Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Atlantic Yards: How Dense Is Dense Enough? 

Atlantic Yards, a proposed development in Brooklyn, raises the question, "How dense is dense enough to satisfy 'smart-growth' planners?" The answer, unfortunately, is that no density appears to be too great for these planners.

Atlantic Yards would be a Frank Gehry-designed mixed-use development that would include 6,800 residences, a basketball arena, and various businesses all located on 22 acres. Assuming a little more than two people per residence, this works out to about 400,000 people per square mile, which is twice as dense as the densest census tract in the United States. (By comparison, the Los Angeles urban area, which is the densest urban area in the U.S., has 7,000 people per square mile, and most urban areas average about 2,000 to 3,000 per square mile.)

Won't this density create too much traffic congestion? No, say developers Forest City Ratner, because everyone will take the subway. Not surprisingly, New York's transit agency, the MTA, strongly supports the proposal, as does Mayor Bloomberg. To generate additional support, the developers gave $5 million to a "citizens' group" known as BUILD.

However, most residents of Brooklyn oppose the plan, at least according to the Wikipedia article about it. The leading opponent is called Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. There are also numerous bloggers writing about it.

Does this plan respond to market conditions? Hardly. Total subsidies are expected to be close to $2 billion, including $200 million in cash grants, $360 million property tax waivers, more than $600 million in below-market land sales or leases, and much more. In return, half the housing units are supposed to be sold or leased at "affordable" rates, meaning (for at least 900 units) rates affordable to people who earn $70,000 to $113,000 per year. That works out to a subsidy of about $567,000 per affordable housing unit.

It all sounds familiar only on a much grander scale than anything in Portland, Denver, or other cities that subsidize transit-oriented developments. Forest City (which is one-half of the developer team behind Atlantic Yards) has built some of the high-density developments in Denver and no doubt in other cities as well.

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