Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Appeals court rules no conflict, reinstates ESDC lawyer

I'll point to coverage in NoLandGrab and the Times, as well as the DDDB press release. Note that Forest City Ratner, in an E-Newsletter, called the decision a "Court Victory for Atlantic Yards," as if the project were a party to the case, rather than the Empire State Development Corporation or the developer.

E&P on the Times: loan obligation to Forest City Ratner demands more disclosure

In the June issue of Editor & Publisher, the monthly trade journal of the newspaper industry, "Ethics Corner" columnist Allan Wolper takes a look at the New York Times's dicey relationship with Forest City Ratner. The headline: 'NY Times' Coverage Hits Close To Home, with the subhead: Reporters challenged to objectively cover dealings of a real estate company directly involved with New York Times Co.

In barely 800 words, the column must skip over a lot of ground, and doesn't attempt to assess the Times's overall performance. (A longer version should be posted on the E&P web site, but not for at least a week.) Though I take issue with several shadings in the story and point out areas for closer analysis, the column makes two important points:

  • though the Times Company has guaranteed a loan to Forest City Ratner, the newspaper doesn't disclose that loan in articles about the developer, and it should
  • rival dailies had been stymied in getting Forest City Ratner to waive a gag order on people who sold their apartments to the developer, but only for the Times was the gag lifted.

Wolper's conclusion: it’s "dangerous for the paper to go into business with corporations they are supposed to be monitoring." While this is a worthwhile first step in raising the issue nationally, for those of us who look at the relationship closely, it's even more dangerous than his column lets on.

No-win situation?

The column begins by setting up the real estate deal between the New York Times Company and Forest City Ratner to build the new Times Tower in 2000, and then how the Times began covering the Atlantic Yards project. Wolper notes:
If that wasn't messy enough, the New York Times Co. Annual Commitment and Liability report notes the company is obligated to loan Forest City $119.5 million to finish the latter's share of the building if the real estate company can't come up with the money on its own.
It's obvious that the Times would want Forest City Ratner to make its Brooklyn project a financial success so that it won't have to ask the newspaper company to come up with the loan.

By the same token, he notes, reporters shouldn’t feel pressure either way to slant the news.

It's not just that the Times Company wants the Atlantic Yards project--a name unmentioned in this column--to be successful. The Times Company wants the Times Tower to be successful and the newspaper, even before the Atlantic Yards project was announced, provided inadequate coverage, while the New York Observer and the Village Voice have looked much more closely.

The loan has been mentioned in only one previous article about the project, and not in the Times. As noted in Afterword B of my report, a 10/28/03 article in the New York Post (Liberty Bonds Key To Ratner) explained that the Times would “guarantee” up to $100 million of the loan that Ratner needs to construct the tower’s top half.

Is disclosure all?

The column continues by quoting a Times Company spokesman on the policy of disclosure in articles, press releases, and the annual report. But Wolper finds a flaw, saying that the disclosure is insufficient:
Even though every Times news story on the subject includes a line identifying Forest City Ratner and the Times Co. as co-developers of the Manhattan midtown tower, there are no references to the loan agreement.

Every Times news story? The Times has been mostly scrupulous of late in disclosing the relationship; however, as noted in Chapter 10 of my report, several articles about the Atlantic Yards project, or about Forest City Ratner projects, have lacked the disclosure. One notable example: architecture critic Herbert Muschamp's 12/11/03 rave review, which also lacked an acknowledgement that Muschamp served on a committee with Forest City Ratner officials to choose an architect for the Times Tower. Another example: a 6/26/05 Times Magazine softball interview with company head Bruce Ratner, which even Times Public Editor Byron Calame criticized for its lack of disclosure.

Unmentioned in the column is the use of eminent domain in both the Times Tower and Atlantic Yards projects, and the Times's belated--though inconsistent--pattern of eminent domain disclosure.

Also, while disclosure is important--it should alert writers, editors, and readers to approach the topic carefully--it's not sufficient. Nor is objectivity. I'll again quote Daniel Okrent, the Times's first Public Editor, who stated in an 11/14/04 column headlined It's Good to Be Objective. It's Even Better to Be Right.: "Fairness requires the consideration of all sides of an issue; it doesn't require the uncritical reporting of any. Yet even the best reporters will sometimes display a disappointing reluctance to set things straight."

AYR obsessed with the loan?

Wolper's next paragraph mentions me:
But Brooklyn blogger Norman Oder, a news editor by day at Library Journal, a trade magazine, and an anti-Times blogger at night, rarely lets a day go by without posting a line about the loan.

Actually, I rarely mention the loan, though I do mention the business partnership frequently. Also, while my blog is frequently critical of the Times, the shorthand "anti-Times blogger" (as with "anti-Ratner blogger") discounts the amount of research and analysis that I do, not to mention the report that preceded my blog.

Onward to the ad

The column then goes on to mention the ad Forest City Ratner “purchased” in the Sunday City section celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Empire State Building. Wolper observes:
No matter how hard Times reporters may try to be fair, either the corporate side of the company or Forest City Ratner seems to do something to undermine them.

This raises a question: do Times reporters and editors try hard enough to be fair? I've identified several instances in which I believe they haven't; for example, I recently pointed to a pattern in which the Times three times has reported on poll results (two polls by the Times, one by Quinnippiac University), but neglected to include in the article negative attitudes, raised in the polls, toward the Atlantic Yards project.

Did the ad undermine Times reporters? Maybe, but why didn't they treat it as a news story and check on whether Forest City Ratner got a special discount in placing the ad? As I wrote, a Times spokeswoman was unwilling to answer that question. It remains an obvious question for reporters to ask Forest City Ratner: did they purchase the ad at full freight?

Gehry's skyline--blowback

The column makes an interesting point about a Times exclusive, suggestion that "the Ratner public relations machine self-destructed last summer when it leaked a full-color illustration of its Brooklyn project to the Times."

Was it a leak or a strategy that perhaps backfired? Frank Gehry's garish graphic did help alert the other dailies--and, more importantly, readers--to the development's size.

But as I pointed out in Chapter 6 of my report, the Times had missed the story for six weeks: the developer had, at a City Council meeting the newspaper neglected to cover, proposed increasing the size of the project, trading office space for condos.

The Times's buyout story

Wolper moves forward to April 2006 and Forest City Ratner’s agreement to waive a gag order for the Times, but not other newspapers that had asked:
The article included comments from both opponents and supporters of the project, but the headline, “Forced to Move, Some Find Greener Grass,” was everything the developer could hope for.
To his credit, Nicholas Confessore, the Times reporter who wrote the story, made it clear he got his exclusive because of his paper’s relationship with the developer. “Forest City Ratner is the development partner in building a New Midtown headquarters of The New York Times Company,” Confessore wrote. “For this article, the company agreed to waive contractual restrictions limiting what whose who accepted buyouts could say.”

That's news to me; I didn't know how hard Daily News and Post reporters had apparently tried to gain the same access. And Wolper's right--the headline (not to mention the photo that appeared on the Metro front)--was everything the developer would want; after all, the article quickly was highlighted in an Atlantic Yards E-Newsletter. And the gag didn't just concern disclosure of the money; it also involved desisting from criticism of the project and from support for groups opposing the project.

As for Confessore making the connection clear, I think it was somewhat fuzzy. The two sentences Wolper cites were in consecutive paragraphs, rather than in the same paragraph. Forest City Ratner could have agreed to cooperate with the Times for other reasons, such as the reporter's track record in coverage and the importance of reaching the Times's audience.

More importantly, did the reporter look at the topic rigorously? I pointed out several flaws, notably too little examination of the pressure on rental tenants.

The "Downtown" correction

The column closes with a look at a recent mega-correction regarding “Downtown Brooklyn. While the Times made the correction, Forest City Ratner didn’t:
But two days later, Forest City Ratner hadn’t corrected its Web site, which described the project as being in downtown Brooklyn. That’s why it’s so dangerous for the paper to go into business with corporations they are supposed to be monitoring.

But the Times's correction was not accompanied by a news story that explained why Forest City Ratner keeps asserting that the project would be in Downtown Brooklyn. (I had regularly pressured the Times on this correction.)

That final paragraph suggests that Forest City Ratner might be expected to correct the "Downtown Brooklyn" designation on its web site. The company has instead continued to use the term in its p.r. materials, like the brochure at right, and the Times has neglected to point it out. Nor, as I've noted, has the Times been willing to point out obvious misinformation from Forest City Ratner.

What about editorials?

Wolper's column doesn't prove that there's any internal pressure in the newsroom to go easy on Forest City Ratner--though the absence of any mention of the loan, in either a news story or in disclosures, is dismaying, as are the numerous instances of inadequate coverage. But let's accept that the Times maintains a separation between the company's business interests and its news coverage.

Does it maintain the same separation between business and the editorial page? Do the lapses in editorials, as noted in Chapter 13 of my report or my blog, or the absence of op-eds (only one in the entire history of the project), result from inattentive supervision or a thumb on the scale?

How many more columns could be written about this project? Let's see if anything more turns up in the longer version of this column.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

What CBA? Gaps in Errol Louis's column about AY supporters

In a column today headlined A neighborhood welcome, Daily News columnist (and Atlantic Yards booster) Errol Louis counters news of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's new advisory board with mini-profiles of five Brooklynites who favor the Atlantic Yards plan.

He's welcome to do that. Opinion is hardly monolithic. But two of the five people Louis profiled have ties to the Atlantic Yards project Louis didn't see fit to mention. He describes Freddie Hamilton as "a community leader from Clinton Hill" who's concerned about gun violence. He describes Delia Hunley-Adossa as "president of the 88th Precinct Community Council," an activist who works with the cops in fighting drug dealers.

