Thursday, January 12, 2006

 

On insufficient open space, the question of shadows, and the role of historic buildings

Will there be enough open space at the proposed Atlantic Yards development? Will tall buildings cast debilitating shadows? Will valuable historic buildings be razed? Those questions must be addressed in the pending Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) from the state Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). Based on some preliminary discussion yesterday at a meeting of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, much remains unanswered--but there's reason for concern, especially about open space.

It's clear that the proposed seven acres of public open space (plus one acre of private space) doesn't represent the simple bounty promised by developer Forest City Ratner. Yes, the developer has hired Laurie Olin, a noted landscape architect, to try to make the space welcoming--a gesture, like the hiring of architect Frank Gehry to design the project, that represents a step up from past Forest City Ratner project like the Atlantic Center mall or the MetroTech office complex.

But the project wouldn't meet either the ambitious state standards for open space or even the more modest city average. State standards call for 2.5 acres of open space for every 1,000 residents--"an ideal set by the state," according to Joshual Laird, Director of Planning for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, who said the city average is 1.5 acre per 1,000 residents. (Two of the three Community Boards around the project site don't even reach the city average.) To meet the city average, 7,300 apartments housing 15,000 people (a conservative estimate) would require 22.5 acres of open space, and if they housed 18,000 people, that would require 27 acres of open space.

"Many communities are below the [2.5-acre] ratio," observed Micaela Birmingham, Planning Director of New Yorkers for Parks. "We could maybe revisit this ratio and consider that it should be higher."

What if the commentators on the EIS can't influence the developer and the state to change the current proposal? "The burden is not to bring them up to 1.5 or 2.5 acres [per 1,000 people]," Laird said. Still, he said, "If this ultimately reveals that the number of people will lower that ratio, something has to happen."

Jerry Armer, Chair of Community Board 6, did some preliminary math, observing, "My concern is that the addition of residents will take that ratio and make it more negative."

The arena roof

The roof of the arena, once billed as a home for a running track and ice rink, now would be available only to the residents of the surrounding towers, a change that Borough President Marty Markowitz has criticized. Panelists spoke cautiously about it. Laird said, "Rooftop [space] can work, but it has to be programmed." Birmingham backed that up, stressing, "If rooftop open spaces are not very carefully programmed, they can be very desolate spots." She added that she hoped "it would be analyzed with the hope at some point it could be made public."

Armer asked if there were other good examples of rooftop use. Laird cited the heavily-used Riverbank State Park at 145th Street in Manhattan, but Armer noted that "that has a direct connection to the community. It's not like you have to take an elevator or an escalator."

Asked how more open space might be created in the area, Birmingham suggested that the Atlantic Center mall "has a lot of roofs, and could be made more green." She said the entrance to the mall, where Pathmark is located, could be redesigned. Laird said his agency had been looking at schoolyards, which could be expanded to serve as open space.

Losing streets?

Laird was asked whether the city calculated the loss of city streets in its assessment of open space. "We haven't assessed it," he said. "We wouldn't typically look at demapped streets as lost."

What about sidewalks? "We do not typically calculate the area of sidewalks," he said, noting that doing so would increase the amount of open space for all communities. True, streets do not equal open space, but the taking of streets is an integral part of the project. Later, Laird was observed in discussion with architect and blogger Jonathan Cohn, who has argued that Forest City Ratner can afford to provide the open space it plans only by using city streets, writing: So almost half of what the project is 'providing' in open space is space that was already supposed to be open in perpetuity, according to the city plan.

Exemplary private space?

Is there a good example of privately-owned public space, panelists were asked, that board members could consider? Birmingham pointed to a study published by the city and the Municipal Art Society and noted that the use of elements like spikes or bollards can deter people. "Many times the public doesn't know they're allowed to enter," she said. "When you have large towers [as at Atlantic Yards]... the orientation might lead people to believe that [the open space] are the backyards of residents."

"You're right to be concerned," said Winston Von Engel, of the Department of City Planning Brooklyn Office, who noted that the city now requires plaques at such open space that spell out open hours and other amenities. "Joshua [Laird] reminds me that [Forest City Ratner's] MetroTech is also privately-owned public space."

Birmingham commented, "Maybe that's not a good example." She was part of the group that accompanied Danish urban planner Jan Gehl during his critical walk through MetroTech and nearby areas in November.

The effect of shadows

Von Engel, while acknowledging he's not an expert on shadows, observed that building shadows can "have a very negative effect" and that "a shadow analysis is absolutely critical." When the analysis is done, said Laird of the Parks Department, "We'll look at the impacts to our facilities."

What about the effect on the Brooklyn Bears community garden, next to a low-rise building slated to be replaced by a 430-foot tower. "I don't know yet," Von Engel told Markowitz. "We need to see what the analysis says. Once the EIS comes out, we all need to take a look and see if we agree. It's up to you and others to give opinions on whether it's OK or not OK to put shadows on the Brooklyn Bears garden." (Those at the garden, as the photo suggests, have already come to a conclusion.)

Would the state analysis include the impact of shadows in denying access by those at nearby buildings to solar energy? "That's not one of the categories I'm aware of," Von Engel said. Birmingham picked that up: "These are innovative ideas that should be acknowledged by SEQRA." SEQRA is the State Environmental Quality Act, which governs the process.

Historic buildings?

At a second panel, on Historic Resources, Lisa Kersavage of the Municipal Arts Society handed out a map detailing the nearby historic districts, landmarks, National Register Buildings (like the Atlantic Avenue Control House on the triangle between the Atlantic Terminal mall and Site 5), and "potential historic resources." Four of the latter are within the proposed site footprint: the Underberg Building, slated for demolition; the closed Ward Bakery at 800 Pacific Street; and two buildings restored into condos: the Spalding building (right) at 24 Sixth Avenue, and the Atlantic Arts Building at 636 Pacific Street. (Forest City Ratner has bought out all but three apartments at the two.)

