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Showing posts from March, 2008

Sunday in NYC: Avella denounces overdevelopment; Luxury Living showcase draws throng

Longshot mayoral candidate Tony Avella, a maverick City Council Member from Northeast Queens, officially launched his candidacy yesterday afternoon at a City Hall press conference. Seeking to distinguish himself from the highly-scripted typical politicians, Avella declared that he hadn't written a speech but instead would speak about three main issues.

Indeed, two of Avella's issues barely registered with the crowd of supporters behind him: lowered taxes and a revamped education system. Rather, they applauded heartily when he condemned overdevelopment, asserting that the real estate industry has too much power and "the city has done very little to preserve quality of life."

"Overdevelopment," he said, "is destroying the character of every community. That absolutely must stop."

Brooklyn in the house

While most of Avella's supporters appeared to be from Queens, I did spot a couple of Brooklyn activists in the crowd. Avella has opposed the Atlantic Y…

The Community Boards face cuts, but the system needs a boost

It was a relatively small article on page 5 of the City section of the New York Times, sandwiched in between pieces on the closing of a beloved laundry in Cobble Hill and after-school life at a coffee/tea/spice shop in Park Slope, but it touched on a very important issue: New Yorkers have way too few resources to pursue democracy at the neighborhood level. What it didn't explain is why the Community Board (CB) system needs reform, and may well become an issue in the next mayoral race.

The article, headlined Not Quite Passing the Hat, but Already Feeling the Pain, concerns cuts of 5%-8% at the CBs, which may not sound like much, but cut into already limited resources.

After all, the CBs serve the equivalent of decent-sized cities, as the districts contain 35,000 to 200,000 people, but have a paid staff of three. (The board members are volunteer appointees, as are committee members.)

Perhaps the main role the CBs play is in advising and/or voting on major land use issues. (Remember, b…

The view from Dean Street, as the Ward Bakery gets hollowed out

Demolition continues at the Ward Bakery, a complex with several components occupying a good chunk of the block between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and Pacific and Dean streets, the southeast block of the Atlantic Yards footprint. (Photographic panoramas by Jonathan Barkey; click to enlarge.)

While most of the terra cotta facade on Pacific Street remains, there has been significant progress in hollowing out the building from the Dean Street side, as pictured. Indeed, there's nothing left to the southeast side of the building. Interim surface parking may be on its way.

Miss Brooklyn: dead, not dead, or simply not animatronic just yet?

OK, is Atlantic Yards dead? What about the Miss Brooklyn tower? Let's try to sort through the coverage, given that the two major Brooklyn weeklies, the Brooklyn Paper and the Courier-Life chain, are providing diametrically different coverage.

The short answer: Atlantic Yards, at the timetable envisioned, is obviously dead, but a major project somewhat like it might arrive on a much attenuated schedule. As for Miss Brooklyn, it's not "killed," but rather delayed, though developer Forest City Ratner seems to be seriously spinning its chances.

The Times's coverage

So far, the developer hasn't contradicted the basic premise of the 3/21/08 Times story, which began:
The slowing economy, weighed down by a widening credit crisis, is likely to delay the signature office tower and three residential buildings at the heart of the $4 billion Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, the developer said.

The Brooklyn Paper

The Brooklyn Paper's package of stories linked to the news,…

FCR's Beekman tower finally financed; school will be a year late

Despite the credit crunch, Forest City Ratner shows it can cobble together major financing from several sources, announcing yesterday that it had secured $680 million in financing for the Frank Gehry-designed Beekman Tower in Lower Manhattan.

The bonds are issued by the New York City Housing Development Corporation (NYC HDC) but are not the tax-exempt housing bonds needed to construct the market-rate and affordable rentals in the Atlantic Yards project. Rather, they are a combination of tax-exempt Liberty Bonds, aimed to revive Lower Manhattan, and taxable bonds.

