Monday, December 31, 2007

The NYT on AY, 2007: fit to blog, fit to print?

Some important news about Atlantic Yards this year has appeared only in the online version of the New York Times, not the print edition of the Paper of Record, and some has been ignored completely, some has been distorted, and some has been delayed. (And, yes, some important news appeared in the Times first.)

The other daily newspapers have been quite variable, too, in their coverage of AY; the dailies can't even keep up with the daily flow of news, much less advance the story with enterprise reporting and investigations.

While the advance of the Times's City Room blog holds some promise for more comprehensive local coverage, the dailies can't keep up with AY; readers have to keep consulting blogs, the Brooklyn media, and the New York Observer.

The belated security scoop

Remember, the Times's article regarding the news--both a scoop and an unacknowledged correction--that the Atlantic Yards arena would be only 20 feet from the street, rather than 75 feet, as previously reported? That appeared online 11/21/07, headlined Putting the Atlantic Yards Arena in a Secure Place.

It was not initially followed up in print, but Deputy Metro Editor Patrick LaForge commented online two days later: "While we did not publish this blog article in the newspaper, I’m sure this line of reporting will find its way into the print edition. As you know, we sometimes choose to publish news details online first. We do not always follow up immediately in print, for a variety of reasons — the need for more reporting, the availability of space, staff holiday schedules etc."

Indeed, the article did appear a day after his comment, though buried on page B2.

Online or print?

LaForge in his commented added, "A side note: We have many readers here who never see the print metro section, so we may be approaching a time when people say: 'This is important news. Why wasn’t it on the Web as soon as you confirmed it?'"

He has a point, so there's an argument for both--and, if the space in print is limited, some way to acknowledge the issue. These are judgment calls, and the problem is that the Times has too often made judgments that downplay the news about AY.

What about Dolly?

The Times missed the boat when it covered online only the departure of disgraced City Planning Commissioner Dolly Williams, who voted on a rezoning while it benefited her investment in Atlantic Yards, while fellow dailies the Daily News, the Sun, and the Post all found space for print.

Couldn't the Times have just published a one-paragraph short?

About that Ombudsman

Then the Times published only online the story of the belated appointment of an Atlantic Yards ombudsman, which was big news in the Brooklyn press and online, but which only made it to print in the Daily News.

Again, it deserved at least a news brief.

Why print makes a difference

In his 12/9/07 column, headlined If It’s Fit to Blog, Is It Fit to Print?, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt took on the general issue, writing about a controversy that played out online but not in print concerning a new book by Scott McClellan, President Bush’s former press secretary.

Hoyt's conclusion:
[Reporter Douglas] Jehl and other editors in Washington and New York decided not to write an article for the next morning’s newspaper because the excerpt was “inconclusive” and lacked context, and McClellan was not talking. “Space being at a premium, we don’t want to squander it on stuff that doesn’t merit it,” he said. It was a decision that highlights the difference between a Web site and a traditional newspaper, even if they are under the same roof. The Web has unlimited space and leaves little time for reflection; the newspaper has limited space and the time to make decisions more thoughtfully.

All the same, I think The Times should have run at least a brief item in the printed newspaper to acknowledge the Internet buzz and to put it in perspective, as Nizza’s blog post did. Editors may be tempted to think that if the newspaper’s Web site has a story, the newspaper has covered it, but more than 80 percent of readers of the printed Times do not go to its Web site.

Indeed, there's no argument that the Williams story and the ombudsperson story were ephemeral, "inconclusive" stories. Rather, someone at the Times made a judgment that, despite their conclusiveness, those stories didn't make the cut.

Given the low threshold for news briefs in the Times, that's a very dubious judgment. And, whether or not each decision is an ad hoc one, such decisionmaking contributes to the impression that the Times, as a whole, is not scrutinizing Atlantic Yards closely enough.

As I've argued before, the parent New York Times Company's business relationship with Forest City Ratner--partners in the new Times Tower--obligates the newspaper to be exacting in its coverage.

Missing stories completely

And then there were stories that never made it into the Times at all. The Times (and others) completely ignored the story of the Ward Bakery violations after the Daily News had the scoop.

And all the dailies ignored the epic argument last May regarding the Atlantic Yards environmental lawsuit. They also ignored the New York Observer's scoop that Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff had second thoughts about the city's avoidance of ULURP regarding Atlantic Yards.

Stories delayed, stories distorted

It took months for the Times to report on the additional $105 million in the city's budget for Atlantic Yards.

The Times distorted a report on a magistrate judge's recommendation that the federal eminent domain suit be dismissed.

The Times for months kept printing that the Atlantic Yards arena would open in 2009, despite evidence to the contrary. (Finally, they were handed the admission.)

The Brennan documents scoop

The Times did have a scoop regarding documents unearthed in a lawsuit filed by Assemblyman Jim Brennan and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery. I found the report murky, but the documents did (and still could) provide fodder for more analysis, such as the projected rental rate of apartments.

This was the only example of enterprise reporting--driven by journalistic curiosity rather than a reaction to events or press releases--regarding AY that appeared in the Times. And it's fairly clear that the story was generated by Brennan's calculation that the best way to release the documents was via the Times.

Otherwise, the Times (and the dailies, in general) are having enough trouble just keeping up with the news.

The Barclays controversy

And the Times, to its credit, went to a respected historian for some helpful context about the controversy

The advance of City Room

The Times's City Room news blog began updated daily coverage in June; had it been launched earlier, arguably some of the earlier stories that were missed or downplayed would have at least made it into the blog.

Moreover, City Room, unlike the print Times, allows for comments, so at least Times reporters and editors can take in feedback about the coverage. And City Room does mention coverage in rival dailies.

So it's more likely, I think, for some Atlantic Yards news to be published under the imprimatur of the Times, at least online. Whether that news makes print is another question.

The tale of an ESDC non-correction

This may seem to be a minor story, but it does suggest a double standard, in which the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) seems more concerned about having an error I made corrected than correcting another error it made itself.

On November 5, shortly after I posted a document I attributed to the ESDC that indicated that the reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge would take two years rather than nine months, I got a flurry of phone calls and e-mails from ESDC spokesmen indicating that I should correct my article, given that it was not an official ESDC document.

I did so, though the information--a summary apparently prepared by a Community Board after an ESDC meeting--was not inaccurate.

What was inaccurate was my interpretation that the duration of the bridge's reconstruction had just been announced. However, my error was based on an error in an ESDC document, which has not been corrected.

Therein lies the tale.

From nine months to two years

I had based my belief that the bridge would take nine months on a Proposed Construction Schedule attached to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). (Click to enlarge; the Carlton Avenue bridge information is near the bottom of this graphical excerpt.)

Though I had read many chapters of the FEIS to track any changes from the Draft EIS, I had not read the revised Chapter 17, which contains text regarding the schedule.

In fact, as an ESDC spokesman reminded me later that day in another flurry of messages, the revised chapter indicated that the time to reconstruct the bridge would be two years rather than nine months.

A correction was in order, I was told.

I agreed, but I was a bit ticked off--after all, I wouldn't have made my error had I not been misled by the ESDC's failure to update the construction schedule attached to Chapter 17.

