the day, another update might be in order.

In Ward Bakery incident, was a sidewalk shed required?

[Udpate: No shed was required.]

The sidewalk shed outside the Ward Bakery has been gone for weeks, though one existed for years. When local residents protesting Forest City Ratner's demolition plan walked on Pacific Street Monday, they passed right by the bakery, which lacked such a shed. Had today's incident--200 feet of the parapet wall falling, according to the Times--occurred three days earlier, those walking by could have been very unlucky. (Photo taken Monday by Jonathan Barkey)

When Forest City Ratner applied for a demolition permit in early March, it was approved on the basis that a sidewalk shed was required. The permit (below) also said that a shed had been erected.

That shed apparently was the one that had existed for years, and apparently was removed at some point after March 3. On March 21, the developer filed for a permit to build a new shed. Apparently a shed is not required while workers do pre-demolition work, such as asbestos removal. Among the lingering questions: did the asbestos removal at the building morph into more significant work that affected the building's structural integrity? If this could be blamed on weather and deterioration, should the developer have taken more precautions?

NY1 adds: At the request of the buildings department, Forest City Ratner says it will put up sidewalk scaffolding, which was not in place when the collapse occurred.

(Below, the demolition permit; click to enlarge.)

A plethora of photos from the Ward Bakery (partial) collapse and response

Credit Tracy Collins, who's posted dozens.

ESDC statement on Ward Bakery

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) has issued a statement:

“When the Empire State Development Corporation learned about the incident, the agency sent representatives to the scene to assess the situation.
Safety is our utmost concern and we’re very thankful no one was injured. Our team is conferring with the developer, the City, and various government agencies to find out exactly what happened and to help coordinate a thorough response.
We’re also awaiting the outcome of an investigation by the city’s Department of Buildings so we can take any necessary action.”

Note that a "thorough response" does not, as of yet, go as far as the request by Council Member Letitia James that work on the site should be halted immediately

Jeffries calls for investigation; James calls for stopping all work

The partial collapses of the Ward Bakery has led to evacuation of the neighboring homeless shelter and significant concern around the Pacific Street site. Investigations are ongoing, and elected officials are speaking up.

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries issued this statement:
Complete Investigation Demanded
“The partial collapse of the Ward Bakery has caused great concern in the community. I am thankful that no one was injured, as this accident could have had tragic consequences. The Fire Department must conduct a thorough investigation of the cause of this collapse and I expect the developer to fully participate. This incident further highlights the need to proceed with extreme caution as the developer moves forward the Atlantic Yards project.”


Council Member Letitia James issued this statement:
Work in "Atlantic Yards" Site Should Be Halted Immediately

"I am relieved no one was hurt in the partial "collapse" of part of the historic Ward's Bakery building this morning. I have been asking for an oversight structure of construction work at the site for sometime now. There is still no formal structure, other than the developer's own "Community Liaison Office," from which the public can get information.

It is tragic that 350 residents, consisting of 94 families, have been displaced because of this morning's occurrence. I find it ironic that for 80 years Wards Bakery stood without incident and that this collapse would happen at this time. It is further ironic that some of these displaced have filed lawsuits affecting the approval of the Atlantic Yards Project. It is also important to note that this is one of several incidents that have occurred in the footprint of the project.

In light of what happened at 800 Pacific Street this morning, and other incidents, I have asked Empire State Development Corporation, who is acting as the lead agency in this project, to halt all work at the "Atlantic Yards" site until this morning's occurrence can be fully investigated, and until there is a monitoring body to oversee all proposed demolition and construction at the site.

This is still a neighborhood filled with residents and businesses. The current situation is hazardous to the health and safety of my constituents, and these demolitions, accidental and intentional, are entirely premature in the process."

"Breaking" Ward Bakery news

See DDDB, Brownstoner, and Curbed, and expect updates on No Land Grab. Will there be anything from the Atlantic Yards Community Liaison Office?

Pollster, trolling for development business, claims AY "possible blueprint"

In an op-ed in today's New York Post, headlined A BLUEPRINT GROWS IN B'KLYN, pollster Craig Charney, who conducted the deceptive poll on Atlantic Yards last September for Crain's New York Business, claims:
DEMOLITION began this week to clear ground for New York's biggest urban redevelopment project in decades, Atlantic Yards. That marked not just a crucial defeat for New York's militant anti-developers - the dreaded "NIMBY" (not in my backyard) lobby - but also the emergence of a possible blueprint for future victories.

