Sunday, August 31, 2014

Atlantic Yards, Pacific Park, and the Culture of Cheating (links)

I offer a framework to analyze and evaluate Atlantic Yards (in August 2014 rebranded as Pacific Park) and the Barclays Center: Atlantic Yards, Pacific Park, and the Culture of Cheating.

Note: this post is post-dated to remain at the top of the page. Please send tips to the email address above, rather than posting a comment here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Next Quality of Life meeting September 4 (no longer a committee?); community thanked for commitment to project success

A message yesterday from Nicole J. Jordan, Director, Community Relations, for Empire State Development:
Dear Community,
Forest City Ratner Companies, along with New York State and New York City representatives will host the next Quality of Life meeting Thursday, September 4, 2014 at 6:00 PM in the YWCA Community Room located at 30 Third Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11217. We will present an overview of the housing plan and upcoming construction activities.
An overview of the presentation will be emailed in the coming week. If you have any questions please contact ESD at Thank you for your continued commitment to the overall success of this project.
Please plan to arrive promptly in order to provide time for presentations and questions and answers from the community members.
Best regards,
(Emphases added)

It's definitely useful to get a presentation ahead of time, as occurred in June.

A change of tone

But it is a bit confounding to compare this message with one, say, from last February, when it was considered a committee meeting:
Dear Members of the Atlantic Yards Quality of Life Committee, 
The next Quality of Life Committee meeting will be held on: 
Monday, February 24th, 2014
Brooklyn Hospital Community Room 3rd Floor
121 DeKalb Avenue
Brooklyn, NY, 11201 
This meeting is a forum for representatives from the community and civic groups to engage Empire State Development, Forest City Ratner Companies and Barclays Center operators regarding issues affecting the quality of life for residents and businesses in close proximity to the arena.
Back then, community members were portrayed as equal participants, even if it didn't work that way in practice.

Also---though see below--I'm not sure meeting attendees are necessarily committed to the overall success of the project. The overall success may be in tension with oversight and/or mitigations of impacts, and some residents may be more committed to the latter.

(A reader writes to upbraid me: "The project is defined in part by its environmental commitments. The project is not a success if the environmental commitments are not met." Point taken, but I was thinking that the "overall success of this project," at least as defined by Forest City, is in tension with that.)

Indeed, a message this past June from Derek Lynch, who was then Manager of Community and Government Relations regarding AtlanticYards, stated, in broader terms:
Thank you again for your continued commitment to the community and the overall success of this project.
The latest change in language may just be careless. But even such carelessness may be telling.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

From the latest Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Construction Alert: module deliveries on hold; changes at B3 site for Green Roof work (less bike parking)

Two weeks after Greenland Forest City Partners renamed Atlantic Yards as Pacific Park, Empire State Development, which sends out two-week Construction updates after preparation by Forest City Ratner, had made an adjustment.

The email yesterday had the subject line "Atlantic Yards dba PACIFIC PARK BROOKLYN TWO WEEK LOOK AHEAD," and came with a note about the "ongoing effort to update you on the activities surrounding the Atlantic Yards Project (dba Pacific Park Brooklyn)." But it also was addressed to "the Atlantic Yards Community," so they're still working on the nomenclature.

At B2

Notably, no more modules were delivered to the B2 modular tower in the past two weeks, leaving a total of 297 (of 930), with the tenth floor complete. Erection of 11th floor modules will begin in September 2014.

During these two weeks, mechanical, plumbing and electrical mate line work will continue at the building, as will "exterior punch list." That typically refers to final fixes, but note that some of the module faces, flapping in the wind, seem to have arrived with flaws.

Also, water main tie-in work on Flatbush Avenue at night should begin. It unclear how/whether traffic would be affected.

Green roof work (and less bicycle parking)

Coming soon to the B3 site, at the southeast corner of the arena block, will be trailers used in connection with the Green Roof.

Also, an area within that B3 footprint "will be fenced in for storage of equipment and materials used in connection with work going on inside the building." That is related to the green roof but I thought the work was all exterior.

Also, they've begun removing the bike racks, which once were able to accommodate 400 bikes (though hardly used but occasionally hyped) "to make way for the upcoming crane installation, which is slated for October." Instead, "racks to accommodate approximate 45 bikes will be installed in the plaza on 6th Avenue.