By email on the evening of November 5, I asked the ESDC whether it would "update, mark erroneous, or take down the Construction Schedule in the Atlantic Yards FEIS."

No response.

Three days later, on November 8, I sent another set of questions, regarding arena setbacks and the duration of bridge reconstruction, and reminded them of my pending question. I got answers to three questions at the end of the next day, but my question about the correction was ignored.

I've never gotten an answer, and no correction has appeared.

And why--the lawsuit?

I can only speculate about the reasons. For one thing, the errors occurred under a previous administration. Also, it might set a cumbersome precedent--such lengthy EIS's inevitably contain some errors, so identification and correction of errors might require much new work.

But the main reason, I suspect, is that the pending lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the FEIS contends (see p. 54), among other things, that the ESDC underestimated the impacts of the project by assuming an unrealistic ten-year construction schedule. (Indeed, even Chuck Ratner of parent Forest City Enterprises has indicated 15 years.)

Indeed, a glance at the construction schedule confirms that the project could not be built at the timetable announced, given that certain elements are at least a year late. Moreover, at the time the ESDC board voted, the schedule was already out of date.

A correction might further confirm that the board members who approved the project were approving a flawed document, and might render the ESDC legally vulnerable.

Bottom line

The bottom line, however, is that the FEIS should be less a cover-your-bases legal document, as such environmental reviews have become, than a document that informs the public.

Right now, the document misleads the public. The ESDC surely knows that inaccurate information should be corrected; hence the (not illegitimate) pressure on me to make corrections.

The agency should hold itself to the same standards of accuracy. Is that a job for the recently-arrived ombusdman?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Private investment, public costs: Fenway Park, Atlantic Yards, and more

So how much would the public contribute to the Atlantic Yards arena? At a panel held at the Museum of the City of New York on 9/27/07, titled Take Me Out to the Brand-New Ballpark (here's a report from e-Oculus), well-respected sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, who nonetheless produced a rather skewed Atlantic Yards study for Forest City Ratner, lowballed the figure.

Looking at Fenway

Janet Marie Smith, senior VP of planning and development for the Boston Red Sox and architect behind the redesign of Fenway Park, was the most notable speaker on the panel, sketching out the history of ballparks in the country. Fenway Park, dating from 1912, has managed to not just survive but thrive, even as most other facilities from that generation were demolished and supplanted by suburban or semi-suburuban stadiums. And parks like Fenway (and long-gone Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers) since inspired a new wave of retro urban facilities.

The earlier generation, Smith noted, "fit into neighborhood quite literally, were very civic buildings." New York City power broker Robert Moses, she noted, rejected the plans proposed by Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley for eminent domain and other government support, declaring that this was "in no way a public purpose."

By the 1950s, however, she said, America as a whole began to think of sports facilities as public purpose--the idea of a "civic project" is contested in the Atlantic Yards environmental lawsuit--and multipurpose stadiums, serving baseball and football, obliterated urban areas or were established in suburbia.

The Camden Yards lesson

In the 1990s, however, Smith worked on the spectacularly successful Oriole Park at Camden Yards, in a corner of Downtown Baltimore, which opened in 1992. That begat the urban ballpark as an urban development tool: Coors Field in the LoDo neighborhood of Denver, which opened in 1995; PacBell Park (now AT&T Park), opened in 2000 on the waterfront in San Francisco; PETCO Park in San Diego, adjacent to Gaslight District, opened in 2004; PNC Park, opened in 2001 in Pittsburgh.

The eventual purchasers of the Red Sox in 2002, she said, were only would-be buyers who wanted to keep the ballpark, citing both sentimental and economic reasons. Just as Eutaw Street bordering Oriole Park is opened on game days, so the Red Sox have put up turnstiles on Yawkey Way, so the ticket gets attendees into the street. (That's different for arenas, of course, and impossible in such a congested areas as the Atlantic Yards footprint.) The owners also added "Green Monster seats" behind the famous left-field wall.

(Photo from

Zimbalist comments

Zimbalist noted that the current Red Sox owners put in about $150 million of their own money and "haven't gone to the city or state for a penny... that can stand to be a lesson around the country."

(The New York Sun, in a 10/31/07 editorial headlined Fenway's Example, cited the Red Sox's success in paying for their own improvements:
The owner of the Knicks, Madison Square Garden, enjoy a property tax exemption for its arena, while Atlantic Yards and its developer, who will bring the Nets to play basketball in Brooklyn, will receive at least $300 million in city and state subsidies.

Turning to the New York example, Zimbalist suggested to the crowd that they consider three images, in absence of photos. One, he said, was Nets owner Bruce Ratner "negotiating" with Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. (Of course Markowitz had nothing to offer except his bully pulpit and the repeated promises that the project would work and be great. Did he negotiate any concessions or crunch any numbers?)

"Gentrification" of ballparks

Zimbalist explained that, in the 1960s-70s, cookie-cutter stadiums were built in the suburbs and surrounded by parking lots. With Camden Yards and successor stadiums, "baseball teams began to access corporate dollars in a new way"--seats, signage, sponsorship. In a term, "ballparks were gentrified... it became a model everyone wanted to follow."

Hence the desire for new arenas, too, with lucrative naming rights, as with the Barclays Capital deal for the Atlantic Yards arena.

No benefit?

Zimbalist repeated some old but important news: academic economists have universally found that sports facilities bring "no discernible positive economic influence." While "certainly, baseball and other sports have a massive cultural presence," he said, most spending is "substitution spending," replacing monies that would go to other forms of entertainment.

Moreover, 60 percent of the revenue goes to the players. "With very few exceptions, players don't make permanent homes in cities they play in," he noted.

New York an anomaly?

In the last 15 years, about two-thirds of the spending on ballpark and arena construction nationally has been public dollars, Zimbalist said, suggesting that New Yorkers were getting a relative bargain.

The Yankees, he said, were putting up 80% of the cost of the new Yankee Stadium, with the city putting up only 20%.

Well, not quite. Neil deMause, a journalistic expert on sports facilities and a periodic sparring partner of Zimbalist, in August calculated on his Field of Schemes blog that the $799 million public contribution is nearly double what the team itself would put up.

And AY?

Zimbalist said that the percentage of contribution is "lower still for Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn."

Well, that's if you count, as Zimbalist did in his 2005 report (p. 37) for Forest City Ratner, that "The anticipated public investment of $200 million represents under six percent of the total investment in the project."

First, the direct cash investment is now up to $305 million, with much assigned to the $637.2 million arena rather than the project as a whole--a figure that challenges Zimbalist's assertion of a low percentage regarding the sports facility.

Beyond that, as the Independent Budget Office found in its September 2005 Fiscal Brief, there are a plethora of other benefits to the developer beyond direct cash investment, including increase in development rights, the use of eminent domain, and access to scarce tax-exempt bonds, not to mention significantly increased public costs.

In other words, that "six percent" is not a credible figure.

Ineffable value

Zimbalist did suggest another value to professional sports: "Ballparks and teams do a lot to mobilize and energize a local community... a ball team enables us to express community... maybe it's somewhat perfunctory, but it's one of the only expressions of community we have left."

