Tuesday, April 29, 2014

As hearing on Atlantic Yards environmental review approaches, an FAQ

See update on Forest City's plan to accelerate platform construction.

From 5:30-9 pm tomorrow, Empire State Development (ESD), the state authority overseeing/enabling Atlantic Yards, will hold a public hearing at LIU  (75 DeKalb Avenue, Room HS107) to accept comments on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Draft SEIS) and changes to the Modified General Project Plan.

Below, a partial FAQ.

Why is there a hearing? Wasn't the project already approved?

Atlantic Yards was approved in 2006. After Forest City Ratner in 2009 reopened terms of the business deal--gaining 21 years to pay for the Vanderbilt Yard, rather than pay the promised $100 million on time, and getting ESD to agree to multiple rounds of eminent domain, again saving the developer cash flow--Atlantic Yards had to be reapproved.

OK, so why now?

Because, after re-approving the project, ESD signed a Development Agreement that gave Forest City 25 years to build the project, without disclosing it to the public. It had long been said to take ten years, and ESD studied only a delay of five years--a 15-year buildout. As the result of a multi-pronged lawsuit filed by two community coalitions, a state judge said ESD had to conduct an SEIS to evaluate the potential impacts of a 25-year buildout.

State Supreme Court Justice Marcy Friedman slammed ESD for a "patently incorrect" claim and a "failure of transparency," since when re-approving the project it "made no mention of the provision in the Development Agreement for a 25 year substantial completion date for Phase II and, instead, repeatedly cited the provision requiring FCRC to use commercially reasonable effort to complete the Project in 10 years."

What does 'evaluate' mean?

An environmental review is a disclosure document, required to disclose impacts and recommend mitigations. Not everything must be mitigated. But failure to disclose--as in this case--can lead to a rare legal sanction. The Draft SEIS concludes that some impacts would last longer but otherwise not be significant. There are some tweaks to reduce traffic delays and enhance open space near the project.

What are people supposed to do at the hearing?

They're supposed to comment on the various disclosures in the Draft SEIS (from parking to construction oversight to noise) as well as two proposed business changes--shifting some bulk from Phase 1 of the project (the five towers on the arena block and Site 5) to Phase 2 (the eleven towers on the site east of Sixth Avenue) and cutting parking.

But there's one fundamental issue, right?

Yes: should Forest City Ratner (and its new partner) be trusted. For the quickest answer, see: Failure to Hire Independent Compliance Monitor. The problem, of course, is that the only overseer for now is Empire State Development, which lost a major lawsuit regarding its trustworthiness. Only political pressure from/on the governor, who controls ESD, can change that dynamic.

Is it relevant that the Barclays Center is, from the perspective of tickets sold, a business success? Or that revenues lag well behind projections?

No.

Will they stick to those issues?

Unlikely. If past patterns continue, some project critics/opponents will lodge some general criticisms, while proponents will tout "jobs, housing, and hoops." But the former will likely be the only ones to try to assess the Draft SEIS.

What does Forest City Ratner want?

To be in the driver's seat. "In order for our company to build Atlantic Yards as quickly as you and we want to, it is imperative that the community work with us and not use litigation to stall the project," a company spokesperson said, ignoring 1) that litigation has not stalled the deliver of housing and 2) that the most recent delays have been caused by its own modular process.

What does Greenland want?

I don't know for sure, but I suspect it wants Forest City to absorb all the flak and manage the local political dynamic, while it reaps new revenues and establishes itself as a major player internationally.

What do community critics want?

Faster delivery of the affordable housing, new oversight for the project as a whole, and improved oversight of construction and environmental impacts.

How has the dynamic changed?

Well, some of the most vocal opponents, centered around Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, have been far less active, though some may surface for this hearing. And one of the Community Benefits Agreement signatories, BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), no longer exists, though it's still a defendant in a pending lawsuit filed by those in a coveted training program who say they were promised union cards and construction jobs. ACORN has been succeeded by New York Communities for Change.

Will elected officials show up, pro or con?

Good question.

What about the unions?

They were distinctly frustrated by Forest City Ratner's plan to build all the towers using modular technology, but the umbrella union compromised, suggesting that the lower compensation was worth the possibility of future, consistent work. A few more specialized unions, like the Plumbers, were highly critical of the modular plan.

But hasn't Forest City's plan changed?

After saying they planned to build it all modular, at lower cost (with lower compensation and tax revenues) and with lessened community impact (trucks, workers, waste), Forest City disclosed to the New York Times that its new joint venture partner/overseer, the Greenland Group, has decided that three towers will start this year, using conventional construction. That means more union jobs and higher compensation. And more noise and traffic.

Is that certain?

The new schedule for three towers, while announced to the press, is not memorialized in any formal documents. (Two would be on the southeast block, now used for parking, and one would be at the southeast corner of the arena block.) Nor is there any guarantee that Greenland will build, as press reports suggest, in eight to ten years.

If Greenland does build faster, doesn't that short-circuit some of the Atlantic Yards criticism?

To some extent. But it does not deal with the fundamental question of trust.

Wait--didn't Bruce Ratner say that union-built high-rise housing with a 50% affordable component (of the rentals) couldn't work economically?

Yes. Apparently it now can. Greenland, which will own 70% of the remaining project (outside the Barclays Center and the under-construction B2 tower) plans two towers with subsidized units, one with condos.

Is Greenland officially a partner?

The deal has not been announced as closing, as it still needs Chinese and U.S. government approvals, which are expected. But Greenland already has led the decision-making.

Is Greenland in charge?

Well, sort of. While Greenland has more seats on the board of the joint venture, all major decisions require consensus. But a deadlock can lead to one partner being bought out and you have to think the bigger investor has more sway.

