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

Re-clarification! Fitness center/field house now said to represent recreational facility (& parking swap), not commercial use; advisory vote partly postponed

A 60,000 square foot field house--with an indoor soccer field, a learn-to-swim pool, and a gymnastics facility--plus a 45,000 square foot fitness center are slated for below-ground space (and 9,000 sf street-level space) at the B12 and B13 towers on Dean Street at the southeast block of the project.

The location is between Carlton Avenue and Vanderbilt Avenue, bookended by the extant 535 Carlton and 550 Vanderbilt towers.

But the justification has evolved. (As have the details, since last week there was no mention of the field house's contents, nor the use of such street-level retail space.)

Last Tuesday, at the bi-monthly Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Quality of Life meeting, 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 a below-ground fitness center and field house.

That, characterized obliquely as "Clarification on Commercial Use on Residential Blocks," drew significant skepticism, given that it sure seems like a 15% bonus in usable square footage for TF Cornerstone, which has leased development rights for the two sites from master developer Greenland Forest City Partners.

Not only did it seem like a change that required more public review, it seemed an impermissible increase in the square footages allowed in the MGPP: 336,000 sf for commercial office space, and 247,000 sf for retail space.

What a difference six days makes.

The board discussion

A new rationale, and a partial delay

Yesterday, at the meeting of the advisory Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), the parent Empire State Development (ESD) presented it differently, as "Clarification on Indoor Recreational Facility Use on Residential Blocks," allowing for 96,000 additional square feet below ground.

And that was further described as an example of converting space previously designated for below-ground parking to another use.

To me, it seems less a "clarification" but a new permitted use.

From the Board Materials:
This modification amends the description of permitted uses in the Design Guidelines to allow for the development of a 105,000 square feet indoor recreational facility. With this amendment approximately 96,000 below grade square footage, can be leased for the operation of a physical culture establishment at parcels B12 and B13. The recreational facility will have a field house (60,000 square feet) and a fitness center (45,000 square feet). The indoor recreational facility will occupy approximately 9,000 square feet of what was anticipated to be ground-floor retail use in the buildings. Ground floor retail and below grade parking was always contemplated at these parcels, this modification specifically allows for a recreational facility below grade.
From the AY CDC Board Materials
The AY CDC, which met at ESD offices on Third Avenue in Manhattan, did not immediately endorse that change--nor another, involving ventilation structures in open space--to the parent ESD board.

Rather, the seven AY CDC directors present recommended the other proposed changes while postponing a vote on the other two, pending a look at a yet-unreleased Technical Memorandum, prepared by ESD staff. That document is said to confirm that the proposed changes will result in no new project impacts not previously studied--and thus will not require further official review, which could delay construction with a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

That Tech Memo will be made available for AY CDC (but not public) perusal in the coming weeks, before an expected AY CDC meeting 8/12/19 and an ESD board meeting 8/15/19. That means the two bodies will vote without having the new rationale for the change ever presented to the public.

Introducing the rationale

Tobi Jaiyesimi, who serves as both AY CDC executive director and ESD's Atlantic Yards project director, noted that proposed modifications were presented at last week's meeting. "There were a number of questions, concerns, and ideas presented by members of the community," she said, hardly conveying the level of pushback.

"We've been responsive to those items, and they've definitely been included in my presentation," she said. (That referred mainly to an updated description of proposed changes in the B5 tower design, which I'll write about separately.)

When presented last week, Jaiyesimi said, "the modification was described as allowing 100,000 square feet of commercial use at B12 and B13. In response to question and concerns, staff have reviewed the General Project Plan and project documents, and found that the 336,000 square feet of commercial space contemplated for the project was specifically intended to be commercial office."

"After review by the project team, in-house and external counsel, and consultants, the modification has been revised to allow for recreational use instead of commercial use," she said. That was confounding, because the only references in the MGPP to recreational use involve the arena and the open space--it's not a category for indoor space.

The swap for parking

"You'll note that this modification," she said, "does not result in additional underground square footage not previously considered in the project’s 2006 FEIS," or Final Environmental Impact Statement.

As approved in 2006, Jaiyesimi said, 3,670 parking spaces were approved. As of now, 1,200 spaces are approved. (A pending change would cut the number of spaces to 1,000.)

"Using a standard measurement of approximately 200 square feet per of parking space," she said, "this represents approximately 500,000 square feet of below-grade space that will not be built at this site." (A cut of 2,470 spaces is 494,000 square feet.)

Of course parking space was never contemplated as swappable for more lucrative business uses, nor was it ever presented as usable square footage.

A "community facility"

"The proposed use is more in line with that of the community facility designed for this parcel, which would be a use that would provide recreational services to a residential community," Jaiyesimi said.

That was confusing, because there's already a document (right) that sets maximum gross square footages, which count retail and community facility use, and make no reference to the possibility of swapping underground parking square footage for another use.

Gross square footage typically includes underground space associated with a building.

How, asked AY CDC director Gib Veconi (who asked skeptical questions at last week's community meeting), would the official totals for commercial and retail space change?

"This modification does not change any of the currently approved square footage," Jaiyesimi said.

"So this is 96,000 square feet of new development rights?" he asked.

"It's not new development rights," Jaiyesimi said, referring to the fact that less underground parking space will be used.

"I don't believe any of this has ever been analyzed," Veconi said, referring to the past Final and Supplemental Environmental Impact Statements, from 2006 and 2014.

Board materials refer to Tech Memo
"This specific use was analyzed," Jaiyesimi responded, instead referring to the Tech Memo. The new use didn't trigger the need for a Supplemental EIS, given that it didn't introduce adverse impacts.

What are the impacts?

Veconi asked the maximum occupancy.

Jaiyesimi said she didn't have that in front of her, but traffic to a similar facility had been studied. A large majority of people would walk, and the rest would take public transit or bicycle.

