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Ominous math, lingering questions: push for office space (with loss of tower/no unit cut) suggests maximum impacts, smaller affordable apartments

This is among multiple articles covering issues raised at the March 15 Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC) meeting.

I've previously contended that the the tower I've dubbed the "Brooklyn Behemoth"--created by moving 1.1 million square feet of development rights from the arena plaza/arena air space across the street to Site 5, home of P.C. Richard/Modell's and already slated for a 439,050 square foot building--is a gambit.

Mock-up of potential bulk of Site 5 tower
But information disclosed and a public comment at the AY CDC Wednesday raised even more ominous questions about Greenland Forest City Partners' (GFCP) plan to build this giant tower--equivalent in bulk to the Times Tower in Manhattan--with significant office space, as well as shifting the B4 tower, the second-largest in Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, from residential to office space.

Those issues include:
  • what it might look like
  • how they plan to maximize both office space and residential space, a scenario not studied, while eliminating the single largest tower
  • how the swap to office space could reduce the size of affordable apartments, given that 764 apartments, including 275 affordable ones, would have to be redistributed
  • whether the project can now meet a requirement that 35% of initial units be affordable
Residential variation: office space only in B1
Overall, it leaves the impression that Greenland Forest City, by repeating the "jobs" mantra to justify a construction switch that saves it (and arena owner Mikhail Prokhorov) the trouble of building a tower over the arena plaza, is squeezing a double whammy of a project into a smaller footprint, with a loss of some public benefits. 

Need for more review

As Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council commented at the meeting, the 2006 environmental review addressed the worst-case scenario impacts of two variations, one residential, with more apartments and less office space, and one commercial, with fewer apartments and more office space.

The project since proceeded under the assumption of the residential variation--which had office space only in the B1 tower over the plaza (see yellow in graphic above left).

But the description at the meeting, he said, "makes it sound like we're now going to shove in both the commercial mixed use variation [see below right] and residential mixed use variation into the same project. I think that will have some fairly significant implications." (Actually, it's even more dramatic, since the B1 tower over the plaza would be cut.)

Veconi encouraged the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation, set up in 2014 to advise Empire State Development (ESD) regarding the project, to conduct its own review beyond the ESD's required Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), calling its own hearings and inviting experts, collaborating with local elected officials.

Commercial variation: office space in three buildings;
plan now would be office space in two buildings,
as well as one fewer building
He suggested the AY CDC query the developer regarding their anticipated economic benefit, saying that full discussion is "the only way we can tell is whether it's really a fair deal for the public... We have an unique opportunity to have a much broader discussion."

The gubernatorially-controlled AY CDC has been mostly toothless as well as often bypassed by the parent ESD, but three members at the meeting vocally raised questions and may push for more oversight.

ESD will conduct a public review, which could take a year, and involves both disclosures of potential impacts as well as a change to the General Project Plan allowing the shift of bulk. While the New York City Planning Commission and local Community Boards can offer comments, the project bypasses city review, as the state can override local zoning.

No images

The meeting again included significant non-disclosure, as the developer has floated plans without beginning to address the single most obvious question.

Asked how big the Site 5 tower could be, Forest City spokeswoman Ashley Cotton said, "You could mass this building in a number of different ways... there is not height that we can talk about, unfortunately."

That's true, but also very un-transparent. Wouldn't it be appropriate to disclose options, and perspectives?

Potential but non-binding scenario released August 2014; B4 would be residential, B1 was then planned
Fitting larger project into same space

Cotton said Greenland Forest City has no plans to increase the overall project square footage or number of apartments (currently 6,430, including 1,930 condos and 4,300 rentals, half of them subsidized), nor change the required 2,250 affordable units.

At the same time, they want to swap the B4 space--with a tower nearly 750,000 square feet (and perhaps larger) and 511 feet tall--from residential to office. That means B4's 213 condos and 551 rentals, half of the latter affordable, would be distributed throughout the project.

