Skip to main content

Environmental review process slammed at MAS Summit, but solutions remain elusive

Is the environmental review process broken? At the Municipal Art Society's (MAS) Summit for New York City October 21-22, two speakers suggested it was, but they didn't make what I believe is a key distinction: between truly public projects and public-private (or private-public) projects.



Opening up the first session of the two-day event, Philip K. Howard, lawyer, author (The Death of Common Sense), and founder of the national coalition Common Good, warned of "a growing bureaucracy that shackles government, stifles innovation, makes it impossible to adapt to current challenges."

And while his critique encompasses the budget and the schools, he directed his most pointed comments to the struggle to build new infrastructure.

"No pebble left unturned"

Environmental impact statements (EIS) "have evolved into a process of no pebble left unturned," he warned. "If it takes a decade or longer to get approvals, it will be 2025 or 2030 to start building a rail line or power grid... Even the president doesn't have the authority to make these choices over a reasonable review period."

"We're going to have to change the structure of law not to deregulate, but to make regulation work... to get where we all want to go and preserve the magic that is New York," Howard said.

It's hard to disagree that the system doesn't work, but there's also an argument for a distinction between projects that are truly public and those in which the main or significant beneficiary is private.

Past efforts

In May 2007, the Manhattan Institute issued a report and hosted a panel on streamlining the city's environmental review process.

While proponents advocated a narrower definition of the "environment," they also suggested that state projects like Atlantic Yards should have gone through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which allows for more input by community boards and elected officials.

Large-scale development difficulty

Later in the Summit, on a panel regarding Moynihan Station, former MAS President Kent Barwick took up the issue. While "we get good marks for what we're doing with individual building and retrofitting neighborhoods," he said, "we don't get very good marks at our capacity for large-scale developments."

Rockefeller Center, he said, is "a standard we have a hard time meeting." (Of course, Rockefeller Center was produced not by government guidance but by a private developer with few limitations.)

Lack of capacity?

"One reason is we have diminished the capacity of our public authorities," Barwick said. "Basically, there are no Ed Logues in the picture, no Robert Moses."

"I'm not talking about arrogance, I'm talking about capacity," he said, noting that Moses wouldn't let his designers or architects go into the armed forces, knowing they were needed to draw up plans for the flood of money that would emerge after World War II.

Although the capacity for public interaction has improved, "we have made the public participation process more cumbersome than ever," he said, adding that some large-scale projects have no local review.

(Unmentioned, but likely on his mind: Atlantic Yards, which the MAS critiqued when it helped found the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, which is has since left.)

Relying on developers

Referencing Howard, Barwick said, "We have an unbelievably cumbersome and wasteful public approval process... we rely on developers to provide... not only the infrastructure the public should be providing... but even the money to fund the EIS's."

He criticized not just the state SEQRA process but also ULURP, saying, communities are invited "to scream," but lost any real power to affect process... We're not getting the consensus we need to move things along."

The solution, however, remains elusive.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

At 550 Vanderbilt, big chunk of apartments pitched to Chinese buyers as "international units"

One key to sales at the 550 Vanderbilt condo is the connection to China, thanks to Shanghai-based developer Greenland Holdings.

It's the parent of Greenland USA, which as part of Greenland Forest City Partners owns 70% of Pacific Park (except 461 Dean and the arena).

And sales in China may help explain how the developer was able to claim early momentum.
"Since 550 Vanderbilt launched pre-sales in June [2015], more than 80 residences have gone into contract, representing over 30% of the building’s 278 total residences," the developer said in a 9/25/15 press release announcing the opening of a sales gallery in Brooklyn. "The strong response from the marketplace indicates the high level of demand for well-designed new luxury homes in Brooklyn..."

Maybe. Or maybe it just meant a decent initial pipeline to Chinese buyers.

As lawyer Jay Neveloff, who represents Forest City, told the Real Deal in 2015, a project involving a Chinese firm "creates a huge market for…

Is Barclays Center dumping the Islanders, or are they renegotiating? Evidence varies (bond doc, cash receipts); NHL attendance biggest variable

The Internet has been abuzz since Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick reported 1/30/17, using an overly conclusory headline, that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Is Dumping the Islanders.

That would end an unusual arrangement in which the arena agrees to pay the team a fixed sum (minus certain expenses), in exchange for keeping tickets, suite, and sponsorship revenue.

The arena would earn more without the hockey team, according to Bloomberg, which cited “a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season--a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said."

That "signal," however, is hardly definitive, as are the media leaks about a prospective new arena in Queens, as shown in the screenshot below from Newsday. Both sides are surely pushing for advantage, if not bluffing.

Consider: the arena and the Islanders can't even formally begin their opt-out talks until after this season. The disc…

Skanska says it "expected to assemble a properly designed modular building, not engage in an iterative R&D experiment"

On 12/10/16, I noted that FastCo.Design's Prefab's Moment of Reckoning article dialed back the gush on the 461 Dean modular tower compared to the publication's previous coverage.

Still, I noted that the article relied on developer Forest City Ratner and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. From the article: At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's Adam] Greene says.Skanska jabs back
Well, Forest City's estranged partner Skanska later weighed in--not sure whether they weren't asked or just missed a deadline--and their article was updated 12/13/16. Here's Skanska's statement, which shows th…

Not just logistics: bypassing Brooklyn for DNC 2016 also saved on optics (role of Russian oligarch, Shanghai government)

Surely the logistical challenges of holding a national presidential nominating convention in Brooklyn were the main (and stated) reasons for the Democratic National Committee's choice of Philadelphia.

And, as I wrote in NY Slant, the huge security cordon in Philadelphia would have been impossible in Brooklyn.

But consider also the optics. As I wrote in my 1/21/15 op-ed in the Times arguing that the choice of Brooklyn was a bad idea:
The arena also raises ethically sticky questions for the Democrats. While the Barclays Center is owned primarily by Forest City Ratner, 45 percent of it is owned by the Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (who also owns 80 percent of the Brooklyn Nets). Mr. Prokhorov has a necessarily cordial relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — though he has been critical of Mr. Putin in the past, last year, at the Russian president’s request, he tried to transfer ownership of the Nets to one of his Moscow-based companies. An oligarch-owned a…