Friday, November 30, 2007

Officials redouble call for AY security study, warn that street closings would unleash a “tsunami”

Elected officials and community activists yesterday again called for an independent study of Atlantic Yards security, given the belated revelation last week, thanks to the New York Times, that parts of the planned Atlantic Yards arena would be only 20 feet from Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues.

City and state officials, along with developer Forest City Ratner, have not been willing to explain why the facility would be safer than the Prudential Center in Newark, where two adjacent blocks are closed during (and before/after) events because the arena was deemed too close to the street.

(Photos by Jonathan Barkey)

While members of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn were in attendance at the City Hall press conference yesterday, and CBN’s Eric McClure (above, flanked by City Council Members Bill de Blasio and Letitia James) hosted the event (here's the CBN press release), the strongest words came from two City Council members, de Blasio and David Yassky, who have generally supported the project while calling for it to be downsized.

Potential "unyielding opposition"

“If they start talking about street closings, they will have unyielding opposition,” declared Yassky (right, with Assemblywoman Joan Millman behind him), expressing the widely-held speculation that some additional setback might be needed for security reasons. “They will have two choices—push the building back, or close streets.”

That might not work, McClure said a bit later: “If you move this basketball arena, you’ll either be playing half-court or you won’t be able to put an arena there.”

“When the security thread is pulled, it may unravel a whole ball of yarn,” Yassky said, noting that security considerations in Lower Manhattan caused “serious changes” in building designs. McClure noted that the Freedom Tower had been moved back 90 feet from the original 25 feet after a security review.

What's the difference?

Some differences between the designs in Newark and in Brooklyn are obvious, notably that the Prudential Center is a standalone box rather than an arena nestled, in part, in four buildings.

And there may be a difference in process, given that that the New York Police Department has been involved early in the design stages, while it's unclear how much input the Newark Police Department had.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle yesterday cited a forceful statement from Forest City Ratner spokesman Bruce Bender: "We do not play around with public safety and neither should politicians who have no experience or background in security issues. Our security plan has been vetted and approved by the NYPD and the best anti-terrorism experts in the city. At some point, a base level of common sense needs to be followed and those people who do not have any security experience need to let the NYPD and the security experts do their jobs.”

The developer has surely taken the security issue seriously, hiring top-flight consultants. On the other hand, the unwillingness by Forest City Ratner and public entities to reveal basic architectural information--that the arena would be 20 feet from the street--until last week has not exactly inspired confidence.

Independent review needed

The official statements haven't convinced the elected officials. “I don’t think that people want to be baited and switched,” said de Blasio (right). “We need an independent review that says there’s no need for street closings.” He said he had some hope that the administration of Gov. Eliot Spitzer would recognize the importance of transparency.

“The ball game’s not over,” he said, noting that subsidies and other issues must be resolved for the project to move forward. If the developer doesn’t behave more transparently, “then the future of their project is in danger,” he warned.

Skepticism or opportunism?

It’s hard to tease out the legitimate skepticism from political opportunism on display yesterday. Some officials have long made security an issue; in December 2005, James, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblyman Jim Brennan, Millman, and then-Congressional Rep. Major Owens wrote a letter to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly requesting a security study. Now they’ve been joined by de Blasio, Yassky, and two newly-elected officials: State Senator Eric Adams and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries.

Perhaps Yassky and de Blasio have gained new insight into the issue. Alternatively, their posture may be a way to show their constituencies they do take the project seriously, without backing lawsuits that oppose it. Either way, candidates for, respectively, City Comptroller and Brooklyn Borough President probably want as much media exposure as possible.

Some disclosure possible?

“The project has been shrouded in secrecy from Day One,” declared James (right), the staunchest political opponent of the project. Acknowledging concerns that too much disclosure could compromise security—the blanket explanation for the cap on public discussion—she suggested that documents could be redacted so some information emerges.

If no independent study is ordered, James said, she will again ask for a hearing on the project before the Council’s transportation committee. Then she topped Yassky's formulation, deeming that the closure of streets near and at a notoriously congested intersection would yield a “tsunami.”

“I’m really tired of signing letters and not getting responses,” declared Millman. “We’ve asked for this study in 2005, only to be completely ignored.” She added, “When I go back to Albany, I will hand deliver another copy to the governor.”

A representative from Brennan’s office read a statement: “The public interest in these basic questions is obvious."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Panel: a stronger public sector might mitigate "oversuccess," but developer reality is scarce

The second-to-last panel in the series related to Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York, dubbed The Oversuccessful City, Part 1: Developers' Realities, like several predecessor events, aired a good deal of unease concerning the city's situation, with a partial menu of solutions.

The panel, held Tuesday night at the spanking new Times Center, was summarized by the New York Times under a headline “Can New York Be Too Successful?”, with the conclusion that “no one really argued that the city could be too successful.”

That missed the point; “the dilemmas of affordable housing and out-of-scale development” are exactly a challenge resulting from what Jacobs called “oversuccess," and the solution, at least as some panelists suggested, is a stronger public sector.

The discussion, featuring Eugenie Birch of the University of Pennsylvania, Carlton Brown of Full Spectrum NY, Douglas Durst of the Durst Organization, and Greg O'Connell of Kings Harbor, touched on some pressing issues but didn't hone in on a fundamental question billed as a subject of the program: “What motivates developers and what constrains them?”

Money questions hardly came up. Brown and O’Connell, smaller-scale developers compared to Durst, were periodically candid about their goals and some bumps along the way, Durst remained fairly taciturn. He offered one savvy observation, noting that a slowdown in bonding capacity has hindered the Queens West project. (Unmentioned was that that also affects Atlantic Yards.)

Nor was there much discussion of what Jacobs said. There was widespread endorsement of mandatory affordable housing in new developments, without recognition that such a formulation may not be applicable in all neighborhoods, or--as Benjamin Hemric, a close reader of Jacobs, pointed out on the Times blog--that Jacobs wasn't much for some of the stronger public planning that participants endorsed.

(Hemric added: Also, virtually no reference was made to Jacobs’ extensive writings about oversuccess and the self-destruction of diversity (including an entire chapter in “Death and Life” entitled, “The Self Destruction of Diversity”) and the ways she felt were best to deal with this phenomenon: 1) “zoning for diversity” (which did not necessarily mean what is today called “inclusionary zoning”); 2) the use of the “staunchness of public buildings”; and creating the conditions for 3) “competitive diversion.”)

A changing city

Birch, the only city planner on the panel—she chairs the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, said that “we need to think about” the meaning of “oversuccessful” and what measures we use. Three decades ago, when the the city was in fiscal straits and even after the 9/11 attacks, there was much pessimism. So success is fragile, she said, but New York is a product of a successful population. A clear vision is needed to harness such success.

While Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 “is a beginning,” we need more long-term and visionary thinking. She pointed out three major issues. One is that three significant projects in process or planned—Atlantic Yards, the West Side yards project, and a new Moynihan Station—are proceeding under state rather than the city's Hudson Yards proposal will go through city review, rather than be shepherded by the Empire State Development Corporation.) “What has happened” to the city’s capacity to plan and lead development, she asked.

New transportation projects, including the 7 subway extension on the West Side, the Second Avenue subway, and a possible new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, require public discussion of “the development potential” around them.

She also said that “we probably have the most participatory planning” process in the country, citing the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). However, she called the rise of Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs) alarming, because they represent deals between developers and community groups outside of public review. “Is this the way we want to be planning and negotiating our future?” While she didn’t name any names, the first—and perhaps most criticized—local CBA involves Atlantic Yards.

Developers speak

Durst, developer of the Conde Nast building and the new Bank of America Tower, gave what the Times called “a more succinct response” to the question at hand: “What we really have to be doing is planning for the increasing size and success of the city.” Well, of course—the question is how, and Durst wasn’t about to offer specifics.

Brown, a Brooklynite who runs a development company based in Harlem, reflected on Jacobs, suggesting that a successful city has “a shared experience,” now threatened by increasing costs of living. If the city becomes so successful that “all its voices can’t be heard,” he warned, the sources of success can be its downfall. Still, he said he thought we can manage the change.

