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Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park infographics: what's built/what's coming/what's missing, who's responsible, + project FAQ/timeline (pinned post)

How meet 2025 affordable housing deadline? At Atlantic Yards CDC, failed effort to gain updated building-by-building timetable

This is the fourth of five articles regarding the 3/15/19 meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), set up to advise the parent Empire State Development (ESD). The first article concerned the expected 2022 completion date for the middle school. The second article concerned the board's inability to hire independent consultants. The third article concerned updates from the AY CDC President and from developer Greenland USA. The fifth article analyzed the likelihood of building all railyard towers by 2025.

The looming question regarding Atlantic Yards regards how the promised 2,250 units of affordable housing will be delivered by the May 2025 deadline.

Though some updated information about affordable housing was disclosed at the meeting, notably some totals and percentages in upcoming buildings, the overall question remained unanswered.

And the AY CDC board, by a narrow margin, showed itself unwilling to challenge developer Greenland Forest City Partners (GFCP) or ESD regarding a request for a more detailed project timetable, which would predict the affordable units building by building, explaining how that 2025 deadline would be met.

Of the five board members who attended--the board has 14 seats and nine current members, with five vacancies--a majority could not be mustered to support the measure. Apparently not enough board members know, or care, that one lesson of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park is that all promises require scrutiny.

It was a questionable decision, because, despite promises from ESD that it will hold fast on the deadline, the requirement likely can't be met, at least with current percentages of affordability under existing subsidy programs, without building ten towers--two starting this year--by 2025. That's extremely unlikely.

So the challenge portends delays, extensions, or, perhaps, front-loading some affordable units in specific buildings (and perhaps overemphasizing middle-income units, with residents earning six figures or more).

About that map

The timetable request was hardly radical. After all, in 2014, GFCP circulated a map (below) and also produced a chart (further below) regarding the expected project buildout, in terms of timing and affordability, with the final buildings coming in 2025, thus meeting the affordable housing deadline.

At that point, the assumption, as the map suggested, was that the entire project would be completed by 2025, with four of the six towers over the railyard expected to contain 50% affordable housing, based on a 50/30/20 plan, with 20% low-income and 30% moderate- and middle-income.

That quickly got stale as buildings were delayed; in November 2016, Forest City Realty Trust, then a 30% owner of the project going forward, announced it would pause development, given a glut of market-rate units in and around Downtown Brooklyn, tax changes, and other cost pressures.

(Greenland USA has since bought out all but 5% of Forest City's stake; it later sold development leases to three parcels to two other developers.)

Requesting an updated map

At a January 2018 meeting of the AY CDC, then-board member Barika Williams noted that the old schedule was off track, as shown in the video below.

Scott Solish, representing Greenland USA, responded that, as the developer moved ahead, it would be easier to update the map and show how each new building fits into the long-term goal.

"Maybe as a solution, can we get an updated one of these?" Williams asked, regarding the timetable.

"It'll probably be sometime later this year," Solish said.

That never happened, and Williams has since left the board, since June 2018 been serving as the state's Assistant Secretary of Housing.

Perhaps Greenland doesn't have a timetable yet. It has until 2035 to build the entire project, though Solish doesn't use the deadline publicly, and thus the affordable units may have to be delivered before the project is finished, unlike in the previous projection. (It has until 6/1/30 to pay for development rights over the Vanderbilt Yard.)

At the meeting last Friday, Solish did reveal an updated project map, but it did not address the timetable, as explained below.

Getting to 1,334 affordable units

Of the 1,242 apartments built so far in four buildings, Solish explained, 782 (or 63%) are affordable. Also, it and the two firms that bought development leases will build 25% to 30% affordable in the next four buildings.

Unmentioned regarding the affordable housing built so far: rather than conform to the plans as detailed in the Atlantic Yards Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), both signed in 2005, a far larger percentage of the currently built apartments are middle-income units for better-off households.

