Monday, April 24, 2006

Atlantic Yards project timeline (and what's pending)

Some readers have asked for a timeline, so I've adapted the timeline from my 9/1/05 report and added to it. The timeline includes both public events as well as articles from the press and my blog that are relevant to the ongoing story.

What's pending

As of today, given the recent release of the Final Scope, we're waiting for a Draft Environmental Impact (EIS) statement to be issued in late May or early June by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), which is supervising the project.

After that, there will be a time period--a few months, or possibly longer--for a hearing and for comments in response to the draft EIS, its flaws, and regarding mitigation of the potential impacts. A few months later, a Final Environmental Impact Statement will announce such mitigation or where the developer and agency conclude that no mitigation is possible. The EIS can more likely be challenged in court on the grounds of process rather than content.

The final EIS must be approved by the ESDC, and the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) must also approve the project. The PACB is controlled by Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver killed the proposed West Side Stadium, and the New York Observer reported that he would follow the lead of the local elected member of Assembly, Roger Green, who supports the plan. Given that the Assembly has already approved $33 million for the project, would the election of Atlantic Yards opponent Bill Batson to succeed Green (who's running for Congress) change the equation at the PACB? Unclear.

Also, given that Forest City Ratner has not and likely will not acquire all the residential and commercial property it needs to commence the project, the ESDC will move to take the property via eminent domain. A lawsuit challenging the use of eminent domain is not unlikely.

Also pending is a challenge to the ESDC's use of a lawyer who had just been working for the developer. However, the agency has hired a replacement so as not to delay the approval process.

Bruce Ratner has said he expects construction to begin in the fall--but legal challenges, as well as challenges to the environmental review process, might well delay that.

From the Final Scope

The ESDC's Final Scope of Analysis, a prelude to the Draft EIS, lays out the following actions:
At this time, it is expected that the proposed project will require the following actions:
--Adoption of the GPP [General Project Plan] by ESDC, including overrides of certain local laws (described below);
--Override by ESDC of certain aspects of the New York City Zoning Resolution, including, but not limited to, use and bulk (including height and setback, floor area, and yards), signage, and parking requirements and allowances;
--Override by ESDC of the ATURA [Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area] Plan as it relates to Site 5 and Site 6A (which requires consistency with zoning);
--Override of the City Map as it relates to Pacific Street between Flatbush and 6th Avenues, 5th Avenue between Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, and Pacific Street between Vanderbilt and Carlton Avenues;
--Acquisition of property by ESDC through negotiation or condemnation and subsequent disposition of the property (by sale or long-term lease) to the project sponsors or local development corporation;
--Approval by the Public Authorities Control Board;
--Disposition by MTA of a property interest in the rail yard to ESDC, project sponsors, or a local development corporation;
--Approval by MTA of relocated and upgraded rail yard and other transit improvements, and any related real property acquisitions by LIRR or MTA;
--Provision of state and city funding for affordable housing and other elements of the proposed project and tax exempt financing;
--Condemnation by ESDC of the City’s interest in Pacific Street and 5th Avenue (as described above); and
--Condemnation or acquisition by ESDC or disposition by the City of the City’s interest in Site 5 and other City-owned property within the project site.

Summer 2003

July 23, 2003: The Newark Star-Ledger reports that owners of the New Jersey Nets have been talking to developer Bruce Ratner, who wants to buy the NBA basketball team and build an arena for it, plus 5,500 housing units, in Brooklyn.

August 8, 2003: The Times first reports that Ratner may buy the Nets and move the team to Brooklyn as part of a much larger development project.

Winter 2003-04

December 11, 2003: The Times reports on FCR’s announcement of a $2.5 billion development plan called “Atlantic Yards,” with 17 towers designed by architect Frank Gehry, including a projected 2.1 million square feet of commercial space and 4,500 residential units. Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp praises the project lavishly and incorrectly refers to the site as an open railyard. He neglects to disclose that he has a prior relationship with FCR and that the newspaper’s parent company has a partnership with FCR. In a separate story, Bruce Ratner says that the project “will be almost exclusively privately financed.” FCR press materials use different terms: “The Arena will be primarily privately funded.”

January 22, 2004: The Times reports that Ratner and a group of partners have the OK to purchase the New Jersey Nets.

Spring 2004

May 25, 2004: FCR’s paid consultant Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist, issues the first of two reports, “Estimated Fiscal Impact of the Atlantic Yards Project on the New York City and New York State Treasuries”. He projects that one-third of the estimated $4.1 billion public revenues would be used to pay for construction and
operating costs.

