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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)

Today: BrooklynSpeaks (and electeds) will ask Gov. Hochul to enforce fines for unbuilt (and mostly forgotten) Urban Room. It's a proxy for bigger accountability issues.

Today, in a 10 am press conference scheduled near the Barclays Center's SeatGeek Plaza, the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, backed by some elected officials, will call on the administration of Gov. Kathy Hochul to collect fines--potentially totaling $10 million--for failing to build the Urban Room, the glass atrium that's long been supplanted by the "temporary" plaza.

To my mind, the effort is both legit and contrived.

After all, until recently, no one has publicly made an issue out of the missing Urban Room, which would've linked B1--the unbuilt flagship tower, aka "Miss Brooklyn"--and the arena with a glass atrium.

Not until Gib Veconi, the best-informed--or is it only informed?--member of the (purportedly) advisory Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation, raised the issue of the Urban Room at a meeting last month, no one had talked about it. (Yes, that May 2022 deadline had slipped my mind, too.) 

At least since 2016, developer Greenland Forest City Partners (GFCP) has floated plans to preserve the plaza and remove the Urban Room from project obligations, aiming toto transfer most of the bulk of the unbuilt B1 to Site 5, across Flatbush Avenue, the longtime home to Modell's and P.C. Richard. 

That would create a giant, two-tower project, nearly 800 feet tall, according to 2016 projections, with 1.1 million square feet. The plan, which must be approved by Empire State Development (ESD), the gubernatorially-controlled state authority that oversee/shepherds the project, might finally move forward this year.

Also reciprocally contrived: the claim, by ESD and the developer that the plaza must be preserved because it served, accidentally, as the locus of protests in 2020 when the arena was shuttered because of the pandemic. After all, the plan was conceived long before that.

A proxy for a larger issue

Local elected officials and civic groups are surely not outraged by the absence of the atrium, however much it contrasts with the plaza. (Quick: the plaza's larger but not weatherproof. The publicly accessible, privately controlled plaza has a commercial sponsor and lots of advertising. The Urban Room likely would have too.)

Rather, it seems a proxy for a larger issue: the developer's looming inability to meet the May 2025 deadline to deliver 876 more units of affordable housing, facing $2,000/month fines for each missing unit.

Indeed, in a message yesterday, BrooklynSpeaks asked, "If we let them get away with it today, how can we expect ESD to enforce deadlines for affordable housing and open space tomorrow?"

And that's legit, since ESD has expressed distinct disinterest in enforcing the Urban Room obligation nor pressing the developer on the housing deadline. As I reported, a representative of Greenland USA--which dominates GFCP--didn't answer when asked about key questions at a meeting two days ago.

The project Development Agreement says, regarding damages, that, if the Urban Room isn't built, the developer shall pay $10 million over a 12-month period, starting with two monthly payments of $200,000, then two of $400,000, then two of $600,000, $800,000, $1,000,000, and $2,000,000.

A loophole?

That said, there may be a loophole. Project documents give ESD a "right to refrain" from enforcing obligations in the project's guiding Development Agreement, which surely applies to the Urban Room. 

It's not clear if that "right to refrain" applies to the fines for the missing affordable housing--part of a separate settlement that BrooklynSpeaks helped achieve in 2014, after threating a lawsuit, on fair-housing grounds, that the delayed affordable housing disproportionately affected Black residents who'd be displaced before they became eligible for affordable housing lotteries with preferences for locals.

But if Empire State Development had said, for example, that they would enforce the housing deadline, their willingness to give a pass on the Urban Room might be more justifiable. Instead, it looks like no effort at accountability.

A coming negotiation?

I suspect that, beyond the belated effort for accountability, this could be part of a negotiation.

Enforcement or extensions of both the Urban Room fine as well as the 2025 fines also could be bargaining chips to push GFCP to commit to, say, deeper affordable housing at Site 5 and, say, an Urban Room-like "space for large community gatherings" there. Both are stated BrooklynSpeaks priorities.

BrooklynSpeaks ventilated its priorities, notably deeper affordability in housing, in a series of workshops earlier this year known as Crossroads.

However, the coalition shied away from setting any limits on the bulk and height of the Site 5 proposal, which could be vastly bulkier than anything approved in the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning or even the 80 Flatbush spot rezoning.

That sets up the possibility that the component groups of BrooklynSpeaks, along with elected officials, would endorse GFCP's plan for a giant, two-tower project as the developer agrees to deeper affordability and other conditions.

Except that discounts the impact on those nearest a site that was supposed to be transitional.

Who'll be there   

The press conference may be a platform for some elected officials to get some "earned media," notably Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, who's running for a hotly contested open seat in Congress.

Also expected are State Senator Jabari Brisport, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, and City Council Member Shahana Hanif. (She's not been active on Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park issues, but... Site 5 is in her district, while the rest of the project is in Council Member Crystal Hudson's district. Hudson was not listed in the media alert.)

Also represented will be Atlantic Avenue Local Development Corporation, Boerum Hill Association, CNU NYC, Diaspora Community Services, Fifth Avenue Committee, Park Slope Civic Council, IMPACCT Brooklyn, North Flatbush Business Improvement District, and the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council.

That said, BrooklynSpeaks is effectively run by few people, notably Veconi, the media contact. He wears more than a few hats. He's not only a leader and webmaster of of BrooklynSpeaks, he chairs the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council and has led the Vanderbilt Avenue Open Streets effort. In recent years, he's been the key member of the Community Board 8 on land use issues, given his leadership of the M-CROWN subcommittee. And as a member of the AY CDC, he has the opportunity to raise issues--and get information--ahead of the press and public.

About BrooklynSpeaks

BrooklynSpeaks, which I--fairly or not--early on summarized as "mend it, don't end it," was formed as a contrasting vehicle to the new defunct Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, which organized rallies, lawsuits, and political activism to stop the project.

The summary from BrooklynSpeaks:
The BrooklynSpeaks coalition was formed in 2006 to advocate for accountability at the Atlantic Yards project. BrooklynSpeaks successfully challenged a 2009 renegotiation of the project agreements between Empire State Development and developer Forest City Ratner, with a State Supreme Court finding that ESD’s extending the completion deadline of the project from ten years to twenty-five years violated New York State environmental law. In 2014, coalition members settled a threatened Fair Housing suit for an acceleration of the deadline for Atlantic Yards’ affordable housing from 2035 to 2025.

That new deadline, indeed, was an achievement, but what's not mentioned was the coalition's inability to ensure that the affordability would match the levels promised--despite a statement that Brooklyn "finally gets the affordable housing it was promised."

That means that, instead, a disproportionate amount of income-targeted housing geared to middle-income households.

Also unmentioned: the AY CDC, the advisory body established, gave the governor more power than BrooklynSpeaks had sought.

That's part of why BrooklynSpeaks now seeks a new governance entity. And also why any future negotiations deserve transparency and scrutiny.