Thursday, April 07, 2016

Some partial historical truth at heart of argument for Atlantic Yards, as 1983 RPA report gets twisted

There's a partial historical truth--enough for deniability, but not enough to be fully convincing--at the heart of Empire State Development Corporation's 2006 justification for high-density buildings near the Atlantic Terminal transit hub.

Consider p. 38 of the Land Use chapter of the Final Environmental Impact Statement:
The density of the uses on the arena block and Site 5 would be similar to nearby land uses to the north, which are located in the high-density commercial zoning districts of Downtown Brooklyn (see the “Zoning” discussion, below). This is a distinctly beneficial aspect of the proposed project, which would be consistent with the intent of the recent rezoning in Downtown Brooklyn to foster growth in this area (Downtown Brooklyn) by focusing and providing higher-density commercial and residential development where appropriate and where it can be supported by adequate infrastructure, namely transportation (see the discussion on “Today’s Challenge for Economic Growth,” in Chapter 1, “Project Description”). As far back as 1983, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) advocated dense development at this location, stating that the area immediately adjacent to the transit hub “should be built to high density, appropriate to the excellent transportation in Downtown Brooklyn.”
(Bolding and underlining added)

That Regional Plan Association reference was new, not included in the previous Draft Environmental Impact Statement chapter, and a footnote led to p. 17 of a 1983 Regional Plan Plan Association report titled Downtown Brooklyn.

I got that report from the Brooklyn Public Library. And it turns out that the RPA's report did not address the arena block in full, in part because it cut off the rather arbitrary boundary of Downtown Brooklyn at Pacific Street, not Dean Street.

In other words, "this location" and "immediately adjacent" did not go beyond Pacific Street and the Vanderbilt Yard.

The area adjacent to the transit hub, according to the RPA report, was mostly but not exclusively to the north. After all, in 1983, planners had much cleared/empty land to work with.

From the Regional Plan Association's 1983 Downtown Brooklyn report
Looking at the maps

As the map above shows, the RPA's Downtown Brooklyn boundary extended along Pacific from Fourth Avenue to a two-thirds point of the Vanderbilt Yard, not quite at Carlton Avenue but seemingly Cumberland Street.

Oddly enough, the vacant land extended one block east to Carlton Avenue, while the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA) extended all the way to Vanderbilt Avenue. (I aim to check on whether/when ATURA boundaries changed.)

[Corrected and updated] The western segments of the Vanderbilt Yard were a working railyard. The tiny triangle of land west of Fifth Avenue between Atlantic and Flatbush avenues was not vacant, actually.

Yes, part was an unbuilt lot, owned by the MTA (see lot 6, below) and used for storage and other purposes, but the Underberg Building was on that triangle, along with buildings that housed, among other things, auto-related uses and the JRG Fashion Cafe.

Back in 1983, across the street, on the block bounded by Fourth Avenue, Flatbush, Atlantic, and Pacific Street, Site 5 was a parking lot. It later became home to two big-box stores, Modell's and P.C. Richard, and is now slated for a large--perhaps giant--building.

The RPA's text

Here's the text from the page in the RPA report cited in the 2006 Final EIS chapter:
LIRR Terminal: how dense a development? From Regional Plan Association's point of view, this corridor--particularly the LIRR Terminal site--should be built to high density, appropriate to the excellent transportation in Downtown Brooklyn. If the Floor Area Ratio averaged 10, for example, more than 7 million square feet of  office space would house 20,000 to 33,000 employees...
The eventual goal should therefore be 10 million square feet of office space in the Flatbush corridor, new subway stations integrated with the new structures at Nevins Street and Atlantic Avenue, and reconstruction of the LIRR Terminal site for a development worthy of its accessibility. If only part of that can be committed soon, we would recommend starting at the Fulton Mall end of the corridor and leaving the LIRR Terminal site for a development worthy of its accessibility.
Note in the map below the crosshatched lines, indicating "Proposed office building sites," north of Atlantic Avenue at the sites of what are now the Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls. (The 2004 Atlantic Terminal also has have an office building. The 1996 Atlantic Center may support three future towers.)

Where did RPA recommended starting? At sites east of Flatbush just below Fulton Street.

From the Regional Plan Association's 1983 Downtown Brooklyn report

In the map above, Site 5 is ignored, but the document suggests office space on the two pieces of land bounced by Pacific Street and Atlantic Avenue, and Flatbush Avenue and Sixth Avenue. That would have required decking over the working railyard, which made no economic sense at the time, given the abundant available cleared sites.

Today, the rest of the arena block is now comprised of the area bounded by Flatbush Avenue, Dean Street, and Sixth Avenue, taking in the area between Pacific and Dean. Pacific has been demapped. Two large residential towers are being built, and a third tower is planned.

A fourth tower, at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic, is approved, but the developers want to move the bulk across the street to Site 5.

The AKRF dodge

There's always been an argument for density near that transit hub, including sites--as now seems clear for part of the arena block--closer to the 2/3 trains at Bergen Street.

But the Regional Plan Association, despite what consultant AKRF wrote in the Atlantic Yards Final EIS, did not include those additional streets, likely because they weren't needed at the time, and they more clearly represented neighborhood-scale Brooklyn.

If AKRF and Empire State Development wanted to make the case that the density argument extended another block, they might have tried to do so. They just shouldn't have said the RPA "advocated dense development at this location."

"They're good writers," an ESD executive said of consultant AKRF at a 2010 public hearing. They also know how to deliver, such as a Blight Study that ignored key facts, and this small but important partial argument.

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