Saturday, February 04, 2006
City official Andrew Alper: "not up to us to find a better deal"
And, perhaps more importantly, did the city ask any other developers if they were interested in some valuable land near Brooklyn's busiest transit hub? Again: no.
Andrew Alper, then president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, testified at the 5/4/04 City Council hearing. According to the transcript:
COUNCIL MEMBER ERIC GIOIA: And then the final part, and this is my last question, is, if we are trying to maximize public investment for public benefit, are we, for this issue, are we proactively then going out and saying to other similar developers, similar type entities. In other words, have you been doing a road show looking for other NBA teams or other athletic teams, or other developers to build stadiums? Or are we sitting back and we are in this position because this developer initials athletics come to us and said, I own this property, I want to build this project and I think it is good for the City? In other words, how proactive is the City's Economic Development Plan, are we doing this now because this has been brought to us, or are we doing this because we proactively looked and said, we think this is good for Downtown Brooklyn, and we think this is good for New York City?
And depending on your answer, the second part of it is, how do you know it is a good deal, unless we know that there is somebody else out there? In other words, if they are negotiating and it is not, what else is the market out there, and are we negotiating against ourselves?
ANDREW ALPER: Well the answer is yes and no. We are actively out marketing the City all over the US, all over Europe, all over Asia to talk to companies and prospective, tenants for buildings and prospective projects. We have been doing that very aggressively, and I think with some early success to bring more jobs to New York. This particular project came to us. We were not out soliciting, we were developing a Downtown Brooklyn Plan, but we were not out soliciting a professional sports franchise for Downtown Brooklyn.
The developer came to us with what we thought was actually a very clever plan. It is not only bringing a sports team back to Brooklyn, but to do it in a way that provided dramatic economic development catalyst in terms of housing, retail, commercial jobs, construction jobs, permanent jobs.
So, they came to us, we did not come to them. And it is not really up to us then to go out and try to find a better deal. I think that would discourage developers from coming to us, if every time they came to us we went out and tried to shop their idea to somebody else. So we are actively shopping, but not for another sports arena franchise for Brooklyn.
[Note: This is a 6/9/07 replacement of an article that had inadvertently vanished from the blog.]
Friday, February 03, 2006
On a "backwards" design process, "blocking the clock," and a zoning bypass
The session addressed issues of urban design, visual resources & neighborhood character. Armer's comment came during a discussion of the urban design guidelines for the project, which have not yet been issued, even though the project was announced on 12/10/03. The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the state agency supervising the project, is expected to issue a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in the next few months. Sometime after that the city, state, and developer, according to the Memorandum of Understanding, should agree on urban design guidelines for the project. (Note that Frank Gehry's 7/5/05 design, above, is expected to be modified.)
The guidelines, according to the MOU (p. 2), include such things as "building massing and heights, streetwall location and heights, building articulation, distance between buildings" and "signage, streetscape improvements, public open space use and design guidelines," among others.
When the guidelines are established, will the city consult with local elected officials, City Council Member Letitia James asked Winston Von Engel, of the Department of City Planning.
Von Engel hedged. "That will be up to the head of our agency, and her boss," he said.
Armer brought up the issue a bit later "The EIS is supposed to look at the action if it introduces development with a different basic form or scale. From the models we've seen, the drawings we've seen, not only the arena but the residential buildings--they are very different from what the surrounding area is," he said. "And yet, without knowing exactly what shape they're going to have, we're doing an EIS, with design guidelines to follow. It seems to me it's backwards. The design guidelines should be established so the EIS could evaluate what's really going to be there."
He continued: "I think it's being done backwards, and because of that, how much input will the community boards and elected officials have?"
Von Engel responded by saying that an EIS responds to a proposal, and analyzes the worst case scenario, giving planners options. "What's approved in the end doesn't have to meet that [in the EIS]," he said. "It can be less. It cannot be more."
He said it was his understanding that the General Project Plan--the outline of the project--and the Draft EIS would be issued at the same time.
