Fuzzy Plans for New Towers at Key Pacific Park Site

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The mix of office, retail and residential space that goes up at Site 5, at right where the P.C. Richard & Son is seen, could significantly shape Pacific Park's impact on the neighborhood.

Adi Talwar

The mix of office, retail and residential space that goes up at Site 5, at right where the P.C. Richard & Son is seen, could significantly shape Pacific Park's impact on the neighborhood.

An “iconic office building” could be coming to Brooklyn’s most contested crossroads, at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue, if developers of the Pacific Park Brooklyn project (formerly Atlantic Yards) successfully steer a bold plan to combine two development sites into one.

But newly acquired documents not only reveal potential dimensions for the giant project, at 1.1 million square feet and up to 785 feet tall, that have been kept under wraps. They also hint the plan, which could contain Brooklyn’s glitziest mall, might contain more apartments than office space.

On February 15, Crain’s New York Business reported that Greenland Forest City Partners (GFCP), the joint venture behind Pacific Park, aimed to build “Brooklyn’s largest office tower across from Barclays Center.” The developer touted “thousands of jobs” serving “the new Brooklyn economy.”

Such rhetoric bolsters the case for state approval of a proposal to eliminate the project’s largest tower, long slated to loom over the Barclays Center and its plaza, and instead transfer that parcel’s bulk to create a bigger two-tower building across the street.

Rather than sacrifice a 511-foot tower with some 760,000 square feet, GFCP would shift that bulk across Flatbush Avenue to what’s known as Site 5, which currently houses the low-rise big-box stores Modell’s and P.C. Richard & Son. It’s bounded by three wide streets—Atlantic, Flatbush, and Fourth avenues—and narrow Pacific Street, as well as a community garden.

Under previous approvals by Empire State Development (ESD), New York State’s economic development authority, Site 5 is supposed to host a 250-foot tower with commercial or residential use. Essentially, the developers now aim to build two towers with a common base on one site, slightly more than an acre, rather than on the two sites previously approved. The project’s 8 million square feet would be squeezed into 15 parcels, not 16, plus the arena. (The first four towers are under construction, and three may open within the next nine months.)

The switch also would make permanent the Barclays Center’s striking oculus and associated plaza.

Not only might the move usher in a significant condo-plus-retail segment of a project billed as a job-creating office tower. It also would create a far taller and bulkier building than previously approved, at the border of a residential street and at a crossroads already widely seen as dysfunctional.

Four scenarios

Representatives of GFCP, a joint venture formed in 2014 after the Shanghai government-owned Greenland Group bought a 70 percent share of the project have declined when queried at public meetings to describe the project’s dimensions or explain the impact on Pacific Street, much less the adjacent intersection.

However, documents (see below) the developer shared January 11 with the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP)—and acquired via a Freedom of Information Law request—fill in some of their thinking. (A spokeswoman for the developer, when queried, said the plans were “outdated” and shouldn’t be relied on, but would not specify what’s still on the table.)

Though the presentation says “Brooklyn’s office market is hot,” the building–with a shared podium up to 108 feet and two towers–proposed in January for Site 5 might not contain office space. GFCP presented four scenarios. The version with the tallest, most dramatic Tower A, at 785 feet, would eschew office space, but instead contain 633,000 square feet of sky-view apartments, plus a hotel and retail space.

Two other scenarios would include about 350,000 square feet of office space in the smaller tower, known as Tower B; the adjacent tower A would either be residential or mix apartments and hotel space.

In only one scenario would Tower A contain office space, with 627,000 square feet, a significant capacity but far less than some office buildings in Forest City’s MetroTech Center. This Tower A would be the shortest, at 640 feet, likely because office projects require broader floor plates.

The 785-foot Tower A proposed as one option, if completed today, would top all other Brooklyn buildings, a prize for Greenland, a self-described “skyscraper specialist.” The recently announced 340 Flatbush Avenue Extension, next to Junior’s in Downtown Brooklyn, will be a supertall residential tower rising 1,066 feet. But Tower A, if built as any of the four options proposed, would still be an outsize presence in the Brooklyn sky.

And the builders might take advantage of its prominence; indeed, the presentation suggests the developers seek an override regarding signage, which could mean a plan to brand the building. (When queried about signage, GFCP declined comment.)

Office space issues

Forest City CEO MaryAnneGilmartin recently told an interviewer that “we’re ready to put together an iconic headquarters office building,” adding that “the entitlements [permission] are under way, and you find an anchor tenant and you construct the project.”

But the market for ground-up office space is unsettled, so the developers apparently want some flexibility.

GFCP’s January presentation pointed to recent moves in the borough’s office-space marketplace, like Kickstarter in Greenpoint, Vice in Williamsburg, West Elm in Fulton Ferry, and the project known as DUMBO Heights. But these are building conversions, not new construction.

Indeed, only one ground-up office tower is being built in Downtown Brooklyn, at Albee Square, driven by the city’s decision to sell some development rights to leverage an office building. (Ground-up office buildings are being built in Williamsburg and at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.)

While the slide presentation states that Brooklyn has an anticipated major shortfall in office space by 2020, the office market is wobbly enough such that the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, which Gilmartin co-chairs, has called for permanent incentives and new zoning policies to nudge office space over housing around Downtown Brooklyn.

Apartments shift, plaza stays, mall could rise

Clearly, plans are in flux. The developers told DCP in January they’d ask the state to approve an increase the amount of residential space in Pacific Park, apparently to enable apartments at Site 5. That would’ve added to the total number (6,430, with 2,250 affordable) apartments that were previously approved for the project.

