Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Atlantic Yards in 2014: first tower to open, SEIS coming, affordable housing pressure, cozy relationship with mayor; what's next surprise? (Islanders move?)

So, what's next for Atlantic Yards in 2014?

Even as press and public scrutiny recedes, Atlantic Yards always involves some surprises--in 2013 the biggest was the advent of a new investor, the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group. That deal still needs an expected OK from a federal oversight board.

That deal--and what it says about Forest City Enterprises' financial condition and plans--deserves far more press scrutiny, including from the New York Times, which has been oddly quiet about Atlantic Yards for months, not only regarding the Greenland deal but also the decision on attorneys' fees for groups challenging the state's 2009 re-approval of the project,.

The Greenland deal also gives an opening for local elected officials and BrooklynSpeaks to argue that the deal should be conditioned on completing the affordable housing in the once-promised decade and that an oversight body be set up.

It's an uphill battle, given the project's momentum. A good cross section of electeds got involved, but one key figure, Mayor Bill de Blasio didn't sign on; he often takes his cue from campaign supporter Bertha Lewis, Forest City Ratner's housing partner. Another key figure, new Borough President Eric Adams, didn't sign on either.

And though Lewis presumably would want the housing to be delivered faster, she also is FCR's partner, not adversary.

There's a continuing argument for oversight, since the arena operator still leaks bass into the community from some concerts, and Forest City changed the delivery schedule for the modular units without study or notice. Illegal parking and idling in the blocks around the Barclays Center, persist, as noted on Atlantic Yards Watch. Forest City still hasn't hired the Independent Compliance Monitor promised in the Community Benefits Agreement. (Remember, Culture of Cheating.)

The oversight is unlikely from the Mayor's office or Empire State Development, the stage agency overseeing and promoting the project. It's possible that new Public Advocate Letitia James, the former 35th District Council Member, will pay some attention to Atlantic Yards, but she has a lot on her plate. New Council Member Laurie Cumbo, whose comments during the campaign were both critical of Atlantic Yards and cordial to developers, is something of a question mark.

The first tower is supposed to be finished by December 2014; we'll see if that timetable--which has been pushed back a couple of times--is met. But expect the housing lottery, and the opening of the building, to be coupled with significant hoopla--and, perhaps, some grousing about whether these subsidized units are all that affordable.

Meanwhile, Forest City and SHoP have been working on designs for two other towers on the arena block. One other tower may start in 2014 or, more likely, the designs will become more public.

Given de Blasio's commitment to getting Atlantic Yards done and his relationship with not only Lewis but FCR--after all, CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin was on his transition team--I wouldn't be surprised if some government help--subsidies, an innovation grant, or something else--emerges.

Keep in mind that Forest City's goal is to turn the modular factory at the Navy Yard into an ongoing business that serves other developers.

For more than a year, state officials have been working on a court-ordered Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to evaluate the community impacts of a potential 25-year buildout. That SEIS is due in the first half of the year.

It's a good bet that the SEIS will not recommend that, as project critics and opponents advocated, parcels be severed and opened up to other developers. And it's a good bet that the SEIS will contend that Forest City's modular plan, as well as the new investment, has the potential to get the project built faster.

Forest City Ratner, which successfully got the official start date of the permanent Vanderbilt Yard pushed back for the second time, is supposed to start by June; that's a key date to watch.

Both Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, which has been quiet, and the somewhat more active BrooklynSpeaks won attorneys' fees in the SEIS litigation, and the fees were enough to not only compensate the attorneys involved but potentially support future litigation.

At the arena, the biggest news last year was the MTV Video Music Awards. This year, the Rock Hall of Fame will have an induction ceremony, but there may be another awards show.

The New York Islanders are supposed to move in 2015, the end of their lease at the Nassau Coliseum. I said last year I wouldn't be shocked if they paid to get out of their lease and established themselves in 2013 in Brooklyn. That was inaccurate, but they still could arrive this fall.

The Brooklyn Nets, after retooling for a short-term shot at a championship, have been on a rollercoaster with new coach Jason Kidd, down and then up. They should make the playoffs, given the weakness in the Eastern Conference. By then, will they have cohered enough to give top teams a run for their money? Or will the veterans have run out of gas?

Changes should continue, steadily if somewhat slowly, on blocks around the arena. A new Shake Shack will emerge on Flatbush Avenue and a new tattoo parlor is already there, though there are no plans yet for retail in the coveted Triangle building at Fifth and Flatbush. Landlords nearby likely will continue to raise commercial rents.

We'll see if the Sugar Factory at the Sixth Avenue end of the arena finally opens, but it's a good bet that the operators of the Nets and the Barclays Center, skilled at flacking things like the new GQ barbershop, will have something else to promote instead.

There likely will be another round of recruitment for part-time jobs at the arena, given the steady turnover. And there will be a few full-time workers in each residential building. But without the planned office tower--once aimed to occupy the plaza that so many see as vital to the arena's identity--there will be far fewer jobs than promised. No wonder Forest City hasn't hired that Independent Compliance Monitor.

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