Friday, August 07, 2009

At CBN meeting: why comments on AY are needed, why they might be ignored, and why they might play a role in litigation

Atlantic Yards may have been wounded, but it is hardly dead. Can public comments--due by August 31--hasten its demise?

Maybe, but only indirectly. That was a main message of the meeting last night held by the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), a group set up initially to respond to the Draft EIS (environmental impact statement), which later became a plaintiff in the still-pending lawsuit challenging the EIS.

(Photos by Tracy Collins)

About 85 people attended the meeting, held at the Irondale Theater space in the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene and co-sponsored by the Fort Greene Association.

Tom Angotti, professor of planning at Hunter College, laid out a series of areas in which the latest documentation by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) is insufficient. The single most important part, he said, was the argument for a modified EIS. “The project has changed enough that they have to go back and re-study it.”

For example, there’s a distinct possibility that Phase 2 will not be built. (The ESDC did not say that, though it did allow the possibility of a delayed buildout, with the arena and only one tower being built in the short term.)

The ESDC did not issue a Supplementary or Modified EIS, asserting that, while the General Project Plan--the business deal with developer Forest City Ratner--may have changed-- the environmental impact is unchanged. The business changes include a revised payment agreement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the Vanderbilt Yard, a smaller replacement yard, and a plan to pursue eminent domain in two phases rather than one.

ESDC response necessary?

Must the ESDC respond to all the comments? Not at all, given that the GPP announces only limited changes. But their failure to respond, said CBN co-chair Candace Carponter (who just happens to be the legal chair of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn), sets up the possibility for more litigation. (Behind Carponter is Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, also a member of the CBN Steering Committee.)

Angotti titled his presentation as “The Revised AY ‘Plan’ or How to Put a Stake in the Vampire’s Heart.” While much has occurred to damage the plan, he said, “it’s not dead yet.” In fact, while it does not look like the 16-tower, 8 million square foot project will be built as approved, that’s what the ESDC currently asserts, he noted.

He laid out his presentation in five parts:
  • What hasn’t changed?
  • What’s in the Revised Project Plan?
  • Why a modified environmental impact statement must be done
  • Why UNITY makes more sense
  • What you can do



The single most important part, he said, was the argument for a modified EIS. “The project has changed enough that they have to go back and re-study it.”

Among the things that haven’t changed: the basic shape of the project; the master plan by architect Frank Gehry; the “land grab”; the Blight Study; the inadequate environmental review.

The ESDC, he noted, never quantified the public costs of the project; in its fiscal impact analysis, it included only the direct public subsidy. (The ESDC still hasn’t updated even that inadequate fiscal impact analysis, even though a more expensive project--$4.9 billion as opposed to $4 billion as approved--and the greater potential for delay would presumably change that analysis.)

The public hearing process, he said, “was a joke,” and the affordable housing was “still unaffordable.” (It’s more complicated than that: 900 of the planned 2250 subsidized units would be at 50% of Area Median Income or less and, while AMI is regional and considerably higher than Brooklyn’s median income, 50% of AMI remains affordable to many.)

He noted that the “very general” design guidelines remain in the plan. Also unchanged is the open space, which he described as “not publicly accessible.” That’s a matter of debate, given that “publicly accessible” is exactly how it’s described, rather than serving as true public parks, it would be run by a conservancy and open somewhat more limited hours.

What’s new? Given that the ESDC acknowledge the potential for delays, there will likely be temporary public open space. The one example that’s been released, he noted, is a plaza near the arena, while other vacant land is destined to become interim parking lots. He noted that 100 parking spaces once planned for the arena block had been moved to Block 1129, bounded by Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and Pacific and Dean streets.

“Greenwashing”

Angotti, who’s written extensively about Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030, described efforts to present AY as environmentally sensitive as “greenwashing.” For one thing, Atlantic Yards is notably absent from PlaNYC, though it does describe ways to develop over properties like railyards.

(The Technical Memorandum issued in June by the ESDC states that AY “would assist in meeting many of the goals and objectives established in PlaNYC.”)

For another, Angotti asserted, Atlantic Yards is not transit-oriented development, which he described as development--largely in the suburbs--aimed at weaning people away from usage of cars and encouraging use of mass transit. All development in New York City relies on public transit and is thus transit-oriented development, he said. (Surely some arees in the city are more transit-oriented than others.)

As for whether buildings will be LEED-certified, a process of voluntarily complying with standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council, he said, “being LEED-certified today is really the minimum.

He noted that a once-planned arena green roof is gone from the plan, as are stormwater retention tanks. (Clarification: The Technical Memorandum states that "the detention tanks would be located in the base of the arena and enlarged to accommodate the additional stormwater load associated with the elimination of the green roof.")

Office space and Gehry’s role

Angotti said that the planned office space is unlikely, given the current market, and also asserted that the residential component was also unlikely. (Forest City Ratner has said it has put on hold the 1930 condos, but is eager to build the 4500 rentals, which would likely all be in buildings financed thanks significantly to affordable housing subsidies. Presumably FCR already has commitments from the city for the first building.)

