Sunday, September 30, 2007

Near-gridlock at tour's end, and the effect on AY & UNITY

The walking tour I led yesterday (with the help of Ron Shiffman) of the Atlantic Yards footprint and environs wound up, after two-and-a-half hours, on Pacific Street just west of Flatbush Avenue, outside the Brooklyn Bear's Garden. (About 50 people showed up, very few of whom I recognized as involved in Atlantic Yards-related activism.)

The traffic on Flatbush was relentless. It was hard to imagine how a Saturday afternoon arena event could be accommodated unless there were significant changes to the area transportation system, beyond the mitigations--among them a free MetroCard (for basketball games, not concerts) and shuttle buses (ditto)--planned as of now.

Also, though the alternative UNITY plan Shiffman helped develop calls for a park on the triangular plot opposite the garden, between Flatbush, Fifth, and Atlantic avenues, it sure didn't seem like that salubrious a place to gather, given the traffic on Atlantic as well. Many of the major transportation changes that are proposed in the UNITY plan would have to be implemented, at the least.

Remember, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) rejected several suggestions from Borough President Marty Markowitz about addressing traffic and transit issues. There was more criticism, from consultants Brian Ketcham and Carolyn Konheim, and the ESDC's not-quite-response.

One more day to see Future Perfect, an interactive view of AY

After walking around the Atlantic Yards footprint yesterday, trying to describe, with some visual aids, what Forest City Ratner aims to build, it was a trippy experience to see the Future Perfect installation at the d.u.m.b.o. art under the bridge festival.

(It's showing through today--from 1 to 6 pm, maybe later--at 20 Jay Street, M24, on the Mezzanine floor.)

The video shows the streets of Prospect Heights, but as you walk closer to the installation, architectural renderings of the project appear on the screen, while taped phone calls of residents expressing their opinions about the project are heard. (A majority, I think, are negative, but the voices are tough to decipher in places.)

Walk even closer and we see instead images produced by local schoolchildren--their vision for the streets. As the designers state, "The installation is interactive in that both these 'futures' are only revealed by someone's physical presence."

Given that children tend not to imagine the same scale as developers, or even those behind the fairly dense alternative UNITY plan, the dice are a little loaded. But the installation is still fascinating, and another example of how emerging technology can be used to provide perspectives beyond the officials ones.

Lumi Rolley of No Land Grab conducted a comprehensive interview with creators Ed Purver and Chris Croft, and a demo video link is also available. But you have to experience the installation in person to get the full effect.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Exorcising the Dodgers, redux

A good backdrop to that recent New York magazine article on "Exorcising the Dodgers" would be The Glory Days: New York Baseball 1947-1957, a bang-up exhibit about the rivalry and cultural presence of the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants, running through December 31 at the Museum of the City of New York.

Both the Dodgers and Giants have left and, of course, it was a different era a half-century ago. One exhibit panel states:
Why do the Glory Days continue to exert such a hold on the fans who experienced them? In part, is is because baseball was the big game in town, not yet truly challenged by the other league sports such as football or basketball. But while it was the big time, it was not yet the big business it is today--players lived among the fans and there was a sense of shared identity...

(The companion volume.)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Jane Jacobs was wrong about a stadium, but Toronto ain't Brooklyn

So, what might the late Jane Jacobs think of the planned Atlantic Yards arena, thrust--on two borders--into a low-rise residential neighborhood? We can't be certain, but we can say that a sports facility she famously misjudged was quite different.

In a 5/31/93 New York Times profile of Jacobs, headlined An Expert on Cities, at Home in the World, followed the urbanist as she gave a tour of her longtime home of Toronto. Eventually the tour reached the SkyDome, home of the Toronto Blue Jays, and now known as the Rogers Centre.

The Times reported:
Because the Sky Dome is amid downtown office buildings with ample parking and easily accessible by public transit, it did not require the sort of vast parking lots that turn the areas surrounding most stadiums into wastelands. The Sky Dome also incorporates stores and hotels that make it active even during the off season.

"Before it was built, I had thought that would be a terrible site for a stadium, blighting the area like other stadiums," Mrs. Jacobs admits. "But I was wrong. I am wrong plenty of times, you know."

(Photo from here. Map from here.)

Toronto vs. Brooklyn

But the site in downtown Toronto did not border a residential neighborhood, as in Brooklyn and could rely on empty office parking rather than nearly 1600 spaces of interim surface parking. (The planned Phase 2 of Atlantic Yards--which could be delayed, based on market conditions and other reasons, and not be completed in the projected ten years, ultimately would supply arena underground parking.)

In that way, the Toronto facility is somewhat like the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, which claims to be within reach of some 10,000 parking spots and offers just 475 parking spaces of its own.

Overriding city zoning

And there's nothing near the Rogers Centre that resembles the clapboard house at 474 Dean Street that would be across the street from the arena block. (Across a much wider street from the Verizon Center, actually, are some low-rise historic commercial buildings.)

As Lumi Rolley of NoLandGrab reminded us, while city zoning "prohibits arenas within 200 feet of residential districts as some of the operations could be incompatible with districts limited primarily to residential use," the state plans to override that zoning for Atlantic Yards.

(Photo by Tracy Collins)

Two residential tenants settle, leave eminent domain suit

Two residential tenants (of seven) among the original 13 plaintiffs in the eminent domain suit challenging Atlantic Yards have settled their cases, reports the Brooklyn Paper, in an article headlined Lawsuit against Atlantic Yards is losing its plaintiffs one by one. (An additional commercial property owner plaintiff has since been added, from a parallel case that was consolidated.)

The Paper's Ariella Cohen (who is leaving the newspaper) quoted the tenants' attorney, Jennifer Levy: “[The tenants] don’t agree with the project, but their rights are limited under the law, so if they are being offered something that protects their rights, they will take it.” (They were not named, and a confidentiality agreement prevents them from commenting.)

Should we expect any of the five other tenants with rent-regulated leases to settle their cases, as the October 9 date for oral argument in the plaintiffs' appeal approaches? Levy said four others were in settlement talks, so it's quite possible.

Plaintiffs' motivations for joining the suit undoubtedly vary, from strong philosophical opposition to the project to the perceived failure (so far) of Forest City Ratner to negotiate a settlement. The developer had previously said its relocation deal--paying the difference in rent for a new apartment, and then offering a place in Atlantic Yards, when built--would not be offered to those filing suit.

The rental tenants are in the most precarious position. Additionally, the cost of relocating them into suitable accommodation is undoubtedly lower than reaching agreement regarding commercial and residential properties owned by other plaintiffs. And Forest City Ratner would like to proceed with as much pre-construction demolition as possible.

The road not taken: City Council limits high-rise buildings... on the Upper West Side

From a New York Times article Wednesday headlined Council Approves Plan to Limit High-Rises on Upper West Side:
The City Council unanimously passed a rezoning plan yesterday that limits the spread of high-rise buildings along 51 blocks on the Upper West Side, an area that officials say has undergone a significant increase in development.

The plan is intended to preserve the physical character of the community. It generally limits buildings to 14 stories along Broadway; 10 to 11 stories along the other avenues; and 6 to 7 stories on the side streets. Additionally, it imposes design restrictions so that new developments more closely match the neighborhoods around them.

Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito, a Manhattan Democrat who represents the area, called the plan a “safeguard against aggressive overdevelopment that is running rampant throughout the city.”

...The plan was prompted by the construction of 37- and 31-story condominium towers along Broadway near 99th Street by the Extell Development Company, said Councilwoman Melinda R. Katz, a Queens Democrat and chairwoman of the Council’s Land Use Committee.

...Under the old zoning rules, there were no height restrictions and developers could buy unused air rights from buildings on surrounding streets. The new plan ends those transfers.


Versus Atlantic Yards

By contrast, for the Atlantic Yards project, the state will override zoning, to which City Planning Commission Chairwoman Amanda Burden concurs, explaining last February, "Tall buildings are aspirational... We’re a city that welcomes growth, we welcome innovation.”