Didn't we dispose of the Times's "modern blueprint" formulation a while back?

Charney's misleading analysis starts in the very first paragraph. First, demolition actually began in February; Charney's referring to demolitions challenged in court and last week permitted to proceed.

Second, the opponents are not NIMBYs--why would they be organizing the UNITY 2007 charette this weekend?--but critics of this specific plan, which would be more dense than the nation's densest census tract and is so radioactive that the city won't cite it as a blueprint in the just-released PlaNYC 2030 document.

Charney, in the second paragraph, makes another error, saying Atlantic Yards would have 8.7 million square feet of space (actually 8 million) and cost $4.2 billion (actually $4 billion.) He says that developer Forest City Ratner "did have to scale the project down modestly to get the go-ahead," but that, of course, is untrue: the size of the project, in square footage, would be just about the same as announced.

Endorsing Bruce

Charney comes to a conclusion vastly different than New York Magazine's Chris Smith, who wrote last August: What at first seemed to me impressive on a clinical level—a developer’s savvy use of state-of-the-art political tactics—ends up being, on closer inspection, truly chilling.

Charney writes: But Atlantic Yards and its developer, Bruce Ratner, have still showed how to promote big redevelopment projects in 21st century American cities.

Poll defense

He suggests reasons behind the Crain's poll he produced, which showed general support for Atlantic Yards:
Most people don't worry much about development issues outside their own neighborhood. Only one in five New Yorkers followed news about the project closely.
Anti-development arguments also don't resonate much with New Yorkers these days. Claims that the project was out of scale and promoted gentrification raised serious doubt for only three in 10; the costs of more schools and sewers did so for just one in three. Ratner's decision to avoid the city's land-use review process by building on state land raised the most doubts, but even this worried just 40 percent.


Isn't the answer in his second sentence? Those who knew more about it were more likely to be critical. The Times, for example, has never published a rendering of the project in neighborhood scale.

Building support

Charney claims that the "key factor was Forest City Ratner's willingness to listen - and make concessions," leading to "an innovative 'community-benefits agreement.'" He cites Chris Smith calling it "terrific and creative commitments," including the affordable housing pledge. (Let's say Smith's analysis remains debatable.) Those "concessions" were in process at the beginning, not any response to the critics who emerged.

Remember the way the poll was worded:
The project will provide 2,250 low-, moderate-, and middle-income rental apartments. Is this a very important benefit, an important benefit, not an important benefit or no benefit at all?

The phrase "the project will provide" echoes the developer's syntax. Such language suggests that the project itself is the actor, even though the housing would be provided by a developer backed by significant public subsidies.

As I wrote, consider some alternative ways to frame that question:
The project would include 2,250 low-, moderate-, and middle-income rental apartments, with an average rent of $1542.

The project would include 2,250 affordable apartments, but more than half would be too expensive for people at Brooklyn's median income.

The project would include 2,250 affordable apartments, but the inclusion of those apartments means the development would be significantly out of scale with its neighbors.

The project would include 2,250 affordable apartments, but most wouldn't be built until after 2010, and could be delayed by the market.

The project would include 2,250 affordable apartments, but we haven't been told the full amount of the subsidies used to support them.

The project would include 2,250 affordable apartments, but most wouldn't be built until after 2010, unlike city rezonings which require affordable housing to be built along with the rest of project.


More than six months after the poll, we still don't know the extent of the subsidies or whether they could be better deployed elsewhere. And Charney hasn't noticed landscape architect Laurie Olin's prediction that the project could take 20 years to build, not ten, which would delay the production of affordable housing significantly. Wouldn't that change a poll?

Columbia's CBA


Charney concludes that Columbia University, in dealing with the Local Development Corporation set up to negotiate a CBA in West Harlem, "will need to show the same flexibility... that Ratner showed in Brooklyn."

The LDC, of course, is vastly different from the CBA "coalition" in Brooklyn. The New York Observer in February reported criticism from an opponent of Columbia University's development plan:
“Ratner and the city got together with one big, national not-for-profit and a set of local sycophants and put something together which doesn’t seem to have satisfied too many people, except for those who are benefiting directly from it,” Mr. [Jordi] Reyes-Montblanc, the chairman of Community Board 9, said.