June 28, 2004: Jung Kim and Gustav Peebles, an urban planner and an economic historian, respectively, issue a report that criticizes FCR consultant Andrew Zimbalist’s projections on several fronts and says FCR’s plan would be a drain on public finances.

Fall 2004

October 2004: FCR sends Brooklyn residents a second mass mailing, “Frequently asked questions about the Brooklyn Nets and Atlantic Yards.”

Winter 2004-05

February 10, 2005: Forest City Ratner withdraws from a planned presentation before a meeting of the Fort Greene Association, contradicting the company’s pledge to meet with all members of the community likely to be affected by the Atlantic Yards plan.

March 2005: The Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED) issues an independent report (“Slam Dunk or Airball? A Preliminary Planning Analysis of the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards Project”) urging caution in the development of FCR’s project, noting that the public costs and impact on traffic have not been sufficiently analyzed.

Spring 2005

Spring 2005: The Brooklynite, a new quarterly magazine, puts the proposed Atlantic Yards development on the cover, with a skeptical article titled “Vanishing Vistas: Will the ‘borough of churches’ become a borough of skyscrapers?”

May 17, 2005: FCR signs a housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the New York affiliate of the national housing group ACORN, pledging to maintain 50% of 4,500 rental units in the development as “affordable.” The MOU requires ACORN to publicly support the project in the press and at public meetings.

May 26, 2005: At a City Council Economic Development Committee Hearing, FCR VP Jim Stuckey announces a revised Atlantic Yards development plan, one that increases the price tag from $2.5 billion to $3.5 billion, and includes taller towers, higher density, less office space, and additional housing: up to 6,000 or as many as 7,300 units, from 4,500 units. Representatives from PICCED and Good Jobs New York raise numerous criticisms of the project.

June 1, 2005: FCR’s paid consultant Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist, issues the second of his two reports, “Estimated Fiscal Impact of the Atlantic Yards Project on the New York City and New York State Treasuries, Updated Report”. He estimates that potential project revenue would increase by nearly 50%, owing to additional housing.

June 17, 2005: FCR distributes the first issue, dated June/July, of its promotional sheet The Brooklyn Standard, asserting a kinship with a newspaper from Brooklyn’s past.

June 19, 2005: The Times runs a special City Weekly section devoted to Brooklyn. Only two articles mention the proposed Atlantic Yards project and both are inaccurate, focusing solely on the Nets arena but ignoring the enormous project attached to it. An editorial notes that the Mets and Yankees baseball teams, building new stadiums in other boroughs, “will get a pretty good feeding at the public trough.” The editorial does not mention subsidies for the proposed Nets arena in Brooklyn.

Summer 2005

June 26, 2005: The Times Magazine publishes a chatty feature interview with FCR President Bruce Ratner that fails to mention that Forest City Ratner is The New York Times Company’s development partner on the new Times Tower. The Public Editor complains in his web journal, but apparently does not get a response, since he doesn't revisit the issue.

June 27, 2005: FCR and eight groups sign a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a first in New York City. The Times has not pointed out that experts consider this CBA far less legitimate than those negotiated elsewhere.

June 27, 2005: The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from project opponents, releases a previously completed memo, “Estimated Fiscal Impacts of the Proposed Atlantic Yards Project,” which undercuts several of FCR consultant Andrew Zimbalist’s predictions.

June 29, 2005: The Times runs an article based on the results of a recent poll it conducted with CBS News, asking New Yorkers about a wide range of issues, but it does not include responses regarding the proposed Nets arena project. The full poll results, which are available only on the Times’s web site, show that 61 percent of those polled oppose the arena if it were to cost $200 million—a very narrow interpretation of overall public costs—while 20% don’t know and 18% favor the arena.

July 5, 2005: The Times publishes a front-page article about the Atlantic Yards project, in the wake of the exclusive release to the Times of architect Frank Gehry's new design sketches. The article neglects to mention FCR’s reduction in office space and office jobs.

July 19, 2005: The Times reports the Rev. Al Sharpton’s support for FCR’s plan. Unlike the New York Daily News, it neglects to quote any critics of Sharpton.

July 23, 2005: The MTA reveals that Extell, a rival bidder for the railyards, has bid $150 million, three times the size of FCR’s $50 million bid. The MTA announces that the development rights have been appraised at $214.5 million.