Kersavage noted that the buildings had been identified by community groups, but the Municipal Art Society has not yet taken a stand on them. "The real way to save the buildings is to have them identified by [the city] Landmarks [Commission], outside the EIS," she said. Still, she said, her organization would look at whether the buildings could be incorporated into the project. Kathleen Howe, a Historic Preservation Specialist for the state, called the Ward Bakery "a very interesting building with wonderful terra cotta." She noted that a landmark designation could provide a 20% federal tax credit to help a property owner preserve and renovate it.

The building, later owned by the Pechter-Field (also known as Pechter) Baking company, closed in 1995 after losing a $12 million contract with the city's Board of Education. An 8/20/95 New York Times article (400 Jobless as Bakery Closes) cited "diminishing prices for baked goods, high labor costs and greater competition." The article appeared under the rubric "Neighborhood Report: Bedford-Stuyvesant." A 12/27/80 New York Times article ($750,000 TAKEN IN TRUCK ROBBERY) about a robbery of an armored truck outside the bakery described the location as Crown Heights.

Forest City Ratner last year agreed to pay owner Leviev Boymelgreen $44 million for the bakery and another property at 546 Vanderbilt Avenue, the Brooklyn Papers reported in a 4/9/05 article headlined $24M arena jackpot. Developer Shaya Boymelgreen, who had paid $20 million for buildings, had announced plans to build a hotel. The contract indicates that the transaction must be consummated by March 31, 2006--which suggests that there may be a renewable option to buy.


What about the Atlantic Art building? "It's got terra cotta," Howe said, but the question is the building's integrity. "That building has been converted to residential, which is great, but changes to the interior and windows" have altered it. "So our call was it did not meet our criteria."

"Isn't it possible for historic buildings to be documented" rather than preserved, asked Greg Atkins, Markowitz's chief of staff. Responded Ruth Pierpoint of the New York State Historic Preservation Office, "I think that's probably the last alternative."

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

 

Marty Markowitz faces the questions: "process" inevitably involves substance, like unresolved issues of scale

Borough President Marty Markowitz, appearing last night before a monthly meeting of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), maintained his public posture on the proposed Atlantic Yards project: an enthusiastic supporter who recognizes community concerns but remains confident it will all work out well. Markowitz was alternately conciliatory, jovial, thoughtful, and feisty, but became tense, if not testy, at times when pressed. Though several member organizations of the group may criticize or oppose the project, the CBN takes no position beyond its role as a community conduit to the environmental review conducted by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). "You will not hear opposition or support for the project," cochair Candace Carponter told Markowitz. "This group is here to talk about process." (Photo at right from Borough President's web site.)

Funding a planner

Will Markowitz provide financial support for an planning expert to help the CBN respond to the state review process regarding Atlantic Yards? "I'm sorry to say we don't have the funding," Markowitz said. "I happen to agree [that an expert should be hired]." He said he had raised the issue twice to Charles Gargano, chair of the ESDC, but Gargano said no.

What about asking Forest City Ratner for the money? "I don't know if it's appropriate for me to ask," Markowitz said, noting that if the report comes out in a certain way, it could be considered tainted. "It has to be independent money." Carponter said that that "we believe" it's ESDC's job to ask the developer to fund the expert. Markowitz added that a lot of people had asked him to ask Ratner for money, "and I've asked for nothing." (Then again, Markowitz did ask Bruce Ratner to buy the New Jersey Nets and move the team to Brooklyn, and Ratner conceived of a much larger project than an arena, according to a New Yorker report.)

City Council Member Letitia James, an Atlantic Yards opponent and the only elected official among the 30 or so people in the audience, asked Markowitz if he'd join the Brooklyn delegation of City Council in asking the Council Speaker for funding. Markowitz said yes.

Demolition questions

Markowitz was asked if he'd help to stop the developer's plans to demolish six buildings an engineer has determined are "an immediate threat to the preservation of life, health, and property"--a conclusion in some dispute. He said, "I don't know that he's prohibited from demolishing buildings that he totally owns and they say are a threat to the safety of the community."

Carponter observed that, under the state review, demolition could proceed only if the buildings were hazardous to life or safety. When pressed why his office wouldn't step in, Markowitz responded, "Because I choose not to. He has a certified engineering company say these buildings are a danger to the public."

Deb Howard of the Pratt Area Community Council observed that the Atlantic Terminal area had been fallow for 20 years while development was pending: "You want to make sure that, when building are demolished, you have the approval and the financing [for the larger project]."

Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn asked, "If they are a public safety hazard, the developer has owned three of them for a year and a half. If they're truly a public safety hazard, why is he not protecting us with sidewalk sheds or why didn't he demolish them a year ago?"

Goldstein, who has not been willing to sell his condo to the developer and is threatened by eminent domain, added, "And it's very good for me to hear you so adamant about private property rights."

Markowitz shot back, "I'll take it as a compliment."

Goldstein continued, "If it's a public safety issue, and I doubt that it is, why is he not moving faster, or why did he not do something sooner?"

Markowitz responded, "Why he didn't do it a year ago, I really don't know." (One answer might be that the engineering review hadn't been completed. Another question might be why the developer waited five weeks after the engineering report was completed.)

Questions of scale

Markowitz maintained his stance that the project should be scaled down, but didn't offer specifics: "I see this as very beneficial to the future of Brooklyn but there are adjustments that can be made to fit more in the tapestry of the community."

Markowitz expressed confidence the project would work out. "I'd be thrilled to live a block or two away from there, even with this project...Maybe one or two of you can buy me a handyman special." After endorsing the idea of a charrette involving architect Frank Gehry and community representatives, Markowitz, acknowledging that he's not an architect, allowed that he'd tossed in his two cents on project design: "I like the idea of stoops--a stoop feeling" and other elements, like brick, that evoke the surrounding area.

He told the CBN that their input was helping find the right balance. "If you don't think the state and the developer are hearing you, they are hearing you. This plan has changed a couple of times--"

"It's gotten bigger," interjected Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition.

"--and I wouldn't be surprised if it changes some more as we move ahead," Markowitz continued.

Hagan asked whether Forest City Ratner representatives had responded to Markowitz's public--and, presumably, private--call that the project should be scaled down, given that the project has grown in acreage and density. The Borough President replied, "My private conversations are my private conversations... I'm sure they are reviewing all parts of this."