Crain's editor Greg David wrote last September, explaining the genesis of the poll: Charney, a professional pollster whose firm had emphasized political work, wanted to raise his company's profile within the business community.

Consider today's op-ed another effort at marketing.

At Glazer talk on modernism, AY is poster child for too much density

Nathan Glazer, the eminent Harvard sociologist and social critic, came to New York on April 17 to speak about his new collection of essays, From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City--and Atlantic Yards came in for some criticism..

Protest, he said at one point, “is one form of discovering when density is too much,” and that certainly points to Brooklyn. (He spoke at the Yale Club, sponsored by the Manhattan Institute.)

But he began with modernism, the 20th-century stripping of ornament and history in the interest of efficiency and currency, failing to match the “complex urbanity” of the past, that failed. In the United States and Britain, it was applied to public housing, and was denounced. The 1972 destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis marked the “end of modernism as a social cause.”

Architects, Glazer said, “are really more interested in form than social reform, though they often speak about it.” (Remember Atlantic Yards architect's Frank Gehry calling himself “do-gooder, liberal.”)

Modernist architects, Glazer said, have created “some sensational buildings”--and his book mentions Gehry and Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas and Santiago Calatrava--“but we have no proposal from modernism for the improvement of urban life.” Indeed, he writes, that, while we can tolerate the personal visions of painters or sculptors, “We cannot be as indifferent to the individual vision of the architect.”

Those forms often don’t relate to function, Glazer writes; interestingly, Gehry’s Atlantic Yards plan has involved to include, at least on the base of some buildings, ">brick and stone to reflect the nearby neighborhood. Still, there would be a lot of glass, and Glazer warns that materials in modernist buildings—he calls them “World’s Fair buildings” meant to impress briefly—often are costly to maintain and restore.

Glazer cited the new interest in Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs as well as the current building boom. “As we look at this explosion,” he asked, “Is there any place for a larger scheme or vision?”

(In I.D. Magazine, Thomas de Monchaux writes of Atlantic Yards: Gehry's presence adds a thin veneer of the visionary to what is essentially a private urban renewal project of the kind discredited since the 1960s.)

Controlling density

Urban planning, Glazer observed, has traditionally concerned the control of density. He said that London and Paris, “our great competitors” used instruments of planning to restrict density in the center and build more on the outskirts. That, he allowed, has had tradeoffs: high-cost office space in the center and, in the case of Paris, soulless and dangerous (and, though he didn’t say it, modernist) suburbs.

“But they use planning in service of the amenity they believe should be part of urban life,” he said. “They show more respect for the past than we do. Would either of them have allowed the destruction of Penn Station?” (That 1964 demolition helped catalyze the historic preservation movement in New York City, leading to the 1965 establishment of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.)

Glazer writes: One also notes that great cities like Paris and London are not built to great heights, that their business districts spread over a larger section of the city, and yet liveliness and diversity and the pleasures of the street manage to exist, even when the street line is built up to five or seven stories, rather than a dozen or more.

An “emblematic” statement, Glazer suggested, came from a meeting he described when a group of New Yorkers, some decades ago, visited Paris and were told, “Build the city on the city.” In other words, Glazer expanded, “Do not erase the city it order to build it. It can also be built on its past. "

“Do we need the unique and ever more intense crowding of the center?” he said. “Do we need to have this density?”

(Not everyone agrees. Libertarian-ish Harvard economist Edward Glaeser writes in the New York Sun: If there is one area where Mr. Glazer and I disagree it is his view that "scale is a problem." The resurgence of New York, London, and Chicago, and the great, growing cities of Asia remind us of how valuable scale can be. Scale is not for everyone, but great towers enable vast numbers of people to reap the economic and social benefits from physical proximity. New York's skyscrapers are the infrastructure that enables the city's flow of ideas. And for those buildings, modernism is an efficient, attractive style. Millions of New Yorkers happily work and live in modernist towers. New commercial buildings in the city remain mostly modernist. Why not? People are willing to pay high prices for them.)

Glazer in the book offers his take:
I think we have gone too far. We see costs to the quality of life when the new office buildings engross midblock sites, wiping out older, smaller buildings, which provide space for modest business establishments.

