Sunday, May 28, 2006

Hakeem Jeffries: a tougher stand on Atlantic Yards?

Hakeem Jeffries, a candidate for the seat being vacated by Roger Green in the 57th Assembly District, placed a half-page ad in this week's Brooklyn Downtown Star, an "open letter in an attempt to continue the dialogue" about the Atlantic Yards project. Maybe he's been listening to constituents, maybe he needs to nudge closer to rival Bill Batson's anti-Atlantic Yards stance, or maybe he's just reframing his previous sentiments. (Click on the ad for a closer view.)

Affordable housing

Jeffries looks at Atlantic Yards in the same way Forest City Ratner officials have begun to frame it, mainly as a housing program, not--as originally billed--"Jobs, Housing, and Hoops." He wrote:
There is a housing crisis that is suffocating our neighborhoods. Without a signficant infusion of affordable housing, working families, the middle class and senior citizens will continue to be pushed out of Central Brooklyn. The Atlantic Yards project does have the potential to help alleviate our housing crisis by setting a high standard for the inclusion of affordable apartment units here and in future development.
(Emphasis in the original)

There is a strong argument for the inclusion of affordable housing in projects that get tax breaks, as this one would, and especially at projects, like this one, using public subsidies and on public land. And numerous new developments in the area in and around Downtown Brooklyn are getting tax breaks without including affordable housing.

However, anyone who claims that this project sets a standard must acknowledge that the scale of the project and the provision of affordable housing have been privately negotiated, outside any public review process. By contrast, inclusionary zoning, which provides a zoning bonus for projects that include affordable housing, has emerged as a City Council-approved policy in several neighborhoods.

Jeffries expressed three specific concerns.

Eminent domain

Jeffries stated:
I do not support the use of eminent domain by a private developer to build a basketball arena.
(Emphasis in the original)

Does this mean that Jeffries opposes the project in its present configuration and would like to see the arena dropped from the project? Or does it mean, as he said upon announcing his candidacy, that the arena (as reported by the Courier-Life chain) may be necessary?
“If it’s necessary to create the jobs and housing, then I think we have to take a hard look at the arena,” said Jeffries.

The arena, of course, is not necessary to create the jobs and housing; it's there to gain political and public support. The profit to the developer would come mainly from the market-rate housing: 2360 condos and 2250 rentals, not to mention solid revenue from the 2250 affordable rentals.

Excessive density

Jeffries stated:
The proposed project is too dense and would dramatically change the character of the tree-lined residential neighborhoods that it borders. It is important that the developer present a comprehensive plan to mitigate the potentially adverse impact that massive construction will have on our community's social infrastructure and public services.... The commercial office towers are inconsistent with the residential nature of the surrounding communities and a persuasive case has not been made on behalf of the need for additional office space.
(Emphasis in the original)

The above statement isn't fully coherent. If the project is too dense, then what might be the appropriate density? Does Jeffries support Assemblyman Jim Brennan's plan to reduce the project by more than one-third--which has also been endorsed by Roger Green? Does Jeffries support further cuts?

As for a comprehensive mitigation plan regarding construction impacts and public services, that's the job of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is expected within weeks from the Empire State Development Corporation.

As for commercial office space, note that the originally announced amount, at about 2 million square feet, has been cut by more than two-thirds. That likely means that two buildings, at most, would contain office space. Even if they were converted to residential space, would Jeffries support 16 high-rise residential buildings?

Bypassing ULURP

Jeffries stated:
I am troubled that this project has bypassed the city's invaluable Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) as a result of a mayoral decree. Moving forward, it is important that there is an open process and active public participation at every step, so that whatever is ultimately built is consistent with the neighborhood's values and aspiration.
(Emphasis in the original)

What exactly does he mean? Shouldn't he define "open process and active public participation"? For example, does he believe Forest City Ratner should answer questions in open public forums?

Looking to a compromise

Jeffries stated:
As your elected representative, I will work day and night to bring about a principled resolution that both alleviates the affordable housing crisis and addresses the serious concerns raised in opposition to this project.

Borough President Marty Markowitz has already stated of the project: "It has to be that big, for the affordable housing."

However, as long as Forest City Ratner won't reveal the required pro forma statement, we have no idea of their expected revenues. And the announced number of affordable housing units would not solve the affordable housing crisis. Yes, the percentage of affordable housing units should be a significant fraction of what gets built at the site, but the larger question of affordable housing must be addressed through such things as reform of the 421-a program of tax breaks.

Revising his stance?

Jeffries said last month: "There has been progress made by the developer and I am very encouraged by the affordable housing component of the project, but there are some additional steps that need to be taken by the developer before I’m prepared to come on board and support the project.”

Does this new ad mean that Jeffries is stepping back from his announced expectation that, given some additional steps, he could support the project? Or is he just rephrasing his previous stance? It's unclear.

The Hamilton factor

Another reason for the Jeffries' stance may be an effort to distinguish himself from the third candidate in the race, 57th Democratic District Leader Freddie Hamilton, who unequivocally supports the Atlantic Yards project. A friend of Roger Green, she also was a signatory to the controversial Community Benefits Agreement for the Atlantic Yards project.

In an article in the Courier-Life chain headlined District Leader Says She’ll Challenge For Green’s Seat, Hamilton said affordable housing was a priority, but didn't offer specific policy prescriptions. The article summarized her take:
This includes bringing together housing experts to help think through innovative ways to meet the housing needs for special populations such as seniors, young adults and very low-income families, she said.

Hamilton, who lost a son to gun violence in 1993, also said she would push for stronger laws against firearms trafficking. She was the lead plaintiff in a landmark class-action suit against gun companies, 15 of which were found liable for negligent marketing and distribution of their firearms.

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