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FCR's secret scaleback options--and maybe a smaller Miss Brooklyn

We learned this week that Forest City Ratner might reduce the scale of the Atlantic Yards project by 6 to 8 percent, which likely would still leave the project larger than its incarnation in December 2003. And that would still be less than the rather arbitrary 15 percent cut recommended by the Times editorial page.

Few were impressed by the rumored cut, but let's look further down the road. This can't be the last scaleback--not when the public comment period remains open, and before the Empire State Development Corporation approves the project and sends it to the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB).

With the project still at 8 million square feet, there will be pressure on Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who killed the West Side Stadium with his PACB vote, to negotiate further changes. The Slatin Report on Wednesday quoted a veteran of municipal planning who predicted that the project would be cut 10 to 20 percent.

Prepared for cuts

Forest City Ratner is ready. A source tells me the developer has long had a scaleback model prepared that illustrates significant concessions. And documents from the New York City Housing Development Corporation (NYC HDC) hint that several buildings could be considerably smaller than currently projected.

Indeed, no building is described as more than 40 stories tall, even though five buildings currently planned would be more than 400 feet in height. Proposed buildings are described with flexibility: 30-40 stories tall, 25-30 stories tall, or 20-35 stories tall. Still, the documents are not conclusive; they can be revised, and do not include market-rate space that could add to the size of the buildings.

Looking at the numbers

Remember, Forest City Ratner in December 2003 announced the project at 8 million square feet, last year increased it to 9.132 million square feet, and on 3/31/06 cut it to 8.659 million square feet at the end of March, falsely claiming that they had "identified innovative ways to scale down the original design...." (Emphasis added)

Indeed, Forest City Ratner's announcement previewing the 5/11/06 press conference featuring Frank Gehry and Laurie Olin gave a hint that the 5 percent scaleback was only one step, saying that the new plans "are not final images." Earlier this week, the developer announced cuts of 500,000 to 700,000 square feet, to 8.159 million or 7.959 million square feet.

Arguments for cuts

Assemblyman Jim Brennan last year called publicly for a 50 percent cut, and City Council Member (and Congressional candidate) David Yassky more recently has suggested it privately--and even such a reducation might still leave the project the one of the densest residential communities in the country.

Brennan and several Assembly colleagues this spring proposed a reduction in scale by about one-third (albeit with new subsidies). Architect and blogger Jonathan Cohn suggested an even larger reduction. I pointed out that the proposed Atlantic Yards density, in terms of apartments per acre, would be more than double that at Battery Park City and other major developments.

New York Magazine in May floated a "kinder, gentler" version: an actual streetfront park, faced by blocks of new townhouses, shorter apartment buildings, and maybe even a school. To make sure Ratner makes his money back, apartment buildings of fifteen to twenty stories could be built opposite the taller structures on Atlantic.

Even though the Assembly bill was killed, the criticism won’t go away. At the 6/15/06 Municipal Arts Society (MAS) forum, former city Planning Commissioner Ron Shiffman expressed doubt that some of the professed advantages--notably the adjacent transit hub--could support the scale of the proposed development. He called the density "extreme."

FCR's back pocket plan

A person with knowledge of the Atlantic Yards project, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that the developer has been girding for such a scenario. The source told me:
There was always a scaled-back model that made considerable concessions to the public's concern and dismay apropos of height and density issues. The model was to be hidden from public view, but would be revealed to the appropriate parties at the appropriate time.

Even as architect Frank Gehry's team created this hidden model, FCR was contemplating an exhibition space to help explain the project, hoping to convince skeptical Brooklynites of its merits. Though Forest City Ratner does operate an invitation-only Atlantic Yards Information Center at the Atlantic Center mall, it has never become a public space, and the display there is more show than dialogue.

The source said that the hidden, scaled-down model was to be produced only for "significant players"--a tactic that contradicted the intent of the proposed exhibition.

I asked FCR executive Jim Stuckey after the hearing on Aug. 23 if the developer had a scaled-down model. My question was general--I didn't mention my source's comments--and Stuckey said no.

(I don't like using anonymous sources, but I'll note that the Times quoted an FCR executive anonymously on Tuesday, and the Slatin Report quoted several development experts anonymously, given their concern over FCR's reach.)

Justifying the size

So far Forest City Ratner has claimed that the location near the transit hub and the rezoning of nearby Downtown Brooklyn are justifications for the size of the project. (At right, current square footage estimates from the Empire State Development Corporation's General Project Plan. Click on all documents to enlarge.)

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and ACORN's Bertha Lewis have justified the scale because of the inclusion of affordable housing. But all explanations run up against the "extreme density" issue. But neither the cost nor the subsidized housing should justify overdevelopment that, for example, provides much too little open space for the population.

A more rational planning process might have led the city and state to invest in infrastructure up front, then put the site out to bid, as has been proposed for the Hudson Yards in Manhattan.

Smaller building plans?

