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Unusual Atlantic Yards CDC deadlock: after Veconi skepticism, board unwilling to recommend that parent ESD vote for (or against) new underground space (practical impact?)

Hours after a BrooklynSpeaks press conference urging the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo not approve new below-ground space for a fitness center and field house, a meeting of the advisory Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC) yesterday experienced an unusual moment of drama: rather than serve as a rubber-stamp, as has mostly been its role since inception in 2015, the board split 4-4, unable to make a recommendation either for or against that new space.

That, in part, was because two directors surely supporting the new space (and thus the interest of the developers and the parent Empire State Development, or ESD) were absent from the meeting. (The 105,000 square feet would include 96,000 square feet below ground, with the rest at street level.)

And it hardly means that ESD board members, who typically vote unanimously in favor of the governor’s interests, won’t green-light the proposed changes to the guiding Modified General Project Plan (MGPP), thus allowing the new recreational use. (An ESD board meeting is set in two days; the agenda is yet unclear.)

But the vote represented a partial setback for ESD executives, master developer Greenland USA, developer TF Cornerstone (building of the two towers, B12 and B13, below which the space would be carved out), and athletic facilities provider Chelsea Piers. The latter sent two executives to make public comments in favor of the project, as with four other interested parties cheering the opportunity for a new facility on Dean Street.

Commenting from the audience, Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon said she had nothing against the fitness facility or field house. “However, it's totally irrelevant to whether the proposed size triggers the need to do environmental review,” she said.

To some commenting from the peanut gallery on Twitter, the notion of trading below-ground parking—as the state formulated it--for such fitness facilities was an environmentally friendly no-brainer. And, indeed, ESD prepared a Technical Memorandum—not made public but shown to AY CDC board members—that concluded the impacts would be minor.

However, as AY CDC director (and BrooklynSpeaks organizer) Gib Veconi pointed out, the two things could not represent an easy swap. Moreover, he argued that the calculations in that Tech Memo were both dubious and self-interested.

The video

Leading off

The meeting, held at ESD headquarters in Manhattan, began with AY CDC Executive Director (and ESD Atlantic Yards Project Manager) Tobi Jaiyesimi (at about 2:05 of the video) bureaucratically reading a description of the issue under consideration.

She delineated the “clarification” regarding “recreational use,” to allow the new below-ground square footage. It was initially—and even more dubiously—presented as “commercial use.” That change, as well as the absence of a background Technical Memorandum, led AY CDC board members last month to ask for a delay on the advisory vote.

Jaiyesimi claimed the new below space “does not result in additional below-grade square footage not considered” in 2006, when the project was approved, given that the subsequent reductions in parking removes about 500,000 square feet of parking.

And while there would be some increase in person-trips to the B12 and B13 towers—88 more in the 7-8 pm peak hour—there would be a reduction of trips in other hours, and the trips would be mainly on foot or public transit. The overall assessment: it would add ten or fewer vehicle trips in peak hours, and would not result in a perceptible change in existing traffic conditions.

She noted that the construction would be same depth as the B14 tower (535 Carlton), which has a parking garage. (It was unclear whether that included both the expected new facility and the new parking under the two towers.)

The operator of the fitness center and field house “will provide discount rates for local residents,” partner with local organizations and schools, and offer scholarships and other assistance for underserved children.

Raising questions about the process

Veconi noted (at about 9:40) that, after previous modifications of the MGPP in 2009, after which it was claimed that environmental review was not required, three courts found that it was, after lawsuits—later combined—filed by both BrooklynSpeaks and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. “I think our bar in looking at this particular request is high.”

He said the change shouldn’t be framed as a “clarification” but rather a new use, with new square footage. Moreover, the proposed change to the project’s Design Guidelines “relates to a section of the Design Guidelines that does not talk about floor area,” but rather allowable uses at street level.

But they’re not amending the project allowance for 336,000 square feet commercial space and 247,000 square feet of retail space, he said. Rather, this is new additional space.

“This board, back in July, was asked to approve this without review of the Tech Memo, which I think is extremely hard to justify,” he said. “We’re being redirected to think about this as an exchange for parking. But this is not an exchange for parking.”

But the parking requirement was established as a mitigation for the expected new population living at or visiting the site. “It's now been found, based on experience, that it's not economically effective, and not necessary," he said. “But you cannot exchange a mitigation for an impact, and claim they’re interchangeable.”

Raising questions about the Tech Memo

Veconi then noted (at about 12;20) that, while the Tech Memo concludes that the changes don’t impact neighborhood character and don’t represent a significant change to land use, they represent a reduction in expected local retail, at ground level, of 87%.

“I asked about how those conclusions were made, when we spoke with the consultants,” he said, and was told it was a matter of professional judgment. But he could not get information about who—working at or with the ubiquitous consultant AKRF—had made that decision and their professional background.

