Skip to main content

Changes to open space guidelines seem welcome, but the process was less than transparent

Within the past two months, there have been relatively minor--and generally praised--bureaucratic changes in the Open Space Design Guidelines, which govern the the open space within Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park.

The changes, which reflect more contemporary ideas about park design and less pavement, include:
  • the maximum amount of backless seating will increase to 35% from 25%
  • a passive viewing pond of .3 acre will be replaced by water gardens and other distributed features
  • acreage consumed by walkways will decline from 4.62 acres to 3.65 acres, allowing maximum planted areas to grow to 3.5 acres from 2.6 acres
  • canopy trees will be removed from the main lawn to allow an unobstructed focal point
But the way it was accomplished was less than transparent.

An advisory vote at the 7/28/15 meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC) led to approval at the 8/20/15 meeting of the Empire State Development (ESD) board, which was left with a somewhat misleading impression that the guidelines themselves had been discussed with the neighborhood.

The AY CDC discussion

At the AY CDC meeting, landscape architect Thomas Balsley described the open space plans, which differed little from the previous presentation released in June, except for one slide, below right, that details plans for lighting. (Here are the AY CDC Board materials.)

The other main difference was that it became clear that the changes would have to be approved by ESD.

(Note that, despite public criticism, Balsley did not eliminate the fanciful trees--on bridges, across Vanderbilt Avenue--from the updated presentation. See screenshot at top right.)

Balsley said "we see Pacific Park as a center of confluence" in a larger context, saying it "makes no sense to create ballfields when there are ballfields blocks away." (Then again, they're only adding one basketball court for some 14,000 people!)

The open space will be built in phases, he said, describing it as "an archipelago... a series of landscape islands, or park fragments, that all come together into... a very vibrant, composite urban park."

The water feature has become more interactive, and "urban lanterns" can serve as lighting. The changes, he said, derived in part from overly rigid past guidelines based on public open spaces in Manhattan, where "they looked for more pavement and less green."

Were the changes based on budget?

No, said Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton, it was a question of design. When questioned, she would not reveal the budget for the open space.


No one commented about the low ratio of open space to the new population, but board member Liz Harris (state Assistant Secretary for Food and Agriculture, lives in Fort Greene) was enthusiastic, praising the flexibility: "I'm really impressed with this design. I think it is really smart and responsive to what has become a very protracted and difficult project."

Why reduce the number of benches with backs, asked board member Linda Reardon.

"It's an instinctive thing," Balsley responded. "We find that there should be a wide variety of seating opportunities in a space.... a bench tells you need to sit this way."

Asked about the vision for "interpretative rail," recognizing the railyard history, Balsley said "it's not much beyond the concept... it could be poetry in the pavement... it could be a ribbon of light, has poetry in the glass."

Did the cost of maintenance shape the design?

"We know generally what our budget range is, what our maintenance capability is," Balsley responded. "This is not the High Line. This is a very humble park that's powerful in its form and its use.. but it's not a fragile little piece that requires a lot of replacement. It's really solid, and rugged... It comes from the reality of our maintenance capability."

Cotton noted that "to be clear, we use park alternately [with] privately owned, publicly accessible open space." It operatives with "a lot of parks rules," but not park jurisdiction and staff (or, I'd add, hours).

Will the space close? While there are closed hours, there are no gates. "Practicality rules the day," Cotton said, indicating that residents cutting through after hours to go home, " that's certainly, as we govern this body, the kind of accommodation we would use as a practical matter."

How long will Balsley be on the project?

"I'm more than happy tonight to sign a long term contract," the landscape architect said with a chuckle. "I have no guarantee I'll be in Phase 6 or 7... I think the concept is so strong that it can survive a change in captains [if necessary]."

Can the space accommodate the 600 planned trees? Yes, said Balsley, extrapolating from testing on segments.

At what point will enough open space be built where the design vocabulary becomes clear?

"We're going to see it with B11 and B14," the first two towers on the southeast block, Balsley said. "We won't see the promenade... but the general palette."

Resident Peter Krashes asked what the state anticipates as the likely construction sequence. He didn't get an answer, though the open space phasing plan presented to directors--but not publicly discussed at the meeting--provided a clue.

At the ESD meeting

At the ESD meeting last month (video), AY CDC Executive Director Tobi Jaiyesimi described the proposed changes and noted that, after receiving public comment, the AY CDC board voted to recommend adoption of the guidelines.

"Over the course of the last nine years, the idea of an urban open space has changed and evolved," she said. "So these amendments… allow for the developer to create a more contemporary, modern, up to date plan to reflect the needs of those in the community."

Asked Derrick Cephas, who was chairing the meeting, "Can you kind of describe generally the level of public involvement, community involvement in the process that we went through to come up with these changes?"

