Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Atlantic Yards in 2012: massive buzz for an arena opening, the ubiquitous Barclays, a first tower unveiled, a huge local mess (?), inevitable surprises (a modular twist? Carlton Avenue Bridge delay?)


What's next in 2012 for Atlantic Yards? Some things we can predict, but other issues are up in the air. And, as I suggested in the 2011 round-up, Atlantic Yards always seems to bring some new twist, so expect something unexpected (though I have a few guesses).

The arena opens

Most likely, the arena will open officially on 9/28/12, as announced. That will be tied to a massive publicity campaign for the first Jay-Z concert.

Similarly, the Nets will open in October, part of a massive publicity campaign. And there will be a "soft opening" in August to introduce the building to the community, though likely first to invitees.

Keep watch for exactly which dignitaries show up for any opening ceremony; at the 2010 groundbreaking, there were few Brooklyn elected officials.

By summer or the start of fall, the Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street subway hub should be co-named with the name Barclays (in some form).

The buzz for the Barclays Center arena will depend, in part, on whether the Nets produce a winning team, a result dependent on new personnel rather than current performance.

Will Dwight Howard, the disgruntled Orlando Magic star center, end up with the Nets? The Star-Ledger's Dave D'Alessandro thought so, then, after seeing the Nets get blown out in their home opener, asked, "Why would Dwight Howard want to lose a playoff season by coming here in March?"

Still, if Howard does arrive, that's a game-changer for the (presumably) relatively-moribund Nets, generating an undeniable buzz.

Will there be any sign that the New York Islanders, in a doomed arena on Long Island, plan to move--or at least play a few test games--in Brooklyn? Maybe.

A huge mess?

Up in the air, however, is exactly how developer Forest City Ratner, which owns the majority of the arena operating company, and the city/state will finish the arena and associated infrastructure, and manage arena traffic and transportation challenges.

The developer and subcontractors are already on an accelerated schedule, starting an hour early, and frequently working double shifts and weekends. That's because they need to be open to draw key sponsorship revenue. So it's likely neighbors will face additional stresses, to be documented on Atlantic Yards Watch.

A Transportation Demand Management plan--for basketball only, not other events, though it surely would be worthwhile for the latter--was initially due in December, but has been delayed. We still don't know, for example, whether modular stacked parking will be placed at the interim surface parking lot.

The potential for a huge mess, based on cars circling in search of parking, or boisterous arenagoers treating residential streets as whooping grounds, is considerable.

The first tower

Also unclear are plans for B2, the first housing tower, at Dean Street and Flatbush Avenue: modular or conventional?

Will the new towers be modular construction? Despite Forest City Ratner's announced plans, the modular venture is an "intention," not set in stone. The announcement could have been an effort to pressure construction unions into compromises.

Or it could have been a way to leverage a "surprise," say, a city or state grant for "innovative construction techniques."

The building's been delayed for two years, though it almost certainly will start before the arena opens.

Why? Because if certain "arena opening conditions" are delayed, like the rebuilding of the Carlton Avenue Bridge, the penalty is a freeze on new development sites. I wouldn't bet against one of the 2012 surprises being the news that the Carlton Avenue Bridge isn't finished on time.

Modular plans and EB-5

Immigrant (mostly Chinese) investors should own mortgages on six more development sites, beginning a process that began last year, in which their $249 million loan is secured by development rights.

Will Forest City Ratner, via the New York City Regional Center, get an additional $40 million loan from immigrant investors, as is possible? Not sure, but I wouldn't rule it out.

Will Congress, as it's pressured to renew the regional center aspect of the EB-5 immigration program before its expiration in September, reform it, perhaps by tightening the rules regarding gerrymandering? Perhaps, though that's merely one of the reforms necessary to achieve legislative intent.

Will the New York Times, which focused on gerrymandering in an article and editorial, write about the other EB-5 issues? I wouldn't bet on it. But expect more EB-5 coverage in general.

Court case, SEIS, and oversight

What about the lingering court case, in which Supreme Court Justice Marcy Friedman handed community groups a long-awaited partial victory in court, ruling that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), in "what appears to be yet another failure of transparency," had failed to study the impacts of a 25-year buildout and thus had to do a Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS)?