"Ballparks," he said, "can be magnets to draw in other investments," citing the example of PetCo Park. "It will be very exciting to see what happens in the Bronx and in Queens and in Brooklyn."

Brooklyn vs. the boroughs

The situation in Brooklyn is a bit different, given that neither Yankee Stadium or the Mets' CitiField would be located in or adjacent to hot residential neighborhoods. Absent the arena plan, the "great piece of real estate," in the words of Forest City Enterprises' Chuck Ratner, would be a magnet for much investment; rather, the arena helped Forest City Ratner get the inside track on the site.

Baseball vs. football

Moderator Frank Deford, a noted sportswriter, asked if baseball park was a better deal than a football stadium, because more games are held. Zimbalist was skeptical "Look at Yankee Stadium; where do you see development in that neighborhood?"

However, there's a stronger argument for arenas, given that they host several events a week.

A standalone sports facility "is not likely by itself [to be an engine of development]," Zimbalist said. "Other things have to be done. There has to be concerted city planning around it."

Well, there would be "other things" around the Atlantic Yards arena, but whether they represent "concerted city planning" is doubtful.

Luxury suites?

Pointing to the rise of luxury suites, Deford observed that "everything is done to accommodate a high-class audience that pays big tickets."

Zimbalist allowed that "there's always been a risk of over-gentrification... what happens when cheapest seat is no longer five or ten or 15 dollars, the cheapest seat is 25 dollars?" After all, he said, it's different to watch a game in person rather than on television.

"Charge what you want to rich corporate America, but always remember your base in our culture has to do with the mass of Americans," he said.

In that case, the Nets seems to have pursued a smart strategy. While the "blended average ticket price" would rocket up, thanks to suites, but there would be at least 2000 “screecher seats,” costing $15.

Who loses? It seems--though we can't be sure--that there might be fewer and more expensive mid-priced seats.

Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox manage while keeping their cheapest seat at $25.

"If you can make $15 or $20 or $30 million selling luxury boxes, and another 15, 20, or 30 selling club seats, that's fine," said Zimbalist, who said he was concerned about luxury boxes at university stadiums that are 85% tax-deductible.

Could Ebbets have been saved?

Given what we now know about the persistence of Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park, could Ebbets Field in Brooklyn have been saved as a viable ballpark?

Panelist John Pastier, architecture critic and author of Historic Ballparks (right), said yes, noting that the Dodgers were the only team that moved that had average attendance above the league average, and had been the league's most profitable team.

Then again, the neighborhood was going downhill, and O'Malley thought he could get a better deal with a new stadium located in either the edge of Downtown Brooklyn or, ultimately, Los Angeles.

As Bruce Ratner once said in another context, "Like so many things in life, it was just a matter of money."

Saturday, December 29, 2007

"Sane extension" of Downtown Brooklyn? AY in some more context

Development (and its potential/discontents) is the story of Brooklyn, so yesterday Bob Guskind of the Gowanus Lounge did us a service by ranking the top 15 stories of the year.

While Atlantic Yards comes in second--a tad generous, I think--more important is the context. AY surely seems less anomalous as other high-rise development comes to the borough, yet at the same time might merit disproportionate concern, given how the city has since learned, as exemplified in the controversy over Coney Island, both to challenge a developer and to promise a more consultative public process.

By Guskind's count, Coney Island ranks first, the halting progress of Atlantic Yards comes in second, and the rebranding of Williamsburg comes in third, followed by, among others, the "Brooklyn Construction Crisis," the return of landmarking, the New Domino project in Williamsburg, "the Flatbush Corridor Boom," "the Carroll Gardens Development Revolt," the "Hotel Boom," and "the rise of Fourth Avenue. (To quibble, I'd combine both Williamsburg stories and rank them second, ahead of AY, though I do see Guskind's logic.)

He writes:
There was certainly less drama in 2007--there were no Greenpoint Terminal Market infernos or caustic and divisive public meetings about Atlantic Yards--but the change that continued to wash over our borough has been no less dramatic and will alter the very fabric of Brooklyn for many decades to life.

In the Eagle

The context argument is taken further in an essay headlined Getting Going (With One Loss) by Henrik Krogius of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He makes some reasonable points, but they often deserve another dash of skepticism.

He writes of AY:
its opponents are still trying to picture the site as not a logical extension of downtown but as part of a low-rise Prospect Heights residential neighborhood. In view of the towers rising to the north on Flatbush Avenue and to the west in the older downtown, including new hotels, that position becomes less and less tenable, and this may be a good time to revisit the observations made here half a year ago about what the site and its environs are really like.

Yes, and no. Certainly the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush would extend downtown and, indeed, that segment was originally included in the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning. Still, the project would represent a significant change in scale, juxtaposed next to and across the street from low- and mid-rise buildings. Parts of the site would be immediately adjacent to the proposed Prospect Heights Historic District (right).

Appropriate criticism?

Krogius suggests that not enough thoughtful criticism of the project design "has been directed at Atlantic Yards, whose critics for the most part simply would like to wish the project away."

Yes, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn and its allies oppose the project, but BrooklynSpeaks and its allies have offered significant and constructive criticism, especially of the open space plan.

Knitting impossible?

Krogius takes aim at critics who support the UNITY plan and complain that Atlantic Yards would not knit together communities. He writes:
I took another stroll around the site, and once again I was struck by the sense that this largely empty space, set off by two wide avenues and bounded on the north by shopping malls and high-rises, and otherwise containing a snaggle-tooth assortment of buildings, truly calls out for an extraordinary development. There’s no potential knitting together of brownstone communities here; Boerum Hill is quite separated from it by Flatbush Avenue and commercial buildings, while Fort Greene is almost entirely on the far side of the malls, the Williamsburgh Bank tower and the BAM culture district;
Park Slope is not on its doorstep, and Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens are nowhere near. Only Prospect Heights has proximity, and along the south side of Dean Street where it faces the planned development, an asphalt playground and a parking lot lie between buildings that are for the most part not residential in nature.

He has a point, but the cues from the north are multiple, high-rise, low-rise, and mid-rise, as I wrote last year about the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area. (The photo is taken from the Sixth Avenue bridge, over the railyards, approaching Atlantic Avenue and looking northeast.)

And Site 5, the parcel to the far west of the footprint, does border a low-rise Pacific Street in Park Slope to the south; the project would introduce a convoluted "Fourth-to-Flatbush two-step," as the Brooklyn Paper dubbed it, steering traffic down Pacific.

Beyond that, the UNITY plan would add streets, rather than subtract them, which, if it would not knit together Prospect Heights and Fort Greene, could increase pedestrian flow.

The hub and the arena

Given the proximity to the Long Island Rail Road and multiple subway lines, plus the BAM cultural district, Krogius says there's a strong case for the logic of the arena as the project’s anchor. It is not as if it were being plunked down in the middle of a quiet residential enclave.

Yes, there's a strong argument to put arenas near transit hubs, but at the same time, to build this arena, the state would override city zoning that prohibits an arena from being built 200 feet from residences.

And there is a quiet residential enclave on the south side of Dean Street at Sixth Avenue, at left in the picture, just across from the planned VIP entrance to the arena. The north side, including Freddy's Bar & Backroom, would be demolished. (Photo by Tracy Collins.)

