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

McDonald’s lot opposite Pacific Park flank eyed for high-rise; expected spot rezoning might exceed Community Board 8's still-significant broader plan

A large lot at the southeast corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, currently home to a drive-through McDonald’s and across from the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park complex, is destined to become a high-rise building and, likely, to face contentiousness regarding its scope.

The exact plans for the building--as well as the full story behind Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings--remain murky so far, as the formal land-use process has not begun.

But the developers have been quietly lobbying on the project, known as 840 Atlantic Avenue. Separately, the proposal, described as a 19-story building, got a preliminary public airing at a July 23 meeting of the Community Board 8 Land Use Committee.

The plan, as described secondhand and not confirmed by the developer, for 19 stories would not only exceed the limited current zoning at the McDonald's lot, it likely would conflict with CB 8’s framework for a significant though more modest upzoning in North Crown Heights/Prospect Heights. As contemplated, that might allow a 14-story building on the site.

McDonald’s site, from the northwest corner of Vanderbilt and Atlantic avenues.
Still, while 19 stories would rise above the current tallest building nearby, the 550 Vanderbilt condo tower (B11) just southwest, other taller and perhaps bulkier buildings--one part of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, one a separate project--are planned on two corners of the Vanderbilt/Atlantic intersection.

So expect debate and discussion about the shifting context.

It's clear that the McDonald's lot won't last, given the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park site to the west, approved plans for a large project across Atlantic Avenue, and the Community Board's plan for a general rezoning below Atlantic, allowing parcels formerly limited to low-rise, non-residential uses to encompass mixed-use residential projects, including light industry and community facilities.
Image from developers of 550 Clinton/809 Atlantic showing Pacific Park. Added arrow = McDonald's lot.
Unclear, however, is the fate of the contemplated private rezoning for 840 Atlantic, limited to a much smaller parcel (or set of parcels--see below) and pursued ahead of the general rezoning.

The local Council Member typically signs off on such spot rezonings. Given that, the Community Board must hold Council Member Laurie Cumbo’s “feet to the fire, to stick with what she wrote in that letter,” said Land Use Committee member Robert Puca at the July 23 meeting.

That referred to an Aug. 30, 2018, letter on Cumbo’s letterhead, also signed by then CB 8 Chairperson Nizjoni Granville and Borough President Eric Adams, expressing “shared goals” for a mixed-use rezoning in the northern section of the Community District that would include the McDonald’s lot, but at that less ambitious scale.

McDonald’s site, from the west side of Vanderbilt Avenue, below Atlantic Avenue. Across Atlantic are the low-rise auto-related structures slated to be replaced by the 29-story 809 Atlantic tower. In the background: the 13-story 525 Clinton. 
Adams recently issued a press release endorsing such mixed-use zoning, with an endorsement from Cumbo, current CB 8 Chairperson Ethel Tyus, and several industrial advocates.

A contemplated rezoning, unresolved

Compared to the developer's plan, at least as described at the July 23 meeting, the Community Board’s envisioned rezoning, which also has not officially proceeded, might permit less than 75 percent of the bulk—and five fewer floors.

That said, the Department of City Planning (DCP) is not yet on board, as it and the Community Board continue discussions.

Slide from DC proposal points to development potential;
 blue annotation roughly approximates the McDonald’s site.
DCP has not yet endorsed the Community Board’s vision to require industrial, commercial, and/or community facility space as part of an upzoning, instead favoring a voluntary plan, as described in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Nor have the contours and components of the proposed private rezoning become clear.

When they finally emerge, it's worth remembering that developers typically ask for more than what they need, then make contemplated concessions--regarding such things as bulk and affordability--as the negotiation proceeds.

"My understanding is that residential and retail components are planned for the project," explained Gib Veconi, a Prospect Heights resident who's a member of CB 8. "Rezoning for residential would trigger MIH [mandatory inclusionary housing], so there will also be an affordable component. [A developer's representative] also described the potential for an arts center of some kind. He told me it was too early to provide details on the number of residential units intended."

Ownership issues

Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings signed a 99-year lease (bottom) on the property in 2017, paying what a city database says was just $7 million. (The document itself is silent.) The relatively small sum suggests that more complicated transactions are involved.

The signatory on behalf of Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings was Simon Dushinsky, a principal in Rabsky Group, which has developed numerous projects, including a site at the former Rheingold property in Bushwick and proposed the 625 Fulton project in Downtown Brooklyn, the latter of which also requires a significant land use change to allow more square footage.

The site owner counter-party was MMB Associates, an entity connected to the Crosstown Companies in Queens; the signatory was Anthony Musto, president of Crosstown Realty and Crosstown Management.

That said, Rabsky is not the lead on the project, but rather a passive investor, I was told (after contacting a spokesperson for Rabsky and for Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings).

Interestingly, Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings is headquartered at 390 Berry Street in South Williamsburg, a popular location for real estate machers in the Satmar Hasidic sect, according to a 2016 Real Deal article by Mark Maurer--though it's not the Rabsky home turf. That hints that other Hasidic parties might be involved.