Atlantic Yards

In his speech, Glazer then he brought up “the conflict over Atlantic Yards,” an area that he described as having four- and five-story buildings, now slated for “this enormous concentration. One asks: Is this necessary?”

(Glazer’s description is not quite accurate. On the south and east and west of the project site are, indeed, three- and four-story buildings. Within the project site are buildings mostly of that size, though one is seven stories tall, and the development would wrap around the ten-story (at least 120-foot) Newswalk building, a former Daily News printing plant. Across broad Atlantic Avenue, there are different cues from different decades: row houses in the 1990s Atlantic Commons, mid-rise, seven story 2001 senior housing, 12- to 15-story 1970s Mitchell-Lama towers, the 31-story Atlantic Terminal 4B public housing complex, built in 1976; the 512-foot Williamsburgh Savings Bank, from 1929. Coming soon is the ten-story Atlantic Terrace building from the Fifth Avenue Committee.)

(The photo is taken from the Sixth Avenue bridge, over the railyards, approaching Atlantic Avenue and looking northeast.)

Managing conflict

“Can we develop a way of thinking that opposes the powerful logic of the market with other ways of thinking that gives a larger place to the pleasures of urban life?” Glazer asked.

These days, he lamented, the only way is to fight things out regarding each project. Atlantic Yards opponents, he suggested, have been portrayed as having only sentimentality or self-interest at heart. (There are elements of truth to those charges, but Atlantic Yards opponents and critics also have called for much more, including better urban design, a fairer planning process, a thorough analysis of the project's economics, and a rejection of the use of eminent domain for what is seen as private gain.)

Much more is involved, Glazer insisted: “It is time to think of the notion of a larger view of the city.”

In his book, Glazer criticizes the emergence of the superblock for public housing built after World War II. And, he points out, Jane Jacobs criticized the superblock for isolating housing and lacking the multiplicity of a street built up over time. Atlantic Yards would, in fact contain superblocks and, critics argue, inaccessible open space. The state claims it’s a better superblock.

AY an anomaly?

When it came time for questions, Joseph Rose, former chairman of the City Planning Commission, commented, “I actually think Atlantic Yards is an anomaly.” While Rose implicitly accepted Glazer’s take on Atlantic Yards, he suggested that there have been improvements sensitive to the city, citing the restoration of Bryant Park, the revival of the theater district, and the effort to create waterfront access on the West Side.

Glazer didn’t disagree with Rose’s examples, but maintained, “In great, historic cities, a greater degree of control, in preservation of the traditional fabric, seems not to have hurt them.”

He was asked how housing developments like Co-op City, and Starrett City, once derided as soulless, could be beautified to maintain affordable access yet improve the sense of amenity. Glazer didn’t have a specific solution, but he did have a warning: don’t let the private purchasers of such complexes fill in open space with new buildings. “I’d urge city authorities not to allow them more density.”

“What is a level of density that provides a good life?” Glazer mused. There’s no answer, though he writes in the book:
Huge buildings we admire were built in the past too. So there are other things besides scale that are problematic. One of them is that the features which used to structure scale for the eye, manage scale—systems of ornament and decoration—are no longer available to contemporary architects.

Also, he writes about the increasing height, at least in the past (see Atlantic Terminal 4B) of public housing:
Yet much in amenity that smaller-scaled structures provided was sacrificed: easier access to the street and playground; fewer families on each entry, who , knowing each other could more easily police public access, more varied play spaces.”

It depends

Former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, of New York Civic, suggested that some apparently dense buildings, like new apartments on Columbus Circle, tax the infrastructure less because the residents may be wealthy people establishing second homes, without children using the school system.

Also, Stern pointed to the plethora of apartment buildings 15 to 20 stories on Park Avenue and suggested that such density “doesn’t seem to cause problems.” Is the demonstrated problem with density a product of social conditions more than architecture?

Glazer allowed that Stern’s first point was a good one; he hadn’t considered the point. And he didn’t quite address the Park Avenue issue.

“I’m trying to justify and defend the notion: we like it the way it is,” Glazer said. That of course is hard to defend in a time of growth, as New York City—at least according to the mayor but not analyst Tom Angotti in Gotham Gazette—plans for another million residents by 2030.