Is Forest City being rescued by Greenland?

To some extent, yes. But Greenland, which has a lot of money, doesn't have the local political or construction skills to jump into Brooklyn. And Greenland surely needed an American partner to raise $249 million in low-interest loans from Chinese investors seeking green cards.

Is the modular plan a failure?

Well, it's certainly not a success. The first tower, which broke ground in December 2012, was supposed to take less than two years--faster than conventional construction--but then was said to take two years. Now it looks like three. But perhaps the ever-rising value of prime Brooklyn real estate makes Atlantic Yards more viable. Forest City says it wants the fifth building to be modular. Stay tuned.

Why did the Draft SEIS study the potential impact of conventional construction, rather than modular?

Because the former was considered a worst-case scenario, with more workers, trucks, and debris on site.

Aren't late night modular deliveries a problem?

Well, they certainly can be noisy. But the Draft SEIS said there was no significant adverse impact, because the noise would be comparable in magnitude and duration to that which would result from operation of any heavy truck on the roadway adjacent to the receptor.

Would Atlantic Yards have passed if New York taxpayers knew their direct subsidies and tax breaks were helping out the Chinese government?

Unlikely. (Ditto for helping a Russian oligarch gain a 45% share in the arena and see the value of his investment in the Nets skyrocket.)

Isn't Greenland paying for the green roof planned for the arena?

Yes. And it's not about sustainability. The business reason is to enhance views for residents of the apartments around the arena. And to tamp down the escaping bass.

But that construction--which will require extended periods of cranes outside the arena--was not studied in the Draft SEIS.

That's because it's still considered part of Phase 1. Which for the purposes of this round of environmental review, is a "background condition."

But Phase 1 isn't close to done. Does that mean Building 1 and Building 4, two huge towers planned around the arena, also fall through the cracks?

Exactly.

Wasn't the SEIS ordered more than two years ago, with a final court case resolved in June 2012? Why has it taken longer than the 2006 environmental review, which was much more extensive?

We can't be sure, but I'd bet the delay was partly to let Forest City sell part of the project.

Didn't community critics call for Empire State Development to consider the possibility of multiple developers to speed the project?

Yes, but ESD said the project was so complex that untangling it would take too long. (Which is true, but that's because the state changed the rules for Forest City.) And, by now, Forest City has new capital from Greenland and says it can get the project done faster.

What about that cut in parking?

Well, given fewer people using the on-site arena parking lot and the availability of transit, the amount of parking will be cut from the 3,670 spaces analyzed in 2006 to 2,896 spaces. A "Reduced Parking Alternative" would cut the number to 1,200 spaces.

Is the latter likely?

Sure. It's less costly to build.

Isn't less parking good news, in general, if there are subways nearby?

Yes, but in this case, there's an arena that already draws numerous drivers seeking free, on-street parking. But residential permit parking, a fixture of districts like that around Wrigley Field in Chicago, is not being considered. Nor was the impact of major league hockey considered, though crowds from Long Island should be coming to see the Islanders next year.

Don't they plan to move the new school?

Yes, they'd long said the school would be in Building 5, a tower over the railyard just east of Sixth Avenue. Now they're suggesting Building 15, a tower directly to the south. (See outline in yellow to right.)

Why the change?

No reason was announced, but it's far easier to build on terra firma than over the railyard, which requires an expensive deck.

Wasn't one of the major goals of the Atlantic Yards project to remove blight, as exemplified by the below-grade railyard?

Yes. According to the SEIS, "the completion of Phase II of the Project at a later date would delay the delivery of some of the aforementioned Project benefits." In other words, the blight will persist.

Isn't it paradoxical that the extended "localized impacts would not result in significant adverse neighborhood character impacts in the Prospect Heights neighborhood"?

Yes. When it comes to neighborhood impacts, the larger neighborhood context--in which the impacts can be mostly dismissed--holds sway. But when it came to analyzing blight, the larger neighborhood context--which could have demolished the study's conclusions--didn't matter.

Won't much of the open space--especially that potentially used by the public--be delayed until they build over the railyard?

Yes. See graphic below right. The open space around the first four towers on the southeast block would pretty much be for tower residents.

The state says the amount of open space, which is far less than city guidelines, isn't a problem because meeting those goals is not feasible everywhere. What did they leave out?

That the goal is relative to the city's existing pattern of streets, since the latter provide additional open space not counted in the ratio. But they're taking wide Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues for construction staging and later open space.

When is a platform over the railyard required to be built?

Not until 2025, 15 years after the project's "effective date," which was in 2010.

What if they don't build it?

Then they won't get to build the six towers over the railyard. Those towers represent 54.5% of the eleven Phase 2 buildings, but they'd account for 64.8% of the population. So if they don't build those towers they won't meet the goal of 2250 affordable housing units.

Will they ever build that expensive deck?

Who knows. Atlantic Yards is a "never say never" project. Maybe they'll find more EB-5 funds for the deck, as with Hudson Yards developers in Manhattan. Maybe Mayor de Blasio will offer new subsidies. After all, [updated] they've just announced a plan to accelerate elements of the platform.

They're asking de Blasio for more housing subsidies, right?

Yes. He's supposed to announce his ambitious housing plan on May 1. I would have bet it was once to include a big push for modular, with perhaps an "innovation grant" to bolster the modular factory. Now that the first Atlantic Yards tower hit a snag, who knows.

Will that mean new housing benefits?

Maybe that will help Forest City/Greenland come closer to fulfilling the pledge that 50% of the units, in floor area, would be family-sized. But I doubt they'd make the affordable housing permanent, as with some other programs.

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