Angotti took aim at statements that it is “anticipated” that the buildings will be based on a master plan by Frank Gehry, who has left the project. The use of the term “anticipated,” he said, leaves the developer an out.

“I hate to say it, but I’m starting to miss Frank Gehry,” Angotti said. He showed a slide of the publicly-released arena design and said that’s what the arena’s going to look like; Forest City Ratner says a new design will be released and that the previous version was leaked, even though it also appears in ESDC documentation.

Modifications in EIS needed

Why is a modified EIS necessary? First, said Angotti, because the original EIS was inadequate, failing to look closely enough at issues like traffic. (Of course, the legitimacy of the EIS has so far held up in the courts, which are merely supposed to examine whether agencies like the ESDC took a hard look, but not supposed to second-guess them.)

Most importantly, he said, “the project has changed in fundamental ways they don’t talk about” and the timeline has changed.

While a delayed buildout might indeed have a lesser impact on things like traffic, most affordable housing is scheduled for Phase 2, he noted. Similarly, the impact of extended interim surface parking was not studied.

The documentation lacks plans for interim open space. And community involvement in the project going forward has not been ensured.

What about UNITY?

Angotti took the opportunity to tout the UNITY plan he helped develop, which is focused on development over the Vanderbilt Yard only, though its principles could be extended to adjacent blocks.

Crucial is the plan to divide the site into eight parcels, which could be bid out to multiple developers, presumably allowing faster development of the site. Also, the plan would contain 60% affordable housing, geared more toward the incomes of Brooklynites; however, that would require a greater level of public subsidy, at least in the area of housing, than that planned for AY.

Also, he noted, the greatest density in UNITY would not be at the congested Atlantic/Flatbush intersection, near the largest transit hub, but on the east end of the site, at Vanderbilt Avenue. (That idea, should it be pursued, likely would engender continued debate.) Rather, a public plaza would be placed at Atlantic and Flatbush.

Security

Alan Rosner, who co-wrote a report on security and terrorism regarding Atlantic Yards and testified about current security issues at the ESDC public hearing last week, cited the release last month by the Bloomberg administration of a document on high-risk buildings called “Engineering Security.”

“It turns out, using their metrics, this would be one of the highest-risk locations in New York City,” he said.

He warned of the likelihood that, as Newark officials have done regarding the Prudential Center, streets or lanes could be closed after the project has been approved. He cited the example of Forest City Ratner’s MetroTech, where streets were blocked off well after the project was concluded. (That’s in part because certain city agencies dealing with emergency preparedness moved into the development.)

Rosner cited a report in the New York Daily news that a significant component of the astonishing 50% rise in projected arena costs between 2006 and 2008 arose from the need to use-high-security glass. (The arena, which went from $637.2 millon to $950 million, now would cost $772 million under the design by Ellerbe Becket.)

They have not looked at the costs of security,” he said.

“I have to disagree with Tom (Angotti),” Rosner said. “He said the worst-case scenario is no Phase 2. The real worst-case scenario is the project is approved, and Forest City Ratner goes bankrupt. (Parent Forest City Enterprises has lost about 90% of its value from its peak stock price, with its bonds being moved deeper into “junk” status by ratings agencies, but it has also recently issued a new stock offering to raise capital, and the stock has risen in recent months.)

Impacts on sewer system

Marlene Donnelly of FROGG (Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus) said that a revised EIS is necessary to account for the full impact on the sewer system, including the recent rezoning of the Gowanus neighborhood to accommodate a project by Toll Brothers.

Getting the word out


Jim Vogel, CBN secretary (and a staffer for state Senator Velmanette Montgomery) encouraged attendees to all send comments to the ESDC. Three years ago, he said, “we got 2900 people to respond.”

If so, they weren’t individual submissions. Actually 580 people or organizations (on both sides of the issue) submitted comments, according to the ESDC; there were 11 other submissions that were form letters or otherwise signed by mutliple people.

Is it worth it?

One attendee, suggesting that the ESDC would essentially disregard any comments, asked if it were more important instead to help fund litigation.

Paul Palazzo, chair of the FGA, said that submitting comments was part of the legal process, since it pushed the ESDC to respond (or not).

Gib Veconi, who heads the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council and is a prime mover in the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, noted that a Supplementary EIS should be triggered by new information about the project.

Thus, he said, people should specify what they think are significant changes; he cited Donnelly’s commentary as an example.

Political support

Also, Veconi pointed out that the project would not be going forward without staunch backing from Governor David Paterson and Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He suggested that attendees also write to Paterson, who essentially controls the ESDC board.

ESDC approval

While the ESDC board voted preliminary approval of the plan in June, it must hold a second meeting, expected in September, to respond in case any negative comments are submitted, Vogel noted.

The ESDC need not respond, Carponter acknowledged, but if they don’t, “it will be a basis for litigation,” filed sometime after the vote.

DDDB, she noted, will be holding its annual walkathon in October to raise money for continued litigation.

[I had hoped to post more video but the process has proved more balky than anticipated.]

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