How should we think about the scale of the project, given that it bypasses zoning and there's been no public discussion of the appropriate scale and a variety of surroundings? "You get one part [bordering the project] that's relatively low-rise, one part that's relatively high-rise," Markowitz said. "It's kind of hard for me to give you an answer." He added that he was more concerned now with issues like traffic mitigation, infrastructure, and parking.

Because of growth in Brooklyn's population and the decline of available land, "the way it appears to be going is vertically, not horizontally," he said. Indeed, density takes advantage of public transit and saves energy, but the appropriate level remains a question. "The city planners and city mothers and fathers in the days ahead will have to look at what policies will have to be implemented to somehow solve this challenge," Markowitz said. "I don't have any answers for that right now. I'm taking it project by project." As for Atlantic Yards, he seemed to be saying, it's too late--at least for anything more than an ad hoc responses involving community members like the ones he was meeting with--since the process has bypassed city review.

PACB and beyond

James asked him if he'd express concerns to the state Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), which has yet to vote on $100 million in state subsidies and is controlled by Governor George Pataki, State Senate leader Joe Bruno, and State Assembly leader Sheldon Silver. Markowitz resisted: "I can assure you I'll read every word you write. I want it to happen. I share many of the concerns, so that's where that gray area comes in." Silver's opposition to the West Side Stadium project, in part because it contained office space that would compete with his Lower Manhattan district, helped kill that project.

Asked why the public couldn't ask questions of the experts who have been appearing at the Borough Board meetings on Atlantic Yards, Markowitz said that the process was not uncommon, that all members of the board had approved the process, and that City Council Member James, an Atlantic Yards opponent on the board, is free to bring up the issue. He did note that the process is only "information gathering;" indeed, because the project is under state auspices, the Borough Board meetings are outside the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) process. Another meeting is today.

 

FCR's Stuckey: no under-arena parking, Gehry's (sort of) a free agent

There wasn't much news during the session "Real Estate Development in the 21st Century: Revisiting Opportunities for Minority Developers," held yesterday part of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 9th Annual Rainbow PUSH Wall Street Project Conference, though it did give the 60 or so attendees, many of them new to New York, some information (and misinformation) about the Atlantic Yards project and the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). The Rev. Herbert Daughtry described the CBA signatories as "a group of community organizations widely representative of the community," even though, as the New York Observer reported, Just two of the eight signatories to the agreement... existed as incorporated entities before the negotiations.

But afterward, panelist Jim Stuckey, executive VP, Forest City Ratner, was cordial enough to answer some questions lingering in the minds of Atlantic Yards-watchers after last weekend. (Photo from Forest City Ratner bio of Stuckey.)

Parking aboveground?

Is Forest City Ratner still planning an under-arena parking garage, which could pose a security risk? No, said Stuckey, clarifying an issue that's caused concern, though his answer raises further questions about how parking would fit into a revised design for the site. (I initially thought it indicated aboveground parking, but others have commented that it suggests use of underground parking across the street, as well as parking at other sites.) The question wasn't answered in the New York Times article Sunday on traffic, and a Forest City Ratner PR rep previously didn't respond to questions. Stuckey said yesterday that there would be 1,100 parking spaces for the arena but "there will not be any parking under the arena itself." He said that, under the arena, there would be a loading area and small amount of secured parking for team officials, referees, and other insiders.

Stuckey said there would be parking "part on the arena block, part across the street, part down on Block 1129, and dispersed throughout a number of different areas." (Does "part on the arena block" mean anything more than the small amount of secured parking? Unclear. Any unsecured parking facility near the arena raises security questions.) The left section of the graphic (at right, from the New York Times) shows parking in the black-bordered sections of the arena block, across 6th Avenue and in Block 1129, between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and Pacific and Dean streets, though it's unclear where the "dispersed" parking would be. Forest City Ratner hasn't officially announced that there wouldn't be an under-arena garage, as the 9/15/05 draft scope issued by the Empire State Development Corporation, was vague about the precise location of the parking.

There would be 4,000 indoor spaces for both residential and spectator parking for the project; as it has increased in size, from 4,500 to 7,300 residential units, as the Times noted, the developer was required to add parking spaces. FCR announced 3,000 underground parking spaces in the December 2003 architectural sketches. The 2/18/05 Memorandum of Understanding between the developer and city/state agencies is unclear about whether parking would be underground (though it might be inferred from p. 18 of the PDF). It describes how tax-exempt bonds would finance both the arena and "the on-site Arena garage" (see p. 6 of the PDF).

Gehry unleashed?

Will Forest City Ratner let architect Frank Gehry meet with community groups? After a public interview session last Saturday, Gehry told Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association that any request would have to go through his client's office, saying he'd be willing to meet "as soon as the guys let me," adding "talk to Stuckey." (Photo of Gehry from interview at Columbia University.)

Questioned yesterday, Stuckey demurred, saying, "I don't schedule for Frank" and "I'm not Frank's scheduling secretary." That suggests that Gehry assumed too tight a leash, or perhaps--to get a little Jesuitical--it means someone else at Forest City Ratner has that responsibility. The conversation, also involving Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, quickly turned into a discussion of whether community critics of the Atlantic Yards plan had returned Stuckey's calls to set up a meeting. Stuckey said they hadn't; Hagan said she had.

So the Gehry issue remains unclear, but others may pursue a meeting, as well. Last night, at a meeting of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, Borough President Marty Markowitz endorsed the idea of a community charrette, or collaborative session, with Gehry, saying "I think it would be a fabulous idea--why not?" Commented CBN co-chair Candace Carponter, "I think it would be something we should consider doing, and doing soon."

Monday, January 09, 2006

 

More coverage of the Times Tower eminent domain battle: from the NY Sun

The New York Sun has followed up on coverage in the Village Voice and the New York Observer regarding the battle by those ousted for the Times Tower across from the Port Authority to gain what they consider proper compensation. This is another article that could be linked to by the New York Times, if it followed the Public Editor's cue and provided links to others' coverage "about a news-making development at The Times."

