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Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

Learning from Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park: four mantras plus a new one ("Power defines reality")

I'll be part of a "Learning From Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park" discussion tonight 6:30-8 pm at the CUNY's Center for the Humanities, 365 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, The Skylight Room (9100).

When I meet people coming fresh to the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn—neighborhood newbies, journalists seeking a crash course, visitors on my walking tour—I often invoke four mantras:
  • “Atlantic Yards is a never-say-never project.” 
  • “The devil’s in the details.” 
  • “It’s a very tight fit.” 
  • "The culture of cheating." 
However basic or banal, those are meaningful watchwords, helping explain the $5 billion megaproject, which was announced in 2003 as an arena plus skyscrapers and remains very much in its first phases.

Indeed, the Barclays Center opened in September 2012, but only three of the 15 (or 16) planned towers are finished. A fourth apartment tower should open soon, but the 22-acre, 8 million square foot project won’t be complete until 2025 at the earliest.

That long-shifting date—to invoke my first mantra—is hardly certain, given the challenge in building 6,430 apartments, 247,000 square feet of retail, and perhaps 1 million square feet of office space. After all, one of the development partners last November announced unspecified delays, indicating that a tentative schedule announced in August 2014 (below) is way off track.

These days, the project is no longer controlled by Brooklyn-based developer Forest City Ratner, which launched Atlantic Yards and steered it through governmental approvals and legal battles.

In fact, it’s no longer even Atlantic Yards.

In August 2014, Atlantic Yards was renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn, after the Shanghai-based Greenland Holdings, a (partly) state-owned firm, bought a 70% share and formed the joint venture Greenland Forest City Partners. (That joint venture does not own the arena holding company, owned by Mikhail Prokhorov's Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, nor one tower.)

This unusual midstream name change, I've suggested, aimed to reboot the project, detaching it from a history of “Atlantic Yards” controversy, involving eminent domain, governmental subsidies and tax breaks, and other sweetheart deals.

As for those devilish details, terms like “affordable housing” and “community benefits," if used without clarification, can camouflage empty or diminished promises.

The “tight fit” reminds us why Atlantic Yards generated much pushback, given its encroachment on residential Prospect Heights.

While neither Barclays Center operations, relying significantly on public transit, nor the construction project have caused the wide-rippling Brooklyn problems once feared, there’s so little margin for error that the nearest neighbors endure regular disruptions.

As to “Culture of Cheating,” well, that covers a range of actions that, while not criminal, sure seem sketchy, from a dubious finding of blight to the marketing of investor visas to the failure to hire a promised compliance monitor.

Another mantra

However, as I work on a book about the project, I recognize that the mantras fall short. So something clicked when I read urban planning academic Susan Fainstein's book The Just City, which quotes megaproject maven Bent Flyvbjerg: “Power defines reality.”

Indeed, that’s a missing Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park mantra: "Power defines reality."

Sure, Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park deserves careful analysis by students of urban planning, law, architecture, and New York/Brooklyn history. But the overarching issue is power.

Power—including money spent on lobbying, public relations firms, advertising, and campaign contributions—frames discussion of this project. It seeds press coverage and steers elected officials to support or silence. It has stymied reasonable proposals for reform and oversight. It enables cheating. And it can rewrite history.

What kind of neighborhood?

When Atlantic Yards launched, under the slogan “Jobs, Housing, and Hoops,” Forest City proclaimed a “vision for Downtown Brooklyn.” Though the project site was all in Prospect Heights, a mostly low-rise neighborhood adjacent to Downtown Brooklyn, an association with the latter—denser, and soon rezoned for larger buildings—was used to normalize a proposed drastic change in scale.

After all, the state economic development authority, now called Empire State Development, was prepared to override New York City zoning to allow not just an arena closer to residences than permitted, but also a dense forest of towers—a “preposterous” amount of square footage, one architect told me—in what was a mixed residential and industrial area.

Today, the development has not only changed names and owners, it’s even changed neighborhoods.

Greenland Forest City now proclaims Pacific Park as "Brooklyn's Newest Neighborhood.” (That phrase represents the confluence of “never-say-never” and “power defines reality.”)

If this new designation adds cachet, it also requires magical thinking. The website for the new 550 Vanderbilt condo building (where studios started at $540,000, and a penthouse might fetch $6.86 million), claims that the building "is located at the intersection of five vibrant, historic Brooklyn neighborhoods: Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Park Slope and Boerum Hill."

That trick of physics ignores how that the block containing 550 Vanderbilt (and three more towers) is enveloped on three sides by the northern end of the Prospect Heights Historic District, designed in 2009. (The notion of a historic district adjacent to property deemed blighted--for the purpose of eminent domain--should also give us pause.)

A new neighborhood? The project site is neither self-contained nor evenly shaped. Rather, it contains both a curious gap and an odd appendage. Consider: a one-acre development plot known as Site 5, long home to two big-box retail stores, is separated from the Barclays Center and the rest of "Pacific Park" by six-lane Flatbush Avenue.

