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Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park infographics: what's built/what's coming/what's missing, who's responsible, + project FAQ/timeline (pinned post)

Despite plan to eliminate Urban Room, gateway to unbuilt tower flanking arena, previously undisclosed 2014 document affirmed obligation to build it. Is #SeatGeek plaza "significant public amenity"?

I wrote yesterday how, more than six years ago, developer Greenland Forest City Partners' (GFCP) plan to move most of the bulk of the unbuilt "Miss Brooklyn" (aka B1) across Flatbush Avenue to create a giant two-tower project at Site 5 also involved eliminating the Urban Room.

That's the long-forgotten promised publicly accessible space that was supposed to serve as an entryway for both B1 and the arena. 

Instead, by decoupling B1 and the other three towers (later built) from the arena construction project, they had to build a temporary plaza--one that GFCP and surely the arena operator would like to see as permanent.
From 2016 proposal

But they forgot to get it done on time.

Though long percolating, the process to allow a bigger project at Site 5--longtime home to the big-box stores Modell's (since closed) and P.C. Richard, and already approved for a substantial, 250-foot, 440,000-square-foot building--was delayed for various reasons.

A suit from P.C. Richard was settled last October, but Empire State Development (ESD)--the state authority that oversees/shepherds the project--surely because it hasn't gotten instruction from the developer--hasn't yet started the process to transfer the bulk.

Enforcement--or not?

From 2016 proposal
And until that process--typically rubber-stamped by the gubernatorially controlled board--goes through, a missed deadline looms.

As Director Gib Veconi pointed out at a meeting of the (purportedly advisory) Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation, a 5/12/22 deadline has passed for the developer to build the Urban Room or pay a potential $10 million penalty. (That full penalty is reached after a year.)

ESD's Tobi Jaiyesimi seemed uninterested in enforcement and repeated a more recent argument to preserve the plaza in light of its "accidential town square" status for 2020 protests--at least when such gatherings don't interfere with arena operations. 

And, as Veconi pointed out after publication, this doesn't bode well for enforcing more significant commitments.
Previous argument

In 2016, the developer argued that the plaza offered far more overall open space, ignoring the difference between an enclosed and an open-air space, as the commercial nature of the plaza. 
From Nov. 2006 Final EIS

(That said, the Urban Room surely have boasted lucrative--and disruptive--commercial signage.)

Of course, there's a potential loophole--ESD has a "right to refrain" from enforcement, at least if there's no political pressure. That could apply to both the Urban Room and the more significant fines for missing affordable housing.

A failure to amend

As Veconi pointed out on Twitter, ESD in 2014 and 2019 passed amendments to the guiding General Project Plan, approved by the ESD board, but did not incorporate a change regarding the Urban Room. 

That was a bit confusing to me, as shown in the Twitter exchange.
Well, Veconi didn't do so immediately, because the document had not yet been made public, which meant he was commenting based on information he, as a leader of coalition BrooklynSpeaks, gained privately after the 2014 negotiations established that new 2025 deadline. 

After my inquiry, Veconi last week posted the document, Omnibus Amendment to Project Documents, at the BrooklynSpeaks web site. (It's also at bottom.) By my lights, it should have been made public earlier by BrooklynSpeaks or ESD; also, I should've filed a Freedom of Information Law request to get it. 

Those 2014 amendments to Development Agreement (the contract between ESD and the developers) focus mainly on a new timetable for two "100% affordable" buildings and a new 2025 deadline for the affordable housing, but did not remove the requirement to build the Urban Room.

A crucial part of the document was already public: a new Second Amended Memorandum of Environmental Commitments (MEC), which is also posted on ESD's web site

Maintaining the obligation

One passage, not from the MEC, amended Section 8.6(d)(ii) of the Development Agreement to read as follows:
“For the avoidance of doubt, the deadline extensions provided for in this Section 8.6(d) apply only with respect to the Phase I Affordable Housing Commitment, Building B3 and Building B14, and shall not affect or otherwise alter any obligation to construct the Urban Room or, subject to Section 8.8(g) hereof to Substantially Complete the Phase I Improvements by the Outside Phase I Substantial Completion Date, subject only to Unavoidable Delays.”
(Emphases added)

In other words, they were not removing the obligation to build the Urban Room, though surely the decoupling of the arena from B1 meant they were planning to keep the plaza permanent. They likely thought they had time to later amend project documents. 

Also, as I wrote, perhaps the developers and ESD didn't want indicate that, instead of building the B1 tower, which was key to projected new jobs and tax revenues and thus part of the justification for the project, they were not planning to do so.