Selectively sparing Dean Street

Krogius notes that the AY plan "already allows for the retention of the former Daily News plant," which I think is a somewhat generous interpretation of a decision that was likely driven by economics rather than esthetics, as Matthew Schuerman suggested in the Village Voice.

Krogius notes that five low-rise buildings would be demolished on the north side of Dean Street and suggests, It would be an interesting challenge to [architect Frank] Gehry to leave him more buildings to riff on.

Well, it certainly might be that, but it wouldn't fit with Forest City Ratner's plan to use that 100-foot-wide plot for construction staging and temporary parking, and then to build a 272-foot tower (above, at left in rendering).

Streets and open space

Krogius allows that it's unclear how well AY would be "open to and welcoming of pedestrian circulation," which echoes concerns expressed by BrooklynSpeaks. However, he's not concerned that two blocks of Pacific Street would be eliminated, because it's not much of a through street. Perhaps, but it would be used to create open space in the "backyard" of an extremely dense project.

He thinks street-level details will make the difference, while scale is not an issue, as "the site can accommodate the density." I suspect that the developer could certainly ensure the presence of local retail and other facilities to provide some sense of street-level activity.

Whether the site can accommodate the density is another question, because the issue is not just the size of the buildings but the dramatic population increase. (Had the original plan for 2 million square feet of office space been maintained, the population would be smaller and a greater diversity of people would be entering and leaving the project at different times.)

Gentrification and beyond

Krogius points out that any new construction would raise questions about gentrification, and that AY would contain 2250 subsidized rentals, "a good percentage by today’s standards."

Yes, but the affordable housing was essentially a privately-negotiated zoning bonus, and that brings us back to the fundamental issue of process, the criticisms of which have led even Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff to reconsider the city's avoidance of ULURP.

AY a "sane extension"?

Krogius concludes: Atlantic Yards is no longer the colossus it may at first have seemed to be. It is, rather, an entirely sane extension of Brooklyn’s growing downtown.

Yes, it is no longer as much of a colussus as at first, but that doesn't necessarily make it sane.

The Glory Days and the "public purpose" of a new stadium

Looking for something to do over the weekend? The Glory Days: New York Baseball 1947-1957, a bang-up exhibit about the rivalry and cultural presence of the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Giants, is running just through December 31 at the Museum of the City of New York.

As we know, the latter two teams left for the West Coast and, if you believe Brooklynites of a certain vintage, the borough has never quite recovered--and won't, until we get the Nets and Atlantic Yards.

(At right, the companion volume. More on baseball stadiums tomorrow.)

At the museum

The museum display explains that Ebbets was built in 1913 "in a suburban and somewhat seedy location." That of course changed as the neighborhood developed, but owner Walter O'Malley wanted a new stadium in/near Downtown Brooklyn. The city's power broker, Robert Moses, as well as many in the political establishment, weren't buying it.

A 10/20/53 letter (right) from Moses to O'Malley shows the former in full form:
It is obviously your thought that we can some how go out and condemn property for a new Dodger field just where you want it, writing down the cost and in some way helping to finance the stadium. This is absolutely out of the question as any good lawyer can tell you...

... the establishment of a new Dodgers stadium is not of itself and by itself, a public purpose.

That changed in the decades to come, as many municipalities did decide to support sports facilities. Whether the Atlantic Yards arena qualifies as a "civic project" remains in question, as it's challenged in the pending environmental lawsuit.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Balancing community input regarding the West Side yards

They're discussing traffic and infrastructure and sustainability and open space before any developer is chosen for the West Side yards.

This goes well beyond the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement or housing advocate Bertha Lewis of ACORN candidly saying, "I can't do environment. I can’t do traffic."

And it's not a developer-funded poll, as with the New Domino development, that sets out a false choice between tall buildings with affordable housing and smaller buildings without it, without presenting the details of the project under discussion.

From the 12/14/07 Rail Yards blog:
As promised, here’s a quick discussion of the break-out sessions moderated (in some cases) by members of Friends of the High Line at the community forum presented by Community Board 4 on Monday. The graph above represents some of the main concerns expressed by the various groups (there were 13 groups in all, so you can get a feel for what concerns people most). Some surprises: That the parking and traffic issues generated by a project of this scale fall so low on the list of priorities for its neighbors, and that job creation (surely not something that is the responsibility of real estate developers?) gets almost as much attention as does that of affordable housing. One thing that’s not shocking in the least is the fact that the pure size of the project gets so much attention and concern, although one might argue that at this point there’s no stopping the behemoth on that score. You can view the Working Group Conclusion Summaries for more detailed information about the conclusions the break-out groups reached. Please do tell us where your priorities lie in the comments.

This doesn't mean community input will have a definitive impact. But it shows the difference between a competition, as with the West Side yards, and a project, as with AY and the New Domino, presented in an effort to gain state approval or a zoning change.

Marty says he doesn't know why Doctoroff had second thoughts re AY

The Brooklyn Paper's edited year-end interview with Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz includes most of what he says about Atlantic Yards, but a link to the full audio segment provides a tantalizing coda. In it, Markowitz tells editor-in-chief Gersh Kuntzman that he doesn't know why Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff acknowledged Atlantic Yards should have gone through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) rather than the state review.

The answer, most likely, is that Doctoroff is having second thoughts about the procedure behind Atlantic Yards and Markowitz, at least publicly, won't allow such thoughts. Also, Doctoroff can afford to have some second thoughts; his departure comes as he has accomplished many of his goals, while Markowitz's highest-profile project, Atlantic Yards, remains slowed.

Under ULURP, the local community boards hold advisory votes, and the City Council must approve a project. Projects involving state property, such as the West Side yards, can go through ULURP, despite Markowitz's suggestion to the contrary.

The transcript

This is an edited and augmented version of the Brooklyn Paper's text. The Atlantic Yards reference came up after a discussion about Coney Island.

MM: But at least we can put in place the road map....But just like Atlantic Yards, there is contention to some degree in Coney Island as well… Thank God we have a democratic society... The bottom line is we'll come out with a Coney Island that's far better than we've experienced in many, many years.

GK: The good news is, if there is any dissent, that project will go through ULURP, city oversight.

MM: That’s because [Coney Island] is city property. The Atlantic Yards--of course, I read the statement... by Dan Doctoroff. All I can say is the state decided that this was their project. Dan Doctoroff went along with that. The mayor endorsed it wholeheartedly. And he [Doctoroff] has the right to reflect.... Here it is at the end of 2007, and of course there are no shovels in the ground yet. It’s frustrating. For those that oppose it, they're of course thrilled and delighted. But for those like me who feel that this represents the best of the future of Brooklyn and New York City, it’s frustrating, but the process has to go through what the process is until decisions are made on it.

(Land owned by developer Joe Sitt in Coney Island is not yet city property; the city has proposed swapping city property for Sitt's holdings.)

GK: Why do you think he said what he said, though? There was no reason he had to say that.