Groundbreakings this month for B15 (to be built by The Brodsky Organization) and next month for B4 (to be built by GFCP) should add 312 and 860 total units respectively, of which 30% will be affordable, conforming to various options within the city's revamped 421-a tax break, Affordable New York.

From AY CDC presentation, bottom
That means 352 affordable apartments, contributing to a total of 1,134 affordable units, slightly more than half of the required 2,250 units, as shown in the slide above.

Either late this year or early next year, TF Cornerstone should break ground on B12 and B13, with about 800 units, at least 25% of which--or 200--will be affordable. That implies 1,334 total affordable units, leaving 916 left to reach the 2,250 requirement. As I explain further below, there likely would be more middle-income units than originally projected.

Questions about the timetable

At the meeting, as shown in the video below, board member Gib Veconi, who's stressed affordable housing as a local advocate (and is an appointee of the Assembly Speaker, recommended by local Assemblymember Walter Mosley), noted that the new buildings being discussed "were programmed somewhat differently" as of 2014, when the developer planned more 100% market-rate buildings and 50% affordable ones (as in the map at top).

But plans and subsidy programs change, he noted. "It looks like these are being built with rental [units] to qualify for the Affordable New York 421-a program, which has options for 25% and 30% affordable housing."

Veconi said he'd checked the 2014 schedule, in which four of the last six towers--to be built over the railyard-- were to have 50% affordable units. "If you project 25% affordable across the remaining railyard buildings," he said, "which is originally where those units were supposed to go, you don't get to 2,250 units for the project."

He said he'd like to see a plan for where the units will go.

Doing the math

Let's pause for a moment and do the math: could the final buildings deliver the required 916 units?  Not at 25% affordability. (Earlier this month, I outlined the heavy lift necessary to reach the 2,250 total, at least at that affordability level.)

According to a 2014 chart (below), which conforms to the map above, there would be 3,547 total units in the six railyard buildings, B5 through B10. At 25% affordability, that would include 887 affordable units; 30% affordability means 1,064 such units.

So, were the full buildout completed by 2025, it might be possible to reach the total, as long as more buildings include 30% affordability.

However, I believe that's unlikely. It would be very difficult to construct six large buildings over a yet-to-be built platform and have them finished by May 2025, given the cost of construction, the challenge in financing, and the difficulty in leasing them up.

After all, according to the map at top, the first building over the railyard was supposed to open in July 2019, which presumed a construction start at least two years earlier and thus at least an eight-year process to get all six railyard buildings built. Nothing has started, and we've never gotten an update on how much pre-platform foundation work has been done (though some was planned).

One solution might be to build a tower with a much greater percentage of affordability, perhaps at higher income levels, as with Hunters Point South in Queens.

Another might be to include a significant chunk of affordable units in Site 5, the proposed two-tower project at the plot of land currently occupied by Modell's and P.C. Richard, and suggested--not yet formally--as a major office site. Note that Site 5 was not included in the above map or chart as containing housing, so there's a potential opportunity for more overall housing units than initially planned.

Another might be simply to claim unavoidable delay.

Back to the meeting: getting to 2,250 units

As noted in the above video, Veconi said "doing it at 25% affordable will not get us there, will not get to 2,250 units."

Greenland's Solish noted that, among the next buildings to start, there had been--as of 2014--no affordable units proposed for B12, B13, and B15. "In addition, Greenland Forest City is in design of B5, and commencing design of B6 and B7," he said, "so we'll be coming back with additional information as that design progresses."

That means that, of the buildings requiring a platform, B5, closest to the Barclays Center, will be built first, then the two adjacent buildings (B6, B7) over Block 1120, with the last three buildings (B8, B9, B10) coming over the revamped railyard, on Block 1121.

That means that the much-hyped open space ("Pacific Park"!), which significantly relies on the streetbed of Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues--currently used for construction staging--will be delivered at the end of the project.

