Sunday, November 13, 2005


Finally, an Atlantic Yards op-ed from the Times: critical, but hardly coherent

So, 23 months after Forest City Ratner officially announced its Atlantic Yards plan, and some 28 months after discussion began in the press, the New York Times on 11/13/05 finally ran an op-ed piece about it, headlined The Project That Ate Brooklyn. The contributor John B. Manbeck is identified as "a former Brooklyn borough historian." The bio box doesn't mention that he has written (noncontroversial) historical articles for both issues of Forest City Ratner's Brooklyn Standard p.r. sheet.

Manbeck's critical take on the project, calling the subsidies a "misuse of public funds," likely won't be welcomed by the developer, but at the same time he misreads critics, calling them NIMBYs, and, while criticizing the approval process, basically throws up his hands. See further analysis at NoLandGrab and Manbeck's semi-explanations at the New York Observer's The Real Estate. Note that the editorial was commissioned "a couple of months ago" but ran the Sunday after the election, so it had no effect on the mayoral debate.

Note: the op-ed appears in the City Weekly section, which is part of the Times issued only in the five boroughs. Those outside city limits--the suburbs of Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey, and Connecticut--get their own weekly edition, and the City Weekly obviously doesn't appear in the national edition. Thus, debate about this project is limited. I note in Chapter 13 of my report that op-eds and editorials about this enormous project should appear in the main editorial section. Also note that the op-ed appeared after, rather than before, the mayoral election in which incumbent Mike Bloomberg and challenger Freddy Ferrer differed significantly on the project.

Manbeck sets up his point:
But just as we'll always have developers, community activists and environmentalists will invariably seek to check their greed and broaden their foresight. The tension between these two groups can be a creative one - except when it leads developers to exaggerate their ambitions and activists to simply obstruct them.
That's where we are with Forest City Ratner Companies' plan to build a sports arena surrounded by 17 imposing high-rise buildings on the Atlantic Avenue railyards. The plan is overkill, for which public officials are partly to blame. But the community's response to it - a mix of not-in-my-backyard rejection and idealized nostalgia - is overkill as well.

First, it's 16 buildings, not 17--a mistake several writers have made (including me). More importantly, the project would not be "on the Atlantic Avenue railyards." The railyard would represent 8.3 (or, to some sources, 8.5) acres of a 22-acre site. The Times's then-architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, made this mistake in his initial 12/11/03 assessment ("It is now an open railyard") and now Manbeck makes it again. Why can't the Times get this right after two years?

Worse, Manbeck does not identify the NIMBY rejection and "idealized nostalgia." After all, the leader of the opposing coalition is called Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, and it was DDDB that helped sponsor the UNITY plan for developing the railyard and also found Extell Development Co. to bid on the railyard after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority belatedly opened it up for bidding. Remember, Extell outbid Forest City Ratner, but the MTA still took FCR's bid.

As for "idealized nostalgia," it's Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who solicited Bruce Ratner to buy the Nets and bring them to Brooklyn, who regularly invokes how the Brooklyn Dodgers 50 years ago brought the borough together. See his most recent State of the Borough address:
Meanwhile, new residents, businesses, and cultural institutions — not to mention the upcoming arrival of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets — are increasingly making Brooklyn a true land of opportunity.
Now, I fought hard to get a national sports team to call Brooklyn home.
I know of three things that bring people together like nothing else — music, religion, and sports.
As a boy, I’m happy to say that I was able to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers play every summer, just a few blocks from where I lived.

Manbeck continues:
This arena proposal makes good sense. The neighborhood's residents fear a traffic snarl, but with 10 subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road serving Atlantic Avenue station, that's unlikely to be a problem. And the arena would stimulate construction on Boerum Hill's vacant lots while helping to increase ridership on the underused Flatbush branch of the L.I.R.R.

The author betrays some stunning naivete. There was never a proposal for just an arena; announcing the project, Bruce Ratner told the New York Times (12/11/03), "This started with basketball... But it became clear it was not economically viable without a real estate component." Thus residents fearing increased traffic have based their concerns on the project as a whole. The Daily News reported, a 2/29/04 article headlined Arena concerns hit home:
Basketball games will generate a fraction of the traffic compared to Ratner's nearly 7 million square feet of planned residential and office space..."

Manbeck continues:
But the Atlantic Yards proposal doesn't stop with the Nets. The 14-million-square-foot project includes a 620-foot-high office building, taller than the neighborhood's landmark, the 512-foot-high Williamsburgh Savings Bank. The proposal replaces 162 dwellings with 8,300 new units, 40 percent of which will be allocated to low- and middle-income housing. The influx of new residents will swiftly overload the neighborhood's social services and commercial amenities, and the project's footprint will encroach on historic neighborhoods like Prospect Heights.

Hm, 14 million square feet? I thought it was just over 9 million. As for the residential units, there would be, at most, 7,300 at the project site, and 600 to 1,000 condos built offsite. Only if the full 1,000 offsite condos were built would the 40% mark be reached and, as I've noted, relatively few of the units would be truly affordable.