In a 1/9/06 article headlined Owners Ousted From Times Site Awaiting Payout, the Sun stated:
More than three years after the New York Times and the state of New York used the power of eminent domain to clear the way for a 52-story new headquarters for the newspaper, nearly all the property owners and more than half the tenants who were displaced have not settled with the state over the amount of compensation they are due.
Lawyers representing displaced tenants and owners and state officials say that the recent designation of two additional judges in the New York Supreme Court to review condemnation cases will likely speed up the processing of the remaining claims. The state pays 9% interest per year on the difference between its offer and the court's final judgment.
Nevertheless, in a series of interviews with The New York Sun, the displaced tenants and owners said their experience over the last three and a half years serves as a warning to those who may be ousted by condemnation in the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, the planned expansion of Columbia University in Harlem, or other projects that might now surface as a reaction to last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. New London, which allows a city to invoke eminent domain for the sake of private economic development.
...Citing increased tax revenues and more jobs, the city gave the Times about $26 million in tax breaks. The Times and Forest City Ratner are responsible for about $85 million to acquire the site. Should the owners and tenants prevail in court and the acquisition costs prove to be higher, the city and state would be responsible for the overrun.


Here's one example:
Building owner Maurice Laboz said he earned more than $1.1 million in rent a year from his former building. Before he received word of the condemnation, Mr. Laboz said he turned down an $8 million offer for the building. Later, the state offered him $1.8 million. He says he had the building independently appraised twice at $11 million.
As he awaits a court date, Mr. Laboz has received the $1.8 million from the state, which paid off the remaining $1.3 million of his mortgage and left him with $300,000


And here's a sketch of the dispute:
The lawyer representing most of the property owners and the tenants with outstanding claims, Michael Rikon, said the state commonly low balls condemned owners and tenants because judges will often decide on a settlement figure that falls between the state's assessment and the owners' or tenants' assessment.
"This is as low ball as it gets, and there are a horde of lawyers feeding off these proceedings," Mr. Rikon said.
The attorney says the total independent appraisals of the remaining cases he represents amount to $129 million, and the state's appraisals add up to $45 million.
A spokeswoman for the Empire State Development Corporation, Deborah Wetzel, said the state "promptly completed independent appraisals of the properties as required by law."
Ms. Wetzel said the state "has paid to each claimant the value of its property" as determined by the state's independent appraisals.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

 

The Times on traffic: a "nightmare" intersection or "not that bad when it's functioning"?

When it comes to adding a basketball arena and 16 towers (nearly all residential) at the proposed Atlantic Yards project, the problem of traffic seems obvious. Though the problem is relatively noncontroversial compared to other issues, there is significant dispute about its scope, the costs of fixing it, and the responsibility for doing so. A 1/8/06 article fronting the Metro section of the New York Times, headlined A Traffic Knot, Pulling Tighter, sketched the issue, ventilated some conflicting views, but still--partly a function of space--missed some important aspects of the issue, including the costs, the responsibilities of public agencies, and some innovative strategies.

The article began (graphic at right from the Times):
"This is what traffic engineers consider a nightmare," said Samuel I. Schwartz, surveying the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn on a cold night shortly before Thanksgiving.
Around Mr. Schwartz - a former deputy transportation commissioner who has been credited with helping to coin the term gridlock in the 1980's - was a sea of steel and chrome and brake lights winking angrily in the night.
Waves of pedestrians ignored the long diagonal crosswalks, swarming past the cars and trucks inching home. Buses lumbered around the corner like whales in an aquarium, blocking off two lanes at a time.
During the commuter rush, as many as 4,600 vehicles pass through the intersection every hour, according to the city's Department of Transportation. Hundreds more join the flow toward the intersection from Fourth Avenue, which cuts across Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues to the west, servicing South Brooklyn's docks and residential neighborhoods.
A few feet below lies a major transit hub - the Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street subway stations, which handle 10 lines, and a Long Island Rail Road station - that serves about 50,000 riders a day. And on the intersection's north side sits the Atlantic Terminal, a mall that houses, among other things, one of the busiest Target stores in the Northern Hemisphere. But in the coming years, drivers, pedestrians and those who live nearby may remember these days as a time when traffic was not really so bad after all.
Over the next four years, if the developer Forest City Ratner Companies gains state approval, an 18,000-seat basketball arena for the Nets is scheduled to rise on the southeast corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, the centerpiece of the company's proposed Atlantic Yards project, the biggest in Brooklyn history.
If the Atlantic Yards development is built as scheduled, 7,300 apartments housing about 18,000 residents would join the arena on the 22-acre site, as well as space for some 2,500 office workers and retail to draw shoppers.
"If you slow things up on Flatbush, you're backed up to Prospect Park," noted Mr. Schwartz, who has been hired by Forest City Ratner to consult on the project. "If you slow up Fourth Avenue, you're backed up to Park Slope. And if you slow down Atlantic, you're backed up to Central Brooklyn."


True, but it's worse: as relevant community boards and transportation engineer Brian Ketcham (quoted lower in the story) have commented as part of the environmental review of the project, traffic on those arteries also affects the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and the Brooklyn Bridge. A signal fault of the draft scope for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) being conducted by the state Empire State Development Corporation, they say, is that it sets boundaries of a quarter-mile for the primary review area and a half-mile for secondary impacts, while the likely impact would extend much farther.

The Times article continued:
Though the project has spurred heated debates over eminent domain, the use of public subsidies, gentrification and other issues, those with worries about Mr. Ratner's plans most commonly worry about traffic. Last fall, the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, an umbrella group of block associations and other local groups, distributed questionnaires about the project. Almost a quarter of those who responded cited traffic as a specific concern they had about the project, by far the most frequently cited issue.
"They are primarily worried that that intersection is already close to gridlock on a daily basis, that there is already no parking, and that there is already a substantial and increasing danger to pedestrians," said Candace Carponter, the co-chairwoman of the council and an opponent of Atlantic Yards. "And there is no way that adding tens of thousands of people to that intersection on event nights isn't going to radically exacerbate the problem."
But James P. Stuckey, the developer's executive vice president for development, questioned whether the group's questionnaire was statistically sound and said that the intersection "is not that bad when it's functioning."
He added: "It can be improved. What I think is realistic, is that traffic is a major issue to be dealt with."