Note that this is a departure from the 2009 Amended Memorandum of Environmental Commitments (and the 2014 Second Amended Memorandum), which requires the developer to "provide any ticketholder traveling to the arena by bicycle with free indoor bicycle storage in a secure, manned facility designed to accommodate at least 400 bicycles on the arena block."

LIRR rail yard activities

Pile drilling along the north side of Pacific Street will continue during this reporting period and should take about four months, according to the alert. The contractor will continue excavation and hauling of soil from Blocks 1120 and 1121.

The contractor will continue installation of tiebacks, lagging, excavation of soil and demolition of the lower portion of the concrete retaining wall along Pacific Street, between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues. The contractor has begun grading/paving work in the area of the yard between the Arena and 6th Avenue.

Community Liaison Office (CLO)

According to the document:
The Community Liaison Office has been relocated to Atlantic Center, 625 Atlantic Avenue. Located on the 3rd floor, visitors seeking the office should enter through the mall entrance located at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and So. Portland Avenue. The CLO’s hours are M-F from 9am – 4pm and the phone number, 866-923-5315 and email, remains the same.
That probably needs an update, since Forest City has already sent out emails indicating a new address:

Monday, August 18, 2014

In misleading new site plan, Pacific Park Brooklyn towers are shrunken and smoothed out

Notice anything odd about the rather stylized Pacific Park Brooklyn site plan--in green/gray hues below--that surfaced with the project's rebranding by Greenland Forest City Partners?

Well, the design of the buildings has been smoothed out and abstracted, making them seem smaller, compared to other site plans from Forest City Enterprises itself, such as the one with the dark background, from an August 2014 Investor Presentation, as disclosed to the SEC.

Upper graphic from FCE investor presentation, lower graphic released with Pacific Park re-branding; both August 2014
Maybe some buildings may have been redesigned. And they're apparently trying to simplify and stylize the design. But they don't need more space to show more complicated buildings.

Notably, it's odd and misleading how B6 and B7, over the center block of the railyard, have been downsized from "catcher's mitts" to simple rectangles.

That's highly doubtful. After all, Building 7 would be 460 feet tall and encompass 733,810 square feet--a huge building. Building 6 would be only 219 feet tall but include 445,060 square feet. Because that's far more bulk than in some project buildings that are taller, that implies a sprawling--not modest--building.

Consider how the massive B4, at the northeast corner of the arena block, at 511 feet and 824,629 square feet, might appear as a mere rectangle.

Below, in GIF form:

Pacific Park Site Plan Versions on Make A Gif

Sunday, August 17, 2014

In the Navy Yard, the modular builder that preceded Ratner faces change

From an 8/12/14 New York Times article headlined A Factory in Brooklyn That Constructs Homes Is Losing Its Own:
Across from the Barclays Center sit hundreds of apartments built at a factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
They are not part of the Atlantic Yards development, where Bruce C. Ratner is assembling a 32-story tower, which will be the tallest factory-made building in the world. Instead, the apartments are inside 32 red-brick, three-story rowhouses and were built by a company called Capsys. Each home uses three modules, one per story. The homes look a century old but opened in 2002, a decade before Mr. Ratner decided to try to build the first of his Atlantic Yards towers through modular construction.
...After 18 years of producing more than 4,000 modules — enough for 2,300 apartments plus hotels and park bathrooms — [Capsys founder] Mr. [Nicholas] Lembo is worried that he might have to close up shop just as modular building is taking off. His lease is up in two years, and he has been scouring the boroughs for a new home for Capsys but has been unable to find one.
In 2010, Capsys was told by the Navy Yard that its lease--currently at $4/square foot--would not be renewed, as the space was needed by the growing Steiner Studios.

The Capsys rent, according to the Times, is about one-third the typical Navy Yard rate, which offers below-market rates. So if Capsys is exploring space in Canarsie some three times its current rent, that would approximate Navy Yard rent.

Capsys also says that it should have been offered the space taken by FC Skanska, the partnership involving Forest City Ratner that's building modules for Atlantic Yards.

It's not clear from the article--and I haven't gotten a response from Capsys--whether the Navy Yard knew Capsys wanted to expand and whether FC Skanska is paying the market rent or the old Capsys rent.

