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HPD official says development trade-offs should be transparent (and implicitly indicts the AY approval process)

In talking about development trade-offs, a top official in the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) Wednesday night provided an (implicit) indictment of the process behind Atlantic Yards.

HPD Deputy Commissioner for Development Holly Leicht spoke matter-of-factly during a panel discussion, titled Housing New Yorkers in the 21st Century, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation as the First Annual Jane Jacobs Forum. (I’ll write tomorrow about the broader issues raised at the forum.)

She even declared that the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP)--which Atlantic Yards critics stress was bypassed in the state approval process--doesn’t work for large projects.

Balance and transparency

Leicht acknowledged the challenge in balancing neighborhood character and the need for increased density to accommodate a growing population and additional affordable units. In the rezoning of the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront (approved in May 2005), she reflected, the City Planning Commission wanted less density while HPD wanted more.

Since then, she said, “The best thing that’s happened is that it has become a more transparent process, of really saying to the public, ‘OK, we’re going to show you our numbers, we’ve done analysis. We can show you how much affordability you can get, but this is what it’s going to be, and how are we going to sort of meet all these various needs.’”

The city has engaged with communities over those trade-offs, she said. "And to some degree, I think that that’s been successful. I think there are still places where people think things are too tall, but I think, increasingly, it’s already that challenge is there, it’s only going to get worse, because there’s just not land left.”

The opacity of AY

She didn't mention Atlantic Yards, which stands in clear contrast to that process. As I've written, AY included a privately-negotiated affordable housing bonus, with Forest City Ratner agreeing to build 50% affordable rental units (assuming the availability of subsidies, which isn't a given), and partner ACORN signing a contract agreeing to publicly support the project as a whole.

There was no public discussion of the balance; in fact, ACORN’s Bertha Lewis notably eschewed that role, declaring 2/28/06, “So, if I could stop one iota of gentrification, I’ll do it. I can't do environment. I can’t do traffic.”

(She added that “we're not just singleminded and coldhearted," but the ACORN contingent at the 8/23/06 hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement often disparaged those who tried to discuss the project's environmental impact.)

Similarly, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz defended the scale of the project without acknowledging tradeoffs, declaring on 5/7/06, "It has to be that big, for the affordable housing.”

ULURP is too late

Even former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff acknowledges Atlantic Yards should’ve gone through ULURP, which gives community boards an advisory vote and requires the approval of the City Planning Commission and the City Council. Atlantic Yards critics point out that ULURP at least allows local elected officials a voice, adding legitimacy.

HPD's Leicht, however, warned Wednesday night, “ULURP is awfully late to start a conversation about a large project. It’s one thing if you’re talking about a small project, and you’re going to tweak a floor... or affordability, slightly. If you’re talking about a large-scale project, ULURP is simply too late to really have that dialogue.”

“To me, the issue is not so much needing more expertise on community boards,” she added, in an apparent reference to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s efforts to provide land use training and urban planning interns to community boards in that borough.

Starting dialogue

“I find some of the most knowledgeable, sophisticated community boards tend to be the ones that get into the weeds and fight you to the end about 37 floors versus 35 floors. That isn’t the essence of what Jane Jacobs was talking about or what community planning is about," Leicht continued. "The best experience I’ve had in terms of really getting meaningful input has been far earlier.... It’s having a dialogue with community members about what do you want to see in your community, what’s missing.”

She offered as an example the effort to develop Public Place in Brooklyn. For four months in 2007, Brooklyn Community Board 6 and HPD held a series of public visioning sessions about the potential project there. Later, the city issued a Request for Proposals, and a development team was selected in April.

Needless to say, there was no such dialogue and no RFP for Atlantic Yards. (There was a belated RFP for one component of the project site, the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard, 18 months after the city and state announced they were backing Forest City Ratner's plan).