Specifically, NYC HDC contributed $190 million in Liberty Bonds and $476.1 million in taxable bonds to finance the 904 market-rate apartments and the New York State Housing Finance Agency contributed $13.9 million from its Liberty Bond allocation.

One year late

Forest City Ratner had said the school planned for the site would open in 2009; now, reports the Observer, the planned opening is 2010. Note that the School Construction A…

On Hudson Yards plan, Times hails "real bidding process"

From a New York Times editorial yesterday on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's plan for the Hudson Yards, headlined Finally, a Vision for the West Side:
The M.T.A., we are pleased to say, conducted a real bidding process. That was a refreshing change from years past when it looked as though the yards might be given away in a back-room deal. It would take a lot more vigilance and transparency to ensure that the new Hudson Yards work for all New Yorkers.

And when did the Times editorialize about the not-so-real bidding process for the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard in Brooklyn, a process that began 18 months after the city and state announced their backing for Forest City Ratner's plan?

"Deeply troubled" Jeffries says it's time to evaluate changes in AY; Brennan's subsidy bill resurfaces

Last night, I spoke to Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, whose district includes Prospect Heights and the Atlantic Yards footprint, about the Atlantic Yards stall and the potential response in Albany.

He indicated dismay about the apparent major delay in affordable housing and said it was too soon to assess new Governor David Paterson’s posture on the project.

He said the legislature may look at a bill, sponsored in 2006 by Assemblyman Jim Brennan and revived in February, that would trade a one-third cut in the size of Atlantic Yards for direct and indirect subsidies worth some $700 million over 30 years, with nearly half of that up front.

Also, he said a legislative committee might take another look at the Empire State Development Corporation’s (ESDC) stewardship of Atlantic Yards.

"Deeply troubled"

“I’m deeply troubled by the notion of moving forward with an arena without a firm commitment to advance the affordable housing connected to the project,” he said. “I’m still firmly commit…

Why Atlantic Yards depends on a Democratic administration in DC

Besides the credit crunch and the lack of a market for office space, both acknowledged by Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner, the project depends crucially on a sufficient supply of tax-exempt bonds, a "crisis"--in the words of city housing head Shaun Donovan--evident well before the downturn in the economy.

And, despite efforts in Washington by top legislators representing New York, the problem likely won't be alleviated until a Democratic administration and a Democratic Congress revamp the rules and allow hard-pressed states like New York additional "volume cap," or the capacity to issue bonds free of federal taxes.

Former city official: demand is 10 times the capacity

That point was reinforced Wednesday at a panel, ,THE LONG VIEW: How Can New York Preserve Housing Affordability?, at the New School's Milano management and urban policy school.

Emily Youssouf, Managing Director and Head, Housing Finance Division, JP Morgan Securities, reflected on her …

If you read only the dailies, you're missing Atlantic Yards news

New Yorkers who limit themselves to newspapers--as opposed to, say, online compendiums and coverage at No Land Grab and AYR--might wind up with a very skewed view of the current status of the Atlantic Yards project, since they sure haven't read about the Empire State Development Corporation's (ESDC) generous deadlines, 6+ years to build the arena, then 12+ years to build the first five towers.

Think about it. The New York Times broke the big news last Friday about the Atlantic Yards stall, but hasn't followed up with reporting about the ESDC's willingness to give developer Forest City Ratner a very long leash (though reporter Charles Bagli mentioned it on the Leonard Lopate show yesterday), nor the developer's plan to sell luxury suites.

The New York Post followed up Saturday with a brief article but Monday offered a much longer article about the suite deal. Nothing about the deadlines.

The New York Daily News offered no news article on the stall but ran two sympathet…

Rezonings & starchitects: filling in some blanks from the Leonard Lopate Show’s AY discussion

Yesterday, on the Leonard Lopate Show, Charles Bagli, who covers real estate and economic development for the Times, was the sole guest in a segment discussing Atlantic Yards. Now Bagli deserved the slot, given that he broke the big story last Friday, but another voice was in order, because, while Bagli made some worthwhile points, he missed some important details.