How about the CBA?

Well, they're also signatories to the controversial Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), which Forest City Ratner signed with only eight groups (as opposed to the pioneering CBAs in Los Angeles, which involved 20 to 30 groups). Other signatories to the Atlantic Yards CBA, such as ACORN, are contractually required to publicly support the project. Hamilton is also a pro-Atlantic Yards candidate in the 57th Assembly District, another fact absent from Louis's column.

Other signatories, such as BUILD and Herbert Daughtry's Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, have received financial support from Forest City Ratner. We've yet to learn what support, if any, the groups Hamilton and Hunley-Adossa represent have received. But they're not simply neutral neighborhood activists.

Update 4/6/15: actually, three of the five people mentioned had ties to the CBA, as Eve Porter was on the board of Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), another CBA signatory.

The superblock that dares not speak its name

It's a word that Forest City Ratner and architect Frank Gehry dare not speak: superblock. Nobody loves a superblock. The discredited feature of 1960s mega-designs, according to the Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus, "designates very large, usually residential, city blocks often formed by consolidating several smaller blocks and often barred to through traffic and crossed by pedestrian walks." (Overlay site plan from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.)

And that's what would happen in the eastern section of the proposed Atlantic Yards project: Pacific Street would be demapped. (See graphic below.) That allows Forest City Ratner, already facing the challenge of much too little open space for the expected population, to gain some three acres of the proposed seven acres for privately-run parks. The superblock also would allow the developer to claim a lesser Floor Area Ratio (FAR) than a project that didn't absorb the street. Note that Pacific Street and Fifth Avenue in the western portion of the site also would be demapped, creating another superblock; with an arena at the center, it certainly would depart from a classic superblock.

But creating "towers in a park" is frowned on these days; the community-developed UNITY plan, by contrast, proposed extending streets from Fort Greene to better connect the neighborhood with Prospect Heights and Park Slope.

A chorus against superblocks

Superblocks come in for regular criticism. Julia Vitullo-Martin observed in the March 2005 Manhattan Institute newsletter:
The superblock erased New York's tight street grid, famously maligned by writer Lewis Mumford as the soulless invention of commercial capitalism, a pernicious device for dividing land into salable parcels. But today we recognize that Mumford was utterly wrong.
(Graphic from

In a review of Philip Nobel's book on Ground Zero, Sixteen Acres, Clay Risen wrote in the 1/30/05 New York Times:
For residents of nearby neighborhoods, it provided an opportunity to correct the massive planning mistake that was the original World Trade Center superblock.

Regarding the Atlantic Yards plan, Brooklyn developer David Walentas on 10/10/05 told the New York Observer's blog The Real Estate:
“I think the Nets are good. I think the transportation is good. I think the housing is too dense and I think the superblocks they have there is a bad idea. I think superblocks don’t work anywhere in America. I think you need streets between buildings. You need traffic and pedestrians for safety and activity and shops and restaurants. But architects like these utopian kinds of ideas. They don’t work…"

Who notices the Atlantic Yards superblock?

The term has been used infrequently in public discussions of the Atlantic Yards plan. The New York Observer used the term in a caption (graphic at right) in its 5/11/06 report in The Real Estate on Frank Gehry's press conference.

The authoritative trade magazine Architectural Record, in a 5/17/06 article headlined Revised Atlantic Yards Plan Less Bulky, Yet Still Huge, laid it out:
The eastern edge of the site, which creeps into the more residential, low-density neighborhood of Prospect Heights, would form a superblock, with seven residential buildings of 20 to 40 stories.

This week, New York magazine didn't quite spell it out, but suggested an alternative plan with "No more 300- and 400-foot slabs surrounding a park."

Architecture critics punt

Have architectural critics writing about the project used the term? Not James Gardner, in his 5/16/06 piece in the Sun. Not Justin Davidson, in his 5/22/06 assessment in Newsday. Dan Bischoff, in his 5/28/06 review in the Star-Ledger, didn't use the term but did criticize the design mentality:
But this design looks less like the new Shanghai than the old Eastern Europe, with its enormous high-rise blocks that bring a Le Corbusier geometric fantasy to mind.

Muschamp's myopia

The two biggest raves for the design, albeit earlier iterations of it, have come from the two New York Times architecture critics. Herbert Muschamp, in a 12/11/03 review headlined Courtside Seats to an Urban Garden, not only didn't mention the superblock, he had the gall to compare Atlantic Yards to Rockefeller Center, writing:
Those who have been wondering whether it will ever be possible to create another Rockefeller Center can stop waiting for the answer. Here it is.

But Rockefeller Center was no superblock. It added a new street, Rockefeller Plaza, to the street grid, rather than subtracted streets. (Map from

Ouroussoff's redefinition

Nicolai Ouroussoff, in his 7/5/05 review, headlined Seeking First to Reinvent the Sports Arena, and Then Brooklyn, declared Gehry's design "an intriguing attempt to overturn a half-century's worth of failed urban planning ideas."

He went on to make a distinction between superblocks and developments that may look like superblocks but, in his judgment, do not qualify as such:
From the dehumanizing Modernist superblocks of the 1960's to the cloying artificiality of postmodern visions like Battery Park City, architects have labored to come up with a formula for large-scale housing development that is not cold, sterile and lifeless.
...Extending east from the arena, the bulk of the residential buildings are organized in two uneven rows that frame a long internal courtyard. The buildings are broken down into smaller components, like building blocks stacked on top of one another. The blocks are then carefully arranged in response to various site conditions, pulling apart in places to frame passageways through the site; elsewhere, they are used to frame a series of more private gardens.

Ouroussoff maintained this distinction in a public appearance with Gehry in January, asserting that the Atlantic Yards design wouldn't involve a superblock. However, the definition cited above says nothing about whether the buildings are "dehumanizing" or "carefully arranged." A superblock is created when large blocks are formed by consolidating streets, usually for residential buildings.

Other coverage

I could find only a few other mentions of a superblock in press coverage. The Brooklyn Papers' Vince DiMiceli, in a 10/16/04 opinion piece headlined Bring Mets and Nets to Brooklyn, wrote:
And while any of those would be better than Ratner’s suburban campus superblock — which would complete the separation of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill from Prospect Heights that he started with the failed Atlantic Center mall — none of them are going to happen.

A 3/11/06 editorial in The Brooklyn Papers, headlined Yards plan not just Nets, stated:
Ratner says the project’s elimination of the Long Island Rail Road “cut” will heal an open wound that separates Fort Greene from Prospect Heights, but those towers and that superblock will actually do the opposite, permanently cutting the neighborhoods off from each other.

A Lexis-Nexis search of news coverage turned up three other examples. A 7/22/05 article in the New York Sun, headlined Report: Arena Vulnerable to Terrorists, quoted a report on security issues:
"Unfortunately, once these security measures are implemented, the complex will become a fortress-like superblock,” according to the report.

A 9/26/05 article in the New York Observer, headlined At W.T.C. and Brooklyn Arena, Death and Life of the Superblock, noted:
Add to that a project in Brooklyn that seeks to create a superblock where there isn’t one, and scattered calls to bring back Robert Moses, and this isn’t looking like a great season for the legacy of Jane Jacobs.
...But there certainly is one aspect of Mr. Gehry's design for Atlantic Yards that Ms. Jacobs wouldn't like: superblocks.

FCR on the record

And reporter Matthew Schuerman got Forest City Ratner on the record:
"For FCRC, it is less about superblocks and more about working blocks," Mr. [Jim] Stuckey said in an e-mail. "What we like most about the plan is how the buildings and the public space respect one another and surrounding areas by encouraging movement along the sidewalk and within the interior. These buildings will very much look out to the larger city and surrounding communities while creating a public space that remains alive because it too is open to the street."

Note Stuckey's effort at Changing the Subject, which is Tactic #4 in the Joe DePlasco playbook.

Just the bloggers?

And the Times, in a 4/16/06 article about bloggers, cited Jonathan Cohn, the architect behind the Brooklyn Views blog:
His argument -- that the Atlantic Yards would be more dense than advertised because it eliminated otherwise open city streets to create the "superblock" on which the project will be built -- was quickly added to opponents' talking points.

But is the superblock a subject just for bloggers and opponents, or should it be part of the ongoing discussion of the Atlantic Yards project?

Forest City Ratner's new ad campaign, riding the Daily News editorial

In terms of gush, the 5/14/06 Daily News editorial in support of the Atlantic Yards project has become the reigning champ, surpassing the effort of former New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp in 12/11/03 essay. The critic wrote that "A Garden of Eden grows in Brooklyn;" the Daily News called it, in strained mall-speak, A super design for a great project.

I've already dissected the editorial, but I just had a chance to read it again, since Forest City Ratner has not only reproduced the editorial in one of its Atlantic Yards E-Newsletters (right), it has done so in ads in this week's Brooklyn Downtown Star and Courier-Life chain. (Has the developer given up on the more critical Brooklyn Papers? Note the Papers' comments near the end of the slideshow.)

Additional flaws are evident on a second reading, especially given the discussion of the project in the last two weeks. Why no mention of the interim surface parking that would last for years on the land that the editorial anticipates would become a "welcoming landscape"? Why no effort to assess the appropriate scale of the project? And, given the very mixed reviews the project has gotten from three architectural critics, how exactly does the Daily News editorial board claim its expertise, other than its consistent cheerleading for the project?