After some queries, I got a quote from a representative of Tom Li, a principal in Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings (and who's listed on lobbying forms as the client): “We are excited to partner with Tony Musto, who has owned this site for more than 30 years, to explore development opportunities. This is a very long-term plan as we have a long-term leaseholder currently, but we are interested in the potential for a project that could provide affordable housing and other community benefits at this underutilized site. We are just starting the planning process and look forward to collaborating with the community as our plans come into focus.”

(Li is formerly a senior associate at Simon Baron Development, a firm known for projects in Manhattan and Long Island City. It's unclear what other projects he's involved in.)

Note that "affordable housing and other community benefits" may represent selling points for the project, but surely don't encompass the full plan, which must rely on market-rate housing to be financially viable. Nor is it clear that it would be a "very long-term plan," because presumably the McDonald's lease could be bought out.
A neighbor's account

Despite the developer's reticence to speak publicly, details have emerged.

"I was contacted by Tucker Reed of [the consultancy] Totem last month to discuss plans for the site," Veconi told me. Totem, founded by former Downtown Brooklyn Partnership President Reed, has partnered with Rabsky on the 625 Fulton project.

"He described the project as a joint venture between himself and Sam Rottenberg, who also attended the meeting we had," Veconi said. "I had seen the lease at that point, so I asked if Rabsky was involved in the project. Mr. Rottenberg stated that he was associated with Rabsky. I assume Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings is an LLC created by Rabsky for the project."

That's a not unreasonable conclusion, but, as it turns out, the ownership is more complicated. A spokesman for Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings told me Reed is an advisor on the project, not a principal. (I didn't get a response from Reed to my queries, including the joint venture description.)

Veconi went public at the next Land Use Committee meeting. "The invitation to meet was to me, not to CB 8," Veconi said. "I don’t represent the community board in such a situation. But as a member of the community board and a director of a civic organization [Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council], I believe I have an obligation to share information I know to be of interest to other stakeholders unless a prior commitment prevents me from doing so."

That said, it's doubtful that Reed and Rottenberg would have met with Veconi merely because he represented a civic organization, rather than as an influential figure on CB 8. 

A changing context

The context for such changes is the long-gestating Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project site across Vanderbilt Avenue to the west, coupled with as zoning to the east known as M-1, limited to commercial and industrial uses.

Lot 1, including McDonald's building, outlined in orange
Also part of the site are Lots 68 and 71, in orange
The single-story McDonald’s occupies the western end of Block 1122: a large lot (Lot 1) along Atlantic Avenue that extends in two segments south to Pacific Street, used for parking and egress.

Those segments (which include part of Lot 1, plus Lots 68 and 71)  flank two residential buildings, at Lots 69 and 70, which are not part of the Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings transaction.

Cater-corner to that lot, along Vanderbilt Avenue between Pacific Street and Dean Street is 550 Vanderbilt, a 17-story condo building that opened in 2017, the second-shortest residential building in the 15-tower project. It rises 202 feet, plus about 40 feet for mechanicals. (The graphic above wrongly indicates height.)

Directly north of 550 Vanderbilt, on the west side of Vanderbilt Avenue, is the MTA’s below-grade Vanderbilt Yard, used to store and service Long Island Rail Road trains.

It requires an expensive deck before towers can rise. The easternmost parcel north of 550 Vanderbilt, known as B10, has been approved for 313 feet, directly across from the McDonald’s lot. It likely won’t be built for several years. (Five other towers are planned over the railyard to the west of B10.)

Because Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park was a state override of city zoning, no community board input and city process was needed for approval.

Another project moving ahead

The City Council did, earlier this year, approve a building even taller than B10 at the northeast corner of Vanderbilt and Atlantic, cater-corner to that site and directly across Vanderbilt from the McDonald’s lot.
809 Atlantic site, from Environmental Assessment Statement; highlight = McDonald's lot
That 809 Atlantic Avenue project. which relied not just on a rezoning but also air rights from a historic church that would be restored, was approved earlier this year to enable a 29-story, 337-foot tower.

The project, once known as 550 Clinton, is developed by Hope Street Capital and got a recommendation from Brooklyn Community Board 2, which has jurisdiction on the north side of Atlantic at Vanderbilt. Note: the entity leasing much of the site was housed at Musto's company.

Changes percolating

Changes have been in the works for years. The Hope Street Capital project was conceived by November 2015, when the New York Post reported the firm had signed 99-year leases for the blockfront along Atlantic Avenue between Vanderbilt and Clinton avenues.

Across Atlantic Avenue, Community Board 8 had since 2014 been discussing the future of the area with M-1 zoning, which is located roughly between Grand Avenue, Atlantic Avenue, Bergen Street, and Franklin Avenue, extending along the southern side of Atlantic to Vanderbilt. The McDonald’s lot was among the sites designated in February 2016 as “likely to be developed.”

