Sunday, December 7, 2008

MAS Prescience on Subject of One Developer: Could Prescience Have Been Greater?

Atlantic Yards Report today has a pickup from our recent Willets Point series, noting the prescience of the Municipal Art Society in advocating the superiority of the multiple-developer model used at Battery Park City and Queens West over the ineffective one-developer model envisioned for the Willets Point megadevelopment. The one-developer model is the same approach that is now failing at Atlantic Yards megadevelopment (Sunday, December 07, 2008, The prescient MAS: "The One-Developer Model has not proven effective").

Abandonment of Public Sector Responsibility and Materializing Risk

The MAS advocacy was in its August 13 comments before the City Planning Commission on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Willets Point. MAS advocates in its comments that megadevelopment should properly be overseen by the public in part because:

By eschewing the public sector’s responsibility to prepare the site and provide the public infrastructure necessary for redevelopment, the City is running the risk that the development at Willets Point, as at Atlantic Yards, will stall indefinitely.
Atlantic Yards Report points out that MAS’s comments were written:

before the suspension of infrastructure work at the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard further stalled the AY project.
Important Question on MAS Prescience

MAS’s indisputable prescience is laudable, but we need to ask one important question. Could MAS have improved upon its prescience? We think the answer is yes.

Support for MAS

We revere MAS. It is as a superb organization and we recommend that people become members and contribute financially to MAS. The organization is indispensable in an era when the Bloomberg administration continually steers the city into indefensible and destructive real estate megadeals. Among other things MAS has provided invaluable forums for discussion about the direction the city is taking in which deep misgivings about all aspects of Atlantic Yards repeatedly become important topics. MAS’s Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibition, series of panels and walking tours are an example the resources they provide. They were part of the inspiration for our Jane Jacobs’ Report Card. (See: Tuesday, November 11, 2008, Jane Jacobs Report Card for Atlantic Yards . . .Megadevelopment Gets an “f”.)

Improving Upon MAS’s Prescience

Here is where MAS’s clear sightedness falls short. We have been urging a mutideveloper model for Atlantic Yards as far back as we can remember and we were very glad to see it is an important part of the proposed alternative Unity Plan. In contradistinction to the UNITY plan, MAS and Brooklyn Speaks, of which it is a part, have been described as having a "mend it don't end it" stance regarding Atlantic Yards. (See: Monday, December 03, 2007, Pragmatism vs. principle: a look at the MAS & Atlantic Yards) What does this mean? The devil is in the details.

"Mend it don't end it"is actually a continuum and a plan like the UNITY plan is not an “end it” plan since it envisions that a project will be built. Perhaps the key difference between the UNITY plan and the Brooklyn Speaks version of "mend it don't end it” is that the UNITY plan has called for a multiple-developer model whereas the “prescient” MAS and Brooklyn Speaks have yet to do so.

March 2008: Multiple Developers; What We Called for

Back in March of this year we said that it was well past time for Brooklyn Speaks to update its negotiating posture in dealing with Atlantic Yards. We said:

Brooklyn Speaks has been ineffectively looking for the compromise of a reduced, better designed project. This goal is somewhat vague and makes the mistake of presuming that Ratner is to be left in place.

* * * *

There cannot be effective negotiation with Ratner if the alternatives are between Ratner Alternative A, Ratner Alternative B, Ratner Alternative C and Ratner Alternative D.

* * * *

Brooklyn Speaks needs to go beyond stating principles. It needs to be setting forth specific definite bottom line requirements that it should pursue in a hard and fast way.
(See: Effective Action Needed From Brooklyn Speaks, BHA, etc. Picked up and posted by No Land Grab, March 19, 2008.)

We set forth enumerated positions that we said Brooklyn Speaks should insist upon as a bottom line in the negotiations, seven in all. Included among them was avoidance of all unnecessary street closings and the creation of additional streets. This would create, as the UNITY plan does, separate parcels that could easily be bid out to multiple developers. Most important, we said that this should be taken advantage of by not continuing to treat the project as a megadevelopment that Forest City Ratner has the right to develop on a no-bid basis. We said:

Do Not Permit Ratner to Use the Megadevelopment as an Excuse or Mechanism to Receive No-bid Subsidy. - - Housing subsidies are scarce and need to be appropriately distributed. Ratner’s project with its super density has been designed with the idea that Ratner will soak up, without having to bid or compete for it, a great deal or all of the subsidies that would normally be available to others. That should not be permitted. Ratner should not be permitted to get any housing subsides on a no-bid basis. Accordingly, the prerequisite should be that Ratner will get no housing subsidies at all unless the various blocks and building sites upon which housing will be built are individually put out to bid. There should simply be no no-bid housing subsidies. That will also eliminate much of the below-market land price subsidy which the MTA is proposed to give Ratner and which would be inappropriate. Any bid that Ratner wins in a fairly conducted process will result in housing subsidy being able to flow to Ratner for that block, if available.
Other Problems With the “One-Developer Model”

“Materialization of the risk that the development at Willets Point, as at Atlantic Yards, will stall indefinitely” is just one reason that the public sector should not eschew its responsibilities by turning all control over to a single developer. Others are:

1. It makes any bid process ineffective which means
a. Higher cost, and
b. Unfair benefits and windfalls to the developer
2. It slows the project down (to the speed of one developer with a guaranteed hold on the project)
3. It creates a developer-driven dynamic where the developer has free rein in designing a project to meet its own goals instead of the public’s. It is not then surprising when the most recognizable characteristics of Atlantic Yards is that its design is intended to be a subsidy-absorbing supersponge with inappropriate eminent-domain-abusing superdensity.
June 2008: Atlantic Yards Governance Bill Emerges and We Again Call for Multiple Developers

In June, a proposed Atlantic Yards Governance Act emerged that was backed by MAS. The proposed legislation should probably be viewed as part of a "mend it don't end it" strategy. Proposed legislation can become anything, but the proposed legislation at the time did not call for a multiple-developer model. (See: Atlantic Yards Report: Friday, June 13, 2008, An AY governance bill emerges, aimed at 2009 and Tuesday, June 17, 2008, Push for AY Development Trust begins; how much power would it have?)

We were critical. In a comment on the first of the two above Atlantic Yards Report stories on the proposed legislation we reiterated among other of our points that Ratner should not “be permitted to use the Megadevelopment as an excuse or mechanism to receive no-bid subsidy, instead, the project” should “be bid out and awarded to multiple developers who could work concurrently to construct it faster and with greater leverage of any public funding provided.” We also wrote:
To be effective, the Atlantic Yards Governance Act (should it be called the Vanderbilt Yards Atlantic Avenue Area Governance Act?) is going to need to provide for a fair amount “back to the drawing board” work otherwise there won’t be principled development, community involvement, a good project, or effective negotiation when it comes to subsidies- The old axiom is that you don’t want to lock the barn door after the horse has been stolen- By the same token, we don’t want to appoint a posse whose job it is to sit around on the corral fence rails and admire horse-rustling-thief-Ratner riding off into the sunset.
We followed up in a comment when Atlantic Yards Report was reporting that the Empire State Development Corporation was lobbying for inappropriate stadium subsidy. (See: Monday, June 16, 2008, As IRS moves to close "loophole," ESDC fights for AY funding scheme) We wrote (in part):
I was at the press conference today for the Atlantic Yards Governance Act bill being supported by Assembly members Hakeem Jeffries and Jim Brennan, and City Council members Letitia James and David Yassky as well as the Municipal Art Society and Brooklyn Heights Association. “The Campaign to Reform the Governance of Atlantic Yards.” . . .

The bill could hold some promise.

The watchword phrase of the press conference was that the legislation is desperately needed so that there can be “accountability to the community.”

Accountability to the community cannot be achieved unless the public and its officials have real negotiating power when dealing with Forest City Ratner. . .
We thereupon continued with reasoning that we essentially restated in a comment the following day (in the second of above Atlantic Yards Report stories that ran June 17 the day after the press conference held for the legislation).
Treating Ratner as having a theoretical monopoly on development in the Atlantic yards area makes it virtually impossible to negotiate with him in more ways than one. It facilitates Ratner’s recent bullying threats to leave the public with a Ratner-created-wasteland unless the public antes up more subsidy in an amounts he has not yet even specified. Further, “fundamental” “power dynamics” are also affected by such a “monopoly” because a monopoly precludes other developers becoming part of the dynamics as an economic constituency with whom the public can ally in moving toward better plans and design.

It is of primary importance that Ratner’s theoretical monopoly on development in the area of Atlantic Yards be roundly disavowed. There is no reason to give the idea any credence or legitimacy. This is not an approved project. Subsidies, financing and a multitude of other arrangements for the Ratner vision of Atlantic Yards have never been approved and the Ratner vision also needs to go back to the PACB before it can ever move forward. The Ratner vision is also already a far different project than the Ratner vision that George Pataki tried to ram through in the final days of his administration. Plus, there are many more changes to come beyond Ms. Brooklyn’s recent conversion to the stack of discarded pizza boxes which Gehry now refers to as “Building 1.”
Clear Vision for the Future

Yes, MAS could have been more prescient. Sometimes clairvoyance (from the French meaning "clear" "visibility") is simply a matter of acknowledging to yourself, without censorship, what you already know, and being willing to honestly express it. MAS as part of Brooklyn Speaks could have been insisting from the beginning that Atlantic Yards should not proceed on the basis of a one-developer plan. Having not insisted upon it from the beginning, MAS and Brooklyn Speaks should certainly be empathically insisting upon it now.

Charitable Concluding Thoughts

We noted above that MAS is as a superb organization and we recommend that people become members and contribute financially to MAS. If this holiday season people want to make a gift in the spirit of giving to the general community of the city at large we would suggest they would do excellently by contributing to MAS. We might also suggest that, when they make their gift, they include a note suggesting that MAS, together with Brooklyn Speaks, increase their effectiveness with respect to Atlantic Yards by demanding that Atlantic Yards be bid out to multiple developers. We also suggest that people reserve a large amount of whatever they can give to make a sizable donation to Develop Don’t Destroy which has served the public well by taking very effective action against the project. Develop Don’t Destroy, which is in favor of development, is already opposed to the “one-developer model”so you will not need to include a similar note when you send them funds. (Here is a donation- tax deductible - link for DDDB.)

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