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Belated density in East New York, a belated revamp of subsidies, and the Atlantic Yards project

Call it the butterfly effect, from East New York to Prospect Heights. Would the Atlantic Yards project be so big--a zoning override favored by the low-income community group ACORN and others--had sufficient affordable housing been built in other parts of the city?

There are several factors at work. One, as city officials have belatedly recognized--and ACORN has pointed out--the city has subsidized lots of luxury housing in Brooklyn without demanding an affordable component. Another is that affordable housing has been built on vacant land at low density, and, "we are paying a severe price,” as author Roberta Brandes Gratz observed during a panel discussion last month.

The products of history

Both are the products of history--a once-weak market for new construction outside Manhattan and a belief that suburban-style housing, with parking, would reestablish once-devastated areas like East New York, where the city took over stretches of land that had been abandoned by landlords. (This was before the public safety improvements of the Giuliani era.) The first phase of 2900 single-family homes built in the Nehemiah project consisted of houses separated from each other; a later phase, at right, attached rowhouses were built.

Gratz, in her book Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown, criticizes the Nehemiah project for "destroy[ing] the remnants of an authentic urban neighborhood where resources remain to build on," citing the unwillingness to take advantage of the city infrastructure. She writes:
In East New York, by contrast, 124 buildings, mostly single-family and 10- or 12-unit apartment houses, were demolished, 102 of which were occupied by owners or tenants... Entire blocks of commercial storefronts were demolished, some containing viable businesses. In place of this traditional urban neighborhood, 650 units of only single-family homes with carports were built, a horizontal housing project for homeowners.

The culprit, to the author: "lowest cost" thinking. (I suspect it's also a reliance on the automobile, which connects to concerns about safety in the streets and subways in the 1980s.)

Now, as the New York Times reported in a 3/26/06 article headlined Long Down on Its Heels, a Community Looks Up, some urban density--at less than five stories--will be restored to East New York. The 2900 single-family homes built by the nonprofit East Brooklyn Congregations since the early 1980s will be joined by... apartment houses.

Returning to an urban scale

As the Times reported, "Not only is most local land now occupied, but demand for housing is still swelling." Now six apartment buildings, at 4½ stories and eight rentals each, are under construction, and the private sector is part of the investment.

The Times pointed out the success of the project, and the lingering deficit:
Emily Youssouf, president of the Housing Development Corporation, credits Nehemiah's work, along with a drop in crime, for East New York's comeback. But Nehemiah's critics say the program chewed up too much city land. A result, said Richard Plunz, an architecture professor who directs the Urban Design program at Columbia University, is that, as the shortage of housing for low-income people continues, the empty land is gone.

Indeed, a city press release that likely generated this story offered this resonant quote:
“When we began building single-family homes in 1983, there were scores of acres of land, thousands of abandoned units, and no need for higher density construction,” said the Rev. David K. Brawley of East Brooklyn Congregations. (Emphasis added)

What if?

A thought experiment: had those 2900 homes been built at urban density, the land could have housed at least three families each (and likely more), and another 5800 affordable units might have been built.

And if the city had reformed its subsidy program sooner, dozens of developments in the more gentrified parts of Brooklyn--which ACORN identified will create nearly 6000 units with negligible affordable housing--might have added nearly 2000 affordable units.

That's assuming 30 percent affordable housing, as recently negotiated in the rezoning in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Forest City Ratner's plan, announced as 50 percent affordable housing, would be 32.7% affordable onsite and, if the developer fulfills its promise to build offsite condos, 38.2% to 41.3% affordable in total.

Add in the other boroughs and the number would be thousands more. But all that would require turning the clock back.

Density at Brooklyn's transit hub

There's a strong case for a dense development near mass transit. But how dense? The Atlantic Yards project has never been debated in terms of zoning, since the Empire State Development Corporation will override city zoning in this state project.

To ACORN's Bertha Lewis, the scale is far less important than the opportunity to provide a significant amount of affordable housing. So she's willing to endorse whatever scale Forest City Ratner proposes as long as it includes the 2250 affordable units. (Those units would be subsidized by the public, not the developer, though the developer might make more of a profit building market-rate housing.)

But the alternative to Forest City Ratner's plan isn't an empty railyard and moribund properties nearby. Extell Development Co's bid for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard proposed about 30 percent affordable housing: 573 subsidized apartments out of 1940 units, all this on a site a little more than one-third of the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint.

Another bidder also would have to propose affordable housing. Surely zoning incentives could spur hundreds more units on other sites within the proposed footprint.

Borough President Marty Markowitz disparaged the Extell bid as “minimal affordable housing." Actually, no--several of the developments ACORN identified provide "minimal affordable housing;" Extell simply proposed less. (Extell's proposal of 573 affordable units on 8.3 acres represents 69 units per acre; FCR's proposal of 2250 affordable units on 22 acres represents 102 units per acre, or 48 percent more.) But Extell proposed a development with the tallest building 28 stories, not twice that, and without having to take city streets and create a superblock.

The Atlantic Yards project isn't the last opportunity to provide sufficient affordable housing. And the discussion could proceed differently. Had:
1) minimal urban density been sought in places like East New York,
2) affordable housing required in gentrifying Brooklyn,
3) and had the city called for an RFP and a planning process for the railyards,
we might not be facing a proposal whose size and scale is regulated more by the developer's choice than a public process.

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