“It’s somebody’s opinion, but we don't know who,” he said.

He also questioned the conclusions regarding the trip count. He was told the methodology was based on the experience of two Chelsea Piers facilities, a fitness center at 33 Bond Street (also developed by TF Cornerstone) in Downtown Brooklyn, and a field house in Hudson River Park.

AKRF both counted people at the facilities and polled them about their travel patterns. However, ARKF applied a “30% haircut” to statistics from the fitness center and a 50% cut to “traffic numbers from the field house.”

Those discounts were justified by the location of the proposed facilities on Dean Street, and provided by Chelsea Piers, he was told. “That's obviously a serious concern,” he said, noting that the “traffic analysis is informed by data that someone with an interest in the result of this vote was allowed to change.”

Raising questions about the benefits

Veconi also noted (at about 16:01) the argument for some public benefit: “today, at least in Brooklyn, developers are not getting new floor area without concessions.” The proposed discounts and community partnerships, he said, “have a little bit of a feel” of a Community Benefits Agreement, which has a history with Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park that hasn't "always been a positive one."

He noted that this would be a for-profit facility and said that, while it wasn’t easy to determine monthly membership costs for the fitness center, as of about six years ago, it was about $2,100 a year. (Later, we were told that the max rate was $185 a month, or $2,220 a year.)

For the field house, the rates are published: about $300 an hour for soccer—actually $305—and “a little less than that [$285] for basketball," he said. “These are revenue-producing ventures. If we want to claim they're a public benefit, I think the public needs a little more than good intentions or expectations."

He noted ongoing concern about the project’s master developer, Greenland Forest City Partners (dominated by Greenland USA) to deliver the required 2250 units of affordable housing by 2025.

“It just feels very, very hard, from an oversight point of view, to feel good about granting additional rights in a situation where developer will not explain how that commitment is going to be met,” Veconi said, noting that it would not be met “the way it was presented five years ago.” (A March effort by Veconi at the AY CDC to require such a timetable was opposed by ESD staff and voted down by the advisory board.)

Board discussion

At about 19:10, board member Ethel Tyus, who heads Brooklyn Community Board 8, agreed with Veconi, her fellow CB 8 board member. “I think this is a misstep,” she said, “to blindly agree.”

(Veconi is an appointee of the Assembly, Tyus of the Council, with recommendations from the local elected officials. The board members in lockstep support of the project are typically gubernatorial appointees.)

Board member Cy Richardson, an appointee of Borough President Eric Adams and with Veconi a previous supporter of a new required timetable, agreed with Tyus and Veconi.

“I do think the notion that we were expected to ratify this absence an analysis or any technical assistance provided is problematic,” he said, pointing to the larger issue of the timetable.

Public comment

The public comment period (at about 25:00) began with Chelsea Piers principal David Tewksbury saying the company is an active participant in its community.

Last fall, Jake Elghanayan, a principal in the family-owned TF Cornerstone, “asked if we would consider putting a multi-sport field house,” Tewksbury recounted. “TFC wanted a building amenity not just for their residents, but rather a use that would engage… the larger Brooklyn community.”

The developer, he said, “was willing to deliver a very attractive lease in order to make a sports and recreation use feasible.” The 60,000 square foot field house would include a gynmnastics training area, two turf fields, and a learn-to-swim pool. The below-ground fitness center would be 35,000 square feet.

(By the way, a TF Cornerstone executive told the 7/23/19 Brooklyn Daily Eagle they didn't know who'd operate the proposed fitness center and field house.)

He cited the company’s scholarships and employment levels and, in response to a question from acting Chair Daniel Kummer, said membership rates range from $135 a month to $185 a month, and tenants at the two Dean Street buildings, as with those at 33 Bond, would get a 50% discount in perpetuity.

Chelsea Piers regional general manager Keeth Smart, an Olympics silver medalist in fencing, recounted the long trips he and his sister had to take from Brooklyn to Manhattan for training. He detailed the firm’s free classes and community activities.

He was followed by four local residents hailing the potential new facilities: a basketball/football coach; a guy working out to lose weight; a Dean Street resident who said the local playground was overcrowded; and a 33 Bond Street resident who’d won an affordable housing lottery and called the situation, including the gym downstairs, “kind of miraculous.”

Then Elisabeth Martin, a Carlton Avenue resident who lives across from 535 Carlton, said she thought the new facility was the wrong location, given constant double and triple parking for deliveries. That’s caused in part by full use of street parking, including by police and fire personnel with placards.

Robert Witherwax, chair of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, echoed the BrooklynSpeaks principles, as did a representative of the Fifth Avenue Committee.

Simon (at 47:04) said she didn’t disagree that there might be a need for such space, but believed it should be part of a more comprehensive give-and-take.

