Saturday, November 19, 2011

As BrooklynSpeaks, AY Watch point to the need for oversight and questions about community impact, New York magazine's critic embraces Forest City's modular plan

Well, Forest City Ratner's announcement of its modular construction plan certainly changed the narrative in more than one way. Not only did it deflect attention from the lawsuit filed by workers who said they were promised union cards and construction jobs, it has been embraced by at least one architectural critic who's generally been skeptical of Atlantic Yards.

New York Magazine's Justin Davidson, in an 11/18/11 article headlined Less Really Is More: SHoP Architects, masters of post-boom buildability., does not mention the caveats--that Forest City's modular plan may be brinksmanship with the unions, that the timing was suspect, etc.--but focuses on the possibilities:
The essential firm of the post-binge era is shaping up to be SHoP, headed not by a celebrity but by a half-dozen fortysomething New Yorkers who share a messianic high-tech pragmatism. Having spent a dozen years leapfrogging from youthful novelty to boutique eminence, SHoP is staking its name on the world’s tallest prefab tower.

The 32-story building with the vitamin name, B2, will rise at Atlantic Yards, that troubled monster where every new move courts fresh opprobrium. Half of B2’s 350 units are designated for low- and middle-income families, which means the developer, Forest City Ratner, needs to allay suspicions that it’s grinding out gimcrack pods for the poor—even as the apartments are made in factories and the whole process is designed to shave as much as 20 percent off construction costs. SHoP’s partners, though, consider prefabrication a designer’s godsend, the key to making housing awesome yet affordable. “Modular construction could radically change what living in New York is like,” says Gregg Pasquarelli, the most voluble of the five original founders.
A fan of the arena

Later, Davidson, who acknowledged he was a critic of SHoP's willingness to rehabilitate the Ellerbe Beckett arena, declares himself a fan, thanks to the rusted steel exterior:
The structure is wrapped in a basket weave of weathered steel, giving it a rusty cool. A canopy whose inner rim will display scrolling video and digital signs reaches over the plaza. Is it a huge basketball hoop? For Christopher Sharples, it echoes the embracing colonnades of St. Peter’s in Rome. “That oculus, 35 feet overhead and the size of a basketball court, is like the arms of Bernini: It comes out and greets you.”
The future of modular

Davison recognizes that modular housing "has a venerable but erratic pedigree," but suggests that the "great advantage of Atlantic Yards is that it’s huge enough to create its own demand":
Proposing a forest of modular high-rises might seem at first like a bargain hunter’s strategy to get something—anything—built at a troubled site. Unions are already upset at the prospect of shifting traditional construction jobs to lower-paying factory work. In the end, though, the move could help alleviate the city’s perpetual shortage of reasonably priced housing—and bring back some manufacturing as well.
Legitimate points, but lots left out, including the Bruce Ratner's admission of a bait-and-switch, along with an array of apartment sizes skewed smaller than promised.

Ratner's astounding statement

BrooklynSpeaks, in Ratner: Affordable housing won’t work for Atlantic Yards, followed up on developer Bruce Ratner's statement to the Wall Street Journal,
Mr. Ratner said Thursday that the existing incentives for developments where half the units are priced for middle- and low-income tenants "don't work for a high-rise building that's union built."
He added that he had "accepted the fact that we're not going to get more subsidy."
BrooklynSpeaks warns that "his statement may set the stage for Forest City Ratner to claim an “Affordable Housing Subsidy Unavailability” under the master development agreement it executed with the Empire State Development Corporation."

That would allow construction to last even longer than 25 years. It's also possible, BrooklynSpeaks allowed, that this is a way to pressure union officials. (It's also part of the modular plan, I'd add.)

BrooklynSpeaks sums up:
First, $200 million of State and City subsidy wasn’t enough for Atlantic Yards.
Next, Frank Gehry’s architecture was too expensive for Atlantic Yards.
Then, the 10-year project schedule was too short for Atlantic Yards.
Eight acres of open space also didn’t work for Atlantic Yards, unless one considers an 1,100-car surface parking lot to be open space.
And providing unionized jobs for local residents hasn’t worked for Atlantic Yards, either.
Now, the 2,250 units of affordable housing are in greater doubt. It may be the only public promise that FCR will be able to keep is that its arena will create a traffic nightmare in central Brooklyn.
The need for oversight and the ESD role

BrooklynSpeaks pointed to a 9/26/11 meeting with community leaders and local legislators, in which Empire State Development CEO Kenneth Adams dismissed the idea that Atlantic Yards, like other large State projects, required dedicated oversight from his agency.

The latest news, to BrooklynSpeaks, is argument for more and better oversight, such as through a dedicated oversight body.

I'd add that Adams, in that meeting, stated without elaboration or evidence that his agency believed Forest City had the financial capability to build out the project. “Well, we believe that they do. We are, ESD, a partner with Forest City Ratner. And we remain fully confident that they have the financing and the wherewithal to build out the project.”

At that time, he surely know of the developer's solution: to build modular towers at untested heights.

Questions about delays, new impacts

Atlantic Yards Watch, in Building #2 announcement raises questions about construction plans, parking and open space, points out the need for financing, union agreements, and a new factory, all elements that must be put in place before modular construction begins.

And AY Watch raises a question about Bruce Ratner's claim that modular building techniques will be greener and less disruptive because of "less dust, less gasoline, less trucks."

That's plausible regarding those set of inputs, but AY Watch notes that "no construction plans have been provided for the public to review, and the use of modular techniques at the height proposed is untested, meaning judgements about the degree of impact of the use of modular building techniques on the adjacent neighborhood are speculative."

Among the issues that Forest City Ratner and the state need to discuss publicly: plans for excavation of building foundations, the location of staging areas, the location of parking for the residents of Building 2, and the increased burden on existing open space.

AY Watch reminds us that, with projects like Battery Park City, the permanent open space was provided up front, not at the end of the development.

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