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

What's happened to Atlantic Yards since Battle for Brooklyn? A lot

For those coming to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park new, the 2011 documentary Battle for Brooklyn by Suki Hawley, Michael Galinsky, and David Beilinson (my review) is a worthy introduction.

Though limited in scope at the time (it's just 93 minutes) and now overtaken by events, the film establishes for viewers an enduring taint on the project and its path to approval, with indelible scenes.

Indeed, that taint has been borne out since 2011, though not necessarily as anyone--including myself--expected. It's a "never say never project" (one of my five mantras).

What has been consistent has been the lack of accountability, part of what I call the "Culture of Cheating" (another mantra).

So much has changed since the film, which, after all, was released while the arena was under construction. (See this FAQ for current statistics on the project and this article for a retrospective on Forest City Ratner/Forest City New York, the company that launched the project.)

But since some use the film as a starting point--as did one class I recently spoke to, leading a tour around the project site--I decided to write this update.

The big picture

Notably, the landscape in and around Downtown Brooklyn has changed dramatically, with many new towers to the northwest of the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project site, making the scale of the proposed project less anomalous, at least from one angle, though less so from other angles.

Meanwhile, gentrification has proceeded, especially since thousands of market-rate apartments, not anticipated to be built, have emerged from the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, which was aimed to increase office space, and did not require affordability. (There are affordable units in buildings nearby on city-owned plots near the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)

It's fair to say there have been--and will be--other battles for Brooklyn, which is a changing organism. But this one has left something of a template for developers who propose ambitious plans and promise desperately needed benefits.

Revisiting the film's final framing

As I wrote in my review, two talking heads helped set a final framing:
Though absent for much of the film, a few talking heads appear toward the end. The New York Times’s Charles Bagli declares, “Here we are, so many years later and you start scratching your head and you say, ‘Well, I see the arena going up, the steel is rising, but I don’t see any housing, the famous architect’s gone,’ it fed the notion that this was a hollow accomplishment.” Bagli implicitly rebukes Mayor Bloomberg’s confident, placating assertion a year earlier at the arena groundbreaking: “Nobody’s going to remember how long it took, they’re only going to look and see that it was done.” The final talking head is my own: “If the government had done its job, if the media had done their job, we wouldn’t be here like this. It would’ve been a fair fight.”
Well, maybe people won't remember how long the arena took, but the sluggish pace of construction--just four of 15 towers finished--certainly serves as a reminder that the project hasn't panned out as promised, especially since the project is now expected to take until 2035.

And while famous architect Frank Gehry is gone, the arena, in many architecture critics' eyes, was indeed rescued by SHoP Architects' revamp of the Ellerbe Becket design derided as a "hangar."

Today there is housing, and 782 of 1,242 total apartments in those four towers are "affordable," but such below-market housing does not conform to the housing that was promised.

Is the arena today a "hollow accomplishment"? It's helped rebrand Brooklyn, for better and for worse, and provided a venue for sports and events previously unavailable, while also symbolizing unfulfilled promises and vexing its nearest neighbors. It's, at best, a very mixed accomplishment.

Was it a fair fight? No, and it's never been so. It's no small irony that, in the passage of time, one notably critical voice regarding the unfairness of that fight has come from Arana Hankin, who was Atlantic Yards project manager for Empire State Development, the state authority charged with the contradictory responsibility of both shepherding and overseeing the project.

Community questions

Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the project's leading opposition group, is long-dormant, if not defunct, and Daniel Goldstein, the film's main protagonist, has left public life; the project “opposition” is more neighborhood residents who are understandably concerned about the impact of arena operations and project construction. Council Member Letitia James has risen to Public Advocate, and she has shown distance from Atlantic Yards but, when running for Attorney General, embracing her role in the fight, even too much.

Most of the Community Benefits Agreement signatories are defunct or inactive; the single clearly active one is the Rev. Herbert Daughtry’s Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, which distributes free tickets to arena events, to nonprofit groups.

BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development) was sued by those in a coveted pre-apprenticeship training program, who charged they were promised construction jobs; that case was eventually settled, murkily.

The Community Benefits Agreement is essentially unenforceable, as no promised Independent Compliance Monitor has been hired, and the signatories, the only parties with standing to challenge it, have not pushed.

A 2014 agreement on the timetable (see below) also created a new advisory body, the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC). This was not the oversight subsidiary that some had pushed for, though that was unlikely, given gubernatorial control.

The AY CDC, despite a few members' questions and some steps toward transparency, has been mostly toothless, with one recent meeting scheduled with minimal notice, seemingly to enable an endorsement of a contract renewal.

Arena impacts

The arena didn't cause the "carmageddon" many feared, for several reasons: it was decoupled from the four towers originally planned to open simultaneously, the smaller-than-planned arena drew fewer attendees, Nets fans mostly use public transit (and walk), and New Jersey fans of the Nets dropped off rather than drive to Brooklyn.

Still, particularly vexing are concerts and children's shows that draw many drivers, and events that require numerous buses. The loading dock, with an elevator and turntable touted as magical by some, doesn't always work right, leading to backup traffic on Dean Street.

It's a very tight fit (one of my mantras), so there's little margin for error. Which means--another mantra--that "The devil’s in the details.”

