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Did "luck" help an "unheralded developer" win approval for the 840 Atlantic rezoning? TRD's account obscures the strategy and discounts the Council Member's role.

Well, this was curious.
Was it really "luck" that Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings' (VAH) 840 Atlantic rezoning--across the street from the northeast corner of the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park site--triumphed? 

I doubt it, and am disappointed that The Real Deal--an industry-insider publication--was both unable to get candor from the developer and unwilling to dig deeper to describe what really happened, obscuring the developer's strategy and discounting the key direction from Council Member Laurie Cumbo.

Leading off

The 11/9/21 article is headlined How an unheralded developer survived NYC’s fraught rezoning process, with the subheading "Builder’s foresight, flexibility won approval to replace Atlantic Ave McDonald’s with apartments."

The lead:
Two weeks before the New York City Council was to vote on an upzoning to let Tom Li turn a Prospect Heights McDonald’s into an apartment complex, the developer was not feeling too optimistic.

Anti-development fervor stretched across the city. The local senator, Jabari Brisport, had fingered Li’s project and its ilk as responsible for “bleeding out Black people from the community.” The community board had rejected it, as did Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, despite having campaigned for mayor on a pro-development platform.

“We thought that it was over,” said Li.

So it came as a surprise to Li and his team at Brooklyn-based Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings when the pivotal player in the approval process, City Council member Laurie Cumbo, signed off in September on their plan for 840 Atlantic Avenue. A deal came together at the 11th hour to lower the density and deepen the affordability.
The article then sets up a bit of a strawman, contrasting the 840 Atlantic plan with the unsuccessful plan to build two giant towers in Crown Heights near the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and another contentious plan at South Street Seaport.

What's missing in the summary is that 1) Brooklyn Community Board 8 had already endorsed a neighborhood upzoning, so the issue was a matter of degree, rather than a yes-no binary; 2) unlike in Crown Heights, the NYC Department of City Planning endorsed the upzoning; and 3) Cumbo had reason to look positively on the upzoning early on. (The first two issues are mentioned later in the article.)

Also missing: 1) there's evidence that the "unheralded developer" was a beard for the much larger and more controversial Rabsky Group; 2) this "unheralded developer" hired top lobbyists; and 3) this "unheralded developer" hired Berlin Rosen, one of the city's most influential public relations firms, to manage p.r., and steer public discourse, likely including several pro-project essays.

A "case study"?

From the article:
Every rezoning in New York is different. And the developer of 840 Atlantic Avenue still needs to overcome a lawsuit brought by McDonald’s. Still, Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings’ experience is a case study for how a developer can push a rezoning across the finish line.

It also represents a subtle shift in how Council members view development in a housing-starved city where well-off residents flex political muscle to shut down any prospect of new apartments — joined by far-left activists in a potent if accidental alliance.

“It shows that it is becoming more possible in the city to rezone wealthy neighborhoods,” said Will Thomas, executive director of Open New York, a pro-housing nonprofit.
That, of course, conforms to The Real Deal's posture, as well. 

What's missing is any recognition of why Community Board 8--whether or not you think the density limits it recommended deserved tweaking--sought a more holistic neighborhood rezoning, which could deliver a broader array of community amenities, rather than embark on a series of spot rezonings.

Behind the development, some omissions

The article states:
Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings saw the potential of the corner lot in 2017, paying $7 million to acquire a 99-year lease and become McDonald’s landlord. The deal at 840 Atlantic Avenue — a bargain in retrospect — made little noise at the time.

The development team consisted of real estate unknowns Li and Sam Rottenberg, along with passive investor Simon Dushinsky, a Hasidic developer behind Williamsburg’s high-rise boom. (Dushinsky, head of Rabsky Group, is notoriously press shy; no pictures or media interviews of him appear to exist online.)
Wait a sec. We don't know what exactly VAH got for the $7 million payment, since another partner in the project is Tony Musto, whose firm is longtime owner of the main parcel.

We should be skeptical of the claim that Dushinsky is merely a passive investor, because, as I wrote for Bklyner in April, a message (right) in the meeting's chat from the building service workers union, Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, saluting the plan identified the project developer as Rabsky, while a second version instead cited VAH.

The plan

From the article:
Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings’ plans to redevelop the site were first revealed by journalist Norman Oder in 2019. A year later, the outfit pitched to Community Board 8 an 18-story, 316-unit building with 95 affordable apartments and commercial and community space to replace the McDonald’s, a parking lot, two vacant lots and three three-story residential buildings. It tapped Industry City-based IMC Architecture to design the project and hired the white-shoe law firm Slater & Beckerman (now Hirschen Singer & Epstein) as its lobbyist.

But there was a problem: The plans did not conform with Community Board 8’s own rezoning plan.

