Saturday, November 13, 2010

FCR's Morgan Stanley Building, Brooklyn Heights, issues of scale, and questions of government help

In a profile of Steve Spinola, president of the powerful Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), the New York Observer leads with an anecdote involving Brooklyn and, yes, Forest City Ratner:
Developer Bruce Ratner came to Steven Spinola for help in 1985. Mr. Ratner needed to get tenants for his planned MetroTech Center in Brooklyn, and Mr. Spinola was Ed Koch's economic development chief. Part of his job was to keep tenants in New York, and Morgan Stanley was thinking about moving its back offices to New Jersey.

"They were trying to convince Morgan Stanley to go to MetroTech... They asked me to go to a meeting with Morgan Stanley to discuss and to tell them that the city was ready to encourage them to do whatever."

...After Mr. Spinola's meeting with Morgan Stanley, the prospects for a deal looked dim. "We went down in the elevator. I turned to Bruce Ratner and I said, 'There's no way you get them to MetroTech.' I said, 'But I have a site on Pierrepont Street that's currently a garage. And one of my guys came to me two months earlier and said, "The city's about to give a new lease for this garage. We oughta have a cancellation clause in case we ever need it."'"

..."So I called up City Hall, I asked for it, they gave it to me. So I said to Ratner, 'Can you spend the weekend coming up with a design for a building on that site? I'll sole-source it to you if we can get Morgan Stanley to be the principal tenant.' And we made that deal."

The groundbreaking took place outdoors on the job site in 1986, Mr. Spinola remembered. Residents of Brooklyn Heights were protesting outside. They didn't want something so decidedly un-Heightsy—a bank back office, of all things—in their neighborhood.
(Photo by MK Metz/McBrooklyn)

In the 1980s, the city faced a real need to transform Downtown Brooklyn, so sole-source deals might have been somewhat more defensible. But they're still questionable as a policy.

Questions of scale

As for the building, it's on the Brooklyn Heights side of Cadman Plaza West, though within the zoning for Downtown Brooklyn (before and revised).

Today, it certainly isn't seen as encroaching much on Brooklyn Heights. In the Atlantic Yards context, buildings at the edge of Atlantic Avenue wouldn't encroach much on Prospect Heights.

The building at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush, B1, would not border any low-rise buildings, but would be across the street, an abrupt transition from Fifth Avenue.

The first building planned, at the corner of Dean and Flatbush, would be near some low-scale buildings across Dean Street, but would not be nearly as abrupt a transition as the building at the corner of Dean and Sixth avenue.

Neighborhood resurgence?

The Brooklyn Paper, in an 11/29/09 article headlined The story of Brooklyn Heights? Stability, found a cautionary tale while over-praising the building:

The neighborhood’s resurgence began with One Pierrepont Plaza. That project, Forest City Ratner’s first in the borough, kicked off not only the development of Downtown Brooklyn, but also provided a cautionary tale for the neighborhood. For years, the borough president’s office had promised that the parking lot on which the development was built would become a hotel, not the home for Morgan Stanley that it would eventually become.

From that battle, the Brooklyn Heights Association learned that it was important to dictate some of the terms of neighborhood debate with government officials, not simply react to what was imposed on them.
Actually, the neighborhood's resurgence began 20 years earlier when Brooklyn Heights became the city's first landmark district.

FCR's investment?

In 7/29/09 testimony before the Empire State Development Corporation, Kathryn Wylde of the Partnership for New York City said:

Bruce Ratner and Forest City Enterprises have played a singular role in the renaissance of Brooklyn. The Morgan Stanley building on Pierrepont Street, followed by Metrotech, were seminal projects that began our transformation from a dumping grounds into New York City’s most desirable place to live, and increasingly, the place where New Yorkers also want to work, play and visit. We should all applaud the fact that, during the worst economic and credit crisis since the Great Depression, Forest City Ratner continues to invest their significant resources into creating new buildings and jobs in Brooklyn.
If FCR is investing "their significant resources," more details would be welcome. As a smart developer, they are (and should be) doing their best to use others' "significant resources."

That was the story of the Morgan Stanley building, when government help was more justified. It's also the story of Atlantic Yards.

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