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

CM Hudson says what hasn’t been stressed: Atlantic Yards developers, if they don’t meet the affordable housing deadline, should pay fines agreed to in 2014

Last night, the first session of BrooklynSpeaks’ four-week Crossroads series, aiming to develop revised plans for Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, focused on 1) a history of the project (to get the 70-plus attendees up to speed) and 2) a discussion of potential changes to streets and building design. I’ll look at the latter soon, in a separate article.

(For history, see BrooklynSpeaks’ summary, and my FAQ + timelines.)

To me, a crucial piece of information emerged near the end, in brief public comments from newly elected Council Member Crystal Hudson, a Prospect Heights resident who represents the 35th District, which includes nearly all of the 22-acre project site.

Hudson stressed accountability from project master developer Greenland Forest City Partners, including expected fines for missing affordable housing, and said she recently discussed it with Gov. Kathy Hochul, who controls the project via the state authority Empire State Development.

That has not (yet) become a focus for BrooklynSpeaks, a coalition of neighborhood and advocacy groups that has proposed—and is gaining feedback on—new commitments from the city and state in exchange for the developer’s expected request for benefits.

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park is at an inflection point, for two reasons: a looming 2025 deadline to meet affordable housing obligations, and an expected effort by the developers to gain permission to move the bulk of the unbuilt “Miss Brooklyn” (aka B1) tower, once slated for what has become the Barclays Center plaza, across Flatbush Avenue to what is known as Site 5, longtime home to big-box stores Modell's and P.C. Richard.

From developer's 2016 presentation to Department of City Planning. The open space (arena plaza, Times Plaza) isn't green, but Brooklyn Bear's Garden is next to Site 5, though not visible.

Both offer the opportunity for potential negotiation, regarding enforcement of obligations (for affordability and project completion), benefits to the developer, and commitments to project neighbors and larger constituencies.

An inflection point: housing deadline

With eight of 15 (or 16) towers built or under construction, Greenland Forest City must start and complete 876 more affordable housing units by May 31, 2025, or face $2,000/month fines for each missing unit.

Those fines were set in a 2014 settlement (document) negotiated by BrooklynSpeaks, which had threatened a lawsuit on fair-housing grounds.

The premise was that the state’s previous extension of project deadlines—to 25 years, rather than the long promised ten years—disadvantaged Black residents who’d be displaced and no longer eligible for community preference, in which the affordable housing lottery reserves half the spaces for residents of the four closest Community Districts.

So a new 2025 deadline for the affordable housing was established, just before Greenland USA, the arm of the Shanghai-based Greenland Group, bought a majority of the project from the original developer, Forest City Ratner. 

(That new deadline+fines was significant, though I also pointed out that BrooklynSpeaks exaggerated its achievements, misleadingly saying that Brooklyn "finally gets the affordable housing it was promised," since the affordability lagged, and optimistically assessing  the new advisory Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation, which has met infrequently and been mostly ineffective.)

Since then, however, the income-targeted housing has been less affordable than promised, in part due to changing state and city policy, and the willingness of the state to set very loose requirements.

The result: disproportionate “affordable” units for people earning over $100,000, and—for four buildings—no community preference. (Of course community preference becomes less meaningful when it helps middle-income people stay in their neighborhoods, since it’s conceptually aimed at those who struggle more.)

So far, developer Greenland Forest City Partners has said, with decreasing credibility, that it will meet the deadline and that it has not asked for an extension.

After all, the developer in the 9/30/19 New York Post promised to start the first phase of a two-block platform over the Vanderbilt Yard—which would support three towers, which presumably could supply those missing housing units—in 2020, but it has not done so.

My take: it would not have been implausible for the developers to seek a brief extension if they could cite evidence of delays related to COVID—say, in getting the city and state bureaucracies to cooperate. (COVID has not delayed ongoing construction.)

However, they’ve claimed all along that they will meet their deadlines, while refusing to offer details.

Now, meeting that deadline seems untenable. The question is whether the state will enforce it or renegotiate it. A previous Chair of Empire State Development last March floated the fuzzy notion of a legislative “fix” regarding the project.