Views of the bank?
How should we think about the iconic 1929 Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which itself is in transition, from a dental-centric office building to upscale condos? Panelist Michael Kwartler, an architect and planner, pointed out that there may be a loss, of the building becomes less visible, but if the new buildings "are as compelling as they may be, they may supplant" the bank building for orientation.
James said Brooklynites like herself had long used the building tower for visual orientation and to tell time. "To coin a phrase, 'Don't block the clock,'" she said.
Could mitigation strategies recommended in the EIS include height limits on buildings close to the bank tower, asked Robert Matthews, chair of Community Board 8.
"Sure," said Von Engel, "if the decisionmakers believe that preserving the view of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank is so important... that's part of the approval." He reminded attendees that the EIS is not a decisionmaking document, just a description of potential impacts.
Who are the decisionmakers?
The Borough Board hearings are informational only. James said after the meeting that "the question is whether or not the Borough President is going to address a lot of the issues that have been raised around this table." Borough President Marty Markowitz can influence Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the city agencies that have input on the project.
Crucial to approval of state subsidies are the members of the State Assembly who represent affected areas, notably Assemblyman Roger Green, a supporter of the project, and Assemblywoman Joan Millman, a critic. Both will seek to influence Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who controls one of the three votes on the Public Authorities Control Board, the agency that shot down the West Side Stadium.
Millman yesterday pointed out that the tallest of 16 towers is slated to be 60 stories. "If this goes through," she asked, "will it set a precedent for other developers" to build similarly in adjoining neighborhoods?
Von Engel answered that, in the adjacent low-rise residential neighborhoods, "we've either rezoned with height limitations ore are considering [similar] actions. Those areas are relatively safe." In Downtown Brooklyn, there are height limits on the east side of Flatbush Avenue, but "within the Central Business District, there is no height limit. What controls height is density. At some point you run out of density."
Architect Mark Ginsburg added, "There are very few sites that large. It's going to be hard to create another site that big to justify the rezoning or a change like this."
Left unstressed was that the Atlantic Yards project would bypass city zoning, which could include either height or density limits to limit the size of the development.
James asked what role the City Planning Department would have.
Von Engel replied, "We are an agency that listens to the mayor, and supports the mayor, who has expressed his support for the project. There is a process by which the state has to request from the city permission to override the zoning and then also to present this project to the city and ask for the city's concurrence."
Irene Janner of Community Board 2 pointed out that the current plan would include superblocks that take away the street grid, and how it would affect pedestrian circulation.
Ginsburg noted that the space around the residential buildings is considered public open space for pedestrians, even if a street is demapped. "That's something we'd hope in the final document is much more clearly identified," he said.
Kwartler observed that land between certain Mitchell-Lama projects is considered public, "but basically it's private property, not a public street." He added, "One alternative [for Atlantic Yards] might be remapping thes treets back through."
Others were more positive. Von Engel pointed out that the project "might actually bring the communities closer together." Greg Atkins, chief of staff for Markowitz, asked whether the EIS would analyze the effect of "negative views," like the view of the railyard from the Sixth Avenue bridge. "Are views not as beautiful analyzed in the EIS?"
Ginsburg said yes, that the state guidelines say that creating new visual resources "can be a mitigation" of a project's effects.
Is there a city policy regarding demapping streets, asked Irene Van Slyke, representing State Senator Velmanette Montgomery.
"I don't think there's one policy for demapping or mapping streets," Von Engel replied. "In Downtown Brooklyn, we demapped streets to create more rational building sites, more rational blocks, because the leftover remnants were not lending themselves to be building on. But in other cases, we've mapped streets back and we appreciate the life that streets bring. There is no one set policy."
Van Slyke warned that demapped streets can lead to privatization.
Von Engel referred to the MOU, which spells out publicly-accessible open space and noted that, in public-private plazas sanctioned by the city, "We have plaques to announce, 'This is publicly-accessible.'"
James reflected that, typically, demapping streets would go through the city's ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) but in this case ULURP has been overridden.