Asked about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, she responded, “Of course they both were right, in certain degrees. Robert Moses got things done, and Jane Jacobs argued for diversity. She knew there was going to be serendipitous change in the city. What she encouraged was not just diversity but the public and the affected community to participate in the planning process to make that happen. And in fact, that is what we are doing now."

Just not in certain parts of Brooklyn.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

In appellate court, AY renters' case finds little sympathy

Can the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), pursuing "friendly condemnations," override the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), which typically must grant permission to a landlord who wishes to demolish a building housing residential tenants with rent-stabilized leases?

The answer, not previously decided by the courts, appears more likely to be yes, allowing such "friendly condemnations," in which Forest City Ratner-owned buildings are transferred to ESDC ownership, thus ending the leases far more speedily than the process would occur under DHCR.

In May, State Supreme Court Justice Walter Tolub dismissed a challenge from 13 tenants (all but one rent-stabilized) in the Atlantic Yards footprint, saying that the case belonged instead in the appellate court designated to hear eminent domain determinations, but without the advantages to the plaintiffs of a trial.

Appealing Tolub's ruling to a different appellate court, the tenants, represented by attorney George Locker, found it tough going yesterday. A five-judge panel of Appellate Division, First Department was steadily skeptical of his argument that the tenants are not actually condemnees, with an ownership interest in their leases.

(Four of the justices were appointed by former Gov. George Pataki. More on the First Department from Tom Robbins in the Village Voice.)

Looking at the law

The ESDC points out that the issue seems simple; state law defines a condemnee as “the holder of any right, title, interest, lien, charge or encumbrance in real property subject to an acquisition or proposed acquisition.” Tolub relied on a string of cases that showed the commercial tenants threatened with condemnation had an ownership interest via their leases.

Locker cites another case in which the courts have “clearly held that under the EDPL, a Rent Stabilized, month-to-month residential rental tenant has no compensable property interest in his/her lease." But that was not in the context of condemnation.

Locker's clients, who live at 624 Pacific Street and 473 Dean Street, have filed a second lawsuit in the Second Department of the Appellate Division, where eminent domain claims are heard, challenging the ESDC's relocation offer, arguing that the offer of relocation assistance does not constitute a "feasible" method for getting the tenants affordable accommodation.

Two cases, two courts?

"Can you be in two places?" asked Presiding Justice Jonathan Lippman yesterday.

Locker said a similar case on relocation had been heard in the Second Department--it went against the tenants, but they argued without a lawyer--and said that court only concerned condemnees.

You don't have an ownership interest? Lippman asked.

No case until Tolub's decision established that, Locker responded.

"It says right in the statute" that a condemnee has "any interest," a perturbed Associate Justice George D. Marlow followed up. "How plain could it be?"

Locker pointed to another case that suggested such rental tenants are non-condemnees.

"The cases that say a leaseholder has an interest in real property are legion," Associate Justice James M. Catterson responded.

Locker again noted Tolub's decision broke new ground.

Lippman pointed to the language of the statute.

Locker responded, "It would appear that residential rent-regulated tenants don't present these cases."

Catterson said the tenants should be in the other appellate court. Locker pointed to ambiguous language in one case and suggested that commercial tenants have different potential losses than residential ones.

ESDC defense

Arguing only briefly, ESDC attorney Charles Webb urged that Tolub's decision be upheld and said "he certainly can raise the case" in the Second Department.

Locker argued for a distinction, that the tenants are beneficiaries of relocation assistance, hence have standing to go to the Second Department on that issue, but maintained they should go to trial on the broader issue of the ESDC's jurisdiction over rent-regulated tenants.

"I would assert the time is long past to go to the Second Department" on this issue, he said in closing.

Afterward in the hall, as Webb and a dozen attorneys and officials, representing the state and Forest City Ratner, gathered in a spirit of good cheer, Locker, one of his clients, and this reporter spoke a few feet away.

ESDC vs. DHCR

"It's very easy for him to say go to another court after the time has passed to go there," Locker said of Webb. "ESDC is trying to have it both ways. If they're condemnees, the ESDC should recognize their rights, which are spelled out by DHCR."

Based on the comments from the panel, the court seems unwilling to do so.

In court in March, Locker had pointed to a case which said DHCR had “exclusive and original jurisdiction over demolition of a rent-regulated building.” The ESDC, in legal papers, however, said the case applies to a private landlord, not a public one, and it will become the landlord of the tenants in the two buildings at issue.

Would Jane Jacobs approve of AY? One Time Out-ster thinks so

The folks at Time Out New York have offered some off-the-cuff blogging on Jane Jacobs and Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards, so I'll offer some off-the-cuff responses.

(Graphic of Bruce Ratner/Jane Jacobs and further commentary from NoLandGrab's Lumi Rolley.)

First off, The great Jane debate: Opening salvo:
Since the goal is to make this interesting, I’m starting it controversially: I think J.J. would approve of Atlantic Yards. Actually, she was a cranky broad who no doubt would have found many faults with it. Let me rephrase. I think Atlantic Yards largely follows Jacobs’s principles and would enliven that neighborhood in a way she would admire.

What neighborhood? Atlantic Yards would be in a border zone, at the edge of Prospect Heights, across a highway from Fort Greene, nudging up against Park Slope and Boerum Hill, and extending the reach of Downtown Brooklyn.

As for following Jacobsian principles, well, I disagree.

The entry continues:
Let’s look at it through the J.J. lens. That neighborhood right now is an ugly traffic confluence and not much else. It’s full of chain stores and terrible for pedestrian traffic. Atlantic Yards would add an amenity where there is none. Though I’m not intimately familiar with the plans, I know it includes extensive mixed-use and varied street-level commercial space, along with many residential units (and a hotel, I believe). It would increase the density of that area, as Jacobs prefers.


The "neighborhood" is not an ugly traffic confluence; the western border of the site footprint is that.

It continues:

I know that Jacobs was not a fan of megaproject-style development because she favored a variety of new and old buildings, but what else can a stadium be but a megaproject? It strikes me as the type of primary-use anchor (like the nautical museum she proposed for lower Manhattan) that she recommends for dull neighborhoods that need a boost. Furthermore, in the time since Death and Life was written, adding stadia to urban settings has been a proven method for bringing a shabby area back to life.(Baltimore was the first major example of this.) There are also ways to mitigate the project’s less Jacobsian qualities—for example, increasing the affordable-housing ratio and adding pedestrian streets to break up the scale somewhat.


Baltimore's Camden Yards is very different from the planned Atlantic Yards, with its baseball and football stadiums separated from residential neighborhoods by a couple of cordons and several parking lots. As for a sports facility as inevitable megaproject, yes, but that doesn't mean 16 towers should be built by one architect and one developer. Yes, streets could be added, but that's the UNITY plan, not Atlantic Yards.

It continues:
I don’t think it’s the “unique quality” of Brooklyn that opponents want to protect; it’s their low rents (which is totally legit—they should just admit to that). And they cast themselves as Jacobs-like crusaders because they don’t know any better. Jane would be ashamed.


Some AY opponents want to protect their low rents or the quality of life they lucked into by moving to Brooklyn at a certain time--and enduring some bad times--for a certain price. And others just might worry about issues like process and good government.

A response

The next blog entry, titled The great Jane debate: Jokester’s response, didn't elevate the discourse:
It’s irrelevant whether Jacobs would approve of the Atlantic Yards project. What real credentials did this woman have?...

The residential area of Atlantic Yards should be pretty jam-packed with people, but I’m not sure it will have the number of small businesses needed (I could be wrong, I haven’t done the homework here) to perpetuate the kind of sidewalk vigilance that Jacobs finds necessary for safe and prosperous urban dwelling.


There might indeed by sidewalk vigilance, but not in areas without streets.

A considered response

The third entry, headlined The great Jane debate: A considered response
My two cents on J.J. and the Yards (what a great band name) is that she would be torn: On the one hand, big parts of the designated area ain’t great shakes right now, as Dustin pointed out. I was biking there with my wife on Sunday and there are long stretches of pretty desolate streets. On the other hand, the Yards project is bound to be a big bag of corporate candy. Picture our “Has Manhattan lost its soul?” cover times 50. (To say nothing of game-night traffic—how bout some congestion pricing there, Bloomie?) And I’m not convinced by the “stadiums revive urban areas” argument.


