Friday, March 21, 2008

Bad news for Atlantic Yards...

The New York Times reported today that Forest City Ratner, the developer of Atlantic Yards, is facing financial problems stemming from the credit crisis. Ratner is still optimistic that the arena will be built, but the prospects for the retail, office and residential space look grim.

In a separate article, the Times' architecture critic just about implored Frank Gehry to pull out of the project rather than see his architectural vision destroyed by the construction of the arena without the other buildings. "Postpone the towers and expose the stadium," stated Nicolai Ouroussoff, "and it becomes a piece of urban blight — a black hole at a crucial crossroads of the city’s physical history."

All of this news suggests that the affordable housing promised in the CBA may not be built until years after the stadium, if ever (see the Atlantic Yards Report (somewhat speculative) FAQ for more information about this). Unfortunately, the CBA doesn't give the community any real redress. Consider the following provisions (text of the CBA is available here):
  • The term of the CBA lasts until 30 years after construction begins on the first residential building. If Ratner only builds the arena, it might be difficult to show any breach for not building affordable housing since he can claim that the housing is still in the works (pgs. 5-6).
  • The CBA also provides that "[t]he Developers may change the Development Phases in their sole discretion prior to commencement of the first Development Phase; provided that they shall provide advance soon as reasonably practicable" (pg. 11). Again, Ratner has free reign here to change the plans, and significantly postpone construction of the residential units, since construction has yet to begin.
  • The affordable housing agreement specifies the percentage of units that will be affordable. It does not set any minimum amount of affordable housing that must be completed, even though the creation of new affordable housing has been one of the key reasons for public support of the project. See the MOU on affordable housing for more details, and the Atlantic Yards Report story on the MOU an explanation of the affordable housing plan).
  • Ratner is required to submit quarterly status reports to the CBA Coalition and the independent compliance monitor, but those status reports focus mainly on jobs--there is no requirement that Ratner report the amount of affordable housing that has been constructed (pgs. 41-43).
  • If a new developer takes over the project, it will have no real obligation to continue the CBA. Ratner will still be responsible for the jobs development and local employment provisions (pgs. 49-50).
The problem goes beyond affordable housing though. The CBA also includes provisions that the project will include open space (pgs. 30-31), a community health center (pgs. 26-28), and child care, youth and senior centers (pgs. 28-30). If Ratner postpones construction of most of the project due to financial problems, there's a good chance that these will be postponed too. And that means that the community may end up with a stand alone stadium that causes traffic, noise and crime problems without adding many of the benefits that the developer promised.

If Ratner never breaks ground on the first residential building, is the agreement still any good? Probably, since Ratner can't be held to the creation of any specific amount of affordable housing because he only agreed that a percentage of the units actually built will be affordable. He also probably can't be blamed for misrepresenting the terms of the contract, since the prospects for the development looked a lot better in 2005.

Community coalitions need to contemplate these issues ahead of time. A developer may make great promises, but there's always a chance that the project will fall through.

Update: The Atlantic Yards Report has some better news, including a statement from ACORN, one of the CBA signatories, and a statement from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, indicating that some affordable housing will be built.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The CBA can only be enforced by its signators, not by the greater community. The maximum penalty to FCRC is $500,000.00, a minuscule cost for non-compliance. The text of the CBA is not in ESDC's 25,000-page condemnation record. For any court that reviews the entire AYP project based on the record, the CBA does not exist.