Skip to main content

At meeting on first Atlantic Yards tower, questions about affordable housing, CBA oversight, design, safety, parking, noise

The meeting last night at Borough Hall was supposed to address the design for B2, the $183 million, 32-story, modular tower that will be the first Atlantic Yards residential building, but the presentation actually went well beyond it to issues not just of neighborhood impact but also affordable housing and hiring.

Photos and set by Tracy Collins
The session, which lasted only about 90 minutes of a projected two-hour length, was mostly low-key, with handful of flash points, including the questionable claim that a Dean Street sidewalk narrowed to five feet could accommodate arena crowds.

There were perhaps 60 people in the audience, many of them apparently more interested in issues like affordable housing--applications should be available in January 2014--than the impacts of construction. The building will have 363 units, with 181 (50%) subsidized for low-, moderate-, and middle-income renters.

Representatives of developer Forest City Ratner and its associates were mostly surefooted regarding plans for the building, stressing that there should be less noise, fewer deliveries, and a faster construction schedule--all of which should add up to a decreased impact on neighbors near the building on Dean Street just east of Flatbush Avenue bordering the arena.

The design was presented as far more varied than the shorthand "Lego" style used in some press accounts, with significant testing to ensure safety.

Some fuzziness

But they were fuzzy on some controversial issues, such as the actual number of jobs, as well as the amount of larger apartments available for lower-income renters. And, rather than being presented as a cost-saving tactic, the modular plan was explained as an opportunity for innovation--a legitimate but incomplete answer.

“Why did you wait until three weeks before the groundbreaking to present these plans to the community?” one audience member asked, in a question submitted in writing to the moderators, Rob Perris, District Manager of Community Board 2, and Craig Hammerman, District Manager of Community Board 6.

“So we committed to do a groundbreaking by the end of year, so December 18 gets us in there,” Forest City Ratner External VP Ashley Cotton responded, “and we were finalizing plans with our partner Skanska, our financing, and so I guess the timing of all the things, if you line them up, today was a great day to be able to share absolutely everything with you guys, now that it’s all come to fruition.”Forest City Ratner Public Presentation of B2, Nov. 29, 2012

Official backing

In the audience were several officials from Empire State Development, the state agency overseeing Atlantic Yards, including CEO Kenneth Adams and his Chief of Staff, Justin Ginsburgh. Arana Hankin, Director, Atlantic Yards Project for ESD, called it “a really exciting day for all of us.”

“The next chapter of the Atlantic Yards project is upon us. Forest City Ratner has delivered us a spectacular arena,” she said, and there’s “ every reason to believe the first building will be just as impressive.”

Not only would the tower, with 363 apartments, “further change landscape of Downtown Brooklyn,” Hankin declared, it has “the potential to change the construction industry around the world,” given that it would be the tallest building in the world built in modules constructed at a factory and trucked to the site.

Markowitz, with Jane Marshall and Terence Kelly
Borough President Marty Markowitz saluted “the triumphant opening of America's most beautiful arena” and said that the plan to ensure that half of the units will be affordable would be “keeping the promise made by Forest City Ratner and all of those who supported it.” (Not quite, as noted below.)

“With tonight's exciting new announcement, we have opportunity to create... potentially a new industry in Brooklyn,” Markowitz said, suggesting that “modular has the potential to create thousands of jobs.”

Leading off

Melissa Roman Burch, Forest City’s Senior VP for residential/commercial construction, said B2 was nearly in place, given that they’ve established a new modular factory with Skanska and achieved collective bargaining with union labor.
Melissa Burch and Bob Sanna
“All financing commitments are in place with HDC [New York City Housing Development Corporation] and Bank of New York Mellon to permit construction,” she added. (Actually, NYC HDC, which did have its one required hearing this past July, told me yesterday that its board next week will be voting approval of tax-exempt financing of up to $100 million.)

They're still waiting for the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development to approve some apartment design issues.

Affordable housing

As described in the chart at right, there would be 75 subsidized studios, 70 1BR units, and 36 2BR units.

Burch noted that every apartment would have a washer and dryer, and the building would have such amenities as a fitness center, game room, and yoga/dance studio.

Given that there are 36 subsidized two-bedroom units and only 12 market-rate units, they skew toward affordability, Burch noted.

(However, that’s still well behind the developer’s promises in the Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding signed with ACORN, and was increased only due to pressure from NYC HDC, as I described in an article for City Limits' Brooklyn Bureau.)

The program, she said, was created by Forest City and its Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) partner Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY), “and in close partnership with leading Bertha Lewis, Jon Kest, and Ismene Speliotis.”

The latter three were top officials in NY ACORN, which actually signed the housing deal in May 2005. ACORN is now defunct, and MHANY operates as somewhat of a successor.

Unlike in some subsidized buildings, the affordable units will be distributed throughout the entire building. Tenants will be chosen through a city-administered lottery, with applications available in January 2014, approximately six months before the building is expected to get its Temporary Certificate of Occupancy.

All rental apartments, whether market or affordable, will be subject to rent stabilization.

An expansion switch to encompass CB 3?

