Tuesday, August 22, 2006

RPA offers more criticism than praise for AY, but says it's too late to go back

On the eve of the public hearing on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), the influental Regional Plan Association (RPA), despite expressing significant and trenchant criticisms, essentially endorsed Forest City Ratner’s project. RPA asserted that it would not be in the public interest to start from scratch, adding that, Within reason, this 'Manhattan-ization' that is proposed for Downtown Brooklyn is part of an ongoing and necessary process.

So apparently a growth process, however initiated, trumps a public process that the RPA rightly sees as inadequate. That’s the essence of a detailed but, at times, convoluted position paper that has been distilled into a none-too-short press release, headlined "RPA Supports Atlantic Yards' Arena Block, Wants Changes in Second Phase of Development."

Indeed, the New York Observer called the position "milder" than the RPA's staunch opposition last year to the West Side Stadium, but didn't point out that the RPA is leaning toward the side of the developer.

The RPA’s summary:
The statement expressed the organization's support for the signature arena block but called for changes to the eastern portion of the site plan to make the open space unambiguously public and ensure design excellence over the full build-out. The statement also warned that the City and State must make additional traffic and transit improvements to support this and other major developments in downtown Brooklyn.

There are good ideas there, including congestion pricing, but the statement doesn't fully cohere. Indeed, there are some fundamental errors, such as the statement that Development on state-owned land, such as the Atlantic Yards, is exempt from ULURP, and can be developed through an expedited state review process.

But the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard would be only 8.3 acres of the proposed 22-acre Atlantic Yards project. You'd hope the RPA wouldn't be making the "over the railyard" error.

How dense is too dense?

RPA, an "independent, not-for-profit regional planning organization that improves the quality of life and the economic competitiveness,” states that “high-value, high-density development is most appropriate in the region’s urban core and in transit-accessible centers.”

That's indisputable, but it doesn’t engage the question: how dense is too dense? RPA seems to be endorsing FCR’s inalienable right to build as big as it wants--right now, the densest development in the country by a factor of two. Nor does RPA assess whether the open space for the project would be sufficient for the new population, despite overwhelming evidence that it wouldn't be.

Regional and community needs

RPA suggests a look not just at the immediate area, but also in the context of the adjacent neighborhoods, the borough of Brooklyn, the City of New York and the entire metropolitan region, especially since the area is rapidly running out of developable land.

Though Brownstone Brooklyn is thriving, this prosperity has not spread to everyone in this part of Brooklyn, so AY must provide the surrounding communities with affordable housing, jobs, quality public spaces and services.

There's no further detail on the actual number of jobs, or the amount of housing affordable to average Brooklynites.

Public process

Given scarce development sites, “megaprojects should not be entered into lightly,” RPA says, contrasting New York City’s six-month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) with the expedited state review process. The criticism is withering:
Unfortunately, the public review process for the Atlantic Yards project is part of a pattern in which the State and the City enter into an agreement with a single developer prior to a full debate of alternatives. Ideally, this strategically vital piece of public real estate would have been the subject of a planning exercise… open bidding…. Instead, the state worked exclusively with Forest City Ratner while the MTA entered into a truncated bidding process only after a memorandum of understanding had been signed by FCRC, the state and the city. The details of the project were largely devised behind closed doors by the developer, and only minor modifications have been made in response to public criticisms. While the developer has held numerous public meetings and provided information to the community, most of the decisions regarding the site had already been made. As a result, the public has no way of knowing if this project is the best possible one for the site. It is greatly handicapped in assessing potential alternatives, and has less leverage for negotiating changes that would add to its community benefits.

Too late to turn back

Still, RPA thinks the cow's left the barn door:
In this instance, however, it would not be in the public interest to start from scratch. Even an improved process should still likely result in a project approximating the scale and ambition of the Forest City Ratner proposal. The city and the region need to aggressively develop offices, housing, retail and entertainment in appropriate locations, and there are few locations more suited for dense, mixed-use development than the Atlantic Yards.
(Emphasis added)

If an improved process included a rezoning there likely would be many more voices arguing against the densest development in the country. Moreover, the statement that "the Atlantic Yards" is suited for development fudges the difference between development over the railyards and development over adjacent blocks. Note that there is no such place as "the Atlantic Yards;" it's the name of a project.

Also, if the city needs to develop mixed-use projects, shouldn't there be more public input on the components of those projects? Forest City Ratner has changed the program due to its own fiscal needs.

Signature location?

RPA also suggests:
This location at the crossroads of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, at the edge of Brooklyn’s commercial core and in the heart of a burgeoning cultural district, is also the perfect site for a signature project that could elevate Downtown Brooklyn as a destination and a true third Central Business District for the city.