The big bag of corporate candy starts with the naming rights to Barclays Center and would extend to new advertising signage.

As for whether there are desolate streets, that's a false dichotomy. People and business have been bought out, buildings have been demolished, and the area has stagnated. Despite what the Empire State Development Corporation said, Atlantic Yards would be one solution to the current desolation, but not the only one.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

We are all Jacobsian now--but what about process?

At the reception and awards ceremony Monday night at the Morgan Library and Museum in honor of the Jane Jacobs Medals, a few hundred New Yorkers were present, among them architects, journalists, designers, planners, developers, community activists, and curators. But only a handful, all elected or appointed city officials, were hailed from the lectern by Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin.

They were City Council President Christine Quinn; Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum; Empire State Development (ESDC) Downstate Chairman Patrick Foye; City Planning Commission (CPC) Chairwoman Amanda Burden; Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe (son of medal winner Barry Benepe); Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan; and Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Robert Tierney.

Given that the essentially pragmatic Jacobs was embraced by so many—see Francis Morrone’s deft essay in the New York Sun on the various constituencies that invoke her—and is such as an enduring urban thinker, it’s no surprise that these officials would show their respect, a little more than a year after her death and upon new awards in her honor. And each official likely has learned and deployed Jacobsian lessons, though some, like Sadik-Khan, seem more enlightened.

At some point, however, you can’t square Jane Jacobs with some of the projects the city supports, and Atlantic Yards is one exemplar. Gotbaum’s been supremely evasive on eminent domain. And Burden, while she knows minutely well the mixed-use mantra (a “b-market” outside the planned arena!), has been part of an orchestrated effort to advance the project, including a Potemkin CPC public meeting (not hearing). The ESDC and CPC have shepherded and supported a project that, while it has Jacobsian elements, would lack some others, like frequent streets or a diversity of buildings, crucial to Jacobs's vision of a healthy city.

Beyond the checklist

But that Jacobsian lens, and a simple checklist, isn’t enough in a city now confronting “over-success,” as the new exhibition Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York, which opened yesterday at the Municipal Art Society, should lead us to conclude. (I'll write more on the exhibit shortly. Note that, despite mention of Atlantic Yards in some reviews, such as in Metro and the New York Times, the exhibition, which is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, doesn't directly address AY. The accompanying book does touch on AY in several places.)

After all, Jacobs was writing nearly five decades ago, a tribune of the “foot people” in response to the ascendant “car people.” Times have changed. The brief film Saving the Sidewalks, broadcast last year on Channel 13 and shown at the event Monday, captures Jacobs as plainspoken, almost severe. She lived on a block that, as depicted its black-and-white photo, looked more like something out of Jacob Riis than the home of The Art of Cooking, the current ground-floor retail occupant in her old 555 Hudson Street address.

After all, the fight to preserve urbanism has in many ways been won, and new challenges have arisen. Writes New Yorker architectural critic Paul Goldberger in an essay in the book accompanying the exhibit, Block by Block, excerpted from his remarks at a celebration last year:
In some ways it has become too big and too gentrified to operate as Jacobs wanted it to. In her day, a fairly natural process gave us the city we love—the old, neighborhood-rich, pedestrian-oriented, exquisitely balanced New York—and she wisely saw that planning was not able to do much except upset this natural equilibrium. Today, however, the natural order of things gives us sprawl, gigantism, economic segregation, and homogeneous, dreary design. In Jacobs’s day, the intervention into organic urban growth was symbolized by Robert Moses. Today, the forces trying to intervene are those set in motion by Jane Jacobs herself.

The Jacobsian corruption

As he wrote in his book on Ground Zero, Goldberger in his remarks also reminded people how Jacobs has been used:
Who could have imagined that “mixed-use” would become not a sharp-eyed writer’s observation of what underlies a strong, organic urban fabric but a developer’s mantra? Who could have envisioned the day when politicians and developers promoting a gigantic football stadium beside the Hudson River would propose surrounding it with shops and caf├ęs, transforming it into an asset to the city’s street life? When that happened, I knew Jane Jacobs’s radical ideas had moved into the mainstream, where they could be corrupted by those who claim to follow them. So if there is any way to follow Jane Jacobs, it is to think of her as showing us not a physical model for city form but rather a perceptual model for skepticism...

Varieties of skepticism

Jacobsian skepticism could easily lead to criticism of the Atlantic Yards plan, but it could also lead to criticism of those—hardly a majority of opponents, given that they have spawned the alternative UNITY plan—who think the borough, and a major crossroads, shouldn’t change signficantly.

After all, even a Jacobs fan like Michael Sorkin suggests that the city can tolerate some superblocks. So, could the need for affordable housing, and the desire for an arena, overcome the failure to meet the Jacobsian elements of frequent streets and diverse buildings? Does “cataclysmic” money mean something different in 2007 than at the turn of the 1960s?

Process and participation

Those are reasonable questions, but I think they're trumped by another one: the importance of civic process and giving the community a voice (though not a veto). Writes co-curator Christopher Klemek in his essay:
No doubt, when facing today’s issues, many will always be tempted to ask, “What would Jane Jacobs say or do?” And were she still alive, Jacobs would certainly have plenty of advice to offer. (One of her last public interventions was a letter to the Bloomberg administration protesting the rezoning of Greenpoint/Williamsburg.) But, beyond having an opinion on any specific issue, she was consistently more concerned that all New Yorkers have a say—that they be vigilant and engaged citizens, demanding that their voices be heard and that their insights be considered….

Despite Burden’s claim that “we plan from the ground up,” such participation has been absent from Atlantic Yards. In his New York magazine article from August 2006, Chris Smith wrote that "it’s outrageous to see the absolute absence of democratic process. There’s been no point in the past four years at which the public has been given a meaningful chance to decide whether something this big and transformative should be built on public property."

And Foye's ESDC, while announcing several steps toward greater transparency, which even moderate AY critics deem insufficient, proceeds to twist history in defending its use of eminent domain, suggesting that the Civil Rights Era law establishing the agency, which called for "maximum private participation" in slum clean-up projects the agency initially funded itself, somehow anticipated the developer-driven Atlantic Yards project.

At the ceremony Monday, Jacobs medal winner Omar Freilla, founder of Green Worker Cooperative in the Bronx, in his acceptance speech, talked about how reading Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities “resonated with a lot of of what I’m feeling.” Jacobs bequeathed “a love of humanity and a love of democracy,” an inspiration to his own work for environmental justice and economic development, aiming to establish a facility to transform construction waste “green collar” jobs.

Freilla, however, challenged the general air of civic self-satisfaction. “Do we have a say in our lives and decisions?” he asked. The answer: infrequently. It was a bracing reminder of the importance of process and one that Jacobs, I’d imagine, would have applauded.

The Jacobsian DCP?

Burden's busy Department of City Planning (DCP) has its defenders. In a September 2006 essay published in City & Community, the magazine of the American Sociological Association, sociologist David Halle asked, Who Wears Jane Jacobs’s Mantle in Today’s New York City? (fee) and concluded, curiously enough:
Indeed, in today’s New York City it is, arguably, not usually local Community Boards but rather Mayor [Mike] Bloomberg’s Department of City Planning that is most faithfully implementing the spirit of Jane Jacobs and her classic. Despite its critique of contemporary planners, The Death and Life is a cry for better central planning, albeit a planning that recognizes and respects local and market-based characteristics of neighborhoods.

Halle reaches that conclusion after making some very good points but also choosing selective evidence. He notes wisely that both critics, like New York Times architecture critic, Nicolai Ourousoff, and acolytes, like the Villager newspaper covering her Greenwich Village, both misrepresented Jacobs as a conservator of the small scale rather than a champion of dynamism.

And, in his analysis of preservation battles in Greenwich Village, Halle suggests that local preservationists have invoked Jacobs and “vehemently opposed, and scorned if built,” works by several distinguished architects. So have organizations elsewhere in the city.

