UNITY Loves Company: Ratner’s Limbo Provides Momentum for Alternate Proposal

The Atlantic Yards Development Workshop: Marshall Brown, Anna Dietzsch, John Nafziger, and Sarah Strauss.

According to a recent New York Times article, Brooklyn developer (and New Jersey Nets owner) Bruce Ratner is trying “to elevate his knowledge of basketball…[by playing] the NBA Live video game on his computer.” One has to wonder if he similarly elevates his knowledge of urban development  by playing the popular computer game SimCity, in which the click of a mouse can bulldoze any unwanted buildings to make way for anything the player wants to put in their place. Indeed, Ratner seems to be pursuing the SimCity model in his proposal to erect 17 skyscrapers and a basketball arena over both the Atlantic Yards as well as the adjacent private property that he hopes to seize and demolish.
Unfortunately for Ratner, as his sub-.500 Nets are demonstrating, the real world does not unfold as predictably as a video game. A bidding war erupting over the Hudson Rail Yards on the West Side of Manhattan has imperiled the fate of the proposed Jets stadium, threatening what was considered to be another “done deal” on MTA land. The short-term result of this is that MTA chairman Peter Kalikow has publicly declared that negotiations with Forest City Enterprises are on the shelf until the Hudson Yards dispute is resolved. The longer-term issue is that Ratner’s inside position as the only developer for the Atlantic Yards would likely be challenged if that property is subject to an open bid process similar to that occurring on the West Side.

Forest City’s forced time-out has enabled the UNITY plan to enter the contest. Starting as the brainstorm of city councilwoman Letitia James and architect Marshall Brown, UNITY (which stands for “UNderstanding Imagining and Transforming the Yards”) culled ideas generated at the Atlantic Yards Development Workshop a year ago and put them into a design that manages to add more square footage of retail space than the Ratner plan while also maintaining an equal density (in terms of units per acre) of residential development. UNITY accomplishes this while still creating open space, a school, and a community center within its bounds.

One of the many criticisms of Forest City’s proposal from the very start was its failure to involve the community in any meaningful way with the project. As Marshall Brown notes, “the development of the Atlantic Yards is something that will affect all of its surrounding communities, this is a fact.” That Ratner was going to have this effect on thousands of residents whom he had no plans to talk to is what drove Brown and others to seize “a golden opportunity,” as Brown calls it, “not only to get involved with the process, but to shape the process.”

Making the rounds of community groups such as the Boerum Hill Association, the Park Slope Neighbors, the Park Slope Republicans, as well as the Community Board 2 Land Use Committee, UNITY best represents “the character of the community,” explains Councilwoman James. She maintains that open space and low-rise residential growth “reflect the wishes of a lot of community residents” regarding what should go up over the rail yards.

According to Brown, UNITY promises “real public space, not the privately held ‘open space’” like that found in Forest City’s MetroTech complex. The plan also calls for 2,300 units of housing in buildings that do not exceed 10 stories. And it includes 600,000 square feet of mostly street-level retail, which not only exceeds Ratner’s overall allotment for retail but also creates a much more pedestrian-friendly shopping hub than either the Atlantic Center or the Atlantic Terminal.

The 2,300 units of housing also would have a progressive structure. According to Brown, only 25 percent of the housing would be market rate, with the rest targeting low-, moderate-, and middle-income levels. This 75 percent affordable housing exceeds the Forest City proposal in terms of percentage and also approaches the actual number of affordable units that would go up. (The 50 percent of Forest City’s 4,500-unit proposal that is affordable translates into 2,250 units, whereas 75 percent of UNITY’s 2,300 units equals 1,725 units; the difference of 525 units is partially reduced by the existing apartments that would not have to be knocked down in the latter plan.) “It would be fabulous if you could achieve it,” Association for Community Organizations for Reform’s (ACORN) Bertha Lewis proclaims in reaction to this particular facet of the UNITY plan.

Marshall Brown presents the UNITY plan at Democracy and Development: Protecting and Promoting Our Atlantic Yards panel discussion, which took place on February 24, 2005. Photograph by Brian J. Carreira.