Monday, May 29, 2006

New York Magazine offers a scaleback plan to reduce "shocking size"

New York Magazine, in a feature headlined Building the (New) New York: The Bob and Jane way, takes a look at the city in 2016, and pronounces the projected result a mix of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. A segment on the Atlantic Yards project is odd; on the one hand, it assumes that the project would be completed on time as currently scheduled (despite past delays and likely litigation) and would be located in Downtown Brooklyn; on the other, it muses about a scaleback plan (uncredited) that could be far more dramatic than than anything proposed so far.

The intro to the article offers a caveat about starchitects:
One can’t help but get a little giddy with all the big names, but there is a dark side to hiring all these out-of-towners. Too often they serve as ambassadors to the upper-middle class for owners with an agenda, cloaking the same old towers in a park.

While the author doesn't spell it out, that could well be a description of the Atlantic Yards project: an owner with an agenda; a need to win over the upper-middle class (both as tenants and as influentials); and a gussied-up superblock. Indeed, the scaleback version of Atlantic Yards offered later in the article (see below) would involve "[n]o more 300- and 400-foot slabs surrounding a park."

Jacobs and the gadflies

The article hearkens back to Jacobs:
The planning phrase on everyone’s lips is “eyes on the street,” the reductio ad absurdum of the argument of the late Jane Jacobs’s 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs argued that the lifeblood of her then-threatened neighborhood, the Village, was the shopkeepers and homeowners and stoop-sitters who watched the sidewalks and parks for free. Under City Planning commissioner Amanda Burden, neighborhoods are being contextually zoned to preserve their “special character.”
Jacobs’s vision was lovely but limited, with little room for new buildings, new neighborhoods. Rereading her arguments, one develops a sneaking admiration for the size of Moses’s thoughts. For the city to grow, it needed major change. Under Bloomberg, big thinking is happening again. What we have is a—some would say unholy—alliance of Bob and Jane. Exaltation of the neighborhood, coupled with the idea of building new ones from scratch. The Bloomberg administration still lags in taste at times. Why does every economic-development initiative have to be as big as possible? (Note to gadflies: Many of these projects are not yet set in stone. If you hate it, you can still change it. Start your blog now. But also start imagining an alternative—preferably in PowerPoint.)

The article's snarky generalization about gadflies ignores that critics and opponents of the Atlantic Yards project long ago convened a community charrette and devised the UNITY plan, a mid-rise effort at developing the railyards.

Atlantic Yards

One segment of the article is headlined Downtown Brooklyn in 2016: Brooklyn (like it or not) will get a shimmering Frank Gehry Crown. It begins:
What’s in a name? In projecting the future of the intersection of Atlantic, Flatbush, and Fourth Avenues, what you call the area means a lot. Call it Atlantic Yards, as developer Forest City Ratner does, and you see a march—or perhaps a fashion show—of sixteen towers in glass, metal, and brick marching down Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, supplanting Grand Army Plaza’s arch as the gateway to the 21st-century borough. This name pulls Downtown Brooklyn to the heart of the brownstone belt, attracting tenants who want to look at, but not necessarily touch, the old Brooklyn at their feet.
“We don’t want to build tall for the sake of tall,” says Forest City Ratner spokesman Jim Stuckey. “Frank’s view—and this is shared by many architects and planners—is that this intersection should be more dense because of its proximity to the rail yards and public transportation. Frank Gehry can frame the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower”—the current tallest, at 512 feet, compared with the 620 feet of Gehry’s main tower, Miss Brooklyn—“and make it a postcard with other buildings around it.”

Well, at least the article acknowledges that Forest City Ratner wants to extend the boundaries of Downtown Brooklyn, rather than build within what is currently considered Downtown Brooklyn. Also, Stuckey shouldn't be allowed to utter his mantra about the need for density near public transportation without an actual assessment of how dense the project would be.

Good and bad

The article offers a summary:
The good things about the Atlantic Yards are the Nets and the promise of 15,000 union construction jobs, contracts for minority and women-owned businesses, 2,250 affordable rentals, and a day-care and senior center. The bad thing is the shocking size. “The challenge will be traffic management,” says Alper. “There’s already not great traffic in downtown Brooklyn.” Possible solutions focus on incentivizing use of the area’s abundant public transportation to get to games: congestion pricing on streets and in parking garages, ticket prices linked to transport mode, and residential-parking permits for adjacent areas.

All those good things should be assessed in context: do the public expenditures and public costs justify them? And if Andrew Alper, the outgoing head of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, is acknowledging that traffic is a problem, then that really must be the consensus.

Costs and benefits

The article continues:
Opponents have been dissed, by Gehry himself, as both Luddites afraid of progress and as middle-class gentrifiers unsympathetic to the need for local jobs.

Again, both those statements deserve rebuttal. It's a battle between different versions of development, not stasis versus progress. And the number of local jobs is quite low compared to the size of the project and the public investment.

New York mag's alternative

The article offers an intriguing alternative:
But there could be a kinder, gentler, Brooklynized version of the titanium town, one which contains all the positive elements of Atlantic Yards but one with a little more of the local and cultural flavor of the BAM Cultural District next door. “We’re an important amenity for these other projects,” says BAM LDC president Jeanne Lutfy.
The tallest building in this scheme would remain the bank tower, now rebranded One Hanson Place, with a Borders bookstore in the landmarked lobby. Three Gehry towers, including a shorter Miss Brooklyn (and one with a better tiara), step down from that height on both sides of Flatbush, for that postcard view with plenty of room for offices and a hotel. Another tower, residential above arts spaces, is built on the BAM LDC’s north site. Beyond this, everything gets lower. No more 300- and 400-foot slabs surrounding a park, but an actual streetfront park, faced by blocks of new townhouses, shorter apartment buildings, and maybe even a school. To make sure Ratner makes his money back, apartment buildings of fifteen to twenty stories could be built opposite the taller structures on Atlantic.
The Nets will still play, but the new neighborhood is not built around a carpetbagger mix of sports bars, back-office white-collar jobs, and condo owners priced out of Manhattan. It is not Gehryville, but more of what people bought in Brooklyn for.

Very interesting, but how exactly could it preserve all the "positive elements"? (And what's the justification for eminent domain?) A smaller project would necessarily include fewer residential units, and likely fewer affordable units, and obviously would involve fewer construction jobs. As for making "sure Ratner makes his money back," well, that would require a discussion of the pro forma projections the developer has refused to make public. Could it be that the developer--any developer--could in fact make a good profit on a significantly-reduced project?

The conversation about the appropriate scale for this development--and any development at the railyards--should continue.

Gehry incidental?

A summary description of several buildings, including a projected theater by Gehry and library by Enrique Norten, ends with this description of Atlantic Yards:
When Bruce Ratner announced in 2004 that he had bought the New Jersey Nets, and hired Frank Gehry to build them a new stadium in Brooklyn, it caused some cognitive dissonance. Ratner’s previous Brooklyn developments had been the deserted-feeling MetroTech downtown, and the actively unpleasant Atlantic Center Mall. But this time, he said, he was going to do it right, give Brooklyn a team, give the borough a skyline, bring in the stars. As soon as the neighbors saw the plan—8.2 million square feet, then 9.2, now 8.7 again—with sixteen towers from 180 to 620 feet, the fighting began. Gehry seems almost incidental in this battle about what makes Brooklyn Brooklyn.

Well, it's an arena, not a stadium. But Gehry is hardly incidental. Without a marquee architect, Ratner would have more trouble winning public support for the project. And Gehry has been a selling point in the developer's p.r.

Transportation wizardry?

Finally, a segment in the article headlined Air and Sea: How you'll be traveling in a decade or so, describes new roles for river taxis and for trams. The segment is short; no new solution is presented for the intersection at Atlantic and Flatbush.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Does Gehry have a stake in the Atlantic Yards development?

In the Spring 2006 issue of the Urban Design Review, published by the Forum for Urban Design, journalist and critic Alex Marshall offers a toughminded review of Deyan Sudjic's The Edifice Complex, then interviews the London-based Sudjic about, among other things, Frank Gehry. And Sudjic raises an issue that might help explain Gehry's commitment to the Atlantic Yards project.

AM: As you say, “There can never have been a moment when quite so much high-visibility architecture has been designed by so few people.” Does this alter the relationship between architects and the powerful? Who has more power: Frank Gehry, or the beleaguered City Council of an aspiring Bilbao?

DS: I understand that Gehry now has the power to name his price. He’s now using his position—and the sense that his signature can transform the prospects of a commercial development—to actually take points in the development, which is fascinating.

Now Sudjic was not talking directly about the Atlantic Yards project, the biggest project Gehry ever designed. Does Gehry's enthusiasm for the project extend beyond the opportunity to design his first arena, or a "neighborhood from scratch," as he erroneously said? Does he have a financial stake in the deal beyond his typical fee? We don't know, since it hasn't been discussed publicly, but the question's worth asking, especially given Gehry's assiduous support for the project.

Creative freedom?

AM: Beyond the commercial, does Gehry have the opportunity to take more creative freedom? Is he less hemmed in by the imbalance of power your book describes?

DS: I think Gehry is a very sophisticated architect. He has managed to resist the temptations and seductions that tend to be the downfall of many architects who begin to believe their own myth. In the end, architecture is based on the belief that the architect can invent a whole world. I think it’s important to understand the limitations of that. There’s a constant ambiguity between the architect who sees himself as being the form-giver, the inventor of systems, and the reality, which is rather less elevated. It’s always a nuanced relationship, and successful architects are ones who understand their limitations and create ways to manipulate the situation to their advantage.

