Monday, May 16, 2016

Dissecting the Daily News's dopey, suck-up Atlantic Yards editorial (complicated by its own reporting)

Today's New York Daily News editorial, Atlantic becomes pacific as buildings rise at Brookyn rail yard, is riddled with errors, half-truths, and omissions, starting with the typo in the headline, which, of course, should be corrected to "Brooklyn." (The link, for those who have the Genius annotation software, has all my critiques embedded.)

I critique the text below (Daily News in italics), paragraph by paragraph, but, actually, the strongest critique comes from the Daily News itself, since the newspaper's own recommendation algorithm suggests some critical, investigatory articles about the project, which suggests that Pacific Park is not at all "pacific" (meaning peaceful).

See the graphic at left, and the links to the following articles:
But the Daily News editorial board has always supported this project, so much so it once gushed, A super design for a great project.

From the article: misreading the site

Once called Atlantic Yards and now rebranded Pacific Park, the city’s most controversial and hard-fought real estate project is finally coming to fruition in booming Brooklyn.

None of the buildings going up are over the Vanderbilt Yard. The rail yard is 8.5 acres of a 22-acre project. About half of the Barclays Center is built over--in the trackbed of--the rail yard. The current construction is on terra firma. Future construction over the railyard requires an expensive deck.

It was rebranded to keep people from remembering its controversial history.

“Coming to fruition” means the state of being real or complete. It's definitely not close to complete. But, yes, the housing is finally real.

Construction workers last Wednesday topped a 32-story residential tower at 461 Dean St., not far from the Barclays Center arena.

How about flush against the arena, as the photo suggests.

Remembering the plan

Set for occupancy in the fall, fully half of its 363 apartments will have affordable rents, and tenants will be selected by a lottery that closes on June 27. There will be 24-hour doorman service and a washer-dryer in all units.

If this sounds implausible, so did the plan developer Bruce Ratner advanced a decade ago to build a 22-acre complex plus arena on fallow space over a Long Island Rail Road yard at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Aves.

The plan was announced in December 2003. That's off by nearly 2.5 years. It wasn't predominantly over a railyard. As to "fallow space," how about: extremely valuable space, were an expensive deck built after the property was put out for bid in a proper RFP process. Which didn't happen.

Relying on the developer (and failing to identify the joint venture)

Last week, the Daily News Editorial Board toured the site to find that, after dozens of lawsuits and the national economic meltdown, Pacific Park is at last taking shape — with Ratner meeting a commitment to deliver affordable units upfront.

"Toured the site = "took in Forest City's spin." For an alternative perspective, why not consult the Daily News's own reporting, linked on the same page!

Dozens of lawsuits? Nope. You should get a list before repeating that canard.

Wait a sec. First, he barely got the first building off the ground in time to avoid sanctions, in 2012. Then, after the project timetable was in 2009 extended to allow a 25-year buildout, it was revised in 2014 to have all the affordable units done by 2025.

So that commitment is being met, but 1) "affordable" is merely defined as a below-market building participating in city subsidy programs, not the configuration in the long-promised Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding or Community Benefits Agreement and 2) that commitment has been made more flexible, allowing the developer, no longer Ratner (except for 461 Dean) but Greenland Forest City Partners, which is 70% owned by a Shanghai government-owned fund, to deliver a greater percentage of *less* affordable units. See When Affordable Rents Push $3,000.

It's curious that the name Greenland, nor Chinese state ownership, is not mentioned here.

Heck, see the Daily News's own coverage of the first "100% affordable" building, De Blasio hails 'affordable housing' complex in Brooklyn with $3,500 apartments.

Ignoring modular reality

The building at 461 Dean is the world’s tallest tower built using modular construction, meaning kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms and bathrooms were manufactured in a factory at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then delivered for assembly.

No mention about how this building, once touted as revolutionary, saving time and money versus conventional construction, instead took twice as long and far more money. Or that it was plagued by leaks and even mold. Or that Forest City (which, unlike with the rest of the towers, owns this one outright) is embroiled in bitter litigation with former business partner Skanska. Or that Forest City once pledged to build the *entire* project via modular technology, but now that's off the table.