(He’s got a good track record as a reporter, but he’s way overstretched to master AY; the Times had a beat reporter on AY from October 2005 to December 2006, then promoted him, apparently thinking AY was a done deal.)

The arena cost

Bagli said of Ratner:
Officially, he very much wants to go forward with the project, but what he’s talking about is he's focused on the arena itself, a project that has swelled from a little more than $600 million to more than $900 million, which would make it the most expensive arena in the country.

Actually, when the arena was announced at $435 million, it would have be the most expensive arena…

Brooklyn historian befuddled by Brooklyn blogs

Y'know, I agree with critics who say blogs (in general) are too often insubstantial. But there are some solid Brooklyn blogs, and when a dead-tree writer criticizes them in print, he ought to get his facts straight.

Here's an excerpt from a Brooklyn Daily Eagle essay headlined Historically Speaking: Researching Brooklyn — Online, by former Brooklyn Borough Historian John Manbeck:
The Gowanus Lounge has a blog with its slogan: “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.” The Atlantic Yards Report has news about the Nets.

Adventures in Brooklyn and BK 11201 recount personal tales with pictures. Brooklyn Enthusiast deals with food and recipes as does Bread, Coffee, Chocolate, Yoga and All in Brooklyn. Frisket of Hicks Street recently became Frisket of Main Street: it’s about this dog. Two others have Brooklyn Bridge pix: Never Sleepist and Sam I Am.

To me, most of the material I encountered in blogs has been gossipy and unreliable. While the Web sites are more substantial, information there must …

News analysis: The Times gives the ESDC a bye

A New York Times News Analysis today of the West Side Yards deal, headlined :For Railyards, the Hard Part Is Still Ahead, leaves out some important Atlantic Yards context:
In the end, the project could take well over a decade to complete, and its look could change significantly from the current designs by Helmut Jahn and Peter Walker.

In Brooklyn, the developer Bruce Ratner has already acknowledged that his $4 billion Atlantic Yards project will take longer than the 10 years originally envisioned.

“This will get built over a generation,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, said of the railyards project. “It’s a 15-to-20-year build-out, and it’ll change according to market conditions. The buildings will look very different when they get built than the images we see today. And it wouldn’t surprise me to see the commercial towers get built later, rather than sooner.”


First, the Times should have pointed out that, not only has Ratner acknowledged that the project wou…

And what about those for-sale affordable units? The fine print is vague

A major question raised about the 600 to 1000 affordable for-sale units, on and off-site, announced by developer Forest City Ratner as part of the Atlantic Yards Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is why they were absent from the General Project Plan approved by the Empire State Development Corporation. That wasn't cause for confidence.

The recently-unveiled State Funding Agreement does, however, mention the pledge that's contained in the agreement FCR signed with the advocacy group ACORN.

However, as far as I can tell, the document has no teeth, since it asserts no deadlines and no penalties, though it does assign deadlines for other phases of the project and penalties for failure to meet those deadlines.

For one thing, if FCR doesn't build as many market-rate condos--and all housing is now on hold--the MOU appears to give the developer an out. Also, the construction of for-sale affordable units depends on unspecified subsidies.

Big pledge?

The developer, in a 12/20/06

Ouroussoff: AY a "fiasco" with "city approval"

In an essay in today's New York Times on plans for the West Side Yards, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff refers to Atlantic Yards as a "fiasco." He writes:
If built, the project would be a pathetic distortion of the original design. And the developer already has city approval.

Actually, the developer already has government approval, but the city has nothing to do with it. The Empire State Development Corporation approved the project. I sent in a correction on Saturday after Ouroussoff made the same mistake in his essay on AY last Friday.

The Times didn't address the correction yet. But the distinction remains important; had the project gone through the city approval process, there would have been more public oversight and discussion.

