For Mega-Development, Thompson Goes Retro

City Comptroller Bill Thompson has a model for building mega-projects, and—surprise!—it’s not the same strategy as Mayor Bloomberg’s.

Speaking at Crain’s New York breakfast Thursday morning at the Hyatt on 42nd Street, the Democratic nominee for mayor offered a blast from the past as his standard bearer for how the city should get giant real estate projects built: Battery Park City.

Unlike many of the Bloomberg administration’s signature development initiatives—Willets Point, Coney Island, the West Side rail yards, Atlantic Yards—the 40-year-old projectstarted in the Lindsay and Rockefeller administrations, was developed parcel-by-parcel, with developers gradually building up the site to the point where it’s just getting fully built out today.

“The tale of the Bloomberg administration has been failed mega-development projects: Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards, Willets Point, and on and on and on,” the comptroller said.

“Rather than giving it to one developer and saying, ‘Here, you run with it,’” he said, “what we’re seeing now is people treading water, sitting there hoping the economy turns around.”

The solution?

“We should have done more staged development,” Thompson said. “If you look at models that have worked in good and bad economies, look at Battery Park City. It’s been better planned growth; you’ve seen building and construction moving forward and developing in good and bad times.”

Of course, this isn’t a new idea; planning and neighborhood groups have been urging this for years. Giving a big site to a single developer all at once—such as the 22-acre, $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards project—could bring a higher bid given, among other reasons, that the developer would benefit from economies of scale and increased values as it fills out the site. But, as has been seen in these strained times, these projects are also quite prone to failure or renegotiation as the developers struggle to get off the ground amid the cyclical economy.

On the mayor’s mega-projects such as Atlantic Yards, the 26-acre West Side rail yards, the Coney Island amusement district, and, to a large extent, Willets Point in Queens, the administration has doubtlessly struggled to show anywhere close to the project it wanted. Officials had previously said their goal was to get all the administration's projects to the point where they were irreversible before the end of the mayor’s second term.

The only one that’s close to that point is Atlantic Yards, where developer Bruce Ratner is close to starting construction on the centerpiece Nets arena, though most of the project has been pushed off for years.