Wednesday, February 17, 2016

FAQ: What we know/don't know about proposed "Brooklyn Behemoth" office tower

This is being periodically updated. Originally published 2/17/16.


For now, I'm calling it "Brooklyn Behemoth," "Behemoth Brooklyn," the news about which was released yesterday by Greenland Forest City Partner to the friendly publication Crain's New York Business. Here's a preliminary FAQ and a very unofficial rendering.

The rendering has been created by taking the bulk of 511-foot, 824,629-square foot B4, inflating it by about 30%, and plopping it on top of the 250-foot, 439,050-square foot Site 5, to approximate 1.5 million square feet. So the building would likely be at least 900 feet tall. (This is adapted from an image in the 2006 Final Environmental Impact Statement.)
Unofficial rendering of potential bulk
How big would it be?

More than 1.55 million square feet, combining the bulk of the B1 tower planned for the triangle currently including the arena plaza, plus the 439,050 square feet for the Site 5 development. It's supposed to be an office tower, but presumably would contain a significant amount of retail and--unmentioned, but a good bet--some condos.

We have no information on the height.

Isn't that big?
The proposal would essentially pile the bulk of B1 onto Site 5

Preposterously so. The New York City Planning Commission recommended a reduction in scale of that Site 5 (named for its location in the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area) from 350 feet in height (originally 400 feet) and 572,000 square feet. I calculated the Floor Area Ratio (FAR), which is a common measure of the multiple of full lot coverage, at nearly 31. That's preposterous.

Proposed 1,066-foot supertall; SHoP
For context, note that Behemoth Brooklyn would be 4.26 times bulkier than the Williamsburg Savings Bank, which is 362,269 square feet.

It's nearly three times the bulk of a proposed 1,066-foot tower in Downtown Brooklyn. See rendering at right.

How can they get away with it?

Well, you can't simply move bulk wherever you want it. This would significantly increase the impact on this rather sensitive site--affecting traffic on adjacent Fourth and Atlantic avenues, and life on residential Pacific Street.

It will require a new environmental review process, and new vote by the Empire State Development Corporation to amend the General Project Plan, which has Design Guidelines that control what can be built. (The state agency, which controls the site, has already overridden city zoning, so that doesn't apply.)

Presumably the City Planning Commission will offer an advisory letter and perhaps Community Board 2 will hold an informational hearing. My bet is that this preposterous proposal will lead to a "compromise" in which the developers accept somewhat less bulk and/or try to move it somewhere else, such as to the Atlantic Center mall (which would require a city process).

Why didn't the developer release plans in 2009, when it last revised the project?

Surely they were thinking about it. But they didn't want to shock people and slow down the approval process. When renderings of B1 were released in 2006, that shocked people.

When did the news leak out?


Last October and November, hints emerged, and Forest City lied when a real estate publication accurately (we now know) reported their plans. I believe that Mikhail Prokhorov's deal to buy Forest City's 55% of the Barclays Center operating company was premised on the seller's pledge not to build the B1 tower and disrupt arena operations.

Why shouldn't the developer take the hit for building an arena that would be difficult to build around? Why shouldn't they simply build what was approved?

Good question. Forest City shrunk the arena and decided to decouple the towers around it, which were supposed to be built around it. That was their business decision, and their problem.

Why are there no details about height and bulk, or no renderings?

They don't want to shock people. And journalists have not pointed that out. But it surely will be much taller than the 511-foot Miss Brooklyn, which was originally 620 feet. The 1.7 million square foot One Vanderbilt next to Grand Central would be 1,500 feet, as noted by NY YIMBY (h/t DNAinfo).

Would the building be only office space?

Surely not. They've described it as having high-end retail, like the Time Warner Center. And Forest City CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin last October told the New York Times that a hotel likely would be included.

Gilmartin also said last year, intriguingly, "In the world of vertical living and livable cities, it is now an acceptable proposition to look at an office building that has a core that performs both as an office building and a condominium tower at top. I think these kinds of creative solutions are going to have to be brought into the equation for the math to work.”

What would be the impact on open space planned at adjacent Times Plaza?

Site for new tower is in background
Pretty significant, I suggest.

Why haven't journalists jumped on this story?

Partly, I suspect, because the developer managed the news, placing the story with Crain's. Partly because there's so little institutional memory, and journalists have moved on. Partly because some editors think the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park story is ovah. It's not.

Who supports this?

"The office tower already has the support of Tucker Reed, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership [DBP], a major local business group," Crain's reported, in a statement, as noted by DNAinfo, provided by the Pacific Park developers.

Well, duh. Tucker Reed essentially works for Forest City Ratner, whose CEO, MaryAnne Gilmartin, chairs the board of the DBP.

Who questions this?

