Prospect Heights

Brooklyn lawmakers seek Pacific Park affordable housing schedule

June 4, 2019 Norman Oder
Of the (at least) 15 towers expected within the Pacific Park project, four have been completed. Image via Google Maps

Three state legislators from Brooklyn have written a forceful letter to state economic development chief Howard Zemsky, asking him to explain how the Pacific Park project — formerly called Atlantic Yards — will deliver the required 2,250 affordable units by the approaching deadline of May 2025.

So far, 782 such income-linked apartments have been built since the project received approvals in 2006 and 2009. An additional 352 are expected in two towers now under construction, with at least 200 coming in two more towers starting next year.

Still, a significant gap remains. Before towers can be built over the MTA’s Vanderbilt Yard, an expensive platform is required to cover the rail yards used to store and service Long Island Rail Road trains.

“Construction is well behind the schedule published following the approval of the 2014 Modified General Project Plan,” the legislators’ letter states, and developer Greenland Forest City Partners (GFCP) “has not provided an updated timeline.”

Empire State Development, which Zemsky chairs, did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’re trying to get some clarity… about the [project’s] most important public benefit,” said Assemblymember Walter Mosley, who sent the letter, which was co-signed by Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon and State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery.

Ambiguity grows as new developers enter

Simon, who as part of the BrooklynSpeaks coalition in 2014 helped get a new deadline for the affordable units, said the letter was spurred by the decision of Greenland USA, which dominates the joint venture, to lease four of the project’s parcels to other developers, The Brodsky Organization and TF Cornerstone.

“Greenland is starting to pull money out,” Simon said. “We see this as the harbinger of something else happening here.”

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Indeed, Greenland Forest City has floated plans to shift the bulk of the proposed but unbuilt tower over the arena plaza — which original architect Frank Gehry dubbed “Miss Brooklyn” — to a parcel across Flatbush Avenue known as Site 5, currently home to Modell’s and P.C. Richard.

While a substantial tower was already approved there, the potential change could triple the height and bulk, creating a two-tower project nearly 800 feet tall. For such plans to proceed, public hearings and approval by the Empire State Development board are required. While that appointed board follows the governor’s lead, the public process allows for criticism and even a legal challenge.

For now, though, a lawsuit from P.C. Richard, which in February won an initial ruling guaranteeing it space in the future project at Site 5, has stalled the state’s plan to take that property via eminent domain.

A fitful history

Announced as Atlantic Yards in December 2003, the 22-acre project — now with four of at least 15 towers complete, plus the Barclays Center arena — has gone through many fits and starts. Despite claims of a 10-year project timeline, Empire State Development in 2010 gave the developer 25 years, until 2035, to finish the project.

Design by Ben Keel; editing by Norman Oder
Design by Ben Keel, editing by Norman Oder

In June 2014, with the arrival of Greenland pending, ESD and Forest City — facing threats of a BrooklynSpeaks-organized lawsuit on fair-housing grounds — agreed to a new timetable for the affordable units: The developers would complete all 2,250 apartments (of a total of 6,430 approved units) by 2025, subject to a $2,000 per month fine for every delayed unit.

Upon that agreement, Forest City sold 70 percent of the project (except the arena and one tower) to Greenland USA, an arm of Greenland Group, owned in large part by the government of Shanghai.

The new Greenland-Forest City Partners joint venture, which changed the project’s name to Pacific Park Brooklyn, agreed to two “100 percent affordable” towers — which were actually skewed to middle-income households, with many two-bedroom units renting for over $3,200 — and also planned the 550 Vanderbilt condominium.

An August 2014 schedule released by the joint venture estimated project completion by 2025, with several large towers delivering affordable housing, once that rail yard platform was complete. However, they quickly fell behind. In November 2016, indicating tension among the partners, Forest City unilaterally paused vertical construction, citing a glut of new housing in the Downtown Brooklyn area, rising costs and uncertainty over tax breaks.

Forest City agreed to sell all but 5 percent of the project to Greenland in January 2018. But the Chinese company, not long ago an ambitious investor worldwide, has recently divested from projects both in Los Angeles and in New York. As noted by the legislators’ letter, Greenland’s “parent company is in the process of issuing short-term high-yield debt to finance operations.”

Getting to 2,250 units

The legislators’ request echoes one made at a March meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation, organized as part of that 2014 agreement to advise Empire State Development regarding the project. BrooklynSpeaks leader Gib Veconi, a Mosley appointee on the board, proposed requiring ESD to provide an updated project timetable.

ESD executive Marion Phillips III, who also serves as president of the advisory group, said the 2025 deadline was solid, but “Greenland’s not required to give us a projection, and I’m not trying to put them in a position so that we can ‘play gotcha.’” The resolution was then voted down by the board, which is dominated by appointees of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a project supporter.

“Obviously, they’re going to have to increase their percentage of affordable [housing] in those [future] buildings to reach that goal,” Phillips said.

As reported in April by City Limits, plans shared with project investors under the EB-5 investor visa program indicated that, among the first three towers planned over the rail yard one would be “100 percent affordable.” Greenland would not comment beyond saying it would meet its 2025 obligation.

The legislators may have some leverage. Despite a brush-off from Zemsky in response to a 2016 letter on Pacific Park issues, now “we do have a Senate majority that’s ruled by Democrats, and we have oversight control over both houses,” Mosley said, indicating a hearing was possible if ESD doesn’t respond. He said legislators expect to meet with Greenland next week.

The letter also raised a doomsday scenario: If the 2,250 affordable units are not completed and Greenland and/or Forest City become insolvent, what recourse will ESD have?

The legislators await that answer.

Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder has been writing a blog, now called Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report, since 2005, and contributed reporting and commentary about the project to numerous New York and national publications, from City Limits to the New York Times.

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