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

Learning (belatedly) from Battery Park City: the need for a realistic timetable estimate and a flexible framework

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park has presented a giant learning curve for me and others, since it involves numerous topics, including urban planning, affordable housing, sports facility finance, local politics, and more.

I'm sure I would've done a better job as a journalist had I read David L. A. Gordon's book Battery Park City: Politics and Planning on the New York Waterfront, early on--say, 15 years ago.

No, this short 1997 book can't serve as the definitive history of Battery Park City. But it offers some key lessons that should inform thinking about megaprojects, especially in New York City--and should've provoked skepticism about the heady claims for Atlantic Yards.

Optimistic vs. realistic projections

Consider the launch of Atlantic Yards in December 2003. No one, at least publicly, questioned the professed ten-year buildout or how, as the press packet claimed, the project could "look whole and complete" during each construction phrase.

(Note: while I was following the project as a layperson reader of the local press, and later by attending public meetings, I didn't start researching and writing about it until the summer of 2005, with my precursor blog TimesRatnerReport launching in September 2005.)

At the press conference, which I've seen reviewed on video, landscape architect Laurie Olin spoke with optimism tempered by experience. "We'll know exactly what it looks like when it's built," he said. He'd been "working on Battery Park City since 1979," he declared, "and it ain't over.”

Indeed, the Battery Park City Authority had been established in 1968, and the 92-acre landfill site completed in 1976. (The Atlantic Yards site is 22 acres.) As Gordon writes in his concluding chapter, one important lesson was "that it will take decades to implement a big redevelopment project. Battery Park City is still only fifty percent complete thirty years after [Gov.] Nelson Rockefeller's announcement."

Atlantic Yards hedging

I remember talking to a major project supporter, the Partnership for New York City's Kathryn Wylde, in December 2006, when the project was about to get approved. I asked if the absence of congestion pricing made her rethink support for Atlantic Yards. Solutions, she replied, would arrive before the project reached critical mass. "You're talking about a 15-year, 20-year buildout.”

"They say ten years," I noted.

"Not a chance," Wylde responded, with a smile.

She, of course, was right.

Yet developer Bruce Ratner, given New York Daily News op-ed space in May 2008 after huge doubts surfaced regarding the project, professed an updated ten-year timetable, as if the start date had merely been nudged back. Still, his language hedged: "We anticipate finishing all of Atlantic Yards by 2018."

Didn't happen.

Despite much call for an update in the last two years, developer Greenland Forest City Partners has been unwilling to deliver an updated timetable, and Empire State Development, the state authority overseeing/shepherding the project, has been unwilling to require one.

But there are other sources of information. I reported in 2018 on a document (excerpt at right) filed with the state Attorney General's Office, which states that “the remaining buildings, and the balance of the public park, [are] projected to be completed in phases by 2035."

Even that deadline was hedged. Today, putting aside the full (and still developing) ramifications of the coronavirus crisis, it's highly likely that previous deadlines, including the 2025 affordable housing deadline, will be nudged back, at minimum, if not renegotiated.

A long-term horizon

Gordon writes about the need for a longer-term horizon:
Implementation ebbs and flows with the political and economic cycles, and all aspects of a redevelopment agency's activities must be structured on the assumption that it is engaged in a long-term endeavor, not a "one-shot" real estate project. Planning for this type of activity needs an underlying framework which is robust, and a process which allows quick reaction and minor adjustments to accommodate the fleeting opportunities which appear over the years.
Indeed, large real estate projects typically get built through multiple economic cycles and, in this case, two cataclysmic ones: the 2007-08 recession, and the 2020-?? coronavirus crisis.

As I wrote in 2018, citing a 2012 discussion of Atlantic Yards, Marilyn Taylor, Dean, University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, observed that, "the larger the project is, more important it is to think of the life cycles over the life of the project."

“But right now, I think the biggest thing that is important, on the design side, is: think mixed-income, think mixed-use, be honest about phasing: nothing ever gets built at once,” she said, in an observation that should’ve been stressed in Brooklyn from the start. “And what if you didn’t build the second phase the way you thought it was going to be, would it still be OK?”

Indeed, the initial plan to build four towers integrated into the arena was scrapped, and the arena built as a standalone. Two towers flanking the arena are finished, and a third is under construction, albeit paused.

The giant "Miss Brooklyn" tower won't be built over what became the arena plaza, and the developer announced plans to shift the bulk across the street to build a giant two-tower project at Site 5. (The market for an office project, as I wrote, has diminished.)

The configuration of the affordable housing and the plan for condominiums have already changed. Surely more will change.

The issue wasn't design. Those "bemoaning" constraints on original architect Frank Gehry, wrote the Regional Plan Association's Rob Lane in an April 2008 letter to the New York Times, confused "city-building" with "architectural design problems." Great cities, he observed, relied not "on cutting-edge architecture [but] a clear framework of streets and open spaces."

Atlantic Yards, he had suggested in a May 2007 newsletter, reflected unwise tactics: inadequate planning had been succeeded by "too little public oversight." Lane also warned (in Alex Marshall's RPA newsletter) of "overly rigid design guidelines that cannot accommodate changes in architects, market demand or neighborhood needs." The public and the politicians, he concluded, had to "shoulder more burdens, and more responsibility."

The value of a plan

To save Battery Park City--crucially, not a single-developer project, but one launched by the public sector--Richard Kahan found urban designers Alex Cooper and Stan Eckstut who, as Gordon writes, "demonstrated the use of traditional infrastructure--streets and parks--to shape urban space." That at the time was a departure from orthodoxy.

Gordon quotes Eckstut's distillation of their approach:
  • Think Small. Plan in increments, with many architects. Avoid the construction camp appearance by completing one phase at a time.
  • Learn From What Exists. Reuse Existing Buildings, where possible, and get clues from the site and surrounding areas.
  • Integrate. Avoid platforms and build at grade to integrate with the streets. Connect to the water.
  • Design Streets, Not Buildings. Promote activity on commercial streets. use design guidelines to foster coherence in the public realm.
While that third tenet is not relevant, the others have enormous Atlantic Yards resonance. Eckstut's lessons were known and voiced by some Atlantic Yards critics; they just weren't taken seriously, perhaps because the public sector wasn't really in charge.

Yes, Atlantic Yards was conceived in phases, but those phases were unrealistic.

The project was announced with a single, genius architect, helpful with marketing, but even Gehry didn't think he should design all the buildings, though the developer professed otherwise. In the end, there have been multiple architects, some more successful than others.

No buildings on the project site have been reused. There were not-unreasonable arguments for reuse of large warehouse-type structures like the Ward Bakery (and more), but they were trumped by the argument that it would diminish the total amount of housing and interfere with the open space.

In other words, bigger was better. Which, on paper, may make sense or, at least, qualify as "rational basis" to trump any legal challenge in the New York system.

The same objection was made to proposals to add streets to the project rather than eliminate them--it would take away from crucial open space.

In other words, the size of the project, and thus the trickle-down benefits of jobs, and housing, trumped everything. In reality, a smaller, better-designed project--drawing on lessons from Battery Park City--might have been built faster and been more tenable.

And the project's benefits would've been delivered faster, compensating for a larger plan delivered over an unknown, extended period.