MM: I don't know.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Clear enough? Misreading the Extell interview regarding Atlantic Yards

Errol Louis, columnist for the New York Daily News and the black-oriented Our Time Press, supports Atlantic Yards, which led him to a very selective reading of a recent interview with the head of the Extell Development Company, the only company besides Forest City Ratner to respond to the belated RFP issued by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for its Vanderbilt Yard.

As part of his "Commerce and Community" column (not online, but click below right to enlarge) in the 12/16/07 issue of Our Time Press, Louis included a segment headlined "The Non-Alternative to Atlantic Yards." He began:
Opponents of the Atlantic Yards project, when asked what alternative use they'd like to see at the site, often trot out the plan proposed by Extell Development, which put in a bid that was rejected by the MTA, which owns the rail yards that dominate the project site.

Louis is a tad late on this, given that opponents first proposed the mid-rise UNITY plan in 2004, then endorsed the high-rise Extell bid in 2005, and this September backed a modified UNITY plan with a high-rise configuration quite different from that proferred by Extell.

Rather, Extell is cited as having made a bid whose cash value ($150 million) was higher than that offered by Forest City Ratner ($50 million, then $100 million, for a site appraised at $214.5 million). FCR contends the overall value of its bid was much more, including a new railyard, though, according to project opponents, Extell was never given the information to put together a comparable package.

However, Louis wanted to make a point:
Extell mostly gets cited when observers, including me, point out that much of the opposition to Atlantic Yards is coming from people who want no large-scale development to take place anywhere in New York.

Given the UNITY plan, that's obviously a caricature.

The Extell "problem"

Louis continued:
The problem with bringing up Extell is that the company has no interest in developing the site and no intention of trying to resurrect its failed bid.

Gary Barnett, the president of Extell, recently gave an interview to the New York Observer that explodes the myth being peddled by some opponents.

The problem with bringing up Extell is that it is not being "peddled" very much.

Barnett diplomatic

Louis continued:
When asked for his thoughts about the way the Extell plan still gets held up as a possibility at community gatherings, Barnett answered: "I think we had a very nice plan and use for that space as well then, but we know when we're beat."

And when asked if he had any problem with the way the state handled the bidding process, Barnett gave a one-word answer: "No."

It's a little more complicated. Let's go to the entire segment of the interview.

The New York Observer interview

NYO: With regard to Atlantic yards in Brooklyn—you put in the only rival bid to Forest City Ratner’s $4 billion proposal. Why did you enter the bid?

GB: The MTA put out an RFP [Request for Proposals] in the same way they did on the Hudson Yards, we responded the same way.

Well, not quite. There was no bid for the 22-acre Atlantic Yards site, but rather the 8.5-acre Vanderbilt Yard. And, unlike with Atlantic Yards, where the city and state anointed a developer 18 months before the RFP was issued, the five rivals for the West Side yards in Manhattan all began at the same starting point.

NYO: But a lot of people viewed that as a foregone conclusion before the RFP was even issued. Did you not agree with that?

GB: I hope we don’t have a foregone conclusion on the Hudson Yards. That would make at least four bidders very sad.

Note that he didn't deny that Atlantic Yards was a foregone conclusion; he just avoided the question.

NYO: The city and the state haven’t partnered with a developer publicly beforehand. What type of chance did you think you had on Atlantic Yards? Did you think that was something of a long shot? You said so, if I remember, in your cover letter [for the bid].

GB: We are shocked—shocked—that we bid $150 million, [Forest City Chairman Bruce] Ratner bid $50 million, yet he somehow managed to get it.

Louis conveniently ignored the "shocked" statement, which, whether it was sarcastic or not, surely didn't indicate resignation.

NYO: In almost any community meeting for Atlantic Yards, Extell’s name comes up—still.

GB: I think we had a very nice plan and use for that space as well then, but we know when we’re beat.

Extell's name comes up more as a criticism of the process than as a hoped-for alternative.

NYO: What did you think of the outcome?

GB: I’m not going to comment on that.

Here Barnett has become diplomatic, if not critical.

NYO: It raised the company’s profile some by doing the bid, by getting on the side of opponents. Was that a factor in doing the bid?

GB: Absolutely not.

That makes sense. Barnett's company has antagonized community groups elsewhere, such as on the Upper West Side. The bid in Brooklyn more likely was a combination of a potential business opportunity and a rivalry with Forest City Ratner, with whom he'd clashed over redevelopment over the parcel for the New York Times Tower.

NYO: Do you have any criticisms with the way the state handled the Atlantic yards project?

GB: No.

Without listening to the actual interview, that's a bit hard to judge, but, given Barnett's previous statements, that sounds more like a diplomatic statement than a thorough assessment. What's in it for him to antagonize government agencies? Nothing.

Evidence, what evidence?

Still, ignoring the evidence, Louis concluded:
That seems clear enough. But if history is any guide, that won't stop the anti-project crowd from claiming they're actually pro-development, and that they support the defunct Extell proposal as a viable alternative to Atlantic Yards.

Actually, it doesn't seem clear enough.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Groups receiving FCR aid say more positive stories should be written about FCR's project

An article appearing in last week's issue of the Courier-Life chain read a bit like something out of The Onion, if you read between the lines.

The article, headlined Yards proponents: Leave Bruce alone, began by casting Forest City Ratner and its partners as the underdog:
Local supporters of the Atlantic Yards project charged last week that the community is being choked out of any positive coverage occurring between developer Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC) and the local community.

Well, "the community" isn't being choked, because it's hard to define what exactly "the community" is. Yes, most of the coverage lately has been critical, but that could be attributed to the understanding that, while many arguments have been made in favor of jobs and housing, elected officials have become more concerned about arena security and even Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff acknowledges that the process was inadequate.

Paging the CBA

The article says supporters point out that the developer "has thus far lived up to their end of the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) signed with seven organizations."

The article quotes Charlene Nimmons, "who signed the CBA on behalf of the New York City Housing Authority Tenants Association." Actually, there's no such citywide group; rather, there are local tenant associations.

Nimmons represents a created-for-the-CBA group, Public Housing Communities, involving certain housing authority tenant associations in Brooklyn. (This appears to be their web site, but there's no content, so it's not very helpful.)

Nimmons cited a "FCRC-sponsored Economic Resource Fair" that her organization hosted, helping more than 40 people register for job training, job opportunities, and high school degrees.

While such an effort certainly is positive, it doesn't exactly justify the Atlantic Yards project. After all, the cost is a negligible part of FCR's expenses and such resources can also be provided by other organizations.

And let's not forget that all of the CBA signatories supported the project, unlike the CBA model pioneered in Los Angeles. And that CBA events have tended to be invitation-only rather than open to the public.

Praise from Rev. Daughtry

The article concludes:
Another CBA signatory, Rev. Herbert Daughtry from the House of Our Lord Church, 413 Atlantic Avenue, said FCRC has thus far lived up to all the terms of the CBA regarding health initiatives.

Daughtry, whose organization is spearheading the drive to put a health/intergenerational facility within the project as per the CBA, said FCRC has sponsored meetings with local doctors and health care workers to address health issues in the community.

FCRC has also agreed to allow 10 community-related events a year at the new arena once it's built, with all proceeds going to enhancing community programming, said Daughtry, adding FCRC has also agreed to form a community foundation with the money allocated to the community.