Brooklyn Tech pledge appears, with major caveat, in State Funding Agreement

Remember Forest City Ratner's 12/20/06 pledge, upon the approval of Atlantic Yards by the Public Authorities Control Board, to build a new Brooklyn Tech High School?

The Daily News overhyped that pledge into a speculative story headlined Nets go High Tech: Ratner throws in new home for elite Brooklyn HS in arena deal.

Well, the pledge does appear, sort of, in the State Funding Agreement signed last September by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), but it contains a big caveat implied but not spelled out in the developer's initial pledge.

Initially, the developer stated, "FCRC will also work with the City, State and the United Federation of Teachers on the creation of a new 21st Century Brooklyn Tech High School, at a yet to be determined location in the borough."

Alumni fight back

Given alumni concerns that Forest City Ratner wanted the Brooklyn Tech building, well located adjacent to Fort Greene Park, city school officials last April insisted that the buildi…

Flashback: the Sun's (wise) failure to offer an AY projection

On 3/3/08, more than three weeks ago, under the headline Unease Erodes Ambition in Real Estate, the New York Sun observed "troubling symptoms" in the real estate market, including Atlantic Yards:

The number of citywide building permits is expected to drop, public and private funding for projects is drying up, and a stream of multibillion-dollar plans is coming in over budget and behind schedule, with many designs being scaled back or scrapped altogether.

...A shortage of federal housing subsidies and ongoing litigation from resident groups is threatening Bruce Ratner's $4 billion Atlantic Yards project near downtown Brooklyn. The list of public and private projects on hold seems to grow on a weekly basis.

Graphic missing AY

The accompanying graphic included four other stopped or slowed development projects cited in the article, but excluded Atlantic Yards. A graphic might have announced 2016 as the official completion date, with the arena due in 2010 (though it was initially…

The Coney contrast: no eminent domain, "constant public input"

As Atlantic Yards has become the poster child for bad public process and inadequate urban planning, it's worth watching the city's posture toward other major development projects.

And the city is treading carefully in Coney Island, where a rezoning plan would avoid use of eminent domain, even though the major landowner in the amusement area, Thor Equities' Joe Sitt, so far has very different plans for his property and has not yet agreed to a suggested swap of city land to the west.

Early in the process, a panel

At a panel last Wednesday on Coney Island at the Museum of the City of New York, Coney Island Development Corporation President Lynn Kelly explained the city's fallback tactics and offered the de rigeur assertion, "No zoning plan that the city has done was successful without constant public input and public participation."

Of course, Atlantic Yards was not a rezoning and, as everybody learned two days later, the chances for success have gone down signifi…

The standalone arena makes the Coney option look stronger

Ok, it's not on the city's radar screen, given other ambitious plans for Coney Island, but Forest City Ratner's intention to proceed with an Atlantic Yards arena and wait--perhaps for a very long while--before building office space and housing suddenly removed some major objections to the once front-burner plan to put an arena in Coney Island.

And the city's intention to press for express train service would remove another objection. That's not to say an arena is likely, but the discussion deserves a second look.

Express train coming?

At a panel last Wednesday on Coney Island at the Museum of the City of New York, Coney Island Development Corporation President Lynn Kelly said that a "next step is we need to convince the MTA to get express service" to Coney Island.

Such express service would further help Coney compete with the more central location near the Atlantic Terminal subway/LIRR hub. Remember, Forest City Ratner points to ten subway lines and the subur…

Ouroussoff's Gehry defense was more "hero worship" than civic concern

So what exactly did New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff mean last Friday when he counted himself among "we" opponents of the Atlantic Yards project?

I observed that "more likely, he’s an opponent of [architect Frank] Gehry’s vision being stymied." Indeed, more of that perspective emerged in a Sunday essay headlined Nice Tower! Who’s Your Architect? that also involves a Gehry project for Forest City Ratner.

