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

Ignoring key criticisms, ESD board predictably approves new below-grade space for fitness center and field house

Update: see video, below.

It was both astounding and predictable.

Despite some pointed, public criticism from the best-informed member of the advisory board set up by Empire State Development (ESD), the parent board--after getting reassurances from staff--Thursday morning approved proposed changes in the guiding Atlantic Yards Modified General Project Plan and the associated Design Guidelines.

The issues regarding a proposed below-grade fitness center and field house--raised by Gib Veconi, a member of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation--were ignored.

The ESD argument was essentially that, since the new facilities--96,000 square feet below-ground, plus 9,000 square feet at street level--would generate less traffic than anticipated and studied in the 2006 iteration of the project, which had far more parking, no further environmental review was necessary.

Indeed, there likely would be fewer vehicles approaching the facility, to be operated by Chelsea Piers under two buildings (known as B12 and B13, filling a gap on the southeast block of the project) being developed by TF Cornerstone, which bought development rights from master developer Greenland Forest City Partners, itself dominated by Greenland USA.

Reasons for doubt

Another strand of that argument--that the new facilities would generate less traffic than the 2014 iteration of the project--strikes me as deserving far more doubt, especially since Veconi at the AY CDC meeting 8/12/19 pointed out (as he did again before the ESD) that the statistics were dubious.

Glaringly, the ESD ignored another key criticism, raised by this journalist, as well as Veconi and allies in the BrooklynSpeaks coalition: while the new "recreational" square footage is posited as a swap for parking, there's no provision for such a swap, and the state is failing to count the bulk within the already stated limits: 336,000 square feet for commercial office space and 247,000 square feet for retail space.

As I wrote, to increase the latter--and a privately-operated fitness center and field house is a variation on retail, rather than a new category of "recreational"--the guiding MGPP would have had to be amended, via a public proposal and vote by the ESD board, at minimum, and possibly a broader public process.

Will this decision prompt a lawsuit? Unclear. Members of BrooklynSpeaks said at a press conference Monday that they hadn't ruled out any tactics, and spoke similarly to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle's Lore Croghan after the ESD vote. (Note: beyond requesting an environmental review of the new recreational space, they also asked for a timetable for the affordable housing--an issue that didn't come up at the ESD meeting.)

The video

The description of the changes

As I wrote, the ESD Board Materials ignored that the AY CDC was deadlocked, in two 4-4 votes, on the issue of the below-grade fitness center and field house.

But Tobi Jaiyesimi, AY CDC Executive Director (and ESD's Atlantic Yards Project Director) did acknowledge that split when she made her presentation to the directors.

(She also said that construction of B4 and B15 towers was "led by The Brodsky Organization," which is developing B4 with GFCP. Previously, a Greenland rep said they were the majority partner, but, as I wrote, the entity developing the building is operated--if not controlled--by Brodsky.)

She offered a slide illustrating the various proposed modifications.

Many of those changes, of course, are minor, though I think a lot of questions linger regarding the reasons for narrowing the North-South Walkway Widths.

Notably, the red rectangle referring to the "Recreational Facility + Parking Reduction" is misleading, since it implies that the planned project-wide parking reduction, from 1,200 spaces to 1,000 spaces, is achieved by swapping parking space for the new Chelsea Piers facilities.

The image did not explain that the plan approved in June 2014 (below) was supposed to include parking under all four towers at the southeast block, including 550 Vanderbilt (annotated with an arrow), which began construction in December 2014 and did not include parking.

From 2014 Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement; added arrow points to 550 Vanderbilt
In other words, the decision to modify parking on that southeast block was made in 2014, and the new plan seems to relate significantly to that choice, rather than a post-hoc analysis of parking usage.

"The Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation, AY CDC, ESD's advisory subsidiary for the project, unanimously recommended seven of the proposed modifications before you," Jaiyesimi related neutrally, adding, "There was a tied vote, 4-4, and no recommendation on one proposed modification, which is clarifying that 105,000 gross square feet recreational facility is an allowable use."

She then described the proposed facilities, and noted that "there have been some requests for supplemental environmental impact statement to be conducted before approval of this recreational facility modification."

Justifying the changes

Rachel Shatz, VP of environmental planning and review, then explained a history of reviews under SEQRA, the State Environmental Quality Review Act, notably in connection with the 2006 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and then the 2014 Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS). She didn't remind them that the latter emerged as a result of a lawsuit and court order.

"For the GPP modifications being presented to you today, ESD staff, with assistance from our consultants and counsel, prepared a Technical Memorandum or Tech Memo," she said, "which assesses whether these proposed GPP modifications would result in any new impacts that were not already identified and studied in the project's previous environmental reviews."

(That Tech Memo, we had been told, could only be made public after it was presented to ESD directors. However, when I asked for it after the meeting, I was told to file a Freedom of Information Law request, which could take months or longer.)

According to the Tech Memo, Shatz said, "there are new adverse impacts" that had not been previously analyzed.