O’Connell, a retired detective who started buying in Red Hook long before anyone imagined its revival, said that he can’t accommodate all the demand from small business and non-profit organizations, and noted the neighborhood can’t accommodate the newly-arrived immigrants seeking decent affordable housing. “In Red Hook, the challenge has been to create a balance,” he said. “I don’t see that. I don’t see any long-term planning.”

“I wish,” he said, “they had better planning 25 years ago” to cope with the growth today. O’Connell, who had advantage of buying when property was cheap, observed that, with residential development, he could make three to four times a much as he currently earns from commercial rent.

The European model?

Moderator Charles Bagli, who covers real estate and economic development for the New York Times, asked whether rezonings, the loss of industrial space, and the loss of working-class housing might move New York more into “a European model,” with a prosperous core and a working class on the outskirts. “Is the city becoming exclusively for the rich?”

While his formulation applied more to Manhattan than the boroughs, Birch gave him a general answer. “New York sits back and waits” for developers to propose rezonings. “The city is not proactive; it’s reactive.” Actually, it’s more of a mixed bag; in certain neighborhoods, such as Jamaica, the city rezoning has been quite proactive, ahead of developers.

Emerging tensions

Brown suggested there was room for manufacturing, especially local development of green products for future green construction.

Bagli pointed to the tension of development in an industrial zone, suggesting that, if housing is built on the site of the former Revere Sugar Refinery in Red Hook, new residents likely will object to the smells and sounds of the nearby maritime industry.

“We’ve got to think hard and fast before we lose the working waterfront,” O’Connell said.

“It’s more than hard and fast, it’s comprehensively,” Birch responded.

Back to Jane

Bagli steered the conversation back to Jacobs, asking if it was still possible to create the kind of neighborhoods Jacobs prized.

“Of course we can do it,” Birch said, noting that Jacobs “was a gentrifier” in the West Village.

Brown noted that the “big projects” under consideration might be “mixed-use,” thus following a Jacobsian precept, but would not be “mixed users,” suggesting they’d only serve the better-off.

Affordable housing

“I don’t think we can re-create Greenwich Village,” Birch said. But if it’s our priority to create “workforce housing,” developers can be mandated to provide 20% to 30% affordable housing. (Unmentioned is that such a percentage—actually, about 38% if you count the affordable for-sale units onsite—is a justification for Atlantic Yards, though counterarguments are that the affordable housing skews toward the better-off high and also has been used to justify an out-of-scale project.)

Bagli pointed out that Durst’s proposal for the West Side yards, as with competing proposals, includes affordable housing.

Durst gave his endorsement. “I believe any development should include an 80/20 program. It’s produced a tremendous amount of affordable and market-rate housing.”

Brown noted public guidance can produce good projects; he cited his firm’s bid for a new project in the Brooklyn Academy of Music cultural district, which will include rehearsal and performance space for DanceSpace and almost 200 apartments, 50% of which would be affordable housing. (That percentage is possible because the land comes cheap.)

"It sort of reflects a healthy fabric for a city," he said. "It didn't happen by chance. It happened because there was a plan to make it happen. The average developer... would not have done that on their own, but if the city has a requirement to do that... people respond."

Gridlock at Flatbush & Atlantic

Bagli wondered if the growth in the city was contributing to too much gridlock. "First Avenue is a parking lot during rush hour," he said. "My daughter was living in Park Slope, and one Saturday afternoon, nothing's going on, I had to drive through that intersection, Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue—what an idiot I was.... And then we went back through that intersection--it took an hour!"

(No one made the point, but that's one of the chief arguments against the Atlantic Yards project, which would be adjacent to that intersection.)

“Why were you driving?” Birch riposted. “You should have been taking the subway.”
Philadelphia would love to have the problems New York has, she said, suggesting that congestion pricing could manage the challenge.

Bagli suggested the transit system was at capacity.

“We have not invested in our mass transit,” Birch responded.

Other issues

Bagli wondered if the city was losing its character. Birch suggested it still retains its vibrancy. Brown, however, suggested there were challenges, because young people who wish to pursue artistic pursuits—people crucial to the future of the city—are being priced out.

The panel touched on a number of other issues; Brown suggested that archaic regulation could be eased to change the way we built. He praised the Durst Organization for leading the way in using green materials and thus getting lenders used to the concept.

Durst cited the need to reduce congestion to cut the cost of bringing materials to construction sites. He went out on a limb: “I agree with Jane Jacobs that the automobile is anathema to the city.”

Back to housing

They got back to the issue of housing. O’Connell agreed inclusionary zoning should be mandatory, especially if there’s a zoning change that adds value to land. (That’s what the city’s been doing.) “Why not share a part of the profit?”

Brown suggested that subsidies should not just support housing but cultural institutions in new communities. Durst said the 80/20 program has been proven to work.

Bagli wondered if that was enough. “The city, the federal government; they’re not building housing.” He noted that the Queens West project, announced at 5000 units affordable for the middle-class, has switched to a project with likely 40% market-rate units and has yet to get off the ground.

“It’s because of the land of bonding capacity,” Durst observed, citing a central developer’s reality otherwise absent from the discussion.

Brown noted that “’affordable housing’ is a magical word that means a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people.” And it’s not something the city and private developers can solve on their own, he said, calling it a federal problem. “I don’t think they are any single silver bullets.”

Who's in charge?

Birch returned to the issue of the ESDC managing large-scale developments, which “says something… needs to be fixed.” The reason: “large scale developers have found that ULURP is cumbersome and unpredictable.” However, she said, there’s something very good about the process, since it lets people express their ideas. The process needs to be improved.

Brown said he’d had good and bad experiences in ULURP, but if “you take off your developer’s hat and just look at it as a resident of Brooklyn,” he said, referring to himself, “You say it’s a good process, because it allows a community to have voice.”

Brooklynite Michael White asked Durst if the public should be disheartened that the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) went to bat for the “Atlantic Yards carve-out.” Durst responded that REBNY never takes positions against a member and also said that developers won’t work together.

Williamsburg resident Steven Frankel, a critic of the New Domino plan, said residents are concerned that many developers are seeking zoning variances and affordable housing is being used as a wedge. While his point was that such projects are proceeding beyond the recent rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Birch defended the rezoning without addressing his point.

Community planner Ron Shiffman lamented that the city's waterfront rezoning ignored the need for new kinds of live-work buildings to maintain density and industry. "It's the state process that needs to be fixed," he said. "It shouldn't become a process where zoning and planning is for sale."

Affordable housing shouldn't be a wedge issue, dangled as a carrot, but rather part and parcel of development rules.

Shiffman noted that parking is required with housing; why not affordability? Brown and O'Connell said they agreed with mandatory affordable housing in new developments. (No one got to the issue of rent regulation.)

Birch observed, "The bottom line is, someone has to pay for it." Forty years ago, the state agreed to fund the Mitchell-Lama program, she noted.

Esthetics?

One audience member questioned whether ugly buildings that lack an esthetic relationship to the community could be stopped. "We cannot do what we call esthetic zoning," Birch replied.

"I think architecture can become more creative," Brown said, suggesting that it was not the time to build "new brownstones." He saluted "this organic growth" that layers buildings from various eras in a neighborhood, "so it doesn't look like some master planner who said 'this is what thou shall have.'"

It sounded, just maybe, like he was talking about Atlantic Yards.

A community group set up to be bought out by Ratner?

At a panel last night held at the Museum of the City of New York, Modernism and the Public Realm, Fred Siegel, a historian and urbanist, offered a tantalizing Atlantic Yards anecdote.

Siegel, a Brooklynite, was highly critical of Atlantic Yards. (More on the panel Monday.) At one point, he said, "I know a local politician who began a community group with the express purpose of being bought out by Bruce Ratner."

I caught up with him afterward to ask him to elaborate, but he begged off. But what politician and group could he have been talking about?

The most obvious candidate is Roger Green, who as Assemblyman had a role in founding BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development) and the Downtown Brooklyn Educational Consortium (DBEC), both signatories of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement. (The New York Observer in December 2005 offered details.)

