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Spin city #1: Burden calls AY “a gaping hole in the heart of Brooklyn”

City Planning Commission Chairperson Amanda Burden, speaking yesterday before a development-friendly audience at a Crain’s New York Business breakfast, declared that “Atlantic Yards was a gaping hole in the heart of Brooklyn,” a statement either deceptive or naïve.

The "hole" is a working railyard, the 8.5-acre Vanderbilt Yard, while Atlantic Yards is the name of a 22-acre project. In casual discussion and press accounts, the two are often conflated, but a public official like Burden should know better, right?

I caught up with Burden (right) after her presentation and said, “You’re calling the project, the whole thing, a gaping hole.”

“The yards are a gaping hole,” she responded, unwilling to acknowledge that she had bought into the developer’s branding.

Burden talks about being sensitive to community input and indeed emphasized the importance of “smart growth,” but she remained a good soldier for the agenda of Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

She claimed there was “deep and wide support” for Atlantic Yards, basically dismissing the opposition. She insisted the city preferred that projects go through its land use review process, not acknowledging that in cases other than Atlantic Yards, the city has pushed to have a role whether there is a mix of state and city land. She also said the city shouldn’t participate in Community Benefits Agreements (CBA), not acknowledging that her boss signed the Atlantic Yards CBA with fanfare as a witness.

Time for a boom

“New York has entered a time of optimism, growth, and revival that hasn’t been seen for half a century,” Burden said in her address at the Sheraton Hotel on Seventh Avenue. “We are now entering a construction boom in all five boroughs that, when completed decades from now, will stand as one of the greatest in New York City history.”

Among those things shaping the land use agenda: population growth, a need for office space, and a need for affordable housing, including the creation of new units and new inclusionary zoning.

The city’s desire for “a more sustainable form of urban development” includes “transit-oriented development,” the recycling of former industrial land for new uses, and the adaptive reuse of obsolete industrial and institutional buildings. While industrial land would go to new use in Atlantic Yards, the obsolete buildings would be demolished rather than adaptively reused. As for whether AY would be transit-oriented development, there’s a debate.

Downtown Brooklyn

Among the highlights over five years, she cited 67 rezonings. “We have rezoned 64 blocks of Downtown Brooklyn to facilitate 4.5 million square feet of office space and housing,” she said, seemingly eliding the distinction between the two, though the rezoning intended to create much more office space than housing and residential development has been more attractive

A design for relandscaping Flatbush Avenue is complete and a redesign of Fulton Mall is under way, she added.

“Atlantic Yards and a new arena for the Nets will provide Downtown Brooklyn with a state-of-the-art sports venue, office space, affordable housing, anchoring this neighborhood’s resurgence,” she proclaimed.

The project might extend the boundaries of Downtown Brooklyn, but nearly all of it would be located in what is now considered Prospect Heights.

Gowanus & AY

Her description of the planned Gowanus rezoning sounded a lot like what some Brooklynites sought for the Atlantic Yards site. “In the Gowanus [area], where a long-ignored industrial area abuts some of Brooklyn’s most desirable neighborhoods, we have begun a discussion with the community on a framework to guide future land-use decisions,” she said.

“Taken together, all of these extensive rezoning initiatives provide predictability for residents, property owners and the development community. They also pave the way for as of right development—as of right appropriately scaled development—enabling the private market to respond when the market is ready. The market is indeed ready.”


The first question came from Crain’s editor Greg David, and it concerned Atlantic Yards: “Did the extent and vociferous nature of the opposition to the project surprise you, and have you drawn any lessons from the nature of the opposition?”

There was no actual public opposition for Burden to encounter, given that the planning commission held no public hearings. Still, she gave no quarter. “As I recall, the Atlantic Yards has deep and wide support. There was vociferous opposition, as there always is, to big projects,” she said. “We’re a big city and we need big projects. And Atlantic Yards was a gaping hole in the heart of Brooklyn, and now will provide a sports facility, retail, and entertainment and it’s on top of a transit hub.”