So what might Forest City Ratner consider? Via a Freedom of Information Law request, I received several documents from NYC HDC, all of them Resolutions of Declarations of Intent, passed between July 20, 2004 and July 19, 2006. The declarations, passed by the HDC board, do not assure tax-exempt bonds for a measure of affordable housing; they simply mean that a developer may apply for such financing.

Nor do they provide definitive information on the final plans for the buildings. The HDC officials I spoke to--Senior VP Rachel Grossman and Communications Director Aaron Donovan--stressed that the most solid numbers were the dollar figures. Most documents described HDC first mortgages that would range from $100 million to $150 million per building.

I received documents regarding only about half of the towers planned for the Atlantic Yards site, and none regarding buildings over the railyard.
Note that the documents only address tax-exempt bonding, which would be only one component of the housing subsidies. The bonding would be for buildings with mixed income rentals: 50% market, 30% middle-/moderate-income, 20% low-income.

Scaleback hints

The documents offer some tantalizing hints. As noted, no building is described as more than 40 stories high, or 400 feet, while five buildings currently planned would exceed that height. While the heights of the buildings seem flexible, the amount of space requested for housing subsidy is a single number--which hints that, if a building is reduced in height, the bulk might remain constant.

And some buildings could be much smaller than currently planned. Take, for example, Building 3, on the west side of Sixth Avenue, between Dean and Pacific streets. While it is described by the ESDC in the General Project Plan as a 428-foot building with 650,437 square feet, the resolution passed by HDC on 12/2/04 describes a 25-30 story building with 315,000 square feet, or less than half the bulk.

Note that, until a City Council meeting 5/26/05, Forest City Ratner was promising that the buildings around the arena would be office space (or "jobs"). By taking the preliminary steps toward HDC financing six months earlier, the developer was already hedging its bets, establishing the option to include housing in the building.

Or take Building 7, at the southwest corner of Atlantic and Carlton avenues. The ESDC describes it as a 460-foot building with 733,810 square feet; the resolution passed by HDC on 11/7/05 (right) describes a 30-40 story building with 380,000 square feet.

Or consider Building 15, east of Sixth Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets. The ESDC describes a building 272 feet tall and containing 341,910 square feet. The resolution passed by HDC on 11/7/05 describes a 20-30-story building with 260,000 square feet.

Here are a site plan and a block/lot map.

Alternative explanations

Despite the apparent plain language of the documents regarding height and square footage, they're not definitive. I showed a few to Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, and he said they suggested four potential scenarios:
--the buildings would be larger than described, because the documents don't include condos on top of the rentals
--Forest City Ratner would ask for the documents to be amended and thus would increase the space
--FCR could get approval for subsidies at one site but move them to another building
--FCR would, as the documents hint, build the buildings at a lower density.

Note that some documents seem to confirm some of FCR's current plans. For example, the most recent resolution passed--on 7/19/06--describes Building 11 as 20-35 stories and 315,000 square feet. The ESDC describes it as 202 feet tall and 330,778 square feet.

(I didn't get a response from the developer. On Wednesday morning, I emailed a query to an FCR spokeswoman; on Wednesday afternoon I followed up by phone. Yesterday late afternoon I got an email saying my query had just been noticed. But I wasn't expecting much anyway; the developer hasn't commented to the press about the 6 to 8 percent reduction.)

What of Miss Brooklyn?

The HDC documents even offer an alternate take on Frank Gehry’s Miss Brooklyn, or Building 1, now proposed as a 620-foot building with 1.1 million square feet, including offices, condos, a hotel, and retail space. (Earlier this week, the Times reported that the developer was considering shrinking the building so it didn't compete with the 512-foot Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower.)

According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the building would not contain affordable housing. So there’s no need for HDC tax-exempt bonding.

Then again, Forest City Ratner did ask HDC for the option to apply for tax-exempt bonds. A resolution passed by the agency on 4/12/06--a month before Gehry came to town to defend the building--suggests an alternate version of Building 1: a 30 to 40-story building with 415,000 square feet.

Would this would be a drastic cut to Miss Brooklyn, or does it only indicate the mixed-income rental part of a larger building? Maybe something else going on. The HDC document pictured above refers to a proposed development at 177 Flatbush Avenue and 608-620 Atlantic Avenue: Miss Brooklyn. An HDC document from 9/22/05 describes a similarly-sized building, 30-40 stories and 380,000 square feet, at 181 Flatbush Avenue--the next tax lot.

Are these two versions of the same building? Could they be combined into one? Would these simply be rental components of a larger building that would also include office spaces and condos? It's unclear.

Similarly, HDC has apparently passed multiple resolutions regarding adjacent tax lots--and essentially the same proposed building--in at least two other cases. "The only thing we know is they [Forest City Ratner] are giving themselves the flexibility of coming back to get tax-exempt financing on these sites," HDC's Grossman said.

Other questions about the buildings, she said, were for the developer.


  1. “Few were impressed by the rumored cut, but let's look further down the road. This can't be the last scaleback--not when the public comment period remains open.”

    Showing willingness to compromise is a step forward towards convincing Brooklynites of the arena’s merits.

    As a Nets fan, I’m excited for the potential move and permanent home…


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