Moving east from the arena, Pacific Park encompasses just three of the four rectangular blocks, the full pieces of land bounded by the long east-west streets and short north-south ones. That fourth block, mostly excluded from the project site, makes Pacific Park akin to a mouth with missing bottom teeth.

Much of that block still contains low-rise, privately owned residences, plus a larger former factory converted into condos. At the far west is a 100-foot wide Pacific Park site known as B15, slated for a much-delayed 27-story apartment tower (with a school). How could residents next door reside in a different "neighborhood"?

Indeed, at 22 acres, this project is the size of Rockefeller Center—which claims to be a complex, not a neighborhood—and about a quarter the size of Battery Park City or Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village.

What about the "park"?

The new name suggests another dodge. While Pacific Park should in a decade (or more) include eight acres of what state documents call "publicly accessible open spaces," the developers call it a "public park," a term repeated by reporters and public officials.

But this green space will be privately managed and be located significantly behind the towers. Consider the slide below from KPF, architect of the announced but stalled 615 Dean condo building. (It omits open space planned for B06, B07, and an adjacent building at left.)

After all, unlike with Battery Park City, the open space is not being built first. Nor would it border public streets, as the Municipal Art Society--and BrooklynSpeaks, the coalition it spurred--once urged. (Both have stepped back from that critique.)

“There will no longer be a dearth of green space in the heart of Brooklyn," MaryAnne Gilmartin, the CEO of Forest City Ratner has claimed. Actually, the ratio of open space per person would be well below city guidelines.

Historical accidents

A video produced by the developer promotes Pacific Park. “The New York we love is a place that largely happened by accident.” the narrator intones. “But what if it happened on purpose? If you could build an ideal New York neighborhood from scratch, what would you do? You would build it in New York's best borough, commission a master plan by America's most celebrated living architect, place it next to Brooklyn's biggest transportation hub, surround it with Brooklyn's most dynamic and thriving neighborhoods.”

Let’s put aside the absurdity of suggesting that the project site—initially a mix of small houses and commercial buildings, both reclaimed and fallow industrial buildings, an 8.5-acre railyard, and some empty lots—was a tabula rasa.

The history of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park reflects the opposite of a blueprint. Rather, it involves adaptation, creativity, and perhaps even desperation in planning, funding, ownership, and program.

As the developer’s point man Jim Stuckey once famously said, after an announced swap of office space for condos diminished the project’s promised job count and pledge of “50% affordable housing,” “Projects change, markets change.”

Consider: when Forest City Ratner hired starchitect Frank Gehry to design the arena and all 16 towers, the developer regularly claimed—despite Gehry’s protestation that he’d typically bring in colleagues from other firms to share the work—that he’d design the whole shebang.

(No such claim was made for original landscape architect Laurie Olin, who has since been succeeded by Thomas Balsley. “Everything is an experiment,” Olin presciently observed in 2007.)

But developer Bruce Ratner in 2008 traded Gehry’s arena, large enough to house major league basketball and hockey, for a smaller, cheaper one geared for the anchor tenant, the NBA’s Brooklyn (formerly New Jersey) Nets. Gehry was gone.

New designs

After that design (above), by the veteran arena architect Ellerbe Becket, was derisively likened to an airline hanger, the developer hired the buzzy firm SHoP to rescue the building. SHoP wrapped the arena in swoopy pre-rusted metal mesh, which has generally drawn praise.

So it was a happy accident for the developer that the NHL’s New York Islanders, unable to wrangle a publicly funded replacement for the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, chose Barclays, despite its awkward hockey sightlines and layout, to preserve their fan base and TV contract. (They are pursuing a hockey-centric arena at the Belmont racetrack site.)

All on purpose? Let’s not forget that Ratner, after buying the Nets to leverage the real-estate deal, sold 80% of the team and 45% of the arena—actually the arena operating company, since the Barclays Center is nominally state-owned to enable tax-exempt financing—to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. He’s since bought the remaining shares of both.

It may be that the loss of Gehry and his curvilinear forms has helped the project. Yes, it’s unlikely that 25-story buildings across from row houses will blend in, and SHoP’s towers flanking the Barclays Center (above) look rather generic--perhaps because they were all once planned to be modular.

But the two towers by CookFox, 535 Carlton and 550 Vanderbilt, albeit quite large compared to neighbors, do use brick and masonry to allude to the surrounding neighborhood. (Architect Rick Cook, by the way, has said his buildings are in “Prospect Heights.”)

Gehry dubbed the project’s 620-foot flagship tower, which would rise over the arena from the angled intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, “Miss Brooklyn,” calling it the soul of the project. It and three other towers, initially all office towers, were supposed to be built simultaneously with the arena, sharing mechanical systems. That didn’t happen.

Not only did Forest City say three towers would become residential space, it failed to secure an anchor office tenant. So Miss Brooklyn (aka B1) was never built, leaving a temporary plaza—now named for Resorts World Casino NYC—that has proven useful for arena crowds to gather.

One next step

At least one huge change awaits. Greenland Forest City doesn't want to build Miss Brooklyn, which would be costly and complicated to construct around an operating arena, and make that plaza permanent. (Prokhorov surely concurs.)