(Note that Section 8.8(g), regarding the timetable to build the first residential buildings, refers to a subsidy unavailability and that the Phase I Improvements refers to 1.5 million square feet of housing and the health care clinic, which have been built.)

An "interim plaza"

While Veconi wrote on Twitter that "2014 amendments to project agreements state plaza is interim pending UR [Urban Room]," that's not inaccurate but perhaps confusing, since it refers mainly to the MEC, which was already public.

The amendments establish that each project lease, as well as the earlier Development Agreement, was amended by substituting that new MEC, which contains this passage:
In the event that construction of Building 1 is delayed so that the Urban Room will not be completed by the date the arena commences operation, FCRC shall construct an urban plaza at the southeast corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, in substantially the same location as the location where the Urban Room is to be constructed. The design and program for the urban plaza shall follow the basic use and design principles of the Urban Room as set forth in the Design Guidelines, creating a significant public amenity. The urban plaza shall be a minimum of 10,000 square feet and shall include the following elements: landscaping, retail, seating, the subway entrance and space to allow for formal and informal public uses, such as outdoor performances, temporary markets, art installations and seating. In addition, the plaza may include public art or a prominent sculptural element (such as a canopy or other architectural feature that could be part of the arena and/or the subway entrance). The urban plaza shall be completed and available for public use upon the date of the opening of the arena. Thereafter, FCRC shall operate and maintain the urban plaza in good and clean condition, until such time as the area occupied by the urban plaza is required for construction of Building 1 or the Urban Room. 

Note that that passage does not hint that the plaza might be permanent. 

Has the plaza become a "significant public amenity," as proposed? Well, it has landscaping, seating, and a new subway entrance. The retail was limited to a Starbucks near the arena entrance, now closed.

Temporary markets? Barely. There have been far more private uses, promoting arena-related events. 

Art installations? Well, there is a notable sculpture, Ona, that looks a bit like a gyro. 

And, of course, there's now a neon art installation--"You belong here"/"We belong here"--that I think does double duty as advertising.

Back in 2016, when Justin Garrett Moore, Executive Director of the Public Design Commission, called the arena "one of the most important new public spaces and landmarks in the city." citing "pedestrian-oriented public spaces that connect people, transit and multiple uses," I called it a disappointingly narrow response and pointed use of the space for arena promotions and new revenue "in the casino category."

The latter referred to sponsorship of the plaza by Resorts World Casino NYC. Now the sponsor is SeatGeek.

As shown in the photo at right, it has been significantly cordoned off, even on a non-game day.

Design Guidelines followed?

What exactly were "the basic use and design principles of the Urban Room as set forth in the Design Guidelines"? The Design Guidelines state:
i. The Urban Room shall contain a variety of entry points, and shall be easily accessible to pedestrians at the ground floor level.
Ok, that has been foillowed. Also:
ii. The Urban Room shall include a café or other eating and drinking establishment and shall incorporate an entrance to the Atlantic Yards transit hub as well as provide entrances to Building 1 (other than entrances to residential uses) and the Arena, and may include other uses as set forth in Clause (c) above.
As noted, that small Starbucks is closed. There is an entrance to the transit hub. By the way, Clause (c) cites "Retail (which term shall include eating and drinking establishments), Arena ticket sales and support, entertainment, transit access, and building access."

There's not much entertainment beyond arena promotional events, though there have been very sporadic attempts, such as concerts in summer 2019

The last clause from the Design Guidelines:
iii. The Urban Room shall be open to the public from not less than 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, provided that the Developer shall be entitled to close the Urban Room for security reasons on a temporary basis and shall additionally have the right to close the Urban Room, not more than 12 times in any calendar year for private events, provided that no such closing shall occur on any national holiday and notice of which shall be posted within the Urban Room for not less than the five days immediate prior to such closing. Access to the transit connection shall be maintained during any such private events.

Well, the plaza is open, typically, 24/7, at least to provide access to the transit hub. 

The definition of "security reasons" is not stated, but the plaza is often severely truncated for arena operational purposes--some of which fall under "security," others under "promotion," and others in a gray area that the arena operator surely would claim as "security."

Bottom line: it's tough to say that the plaza follows the Design Guidelines, in both practice and intent. 

Then again, it's possible that the Urban Room, as gateway to the arena, might have been overwhelmed by arena crowds, essentially limiting public access and failing to follow the Design Guidelines.

Still, it should be noted that that Urban Room was proposed as an enclosed space, accessible during any season or weather condition, while sustained public access to the plaza depends on weather conditions.