Writing about the architect's Beekman Tower in Lower Manhattan, Ouroussoff, with satisfaction recounted how Gehry got over on the big developer:
Some architects were able to work around conventional real estate wisdom by forging exteriors that would impose a specific experience on the interior spaces. By the time the consultants at Forest City Ratner, the developer behind Mr. Gehry’s Beekman building, realized that the wrinkled walls of the architect’s tower would be mirrored inside the apartments, for example, it was too late to change without…

Suite deal: despite skyrocketing costs, arena would be paid for mostly by luxury suites

The Daily News breaks the news that, despite the Atlantic Yards stall and an unspecified date for the arena to open--up to six years after the close of litigation, as I report today--Forest City Ratner is putting on sale "130 Frank Gehry designed suites [that] will average $300,000 and top out at $540,000," or $39 million a year.

(The New York Post has a longer story that gushes about the suites and calculates $30-$35 million a year. Here's a PDF of renderings. Note the Barclays logo.)

That average is higher than that I assumed in February 2007 after reading the KPMG report. And it means that, despite the skyrocketing cost of the arena, up to $950 million, suites and sponsorships would go a long way to paying for it.

Suite deal

Let's try the math. At a 5% interest rate, over 30 years, bond payments would be $61.2 million a year. (That's a somewhat arbitrary interest rate and an online calculator, so my math could be off.)

Barclays would pay $400 million, or $20 millio…

Read the fine print: ESDC gives Ratner 6+ years to build arena, 12+ years for Phase One

How long might Atlantic Yards be stalled? In the New York Times's coverage Friday of the Atlantic Yards stall, developer Bruce Ratner would "not specify the kinds of delays possible, but suggested that construction could be put off for years."

The Times apparently didn't check with the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), but the state agency has been talking out of both sides of its mouth.

The General Project Plan, approved in December 2006 by the ESDC, stated (right) that Phase 1 of the project was "anticipated to be completed by 2010" and Phase II was "anticipated to be completed by 2016." However, nine months later, in September 2007, the ESDC signed a funding agreement that gives developer Forest City Ratner much more time and also posits a scenario in which much less housing and open space would be built.

The details:
Ratner would have six years to build the arena after the close of litigation and the ESDC's exercise of eminent domai…

Nets go carbon neutral; Times Sports section doesn't check News section

A New Jersey Nets press release about going carbon neutral got play in yesterday's New York Times Sports section, though a not dissimilar story in another section of Saturday's Times generated much more skepticism about what actually was being accomplished, calling the tactic "sleight-of-hand accounting."

The Sports article stated:

Nets’ New Environment

While the Nets are busy struggling for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, and planning their move to Brooklyn, they have taken the time to become the first professional sports team to be certified as carbon neutral.

In a league known more for sideline celebrities and fancy cars, the Nets are standing out with their commitment to going green. To achieve the certification while working to make its facilities more friendly to the environment, the team is purchasing carbon credits that offset its carbon footprint.

“We have a social responsibility to do our part to combat climate change, but it also makes business s…

Oops! Unfortunate timing on AY for the Courier-Life chain

An article (not yet online) in this week's Courier-Life chains about the Bear Stearns sale suggests that Forest City Ratner's MetroTech office complex might not be hurt--new owner J.P. Morgan assumes a lease that lasts until 2024--and ends with this heartening news about Atlantic Yards:

[FCR spokesman Loren] Riegelhaupt also sought to dispel the notion that the softening economy will hurt the company's Atlantic Yards project.

"We are a company that built in Brooklyn for over 20 years and we built in all business cycles," said Riegelhaupt.

"The Atlantic Yards project is an important component to the growth of Brooklyn and we're very excited about it."

Oops! The article is dated March 21, the same day the New York Times reported that the project, except for the arena, was essentially stalled.

Now, given that the deadline for the Courier-Life article was before the Times's report, the Courier-Life can't be completely blamed for accepting Riegelhaup…