Discarding the ornaments
By: David A. Smith
When it comes to Atlantic Yards’ excruciating development process, the affordable housing has always been a political ornament – a sparkling bauble prominently featured in the submission, proffered as a reason why the applicant should be given concessions today in anticipation of repaying that with goodies tomorrow.
If you’re very good, Santa will give you affordable housing
However, as observed (but not understood) in an April New York Times article, the proponent can always wriggle out of its commitments by claiming change of circumstances or financial infeasibility – and once the public sector has used its power of eminent domain to take and demolish the inconvenient low-value uses, then the facts on the ground impel development forward.
The battle over Atlantic Yards has already raged longer than the Civil War, with eight years of protests, petitions and lawsuits seeking to halt a project that promised to reshape the heart of Brooklyn.
Before you go up, you dig down: Atlantic Yards being excavated
Even now, as the oyster-shaped basketball arena that will anchor a 22-acre housing and office complex rises against the low-slung Brooklyn skyline, die-hard opponents are still resisting. Last week they packed a hearing held by two community boards to block the arena from speedily receiving a liquor license.
Unfortunately, fights about liquor licenses distract attention from the major public-policy failure, the loss of virtually all vestige of affordable housing, a point noted by a later article, from the May 28 Wall Street Journal (brown Arial):
The promise of more than 4,000 units of low- and middle-income housing was a significant selling point for two of the city’s largest new developments, Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and Willets Point in Queens.
Today, they are moving forward, but the housing pieces have been pushed back for years behind other portions of the multibillion-dollar projects, as the boom-era visions are proving to be difficult to see through in a slowly recovering economy.
Developer’s translation: See, it wasn’t our fault, we would have done it but the economy turned against us!
The contrasting tone between the two pieces, Times and Journal, is remarkable. For the Times, everything is sunny:
It’s all in how you look at it
A classic bit of Pollyanna nostalgia. The Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1955 and the Mets arrived in 1962, but as the Mets play in Queens, not Brooklyn, and call themselves New York, not Brooklyn, why then there is a hole in the city’s psyche that no amount of affordable housing can fill.
– the reality is that the Atlantic Yards project has already done the very thing that critics feared and supporters promoted: transform surrounding neighborhoods prized for their streets of tree-lined brownstones and low-key living.
Brooklyn: hipsters welcome
Shops along the workaday stretch of Flatbush Avenue south of the arena that for generations sold unglamorous products like hardware, paint, plumbing supplies, prescription drugs, even artificial limbs Things New York Times editors are unlikely to buy? – Ed.], are seeing new businesses pop up that sell high-heel shoes for $3,500 a pair, revealing party dresses, exotic cheeses and, of course, high-priced martinis.
This, the Times would have us believe, is progress.
Brooklyn’s new face is seen on Flatbush Avenue, with the rising Barclays Center mirrored in the window of Versailles, a year-old party dress store.
Dozens of restaurants and bars have sprouted on major thoroughfares and serene side streets in the area around the arena.
“The neighborhood is now becoming an entertainment mecca — anything that’s hip and of the moment,” said Robert Schulman, who fits prosthetic devices for Allied Orthopedics, which has been on Flatbush Avenue for 25 years. “The change was slowly growing, but once the arena came into play, it was exponential. Once a week, a new restaurant or clothing store is opening up.”
All this is well and good, if in fact the redevelopment was touted as economic revitalization – but that wasn’t the sole sales pitch. As endlessly detailed by Norman Oder, a man who deserves a Pulitzer, on his multi-year epic Atlantic Yards blog, affordable housing has always been a key selling point. For instance, here’s the Atlantic Yards Blog, November 18, 2011:
The original Forest City Ratner pledge, not worth the PowerPoint it’s displayed on
A key selling point, that is, until the permits were given, whereupon the affordable housing plans went into reverse, and the start date for the affordable housing has been pushed further and further into the future.
Dunno where I’m going, but I’m backing up
At Atlantic Yards and Willets Point, the challenges highlight a reality of large-scale real estate development in New York: The big projects rarely get developed as planned.
A report by the nonprofit Regional Plan Association released this month found that most large-scale projects over the past half-century “had several false starts and went through multiple plans before development was approved and construction started.”
For instance, here’s Mr. Oder’s May 29 Atlantic Yards post:
In January, I counted about ten times that the goalposts had been moved, with the timing “spring or summer.” After that, the start was delayed until after the arena opens, and possibly early next year.
Note that the $5 million penalty kicks in if the building doesn’t start by next May, but Forest City Ratner can gain a one-year grace period if it can certify a denial of city housing subsidies.
How farsighted of Forest City to condition its commitment on the public sector providing more capital.
