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ESD board approves change to B4 plan, nudging bulk of huge tower closer to Sixth Avenue; board unbowed by request for more time for public to assess modification

Original plan (top) and approved change
in Parcel Development Envelope:
1) at grade, the setback starting 100 feet below
Atlantic Avenue will be cut from 25 to 15 feet
2) above the base, the setback starting 100 feet
below Atlantic will be cut from 15 to 5 feet
On one hand, the change proposed and approved yesterday for the planned B4 tower at the northeast corner of the Atlantic Yards arena block (Atlantic and Sixth avenues) seems relatively minor.

As approved by Empire State Development (ESD), the state agency overseeing/shepherding the project,  the back half of the tower would shift east and south, closer to the Sixth Avenue, making a nearly continuous wall rising 511 feet. The goal: to be able to build the same amount of housing.

Despite the change to the building envelope, there would be no change to the height, bulk, or sidewalk, nor in the building's planned contents. The change would still conform to general goals of the long-established project Design Guidelines, even if they would modify architectural drawings attached to the Guidelines' appendix.

On the other hand, the 50-minute episode served as a metaphor of sorts: with little notice and no public airing of the design plans--both an ESD policy and a lapse for which officials apologized--the few neighborhood residents who took time out to visit the ESD board meeting had no chance to assess the changes and comment intelligently.

At 511 feet and some 824,629 square feet, this tower would be the largest in the entire Atlantic Yards project, outside of the long-delayed B1, the office tower once planned for the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. (B4 would be more than twice as large, in square footage, as the first tower, 322-foot B2, now under construction. The latter will have 363 apartments, so B4 could contain up more than 800.)

Original plan (top) and approved change
in Parcel Development Envelope:
3) above the shoulder, the setback starting 100 feet
below Atlantic will be cut from 15 to 5 feet
4) above the shoulder, the frontage setback on the south
end of the building will be reduced from 35 to 20 feet 
Also, despite the unfailingly cordial and welcoming attitude of ESD Chairman Kenneth Adams, a Brooklynite familiar with a good deal of the controversy and community concerns, the ESD board gave no quarter: the members, including Adams, approved the staff recommendation with no qualms.

Reasons for qualms?

Should the board members have had qualms? At the least, they might have qualms about the process, as Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association pointed out. Surely the approval could wait, even if Forest City Ratner is working on plans for that tower.

(Currently, one tower is under construction: B2, at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street. After that, Forest City could build either a smaller tower, B3, at Dean Street and Sixth Avenue, or the much larger B4.)

Also, a more public process might air an issue that didn't come up in the documents distributed to board members: what would the building actually look like from the street?

It's understandable why B4, at the Atlantic Avenue end, has always been planned big and bulky, rising close to the sidewalk. A wide avenue can handle significant bulk.

But Sixth Avenue is a narrower street, and the two sections of the building above the base were originally set farther back.

Now the building, however differentiated by design elements, may appear to passers-by as nearly continuous wall. We don't know, because no images (from the pedestrian perspective) were presented.

So it's understandable why at least some neighbors might want to know what this very large building would look like from a street-level perspective.

Leading off

From the 2006 Final Environmental Impact Statement: B4 at center
At the meeting, held at ESD offices in midtown Manhattan, agency attorney Robin Stout presented the changes, essentially recounting what had already been explained the board materials: when Atlantic Yards was approved, it was envisioned that substructure for arena and B4 would be constructed simultaneously.

However, when the project changed in 2009, with an arena decoupled from the four towers around it, the arena expanded into the west part of the B4 footprint. Without a design modification, Stout stated, B4 would be a much smaller building, and would substantially decrease affordable housing.

ESD staff, he said, assessed the change in a Technical Memo (below), and determined no further environmental review was required. There would be no additional shadows, for example, and the changes would not affect view corridors.

Note that the updated Parcel Development Envelopes came from Gehry Partners, the original project architect, which did the master plan, though the building itself will be designed by SHoP, which also re-did the arena, with Ellerbe Becket/AECOM.
An illustrative site plan distributed yesterday to ESD board members
Did the Design Guidelines change?

