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Looking back at RPA arguments for Atlantic Yards accountability: "city-making" still needs oversight (and there's still time to comment)

It's certainly curious.

After Atlantic Yards was passed in 2006, one observation--especially from the Regional Plan Association (RPA), self-described as "America's oldest and most distinguished independent urban research and advocacy group---was that a project of this dimension needs greater public oversight during the complicated and inevitably long buildout.

That hasn't happened, though the need certainly remains and two Assembly bills--albeit without much support as of now--are pending to authorize a subsidiary to achieve such oversight.

In fact, such oversight has slackened. Until the opening of the Barclays Center, there was a bi-monthly Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet, which once provided a forum for various agencies to get updates.

It's been replaced by a Quality of Life Committee, less committee than presentation, where, the pattern has been recently, officials from Empire State Development and Forest City Ratner deliver reports and take a few questions.

A committee meeting has been scheduled for June 3, but no agenda has been circulated beyond hints of "some critical construction updates." (Translation: much previously undisclosed disruptive work is coming.)
Forest City Ratner has failed to hire the promised Independent Compliance Monitor to oversee and report back on the much-touted Community Benefits Agreement. Nor has the oversight of construction been sufficient, numerous residents have commented.

Meanwhile, the joint venture with the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group, which will own 70% of the project (excluding the arena and first tower) is set to become formalized next month. Many people have commented that they don't expect more accountability.

Greenland seems to be driving decision-making, deciding, for example, that the next three towers will be built via conventional means, not modular construction, touted as saving on time, money, and disruption.

Room for comment

There's still time to file comments to Empire State Development (ESD), the state authority overseeing/shepherding Atlantic Yards, regarding oversight issues.

The comment period on the court-ordered Draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) expired May 12, but written comments on the Proposed Amendment to the Modified General Project Plan may be sent by mail or email through tomorrow, May 30.

The Proposed Amendment is relatively modest, involving the shifting of up to 208,000 gross square feet of floor area from Phase I to Phase II and reducing the once-planned 3,670 permanent parking spaces to between 1,200 and 2,896 such spaces, with fewer parking lots.

That said, ESD is supposed to respond to all comments, so it's not implausible to raise larger issues in reference to shifts in the project, especially since there's nothing precluding future changes to the project.

Also, while ESD once said it didn't have to approve the Greenland deal, the most recent explanation I got was vague, so some approval may still be pending, which would be another opportunity for leverage.

Let's look back on the previous logic for oversight.

RPA wisdom, 2007

In May 2005, the RPA's Rob Lane described Atlantic Yards as less a project--which could be built in three to five years, with  continuity in planning, funding, and oversight--than an example of "city-building.”

He wrote:
The larger questions raised by Atlantic Yards are not whether one likes Frank Gehry’s architecture (he will probably design only a few of the buildings), whether Forest City Ratner has the public’s interest at heart (why would we expect it to?), or even whether one agrees with the scale and composition of the development (my organization, Regional Plan Association, supports the major elements of the plan). Looking forward, do we have a development model that will lead to better cities, as opposed to better projects?
Lane observed there was both “too little government planning and public input in the early stages of the project, and too little public oversight for the lengthy period in which the development will take place.” In a gesture to Forest City, he suggested that the lack of continuous public oversight was matched by “a set of overly rigid design guidelines that cannot accommodate changes in architects, market demand or neighborhood needs.”

Both the public and the politicians, Lane concluded, had to “be willing to shoulder more burdens, and more responsibility.”

A push for oversight

As I wrote in June 2008, elected officials and community representatives from the BrooklynSpeaks coalition gathered to support the creation of the “Atlantic Yards Development Trust” to oversee the project. That's still pending.

Such an organization would be unlikely to fundamentally change power dynamics, but even the effort to channel public input, increase transparency, and improve accountability is unacceptable to developer Forest City Ratner and, apparently, its allies in the governor's office. 