“We have not done very well at developing the argument for amenity,” he said. Indeed, his book points to a distinction: When we speak of a city’s “quality of life,” we think of the elements that make a city gracious, pleasant, livable: the residential squares of London, the boulevards of Paris, the woods and lakes of Berlin. They are often featured on travel posters, but for New York, in contrast, we have skyscrapers—grand, but hardly contributors to quality of life.

Regulation or the market?

A questioner pointed out that even subsidizing outer borough business hubs has not necessarily drawn business from the center city. Glazer, talking to a conservative/libertarian group, suggested that the solution was “less subsidy and more restriction.”

That seemed counter to one passage in the book, where he writes:
Yes, New York’s development should be unshackled, for it is far too bound by rule and regulation. But the unshackling should be combined with a vision of a better way of life.

A real estate developer talked about how New York had lost distinctive retail outlets to chain stores and wondered, “is there a free-market solution?” Glazer said that London and Paris do better at historical preservation.

Another commenter responded that they should take a larger view: New York is evolving, that “whole areas once boring are exciting now.”

Glazer said he was right, “but the pace is faster. We have to find a way of defending ‘what is’ that is not just NIMBYism. There are better values involved.”

Indeed, just last night, John Norquist, former Milwaukee mayor and president of the Congress for a New Urbanism, told an audience that the issue was "code," or the municipal restrictions such as zoning.

"You recognize the genius of some of these architects and confront them with a strong code," Norquist said, citing the example of a Gehry project in Berlin that was changed by local officials. For the Atlantic Yards project, however, the state would override city zoning.

Density and equity

After the session last week, I caught up with Glazer, who on 7/11/05 wrote a critical letter about Atlantic Yards, to ask about the argument that density is required for equity, to build subsidized units, for example under inclusionary zoning in Greenpoint-Williamsburg or in the Atlantic Yards plan.

A similar tradeoff, he said, has existed in the past, when developers of office buildings were granted more developable area if the included plazas and other publicly accessible open space.

“It seems, in other cities, they’re able to be more forceful about the matter,” he said. Increased density “seems to be the main currency. There has to be some other currency.”

In the book, he writes that New York once was able to create parks from public funds, but after the zoning overhaul in 1961, developers were given zoning bonuses to create plazas:
But for various reasons the relative power and affluence of public and private players in the city seems to have so changed by 1961 that the best the city could do was to offer ‘incentives’ to the private developer to provide some space for public use. This was the mechanism devised to moderate the incredible density that is the hallmark of New York City.

He quotes author Jerrold S. Kayden:
Although the policy has yielded an impressive quantity of public space, it has failed to produce a similarly impressive quality of public space.

Now, though Glazer didn’t mention it, the challenge has advanced to a new level: parks like Brooklyn Bridge Park depend on a measure of commercial development.

Other currency?

In his book, Glazer writes about four movements shaping the city over the past 30 years: preservation, new urbanism, environmentalism, and community advocacy, which he shorthands as resistance to change.

Glazer was all about questions, not answers, but one emerging answer regarding Atlantic Yards seems to be balanced growth, both in the city and the region. Ron Shiffman, at the press conference announcing the lawsuit challenging the Atlantic Yards environmental review, said, “We do need to rethink density,” an acknowledgement that sometimes developments are too big and sometimes too small.

Urbanist Roberta Brandes Gratz has taken aim at the suburban-style development that grew up in once-abandoned districts like East New York that have the infrastructure to support much more density.

Also, the “transit-oriented development” that has been practiced in New Jersey, where density is proposed near suburban rail stations, has come much more slowly to Long Island, which is much closer to Brooklyn. And, of course, one of the great failures of Robert Moses was his refusal to plan for a rail track—or one to come later—as the Long Island Expressway was developed.

While City Council Member Letitia James loves Brownstone Brooklyn—opposing a “vertical city” at the Atlantic Yards site—she helped develop and support the UNITY plan for the Vanderbilt Yard, with mid-range density. (UNITY 2007 this Saturday.)

And Atlantic Yards opponents who supported the alternative bid by Extell found themselves backing a plan of very high density, albeit over a smaller area, and without an arena, thus creating lesser environmental impacts (and, as the Empire State Development Corporation argues, fewer benefits).

One issue is public taste. Glazer in his book points out that, 40 years ago, there were no architecture guidebooks to American cities:
Admittedly it is easier to educate public taste to the virtues of the past—the buildings, after all, are already there, and the appreciations have already been written—than to educate it to make decisions for the future.