Given their mutual interest in affordable housing, UNITY and ACORN potentially could make an excellent team. Thus far, though, ACORN has been a vocal supporter of the Forest City plan because of its promises for low- and middle-income residential growth. “We’re not wedded to any plan,” Lewis explains, “but Ratner has said he will put up 4,500 units of housing, so we’re there.” As for the UNITY plan, she sees much worth looking into. “I think these folks have a real opportunity,” she notes. “Add developers, add money, and I think they’d have a real plan.” She even mentions the idea of a “hybrid” of the two proposals because “there are some great ideas” in UNITY. She adds that if the UNITY group contacted ACORN, “we’d be happy to talk to them.”

UNITY, notably, forgoes commercial office space. As Brown explains, “there are questions as to whether Class A office space is even viable [at the Atlantic Yards location].” Such an assumption is reinforced by Forest City’s recent announcement that it would be replacing much of its proposed office square footage with more residential units.

Unlike the Forest City plan, which looks to de-map sections of Pacific Street for megablocks, UNITY actually extends most of the Fort Greene streets that presently end at Atlantic Avenue into Prospect Heights. Brown believes this accomplishes two goals: 1) There will be more pedestrian connections across Atlantic Avenue. This would have the effect of integrating the adjacent neighborhoods that have thus far been separated by the yards, and slowing down traffic along this speedy section of the avenue. 2) The smaller blocks created will be approximately one acre per piece. Brown believes that selling the parcels to individual developers instead of one big one will actually bring greater land value.

The architect likens his idea for development to “selling pizza by the slice versus selling a whole pie,” and, in fact, the MTA would make more money on the land by selling it in portions. The UNITY group is exploring the possibility of creating an Atlantic Yards LDC (local development corporation) that could manage this task. Some observers even think that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, having one developer for the yards is a hindrance to the success of a proposal. “The size and weight of Ratner’s project is detrimental to it coming to fruition,” says Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, which supports the UNITY plan. Goldstein explains that a consortium in which developers each put up their own one-acre development would minimize the financial risk of the project and allow for a more diverse streetscape.

How exactly it would be financed leads to one of the major critiques of the UNITY plan. “I saw architects, I didn’t see any developers,” ACORN’s Lewis said after viewing the presentation. According to Councilwoman James, UNITY’s supporters are indeed “looking for developers and financiers to incorporate it into a plan.” Goldstein is not worried about finding interested developers, though. “Without an arena, the project becomes even more attractive,” he says, adding that “if the [bid] process is made more fair, I do believe there will be developers interested. If you have a good plan, it will be financed.” There are indeed ongoing discussions with interested builders and investors for UNITY, Goldstein says, but it’s too soon to mention any names. In terms of a precedent, Goldstein points to the Hoyt-Schermerhorn Urban Renewal Area, a community-based development that is being built downtown. This development is being carried out according to recommendations of a task force consisting of community leaders and local elected officials. It is being constructed in separate sections that are being independently built by a handful of developers, including Shaya Boymelgreen and HS Development Partners.

In any event, Brown calls the Rail Yards a “world class location,” while James says they’re part of the “gold rush in downtown Brooklyn.” As such, James believes the property needs to be made available for open bidding. “I would urge allies of our struggle,” she implores, “to call the MTA and demand they open up the bidding process on the Atlantic Yards.” She is also quick to point out that the MTA needs to consider “not just the highest bidder but a responsible bidder,” which she characterizes as “someone who has respect for the character of the area.”
Perhaps in the video game version of Brooklyn, Bruce Ratner has placed an arena and skyscrapers over the Atlantic Yards. And maybe in his video game the New Jersey Nets still have Kenyon Martin and are winning some games. But outside the virtual world, more and more people are expressing their dissatisfaction with the idea that taxpayers should subsidize developers’ proposals simply because they are big and flashy, especially when the details don’t add up. In Brooklyn, residents of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, and many of the surrounding neighborhoods are demanding a hand in the future of the Atlantic Yards. In short, they are saying they want a plan like UNITY’s.

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