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

After BrooklynSpeaks meeting, can new legislative efforts improve accountability and reciprocal benefits? Three years to build each phase of platform?

The bottom line, from BrooklynSpeaks
Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park seems to be at an inflection point, presenters at a forum said last night, and that should offer leverage for improvements in public benefits and public oversight.

However, lead developer Greenland USA seems financially strained, it has not yet been pressured by the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo for such improvements.

In fact, Cuomo’s Empire State Development (ESD), the state authority overseeing and shepherding the project, recently eased the way for a Greenland lessee, TF Cornerstone, to gain below-ground space to build a field house and fitness center below two towers slated to start next year, with no reciprocal benefit. at two upcoming

The question is whether those organized by the BrooklynSpeaks coalition—neighborhood and housing groups whose posture I've long described as "mend-it-don't-end-it"—can mount such pressure. At the meeting, Assemblymembers Walter Mosley and Jo Anne Simon indicated a willingness to push for state oversight hearings, thus putting ESD under scrutiny for just the second time in the project’s history.

Also, Council Member Brad Lander agreed that, while the project is not overseen by the city, a city oversight hearing, involving agencies working on housing and education issues, also could add sunlight. (Council Member Laurie Cumbo was also present, sounding more dismayed about the project than in some previous presentations.)

Those tentative pledges might be the most concrete outcomes of an event that included breakout sessions that produced proposals on a "new plan" and improvements in transportation and urban design, some practical, others pie-in-the-sky.

A platform coming, but on what schedule?

About 75 people attended the event, held at the Montauk Club in Park Slope, with a handful completely new to project-related events—which have proceeded since 2004, one year after Atlantic Yards was announced—and numerous people, understandably, not fully up to speed.

(Not present, apparently, were residents of the project buildings, who may face serious construction impacts and the uncertainty of the delivery of project open space, which could take until 2035. Perhaps given the location and a general pattern of activism involving project critics/opponents, the crowd was mostly white. The stated effort to expand the project's affordability, and to assist those displaced from the four nearby community districts, suggests a recognition that some lower-income residents, including people of color, placed significant hope in this project.)

Mentioned, and surely new to some who don’t follow the project closely, was the announcement, via the New York Post, that next year Greenland USA will start building the platform over the the western block of the Vanderbilt Yard, between Sixth and Carlton avenues. Despite a claimed "Brooklyn's Pacific Park moves to fast track" headline, that article neglected to address the timing for that platform or the towers slated to rise above it.

So that doesn’t mean the project hits the fast track, though, with two towers now under construction (B4 and B15) and two lated to start next year (B12 and B13), it certainly has some momentum after a stall.
This map, which I produced with designer Ben Keel, was distributed at the meeting
One perhaps crucial piece of information almost slipped out. Simon, in her presentation—see the second tape below—said that each of the two decks required, with three towers per deck coming later, would take three years each.

That has not been publicly confirmed and only partly reflects the general schedule that I acquired, which also has not been confirmed.

The onus now is on the state to explain further. After all, if it takes three years to finish a platform started in 2020, there may not be time to start two towers (at least) needed to meet the affordable housing deadline by June 2022, the date the Affordable New York tax break expires, assuming it’s not extended, and meet the May 2025 deadline for affordable housing.

(With some 916 affordable units required after the four current towers are built, that obligation would require at least two towers with affordable units.)

The slide top left summarized the issues:
  • Developers must be candid about strategy and schedule for completion of the project--including affordable housing commitments--before further approvals are granted.
  • Any increase in private value from project changes must be matched by additional public benefits.
  • The State and the City must take responsibility for the conditions created by the project, and address impacts from construction, arena operations, and municipal services.
  • A meaningful dialog about further large-scale redevelopment at Brooklyn's busiest intersection must begin.
The full slideshow

Starting off: Simon on project history

In the video below, Simon described the project history, including project approval in 2006, expected completion in 2016, and state-allowed delays until 2035.

(Note: the 461 Dean modular tower started in 2012, not 2010, and took four years to build. That's been corrected in the embedded slideshow.)

Simon at 7:32 made an interesting observation, talking about the shift in ownership from original developer Forest City Ratner/Forest City Enterprises to Greenland USA, which in 2014 bought 70% of the project, in 2018 bought all but 5% of the rest, and since then has leased three development sites to other companies, and has embarked on a joint venture regarding another site.

“We said it shouldn’t be one developer, because the project will rise and fall on the fortunes of that one developer,” she recalled. “We were told to take a hike, we didn’t know anything.” But she had been told the same critique by government, she said, regarding the Hoyt-Schermerhorn renewal plans in Downtown Brooklyn, which did involve multiple developers.

(I’m not sure ESD was involved, though, so I’ll update when I learn more.)

Reasons for concern

In the video below, Simon explained that changes in China, as well as rising costs for infrastructure, have made the project more costly for Greenland.

She also mentioned the timetable for each deck, and the June 2022 subsidy deadline.

Housing issues

In the video below, Bernell Grier of IMPACCT Brooklyn and Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee FAC talked about affordable housing, which has been skewed to middle-income tenants and might better be described as income-targeted or income-linked.

As de la Uz explained, when the project was announced, the city had no policy for mandatory affordability in upzonings—Atlantic Yards was a state override of zoning, thus the equivalent of a private rezoning—so, when the Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding and Community Benefits Agreement were announced, it was a “big deal” to get a commitment of 35% of the project units, with 40% of the 2,250 units promised for low-income housing.

But that wasn't fulfilled.

That private housing deal between Forest City and the advocacy group ACORN, however, was not locked into the project agreements signed in 2009-10, which defined affordable housing more broadly as part of government subsidy or assistance programs.

