Monday, January 25, 2010

How Big Is Atlantic Yards Really? 16 New Buildings or 19? (Plus the Arena plus. . )

(Above: Our Ratner Brooklyn real estate mega-monopoly map. Atlantic Yards is in the lower right corner. How much of the contiguous Ratner-owned property is it? That is what this post is about.)

We found ourselves in an exchange the other day about how large the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment really is. Does the project consist of an arena plus 16 large towers (17 buildings in all) as it is so typically described, or is it really a project of consisting of the proposed new arena plus 19 new towers (thus tallying at 20 new buildings)? We wrote the other day about the generally ignored three towers Forest City Ratner plans to build on top of the Atlantic Center Mall that accounts for this difference. (See: Thursday, January 7, 2010, An Updated Map of Forest City Ratner’s 50+ Acre Prime Brooklyn Real Estate Mega-Monopoly.)

(Above: From Atlantic Yards Report coverage, which contains other original renderings provided by the developer, a clear identification of the three new towers Ratner is putting atop the Atlantic Center mall.)
(Above: Cropped from a photo that was part of New York Times coverage, the larger photo below, the Forest City Ratner's model of one of the three three new towers planned to top Atlantic Center mall. Click on any photo to enlarge.)
We thought we would paraphrase the exchange we had with our friend and let you decide how large we really ought to consider the Atlantic Yards to be. Here then is the paraphrased exchange between Noticing New York (NNY) and our good friend (GF):
NNY: I really don’t understand why people are NOT routinely thinking of Atlantic Yards as including all 19 new proposed towers rather than just the 16 new towers (plus arena) people most frequently confine themselves to talking about. After all, when two Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) were executed with respect to Atlantic Yards, (the last two), they were executed simultaneously and one of those two (the one that was kept secret) links the development of the three towers proposed to go over the Atlantic Center with the rest of the development, in particular, with the ULURP override and it also mentions SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) review.

GF: But why should the three towers be considered to be part of the overall project if those three towers are just air rights?

NNY: The three towers were presented as part of the physical modeling of the project more than once, the last time being May 11, 2006. That press conference for Atlantic Yards was actually at Atlantic Center.

GF: The secret MOU mentions how SEQRA is going to be done but when SEQRA was done it didn’t include the three additional towers.

NNY: That could actually be part of the problem. The courts are pretty strict about how SEQRA reviews are not supposed to “segmented.” Projects are supposed to proceed all together as a whole rather than be tactically divided up into portions to make it seem like they are smaller projects and thereby hope to get through the review more easily.

GF: Maybe it shouldn’t be considered a project because those the three towers will need a separate SEQRA review in order to go forward.

NNY: We’ll see about that. I suspect that Forest City Ratner, the city and ESDC (the Empire State Development Corporation) will be arguing that the need for a SEQRA review of the three towers is obviated, eliminated or that the review that now needs to be done for the three towers is somehow diminished by the SEQRA review that was done for the 16 towers plus arena. In other words, watch them try to piggyback on the rest of the project and possibly on the MOU provisions to avoid a SEQRA review of the project in terms of it being the larger 19 new towers plus arena version it would then be. Watch them try to get away with a “negative declaration,” i.e. get a pass to avoid any further review.

GF: How can there be segmentation, when there is no plan? Just development rights?

NNY: Even if it is covered by what is nominally a separate MOU, that MOU is linked, by date and concept. They are linked as a single plan.

GF: What makes it the same plan?

NNY: Planned by the same developer?

GF: Right.

NNY: Planned at the same time and in conjunction with the rest of the plans?

GF: Maybe.

NNY: We’ll get back to that.- - We are talking contiguous acres, right? The 22 acres where the 16 towers are located are part of one continuous 30-acre swath of adjoining real estate parcels, right?

GF: Right.

NNY: It is all proposed for common ownership, right? One giant 30-acre mega-monopoly?

GF: Right.

NNY: Then let’s look at the linkages in terms of dates. The secret MOU that was discovered by Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn was dated February 18, 2005 that was the same date as the public MOU that the public was told related to what was identified as Atlantic Yards. That secret MOU superseded an earlier MOU people didn’t know about dated May 17, 2004. That was just days before May 25, 2004, when FCR's paid consultant Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist, issued his first report (of two) supporting the project for Ratner, "Estimated Fiscal Impact of the Atlantic Yards Project on the New York City and New York State Treasuries." And that MOU, in turn superseded at least one more MOU dated January 20, 2004. January 20, 2004 was just two days before the New York Times announced that Ratner and a group of partners had gotten the OK to purchase the New Jersey Nets. That’s just what we know from our surface knowledge about dates and events that became public. We don’t know about the additional linkages that may exist behind the scenes.

GF: They have air rights to build 1.25 million square feet, but they haven’t said it is either part of the project or a project itself. There is no plan, no scope of analysis, no formal “General Project Plan” before ESDC, no ULURP application, no model of what is actually going to be built, no architect, no nothing to do it.