Shake Shack now open on Flatbush across from arena

Last Sunday, Danny Meyer's hamburger-and-shakes emporium Shake Shack--open already on Fulton Mall and Old Fulton Street--opened at 170 Flatbush Avenue across from the Barclays Center.

As announced on the Shake Shack blog, the Flatbush Shack has some Brooklyn-specific and even location-specific concretes made with frozen custard:
Originally offered at the Downtown Brooklyn Shack, the Fudge-eddabouitit has chocolate custard blended with fudge sauce, Baked chocolate cloud cookie and Mast Brothers Shack-blend dark chocolate chunks, topped with chocolate sprinkles. A DUMBO favorite, the Brooklyn Pie oh My has vanilla custard blended with a slice of seasonal pie from Four & Twenty Blackbirds. Lastly, the location-specific Nothin’ But NETS has chocolate and vanilla custard blended with marshmallow sauce, crispy crunchies and chocolate sprinkles.
And it's very Brooklyn:
In keeping with the Shack’s commitment to the environment, the Flatbush Shack is constructed with recycled and sustainable materials and features energy-efficient kitchen equipment and lighting. Chairs and booths are made from lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and tabletops are made from reclaimed bowling alley lanes from Brooklyn’s own CounterEvolution
That  extends to a "large-and-in-charge custom “Brooklyn” mural adorning the feature wall, hand-painted by NYC street art legend Greg Lamarche (aka, SP.ONE)."

From the Eagle

The Brooklyn Eagle, which noted that 75 people were hired, reported:
Michael Pintchik, who owns numerous buildings in the area, is the landlord of the 170 Flatbush Ave. storefront, which formerly housed a furniture store. The rent is $200 per square foot, the Daily News reported.
Note that the Pintchik family, Michael and Matthew, have managed an issue that had some neighbors quite worried: would garish fast-food joints or even a Hooter's (which was nosing around) suck up available space. 

Well, there's a Tony Roma's (in a non-Pintchik building), and there are some unclaimed spaces, but so far a lot of the businesses both appeal to arena-goers as well as the substantial local audience within walking or transit distance.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Blocking Atlantic Avenue lanes for construction work next to arena (and VIP entrance): photos

From plan detailed in early June; click to enlarge
A reader sent me photos yesterday of Atlantic Avenue being significantly narrowed near the Barclays Center to accommodate construction (drilling) of a new West Portal from the Vanderbilt Yard and a new green roof (cranes) on the Barclays Center.

This work has been previously announced, but ramped up significantly yesterday.

It will clearly impact drop-offs at the arena, notably the VIP entrance on Atlantic Avenue, as well as buses that bring large groups such as schoolchildren.

In June, Forest City Ratner spokeswoman Ashley Cotton said the arena will issue new rules and guidelines regarding the constricted space to walk from the arena or to drop off people on Atlantic Avenue. She acknowledged it's "clearly not ideal." (See full plan at bottom.)

Photos: August 15, 2014

Blocking off Atlantic Avenue lanes eastbound from Fort Greene Place to South Portland Avenue/Sixth Avenue, looking east:

A view of the same blockage, looking west:

Looking east from South Portland Avenue/Sixth Avenue to South Oxford Street:

Work on the B4 site, add blacktop below-grade (for reasons not yet explained publicly, as far as I know):

Work at railyard at Pacific Street just east of Sixth Avenue:

Another view of the same work:

Friday, August 15, 2014

Celebration for "Brooklyn's win in the fight for affordable housing at Atlantic Yards" downplays key issue: actual affordability

Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) and BrooklynSpeaks will hold a summer celebration next Thursday, 8/21/14, as stated in the invitation, for "our win in the fight for affordable housing and accountability at Atlantic Yards."

(The graphic at right more narrowly cites "Brooklyn's win in the fight for affordable housing at Atlantic Yards." Neither use the new term Pacific Park.)

The free event, featuring music, dancing and a BBQ, will be held 6-9 pm, the FAC Center Garden, 621 DeGraw St between 3rd & 4th Avenues.

Did Brooklyn win?

