Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ravitch: MTA obfuscates full cost of West Side Rail Yards project

A panel discussion last night on "The Fate of the Far West Side" again pointed out the poverty of public discourse regarding Atlantic Yards as the project was under consideration. At the panel, held at the Museum of the City of New York, Richard Ravitch, former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, expressed significant skepticism about planning for both the 59-block Hudson Yards area as well as plans for the MTA's 26-acre West Side Rail Yards.

"I believe in planning," Ravitch said. "But this is planning gone amok. This is planning unfettered by any consciousness of the availability of public resources."

It is in the public interest, he said, to harness "private greed." However, he criticized the MTA for its "shortsighted" desire for revenue--Crain's reported yesterday that the bids for the rail yards may be $1 billion--suggesting that the full value of the property won't be realized until the Moynihan Station project is completed.

Moreover, he charged that the MTA has refused to make available "all the conditions" that the five bidders have included in their bids. Those conditions, he warned, "include significant obligations" on the government to spend more money on the projects, leaving the public in the dark as to the ultimate cost of the project.

He and others stressed that public land was an important public resources. (More from the Rail Yards Blog and the Real Deal.)

The AY angle

Imagine if someone like Ravitch had blown the whistle on the "extraordinary infrastructure" loophole in the Atlantic Yards Memorandum of Understanding, which opens the door for increased public spending. Imagine if anyone with civic responsibility beyond some Brooklynites criticized the Bloomberg administration for more than doubling its announced pledge of $100 million to support Atlantic Yards.

Ravitch and panel moderator Lynne B. Sagalyn, Professor of Real Estate Development and Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, both expressed dismay that the press had little appetite to deal with complex financial issues attached to planning. (Sagalyn's book Times Square Roulette makes that point, as well.)

The value of growth

Ravitch suggested that the extension of the #7 subway line "is a good idea in a world of unlimited resources." However, he said, we don't live in that world.

The most important infrastructure project to accommodate the city's growth, he said, is the construction of the Second Avenue Subway, which "will open up vast areas of the East Bronx" to development.

Timing and oversight

Juliette Michaelson, Senior Planner, Regional Plan Association, suggested that the rail yards will take "two or three decades to be built out."

Given that the project would involve about 12 million square feet of development, as opposed to 8 million square feet for Atlantic Yards, a rough extrapolation suggests that AY would take not the announced decade but 14 to 20 years to build--which is what even those associated with the project acknowledge in unguarded moments.

Michaelson noted that it's not clear if a public authority, as with Battery Park City, would oversee the rail yards development. (BrooklynSpeaks has called for such an oversight entity for Atlantic Yards, but the Empire State Development Corporation has remained wary.)

Sagalyn said she recommended a "special purpose entity" to oversee the 59-block area and coordinate plans, involving existing subsidiaries of the ESDC, such as that set up for Moynihan Station.

She cited the ESDC's history of creating such subsidiaries. "If it isn't happening that way," she said, "it suggests there's a void in leadership."

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