An inflection point: Site 5 bulk transfer

Since 2015, the developers have proposed plans to shift the bulk of the unbuilt “Miss Brooklyn” tower, once slated to loom over the arena, across Flatbush Avenue to what’s known as Site 5, longtime home of the big-box stores Modell’s and P.C. Richard.

That site was previously approved for a substantial 250-foot, 439,050-square foot building. The developers’ previous plan—a new one is expected—contemplated a two-tower project with more than 1.1 million square feet. The development rights, I speculated, could be worth $300 million.

The bulk shift was stalled by litigation from P.C. Richard, which contends it was promised replacement space in the future building, but that litigation was settled last year.

It’s expected that Empire State Development will begin the process, which could take a year and involve public hearings, to transfer that bulk.

The value of the site is attenuated by the requirements, As I wrote last year, former Forest City CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin said in a February 2017 deposition that "I was concerned that there would be a requirement to put affordable housing in Site 5 if, in fact, we were to get the [government’s] support to move the air rights.”

Questions of leverage  

That bulk shift requires approval by ESD’s gubernatorially controlled board, which is typically a rubber stamp, though it’s potentially liable to political pressure. The developers’ “desire to move this FAR [Floor Area Ratio, a measure of bulk] across Flatbush Avenue to Site 5 gives us an opportunity to make changes,” said Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon last night.

Added Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, who hosted the meeting for BrooklynSpeaks, “There are times when there is opportunity to move the needle.” While the state process is limited, it is not without opportunities, he said, “especially when the Governor is running for election” to her first full term.

Among BrooklynSpeaks’ proposed requests: that the remaining affordable housing be geared to low-income tenants, with preference to displaced locals, and that one-fourth of the total be allocated to seniors and another one-fourth be allocated to the homeless.

Unspoken is an overall increase in total project housing units—Site 5 was never expected to have housing—should mean an overall increase in total affordable units.

I asked in the chat if BrooklynSpeaks was preparing to endorse the planned bulk transfer, “as long as various improvements arrive, like ‘slow streets’ and more affordable housing (with deeper affordability)?”

“We have not made such a commitment,” responded Veconi.

That said, there was no response—yet—to comments made by stakeholders who are the nearest neighbors of Site 5, one a resident across Pacific Street and another a veteran of the Brooklyn Bear’s Garden. Both wondered whether it was too late to question the bulk transfer in the first place.

My take: it’s a legitimate question. Surely the risk of not transferring all or some of the bulk was baked into what Greenland paid Forest City. 

Also, a significant beneficiary of the unbuilt “Miss Brooklyn” is the arena operating company, now owned by Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, which has found new ways to monetize signage and sponsorship at the plaza.

Hudson’s comments

Hudson, speaking near the end of the meeting, was the first person to stress the importance of the fines.

She said Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park was one of the three topics she brought up during a recent meeting with Gov. Hochul. She said she told the governor how important it was to get a resolution regarding Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park.

“It is unlikely to be our ideal scenario,” Hudson said. What that meant is unclear, but Hochul has promised a replacement for the expiring Affordable New York (aka 421-a) tax break, which could be used to finance future buildings and avoid the current middle-income focus, though not necessarily deliver the low-income units BrooklynSpeaks has requested.

Hudson said that she doesn’t believe the affordable housing deadline will be met. “There will be fees assessed,” she said. “I want to make sure that money goes back into the community.”

Indeed, as part of the 2014 settlement, liquidated damages will go the New York City Housing Trust Fund administered by New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), and will be used for the creation and preservation of affordable housing with preference given for projects in Brooklyn Community Districts 2, 3, 6 and 8.

That said, look for Greenland Forest City to try to renegotiate the fines, perhaps as part of the negotiation over Site 5 and other project commitments.

Hochul, said Hudson, is “definitely aware of the situation… her staff has a memo that I left her. There definitely seems to be an openness to partnering with folks in the area… I think it was a good sign.”

The governor surely is also subject to real-estate lobbying, so stay tuned.

Other electeds

Beyond Hudson and Simon, also present at the meeting were state Senator Jabari Brisport, who spoke briefly, and Attorney General—and former 35th District Council Member—Letitia James, who sent greetings in the chat. 

I'm not sure if anyone was there representing new 39th District Council Member Shahana Hanif, though Site 5--as opposed to the rest of the project site--falls in her district.