ESD executive Marion Phillips III, who also is AY CDC President, said, "Gib, you make a good point. I think the point of giving us what your projections look like is very helpful." He added that ESD is "very serious about two commitments that are in the 2014 agreement."

One is that the developer maintain a minimum 35% affordable housing threshold until 1,050 affordable units are built. That should be easy to meet, since the construction of B4 and B15 should leave the percentage at 47%, as noted in a screenshot above.

"I don't think we need to worry about if they stay at 25%," Phillips said. "Our goal is 2,250. Obviously, they're going to have to increase their percentage of affordable in those [future] buildings to reach that goal. We're not going to let them out of that agreement. So, going forward... they won't be able to do 25%."

"I'm sorry, I just want to make the point," Veconi responded, "that this agency is charged with overseeing the public commitments of the project. And affordable housing is the key public commitment of this project. I understand that the developers have the right to transfer development rights to parcels within the project. But so far, these transfers have been made under the theory that later on we'll make up for a shortfall in affordable units, with subsequent buildings. I would much prefer to see a schedule that explained how that was going to happen, at least in theory now, than waiting for a time when those project are looking to be financed."

Who's in charge?

In response to Veconi's query, Phillips said ESD would hold Greenland--not TF Cornerstone or Brodsky--responsible for commitments like affordable housing and adherence to the Memorandum of Environmental Commitments.

He said that ESD has completion guarantees from TF Cornerstone for the B12 and B13 sites, while Brodsky will build at B15.

"The responsibility is still being held on Greenland, which makes logical sense to us," he said. "And Greenland has agreed to that."

The first proposed motion

Veconi proposed a motion, as described in the above video: that the board request the terms of affordable housing commitments between GFCP and the transferees, and also a breakdown of the proposed allocation of affordable units across the project, within 90 days.

Phillips, despite his previous rhetorical nod to the reasonableness of Veconi's request, was not in support.

"Greenland's not required to give us a projection, and I'm not trying to put them in a position so that we can play gotcha," he said. "They have a responsibility, and we plan to hold them to a responsibility, for 2,250 units. Y'know, your request for them making a projection I think is helpful and useful, but at the end of the day, the commitment of meeting the goal that we set is nonnegotiable on our end."

"So I would like to, one, say, that the agreement they have with TFC and the agreement they have with Brodsky, once they close, they are more than welcome to share that with the directors," Phillips said. "But as it relates to them projecting out, if they have projections, we will circulate them and share them with you."

Veconi asked for a second on his motion. He got one from Cy Richardson, an appointee of Borough President Eric Adams, an urban planner who works as Senior Vice President for Economics and Housing Programs at the National Urban League.

Is housing deadline negotiable?

"Can you say that [housing total and deadline] will never be negotiable?" Richardson asked Phillips.

Phillips' response began with a few weasel words. "At this point, I'm very clear, [ESD head] Howard's [Zemsky] very clear, we're not negotiating that number down, at all. I have been given very clear instructions that we're not negotiating that number."

Tamara McCaw, the acting chair of AY CDC (and a gubernatorial appointee), asked Veconi to clarify the motion. He said it had two parts: first, for Greenland and the transferees provide the terms of the affordable housing agreements for B12/13/15 as soon as possible and second, for Greenland provide a projection that shows how it intends to meet the 2,250 unit requirement

Veconi and Richardson voted yes, while board members Daniel Kummer (a gubernatorial appointee), John Heyer (a state Senate appointee), and McCaw were opposed, though she made no announcement of the result. (Note: I believe McCaw was opposed, but couldn't see clearly or get conformation from ESD, and the video is unclear.)

It's not hard to think that a slightly different board configuration--such as with Williams and Jaime Stein, the now-departed mayoral appointee, present--might have produced a different result, though presumably a full board complement, dominated by appointees of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would've nixed the request.