But the victory announced 6/27/14 is quite flawed, as I've suggested. Yes, the new deadline for 2250 subsidized units--2025 instead of 2035--is meaningful. So too are new penalties, $2000 per month per delayed unit, to begin in 2025.

But the upcoming subsidized units, in two much-touted 100% affordable buildings, are disproportionately aimed at middle-income households. Rents will be well out of reach for most who've rallied or testified for Atlantic Yards.

Representatives of the FAC and BrooklynSpeaks recently went on TV to tout the victory and, thanks to uninformed interviewers, emerged without having to address actual affordability.

As I've written, half the subsidized housing in the next two 100% affordable towers, would go to households earning up to 165% of Area Median Income (AMI), or $141,735 for a family of four, or $99,330 for a single person. Those 2013 figures from the New York City Housing Development Corporation surely will rise.

Rents for those middle-income households will be based on 160% of AMI. If rent represents 30% of their income--it may be 35%--a four-person household would pay $3436/month. That's below market for a new two-bedroom rental around Downtown Brooklyn, but it's far closer to market than to low-income levels.

FAC and BrooklynSpeaks can celebrate some success. But even if the actual affordability was outside the scope of negotiations--secret negotiations, the results announced as a fait accompli--it's both off-key and misleading to proclaim triumph without caveats.

Not long ago subsidized units skewed toward households earning six figures was an opportunity for criticism. As Gib Veconi, a key BrooklynSpeaks negotiator, wrote 1/24/13 on his Patch blog regarding the first Atlantic Yards tower:
However, it turns out that “affordable” in the context of B2 doesn’t mean the rents charged will be affordable to working people being priced out of the neighborhood. It instead means the apartments are “eligible for government housing subsidies,” and (as I wrote in September) government regulations allow Forest City to market subsidized apartments in B2 to families with incomes well over $100,000. 
With even more subsidized units going to six-figure households, no wonder David LaRue, CEO of Forest City Ratner parent Forest City Enterprises, told investment analysts last week that "we have a structure in terms of the definition of affordable that we think is appropriate in the marketplace."

What was gained

It's certainly progress to ensure that all the affordable housing will be built by 2025, especially since increased gentrification, as the lawsuit prepared but not filed by FAC/BrooklynSpeaks, would continue to push African-American households out of the four Community Districts nearest the project.

The schedule improves significantly on the previous 2035 deadline but still would represent a 16-year buildout from the project's second approval in 2009, rather than the ten years originally promised.

Also, it's progress to enact penalties of $2000 per unit per month for the affordable housing not built by 2025, especially since no such penalties previously existed. However, the unavailability of subsidies or financing could provide a loophole.

And it's partial progress to have two all-affordable buildings, with at least 590 units, starting within the next year. One had to start by December, according to existing contracts.

(It's also progress, though not part of the victory claims, that 35% of the units in the next two buildings will be two- and three-bedroom apartments, though we don't know how they'll be distributed. In the first tower, in which the subsidized units were distributed evenly across five income "bands," the larger units were skewed toward the middle-income units. These next towers already have subsidized units weighted toward middle-income households.)

Also, the state agreed to create a new Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation to monitor the project and provide public input--though some close neighbors remain skeptical of the lack of specifics.

Looking at the details

Despite the BrooklynSpeaks/FAC press release quoting an attorney as "thrilled to support low-income residents of Brooklyn in their struggle to keep affordable housing in downtown Brooklyn," the subsidized housing will skew away from low-income people and depart from earlier promises.

Of the 2250 affordable units promised, according to the Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2005 by Forest City Ratner and ACORN, the breakdown was supposed to be:
  • 10% between 30-40% of AMI
  • 30% between 41-50% of AMI
  • 20% between 61-100% of AMI
  • 20% between 101-140% of AMI
  • 20% between 141-160% of AMI
(Those ratios, if part of a 50% market-rate building, as originally planned, would be cut in half in terms of overall units in the tower.)

The next two towers would include no market-rate housing, but the subsidized housing targets higher income levels:
  • 30% between 37-60% AMI
  • 5% between 80-100% of AMI
  • 15% between 130-145% of AMI
  • 50% between 160-165% of AMI
This is skewed in multiple ways. First, an inevitable consequence of time--or, project backers would say, delay--is that AMI keeps rising, from $62,800 in 2005 to $85,900 in 2013. Second, also out of anyone's control, is that AMI includes wealthier suburban counties, so it does not reflect reality in Brooklyn.