But no developer voluntarily sacrifices buildable square footage. So Greenland Forest City seeks to swap most of that B1 bulk across Flatbush to so-called Site 5, which is already approved for a building 250 feet tall and some 440,000 square feet. This two-tower project could rise nearly 800 feet and encompass 1.1 million square feet.

If this had been announced a decade ago, people would have been even more shocked than they were by Gehry’s forms. Today, as a march down Flatbush Avenue from the Manhattan Bridge through Downtown Brooklyn, site of much high-rise construction, the change in scale begins to be normalized. However, from another perspective—the row houses across Pacific Street—it’s jarring.

Similarly, while the developer long promised neighborhood retail in the project, the Site 5 plan could contain 188,000 square feet of retail—a good-sized small mall—that a Forest City executive has likened to the Time Warner Center, that glitzy complex at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle.

The modular gambit

Another swerve involved Forest City’s ambitious, risky plan to build high-rise towers via modular technology, producing apartment sections in a factory at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and trucking them to the site to be assembled like Legos. The developer claimed to have “cracked the code” on this tricky technology, potentially revolutionizing urban construction.

That didn’t happen. The first modular tower, 32-story 461 Dean Street, took twice as long as expected and cost far more. Reports I discovered describe significant water damage that required units to be gutted. Forest City and Skanska, its former partner in the modular business, continue bitter legal battles. The modular option is off the table.

Community benefits

To leverage government assistance and special benefits, Forest City promised not just a new home team but borough uplift, claiming that community commitments such as housing, jobs, and job training were “guaranteed” by a legally binding Community Benefits Agreement. This CBA was supposed to be transformational, and a model for other large projects.

As the CBA was hyped, some critics and opponents pointed out that most of the eight community signatories had no track record, or that CBAs elsewhere involved government as a guarantor. Such warnings were wise. For example, the CBA required the developer to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor, but still hasn't happened.

Today, Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park is large enough for a significant number of people and businesses have gained jobs or contracts, not to mention all those who’ve visited the arena for sports, entertainment, and other diversion. The arena has made an impact. But the project has by no means been as transformational as promised.

Over 2,000 people have jobs at the arena, but those are mostly part-time jobs, without benefits. The 10,000 office jobs once promised were dropped, though today the economic cycle might someday bring thousands of “new economy” tech office jobs. The “15,000 construction jobs” represented job-years, a calculation that former state official Arana Hankin said—only after leaving her post—left the public “bamboozled.”

The CBA promised a pre-apprenticeship training program to put struggling Brooklynites on the path to union construction careers. That path ended in frustration, a lawsuit, and an ambiguous settlement. The organization tasked with such training, named BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), has since dissolved.

Affordable housing

What about “affordable housing,” that key mantra of today’s New York City? Yes, with 2,250 below-market apartments, this project would contain a larger share of “affordable” units than most. Of course, the state’s override of zoning allowed the developer to build at the density it chose.

But the devil’s in the details. The key metric used to calculate affordability, Area Median Income (AMI), has risen for the New York region, even as Brooklyn incomes have stagnated, putting more units out of reach. Moreover, the apartments--such as in the 535 Carlton tower in the below chart-- are less affordable than the developer promised.

Bottom line: at two “100% affordable” towers, the majority of units will go to households earning six figures, who may face challenges in Brooklyn’s brutal housing market, but were hardly those marching and cheering for this project.

As former state official Hankin said, most people assume “affordable” helps poor people, so the complicated methodology builds distrust. And, despite enormous numbers of entrants in the affordable housing lottery, the middle income units have found few takers.

What to do?

There’s no shortage of ideas about how to improve megaprojects. Fainstein proposes such project should be subjected to heightened scrutiny and include public participation in the profits, and, if possible, to be developed incrementally, with multiple developers.

Flyvbjerg suggests outside experts should vet claims about costs and benefits. Hankin thinks third-party advocates could be required to assist local communities.

The Regional Plan Association's (RPA) 2012 recommendations for large-scale projects seemed influenced by Atlantic Yards, suggesting that such projects start with "public-realm improvements" such as parks, streets and plazas, while an independent entity should monitor project costs and benefits.

The RPA's Rob Lane suggested that "city-building" required more oversight of such lengthy projects. The Municipal Art Society once led the push for an Atlantic Yards oversight entity; today, an advisory body, the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation adds a layer of transparency but has been mostly toothless.

Power, and reality

For megaprojects, as Hankin notes, officials typically have leverage only before approval. In this case, however, the scarce resource of a major league sports team plus the developer's groundwork meant the mayor and governor backed Atlantic Yards from the start.

Support from the top allowed Forest City in 2009 to renegotiate contracts with two state agencies without being required to give up more public benefit, as the very mainstream RPA proposed at the time.

I admit I'm not sure how New Yorkers can get their government to do a better job, though surely more public financing for elections--to diminish the role of big donors and the real estate industry--would help.

First, though, we could start by recognizing--and, when necessary, resisting--how power defines reality.