Analyzing affordability

It’s on track to join a 100%-affordable rental tower at 535 Carlton Ave. and a condo on Vanderbilt Ave. opening this year. Over the next decade, they are slated to be complemented by 13 more residential and commercial towers.

The original plan, for *all* the housing, was 50% market, 50% affordable, aka "below-market," aka "income linked." (That's not the same as "low income.") Then they added 1,930 condos on top of the 50/50 rentals.

So it's important to know that a "100% affordable" rental is not an improvement on the promise but rather a reconfiguration: it will be complemented by a 100% unaffordable (aka market-rate) rental building at a later date, rather than producing to 50/50 buildings.

Which, actually, are 50/30/20 buildings: 50% market, 30% middle- and moderate-income, and 20% low-income. There are supposed to be 5 "bands," or income cohorts, with the highest middle-income band comprising 20% of the affordable units. Instead, with 535 Carlton, as well as the next "100% affordable" building, that high middle-income band comprises 50% of the affordable units.

Misreading history

From the moment that then-Mayor Bloomberg signed an agreement with Ratner’s firm Forest City Ratner in Aug. 2003, the project was ground zero in a protracted struggle between guardians of old-school Brownstone Brooklyn and the visionaries of a New Brooklyn.

WTF? There was no agreement signed in August 2003 (though surely there were meetings). The project wasn’t announced until December 2003. A nonbinding Memorandum of Understanding between Forest City, the city, and state was signed in February 2005.

The key thing in the public approval process is that the city’s role was subsumed by the state: the allowed the override of zoning, the avoidance of ULURP (the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), and other benefits for the developer.

Or, perhaps, more responsible and democratic development vs. less responsible and democratic development. #CultureOfCheating. Forest City got a state override of zoning that allowed them to build as large as they thought necessary. That was unavailable to any other developer.

Meeting the requirements

Even today, community groups remain concerned that Forest City Ratner will violate affordable housing requirements. The agreement mandates a minimum of 35% of units be affordable as the project is built out. Once 1,050 have been constructed, just 25% must be affordable.

They remain concerned because Greenland Forest City Partners, which owns the project and is steered by Greenland, has not announced any plan to meet that 35% commitment, given that it intends to switch one tower to commercial use.

Rents are a moving target

Of the 1,800 units currently under construction at Pacific Park, 800 — 44% — have rents pegged to families with incomes ranging from $20,675 to $144,960, with rents ranging from $559 to $3,012, depending on family and apartment size.

Not clear that $3,012 is the top rent for the affordable units planned. That figure is the top rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the first tower, based on current Area Median Income (AMI). That may well go up by the time the units in other buildings actually open.

As noted, the units skew toward middle-income households, not where the need is greatest. No wonder Tom Waters of the Community Service Society recently said, "Those apartments aren't meeting the most serious needs of the city, at all."

Whom to blame?

Eventually, the entire Pacific Park complex will contain 2,200 affordable housing units — albeit ones that will draw half their tenants from surrounding neighborhoods demographically unrecognizable from their 2003 state, with former residents since priced out.

It's supposed to be 2,250 units, but whatever.

So, blame the delays only on opposition? What if Forest City had produced a different plan? What if state contracts had required a ten-year buildout rather than gave Forest City 25 years of slack? What if Forest City truly aimed to build in ten years as opposed to, as its executives had said, as the market allows?

What if Greenland Forest City's *current* affordable housing actually conformed to its original promise, rather than skewed significantly to middle-income households? That has nothing to do with delays or opposition, but rather the city's willingness to allow the project to *not* conform to the original configuration.

Was de Blasio right?

Although confronted with intense community opposition, then-City Councilman (and, later) Public Advocate Bill de Blasio backed the development, citing among other things its potential for producing affordable housing. As it turns out, he was right.

He was right? Any project built on public property, with a state override of zoning, should have produced significant affordable housing.

Instead, de Blasio relaxed the standards for affordable housing to deliver many units, in the next two "100% affordable" towers, that are less affordable than promised. All to be able to claim "affordable housing." 

He long said he supported the project as long as the much-hyped Community Benefits Agreement was enforced. Instead, the developer never hired the required Independent Compliance Monitor, and de Blasio never said a peep.

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