Steps back

That hasn't happened. The developer remains in the driver's seat. In fact, things have moved backwards. And some of the few citywide groups with heft that might make a difference have either stepped away or stepped back.

The Municipal Art Society, which launched BrooklynSpeaks to help mend Atlantic Yards, not only withdrew from the organization but has since announced it will bestow its highest award to Forest City Ratner Chairman Bruce Ratner and CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin.

And the business-friendly RPA, which backed Atlantic Yards with reservations, hasn't made Atlantic Yards a priority, despite some important public comments.

RPA on MTA deal

In June 2009, the RPA advised the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which was set to revise its deal with Forest City, to seek a better deal.

“While there has been little time to digest the proposal, several considerations are clear,” the RPA's Neysa Pranger testified, suggesting that project is now far different from the one approved in 2006, with “greatly diminished” public benefits. She also said that “it is likely to be years before the market recovers enough to attract new developers”--a statement I thought worthy of debate and now, with hindsight, see as silly.

However, Pranger wisely observed that it “is almost inevitable that it will need to be redesigned and renegotiated over several business cycles before it’s complete." (Hello, Chinese government-owned investors!)

“Does this new agreement retain enough benefits for the MTA and the city to proceed with a scaled-back plan?” Pranger asked. “Based on the information available, the answer is no."

Rather than open up the site to new bids, she made four recommendations for any revised deal with Forest City Ratner, including granting the MTA more future project revenues, conducting a new cost-benefit analysis and creating a new ESDC subsidiary to oversee the project and review design elements. 

The MTA board didn't bother to discuss those suggestions.

"Building the Next New York" recommendations constrast with AY reality

In May 2012, the RPA issued Building the Next New York: Recommendations for Large Real Estate Projects, which offered some sober criticisms of Atlantic Yards while analyzing a range of large development initiatives in order to propose some recommendations.

The RPA said it was too soon to come to a verdict on Atlantic Yards. However, it reflected some some lessons from the project. "These projects are enormously complex and can take a generation or more to build," said RPA President Robert Yaro. "This makes it essential to maintain both flexibility and a public stake throughout the life of the project."

As I wrote, the RPA's recommendations in many ways ran counter to the Atlantic Yards pattern. (My answers are in parentheses).

The recommendations:
  • Establish policy goals and measurable benchmarks to maximize and balance economic, social equity and environmental benefits (no)
  • Clarify the maze of state, city and federal requirements early in the process (maybe
  • Obtain public input at the beginning of the planning process to develop greater consensus (no
  • Lead with public-realm improvements such as parks, streets and plazas to lay the groundwork for private development (no
  • Connect real estate and transportation improvements (yes, but
  • Promote long-term revenue sharing among public land owners and private developers (no
  • Implement district-wide sustainability practices such as green infrastructure and renewable energy (partly
  • Maintain continuing public oversight to guide development and maintenance (no
One big contrast is Battery Park City, where the public-realm improvements came first, with new park space.

And while there's a new subway entrance, it mainly serves the developer's business needs, delivering arena-goers (and, yes, diverting a good number of drivers).

The study suggested reforms:
  • Land use and environmental review procedures should be assessed and overlapping or excessive regulations should be modified. Protections that are too weak need to be strengthened. 
  • An independent entity, such as New York City’s Independent Budget Office [IBO], should monitor project costs and benefits over time to provide greater transparency. 
  • Value recapture mechanisms such as tax-increment financing, in which the cost of new infrastructure is subsidized by anticipated higher real-estate tax revenue generated by the redevelopment project, and co-development of projects between public and private entities, should be promoted. 
Neither the first nor the third of these reforms were implemented in the case of Atlantic Yards; indeed, the public sector does not seem to have been robust enough to try "co-development."

And in a sign of how politicized cost-benefit analyses can get, in the case of Atlantic Yards, the city and state have disparaged the IBO's analysis while issuing their own, questionable analyses, for example premised on the untenable notion that the project would be built out in full over a decade.


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