July 25, 2005: The New York Observer reports that FCR is one of the top donors to the community group ACORN, its partner in the housing agreement. The Times has not mentioned this relationship.

July 27, 2005: The MTA votes to negotiate rights to the railyard with FCR exclusively, for 45 days, even though Extell has bid three times more money and both bids are well under the appraised value.

July 30, 2005: A Times editorial chides the MTA for not having done enough to maximize bids for its West Side railyard. The editorial neglects to mention a similar situation in Brooklyn: the MTA’s willingness to engage in exclusive negotiations with FCR rather than deal with high-bidder Extell or to open up the property to additional bids.

August 29, 2005: Brooklyn’s Courier-Life newspaper chain reports that the job development group Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), a signatory to the Community Benefits Agreement with FCR, has moved into a FCR-purchased building in the Atlantic Yards project footprint.

Sept. 1, 2005: My report criticizing the Times's coverage of the Atlantic Yards project is issued. A Times spokesman declares, "We report fully and fairly on any newsworthy project, ours or others’."

Sept. 6, 2005: The Independent Budget Office (IBO) issues a report stating that the arena portion of the Atlantic Yards project would be a small fiscal plus, but the agency refuses to estimate the total fiscal impact of the project, citing "methodological limitations." The IBO does estimate significantly higher public safety, education, sanitation costs than did FCR consultant Andrew Zimbalist.

Sept. 14, 2005: The MTA awards the railyards to Forest City Ratner even though the $100 million bid is less than half the appraisal. The Times's coverage is the first time the $1 billion (at least) public cost is acknowledged in the paper. MTA chair Peter Kalikow dismisses the appraiser his agency hired as "some guy."

Sept. 16, 2005: The ESDC issues a Draft Scope for an environmental impact statement regarding the project. The document reveals that the office space (and thus jobs) has been cut by two-thirds, and that 2800 luxury condos have been added to the 4500 rentals, of which half would be market-rate and half affordable. The document also indicates that the formerly promised public park on the arena roof would be private space.

Fall 2005

Sept. 29, 2005: Internal Revenue Service documents show that the fledgling job development group BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), a major supplier of "community" backing at public meetings for FCR's project, has claimed it will receive $5 million from the developer. BUILD denies any payments.

Oct. 14, 2005: The Times, coming in late on the BUILD story, reveals that BUILD officials were lying two weeks previously when they said that they hadn't received money from Forest City Ratner. But the revelation is couched in an article that claims that FCR's outreach efforts are a "modern blueprint."

Oct. 16, 2005: BUILD is being paid to distribute the second issue of the developer's Brooklyn Standard, which is full of deceptions, and includes bylines attached to stories that a reporter says he didn't write. Perhaps because of that, the issue is not mounted on the web, unlike the first issue.

Oct. 18, 2005: Numerous community critics, not just opponents, register concerns about the project at an ESDC public hearing. Assemblywoman Joan Millman comes out against the project, and supporters like BUILD are subdued. The Times even follows up on the level of opposition. The Daily News follows up with an editorial decrying critics as NIMBYs.

Oct. 26, 2005: A poll commissioned by the New York Observer and conducted by Pace University suggests that, in comparison with previous surveys (which were unreported in the Times), the tide has shifted, and a majority of New Yorkers favor Forest City Ratner's proposed Atlantic Yards complex. The director of the Pace Poll declares that public opinion is fixed, but I contend that that different results may have been obtained with more complete information about cuts in promised jobs, increases in luxury housing, the actual cost of the project, and the effect on traffic.

Oct. 28, 2005: Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, running for reelection against a pesky Green Party candidate (Gloria Mattera) who has made Atlantic Yards an issue, again calls for the project to be downsized, but won't--as will be his posture--specify how much.

Oct. 28, 2005: Democratic Mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer belatedly comes out against the Atlantic Yards project, and then is immediately undercut by the Rev. Al Sharpton, and Sharpton's words lead the coverage. Ferrer fumbles the issue in subsequent mayoral debates, but the unwillingness of the press to check facts made it worse.

Nov. 1, 2005: In the predecessor TimesRatnerReport, I publish an open letter to Times Public Editor Byron Calame and an analysis of FCR superflack, "The dark genius of Joe DePlasco."

Nov. 6, 2005: The Times finally publishes an article explaining that the number of jobs has been cut and the amount of luxury housing increased, but Forest City Ratner's explanations are not looked at critically. Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica is more harsh.