The imbalance of power regards the client. In this case, Gehry has obviously been given some reign to follow his muse; that's why he calls the largest tower, Miss Brooklyn, "my ego trip." He has praised Forest City Ratner for being "very fastidious in supporting the things that I think are important." Then again, he also has said that he wanted to bring in other architects to work with him, and that's been denied--perhaps because a Frank Gehry-designed apartment building would sell better than one designed by a lesser name.

An architecture critic (from Newark) looks at the bigger picture

So, in the third review of the new architectural plan for the Atlantic Yards project, after reviews in the Sun and Newsday (hey, where's the Times?), a critic finally looks at the bigger picture, not just the social forces behind the building battle but also whether it's worth it all. In an essay today under the cliched (and 16-towers avoiding) headline An arena grows in Brooklyn, Star-Ledger art/architecture critic Dan Bischoff notably opines that the community "givebacks... seem relatively paltry compared to the scale of the overall project."

Also, he acknowledges skepticism "about whether anything even remotely approaching these models will be built," given architect Frank Gehry's age and the typical fits and starts in an architectural project.

No, Bischoff doesn't try to assess the appropriate scale. He doesn't mention Forest City Ratner's sketchy architectural track record in Brooklyn. And he errs in describing the site as "just one of two or three large parcels of land within the core of New York City available for the kind of imaginative urban reconstruction that so many cities in Europe, China and India have used to modernize their cityscapes in the past two decades." Maybe the 8.3-acre railyard site would qualify, but the rest of the 22-acre site isn't so much available as assembled by a developer with deep pockets and the threat (and likely exercise) of eminent domain.

Still, he's notably not dazzled by Gehry.

It's about celebrity?

Bischoff begins:
Looking at the model for millionaire developer Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, a 17-building development designed around a state-of-the-art arena where the New Jersey Nets hope to move some time between 2010-16, you want to talk about modern architecture: You know, the massing of forms, the use of color, the cantilevered strusses in the arena's vast ceiling, maybe Frank Gehry's affection for cladding buildings with shiny metal surfaces--that sort of thing.
But somehow, it keeps coming out as a story about the uses of celebrity.
To begin with, there's Gehry himself, now 75, a gnomic, grey-haired, pleasantly self-effacing man (at least, that is how he is portrayed in the recently opened movie shot by film director Sydney Pollack, a long-time buddy of the architect, called "Sketches of Frank Gehry"). Gehry is one of those rarities, an architect who has become, by jingo, a celebrity in his own right, largely on the strength of his titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain....
Clearly, Ratner engaged Gehry for this project because he thought the architect's fame would smooth the way for the whole vast and long-troubled project, which faces determined neighborhood opposition.
But that opposition is itself not exactly celebrity-challenged. Part of the Atlantic Yards site abuts the indie movie studios where actor and director Steve Buscemi works, and he is unalterably opposed to the project. Also opposed is Museum of Modern Art photography curator Peter Galassi, who lives in the nabe, along with '80s painting star David Salle and movie stars Heath Ledger and Rosie Perez, who live there too. All of them decry the truly hulking size of the buildings, even in the new design unveiled this month, which shaves some 500,000 square feet off the total of last year's Gehry submission.

Bischoff makes a good point, echoing Kurt Andersen's observation that Bruce Ratner engaged Gehry to win over some of the chattering classes. Still, had Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn not assembled a celebrity-studded advisory board, would the valid criticisms being aired of this project just be ignored?

Only partly designed

Bischoff continues:
The core of Gehry's design -- and, as it happens, the only section of the tripartite design that he has yet to put a great deal of effort into -- is the arena section, at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, which Forest City Ratner Companies would like to open in 2010. Gehry proposes to solve the problem of the inevitable neighborhood-killing, forbidding blank curtain walls of an urban arena by essentially hiding the oval behind four high-rise buildings, the most spectacular of which he calls "Miss Brooklyn" because it reminds him of a Brooklyn bride trailing her elaborate train. It is a 650-foot-tall prow of glass and steel that opens at its point as a jagged, glass-encased "urban room," some four or five stories high, that would serve as a principal entrance to the arena. The narrowing wedge of sidewalk where the two avenues come together would be topped by a bleacher-sized set of stone steps that Gehry calls "the biggest stoop in all of Brooklyn."
The site is part of what's called the Atlantic railroad yards, the third largest mass transit hub in the city, where 10 subway lines and the Long Island Railroad come together. The land slopes rather steeply down toward Hudson Bay, and Gehry uses the grade to nestle the arena floor below the top level of the "stoop." That means passersby on the street could peer through the Post-Mod sheaths of glass on the outside of "Miss Brooklyn" to see the glow of the basketball court and its centrally-suspended scoreboard at eye-level, and presumably hear the roar of the crowd.

Bischoff makes a point that has seemed true since the project was unveiled in December 2003--Gehry has put the most work into the arena, the first arena he has ever designed.

The Atlantic railroad yards? Everyone has a problem with nomenclature. The hub is called Atlantic Terminal, the railyards are the Atlantic railyards or the Vanderbilt Yard, and the site as a whole has been dubbed Atlantic Yards by Forest City Ratner.

Questions of scale

After discussing the new Newark arena for the New Jersey Devils, Bischoff continues:
Gehry's plan, though, would trump the Newark arena with towering new construction, much of it residential -- something no arena has yet achieved (would you pay $1 million and up to live over the Meadowlands?)

He raises an important point--why exactly would people want to live so close to an arena? He might have acknowledged that the buildings around the planned Brooklyn arena were initially supposed to house offices, before Forest City Ratner traded office space for more lucrative housing.

Bischoff continues:
But that's just the start. If you include the other 13 high-rises proposed for the site, which stretches past four long urban blocks all the way to Vanderbilt Avenue, overall the project would generate 606,000 square feet of office space, 6.79 million square feet of residential space, 247,000 square feet of retail use and seven acres of open space cultivated by Bryant Park designer Laurie Olin. Taken altogether the project clocks in at $3.5 billion.
These secondary buildings would harbor the bulk of the project and march in a double line down the old rail lines toward the bay like plump and stately soldiers. Each would be 20 to 30 stories tall, and for now they are only sketched in by Gehry as square blocks stacked one upon another (with the occasional cube hanging over the one beneath or twisted slightly on its axis, like the way a child stacks his ABC blocks). Gehry also suggests a second iconic high-rise, taller than the rest, sheathed in shiny metal and subtly torqued to give interesting reflection patterns.

Only sketched in? Does Gehry really want to design the whole project, which is what (he says) he's been told to do?

Done deal?

Bischoff writes:
Ratner already controls 90 percent of the site. Momentum seems building toward an approval. There is little doubt that the site is just one of two or three large parcels of land within the core of New York City available for the kind of imaginative urban reconstruction that so many cities in Europe, China and India have used to modernize their cityscapes in the past two decades. New York does increasingly seem to be a quaint, 19th century environment of red brick tenements and '30s skyscrapers. It needs something bold to stay in the game.
But this design looks less like the new Shanghai than the old Eastern Europe, with its enormous high-rise blocks that bring a Le Corbusier geometric fantasy to mind. The givebacks to the community offered by Ratner's concept -- the outsized stoop, the "urban room" (closed four hours every day for clean-up only), 2,250 rental units priced at low- and moderate-income levels (out of 4,500 rentals, and not counting another 2,360 market-rate condos), promises to provide schools, day care, art galleries and health services sites, as well as reserving a sliver of seats in the arena for seniors and neighborhood folks at every Nets game -- seem relatively paltry compared to the scale of the overall project.

Well, his skepticism about the givebacks is welcome, but the environmental review remains in the early stages.

Getting "hairy"

Bischoff's final paragraphs:
Skepticism about whether anything even remotely approaching these models will be built can be forgiven, and not just because of the well-known divigations of the World Trade Center project. Gehry is, as we said, 75 years old -- they're making valedictory movies about him now -- and we can't be sure he will really be around to give his full attention to the completion of the design. Anyway, up to now he has proposed nothing that unifies the vast site, or that imaginatively reconfigures the neighborhood in a way that pleases all the different claimants to its use.
Part of the problem is Gehry's method. He rather famously proceeds in fits in starts, proposing designs, changing them, engaging his (usually) billionaire clients in the sturm und drang of artistic creation. It works great when you're focussed on the relationship between a single client and the architectural genius, but when the client is a thousand people, few of whom have ever wanted to live in an American suburb, it gets hairy. And we do remember the billion-dollar museum plan Gehry unveiled for the Guggenheim a few years back, slated for the East River just off the South Street Seaport. That'll never happen.
Celebrity is as celebrity does.

So, nothing unifies the site or reconfigures the neighborhood? The critic might have assessed the effect of the superblock, or whether the recently-modified view corridors in between buildings would increase site permeability. And he might have pointed out that "the client" is far more than a thousand people, given that the project could include more than 17,000 residents, some 2500 office workers, and a 20,000-seat arena--and some densely-populated nearby neighborhoods surely want a voice in the discussion.

Still, Bischoff's criticism raises a question: How "hairy" is it going to get?

Hakeem Jeffries: a tougher stand on Atlantic Yards?

Hakeem Jeffries, a candidate for the seat being vacated by Roger Green in the 57th Assembly District, placed a half-page ad in this week's Brooklyn Downtown Star, an "open letter in an attempt to continue the dialogue" about the Atlantic Yards project. Maybe he's been listening to constituents, maybe he needs to nudge closer to rival Bill Batson's anti-Atlantic Yards stance, or maybe he's just reframing his previous sentiments. (Click on the ad for a closer view.)