The next examples of skewing stem from decisions--surely discretionary, if not negotiated--made regarding these next two towers.

Third, the AMI "bands" have been stretched, in which low-income now goes up to 60% of AMI instead of 50%, and moderate-income does not go down to 61% of AMI but rather starts at 80%. The the "lower" middle-income band starts at 130% of AMI rather than 101% of AMI. And, of course, the "upper" middle-income band starts at 160% of AMI rather than 141%.

Such adjustment is allowed by city agencies financing the housing. However, it doesn't conform to what was long promised.

Fourth, and most glaringly, the distribution does not track that promised in the MOU. Of the total affordable units, 60% should be below 100% of AMI. Instead, in the next two towers, 35% will below that figure. Of the total affordable units, 20% should be in the highest affordable "band" but instead will be 50%.

The overall picture

At least the affordable housing is coming faster, say backers, and that's true. As Veconi tweeted in June: "180 units 4 <= 60% AMI = big acceleration. Yes need more, but getting these now matters 4 ppl facing displacement pressure."

And 30% of two all-affordable buildings surely yields more low-income housing than 20% of of a 50/30/20 building.

But the overall income profile of Atlantic Yards continues to skew upward. Along with the two 100% affordable rental buildings, Greenland Forest City Partners plans two market-rate condo buildings.

That works out to 50% market and 50% subsidized, with the subsidized units more expensive than in the MOU. Ultimately, according to Council Member Brad Lander, 40% of the affordable units will be low-income. (And they have to be, I believe, to conform to financing restrictions.)

It's not clear, however, whether the other 60% of affordable units will conform to the MOU or continue skewed as in the next two towers.

On TV, an odd victory lap

In an 8/10/14 interview with City and State, interviewer Nick Powell asked, without much knowledge of the back story, "The agreement that's in place right now, was this a long negotiation process, was there a lot of back and forth?"

FAC Executive Director Michelle de la Uz reminded him that  the original agreement "was actually hammered out by then-ACORN, now MHANY [Mutual Housing Association of New York], so that 35% of the total units would be affordable." (Actually, it was that 50% of the rentals would be affordable, since it was signed before Forest City added condos to the project.)

The terms were memorialized as part of the Housing Memorandum of Understanding and then the Community Benefits Agreement.

The "alignment" leading to settlement

de la Uz went on to note that the preference for 50% of the housing lottery slots is limited to residents of Community Districts 2, 3, 6, and 8. "So if you wait until 2035 to provide the promised affordable housing, really the thing that most people held onto as the most significant public benefit, that meant there was going to be a delay," she said, and that would disproportionately impact African-Americans.

"So we were prepared to file a fair housing, a civil rights lawsuit," she said. "We decided to reach out to Forest City, to the state. And with the city's help, as well, the mayor's help, to see if we could broker something, because there seemed to be some alignment about wanting to delivery the affordable housing faster. And we wanted to see if we could get some alignment on some other things that we wanted."

The "alignment," it went unmentioned, also had to do with the pending deal for the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group buying 70% of the project going forward. Nor did it have to do with a consensus on actual affordability.

Keep in mind that de la Uz was Public Advocate de Blasio's appointee to the City Planning Commission. That surely tempered potential adversarial elements of the negotiations.

Keeping accountable

Powell asked how the new Community Development Corporation (CDC) "can help keep Forest City Ratner accountable." (Actually, it would be appropriate to say Greenland Forest City Partners.)

de la Uz noted that "this is the only ESDC project of this size that doesn't have a separate subsidiary corporation... And considering the controversy, considering the amount of public benefits... considering the level of public investment.. it really was crying out of some oversight."

The CDC will have 14 members, with nine appointed by governor, five by local officials. "There's a real emphasis on ensuring there's consultation with the local Community Boards," she said. "Basically the main responsibility of that CDC will be to monitor the public benefits that have been promised  and to ensure that impacts are something that are mitigated as well. There is staff assigned and resources to do that."

Impact on gentrification

Powell asked if the deal would help stem gentrification.