Burch said that 50% of affordable units will be set aside for residents of Community Boards 2, 3, 6,and 8. That represents an apparent expansion of plans.

In July 2006, when presenting affordable housing plans, Forest City officials said half the units would be set aside for residents of Community Boards 2, 6,and 8--each of which has a part of the 22-acre Atlantic Yards footprint.

In the CBA, the “neighboring community” is defined as encompassing CBs 2, 6, and 8. CB 3 is nearby, and likely includes an even larger percentage of needy people. (I’ll check more on this expansion.)

Who’s eligible?

Burch pointed to a chart showing current eligibility, based on the current federal AMI (Area Median Income) of $83,000 for a family of four.

That AMI, which is based not just on Brooklyn but on more affluent suburban counties, is likely to increase by 2014.

She gave two examples. A single person earning $25,000 would fall into Band 2. The rent for a studio would be $640 a month.

A mother with two kids, earning $50,000 a year, would “fall into Band 5,” she said, the correcting herself to say “Band 3.” That would mean $1,433 for a two-bedroom unit.

Capacity of apartments

What are capacity levels for the units?

Burch said they needed to hear from official agencies, but studios and 1 BR units generally hold one or two people, while 2 BR units could contain households from two to four people.

“Those determinations are part of the applications review process by the city,” she said, and are dealt with on a case by case basis.

Another example: family of 4 < $50K

A moderator read a question: how many units would there be for a family of four making less than $50,000?

“I’m not sure I'll be able to do the quick math,” Burch responded, a bit fuzzily. Given a total of 36 2 BR units, “that would be partially Band 3, and then also Band 2 and Band 1. So I'm not able to do that math to provide specific numbers right here today, but there are units that are set aside to accommodate that.”

Actually, as I described in an article for City Limits' Brooklyn Bureau, of those 36 subsidized two-bedroom units, nine would go to low-income families (Bands 1 and 2) and five to moderate-income ones (Band 3).

However, Band 3 starts at $49,800 for a four-person family and goes up to $83,000, which suggests perhaps only one family earning under $50,000 would be among the five chosen in that Band 3.

(Those numbers could still change, but there is a skew.)

CBA oversight

What role will CBA signatories have in oversight of housing and employment?

Ashley Cotton in center
“We mentioned Bertha Lewis and her colleagues earlier, and this was all done in coordination with them and will continue to be in coordination with them,” responded Cotton.

How will the CBA goals be monitored, read Hammerman.

“They’ll be monitored by our great CBA team; we see representatives here today, and with Forest City,” Cotton said. “And I assume that question’s also directed at when we're hiring an Independent Compliance Monitor, and those plans are still underway.” (That’s been delayed for years, allowing Forest City Ratner to evade such oversight.)

There are no plans to sign a new CBA, Cotton confirmed, responding to a question some thought a bit out of left field. (Then again, job-training signatory BUILD is now defunct, so that capacity is no longer being filled.)

The rest of the housing?

What about the other two residential buildings on the arena block?

Burch said they expect to break ground every 6 to 9 months after a building is completed.

What about affordable ownership, which was part of the agreement with ACORN?

“Right now, we're here to present plans for B2,” Burch said. “I don't have a date or timeline for when those units will be available... we will meet the commitments.”

Regarding issues like senior housing and home ownership, “we wish we had answers too,” Cotton said. “We’ll come to you with future plans as the other buildings unfold.” The project is supposed to include 6,430 apartments, including 4,500 rentals, half of them subsidized.

Where will B2 residents park? 

As noted by Atlantic Yards Watch, the only parking area designated in project documents not currently used for something else is the surface lot in block 1129, and that lot has been nearly full several times during arena events, leaving few existing spaces for future B2 residents.

There will be 146 spaces, both striped at the surface and using stackers, at Block 1129, Cotton said.

Previously, the number of onsite spaces was reduced from 1100 to 541 (plus 24 spaces for place) because, most likely, using stackers for arena patrons would be loud and unwieldy.

Given that residents would enter and leave in a less concentrated manner, stackers may work better for them.

Noise and that pesky bass 

Residents more than a block away have complained that bass from Jay-Z and Sensation concerts has penetrated their homes, and it’s certainly perceivable on the sidewalks outside the arena.

So, how will these units adjacent to the arena be protected from such noise?

“So, we are aware of the music reports,” Cotton said. “and we are currently studying them, and any solutions that are needed will be applied to the arena.”

Supplemental EIS

What is the status of of the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) ordered by a court to study the community impacts of a potential 25-year project buildout, as opposed to the long-stated ten-year timetable and the potential for a 15-year extended buildout acknowledged in ESD's 2009 re-approval of the project.

“We hope to get out the draft scope of the SEIS before the end of the year," Hankin said, "but this is not really relevant to this discussion.” The SEIS addresses Phase 2, east of Sixth Avenue, not the towers on the arena block.

Open space for residents?

Can there be any temporary open space near the building?

“Right now, open space is really in Phase 2, east of Sixth Avenue,” responded Forest City executive Jane Marshall. “We have temporary open space on B3 [at the northwest corner of Dean Street and Sixth Avenue]. And that’s really all the land we can give to open space, and when B3 goes away, there not be there any more."