Affordable housing

Jeffries looks at Atlantic Yards in the same way Forest City Ratner officials have begun to frame it, mainly as a housing program, not--as originally billed--"Jobs, Housing, and Hoops." He wrote:
There is a housing crisis that is suffocating our neighborhoods. Without a signficant infusion of affordable housing, working families, the middle class and senior citizens will continue to be pushed out of Central Brooklyn. The Atlantic Yards project does have the potential to help alleviate our housing crisis by setting a high standard for the inclusion of affordable apartment units here and in future development.
(Emphasis in the original)

There is a strong argument for the inclusion of affordable housing in projects that get tax breaks, as this one would, and especially at projects, like this one, using public subsidies and on public land. And numerous new developments in the area in and around Downtown Brooklyn are getting tax breaks without including affordable housing.

However, anyone who claims that this project sets a standard must acknowledge that the scale of the project and the provision of affordable housing have been privately negotiated, outside any public review process. By contrast, inclusionary zoning, which provides a zoning bonus for projects that include affordable housing, has emerged as a City Council-approved policy in several neighborhoods.

Jeffries expressed three specific concerns.

Eminent domain

Jeffries stated:
I do not support the use of eminent domain by a private developer to build a basketball arena.
(Emphasis in the original)

Does this mean that Jeffries opposes the project in its present configuration and would like to see the arena dropped from the project? Or does it mean, as he said upon announcing his candidacy, that the arena (as reported by the Courier-Life chain) may be necessary?
“If it’s necessary to create the jobs and housing, then I think we have to take a hard look at the arena,” said Jeffries.

The arena, of course, is not necessary to create the jobs and housing; it's there to gain political and public support. The profit to the developer would come mainly from the market-rate housing: 2360 condos and 2250 rentals, not to mention solid revenue from the 2250 affordable rentals.

Excessive density

Jeffries stated:
The proposed project is too dense and would dramatically change the character of the tree-lined residential neighborhoods that it borders. It is important that the developer present a comprehensive plan to mitigate the potentially adverse impact that massive construction will have on our community's social infrastructure and public services.... The commercial office towers are inconsistent with the residential nature of the surrounding communities and a persuasive case has not been made on behalf of the need for additional office space.
(Emphasis in the original)

The above statement isn't fully coherent. If the project is too dense, then what might be the appropriate density? Does Jeffries support Assemblyman Jim Brennan's plan to reduce the project by more than one-third--which has also been endorsed by Roger Green? Does Jeffries support further cuts?

As for a comprehensive mitigation plan regarding construction impacts and public services, that's the job of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is expected within weeks from the Empire State Development Corporation.

As for commercial office space, note that the originally announced amount, at about 2 million square feet, has been cut by more than two-thirds. That likely means that two buildings, at most, would contain office space. Even if they were converted to residential space, would Jeffries support 16 high-rise residential buildings?

Bypassing ULURP

Jeffries stated:
I am troubled that this project has bypassed the city's invaluable Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) as a result of a mayoral decree. Moving forward, it is important that there is an open process and active public participation at every step, so that whatever is ultimately built is consistent with the neighborhood's values and aspiration.
(Emphasis in the original)

What exactly does he mean? Shouldn't he define "open process and active public participation"? For example, does he believe Forest City Ratner should answer questions in open public forums?

Looking to a compromise

Jeffries stated:
As your elected representative, I will work day and night to bring about a principled resolution that both alleviates the affordable housing crisis and addresses the serious concerns raised in opposition to this project.

Borough President Marty Markowitz has already stated of the project: "It has to be that big, for the affordable housing."

However, as long as Forest City Ratner won't reveal the required pro forma statement, we have no idea of their expected revenues. And the announced number of affordable housing units would not solve the affordable housing crisis. Yes, the percentage of affordable housing units should be a significant fraction of what gets built at the site, but the larger question of affordable housing must be addressed through such things as reform of the 421-a program of tax breaks.

Revising his stance?

Jeffries said last month: "There has been progress made by the developer and I am very encouraged by the affordable housing component of the project, but there are some additional steps that need to be taken by the developer before I’m prepared to come on board and support the project.”

Does this new ad mean that Jeffries is stepping back from his announced expectation that, given some additional steps, he could support the project? Or is he just rephrasing his previous stance? It's unclear.

The Hamilton factor

Another reason for the Jeffries' stance may be an effort to distinguish himself from the third candidate in the race, 57th Democratic District Leader Freddie Hamilton, who unequivocally supports the Atlantic Yards project. A friend of Roger Green, she also was a signatory to the controversial Community Benefits Agreement for the Atlantic Yards project.

In an article in the Courier-Life chain headlined District Leader Says She’ll Challenge For Green’s Seat, Hamilton said affordable housing was a priority, but didn't offer specific policy prescriptions. The article summarized her take:
This includes bringing together housing experts to help think through innovative ways to meet the housing needs for special populations such as seniors, young adults and very low-income families, she said.

Hamilton, who lost a son to gun violence in 1993, also said she would push for stronger laws against firearms trafficking. She was the lead plaintiff in a landmark class-action suit against gun companies, 15 of which were found liable for negligent marketing and distribution of their firearms.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Extreme density: Atlantic Yards plan would dwarf Battery Park City, other projects

How big should the Atlantic Yards project be (or, for that matter, any project over the railyards)? If you compare AY to other major developments around the city, it would include more than twice as many apartments per acre than at Stuyvesant Town and Battery Park City, and thus a much more dense population--one that would surpass the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side.

As of now, the 16 towers and arena would encompass 8.66 million square feet, according to the Final Scope. This represents about a 5 percent scaleback from the version described last year, but still about a 6 percent increase from the plan that was announced in December 2003.

The proposal by Assemblyman Jim Brennan to shrink the project by 3 million square feet represents the most serious effort by elected officials to assess the appropriate scale. (Note that Borough President Marty Markowitz has long said the project should shrink, but has been unwilling to comment on whether the recent scaleback was sufficient.)

Looking at zoning

Another way to look at density is zoning. Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey likes to say that taller buildings were approved in the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, even though this project would not be located in Downtown Brooklyn (despite Forest City Ratner's effort to claim it so), and that no rezoning has been approved for this project.

Architect Jonathan Cohn, on his Brooklyn Views blog, recently drew on the rezoning effort and projected a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 6:
An FAR of 6, on an existing site of 825,320 sf (not counting the streets, to make the FAR measure relative to other sites) would result in a total building size of 4,951,920 sf. Don’t provide venue parking, don’t close the streets, provide for intermodal connections, and with significantly reduced infrastructure costs, building under 5 million square feet would be doing the right thing for Brooklyn

Brennan: seven times Manhattan's density

Brennan didn't testify at the public hearing held last October by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) on the scope of the environmental review, but he did send to the agency a powerful letter, which got virtually no attention, about the scale of the plan. He wrote:
The current Project Description describes a 22-acre site of 9.132 million gross square feet, developed with a mix of residential and commercial uses:
of the total site area, less than 10% (850,000 gross square feet) is to be devoted to the Nets professional basketball team arena; 7.2 million gross square feet is to be occupied by 7,300 residential units; approximately 1 million gross square feet is to be devoted to commercial, retail and hotel uses.
In short, the Project Description envisions a virtual new city within the confines of the 22-acre site. This correlates to a density of 500,000 people per square mile, seven times the density of the population of Manhattan.

(Emphasis added)

Brennan continued by calling for consideration of proposals to reduce the scale and density of the project by 50% or more--an even greater cut than the reduction he recently proposed.

Given the recent 5 percent scaleback, Brennan's numbers would change slightly. Still, the proposed density remains striking. Currently, 6860 apartments are planned for the Atlantic Yards project. At a conservative figure of 2.5 people per apartment, the project would house 17,150 residents, or nearly 780 people per acre. There are 640 acres per square mile, so that would represent about 499,000 people per square mile.

The Lower East Side, at its peak in 1910, housed 375,000 people per square mile. (Of course, the buildings were mostly walk-up tenements, packed together.)

More dense than other projects

Would Atlantic Yards be more dense than other major developments? Yes, especially in terms of apartments per acre. By way of comparison, Battery Park City includes 9000 apartments over 92 acres, going up to 14,000 apartments at full buildout.Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town is comprised of 11,250 apartments spread among 110 buildings over 80 acres. In the Bronx, Co-op City (right) contains 15,372 units in 35 high-rise buildings and 7 townhouse clusters, over 300 acres. In Brooklyn, Spring Creek, also known as Starrett at Spring Creek, contains 5881 apartments over 153 acres. In Queens, Lefrak City has 5000 apartments over 40 acres.

Caveats and comparisons

Note that these comparisons are preliminary and inexact--a starting point for discussion rather than a conclusion. I'm using an average of 2.5 people per apartment at Atlantic Yards, though the population per apartment at some other sites is higher. (And the population at Atlantic Yards could be even higher.) On the other hand, Atlantic Yards would have a larger percentage of non-residential space; all these complexes include retail, but Battery Park City is the only other one, I believe, that includes an office component.

There's a case that any project built near Brooklyn's transit hub could be more dense than those built elsewhere. On the other hand, Battery Park City contains a network of streets; the master plan designates 19 percent of the site as streets and avenues. There was a distinct effort to avoid creating superblocks. With the Atlantic Yards project, it's unclear whether any streets are included as part of the 22-acre site. Moreover, the demapping of Pacific Street at the east end of the project, and of Pacific Street and Fifth Avenue at the west end would create superblocks.

