Friday, December 12, 2008

A look at the Brooklyn Paper's Atlantic Yards round-up

Last week, I criticized the Brooklyn Paper for ignoring the breaking news that Forest City Ratner had halted work at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard, so I should acknowledge that this week the newspaper has a lead story headlined, at least online, Atlantic Yards at 5: What went wrong?.

The piece captures the big picture, with a decent survey of high points in the Atlantic Yards drama, including the recent news that Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's charities have received big bucks from developer Forest City Ratner and that corporate parent Forest City Enterprises acknowledged this week that the market would determine the pace of the project.

With a magnifying glass

But there are many small errors, and since NLG already challenged me to cite them, that's what I'll do below. (It's tough to blame a reporter who's been with the newspaper since May.)

What is going on at Atlantic Yards?

Actually, Atlantic Yards is a project, not a place. Better to have said, with Atlantic Yards.

a $4.2-billion, publicly subsidized project including 16 skyscrapers, a 19,000-seat sports arena, 6,800 apartments, and top-grade office space

Any cost number attached to Atlantic Yards right now is chimerical. While the projected cost once ballooned to $4.2 billion, it was approved in December 2006 at $4 billion. The New York Daily News keeps using the $4.2 billion figure, too.

While the project was once projected to include 6800 apartments, as approved, it would include 6430 apartments.

The project’s centerpiece — the iconic “Miss Brooklyn” tower at the gateway to Atlantic Yards, the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues — isn’t part of the complex anymore, a victim of Ratner’s inability to land an anchor tenant for its commercial or office space.

Well, it's no more not part of the complex as any of the other yet-unfunded buildings. It remains part of the project renderings.

The site of an arena for the Ratner-owned New Jersey Nets, the most highly touted and arguably popular element of the project remains an empty pit...

Not at all. Approximately half of the arena site remains a functioning below-grade railyard. The rest includes city streets, existing buildings, both empty and with residents (and one business), and empty lots created by demolition.

At the time, Ratner said that the arena — then priced at $396-million — would be built with private money.

I hadn't seen the $396 million figure, but I did recently see a $400 million figure, though it was announced at $435 million. The original claim was "primarily privately funded," which offered the developer a lot of flexibility.

[Added]
But the arena’s cost has ballooned to close to $1 billion — all of it fronted by the public.

Well, it depends on whether the payments-in-lieu-of taxes, or PILOTs, represent represent taxes that would ever have been paid. In the analogous case of Yankee Stadium, at a Congressional hearing October 24, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky said, "Congressman, the private payments are the taxes they owe. It’s as though you built an extension on the house and you said to the taxing authority: send my payments to the bank to pay off the mortgage. The notion that this is being paid for by the Yankees is delusional.”

The Yankees' Randy Levine responded, “Mr. Brodsky, he really knows better. We don’t pay taxes now. We’re a tenant. We don’t pay taxes at the old Yankee Stadium. As I said before, there would not have been a new stadium, unless this mechanism was put into place.”

See the New York Post article based on calculations by Michael White of Noticing New York.

the promised seven acres of publicly accessible open space

Actually, it's up to eight acres.

What went wrong

No public review
Project opponents charge that the Original Sin of Atlantic Yards was a decision by the Empire State Development Corporation — a state agency that had the Bloomberg Administration’s blessing — to allow Ratner to proceed without the rigorous public review required of other developers who seek even the smallest land-use change from the city.


Yes, but it's worth remembering that even the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) wouldn't work that well for projects as large as AY, according to a top city housing official.

the huge influx of housing would have created the densest census tract in the country

Well, it wouldn’t be its own census tract, but the New York Observer gave the numbers.

Ratner did sign a “Community Benefits Agreement” with six community groups in 2004,

There are eight signatories.

Towers of lies

After years of pie-in-the-sky projections, state officials admitted in December, 2006, that the project would only create $15.7 million in tax revenues every year for the city and state — nearly $5 billion less over 30 years than project boosters initially promised.

Not at all. Forest City Ratner at one point announced the project would bring $$6 billion in aggregate revenue over 30 years, or $2.1 billion in present value, which is the standard way to present such figures.

The Empire State Development Corporation cut its estimate of present value revenue from $1.4 billion to $944 million. So, worst case, revenues were cut by more than $1 billion--from FCR's most optimistic number to the ESDC's number--not $5 billion.

That 10-year construction timeline? In March 2007, Ratner revealed that the full project would not be done until at least 2022, despite officials once saying it could be done by 2012.

Well, that was Chuck Ratner, not Bruce Ratner.

A year later, in March 2008, Ratner finally admitted that his megaproject was doomed. At that time, he unveiled an altered version that consisted of little more than the arena and two scaled-back residential buildings.

In March, Bruce Ratner admitted it was stalled, not doomed. The new designs were unveiled in May.

Absent that review, a group called Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn emerged as the principal opposition group. The group has filed four main lawsuits against the state and developer since the project started.

DDDB organized and funded the eminent domain case, but is not a plaintiff.

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