While perhaps some of those units, notably the condos, might be put in the Site 5 tower--which Cotton described as a "fully mixed-use building" and which other executives have said would contain high-end retail--that leaves 551 rentals to "be distributed throughout the rest of the plan."

She didn't explain how that might work, but said that the planned buildings would simply accommodate more units. That suggests smaller unit sizes.

If so, the promise--actually a goal, not fulfilled with the first affordable tower--to devote 50% of the affordable apartments, in area, to two- and three-bedroom units would be even harder to fulfill. (Of the next two 100% affordable towers, they're much closer, with 35% of the units family-sized, though it's not clear how that translates into floor area.)

The contours of Greenland Forest City's project remain unclear. But it seems to depart from both scenarios in the 2006 disclosure, from to the Chapter 1 of the Final EIS:
Two variations of the project program are under consideration to allow for flexibility in the program of three of the proposed project’s 17 buildings: (1) a residential mixed-use variation containing approximately 336,000 gross square feet (gsf) of commercial office space, 165,000 gsf of hotel use (approximately 180 rooms), 247,000 gsf of retail space, and up to 6.4 million gsf of residential use (approximately 6,430 residential units); and (2) a commercial mixed-use variation, which would permit more commercial office use in three buildings closest to Downtown Brooklyn and would contain approximately 1.6 million gsf of commercial office space, 247,000 gsf of retail space, and up to approximately 5.3 million gsf of residential use (approximately 5,325 units).
The timing of affordable housing 

If B4 becomes an office building, what happens to the 275 or so affordable units that were supposed to come online by 2019, asked board member Barika Williams, who works for the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, an affordable housing group.

"We are not asking for any changes to the affordable housing requirements, the number of units, and the phasing," Cotton responded, "so it shouldn’t impact it at all."

That sparked some doubt from Veconi, who as part of the BrooklynSpeaks coalition in 2014 negotiated a new timetable for the affordable units (now due by 2025, after a potential delay to 2035, though still later than the once promised ten-year buildout), as well as the commitment that 35% of the total units be affordable until 1,050 affordable units had launched.

"My analysis of that plan is it will need to be changed to enable the project to met obligation to meet the ratio of 35% affordable to total units if there are no units going into B4," he said. "One question is what will be done to maintain 35% affordable."

Indeed, the under construction buildings include:
  • B2:181 market rentals/181 affordable rentals 
  • B3: 303 affordable rentals
  • B11: 278 condo
  • B12: 265 condo
  • B14: 298 affordable rentals
  • B15: 336 market rentals
That's 1,060 market-rate units and 782 affordable units, with a total of 1,842 units. (Note that B3 would have 307 units according to the graphic above, rather than the 303 units more recently announced, so the totals are slightly fuzzy.)

The next building would presumably be the B13 condo tower at the southeast block of the project, with 277 units. As Veconi wrote in response to my query:
If there are no changes to the programming of affordable and market rate units for B12, B13 and B15 from the schedule you reference, at the start of B13 there will be 786 affordable units of 2,124 total units, or 37%. It would only be possible to complete 122 market rate units after that (rental or condo) before falling below the 35% threshold if no additional affordable can be started prior."
But the currently available sequence does not suggest affordable units would built next, and that leaves some significant pending questions. As Veconi wrote:
The question is where the affordable units necessary to complete further market rate units would go. It seems unlikely the programming for B12 or B13 could be changed now. Affordable units could be added to B15, but presumably GFCP would need a subsidized loan. They could put affordable in the Site 5 building, but it sounded like the plan there was luxury condos on the upper floors, which might not harmonize economically with affordable. After that, GFCP is left with buildings over the railyards, but those haven’t been decked yet.
I would expect that GFCP has figured out an answer to this question. Since the 35% threshold is a public obligation, it should share that information with the public.
[Updated] Indeed, at the meeting, Empire State Development official Marion Phillips III said a timeline would be required.
Potential but non-binding scenario released August 2014; B4 would be residential, B1 was then planned


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