Comparing the projects

Project NameNumber of Apts.AcresApts. per Acre
PC Village/Stuy Town11,25080140.6
Battery Park City now90009297.8
Battery Park City later14,00092152.2
Starrett at Spring Creek588115338.4
Co-op City15,37230051.2
Lefrak City500040125

Atlantic Yards variations

Note how the Atlantic Yards plan has evolved. As the projected population has grown significantly, thanks to a shift of office space to residential space, the residential density has grown significantly, much more than the square footage.

I've also included the Extell plan for building just over the railyards, which is also quite dense, compared to other projects. And because the apartment sizes are larger in the Extell plan, it could create a larger population per apartment than in the Atlantic Yards plan; on the other hand, the Extell proposal would not involve an arena and the taking of city streets.

Project NameNumber of Apts.AcresApts. per Acre
Atlantic Yards 12/03450021214.3
Atlantic Yards 7/05730022331.8
Atlantic Yards 5/06686022311.8

Another variation

I also tried to calculate the density of the Atlantic Yards plan without the arena. This is somewhat arbitrary, since it's not clear exactly how much the four buildings around the arena would overlap the arena footprint. But subtracting two acres for the arena (though not subtracting the hotel/office/retail space), the number of apartments per acre would grow even more.

Project NameNumber of Apts.AcresApts. per Acre
Atlantic Yards 12/03450019236.8
Atlantic Yards 7/05730020365
Atlantic Yards 5/06686020343

With some reductions

What would the density be under the cuts Brennan and Cohn have proposed? Take the Brennan plan, at 5.85 million square feet, and subtract 850,000 square feet for the arena, leaving 5 million square feet for housing, offices, hotel, retail. Assume a 20 percent cut in office, retail, and hotel space. (Office space would go from 606,000 to 484,800 square feet, retail space from 247,000 to 197,600 square feet, and hotel space from 165,000 to 132,000 square feet, for a total of 814,400 square feet.) That would leave 4,185,600 square feet for housing, or 4186 apartments.

Cohn's suggested cut would leave the project at 5 million square feet. Subtracting 850,000 square feet for the arena and 814,400 square feet for office/retail/hotel space, that would leave 3,335,600 square feet for housing, or 3336 units. The ratio of 151.6 units per acre would be close to that of Battery Park City after its full buildout. However, if you subtracted two acres for the arena and considered the project over 20 acres, the density would go up.

Scaleback planNumber of Apts.AcresApts. per Acre
Brennan plan418622190.3
Cohn reduction333622151.6

Scaleback plan #2Number of Apts.AcresApts. per Acre
Brennan plan418620209.3
Cohn reduction333620166.8

Further considerations & open space

All these numbers deserve further discussion and debate, especially since the size of the apartments at these projects helps determine the total population. (At right, Spring Creek, formerly Starrett City.) But consider this. State standards call for 2.5 acres of open space for every 1,000 residents, which is an ideal infrequently met, while the city average is 1.5 acre per 1,000 residents. The projected 17,150 new residents at the Atlantic Yards project, to meet the state standard, would deserve nearly 43 acres of open space. To meet the city average, they'd need nearly 26 acres of open space.

The current plan would include seven acres of "publicly accessible open space that everyone can enjoy," according to the Atlantic Yards web site. Given the enormous potential population and the relatively limited amount of open space planned, would that space more likely serve Brooklyn or be overwhelmed by the immediate residents?

Even at the scaledown example with 3336 apartments, the open space would be too little. Multiply the number of apartments by 2.5 people (again, a conservative example), and that's 8340 people. State standards would require nearly 21 acres of open space. To meet the city average, they'd need 12.5 acres. Again, the project would include seven acres of open space.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

On "Brian Lehrer Live": a summary

I'll provide a summary but not a transcript of my appearance last night on Brian Lehrer Live; however, it will be rebroadcast on Channel 75 on Saturday, 10 a.m. and Sunday, 11 p.m. (time approximate following movie), and an archived videostream is available. Both Forest City Ratner and Borough President Marty Markowitz were invited to send representatives and declined, in part for logistical reasons, said Lehrer.

The topic was Forest City Ratner's deceptive brochure, and then the subsequent release of Frank Gehry's new renderings of the project. Lehrer introduced me as a "leading opponent" of the plan. I corrected him to say I consider myself a critic and analyst, since "the criticism that I come to is really grounded in facts." I'm not a member of any of the opposition groups, and while my skeptical take is far closer to that of the project opponents than project supporters, they don't speak for me. While my platform makes me a "blogger," I'm a journalist.

"This should really be treated as a campaign commercial," I said. Lehrer agreed that the term "political advertising... seems right to me," given that the company is not directly selling anything. So I, with his help, went through some of the images in the brochure, taking a close look, just as newspapers have begun to analyze and criticize political advertising. After looking at a stock photo of some happy people, I pointed out that, while the brochure does contain some information, it neglects to tell us, for example, about Forest City Ratner's plan for interim surface parking on two large blocks in the eastern portion of the site.

Lehrer pointed to a fisheye photo of the railyards, over a vertical view of the site plan, in which the 16 towers are outlined in red. I noted that a green fuzzy section is the projected arena location. Lehrer, channeling the average recipient of the brochure, declared, "That's a basketball arena, it looks more like a forest."

Community Benefits

We looked at the "guaranteed" seal promising community benefits. I pointed out that Forest City Ratner seems to have put aside its old slogan "Jobs, Housing, and Hoops," likely because the estimate of permanent office jobs has been cut from 10,000 to 2500. I noted that the concept of a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) is legitimate, and becoming more common, but that the Brooklyn CBA has some distinct differences with the ones signed in Los Angeles. The latter involve coalitions of 20 to 30 groups; in Brooklyn, it's eight groups. (I didn't have time to add that several have no track record in the issues they're supposed to monitor.)

And I pointed out that the strongest criticism didn't come from me, but from the head of the Community Board in West Harlem, which is negotiating a CBA with Columbia University; he said that they don't want to copy the Brooklyn model. (I didn't cite the source, which was the New York Observer's blog The Real Estate.)

What's missing

Lehrer pointed to images not in the brochure: the renderings of the 16-tower project from July 2005 (left) and May 2006. "It's really dense," he said. I pointed out that I'm working on a rough comparison: the Atlantic Yards project would be almost 7000 apartments over 22 acres; doubled, that would be 14,000 units over 44 acres. Battery Park City, at full buildout, will be 14,000 apartments over 92 acres. That makes Atlantic Yards twice as dense. It's more complicated than that, since each project has other buildings, but it's a striking contrast.

Commenting on Frank Gehry's 2005 design, Lehrer pointed to the tilted buildings, and called one "The leaning tower of Prospect Heights." I noted that the project had gone down five percent from the previous iteration, but was still bigger than the announced plan in December 2003, and that the New York Observer had called the recent scaleback "token" changes.

Miss Brooklyn

We took a look at the central tower, which Gehry has dubbed "Miss Brooklyn." I noted that Gehry has said he was inspired both by a Brooklyn wedding and also by the Brooklyn Bridge. "I'd like to hear him explain it a bit more," I said. "Do you see Brooklyn Bridge?" This is where a representative of the architect or the developer would have been helpful.

Lehrer read a quote from Gehry, who said of project opponents: "They should've been picketing Henry Ford." I said that it's distressing that Gehry's polarizing things, since he himself has said the project is "out of scale" and that it's "coming way back." Obviously, I said, he recognizes that the scale is an issue, but he has constraints and must work for a client.

Lehrer showed an image from OnNYTurf, in which Will James has tried to show--using a previous iteration of the plan--what the towers would look like from the neighborhood. I pointed out that Forest City Ratner has in fact released renderings with neighborhood views, but they downplay the towers.

What say to supporters

In a final question, Lehrer said that people support the project because of jobs and affordable housing, and asked how I'd respond to people who say those in Brownstone Brooklyn critical of the plan are privileged and elite. I pointed out that, essentially this is a luxury housing project, with nearly 2400 market-rate condos, probably at $1 million each, and 2250 market-rate rentals, along with 2250 affordable rentals.

I said it's not my role to debate supporters so much as to discuss how we frame the issues. At a cost of $3.5 billion, with over $1 billion in public investment (including subsidies and public costs), it's kind of a backward way to create jobs. (I inaccurately mentioned "3900 new jobs." Actually, Forest City Ratner cites 3740 new permanent jobs; by my calculation, including the temporary construction jobs, only 3090 jobs would be new.)

As for affordable housing, there's certainly a case for both density and affordable housing at the railyard site, I said, but we could build a lot more affordable housing if we reformed the city's 421-a subsidy program, which last year cost the city $320 million.

I didn't have time to connect the dots: affordable housing seems to be used as the justification for building something out of scale with zoning and the surrounding neighborhood. In other areas of the city, the inclusion of affordable housing allows developers to build bigger, but that's part of a publicly-negotiated zoning bonus. But there's been no rezoning for the Atlantic Yards project, so the deal between Forest City Ratner and ACORN is essentially a privately-negotiated zoning bonus, with no oversight.

The ATURA mystery: why doesn't it overlap with AY footprint?

As I've written, part of the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint sits within the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA), and part does not. (ATURA is in red, the footprint is in blue, and the overlap is both.) But if the southern blocks of the footprint, between Pacific and Dean streets, were important for the city's redevelopment plans, why did the city never add them to ATURA? The failure to do so, said Allison Lirish Dean, a Hunter College graduate student in urban planning, suggests "striking asymmetries" between city redevelopment/land use policies and Forest City Ratner's project.

Dean and fellow students in the Hunter College master's degree program, under the leadership of Tom Angotti, are analyzing the Atlantic Yards plan on behalf of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB). DDDB will use the analysis in comments and challenges to the Empire State Development Corporation's (ESDC) environmental review process. The student team presented a preliminary version of their findings at a session Monday night. A written report is due next month.