He reminds us that, in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs championed a mix of buildings and high density, even as, in her local battles, she fought high-rise public housing in the Village. So he cogently suggests that locals have inappropriately opposed a new glass building at 122 Greenwich Avenue, at the northern edge of the Greenwich Village Historic District, replacing a parking lot.

He writes:
Fortunately members of the Landmarks Commission have read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, as have key members of the Department of City Planning which also needs to approve any new building in a Historic District, even on a vacant lot.

So One Jackson Square is in process. Halle observes:
In Jane Jacobs’s spirit, Bloomberg and his DCP see government’s role as facilitating urban growth and density, especially to provide jobs for newcomers and existing residents, yet in a way that is geographically balanced and sensitive to neighborhoods…. The DCP has also, albeit prodded by local activists and Community Boards, moved to address the city’s perennial crisis of “affordable housing.” The Bloomberg administration has now introduced more affordable housing programs than any NY City administration for decades, though of course these programs are never enough and the problem remains huge.

DCP, he suggests, “is generally the most honest and sensible player, trying, as it should, to knit together and balance a myriad local interests.”

Unless, as he doesn’t mention, it is bypassed entirely in a state override of city land use procedures, as with projects like Atlantic Yards.

DCP's efforts to rezone neighborhoods after years of inattention represent progress. Still, as Eve Baron, director of the Municipal Art Society’s Planning Center, reminded me, "Zoning is just a tool for planning—community-initiated 197-a plans represent some of the most creative planning.” And, as Baron and others have pointed out, too often such plans are ignored.

Jacobs, in fact, was a booster if that 197-a plan for the North Brooklyn waterfront, the one the city bypassed. That's not to say that such community plans and the wishes of the city and developers/investors can always be harmonized, or that the city's land use review process, even if better than the state one, truly lets the public be heard. But the goal is balance.

Moses and Jacobs

In his essay, co-curator Klemek concludes:
Unfortunately, however, her ideas have often been misconstrued. A recent high-profile exhibition on Robert Moses and “the transformation of New York” went some way toward resuscitating the old power broker’s reputation... Interestingly, this reappraisal has often come at Jacobs’s expense. In a facile dichotomy, Moses is taken as the apotheosis of forceful public authority, while Jacobs is seen as little more than a nagging check on it…. And it is out of such a false dichotomy that calls are now often heard for a synthesis of Moses and Jacobs—that is, effective government action married to sensitive and respectful observation. But the truth is that Jacobs was never opposed to vigorous government authority per se; in fact, she advocated a democratically responsive balance of private and public interests. In a sense, Jacobs was the synthesis we now seek. But such an impoverished, laissez-faire civic landscape is not what Jacobs wanted at all. It is certainly not what she called for in her book or agitated for in her political commitments. If anything, she clearly envisioned the kind of responsive synthesis of public and private action now so often invoked. For Jacobs, healthy, sustainable city life was the product of a dynamic tension between government and the market, either of which could become a “cataclysmic” force if not effectively balanced.

And that tension, it seems, should be mediated by some public participation. Otherwise the democracy she savored, and Omar Freilla cited, is sacrificed when Jacobsian form is provided without--so to speak--Jacobsian function.

Ratner's Atlantic Center, Site V gain attention as "worst buildings"

Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Center Mall made WNYC listeners' 11-building list of the city's worst buildings. Guest expert and New York Times columnist Christopher Gray's list, by contrast, was limited to Manhattan--and he said he didn't agree with listener choices of buildings by name architects.

[Updated/corrected] Note that Atlantic Center, and its sibling, the Shops at Site V across Flatbush Avenue, were never aimed to be great work. Indeed, during the episode yesterday, host Leonard Lopate led off by disparaging the bunker-like P.C. Richard store, which shares Site V with Modell's.

Lopate noted that some people criticize ambitious but failed works by major architects, while "there are other people like me that think that the P.C. Richard's store on Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush has to be the worst thing."... Whoever did the P.C. Richard should have been designing army barracks."

The buildings at Site V, clearly built by Forest City Ratner as short-term structures on urban renewal land, are scheduled to be demolished for the Atlantic Yards project. A 400-foot building was initially planned; now, a 250-foot building would occupy the site, nonetheless looming over the adjacent Brooklyn Bear's Garden and the row houses of adjacent Pacific Street.

The Atlantic Center

At about 20:00 into the show, a listener named Dan nominated the Atlantic Center. Lopate pointed out that it was "all of a piece" with the P.C. Richard building previously mentioned.

"It's quite large, it's in two sections," Dan continued, melding Atlantic Center (1996) with its linked neighbor, Atlantic Terminal (2004). Actually, they are now both known under the Atlantic Terminal rubric. "It just feels so out of character in the neighborhood," he said, spulating that "it was only meant to be just temporary."

Gray declared the building--actually Atlantic Terminal--unsuccessful, citing its "nominally classical facade" of red brick.

Lopate said that "a lot of people in the neighborhood felt it was an insult"--it wasn't clear what "it" was--and went on to ask about Atlantic Yards.

Dan said it was "really hard to say," that the project would be "enormous" and he had thought of nominating it, but felt that was inappropriate because it hadn't been built.

Lopate asked Gray about Atlantic Yards, who passed, stating, "I have my hands full looking back."

Lopate mused, "But that area really has not been treated well. A lot of people don't know what to think about neighborhoods in transition."

Gray responded, "There is so much automobile traffic there it creates a very unfriendly human environment."

Despite the criticism of Atlantic Center, there are no plans to demolish it; rather, Forest City Ratner plans new towers at the site.

On Gehry

"Frank Gehry's buildings... really express the human touch," Gray noted at one point, saying they look machine-made but are hand-crafted.

Maybe. In the comments, Park Slope poet Leon Freilich even nominated the unbuilt Atlantic Yards:
RATNER, WHERE'S THY STING? HERE.
The prize must go to Atlantic Yards,
Built over unused railroad tracks,
A monument to private greed
And a burden on taxpayers' backs.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Tish James on the UNITY plan

The UNITY plan launched yesterday may not have the backing of numerous public officials, but it does have Council Member Letitia James, the elected official most prominent in opposition to Atlantic Yards. Since I missed her appearance at yesterday's press conference, I asked her for a comment.

(Photo by Jonathan Barkey)

She said that UNITY "truly respects the character of this historic community. Open space and low-rise residential growth reflect the wishes of community residents regarding what should be built over the rail yards. The community and I do not oppose development, just eminent domain abuse and out-of-scale buildings."

"I, along with others, anticipate not only getting involved with the process, but helping to shape the process. I am pleased that the UNITY Plan includes more pedestrian connections across Atlantic Avenue, integrating neighborhoods that are separated by the yards, and potentially slowing down traffic on Atlantic Avenue. And, the proposal includes selling parcels to individual developers, which may actually bring greater value to the land. The Unity Plan also addresses the most pressing need in the community - affordable housing. This plan for developing Brooklyn's Vanderbilt Yards is win-win for the community and developers."

Whether it can be a win-win, of course, is yet to be seen, but UNITY would involve a more transparent approval process than that which led to Atlantic Yards.

UNITY 2007: a new, Jacobsian plan for the Vanderbilt Yard

At the same time last night that the legacy of noted urban thinker Jane Jacobs was being celebrated at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan, a prelude to an exhibit opening today, the much more modest Soapbox Gallery in Prospect Heights hosted a community forum introducing the UNITY (Understanding, Imagining and Transforming the Yards) plan, a much more Jacobsian way to develop the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard.

(Photos by Jonathan Barkey)

The idea is that if Atlantic Yards does not get built as planned, or is scotched altogether, an alternative plan, with significant bulk but not “extreme density,” limited to the railyards and an adjacent plot, could emerge.

According to a draft report issued by its organizers, planners and architects engaged under the banner of AY critics and opponents, UNITY would offer “a larger proportion of truly affordable housing, sustainable jobs and start-up businesses for local residents, improved transit, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, solutions to neighborhood and downtown traffic problems, accessible public open space that connects the Yards with our neighborhoods, and a planning and development process that is transparent and accountable.”

Notably, the tallest and bulkiest buildings would be moved east, to Vanderbilt Avenue, while the triangle of land between Flatbush, Fifth, and Atlantic Avenue, currently slated for the Urban Room and part of the Miss Brooklyn tower, would be used for a park.