BUILD actually was formed shortly before Atlantic Yards was announced, while the DBEC came later. But until and unless more information surfaces, we don't know if Siegel was pointing to Green or the abovementioned groups.

AY ombudsman: "It's a sexy project"

Today's New York Daily News article on the newly arrived Atlantic Yards ombudsman, headlined Ex-MTA executive Forrest Taylor takes on role as Atlantic Yards mediator, offers a quote from the ombudsman himself: "In my mind it's a sexy project. It's an important project. It creates housing and it creates jobs, and it's going to transform Brooklyn."

As Taylor gets acclimated, maybe he'll stop using the abstract shorthand preferred by his employer, the Empire State Development Corporation, and developer Forest City Ratner, that "the project" will create housing and jobs, and instead recognize that public funding--especially scarce housing bonds--and private funding are required.

And surely he'll learn that a good number of people think Atlantic Yards is much closer to "rough sex" or even a spaceship.

Ratner, Markowitz at the MetroTech tree lighting ceremony

Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz appeared yesterday at the annual tree-lighting ceremony at Ratner's MetroTech project. The top photo is by Adrian Kinloch (set) and bottom photo is by Tracy Collins (set).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Three years after complaint, Williams departs Planning Commission with a $4000 fine; McRae the replacement

So, as first reported by Gotham Gazette on Tuesday, Dolly Williams, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's appointee to the New York City Planning Commission, has been fined $4000 for voting in favor of the Downtown Brooklyn Project in 2004, which contained a piece of the site for the Atlantic Yards project, for which she was already an investor.

(Here's the disposition. At right, copies of Williams's campaign contributions to candidates for city offices; the total, over more than a decade, is $18,800. Click to enlarge.)

The real question here is why it took the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) more than three years to reach a resolution after a complaint was filed by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB). However, the board is prohibited by law from commenting beyond the disposition it issues.

It's not likely that the COIB was doing Williams any specific favors. Until this year, the board was fairly moribund, according to an 8/9/07 report in the New York Sun, headlined Conflicts of Interest Board's Enforcement Tsar Faces Off With Violators, this year issued 52 violations, the most ever in the board's history. The fines, however, have been relatively small, averaging a little over $1100.

In 2006, the board issued 19 violations, with an average penalty under $2000; in 2005, it issued 11 violations, with an average penalty under $3400. The maximum fine is $10,000 per violation.

From the COIB, here's a summary of enforcement dispositions; a discussion of the enforcement process; and an FAQ on enforcement.

Cost of doing business?

This resolution can’t be good for Williams’ reputation, but she did avoid any criminal proceeding. And from another perspective, it might be seen as a cost of doing business in New York. Consider that Williams last December gave a $4950 campaign contribution to Markowitz, which is nearly 25% more than the fine she paid.

Also consider that, as the Times pointed out, Williams earned $48,000 a year for part-time work as a commissioner.

McRae the replacement

Yesterday, Shirley McRae, longtime chairperson of Community Board 2, was announced as Williams' replacement. The Daily News noted the not-so-coincidental timing:
"We heard it a little while ago," said Markowitz when asked about the fines imposed on Williams, who was representing Brooklyn when she cast the vote.

Asked about the timing of his announcement of McRae and the news about Williams, Markowitz didn't deny a connection.


DDDB called McRae an "Atlantic Yards critic;" while she isn't a member of opposition groups, her board issued comments strongly critical of numerous elements of the project, including the use of eminent domain. (Credit for the response goes to District Manager Robert Perris as well.)

McRae wrote a strongly-worded letter to the Empire State Development Corporation criticizing the agency's oversight of the 8/23/06 public hearing on the Atlantic Yards project. She even has a cameo in the film Brooklyn Matters, enunciating firmly: “Whether you are for this project or whether you are against this project, the community needs enough time to review these massive documents

McRae Tuesday pointed out that, unlike Williams, she didn't have any potential conflicts. The Daily News reported:
"Not unless they plan to develop on my house," McRae said to scattered laughter. "I do not have any business interests. I do not do business with the city. I pay my taxes.

"At this time, I do not foresee any conflict where I would have to recuse myself from representing Brooklyn."


The back story emerges

So when Markowitz on October 5 announced "the joint decision that in this time of great growth and change in Brooklyn, when there are many voices seeking to be heard on land use matters, it would be best for a new appointee to assume the Planning Commission position," he surely knew that Williams was under investigation.

Thus, his unvarnished praise for Williams--that he has "been pleased with her service during her term as Brooklyn’s representative regarding land use matters and planning for the future of this borough and New York City"--ignored a breach of duty.

In other words, Williams's departure wasn't because (compilation via NoLandGrab) she had to recuse herself from voting on the Atlantic Yards project and a Gowanus rezoning effort. Nor because she illegally parked her yellow Porsche at a hydrant in Park Slope. Nor because her company has twice been charged with stiffing subcontractors and in one case was ordered to pay more than $200,000.

No, more likely it was because the DDDB complaint filed on 8/26/04--or, perhaps, another complaint, filed even earlier--finally gained some traction in the city bureaucracy.

The proposals for the West Side yards get some more public discussion

The contrast between the process for developing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's West Side yards in Manhattan and its Vanderbilt Yard in Brooklyn remains striking.

Not only was there an RFP for the Manhattan project before a developer is selected, there's a lot more public discussion before such a selection. (With the Atlantic Yards project, Forest City Ratner was anointed by the city and state, if not formally selected, 18 months before an RFP for the Vanderbilt Yard--but not the whole project--was issued.)

Indeed, on Monday, December 3, representatives of the design teams for the five West Side yards proposals will present their plans in a public program co-sponsored by some heavyweight groups: the American Institute of Architects, New York Chapter; Architectural League of New York; Design Trust for Public Space; Fine Arts Federation; Friends of the High Line; Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art; Municipal Art Society; New York New Visions; Regional Plan Association.

The event will take place from 6–8:30 pm at The Great Hall, Cooper Union, 7 West 7th Street. Free admission.

Sitting out the debate

Notably, most of these sponsoring groups have sat out the entire Atlantic Yards debate. (Arguably, the Friends of the High Line didn't have a role to play.)

The Municipal Art Society (MAS) and the Regional Plan Association (RPA) entered the fray late, offering significant critiques of the project's urban design but failing to challenge the process that led the city and state to back one developer rather than seek out alternative visions and competitive bids, as with the West Side yards project.

Here's an interview with the MAS's Kent Barwick, where he criticizes the process but suggests it can be repaired. Here's a critique of the RPA statement.

Everyone, it seems, now knows better. Indeed, Mayor Mike Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 conspicuously avoids Atlantic Yards while proposing a far more consultative process to develop over railyards and highway cuts.

A crucial caveat: what we can't evaluate

Can the West Side plans make a difference in the public debate? Critic Justin Davidson, in a piece headlined Coast of Dystopia in this week's New York magazine, offers a crucial caveat.

He writes:
The pictures of glittering towers and digital families gamboling on Astroturf lawns are intended to convince people that the plans will be evaluated on the basis of architecture, design, and urban planning. But since the MTA has so far withheld the crucial financial facts, such as how many billions each developer has budgeted, the public’s opinions on design minutiae don’t carry much weight.

From the press release

The press release for Monday's event states:
Even in an era of large-scale real estate ventures, the proposed development of the West Side Rail Yards is an enormous undertaking, with equally enormous implications for the future of New York. On October 11, 2007, five developers submitted responses to a Request For Proposals issued by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for development of both the Eastern and Western Rail Yards, the largest undeveloped tract of land in Manhattan. Zoning on the overall site allows 12 million square feet of combined residential and commercial development; the RFP also requires that space be allotted for a public school and community and cultural organizations. The MTA expects to select a developer for the site in the first quarter of 2008; after conditional approval by the MTA board, the selected proposal will proceed through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

Architectural teams and developers are as follows: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Field Operations, Thomas Phifer and Partners, SHoP Architects, Diller Scofidio and Renfro, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA, Handel Architects (Brookfield Properties LLC, developer); Steven Holl Architects (Extell Development Company, developer); FXFOWLE and Pelli Clarke Pelli (Hudson Center East LLC and Hudson Center West LLC, joint venture of Vornado Realty Trust and The Durst Organization, Inc., developer); Kohn Pedersen Fox, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Arquitectonica (The Related Companies, developer); Murphy/Jahn Architects, PWP-Peter Walker and Partners (TS West Side holding, LLC, joint venture of Tishman Speyer and Morgan Stanley, developer).


