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As de Blasio announces affordable housing plan, Atlantic Yards (delay, modular, lack of neighborhood planning) remains an awkward backdrop

Though Mayor Bill de Blasio launched his much-anticipated plan to build or preserve 200,000 affordable apartments yesterday just minutes from the Atlantic Yards site, the controversial project was pretty much absent not only from his press conference but also from the 116-page document distributed, which stressed, among other things:
  • affordability for a wide range of incomes, including extremely low-income households 
  • mandatory inclusionary zoning in exchange for increased development rights
  • a new program for buildings with all affordable units (and a big step away from the city's 80% market, 20% low-income mix)
  • "ground-up neighborhood planning" to identify opportunities for more housing coordinate greater density with necessary infrastructure.
  • a streamlined development process
There was no mention of the planned affordable housing that he and others cited to justify their support for Atlantic Yards, likely because that housing has taken so long to be built--and perhaps because it recalls the absence of "ground-up neighborhood planning."

Indeed, as noted by the Atlantic Yards-supporting Daily News in an editorial:
City Hall disingenuously says that it wants to only move to build affordable housing where communities are demanding it. As de Blasio himself knows from the Atlantic Yards development, which he rightly backed against furious neighborhood resistance, there will be fights. Loud ones.
Well, he "rightly backed" a project that emerged as the opposite of mandatory inclusionary zoning, with a state override of city zoning and what I call a privately-negotiated affordable housing bonus.

But the presence today of affordable housing, in a rapidly gentrifying city, remains a trump card, no matter what the process, or whether it should have been distributed in a more thoughtful way, and with a cap on subsidies.

As New York magazine's Chris Smith wrote, De Blasio’s New Plan to Create or Save 200,000 Cheap Apartments Is Going to Make a Lot of People Angry:
Some of the complexities facing [Deputy Mayor Alicia] Glen and her team could be seen right down the street from the mayor’s press conference in Fort Greene this morning. More than ten years after Atlantic Yards was announced, the Nets are in the playoffs, but not a single unit of housing — affordable or otherwise — has opened on the site. And the project’s developer is back at City Hall seeking more taxpayer subsidies.
(I'll have more on the overall plan--which gained much praise, though large question marks remain--in another post.)

Nothing on Atlantic Yards except...

There was no mention of Forest City's ambitious and so far flawed plan to build the Atlantic Yards towers using cutting-edge modular technology, trucking in finished "mods" from a factory at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Nor was there any mention of new subsidies for Atlantic Yards, though it's possible a future project building *might* take advantage of the "all affordable" category or, more likely, programs that emphasize provision of larger units.

In fact, the housing plan contained a lie or, more charitably, a very misleading statement:
The City will work with the MTA and other owners of rights-of-way to explore the feasibility of decking over rail facilities, as has been done at Hudson and Atlantic Yards.
While decking over the 8.5-acre Vanderbilt Yard, part of 22-acre Atlantic Yards site, is planned to support six towers and a majority of the Phase 2 housing, it hasn't been done, and likely will be the last segment done, given the cost. (About a quarter of the railyard was used for the arena block, but that was below-grade, with no deck.)

Only a rather strained reading of that sentence would suggest that they meant exploring the feasibility "has been done." And, actually, the MTA didn't explore the feasibility but rather reacted to Forest City Ratner's plan.

On NY1's Inside City Hall last night, host Errol Louis brought up the Atlantic Yards modular plan, saying it had been touted as helping housing get built quickly: "Is that going to pan out?"

"The modular building is going up," responded Vicki Been, Commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. "It's had some delays, as any new technology does."

Well, new technology may have snags, but pushing back the timetable from a two-year buildout to a three-year one was surely not Forest City Ratner's plan, nor was the idea of starting the next three towers--as had been decided by Forest City's new joint venture partner/overseer, the Greenland Group--via conventional means.

"So we're very hopeful, and architects and builders and engineers are very hopeful, that modular housing is really going to make a difference in terms of bringing down construction costs, and will be useful in a wide variety of building types," Been said.

In Fort Greene

Still, Atlantic Yards housing supporters might note that de Blasio's team missed an opportunity to highlight some contrast between the Atlantic Yards affordable housing and the marquee project at 250 Ashland Place near the Brooklyn Academy of Music where the press conference was held.

The 586-unit, 52-story tower under construction by the Gotham Organization will, much like the first Atlantic Yards tower, have 50% market-rate, 30% middle-income, and 20% low-income units.

Unlike the Atlantic Yards towers, and thanks to construction on a city-owned site (as opposed to one bought with some city subsidies as well as a below-market bid for the railyard), the 250 Ashland project will be permanently affordable, an outcome de Blasio acknowledged would be tough to reach in most instances, given an effort to "reach the most people as quickly as possible."

But the Atlantic Yards B2 tower under construction, however unaffordable to many who rallied for Atlantic Yards housing, would actually be more affordable than 250 Ashland Place.

The low-income units in Fort Greene would be available to households earning up to 60% of Area Median Income (AMI) and the middle income units to households earning 135% and 165% of AMI.

In B2, the low-income units would be available to households earning 30% to 50% of AMI, while the moderate- and middle-income units would be in three "bands": 60 to 100% of AMI, 100% to 140% of AMI, and 140% to 160% of AMI.