With a smaller footprint (less than half of the 22-acre Atlantic Yards site) and no eminent domain, the site could not accommodate an arena, and with 1500 housing units (nearly 200 per acre, without counting the triangle park), rather than 6430 (nearly 300 per acre), UNITY would not include as much housing. The percentage of affordable housing (60%) would be greater than Atlantic Yards, and 60% of that would be affordable to households earning up to $40,000—far more affordable than the Atlantic Yards plan.

FCR criticism

While the plan would involve multiple parcels and developers, ideally allowing for a faster build process, and the withdrawal of certain subsidies ($305 million so far, from the city and state) for arena/project infrastructure would presumably free them for other use, there are neither developers nor government commitments attached to the UNITY projections.

And Forest City Ratner, whose Jim Stuckey last year criticized the Extell bid for the Vanderbilt Yard as fiscally unrealistic, yesterday issued a statement, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “But probably most important is that Atlantic Yards is real, based on detailed engineering and design work and realistic financing models. Forest City Ratner has a proven track record in Brooklyn for a quarter of a century – a track record that ensures that these benefits become a reality rather than just another empty promise.”

Done deal?

The delay in the planned schedule of Atlantic Yards, as well as unresolved court cases, however, suggest some ambiguity and, as the UNITY planners stated, “The long history of failed projects that did not have community support proves that IT’S NOT A DONE DEAL.”

UNITY 2007 is based on a planning workshop held April 28, under the auspices of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods. The result in turn grew out of a 2004 plan, based on a participatory planning workshop organized by Council Member Letitia James. The 2005 bid for the MTA’s by Extell, the only rival to Forest City Ratner, was in part based on the original UNITY principles.

The plan was unveiled yesterday at a press conference and community meeting at the Soapbox Gallery, 636 Dean Street (between Carlton and Vanderbilt Avenues), across from the Atlantic Yards footprint. The UNITY materials will remain on display through October 3. The meeting drew about 100 people.

I wasn’t able to attend either event, but I got several secondhand reports and got a copy of the UNITY document prepared by University of Cincinnati architecture professor Marshall Brown (right, a former Brooklynite), Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development founder Ronald Shiffman (also a board member of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn), and Tom Angotti, director of Hunter College’s Center for Community Planning and Development. I also got a chance to question Shiffman and Angotti.

New paradigm

To move UNITY forward, planners would have to make the case that this project is, as Borough President Marty Markowitz is wont to say about Atlantic Yards, is “the right project at the right time in the right place for Brooklyn.” The site, planners argue, needs a zoning change and suffers from “developer’s blight.” (The former no one would debate, though the state would override zoning, while the latter, of course, is contested.)

Shiffman (who will join me on a walking tour of the AY footprint Saturday), suggested a lot of things should be on the table: “This is an alternative way of developing the site. It needs alternative financing and a different kind of commitment by government.” One other reason for that, he noted, is to “meet the commitments of PlaNYC 2030,” Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s sustainability plan, which, as I've pointed out, suggests a far more consultative way to develop over railyards.

Community supporters and the press yesterday were especially curious about two aspects of the plan: the absence of the arena and the density shift. To the latter, which could include a building up to 400 feet, slightly taller than the nearby Atlantic Terminal 4B housing project across Atlantic Avenue, the UNITY document responds:
The Yards form the northern edge of a triangle that includes the Vanderbilt and Flatbush Avenue Corridors. One corner is defined by Grand Army Plaza. Another corner is formed by the Atlantic Terminal. Rather than increase the congestion around the Atlantic Terminal by adding even more density, we propose an alternative strategy that concentrates density at the Vanderbilt/Atlantic intersection. This will improve that currently underdeveloped intersection as well as create the opportunity for a large new public square at the Atlantic Terminal, providing an experience similar to Union Square.

Brown, I'm told, noted that a building of that height was only one solution for adding density at that intersection. Planners pointed out that the intersection is only eight minutes from the Clinton-Washington C stop in Fort Greene, thus rendering the site sufficiently transit-accessible.


And what about the new railyard and the subway entrance planned as part of the Urban Room? “We question the need to move the railyard,” Angotti responded. “Without an arena a new subway entrance becomes much simpler and cheaper; but a new entrance isn't necessary for this project.” (On the other hand, the site aimed for the new park consists only partly of public land; most is currently owned by Forest City Ratner.)

The Floor Area Ratio, or FAR, of the project, would be about 7, not insignificant but hardly approaching the Atlantic Yards plan. (Above, from right: Shiffman, Brown, Angotti.)

And what about the arena? The report calls for a study, stating: The Mayor, the Chairman of the ESDC, the Borough President, and City Council should issue an RFP for a planning consultant to undertake a study to locate a suitable site for a basketball arena to be built in Brooklyn.

In essence, the planners seem to be saying: an arena's not right at this site, so deal with it. Previous studies have also pointed to Coney Island, as well as the Prospect Heights site; the question is whether, should Atlantic Yards fail and an arena thus delayed, a major league team would be around to populate a Brooklyn arena. (The bet here is that, if Atlantic Yards fails, the Nets will move to the new arena in Newark.)

The planning principles

The draft report lists some Jacobsian planning principles:
• CONNECT Prospect Heights, Fort Greene and other neighborhoods
• Develop at a HUMAN SCALE and density
• Promote DIVERSITY AND VITALITY in urban design
• Create and preserve AFFORDABLE HOUSING
• REDUCE TRAFFIC, IMPROVE MASS TRANSIT
• Create JOBS for Brooklyn residents
• Create accessible PUBLIC SPACES
• Guarantee an OPEN PLANNING PROCESS, with transparency and accountability


Scenarios

Would the entire project be built as planned? That is “both highly unlikely and entirely undesirable,” according to the draft report. And even if it does go through, it’s unlikely the project would be built by 2016, as planned. Given the likelihood of delay, organizers recommend a new environmental impact statement.

What if nothing gets built? That, obviously, is the organizers’ preferred alternative, and the scenario for the extended report issued yesterday. And what if only Phase 1, involving the arena and four towers (plus one across the street at Site 5), gets built?

The draft report warns of “several unexpected consequences with serious negative impacts,” including the possibility that 2000 interim surface parking spaces could become permanent, and that Forest City Ratner—bedeviled by changing market conditions and potential new political configurations—could decide to hold empty properties and cleared sites.

“Therefore, no demolition should be permitted on Phase 2 sites, and no interim parking should be allowed on existing vacant sites,” the report urges, arguing that Phase 1 “must incorporate and satisfy its own parking needs”—a seeming impossibility, according to the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Affordable housing

The amount of affordable housing, 900 units, planners noted, would exceed that promised in Phase 1 of Atlantic Yards and more affordable housing could potentially be added in the adjacent blocks currently owned by Forest City Ratner. (More likely is that the developer would sell or develop the properties for market-rate units.) And the affordable housing would be guaranteed into perpetuity, rather than 30 or 40 years.

How to how pay for the affordable housing? Angotti responded, “We would rely on the same pool of affordable housing subsidy as FCR. Cross-subsidy is an option to be considered. We would need to do a complete financial plan for UNITY to know how much overall public subsidy is needed for the project; clearly we would expect a similar amount if not more than FCR's promised subsidies, and we would get a much bigger return for the public in terms of low-income affordable units, public open space, neighborhood preservation, etc.”

New designs

UNITY would eliminate the planned superblocks and add streets, putting open space on the edge of such streets and also employing green roofs. (Atlantic Yards would get a significant slice of planned open space by demapping Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues.) I wasn't able to get a tally, however, for the acreage.

Also, notes the report:
Brooklyn has a diversity of densities, building sizes and types. One can find many different scales of buildings around the Vanderbilt Yards. Building heights and massing in our proposal would be regulated to respond to these diverse conditions - from small scale to large.


Transportation

One of the most interesting aspect is the effort to lift “transit-oriented development” beyond simply putting density near a transit hub. The report proposes “extensive traffic calming, parking reduction, and bicycle lanes to discourage vehicle use for both local and inter-borough travel.”