They no longer aim for such an increase, likely because another change is in the works: A project parcel flanking the northeast edge of the arena, known as B4, was supposed to be residential but is now being eyed for commercial use. But that change could affect a key promise negotiated in 2014, as part of a new timetable to deliver the project’s affordable housing by 2025: that 35% of the Pacific Park units be affordable until 1,050 are built.

Some portion of the total 764 rentals and condos planned for B4 might shift to Site 5, but unless the 275 affordable units are included, it’s unclear how the 35% pledge will be met. GFCP officials say they’ll meet the commitment, but haven’t said how.

The plaza outside Barclays Center arose because of a 2009 revision to the master plan, when original developer Forest City Ratner decided not to build the tower at Atlantic and Flatbush that original architect Frank Gehry dubbed “Miss Brooklyn.” The open-air plaza was supposed to be temporary, replaced by a new building with an enclosed “Urban Room” at its base.

Now the developers extol the virtues of that quasi-public space. GFCP’s presentation, which likens the arena plaza to spaces along Broadway like Union Square, suggests that it would be superior to the long-planned Urban Room because it offers 50 percent more usable public space. But while the presentation suggests that the space now branded as the Resorts World Casino NYC Plaza is fully open to the public, it’s regularly truncated for merchandise sales, promotional activities, or simply crowd control at arena events.

The decision not to build on the plaza footprint likely serves other interests. It would be complex and costly for GFCP to build its flagship tower there. Moreover, construction would complicate arena operations and eliminate the signature oculus.

The document shared with DCP also outlined a Site 5 project that would include 188,000 square feet of retail, about half the size of the workaday Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal malls across Flatbush Avenue. The proposed square footage would represent more than 76 percent of the project’s approved 247,000 square feet for retail, which was long presented as “neighborhood retail.”

Today, the Pacific Park web site more cagily promotes “world class retail featuring neighborhood amenities, shopping and restaurant spaces that Brooklyn is famous for.” A Forest City executive has likened the expected tenants to the Time Warner Center, which, with nearly twice as much retail and restaurant space, houses retailers like Coach, Equinox, and Williams-Sonoma. In other words, the changes to Site 5 could result in retail that is more concentrated than earlier Atlantic Yards plans suggested, with more stores selling pricier wares.

The GFCP presentation doesn’t discuss a hotel, which could occupy some 320,000 square feet at Site 5, but there’s likely a market. While numerous hotels have been built or are under way around Downtown Brooklyn, this hotel might supplant the Brooklyn Marriott, more than a mile away, as the arena’s official hotel, and could serve visiting teams and arena visitors.

Approval process

To justify the change, GFCP’s presentation invokes the design principles in ESD’s 2009 Modified General Project Plan (GPP), which recommends density and commercial use at the western end of project site, where Downtown Brooklyn transitions into neighborhood Brooklyn.

It also shows how, in the last decade, a series of towers has marched down Flatbush Avenue toward the Barclays Center, some over 500 feet. Still, the depiction plays down the size of what’s may come to Site 5. One slide portrays the Site 5 project as commensurate with the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower, for years Brooklyn’s tallest, even though Tower A could be 50 percent taller and the Site 5 development three times as bulky.

Any proposed changes to the site plan–none have been formally submitted–must be approved by the board of ESD, which answers to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and has typically been a rubber stamp. Still, a review process, including public hearings, could produce some tweaks. (After all, while GFCP has publicly discussed building the full 1.55 million square feet available on the two parcels, its presentation aimed at 1.14 million square feet.)

Some 2006 comments about scale likely will have to be reckoned with. The New York City Planning Commission, which has only an advisory role, in 2006 successfully recommended reductions in the height and bulk of the Site 5 tower, from 350 feet to 250 feet, noting how it transitioned to lower-rise Fourth Avenue and the retail stores west on Atlantic Avenue. (DCP spokeswoman Rachaele Raynoff said, “If a modification were proposed” to the GPP, a staff presentation to the City Planning Commission would lead to written recommendation. They are nonbinding, but could reflect tweaks in the approval process.)

Empire State Development, in its 2006 environmental review, implicitly argued against loading up Site 5, saying “it would not be appropriate to locate Building 1″—which alone is flanked solely by two main boulevards—”elsewhere on the project site” and suggesting that Site 5 was a “transition in scale” to adjacent neighborhoods.

The new review process was supposed to start this spring, but was delayed when P.C. Richard sued to block condemnation of its property. The lawsuit alleges that Forest City promised that the appliance store would get comparable space in the new building; Forest City, which today plans a more glamorous retail environment, contends the letter was non-binding. The case could stretch into 2017.

Another issue is how the expected crowds for the project’s various uses would affect the intersection, where advocates have long called for safety improvements. When the Site 5 plan first surfaced, S.J. Avery, co-chair of the Park Slope Civic Council’s Forth on Fourth Avenue, said that from her group’s perspective, “it seems insane” to build such a large tower on that site given “existing deficits in traffic control and public transport (bus and subway) capacity.”

For now, public information is dwarfed by that shared privately, and local elected officials have not yet publicly weighed in. At a public meeting in February, Pacific Street resident May Taliaferrow expressed dismay. “My house is right there,” she said. “That massive building is going to appear without a plan.”

At the March meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation, an advisory body set up in 2014 to enhance project oversight, Forest City executive Ashley Cotton was asked about the potential height of the new building.

“You can mass this building in a number of different ways,” she replied, “so there is no height we can talk about.”

Presentation on Pacific Park's Site 5 by City Limits (New York) on Scribd

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City Limits coverage of housing and development is supported by the New York Community Trust and the Charles H. Revson Foundation.