(Really? If kids are playing soccer, wouldn't some get driven? As described last week, the study seemingly described the fitness center, not the field house.)

A man sitting not at the boardroom table but at the perimeter of the room--it wasn't clear whether he was a consultant to the developer or someone related to ESD--said the occupancy level to code was 1,200.

Later, Jaiyesimi said she was told the maximum would be 300--which Veconi said "seems like a lot of space per person."

What's the value?

"What did the state assess as the economic value of these new rights?" Veconi asked.

"We're not required to assess the economic value," Jaiyesimi responded.

"I did a little research of my own," Veconi said. As a master lease, 100,000 square feet--the previous figure--could bring about $100 per square foot, while subdivided space, released, might bring $150 per square foot.

So that's "between ten and 15 million dollars a year of revenue to the developer that we're talking about approving," he said.

"I can't speak to the number you provided," Jaiyesimi said, but added that this allows "community programming" to the public at large, given the soccer field, pool, and gymnastics facility. "I don't know if you can put a dollar figure on that."

Unmentioned: it's a commercial facility, charging for entry, to only accessible to those who pay.

(Neighbors have reported rumors that it would be a Chelsea Piers or Equinox. Later, a TF Cornerstone executive told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that no operator had been chosen, and "The numbers quoted today are nowhere near the rents we expect to collect from the [athletic-facility] operator. Our sense at this point is that we will be lucky to break even." If they want to be believed, my take is they would need to be a lot more transparent.)

Community public space?

"Even though this is in an enclosed space, is the notion that this portion of the project in service to the community, is tantamount to open and public you see those things as being similar?" asked director Cy Richardson.

"I don't think one can equate the two," Jaiyesimi said, but pointed to the presence of Van Leeuwen Artisanal Ice Cream and Brooklyn Clay, located in retail spaces, as among "various resources and community amenities." (Those are only open to those who pay, unlike the open space.)

"I don't think eight acres of open space can be equated with a gym facility," she said, "but I think it’s important that we look at health and wellness."

"I agree with that," Richardson replied.

"The alternative use would be parking garage or office?" asked director Daniel Kummer.

"Not office space," said Jaiyesimi, indicating another alternative could be "private use. Right now, developer could excavate and provide private amenities to residents of B12/B13."

That, of course, would not raise the same revenue.

Local retail?

In the MGPP, Veconi noted, the ground-floor space at B12 and B13 was described as "small local retail."

From the document:
These buildings – Buildings 11 through 14 – would have residential uses on the ground floor fronting Dean Street along with small local retail establishments and lobby entrances, to the larger residential elements, would be set back from Dean Street. These buildings would, similar to the Atlantic Avenue buildings, have a variety of setbacks and heights, but would all be much lower than the buildings along Atlantic Avenue.
(Emphasis added)

"There will still be small local retail that will be available at B12 and B13," Jaiyesimi said.

"Right, Veconi said, "but this is a destination recreation center. It’s not just small local retail."

What about the Tech Memo?

Veconi asked why directors weren’t provided with the Tech Memo, saying he would like to see that document.

He noted that the 2014 Final EIS was produced "because there was a court order"--after a lawsuit in which his organization BrooklynSpeaks was involved--"because in 2009, the MGPP found an EIS was not necessary," and a state Supreme Court judge disagreed.

"I'd hate to see us go down that road again here," he said. "I think the directors and the public should be provided with the analysis that was done in the Tech Memo."

Other directors, including Richardson and new director Ethel Tyus, also asked for the Tech Memo.

AY CDC President Marion Phillips III, who's also an ESD executive, said it wouldn't be available until ESD directors accept it at their meeting August 15.

Veconi noted that draft EIS documents are released. "It seems to me, there ought to be a way to release a draft of a Tech Memo, it's a lesser piece of work."

"Tech Memos don't get released," Phillips said, noting the law relates differently to EIS documents. "The problem we're experiencing, we've never had an advisory organization [like AY CDC]. Everything else is a binding subsidiary."

Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon, speaking during the public comment period, said, "I think it's in the interest of the public to have this information. Some of these changes are arguably more extensive than others, but it's very hard to figure that out, and make a decision with any confidence."

She offered to sponsor a bill to make such Tech Memos public, if necessary, "but I don't think it needs legislative change."

Indeed, later in the meeting, Phillips said ESD would make staff or consultants available, as well as the Tech Memo, to smaller groups--no quorum--of AY CDC members. "The difficult part is we cannot release the document," he said, indicating members must go to the office in Manhattan.

After a query by Tyus about making the document available privately online, Phillips said "let's figure out a way we can do that."

More public discussion?

"I want to ask that we find some way to have some public discussion of what the environmental review entails," Veconi said of the new uses at B12 and B13. "We're talking about adding a significant new project feature" to a street "that had a lot of impact."

He noted that Dean Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues experienced "all the staging for the arena" construction and a "16-foot construction fence" that narrowed the street. (It caused significant traffic backups.)

"These guys have really suffered a lot," he said. "We're now telling them they're going to get a new facility that has never been considered before... I really believe there's an obligation to explain the basis on why no environmental impact finding was arrived at, to the people who are going to live across the street."

No such public discussion was approved, however.

"Before you vote," Phillips said, there will be a comment period for the public. That's not quite the same.

The proposed change

The AY CDC Board Materials noted that a proposed addition to the Design Guidelines, which would insert this text (as in screenshot below):
At parcels B12 and B13, 96,000 below grade square footage shall be permitted for the development of an indoor recreational facility with a field house and fitness center. The indoor recreational facility will occupy approximately 9,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, for a total of 105,000 square feet of recreational facility use.

The insert would go in the Design Guidelines, as excerpted below, regarding Building Uses: