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Surprise! State plans to allow 100,000 square feet new below-grade space for fitness center, calls this "clarification" (that doesn't trigger official review)

The is the first of multiple articles about the 7/16/19 Quality of Life meeting, which focused on proposed modifications to the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Modified General Project Plan (MGPP), none of which were said to trigger further official review. The second concerned a cut in parking. The third concerned a cut in bike parking. The fourth concerned modifications to the B5 tower design. The fifth concerned a cut in the North-South walkway width. The sixth concerned planned ventilation structures. The seventh concerned a swap in square footage and a change in the design guidelines. The eighth concerned updates on infrastructure work and the fate of Site 5.

Given the minimal information about the agenda on offer, I had suspected that the most important proposed modification was "Change to Square Footage at Parcels B12 and B15."

Actually, that turned out to be relatively minor: a swap of 10,000 square feet.

Rather, the biggest change is the one obliquely described as "Clarification on Commercial Use on Residential Blocks."

Translation: Empire State Development (ESD), the state authority that oversees/shepherds the project, is set to allow an additional 100,000 square feet to be carved out below-grade for a fitness center and fieldhouse, below sites B12 and B13.

That's at the southeast block of the project in the middle of Dean Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues, between the extant 535 Carlton (B14) and 550 Vanderbilt (B11). Here's the project schematic.

Just a "clarification"?

It seems a stretch to describe the change as a mere clarification, rather than an expansion of permissions not previously addressed. But additional environmental review would cost time and money, thus delaying development. (Update: ESD's Jack Sterne told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "We are not expanding the size of this project.")

That change--clearly a business bonus for developer TF Cornerstone, expected to start those towers in the first quarter of 2020, and likely a condition of its lease from Greenland Forest City Partners (GFCP)--drew significant skepticism from several people among the 40 or so attendees, including Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon.

Indeed, the below-ground space would represent a 40% increase of the approved retail square footage for the project as a whole and a 15% increase in the square footage approved for those two towers, the sites for which TF Cornerstone leased from master developer GFCP.

"They clearly seem to be material changes, with impacts," said Simon after the meeting, suggesting that users of the sports facility would not just have an impact on traffic, "whether vehicular, pedestrian, or bicycle," but would be using other parts of the project, including the adjacent open space. "That needs to be assessed."

No new review

But it doesn't trigger additional environmental review, asserted Tobi Jaiyesimi, the ESD's Atlantic Yards Project Director, because staff have deemed the list of proposed changes "minor modifications" that wouldn't change key obligations of the developer and "do not change or impact" the conditions previously studied.

"I understand you work for ESDC," said Prospect Heights resident Robert Puca to Jaiyesimi, who helmed the overlong meeting--it lasted 2.5 hours, despite only 2 hours allotted by the host building, 55 Hanson Place--with equanimity while lacking full or convincing answers. But "there's no way anyone in this room believes 100,000 additional square feet, whether its underground or above ground, is not a material change to the project plan."

Puca said he'd heard rumors that "either Equinox or Chelsea Piers" was interested in the space. (Chelsea Piers built a 52,000 square-foot gym at the base of 33 Bond Street in Downtown Brooklyn.)

Given that the changes will require amendments to the Modified General Project Plan (MGPP), they also seemed to contradict a 2006 promise from the state authority, then known as ESDC, as I wrote:
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.
Suspect timing

Given the announced plan to bring the these changes to the advisory Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC) for recommendation, and then to the ESD board for approval--and the last-minute scheduling of an AY CDC meeting for July 22--the timing, to many, seemed rushed.

When did the developers first approach ESD about these modifications, asked Gib Veconi, a leader of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council and a recent appointee to the AY CDC board, which is dominated by appointees of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, expected to approve any developer request.

Since April, he was told--meaning after the most recent AY CDC meeting, on 3/15/19.

"ESD has had an opportunity to evaluate these modifications since April," Veconi said. Noting that one questioner had asked what materials had been provided to the AY CDC board for review, he asked Jaiyesimi to clarify.

"The board materials have not been released to the directors," she said, given that they were still under staff review, though the modification plans--presumably the outline already public--have been shared.

"Do you know when they'll get those?" Simon asked.

