Skip to main content

Planner Burden on balanced growth, community consultation, and "esthetic democracy" (in Brooklyn)

The New York City Planning Commission (CPC) does more rezoning than planning; those rezonings vastly increase the value of land and thus shape development, a fact that deserves scrutiny. Witness CPC Chairperson Amanda Burden's stunning statement explaining how she concluded Harlem needed redevelopment: a friend couldn't find a restaurant there.

For a sense of Burden's perspective, consider the CUNY-TV show City Talk taped 03/14/2006, hosted by Doug Muzzio. Her evocation of balanced growth and the importance of community consultation sounded impressive.

Surely Burden's department has done some good work. However, the reality of Downtown Brooklyn, given the unanticipated housing boom, is quite different than city planners hoped. Moreover, the Atlantic Yards example stands in contrast to Burden's stated ideals, given that there was no city oversight and thus limited community consultation.

A curious locution

At about 4:20 in the program, even as Burden invoked the mixed-use mantra taught all of us by Jane Jacobs, she used a curious locution (bolded below) that seems to echo Mayor Mike Bloomberg's corporate background.

She said:
We have to grow our city wherever we can. And we have to provide different products for different customers. So we look across the Hudson... a lot of that [New Jersey] development should've been ours. But we weren't ready for it; we weren't zoned for it, we're underzoned. So the mayor says: create business districts in each one of our boroughs. And each one of those business districts shouldn't be a corporate park, but should have a real mix of housing and office and parks and culture. So that was our challenge.

The Brooklyn example

She continued, with great enthusiasm, by pointing to Brooklyn:
And we started with Downtown Brooklyn. And always what we try to do is a balance of preservation and growth. Here you have fantastic neighborhoods such as Boerum Hill and Fort Greene and Brooklyn Heights. You keep those neighborhoods of character, the low-scale neighborhood. But then, around the transit infrastructure, you grow. So you have apartment house construction, office buildings, and then the most important thing is, you have to look at the public open space, always that's what people love about a place. So, reshaping Flatbush Avenue, so it's a gateway to Downtown Brooklyn.... We're going to put a median in the middle, trees on both side, so when you walk there, it's got BAM, it's got everything, it is the best.

That sounds good, and a lot is uncontroversial, but there was a lot more flexibility than she let on. For example, while DCP said the "rezoning would facilitate new mixed-use academic and office buildings" in the northern segment of Downtown Brooklyn, the new tower once planned by Forest City Ratner at New York City Technical College's Klitgord Auditorium site--location of two Atlantic Yards public hearings--would instead be mostly condos. (That plan has since been scotched.)

Waterfront visions

At about 7:00, Muzzio enthused how the DCP web site was "extraordinarily visual," citing the waterfront rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

AB: That's the thing. Any rezoning, to get it passed or done, has got to pass community boards and elected officials. So we have to build consensus. And the only way you can do that is by really showing people visually what they're going to get, and bringing in the stakeholders and getting them to feel invested in the plan. For instance, in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, here you had two miles of waterfront, it was fenced off, inacessible, derelict for decades. So to really get the community to not only understand the zoning that we were proposing, but to buy into that, we took the committee for open space of the community board there around to all waterfront parks in the city, and they chose the benches and the lights and the paving and the railing that's going to be on their waterfront. So this is really a plan that is created by the community. Otherwise we would have never have gotten it passed.
(Graphic from DCP web site. First emphasis added.)

A lot of people in Williamsburg might say they didn't have enough of a voice. Given the current frenzy of construction, as chronicled by the Gowanus Lounge, many are still disturbed. Burden is particularly concerned with street-level details--such as that "b-market" outside the planned Atlantic Yards arena--which has made her vulnerable to charges of micromanagement.

As for Atlantic Yards, as a state project it bypassed community oversight, and now even Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff has second thoughts.

Democracy at work?

Muzzio picked up on the issue.

DM: An esthetic democracy?

AB: Exactly. Because it has to be theirs. One is, it's better if it's theirs; it's more authentic, it's real. But also they're going to pass on it, as are the elected officials.

Not, of course, with Atlantic Yards.

The Downtown Brooklyn rezoning

The Downtown Brooklyn rezoning did not exactly show people what they were going to get, because the main goal was not housing but office jobs. The city's rationale for the rezoning: Downtown Brooklyn is poised to retain and grow the city's at-risk back-office jobs, preserve its tax base and generate new revenues.

(Graphics from DCP web site)

The goal was new office development and academic expansion space within the commercial core and, in the surrounding areas, new residential development with attractive ground-floor retail.

Changes on Flatbush Avenue were coming, allowing for "higher-density residential and commercial buildings." But the overall goal was 4.5 million square feet of new commercial office space, creating 18,500 office jobs, and some 1,000 new housing units.

Now there's much more housing than office space planned, and housing along with the academic facilities in the core, as noted above.

Contrast with AY

Atlantic Yards has generated significant protest, as Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries pointed out, in part because the project would directly abut some mostly low-rise neighborhoods. The high-rise luxury developments in Downtown Brooklyn would mosly isolated from other residential areas.

Activists groups that promote affordable housing sat out the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning. Had the potential for so much new luxury housing--as an alternative to the office towers promoted--been made clear, there would have been more debate about requiring affordable housing as a trade-off for vastly increased development rights.

