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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)

Changes to Modified General Project Plan seem fast-tracked to advisory AY CDC, then ESD board. But state had promised "additional environmental review."

Here's a link to coverage of issues raised at the meeting, including 100,000 square feet of new, below-ground space, a cut in vehicle parking, and a change/cut in bike parking.

At tonight's bi-monthly Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Quality of Life meeting, several proposed project changes will be discussed, as I've written.

Those changes include unspecified cuts in vehicle parking and bike parking, a "change to square footage" for two parcels, and an unspecified reduction in the width of "the Open Space North-South Walkway Width."

The process seems fast-tracked.

According to the announcement, staff from Empire State Development (ESD), the state authority overseeing/shepherding the project, are to "discuss amendments to the Modified General Project Plan (MGPP) to be brought before the Atlantic Yards Community Development [Corporation] Board of Directors for recommendation, and then presented to the Empire State Development Board of Directors for approval."

That AY CDC meeting was yesterday scheduled for July 22.

Unmentioned is any role for public comment and any plan for public hearings, which of course would add time and uncertainty to the process, and thus would be frowned on by the developer(s) and the state. So the fix seems in.

Past promise: modification means further review

However, past statements regarding the project indicate that such a public process would be necessary. Consider this comment during the 2006 project review, from the Regional Plan Association (RPA), a business-funded planning group:
It is extremely doubtful that both the architecture and open space will ever be implemented without substantial revisions. Many unforeseen events could make the current plan unworkable. The GPP [General Project Plan] currently fails to provide sufficient guarantees to the public that the project will live up to its promises.
That was combined with a comment about a lingering surface parking lot. The response from ESD, as indicated in the Final Environmental Impact Statement Response to Comments chapter (Part 1):
The GPP governs development on the entire project site, which does not envision having large permanent surface parking lot on the project site. Should the project program change in a magnitude necessary to warrant a modification of the GPP, the proposed project would require additional environmental review to reassess the impacts on environmental conditions. During construction, the surface parking on the eastern end of the project site would be for construction workers, in order to minimize the potential for construction worker parking impacts on the surrounding area. Following the opening of the arena, the interim parking facility would be accessory to the project uses.
(Emphases added)

An amendment to the MGPP is a modification, isn't it?

If so, that would seem to require additional environmental review to assess impacts, as occurred when the original MGPP was modified in 2009 (with changes to the timing of condemnation, among other things) and again in 2014 (with changes in the distribution of square footage and the amount of parking).

Original B4 design (top);
Modified B4 design (bottom)
If parking will be reduced, for example, that suggests a modification to the MGPP somewhat commensurate with that in 2014. (Other changes, too, might justify modifications.

B4: where change was finessed with no hearing

That said, the state and developer would rather avoid hearings.

As I wrote 10/18/13, it looked like ESD finessed the approval process for a change in the B4 tower, at the northeast corner of the Atlantic Yards arena block, at Atlantic and Sixth avenues. 

Had that required a re-approval of the Design Guidelines incorporated into the MGPP, it would have required a new round of public hearings. 

The change involved allowing upper segments of B4 (today called 18 Sixth Avenue, under construction) to extend far closer to the street, rather than have previously approved setbacks.

The back half of the tower would shift east and south, closer to the Sixth Avenue, making a nearly continuous wall rising 511 feet. The goal: to be able to build the same amount of housing, given a different arena design.

Despite the change to the building envelope, there would be no change to the height, bulk, or sidewalk, nor in the building's planned contents. The change would still conform to general goals of the long-established project Design Guidelines, even if they would modify architectural drawings attached to the Guidelines' appendix.

That allowed a faster process. According to the ESD board memo:
The proposed modifications do not require modification of the 2009 MGPP [Modified General Project Plan] or of the text of the Project's Design Guidelines, and are consistent with both the general goals and objectives of the Design Guidelines and with the specific Design Guideline requirements for B04. Such modifications would not increase the permitted floor area or height of B04. The overall building floor area cap of 824,629 square feet above grade would not change and the B04 design envelope, as modified, would not change that cap. The modifications would not change the use of B04, which would remain a residential building with a mix of market-rate and affordable units and retail at its base.
Note the distinction: the changes affected the images, not the text of the Design Guidelines. But the text commands adherence to the "Parcel Development Envelopes," which were changed. It's a distinction that could be resolved, perhaps, only in litigation, as I wrote.

Do the new changes qualify?

If the new proposed changes are amendments to the MGPP, well, they sure seem to be modifications.

A cut in parking in 2014 was part of the public review.

Tonight, could the proposed changes to the Design Guidelines only change the images, and not the text? It seems unlikely, given that--for example--the "Open Space North-South Walkway Width" was expressed in text.

What about the proposed "change to square footage" for two parcels? If that's an increase in the size of buildings, to enable more housing, well, that would "increase the permitted floor area" and thus qualify, based on the October 2013 board memo.

