He of course wasn’t saying that in the context of Atlantic Yards and, indeed, at another juncture (about 27:00 of the show) noted, “In many of our neighborhoods... I bitterly oppose the construction of out-of-context [buildings], but there are areas where it’s appropriate to grow.” There was otherwise little mention of AY, though Markowitz at about 4:00 of the show predicted the arrival of “the Nets arena, Barclays Center, in a few years.”
The show, titled What’s Happening in Downtown Brooklyn (video), was taped March 18 and broadcast for the first time on June 10.
The density issue came up at about 20:50 of the show, when panelist John Catsimatidis of Red Apple Companies suggested, “One of the reasons people come to Brooklyn is they can’t afford Manhattan. They’re looking to Brooklyn as the affordable New York.” Then Catsimatidis, who may be the 2009 mogul-for-mayor candidate, lapsed into campaign mode, saying that “we have to keep safe streets and make sure they feel good walking around...”
Markowitz responded, “I’m not sure that’s why people are moving into Brooklyn, because we’re cheaper. What happens is, very often, is that younger people, they start having families, and they need more space... And they take a look at Brooklyn, they say, ‘Y’know what, I can get more space within the budget that I have’--and also they want a life that is a little more, how do you say it, friendly, in terms of density... Even though they may live in those bigger buildings, they still want lower density, in terms of more management, more control of a life.”
Catsimatidis kept trying to get a word in edgewise, finally declaring, “More space for the same dollar equates to cheaper.”
At about 11:27, Markowitz defended Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner’s first Brooklyn project: “I must tell you that we do get some criticism, from the people who want to stop the arena or development... and they use MetroTech as an example. But you have to look at it through the eyes of the folks that built it, Forest City Ratner... and what the crime rates were and why they wanted to create an environment that businesses felt would safeguard them.
Stoler seconded that, “But in the same situation, Marty,...when Citibank built in Long Island City, they did the same thing. They built a building where the stores were within the facility.” (That was in 1989. Buildings in MetroTech were constructed shortly after that, though the project lingered through 2002.)
Markowitz continued, “But the bottom line is that MetroTech showed for its time that in fact it has become a wonderful addition to Brooklyn. It encouraged and opened the door for businesses to think about Brooklyn as an alternative, and retail, to some degree. And today, to the credit of Bruce Ratner and Forest City Ratner, in my opinion, now one of the highest priorities for the Forest City Ratner people is design, architecture, star architects. Really. It’s a credit. But it's also based upon what Brooklyn is today. Certainly the Atlantic [Center] mall, the first mall, you can’t say it’s an attractive mall. We all know it’s not. But when it was built, I and almost all the other elected officials were celebrating, my god, somebody is investing something in the area. Now, in 2008, now it’s a whole different story, thank God, thank God that we have that and so these good folks here are really making it possible....”
Markowitz was referring not just to Catsimatidis but also fellow panelists Robert Levine of RAL Companies, developer of One Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Paul Travis of Washington Square Partners, developer of the CityPoint mixed-used project.
The lingering question is whether, in December 2003, when Markowitz and other officials embraced Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards plan, whether they should have driven a much harder bargain.
“You should be celebrating,” Markowitz said on the Brian Lehrer Show shortly after the announcement. “You’re talking about two-and-a-half billion of investment, development in Brooklyn, this is one of the best things that happened to our borough in decades.” He also claimed, “He made it clear, over and over again, the mayor, this city has no money, no money to provide in any way at all.” The total is now $205 million.
Changes around MetroTech
On the broadcast, Travis, a former Forest City Ratner official, said MetroTech “was really thought of as an office park,” with the developer having to convince tenants they could be isolated from the surrounding neighborhood. Since then, he said, “there's been tremendous change,” with 500,000 people in neighborhoods around Downtown Brooklyn, 20% with household incomes greater than $100,000 a spur to new retail and entertainment. He also noted that organizations and companies outside financial services have been leasing space at MetroTech, in some cases moving closer to where many of their employees live.
Downtown Brooklyn should still be a lure for office space. At about 23:50, Stoler asked Travis about the rent differential between Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. In the latter, Class A office space rents for $70 a square foot. “In Downtown Brooklyn, we think it will go in the high 40s a foot,” Travis said, noting that, with the addition of tax incentives, “you’re probably talking about net rents in the 20s.”
The benefits of upzoning
At about 7:00 of the show, Catsimatidis discussed land he bought 20-25 years ago on Myrtle Avenue east of Flatbush Avenue. “MetroTech was built across the street from us, which was a great help,” he said. “And the city upzoned the area, which created value. And when the city upzones areas, it creates incentive for developers to build something. Without upzoning, there’s no incentive to build.”
It’s a little more complicated than that. The growing value of real estate has been incentive enough for some development. While Catsimatidis had planned affordable housing on the site, he has since changed his plans. While he has zoning to build approximately 1.3 million square feet in four buildings, now he’s “proceeding with caution... instead of four buildings, one at a time.”
Thus, when Markowitz said, “Whatever we build, we have to maximize affordability,” he was papering over a significant lapse on the part of planners, elected officials, and watchdogs, as the New York Observer pointed out in May 2006. The 2004 Downtown Brooklyn rezoning was sold as an effort to increase office space, but it became more attractive to build housing, and mandatory affordable housing was not part of the trade-off.