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

Second look: how state discussion and newly revealed document fudged plan for new fitness center and field house

Newly public data from a previously unreleased Technical Memorandum (or Tech Memo, bottom) compounds doubts over the controversial approval of a fitness center and field house, under two towers in the southeast block of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, without further environmental review.

The document was acquired after a Freedom of Information Law request to Empire State Development, or ESD, the state authority overseeing/shepherding the project. The space would be  under the B12 and B13 towers. planned to start next year, on Dean Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues.

Reasons for doubt:
  • the number of expected users of the new facilities seems low--42 people entering the 45,000-square-foot fitness center between 8-9 am, and 60 between 5-6 pm--with no process for challenging the calculation
  • far more below-grade space will be created for the fitness center/field house than will be saved by cutting parking on that block, given the project's recent iteration, despite claims of a "swap"
  • ESD has fudged the question of whether such space is permitted by the guiding Modified General Project Plan (MGPP) and the associated Design Guidelines

Shifting explanations

To recap, the proposed new space was originally presented, at a 7/16/19 Quality of Life Meeting to which the public was invited, as a “clarification” regarding "commercial use."

We were not told--as the Tech Memo explains--that the amount of local retail square footage at the ground floor of the towers would be cut nearly 87%, from 25,300 square feet to some 3,400 square feet.

Six days later, after the public pushback and the acknowledgement that the project's allotted commercial use was designated for office space, the plan was presented, at a 7/22/19 meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), as a clarification regarding “recreational use.”

The fitness center would occupy 45,000 square feet and the field house 60,000 square feet, with 96,000 square feet below grade and 9,000 square feet at street level. Both would be operated by Chelsea Piers.

The claim that this seemingly large enterprise would generate no more traffic than the previously approved retail use, and far less than the original underground garage, was said to be justified in the Tech Memo, which was not made public. Some skeptical AY CDC directors sought a delay so they could review that Tech Memo, which was made available only by visiting ESD offices.

When the AY CDC met a second time, on 8/12/19, director Gib Veconi expressed skepticism about the new category of approved use, the swap of a money-losing activity (parking) for a profitable one, and traffic statistics informed by calculations from Chelsea Piers, the planned operator of the fitness center and field house, obviously an interested party.

He argued that a full environmental review, with public hearings and a public comment period, was appropriate. That, of course, would be costly in time and money.

The AY CDC, surprisingly, deadlocked 4-4, unwilling to recommend that the ESD board support (or oppose) the promised new space.

At the ESD meeting, a rubber stamp

That wouldn't sway the parent entity. At the subsequent ESD meeting three days later, on 8/15/19, the gubernatorially-controlled board unsurprisingly approved the new plan. Veconi did raise his criticisms during the public comment period.

ESD's Rachel Shatz, VP for Planning and Environmental Review, gave a forceful but not entirely candid explanation of why no further study was necessary, and the Tech Memo sufficed. Shatz began speaking a little after the 1:09 mark in the video below, after colleague Tobi Jaiyesimi introduced the issue.

Shatz said that ESD staff, with assistance from consultants and counsel, assessed whether the proposed General Project Plan modifications would result in any impacts not previously studied.

They concluded there were no new adverse impacts that had not been identified and analyzed in the original 2006 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) or the 2104 Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS). Thus, there was no need for further study.

Some of the AY CDC directors, she said, questioned how a recreational facility could be found to not have a significant impact.

"The proposed indoor recreational space has always been permitted by the GPP and by the Design Guidelines," she claimed. "And it is only the use's location below grade, rather than at street level, that requires clarification."

What's permitted?

