Sunday, March 22, 2015

Is the arena impact "not so bad," as Markowitz predicted? Yes, but... it's complicated (and beyond traffic)

I'm leading a walking tour today of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park/Barclays Center/Prospect Heights (via Municipal Art Society), and have presented several posts in preparation. One thing to remember: the project remains very much in process. Some impacts feared, expected, or welcomed have not emerged because they were calculated on a larger/full buildout.

At the end of 2008, in his traditional end-of-the-year interview with the Brooklyn Paper's Gersh Kuntzman, Borough President Marty Markowitz made an observation about the then-stalled Atlantic Yards project:
“I always say to these folks that are viciously anti—when it’s built I hope that you’ll say to me ‘Marty, you know, it’s not so bad,’” Markowitz spritzed. “I don’t expect you to say you know you were right.  Just say to me, ‘You know what, not so bad.’ That would be to me that would be a tremendous celebration.”
He's surely gotten that wish. After all, in 2013, the New York Times declared arena-related problems "everyday irritants" and in the Daily News published a conclusory op-ed asserting Park Slope was wrong about Barclays Center.

Both were correct that the arena had caused fewer problems than feared, but also missed or downplayed its disruptions--for example, the escaping bass that has prompted the installation of the new green roof, or the regular illegal parking and idling by limos--on its nearest neighbors. And both scanted some of the larger questions about public process and government oversight.

"I can see that it has a positive side"

That's continued. Last July, Carroll Gardens resident Vijay Seshadri, in a Commercial Observer interview headlined Pulitzer Poet Immortalizes Atlantic Avenue, Talks Brooklyn Development, was asked:
As a 28-year resident of the borough, what’s your view of the current and continuing development of Brooklyn (i.e. especially on Atlantic Avenue with Barclays Center and Atlantic Yards)?
His response:
I mourn the disappearance of the culture that was here when I first came to Brooklyn in the mid-eighties, but paradoxically I’m not sentimental about it. New York is always tearing itself down and building itself up again. I was opposed to the development of Atlantic Yards–I even wrote an essay for the volume Brooklyn Was Mine, which was put together as a protest to Atlantic Yards and the Barclays Center. But now that it has happened, I can see that it has a positive side to it, and the negative consequences we were fearing don’t seem to have materialized.
There was something lost, especially for people living near the Yards; and of course working people, middle-class people, are finding it very hard to live in the areas of Brooklyn that were once a refuge for them. That is a big problem for the city...
(Emphasis added)

Which negative consequences?

Seshadri, I suspect, was reflecting concern that the arena and associated buildout would cause massive traffic problems. Indeed, the state's own environmental review suggested significant problems (see Brooklyn Paper coverage) that would be partially mitigated. The Final EIS said:
As the data shown in Table 19-4 and Figures 19-5 through 19-11 indicate, a total of 35 intersections would continue to have unmitigated significant adverse traffic impacts in one or more peak hours in the 2016 Build With Mitigation condition. 
What that meant in practice was unclear, but we do know several things:
  • the 2010 buildout (four towers plus arena) hasn't happened
  • the 2016 buildout (full project) hasn't happened
  • the flagship B1 tower at Atlantic and Flatbush hasn't arrived (and if it does would change our perspective)
  • the arena is smaller than analyzed
  • arena attendance is well under capacity, given no-shows
  • fewer people than expected drive from New Jersey (note Sam Schwartz's relief)
  • far more people than expected walk 
  • the retail turnover has been significant but very much incomplete
In other words, the fears were not unrealistic, though we all should have anticipated how all such plans and analyses were provisional.

While the arena may not impact Seshadri and neighbors in Carroll Gardens, it very much impacts people in the nearest blocks. Some of those impacts might be lessened thanks to residential parking permits, which are stymied in Albany.

Others might be mitigated if traffic and parking violations were stringently enforced. And others might be avoided if the arena didn't book events that, say, require hundreds of buses to double-park on neighborhood streets.

Beyond traffic

The issues are broader. One project neighbor reminded me that "were always multiple strands of opposition to Atlantic Yards: outrage over the use of eminent domain and the corruption of public processes, fear of impending impacts, and criticism of the plans."

Beyond that, he noted, attention has fallen off regarding the continuing pursuit of eminent domain and the impacts on neighbors--not NIMBYism but a good-government issue. In other words, the arena's tainted by the Culture of Cheating.

Beyond that, it's likely opponents had an incentive to stress impacts, and the state's environmental review was written in a cautious, cover-your-butt manner.

We would have been much better off had the review disclosed a range of possibilities, including an adjustment if 1) the arena were smaller and 2) the buildout occurred more incrementally. But the job of the environmental review was to assess potential worst-case scenarios.

What else Markowitz said: arena as catalyst

In that 2008 interview, Markowitz also claimed "an arena and a national team would be an unbelievable incentive, in my opinion, a catalyst for jobs and new companies coming and staying in Brooklyn — my humble opinion!”

I'm not so sure about that. Yes, the arena has further put Brooklyn on the map, but Brooklyn, especially the neighborhoods in the arena's orbit, was doing pretty well--even as other parts were left behind.

New jobs and companies come to Brooklyn because of available and affordable space, whether it be on the Sunset Park waterfront, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and MetroTech, coupled with an attractive lifestyle for their employees. 

The arena may contribute in a fractional way, but I haven't seen any evidence it's been a catalyst, other than for food and beverage outlets in nearby blocks.

In fact, the evidence of the arena's impact on public finances remains fuzzy. The arena itself isn't making the profit operators predicted. The arena's location has, however, catalyzed the value of the (money-losing, for now) Nets up significantly.

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