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

In 2012 Penn discussion of Atlantic Yards plan, some lessons for megaprojects: "be honest about phasing: nothing ever gets built at once"

Remember the 2011 documentary Battle for Brooklyn (my retrospective)? Well, there was also the 2010 “docu-musical” In the Footprint: The Battle over Atlantic Yards by The Civilians (my review), which also focused on the tensions behind the project, depicting polarized communities.

The theatrical piece played in January 2012 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. It was presaged by a community forum titled Megaprojects: Can we balance individual and social good?, featuring Penn faculty members in conversation with other plays in the real-estate world.

I recently watched the video of the event, co-sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, and while it began awkwardly from a mistaken premise (more on that below), some panelists offered enduring, if in retrospect rueful, wisdom regarding megaprojects. So it’s worth a look back.


Megaprojects: Can we balance individual and social goods? from PennDesign on Vimeo.

Setting the stage, wobbily

Moderator John Landis, Crossways Professor of City and Regional Planning, unfortunately, set the stage inaccurately, stating the project was unveiled in 2006 (rather than 2003) and suggesting that a 2008 project iteration by Frank Gehry was the original. (Here's a look back at various images.)

Landis also provided the wrong image for the then-current plan: a mock-up speculative rendering by the Municipal Art Society, focusing on vacant lots and a stark barrel of an arena, without a transit entrance, rather than the revised plan by SHoP (see farther below), with the rusted-metal facade and oculus, plus three towers around the arena.


Landis also mentioned that “a substantial portion” of the housing was affordable “to low- and moderate-income households,” which is imprecise and, today, dangerously so, since a majority of the affordable units in two towers is for middle-income households.

How did we get here?

At about 23:25, Landis offered some useful context, suggesting that urban megaprojects thrived in the 1980s and 1990s, given a confluence of factors, including public funding for sports facilities, low interest rates, a trend toward destination entertainment centers, baby boomers rejecting the suburbs for transit-oriented development, falling urban crime rates and the return to the city of the middle and creative classes, relatively cheap urban land prices, and many downtrodden neighborhoods eager for development. So, he asked, was Atlantic Yards, a last gasp or a harbinger.

I agree that most of those factors applied, but what Landis said at about 27:00 was off: "You could still buy urban land, not--it wasn't too expensive, you could still find a 22-acre parcel somewhere in the center of New York, it's an amazing thing, you couldn't do that today.”

Of course, most of the Atlantic Yards site was not bought on the open market but acquired thanks to the pressure of eminent domain, public funding for land acquisition, and a inside track to the large public parcel. There was no 22-acre parcel to be acquired.

Landis compounded the misinformation. “New York City, when it comes to planning and development, is very unusual. Most cities will send you to a comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance, developed with considerable community input,” he said, but noted that New York lacks a comprehensive plan.

“New York is a deal-driven city,” he said. “A developer goes to the city, they go to the City Planning Commission, the Planning Commission refers them to one of 59 community boards, and then they do a deal with the community board to get the project done.”

Actually, that’s neither the typical process, nor the one that Atlantic Yards faced. The standard process involves an advisory vote by the Community Board, a recommendation by the Borough President, and then votes by the Planning Commission and the City Council.

Typically, the Council Member representing the site—such as Stephen Levin for the 80 Flatbush project—has the key voice in the deal.

But Atlantic Yards bypassed the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), since it was overseen and approved by the state economic development authority, Empire State Development Corporation (now simply Empire State Development), with no role—other than comments—from the city bodies mentioned above.

In other words, there was even less oversight and accountability, in part because—as former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff admitted in his memoir—city officials wanted to fast-track the approval process.

Arena, plaza, and subway entrance as of September 2010
Involving the public

Landis, at 31:30, asked Marilyn Taylor, Dean, University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, “how did this happen,” indicating the seeming before-and-after designs, from “something imaginative and bold to something that looks like your five-year-old old could've done it.”

Taylor, a former Partner in Charge of the Urban Design and Planning Practice at the major architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill, reflected on her career. Whether the proposing client was a public institution, a private one, or a developer “typically proposing to triple the density, I found myself a deep believer in the process of public participation,” since that “can have very effective results.”

The Atlantic Yards example, the play and the history suggest, seemingly presents significant public process, in the form of hearings and comments, but not necessarily give-and-take, since the developer had the political firmament on its side. The changes to the plan over the years were relatively minor, such as an increase in open space.

“I believe that abuse, on both sides, of the public engagement process, cost social good, cost individual good, and it also cost good design,” Taylor said. In a cordial implicit correction of Lands, she noted that “a new designer, SHoP architects… were added back into the mix, and the design improved.” (That's the SHoP design, above, that they didn't show.)

Was the first design, Landis asked, buildable?

“I think it was probably aspirational, even when it was first presented,” Taylor responded, subtly correcting the start date to 2003. “Remember, a lot changed in the world.”