Initially, few have been willing to go on the record, perhaps because of the dicey politics, perhaps because so little is known. Beyond my analyses, see this comment on Brownstoner from project neighbor Peter Krashes:
In my view this article should be rewritten because it is confusing to the public. I have already seen the “air rights’ terminology adopted elsewhere and it is not correct. There is no such thing as “air rights” with Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park. The project is defined by a General Project Plan and Design Guidelines which were developed largely without meaningful community or public input. When they have been modified in the past the State has withheld information from the public dishonestly and even illegally. That being said, the scaling and location of the buildings was detailed to the public as being the way it is for a reason. In order to make changes the developer and the State are going to have to explain the costs and benefits of their new plan.
Really what’s needed with Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park is open government working for the public explaining the benefits and costs of any changes in a genuine way.
Also see this comment on Fort Greene Focus:
S.J. Avery, co-chair of [Park Slope Civic Council's] Forth on Fourth Avenue (FOFA), explained that “from a FOFA perspective, it seems insane to build a mega tower on a site with such severe existing deficits in traffic control and public transport (bus and subway) capacity.”
Who owns "Pacific Park"?

LinkedIn
Greenland Forest City Partners (except for arena and B2, aka 461 Dean, the modular tower). It's 70% owned by Greenland USA, a subsidiary of Greenland Holdings, which is owned and controlled significantly by the government of Shanghai. In other words, a significant share the majority of profits from this extraordinary state assistance goes to the government of Shanghai.

Clarification and correction on Greenland ownership: Greenland is commonly called a "state-controlled enterprise group," as noted by this 12/9/15 note from ratings agency Moody's, with the Shanghai State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) "effectively the largest shareholder." Greenland's own LinkedIn page states that it "has become one of the biggest state-owned enterprise in Shanghai." According to Greenland's Semi-Annual Report for the period ended 6/30/15, filed with the China Securities Regulatory Commission on 8/25/15, state entities held 44.72% of the shares. No English-language version of the report exists, according to a Greenland spokeswoman, but the 55%/45% split was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7/21/15.

It's interesting to see that experts continue to call Greenland state-controlled, given the minority ownership; perhaps that reflects that such a large shareholder, with only minimal allies, can still control the board.

Shouldn't the 2006 New York City Planning Commission caution have any weight?

Yes, but most of the reporters covering this have no inkling of it.

In 2006, B1 (aka Miss Brooklyn) was reduced to 511 feet, one foot shorter (but still three times bulkier) that the Williamsburg Savings Bank, as a courtesy of sorts. Today there are far taller buildings in Downtown Brooklyn, so there's an argument that the informal height limit is passe. That said, there's a limit to how much this site can carry.

Is this location Prospect Heights? Downtown Brooklyn? "Pacific Park"?

Well, it's technically the tip of Park Slope, since it's on the south side of Flatbush Avenue. But it will arguably be an extension of Downtown Brooklyn. It surely will not be part of the imaginary neighborhood of "Pacific Park," which jumps Flatbush.

Is the time right "for the borough to have an iconic office building for the new Brooklyn economy and the thousands of jobs it will bring to the doorstep of one of the city's largest transit hubs," as the developer says?

Well, maybe. As it happens, Downtown Brooklyn was rezoned for new office space, but it became more lucrative to build residential. The only pending, ground-up office tower, 420 Albee Square, was leveraged by New York City's decision to transfer development rights on the condition that the tower be built commercial.

Office towers don't usually get built without anchor tenants. Especially one this big. So I'd bet that the city and/or state would help attract one. Or more. With subsidies.

How many jobs would a 1.5 square foot office building contain?

Well, at 200 square feet per person, 7,500. At 250 sf/person, 6,000. That seems like an astounding number to fill in one swoop--unless, again, there's a concerted push by public agencies. Even if half the building is office space, with the rest retail and/or condos/hotel, that's 3,000 to 3,750 jobs.

But it would make up for some of the criticism regarding the once-promised 10,000 office jobs.

When's the follow-up?

The issue may come up at the next Empire State Development Board meeting, tomorrow at 9:30 am (no agenda yet), and should come up at the next Atlantic Yards Community Update meeting, next Wednesday.

There hasn't been an Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC) meeting since last October--hey, weren't they supposed to be at least quarterly--but surely this will be brought to them for advice and comment. I can't imagine that the board, which is controlled by the governor, won't smile on this, though there may be pockets of concern.

Which officials represent this site? What Community Board is it in?

This is the 39th Council District, represented by Brad Lander, but directly adjacent to the 33rd, represented by Steve Levin, and pretty close to the 35th, represented by Laurie Cumbo. It's within the 52nd Assembly District, represented by Jo Anne Simon, and the 25th state Senate District, represented by Velmanette Montgomery. It's within Community Board 2, but very near the boundaries of Community Board 6. But all their opinions are advisory, since the state overrides the city. The governor is in charge.

How can this building, across the street from the Barclays Center, be part of the claimed "Brooklyn's newest neighborhood" of Pacific Park?

Hahahahaha.

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