NNY: No nothing! Sounds like they wanted to get away with something. You also seem to be questioning the analysis offered that the secret MOU is partly for the purpose of sidestepping ULURP on the three towers. The secret MOU doesn’t seem to allow the possible use of eminent domain for the three towers at the Atlantic Center site, as it formally does for Site 5 (which is part of the 22 acres). But ULURP might not now be required for the three towers site. Forest City Ratner would certainly like it that way and that seemed to be the Brooklyn Paper’s analysis. No one has contradicted that analysis. As for using eminent domain there- ESDC would give FCR the right to use eminent domain with a snap of the fingers. Obviously the reason they would do that is so that businesses in Atlantic Center could be eliminated as a problem by having their leases quashed. Like at the rest of the site.

As for the missing elements, no GPP (General Project Plan), no scope of analysis, etc: Well, do they really exist for the rest of the mega-development anyway? Isn't Ratner just going with whatever seems best for him at any particular point in time in terms of schedule, design, architects, commercial vs. residential, rail yard infrastructure, percentage of payments to the MTA for property, etc? Let’s be specific about what also doesn’t exist with respect to the rest of the project that IS unarguably considered to be Atlantic Yards:
• There is no current architect except for the sports arena.
• There are no current designs or models of what is going to be built except for the arena- and the word is the arena may be redesigned again too. The old designs for all the other buildings don’t apply since Gehry, the original architect, is off the job.
• There is no budget.
• Subsidies haven’t been identified or decided upon.
• Ask ESDC or any government agency for any kind of analysis with respect to Atlantic Yards, like a cost benefit analysis or how much profit the developer is making and you generally don't get anything.
• The GPP specifications really don’t amount to much of anything since whenever Ratner wants to change them he gets to do so, like when he wanted to build a lower-value, lower-capacity rail yard facility for the MTA. When he wanted to be paid more money up front he got that too. And he can opt out: He doesn’t have to build more phases of the project than he feels like. The MTA says he can quit any time. In court, ESDC can only vaguely allude to how there might be documents they can produce that might make the project more definite.
• The ESDC board wasn’t even told what the project is, except for the arena and they were told that the arena would be a different arena from the one actually being built. It doesn’t seem that definitions of the project flow from the board or that what the board approval exerts any control.
• The schedule is entirely up in the air; that is one thing that is in court right now before Judge Marcy Friedman because it means the Environmental Impact Statement didn’t take into account what the project really is. Among other things buildings would be destroyed and the surrounding neighborhoods would be impacted by the blighting effect of that property lying fallow for “decades” or being used as vast parking lots for the arena.
• And right, there is no ULURP application for it either.
Given all the foregoing, the one common thing that holds is simply that Ratner gets his mega-monopoly on all the property and he gets his override on normal density. That common element applies to the whole shebang, including the three towers.
GF: But maybe this is irrelevant right now. The chances they are going to build these three towers anytime soon are pretty slim. There is a good chance it will be quite far in the future. It might not even be in our lifetime.

NNY: I don’t know how long you plan to live. I’m planning to hold on. With good medical technology I could live well past one hundred. But yes, all of Atlantic Yards could take a very long time. When ESDC head Marisa Lago said the 16 towers plus arena could take “decades” she compared Atlantic Yards to Times Square and Roosevelt Island. Roosevelt Island, still not finished, has taken more than 40 years. So just like the rest of it, these towers could now be as much as 40 years in the future. I think that’s one of the things you have to look at in the way that eminent domain was used at this Ratner site. Rather than have Ratner own just Atlantic Center which would have put economic pressure on him to build on it in the near term because it was the part of the more limited parcel he once owned, that impetus for a more immediate improved and redeveloped Atlantic Center has been taken away by giving him the mega-monopoly on so much more property that he won’t be building on for a long time. It really has to be looked at as an interrelated whole. Overall, development in this area is likely being stalled by these recent actions. And also, it is inequitable to use eminent domain to give a developer a no-bid mega-monopoly on more property when the developer already has adjacent property he isn’t building on so far. When you consider it, eminent domain is being used for the 22 acres so that even though FCR has the right to build the three towers (and isn't presently building them) FCR is being given the exclusive right to build on an adjoining 22 acres and then come back and build the three towers later, having knocked of competing neighboring sites first.

GF: I don’t know. I’m going to have to think about whether we agree or not. I’ve gotten quite used to thinking about the megadevelopment as consisting of just the new arena plus 16 new towers, not 19. It’s going to take an effort to switch my mind set over to thinking that the megadevelopment is even larger.
One thing our readers should know is that no matter whether the new megadevelopment is thought of as just the 22 acres with the new 16 towers plus arena, or the entire contiguously owned 30 acres with the 19 new towers plus arena, the entire mega-monopoly of contiguously owned development acres brought about by the no-bid gift of “Atlantic Yards” to ForestCity Ratner will, including existing already built properties, consisting of 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 30-acre mega-development is only part of the larger (approximately 50-acre mega-monopoly) that is to be owned by Forest City Ratner mostly through eminent domain and governmental favoritism. Those 50 acres constitute a heavy preponderance of the prime densely zoned land in or near Downtown Brooklyn sitting astride the key subway lines that make Brooklyn’s best land accessible.
(Above: Cropped from a video that was part of New York Times coverage, a larger uncropped image from the video below, the Forest City Ratner's model of one of the three three new towers planned to top Atlantic Center mall. Click on any photo to enlarge.)
(Below: Another image from the same New York Times video, one of the "16 towers" for which no currently operative rendering now exists. This is an example of how architectural renderings make "ghostly" images of buildings that are so extraordinarily large they are likely to be rejected by the public.)

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