Then again, B2 is skewed significantly to studios and one-bedroom units, with only 35 subsidized two-bedroom units, and no three-bedroom ones. By contrast, 250 Ashland would have 148 studios, 271 one-bedroom units, 121 two-bedroom units, and 46 three-bedroom units. In the low-income category, there would be 23 studios, 47 one-bedroom units, 35 two-bedroom units, and 12 three-bedroom units.

At the press conference

A wide range of public officials, as well as organizational supporters (Gary LaBarbera of the Building and Construction Trades Council, Jonathan Westin of New York Communities for Change) were at the press conference in Fort Greene. (There was later a second press conference, in the Bronx.)

"I am clear," declared Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams at about 19:58 of the video. "Build, baby, build. Build tall, build high."

"No more nights of sleeping," he said, in what struck me on watching it later as part-jocular fashion. "The jackhammers should be heard throughout this city." (In response to a straight-faced tweet about Adams's statement, I cited Atlantic Yards Watch and the Footprint Gazette as examples of the impact on neighborhoods.

Indeed, later in the press conference, David Picket of the Gotham Organization jokingly thanked Adams for the invitation to make as much noise as possible. "I'll be sure to forward you all the community complaints."

Dodging a question

At about 48:28 of the video, de Blasio was asked, "The report talks about building platforms over railyards to create more developable land, kinda like Atlantic Yards. Can you talk about some railyards where you'd like to see that?"

de Blasio immediately turned to City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod, and, as Weisbrod came forward,  the mayor pronounced quizzically, "Building over railyards or other..."

de Blasio faced Public Advocate Letitia James as someone (not sure who) said "There's some in the Bronx, some in Queens..."

de Blasio continued in a singsong vein, "There's some here, there's some there."

Weisbrod said they didn't have any specific railyard in mind, "but we'd be happy to look at them."

"I've got a railyard I wanna show you," de Blasio riposted.

It was a bit jocular, given the contrast with what has not been done in the Atlantic Yards project.

Balancing urgency and sensitivity

At about 56:37 of the press conference, de Blasio said, "I hope you understand how urgently people feel this... this is not the same discussion about the zoning process you might have had ten or 20 years ago."

As he said more than once, "the New York City we have known historically... is in danger." (It's been in danger for a while.)

Weisbrod said that the effort to identify new sites, and areas for rezonings, begins immediately, with studies and then discussions with local elected officials and communities. "We want this to be a participatory process," he said. "It will start literally right away."

At 58:39, the mayor was asked about the community pushback toward scale: "How big should people expect buildings to grow? Where do you hope to focus those?"

"It's a good question, we want to make clear: we're going to work with every community," de Blasio responded. "What's underlying this whole process--I want to speak about the grassroots and, since that's where I've spent the vast majority of my career. People in this city are demanding that we do something. Our job is to go out in every community and talk about what we can do.. people are not saying, we want you to put it in another borough... The way to do that is work with elected officials and local stakeholders to figure out the best way. But it will start with a very clear message: here's the plan, here's the goal, now let's figure out how we do it locally, in each case."

Later, on Inside City Hall, host Louis observed that "everybody wants more affordable housing, nobody wants more density on their block."

Weisbrod responded, "I'm not so sure... I think that there are some knee-jerk reactions... but there also are some sound reasons why communities have resisted density that we think we can address: better infrastructure, coordinating services with neighborhoods... in a much more careful way."

Contrast with Bloomberg rezoning?

At 61:22, James, the former 35th District Council Member, said, "When we rezoned Downtown Brooklyn, it was a lot of individuals concerned about the buildings.. but what was promised then by previous administration was public benefits, more affordable housing, schools, that you would preserve local businesses. None of that happened. as a result of that, the individuals in this community were outraged."

Actually, the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning was mainly--and misguidedly--aimed to compete with New Jersey for office space. It was "designed to encourage new office development and academic expansion space within the commercial core and, in the surrounding areas, new residential development with attractive ground-floor retail."

City planners rejected a stress on affordable housing, and elected officials, including James, didn't make a huge stand.

"Going forward, in this administration, some of those benefits will be realized, and that is why this is a win-win for everyone," James said yesterday.

Locals present, and quoted

By the way, local Assemblyman Walter Mosley was present, but not Council Member Laurie Cumbo--not sure why. She was quoted in a press release from City Hall:
“I thank Mayor de Blasio for his leadership and commitment to creating and preserving affordable housing throughout New York City. Low and middle-income families should not have to struggle to remain in the communities they built. Housing New York is a critical step forward to protect the diversity of our great borough and city while creating jobs for New Yorkers,” said Council Member Laurie A. Cumbo.
Also quoted in the press release was a signatory of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement:
“I’m very excited about the Mayor’s proposal. It is a needed program, and we hope that he receives 100 percent support on the program, and that the program will be expedited as soon as possible,” said Reverend Herbert Daughtry, House of the Lord Church.
Not heard from so far is Bertha Lewis, a close advisor to the mayor who, as head of New York ACORN, signed and since has advocated aggressively for Forest City Ratner's housing plan. But I suspect she will be heard.


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