Well, maybe it is "not that bad when it's functioning," but that's irrelevant, since it would be functioning differently if the Atlantic Yards project is built--and even if it isn't, given the other development in the northwest section of Brooklyn.

As for whether the questionnaire was statistically sound, well, it wasn't a poll of residents, so it doesn't have that level of validity. But it certainly establishes a threshold of concern. Is Stuckey trying to say that a lot of people aren't worried about traffic? Their elected representatives are.

Keep in mind that the statistical soundness of many of the developer's statements could be questioned. As noted, the latest issue of Forest City Ratner's Brooklyn Standard contains some dubious numbers regarding the expenditure of public money, the number of construction jobs, and the value of the railyard bid.

In the Standard's "Frequently Asked Questions About Atlantic Yards," the fourth question asks if the project will "bring in more traffic than the area can handle?" The short answer: "No." That's rather conclusory, since local and state officials are studying the issue. The answer continues: "While FCRC recognizes the potential for traffic congestion at various intersections during certain peak hours of the day, they are committed to working with city and state agencies to implement any mitigation measures that may be necessary."

The Times continued:
With three major thoroughfares converging, the area is considered by many traffic engineers to be among the most congested in the city. Both Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues are major commuter routes to the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, in part because Brooklyn - unlike Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx - has no cross-borough highways. Atlantic Avenue is also one of two preferred routes through Brooklyn for commercial traffic; the other is Linden Boulevard.
There are few options for avoiding the intersection. There is no alternative route to Flatbush, which cuts diagonally across the street grid. Part of Fulton Street, which is north of Atlantic and runs parallel to it, is reserved for buses. South of Atlantic Avenue, parallel streets like Dean are largely residential.
"People will seek shortcuts through that area," noted Mr. Schwartz, citing a major concern held by residents. "You have this maze. And drivers will try to find a way to get out."
The city has tried for years to improve the intersection. During the 1990's, when Forest City Ratner was building the Atlantic Center mall, a lane was added to Flatbush Avenue on the northbound side, and the pedestrian concourse beneath the intersection was improved.
To accommodate the opening of the adjoining Atlantic Terminal mall in 2004, Atlantic Avenue was widened as it approaches the intersection from the west, with the addition of a right-turn lane. The mall was also set back from Flatbush Avenue to allow for the addition of a bus-stop lane.
The Atlantic Yards project would lead to 40,000 new vehicle trips through the area each weekday, according to an independent study by Community Consulting Services, a transportation and environmental consulting firm advocating better traffic planning in Brooklyn.
Forest City Ratner officials disputed that study, saying that it overstated the vehicle trip increase by 40 percent to 50 percent, in part by failing to subtract trips generated by homes and businesses that would be replaced by the project.


What? Is Forest City Ratner saying that the residents and businesses within the Atlantic Yards footprint recently generated tens of thousands of trips daily? I doubt it. There are relatively few businesses--a dozen?--and only a few hundred residents--an estimate generated by the anti-Ratner Prospect Heights Action Coalition was 863, but that number included 400 homeless people, who aren't doing much driving. I'd like to see the other reasons to dispute Ketcham's study explained, and that's an unfortunate constraint in a story that needs to cover a lot of ground.

Also missing--a significant omission from this article--was any reference to the cost of fixing the problem. Regarding the development in downtown Brooklyn and environs, including Atlantic Yards, Ketcham has predicted an annual cost of $100 million to the city and state. Again, that number may be worthy of debate, but it should be on the table, since it should be factored into cost-benefit estimates from new developments, and a study by Forest City Ratner consultant Andrew Zimbalist, relied on for optimistic assumptions about future revenues, says nothing about traffic.

The article continued:
In an interview, Mr. Stuckey acknowledged that managing the additional traffic around Atlantic Yards was a challenge, but one that his company was ready to handle.
"It's very easy to say, this is a problem, and not have to show it," he said. "We have the added responsibility of analyzing the problem and then showing how we're going to solve it. And we and the government agencies take that very seriously."


Why is Stuckey speaking for the government agencies? The issue is much bigger than Forest City Ratner--and the city Department of Transportation has been criticized for not being proactive enough.

The article continued:
The company's decision to substitute additional residential units for most of the office space originally planned for the project, he said, will alleviate some potential traffic problems, because residential tenants usually drive after the evening rush.
The developer predicts that only a small fraction of the roughly 18,000 tenants would drive to work. (The project includes about 2,800 on-site parking spots reserved for residential tenants, as mandated by city regulations.) Based on the company's experience with the nearby MetroTech office development, only 5 percent or 6 percent of the 2,500 office workers traveling to the project will commute by car, Mr. Stuckey said.


That's confusing--if only "5 percent or 6 percent" of office workers would commute by car, how much does the switch to residential help? Note that one of the original arguments for building office space was that the site was close to a major transit hub.

The article continued:
Studies by Forest City Ratner found the worst congestion on eastbound lanes of Atlantic Avenue during the commuter rush: As Atlantic crosses Flatbush, four lanes merge into two, one of which is often blocked by stopped buses. Mr. Stuckey said the plan provided space to expand Atlantic Avenue by one lane, with a fourth lane in front of the bus stop to draw buses out of the traffic flow when stopped for passengers. The project calls for a similar expansion on Flatbush Avenue south of the intersection.
The project would be built in stages over a decade, Mr. Stuckey said, allowing for adjustments as problems emerge.
Since basketball games usually start at 7:30 p.m., the developer expects the arena portion to generate most of its evening traffic after the commuter rush, and no morning traffic at all. Mr. Stuckey also disagreed with critics who said the area lacked enough garage space. The firm's own survey, he said, indicates that there are about 1,500 parking garage spaces - most of which service office commuters and lie empty after the work day - reachable by foot or shuttle bus. By relying largely on remote parking for sports events, the developer hopes to keep much of the arena traffic away from the Flatbush-Atlantic intersection.