It looks like ESD finessed the approval process, which had it required a re-approval of the Design Guidelines attached to the Modified General Project Plan (MGPP), would have required a new round of public hearings. According to the board memo (below):
The proposed modifications do not require modification of the 2009 MGPP or of the text of the Project's Design Guidelines, and are consistent with both the general goals and objectives of the Design Guidelines and with the specific Design Guideline requirements for B04.
(Emphasis added)

From the Design Guidelines:
Development Envelope. Building 4 shall fit within the Parcel Development Envelopes attached to these Design Guidelines, provided that elements comprising in the aggregate no more than 25% of the surface area of any facade of the building base, building shoulder, or building upper portion respectively may project up to five feet beyond such Development Envelope.
Well, changes to the Parcel Development Envelopes sure seem to be changes to the overall Design Guidelines--though they're not changes to the text--since the text commands adherence to the Parcel Development Envelopes. Perhaps only litigation would sort whether it's actually a change to the MGPP.

Illustrations, but not shared

Adams asked the directors to look at the Board Materials, suggesting the illustrations were very helpful.

As they did that, he welcomed Krashes and Wayne Bailey, a resident of the Newswalk condo building on Pacific Street near the arena, as well as this reporter, the only non-staffers attending the monthly board meeting. "I really appreciate public participation," he said.

However, those visiting the meeting had not had such an informational advantage. The agenda for the meeting, indicating only "modification to design documents" and related actions regarding B4, was not posted online as of 8:30 am, the time I left Brooklyn to attend to the meeting. (Someone sent me a copy.)

Those of us arriving at the meeting at 9:30 am did get a copy of the Board Materials (below). But only during the meeting, when Adams asked the directors to look at the illustrations, were hard copies showing those Parcel Development Envelopes passed out to visitors. (After the meeting, I requested a copy of the Tech Memo, and it was emailed to me in about 90 minutes.)

Public comment: lack of governance

"When I first took on this role, at the governor's request," Adams said, "and reconnected with the Atlantic Yards project, Wayne and Peter helped me ramp up. It's always helpful to have their participation."

"To be honest, I wish I weren't here," Krashes began, "because this is ten years into Atlantic Yards, and I feel like I'm saying the same things." He noted that he was one of the individual petitioners in the litigation that led to a state judge ordering a Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement.

Paul Ciminelli, a board member from Buffalo, asked about that litigation.

The proposed view from Atlantic & Third Aves, according
to the 2006 Final EIS. There are no plans yet to build B1.
"This actually relates to what you're voting on today," Krashes responded. "In 2009, the state and Forest City Ratner approved changes to the project, in terms of its timetable, and also in my personal opinion, in relation to the arena block, the configuration of the arena, what you're addressing today."

The delay in the project timetable, from ten years to 25 years, "was done without releasing an environmental impact statement," Krashes said, noting that the petitioners in the lawsuit argued that the two timetables were not equivalent in terms of benefits and impact.

The primary goal of the project, he noted, was to eliminate blight in the project footprint. "This project so far has produced an arena," he said, but in other parcels has reversed the development project.

"So your issue is it's moving too slow?" asked Ciminelli.

"My issue is multiple things," Krashes responded. "I think really, my issue right now is that there's no governance of this project... You guys are deciding the issue instead of an independent board... the ESDC is functioning as a one-step removed advocate for the developer's interest."

In 2009, Krashes pointed out, it wasn't just the project's timetable that changed, though residents were told the site plans for the arena block were unchanged.

He called the failure to release documents to the public "another demonstration of the lack of transparency," and asked for time for the public to review them.


Krashes asked Adams if he'd spoken to the governor about the governance issue.

"It's a separate issue," said Adams, indicating he'd done so.

"You don't think it's being managed in a transparent way for people like yourself?" Ciminelli asked.