The proposals are currently on view in an exhibition presented by the MTA at the northwest corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and 43rd Street, across from Grand Central Terminal, from 8 am–8 pm, through December 3.

The Atlantic Yards ombudsman cometh, finally, and the questions begin

(Updated 5 pm Nov. 28)
More than 203 days after the position was first announced (clock via NoLandGrab), the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) announced it finally hired an Atlantic Yards ombudsman, Forrest R. Taylor, to serve as “the dedicated project coordinator and liaison between ESDC, elected officials, community representatives and the public.”

(Note: The ESDC has been using the term "ombudsperson;" however, given that the person selected is male, I'm going to join most of the press and go with the more traditional "ombudsman.")

Taylor (below), who started in the ESDC’s Manhattan headquarters on Monday but will be based at an office to be established in the area around the project site, comes with some significant credentials. He has served as chief of staff to City Council President Gifford Miller, deputy executive director for operations for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and chief of staff for the deputy mayor for finance and economic development.

Most recently, according to an ESDC news release, Taylor served as manager of Prowess Initiatives and Analysis, a boutique firm advising corporate clients on government relations and corporate communications.

(Photo from the New York Times)

"Ideally suited"

Avi Schick, President and COO of ESDC, praised Taylor: “Forrest’s background in government, transportation and community affairs makes him ideally suited to provide the public with direct information and direct access to the state and the developer.”

(Direct access to the developer? That will be very interesting. What happens when Forest City Ratner won't comment?)

Taylor said, “This ombudsman position provides an opportunity for me to draw on all of my experiences in and out of government and is an exciting next step forward in the State’s effort to increase the public’s connection to this important and transformative project. I look forward to working with all stakeholders to insure the community has access to current information and swift responses to questions and concerns.”

Some of the stakeholders--or at least community members--Taylor will encounter undoubtedly feel the project may be “important and transformative” in ways far less salubrious than the ESDC believes.

Whose vision?

"I work for a politician, so it's all about his vision," Taylor said, in an admiring 7/9/02 New York Times profile. In his new job, he in a sense works for a politician—Gov. Eliot Spitzer, an Atlantic Yards supporter—but also has a much broader set of constituencies. The Times profile portrayed Taylor as more interested in policy than electoral politics and as proud of his work on the restoration of Grand Central Station. (Regarding Atlantic Yards, there's nothing on the project site to restore, but there's a lot of policy to master.)

The ESDC stated that Taylor “will oversee the project schedule and activities and meet with elected officials and community groups to brief them on process, activities and timetables” and also have the job of “relaying and working through public concerns with the proper administrative agencies.”

The questions begin

If John Q. Public has a question for Taylor, how to contact him? (Updated) Phone: 212-803-3123; e-mail: atlanticyards@empire.state.ny.us.

For how long is Taylor hired? (The project is officially supposed to take a decade, but even project landscape architect Laurie Olin has suggested it could take 20 years.) Taylor, Carter said, is an ESDC employee, so he's not hired on a contract. (That leaves things open-ended.)

How much will Taylor be paid, asked the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, citing a New York Times report that he'd resigned from the City Council job after not getting a raise from $175,000. (Updated) $105,000 a year.

And why did the hiring take so long? “We wanted to find the right person, a combination of private industry and government skills,” Carter said. Of course, as the New York Daily News reported in a 10/16/07 article headlined Months later, Atlantic Yards still in search of a watchdog, three candidates also turned down the job. Either they passed up a worthy challenge or evaded a potential migraine. The New York Observer's observation: "Duck."

"Informational" vs. "political" questions

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn poses a first tough question for Taylor: "What makes the Brooklyn arena's proximity to streets different from the Newark arena that it will not require street closings?"

It's hard to imagine that Taylor will pry more out of the agency than it has already said, but it's also hard to imagine that such questions will stop.

Such challenges may cause the ESDC to try to draw a line between questions that are "informational"--easily accessible as long as the right people/agencies are queried--and those that are "political" and "legal," the answers for which the ESDC has said all that it will say because of internal or legal constraints.

Can Taylor do a credible job while maintaining the credibility of such boundaries? He'll surely have opportunities to prove his value.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Priced Out: policies and pressures on affordable housing

“The housing situation is bleak,” declared City Council Member Letitia James, opening the “Priced Out” conference on “addressing the pressures of living in NYC,” sponsored by by the New York City Council Black, Latino and Asian Caucus over the first weekend in November at Pace University.

(Here´s more on the Atlantic Yards angle that surfaced occasionally.)

Elected officials speak

Some top elected officials offered some general recommendations, while activists, from the dais or on panels, were often more forceful about fighting some new pressures on affordability and achieving some sought-after reforms regarding rent regulation. (Not on the table, of course, were the conservative arguments about repealing rent regulation--here´s a Gotham Gazette article on the debate--or even the argument, by Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute, that mass-transit investments would achieve more housing than direct subsidies.)

Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President, offered the community-friendly observation that “the people who are most in jeopardy [of displacement]… the people who stayed and fought.”

He offered an unsurprising solution for affordable housing: planning and zoning, even though rezonings have yet to deliver the enormous number of apartments needed. “I think development is good,” Stringer said, “but we should be able to have it both ways,” also supporting affordability.

He cited New York’s role as a beacon for immigrants and also for artists: “Those dreams will be deferred if the entrance fee is a million-dollar apartment.”

Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion was more pessimistic. “As New York changes, does New York give opportunity to the new faces?” he asked. “I think the painful answer is that we are not.”

He enumerated some lessons: “Warehousing the poor doesn’t work. Concentrating the need doesn’t work. Mixed-income housing works. Subsidizing development to make it affordable works.” (Well, that depends on the numbers.) “Mitchell-Lama [subsidized housing] worked, and it needs a new breath of life.”

“We have learned that planning and zoning work,” he said. “We have learned that Community Benefits Agreements [CBA] work.” There were a few scowls from the audience, given Carrion’s purge of Community Board 4 members who opposed the new New York Yankees stadium and its attendant CBA. “They’re tricky, they’re like making sausage,” he allowed.

“We need to embrace leaders who understand and embrace and invest in the emerging New York,” he concluded.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a luncheon speaker, noted that “there is no issue I hear raised more frequently” as affordable housing. “There isn’t one easy answer,” she added. “It’s like a puzzle, putting new pieces in. Although there is much more we need to do, I am very very proud of what we have accomplished.”

Beyond rezonings, she cited improvements in the Section 8 program, new capital funds to improve distressed properties owned by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, and the need to make sure the New York City Housing Authority gets the money it needs.

Repealing Urstadt

One significant change sought by affordable housing advocates is a repeal of the Urstadt law, passed in 1971, which “took control of rent regulation out of the hands of the city government and gave it to the state legislature,” as Gotham Gazette explains. And that means that a Republican-controlled body in a dysfunctional, gerrymandered legislature has undue power over a Democratic city.

Each year, said Assembly Housing Chairman Vito Lopez of Brooklyn, the Assembly repeals Urstadt, only to see it the bill die in the Senate. And that’s why Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants Political Action Committee, states in a Strategic Plan to Win Stronger Rent Laws that “To have any chance of winning our legislative goals, tenants must help the Democrats take control of the New York State Senate next year.” (The Democrats need only two more seats for a tie, and Lieutenant Governor David Paterson, a Democrat, would cast a tie-breaker.)

Vacancy decontrol? The state explains: If an apartment is vacated with a legal regulated rent (Rent Stabilization) or maximum rent (Rent Control) of $2,000 or more per month, such apartment qualifies for permanent decontrol, and therefore for removal from all rent regulation.

The problem is that it was never indexed to rental inflation when established in 1994—had it been, points out Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development, it would be over $3300 today.