Kwartler observed that the EIS process can propose reconfigured plans, but gave listeners less cause to expect that: "There tends to be a loss of an opportunity when the state does this rather than when the city does this."
Markowitz pointed out that the arena would bring new large-scale signage with "advertising lighting," and asked how the EIS would analyze it.
Kwartler said the lighting might bring glare, perhaps so bright it would obscure the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. "You can either think of it as a positive or as light pollution," he added, noting that it might be helpful to pedestrians but a traffic hazard for vehicles.
Offering "an overall comment" about the EIS process, he said, "I think what it generally lacks are objective ways that define in advance" the issues to be evaluated.
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
"Intense verticality" of Prospect Heights transformation would have ripple effects
Assemblywoman Joan Millman pointed out, "I know that there are some very small owners of buildings not far from the planned project who have done mass rehabs, rented, with the proviso that, should something change... renters will be given three months notice before the developer turns the property into coops or condos. It seems like other people are thinking ahead, and thinking that the surrounding areas will change greatly."
Kate Suisman, legislative assistant for Council Member Letitia James, noted that small business owners on shopping strips like Fulton Street are concerned about effects during and after construction on the project. What could be done?
Jerry Armer, chair of Community Board 6, noted that, during the reconstruction in recent years of Smith Street in Carroll Gardens and Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, "We went to the city and the City Council for a reduction in real estate taxes. We didn't get very far."
Borough President Marty Markowitz asked Rob Perris, district manager of Community Board 2, "Do we have any major retail areas being impacted" by the project, other than the Modells/P.C. Richard complex on Flatbush Avenue? (Note that a 430-foot tower is planned to replace that complex.)
Perris responded, "I think there are several. Kate [Suisman] mentioned Fulton Street--"
Markowitz interjected, "On the construction site."
Perris pressed on and pointed to a wider range of impact, depending on where trucks come and leave from, and the ensuing traffic patterns: "The indirect impact would be not just Fulton Street but probably Vanderbilt Avenue. There's concern that Atlantic Avenue will change."
The effect: intense verticality
Markowitz said, "This developer has pledged that tenants in the footprint will be given first dibs [in the project] at the same rent they're currently playing. It's a pledge I happen to hold very dear, in support of this project."
Mindy Fullilove, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University and author of a book on displacement, Root Shock, said, "People make pledges but they don't follow through. Part of the issue is: what teeth does it have?"
She added: "If you think about what's happening as the [project] footprint, you're missing the point. It's a transformation from a horizontal neighborhood to an intensely vertical neighborhood. It's meant to be upscale. It's going to create ripple effects.... It's an indirect blast to the neighborhood."
Markowitz was more sanguine, noting that new residents and arena visitors would lead to an economic spillover and new businesses. In his lifetime, Markowitz said, there were once 100 kosher delis in Brooklyn. "Consumer tastes have changed," he said.
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Times architecture critic Ouroussoff gets political--regarding the Javits Center
Embarrassed by the rejection of a Jets stadium for the West Side and the endless squabbling about the design for a Freedom Tower at ground zero, city and state officials overseeing the Javits project seem to be in a mad rush to push it through. With shadowy political maneuvering, they have stifled the kind of public debate that could have led to a more ambitious vision for the convention center and the decrepit neighborhoods next to it.
By contrast, his 7/5/05 essay on the Atlantic Yards plan, headlined Seeking First to Reinvent the Sports Arena, and Then Brooklyn, Ouroussoff wrote:
Frank Gehry's new design for a 21-acre corridor of high-rise towers anchored by the 19,000-seat Nets arena in Brooklyn may be the most important urban development plan proposed in New York City in decades. If it is approved, it will radically alter the Brooklyn skyline, reaffirming the borough's emergence as a legitimate cultural rival to Manhattan. More significant, however, Mr. Gehry's towering composition of clashing, undulating forms is an intriguing attempt to overturn a half-century's worth of failed urban planning ideas.