Note how “big projects” trumped “discussion with the community.” Also note the past tense of the question, and the answer. Given that the state plans to use eminent domain for parts of the project site that would not be “a gaping hole,” and that effort is being challenged vigorously in court, the past tense is inappropriate.

Taller than the Willy B

David noted that Burden’s commission backed the idea that Frank Gehry’s flagship Miss Brooklyn would be the tallest structure in Brooklyn, at 620 feet, but developer Forest City Ratner has agreed to reduce the height to just below the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building, which is 512 feet. (It would still block the bank's clock.) He asked Burden if she agreed with the decision, and whether it sets a precedent that no building in Brooklyn can ever be taller than the bank.

“As I said, the city needs big projects. Tall buildings are aspirational,” she said. “We’re a city that welcomes growth, we welcome innovation.” She said she didn’t know how reducing the height would affect the overall plan for the building—the amount of square footage has not been announced—but added, “We endorsed Miss Brooklyn and felt it was a very important anchor to the arena.” As for taller buildings in Brooklyn, she said the commission would be open to the concept.

Moses vs. Jacobs

Diane Cardwell of the New York Times, the other official questioner, cited the debate over the legacies of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs: “Do you think it’s possible to do sweeping development while still respecting the fine-grain character of neighborhoods?”

“Of course they both were right, in certain degrees. Robert Moses got things done, and Jane Jacobs argued for diversity,” Burden said. “She knew there was going to be serendipitous change in the city. … what she encouraged was not just diversity but the public and the affected community to participate in the planning process to make that happen. And in fact, that is what we are doing now."

Burden continued: "She also embraced the idea that, if you’re planning for the community, you plan from the ground up. And that’s where Robert Moses began to fatally fail. He began to look at the city—I think he even rented planes to fly over the city and saw the city as patterns of roads and connectivity, and he failed to look at the importance of the strength of neighborhoods… What we’re trying to do now is get things done—this mayor is very, very focused on implementation, as Robert Moses was--but it’s possible to do that engaging a community in the planning process.”

Going through ULURP

However, many communities have not been so engaged. David pointed out that a series of big projects, including Atlantic Yards, Queens West, and the Javits Center expansion, have proceeded outside the city’s land use process. “Do you think it’s appropriate that such large-scale development take place in New York without the city’s ULURP process being invoked?” he asked.

Burden responded, “If we had our preference, we would actually like all projects to go through the ULURP process. The ULURP process fine-tunes things and makes them better over time. However, in state-owned property, the state has the legislative right to override zoning and go through their own process.”

However, when the project includes state-owned property and city-owned property, as with the Hudson Yards, the city has applied ULURP to portions of the project. It could have done so with Atlantic Yards, but chose not to.

Indeed, with Hudson Yards, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has even agreed to let ULURP govern land not owned by the city. According to a 6/21/04 press release from the Department of City Planning:
The resulting Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) covers the entire Hudson Yards area, including west of 11th Avenue. The ULURP actions cover the area generally east of 11th Avenue. In addition, the MTA has agreed that the development on the Western Rail Yards envisioned by the City-MTA agreement will be subject to the City's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) including appropriate environmental review.

I asked former Planning Commissioner Ron Shiffman for his take. “The disposition of the state property is one thing; the rezoning and the closing of the streets is another matter,” said Shiffman, who’s also a member of the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn advisory board. ‘This was a city urban renewal project and therefore any modification should and could go through ULURP. Streets are to be demapped and should go through ULURP. The rezoning of West Side and Hudson Yards are MTA-owned and the rezoning went through ULURP. Why is this any different?

According to §16 (3) of the Urban Development Corporation Act (the state act that created the Empire State Development Corporation, which oversees Atlantic Yards), the state agency should “ comply with the requirements of local laws, ordinances, codes, charters or regulations” but allows the ESDC to bypass such laws when it “is not feasible or practicable.”

In other words, it was negotiable.

Compatible use in Coney

Burden was asked about plans by Thor Equities developer Joe Sitt to include luxury housing in properties he wants to develop adjacent to the Coney Island boardwalk—a plan that has engendered much community opposition.