ATURA was launched in 1968, and has gone through ten amendments. The boundaries have only changed once. Angotti pointed out that there was a rezoning on Pacific Street, to promote residential development at the old Daily News printing plant, now the Newswalk condos. "Implicit in the rezoning was the anticipation that it would promote residential development. If the city thought it not enough," he said, "the next step would be to include [the block] in ATURA."

Blight and beyond

Is the area blighted? That's the claim that the state is expected to employ to justify the use of eminent domain to acquire remaining properties in the footprint. But again, if the city wanted powerful tools to fight blight, the failure to extend the boundaries of ATURA raises questions. "There are no hard and fast rules to defining blight," Angotti added, noting that the ESDC plans a study of blight in the footprint as part of its review of the project. "They'll assign it to a junior staffer, he'll cook it up and it will pass muster."

Dean also noted how the language of the ATURA plan shifted. From 1968 through 1975, the plan stated that the housing "shall" be for low- and moderate-income residents; in 1982, it was amended to say that the housing "may" be such a population. By 1997, the shift was complete, to provide "new housing," and, rather than retain businesses, to "strengthen the tax base."

"Everyone is skittish"

Dean also added a piece of hearsay that must have encouraged some of the Atlantic Yards opponents in the room. A former staffer for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which supports the Atlantic Yards project, told her that "everyone is very skittish" about the plan. Similarly, I was recently told that, at a recent public meeting a staffer from the Brooklyn Borough President's office said, "At Borough Hall, we give it a 50-50 chance."

Given the controversy surrounding the project, some skittishness and doubt from official circles is not surprising. What's surprising is hearing it articulated.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I'll be on Brian Lehrer Live show tonight

Tonight I will on Brian Lehrer Live: Front Page, his live, hour-long weekly television program on CUNY TV. Time: 7:30 pm. Topic: Atlantic Yards. Will there be another guest, from Forest City Ratner? Unclear, but when I find out I'll update this.

The program will be repeated (Thursday morning, 2 a.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.; Sunday, 11 p.m.) and also available on streaming video.

HPD head mildly criticizes 421-a subsidies, defends "targeted eminent domain"

On the Real Deal Weekly Interview podcast this week, the real estate magazine talks to Shaun Donovan, commissioner of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the nation's largest municipal developer of affordable housing. My transcript is below, but first, a few comments.

Mild criticism of subsidies

Perhaps it was because he was talking to a magazine catering to the real estate industry, but Donovan offered rather mild criticism of the 421-a tax incentive program, which provides a 10- to-15-year exemption from real estate taxes and only requires affordable housing with projects built in the "exclusion zone," mainly Manhattan between 14th Street and 96th Street.

In recent months, the 421-a program has been blasted in a report by ACORN, which blames the program for the plethora of market-rate development in Downtown Brooklyn and environs. In another report, the Pratt Center for Community Development and Habitat For Humanity-NYC charged that "421-a is subsidizing luxury housing in upscale neighborhoods, at a huge financial cost to the City. The program – which cost the City $320 million this year – is creating few of the affordable homes that average New Yorkers desperately need."

A citywide task force is studying the reform of 421-a, with a report expected by the fall. Donovan predicted reform in areas where the market is strong, to spur more affordable housing, but cited only Lower Manhattan, leaving open questions about reform in Brooklyn. Calling the program "a critical component," he emphatically declared that it would be sustained.

Harsher words from the Comptroller

Just yesterday Comptroller William C. Thompson released a report criticizing 421-a, suggesting that it "may have outlived its usefulness, as Manhattan luxury developers and apartment purchasers have reaped the bulk of the program’s benefits." The analysis "shows that most of the benefits have subsidized some of the most expensive housing in the City," Thompson said, with relatively little affordable housing financed compared with the value of the exemptions that have been taken.

The policy brief points out that, in 2005, Manhattan--home of the highest-priced real esteate--had 48% of the 421-a units by 78% of the exemption, in terms of total value. Subsidies are not capped, so at Trump World Tower, per-unit savings ranged as high as $160,000.

Even within the 421-a program, the developments that did produce affordable housing received subsidies of $50,000 per unit in 2005, or more than $520,000 per unit over the remaining years in the 421-a program. Thompson's report suggests further research on whether to extend the exclusion zone and whether to require more affordable housing, among other issues.

Targeted eminent domain?

Interestingly, Donovan brought up the imporance of using "eminent domain in a very targeted way in that community [Melrose Commons in the Bronx] to help revive it." He added that, in response to the Supreme Court's Kelo decision, Congress is considering legislation "that would limit our ability to use eminent domain for affordable housing and other economic development priorities. So we’re very concerned that the backlash from this may end up hurting New York and other cities in our efforts to revive struggling communities."

In this case, Donovan, seems to be conflating eminent domain used for affordable housing and eminent domain used for economic development. The former is much more clearly "public use," which would justify it constitutionally. The New York State Association for Affordable Housing points out that some projects include both affordable housing and other elements. But there's a big difference between Atlantic Yards, which would have a significant number of affordable units but remain mostly market-rate housing, and Melrose Commons, which includes "extensive affordable housing along with some commercial and non-profit uses."

Bloomberg, in a major speech, has conflated the two. A 5/3/06 New York Sun article headlined Mayor Ups the Ante On Eminent Domain, noted that Bloomberg has been distributing "a wallet card of priorities, including "Eminent Domain - Oppose legislation that would cripple affordable housing and responsible re-development (like Times Square)." But Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) offered a distinction: "If you're going to built a road or a highway or a subway for public purpose, but I do not support it for a private developer for a private purpose."

A 5/3/06 New York Times article, headlined Bloomberg Says Power to Seize Private Land Is Vital to Cities, reported:
"You would never build any big thing any place in any big city in this country if you didn't have the power of eminent domain," Mr. Bloomberg said, speaking at a ground-breaking ceremony in Times Square, which was redeveloped in part through government condemnation of private property. "You wouldn't have a job, neither would anybody else standing here today. None of us would."

The Times report allowed affordable housing to be cast under the rubric of economic development:
To the Bloomberg administration, however, the wheels of economic development would grind to a halt without the use of eminent domain. Low-cost housing developments like the Nehemiah homes in East New York, Brooklyn, and Melrose Commons in the Bronx would not have been built and Times Square would remain "the poster child for a seedy, dangerous, unattractive, porno-laced place," Mr. Bloomberg said.

The interview transcript

Q. Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan to build and preserve 165,000 homes in the city over the next ten years. How likely is this to happen, to reach that goal?

A. First of all, I would say, it’s a very aggressive plan, in fact it’s the largest municipal housing plan in the nation’s history. And it follows—early in his first term, the mayor announced a plan to build or preserve 65,000 units and, in fact, we were making such good progress on that and, frankly, the real estate market in New York as you know has been so strong that, if anything, affordability is a growing challenge that we face. So that’s why he expanded the plan dramatically to 165,000 units. It is an ambitious goal, but I feel pretty confident that, with the support of the mayor and the real estate community in New York , we are going to achieve it. Last year, we were able to start on over 18,000 units. And so, if you do the math, if we keep up that pace, we’ll make it to our 165,000 unit goal.

Q: Where were these 18,000 units going?

A: All over the city. One thing we try to do is make sure that every community in New York City has affordable housing. The primary areas where we’ve focused. We’ve done a lot of units in Harlem, in Manhattan. We’ve done a lot of units in Brooklyn. We’re building right now on the waterfront in Brooklyn, as part of a major rezoning, Williamsburg and Greenpoint, but also in Downtown Brooklyn and other areas. We’re doing a lot of work in the Bronx as well. If you go to Melrose Commons, it’s a community that has just been completely transformed by the work we’ve done there, thousands of units of new housing. I might add, one of the things we’re real concerned about: we’ve used eminent domain in a very targeted way in that community to help revive it. In fact, what we’ve done is bring the housing market back to that community, with a jumpstart through our programs. And with some of the things being considered in Washington around eminent domain--it may kill our ability to do the kind of affordable housing projects like we’ve done all over the city.

Eminent domain

Q: What do you mean by that, if eminent domain were rolled back?

A: I don’t if all your listeners will know about this, but there was a Supreme Court decision last year in a Connecticut case called Kelo that affirmed the right of cities to use eminent domain. As a result of that, there are bills now being considered in Congress and Washington that would limit our ability to use eminent domain for affordable housing and other economic development priorities. So we’re very concerned that the backlash from this may end up hurting New York and other cities in our efforts to revive struggling communities.

Q: What would the city do if it didn’t have the power of eminent domain, to that degree?

A: The irony is, we’ve figured out over many, many years the ways to use public-private partnerships to create affordable housing. It’s evolved from what was originally a public housing model, where government owned and developed the housing, and then managed it, to these public-private partnerships. The irony of these changes is it might force us to go back to a model where the public sector replaces the private market, which is not something we want to do. That would really be our alternative under a lot of these proposals.

New financing

Q: Can you describe the financing that goes into this plan?

A: One of the advantages of being in New York is we have one of the most sophisticated real estate finance community in the world. And so, we work with hundreds of different private developers but also different kinds of financial institutions. All the biggest banks in the country are involved in the work that we do in New York City and finance the range of projects that we do. A lot of it is working with my agency, HPD, but we also have the largest, most successful, multifamily, tax-exempt or bond issuing agency, the Housing Development Corporation, located in New York City. Last year they did over a billion and a half dollars of bonds to support our affordable housing efforts. That’s more than the entire states of California, Texas, and a number of others combined. That’s one of the real weapons that we have on our side in the work that we do is a very sophisticated finance community and a very strong local housing finance agency in HDC.