There's no mention of the political maneuvering behind the project, and the potential, for example, of ruinous traffic. Now that more public concern has been voiced about this project, let's see what Ouroussoff writes in response to the third version of the Gehry's design, expected in the next months.
Municipal Art Society: consider alternatives, including no arena and/or less density
There are many finely grained observations, with several exceprted below, but the most interesting ones come in the section called Alternatives, in which the MAS suggests studying a project that included no arena and buildings with a height limitation of 120 feet (as opposed to more than five times that).
Thinking about density
Another suggestion is for a development with an arena but with a height limitation of 320 feet (about half the current proposed level) and 4.9 million square feet (as opposed to 9.1 million square feet). The suggested Floor Area Ratio is 6.5, not dissimilar from that discussed by architect Jonathan Cohn in his Brooklyn Views blog.
Forest City Ratner argues that adding density allows it to meet its affordable housing pledge. But until we know the costs and benefits of the project, as well as the developer's projected profits, it's impossible to calculate.
And shouldn't the appropriate density be driven by a planning process, rather than a developer?
The MAS suggests:
• Study an alternative to reduce land use impacts, that includes the following components:
o No arena;
o 600,000 sf of at-grade retail space;
o Minimal office space, with priority given to community and educational facilities;
o 2300 units of housing with a height limitation of approximately 120 feet;
o 1100 parking spaces;
o Green public walkway, roughly parallel to Atlantic Avenue and a landscaped public park;
o No residential displacement with development limited to MTA site only;
o Extension of existing Fort Greene street grid across the rail yards, creating smaller blocks with more street frontage.
• Study alternative to reduce land use impacts, that includes the following components:
o A non-arena development with buildings at a density of between 3 million sf of development over the yards only;
o An arena development and 4.9 million square feet of development and lower scale with a maximum combined FAR of 6.5 and a height limit of 270 feet for residential buildings and 320 feet for commercial buildings, for a site bounded by Atlantic Avenue, Flatbush Avenue, Sixth Avenue, Pacific Street and Vanderbilt Avenue (to the extent that these parcels would not have to be acquired through eminent domain);
• To increase public access and usability of proposed open space, consider alternative with buildings on sites 5-14 reconfigured. Study alternative that maximizes public access to fully usable open space that is designed to address the specific needs of the existing community as well as new users.
• Study alternative with different mix of uses, including space for high-performing light industrial uses.
• Study alternative with arena reconfigured at Vanderbilt Avenue, where there is more traffic capacity than Flatbush Avenue.
• 5th Avenue is a major connection between Park Slope, Prospect Heights and Ft. Greene. It is also major point of access to an enormous retail center. Alternatives that do not lead to closure of this street should be analyzed.
Taking a broader view of the impact
The MAS observes, as have others, that the environmental review should take a much broader view of community impact:
• The impacts of this development, particularly as it relates to traffic, should be studied in conjunction with the entire redevelopment plan for Downtown Brooklyn, including both proposed and projected development sites identified in the Downtown Brooklyn Rezoning EIS, and the upcoming Fort Greene Rezoning.
STUDY AREA: Proposed ½ mile and ¼ mile study area is not sufficient to determine true land use impacts in certain instances.
1. Study area for traffic and transit should include Grand Army Plaza, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Study use of congestion pricing model to control vehicular traffic to arena.
2. Study area for parks and open space should include all of Fort Greene Park and all of Prospect Park. However, these areas should not be included in the required open space ratio for the proposed development.
3. Number of intersections identified in traffic study area should be increased to include all intersections within ½-mile study area. Drivers will seek alternative routes through residential neighborhoods at peak traffic hours.
4. Study area for land use, zoning, and public policy impacts should be increased to include all of the Downtown Brooklyn Rezoning Study Area. • While there are no 197-a plans for the study area, the site is shared by three community districts—Brooklyn 2, 6, and 8. All public policy documents created by the affected community boards, including but not limited to Community District Needs Statements, annual budget priorities, and adopted resolutions pertaining to the Atlantic Yards and development and rezoning proposals such as the Downtown Brooklyn Rezoning, should be analyzed.