ESD response

ESD executive Marion Phillips III (at 50:05), who serves as president of the AY CDC, said that such a Tech Memo is a form of analysis but was considered a draft (and can't be made public) until ESD directors receive it.

“Yes, it is a substitution of use,” he said of the new space, “I won’t deny that, but you're reducing the overall footprint of the project... If you want to become very technical and say this is going to increase the commercial component, OK, I will give you—"

Jaiyesimi, next to him, interrupted to say, “recreational,” which, of course, is the current explanation.

Phillips then said, "You're not increasing commercial, you're creating, and providing, recreational."

Phillips took aim at the argument that the new space represented economic benefit to the developer. The parking, he suggested, also would have an economic benefit, and this benefit helps offset the costs of such things as the open space and affordable housing.

Phillips said ESD remains committed to the affordable housing plan, and will not change its position “as it relates to the liquidated damages,” which are $2,000 a month for each not-delivered apartment as of May 2025.

He said it was a “legitimate question” to discuss a road map for completion, but such things change. “If we put a road map out, to meet the 2025 deadline, the developer, Greenland, will need to make some very difficult decisions, which I believe is what you’re asking for: what are those decisions, and when will they be made?”

“And I believe that, as they finish working with the LIRR to finalize approval of the design”—presumably of the at-grade deck, or platform—"I think we can get those answers. I just don’t think those answers exist today,” he said.

That said, surely the developer has multiple scenarios, since I’ve reported on one of them.

Technical discussion

In response to a question (at 54:28) from board member Shawn Austin, ESD planning executive Rachel Shatz explained that a Tech Memo was completed in response to changes not anticipated in the previous environmental review, with a recommendation on whether a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) is needed.

In this case, the longer, more in-depth study was judged not to be needed. So the Tech Memo is not treated as opportunity to raise public comments.

Veconi noted that the Tech Memo “largely functions to obviate the need for an EIS, which would be an expense to the developer” in both direct cost and the indirect cost of time.

Jaiyesimi intervened to note that the developer also covers the cost of the Tech Memo.

Veconi said he hadn’t said there was no cost to the developer, but the Tech Memo avoids the (more substantial) cost of an EIS.

And while the developer collects revenue from parking, he said AKRF consultants told him that, of the 300 parking spaces (actually 303) at 535 Carlton Avenue, only 200 were typically occupied overnight, with 47 of the spaces taken by residents of 535 Carlton and 550 Vanderbilt, the two extant buildings at the east end of the project site.

“It's simply not cost effective for developer to build this parking.” (Later, resident Martin commented that the use of a lift to park delays the process, so when arena-goers park there, the streets are blocked. “That's why people don't want to park there.”)

So the reduction saves the developer money, he said. "It costs money to build parking that nobody uses."

The discussion then returned to the notion of a Tech Memo, with Shatz calling the changes "minor modifications," and Veconi pressing her to acknowledge that the recent SEIS was ordered by a court, despite a Tech Memo saying it wasn’t necessary.

The vote

When it came time to a vote, Veconi (at 1:16:40) suggested that the issue be separated from the other issue of ventilation structures (see below) and then proposed a different motion: that the AY CDC board recommend that ESD directors withhold support of the new below-ground square footage, pending further environmental review.

That vote, surprisingly, was deadlocked, with no comments other than a question about procedures, and a delay in considering whether such an alternate motion was appropriate.

Joining Veconi, Tyus, and Richardson was John Heyer II, who hadn’t commented during the discussion, and is an appointee of the state Senate (and long active on Brooklyn Community Board 6). On the opposite side were Kummer, Austin, Jennifer James, and Julene Beckford.

A second motion (by Austin), to recommend in favor of approval, drew the same deadlock.

To some degree, the result was an artifact of attendance. Had two absent directors (Tamara McCaw and ESD Chair Howard Zemsky) been present, surely the vote in favor would have passed, based on their previous postures.

I spoke briefly afterward with Heyer, who said he hadn’t been aware of the morning press conference, nor had he decided on his vote walking in. “The recreation space I think is a good thing to have. However, I do see that it is such a shift in use," he said. "I understand that there is a community aspect, which an EIS would afford, that this tech study didn’t afford.”

The new vent structures

The other issue under consideration (at 1:12) was a vote in favor of new ventilation structures in the open space, to vent air and exhaust from the parking and parts of the recreational facility.

The air would be vented to four separate discharge locations: two to the buildings’ facades, and two to the open space. This had not been previously analyzed, but a new analysis, following EPA modeling procedures, found no adverse impacts, said Jaiyesimi.

However, in response to the previous request from the AY CDC directors, the program for playground will be changed, so it has more distance from the vent structures, she said.

That drew unanimous support (1:21:48) from the directors (though no schematic was publicly provided).