“But there is no question that the nature of the debate—here, I'm not on either side—caused greater risk, greater market uncertainty, and therefore a real step down in the quality of design,” she said.

I wonder if by "both sides" abusing the public engagement process, she meant those shouting at public hearings. After all, the process was skewed from the start, given that there was no public leverage to change the plan.

“I think that great, sweeping plaza, in the middle of Brooklyn”—Taylor referred to the mocked-up image, not the plaza devised by SHoP, since praised after the arena opening—was “arguably... not a great strategy.”

Taylor has far more design wisdom than most people, so her poor prognostication is a reminder—as New York magazine’s Justin Davidson wrote—that not only should architectural plans be evaluated but actual performance after opening.

The issue now, of course, is not the design of the plaza but the huge proposed shift in bulk—given the unbuilt “Miss Brooklyn” tower, the bulk of which the developer aims to add to the Site 5 parcel across the street.

Public sector stepping up?

Taylor also cordially corrected Landis by saying “this was primarily a state transaction,” with the state owning key property and also acting as the agent of eminent domain.)

Some 30 to 40 years ago, Landis suggested, a government agency would’ve taken the lead, but now private developers take charge. This, he suggested, might be spurred by financial issues, or political ones.

“But whatever the reason,” he said, “the responsibility for city building has shifted from the city and the public sector, in many instances, to private developers. It's gone from being what planners call, from planning directed to deal-directed.”

Taylor said that, over her career, she’d worked on a broad range of projects, with the public sector playing various roles. “All I can say is this: "When the public cedes control of an asset over which it clearly has responsibility or ownership, without a clear statement that the public collectively will stand by and say, ‘We will not allow this to occur without the following elements of framework,’ then the public sector really does give up on a responsibility I think it has for all of this.”

“I think any project like this can only be successful if the public goes through a sometimes lengthy process to say, ‘What are our objectives on this site and how much are we, the public sector, willing to invest of our resources, in order to achieve that framework?’ And then the developer needs to be able to respond, not within tight limitations, but within that framework and yet still able to have that flexibility to meet what the market delivers,” she said.

“So it's either going back or going forward to a different division of responsibility,” Taylor said. “Not a 'public-private partnership' where everything is all jumbled together but rather the public sector being extremely clear about its expectations and requirements for any development of this sort.”

Setting the terms

Then came some criticism of the much-promoted Community Benefits Agreement, said to guarantee jobs, housing, and more, but which turned out to be mostly a facade.

Brooklynite Laura Wolf-Powers, Assistant Professor, City & Regional Planning, at about 44:49 said, “I couldn’t agree more though with Marilyn [Taylor] that there needs to be a public framework that informs everything. And it needs to be very clear and transparent and communicated from the outset. Which is why I kind of think the idea that you can set terms project-b-y-project is really what did this project in.”

She noted that community benefits agreements in California involved government agencies, but that wasn’t the case in Brooklyn. New York, she suggested, doesn’t so much need a comprehensive land use plan, but rather “comprehensive policies concerning the circumstances under which projects will be subsidized.”

“Now there is, partly a result of community benefit agreements gone bad, there’s a blanket policy on local hiring that NYC EDC [New York City Economic Development Corporation] has put in place,” she said. “If a developer knows there’s a standard around hiring, affordable housing,” that will create more public trust.

What's the standard? City Limits reported 12/1/16:
As of 2015, any project that uses more than $1 million in subsidies from the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) or more than $2 million from the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) is required to register with the city’s HireNYC program. That program connects contractors to prospective candidates from a target population of low-income residents recruited by a neighborhood’s Workforce1 center. Employers are not required to hire these candidates, but must “comply with NYCEDC’s process of engagement, including providing an explanation as to why it did not hire the candidates referred by the city,” or face penalties or even default of the contract, according to EDC.

Wolf-Powers said she didn’t think “publicly sponsored development and planning, such as in the era of urban renewal,” was “particularly appropriate, but there are public policies that need to be comprehensive.”

At about 1:11:00, Wolf-Powers suggested that Forest City Ratner’s effort to involve communities seeking benefits was “to incorporate them in the least expensive and least genuine way… They were faced with essentially not having a voice at all or having a voice that was structured by the developer and the city, which had a great deal more power.”

Community rancor

“One of the most poignant things about the play,” she said, “is the rancor and animosity between opponents of the Atlantic Yards development and people who were in favor of it, in that the opponents accused African-American groups who had negotiated the Community Benefits Agreement or who signed this Community Benefits Agreement of having sold out, of having been horribly naive, and in fact there was never a larger discussion of how this process might have been different from the very beginning because there were already so many pieces of the puzzle in place before community groups even had the opportunity to get a voice at the table.”

Yes, both sides expressed hostility, but I think it’s fairly clear that most who signed the CBA did nothing to see it enforced, and that some were ready to sign it before getting to the table.

“I think CBAs could be thrown out the window,” Wolf-Powers said, “provided that there were a set of standards for developers receiving public subsidy that really answered some of this sense of unfairness and deep injustice that these communities justifiably feel.”

