Tuesday, May 05, 2009

No redevelopment without AY? The ESDC should be pressed to explain

(This is one in an irregular series of articles about issues that a State Senate committee might address when it holds a hearing on Atlantic Yards.)

The first part here mostly reprises what I wrote 12/4/06, but the issue shouldn't be ignored.

It was one of the least credible statements in the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) issued in July 2006 by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC):
The project site is not anticipated to experience substantial change in the future without the proposed project by 2016 due to the existence of the open rail yard and the low-density industrial zoning regulations.

The Park Slope Civic Council and Park Slope Neighbors challenged that, commenting that a city rezoning could do just that, though it would "involve professional planners whose job is to advance the public interest, rather than a reliance on private interests to establish de facto zoning."

ESDC punts

In the Final Environmental Impact Statement, the ESDC (via consultant AKRF) responded:
While the City, if it desired, could rezone the project site, it has not. Given the attempts over the life of ATURA [Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area] to encourage development, the challenges of developing over the rail yard have resulted in the project site remaining underutilized and blighted, rendering any rezoning of the rail yard parcels unable to affect desired change.

Remember, the Department of City Planning's Winston Von Engel said in March 2006 that the city hadn't yet taken a look at the railyards: "They belong to the Long Island Rail Road. They use them heavily. They're critical to their operations. You do things in a step-by-step process. We concentrated on the Downtown Brooklyn development plan for Downtown Brooklyn. Forest City Ratner owns property across the way. And they saw the yards, and looked at those. We had not been considering the yards directly."

Second look

So, really, was Forest City Ratner's project the only way to effect change? The ESDC should be pressed to defend its conclusions.

Let's look more closely.

The ESDC said:
While the City, if it desired, could rezone the project site, it has not.

The reason, as Von Engel, explained, was that the city was moving in a methodical manner in this area--and, it should be mentioned, to rezone other areas. There's no reason to think that the railyards couldn't have been included in another rezoning.

The ESDC said:
Given the attempts over the life of ATURA to encourage development, the challenges of developing over the rail yard have resulted in the project site remaining underutilized and blighted, rendering any rezoning of the rail yard parcels unable to affect desired change.

The challenges of development mainly involve cost. At the time Atlantic Yards was proposed, the increasing value of land, coupled with the decreasing availability of land, made it plausible to develop over the Vanderbilt Yard.

And, as shown in the example of Hudson Yards, the better way to do that is an RFP, with all bidders on an equal footing, rather than the process with AY, where a belated RFP was issued 18 months after Forest City Ratner was anointed developer by the city and state.

Then again, as others have pointed out, the one-developer model--even if produced via a fair bidding process--may be far less wise than a phased project involving multiple developers bidding on multiple parcels.

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