This monthly feature profiles a plan included in Planning for All New Yorkers: An Atlas of Community-Based Plans in New York City, an interactive, online tool created by the Municipal Art Society and the Community-Based Planning Task Force. This month, we feature the UNITY Plan, a community-based alternative to the proposed Atlantic Yards development.

 As large-scale developments are slowed and perhaps halted by economic woes, decision-makers may be taking a second look at plans that adhere to a more modest, build-able vision, but are better able to justify public expenditure-because they are initiated by the public.

 When the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) and the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development re-launched their alternative to Forest City Ratner (FCR)’s proposed Atlantic Yards development, Understanding, Imagining and Transforming the Yards (UNITY), two years ago, they faced an uphill battle in convincing the public that Atlantic Yards was not a “done deal.”  Today, due to the worsening economy, at least one ongoing lawsuit, and the MTA’s recent statement that Atlantic Yards is not a priority for stimulus funding, the Brooklyn mega-development is clearly anything but a done deal. 

FCR’s original proposal, which became public in 2003, called for 17 “iconic buildings,” to be located between Prospect Heights and Fort Greene (the site is shown above), including an 850,000 sq. ft. basketball arena, 336,000 sq. ft. of office space, 165,000 sq. ft. of hotel space, 247,000 sq. ft. of retail space, eight acres of open space, and over 6,400 units of housing.  The housing component remains particularly controversial, as many of the proposed units deemed “affordable” are out of reach of those making the average income for Brooklyn

Mounting Challenges

The 22-acre development would require use of both MTA property and an area around it, including occupied homes and businesses.  To amass this land, FCR would require the use of eminent domain.  State Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging the use of eminent domain for the project on Monday, and a decision is expected within the next few months.  Plaintiffs are also planning an appeal of yesterday’s ruling against them in a case challenging the project’s environmental review.

In addition, Atlantic Yards faces major financial challenges due to the economic downturn.  In fact, Borough President Marty Markowitz recently asked the State for “bailout” money for the project from the national stimulus bill, and called for a redesign to reduce project costs.  In short, completion of the project as originally proposed seems unlikely.

Voices Raised

The UNITY plan’s creators anticipated such a scenario as early as 2004.  In March of that year, in cooperation with Council Member Letitia James, a team of architects and urban designers joined hundreds of citizens, elected officials, designers and developers to imagine a community-based model for development at the site and to examine issues such as affordable housing, ecology, public open space, traffic, retail, jobs, and infrastructure. The original UNITY Plan evolved out of this workshop.  The plan formed the basis for the “Principles for Responsible Community Development” of the railyards, which was endorsed by elected officials from the project area and 25 organizations.  

Three years later, in April 2007, about 80 community groups and residents revisited the plan and sought to create a more specific vision.  They attended a day-long UNITY workshop focused on the issues of affordable housing; sustainable transportation; accessible open space and connections; jobs and economic development; urban design and site planning; and the planning and development process at the site.  Later that year, CBN and Hunter released an updated UNITY Plan, which depicts one example of how the Principles for Responsible Community Development could be realized, and is designed so that all or part of it may be implemented, depending on what FCR is ultimately able to accomplish.  Currently, the extent of FCR’s ability to develop remains unclear, but CBN Co-Chair Candace Carponter said, “We have UNITY at the ready,” should FCR’s plans fall through.

An Alternative Vision

The UNITY plan differs from FCR’s plan in a number of important ways.  Rather than one developer creating superblocks, UNITY proposes extending streets over the railyards to connect Park Slope and Fort Greene and create eight individual sites, encouraging diverse participation by multiple developers and architects, who would agree to the established community development principles.  Rather than high-rise towers, UNITY calls for buildings of varied heights that would fit in with the surrounding context.  Significantly, UNITY only requires use of land over the railyards, and would not require taking any privately-held property.

UNITY also includes a detailed plan for the creation of affordable housing, using the median income for Brooklyn as the indicator.  Under this plan, 60 percent of housing would be available to low-income residents, 40 percent would be owner-occupied (co-ops or condos), and provisions would be put in place to ensure that tenants of affordable units in the surrounding area are not displaced. 

Transportation improvements, use of green building technologies, open space provisions, and plans for economic development with a focus on local entrepreneurship are also included in the UNITY Plan. 

For more information, please visit the Atlas of Community-Based Plans, where you can download a detailed summary.