The board’s M-Crown plan — which city planners did not endorse — would upzone some Crown Heights and Prospect Heights industrial and commercial sites but limit building heights to 14 stories and floor-area ratio to 7. Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings’ proposal was for 18 stories with an 8.8 FAR. Exceeding M-Crown’s parameters would create a dangerous precedent, community board members warned.

“It would be very difficult to get back to the 6 to 7 FAR that has been outlined for Atlantic Avenue,” said board member Gib Veconi during the December virtual meeting.

Community board approvals are advisory, but this one seemed essential for Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings because Cumbo said she would only support a plan endorsed by Community Board 8.
Well, one key is that city planners had not endorsed M-Crown, and Cumbo's record suggests she'd rather get to a compromise rather than say no. Also, while Cumbo did say that she'd back CB 8, she said that only in response to my query to her office; she was not actively involved in the debate.

Unmentioned: the developers early on promised below-market space to an arts organization, the dance studio/school Jamel Gaines Creative Outlet, which seemed pitched to appeal to Cumbo, an arts advocate who founded the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). 

Cumbo--I should have noticed this earlier--has since 2014 personally partnered with Gaines in a popular dance contest. 

In a 10/6/21 open letter regarding the Bedford-Union Armory, Cumbo defended her overall record, stating, in part, "I was able to secure and build permanent homes for Jamel Gaines Creative Outlet Dance Theatre of Brooklyn...." So this was clearly an achievement she didn't want to jeopardize.

The compromise

From the article:
In Li’s case, M-Crown was as much of a blessing as a curse. Sure, the vision restricted density, but it helped the developer and the board’s land use committee reach common ground.

“If you saw the framework, the community wanted to see density here,” said Li.

Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings made some cuts, reducing the FAR to 7.2. But it was not enough. In May, the committee voted 14-2 to reject the revised plan. And in July, Adams — the mayoral front-runner — also recommended against it.

Normally, these rejections would weigh down the rezoning application as it moved on to the City Planning Commission and City Council for a final verdict. But in a twist, the developer, recalling Cumbo’s deference to the community board, went back to the land use panel to work out a compromise.
That's disingenous. The Land Use Committee wasn't volunteering a compromise, but rather, as I reported, during the Sept. 2 meeting, Land Use Chair Ethel Tyus said that adding density beyond M-CROWN “is something Majority Leader Cumbo is willing to give to this applicant, in exchange for the additional affordable units.”

In other words, it came from the top. It would be interesting to understand the communications between the developer and Cumbo, and/or between the Council Member and CB 8.

The vote

From the article:
The result was an agreement to lower the height on some sides to 17 stories, reduce the bulk by 10 percent and shift density from one side of the project to another. Low-rent units would be slashed to 54 from 95, but they would be affordable to people with even lower incomes.

The land use committee voted 17-3 for the revised plan, calling it “a rare opportunity to secure truly affordable housing.” But the full community board’s vote of 14-8 with eight abstentions at a heated virtual meeting was technically short of a majority.
While the full board's vote--with different members, of course--was surprising, it was in part a reaction to the committee's vote and the limited amount of time to digest a plan that, for example, did not come with any new rendering. 

I'd say that the Land Use Committee's vote was even more striking, since it repudiated a longstanding posture asserting the M-CROWN guidelines that Cumbo was supposed to uphold. My best conclusion is that Committee members felt they owed deference to the Council Member, rather than vice versa.

The article goes on to describe the suprising, and contentious, intervention by state Senator Jabari Brisport, a Cumbo antagonist, and suggests-that "Brisport’s opposition might have helped Li’s team win Cumbo’s favor."

That, however, doesn't conform to the sequence; Cumbo had already signed off on the rezoning. So she ignored the full board's mixed vote and decided--against her stated policy--to go with the Land Use Committee.


The article makes this contrast:
Other than some union support [in Crown Heights], [developer] Eichner faced blanket opposition: Neighbors, Botanic Garden donors, local elected officials and the mayor lined up against him. That was not the case at 840 Atlantic Avenue.

“You just had anti-development groups. They didn’t link up with a powerful constituency,” said a New York City developer who requested anonymity.

But the debate wasn't about "anti-development" and "pro-development," it was a question of degree, and whether the M-CROWN plan should be followed, or updated, and how. 

What next?

The article concludes: 

And Li had some political tailwinds, notably de Blasio administration support and Cumbo’s acrid relationship with Brisport.

Still, the developers of 840 Atlantic Avenue played their cards right and will take their win. Li is not cashing in his chips just yet, though. He declined to give any construction timeline until the McDonald’s lawsuit is resolved.

“To me, this is the beginning of the process,” he said.

That's interesting, because, of course, they pitched the project as delivering crucial affordable housing--and the longer it takes, the more likely the base Area Median Income will rise, outpacing local incomes.

And yes, the spot rezonings are continuing.