Friday, January 25, 2013

At mayoral forum, Atlantic Yards draws scorn for prioritizing Barclays Center over housing; more subtle criticism is lack of family-size units (and pace)

Atlantic Yards was the subject of some scornful comments in the first mayoral debate, held last night at St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York, and while the episode hardly made event coverage, it did spark on Twitter.

The Daily News reported:
“It’s great that we have a new basketball arena ... but I haven’t seen one new unit of affordable housing,” [publisher Tom] Allon said, referring to the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. “We can’t say the basketball court comes first. Housing has to come first.”

“We’ve got popcorn vendors and no apartments,” [Comptroller John] Liu added, to wild applause.

Other coverage, not mentioning Atlantic Yards, in City and State, New York Times, NY1, and New York Post.

The event, sponsored by Metro Industrial Areas Foundation and the Daily News, drew more than 1,000 people, presumably mostly from the working-class church constituency.

I suspect that part-time jobs in the arena, however welcome they are to people out of work or able to rely on others for housing, are not seen as legitimate careers.

Housing pace, and nature

According to one eyewitness, the boos began as soon as the arena was mentioned. I suspect it's because the audience knows that the arena has come first. (The first tower is targeted for mid-2014.)

That said, the candidates did not score points for subtlety. As noted by Pete Nagy of New York Communities for Change (a backer of the housing, as successor to ACORN), the first building has already broken ground. And, as I noted, it's supposed to have 50% subsidized units.

That said, the more subtle criticism, as I pointed out on Twitter, is that the first building will not come close to the promise of 50% of affordable space devoted to two- and three-bedroom units.

In other words, however much the building is "affordable"--and a good number of the moderate- and middle-income units would be too expensive to many seeking "affordable housing"--it will mainly serve singles and couples.

Also, as noted (below) by Prospect Heights activist Gib Veconi, the potential 25-year buildout means the housing would have less impact on the neighborhood.

On Twitter




The issue of timing and cost

In an essay yesterday on Prospect Heights Patch headlined Why Affordability Matters at Atlantic Yards, Veconi wrote that the of the "180 'affordable' apartments [in the first tower], only nine will be suitable for families earning the median income for Brooklyn or below."

He suggested that the tower may be more costly than other affordable housing, given a $560/square foot cost, compared to $300/sf for other developers.

I think there's evidence the building is more expensive, but I'm not sure that's an apples-to-apples comparison. First, the comparison buildings are surely not high-rise, nor at such a tricky site location. Second, the $180 million cost includes $34 million for land, so the cost per square foot comes down nearly 20%. [Update: Veconi points out that the $300/sf cost includes land. Still, land costs vary around the city/borough.]

Veconi writes that it seems to be a trend:
“HDC financing was designed at a time when there was more City-owned land available for affordable housing,” one non-profit developer explained to me. With little available public land in Brooklyn, new affordable housing will increasingly have come as a portion of the units in high-rise developments built on private land. These projects are much more costly to build, and their developers are happy to leverage existing subsidy programs as they assemble financing. The result is that the apartments created will tend to reinforce current trends of displacement, not counter them.
The upshot, he suggests, is not merely more subsidies but a real competitive bidding process, one that could be fostered by the alternatives study required by the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS).

That could happen, though I suspect the SEIS will report that Forest City's modular plan has the best chance to deliver the 2,250 units in a timely manner--in other words, the innovation would trump the capacity to have faster development by having sites bid out to other developers.

Housing trumps all?

Housing is important, but it should be seen as part of a larger picture. As I wrote last October, it's timely to revisit Ron Shiffman's 6/3/06 essay for DDDB, Atlantic Yards: Staving Off a Scar for Decades:
While this area along the Atlantic Avenue corridor could accommodate higher densities, density is a relative term. The density proposed by Forest City Ratner far exceeds the carrying capacity of the area’s physical, social, cultural, and educational infrastructure. The Atlantic Yards density is extreme and the heights of the proposed buildings totally unacceptable.
...A private developer shouldn’t be allowed to drive the disposition of publicly owned or controlled land without a participatory planning process setting the conditions for the disposition of that land.

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