Lopez defended his attempts to increase affordability in the reform of the 421-a tax break—he left out the Atlantic Yards “carve-out”—and said, as he has in the past, that “the state does nothing compared to the city” regarding support for affordable housing.

"Predatory equity” and pension funds

Amy Chan, an organizer at Tenants and Neighbors, described a trend, dubbed “predatory equity,” in which Mitchell-Lama buildings are purchased by investment groups looking for a quick fix rather than long-term revenue from rent. In March 2005, a portfolio of five former Mitchell-Lama buildings was sold by Jerome Belson Associates to Cammeby’s International for $295 million, or $74,000 per unit. In May 2007, they were sold to Putnam Holding Company for $918 million, or $232,000 per unit.

Such projects may wind up unaffordable, as developers make improvements that generate significantly increased rents, or, she said, may wind up in foreclosure.

Even more disturbing to tenant advocates is that the owners of Putnam are the City Investment Fund and Urban American Management, both of which include significant contributions from the retirement systems for city and state public employees

“We have tried to talk to the city and state comptrollers,” said ACORN’s Bertha Lewis, noting that they control $154 billion in investments in the above funds. “They’ve invested in these same companies and banks that are ripping people off.”

Surprisingly, this issue has not made the mainstream press. The only coverage I could find was a 9/24/07 article in City Limits, headlined PUBLIC MONEY HELPS FUND EXPENSIVE HOUSING FLIP. A spokeswoman for City Comptroller William Thompson told City Limits he is “sensitive to investments in real estate deals that have a negative impact on affordable housing,” but didn’t consider this an unwise investment—a statement that drew criticism from housing advocates.

“City Council needs to demand that the city and state comptroller use the power of their offices,” said ACORN's Lewis. James told me a meeting was scheduled with Thompson.

Raising rents to what the law allows

City Limits cited Urban American’s strategy as “built upon the direct relationship between capital expenditures and permissible rental increases in rent regulated apartments, where increases in rents can be achieved through investment in unit and common area upgrades." A spokesman for the two companies said they were improving buildings and not evicting tenants.

(Last Wednesday, the Daily News reported that Cammeby's, which had bought a former Mitchell-Lama building in Coney Island, was jacking up rent.)

“We’ve got to repeal vacancy decontrol,” said McKee. “We wouldn’t have these predatory private equity companies buying our Mitchell-Lama and rent-regulated buildings at Enron-like prices.”

(The state last week closed a loophole that would allow landlords leaving the Mitchell-Lama program "to immediately bring the rent in their apartments up to market rate¨," the New York Times reported yesterday.)

Numbers matter

The rent-regulated profile of the city's housing stock continues to change. Chloe Tribich, lead organizer for Housing Here and Now, pointed out that, in 1970, 75% of rental units were regulated. In 2005, the percentage had declined to a little over 50%, and there are fewer units.

Landlords, she said, can quickly move an apartment from $1000 to decontrol, with a series of new tenants and capital improvements.

McKee tried to address the inevitable "gotcha" stories about rich people living in rent-regulated apartment, calling it a "red herring." Median household income in rent-regulated apartments is $32,000, he said.


(Unlike with apartments in many current affordable housing programs in which rent is set at 30% of household income, however, there's a disconnect in some cases between rent-regulated apartments and ability to pay.)

“It’s not just about the rent, it’s the right of tenure," he added. “It is not about somebody’s deal. It’s about keeping the supply of affordable housing available for the future.”

Government tweaks

There’s much that the government can do to adjust the balance between landlords and tenants. Dave Hanzel, policy director at the Association for Neighborhood and. Housing Development (ANHD), said that legislation would enable tenants for the first time to sue landlords for harassment.

Louise Seeley of the City-wide Task Force on Housing Court noted that Council Member Rosie Mendez was about to introduce a bill calling for a right-to-counsel in Housing Court for seniors with incomes under $27,000. “If you get more tenant attorneys in Housing Court, the tone is going to change,” she said. “The landlord’s bar is pretty powerful.”

Indeed, as the New York Times reported in an 11/16/07 article headlined Free Legal Aid Sought for Elderly Tenants, the proposed law, the nation’s first, would protect elderly residents at a time when landlords seeking to capitalize on a hot real estate market and rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods have become more aggressive in taking tenants to housing court, council members said.

Nonprofit legal organizations are strapped, representing only a fraction of the tenants that seek help. Seeley told the Times that 90 percent to 95 percent of tenants in housing court have no lawyers, while nearly as many landlords do have such representation. The bill would cost the city up to $12 million a year to represent up to 10,750 seniors—but could save other costs in emergency shelter.

Also, as the Times reported in a 10/30/07 article headlined Bias Is Seen as Landlords Bar Vouchers, New York City is behind many other major cities in not prohibiting discrimination against those who hold federal Section 8 vouchers that subsidize apartments they find privately. Council Member Bill de Blasio is sponsoring such a bill.

What about AMI?

Donald Notice of West Harlem Group Assistance said that “where affordable housing was difficult ten or 20 years ago, it seems impossible now.” Community development corporations (CDCs) like his own cannot acquire property on the private market. Needed are deeper subsidies, a greater amount of housing finance, and a change in Area Median Income (AMI), which is based on regional figures and is $70,900 for a four-person household.

In Central and West Harlem, the AMI is $27,000, Notice said. “Who are we applying AMI to when we use $72,000 as a measuring point?”

“I think this AMI stuff is garbage,” said the Assembly´s Lopez. Added Council Member Robert Jackson, “People I represent say, ‘tell me how it’s affordable to us?’”

ACORN’s Lewis said “Stop playing around with this AMI. This is ridiculous.” She said ACORN has pushed for legislation that requires any housing development to be judged by the city’s AMI, which is about $56,000. (That wasn’t the case for Atlantic Yards, which follows the regional AMI of $70,900. Then again, Lewis has defended the deal, asserting it was the best possible: "if I could stop one iota of gentrification, I’ll do it.")

High land costs

Bruce Dale of the Community Preservation Corporation sketched why it’s so difficult to build affordable housing. The cost of land, once low, has skyrocketed. In Harlem, he said, land sells for more than $200 per square foot. It costs another $200 per square foot to build it, plus $50 in soft costs (architecture, legal, etc.). That means that a 1000-square-foot “small two bedroom” would cost $450,000. “It’s no longer affordable, and that’s without profit,” Dale said.

(By the way, in the Atlantic Yards context, 1000 square feet is not a “small two bedroom.” The affordable units would average 775 square feet for two bedrooms.)

“Construction costs have gone up, land has gone up, utilities have gone up. Income has not gone up,” Dale said. “One of the only positive things I see is the change in the government nationally.”
“Developers are in business to make money,” Dale said. “To get them to build affordable housing, there has to be a trade-off.”

Edward Poteat, director of real estate finance at Horsford & Poteat Realty, described how a church group chose not to use tax credits for an affordable housing project, fearing too much red tape, and instead built a market-rate project. “And that’s a church group,” he said. “So there are real challenges.”

Building higher

Poteat said the only solution was increased density. “I tell everyone who’ll listen: if you don’t have land to build horizontal, the only thing you can do is make it vertical.” Sure, he said, public housing has a bad reputation, but “Stuyvesant Town looks like public housing.’’

He suggested zoning changes—as long as the projects included affordable housing—in neighborhoods like Brownsville, East New York, and Bushwick, allowing ten- to 12-story buildings, envisioning a scale not unlike at the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

General dismay

Hanzel said that advocates should look beyond the 20 or 30 or 40 years of affordability attached to projects. “We want to use permanent affordability as a litmus test for mayoral candidates in 2009,” he said.

ACORN’s Lewis suggested that any development done on city or state land be subject to a land trust, so it would be “affordable forever, not 30 years, not 40 years.”

(When it came to a project partially on state land, Atlantic Yards, ACORN didn’t push for such a deal. The Atlantic Yards Community Benefit Agreement states says affordability will be guaranteed for a “period of thirty years.”)

The argument for permanent affordability, as cited by the Pratt Center for Community Development, is that developers will get benefits like increased density in perpetuity.