Showing what's coming

I suspect that AY also provoked protest because, however deceptive the developer's brochures, there were enough efforts by others, like photographer Jonathan Barkey and even the Empire State Development Corporation (via the developer's architect, belatedly), to depict the scale of the development.

Had specific developers under the Downtown Brooklyn plan produced more contextual graphics of their projects, such as that appearing on the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership site, Downtown Brooklyn 2012 (right), much more discussion would've been sparked.

The fuzzy towers depicted in the Department of City Planning's document deserved more attention than the press and activist groups gave them at the time. And DCP should've explained that some of those office towers, places for the jobs New York City aimed to save, had a good chance of becoming luxury condos.

That might've gotten us closer to "esthetic democracy."


  1. During the Greenpoint Williamsburg Rezoning, I chaired B'klyn CB1 Rezoning Task Force Parks & Open Space Committee.
    While it's true that Amanda Burden toured waterfronts with us and worked with the committee to develop a shorewalk and parks plan, we certainly did not have a choice in the rezoning plan as a whole. The parks and open space committee actually voted against the plan in the last days. We didn't think the parks & open space needs were adequately addressed by the City.

    The rezoning committments that the City DID make are in jeapardy.

    For instance, DCP's N.Greenpoint committments of affordable housing and park development depend on the demolition of a sludge tank and relocation of a sludge loading dock and MTA property operations.

    DEP has now delayed the sludge loading dock relocation and tank demolition by an additional year or two. By the time the City actually acts on their N. Greenpoint committments, they'll be no native Greenpointers here to appreciate it. We're all being displaced. Priced out. Families, store owners ...
    Furthermore, our community 197A plans and other
    community plans NEVER called for high rises. DCP's plan looks nothing like our community process plans.

    Unfortunately, Ms. Burden's remarks in this article misrepresent what really happened. She's a nice lady and all that, but her paycheck comes from the City.

    Feel free to contact me for more info.
    Laura Hofmann


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

At 550 Vanderbilt, big chunk of apartments pitched to Chinese buyers as "international units"

One key to sales at the 550 Vanderbilt condo is the connection to China, thanks to Shanghai-based developer Greenland Holdings.

It's the parent of Greenland USA, which as part of Greenland Forest City Partners owns 70% of Pacific Park (except 461 Dean and the arena).

And sales in China may help explain how the developer was able to claim early momentum.
"Since 550 Vanderbilt launched pre-sales in June [2015], more than 80 residences have gone into contract, representing over 30% of the building’s 278 total residences," the developer said in a 9/25/15 press release announcing the opening of a sales gallery in Brooklyn. "The strong response from the marketplace indicates the high level of demand for well-designed new luxury homes in Brooklyn..."

Maybe. Or maybe it just meant a decent initial pipeline to Chinese buyers.

As lawyer Jay Neveloff, who represents Forest City, told the Real Deal in 2015, a project involving a Chinese firm "creates a huge market for…

Is Barclays Center dumping the Islanders, or are they renegotiating? Evidence varies (bond doc, cash receipts); NHL attendance biggest variable

The Internet has been abuzz since Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick reported 1/30/17, using an overly conclusory headline, that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Is Dumping the Islanders.

That would end an unusual arrangement in which the arena agrees to pay the team a fixed sum (minus certain expenses), in exchange for keeping tickets, suite, and sponsorship revenue.

The arena would earn more without the hockey team, according to Bloomberg, which cited “a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season--a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said."

That "signal," however, is hardly definitive, as are the media leaks about a prospective new arena in Queens, as shown in the screenshot below from Newsday. Both sides are surely pushing for advantage, if not bluffing.

Consider: the arena and the Islanders can't even formally begin their opt-out talks until after this season. The disc…

Skanska says it "expected to assemble a properly designed modular building, not engage in an iterative R&D experiment"

On 12/10/16, I noted that FastCo.Design's Prefab's Moment of Reckoning article dialed back the gush on the 461 Dean modular tower compared to the publication's previous coverage.

Still, I noted that the article relied on developer Forest City Ratner and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. From the article: At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's Adam] Greene says.Skanska jabs back
Well, Forest City's estranged partner Skanska later weighed in--not sure whether they weren't asked or just missed a deadline--and their article was updated 12/13/16. Here's Skanska's statement, which shows th…

Not just logistics: bypassing Brooklyn for DNC 2016 also saved on optics (role of Russian oligarch, Shanghai government)

Surely the logistical challenges of holding a national presidential nominating convention in Brooklyn were the main (and stated) reasons for the Democratic National Committee's choice of Philadelphia.

And, as I wrote in NY Slant, the huge security cordon in Philadelphia would have been impossible in Brooklyn.

But consider also the optics. As I wrote in my 1/21/15 op-ed in the Times arguing that the choice of Brooklyn was a bad idea:
The arena also raises ethically sticky questions for the Democrats. While the Barclays Center is owned primarily by Forest City Ratner, 45 percent of it is owned by the Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (who also owns 80 percent of the Brooklyn Nets). Mr. Prokhorov has a necessarily cordial relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — though he has been critical of Mr. Putin in the past, last year, at the Russian president’s request, he tried to transfer ownership of the Nets to one of his Moscow-based companies. An oligarch-owned a…