Thursday, September 22, 2016

Forest City executive excited about ambitious Site 5 plan. But ESD officials stonewall AY CDC board members when queried.

This the first among articles based on the 9/20/16 meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), set up to advise Empire State Development (ESD), the state authority overseeing/shepherding Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park.

Mock-up from Department of City Planning presentation;
Site 5 tower could be 50% higher than bank building
Is the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park developer getting any closer with its ambitious plan for Site 5, long home to the big-box stores Modell's and P.C. Richard, across Flatbush Avenue from the Barclays Center?

If you listened to Empire State Development staff at the AY CDC meeting, not only is everything on hold because of litigation, Forest City Ratner--generally the public-facing part of the Greenland Forest City Partners joint venture--can't even talk to them about Site 5, because a judge has stalled condemnation.

The developer's take

But in yesterday's Commercial Observer interview with Forest City Ratner Project Director Susi Yu, she sounds pretty focused:
The other part that’s exciting for me is working with the state to move about 760,000 square feet of air rights that we have at the prow of the [Barclays Center] to site 5, across the street from where P.C. Richard and Modell’s are, to build an iconic commercial headquarters building above a retail base. Having a major headquarters building also creates a huge benefit to the retail businesses around there. It’s mostly a bedroom community. There is no during-the-day traffic so to have office workers in that area to use the services will actually make it a much more thriving community and development. I’m completely excited by that.
Yes, Yu's language was ambiguous, but being excited about "working with the state" suggests that plans are indeed percolating.

Note that the developers do not have "air rights" but rather an approved plan to build a 1.1 million square foot tower, B1, that likely would be too complicated or expensive to build around the arena, and would massively interfere with arena operations.

So now they'd like to transfer a good chunk of that square footage to Site 5, where a 250-foot, 439,050 square-foot building is already approved, creating--at least as presented to the Department of City Planning (DCP) in January--a massive two-tower project across the street from row houses.

From Department of City Planning Presentation; the Site 5 project is proposed to be
 three times the bulk of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building across Flatbush Avenue
Of the four scenarios presented to DCP, in only one would the larger of the two towers contain office space. In other words, an iconic commercial tower may be a justification for the required revision of the governing Atlantic Yards General Project Plan--along with keeping the arena plaza "public"--but it's not guaranteed.

Also note that, as described to City Planning, the project at Site 5 would contain 188,000 square feet of high-end retail, which presumably would aim to intercept many retail customers from leaving the building and visiting those nearby retail businesses.


At Tuesday's meeting, at about 30:50 in the video below, board member Jaime Stein asked if there was any update on Site 5.

No, responded Greenland USA executive Scott Solish, representing the joint venture.

"I have been made aware of a City Limits article," Stein said, in which the Department of City Planning was presented with a Site 5 proposal. "Is that going to come to us, at what point?"

Solish said it was not a direct proposal but "more of a scenario concept."

Stein pointed out that a slide stated that modifications to ESD's General Project Plan would be required.

ESD executive and AY CDC President Marion Phillips III stepped in. "When and if the developer comes to us to make a proposal," he said, as it if were some remote possibility, "it will come to these directors for advisement. And since we do not know what that proposal is, we cannot tell you the extent of what the review process" will be.

Board Member Linda Reardon asked if the developer would "brief us on what is going on, vis a vis the City Planning" presentation.

Litigation stalls discussion?

Phillips again stepped in. "Since there is pending litigation, Forest City is not able to answer that question in front of us," he said.

Board Member Barika Williams asked if "someone else besides Forest City" could brief them. (After all, Greenland is not part of the litigation filed by P.C. Richard, which claims Forest City promised it a store in the future development at the site. And Solish works for Greenland.)

Phillips again answered. "What the developer presented to City Planning was just an idea, what they presented to us is an idea," he said. "Since that time has passed, nothing has been proposed to modify the GPP [General Project Plan] They have not asked us to take any action, and until they ask us to take action, it would be premature for us to assume what that action would look like."

Maybe it would be premature, but surely the developer has dropped some hints, and in March Forest City executive Ashley Cotton did describe the outlines of the plan, but omitted most of the details shared with the Department of City Planning.

"Can we assume there's an interest in modifying it," Stein followed up, noting "that was something that was not shared with us."

Another ESD staffer intervened. ESD Counsel Robin Stout explained that, on "February 18 or so, in conjunction with litigation to which ESD is not a party, Forest City Ratner, not the [joint] venture, was issued an injunction that said, basically they should not have conversations with ESDC about condemnation."

What the injunction requires

The judge's order; see text at bottom
"So basically, since that time... there's no update to give you," Stout said, "other than to say that, based on pre-injunction conversations, we do anticipate that there will be a request... when it comes, it will come to this board and to ESD."

That doesn't make sense. First, the injunction--see bottom--enjoins Forest City and any ally, notably ESD, from depriving P.C. Richard of its property interest.

That doesn't seem to stop them from talking about a potential building at the site. Couldn't Forest City simply tell ESD it thinks the case may be settled, and thus it only wants to discuss the Site 5 plans, not the need for eminent domain?

After all, if the injunction is broad enough to preclude any discussion of Greenland Forest City Partners' plans for Site 5, how then could  Cotton at the March AY CDC meeting discuss those general plans? Either she was in violation--I doubt it--or the injunction does not preclude such discussion.

Board Member Daniel Kummer expressed worry that, "by the time it comes to us, it may be presented essentially as a fait accompli."

Phillips said that wasn't the case. "Something of this magnitude is going to have to be well vetted in the public arena. It will not come to you a fait accompli."

True, it can't, because a public process will involve hearings before the GPP can be changed. But, given the history of this project, there's no reason to think that ESD executives will push back much on the developers plans.

If so, then ESD executives who serve as staff or board members of the AY CDC--a body set up to advise ESD--would not bring advice or scrutiny to the state authority but rather impede such efforts.

The injunction

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