And "Power defines reality" (the final mantra), which means that the developer and its governmental allies generally set the agenda, too infrequently getting pushback from citizens and journalists.

For the most part, people think the arena's green roof was installed as a visual amenity, rather than as a way to dampen bass that was somehow escaping from the arena's structure.

Financial and ownership: the arena

The Barclays Center has been busy, especially its first, star-studded year, but financially has fallen far short of profit projections. Without a 2016 refinancing of the arena bonds at a lower interest rate, the project would likely be in jeopardy.

The New York Islanders were a surprise tenant, announced in 2012 for a move three years later. They were said to have an "ironclad" 25- year lease, instead had an opt-out provision, and they're now planning to build a new arena at Belmont Park in Nassau County.

After three years struggling at Barclays, they're going to split their seasons in Brooklyn and at the revamped but downsized Nassau Coliseum, considered too small for the NHL as a permanent home (and without luxury suites).

Forest City Ratner, which had already sold 80% of the team (and 45% of the arena operating company) to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov by the time the movie came out, has since divested fully to Prokhorov--at a fairly modest sum for the arena, a decent payday for that minority share of the Nets.

While neither company did well on the arena, it has caused a significant increase in the value of the Nets, bringing a big check for Prokhorov, who sold to another billionaire, Joe Tsai.

Financial and ownership: the project beyond arena

Forest City, rather than making a big profit from all the government help it got, lost hundreds of millions of dollars; it not only sold to Prokhorov, in 2014 it sold--at a loss--70% of the remaining project to Greenland USA, the arm of a Shanghai-based (and government-owned) developer.

The new joint venture Greenland Forest City Partners then in 2014 changed the name to Pacific Park (distancing itself from controversy, I wrote in Next City).

Forest City built one tower
 by itself, the tallest building in the world using modular construction. Despite much hype, it took twice as long and cost far more than expected, so Forest City exited that business, and ultimately sold the tower (at a seeming loss) to Principal Global Investors, which is otherwise not involved in Pacific Park.

The joint venture built three towers--two with affordable rentals, one condo--then, at the end of 2016, Forest City unilaterally announced it would stall construction.

Forest City, after reportedly being at odds with Greenland for more than a year, this year agreed to sell all but 5% of the project to Greenland. Several top Forest City executives, including CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin, have left
, leaving Forest City--renamed Forest City New York--as more of a real estate operator than a ground-up developer.

The Atlantic Yards stumbles were perhaps the most prominent among those targeted by hedge fund investors who successfully pushed the parent company, Forest City Realty Trust, to collapse a two-class share structure that left the extended Ratner family in control, and to end a board dominated by family members.

Forest City, and later the joint venture, were early adopters of a new way to raise cheap capital: the EB-5 program for immigrant investors, who offer to park $500,000 in a purportedly job-creating investment so they and family members can get green cards.

Only by now is there widespread skepticism toward the program, which--given the questionable marketing already evident in 2010, when I first wrote about EB-5--is long overdue.

Program and timetable questions

The joint venture, facing pressure from a potential fair-housing lawsuit, agreed to a new 2025 deadline, with financial penalties, for the 2,250 units of affordable housing, which was ten years earlier than the previous "outside date," but well beyond previously announced completion goals of 2016 and 2019.

That agreement, however, did not specify the level of affordability. The two "100% affordable" towers skew toward middle-income units, which does not represent where the need was greatest.

With half the units in each of two 300-unit towers geared toward those middle-income households, with rents close to market rate in the general area (though rent-stabilized and certainly a better deal than other new construction near), they've been hard to fill via the lottery.

In fact, the developers are offering an incentive common with market-rate rentals: two free months. That scorn has made it to mainstream coverage, as with this Ginia Bellafante "Big City" column in the New York Times.

As no Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park building has started since mid-2015, the promised school--in a tower known as B15--has been delayed at least three years. The open space--the eight-acre "park"--won't be finished until the entire project is finished.

That was once projected as 2025: they'd finish the affordable units in the final buildings. That was finally acknowledged as 2035, as of May 2018 (and disclosed by me in August 2018). Greenland has played its cards close to the vest; the next building expected to start is the giant B4 tower at the northeast corner of the arena block.

(Ironically enough, neither Bagli nor the Times, which have covered the project inconsistently and intermittently, have written about, for example, Forest City's second sale to Greenland, much less the timetable delays.)

But how will the developer meet the deadline for affordable units? Unclear. One possibility might be to further stretch the definition of affordability.

The developer never built the B1 tower, which Gehry dubbed "Miss Brooklyn"; by now, such construction would interfere with the arena plaza, which is integral to Barclays Center operations.

Instead, the joint venture wants to move the bulk of B1--no one throws away buildable square footage--across the street catercorner to Site 5, home today to the big-box stores P.C. Richard and Modell's, and already slated for a large tower. A far larger two-tower complex might be built, though the governmental process hasn't started.

The bottom line

Stay tuned--more changes, and surprises, are inevitable, especially regarding the timetable and the affordability. Note the questions I posed that could be answered at the next, seemingly delayed, meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC).

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park may not be a "Battle for Brooklyn" any more, but it is an unending saga, with the question marks--and taint--emerging in new ways.