If basketball games start at 7:30 p.m., wouldn't about half of the evening traffic occur during the commuter rush? (Note that the TLC considers the weekday rush hour from 4-8 p.m., though in Manhattan the peak travel period is considered 4-7 p.m.) Also, why wasn't Stuckey asked whether the company still plans to build an under-arena garage, which could present security risks? The graphic accompanying the article cites 4,000 parking spots, which suggests that 1,200 spots would be located at a garage facility connected to the arena--but Stuckey didn't affirm that in the article.

Note that critics do question the availability of parking. But, taking Stuckey's numbers, let me try some math: 1,500 parking spaces, at a (generous) average of three people per vehicle, suggests 4,500 visitors. Add in 1,200 spots at the arena (?), and still well over half the attendees at an arena even drawing 18,000 attendees would have to walk or travel by public transportation and--as noted below in the article--some 40 percent of Madison Square Garden attendees drive. (And if there is no arena garage, well, that makes the challenge even greater, so Forest City Ratner should be challenged to describe its onsite parking plan.) So why didn't the article talk about some innovative ways to reduce traffic like congestion pricing, residential parking permits, and event tickets tied to use of public transportation?

Late in the article, the EIS process was finally cited, as was the impact of traffic beyond Atlantic Yards:
Much of the proposed arena's impact depends on what means of travel people choose to get there. Known as "modal split," it is one of the issues under consideration by the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency charged with supervising the project's environmental review. At Madison Square Garden, which, like the proposed Atlantic Yards arena, sits on top of a transit hub and is surrounded by heavily trafficked streets, half of all visitors come by mass transit. Forty percent drive. The rest walk.
"Your first goal is to get as many people into mass transit as possible," said Mr. Schwartz. He said that could require a significant rehabilitation of the notoriously unwelcoming Atlantic Avenue station, a greater police presence there and more trains scheduled for late evening, when games end.
But also at issue is the broader development of greater Downtown Brooklyn, set into motion last year when the City Council approved a landmark rezoning of the area.
"The biggest issue is not Atlantic Yards, it's all the other developments that are going to come before it," cautioned Brian Ketcham, the executive director of Community Consulting Services, who has criticized the state agency's methods for measuring traffic in the area.
That includes the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, and an expanded cultural district anchored by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A May 2005 report commissioned by the Department of Transportation estimated that office space in and around the business district would nearly double in the next two decades. The city also predicts a boom in retail, cultural institutions and new housing in the area, including 7,300 units from Atlantic Yards.
Yet the same report noted that the major thoroughfares were "already overloaded" and that additional traffic "would not be accommodated" without significant improvement. Mr. Ketcham's own study indicates that the overall traffic - vehicle, public transit or pedestrian - will more than double.
"If you can't get there, nobody's going to come," he said, "and all of this investment is going to go down the tubes."


Note that the city itself said the major thoroughfares were "already overloaded" and that major changes are needed. Here's where an estimate of cost would have been appropriate. Also note that the project would close off streets, which also affects traffic flow.

Still, in contrast to previous long stories in the Times about the developer's community relations strategy and changes in the project, a supporter of the development, or the developer's spokesperson, did not get the last word. (Who should get the last word? With a finite amount of space in print, it's a judgment call.) In this case, Ketcham, a Cassandra on the issue, finally gets a hearing. Note that, though Ketcham has been commenting forcefully about Brooklyn traffic issues for years, he hadn't been quoted in the Times since 1998. He's an important part of the debate, but this issue also requires questions of city officials and the MTA.

 

Gehry, in Manhattan, hit with Atlantic Yards questions: “I didn’t expect this to be a thing about Brooklyn"

Architect Frank Gehry should’ve expected it, given that Brooklynites were out in force at the last public appearance he made in New York, in November, at a session of the American Institute of Architects. But Gehry seemed perturbed yesterday when three Brooklynites peppered him with questions about the proposed Atlantic Yards project he is designing for Forest City Ratner—including a challenge regarding eminent domain--and at one point he even cut off the questioning. And, whether misinformed or evasive, Gehry suggested that building a mixed-use project to accompany the arena was driven by a desire to create a harmonious urban fabric rather than--as evidence suggests--to generate revenue.

"I didn’t expect this to be a thing about Brooklyn--I guess I should’ve known better," Gehry said during the Q&A segment of his appearance at a Times Talk segment of the New York Times Arts & Leisure Weekend. Peter Krashes, president of the Dean Street Block Association, pressed on, but Gehry continued, "It’s not fair to nail me on this here. Let’s do it some other time." Most in the audience--Gehry aficionados and/or area residents unworried about Atlantic Yards--offered sustained applause, and Krashes withdrew. (Photo is from a previous interview at Columbia.)

Maybe it was the time for such questions, given that attendees had spent $35 ($30 + service charge) for tickets to the 80-minute event at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, and that Gehry has not yet responded to invitations to meet with concerned citizens who live in or around the proposed project footprint. After the event, Krashes--who in his respectful public question noted that he had no position on the arena--got on the long line behind those seeking Gehry autographs and waited his turn. When he approached Gehry, Krashes mentioned that his group had previously sent a letter inviting the architect to a meeting.

Gehry said he would, "as soon as the guys let me," adding "talk to Stuckey"--a reference to Forest City Ratner VP Jim Stuckey.

At this point, handlers for the event ushered Gehry’s interlocutors along.

Eminent domain

During the session, Gehry had said of his projects, "If I think it got out of whack with my own principles, I’d walk away." Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, wearing a "Welcome to Ratnerville" t-shirt and a sticker saying "Eminent Domain Abuse," picked up on that. She asked, "Have any of your previous projects involved the use of eminent domain or eminent domain abuse? Does that square with your principles? And would that be enough to make you walk away from the Ratner project?"

"No comment," Gehry responded, to applause, though not as much as he received previously. (Gehry fans had to perform a quick calculation: it’s one thing to admire the architect, but another to endorse eminent domain.) OK, Hagan’s set of questions was loaded, but wouldn't it be worth learning Gehry’s record with eminent domain? (Photo of Gehry and Hagan meeting at the AIA session in November by Genevieve Christy, as appearing in the Brooklyn Papers article. Note another take on that article.)

