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The Atlantic Yards B2 modular groundbreaking: narrative of innovation nudges aside questions about promises of housing and jobs

Yesterday morning featured yet another well-produced Atlantic Yards press event--not a press conference with questions and dialogue, but a for-the-cameras parade of speakers, inside a tent near the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street, with a rectangular metal modular chassis--not yet filled with the components of an apartment--in the background.

Public officials and Atlantic Yards developers/backers all saluted Forest City Ratner's plans for 32-story, 363-unit B2, the tallest modular tower in the world and the fulfillment--so they said--of ambitious plans for affordable housing.

Well, modular housing--assuming Forest City pulls it off--would indeed be innovative, lowering construction costs and impacts, and potentially leading to a new industry and new jobs, changing "the way cities are built," according to Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Unclear, of course, is whether much if any of the savings would be passed on to the consumer. After all, Forest City Ratner executive MaryAnne Gilmartin told investment analysts last month: "We believe if we go modular, it would be invisible to the consumer. This building should perform at the level of finish, fit and feel commensurate with a conventional building, so it is priced accordingly."

News outlets including The Atlantic Cities (describing the modules as "14 feet wide, 35 feet long and 10 feet tall"), NY1, and the New York Observer focused on the modular angle. (Documents, including press release and fact sheet, at bottom.) No one--nor this blog, in earlier version--mentioned that the tower was long delayed; in fact, Gilmartin in September 2010 predicted starting in the spring of 2011.

Photo by Matt Chaban/NY Observer
Promises kept?

Speakers talked up the 2,250 "affordable" units, with the first 181 coming in the summer of 2014 when this building is expected to open.

The other two apartment towers in the arena block should start in a sequence six to nine months after the previous tower, but there's no plan yet for the flagship office tower, slated to deliver a good chunk of expected Atlantic Yards revenues.

“This is a promise made and a promise kept, the beginning of the most progressive affordable housing program in our city’s and country’s history," asserted Bertha Lewis, who helped negotiate the affordable housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2005 as head of New York ACORN. (That MOU required ACORN to publicly support the project, and Forest City later bailed out national ACORN with a $1.5 million grant/loan.)

Actually, the promise of subsidized units may be met, but not the configuration promised. Speakers, of course, didn't mention the 2,250 market-rate units, or that fact that, as several civic groups pointed out, the subsidized housing wouldn't many Brooklynites who had hopes for the project.

“It’s not just that Brooklyn isn’t getting the affordable housing it was promised and is woefully needed,” said Michelle de la Uz, Executive Director of the Fifth Avenue Committee. “By using up the available subsidies to finance smaller apartments for tenants in higher income brackets, FCRC is making it harder to build truly affordable units elsewhere in the City.”

The full video (via the Mayor's Office)

Elected officials in the room

In a sign of broader interest, if not support, from elected officials, those attending, as mentioned from the dais, included not only public supporters like Rep. Yvette Clarke and Council Member Dominic Recchia, but also Council Members Mathieu Eugene and Jumaane Williams, both (I think) supporters, and indicted Assemblyman William Boyland, whose sister Tracy ran against AY opponent Sen. Velmanette Montgomery.

Also, Assemblymember Joan Millman, a sometime critic of Atlantic Yards, attended, as did more forceful critic Council Member Brad Lander and longtime opponent Council Member Letitia James--both, apparently, wanting to know about affordable housing, at least.

Borough President Marty Markowitz was both ebullient and feisty, at one point stating sarcastically, "I see some folks who weren't able to make the groundbreaking of the Barclays Center. Some of you weren't able to make the ribbon-cutting... I want to say how thrilled I am you're here today." He didn't mention anybody by name, but I suspect he meant James and Lander.

Markowitz said he was thrilled by the economic development brought by big spenders coming to arena events, and jabbed back at those concerned about Barclays Center impacts: "By the way, the world didn't end. Atlantic Avenue is still there...  Some would argue that the traffic is moving faster on Flatbush Avenue."

"Bottom line, what's good for Atlantic Yards is good for Brooklyn," Markowitz declared. (Wow.)

Complication: affordable housing

Unmentioned were the complications in the narrative. Yes, Forest City plans a building with 50% subsidized housing. However, despite the statement by Lewis that promises were fulfilled, those 181 affordable units, all studios and one-bedrooms except for 36 two-bedrooms, hardly match the promise of 50% of units (in square footage) devoted to two- and three-bedroom apartments.

"Our commitment to the housing at Atlantic Yards never waned," declared Forest City Ratner Executive VP MaryAnne Gilmartin. "Nor did our commitment to the affordable housing. The new economic landscape, post-2008, however, created unprecedented challenges."

Her boss later seconded that. "What is most important, and what I care most about, is that it is affordable," Bruce Ratner declared. But of course the commitment to affordable housing did wane.

The 36 two-bedroom subsidized units, as I've reported, would not be distributed evenly across the five affordable income "bands," but would have only nine (instead of 14+) units for low-income households and 17 (instead of 7+) units for the highest middle-income band, with households earning well over six figures.

After the event, I asked HPD Commissioner Mathew Wambua about whether he expected Forest City would meet the pledge to build 50% of the affordable units as larger units. "I would talk to them about that," he said. "Certainly, I would support as diverse a unit mix as possible."