"I think we need to be realistic about the project stemming the tide of gentrification," de la Uz responded. "The reality is that we've had an affordable housing crisis in the city of New York for over 70 years. And that has only gotten worse over the last several years. So, the provision of 2250 units that are affordable is definitely significant, but the demand far, far outstrips the supply of affordable housing. But, y'know, we need to do something. Certainly not doing anything won't help."

This would have been the right time to mention AMI levels. After all, in December 2009, BrooklynSpeaks stated that "One third of the affordable housing would go to those earning more than $70,000 per year – far higher than the $35,000 the average Brooklynite earns."

One BrooklynSpeaks principle was "Calculate affordable housing according to Brooklyn Area Median Incomes (AMI), not the much higher regional AMI." That not only didn't happen, the AMIs have gone in the other direction.

The new name Pacific Park

Powell asked about the significance of the new name.

The name, which coincides with Forest City's new partner, is "part of a larger emphasis on hitting a reset button... the past is the past, the future is the future," de la Uz said. "And I think they've been dogged, obviously, by a lot of controversy. And I think there are a number of positive aspects to the project. And I think the rebranding is part of highlighting the positive and hopefully letting go of the negative."

That's a charitable way of putting it.

Finally, an affordability question

Powell asked about AMI levels, and didn't get a full answer.

"In this case, the AMI levels were agreed to as part of that MOU by ACORN," de la Uz said. "The AMI levels are from 30 to 160% of AMI."

"Right now 100% of AMI is about $84,000 for a family of four," she said. (Actually, it's a bit higher.) "But Brooklyn's median income is closer to $45,000 for a family of four," she continued, noting that AMI has outpaced the rise in Brooklyn.

Regarding Atlantic Yards, she said, "Basically, if it's built as the agreements were made, years ago, then that would mean families earning about $25,000 a year to $130,000 would be eligible for the affordable housing. That certainly is a pretty broad range. There's need at all ranges, but much of the need really and largest gap is on the folks that have lower incomes."

That's true, which is why it's important to note that the next two towers will not be built according to the previous agreements.

Any changes, in hindsight?

"Looking back, ten years ago, would you guys have done anything different in terms of negotiating this agreement, in terms of pushing harder, at Forest City Ratner," asked Powell. "I'm always curious, if there are any regrets."

It was an uninformed question, because ten years ago, de la Uz was on the outside, not negotiating, while ACORN negotiated.

Still, she ignored that issue, as well as the issue of affordability, and said, "I think there are more lessons learned. Hopefully, there's been a message to the development community that you can't promise and not deliver, or promise and delay on your delivery of the public benefits."

"I think the level of scrutiny and accountability that the public demands... as a result of that level of investment into a private project," she said, "is one where I hope that the development community recognize they have to be forthcoming and timely with the public benefits."

"I think the lesson is partly on the other side," she said, criticizing the lack of state oversight.

"I think FAC and members of BrooklynSpeaks and local officials have been pretty consistent on our message," she said, "about needing to deliver on public benefits and the need for accountability."

Reaching the black community

Marjona Jones, former organizing coordinator for Brown Community Development Corporation and an organizer on the lawsuit, joined de la Uz on Here and Now on 8/10/14, a weekly Channel 7 program focused on African-American issues in the New York tri-state area.

Jones noted that "the agreement in 2009 did not include the community at all" and did not include the groups that signed the CBA [Community Benefits Agreement."

Actually, the agreement in 2006 didn't include the community, either. This current agreement does include some of the community, but it also missed some things, as noted above.

Host Sandra Bookman said at one point, "Let's talk about this current deal. It is pretty impressive."

de la Uz noted the acceleration of provision of affordable housing, the CDC, the "pretty stiff financial penalties" (no mention of the loopholes), and the two buildings that will begin soon. She didn't mention AMI, but did, upon prompting from Bookman, talk about the pre-housing lottery preparation seminars.

In closing, Bookman asked her guests to explain "why this is so important to people."

"What this means to folks on the ground," Jones said, "it's not a magic bullet. It's not going to solve the housing crisis, in itself, but it does give us access to affordable housing sooner. And it also gives us a seat at the table... the oversight group.. another piece of this and why it's different from the CBA is the government is part of it... this has teeth, and serious penalties."