Was that true? Has that proposed space always been permitted? Let's take a look at the Tech Memo, which also fudges the issue. It states:
As stated in the Project’s Design Guidelines, “[c]ommercial [uses], community facility uses, and residential uses, including accessory uses,… shall be permitted anywhere on the ground floor of the buildings fronting on Dean Street.” The Proposed Modifications would be consistent with providing commercial uses on the ground floor along Dean Street (including local retail and ground-floor indoor recreational facility use), and would permit indoor recreational facility use on the cellar levels of Building 12 and Building 13 on Block 1129; previously, the cellar levels would have been limited to parking uses. 
(Emphases added)

The syntax there is confusing. As I've previously noted, "commercial" has a very specific use in the context of this context: 336,000 square feet of commercial office space. The project is also approved for 247,000 square feet of retail use, which in the colloquial passage from the Tech Memo is also subsumed under "commercial" use.

However, the square footage allotted to the fitness center and field house are not being subtracted from either total.

What's "ground-floor indoor recreational facility use"? Is that a fitness center oriented toward outside customers, or a building-specific gym? Let's go to the Design Guidelines:
Residential Blocks – General Guidelines
The following sections relate to the development of all of the Buildings to be located on the Residential Blocks (Blocks 1120, 1121, 1128, and 1129).
a. Building Uses:
i. Uses located on the ground floor level within five feet of curb level and within 30 feet of the Atlantic Avenue street wall and within 20 feet of the Vanderbilt Avenue street wall shall be limited to community facility uses, retail and personal service uses, health clubs, lobby space, entryways and entrances to other uses or areas within the building, all as further limited by Clause (a)(iii) below.
That explicitly mentions "health clubs," though it's not clear whether those are the equivalent of retail spaces open to the public or building-specific gyms.

But that doesn't apply to B12 and B13. That section permits such ground-floor usage only within 30 feet of buildings' Atlantic Avenue street wall and 20 feet of the Vanderbilt Avenue street wall.

The Design Guidelines do address buildings like B12 and B13:
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.
That passage subtracts "health clubs," but simply allows "[c]ommercial, community facility uses, and residential uses, including accessory uses." Still, the syntax is confusing; it doesn't specify retail use, which was long expected, and in this case seems to be subsumed under "commercial."

Would it then be OK to build a giant "health club" or, to be more specific, a "health club" plus field house, below ground?

That's hardly clear. First, a field house, with an indoor soccer field, a learn-to-swim pool, and a gymnastics facility, is not a health club. It's far larger than would be allowed on the ground floor of a building.

2014 MGPP plans, before parking cut
More importantly, the overall square footage for the field house and fitness center has to come from somewhere.

If it's not subtracted from the approved commercial space and retail space (see right), to be consistent ESD should've at least proposed subtracting it from the residential space (below), given that building-specific gyms are counted as part of that square footage.

Retail and community facility space
subtracted from building square footage
Still, that doesn't make sense. If they're essentially announcing a new category, recreational facility space, that should've been approved through a separate process.

But that would've taken too long.

Traffic compared to previous retail use

Shatz, in her remarks, noted. "The primary environmental concern is whether there would be additional traffic."

The Tech Memo compared the traffic assessed for the proposed facility with traffic associated with the approved ground floor retail use that had been studied in 2014 Final SEIS (FSEIS), she said.

Minimal differences were found and, "especially when distributed over the network of intersections, crosswalks, and pathways through the open space... it was determined that the resulting effect would not be perceptible."

That deserves skepticism, as I describe below, but first, let's compare the amount of space involved, as per the Tech Memo:
It was previously assumed that there would be approximately 25,298 gsf of local retail use in these buildings (12,649 gsf of local retail in each building). The local retail space previously assumed in these buildings would be reduced from approximately 25,300 gsf by approximately 21,900 gsf, resulting in the planned inclusion of a total of approximately 3,400 gsf of local retail space in Buildings 12 and 13. Approximately 9,000 gsf of ground-level space would be combined with approximately 96,000 gsf of cellar space to build out approximately 105,000 gsf of indoor recreational use.
That's a major cut.

Also, they're only partly swapping retail use for the street-level entry space for the field house and fitness center. The latter will occupy 9,000 square feet. Add 3,400 square feet of retail and the total, 12,400 square feet, is less than half the amount of previously planned retail.

Might they have concluded that mid-block retail space was not as valuable as previously thought?