Q: Do you have ever find it difficult to entice private developers into helping build affordable housing?

A: One of the centerpieces of the mayor’s New Housing Marketplace plan that you talked about earlier is, we really evolved—if you think about where New York was 20, 25 years ago--the big challenge was abandonment. If you went to the South Bronx, if you remember Howard Cosell during the 1977 World Series, declaring “The Bronx is burning.” The challenge then was abandonment, we were trying to stop the abandonment. Today, if you go back to those very streets that were burning in the 1970s, houses are now selling for $500,000 on Charlotte Street and in that area. The challenge has really changed from abandonment to affordability. Now we have to figure out how to meet the challenge of keeping prices down. People are coming to New York, crime is down, schools are getting better. People want to be in New York. Because the population is growing, because the demand is increasing, we have this affordability challenge. And that’s really what our focus is, in trying to work against that. So one of the ways that we’re doing that in this new plan is trying to harness the strength of that market, to benefit affordable housing. Let me give you an example. Greenpoint-Williamsburg, on the waterfront, we looked at that area, a two-mile strip of waterfront, with not a single active industrial company left, on the waterfront. We’ve rezoned it so we can create we think about 11,000 apartments in that area. What we did was to say to developers, you can build 100 percent market rate housing and we’ll let you build 30 stories. But if you’re willing to incorporate between 20 and 30 percent of your square footage as affordable, we’ll let you build up to 40 stories. So we’ve given them, using the strength of the market, we’ve given them a big extra incentive to create affordable housing as part of their projects because they also get to do extra market-rate units as well.

New incentives

Q: So the market rate units pay for the difference?

A: What they get--not only do they get the extra market-rate units, but they also get tax benefits and other incentives for doing the affordable housing. All together, if you put them all together that means if they build the affordable housing and they build the extra units, their returns are substantially better than they would be byy doing a 30-story purely market-rate tower. We think any rational developer looking at it will look at it and say, you know what, it makes sense to do the affordable housing. In fact, we’re going to break down on the first two projects on the waterfront this summer, and they are going to include the affordable housing.

Q: When are they supposed to be done?

A: Typically--these are going to be multiphase projects, it’s a lot of units. So the first phases will start construction this summer; we expect them to be done in about 18 months.

Quality in workmanship

Q: How would the city ensure the quality of the homes? The New York Post about a month ago, maybe longer, had a report about, some families won lotteries to buy city-subsidized homes. They were complaining about “leaky roofs, cracked foundations, second story back doors leading to nowhere.” Suppose the city will build some of these houses--how do you ensure the upkeep, after the fact? Is that going to be left to the developers who built them, the owners? Or will the city?

A: Obviously, if we’re building home ownership, a significant piece of what we do, that the homeowners will have responsibility for upkeep of the buildings. There are really two different issues that you’re talking about. The first is, quality design up front. And that has been--the projects you’re talking about I think were done 20-25 years ago, so obviously there’s wear and tear and other things that happen over time. Mayor Bloomberg has taken a real interest in raising the quality of both construction as well as design in all the work that we do. He has a design excellence initiative, which is focused both on city-constructed buildings, whether it’s libraries or community centers or other kinds of buildings. And we’ve won awards for those kind of projects.. But we’re also doing that where we’re working with the private sector as well. Just in the next couple of months, we’re going to kick off a program with the American Institute of Architects, located here in New York, to get some of the best architects in the world to come in and do some model projects for us. Overall, we really have raised the quality of the design of the work we’re doing all over the city.

A new acquisition fund

Q: Can you explain about the acquisition fund behind the mayor’s housing initiative?

A: You asked earlier about some of the financing we’re using to create some of these 165,000 units. One of the real challenges we have in today’s market is, back when abandonment was our challenge, the city started taking over lots of abandoned properties and vacant lots through tax foreclosure. At the height of it, believe it or not, my agency owned over 100,000 apartments around the city. We owned 60 percent of the real estate in Harlem, for example, and thousands of vacant lots all over the city. We’ve been so successful at creating housing, using those in rem properties, that we’re now down to under 2000 apartments left, and we’ve had our last competition for the vacant lots, over the last few months. So, the real challenge we have to figure out now is: how do we work to capture privately owned land for affordable housing? So one of the things we’ve done is to work with the biggest banks and financial institutions, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Fannie Mae, and a whole range of others, to put together a $200 million fund, that will almost be like equity for affordable housing developers to use in acquiring sites. If they find a site available out in the market, they can come to this fund, quickly get the equity they need to purchase that site, and then put together the plan they need to finance the construction and other things. But if they can’t lock up that site early on in the process, they’re never going to be able to create that affordable housing.

Q: How many have tapped in?

A: We’ve raised $200 million, about 160 from the financial institutions that I talked about. What’s really making this work, in a way that’s going to make it successful for affordable housing developers, we’ve also raised more than $32 million from some of the biggest foundations in the country: Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and most importantly, the Starr Foundation has put in the largest contribution. All of that money is going to act as sort of an insurance policy and it’s going to allow us to make loans that aren’t available in the private market today. If you want to go to a traditional bank and raise money to buy a piece of land, you might get 50 cents on the dollar for the acquisition price. We can actually lend as much as a 100 percent or more of the acquisition price, using this fund, because we have this foundation money involved. So it’s a great resource--it’s really going to be a competitive advantage for developers that want to create affordable housing going forward. We’ve raised all the money, we’re on track to close late this month or early next month, and many of the lenders who expect to use this fund are already making acquisition loans in expectation of having this fund available for their use. It’s already beginning to have an impact in the market, and we’ll be closed next month.

Where it will be noticed

Q: Can you explain where some of those are, where this impact is going to be felt?

A: Just to give you a few examples, there’s pieces of land, in areas of the South Bronx, in East New York in Brooklyn, other neighborhoods where there’s still some vacant land is available, where developers have already acquired those parcels using loans that will be sold to this fund when it’s completed. So it’s already beginning to have an impact there. The other thing it’s doing is allowing developers to go in and purchase existing housing and keep it affordable using the fund. There are many buildings, whether they are rent stabilized, or maybe they’re Mitchell-Lamas, that have been protected for years, that are now under threat, because rents are rising all over the city, and there’s an increasing incentive for their owners to convert them to market rate.. What we’ve seen already is, using funding from this acquisition fund, developers are going out and purchasing these properties, to keep them affordable. So it’s an example where we really brought together cutting edge financial techniques, this really brings techniques that have been used in the most sophsiticated financial markets, Conduit and other lenders have used these kind of structured finance techniques, we’re using that, and bringing it to affordable housing, so that we can provide a competitive advantage for affordable housing developers in this strong market.

The future of 421-a

Q: Let’s turn to the 421-a tax incentive program. What is the future of 421-a right now?

A: 421-a is a program that’s going to be with us for a long time. It’s a program that started in the 1970s, has created over 100,000 units of housing. It’s an important piece of our overall efforts to make sure that we build as much housing to keep up with our growing population in New Yorl. So the 421-a program is going to continue. What the mayor announced recently was that we need to look at this program, in light of the way that the market has changed. This is one of the areas I talked earlier about: finding creative ways to harness the power of the real estate market to create affordable housing. When 421-a was created, there was almost no building in many parts of the market, and it was intended as a tool to jump-start the private market, building market-rate housing. And it’s worked. And so today--last year we had the highest number of housing starts that we’ve had in New York City since the 1970s, in over three decades. We really need to step back and take a look at the 421-a program and say: in certain areas, it’s no longer needed just to spur market-rate construction. So what we can do is to make some changes to the program so that we can maximize the amount of affordable housing that we’re getting through the use of the 421-a program, it’s a way of harnessing the strong market and directing that to creating affordable housing. We have a task force that started meeting in April. We’re going to make recommendations by the fall to the mayor and the city council. I think what you’ll see is we’ll make recommendations to harness the 421-a program, in areas where the market is strong, to create even more affordable housing.

Q: Can you speculate on what areas this might be?

A: Just to give you one example. Lower Manhattan has been one of the strongest areas in development the city has seen over the last few years, a huge growth in housing there. It’s an area where we think the market is probably strong enough to be able to sustain market-rate development without full 421-a benefits. That’s a perfect example of an area where we’ll be looking at potential changes.

Q: 421-a is not going to disappear?

A: Absolutely not. We think it’s a critical component of the overall set of tools that we have to create housing. Let’s be realistic here; New York City is growing. We’ve had a real success--the last thing we would want to do is, in the mist of a booming real estate market, to change the way that we do things in a way that would cut off that housing construction. So while we’ll make some changes, we don’t want to fundamentally undermine the strength of the construction boom that we have. We need those units to keep up with the growing population. If we cut off the real estate construction that we have, we’re only going to make our affordable housing problem worse, because demand will continue and supply will go down, and that’s a recipe for disaster.

Q: How closely is the task force working with private developers, real estate? I know there are some members on the task force itself, but are they getting input from the real estate community?

A: Absolutely, there’s been a lot of discussions within the real estate community. We have representatives from the Real Estate Board of New York on the task force, and I know they’ve been meeting extensively with their members. We have developers that are on the task force as well; we have representatives from affordable housing groups, so developers can specifically focus on affordable housing. We really did try to bring together the full range of the real estate community: for profit, nonprofit, government advocates, together with many city officials and the City Council. So we think we have great representation from across the board, and w’re certainly getting lots of ideas, which indicates to me that lots of different folks are weighing in.