"We made it very clear that whatever amount of money is raised, a percentage will go to people in the community having the severest crises and a [sic] another percentage to people doing prison work," said Daughtry.

"We have had no problems with them (FCRC) at this point and don't anticipate we will have any," said Daughtry.

What meetings? What issues? How much might be raised? And how much money is Daughtry, along with other CBA signatories, being paid? He wouldn't say. And Forest City Ratner has been vague or refused to answer.

The Mobil station on Flatbush and Dean has closed

The "blighted" Mobil gas station (right photo from last summer) at the northwest corner of Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street has closed, and the building, presumably, will be dismantled. I've been told that franchise owner John Tsao was to reopen on Myrtle Avenue.

Below: photos taken yesterday.The buildings to the left of and behind the station retain plaintiffs in pending lawsuits.Note the missing Mobil sign.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Streetsblog: drivers at Fourth, Flatbush, and Atlantic resigned to Merry Gridlock

During the rush hour last Thursday morning, Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek and StreetFilms' Nick Whitaker stationed themselves at the intersection of Atlantic, Flatbush, and Fourth avenues to check out a "Gridlock Alert Day" at one of the city's most congested intersections (video).

As Streetsblog states: After about 25 interviews with drivers it became pretty clear that if City Hall truly wants to reduce traffic congestion during the holiday season, it needs to do a whole lot more than just say, "Hey, everybody it's a Gridlock Alert!"

Streetsblog suggests taking a cue from London, which has implemented congestion pricing and even closes major shopping streets (though not necessarily an artery like Fourth Avenue) for holiday shopping.

However, as Naparstek declares near the end of the short film, "Pretty much everyone we're talking to says that the traffic congestion today is, as you expect, atrocious. Congestion pricing doesn't really seem to be on the radar out there at all. There seems to be this sense of resignation that this traffic congestion is sort of the natural order of things, and nothing can be done about it."

AY effect?

And he doesn't even mention the elephant at the edge of the intersection, the planned Atlantic Yards project, which would certainly exacerbate gridlock. The only hint: one frame capture some anti-Atlantic Yards art painted by Patti and Schellie Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Council.

Forest City Ratner: King of the PILOTs

It's a Christmas story, sort of. Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, writing last Thursday in a column headlined Deals that lead to lost property taxes, highlighted the city's annual loss of $107 million "in property taxes last year because of privately negotiated deals with some of the world's richest companies." The abatements average "a whopping 60% per company." (Graphic from Daily News)

Well, the deals may have seemed reasonable at the time, but... there's little oversight of PILOT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes), incentive deals to keep jobs in town. Only after a 2005 audit from city Comptroller William Thompson did the City Council require the mayor's office to report to the Council speaker regarding PILOT revenues and expenditures.

Focus on FCR

The report Gonzalez obtained presented Brooklyn's biggest developer as the city's savviest dealmaker. He wrote:
The undisputed king of PILOTs is real estate developer Bruce Ratner. His Forest City/Ratner firm paid the city $9.7 million last year for half a dozen commercial buildings the company owns in downtown Brooklyn. That sounds like a lot of money - until you realize it's only one-third of the company's actual $26.3 million property tax bill.

...Forest City spokesman Loren Riegelhaupt defended the company's success at landing PILOT subsidies.

"A lot of those buildings in MetroTech were constructed when downtown Brooklyn was not what it was today," Riegelhaupt said. "Many businesses were fleeing to New Jersey in the 1990s, and we were willing to invest in that area when others wouldn't."

Others have defended those deals too, though city officials in this and other cases did not anticipate the swiftness of the borough's revival, which makes such deals look questionable in retrospect.

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn commented:
Yes, Ratner's folks should be proud of how great they are at feeding at the public trough. Forest City Ratner's defense of their use of PILOTs for Metrotech is that in the 1990s "downtown Brooklyn was not what it was today." Then what, exactly, is their defense for receiving PILOTS for their Atlantic Yards project near that Downtown Brooklyn which is what it is today -- a booming real estate market where many are willing to invest.

Arena PILOTs

Gonzalez's column also included this tantalizing line:
That doesn't even count PILOTs that have yet to kick in for Forest City's Atlantic Yards mega-project.

The numbers rgarding AY remain murky, but the September 2005 Atlantic Yards Fiscal Brief issued by the Independent Budget Office provides some clue. Low-cost financing for construction of the arena and its parking garage will come from tax-exempt private activity bonds issued by a not-for-profit local development corporation (LDC). But they wouldn't be repaid the way most bonds are repaid, the IBO said:
Instead they will be backed by semi-annual payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOTs) from Forest City Ratner Companies to the LDC. The MOU states that the PILOTs may not exceed the property taxes that would be paid if the property was not tax exempt, although the agreement offers no indication as to what if any discount from regular property tax would be used.

In the event that the PILOT payments exceed the debt service, 10 percent will go toward maintenance and capital reserves for the arena and the rest will go to ESDC; the city will receive none of the excess. If the PILOT is too small to cover debt service on the full $555.3 million cost of construction, taxable bonds will be sold to cover the difference and FCRC will pay the debt service on these taxable bonds.

The developer would save in two ways. First, the cost of debt to build the arena via tax-exempt financing is lower than it would be via taxable financing--a savings with a present value of $91 million in 2005 dollars.

Not property tax equivalent

The IBO added:
There is a second source of savings for Forest City Ratner Companies from this financing arrangement. Although FCRC will make what the Memorandum of Understanding refers to as PILOT payments to the LDC, these payments are not the equivalent of city property tax payments. Instead they will cover the construction costs for the arena in the first 30 years—and some arena maintenance if the PILOTs exceed debt service. In a more conventional development model, a developer would need to make both construction financing payments and property tax payments for any property tax liability remaining after applying available abatements and exemptions. In the Atlantic Yards case, while the PILOTs are used to pay financing costs in the first 30 years, FCRC will save the cost of property taxes that would normally be due after as-of-right tax benefits expire. If we assume that the arena would have a market value of approximately $100 per square foot, then the savings have a present value of $14 million in 2005 dollars. In the remaining 69 years, when there is no debt service, 10 percent of the PILOT payment will cover arena maintenance costs stemming from operation of the arena for the private benefit of FCRC, with the balance going to ESDC. The city would get no portion of the PILOT from the arena building.

(Emphasis added)

I'm not sure if I'm reading that right, but it seems that the PILOT payments after 30 years (it's a 99-year lease) would provide further savings, to the developer, with some benefit to the state but none to the city.

IBO’s estimate of new property tax revenue lost to the arena PILOT does not include a loss of property taxes for the MTA land that would be part of the arena building foot print. The city currently receives no tax payment from the MTA for the rail yard because the MTA, like other state entities, is exempt from local property tax. Under the MTA’s Request for Proposals, any developer acquiring the development rights to the site would probably enter into a long-term lease, leaving the MTA in place as the owner. Therefore, the property would likely remain off the city’s tax roll, resulting in no impact on the city budget. Indeed, the MTA has an incentive to make a deal that maintains the tax exemption in order to maximize the price it receives for the development rights.

Times avoidance?