Gehry, interviewed by Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, began the wide-ranging session (billed under the rubric "Free Form") by narrating a slide show of his buildings from around the world. The last slide was from New York: the headquarters for InterActive on 11th Avenue in Chelsea that is "nearly topped out" and is expected to open at the end of the year. There were no renderings of the Atlantic Yards project, where construction may start later this year, though a new design is expected. (Ouroussoff photo from Charlie Rose interview.)

Questions of scale

Later, when Ouroussoff brought up the Brooklyn project, he observed, "It’s the first time you’ve worked on that scale... unless you go back to really early on, when you’re talking about Rouse"—the ill-fated Santa Monica Place mall (1980) that Gehry designed, just before he broke with developer The Rouse Company, laid off nearly all his staff, and reconceptualized his career.

Gehry responded, "I did a lot of housing for FHA [Federal Housing Administration], and that kind of stuff."

Ouroussoff said, "But not quite on this scale, not at this point in your career. You're also working--"

Gehry continued, "But I’m a do-gooder, lefty type, still, so it was manna from heaven, to get that project." [Some people I spoke to thought this was a reference to Atlantic Yards and its affordable housing component; I think Gehry was still referring to the FHA work.]

Ouroussoff went on to note that Gehry is working more with developers these days and suggested, "One of the things that I think keeps your creative clock ticking is trying to put yourself in places where you don’t feel safe. Working on that scale is not a place where I assume you feel as comfortable as with some of the other projects you've been doing now for a long time."

"I’m very uncomfortable," said Gehry.

"What are the challenges there?" Ouroussoff asked.

"Well, the challenges are kind of obvious," Gehry replied. "First of all it’s an empty site, it's got rail lines and all that stuff." [The New York Observer report said he "blurted" his response, but I thought it was routine.]

"No, it’s not," a few in the crowd shot back--and the audience seemed a bit startled. Note that the proposed site is 22 acres, including an 8.3-acre railyard. (Photo above of Dean Street row at 6th Avenue from Forgotten NY. Graphic below from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.)

"It’s an existing neighborhood," Gehry amended, compliant if not full of conviction. "There’s an arena, a big arena, it's like the ostrich swallowing the basketball. A lot of people want this arena, on that spot, and the company hired me to put it there. The idea of just putting an arena on that spot, in a neighborhood like that, without trying to make it part of the fabric somewhat, didn't appeal to me. And so there was a program for housing and offices and other things that had to be built for the arena to happen."

Actually, Gehry had it backwards: the mixed-use complex was not driven by his esthetic response. As noted in Chapter 1 of my report, Bruce Ratner told the New York Times (A Grand Plan in Brooklyn For the Nets’ Arena Complex, 12/11/03) that the issue was economic: "This started with basketball,a Brooklyn sport," Mr. Ratner said. "This was always the site. But it became clear it was not economically viable without a real estate component."

Gehry, as he has said previously, indicated that the project would shrink: "We've been playing with the scale. The pictures you saw in the New York Times [7/5/05], the way it looked--it's not that big. It’s big, but not that big. It’s coming way back, in a lot of areas, and I guess something will go public in the next few months." He didn’t offer specifics. The project was initially seen as out of scale at 7.7 million square feet and has since grown to 9.1 million square feet, so the amount of reduction must be seen in context. (Image of previously-released sketches, which should change, from New York Times via NoLandGrab.)

"We've tried to break down the scale as much as possible. There is a piece of
Flatbush at the corner of Atlantic where it's pretty big in relation to what's across the street. But it's the arena, and what's on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush is in scale with the Williamsburg [Bank]."
(To be specific, the 1929 bank is 512 feet tall, while the "Miss Brooklyn" tower, as proposed, would be 620 feet.) "If you go toward that way, contextually, it’s going to work. If you go this way, contextually, it’s a problem." It wasn't clear exactly where he was pointing, but note that the Pacific Street branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, the first Carnegie Library in Brooklyn, is just across Pacific Street from Site 5, currently the home of P.C. Richard/Modell's, where a 430-foot tower is planned. (Image from Brooklyn Public Library.)

Twenty buildings?

Gehry, who had previously said that he had asked Ratner to let other architects design parts of the project, didn’t complain yesterday but simply related that "there are some 20 buildings to be built, and the client insisted that I do them all. When he came to me, he said, 'I know you're going to try and bring all your friends in to do all the buildings, cause that's a cop-out.'... And he didn't want me to do that, he wanted me to really solve the problem, and put me on the hot seat." Twenty buildings? As of now, the project would involve an arena and 16 towers. Was Gehry simply being vague, or was he possibly referring to plans to build a new development complex, which could include new towers, on the site of Ratner’s Atlantic Center mall?

Given the challenge of building such a large project, Gehry mused, "Then you start looking at how much of this should be background, which elements should have an iconic presence, which should be in between background and iconic, and how do you orchestrate a skyline that somehow makes sense?... We’re trying, I am trying, and you’ll still hate what I do, anyway." (At this point, no questions had been asked, and the only pushback Gehry had gotten was from the few people in the crowd who knew that the proposed site isn’t empty.)

Gehry said that the site "would use a variety of materials so they don’t look like they've all been done by one person, they don't look like a project, they look like they grew over time. Then the public spaces, how to orchestrate those. And then the issue of--an arena needs bells and whistles and whoop-de-do, and then you are in a residential district and how do you orchestrate that so that the people in those apartments that we're going to build aren't plagued? If a guy comes home from work and wants to cool out, he's not barraged with imagery and bright lights. And so there's a whole bunch of sensitivities. How do you do that, how do you make it come alive for the game and solve the problem of identity for this basketball team and I hope someday a hockey team." (The Toronto-reared Gehry’s a hockey fan.)

Ouroussoff asked, "What are the limits, when you're working with a developer on that scale? What are you not allowed to do? You talked a lot about scale, about massing, about surfaces, about materials and things like that. All of those things you can do really well."