City Council Member Leroy Comrie of Queens, responding to a question, declared, “I’ll address the issue of proper urban planning. We don’t have any in the city.” He added, “Long ago we lost the ability to demand that, as a community expands… they have to build parks and schools.”

(Yesterday, the New York Sun reported that the City Council has established a new task force to assess new projects' impacts on city infrastructure, with James as a co-chairperson.)

The housing crisis is “about big business exploiting the poor,” said Lewis, pointing to the role of banks and mortgage companies in the foreclosure crisis.

Despite the progress cited by Quinn, who's a likely candidate to succeed Mayor Mike Bloomberg, much more needs to be done, attendees concluded. Observed Council Member Melissa Mark Viverito: “We have to figure out how we develop a comprehensive housing agenda.”

At the "Priced Out" conference, some Atlantic Yards subtext

At the “Priced Out” conference on “addressing the pressures of living in NYC,” sponsored by by the New York City Council Black, Latino and Asian Caucus over the first weekend in November at Pace University, Atlantic Yards popped up several times, sometimes not so flatteringly. And it also led to some public diplomacy from both opponents and proponents.

(Here´s my longer report on the conference in general.)

Opening the conference, Council Member Letitia James, the most prominent opponent of Atlantic Yards, gave Atlantic Yards proponent ACORN a plug, citing the housing group’s 2003 study, “Sweetheart Development,” which pointed to a steady stream of luxury developments in and around Downtown Brooklyn. James didn’t mention either that ACORN’s study singled out Atlantic Yards as an exception or that on the Atlantic Yards issue she’s been opposite ACORN.

During one panel, Michael McKee, treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee, lamented that the city is steadily losing rent-stabilized apartments that rent for less than $1000 a month, “and we are adding them for two and three thousand dollars a month.” He added, “The Atlantic Yards proposal, rent-stabilized apartments are going to rent for five-six-seven thousand dollars a month. That’s ridiculous.” On the same panel, ACORN’s Bertha Lewis glared a bit as she listened, but chose, in her segment, not to rebut it.

McKee’s numbers were not inaccurate, but hardly the whole story. The 2250 affordable units would rent from $620 to $2658 for a four-person household. For the 2250 market-rate units, the rent would be set by the market, but increases in rent would be governed by rent stabilization. Typical two-bedroom units, according to Forest City Ratner projections, would rent for $4087, while some three bedroom units would rent for $7313.

(Click graphic to enlarge)

James in the forefront

An audience member at a panel criticized the failure to discuss small homeowners who face eminent domain. Her example: “someone like Bruce Ratner says, where we live is really not being taken of the way he can do it.”

Again, Lewis passed on a response, while Council Member Melissa Mark Viverito offered a general comment: “Tish James has been strong in her voice about eminent domain.”

At another point, Assembly Housing Chairman Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic leader, reminded the audience how public officials work hard. “Tish [James] could roll over tomorrow; she’d get a lot of chocolates and hugs from Ratner,” he said, praising someone who´s not always been a political ally. “But she’s taken a substantive position.”

A bit later, James popped up. “I love you, despite what they say,” she said impishly. “From time to time, we do have some misunderstandings.” James notably supported Bill de Blasio in the race for Council Speaker, while Lopez’s support helped swing the race for Christine Quinn. James chose not to point out, for example, how Lopez, in the state´s revision of the 421-a tax subsidy, was happy to negotiate the "Atlantic Yards carve-out."

An AY defense

At another panel, Tunisha Walker, the political/legislative director of New York ACORN and also a representative of ACORN housing, offered a strong but somewhat stilted defense of Atlantic Yards. “ACORN stopped up and said, [Ratner] wants to build a stadium and luxury condos and we said no.”

She asserted that Magic Johnson’s nearby development, One Hanson Place, has studios selling for $1.6 million. Not quite—all the units selling for over $1 million contain multiple bedrooms. And the issue is more complicated--Atlantic Yards was not, as she hinted, a response to Johnson's project; the conversion of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank was announced in May 2005, 18 months after the Atlantic Yards plan debuted.

(Then again, it was, in Lewis´s telling, a response to the other luxury development in and around Downtown Brooklyn, as the "Sweetheart Development" report points out. The difference is that the other development is as-of-right, while Atlantic Yards is, essentially, a privately-negotiated rezoning.)

“You have to give them something they can make money off,” Walker suggested, which is certainly true, though it contrasted with earlier criticism from Lewis concerning the government’s decision to let the private sector build housing. “When has a greedy private person ever done the right thing?” Lewis asked rhetorically.

AY: who´s eligible?

Walker claimed that the affordable housing rents were based on “neighborhood income tiers… because the city hasn’t said what affordable is.” (That’s not so; the rents would be based on regional AMI, or Area Median Income.)

To illustrate those eligible for Atlantic Yards affordable housing, Walker chose not to cite the typical four-person household but instead cited the income ranges for single people, from $13,000 to $60,000.

That might have been closer to accurate in the previous iteration of the housing plan, but now the range would be $14,889 to $79,408, as the chart above suggests. For four-person households, the top income would be $113,440. In other words, by choosing to focus on the somewhat unusual example of a single-person household, Walker wasn´t telling the whole story.

AY for the "missing class"?

Indeed, there was a lot of discussion at the conference about how the definition of "affordable" skews too high. While the middle-class faces pressure in New York's real estate market, Lewis at one point declared that "the folks a dollar above the poverty line... are the folks we really need to be putting policies around.” They are, she said, "the missing class," citing sociologist Katherine Newman’s book of that name.

The missing class, according to Newman, are the “near poor,” those with household incomes between $20,000 and $40,000 a year for a family of four. As the chart above shows, only 900 of the 2250 affordable Atlantic Yards units would go to such families. As I pointed out in August 2006, ACORN negotiated an affordable housing deal in which most of the units would not be accessible to the group´s core constituency.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A short history of Atlantic Yards "rowback" in the New York Times

On Saturday, when the New York Times reported that the Atlantic Yards arena "is scheduled to open after 2009," (emphases added here and below), the Times didn´t say it was correcting a previous report that the arena would open in 2009.

That was a variant of "rowback," which former Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent described in his 3/14/04 column as "a way that a newspaper can cover its butt without admitting it was ever exposed." In other words, a correction without formally acknowledging a correction--even though the Times publishes the most minute factual corrections daily.

The Times has done this periodically, publishing updated correct information but without (in most cases) publishing corrections.

The eminent domain suit

4/5/07: The Times finally explains that the dismissal of the federal eminent domain suit did not mean the suit was gone for good but that the federal magistrate had said it could be better filed in state court. The original report failed to mention that.

AY a rezoning?

11/26/06: The Atlantic Yards plan is, finally, not a rezoning, as the Times once described it.

Would a 6-8% cut be meaningful?

9/29/06: The Times, more than three weeks later, finally explains that the "six to eight percent cut" planned for Atlantic Yards would bring the project back to square one in terms of square footage. (This isn´t exactly a correction, but it is such a major clarification that, had it been included in the original story, it would´ve raised a red flag with the editors, who certainly wouldn´t have put it on the front page.)

Only 1500 construction jobs

8/25/06: The Times describes the number of Atlantic Yards construction jobs as 1500, over ten years, rather than 15,000 (which means job-years).The Times had previously used the figure of 12,000 jobs, taken from a news release.

The project isn´t in Downtown Brooklyn

3/10/06: I note how the Times has stopped describing Atlantic Yards as being located in "Downtown Brooklyn," but without publishing a correction. (This preceded the 4/27/06 megacorrection.)

Vacant lots, empty buildings = new opportunity for affordable housing

In the 1970s, New York City took over some 100,000 properties abandoned for nonpayment of taxes, and in subsequent decades helped community development groups fix them to create affordable housing. The numbers remaining are few, so the city now practices new tactics--tax incentives or increased development rights--to stimulate affordable housing.

But other solutions remain, notably the utilization of vacant or abandoned properties that are not in tax arrears. Unlike some other cities, notably Boston (as reported on the DMI blog), New York doesn't keep an inventory, nor has it changed any tax policies to incentivize owners.