The motion returns, fails again

Later in the meeting, Phillips said that Veconi's motion required a re-vote, because it should have requested that ESD, not the developer, provide the projections.

Phillips noted that it would be impossible to provide details of the deal between Greenland and the two new partners, because "the agreement that ESD is in possession of is the assignment of the lease." Separately, the master lease, or master responsibility, is between Greenland Forest City Partners and ESD, and states the responsibility for delivering affordable housing.

Kummer suggested that the two elements in the motion be separated.

Veconi proposed, and Richardson seconded, a motion to request ESD to estimate affordability building by building. The vote again failed, with the same division, and ambiguity.

Kummer offered a comment: "I want to be clear that in voting no against that motion, I in no way intend to send any message that I view the responsibility of this board to hold the--to assist ESD in holding the developer to the commitments that have been made--is in any way diminished."

"Y'know, I think it's a situation, and I'm satisfied with Marion's explanation," Kummer continued, "that I think at this point--at this point in time, we can essentially trust all these professionals to do the simple arithmetic that you alluded to, which obviously is a valid point, and to take that arithmetic into account as they plan the future parts of the development project."

Richardson was less sanguine. "I just want to make a point to explain my position... I've grown into a cynical individual, particularly as it relates to public-private partnerships. So my point is: I would like every opportunity to remind the broader community, defined as you would like, of this master commitment...  Because I don't want it to be too late when these things have to be renegotiated."

"That's fair," Phillips said.

Drilling down on each building agreement

"I share some of director Richardson's cynicism, as well," Veconi said. "But more importantly, I'm concerned that, from my understanding, the state would not have recourse to the transferees for delivery of the affordable housing commitment should Greenland not be able to deliver it. Does the state have ability to demand performance on affordable housing?"

"The gist of it is this: the recourse is not with the partners receiving the assignment, the recourse is with Greenland," Phillips said. "And we have a completion guarantee from both of the partners... that is how we became comfortable."
"But I believe the larger part of this conversation is more legal and technical" than he was capable of having, he added, promising to provide the assignment of lease documents.

"We don't need a motion," Veconi concluded. "Does the completion guarantee [for each building] also speak to the delivery of affordable units, or just the completion of the building? Would the completion guarantee cover just the creation of x number of units... or x number of units including the percentage of affordable?"

"The completion guarantee is per building," Phillips said. "I guess your question is asking me: is the completion guarantee on the 2,250 units?"

"For any percentage of affordable units in each of those buildings," Veconi responded.

"It is for the completion of that building, based on the program that has been assigned to that building," Phillips said.

"So, the completion guarantees guarantees not only that building will be physically constructed, but it guarantees that a specific number of affordable units will be provided in it?" Veconi asked.

"Correct," Phillips said.

"OK, then I think all we need to see is the completion guarantee," Veconi said.

Phillips said that ESD would provide that document to the board.

More middle-income units?

Note that the amount of affordability in the buildings wasn't specified, but the some options under current subsidy programs would include a significant amount of middle-income units, meaning above 120% of Area Median Income (AMI). The first two options are skewed to middle-income households, while the third has more low-income households:
  • 30% of the units must be affordable: at least 10% at up to 70% of AMI and 20% at up to 130% of AMI.
  • at least 30% of the units must be affordable at up to 130% of AMI
  • 25% of the units must be affordable: at least 10% at up to 40% of AMI, 10% at up to 60% of AMI, and 5% at up to 120% of AMI
Note that current AMI levels mean nearly all households at 130% of AMI could earn over $100,000. And that ceiling likely will have risen by the time the new buildings open.

If these options stand, it's likely a far larger percentage of units than originally promised will be middle-income units.

Here's the original promise, from the 2005 Housing MOU signed by original developer Forest City Ratner with the advocacy group New York ACORN, which implied two middle-income bands (at that time middle-income was thought to start over 100% of AMI, not over 80% of AMI), representing 20% of a 50/50 building or 40% of all affordable units.