Thursday, June 22, 2006

AY information for BUILD invitees, but not for thee

On Tuesday night I was walking home from Fort Greene to Park Slope, on South Portland Avenue, alongside Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Center mall. I needed something from Staples--wasn't there a Staples in the mall? No, but there was something more intriguing: a blue sign pointing to the Atlantic Yards Information Center on the third floor.

I took two escalators up. After all, I'm quite interested in Atlantic Yards information, and the last time I saw that sign was on May 11, when I tried without avail to attend the press conference with Atlantic Yards architect Frank Gehry and landscape architect Laurie Olin. (Then again, I hadn't been back to the mall.)

Next to the Empire State Development Corporation's Brooklyn Community Network Office (coincidence: ESDC is in charge of the Atlantic Yards project), in a medium-sized room that likely was unleased retail space (Forest City Ratner now is its own tenant), there's a little piece of Oz in an otherwise drab mall.

Inside the Atlantic Yards Information Center are numerous wooden models of the Atlantic Yards complex. On the walls are more images of the project than available on the Atlantic Yards web site. Nicely-produced hanging screens introduce themes of the exhibition:
--"Open space by Olin"
--"Architecture by Gehry"
--"How will we create jobs for residents of Brooklyn?"
--"What is the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement?"
--"How will we support all this growth?"
--"What do we mean when we say Affordable Housing?"

Good questions, those. I walked past the entrance and saw that people signing in were being checked off against a list, and that the literature available was from Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), the job training group that has strongly supported the Atlantic Yards project (and has been supported, in turn, by Forest City Ratner, though not as much as originally assumed).

I'd obviously stand out, I concluded; of 30 or so people, I noticed only two other Caucasians, and at least one was a Forest City Ratner p.r. employee. Most of BUILD's members and supporters are black.

I walked a few paces down the hall, turned around and waited on the line. When I reached the table, I signed in with my name and acknowledged that I wasn't on the list. Sorry, I was told, you can't enter. OK, I said, and asked if I could take some literature. Yes.

I started ambling down the hall. To my surprise, someone caught up with me: James Caldwell, BUILD President & CEO. We shook hands. (We'd met briefly twice.) He invited me back into the room.

I was surprised. I said, "You know who I am? I've been tough on you." (Tough, but not unfair, I'd contend, though I'm sure some disagree.) He said yes, and he didn't mind my attendance.

I shook my head at the odd twists in the Atlantic Yards story and walked into the room. I perused the exhibits for a few minutes and took some notes. A BUILD officer asked me how I found out about the session. Her tone was a bit incredulous; maybe she was wondering whether I'd heard from the source who gave me the BUILD flier that distorted the purpose of the Municipal Arts Society meeting.

I told her the truth: I'd wandered into the mall, seen the sign, and went upstairs. Frankly, I was surprised that no other casual mall visitor had been as curious about Atlantic Yards information.

Attendees had gotten their refreshments and began to sit down for the formal program, presumably an explanation of the brochure, "Connect to CBA Opportunities," that was at the entrance table. It was subtitled: "Your guide to employment, business, affordable housing, community amenities, educational and other opportunities at FCRC's Atlantic Yards (Nets Arena) Project."

It didn't say anything about the environmental review process by the ESDC; a Draft Environmental Impact Statement is due next month, and there's likely to be a vigorous debate about the project. So the "It's coming" notation on the meeting flier may be somewhat conclusory.

Before I could sit down, Caldwell materialized by my side. He told me cordially that he'd been overruled--by Forest City Ratner p.r., I assume--and that I had to leave.

I went home and got my camera. I returned to the mall and took a few pictures of Atlantic Yards Information Center signs, which were at both the west and east entrances to the mall.

In the morning, when I stopped by the mall again, the signs were still there. (I guess they leave the signs out.) Anyone following the yellow brick road upstairs for Atlantic Yards information, however, would have found that the door to Oz was closed.

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