Gonzalez questioned why the PILOTs story hasn't made the New York Times:
So why haven't we heard much about these other tax giveaways in, say, the liberal New York Times? Maybe because the newspaper of record is feeding at the same trough.

The Times paid $219,000 in PILOTs last year for its new printing plant in College Point, Queens, the report said. That's a paltry 13% of the $1.7 million assessed tax on the Times plant.

Now, the Times's business interests are not supposed to affect news coverage and, in general, I don't think they do. Then again, the Times hasn't carefully covered news regarding its own Times Tower, built in partnership with Forest City Ratner. So, the issue can't be dismissed.

Monday, December 24, 2007

PlaNYC 1950: why parking shouldn't be required at apartment projects like Atlantic Yards

Mayor Mike Bloomberg's much-praised PlaNYC 2030 contains a glaring omission, a failure to address the antiquated anti-urban policy that mandates parking attached to new residential developments outside Manhattan, even when such developments, like Atlantic Yards, are justified precisely because they're located near transit hubs.

Last year, several commentators on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) questioned the provision of parking--not just interim surface lots, but also the 2570 underground spaces intended for the project's residential component and an additional 1100 underground spaces for the arena.

(Map from Atlantic Yards web site.)

The issue persists

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) dismissed the questions, but the issue won't go away. The provision of parking for residents is another reason why Atlantic Yards doesn't meet the "sustainability test," argued Hunter College planning professor Tom Angotti in the June 2007 Gotham Gazette.

Beyond that, in the past year, a growing number of critics have questioned the city's antiquated policy, the new Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner has echoed such questions, and, just yesterday, in an op-ed headlined The High Price of Parking, the issue made it to the New York Times's City section.

Co-author Alex Garvin was identified as "a former member of the City Planning Commission and the author of The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t, but even more importantly, he's been a Bloomberg administration advisor on several projects, including PlaNYC, so he writes (with fellow consultant Nick Peterson) as a real insider.

So real policy change may be on the horizon, though it doesn't seem likely it would affect plans for Atlantic Yards. (Had AY gone through ULURP, the city's land use procedure, would parking have become an issue? Well, it likely wouldn't have been dismissed as easily.)

A backward policy

The op-ed's authors note that the requirement of minimum parking dates back to the auto-optimistic year of 1950; it now adds costs to projects and provides a misguided subsidy:
By forcing developers to provide parking, we are making it easier to drive. In New York, the public transit capital of America, this is disgraceful.

In 1982, faced with a federal requirement to reduce air pollution, the City Planning Commission eliminated such parking requirements in the Manhattan core, though waivers sought by developers who want to include parking are often available. (But consider this: many buildings on the periphery of Manhattan need not include parking, and they're much farther from the subway than would be buildings within Atlantic Yards.)

The authors write:
There are still parts of New York that depend on the car, and in these places, developers will include parking on their own to make sure they can sell or rent what they build. But developers in areas with accessible public transit and available parking should be given the flexibility to adapt accordingly.
(Graphic from PlaNYC)

The expected results: less traffic congestion, less pollution, and more space for development, including affordable housing and "transit-friendly retail and commercial destinations."

Developers subsidizing transit?

In a 4/27/07 essay headlined Parking Over People in Brooklyn, author and Regional Plan Association editor Alex Marshall suggested that not only should the city scrap its minimum parking requirements, it should impose a maximum. Also, he noted, this could be enacted by the city on its own, without negotiating state approval, as with congestion pricing.

(In a follow-up 11/27/07 piece on Streetsblog, headlined Eliminate the Parking Requirement, Marshall went even farther:
What if we required that developers subsidize mass transit the same way we require them to subsidize car use? What if we required property owners and developers to kick in say, $25,000 for every unit of housing they built and give it to New York City Transit as compensation for the riders the new development would generate?)

AY as example

City zoning requires 0.4 spaces per dwelling unit in high-density developments outside Manhattan; multiply the number of projected Atlantic Yards residential units, 6430, by .4, and the result is 2572.

In the earlier piece, Marshall presented AY as a textbook example for a policy change:
Although I am personally critical of many aspects of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, I was dismayed to read a recent op-ed by the novelist Jennifer Egan in The New York Times who, despite some excellent points, often sounded like the quintessentially suburban citizen as she criticized the project on the grounds that it would bring a rise in population to the borough, and thus more problems with traffic and parking. She apparently failed to see that if the state and city insisted that the project not provide parking, much of these problems would be eliminated.

The Atlantic Yards project is set to provide about 4,000 parking spaces, or the equivalent of a 40-story parking garage as big around as the World Trade Center. This includes a controversial "temporary" surface parking lot for about 1000 cars that would be in place for a decade or more. Since these spaces will be used multiple times, that means many thousands of additional cars on the streets of Brooklyn, and an urban fabric that has been torn rather than mended.

Similar arguments could apply to the provision of parking spaces for arena attendees. (In the best-case scenario, much of the interim parking, in multiple lots, would be gone before a decade is out.)

Arguments for change

For months, the argument has been building. As Streetsblog reported in March:
Jeff Zupan of the Regional Plan Association wants to rewrite city zoning restrictions that would put caps on the amount of parking developers can build. The new parking requirements would be based on the availability of mass transit, rather than the somewhat arbitrary minimum levels they are required to meet now.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC), in its 3/2/07 Mobilizing the Region newsletter, observed that other cities are ahead of of New York:
Do sensible urban transportation steps always have to originate somewhere other than NYC? While growth and density increase in the city’s boroughs outside of Manhattan, city government maintains suburban-like parking construction requirements that add to the overall parking supply, encourage car ownership and more driving.

In Seattle, whose Mayor Greg Nickels heads up the U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, the city is relaxing parking requirements in transit friendly neighborhoods and restricting the size of surface parking lots to 145 spaces (compare to the 950-space surface lot Forest City Ratner wants to build adjacent to downtown Brooklyn....).

(The TSTC's Jon Orcutt recently joined the city Department of Transportation.)

Argument brewing for two years

Two years ago, the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, in its lengthy report, Reducing the Cost of New Housing Construction in New York City: 2005 Update, called for changes in parking policy. In Chapter 7, the authors wrote:
Ironically, the Zoning Resolution generally does not permit parking on-site as part of housing in developments south of 96th Street in Manhattan but requires them everywhere else. The concept is that residents south of 96th Street should not add to the congestion and traffic of the core of Manhattan, given the availability of mass transit. Many other areas with similar congestion and access to mass transit, however, still do require the development of on-site parking....

Requiring parking makes sense in neighborhoods where access to mass transit is limited or difficult such as in certain areas of Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn. The City, however, should recognize that the future of New York City should not be based upon a suburban model as that will only result in extraordinary increases of congestion. Building more parking will only encourage households to keep cars that they already own and convince others to acquire cars.

Affordable housing & parking

The Furman Center report suggested that the parking requirement hurts affordable housing:
Analysis of parking requirements is even more important as it relates to the development of affordable housing. Limited subsidies are usually the final dollars provided by government agencies to render projects affordable. With the elimination of parking requirements for affordable housing, these marginal dollars could be redirected to assist a greater number of units throughout the City... For other [than senior] housing projects with “governmental assistance,” the Zoning Resolution reduces parking to 25 to 80 percent of normal requirements, but more relief is needed even for these developments.