"Some of the AY CDC directors questioned how a recreational facility over 100,000 square feet in size, could be found to not have an impact on the neighborhood," she said. "The proposed indoor recreational space is a use that has always been permitted by the GPP and the Design Guidelines, and it is only the use's location below grade, rather than at street level, that requires clarification, and is therefore the subject of this GPP modification and tech memo review, not the use itself."

That was an astounding statement. There's no category for "recreational" use, as approved in the MGPP.

She went on to say that the increased trips would be "such minimal difference from what we had identified in the 2014 SEIS," and "it was determined that the resulting effect will not be perceptible."

"A further qualitative factor contributing to the Tech Memo's conclusion is that the below-grade parking garage on Block 1129 where B12 and B13 are located would have a reduction to 693 spaces," given the proposed modification, "compared to 1,970 spaces in the 2006 FEIS and 910 spaces in the 2014 SEIS."

That was very interesting, and begs more backup, since it implies that the new reduction in parking spaces comes from these two buildings, rather than 550 Vanderbilt (B11), where parking was promised but never built.

"SEQRA does not require that every new project change be the subject of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement," Shatz said.

Are the changes legitimate?

In the public comment period, Veconi spoke first.

"I'm a member of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, and our organization was one of the community organizations that were part of a coalition in 2014 that settled with this agency," accelerating the affordable housing deadline from 2035 to 2025 and leading to the creation of the AY CDC, he said.

He noted that he was appointed to the AY CDC board last November by the Speaker of the New York State Assembly (at the suggestion of local Assembly Member Walter Mosley). Veconi said he didn't speak for other AY CDC directors but wanted to explain his vote.

"I believe that the nature of the fitness center and the field house change is being misrepresented," he said. "This was originally characterized at the public meeting on July 16 as a 'Clarification on commercial use on residential blocks.'" (It was later presented as "recreational use.")

He noted that the 105,000 proposed square feet would not be subtracted from the allotted commercial or retail square footages: "Instead, it's a new 105,000 square feet of use being added to the project."

"It is not within the scope of the project definition," he said. "The project definition covers retail use, hotel use, arena use, and residential use [and commercial use], but makes no mention of recreational use."

"And you are being asked to amend the section of the Design Guidelines that does not talk about floor area," he said, noting it addresses ground-floor use and streetscapes, with no mention of floor area.

"If we were to amend the project definition, it would be necessary and more indicative of the need for an environmental review," he said. That, of course, would take more money and more time.

Questions of process

Veconi also noted qualms about the process. The AY CDC directors were asked to approve this change at its 7/22/19 meeting without access to the Tech Memo, but instead asked for a delay on that issue, and were able to review the memo.

He also noted that, in his review of the Tech Memo, he learned (as he said at the previous AY CDC meeting) that the traffic data, extrapolated from two other Chelsea Piers locations, was changed, given "discounts" in the number of expected trips estimated by the facility operator.

"And I'm sorry to put it in this light, but what that means is a party with the interest in the outcome of your vote was allowed to manipulate key data in the Tech Memo recommending no environmental review," he said. "That cannot be considered appropriate, in my view. Nor is the exchange of parking, the reduction of parking an equal swap for some for putting in a fitness center."

"I think everyone who understands real estate in New York City knows that parking is an expense for the developer," he said. "It is not some kind of a profit center, and it has been the experience of the Atlantic Yards project thus far, that the parking requirements that have been specified are far in excess of demand. So the parking cut is actually an economic benefit to the developer. As is the fitness center." (That's one reason why BrooklynSpeaks previously asked for some reciprocal public benefit.)

Other comments

Carlton Avenue resident Elisabeth Martin, who lives across from 535 Carlton, noted that there are significant problems in the area caused by double parking for deliveries, police and fire parking, a postal distribution center and other uses. She said a more efficient parking facility, without stacking, which then would be used.

Chelsea Piers principal David Tewksbury and regional GM Keeth Smart reprised their statements at the previous AY CDC meeting about offering significant employment and community outreach. (Smart also said his father grew up at 540 Dean Street--an address that doesn't exist any more--and "I spent countless hours" playing at the Dean Street playground.)

Board inquiry

ESD Chair Howard Zemsky asked Shatz to respond to "some of the comments" and express her confident that they were following SEQRA.

She didn't address the question of where "recreational" use would fit into the project.

Shatz said ESD had prepared EIS documents for projects that deserve it, as well as Tech Memos to assess changes that differ from what has been analyzed before.

"Does it result in any impacts that had not been identified, analyzed and mitigated?" she said rhetorically. "And if the conclusion at the end of that analytical process is no, then there is no requirement to prepare an SEIS. That's what we did here."

"The use is something that is compatible within the project's GPP framework and the Design Guidelines," she said, not addressing in what category the square footage would be counted. "It doesn't create any land use impacts, it doesn't create any neighborhood character impacts. The trips as we described fell within an acceptable range of what we had already identified... And we are confident that this is following the SEQRA regulations to the T."

That, perhaps, may be tested more.