About those blogs

At about 1:27:40, Taylor suggests “a couple of things that I think were right about the battle for Atlantic Yards.”

“I think the first easy to observe,” she said. “The two people who created the blogs really showed up the New York Times in its failure to pay attention to providing good information to try to get to that middle who understands the issues well enough to debate them.”

The two people? Well, there were two people portrayed in the play. NoLandGrab, which was the other main blog along with mine, was run by several people. And while we were all providing information to the public, it was in many ways pushback on the dominant narrative.

The sad thing, in retrospect, is that the Times and the other daily newspapers—which under-covered Atlantic Yards early on, then stepped up somewhat—have retreated well beyond their early days, given the general diminution of metro coverage.

“[W]e can all recognize that responsible blogging, even from very different points of view,"  Taylor said, "is a way of getting a lot of information out that isn’t always available, and it’s hard for me to think of a project in our democratic terrain that isn’t potentially dramatically benefited by that."

Back to the CBA

“To Bruce Ratner’s credit, he made an effort, with the Community Benefit Agreement,” Taylor said, “to decide up front, how the benefits would be distributed.” That’s dubious, given that the CBA reflected promises rather than guarantees.

“The problem,” she said, “is that he forgot there was another community a little over there, and another community there, and you can’t ever, as a private party, presume that you’ve completed your negotiations when you do it in that form.”

Sure, but Ratner wasn’t trying to negotiate with or satisfy every community. He wanted to set up enough “community” to provide cover.

Unanswered questions

Entering the Q&A, Landis noted that he hadn’t asked a few questions he had teed up, “gentrification, this was not a big problem in this area, questions about whether cities ought to subsidize rich sports teams…”

Um, gentrification was the heart of the debate: the ongoing gentrification in and around Downtown Brooklyn/Prospect Heights, and the question of whether Atlantic Yards would stem it or surf it.

Wolf-Powers said two things “that absolutely incensed the neighbors,” citing first the density and scale, and then the “level of revenue negativity, in terms of what the public sector was going to gain.”

I’d say the density—as of 2003, before the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, and given the encroachment on Prospect Heights—did incense neighbors, especially since far more traffic was expected. (The downsized arena, plus the loss of New Jersey fans once projected to drive to Brooklyn, reduced traffic.)

“In terms of the density, there were attempts to have conversations about changing the design,” Wolf-Powers said. Well, that was the UNITY plan (sponsored by Council Member Letitia James and opponents Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn) limited to the MTA-owned railyard, and that was a nonstarter, because it couldn’t accommodate the arena.

“Unfortunately you had residents of the brownstone neighborhoods,” she said, “that were so outraged by the very idea of this, that it would be imposed on their sort of pastoral setting… There was a kind of digging in of heels that happened… I do think there were some missed opportunities… and who knows whether the developer would’ve been amenable to having these discussions, but the most vociferous opponents were not amenable to having that discussion.”

I’m not sure there were any open opportunities, because something like the UNITY Plan—presented by the “most vociferous opponents,” was off the table. Today, though, there's surely more recognition of the possibility and desirability of more density--though not necessarily AY-type density--at major thoroughfares like Atlantic Avenue.

Making it work

Jim Burnett, Executive Director of the West Philadelphia Financial Services Institution, at about 1:44:00, made a good point. “I like the idea of a community plan, and all the rest of that stuff, but it’s only as good as the people who are willing to enforce it,” he said, given the example of a government unwilling to ensure minority hiring.

Taylor, shortly afterward, addressed the question, “how do you keep things from being monolithic?”

“Maybe you have more than one architect,” she said, which was a question Gehry himself raised, but was told by his client to stand down. “You need to search for architects who are willing to say, 'So, if I build this first, then how will I respond to it? And if the stadium doesn’t work out, what else could it be?'”

Indeed, Greenland Forest City Partners has since hired multiple architects, with the buildings by CookFox on the southeastern block considered more successful than the ones on the arena block by SHoP, and designs announced by KPF and Jonathan Marvel have not yet been built (and may be tweaked). And now there are more developers, and another architect, Perkins Eastman.

Thinking about life cycles

“And I think the larger the project is, more important it is to think of the life cycles over the life of the project, and it causes you not to become fascinated with some detail that you repeat endlessly,” Taylor said. “And that’s where—I think there’s a difference between the community acting as designer, and the community giving really important input to the design.”

“But right now, I think the biggest thing that is important, on the design side, is: think mixed-income, think mixed-use, be honest about phasing: nothing ever gets built at once,” she said, in an observation that should’ve been stressed in Brooklyn from the start. “And what if you didn’t build the second phase the way you thought it was going to be, would it still be OK?”

Be honest about phasing. At the very least, we would've had a different discussion. Atlantic Yards was once supposed to take ten years, and be finished by 2013, or 2016. Now 2035 seems more likely.

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