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The PlaNYC 2030 housing update and the contradictions of AY

When PlaNYC 2030 was announced last April, I pointed out how Atlantic Yards was conspicuously absent as an example of how to build new housing, even though the plan promotes the identification of underutilized areas across the city that are well-served by transit and the exploration of opportunities to create new land by decking over rail yards, rail lines and highways.

Given that the project remains high on the mayoral agenda, the omission was curious, I noted--though I'd add today that there is a built-in excuse; as a state project, the city can claim that it has no power over the rezoning.

Gaps in the Progress Report

The PlaNYC 2030 Progress Report issued last week also understandably leaves Atlantic Yards off the maps of city-initiated rezonings (above) and rezonings with inclusionary zoning (right).

But both maps deserve some footnotes. The map at top shows a significant segment of west-central Brooklyn rezoned. The lighter-colored and irregular piece of that segment is the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning. Atlantic Yards, not a rezoning but a state override of city zoning, would be to the southeast.

Also note the contrast between the two maps; absent from the second map are rezonings that, had the city been more wise, would have featured inclusionary zoning, which trades additional square footage for affordable housing. Given that the rezonings in Downtown Brooklyn and along Fourth Avenue in central Park Slope gave significant value to property owners who could then build much bigger, it was a reasonable tradeoff.

In the case of Downtown Brooklyn, most observers and advocacy groups seem to have dropped the ball, as the New York Observer pointed out in May 2006. In the case of Park Slope, affordable housing advocates like City Council Member Bill de Blasio made the case for inclusionary zoning, but city officials resisted.

Expanding the supply

Atlantic Yards, though not a rezoning, would seem a parallel with two elements of the city's plan: rezonings in areas near transit and construction on public land. The progress report states:
Rezonings in transit-oriented areas are expanding potential supply as well; rezonings adopted since 2005 could result in more than 36,000 new housing units, including 5,200 in the Jamaica rezoning alone and anticipated rezonings could facilitate over 35,000 new units.

This last fiscal year, we started almost 1,700 units of affordable housing on public land.

This provides some context for Atlantic Yards, with its projected 6430 units, including 2250 rentals, plus perhaps 600-1000 affordable for-sale units. AY, which would include more than a half-million square feet of office space (the equivalent, perhaps, of another 500 apartments) would be over approximately [corrected] six (large) blocks.

The Jamaica rezoning, which includes both downzonings to preserve scale and upzonings to increase development rights, would produce 5200 new units and 3 million square feet of commercial space (the equivalent, perhaps, of another 3000 units) over 368 blocks.

In other words, AY would be packing a lot in.

The contradictions of AY

That's why veteran community planner Ron Shiffman, founding director of what is now the Pratt Center for Community Development (and a board member of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn) might have been seen to contradict himself when speaking at a discussion last Wednesday on PlaNYC hosted by the NY Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association. (Here's more on the panel.)

On the one hand, he supports "spatial equity," so that low- and moderate-income people have places to live throughout the city and also transit-oriented development, density near public transportation. Both are arguments for Atlantic Yards.

On the other hand, he pointed out, affordable housing should be based not on regional median income but local median income, so it's not out of the reach of neighborhood residents. (That criticism applies not just to Atlantic Yards but to all affordable housing developments.)

He also argued that inclusionary zoning should be mandatory, not voluntary, which removes the possibility of "zoning for sale," an accusation lodged against AY, which is essentially a privately-negotiated (by developer Forest City Ratner and ACORN) affordable housing bonus.

He further contended that "inclusionary zoning should not be a wedge issued used by a developer," a reference to how Atlantic Yards has polarized groups in Brooklyn.

Finally, he pointed out how he and others "fought desperately" against the "suburbanization of our communities," the construction of single-family homes, some detached, in places like the South Bronx and East New York. Those were efforts to establish a working-class presence in formerly devastated areas, and they worked, but they didn't allow room for growth that the transit infrastructure could support.

"Today, said Shiffman, "we see proposals that far exceed" the social, cultural, and physical infrastructure. "We need to increase density, but with a sense of the carrying capacity," so that communities are livable. Though he didn't say the words "Atlantic Yards," that's been his critique of the project.


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