Among the long term proposals include connecting the Long Island Rail Road to lower Manhattan and JFK Airport—an expensive proposition—and a Brooklyn trolley loop. (The transportation program was led by Brian Ketcham and Carolyn Konheim of Community Consulting Services.)

The proposal also suggests that the congestion pricing cordon should be expanded to downtown Brooklyn to reduce traffic. If that occurs, however, the area around the Vanderbilt Yard might become a park-and-ride hub without limits on parking on the site, residential parking permits, and peak pricing for parking.

A new process

The report argues for an open planning process involving multiple stakeholders, a distinct contrast with the process that led to the Atlantic Yards plan. It suggests the following:
--create urban design principles
--approve arena site
--create a new and improved Community Benefits Agreement
--create a Community Oversight Committee
--approve urban design principles
--amend ATURA (Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area), create special zoning district
--divide the site for development
--launch a public design competition
--transform the COC to a trust.

Likely? At this point, no. Possible? Stay tuned.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The departing "middle-class" and AY affordable housing

New York City Comptroller William Thompson on Sept. 12 issued a report on New York's 2005 outmigration patterns involving various income groups, and it was quickly used by columnist Errol Louis to argue for projects like Atlantic Yards that would include subsidized housing for the middle-class.

Not so fast. It turns out that moderate-income residents departing the city would not be helped much by Atlantic Yards, given that those in their (approximate) income bracket would be eligible for only 450 of the 2250 affordable units. In fact, when the affordable housing deal was first announced, 900 units were aimed at this demographic; developer Forest City Ratner instead shifted more of the affordable units to higher income brackets.

Thompson's press release, headlined THOMPSON: MODERATE-INCOME HOUSEHOLDS MOST LIKELY TO LEAVE NYC, made some somewhat subtle points:
Moderate-income ($40,000 to $59,999 annual income) and higher-income households ($140,000 to $249,999 annual income) were most likely to leave the city, while middle-income ($60,000 to $139,999) and wealthy households ($250,000 and above) were least likely to leave.

The full report explained that the moderate-income families tended to move to other parts of the country, seeking "higher real incomes through better job opportunities or lower living costs. The higher-income movers tended to move to the suburbs, valuing housing, school, or tax differentials.

Middle-income blues

In a column September 16 headlined Call an ambulance - our middle class is bleeding, Daily News columnist Louis wrote:
The numbers are in, and the data show what some of us have been saying for a while now: that New York's forgotten, quietly suffering middle-class families need all the help and attention this city's leaders and institutions can muster. And they need it fast.
...Middle-class families - notably, households with annual incomes between $40,000 and $60,000, and households earning more than $140,000 - make up a disproportionate segment of the army heading for the exits.


Note that Thompson's report used more careful terms than the catch-all "middle-class." Still, the comptroller apparently used that term while speaking to Louis, who wrote:
"The numbers don't lie," Thompson told me. "The middle class is the group that's leaving. They are not displacing poor people."

That means we have to end the zero-sum politics that pits the needs of the poor against those of the middle class. Look at any of the big development projects around the city that include affordable housing - Atlantic Yards, Queens West, conversion of the Domino sugar factory on the Brooklyn waterfront - and there's a fight about whether subsidizing middle-class families amounts to a wasteful "giveaway" of resources best reserved for the very poor.


The New York Observer in an article headlined Census Shows Middle Class in Flight From New York, noted:

Little wonder the solidly middle class are fleeing the city. Rather than sink over one-third of its monthly income into housing costs—whether through mortgages or rents—a household making between $40,000 and $60,000 a year generally exits the city, leaving the very wealthy and the working class behind to further stratify the Big Apple.

Actually, it would be more accurate to call those departing the lower end of the middle-class, since a lot of the middle-class are staying--we wouldn't call a household earning $70,000 "very wealthy."

Middle-class vs. moderate-income

When the Atlantic Yards 50/50 affordable housing program was announced by developer Forest City Ratner and ACORN, it applied to the entire project, which at that point was all rental units. (Condos were later added; they now count 1930, of which 200 would be subsidized, though likely not affordable to moderate-income families most outmigrating.)

The affordable housing configuration was presented in three potential scenarios. In each scenario, 900 units would be available to low-income households, with incomes 30-50% of Area Median Income, or AMI. (AMI, which includes suburban counties, was once $62,800 for a family of four; now it's $70,900. City and borough household income is significantly lower.)

The large amount of wiggle room involved the other 1350 units. In one configuration, there would be 900 units available to households with incomes of 51-100% of AMI--a rough equivalent to the moderate-income cohort that's leaving disproportionately. The final 450 units would be available to households with incomes of 101-160% of AMI.

See graphic below, from April 2006 version of AtlanticYards.com. (Click to enlarge)
The switch

When it came time for the affordable housing information session on 7/11/06, however, Forest City Ratner had replaced the first scenario with the third scenario--which alarmed numerous attendees, who saw much of the housing as unaffordable to them. Moreover, the AMI in the past year had risen, thus increasing rents all around.Thus the current scenario does not provide as much opportunity to the "bleeding" middle class. Rather, there would be 450 units available to households with incomes of 60-100% of AMI, 450 units available to households with incomes of 101-140% of AMI, and another 450 units available to households with incomes of 141-160% of AMI.

In other words, 900 units, or 40%, would go to the middle-income households who are least likely to leave, according to Thompson's report.

That's not to say that they don't face pressures, given that the housing market continues to tighten, two years after the statistics for Thompson's report was compiled. So Louis has a point. And there's a legitimate debate about whether Atlantic Yards, or anything in its place, should have more low-income housing--regional AMI is much higher than Brooklyn household income, and BrooklynSpeaks, for example, points out that 60% of the units would not be affordable to average Brooklyn households.

But it is clear that a project like Atlantic Yards, to do the most good, should better target those moderate-income households that are leaving disproportionately.

That raises some questions. If affordable housing is a legitimate goal, why is developer Forest City Ratner allowed to call the shots regarding the configuration of income brackets? And why hasn't ACORN raised its voice?

Looking at Queens West

As for Queens West, also cited by Louis, a city press release last October stated:
Up to 5,000 units of housing primarily designed to be affordable to families earning from $60,000 to $145,000 for a family of four is expected to be developed on the site.


Again, they may need help in the city's housing market. But Thompson's report makes the case for prioritizing moderate-income families who earn $40,000 to $60,000. So the critics of Queens West, who argue for both low-income and moderate-income housing, have a point.

Bye, bye Pacific Street blight, thanks to citizen action

What a difference a handful of people and some garden tools can make. After yesterday's clean-up effort on Pacific Street bordering the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard, a 50-yard stretch was bushwacked, clearing overgrown weeds (four feet high, and blocking the sidewalk), significant amounts of waste and debris, and recyclable bottles, all the result of governmental neglect of a site the Empire State Development Corporation deems blighted.

(Above: Deb Goldstein and Jon Crow get to work shortly after noon. Below, some of the result nearly five hours later.)

The tally

The tally, according to organizer Deb Goldstein, included 17 42-gallon bags of garbage, a large assemblage of weeds and greenery for composting (below), and 13 bags of recyclables. The area next to the railyard seems to be a magnet for Poland Spring water bottles, other drink containers, foot tins, random glass, some clothes, compact discs, fast food wrappers, and even diapers.

A representative of the Department of Sanitation came by, I was told, and said the agency might stop back. At the least, the department has garbage bags and recyclables to collect.

(The turnout was modest, eight people working in shifts, though it likely would've been larger if other Atlantic Yards-centric volunteers and Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn supporters had not been at Kids Disco Don't Destroy. This was not a DDDB event, but organizer Goldstein is the sister of DDDB spokesman Daniel Goldstein.)

Who's responsible?

Shouldn't the city and/or MTA have been taking care of this all along? (Here's Metro's coverage, which acknowledges the confusion.) The answer is that the state punted.

Remember, as I noted, in response to complaints about the upkeep of the railyard and its perimeter, the ESDC, in the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement, ignored the issue of responsibility:
Chapter 1, “Project Description,” and Chapter 3, “Land Use, Zoning, and Public Policy,” describe in detail the present condition of the project site, including the Vanderbilt Yard.