• Study the impact of the proposed development on the Clinton Hill, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene, and BAM Historic Districts.
The MAS wants more clarity about jobs:
• In the analysis of the operating period benefits to the state and city after the project is fully developed, provide working definition of “permanent employment.” While jobs associated with operation of sports facilities may be permanent, they are often part-time, or only occasional, as the need arises.
Also, the MAS asks when affordable housing would be built:
• Specify whether any low and moderate income housing will be built in Phase I and provisions to be made for community preference in allotting units.
The MAS says the arena roof shouldn't count as open space and warns that the open space promises are out of sync with the project timetable:
• Rooftop space for commercial tenants should not count against required ratio.
• The proposed development will not result in any public open space until 2016. Determine impact of new residents and workers added to area in Phase I of construction in terms of current open space ratio.
The MAS warns that a narrow focus has its costs:
• The scope document states that the analysis of known resources will focus on resources closest to the development site. All resources in the study area should be equally analyzed. In recent large-scale rezonings, the area impacted by accelerated land values has been more generalized than the limited study area. Subsequently, attempts at the preservation of noteworthy historic buildings in the general area but not within the study area is weakened because the resources have not been identified.
• The field survey of the project site and study area for potential architectural resources is defined as being limited to those buildings that will be affected by the project. The survey should be of the entire study area, not just those with known impacts. The range of possible effects needs to be analyzed on all of the potential resources. Limiting the scope of review to a small subset of buildings is to determine in advance what those impacts might be.
• The visual impact of new buildings on resources, including the impact on the Williamsburg Clock Tower Building, must be analyzed, and binding mitigation measures must be developed.
The MAS brings up the issue of solar rights:
• Impact of shadows on ability of surrounding residences and businesses to utilize solar heating potential should be studied.
Traffic and Parking/Transit and Pedestrians
The MAS has concerns about the narrowness of the scope so far:
• Times for analysis should be expanded to peak traffic hours of 7-10 AM, 4:30 –7:00 PM weekday for commercial and residential.
• Weekend Hours analyzed should be from 10-6 when most retail businesses are open, and traffic eastbound on Atlantic now backs up to 3rd Avenue or farther.
• Study potential for parking sharing agreements with surrounding businesses and residents for off-peak hours
• Study should include analysis of a regional transportation plan to reduce vehicular traffic to the area. The plan needs to address impact of new traffic patterns associated with events at the arena and vehicular trips associated with other commercial and office uses on the site and with the addition of (an estimated) 3600 cars for the 7300 new residential units.
How would the Gehry plan impact the neighborhood around it? The MAS observes:
• In defining neighborhood character to determine impact of proposed development, examine:
o Low-rise character;
o Low-medium density character;
o Typical block/lot configuration;
o Typical street grid pattern;
o Mix of land uses;
o Brownstone character;
o Historic districts;
o Predominant building form and type;
o Pedestrian scale of buildings;
o Synergy between local businesses and local needs;
o Absence of social, commercial, and visual connections between neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights;
o Unique landmark status of the Williamsburg Clock Tower Building.
Will Ratner build offsite affordable housing? We don't know yet
Assemblywoman Joan Millman cited rumors that the affordable housing component would be moved offsite. If so, how would this affect gentrification in the area?
Panelist Barry Dinnerstein, of the City Planning Department, responded that it wasn't his bailiwick, as the state--not the city--is conducting the environmental review.
"Where do I direct the question?" Millman asked.
"To us," Borough President Marty Markowitz responded. His chief of staff, Greg Atkins, picked up the issue, pointing out that the offsite housing has been discussed as a way for the developer to reach the stated 50 percent affordable housing goal.
Markowitz added, "We'll have to clarify to get exactly where they are in the process." No one from developer Forest City Ratner was present, but the developer and Borough Hall staff are presumably in contact, so the issue could be clarified.