How many construction jobs?

“Modular construction will require approximately the same number of man-hours as conventional construction,” Burch said, in a statement that surprised some in the audience. (I’ve expressed skepticism.)

If that’s true, then Forest City would be saving only on compensation per worker, without having fewer workers.

The fabrication facility will be full-time, with approximately 125 union employees, plus 25 supervisors, meaning 150 staff.

Hiring will be done win partnership with job training center at the Brooklyn Navy Yard with a preference to union apprentice programs like NEW, Construction Skills, and Helmets to Hardhats. There will also be a preference for residents of CBs 2, 3, 6, and 8, as well as public housing residents.

The workforce CBA hiring goals remain intact: 35% minority workers and 10% female workers.

Sharples (l.) and Farnsworth
I submitted a question that was read and responded to somewhat quizzically: “How many construction workers, in job-years, are needed to build the building.”

“I can't tell you,” Cotton responded.

That term job-years, however, has been the way Atlantic Yards construction jobs have long been described and projected: 15,000 jobs = 15,000 job-years.

Design and construction issues

Architect Chris Sharples of the firm SHoP said that, when the first started on B2 some 2.5 years ago, it was  a conventional building. “It was a surprise to take this and transform it into a modular one.”

They still had to address design guidelines, breaking down the massing, which he described as “a series of three volumetric setbacks,” including “white cube” and “the wedge, along Flatbush.”

Each has a different look. The white cube has a perforated metal mesh, while the upper segment has a beveled frame in which “the metal panels stick out and project off the facade,” painted pewter and silver gray, colors expected to change.

Building modular requires architects to conceal the “mate lines” between the modules. Joints are covered by millwork, or wood oak flooring. Some 90% arrives factory finished, including floor finishes, electrical appliances, mechanical equipment, and even the facade. “The idea is to bring a high quality finished product to the construction site.”

Still, they’re able to open up the “mods” and create larger spaces, he said.

David Farnsworth of the engineering firm Arup said the building is up to the same code standards as a conventional building, and the structural system has been vetted through an independent peer review, by the firm Thornton Tomasetti. 

The wind loading and responses have been confirmed through wind tunnel testing.

Everything at the first floor and below will be built just like a regular building, with a hole dug for the basement and a concrete substructure. The ground floor will have steel beams and concrete floor steps 
A steel platform will be used to stack the modules.

Because the modules are fully finished, the building will appear “pretty much complete,” floor by floor.

Farnsworth said six modules were tested, and scale models were tested in a wind tunnel. 

Forest City construction chief Bob Sanna said the team did visit the current tallest building, a 25-story tower in the UK, which, unlike B2, has a concrete core. “They did have tolerance issues,” he said.

The benefits of modular

Sanna said the building would take only 20 months to build (from the time excavation began), rather than, as once projected, 30 months. That’s because module fabrication occurs at the same time site work occurs.

The chassis of the modules, he said, would be fabricated in Fredericksburg, VA. At the factory at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the modules will be created.

Burch said modular should mean less noise and fewer deliveries, as well as a safer work environment for workers. Detailed production drawings mean less waste.

The modules, no greater than 15 feet wide and between 20 to 50 feet in length (and typically closer to 30 feet), will be shipped by truck during the day. Eight to 12 modules will be delivered between rush hours, taking a route from the Navy Yard to the site, down Flatbush Avenue.

One module will be delivered at night and stored overnight, so early morning crews can work on it. "This project doesn't contemplate any actual work after hours," Sanna said.

Why modular?

What the motivated the decision to go modular?

"We talked about a lot of benefits," Cotton said, referring to speed and less neighborhood impact. "We're also excited about a new manufacturing industry here in Brooklyn... This factory could be very busy."

All true, but as Forest City stated in another industry presentation (above), the motivation also includes cost savings, price certainty, and risk mitigation.


  1. Anonymous7:36 PM

    the project is way behind due to unexperienced leadership at the werehouse and low wages not attracting any skilled labor.its basically a sweatshop

    1. If you have any solid information on such charges, please contact me directly

  2. The commenter was right...


Post a Comment

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…

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…

Former ESDC CEO Lago returns to NYC to head City Planning Commission

Carl Weisbrod, Mayor Bill de Blasio's City Planning Commission Chairman and Director of the Department of City Planning, is resigning,

And he's being replaced by Marisa Lago, currently a federal official, but who Atlantic Yards-ologists remember as the short-term Empire State Development Corporation CEO who, in an impolitic but candid 2009 statement, acknowledged that the project would take "decades."

Still, Lago not long after that played the good soldier at a May 2009 Senate oversight hearing, justifying changes in the project but claiming the public benefits remained the same.

By returning to City Planning, Lago will join former ESDC General Counsel Anita Laremont, who after retiring from the state (and taking a pension) got the job with the city.

Back at planning

Lago, a lawyer, in 1983 began work as an aide to City Planning Chairman Herb Sturz, and later served as the General Counsel to the president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation, Weisbrod himself.