The issue seems to be planning. The city got it right, it seems, with the Brig site project announced this week. It knows the right way to develop railyards, as stated in PlaNYC 2030.

The reason Atlantic Yards has become such a poster child for overdevelopment is that, by the city’s own actions, it’s clear that the project did not derive from a deliberative process. Before PlaNYC 2030 was issued, the NY Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association advised that "the credibility of the process and the plans depend on broad, open public involvement and accountability."

Moreover, the planners advised, the urgency of the goals should not be "used as an excuse to circumvent open decision-making by elected officials or local legislative bodies, or appropriate application of the City's Charter-mandated public review processes such as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure."

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

New sidewalk sheds suggest demolitions in progress

When the demonstration against demolitions was held Monday morning, Forest City Ratner had decided--whether for logistical or strategic reasons--to hold off on demolition of three buildings at the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Pacific. However, the sidewalk sheds set up yesterday and today (below) are signs that the demolitions are proceeding. Meanwhile, a hole (bottom) at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Pacific Street kept city workers busy today. (Photos courtesy of a reader)

Ratner's Brooklyn Tech plan was hot air; school won't move

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle this week had a scoop, shooting down the vague plans for a new "21st century" Brooklyn Tech and the rumors that Forest City Ratner wanted the eight-story building--the largest high school built in the country--at the edge of Fort Greene Park.

In the article, headlined Brooklyn Tech Won’t Move, Dept. of Ed Assures Alumni, the Eagle notes that the building, which has a 3012-seat theater and basement swimming pool, has gone through several recent upgrades to its labs, library, wireless and fiberoptic network, and athletic facilities.

Valuable real estate

The Eagle reports:
The thought of moving Tech is “unconscionable,” says alumnus Melvin Band, who confronted Schools Chancellor Joel Klein at the January 22 Educational Panel meeting about the Daily News article. “Tech will get a much smaller school made with spit in a less safe neighborhood. On the other hand, you’ll get the goose that lays the golden eggs — Tech’s cash cow,” Band said he told the chancellor.

Band says it’s all about real estate. “Do I have a bid for Tech’s 600,000 square feet of real estate, the size of 11 football fields, in a vibrant neighborhood, with all the amenities? How much am I bid for Tech’s modern theater with an old-world touch? Three thousand and twelve seats, third only to Radio City Music Hall. It would make a terrific addition to BAM, not to mention the naming rights. How does Barclays Bank Theater sound?”


Barclays, of course, has bought naming rights to Forest City Ratner's planned Atlantic Yards arena.

DOE backs off

Last week, DOE spokesperson Melody Meyers put it plainly, telling the newspaper, “No, we are not moving Brooklyn Tech. We are looking into the need for new schools as the Atlantic Yards project gets under way. Brooklyn Tech is the largest high school building in the country.”

Spinning a Ratner retreat

The Eagle quoted Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco: “In December, when the PACB approved the [Atlantic Yards] project, we issued a statement that said, among other things, that FCRC would work with the city, the state and the UFT if they all agreed on the creation of a new Brooklyn Tech. So yes, that is something we would do, but the question on what to do should really be directed to them.”

Actually, the FCR statement issued 12/20/06 was less conditional than as portrayed by DePlasco:
Mr. Ratner today also announced some additional programs to support the Atlantic Yards project....In addition to these project specific elements, FCRC will also work with the City, State and the United Federation of Teachers on the creation of a new 21st Century Brooklyn Tech High School, at a yet to be determined location in the borough.


The project was announced by FCR; the developer was not taking a back seat, as DePlasco suggests. But DePlasco is paid to spin.

Where's UFT?

A prime mover in the phantom plan was the United Federation of Teachers, which put its political muscle into backing Atlantic Yards and perhaps was looking for a bigger payoff than simply a shot at affordable apartments for some of its members.

The Daily News reported last December 22, a speculative article on the school plan:
United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said a new building would be "a win-win situation. Brooklyn Tech, already a strong school, has the potential to become a world-class high school. ... To accomplish that, it needs a state-of-the-art facility."

Credibility?

Alumnus Band told the Eagle that Klein in February disavowed any plan to move Tech; however, Band questioned that, saying, “Bruce Ratner is not going to make false public statements that would impugn his credibility."