(Regarding some seemingly stagnant properties in the Atlantic Yards footprint, the state got around the lack of incentives by declaring them blighted. A rezoning, however, might have done the trick.)

A lot of vacant properties

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, in partnership with Picture the Homeless, decided to rectify that. They sponsored a study released in April, No Vacancy?, that concluded that 2228 properties in Manhattan appear to be vacant or have vacancies; 1723 contained built structures, while 505 are empty lots. Those lots could support, under current zoning, nearly 24,000 units.

Stringer recommends a citywide plan to identify vacant properties that are not in tax arrears. A registration and fee program could allow the city to learn the reasons for vacancy and suggest available financing options.

Also, the city could change tax policy that currently allows owners to sit on vacant land or buildings without penalty. The report notes, "Today, property taxes impose no burden on landowners who fail to develop empty lots or to rehabilitate deteriorating buildings. The result is a free pass on speculative timing of the real estate market."

(Here´s more on the issue from City Limits.)

Policy changes

Stringer, in his report on Manhattan, suggests several possible changes:
--ending the tax exemption for vacant land above 110th Street (and, by extension, in the outer boroughs); in Manhattan, that could raise more than $100 million a year
--levy a sales tax on vacant properties not improved during ownership.
--create a separate tax class for vacant properties.

Stringer also suggests changing the tax structure, in certain areas, to the value of the land, rather than the buildings. A number of cities around the world tax land at a higher rate, and this will begin in Philadelphia. The New York City Independent Budget Office, in its 2007 Budget Options for New York City, proposed this as a possible tactic.

IBO acknowledges a counter-argument: "Opponents might argue that the current tax treatment of this vacant land serves to preserve open space in residential areas in a city with far too little open space. Opponents also might have less faith in the power of existing zoning and land use policies to adequately restrict development in residential areas."

The Boston experience

Boston has been out ahead of most cities, compiling an annual survey since 1997 as part of its Abandoned Buildings Information. The number of abandoned residential properties went down 77% in the last decade.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino spoke last Monday morning at a breakfast panel sponsored by the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy (DMI), titled Rehabilitating Vacant Buildings into Affordable Housing. (Here's a lengthy live blog from DMI, plus another piece. There´s a panel today at noon on the conjunction between housing policy, homelessness, and vacant property.)

He said that city officials first asked owners to clean up their buildings or sites. If not, such a property was labeled as a "house of shame," announced in press releases and news coverage in the home town--often upscale suburb--of the propety owner.

"I'm not in the embarrassment business," Menino said, "but when it's a piece of property in decay... and they live in suburban luxury, that's unacceptable."

(Left to right: Brad Lander, Carlton Collier, Scott Stringer, Thomas Menino, Andrea Batista Schlesinger. Photo from DMI Blog.)

The New York twists

Are there any other reasons for some properties to remain vacant or unimproved, beyond speculative warehousing? Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development suggested that in some neighborhoods, the market still isn't strong. Also, in some cases, there are ownership disputes.

Carlton Collier of the Parodneck Foundation--who joked that his address changed from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Clinton Hill without him moving--raised a larger question of planning for growth. "I would love to have the Nets, but when you build this stadium and office space," he asked, "what about the infrastructure?" (It would be mostly housing, not office space, but his point is a common one.)

Lapsed planning

"We've got to put planning back into the community boards," Stringer said. "So when the developer comes in with the 700-dollar-an-hour lawyer, the community is able to negotiate. We've got to beef the grass-roots up."

(Note today´s news that the City Council has established a new task force to assess new projects' impacts on city infrastructure. Worthy but late.)

Lander suggested "the system in New York City is broken for proactive planning." One way to keep track of vacant properties could be to use the system that keeps track of rent-regulated property.

Stringer said the city council should get the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to do a citywide count.

Lander said the city had moved too slowly to adapt to a changing market, as evidenced by the belated reform of the 421-a tax incentive for new construction and the failure to fix the J-51 incentive for rehabilitation--both generous programs devised during the days when no one wanted to build in the city.

Community planning

"You've got to get the community back in the process from the beginning," Menino said. Collier suggested there's a role for the 197-a plans produced by and for community boards.

"The ULURP process needs to be strengthened," Stringer said. "I know the skylines are changing, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But development without community participation and input makes absolutely no sense."

"Whether it's Community Benefits Agreements or negotiations in the land use process, let's stop settling for crumbs," he said.

Lander noted that communities now only have input in a reactive way. "You're never going to get one developer to solve the collective" problems of education, transportation, traffic and more.

Stringer suggested that the 197-a provision could be a solution, if taken seriously. But it's neglected every time, Lander replied. "You might conclude another system is needed."

(Missing words added in below two paragraphs)

A developer in the audience, a white Harlem resident, got up to ask a provocative question. Harlem, he said, was once an upscale neighborhood. What's wrong with him developing market-rate condos there, if he's fulfilling his responsibilities to his shareholders. "The profit motive," he said, "is getting rid of blight."


Stringer gave him a partial answer, noting that, if developers ask for more than what they're allowed to do, that triggers a responsibility to provide affordable housing. But the question lingered, a reflection on whether the city's market-friendly politics do enough of the job.

Bloomberg's legacy

How will Mayor Mike Bloomberg be looked upon in the future, wondered moderator Andrea Batista Schlesinger, director of the DMI.

Bloomberg, suggested Lander, will get credit for PlaNYC 2030, "but if we don't come up with new policies to cope with affordability and sustainability," he won't come off well.

Collier noted that the city's not building housing for low-income people earning under $30,000. It's difficult, Stringer said, for politicians to do things that have implications beyond their terms.

Menino, however, more than once pointed to a larger culprit regarding urban policies: "Nobody down at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue cares about public housing." (A commentator on the DMI blog makes the same point, citing the mayor and governor as well.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Critic Ouroussoff is much tougher on MTA´s role in West Side plan than in Brooklyn

From New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ourousoff´s review yesterday of the five plans for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority´s West Side yards, headlined In Plans for Railyards, a Mix of Towers and Parks:
So the five proposals recently unveiled by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to develop the 26-acre Manhattan railyards are not just a disappointment for their lack of imagination, they are also a grim referendum on the state of large-scale planning in New York City.

Ouroussoff´s tough on the emphasis on the bottom line:
But what is really at issue here is putting the importance of profit margins above architecture and planning. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority could have pushed for more ambitious proposals. For decades now cities like Barcelona have insisted on a high level of design in large-scale urban-planning projects, and they have done so without economic ruin.

Atlantic Yards was better?

Let´s recall his 7/5/05 enthrallment with the Atlantic Yards plan:
His approach is a blow against the formulaic ways of thinking that are evidence of the city's sagging level of cultural ambition. It suggests another development model: locate real talent, encourage it to break the rules, get out of the way.

Who does the location and vets the project?

And then, he seemed much more pensive in his 6/4/06 assessment:
...The problem is not that Mr. Gehry's layout won't work, and it is a notch above the conventional. But given the clout he has, he had the opportunity to propose a far bolder design. I still hope he will revise the master plan, which is, after all, in the earliest stages.

For Brooklyn residents who oppose Atlantic Yards, the Gehry-Ratner partnership is a natural target. But much of their anger should focus on the city and federal governments, which are apparently delighted to give developers responsibility for building and maintaining parks and pedestrian thoroughfares.


He didn´t bother to point out that, with Atlantic Yards, there was much, much less of an effort by the MTA to push, as he would like with the Hudson Yards, for more ambitious proposals.¨¨

And the issue with Atlantic Yards isn´t simply the superblock design, it´s the project´s sheer size, justified at least in part by a developer´s need for sufficient profit.

The Extell exception

Fun fact; the only West Side yards proposal Ouroussoff sorta likes came from the also-ran in the belated Request for Proposals for the MTA´s Vanderbilt Yard, issued 18 months after city and state officials anointed Forest City Ratner´s project. He writes:
With the possible exception of a design for the Extell Development Company, the proposals embody the kind of tired, generic planning formulas that appear wherever big development money is at stake.

That doesn´t mean Extell´s Atlantic Yards plan was terrific--I´ve heard some very mixed reviews. But unlike with the West Side yards plan, Extell was handicapped because one favored developer had a significant head start.