"Ratner filth"

Given the provocative signs posted at the end of the event--Community Clean/Ratner Filth and "We Are Not Blighted. Don't Dump On Us"--it's a good bet that some official agency will, at least, remove the signs.
(Photos by Norman Oder and Deb Goldstein)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

"The Landlord," til Tuesday, takes us to 1969 Park Slope

Um, remember Park Slope in the late 1960s, the time of redlining, trash-strewn empty lots, and battered buildings? I don't, though I've heard tell, so the next best thing is to get to the Film Forum (through Tuesday only), to see Hal Ashby's 1970 movie "The Landlord," an entertaining and jolting portrait of a neighborhood and an era.

The New York Times, in feature headlined Before Gentrification Was Cool, It Was a Movie, describes it as "an experimental, satirical film, from a script by an unknown black screenwriter, about a wealthy young white man who decides to buy a Brooklyn tenement and ease out the black tenants so he can gut it and move in."

Indeed, when Elgar Enders' family learns he's bought a building "in the Park Slope area," the response is, "Are you aware that's a colored neighborhood?"

(Was it? I'd thought that the population was as much Latino as black, but maybe some readers can correct me. I can say that a couple of longtime black homeowners in the northwest Slope have their stairs and railings painted red, black, and green, the colors of the Pan-African flag. On the same block as more recent arrival Maggie Gyllenhaal, actually.)

Gaining territory

"The strongest drive we have as a human life force is to gain territory," we hear early on in the movie, but it's not easy for Elgar at all, as the photo (the landlord, played by Beau Bridges, and a tenant, played by Louis Gossett, Jr.) suggests--though modern-day viewers, looking back on the let-it-all-hang-out era, might marvel at how easy it was for him to find love across the color line. (Maybe the soundtrack helped.)

Elgar's grandiose plans to evict the tenants, several of whom are non-paying and/or violating their leases by operating businesses, come to naught. At 51 Prospect Place, as the New York Times identifies the house (though I'm not sure of that, based on a look at that block today), it's just west of Sixth Avenue. That area has changed markedly, even though the 1973 Historic District designation excluded territory this far west.

Fifteen years ago, when I moved to Park Slope, the blocks between Sixth and Fifth avenues were far less rehabbed (and costly) than they are now; the gentrification of the Fifth Avenue shopping street has increased property values and turned the blocks between Fifth and Fourth avenues into the new real estate 'frontier.'

Disappeared, and revived

The Times says “The Landlord” "would disappear after its 1970 release — rarely shown and just as rarely discussed," and it's not even available on DVD.

The Village Voice headlined J. Hoberman's review The Slums of Park Slope: Attention, moms, Brownstoner: The Landlord recalls bygone Brooklyn. It notes that Elgar "does establish a brief, bittersweet rapport with his hustling, scuffling, half-crazed tenants—even learning something about race and what would be called 'gentrification' before retreating back into his money."

As Hoberman points out, the film shifts in tone, from serious to madcap. The Film Forum's description calls it "both a time capsule of 70s cinema — direct-to-the-camera dialogue, jagged editing, jarring bursts of music on the soundtrack, echoey on-location sound... and those bellbottoms! — as well as an edgy (before the term was coined), rope-dancing-on-the-razor’s-edge dramedy on race in America."

And yes, as the Film Forum notes, the ‘n-word' is uttered, "but not said by whom, and to whom, you might think." Not at all. Like the movie itself.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sunday is (belated) clean-up day on Pacific Street

It's an idea whose time has come and Atlantic Yards opponents wishing to make a very good point could have jumped on it even sooner: if the government won't clean up the overgrown brush and other mess on Pacific Street next to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's "blighted" Vanderbilt Yard, then it's time for citizens to do so.

NoLandGrab (source of graphic) reports the details:
Supplies provided. Please feel free to bring extra Gloves, Gardening Tools, Garbage/Recycling Bags.

An e-mail message describes participants as "Neighbors, members of the community, DDDB & Local Garden Group volunteers, anyone who is 'mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.'"

The state punted

Remember, in comments last year on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement, several commenters criticized city agencies and the MTA for failing "to maintain the appearance of the rail yards and [ignoring] local residents when we requested such attention."

The response from the Empire State Development Corporation, in toto, ignored the issue of responsibility:
Chapter 1, “Project Description,” and Chapter 3, “Land Use, Zoning, and Public Policy,” describe in detail the present condition of the project site, including the Vanderbilt Yard.

Friday, September 21, 2007

IBO calculates more (modest) costs to the city from AY arena

One more piece of the Atlantic Yards fiscal puzzle has been filled in. The use of tax exempt bonds for the Atlantic Yards arena would cost the city $5.2 million foregone tax revenue over 30 years, expressed in present value, according to a letter from the New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO), which in a 2005 report on the project had eschewed specific estimates.

As predicted in that report, the costs would be much higher for the federal government; IBO estimated the costs to the federal government of $103.7 million and to the state government of $9.5 million.

IBO in 2005 estimated total savings of $91 million to developer Forest City Ratner, based on an arena estimated to cost $555.3 million. Now, with an arena estimated to cost $637.2 million, IBO estimates savings of $82 million, a lower figure.

Why? Interests rates are now lower. "This is because the increase in the projected cost of the arena is more than offset by the effect of the lower interest rate," wrote IBO Deputy Director George Sweeting in a letter explaining the recalculations.

Cost adds up

While IBO in 2005 said that the cost of the bonds would pose “relatively little impact on New York City or State,” the additional $5.2 million calculated would appear to put the city further in the hole regarding the arena.

IBO had calculated a modest fiscal gain for the city, $28.5 based on a city contribution of $100 million. Now that the city contribution has grown to $205 million—some portion of which may not go directly to the arena—the city likely was facing a loss, I concluded. Sweeting confirmed to the Brooklyn Paper that such a loss was possible.

Genesis of estimate

IBO's new calculations came in response to an AYR request. I noticed recently that the agency, in response to a request from Good Jobs New York (GJNY), updated its estimate of the costs to the city, state, and federal governments resulting from the use of tax exempt bonds for the construction of the new Yankee Stadium.

So I wrote to IBO’s Sweeting:
I wonder if IBO could similarly update its 2005 estimate of the costs to the city, state, and federal governments resulting from the use of tax exempt bonds for the construction of the planned Brooklyn Arena, part of Atlantic Yards.

Not only have interest rates changed, but also the cost of the arena has risen, and the city's planned contribution has grown from $100 million to $205 million. I believe more accurate estimates would enhance and clarify the public discussion.

I pointed out that I had already speculated that the increased city contribution, if plugged into the previous IBO report, suggests a net loss for the city.

IBO clarification

Sweeting responded that IBO’s 2005 report did not actually provide an estimate of the foregone income tax revenue due to use of tax exempt bonds, because of the need to make assumptions about the the bond purchasers and the uncertainty regarding changing federal tax law. Thanks to a ruling by the Internal Revenue Service as well as improved internal techniques, he said, IBO could produce a new estimate.

While the IBO's responsiveness is welcome, there's certainly an argument, given the shifting costs and benefits, to do a full revision. That's apparently not in the cards. Sweeting wrote:
We will go ahead with this calculation, but it remains unlikely that we will re-work the entire fiscal impact analysis, given other demands on our resources. (By the way, that is similar to what we recently did for GJNY. We did not revisit our whole analysis of the baseball stadiums, only the part relating to the tax exempt bonds.)

IBO letter

Today, I received the following letter from Sweeting, which is also posted on the IBO web site. The relevant sections:

Per your request, IBO has prepared estimates of the fiscal costs of the city and state decision giving Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC) access to tax exempt bond financing for construction of the basketball arena portion of the Atlantic Yards project. In IBO’s 2005 analysis of the fiscal impact of the Atlantic Yards project we had noted that there would be moderate fiscal costs associated with this financing, although at the time we were not prepared to offer a specific estimate.