AY: too much parking?

Hold on--does that mean that Atlantic Yards could have a lesser ratio of parking because it includes affordable housing? Unclear, but the appropriate section of the city Zoning Resolution (Section 25-25) was apparently revised on 10/29/07, well after Atlantic Yards was passed.

The state did not need to follow the Zoning Resolution, of course. But if a smaller ratio of parking might be appropriate because Atlantic Yards includes affordable housing, and the state ignores that, then it might be said that the project would include too much parking.

Who benefits? Well, perhaps parking is a selling point for the planned 4180 market-rate units. Or it sure couldn't hurt the arena.

Even though the ESDC will override several city zoning restrictions, including placement of an arena less than 200 feet from a residential district, they chose not to override city parking requirements, despite being requested to do so.

FEIS comments

The DEIS generated many comments abut parking, and the ESDC gave no quarter in the Response to Comments chapter of the Final Environmental Impact Statement:
Comment 12-95: The project proposes building 4,000 parking spaces for the project. How many of these will be for the permanent use of permanent residents and how many will be set aside for Nets arena game attendees? Any new residential building should coincide with 40 percent of those residences having assigned parking spots.

Response 12-95: As discussed in the FEIS, with full build-out the proposed project would include approximately 3,670 parking spaces in six on-site parking garages. Approximately 1,100 of these spaces would be available to accommodate demand from Nets game at the arena, and the remaining 2,570 spaces would be used primarily to accommodate demand from the project’s residential and commercial components.

Reducing supply

The TSTC and also Brooklyn resident Shabnam Merchant (who works for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn) suggested that the amount of parking should be reduced. The TSTC observed that parking demand is not static, but rather fluctuates depending on supply, price, and transportation options.

However, the ESDC had calculated the number of new residents and arena attendees, then estimated parking needs, a questionable methodology.

The TSTC commented:
This is an outdated method of planning transportation systems: predicting demand, and providing the necessary supply, without questioning how to influence the demand in the direction of a desired outcome. The Final EIS should use a more appropriate approach for a dense project over a transit hub by using a supply side method. The developer should decide how much excess traffic capacity there is on local roads, decide how many new cars the street system can handle, and then provide parking only for the number of cars, using appropriate HOV [High Occupancy Vehicle requirements] and other assumptions. The developer and ESDC have not done this, since the project, by 2016, is anticipated to have serious adverse impacts on 63 intersections of 93 studied in one or more peak hours.

The TSTC then observed that there could be more efforts to discourage auto use and that the project could provide fewer parking spaces.

Supply and demand

The FEIS summarized those remarks:
Comment 12-102: The developer should revisit parking supply and demand to provide less than 3,800 new parking spaces. Local zoning requirements should be changed to set maximum, rather than minimum, parking space requirements.

Response 12-102: The number of parking spaces that would be developed under the proposed project has been reduced to 3,670 in the FEIS as part of a reduction in the development program. The parking capacity proposed for the project site is based on the projected needs of its residential, commercial and arena components, and the availability of parking at off-site facilities. Reducing the amount of on-site parking would potentially result in a deficit of off-street parking capacity in the vicinity of the project site and increased demand for on-street parking spaces. Changing local zoning requirements with respect to parking is beyond the purview of the proposed project.

However, the ESDC could have considered that reducing provision of parking might reduce demand. Also, while the ESDC could not change zoning requirements in the area, it could override them at the project site.

Why not an override?

Not only the TSTC but also the Park Slope Civic Council suggested a zoning override:
Comment 12-109: Since the ESDC is already overriding numerous local zoning rules, it could certainly override minimum parking requirements in favor of maximum parking requirements.

The ESDC's response was terse:
Response 12-109: As discussed in the DEIS, the proposed project provides adequate parking.

That's conclusory; the issue isn't whether the project provides adequate parking, it's whether it provides too much parking given the issue of sustainability.

It again highlights how Atlantic Yards is an inadequate effort at city-making, as the Regional Plan Association has pointed out.

Checking the FEIS

Chapter 12, Traffic and Parking, explains that the state agency is using zoning calculations for its projections:
Between 2006 and 2010, new development projected to occur within ½ mile of the arena site is expected to be predominantly residential in nature. It is therefore assumed that the parking demand from these developments would be accommodated in accessory parking facilities typically required by zoning for residential developments in this area of Brooklyn (see Table C-3 in Appendix C).

Table C-3 states:
(1) Assumes 0.4 accessory spaces per dwelling unit provided to accommodate residential parking demand.

Where it comes from

According to the city zoning handbook, high-density residential development requires 0.4 spaces per dwelling unit. However, that requirement is waived in a substantial area, the "Manhattan Core, except within Special Hudson Yards District."

And what's the Manhattan Core? Much of Manhattan, including areas near the rivers that are not exactly close to the subway:
The Manhattan Core extends from the southern tip of Manhattan at Battery Park to West 110th Street on the West Side and East 96th Street on the East Side. It is the area covered by Manhattan Community Districts 1 through 8.

It all might change

The issue seems ripe for another look. A Streetsblog Q&A in June with new (and notably transit-friendly) DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan contained this exchange:

SB: The Hudson Yards rezoning on the west side of Manhattan requires developers to include over 20,000 new parking spaces. We recently did a story about this on the blog that generated a lot of response. People don't understand how these parking requirements fit with the Mayor's long-term sustainability and traffic reduction goals of PlaNYC.

JSK: In Copenhagen I was joined by City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden. We spent a lot of time talking about the success of cities like Portland and Chicago that have revised their zoning codes with lower parking ratios and how that has led, in a lot of instances, to a renaissance for pedestrian space and transit without any apparent downside.

Perhaps it will change, but the state override of city policy suggests it won't apply to Atlantic Yards. It's another reason AY is increasingly seen as a poster child for what not to do.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The AY omission in the Times's architectural round-up

New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff's year-end round-up in today's paper, headlined Manhattan’s Year of Building Furiously, curiously omits mention of Atlantic Yards when it might have been expected.

After reflecting on the Robert Moses re-examination and the decline of architecture driven by the public realm, he writes:
Additionally, New York is about to embark on a handful of vast developments that could alter its character more than any projects since the 1960s. Twenty-five million square feet of commercial space is planned for Midtown. Madison Square Garden and the woeful Knicks may relocate to the site of the James A. Farley Post Office building, which was supposed to be a grand site for a new Penn Station. An enormous expansion of the Columbia University campus into Harlem has enraged local residents. And let’s not forget ground zero, a black hole of political posturing, cynical real estate deals and outright stupidity.

To date, there is little sign that intelligent design will play a major role in any of those projects. On the contrary, every revision heightens our creeping awareness that when serious money is at stake, business will be as usual.

Well, Atlantic Yards also could alter New York's character significantly. Did Ouroussoff hold off because he thinks the project might be further delayed? Was he limiting himself to Manhattan? Or was he exempting AY from the observation that, "when serious money is at stake, business will be as usual? (Perhaps not; he suggested as such, in his 6/4/06 overview of the project.)

Maybe he just ran out of space.