The new configuration raises a question: what's aimed for the ground-floor space that won't be retail or the lobby for the field house and fitness center? Is some for mechanical equipment? (Also, perhaps, was any of that previous retail square footage below-grade?)

How many trips?

The Tech Memo described travel demand estimates for the retail space and the new space:
Assumptions for the local retail use were based on the 2014 FSEIS; estimates for the two new uses were based on standard references, operating information provided by the operator of comparable uses, and travel surveys administered for this assessment. The Fitness Center and Field House proposed for Buildings 12 and 13 are intended to model after comparable facilities at 33 Bond Street in Downtown Brooklyn and along the Hudson River Park waterfront in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, respectively.
As shown in the chart below, which I've annotated, the fitness center and field house are said to generate far fewer trips (per 1,000 square feet) than the retail.

Moreover, the "linkage" for the fitness center and field house, 40% and 20% respectively, indicates that a significant number of customers are expected to come from within Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park.
How were the calculations made?

The Tech Memo explains that the fitness center at Buildings 12 and 13 would be about 20% smaller than Chelsea Piers' 33 Bond Street facility and would not have an on-site pool. So a 30% discount was applied regarding trip generation, then a 10% surcharge to account for trips made by employees and the general public.

The field house would be about 25% smaller than Chelsea Piers' Hudson River Park facility, which is also a more visible destination. So 50% discount was applied.

Are those realistic? Veconi made the case that a self-interested party couldn't be trusted. The discount for the field house, especially, seems significant, and subject to debate.

Drilling down: vehicular trips and person-trips

The chart below estimates small incremental increases regarding vehicular trips to the fitness center and field house, versus the local retail: only 8 more trips in the morning peak hour, 5 fewer at mid-day, and 10 more at the late afternoon peak hour.

Even if they calculated the trips based on the sizes of the 33 Bond Street fitness center and Chelsea Piers field house, rather than applying the discount, the increase would be small, according to the Tech Memo:
the maximum peak hour difference would be 18 vehicles during the weekday PM peak hour, instead of the 10 vehicles shown above. Considering the surrounding intersections are projected to serve approximately 500 to 2,000 vehicles during peak hours, neither of these trip differences (i.e., 10 or 18) when distributed across area intersections would result in perceptible differences in traffic levels at intersections analyzed in the 2014 FSEIS.
Slam dunk, right? Well, not so fast. The numbers can be confusing.

How many people visiting?

Consider the number of person-trips expected, as shown in the chart below, which I've annotated. In the morning peak hour (8-9 am), only 42 person-trips are expected into the fitness center, then 20 between 12 noon and 1 pm, and 60 after work, between 5-6 pm.

Is that realistic? Compare to Planet Fitness, which averages 20,000 square feet for its locations, according to the company, and at one location cited on Reddit, had about 100 people attending on several weekdays during the 5-6 pm hour.

Sure, that's a rather fuzzy source, but, extrapolating from that to a 45,000 square foot fitness center, that suggests more than 200 attendees during that same hour.

Alternatively, consider this calculation from the company Active Fitness, a staffer of which estimates that, at a 54,000 square foot facility, with 200 square feet per user, the peak capacity is 270. Extrapolating to a 45,000 square foot facility, as proposed in Brooklyn, that suggests that peak capacity would be 225.

Wouldn't Chelsea Piers want to be a significant fraction of peak capacity?

Now, capacity is not the same as people arriving, as cited in the chart, but 60 people arriving between 5 and 6 pm for a 45,000 square-foot location seems low. Note that there would be 91 people leaving, presumably some of whom had arrived in a previous hour. Even if all were somehow together for a moment, that adds up to 151.

Let's try another calculation. If there are 30.58 weekday trips per 1,000 square feet, as noted in the first table, that suggests 1,376 trips for a 45,000 square foot facility.

If the facility's open 17.5 hours a day, as at 33 Bond Street, that suggests 79 incoming attendees per hour, if the trips are distributed evenly. That's not realistic, of course. In peak hours the number would likely be double, say 160.