What the record states
The issue first came up last October. Assemblyman Roger Green, at the Empire State Development Corporation hearing, suggested that moving affordable housing offsite might reduce some of the project's density (and, presumably, contribute to the revitalization of the Crown Heights area he represents).
His suggestion was interpreted to involve the rental units, since that's the affordable housing located onsite. However, Forest City Ratner has pledged that half (2,250) rental units would be affordable, and company officials have reiterated that those would be located onsite.
So the offsite affordable housing would involve condos.
Once the developer added 2,800 market-rate condos on top of the 4,500 rentals, the spirit, if not the letter, of the 50 percent affordable housing pledge was breached.
However, another part of the Housing Memorandum of Understanding concerns a program to build 600 to 1000 affordable for-sale units, either on or off site, over ten years. This would move toward matching, though not fully so, the 2,800 added condos.
As has been reported by the Brooklyn Papers and the Daily News, the developer may acquire the former St. Mary’s Hospital in Crown Heights, which could be used to build the affordable condos. FCR VP Jim Stuckey told the Daily News that the St. Mary's site could accommodate 600 to 800 condos.
Currently, the project would include 2,250 affordable rentals, 2,250 market-rate rentals, and 2,800 market-rate condos. That would make 31 percent of the 7,300 residential units affordable.
Add 600 affordable condos, and 36 percent of the 7,900 projects units would be affordable. Add 1,000 affordable condos, and 39 percent of the 8,300 units would be affordable.
Note, however, that the concept of "affordable" includes low-income, moderate-income, and decidedly middle-class (up to six-figures) components. Only 900 of the rental units would go to people earning under Brooklyn's median income. And they likely wouldn't get many of the affordable condos. The housing memorandum states: "It is currently contemplated that a majority of for-sale units will be sold to families in the upper affordable-income tiers."
An 11/6/05 New York Times article did the math and observed that if Forest City Ratner builds 1,000 units offsite, the number of below-market units would be about 40 percent. In the Times, Bertha Lewis of ACORN, who negotiated the affordable housing agreement with the developer, said she was negotiating with the company, and with the government agencies that help subsidize housing, to help make a greater proportion of the for-sale apartments available below market prices.
"We know that when we get through this thing, half of all the housing is going to be affordable - half of the rental, half of everything else," she said. "We haven't gotten down to the last part of this. But our whole principle is 50-50."
That's worth checking on, as well, especially since Lewis, writing a few weeks earlier in Forest City Ratner's Brooklyn Standard, unequivocally declared that the 50-50 program was in place.
Sunday, January 29, 2006
ESDC's Gargano: no inkling of conflict, doesn't know agency rents from Ratner
And when several community groups filed a lawsuit against the ESDC and the developer to block the demolition of six buildings, they also charged that the agency was using a lawyer who had until recently worked for the developer. "I don't know whether we are using the same lawyer," Gargano said, according to the Daily News. "I don't know of any conflict."
The Brooklyn Downtown Star, in a 1/26/06 article headlined Lawsuits DDDB Just Fine, added some more details on that, and also pointed out that Gargano was unaware that the agency rents space from Ratner:
When asked about this on the morning when the lawsuit was filed, ESDC Chairman Charles Gargano attempted to laugh the whole issue off. "A conflict between lawyers?" he chuckled rhetorically, but none of the media members present laughed.
"I'm not sure if we have the same lawyer," he then went on to hedge, "but I'm sure the lawyers themselves would know if there's a conflict."
When pressed by the Star about another perceived conflict of interest - namely that the ESDC currently rents office space from FCRC in the Atlantic Center Mall, which sits across the street from the new footprint - Gargano pled ignorance again.
"I know of no such property," he said at first, before other media members confirmed that it was indeed there. "Oh, you mean the community center?" he reacted. "Well, we have a bunch of those, and we've had them for several years. We just try and put them in ideal locations. I don't know if they [FCRC] even owned that property when we moved in."
In fact, FCRC has owned the entire Atlantic Center Mall since they built it in the mid-90s.