Also, city policies allow affordable housing for project with significant middle-income components, and the 421-a tax break, which once offered benefits to project buildings without affordable units—thus encouraging other buildings that would be 50% affordable—has been revised.

Neighborhood impacts

In the video below, Regina Cahill, a Flatbush Avenue resident and the president of the North Flatbush Business Improvement District, cited the failure to fulfill promises of limiting impacts on the surrounding blocks.

Parking and traffic flow issues have been exacerbated by the presence of a fire station, police station, arena loading dock, and health facility all near Sixth Avenue and Dean Street, which will be joined in 2023 by a middle school. “I don’t know how you control 800 middle school students” as they exit, she said.

One small but important thing: the NYPD refuses to utilize the 24 (she said 25) free spaces provided in the garage at 535 Carlton, one long block away from the 78th Precinct House at Sixth Avenue and Bergen Street and, presumably, less convenient than on street/sidewalk parking nearby.

Accountability issues

In the video below, Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council and BrooklynSpeaks, suggested that the project problems relate to the fact that it went through the state process, rather than the city’s land use review, which meant no Brooklyn elected official got a voice. (That certainly lessened accountability, then and now, but the city process is no panacea.)

“About every five years, they need a lifeline,” he said, citing the role of Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov in rescuing Nets principal owner BruceRatner by buying the majority of the Nets (and part of the arena), and then Greenland moving in five years later.

“We’re now at a point where even that developer is not in a position to move forward in the way it was originally conceived,” he said, noting that the announcement of the platform tells us very little.

The field house and fitness center approval, he said, was a bonus for developer TF Cornerstone without have to provide reciprocal public benefit, such as a school (as was done in another Brooklyn upzoning).

One inflection point may be the long expected, but still pending, plan for the developer to shift the bulk of the unbuilt B1 tower—once planned for what’s now the arena plaza—across busy Flatbush Avenue to build a giant project at Site 5, currently home to P.C. Richard and Modell’s (as I first revealed in 2016).

There’s “no absolute requirement” that that move be subject to public review, he said, though I’m less skeptical: ESD has previously said they will hold a full public process, involving a revised General Project Plan, for that change. That offers a opportunity for public involvement and pressure.

While that two-tower Site 5 project, which as of 2016 was said to stretch nearly 800 feet (and could now grow taller), has been said to encompass office, retail, and perhaps hotel space, the market may be such that that includes housing.

That may mean the full project eventually includes more than the 6,430 apartments approved. It’s unclear whether the affordable housing commitment of 35% would apply to these units—but that would be another subject for discussion and pressure.

Summing up: urban design and transportation

After the audience divided into four breakout groups to discuss issues, based on the principles BrooklynSpeaks established in 2005 upon the group's founding, the leads of those groups reported back.

One suggestion was relocate the fire and even police stations from that busy corner. Another—reflecting an original BrooklynSpeaks principle—was to shift the project open space to the curb, rather than behind buildings.

Another was to ensure smaller retail spaces to avoid chain retailers. (The developer already promised that, at least in the residential buildings east of the arena block, but the role of Chelsea Piers as operator of the 105,000 square foot field house and fitness center reversed that.)

Regarding the Site 5 project, participants suggested a new entrance to the subway complex below in that building, rather on Fourth Avenue, as well as one on Flatbush Avenue. Another idea was to ensure that the building is set back from Pacific Street and, at least in its initial stage, reflects the house scale.

(I suspect the subway entrance changes would be much easier to achieve.)

Participants agreed that the city Department of Transportation should conduct a study of Atlantic Avenue traffic, but not delay it—as apparently DOT has said—until Atlantic is no longer under construction. (DOT might attend another of the bi-monthly Quality of Life meetings to explain its policies.)

Even as parking has been reduced to 1,000 spaces project-wide, participants suggested that “mandatory minimums”—not actually applicable to a state project—be further reduced, thus removing the incentive to drive.

I think that’s a logical policy in general, but runs into difficulty with an arena that attracts traffic, as well as those seeking free parking nearby. If such available free parking were limited—thanks to residential permit parking (RPP), which has been proposed but not passed, and endorsed again last night—demand for paid parking would increase.

Summing up: housing

Grier and de la Uz discussed the importance of including housing for lower-income households, at an average of 60% of Area Median Income, and allowing those displaced from the four community districts to gain the community preference in affordable housing lotteries. (Half the units are assigned to residents of those districts.)

They also cited the importance of senior housing, which was once promised but not implemented.

The challenge, of course, is funding all this—more affordability suggests more subsidy, so this project could then be criticized for gaining more subsidy than other projects, and/or be less attractive to city officials eager to maximize unit count above all.

Summing up: oversight

At the breakout session, Veconi noted the need for a better way for the developer to accept and address complaints regarding untoward impacts, and noted—as I wrote re the nearby 80 Flatbush project—the potential for a 24-hour hotline.

Peter Krashes of the North Prospect Heights Association (formerly the Dean Street Block Association) noted that it was necessary for “the impacted community” to have the lead. (The block association previously left BrooklynSpeaks after the 2014 agreement, concerned—among other things—that it would not protect their interests—but the revamped neighborhood groups recently rejoined the larger coalition.)

Speaking to the group at large, Veconi noted that, in the past, leverage was achieved by lawsuits. One was by BrooklynSpeaks (and, unmentioned, combined with one organized by project opponents Develop Don’t Destroy) after 2009 approval, generating a court-ordered Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate delay.

Another, on fair housing grounds, was threatened in 2014, and generated the new 2025 affordable housing deadline, ten years ahead of the previously extended deadline, though it didn’t address affordability.

“We believe we may be nearing another inflection point in the project,” Veconi said. “And we want to have the community engaged.”