In other words, this does not compute.

Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe some caveat is missing. Or maybe they made a mistake.

But those kinds of questions are hashed out in the environmental review process, in which public questions get responses. The Tech Memo, unreleased until after the plans were approved, is mute. Only a formal Supplemental EIS would get some answers.

Is this just a swap for parking?

ESD representatives, and some press outlets and Twitter commenters, have described the new space as a mere swap for parking.

As I wrote 8/14/19, ESD spokesperson Jack Sterne told Bklyner and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “In recent years, we have decreased the amount of required underground garage space at Pacific Park, and this action will merely clarify that space planned to be a garage for building residents can instead be used for a gym that anyone in the community can join."

That's not true. (Nor does it address the appropriateness of such a swap, which was not contemplated in project approval documents.)

The amount of space being saved on the southeast block of the project, compared with the most recent iteration after a cut in parking, is far less than the new space approved. Nor was that space planned specifically for building residents.

The project has seen a significant cut in parking. Originally, according to the 2006 FEIS, Atlantic Yards was supposed to contain 3,670 parking spaces, with 1,970 of them on the southeast block:
Approximately 400 spaces would be provided in a parking garage on Site 5, with two below-grade levels and an entrance midblock on Pacific Street. Approximately 350 additional spaces would be provided in a second two-level public parking garage located on the arena block beneath Buildings 2 and 3... A further 2,920 public parking spaces would be provided in four additional parking garages: a 350-space, two-level garage on the southwest quadrant of Block 1120 with an entrance on 6th Avenue; a 450-space, two-level garage beneath Buildings 6 and 7 on Block 1120 with an entrance on Carlton Avenue, a 150-space, two-level garage beneath Building 15 on Block 1128 with an entrance on Pacific Street; and a 1,970-space, two-level garage on Block 1129 with three entrances, one each on Carlton Avenue, Vanderbilt Avenue and Dean Street.
That number was proposed to be cut in the 2014 Final SEIS to 2,896 spaces, given a smaller garage on the arena block, and a single garage--rather than two--on Block 1120, the railyard block between Sixth and Carlton avenues:
This would include a 400-space parking garage beneath Site 5 and a parking garage with 50 to 100 spaces beneath Building 3 on the Arena Block (both to be provided in Phase I), along with a 450-space below-grade garage on Block 1120, a 150-space below-grade garage beneath Building 15 on Block 1128, and a 1,846-space below-grade garage on Block 1129 (to be provided in Phase II).
A more dramatic cut was made, instead. The state approved a "Reduced Parking Alternative," with 1,200 spaces, eliminating two garages and shrinking both the Site 5 and Block 1129 garages:
For the purposes of the analysis it is assumed that under the Reduced Parking Alternative the 450-space parking garage on Block 1120 and the 150-space parking garage on Block 1128 would not be developed, that the number of spaces provided in the below-grade garage on Site 5 would be reduced to approximately 240 from 400 with the Project, and that up to 910 spaces would be provided in the permanent below-grade garage on Block 1129 compared with 1,846 with the Project. Approximately 50 to 100 spaces would also be provided beneath Building 3 on the Arena Block.
So the planned garage on Block 1129 had gone from 1,970 to 1,846 to 910 spaces.

Note that, despite that planned cut, garage space on the southeast block was supposed to span the underground zone, as indicated in the graphic below, involving all four towers. I added the arrow to point to B11, the condo building 550 Vanderbilt, which was subsequently built without a garage.

Now, fewer spaces

In her presentation at the ESD meeting, Shatz fudged the issue.

"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," she said, "would have a reduction to 693 spaces upon approval of the reduced parking GPP modification before you, compared to 1,970 spaces in the 2006 FEIS and 910 spaces in the 2014 SEIS."

That's a cut of 217 spaces.

"When the recreation facility is considered, along with the substantial reductions in the size of the parking garage on the block," Shatz said, "there actually will be fewer vehicle trips in and out of the garage and less traffic on Dean Street than what the original approved project contemplated."