Nov. 13, 2005: After nearly two years, the Times finally publishes its first op-ed about Atlantic Yards, by Brooklyn historian John Manbeck. He calls it "The Project That Ate Brooklyn" but also suggests project opponents are NIMBYs and offers no hope for change.

Nov. 27, 2005: The Times publishes an editorial on the Atlantic Yards plan, criticizing the use of subsidies, but declaring that "the borough deserves a sports team, so long as the price is not too high." However, the only citation is to the limited IBO report.

Dec. 5, 2005: The New York Observer publishes a tough story analyzing the Community Benefits Agreement and the role of Roger Green, citing established community housing and job-training groups that are critical of the plan, and noting that only two of eight signatories were incorporated at the time.

Dec. 5, 2005: At a hearing at Borough Hall about traffic and the Atlantic Yards plan, engineer Brian Ketcham says plans should be put on hold, warning, "The main entry points to Brooklyn are all at overcapacity, without Atlantic Yards."

Dec. 14, 2005: Civic watchdog Henry Stern acknowledges that he's absented himself from the Atlantic Yards issue because of longstanding ties to Bruce Ratner. Architect Jonathan Cohn points out in his Brooklyn Views blog that the taking of city streets means the net gain in open space for the project would be four acres rather than seven.

Dec. 16, 2005: Forest City Ratner announces plans to demolish six properties within the project footprint. The company refuses efforts by local elected officials to have an independent engineer look at the buildings. Despite an engineer's claims that the buildings were "an immediate threat to the preservation of life, health, and property," it takes five weeks after receiving that report for the ESDC to approve the plan and for the developer to make any public statements.

Dec. 18, 2005: The Times Real Estate section publishes "Living in Prospect Heights," which makes no mention of blight and places the Atlantic Yards project within neighborhood boundaries. An erroneous description of the project--that it would be built "over the railyards"--is later corrected.

Winter 2005-06

Jan. 7, 2006: Architect Frank Gehry, at a Times Talk session in Manhattan, seems perturbed when three Brooklynites pepper him with questions about the proposed Atlantic Yards project, and even cuts off the questioning. And, whether misinformed or evasive, Gehry suggests that building a mixed-use project to accompany the arena was driven by a desire to create a harmonious urban fabric rather than--as evidence suggests--to generate revenue.

Jan. 8, 2006: A New York Times article on traffic at the Atlantic Yards footprint sketches the issue, ventilates some conflicting views, but still--partly a function of space--misses some important aspects of the issue, including the costs, the responsibilities of public agencies, and some innovative strategies. FCR's Jim Stuckey declares confidently that "we and the government agencies take that [challenge of traffic mitigation] very seriously."

Jan. 18, 2006: A set of community groups, led by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), files suit to reverse the Empire State Development Corporation's approval of Forest City Ratner's plans to demolish six buildings controlled by the developer within the footprint of the proposed Atlantic Yards development. The suit also argues that the ESDC lawyer, David Paget, should be disqualified because he until recently represented Forest City Ratner on the project. An independent engineer expresses doubts that the structures really need to be torn down.

Jan. 26, 2006: Borough President Marty Markowitz's State of the Borough address curiously seems to downplay the Atlantic Yards project.

Jan. 25, 2006: Reports on the Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee meeting show that officials still don't know about FCR's plans for offsite affordable housing, nor do they have a handle on the fiscal impact of the project. The "transformation from a horizontal neighborhood to an intensely vertical neighborhood" will "create ripple effects," says an expert.

Jan. 28, 2006: It's announced that the first New York stop on the AVP Beach Volleyball Tour will be in Brooklyn, for the AVP Brooklyn Open, August 17-20. The tour is a product of AVP, Inc., which focuses on professional beach volleyball, and the local marketer will be Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, the affiliate of Forest City Ratner. A temporary 4,000-seat volleyball stadium will be built on the Coney Island beach.

Feb. 2, 2006: Those at the Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee meeting express concerns about a "backwards" design process, "blocking the clock," and the zoning bypass that would allow this project to be built at a scale beyond that imposed by city regulations.

Feb. 6, 2006: The debate about the appropriate scale of the project continues, as architect Jonathan Cohn calculates a floor area ratio beyond that promulgated by Forest City Ratner, and illustrator Jon Keegan attempts to show the scale of the project graphically.

