Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A short history of Atlantic Yards orchestration: condos added, 8% scaleback, Miss Brooklyn cuts, and the arena redesign

Much in the Atlantic Yards saga, I suspect, has been strategized in Forest City Ratner's offices at 1 MetroTech.

Consider the 12/10/03 press conference at which public officials praised the project, and continue through exclusives bestowed on news organizations, For example: the 7/5/05 release to the Times of new Frank Gehry designs (Instant Skyline Added to Brooklyn Arena Plan, which, alarming readers with its visuals, backfired somewhat) and Bruce Ratner's 5/4/08 op-ed in the New York Daily News (Atlantic Yards dead? Dream on), which was, to say the least, factually challenged).

But some episodes have been truly orchestrated, a term I'll reserve for a sequence in which community or political leaders provide (or are said to provide) cover for something the developer likely wanted to do all along.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's attempt to play architectural adviser is only the latest. But it is the least effective, given that the public and press have woken up somewhat.

Adding condos to the Atlantic Yards plan

Problem: Forest City Ratner once promised a plan in which 50% of the housing would be affordable.

Strategy: sign a 50/50 housing plan regarding 4500 rentals, then quietly add (at the time) 2800 condos.

Orchestration: once that strategy was pointed out by critics and opponents, FCR explained in the New York Times: community leaders had pushed Mr. Ratner to include more housing in the project.

Effectiveness: High, but mainly because of the credulous press.

Quote: FCR's Jim Stuckey: "Projects change, markets change." Also: "Here we are opening ourselves up - tremendous transparency, for two years. Yet the criticism is, 'Wait a second, they didn't tell us something about the evolution of their planning process before the public process began'? Just think about what that means. It's Orwellian, almost."

Brutally weird twist: Documents later released showed FCR planned condos from the start.

Reducing the project "6 to 8 percent"

Problem: Forest City Ratner needed to convey that it was making serious reductions in a plan widely seen as too large.

Strategy: Announce 21-acre project at 8 million square feet, then, while adding another acre, up the size to 9.132 million square feet. Then announce cuts to bring the project down to square footage originally announced.

Orchestration: Float a "6 to 8 percent" cut in the 9/5/06 New York Times, then have such a cut recommended by the New York City Planning Commission.

Effectiveness: High, but mainly because of a major error in judgment by the New York Times and otherwise credulous press coverage.

Quote: “Everyone’s going to take credit for something that everyone knew would happen,” an executive who works with Forest City told the Times, which while winking at such inside baseball still saw fit to make the article the lead story.

Brutally weird twist: Documents later released showed that most of the cuts announced had been on the table for months.

Reducing the height of Miss Brooklyn (aka B1)

Problem: Forest City Ratner had offended people by designing the flagship office tower, then called Miss Brooklyn, taller than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank and, in the process, blocking the bank's iconic clock. The developer had pledged from the outset that the tower wouldn't block the clock.

Strategy: Distract people by focusing solely on the issue of height, reducing the new tower from 620 feet to 511 feet, one foot below the bank's height.

(Graphic of 620-foot Miss Brooklyn from Final Environmental Impact Statement.)

Orchestration: Have the City Planning Commission defend the height. Have the Times report that architect Frank Gehry objected to changes. Have Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz request a cut in height, then praise the developer when that request is fulfilled.

Effectiveness: High, but mainly because of a press that didn't bother to check on whether the shorter building would block the clock.

Quote: Markowitz declared, "I am very encouraged as well that the PACB acted on our suggestion that the project’s 'Miss Brooklyn' building not be taller than Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Savings Bank building." (It was Forest City Ratner, not the Public Authorities Control Board, that acted, on the day of the board's approval.)

Brutally weird twist: There never was a market for Atlantic Yards office space when the project was announced.

Changing the design of the Atlantic Yards arena

Problem: At $950 million, the arena likely would be too costly for a bond issue, and the land underlying the arena likely couldn't be valued high enough to generate foregone property taxes commensurate to the arena bonds. Glass facades might pose a security risk.

Strategy: Hire unnamed firms to do value engineering on the arena, with Frank Gehry's role receding.

Orchestration: Get Markowitz to declare, "To create an arena that's in-your-face and may become an icon of the world is just not realistic anymore" and to suggest that the arena and other buildings might use less glass. Then have Forest City Ratner thank the BP for his suggestions.

Effectiveness: Low. By now, even the New York Times could report that Markowitz's call for a "more economically feasible" arena was "pretty much what Forest City Ratner acknowledged it was doing last week."

Quote: Markowitz said, "There may be a chance to incorporate design and construction changes that will lower the bottom line and celebrate the ‘Brownstone Brooklyn’ architecture that makes our borough unique."

(Graphic from DDDB.)

Brutally weird twist: Markowitz actually said he thought the arena would create affordable housing.

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