How does a project that's mostly-housing help elevate a CBD?

Cost justification

The RPA cites a Forest City Ratner mantra, that the cost of building requires a certain scale:
Finally, developing a site of this size and complexity over a working rail yard requires a very high level of density to justify the upfront investments and long-term risks. Any project meeting these requirements is likely to appear out of scale with the surrounding low-to-mid rise neighborhoods. Within reason, this “Manhattan-ization” that is proposed for Downtown Brooklyn is part of an ongoing and necessary process that will affect communities in downtowns and transit hubs across the region.

Indeed, cost demands scale, but shouldn't there be a study, as gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer demanded regarding the West Side yards, to determine how much a platform would cost?

RPA’s recommendations

The RPA cites benefits:
Needed housing, both market rate and subsidized, would be built in an area that has the infrastructure to support it. This construction, and the buildings that it will produce, will provide thousands of jobs to fuel Brooklyn’s economy. And the development will create a long-desired signature destination for Brooklyn, bringing people from across the region and country and strengthening the borough’s identity and pride. In addition to the affordable housing, the local community would benefit from added open space and a new sports and entertainment facility designed by one of the world’s leading architects.

This disregards the fact that the destination might not work, and that the added open space would be far too little. And how much pleasure would people get if the project brings enormous congestion? And how many jobs would mostly-residential buildings actually produce to fuel Brooklyn's economy?

Negative impacts

The RPA acknowledges problems:
At the same time, the project will have significant negative impacts on several thriving neighborhoods. An already congested section of Brooklyn will become increasingly crowded, especially before and after major events at the arena. The scale of the development will loom over the surrounding low- and mid-rise neighborhoods, casting long shadows in many places. The decade of construction will add noise, traffic and pollution to the entire area. On balance, the project’s regional and neighborhood benefits justify the public costs and negative impacts.

Without an accounting of public costs, that's hard to judge.

Build the arena block

The RPA offers three categories of recommendations, and one is to build the arena block, with no comment on extreme density and eminent domain:
Regional Plan Association supports construction of the signature western block of the project largely as proposed. This block, featuring the basketball arena and four towers, is an excellent example of city-making that will bring tremendous benefits to the area. These initial towers have been designed by the expert hand of Frank Gehry and, along with the arena, will become iconic images representing the borough soon after their construction.

Still, RPA said the DEIS wasn’t convincing regarding subway station/platform crowding before and after arena events; nor regarding remote parking and use of shuttle vehicles; and said that sidewalks should be tested more.

And the group was silent on the strain of city-making and arena-placing in a residential neighborhood.

Improve Phase II

RPA called the portion of the project stretching from Sixth Avenue east to Vanderbilt Avenue “the riskiest part of the project,” pointing out that, despite some apparently well-designed open space, it still could be “overwhelmed by the massive buildings that contain it” and be uninviting to the public. Moreover, given the time it takes to build, changes in the market, finances, and relationships between the architects and developers would likely change the project.

RPA said it would support the plan if the open space were made “unambiguously public” and mapped as City park land rather than privately-managed space; and that a design review process, as with Battery Park City, is established to maintain a high standard.

Like the Municipal Art Society, RPA proposes open space that fronts on public streets rather than appears in building backyards:
It would likely require some revisions to the allowable building envelopes around a new open space configuration, but the organizing principle should be to design the buildings around the open space, not the other way around.

The public sector's role

The RPA acknowledges strain on the civic infrastructure, but says:
“The developer should not be punished, however, for the public sector’s failure to provide the necessary improvements…. In addition to big ticket investments – like power plants and schools – needed to handle the citywide growth, several specific traffic and transit improvements should be implemented before the project’s full build-out to allow for its success.

Should the project's full costs, however, be toted up?

Transportation improvement vital

The RPA recommends a comprehensive transportation plan that should be implemented to make the project work. It includes congestion pricing to limit traffic over the now-free East River bridges; improved transit, including bus rapid transit; and an effort to havethe Long Island Rail Road better deliver more riders from the eastern and southern portions of Brooklyn, and from Queens and Long Island.

Once more critical

The RPA was once a bit more confrontational. In the organization’s 3/10/06 newsletter, RPA VP Jeremy Soffin wrote:
In fact, almost all of the administration’s most favorite projects – the Atlantic Yards mega-development, the new Yankee Stadium, Bronx Terminal Market, and even Governors Island – allow developers tremendous leeway without demanding substantial concessions in the public interest.

It may not be on the RPA's agenda, but a better accounting of the public interest and the public costs remains needed.

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