Gehry responded, "All of those things the client so far is complicit in. Up to this point, Bruce Ratner and his people have been very understanding and complicit and on board, they want that." He noted that there were then decisions on cost that are part of the development process and value engineering. "The fear or the unease for me in this, which I've talked to you about before, is: 'What is it we’re doing?' To me, when I look at my models now, it looks like a 19th century model, and that bothers me, but I don't know where to go, to be a 21st century model in this context. I got some ideas. My friends and I agonize: what would Rem [Koolhaas] do? What Zaha [Hadid] would do would look like a freeway interchange. And I haven't gone there. So if I've been holding back--'Is it right; is it wrong?"--these are the self-doubts that I have."

Ouroussoff suggested that part of that had to do with the expectations of an architect post-Bilbao. Gehry responded, "There's an expectation of what I do: 'This doesn't look like Bilbao; why are you doing this stuff that looks ordinary?' I've gotten some of that already."

Ouroussoff asked, "Is there a model beyond Jane Jacobs in terms of urban planning?" Would Ratner let Gehry work on the 'internal social organism' of the project? "Will the developer let you play with those things, the way you were able to with your own house?"

"No," Gehry said, citing in-house marketing people and architects at Forest City Ratner. "They do apartment layouts. We tweak them, but we can't really make a big architectural statement... We can influence them, make sure they are in the right places with the right views... but it’s fairly conventional...Like I read in the paper today, [Santiago] Calatrava is doing with his townhouse. You can’t go there. Not with this--at this level. But, you can make the experience from arrival, the front door, all the way through it, the way the elevator's designed, the lighting in the halls, it doesn’t have to be like going into the, um, the morgue. So it can be humanized. And I try to do that."

Urban design in question

When the Q&A began, Michael Decker praised Bilbao and said he cheered for Gehry when he got an honorary degree at Brandeis--"and now I live in Brooklyn."

"Here we go," Gehry said ruefully.

Decker observed, "I don't think changing the massing is going to disguise the massing of the project. I'm interested in what you were talking about, about being a do-gooder leftist, and how you square that with the superblock, with the towers, the shrouded park...?"

Gehry responded, "Bruce Ratner is also politically like me. We’ve discussed that a lot. We’re trying to live within our own principles on those issues. I think the scale issue is the only problem, we're out of whack with that."

Decker followed up, citing broken street walls, "the buildings plunked down and separated from the neighborhood in a very non-Jane Jacobs way, that it's towers in a park all over again."

"It isn't," Gehry said.

Ouroussoff clarified, "It's not a superblock, first of all. There are two parts of the project... there's a part at Flatbush and Atlantic, which is the arena, which is surrounded by a grouping of either three or four towers. Then if you go back from there, there's a series of apartment buildings along Atlantic. Those are broken up into a series of different masses, different pieces--as opposed to a superblock that would be either 'here are the towers at the center of the project,' or it would be a long continuous building."

Decker responded by citing "the street demapping." Indeed, while the project--as Ouroussoff pointed out--would not be one monolithic set of towers, a superblock has more to do with closing streets. A superblock, according to the Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus, "[d]esignates very large, usually residential, city blocks often formed by consolidating several smaller blocks and often barred to through traffic and crossed by pedestrian walks." Note that Pacific Street would be closed between Vanderbilt and Carlton avenues, and between Sixth and Flatbush avenues. Fifth Avenue would be closed between Flatbush and Atlantic avenue. Architect Jonathan Cohn comments on his blog, "No amount of open views in the interior of a superblock will make the ground plane function like a watched public street. A real street functions not only for access to adjacent built form but connects and integrates the immediate area into the circulation systems of adjacent areas."

Gehry asked Decker, "How would you do it, ideally?"

Decker responded, "In my ideal world, you would build only on the railyards. There would be no eminent domain. It would be three 25-, 35-story tall buildings, a central courtyard, New York typology... and I think you'd have a vibrant, active place." (Left unsaid was that an arena cannot be built solely on the railyard, and the scale of the project has been driven in part by the need to include affordable housing, which itself was needed to gain political support.)

Gehry continued, "That's what we're doing, one building after another along the avenue, with a ground floor that's culturally..." .

"They're certainly not continuous," Decker responded. "They're separate buildings."

Ouroussoff interjected, perhaps sensing dismay in the audience that the session had tilted toward Brooklyn, "It raises an interesting question. What is your role as an architect, because developments of that same scale are going to happen, and the architect has no control over that. That's not the architect's job."

"He can turn it down," Gehry observed.

Ouroussoff continued, "You either walk away from it, or you see if there's something actually you can bring to the project."

"I try to do that, but I think if it got out of whack with my own principles, I would walk away," Gehry said. "It's not there yet, but maybe you think I should be there." Several in the crowd chuckled.

Then Krashes, announcing himself as representative of the block association on Dean Street, which forms the southern boundary of the project, observed that a lot of the discussion had been about housing as sculpture, form and mass. "We don't want you to turn your back on us, as an architect. What we want you to do is explain your role as a planner," Krashes said. He noted that five city blocks would be turned into one project and streets would be demapped for the arena, "which is logical, from one point of view, if you want the arena," and also "to create open space for very large buildings that do ring the open space. And the justification for removing that street is to provide open space for the public, it's not a park. It's open space that's privately owned. It's going to be at the service, really, of the buildings ringing the project."

"It’s designed as publicly accessible on all sides," Gehry replied.

Krashes continued, noting that the demapping of streets has implications for traffic. Gehry responded, "There are--I've got engineers and traffic experts and city planning, and we've been working with all of those people in the development of this. None of this has been done willfully, without being vetted by the experts."

Krashes tried to follow up, but Gehry, and the applauding crowd, cut off the discussion. (Several people asked non-Brooklyn questions during the Q&A, and Hagan's question did come after Krashes' question.)

Early in the program, when showing a slide of the acclaimed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Gehry observed wryly, "The only problem with this building is: I use it. Usually my buildings are far enough away that I don’t have to live with them. Every time I go to a concert I see everything I would do and change." From the questions voiced at this forum, some Brooklynites are hoping he’ll at least give them face time.

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