Feb. 10, 2006: An article in the Newark Star-Ledger describes how the New Jersey Nets may postpone the planned move to Brooklyn for two more years, until 2010, and that the team is renegotiating the lease. FCR officials have said they want to expect to move to Brooklyn by 2009.

Feb. 14, 2006: Ruling at the end of a contentious hearing, and state Supreme Court Justice Carol Edmead denies a lawsuit by Atlantic Yards plan opponents to stop developer Forest City Ratner from demolishing five properties within the project footprint, but Edmead also gives project opponents a partial victory, ruling that David Paget, a lawyer reviewing the project for the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), should be removed from the case because he recently worked on the project for FCR. In the case file, FCR officials say it costs the company $4 million for every month of delay on the project, and 15 public officials, apparently unfazed by parroting the developer's paid consultant, have predicted that the project would bring $6 billion in new tax revenues to the city and state.

Feb. 16, 2006: A look at the record of ESDC Chairman Charles Gargano raises concerns about the agency's capacity to look objectively at the companies it works with. He recently said he knew nothing of any conflict of interest posed by the agency's lawyer, didn't know the agency rents space in a mall owned by Ratner, and endorsed the Atlantic Yards project without reservation, even before the environmental impact statement has been issued.

Feb. 18, 2006: The ESDC appeals Edmead's decision to disqualify their lawyer, claiming that the project has been put on hold. An examination of the timeline regarding the demolitions raises questions about the meaning of the terms "immediate" and "emergency."

Feb. 28, 2006: Even though community groups have been asking for terrorism to be part of the Environmental Impact Statement, it turns out that the issue has been off the table from the beginning, according to the Empire State Development Corporation.

Feb. 28, 2006: ACORN's Bertha Lewis vigorously defends the 50/50 housing plan in a charged panel discussion.

March 2, 2006: A Borough Board Committee meeting on sewage elicits warnings that the Combined Sewer Overflow from the project could overwhelm the already-overburdened system.

March 6, 2006: Will James of OnNYTurf, using Google Earth, mocks up the planned buildings from various angles, providing the most extensive outline of the project's visual impact.

March 13, 2006: At a discussion of Community Benefits Agreements, the Atlantic Yards CBA, the first in the city, is conspicuously ignored.

March 16, 2006: At the final meeting of the Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, a city planning official acknowledges that the city made no attempt to develop the railyards. Plus: a history of ATURA, the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area.

March 16, 2006: ACORN issues a report denouncing subsidized development of luxury housing in Brooklyn, and points to the Atlantic Yards project as an exception. The Regional Plan Association (RPA) also criticizes the city's use of tax incentives for luxury housing. The Times misses the RPA's criticism of the Atlantic Yards project.

Spring 2006

March 21, 2006: This blog reports that Bruce Ratner has told investors that he expects approval of the project by fall.

March 26, 2006: Bill Batson, an opponent of the Atlantic Yards project, declares for the State Assembly seat that would include the project, as current officeholder Roger Green is running for Congress.

March 28, 2006: This blog analyzes "The $6 billion lie," Forest City Ratner's repeated claim that the project would bring $6 billion in revenues to the city and state.

March 31, 2006: In a press release from FCR and a Final Scope for an Environmental Impact Statement from the ESDC, the plan is downscaled five percent from its previous iteration, though the developer falsely claims that the project is smaller than it was when originally announced. Marty Markowitz says he's delighted but refuses to say that it's been cut down sufficiently. ESDC guidelines mean that there will be no evaluation of FCR's fiscal claims.

April 7, 2006: Critics identify numerous flaws in the Final Scope, including an unwillingness to consider East River transportation crossings, the emergence of an interim surface parking lot, and some mysterious open space solutions.

April 10, 2006: A New York Times story on some people who were forced to leave the project footprint suggests that many of them were quite happy with their fate. Those interviewed get a one-time waiver from the developer that allows them to talk publicly about their experiences.

April 13, 2006: After six months of downtown, FCR debuts a new web site for the Atlantic Yards project. It is immediately found to be full of deceptions and omissions.

April 16, 2006: A Times article on the bloggers (including me) critiquing the Atlantic Yards project, floats some issues that have gotten too little public discussion but casts us bloggers mostly as critics (who also issue "jeers"), not as analysts who've made important contributions to the public discussion.

April 17, 2006: Though hardly mentioned in the press, the state legislature has approved $66 million of the $100 million Forest City Ratner needs for infrastructure improvements, and Gov. George Pataki is committed to providing the rest from his own funds.

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