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The new (bogus) buzzword: revised plan for office towers would "activate" Atlantic Avenue corridor

This is among multiple articles covering issues raised at the March 15 Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC) meeting.

"Activate the Atlantic Avenue corridor."

That's one confounding justification by Greenland Forest City Partners for its brazen, highly questionable plan to shift 1.1 million square feet of bulk from the tower planned for the arena plaza across the street to Site 5, creating what I've dubbed the "Brooklyn Behemoth," with 1.6 million square feet--and then turn B4, the large tower planned at the northeast corner of the arena block, from residential to office uses.

The jargon-y claim--as if somehow office workers from one building would cross broad Flatbush Avenue to commune with the other building--strikes me as a fig leaf to get a plan passed that exceeds previously disclosed ambitions.

The rationale begins

Speaking at the 3/15/16 meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation, Forest City spokeswoman Ashley Cotton began by saying that overall square footage, residential units, and affordable housing requirements for the project stayed the same.

(Unmentioned: they now seek to pack the entire square footage into 15 rather than 16 towers, and seemingly aim for a larger combination of office units and apartments than previously permitted, which implies less space for the same number of housing units.)

The proposal, Cotton said, would require "extensive public review," including modifications to the General Project Plan (GPP), a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, and public hearings, before going to the board of Empire State Development (ESD), the state authority that oversees/shepherds the project.

Unmentioned: the gubernatorially-controlled ESD board is essentially a rubber stamp.

Site 5 in foreground; B4 site is at northeast end of arena block, wall past plaza and arena entrances
Two of three goals (and unmentioned savings)

"By making this change, we think we can accomplish three things," Cotton said (at about 42 minutes of the video at bottom). The first two: delivering jobs and keeping the plaza as permanent open space.

Unmentioned: that saves them the complicated and costly exercise of trying to build around an operating arena, and saves arena operator Mikhail Prokhorov the headache of surrounding construction.

I wouldn't be surprised if, as part of the deal to sell the arena operating company to Prokhorov, Forest City pledged not to build B1. Also, it's not clear that they would build all the office space--they need an anchor tenant, or perhaps subsidies--though "jobs" offers good rhetoric.

A previous (and tentative) timetable for the plan

Third goal: "activate" the corridor

"And three, we think we can activate the Atlantic Avenue corridor," Cotton said.

How? She then elaborated on plans for commercial use at B4, which is currently permitted to be a residential tower, with retail at the base. Previously, the B2 tower was permitted for commercial use, but is being finished as a modular residential tower.

"So now we want to examine the potential of commercial use along Atlantic Avenue, instead of Flatbush Avenue, where B2 is located," she said. "Put another way, we want to shift the focus of the permitted commercial uses under the GPP from Flatbush to Atlantic."

"The concept is that B4 and Site 5 are developed as substantial commercial projects that will act as bookends on the Atlantic Avenue corridor," she said, "generating jobs, substantial foot traffic, and activity at this critical location."

Drilling down

What the heck does "activate"--a piece of planners' jargon--really mean? What's the "Atlantic Avenue corridor? And who benefits?

"Activate" apparently means getting foot traffic along Atlantic Avenue between Sixth Avenue, the eastern edge of the B4 site, and Site 5, which sits between Flatbush and Fourth avenues along Atlantic.

But why? There's no natural connection between B4 and Site 5, not with the long walk to cross Flatbush. They could generate "activity" and "jobs" if they built the tower on the arena plaza as approved; they just don't want to absorb the costs.

And they could "activate" the Atlantic Avenue corridor by building the residential tower already approved. It might not bring the same lunch crowd, but it would bring more activity over a longer period of the day.

Street use patterns

Would office workers in Site 5 have any reason to cross Flatbush to go to Atlantic and Sixth? I doubt it.

If Site 5 has retail that evokes the Time Warner Center, as hinted, workers will go downstairs. They'd have options west along Atlantic Avenue and south along Fifth Avenue--and even southeast along Flatbush Avenue--before crossing over to the arena plaza and then B4.

A previous plan for the project; the developers now seek to axe the tower over the arena plaza and make the B4 tower
commercial, but B4 workers would likely visit malls across the street before going to Site 5 (far west)
What about workers at B4? Yes, some might want to visit Site 5. But surely they'd first visit retail outlets in the base of their building, or across the street in the Forest City Ratner-built (and still majority-owned) Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal malls. Maybe the catercorner Tony Roma's, in Atlantic Terrace. Maybe they'd walk down Sixth Avenue to Flatbush.

What about commuting patterns? Site 5 workers taking the subway or Long Island Rail Road would have no need to walk along Atlantic.

B4 workers arriving by subway would mainly exit from the arena plaza. Those taking the Long Island Rail Road would traverse the north side of Atlantic Avenue from the Atlantic Terminal mall.

Changing the game

We should be used to hearing changing justifications. Remember, all four towers around the arena, when the project was announced in 2003, were supposed to be commercial space, to serve as a buffer. Then the office market tanked, and they swapped most office space for condos.

Then the focus was supposed to be on the gateway at Atlantic and Flatbush.

Consider: in the 2006 Final Environmental Impact Statement (Chapter 3, Land Use), the ESD suggested that the "commercial office and residential uses in Building 1 and on Site 5 would be located along Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, where they would act as an extension of the Downtown Brooklyn central business district and be similar to higher-density uses north of Atlantic Avenue."

Now they're aiming further down Atlantic to the B4 tower.

And now we're supposed to forget the stress on B1, in both the 2006 and 2009 General Project Plans:
The development of both Site 5 and Building 1, with high density buildings, is central to the goal of the Project in order to transform this very public and prominent area by creating architecturally significant buildings that would surround and connect to the Transportation Hub and by developing uses that would activate and create a vibrant streetscape experience for the public.
Packing more in?

From 2006 GPP
As noted in the excerpt at right from the 2006 General Project Plan (GPP), the residential variation of the project--the plan under which it has proceeded--would have 6,430 apartments and 336,000 square feet of office space.

The commercial variation of the project would have 5,325 apartments (including the same 2,250 affordable units) and 1.6 million square feet of office space.

The thing to watch for now is whether they will try to build (close to) 1.6 million square feet of office space and 6,430 apartments--or, at least, more than 5,325.

That would be squeezing more than what was originally approved--and in one fewer building.

How much activation?

It's unclear sure how much "activation" Atlantic Avenue outside the arena can take.

But an office crowd, if not a residential crowd, could help revive retail along the northern edge of the arena, so could "activate Atlantic Avenue" be a gesture to Prokhorov? Once metroPCS and the Elbow Room had public-facing retail space, but not any more.

As I wrote in May 2013, the Department of City Planning once urged a “b-market” along Atlantic outside the arena, a narrow strip of retail to accommodate smaller shops and enhance foot traffic. That frustrated original arena architect Frank Gehry--"the idea of creating storefronts on Atlantic Avenue–there’s not much depth to deal with,” he said--and it never materialized.

There doesn't seem room for such a b-market. But maybe they hope to use the arena parking lane for food trucks during the day.

If that's their plan to "activate Atlantic Avenue," they should say so.

Otherwise, it's a distraction to ease approval of a plan to stuff the project into a smaller number of buildings, and to create a giant building on a too-small site.

Update: a comment from some local stakeholders:


  1. Using food trucks to "activate" the Atlantic Avenue corridor would be the economic equivalent of a 200 car pile up for local businesses. So much for economic development for the community.


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