Monday, November 28, 2005


The Times editorial on Atlantic Yards: spirit without subsidies?

So the New York Times finally weighs in with an editorial about Atlantic Yards, and while it acknowledges some of the important changes (or, some might say, false promises) in the plan and repeats a criticism of subsidies absent from the previous editorial, it maintains a vague Marty Markowitz-esque call for the plan to be scaled down, unfairly criticizes local opponents as NIMBYs, and praises the "spirit" of the development without acknowledging the avoidance of public process.

The 11/27/05 editorial, headlined A Matter of Scale in Brooklyn , appeared in the City Weekly section. As I pointed out in my report, editorials on such an important topic should appear in the main editorial section. After all, state residents would help pay for the project and a state agency is supervising it, also, it would have an impact on the tristate area as well as on development nationally.

First, the Times acknowledges the changes:
When it was first put forward, the proposed Atlantic Yards mega-development in Brooklyn offered some excellent features, most particularly affordable housing and jobs for local residents. The project seemed promising, if the developer could address the biggest downside: the addition of traffic downtown, where the streets are already clogged. Since then, the plan has become bigger and the number of prospective jobs smaller, and there could be even worse traffic congestion.
The project has an evolving razzle-dazzle Frank Gehry design and an 18,000-seat arena for the Nets basketball team, which could become a real anchor for development - unlike the doomed plan for a football stadium on the West Side of Manhattan, which would have deadened, rather than enlivened, the neighborhood around it. But the project has grown by nearly one million square feet since its unveiling two years ago. For economic, aesthetic and practical reasons, it should be pared back.
Change is normal for a massive project, and this one covers some 21 acres, including the arena, 16 other buildings and 7 acres of green space. But what should remain constant is the spirit of the development. The developer, Bruce Ratner (a partner of The Times in developing its new headquarters), earned much good will by reaching out to surrounding communities and pledging that 50 percent of the housing units would be pegged to low- and middle-income residents. That is no longer the case, given the planned addition of nearly 3,000 apartments for sale at market prices, though another 1,000 moderately priced units could be added off the site.

Reaching out to surrounding communities? The story behind BUILD is a bit more complicated.

Traffic downtown? The project would be located outside Downtown Brooklyn, and thus would have an impact on traffic both in the downtown area and in the neighborhoods surround the project (including Prospect Heights, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene, and Park Slope).

The Times continues:
Meanwhile, the number of jobs projected may be a small fraction of the original 10,000 promised, in part because commercial square footage has given way to additional housing.

Has given way is a passive construction and obscures the reason. As the Times has already reported, the developer needs to build more luxury housing to pay for the affordable housing. There´s another way to look at it: for Forest City Ratner to make the profit it desires (a figure we don't know). And another, as noted in my report: less commercial space means the site wouldn't compete with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's Lower Manhattan district, and thus Silver would be more likely to approve state subsidies.

The Times continues:
Mr. Ratner has always made it clear that he expects government aid in preparing the arena site, and the city and state have each committed to pitch in $100 million in cash to help. There is no reason to expect taxpayer money to be used to help fund a profit-making real estate venture like this one; those costs should be absorbed by the builder.

This is a significant point. In Chapter 13 of my report, I criticized the Times's 7/10/05 City Weekly editorial (Skyscrapers Grow in Brooklyn) for ignoring previous opposition to subsidies. A more pointed editorial (A Triple Play for New York Teams, 3/27/05, national edition) stated:
But given the enormous profitability of this sports market, the idea of adding on public subsidies is ridiculous. Sports teams should pay their own way. That includes “infrastructure improvements,” unless that infrastructure is something that was already wanted and needed by the community. The community, by the way, should be consulted whether the law requires it or not.
...A mixed-use development like this could be a shot in the arm for the local economy. The low- and moderate-income housing units would be a big plus, and the developer has agreed to pay fair market value for the railyards at the site. But the city and state are each supposed to contribute $100 million to build streets and sidewalks and prepare the site for development. That’s unnecessary: Mr. Ratner should pay his own way. He should also make more of an effort to work with the community.

Still, the Times's position is incomplete. While there would be $200 million in direct subsidies, the 30-year public costs were estimated by Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey at $1.1 billion at a City Council hearing last May. Forest City Ratner officials say that some subsidies are "as of right," which means they'd be part of any project that includes affordable housing, but street closings and other infrastructure improvements would not necessarily be included. We need a much more specific accounting of the costs and benefits.

At least, however, the Times has maintained some consistency with its previous editorial stance. The editorial continues:
It's understandable that residents bordering the project do not want such drastic change, but that in itself is no reason to stop the development. It is difficult to build in New York as it is. Growth would come to a screeching halt forever if neighborhoods could veto projects to keep the status quo. But the residents are absolutely right in pointing out that traffic in the area, especially at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, is already atrocious almost any time of day - even on weekends. Mr. Ratner wants to promote use of mass transit, which makes sense, considering that the site sits over a major hub for the subway and Long Island Rail Road. Mr. Ratner will also improve the yards as part of the deal. Still, more innovation is needed, like the idea of using a system of shuttle buses and satellite parking for arena events.

The Times repeats John Manbeck's hollow NIMBY charge. Neighborhoods don't want a veto, but they do want local elected officials to have a voice.

As noted in Chapter 13 of my report, the Times´s 7/10/05 editorial also ignored a previous call for an independent report on the costs and benefits of the project. Without hearkening back to that call, the new editorial continues:
The city's nonpartisan Independent Budget Office calculates the arena would produce a modest benefit for the city and state, $107 million over 30 years. Even that may be optimistic - the budget office's projections for the Jets stadium of $210 million over a similar period were based on hopeful and maybe unachievable predictions of its use as a convention space.
The Nets arena is not destined to be a cash cow, but the borough deserves a sports team, so long as the price is not too high. A basketball arena is more likely to get multipurpose use than a football stadium, and since the team plays several times a week for a long season rather than 10 times a year, its impact on the area's night life should be positive.
The Atlantic Yards project deserves to keep moving forward. But the focus now needs to be on building something that is still grand but also manageable.

So long as the price is not too high? This is not an arena project. This is an arena along with 16 buildings, nearly all housing, and mostly luxury housing. So, isn't it time to try to evaluate the budget projections for the project as a whole? The Times cannot suggest that the IBO report, which focused on the arena, is definitive. Moreover, the agency did note much higher potential costs than did developer's consultant. The IBO report also cited a figure of nearly twice as much office space as currently projected, and 6,000 apartments rather than the currently projected figure of 7,300.

That 3/27/05 Times editorial noted: The community, by the way, should be consulted whether the law requires it or not.
That's been significantly absent from this process. And it's notable that the Times, in an 11/27/05 editorial (The Shame of Palookaville) about a Westchester project by the very same developer, lauds the role of public participation. In Yonkers, there's a city council, and in Westchester, there's a county planning board. By contrast, the Brooklyn project was presented as a fait accompli. It's not a question of neighborhoods vetoing projects, it's a question of avoiding local elected officials.

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