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Community Board 8 Committee urges state not to approve below-ground space (for fitness center/field house) without further public review

It may not have legal weight, but the Land Use Committee of Brooklyn Community Board 8 has unanimously passed a resolution requesting that a proposal for 95,000 square feet (sf) of new underground space for a fitness center and field house not be approved by the state without further environmental review.

CB 8 represents Crown Heights and Prospect Heights, including the segment of the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park site, on Dean Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues, for which the new square footage is slated.

Let's recap.

Empire State Development (ESD), which shepherds/oversees the project, contends that no such review--which would take time and money--is necessary for developer TF Cornerstone, which has leased sites for B12 and B13 on the southeast block of the project, to proceed with that underground space.

As I've reported, at last week's Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Quality of Life, residents were surprised to learn about the proposed change to the guiding Modified General Project Plan (MGPP), said to allow 100,000 square feet (sf) for those new below-ground uses.

That was characterized obliquely, and misleadingly, as "Clarification on Commercial Use on Residential Blocks."

Within a week, the explanation changed.

This past Monday, at the meeting of the advisory Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), the parent ESD presented it differently, as "Clarification on Indoor Recreational Facility Use on Residential Blocks," allowing for 96,000 additional square feet below ground, with 9,000 square feet above ground. (That 9,000 square feet surely does not qualify as "local retail," as long promised.)

A Technical Memorandum, said to confirm that no additional review--which would trigger public hearings and public comments--was necessary, was not made available to AY CDC directors. Though ESD executives said the document could not be made public, they agreed to show the document to AY CDC directors if they visit their offices in Manhattan.

Thus the AY CDC directors agreed to postpone a vote on whether to support that change until they have a chance--under ESD staff supervision--to review that Tech Memo.

Still, that doesn't mean the document will be made public before that vote or the vote of the parent ESD, and it doesn't allow the public--such as at the bi-monthly Quality of Life meeting--to hear the explanation about an "Indoor Recreational Facility," a concept never previously considered or approved.

The CB 8 discussion

At the 7/23/19 meeting of the CB 8 Land Use Committee, Gib Veconi, a committee member who also serves on the AY CDC, recapped the proposal as presented at the two Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park meetings.

"This will be below grade, but it will still be used by people who need to arrive at the site by car
by foot, by transit," he said. "We are being told there will be no environmental review of the impacts of this new feature."

Noting that Ethel Tyus, who chairs the committee as well as the Community Board, is also an AY CDC director, Veconi recounted the plan to share the Tech Memo only at the ESD office. (Tyus and Veconi were among the seven AY CDC directors in attendance at the meeting earlier this week.)

“I want to point out that Atlantic Yards is conceived of as a public private partnership," Veconi said, "and there is absolutely no public benefit associated with this 100,000 square feet of development rights.”

The recreation center, he said, "is obviously a paid facility, a for-profit facility."

(Note: TF Cornerstone, rather oddly, told the Brooklyn Eagle they'd be lucky to break even. Really! Also, Tobi Jaiyesimi of ESD implied that there was public value: ""I don't think eight acres of open space can be equated with a gym facility, but I think it’s important that we look at health and wellness.")

The resolution

“Under the circumstances," Veconi said, "I’d like the committee to consider a resolution calling on Empire State Development not to approve the additional development rights for the recreation center without environmental review and public input.”

"It's extremely difficult for me to see how the change like this could not require environmental review," Veconi further said, during the discussion.

"It does," added Tyus.

"The last time ESD claimed a change to the [project plan] didn't require environmental review was in 2009," Veconi said, nothing "they were later challenged by a coalition of community organizations in court, and the court found that, in fact, the change did require an environmental review."

That ultimately led to the 2014 Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (and payment of legal fees). The court decision stemmed from separate lawsuits, later combined, by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn and the BrooklynSpeaks coalition. Veconi has long been involved in BrooklynSpeaks.

"The history of this project trying to pass changes on the basis of a Tech Memo instead of an environmental review is not a good one," Veconi said.

He repeated the language of the resolution, albeit without reference to "public input," though the latter is implied in an environmental review. All eleven committee members present (of 19 total) voted yes.

How was the field house studied? Won't there be more kids?

It will be interesting to see what's in the Tech Memo regarding this below-ground space.

Remember, at the meeting where plans were revealed, Amir Stein of TF Cornerstone said studies of similar locations throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan indicate there wouldn't be a large impact on traffic: two-thirds of weekday attendees and three-quarters of weekend visitors arrive on foot, with the balance on bikes and public transport.

That didn't quell concerns, and maybe it shouldn't have. That discussion, as far as I could tell, concerned fitness centers, which generally involve adults traveling to exercise regularly.

A field house is a somewhat different entity, attracting people who likely visit less frequently and probably more children. After all, there will be a soccer field, a gymnastics program, and a learn-to-swim pool.

Presumably some of those children will be driven there by parents and others. Stay tuned.