"Sure," responded Jaiyesimi. "So there was a Community Update meeting held on June 24, 2015, when the developer made this presentation to members of the public. Comment and input was taken. I guess—if I should back up, the design guidelines, which kind of dictate and guide how the developer came to the plan that we’re discussing now, came with the idea of allowing more open interaction with the space that can be enjoyable to the community."

(Emphasis added)

"So on June 24, there was a community meeting that was held," she continued. "Members of the public were allowed to review the materials, allowed to give input and ask questions. And then the developer took that and made the necessary considerations, in their presentation to the AY CDC, which then recommended to ESD directors to approve the proposed modifications."

"So it was a collaborative, back and forth--?" asked Cephas.

"I wouldn’t say collaborative, in terms of putting together the actual design, but there was an opportunity for the public to comment and give input into the presentation that was given," Jaiyesimi responded. The measure passed with no further board discussion.

The board could have been left with the impression that the need to amend the Open Space Design Guidelines was made clear at the Community Update meeting, where public input was invited. That issue was not raised, however, but rather came up clearly at the AY CDC meeting. (I raised this with ESD, but didn't get a response.)

So there wasn't really community involvement in the process to come up with changes in the Design Guidelines. There was community comment on the new designs, but not the measure before the AY CDC and later the ESD board.

In this case, the impact was likely not significant. But what happens if and when more controversial changes emerge?


Popular posts from this blog

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

At 550 Vanderbilt, big chunk of apartments pitched to Chinese buyers as "international units"

One key to sales at the 550 Vanderbilt condo is the connection to China, thanks to Shanghai-based developer Greenland Holdings.

It's the parent of Greenland USA, which as part of Greenland Forest City Partners owns 70% of Pacific Park (except 461 Dean and the arena).

And sales in China may help explain how the developer was able to claim early momentum.
"Since 550 Vanderbilt launched pre-sales in June [2015], more than 80 residences have gone into contract, representing over 30% of the building’s 278 total residences," the developer said in a 9/25/15 press release announcing the opening of a sales gallery in Brooklyn. "The strong response from the marketplace indicates the high level of demand for well-designed new luxury homes in Brooklyn..."

Maybe. Or maybe it just meant a decent initial pipeline to Chinese buyers.

As lawyer Jay Neveloff, who represents Forest City, told the Real Deal in 2015, a project involving a Chinese firm "creates a huge market for…

Is Barclays Center dumping the Islanders, or are they renegotiating? Evidence varies (bond doc, cash receipts); NHL attendance biggest variable

The Internet has been abuzz since Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick reported 1/30/17, using an overly conclusory headline, that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Is Dumping the Islanders.

That would end an unusual arrangement in which the arena agrees to pay the team a fixed sum (minus certain expenses), in exchange for keeping tickets, suite, and sponsorship revenue.

The arena would earn more without the hockey team, according to Bloomberg, which cited “a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season--a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said."

That "signal," however, is hardly definitive, as are the media leaks about a prospective new arena in Queens, as shown in the screenshot below from Newsday. Both sides are surely pushing for advantage, if not bluffing.

Consider: the arena and the Islanders can't even formally begin their opt-out talks until after this season. The disc…

Skanska says it "expected to assemble a properly designed modular building, not engage in an iterative R&D experiment"

On 12/10/16, I noted that FastCo.Design's Prefab's Moment of Reckoning article dialed back the gush on the 461 Dean modular tower compared to the publication's previous coverage.

Still, I noted that the article relied on developer Forest City Ratner and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. From the article: At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's Adam] Greene says.Skanska jabs back
Well, Forest City's estranged partner Skanska later weighed in--not sure whether they weren't asked or just missed a deadline--and their article was updated 12/13/16. Here's Skanska's statement, which shows th…

Not just logistics: bypassing Brooklyn for DNC 2016 also saved on optics (role of Russian oligarch, Shanghai government)

Surely the logistical challenges of holding a national presidential nominating convention in Brooklyn were the main (and stated) reasons for the Democratic National Committee's choice of Philadelphia.

And, as I wrote in NY Slant, the huge security cordon in Philadelphia would have been impossible in Brooklyn.

But consider also the optics. As I wrote in my 1/21/15 op-ed in the Times arguing that the choice of Brooklyn was a bad idea:
The arena also raises ethically sticky questions for the Democrats. While the Barclays Center is owned primarily by Forest City Ratner, 45 percent of it is owned by the Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (who also owns 80 percent of the Brooklyn Nets). Mr. Prokhorov has a necessarily cordial relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — though he has been critical of Mr. Putin in the past, last year, at the Russian president’s request, he tried to transfer ownership of the Nets to one of his Moscow-based companies. An oligarch-owned a…