Burden drew a line. ”Our rezoning plans for Coney Island will provide substantial opportunity for residential development. At the same time, the amusements are incredibly important to Coney Island,” she said, citing the area’s “iconic character” and adding, “and amusements are incompatible with immediately adjacent residential use.”

So are arenas, which is why the city prevents their establishment next to housing. But the state seeks to override such zoning for Atlantic Yards.

CBAs and the city

Cardwell noted that “Columbia’s Community Benefits Agreement… is taking a very different approach than the one” at Atlantic Yards, a politic way of pointing out that the Columbia CBA would be more representative, the product of a local development corporation, which is funded with $350,000 and involves a professional mediator—rather than the fait accompli announced with fanfare by the mayor for Atlantic Yards.
(CBA signing montage from

There’s further criticism of the Atlantic Yards CBA in this week’s New York Observer:
“Ratner and the city got together with one big, national not-for-profit and a set of local sycophants and put something together which doesn’t seem to have satisfied too many people, except for those who are benefiting directly from it,” Mr. [Jordi] Reyes-Montblanc, the chairman of Community Board 9, said.

“What are your thoughts on how these kinds of agreements should be negotiated, and what should the city’s role be in ensuring that they have real, tangible results?” Cardwell asked.

Burden was blunt. “Community Benefits are really private agreements, they aren’t between the city and a community and, in fact, I have to say that Planning Commission deliberates on land use and environmental pros and cons of a particular proposal,” she said. “Community Benefits provide no basis for our review. They do not enter into our decisions whatsoever.”

That's true for Burden's agency, but not necessarily for the city as a whole. Cardwell asked if the city should have any role in enforcing such CBAs.

Burden stayed on course. “I don’t think the city should participate in them,” she said. “I think what the city has done at Columbia is to try to facilitate a conversation.”

Perhaps the city has learned a lesson. When the Atlantic Yards CBA was announced on 6/27/05, Mayor Bloomberg’s office issued a proud press release headlined “Mayor Bloomberg, Forest City Ratner CEO and President Bruce Ratner and Civic Leaders Sign Community Benefits Agreement,” even though Bloomberg was merely a witness rather than an official signatory.
(Signing photo posted by BUILD)

David offered a CBA critique, pointing out that “they allow groups to extract concessions from developers without city oversight.” He mentioned that former Mayor Ed Koch threatened to derail any project with a CBA. “What do you think about that?”

Burden was brief: “I think that they’re private agreements and they should be treated as private agreements.”

Schumer’s Group of 35 and AY office space

One influence on the city’s land use agenda, Burden said, was “the prescient Schumer Group of 35 report” that warned that long term economic growth would be limited by a severe lack of office space. The Group of 35, a panel of leaders created by Sen. Chuck Schumer, produced an influential 2001 report that nonetheless retains a contentious place in the Atlantic Yards debate.

For example, Comment 3-10 in Chapter 24, Response to Comments, of the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) criticized the preceding Draft EIS for assuming an increasing need for commercial space, based on the Group of 35 report, which was said to be out of date.

The ESDC, in its response, backed off and stated that the “Group of 35 report was not the only source predicting the need for commercial space.”

However, the ESDC made a distinct shift in reference to the Group of 35 report. Chapter 3 (Land Use) of the Draft EIS the ESDC stated, “The City’s economic focus on Downtown Brooklyn was reinforced by the recommendations of the Group of 35 in its 2001 report, which found that a severe lack of commercial space poses a serious threat to the city’s long-term growth,” and cited the report’s call for new Central Business Districts in Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City, and Midtown Manhattan’s Far West Side.

That passage was excised from Chapter 3 of the Final EIS. Rather, Chapter 1 (Project Description) offered a generalization without a Brooklyn reference, stating, "The difficulty of accommodating anticipated strong growth in the City is well recognized. According to a report released in June 2001 by the Group of 35, a severe lack of commercial space poses a serious threat to New York City's long-term growth.”

The amount of projected office space in the Atlantic Yards has been cut from 2 million square feet to 336,000 square feet, and the number of projected office jobs from 10,000 to 1340.