Thursday, September 29, 2011

A caution on that BrooklynSpeaks/DDDB press release: wouldn't deferring railyard development prolong blight?

On Monday, before the community meeting with Empire State Development CEO Kenneth Adams, BrooklynSpeaks and Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) issued what I think was their first-ever joint press release, headlined What ESDC must do now to make Atlantic Yards work for Brooklyn.

It was very much BrooklynSpeaks language--DDDB never wanted to make "Atlantic Yards work for Brooklyn" but rather to stop the project. So perhaps it was an exercise in pragmatism.

The recommendations, including opening up the project site to additional developers, would require ESD to amend the project plan and numerous contract documents.

There's never been any sign of the political will to do so. If the state wanted to ensure that the project gets done without opening it up to additional developers, it could have impose tougher deadlines and fines to push Forest City Ratner.

Gentle deadline

And the joint recommendation to defer development on the railyard because of a costly platform--which the developer already has 15 years to start--implicitly endorses that gentle deadline to which the state agreed.

In other words, everyone now seems to agree that the railyard, the most prominent claim to blight on the oddly-drawn Atlantic Yards footprint, can remain a blighting influence.

(Astonishingly, FCR in March 2009 told the Empire State Development Corporation that "the vast majority" of benefits for the community would be "entirely realized in the remote circumstance of MTA's default scenario," in which no platform were built.)

The statement
Construction of the Barclays Center arena is moving ahead, but the completion of Phase I and all of Phase II of the Atlantic Yards project risks being significantly delayed. Sadly, the promises of jobs, economic vitality for the area, income for the City of New York, affordable housing, and open space all seem unlikely to be realized for decades, if not generations.

BrooklynSpeaks and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn want successful development of the Atlantic Yards site. We want what the State and City want: the economic development, the jobs, and the public benefits that a healthy development can provide—not in the 25 years now understood by all as being likely, but within the next few years as needed.

The project’s present path won’t lead us there. Although economic conditions may be discouraging for development, it is the project plan itself that is the constraint. Conceived at a time when financing was readily available and the market was ripe for a large new development, the project was planned from west to east, merging the difficult and expensive site development with the easy. As a result, the project plan has burdened what is feasible with that which has become infeasible, and risks bringing development to a halt. The project’s dependence on luxury housing hampers forward movement and adds exposure to market fluctuations that might otherwise be avoided.

In most ESDC projects, flexibility and managing risk are part of the plan. Without altering the intent or spirit of the Atlantic Yards project, ESDC should now consider pragmatic changes that will foster success and accelerate its benefits.
  • Build first on currently developable parcels, deferring the costly Vanderbilt Yards platform.
  • Develop affordable housing in the manner and context of recent successes nearby.
  • Open the development to additional teams in order to distribute the investment, the risk and the total work effort.
  • Bring the community and its elected representatives to the table so we can all work together and win.
(Emphasis added)

Looking more closely

Well, the most currently developable parcels are on the arena site, and Forest City has 12 years to finish three towers. If the state wants those parcels developed faster, then it could/should change the language.

Forest City won development rights to the railyard by pledging $100 million in cash--and then later renegotiating to $20 million down, with the rest to be paid over 22 years--because its entire bid package was said to be worth much more.

And because it included a plan to build a deck to ensure that the railyard parcels were developable.

I'm not sure what "affordable housing in the manner and context of recent successes nearby" actually means--Atlantic Terrace, developed by a nonprofit group (that's a member of BrooklynSpeaks)?--but it's worth a discussion. Surely Forest City would say the density of the project is driven by its infrastructure and other sunk costs.

The Development Agreement does require the first residential building on Block 1129--the southeast block of the project site, currently planned for interim surface parking--to begin within a decade.

The BrooklynSpeaks/DDDB press release implicitly suggests that the timetable for Block 1129 be speeded up. Forest City Ratner likely doesn't want any timetable changes, but if there are any, that would be the easiest to accommodate--it's a lot easier to build on "terra firma," as FCR executive MaryAnne Gilmartin has said.

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