The proposed Barclays Center Business Improvement District should include only properties where businesses exist, not extend to areas that won’t be developed for decades.
Since the summer of 2011, when a State Supreme Court ruled
that the New York State Empire State Development Corporation’s 2009 approval of changes to the Atlantic Yards plan was illegal, advocates and elected officials have been calling
for a new bid for development of the second phase of the project.
Last month’s news from the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership
and Forest City Ratner wasn’t exactly what we had in mind.
On January 7, DBP and FCR announced plans to form a Business Improvement District (BID) anchored by Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls, and Barclays Center. According to
the New York City Department of Small Business Services, a BID “is a public / private partnership in which property and business owners elect to make a collective contribution to the maintenance, development and promotion of their commercial district.” And in fact, the DBP’s press release cites “sanitation, extra security, streetscape improvements and maintenance” as examples of activities that would be funded by the proposed Barcalys BID.
Like all BIDs, the proposed Barclays BID would be reviewed by affected Community Boards, and must be approved by the City Council.
The new BID would stretch north to the corner of Fulton Street and Flatbush Avenue, and east between Atlantic Avenue and Dean Street to Vanderbilt Avenue. It would connect to and extend the area serviced by BIDs administered by DBP, which include the MetroTech BID
, the Fulton Mall Improvement Association
, and the Court-Livingston-Schermerhorn BID
, creating a giant consolidated district of privately-administered business services with a perimeter of about four miles.
That area would overlap part of the North Flatbush BID
, which serves property owners and merchants on Flatbush Avenue between Atlantic Avenue and Grand Army Plaza. In an unusual arrangement, property owners in the overlapping district would pay an assessment to both BIDs. (If that seems onerous, consider that the only property owner subject to the dual assessment would likely be Forest City Ratner.)
But what is even more unusual is DBP’s intention to include undeveloped areas of the Atlantic Yards site into the proposed BID, including the railyards, the arena parking lot on Vanderbilt Avenue, and even the Newswalk building. These areas make up what appears to be almost half of the proposed BID (my understanding is that Newswalk was added to the BID after the map in the attached picture was released). City guidelines
advise against including government properties in a BID (the railyards are owned by the MTA), discourage including undeveloped property, and recommend keeping residential properties to a minimum. So what’s going on here? I asked this question of two members of the new BID’s steering committee, and got the same answer from each: the boundaries have been extended through the entire Atlantic Yards site in order not to have to undergo another public review process in the future when the site is developed.
The goal of avoiding additional public review might be understandable, but it’s not a justification to go against the City’s policy for BIDs. Forest City Ratner has yet to release plans or even a time schedule for building over the railyards. BIDs are generally voted on by business owners, but none yet exist in Atlantic Yards’ second phase site. For that reason, there is simply no way for Community Boards and elected officials to make an informed decision about whether a BID would someday be appropriate there. At this point, a BID certainly seems to be overkill just to keep the sidewalks in the second phase footprint clean. Forest City is already responsible for that—either through its direct ownership of adjacent properties, or because it is managing heavy construction in and around the railyards.
Creating a BID linked to downtown Brooklyn that includes half of two blocks on Vanderbilt Avenue could also complicate that street’s eventual efforts to launch its own BID. On nearby Washington Avenue, merchants have already formed a steering committee for a new BID. Although Vanderbilt business owners haven’t taken that step yet, given the pace of new businesses opening on that strip, it’s easy to see how a Vanderbilt BID might get off the ground before the 25 years Forest City has to complete construction over the railyards.
In fact, the best argument for restricting the boundaries of the Barclays BID isn’t what we don’t know, but what we do. In October 2012, Forest City’s Executive VP MaryAnne Gilmartin told investors
that after completing construction on the arena block, her firm would begin building on block 1129 (between Dean Street, Pacific Street, Carlton Avenue and Vanderbilt Avenue at the eastern end of the project). Ms. Gilmartin’s statement was consistent with the terms of the Master Development Agreement
between Forest City and ESDC, which requires the developer to begin construction of at least one residential building on Vanderbilt Avenue by 2020. Residential construction on block 1129 would certainly have more of a connection to Vanderbilt Avenue than to the BAM cultural district almost a mile away (or even Barclays Center a half a mile away). Preemptively roping that block into a corporate business district would work against the integration of its new residents and businesses into the fabric of the Prospect Heights community (to say nothing of potentially depriving a future Vanderbilt BID of revenue for improvements benefiting that community as a whole).
A BID should not be used to stakedrive into a residential neighborhood whose commercial avenues are developing as rapidly as is Vanderbilt.
One suspects that few Community Board members and elected officials would agree that development at the Atlantic Yards site has suffered from too much public review. Instead, they have seen the project’s sponsors skirt required environmental review and disclosure processes
to meet a deadline for tax-exempt bond financing; create institutions like its Community Benefit Agreement that convey a sense of accountability where none in fact exists; and, when they can’t avoid review by Community Boards (as was the case with Barclays Center’s liquor license), withhold material information
until after votes are taken.
So while it’s undeniable that businesses like Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Mark Morris Dance Group share an affinity and could perhaps benefit from coordinated efforts aimed at improving street conditions, important questions about future development at and around Atlantic Yards are still open. If Forest City and BAM want a Barclays BID to connect their properties, they are welcome to present the merits of that case. Maybe someday, many years from now, including more of the currently undeveloped parts of the Atlantic Yards site into a Barclays BID will be a good idea, too. But it won’t hurt much to wait until then to find out. For now, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership should amend its plans to only include properties that comply with the City’s guidelines.