Manback then makes a point about the total project cost:
Still more disturbing than the scale of the project is the active support that Forest City Ratner, a private company, has received from the borough, city and state governments. All told, Forest City Ratner's Brooklyn plan will cost the public $1 billion in tax breaks, subsidies and noncompetitive bidding. (Forest City Ratner is also the development partner for the new headquarters that The New York Times Company is building in Manhattan with the help of $26.1 million in tax breaks.)
The idea behind such generous infusions of public money into private enterprise, presumably, is that the returns will benefit government as well as the developer. But quite apart from being a misuse of public funds, a project that relies heavily on subsidies rarely works. If anything, the very fact that a developer can't make a project float on its own should signal that something is wrong with its scale.

A misuse of public funds--that's a serious accusation, and one that should have entered the debate two years ago. Note that the direct subsidies are for the arena, and many of the indirect subsidies for the rest of the project.

Note that Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey identified a total public cost over 30 years at $1.1 billion; other analyses suggest it could be even more. Manbeck here presents an apples-and-oranges situation when comparing the Atlantic Yards and Times Tower project. Atlantic Yards supporters could say that they would receive only $200 million in direct subsidies; the rest of the monies would be indirect subsidies. As for the Times Tower, the total public cost would be more than Manbeck acknowledges. The Village Voice reported last August:
The deal calls for the Times to get $26.1 million in tax breaks, but the real price for the public depends on the additional cost for the land.
That could add another $79 million.

Manbeck then offers some general guidelines for development:
There is a responsible role for government to play in urban development, and it isn't the role of share-holder. Rather, the city should provide oversight, offer input and, if necessary, exert control over such projects to prevent overbuilding, particularly in areas where growth is as vibrant as it is in Brooklyn.
Officials need to consider the existing profiles of neighborhoods as well as the immediate goals of developers.
There are plenty of good precedents to look to. The developer Greg O'Connell created an environmentally friendly Red Hook waterfront where once there was simply blight. In Dumbo, David Walentas reconfigured vacant factories and storage spaces to create housing. The city's planning commission needs to hold developers' feet to the fire, to make sure that they are always aware of the responsibility they bear to the city.

Implicit yet unstated is the huge difference between the above projects and Atlantic Yards. The city has allowed the Atlantic Yards project to completely bypass the city's land use review process, ULURP; it will be managed by the state. Also, neither of the above projects required eminent domain, and they proceeded in large part as renovations of existing buildings, not new construction.

Manbeck continues:
Brooklyn's developers have a habit of submitting audacious initial proposals. That way, when the public balks, as it inevitably does at new development, the developer can retreat to a more conservative plan that satisfies his true ambitions while allowing the public to feel that it has staved off disaster. When Brooklyn Law School faced community resistance to its proposal for an oversized dormitory building, the developer pulled back and compromised.

There's a huge difference, however, between scaling back one building, and scaling back a project with 17 buildings. What's the proper balance between the "overkill" Manbeck identifies on both sides? Nine buildings? Maybe we must first agree on basic principles, like whether the project is "on the Atlantic Avenue railyards" or not. Ratner's plan would cover an area nearly three times the size of the railyard; the plan by Extell (or another plan just based on the railyard) would not.

Note that state Assemblyman Roger Green, who first floated the idea of moving affordable rentals offsite to reduce project density, in today's New York Daily News suggested moving both types of housing:
Green is proposing to move up to a third of the residential units - a mix of market-rate and affordable apartments - in the area between rapidly gentrifying Prospect Heights and Crown Heights.

Note that one-third of 7,300 units would be 2,433 units, leaving 4,867 units--still more than the original 4,500 units, though, due to the current planned reduction in office space, probably resulting in a project somewhat smaller than the original 7.7 million square feet proposed.

Here's Manbeck's conclusion:
Now Forest City Ratner has revised its plan, but the size has jumped and the costs escalated. Too bad the company did not instead retreat to a place that balances a forward-looking vision with respect for Brooklyn's heritage.

Now? Forest City Ratner revised its plan at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing, announcing up to 2,800 additional luxury condos, and in mid-September confirmed it when the ESDC released a project outline. And can Forest City Ratner retreat? Sure, it could downsize a project that has grown significantly and changed character. But it never was going to propose just an arena, and its plan has always relied on eminent domain for properties in the non-railyard component of the footprint.

So, what next? Will another op-ed or editorial urge the environmental impact statement to address the scale? Will a commentator urge the state Public Authorities Control Board, which still must sign off on the state subsidies, to withhold the subsidies? Will the New York Times soon print editorials from known supporters and opponents of the plan? How about Assemblyman Roger Green vs. City Councilwoman Letitia James?

One more thing: the "pull quote" for the article says "A stadium for the Nets is a good idea. But 17 high rises?" Again, a press outlet confuses an arena with a stadium.

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