A busy week of panels on Jane Jacobs and modernism

Upcoming this week are a series of panels regarding urbanism. Descriptions below are taken from the official announcements.

Tuesday

Tuesday, November 27, 6:30 pm
The Oversuccessful City, Part 1: Developers' Realities
At the New York Times Stage Auditorium, 620 Eighth Ave

There are economic realities that underlie development and change in the city, all the more so in flush times. In facing the challenges of the growing city, New Yorkers need to consider these truths and their implications. This, the first of two panels on what Jane Jacobs called "oversuccess," will consider these issues primarily from the developer's perspective — with the objective of opening up a conversation about economics, land value and other issues that shape the city.

Charles Bagli of the New York Times will lead a panel featuring Eugenie Birch of the University of Pennsylvania, Carlton Brown of Full Spectrum NY, Douglas Durst of the Durst Organization, and Greg O'Connell of Kings Harbor View Associates exploring the reality for developers in contemporary New York City. Sponsored by the Municipal Art Society. Tickets required.

Wednesday

Wednesday, November 28, 6:30 pm
Modernism and the Public Realm: Planning and Building in New York
Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue

Has modernism in architecture and urban design failed our cities? That is the contention of the latest book by Harvard sociologist, critic, and author Nathan Glazer, From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City (Princeton University Press, 2007). Hilary Ballon, architectural historian and curator of Robert Moses and the Modern City, moderates a discussion with Glazer, Municipal Art Society President Kent Barwick, and urbanist Fred Siegel, senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and columnist for the New York Post. Co-sponsored by the Municipal Art Society, in conjunction with its exhibition Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York. Reservations/tickets required.

Thursday

Thursday, November 29, 7-9 p.m.,
Changing Perspectives on Preservation: A Panel Discussion
Sponsored by the Municipal Art Society, at 457 Madison Avenue.

This panel will explore the theme of changing perspectives on preservation from the 1940's and 50's -- when hundreds of potential landmarks were demolished in the absence of protection mechanisms, to the present -- when many of the buildings that replaced them are now themselves of interest for landmark designation.

Panelists include Hilary Ballon, architectural historian and Associate Vice Chancellor for New York University Abu Dhabi; Thomas Mellins, architectural historian, writer, co-author of New York 1880, New York 1930 and New York 1960, and Curator of Special Exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York; and Anthony Wood, Executive Director of the Ittleson Foundation, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia University, and founder and chair of the New York Preservation Archive Project, and author of the new book Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City's Landmarks. (Corrected) Free to members, $10 to nonmembers.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A "few million square feet of commercial space"? Not quite

From today´s Times article on the arena setbacks:
Atlantic Yards is slated to include more than 6,000 apartments and a few million square feet of commercial space...

Actually, no. At this point, it would be 336,000 square feet in the residential mixed-use variation, which is the variation currently under discussion.

There is a commercial mixed-use variation with much more office space, but if Forest City Ratner were taking it seriously at this point, they´d be talking about all the office jobs planned. And note that, with that variation, there would not be more than 6000 apartments.

From Chapter 1, Project Description, of the Final Environmental Impact Statement of the Empire State Development:
Two variations of the project program are under consideration to allow for flexibility in the program of three of the proposed project’s 17 buildings: (1) a residential mixed-use variation containing approximately 336,000 gross square feet (gsf) of commercial office space, 165,000 gsf of hotel use (approximately 180 rooms), 247,000 gsf of retail space, and up to 6.4 million gsf of residential use (approximately 6,430 residential units); and (2) a commercial mixed-use variation, which would permit more commercial office use in three buildings closest to Downtown Brooklyn and would contain approximately 1.6 million gsf of commercial office space, 247,000 gsf of retail space, and up to approximately 5.3 million gsf of residential use (approximately 5,325 units).

Ok, now the setbacks story makes the print Times, but

From today´s New York Times, in an article headlined A Brooklyn Arena and the Street: What’s the Right Distance?, the news comes in paragraph five (which is better than the original blog post, where the point wasn´t quite made):
For weeks, the project’s developer, Forest City Ratner, and its state sponsor, the Empire State Development Corporation, had deflected questions from bloggers about the arena’s location, saying that they could not divulge information related to security.

Actually, not just ¨bloggers¨(who might just be legit journalists) but also print journalists.

More from today´s article, paragraph nine:
After this calculation was published in The Times on Nov. 8, Atlantic Yards watchdogs said that it was not realistic and that the arena was going to be much closer to the street, citing architect’s renderings and language in plan documents.


That leaves out the original blog´s link to the explicit corrective information. OK, this is in print, but how about a URL?

Paragraph 12, the next to last paragraph, the real news:
That is the same distance as the arena in Newark. This new information prompted another question: What makes the Atlantic Yards arena sufficiently different from the Newark arena that it will not require street closings?

Rowback in today´s article regarding the arena: it is scheduled to open after 2009.
(Emphasis added)

The original article Nov. 8: scheduled to open in 2009.

Friday, November 23, 2007

In Philadelphia, at least, “socially patient” capital

We are told that the justification for the size of certain projects, like Atlantic Yards and the New Domino in Williamsburg, is the inclusion of affordable housing and other social goals, but another justification is certainly the expected return by the developers—which remains a mystery.

But we shouldn’t think that for-profit developers are making a major sacrifice—the social goals are factored in, subsidized by the public, and offset by market-rate units that would bring the expected (yet unspecified) profit. Yes, risk and vision should reap reward, but that deserves some public vetting when there are so many public dollars at stake.

By contrast, nonprofit developers—which, it should be said, may not always have the institutional weight and expertise to pull off large projects—can factor in other goals. In her book The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets, by Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, calls it “socially patient” capital, not expected to bring typical financial returns but to bring other returns.

Broader parameters

Rodin writes:
The usual financial parameters for returns on the University’s investment in its endowment were not plausible in this case; we needed to establish much broader ones, and once against the vision and commitment of our trustees was laudable—and critical. Besides using patient, social-investment rates of return, they allowed us to include a number of nonfinancial returns as metrics for success: an increase in median income in the area… increase in value of noninstitutional real estate holdings of the university.

Of course, for Forest City Ratner, Atlantic Yards should bring an increase in the value of its two malls, Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal, across Atlantic Avenue. Not only would new residents and arena visitors shop at the malls and patronize the restaurants/bars, the much-reviled Atlantic Center mall is poised for some new Frank Gehry towers to transform it.

That's not to say that Columbia University or other nonprofits, working in New York City’s superheated real estate market, have it as easy (in retrospect) as Penn. Some of Rodin’s examples, in contrast with New York, seem almost laughable. Penn’s trustees initially allocated $2 million to rehabilitate vacant housing. Another $5 million investment was used to “attract other investors with ‘socially patient’ capital.” That won’t get you far in Brooklyn.

Gentrification

Those involved in Penn's West Philadelphia Initiatives aimed to keep the neighborhood from gentrifying, “or ‘Penntrifying’ as detractors would say,” writes Rodin. Though that was more doable in Philadelphia, even there it didn´t quite work.

Rodin cites a 2001 Brookings Institute report by Maureen Kennedy and Paul Leonard, Dealing with Neighborhood Change: A Primer on Gentrification and Policy Choices:
Maureen Kennedy and Paul Leonard theorize that if residents, developers, officials, and interest groups spent more time developing strategies to avert or address the adverse consequences of gentrification, and less time opposing or supporting the market-driven process itself, they would increase the chances of building strong, economically diverse communities in our cities. This is something Penn tried hard to accomplish… Nonetheless, the housing interventions did substantially increase area property values, which benefited long-term residents but at the same time placed a greater burden on hopeful prospective residents. On the plus side, we did not cause any involuntary displacement or original residents, which is a key feature of gentrification, according to Kennedy and Leonard.”

That’s because there was enough vacant housing stock, and places to expand. Beyond that, Penn tweaked its program—for example offering low-cost loans in the neighborhood immediately around the university, then later shifting the incentives away from a stabilized zone to a much less revitalized area.

It´s tougher to meet such goals in New York; that ratchets up the controversies.