I saw it from the beginning
And while the Times is oblivious to the broken promises, the Journal is not:
At Atlantic Yards, the project’s centerpiece basketball arena is nearing completion. But developer Forest City Ratner Cos. has yet to begin any of the 6,400 units of housing it once anticipated being built by 2016—2,250 of which would be for low- and middle-income families. Forest City has cited higher than expected costs and an inclement market, although it plans to break ground this year on its first building with 175 below-market-rate units.
Funny how those higher than expected costs and inclement market haven’t slowed down development of the sports arena, which has been the developer’s explicitly stated goal all along. Some development components must be more equal than others.
The delays have frustrated officials and given fuel to critics of the project, which went through a contested public approval process before the recession.
Unfortunately for the project’s critics, the approvals have been given, the residents have been relocated, the public subsidies have been provided, the holes have been dug. They cannot be undug.
Message from a previous era
“They should do the affordable housing up front, now,” said Assemblyman James Brennan of Brooklyn, who said the low- and middle-income housing aspects should be accelerated. “The only legitimate selling point for the entire project was the affordable housing.”
Mr. Brennan is right, much good though that will do him
The delays speak to broader challenges of building housing that is affordable to low- and moderate-income families in New York, once the main focus of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s housing agenda.
Now and then, even the Journal forgets the pernicious effects of rent control (which I sadly report has seen off the most recent challenge, as the Supreme Court declined to hear the Harmon case, in part because there was no conflicting law in the Harmon appeals record). New York also labors under draconian taste-police redevelopment restrictions, so any new development takes years and years – some parts of which are more delayed than others, as again reported by Norman Oder in the Atlantic Yards blog post for March 16, 2012:
Forest City Ratner has yet again pushed back the timetable for the first residential tower, B2. Bruce Ratner indicated in an interview this week with the New York Times that it would start “toward the end of this year,” and yesterday a Forest City executive confirmed that the groundbreaking wouldn’t occur until after the arena opens in September.
“We continue to work with the unions” regarding modular construction issues, said Jane Marshall, “on developing what we think are the appropriate apprenticeship training classes”
There’s a curious intersection of objections here, as the affordable housing and union labor requirements seem to cancel each other out, relieving the company of the obligation to do either:
Unlike many low- and moderate-income housing developments, Atlantic Yards plans to use union labor, is being built in high rises, and has hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to acquire land, all of which make the development more expensive and challenging, said MaryAnne Gilmartin, executive vice president at Forest City Ratner.
Visions of sugar plums: Ms. Gilmartin at Atlantic yards, 2008
No one forced those design choices on the developer; all of them were decisions made as part of securing the land approval and all the infrastructure subsidies.
None of this the Times sees.
The 14 promised residential towers, with 6,430 apartments, and two commercial buildings are so far in the future that they are not much on residents’ lips. Joe DePlasco [a Ratner spokesman at a recent liquor-license hearing] said that work would start this year on the first of the apartment buildings, and that others could be built two decades from now.
Two decades from now might as well as ‘never.’ The affordability covenant has become largely non-existent.
But the company has repeatedly scrapped or scaled back more ambitious plans for the area, including the original design by Frank Gehry.
Mr. Gehry was also used as an ornament, dangled to dazzle the hoi polloi and then discarded when no longer useful.
Mr. Gehry’s 2006 design, back when anything seemed feasible with enough subsidy
Then again, Mr. Gehry’s design would probably have leaked anyhow. Meanwhile, now that the arena is safely built, the affordable housing is left to fend for itself.
A ruling by a state appeals court last week, stemming from one of the lawsuits over the project, may cause additional delays in putting up most of the housing — though not in building the arena itself — by requiring the state to conduct a new environmental impact statement.
Who knew that NIMBYism could ride to the rescue of a reluctant developer?
I don’t wanna develop affordable housing
The ruling by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court said that the Empire State Development Corporation conducted its environmental review based on a 10-year time frame, but that a 25-year schedule could force residents to “tolerate vacant lots, above-ground arena parking and Phase II construction staging for decades.”
Such a twist is worthy of Dr. Evil. ESDC did a ten-year impact study because no one could imagine the housing taking longer than that, but the developer’s delays have rendered the previous approvals invalid, so they will have to be done again. Once again, Norman Oder offers a catechism:
Give this man a Pulitzer: Norman Oder
Actually, Bruce Ratner said it himself, that “existing incentives” don’t work for high-rise, union-built affordable housing.
He said that?
Yup. Of course, he proposed–and the state approved–high-rise, union-built affordable housing.
Does that mean all the promises about Atlantic Yards residential rental towers, and the approval of those promises, were bogus?
Forest City Ratner could not have schemed this better if it were trying to sabotage the affordable housing.
Trying to sabotage it?
“That [meaning the affordable housing, not the sabotage – Ed.] is of course what we’re committed to doing at Atlantic Yards,” MaryAnne Gilmartin, executive vice president at Forest City Ratner, said in an interview. “But it turns out not to be so easy.”
Time to put away the ornaments.
I call it “affordable housing – ri-ight