So that lot had significant potential when in November 2017 Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings signed its 99-year lease.

The longstanding M1-1 zoning, which permits light industrial and commercial uses, allows a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of just 1.0. That's not worth building on.

FAR indicates the amount of building volume that can be constructed as a multiple of a site’s footprint in square feet. An FAR of 1.0--essentially a one-story building covering an entire lot, or a two-story building covering half that lot--is a severe constraint.

CB 8 calls its proposal M-CROWN, focusing on three distinct sub-areas, aiming to incentivize the new residential development to includes light-industrial and other job-creating uses. In one sub-area, the FAR would range from 2-5; in another, the FAR would be 4-5. Along Atlantic Avenue, able to accommodate the largest buildings, the FAR could be 6-7.

The Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings plan would, as discussed publicly, seek even more bulk, or Floor Area Ratio.

A committee discussion

“I was contacted by some folks who are interested in developing the lot at the southeast corner of Vanderbilt and Atlantic,” said Veconi, an active member of both M-CROWN and Land Use Committees, at the July 23 meeting. “And they anticipate filing a private ULURP application seeking a new zoning for R9X.” That R9X, currently allowed only in Manhattan, allows for an FAR of 9.7

That’s a good deal bulkier than what Community Board 8 has envisioned in its M-CROWN proposal. They’ve proposed a different zoning shorthand, R8A, which could, with affordable housing, translate into a Floor Area Ratio of 7.2--about 26 percent less bulk than the developer's reported plan.

Veconi said board members understood arguments that, in a location next to higher-density Atlantic Yards, “a new building there should speak to that context. I don't know if the Community Board has adopted that position... I think our position was in the [Cumbo] letter [about shared goals] last year.”

Committee member Puca asked Department of City Planning (DCP) representatives, who’ve been conducting their analysis of the Community Board’s M-CROWN proposal, their perspective on the developer's idea for the lot.

Planner Jonah Rogoff noted that, with other private rezonings nearby, “the expectation is that any private application that comes forward must be to the best of their ability fit the framework that we've laid out.” The decision, he noted, is ultimately up to the City Planning Commission.

“They know about this [M-CROWN] process,” added Alex Sommer, Deputy Director of DCP’s Brooklyn office.

That, indeed, is likely. According to the city’s lobbying database, Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings has since mid 2018 paid the law firm Slater & Beckerman $42,430 to lobby the City Council, the Department of City Planning, the Brooklyn Borough President’s office, and Community Board 8.

A nearby precedent?

From the audience at the meeting, Richard Bearak, the Brooklyn Borough President’s Land Use Director, invoked the 809 Atlantic project: “Directly north, the same zoning that they're seeking was approved by City Council.”
809 Atlantic, purported views westbound omit Atlantic Yards towers, plus (then unmentioned) McDonald's lot plan
It was very close but not exactly the same: R9, with an Floor Area Ratio of 8, but gaining a significant bulk bonus from air rights associated with the historic church.

The implication, though, was that the City Council may be receptive to larger projects, at least when packaged with a benefit, in that case historic preservation. Surely the benefits of the 840 Atlantic Avenue proposal will get highlighted.

That said, it's curious that such projects are evaluated piecemeal. As shown in the slide above, the 809 Atlantic proposal (from the EAS) purported to show views west.

That not only omitted the seven towers expected north of Pacific Street on the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park site--six towers over the railyard, plus the B4 tower flanking the northeast corner of the arena block--but also the potential for development at the McDonald's lot.
Lot 1, including McDonald's building, outlined in orange
Also part of the site are Lots 68 and 71, in orange
Adjacent Lots 69/70 and 9/10 offer potential

What's next: more lots?

Another thing to consider: the scope for the 840 Atlantic project may exceed the three lots in the original contract.

The separately owned low-rise residential structures within the "fingers" of the McDonald's site--Lots 69 and 70--may not be knocked down, but they potentially offer additional zoning rights that could be transferred to the owner of the adjacent lot, enabling a larger building.

This has not been publicly discussed, but surely beckons to smart land-use lawyers. Indeed, a limited liability company covering those sites, 849-851 Pacific Holdings, has the same Williamsburg address as Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings.

Similarly, the separately owned Lots 9 and 10, along Atlantic Avenue just east of the McDonald's site, offer promise. A limited liability company for those sites, 854-856 Atlantic Holdings, also has that same Williamsburg address.

In neither case does the city's ACRIS database show recent deal activity. That suggests the LLCs were either set up prospectively, or deals may have been negotiated but not formally signed. (Update: the Brooklyn Eagle reports that "the development site includes adjacent properties 854 and 856 Atlantic Ave.")

So stay tuned. The developers likely have been testing and refining their plans and might publicly propose something different than what has so far seeped out.

When the Community Board schedule resumes in the fall, the 840 Atlantic discussion is expected to resume. “I suspect we’ll hear more from them probably in September,” said Veconi at the July 23 meeting.

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