But what if, for example, "Change to Square Footage at Parcels B12 and B15" means just that, a change in square footage of the parcels themselves, not the buildings rising above them? What if that reconfiguration, coupled with less parking, allows for residential space to be redistributed and more apartments included?

That might lead to the argument that these are not significant changes.

But enough with the speculation; they should've provided more details beforehand.

Looking back: a question of oversight

The issue of project changes was raised early on in the debate over Atlantic Yards. Consider this comment during the 2006 environmental review, from the Municipal Art Society (MAS):
There is concern about how the proposed “Design Guidelines” will be implemented, and, as we believe is likely, modified over the life-cycle of the project. It might be less important to set down in stone how the project should be built—particularly in Phase II—than it is to ensure a mechanism to guarantee good design occurs on the site. A subsidiary of ESDC should be created to manage the project going forward. The subsidiary could:
• Include local representation;
• Supervise any redesign of the project based on public input, notably Phase II of the project on which construction will not begin until 2010 at the earliest;
• Supervise the implementation of the design guidelines through both design and construction, as the Battery Park City Authority has done with notable success at Battery Park City;
• Act as an interface between the developer and the public during the decade long construction period; and
• Ensure that public benefits promised by the project, including publicly accessible open space, affordable housing, and other benefits, are delivered.
The response: Comment noted.

Note that MAS, when it was part of BrooklynSpeaks, did propose a new governance structure, with a planning and oversight entity. That was resisted. Now we have the AY CDC, which has mostly been toothless, and has--as with the previous changes to B4--served as a rubber-stamp for the project.

It may be that projects spanning significant time do need some flexibility to respond to chances in context and market. That said, without a trustworthy process of oversight, it's dubious to grant such flexibility carte blanche.

Providing flexibility

The RPA also commented:
A design review process, similar to Battery Park City, should be implemented to ensure design excellence during build-out. As currently written, the design guidelines can only succeed if there are no deviations in the program and Frank Gehry designs every building. 
The response:
Design Guidelines were developed in coordination with DCP [Department of City Planning] to allow some flexibility while setting a clear framework for the proposed project’s overall design. The Design Guidelines will be the basis of ESDC’s review of development as it proceeds.
Apparently more flexibility would be needed.

The width of entrances

Another comment came from then Borough President Marty Markowitz's office:
The GPP Design Guidelines need to be flexible to create better parkland. 
The response:
The open space has been designed, and the buildings around the open space have been arranged, to promote public access to and use of the space by the general public. All entrances to this open space would be at least 60 feet wide (comparable to the width of a neighborhood street) with an axis leading to a visible interior focal destination and/or through the block to the opposite street. The GPP’s Design Guidelines allow for variations in building footprints and open space features.
The entrances would be 60 feet wide, but that doesn't mean the pathways would be. That's why it's important to understand how much the 16-foot walkway width would diminish.

Previous calls for oversight

As I wrote in May 2007, an essay by the RPA's Rob Lane argued that  we must do better at "city-making."

Lane wrote:
The larger questions raised by Atlantic Yards are not whether one likes Frank Gehry’s architecture (he will probably design only a few of the buildings), whether Forest City Ratner has the public’s interest at heart (why would we expect it to?), or even whether one agrees with the scale and composition of the development (my organization, Regional Plan Association, supports the major elements of the plan). Looking forward, do we have a development model that will lead to better cities, as opposed to better projects?
He was right about Gehry, who designed exactly zero buildings, and about Forest City, while RPA's role likely will be subject to debate. (Remember, former head Robert Yaro recognized it was politically infeasible to oppose Atlantic Yards.)

Lane wrote:
The process that led to Atlantic Yards had two basic flaws, both pointing to the need for a more vigorous role by that much maligned institution, government. There was too little government planning and public input in the early stages of the project, and too little public oversight for the lengthy period in which the development will take place.

The result is a development that has much of the housing and commercial development that the region needs—and that is appropriate for the location—but an inadequate plan for public transportation and parks to support it. Similarly, it tries to compensate for the lack of continuous public oversight with a set of overly rigid design guidelines that cannot accommodate changes in architects, market demand or neighborhood needs.
Putting aside question of scope--the amount of office space would be little, and the amount of housing too much for the time period and perhaps for the site–-his words about oversight are worth heeding.

In June 2009, the RPA advised the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which was set to revise its deal with Forest City, to seek a better deal. The RPA's Neysa Pranger noted that it “is almost inevitable that it will need to be redesigned and renegotiated over several business cycles before it’s complete."

Among the RPA recommendations, which were ignored, were to create a new ESDC subsidiary to oversee the project and review design elements.

In May 2012, the RPA issued Building the Next New York: Recommendations for Large Real Estate Projects, which offered some sober criticisms of Atlantic Yards while analyzing a range of large development initiatives in order to propose some recommendations. Among those recommendations: "Maintain continuing public oversight to guide development and maintenance. (I wrote again about the recommendations this past June.)