Can public officials enforce the pledge? "It's something we can be part of the dialogue about," Wambua responded. Note that city agencies did get Forest City to build more two-bedroom subsidized units than the developer initially wanted, but the number's still far less than the pledge.

Complication: union jobs

The challenges were solved, according to Gilmartin, via a new way to build, achieving world-class design, with greater efficiency and sustainability, with safer work conditions and lowered community impacts.

Who helped Forest City "crack the code"? Gilmartin cited SHoP, Arup, and Forest City colleagues, and then saluted new partner Skanska, which has joined with Forest City to establish a factory at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. (Unmentioned: partner XSite, whose partnership with Forest City was the subject of a bitter lawsuit.)

"One thing hasn't changed, and that's union labor, which will build this building, like all Forest City building," Gilmartin. In the spring, some 125 union workers will be working in the factory, along with 25 non-union workers.

It's been reported that workers in the factory will earn some 25% less than on-site workers, but Forest City claims that there will be the same number of work hours. There was no proof of that offered, and my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest the number will go down.

Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York City, explained, "We saw without that modular construction that these projects would more than likely not go forward. And we too in the building trades have a sense of community, a commitment to the community, and were equally concerned about affordable housing."

But if Forest City Ratner reneged on the affordable housing it would have to pay penalties and lose development rights, so the unions had more power than LaBarbera acknowledged, especially since Forest City needed union approval to proceed.

Also, the overall tax revenues from construction labor, given the lowered compensation and (likely) fewer numbers, should lower revenue estimates.

Bloomberg and his joke

"Atlantic Yards has already brought a huge boon to Brooklyn," said a lighthearted Mike Bloomberg, who later joked that he might qualify for the affordable housing when the tower opens in mid-2014.

Crain's New York Business reported:
Actually, he didn't say the rapid pace of construction at Atlantic Yards defied all expectations--after all, the groundbreaking for the first tower has been put off again and again. Rather, his "ahead of schedule" comment referred to his administration's overall goals for affordable housing. See video at 8:58.

Bruce Ratner

Bruce Ratner was proud, and a bit defensive. "It was said that we would build the Barclays Center and walk away," Ratner said. Not sure how many said that; after all, Ratner's profits also relate to the "entitlement" to build.

He offered effusive thanks to ACORN, Mutual Housing of New York, New York Communities for Change, and members of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

Numerous backers of Atlantic Yards housing were in the room--some who testified at public hearings--and at least four CBA partners were there, besides Lewis: James Caldwell of the now-defunct BUILD; Charlene Nimmons of Public Housing Communities; Len Britton of the NY Association of Minority Contractors; and Joe Coello of Brooklyn Voices for Children.

"Bertha Lewis is our partner, and she is my friend," Ratner said. "How did I meet Bertha? She protested me, for weeks and weeks and weeks. And finally I said to my quote-handlers, 'Bring her up.'

"Like all marriages, we've had our ups and downs," he said, "but it's a wonderful marriage."

Bertha Lewis

Lewis took the stage to applause from a good number of followers in the audience.

"This project has been a long time in coming. I feel like I've been pregnant for eight years. And finally we're gonna burst this baby. And I got 14 more to go," the theatrical Lewis said, adding sardonically, "So, thanks for knocking me up, Bruce."

She said New York ACORN, "when we first heard about this project, we didn't really know... much about it," so "we polled our members... and, across the board, our members said, 'housing, housing. And if you remember, the original proposition here was to be all luxury housing."

However, when members were polled, they were not asked about affordable housing accessible to those in their income bracket. And the plan announced at the 12/10/03 public launch was to include affordable housing.

So it's difficult to understand what she meant by "the original proposition." In a 10/27/03 article, before Atlantic Yards was officially unveiled, New York Magazine reported:
Adjacent to a new arena, Ratner plans to build a $2 billion, 21-acre development featuring both retail and office space and some 5,500 units of housing, which he says will come in various-size buildings and serve various income levels.
According to John Atlas's sympathetic book on ACORN, Seeds of Change, ACORN surveyed its  members in November and December of 2003 and came up with a plan by January 2004, though the Housing MOU wasn't signed until May 2005:
Soon after the November 2003 election, Lewis began meeting with Jon Kest, sixteens neighborhood leaders... Ismane [sic; actually Ismene] Speliotis, the Director of New York ACORN Housing Corporation... They consulted with city planners, reviewed the city's housing data.... During November and December, the ACORN staff brought the issue to the membership... By January 2004, ACORN's housing expert, Ismane Speliotis, had come up with a plan...
Yesterday, Lewis emotionally saluted longtime ally Jon Kest, executive director of NYCC, who died recently, for the work he did helping establish the housing plan.

A Q&A with Skanska

Curbed published a Q&A with Skanska executive John Dolan, who said:
I think it's better for the industry that we find strategies to build elements and entire projects offsite to minimize the amount of construction that occurs on the work site. The Atlantic Yards site is very difficult to navigate around. We're reducing the amount of activity. There will be fewer trucks.
Atlantic Yards B2 Groundbreaking, press release, Dec. 18, 2012

Atlantic Yards B2 Fact Sheet


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