"We're actively working on getting the materials to the directors," Jaiyesimi said, noting that draft materials could not be released since they're part of a public record. That, of course, raises the question: why rush?

Veconi and Simon, as part of the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, in 2014 successfully pressured the state to set a new 2025 deadline for the project's affordable housing (but got no guarantees on levels of affordability, which then skewed toward middle-income units in two "100% affordable" towers).

Introducing the change

Jaiyesimi noted that, "right now, the way the design guidelines are written, retail use, commercial use are at grade." This space would not replace parking but rather represent new excavation.

If the 100,000 square feet "doesn’t trigger a modification," Puca asked, what number would require a public review?

"I'll follow up and get back to you," Jaiyesimi said. Indeed, while such additions are unlikely--there's no viable below-ground space in future buildings planned for the railyard, or at Site 5, currently home to Modell's and P.C. Richard--the principle is unclear.

She said third-party consultants, including Philip Habib and AKRF, have done an analysis of impacts currently under staff review. That presages what might another Technical Memorandum, as in 2009, indicating that no official environmental impact statement, including public hearings, would be needed.

"You're going to be presenting this as an done deal, and you're making material changes to the project," said Dean Street property owner Jimmy Greenfield. "At the some point, we’d like to feel we have additional leverage if you're making changes that definitely increases the value of this project to the developer... There's got to be some balance somewhere."

Amir Stein, a representative of TF Cornerstone (and a first-time speaker at such meetings), 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.

Official dimensions

Veconi asked Jaiyesimi if this was new square footage.

The project, according to the 2009 MGPP, "would include the Arena and at least 336,000 gsf [gross square feet] of commercial office space, 165,000 gsf of hotel use (approximately 180 rooms), 247,000 gsf of retail space, up to 6.4 million gsf of residential use (approximately 6,430 residential units) and community facility uses, which would occupy portions of the residential and retail space."

"We don't include below-grade use," Jaiyesimi said, indicating that this 100,000 square feet would not be subtracted from previously approved totals.

"That's a significant amount of additional space being added, by anyone's standards," Veconi said. "The fact that it's below grade is neither here nor there."

"Are we sure this is new space?" he asked again.

"That's our understanding, we will go back to the team" to confirm, Jaiyesimi said, not particularly placating the crowd.

"Theoretically, you could excavate down and increase the volume of the project by tenfold," Greenfield observed.

"That would be analyzed and reviewed by staff accordingly," Jaiyesimi said.

What the documents say

The 2009 MGPP does not contemplate such below-grade uses, but says 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."

According to the project's Design Guidelines, approved in 2006 and reincorporated with subsequent approvals in 2009 and 2014 to the MGPP, there's no mention of such below-ground use:
Retail (which term shall include eating and drinking establishments) and personal service establishments shall occupy a minimum of 40% of the Atlantic Avenue built frontage and a minimum of 40% of the Vanderbilt Avenue built frontage, provided that any building containing a public school in its base shall not be subject to this requirement. 
Commercial, community facility uses, and residential uses, including accessory uses, shall be permitted on the ground floor beyond a depth of 30 feet from the Atlantic Avenue street wall and 20 feet from the Vanderbilt Avenue street wall and shall be permitted anywhere on the ground floor of the buildings fronting on Dean Street. 

So it seems more than a "clarification" to permit below-grade commercial or retail use.

Doing the math

If there would be 247,000 gsf of retail in the project, as noted in the MGPP, an additional 100,000 square feet represents a boost of more than 40%.

Regarding the two towers at issue, B12 was originally supposed to have 317,185 gsf, and B13 327,215 gsf, for a total of 644,400 gsf.

So 100,000 additional square feet would represent more than a 15% increase. Even with 10,000 more square feet at B12, as is contemplated in the above-mentioned swap, the percentage would exceed 15%.

Involving the electeds

Simon told the Eagle:
“If you would be honest and tell me what it is your problem is, like we need to have revenue here because this new developer can’t build this building without additional revenue. Okay, tell me that. I can understand that,” she said. “I have to assume that’s what’s going on.
“Okay, so then how can we work together to resolve that issue? Maybe I have a good idea about how to do it in a way that works for you and the community.”
If that's the argument, then Greenland Forest City, and TF Cornerstone, would have to be a lot more transparent about their financial assumptions here.