Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Did New York City Planning Officials Sidestep Looking at the Bigger Atlantic Yards Picture?

(Above: Our Ratner Brooklyn real estate mega-monopoly map. Atlantic Yards is in the lower right corner. How much of the future development of the contiguous Ratner-owned property with 19 new towers and an arena was reviewed by City Planning officials? That is what this post is about.)

We have been writing recently about how Atlantic Yards really ought to be viewed in terms of the bigger picture of what Forest City Ratner plans to build and own as part of the mega-monopoly rights it is being handed (without bid) for 30 contiguous acres of prime Brooklyn real estate. It plans to build 19 new towers plus an arena, not just the 16 towers plus an arena more frequently talked about. (See: Monday, January 25, 2010, How Big Is Atlantic Yards Really? 16 New Buildings or 19? (Plus the Arena plus. . ) and Thursday, January 7, 2010, An Updated Map of Forest City Ratner’s 50+ Acre Prime Brooklyn Real Estate Mega-Monopoly.)

The 19 new towers plus arena are just the new development Forest City Ratner intends to hold the rights to. When all is said an done, the Atlantic Yards mega-development site Forest City Ratner intends to own includes the following:
• Two large suburban-style shopping malls (existing)
• One sports arena (proposed)
• 20 towers of both residential and commercial development. (One built and 19 planned.)
That, together with other nearby Forest City Ratner sites like MetroTech, would give the politically-favored, publicly-subsidized real estate firm a mega-monopoly on a total of about 50 acres constituting a heavy preponderance of the most primes, densely zoned land in or near Downtown Brooklyn, property that is particularly valuable because it sits astride the key subway lines that make Brooklyn’s best land readily accessible.

Did City Planning Look at the Whole 19-Yards Towers Version of the Megadevelopment?

Given that we believe that Atlantic Yards really ought to be thought of in terms of its total 19 new towers plus an arena plan, we wondered if city planning officials had looked at the megadevelopment this way when they had the opportunity to review the megadevelopment or did they handle it in a more downplaying fashion? This is important because review by City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden and all the city planning agency planning officials who work under her in the City Planning Department (officially said to have begun their review in 2004) was handled with a lot of kabuki theater maneuvers regarding the mega-project’s design and size. Most particularly, in late 2005, running through to a climax in late 2006 and early 2007, that kabuki theater related especially to the size of the project. (See: Monday, September 22, 2008, Should a Teardrop be Shed- Considering the Burden?)

Context: City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden Credited With Downsizing Mega-Project that Didn’t get Downsized

In January 2007 the Times ran a fluff piece about Ms. Burden wherein she was credited with playing “a powerful behind-the-scenes role . . . in limiting the size of the Atlantic Yards development near Downtown Brooklyn.” (See: Once at Cotillions, Now Reshaping the Cityscape, By Diane Cardwell, January 15, 2007)

But that was just a story. The project was not actually made smaller. As we wrote before:
Essentially the project wound up being the same size (or slightly bigger) than it was originally proposed when introduced December 2003 as follows. Like a department or electronics store “rasing prices” so they can then advertise “lowering prices” as a phony sales pitch, the developer, Forest City Ratner, boosted the theoretical size of the mega-project in order to thereafter advertise on the front page of the Times that it had been `reduced’ (For a lot more on this see: Tuesday, December 26, 2006, The Times defends the front-page scaleback story, but then practices "rowback") Ergo, the project was not actually made smaller than the giant sponge for subsidy that the developer himself originally conceived.
City Planning Skips Review of Entire Mega-Project of 19 New Towers

Given all this focus on whether the mega-project was too large, combined with the fact that Ms. Burden and her city planning officials took credit for downsizing it when they actually didn’t, we wondered whether City Planning’s review of the mega-project looked at it in terms of its inescapably larger proposed size, 19 new towers rather than 16. We think they should have. Instead, the evidence is that City Planning again played along with the effort to depict Forest City Ratner’s overall plans as being for just 16 new towers.

Exhibit A for this conclusion is the City Planning Commission’s September 27, 2006 letter of recommendations on the project ("Commission Letter") which only deals with 16 new towers and contains no mention of the three towers Ratner plans to build atop the Atlantic Center Mall. (That letter appears below.) Not content to reach this conclusion without checking further we contacted City Planning to ask whether the Department or the Commissioner had considered plans for those three towers as part of the overall plans for the key Brooklyn site. We will let you review their response to decide for yourself, but again we think that the evidence is that neither the Commission nor the Department reviewed the developer’s overall plans and that their efforts were to downplay and view the project as a smaller project to the greatest extent possible.

Commission's September 27, 2006 Letter of Recommendations

As you will discern from the commission’s letter, the commission writes about 16 new towers and it concerned itself with design questions pertaining to some of them. It doesn’t mention or similarly deal with the other three towers.