Allowing FCRC to use tax-exempt bonds to finance the arena construction saves FCRC money because tax-exempt bonds generally pay a lower interest rate than taxable bonds, which results in debt service savings for the developer. In addition, because the interest is exempt from income tax, there are costs to the city, state, and federal governments equal to the tax revenue that they would have collected had the interest been taxable.

In estimating these costs, IBO assumed that the cost of the arena would be $637.2 million—up from the $555 million projection in 2005—and that the entire project would be financed with tax-exempt bonds. In our 2005 study we had pointed to a potential constraint under the Internal Revenue Code that might have limited the portion of the project that could qualify for tax-exempt financing. A recent ruling by the IRS regarding the financing for the new Yankee Stadium appears to clear the way for most, if not all, of the arena construction bonds to qualify for tax-exempt status. Our estimate assumes that the entire $637.2 million will be financed with tax-exempt bonds. The bonds were assumed to be 30 years with level payment and an interest rate of 4.5 percent. Note that the interest rate used in our new estimate is 1.5 percent lower than in our 2005 report. The estimates below are the 30 year net present values, using a discount rate of 6 percent.

Under these assumptions, the savings for FCRC are estimated at $82 million, which is lower than our 2005 estimate. This is because the increase in the projected cost of the arena is more than offset by the effect of the lower interest rate. The projected cost in foregone tax revenue for the city is $5.2 million over 30 years. The corresponding costs for the state and federal governments are $9.5 million and $103.7 million.

The “other” Atlantic Yards legal cases return to court

While many Atlantic Yards watchers are anticipating the October 9 oral argument in the appeal of the dismissal of the federal eminent domain lawsuit and expecting a decision soon in the state case challenging the project environmental review, two other cases, both involving 13 renters in two buildings, are moving toward arguments in court.

One of the cases, which challenges the Empire State Development Corporation’s (ESDC) relocation offer, in fact is the only case formally blocking the agency from moving to condemn properties. “At minimum, they can’t do anything to my clients until the case is over,” said George Locker, attorney for the plaintiffs, at 624 Pacific Street and 473 Dean Street.

The state has promised to provide the services of a real estate broker, moving assistance, and a $5000 payment—but that, Locker argues, will hardly guarantee similarly affordable housing. (Of the 13 plaintiffs, 12 have rent-stabilized leases, and many pay rents that are $500-$600.)

That case, which was not heard in a trial court but will be argued directly in an appellate court, will be heard by the Appellate Division, Second Department, 45 Monroe Place, Brooklyn, on [corrected] October 5 at 10 a.m.

(Must the ESDC also wait until the eminent domain case is resolved to move forward with condemnation of properties involved in that case? Technically, no, I believe, but it’s likely the state will be cautious and wait until resolution.)

The other case involves an appeal of a lower court decision declaring residential rental tenants to be condemnees, with an ownership interest in their lease. Justice Walter Tolub in May dismissed the case, saying that the case belonged instead in the appellate court, where challenges to eminent domain determinations are supposed to be heard, but without the advantages of a trial. That appeal will be heard in the First Department, 27 Madison Avenue, Manhattan, after 2 pm on September 26.

Legal twists

Both cases involve some interesting legal issues. For example, Tolub relied on a string of cases that showed the commercial tenants threatened with condemnation had an ownership interest via their leases; no case has evaluated the situation of residential tenants. Locker maintains that, if the appellate court upholds Tolub’s decision, the state will be expanding the rights of residential renters.

Regarding the relocation offer, which involves a plan but not a promise to find tenants alternative accommodation, the ESDC has the seemingly slam-dunk argument that the court in 2001 already upheld an identical relocation offer. Locker cautions that the plaintiffs in the case represented themselves, without a lawyer, and that the decision serves as a poor precedent.

Relocation: method or results?

In the relocation case, the ESDC says that the challenge to the state’s determination and findings, under the Eminent Domain Procedure Law, is a challenge to the entire project, not merely the two buildings.

Pointing out in a legal brief that the state in 2001 upheld “an identical relocation plan,” the ESDC’s lawyers state, “It simply confounds belief that Petitioners could have failed to discover this case.”

The question posed to the court, the ESDC says, is whether the state has the statutory authority to pursue condemnation, where it has made a finding “that there is a feasible method” for relocation.

There is no legal requirement that ESDC “must actually provide comparable housing at that time to those who in the future may be displaced,” the agency says, pointing out that the housing market, as well as the circumstances of the tenants, can change rapidly.

And, says the ESDC, if the state’s relocation consultant does not provide comparable housing, the tenants can then go to court and contest the condemnation.

Locker’s response notes that the ESDC itself has not offered petitioners relocation into the project at hand, as state law states is one option. Nor has Forest City Ratner’s relocation offer to tenants—which apparently excludes those suing it—part of the record.

The developer has offered to pay the differential rent—the difference between current rent and the rent of current apartments—for other former footprint residents, though the offer expires if Atlantic Yards isn’t built and the tenants are not relocated into the project. “Most [of the plaintiffs] have never been offered anything,” Locker said. “A few were offered something years ago.”

He argues that the ESDC has not studied “the private rental housing market into which respondent plans for a real estate broker to refer the petitioners” and that no facts in the record “show whether comparable and affordable rental housing existed in the project area, or other areas no less desirable, in 2005 or 2006, or would likely exist in 2007.”

He also points out that Forest City Ratner told City Council in May 2005 that the need for condemnation was “substantially reduced” because the developer owned most of the units on the project site, thus ignoring the need for “friendly condemnations” that would extinguish the leases of tenants with rent-stabilized leases in buildings it owns.

Feasible method

The law establishing the Urban Development Corporation, now aka ESDC, requires "that there is a feasible method for the relocation of families and individuals displaced from the project area into decent, safe and sanitary dwellings, which are or will be provided in the project area or in other areas not generally less desirable in regard to public utilities and public and commercial facilities, at rents or prices within the financial means of such families or individuals, and reasonably accessible to their places of employment. Insofar as is feasible, the corporation shall offer housing accommodations to such families and individuals in residential projects of the corporation. The corporation may render to … families or other persons displaced from the project area, such assistance as it may deem necessary to enable them to relocate.(h) in the case of all projects, the corporation shall state the basis for its findings."

Does a method require “a description of its relocation plan” or simply a method? Locker’s legal brief argues that "the UDC Act requires ESDC to find that there is a feasible method for the relocation of families, not that there will be a feasible method."
(Emphases here and below in original)

He continues, arguing, "ESDC may have found that it had a relocation method—use of a real estate broker, a $5000 payment, and a moving van - but this is not a factual basis for finding that these elements are capable or likely to provide petitioners with the specific components of the relocation benefits outlined in 10(g)."

And why didn’t ESDC compile a record on tenant relocation? Because it did not believe any tenants would remain, Locker contends.

“Numbers of my clients appear to have modest incomes and very low rent,” Locker said. “It appears that that kind of rental housing doesn’t exist any more.” Actually, if Atlantic Yards gets built, there would be 900 low-income units (over ten or 20 years or however long the project takes), with perhaps 225 of them studios; they would currently cost under $600 a month for single people who meet the income eligibility.

It’s possible, Locker acknowledged, that some of the tenants he represents may have low rent but less modest incomes. The ESDC response notes that it’s required to find accommodation that is affordable, but not necessarily at the same low rent guaranteed by the rent-stabilized lease.

Who’s an owner?

In case appealing Tolub’s decision, the ESDC notes that state law defines a condemnee as “the holder of any right, title, interest, lien, charge or encumbrance in real property subject to an acquisition or proposed acquisition.”

The ESDC adds that the fact that Locker filed the relocation challenge is “an indisputable acknowledgement by plaintiffs-appellants that they are condemnees.” Locker’s reply brief says no, that “[n]owhere do appellants ‘acknowledge’ they are condemnees.”

Locker cites another case in which the courts have “clearly held that under the EDPL, a Rent Stabilized, month-to-month residential rental tenant has no compensable property interest in his/her lease.” Those cases, however, do not deal with the issue of condemnation.

So the appellate court will have decide which line of cases—those involving commercial tenants facing condemnation, relied on by the ESDC and the lower court, or those cited by Locker—is more apt.