That appears to be a confusing situation. On the one hand, the ESDC and Forest City Ratner are appealing that decision, arguing that Friedman overstepped judicial bounds.

On the other, to cover their bases, the ESDC has hired ubiquitous environmental consultant AKRF to conduct an SEIS, which presages another public hearing (unless Friedman's decision is overturned first). If so, it will be lower-key than previous ones, but surely will some mix of wonkish criticism and project cheerleading.

There was little sign that the ESDC, under new Governor Andrew Cuomo, took Atlantic Yards oversight more seriously, as no new governance entity emerged. ESDC CEO Kenneth Adams, a Brooklynite, has paid more lip service to community concerns. 'Cuomo hasn't given any signals that he understands Atlantic Yards, and donor Bruce Ratner and some Ratner lobbyists surely have his ear.

Last year, citizen activism shifted away from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), which tried mightily to stop Atlantic Yards and highlight the bypass of democracy, to BrooklynSpeaks and other groups concerned with oversight, notably via the Atlantic Yards Watch initiative.

It's possible that the mayoral aide newly assigned to Atlantic Yards, Lolita Jackson, will be able to nudge city agencies toward greater response.

But we may still be waiting for the ESDC to hire someone for the vacated-since-June community relations position once occupied by Forrest Taylor. And we likely will still be waiting for Forest City to hire the Independent Compliance Monitor required by the Community Benefits Agreement signed in 2005.

The Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet, which gathers representatives of all affected agencies as well as governmental and community board stakeholders, will putter along in bimonthly meetings, but a new transportation working group may bring more urgency to solutions.

AY politics

The politics around Atlantic Yards may shift a bit. City Council Member Letitia James may not diminish her Atlantic Yards activism, but, her overall attention likely will shift depending on her plans for 2013.

She's been rumored to run for Public Advocate in 2013, but that will be tough if Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, currently an also-ran mayoral candidate but with a formidable campaign chest, is a rival.

Alternatively, James could run for Brooklyn Borough President, thus bumping up against Carlo Scissura, Borough President Marty Markowitz's longtime chief of staff, who was reassigned as special advisor so he could run. (Or James could actually run for a third full term, though, given her public opposition to the term limits overhaul, it would seem hypocritical.)

Other rivals for the Borough Presidency will emerge--rumors include Council Member Dominic Recchia and state Senator Eric Adams-- and Atlantic Yards surely will be an issue, but not as large as it would have loomed in 2005 or 2009, when Markowitz sailed through.

It likely will be an issue in the next campaign challenge to state Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who faces a 2012 vote, though in 2010 the big issue was charter schools. And Atlantic Yards likely will come up in the 2012 contest for the Congressional seat now occupied by Rep. Ed Towns, to be challenged by Council Member Charles Barron and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries.

Timetable and lawsuit

The Atlantic Yards timetable has always been a question mark--and that question mark remains. The SEIS may provide a new timetable, but that's still depending on financing and, crucially, on whether modular technology actually gets used.

Another lingering political issue will be the lawsuit filed against Forest City and Community Benefits Agreement signatory BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development) by seven of 36 people selected for a training program which, they said, promised project jobs and union cards.

I'd bet the suit does not reach trial, and gets settled with payments in exchange for silence.

Press and publicity

Atlantic Yards, as always, will be a case study in public relations. Expect a massive amount of coverage from the sports pages, as well as Jay-Z-related entertainment coverage.

Also look for other ways to milk the buzz, including the announcement of team colors and team uniforms, and some other high-profile events.

Expect further evidence of strategic philanthropy from Forest City Ratner/Barclays/Nets (though not, of course, spending on an Independent Compliance Monitor).

Given--take your pick--issue fatigue, subtle (or not so subtle) pressure from the top, and loss of institutional memory, the New York and national media shouldn't be expected to produce tough coverage.

However, there will inevitably be reasons for Atlantic Yards skepticism. So expect No Land Grab to continue daily compilations of all things AY. And this blog should continue on as before.

Also, it's possible that at least a few press outlets approaching Atlantic Yards with fresh eyes, keyed to the arena opening, might take a longer look at what really happened.

The documentary Battle for Brooklyn made the 15-film short list for the Oscars, and the finalists will be announced January 24. Whether or not BfB makes the list, it should have continuing resonance in 2012.

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