Krashes said a governance entity could to ensure there's a balance between the public's interest and the interest of a for-profit private developer. He noted, as have advocates like former Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, that most such large projects have their own boards, with continuity of oversight and opportunities for public input.

Adams noted that some state projects have such boards, but others, like Columbia University's Manhattanville plan, "where we played a similar enabling role," don't have such a subsidiary.

So, without that vehicle, Adams said, "we've tried, and I know it's not always satisfying to Peter, through our staff work, do a lot of outreach." The project, once led by Arana Hankin, is now overseen in-house by Paula Roy, though she has other responsibilities.

"There is a long and specific and very thorough Development Agreement," Adams said. "We are bound by terms, and if developer's not in default, there's a limited role for the state to play." (Actually, there's also a Memorandum of Environmental Commitments that could be more aggressively enforced.)

More history

Board member Derrick Cephas asked Krashes if he could explain more of the history.

Krashes said he'd be happy to give a tour to board members, as he'd done for Adams.

On September 8, 2008, he recounted, representatives of the Dean Street Block Association and Community Board 8 met at the same boardroom table with ESD President Avi Schick and staffers, as well as Forest City executives MaryAnne Gilmartin and Jane Marshall.

"Forest City Ratner spoke most of the time," Krashes reported. "Not to disparage Mr. Schick, but he was on his BlackBerry most of the time." While residents were concerned about the project timetable, the developer, backed up by the ESDC staff, insisted they could develop the project in ten years. (That was before the stock market crash a few weeks later.)

"We didn't think that the project was going to be built in ten years, because the project agreements didn't require it," Krashes said. "We were concerned we needed additional mitigations or changes to the project, like delivering open space earlier." (The State Funding Agreement, revealed in March 2008, gave the developer at least 12 years to build the towers around the arena block, with no timetable for the rest of the project, thus casting severe doubt on the ten-year pledge.)

"Forest City Ratner said consistently through that meeting, we are going to build this project in ten years, we don't need to make any changes," he recalled. "That's at the heart of the SEIS litigation. The point is: why are you relying on the claims of the developer now?"

(WNYC reported 9/28/10, in Ratner Abandons 10-Year Timeline for Atlantic Yards that the developer said ten years "was never supposed to be the time we were supposed to build them in.”)

But when Krashes yesterday challenged the board to take more time on the B4 changes--"Why do this on this day?"--Adams deflected the issue and asked Bailey for his comments.

Pedestrian impacts

Bailey noted that arena operators direct those lining up for general admission tickets along Atlantic Avenue and sometimes wrapping all the way down Sixth Avenue, and wondered what the impact would be.

Krashes took the opportunity to point out that pedestrian demands assessed for the arena block were based on pre-event conditions rather than post-event conditions, which typically contain surges.  "W're concerned there is not enough public space surrounding the arena block."

"Why are arena patrons lining up on public sidewalks?" he asked. "Shouldn't they be lining up inside a private developer's space?"

Adams suggested that the directors "take Peter up on his kind offer" for a tour, and that it was always important to understand operational issues. (Oh, yes, the Brooklyn Nets sold out the Barclays Center last night, beating league champion Miami Heat in a pre-season game, and retiring the jersey of former star and debut coach Jason Kidd.)

(I also raised the issue about failing to post the documents and to respond to my question earlier this week about the two-week construction alert, and Adams pledged ESD would do a better job. Indeed, they after the meeting quickly sent requested documents, though I still didn't get answers to the construction alert question.)
Timetable issues

"We did have a helpful meeting with a set of elected officials in this room maybe two weeks ago," Adams revealed, citing a meeting requested by Assemblyman Jim Brennan, who's concerned about the timing of the affordable housing.

"At the time, we didn't know" about the projected investment by Chinese government-owned Greenland Group in the project, Adams said. Citing widespread reports, Adams noted that "infusion of financial support to the project should lead to a more timely buildout... time will tell. We're hopeful that will accelerate the pace."

ESD, he said, has "some ability to review" the deal.

Atlantic Yards B4 design changes Oct. 17, 2013


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