For all the letter may say, because of the Empire State Development Corporation’s override of city zoning as well as the normally applicable ULURP planning and review procedures, the City Planning Commission’s letter officially could only be persuasive; City Planning had “no veto.” (That may not be true with respect to the additional three towers in question.) Nevertheless, the letter and kabuki theater that accompanied it can be viewed as supportive of the project.

10012703CityPlanninggpp Atlantic Yards

Noticing New York’s Questions to City Planning: Did the Commission or the Department Review or Consider the Three Towers Atop the Atlantic Center Mall That the Developer Is Including In His Plans to Build 19 New Towers?

Here is what we inquired of the City Planning press office (by phone followed up by e-mail):
Subject: Review of the Atlantic Yards Project; Developer's Three Towers Over Atlantic Center Mall

I would like to know whether, when, and to what extent the Department and the Commission reviewed and considered the planned development of Forest City Ratner's three new towers over the Atlantic Center Mall.

You previously informed me that Department staff began working and speaking with the project team about general principles related to the public realm, and reducing the size of the project in 2006. You also referred me to the Commission's September 27, 2006 letter of recommendations on the project ("Commission Letter") at the following link:

The Commission Letter states:

"The Commission is pleased that the ESDC and the developers have consulted with the Department of City Planning during the course of the design of this Project, and that this has resulted in several major improvements to the Project's urban design features and amenities."

The Commission Letter indicates that the Atlantic Yards project that the Commission reviewed entails 7.53 to 7.555 million square feet of new development (EITHER 6,790,000 square feet residential, approximately 600,000 square feet office space and a 165,000 square-foot, 180-room hotel- OR- 5,730,000 square feet residential and 1.8 million square feet of office space).

While the Atlantic Yards project is frequently described as a project of no more than 7.799 million square zoning feet (16 new towers plus a sports arena on 22 acres of land), the project has been considered as part of the developer's overall planned new development of 9.049 million square feet of contiguous commonly owned land (19 new towers plus a sports arena on approximately 30 acres of land). Original models of the overall development showed this larger configuration of 19 new towers plus the new arena. The difference between the more typically used description of the developer's planned new development and the larger configuration of new development is accounted for by three towers that will constitute 1.25 million square feet of residential and/or commercial development over the Atlantic Center Mall. Presuming that space would be residential, that would be approximately 21.8% more residential space than the "5,730,000 square feet residential" considered by the Commission as part of what the Commission Letter referred to as the "Commercial Variation" of the project.

You asked whether the three towers were addressed by documents signed by the city or the General Project Plan ("GPP"). While the three towers may not, per se, be mentioned in the GPP the GPP integrates with the development of those towers and as they are addressed by the MOU (dated February 18, 2005) signed on behalf of the city by Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff concurrently with other documents intended to address the project. It was also signed by the city's EDC.

While the Commission Letter addresses itself to a number of aspects of development by the developer at the site, changes in design and reduction in size included, under various headings ("Building 1," "Building 3," "Building 6," "Site 5," "Open Space" and "Affordable Housing") the Commission Letter does not mention or address the developer's planned new development of the 1.25 million square feet of space in the three new towers over the Atlantic Center Mall.

Here is the clarifying follow-up I request from you.

1. Did the Department review and consider the developer's planned new development of the 1.25 million square feet of space in the three new towers over the Atlantic Center Mall?

2. Did the Commission do so?

3. If so, when and to what extent did each do so?

4. Were recommendations made with respect thereto?

5. If so, what were these recommendations?
City Planning’s Response

Here is the response we received form City Planning’s press representative:
In response to your questions, the scope of the City Planning Commission’s review and recommendations regarding the Atlantic Yards Project are reflected in the GPP letter, available at the link you noted in your email. As to its consideration of the context of the project, that letter notes (pg 2) “The Commission believes that the [Atlantic Yards] Project builds on the City’s ongoing efforts to continue the growth of Downtown Brooklyn, the city’s third-largest central business district, by utilizing the area’s excellent transit infrastructure to provide new entertainment, commercial and residential uses.” The Department was well aware of the further Atlantic Center development potential inasmuch as this is a longstanding City project that has gone through the City’s land use review process.

For additional information regarding the MOU you reference, your questions should be addressed to the signatories.
Obviously that response says that “The Department was well aware of the further Atlantic Center development potential inasmuch as this is a longstanding City project that has gone through the City’s land use review process.” It says they are “aware” of the potential, but where is the evidence that City Planning dealt with it in any review?


Why is it important whether the City Planning Commission or the City Planning Department dealt with the larger project as a whole rather than just participating in the manipulation of public perceptions about the project size? Because that is what city planning is supposedly about, looking at how planned city developments operate as a whole, integrating with the environment around them. The focus of City Planning officials is not supposed to be minimizing reviews and coordinating with the developers’ PR.

No comments: