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The five criticisms of megaprojects: yes, some apply to AY/PP (lack of governance & public benefit)

This is the third of three posts reflecting on megaprojects and Atlantic Yards, responding to recent articles in Project Management Journal. Here are the first and the second.

In the December 2017 issue of Project Management Journal, Sydney-based researcher Mike Harris writes Competitive Precinct Projects: The Five Consistent Criticisms of "Global" Mixed-Use Megaprojects.

In attempting to classify challenges and criticisms regarding mixed-use projects on government-owned land, including Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park (one of the smallest), Harris understandably relies on secondhand and sometimes stale information, but still offers some useful food for thought.

He calls them "Competitive Precinct Projects," because, beyond "their scale and mixed-use nature, they share the premise of elevating the competitive position of their metropolitan economies into regional and global economic networks."

Indeed, that was a justification for Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, to elevate Brooklyn, especially as an office center and "new Downtown," though the office space was in the main swapped for residential space (just as in the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning).

And while the Barclays Center does add an entertainment magnet to adjacent Downtown Brooklyn and the adjacent Brooklyn Academy of Music arts district, thus driving some hotels and retail/restaurants, it's part of a much larger change in the area.

(Note that the Atlantic Yards site was only partly government-owned, but eminent domain, then friendly condemnations--followed by a lease back to the developer--made it all government-owned.)

The criticisms

Analyzing "30 reviews covering 42 mixed-use megaprojects in 20 countries," including Canary Wharf in London and Hudson Yards in New York, Harris finds five consistent criticisms, which I'll assess regarding Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park

They have introverted governance that circumvents local planning frameworks.

It could certainly be argued that Empire State Development, the state authority overseeing/shepherding Atlantic Yards, circumvents local planning frameworks. Then again, that has long been the design. Now former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff admits the project could have gone through the city review, though many consider even that inadequate.

Their international positioning and marketing prevails over local concerns.

Well, the Barclays Center aims at the region, not internationally, compared to many projects. The housing was supposed to be "for Brooklyn." That said, the entrance of international owners (Mikhail Prokhorov for arena operate and team, Greenland USA for majority of remaining project) shows international bent. Many condo buyers, if not residents, are from China. But it's clear that the most local concerns, that of the project neighbors, get short shrift.

They're physically and socially disconnected.

Given the location of the project, perhaps the smallest megaproject considered and close to transit, it's not surprising that Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park is not so disconnected. Then again, the most significant example of disconnection, the "blighted," below-grade railyard, remains a barrier. And the open space, though billed as serving the public, is/will be behind the towers, not flush to the street.

Their urbanity is generic.

Well, the towers around the arena look fairly generic, though others to the east better reflect the color palette, at least, of the surrounding area. The arena, at least as redesigned, is not generic at all. So far the open space seems pretty generic.

There's a lack of public benefit.

As noted previously, all evidence is that tax revenues are lower than expected, along with jobs and affordable housing. The larger argument is that the arena/project have been transformative--partly true but still debatable.

Missed opportunities

Harris suggests such large sites "present exceptional opportunities" because they:
  • offer the chance at housing and jobs near transit
  • "create enormous increases in land value through rezoning"
  • "they offer opportunities for coordination with other major government assets or strategic projects"
With Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, the first two were definitely true. One problem was that the project wasn't particularly coordinated with, say, city plans for affordable housing. Nor was it coordinated with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's plans for the Vanderbilt Yard, because Forest City's idea came first.

Harris's literature review suggests that megaprojects suffer because they:
  • lack transparency, often because nongovernmental actors are in charge
  • "have narrowly focused outcomes"
  • "demonstrate a significant transfer of wealth from public to private interests with unclear public or strategic benefits at the city scale"
Well, Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park certainly lacks transparency, in part because governmental actors are in charge--but Empire State Development is designed to be insulated from oversight.

The outcomes of this project are not so much narrowly-focused, but regularly shifting, based on changed economic circumstance.

As to the transfer of wealth, that's a lingering question. Yes, there have been unclear public benefits. The developer got an inside track on public land and significant direct subsidies and tax breaks. But the profits haven't arrived. Was that because the developer, or the government, messed up? Would a fairer, more competitive process have yielded greater public benefit?

Harris suggests "monitoring and accountability practices" be established before projects begin--an idea others have suggested, as well--and suggests more subtle analysis of existing project is needed.

How analyze AY/PP?

That said, even the extant analysis could be improved. Harris suggests "an affordable housing provision appears to be the strongest consistent public benefit of mixed-use megaprojects by global standards," and suggests that Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park has 50% affordable housing.

Actually, it's 50% of the 4,500 rental units and, as we've seen, the affordability has drifted, with a larger percentage than promised of middle-income units, and fewer low-income ones. There will be 1,930 condos, with perhaps 200 of them below-market.

Moreover, Harris incorrectly writes that "Some affordable housing goals are legally binding, such as Pacific Park in New York with its Community Benefits Agreement." Actually, the CBA (here and here), though professed to be "legally binding," must be enforced by its signatories, and they have shown no appetite to do so.

Nor must the income categories cited in the CBA be enforced in the project; rather, there's far broader ambit for "affordable housing," as long as it participates in a government program, according to the project's Development Agreement.


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