Band apparently has not been following Atlantic Yards issues such as the $5.6 billion lie or the elastic project timeline.

And the Daily News, which overinflated a vague plan into a headline stating Nets go High Tech: Ratner throws in new home for elite Brooklyn HS in arena deal, should print a correction--on page 2, where the original story appeared. (Note: the headline in the BTHS News is a summary, not the actual headline.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

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?

Protest against demolitions finds backhoe at opposite end of Atlantic Yards site

Just because Forest City Ratner had the go-ahead from a judge to demolish at least eight buildings in the Atlantic Yards site before a May 3 hearing on a preliminary injunction didn't mean that the developer would actually start the demolition work at 8 a.m. yesterday.

So when several dozen people--at least 80, at the peak--gathered at Flatbush Avenue near Pacific Street, in front of three row-house structures the developer owns and plans to demolish, they faced nothing more than a few television cameras with their signs, saying things like "These demolitions are premature" and "Gov. Spitzer: Albany Reform begins with Atlantic Yards."

"Fight the blight; it's not a done deal," they chanted, mindful that the project can't proceed until and unless cases filed in state and federal courts are resolved.
(Photos by Jonathan Barkey; full portfolio here.)

City Council Member Letitia James (right) arrived a bit late, and quickly stepped up to the cameras. "We are against development that doesn't respect the community. This is blight created by the developer, Forest City Ratner," she declared. "We have no idea how long these lots will remain blighted."

Of course, the developer plans to turn the lots into part of the initial arena block, with initial construction finished by 2009. Also, the lots offer an argument for further development and further isolate remaining footprint residents, some of whom are plaintiffs.Daniel Goldstein (right) of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), which organized the protest, called the demolitions "premature and an attempt to intimidate residents."

"We are extremely confident that this project is going to have to go back to the drawing board," declared Candace Carponter, DDDB's legal chair. Community planner Ron Shiffman, a member of DDDB's advisory board, called the demolitions, some of which will create interim surface parking lots, a "direct contradiction" to the sustainability plan announced Sunday by Mayor Mike Bloomberg. "If the mayor means anything, they'll step in and tell Ratner to go back to the drawing boards and develop the site in a more environmentally sound way."

Keeping watch

Nearby, several security guards hired by FCR took it all in. Up Flatbush Avenue, other officials with the developer and contractors gathered. Several cops were there to keep order, with the major danger the traffic that stalled periodically at the intersection of Flatbush and Fifth avenues, a portent of potential gridlock after Fifth Avenue is closed by May 27 between Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.

After a while, the protesters made their way around Fifth to Pacific Street, then traveled east on Pacific to Vanderbilt avenue. They passed Carlton Avenue, where a "finger" of row houses (right) is exempted from the plan.

Demolition under wraps

At the corner of Pacific and Vanderbilt, there was some demolition going on, behind a fence fortified with wood that almost--but not quite-blocked all views. Why was this gas station at 524 Vanderbilt (below, right) being demolished?

It wasn't in any of the developer's initial announcements, on February 20 or March 1.

Credit a carefully-worded letter from Forest City Ratner attorney Jeffrey Braun, which is included in the application for a temporary restraining order filed by DDDB and the 25 other groups that have challenged the environmental review of Atlantic Yards:
On Feb. 20, FCRC issued a press release announcing that it was beginning asbestos abatement work in preparation for the demolition of 179 Flatbush, a vacant one-story former auto repair shop, and it was beginning work on the construction of a temporary rail yard for the MTA. The MTA-related work includes demolition at the vacant gas station on Block 1121, Lot 47, which an FCRC affiliate owns, and demolition of the vacant one-story building at 175 Flatbush Avenue which is owned by the City of New York but was used by the MTA. We understand that petitioners have no objection to continuation of the work for the MTA.

That MTA-related work at the gas station was not specified in the press release and differs, obviously, from the below-grade MTA work that has been ongoing.

Return to the CLO

The protesters returned along Pacific Street and turned at 6th Avenue to stop outside the Atlantic Yards Community Liaison Office established by Forest City Ratner. It was time for a few more words, including a brief address from Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, who wore his BrooklynSpeaks t-shirt.

The only channel for communication regarding demolition activity, Veconi pointed out, is through Forest City Ratner. "It's not appropriate to be left up to the developer," he said. Those who wished could line up to enter the office one by one and submit questions.