That's misleading, since it compares the new plan to the 2006 plan, not the most recent version.

The Tech Memo also fudged the difference between parking space assigned to the project overall and the space on Block 1129:
The Proposed Modifications would not affect the amount of commercial office space approved for the Project. Additionally, while the Proposed Modifications would permit recreational use below grade, it would not result in additional below-grade square footage on the Project site not considered in the 2006 FEIS. The Project analyzed in the 2006 FEIS included approximately 3,670 below-grade parking spaces. In 2014, the parking requirement for the Project was reduced to 1,200 spaces (a reduction of 2,470 spaces). Using a standard metric of approximately 200 square feet/parking space, this represents approximately 500,000 square feet of below-grade space that would not be built out. In comparison, the Proposed Modifications would include 96,000 square feet of below-grade use.
It's misleading to compare the 96,000 square feet of new below-grade space with the 500,000 square feet not being used, since the latter was to be spread throughout the project.

Rather, the Tech Memo should have addressed the below-ground space on that specific block, Dean Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues.

Two other comparisons would be more apt. First, let's compare the 1,970 spaces originally planned for Block 1129 with the 693 spaces now approved. That cut in 1,277 spaces represents 255,400 square feet, at 200 square feet per space.

But that's not what was studied, and approved, in 2014. Let's compare the 910 spaces approved then with the 693 spaces now planned. That saves 217 spaces, or 43,400 square feet.

That's essentially half the amount of new underground space approved, 96,000 square feet. In other words, there would be more usage of underground space than previously contemplated and approved in 2014.

A new configuration on Block 1129

Those 217 spaces represent 23.8% of the previously contemplated 910 spaces on Block 1129. An equitable distribution suggests that most, if not all, of that space should have been assigned to, and gone under, the B11 tower, 550 Vanderbilt.

Instead, they're planning to concentrate traffic elsewhere on the block.

As I wrote, the cut of 217 spaces seems less a forward-looking action than a rationalization for failing to build the parking under B11. And if parking is more an imposition than an amenity, that means the condo owners at 550 Vanderbilt got a bonus unavailable to those renting elsewhere on the block.

Beyond the absent parking under B11, the Tech Memo suggests that vehicular access might not be spread out evenly but rather might concentrate traffic near Building 14, 535 Carlton:
With the Proposed Modifications, Site access to Building 12 and Building 13 would generally remain as previously contemplated, with most building entrances fronting Dean Street. However, it is possible that additional parking spaces associated with these buildings would connect under Building 14 and be accessed from the existing driveway serving that garage. In addition, a curbside layover or drop-off area in front of the proposed Fieldhouse may be provided to accommodate activities associated with that new use. This change, if sought, would result in the loss of up to three curb side parking spaces.
The problem is, as 535 Carlton neighbor Elisabeth Martin has said in public comments, the slow operations of the parking garage there already cause traffic backups, while deliveries lead to double and triple parking.

Moreover, a drop-off area implies that there might be more, or larger vehicles accessing the field house, which surely makes sense. Might traffic get bunched, especially compared to the 2014 study?

Little demand from residents

The rationalization for lowering parking is the low demand, which, in a transit-rich area, is generally a positive sign. The Tech Memo states:
A 2019 survey of residential parking utilization at the below-grade parking garage at Building 14 (see Table 4) indicated that only 12 percent of the market-rate units had on-site monthly parking accounts. For affordable units, this share was even lower, at 4 percent.

Little demand from arena?

According to the document:
The project sponsor also conducted parking surveys during highly-attended Arena events to evaluate the adequacy of the 300 spaces allocated for Arena parking. These surveys showed that, for most events, the on-site Arena parking demand could be fully accommodated by the 300 allotted Arena parking spaces. On the few occasions when the demand exceeded the 300-space capacity, there was ample supply from the available residential parking spaces to accommodate the overflow.
The "residential parking spaces" are the ones already in the garage. But the arena-related parking also relies on a widespread flouting of parking and idling laws in the neighborhood, as well as the absence of residential permit parking.

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