Monday, July 24, 2006

Batson, Jeffries say AY review deserves more time

They have different positions on the Atlantic Yards project, but Bill Batson and Hakeem Jeffries, candidates for the 57th Assembly District seat being vacated by Roger Green, at least agree that August 23 is too soon to hold a hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project.

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) “has insulted all of Brooklyn” by scheduling the hearing during the last week of the summer, when many families go away with children, said Batson (right) at a candidates’ forum Thursday night at the Duryea Presbyterian Church in Prospect Heights.

Jeffries said he though the process of public review should be extended for six months. (The DEIS was released last week, and comments will be accepted only through September 23.) “It is problematic that the two public hearings are scheduled at times that are inconvenient,” he said, noting that the follow-up community forum is on the day of the Democratic primary election.

Freddie Hamilton, the third candidate in the race to succeed Roger Green, who is running for Congress, was less critical. “I think the Atlantic Yards project has been a learning experience for each and every one of us,” she said. “I believe that going forward, we will be able to put different and additional oversight into the process. Having said that, my experience in life is, no matter how open the process is, some people will not see it as that.”

Opening stakes

Batson, a longtime legislative aide who has significant backing from Atlantic Yards opponents, has strongly criticized Forest City Ratner's plan, saying in his opening statement that “16 skyscrapers would just be a stake through the heart of Brooklyn.”

While Jeffries, a lawyer, emphasized “neighborhood-friendly development” in his opening statement, he didn’t mention Atlantic Yards. Hamilton (right), who cited affordable housing as one of her priorities, ran into trouble with a few audience members. “I am a signer of the Community Benefits Agreement,” she said, and because of that, “I will not address Atlantic Yards.”

“That’s not acceptable,” boomed Schellie Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, who was wearing a Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) t-shirt.

“If this is a Develop Don’t Destroy rally, I’m at the wrong meeting,” said Hamilton, Hamilton, a Democratic District Leader for the Assembly District. “I’m not a spokesman for Bruce Ratner and Atlantic Yards."

“Then don’t be running for office, taking money from him,” Hagan countered.

Ironically, the forum sponsor, the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC) has distanced itself from DDDB, notably in a press release regarding the Municipal Art Society session last month on design principles for the project.

Security issues

The longstanding state law governing the environmental review process does not incorporate post-9/11 security issues and, despite the entreaties of several community groups and community boards, the DEIS does not address security. The candidates were asked if the review process should be broadened.

“I would say absolutely that this is something that should be included, Jeffries (right) said, adding, “I’d like to make sure that any environmental assessment not just consider security concerns but all the public services.” Actually, the DEIS does address police and fire services, for example, and found no significant adverse impacts.

Hamilton said she’d support adding post 9/11 security issues. Batson said, “We need to stop this mock environmental impact process.”

Eminent domain

The candidates seemed to agree on the issue of eminent domain, notably the Kelo vs. New London case in which the Supreme Court last year narrowly upheld the use of eminent domain for economic development.

“I certainly believe eminent domain should be limited and curtailed,” Jeffries said. “I disagree with the Supreme Court’s most recent decision. I’ve come out against the use of eminent domain to build a basketball arena.” (What that means regarding the Atlantic Yards project is unclear, even after I asked for amplification.)

Jeffries added, “We need to redefine the issue of blight”--which is part of the justification for the Atlantic Yards project.

Batson said that Kelo should be reversed and contended that eminent domain was already driving warehousing of properties throughout Community Board 8, on which he sits.

Hamilton added that she opposed Kelo, said the powers of eminent domain shouldn’t be abused, and agreed with Jeffries that blight should be redefined, though she didn’t mention Atlantic Yards.

Congressional candidates on ED

In the later segment of the forum, featuring three of the four candidates for the open 11th Congressional District seat, the eminent domain issue recurred.

David Yassky cautioned that a law limiting eminent domain could limit “the government’s ability” to build projects, parks, and roads. Still, he acknowledged that “I am troubled by that aspect of Atlantic Yards.” If a project is in the public interest, he said, “you auction [property] off to the highest bidder, not transfer it.”

“Are you against the project?” someone in the crowd asked. The question went unanswered; Yassky has both supported and criticized the project.

Chris Owens said he opposed eminent domain and emphasized his stand: “I am the only person who opposes Atlantic Yards as proposed.”

Carl Andrews acknowledged that eminent domain “is very controversial.” He went on to say, “I support Atlantic Yards, but I realize that Atlantic Yards is not a perfect development. In order to make it a perfect development, you need to have more community input, and hopefully [the developer] will take into consideration those concerns.”

Yvette Clark didn’t attend.

Support & spin in the 57th

Jeffries has raised more money than Batson, and has the support of the county political organization, even though he was an insurgent in a previous candidacy, then saw his residence cut out in a redistricting. (Hamilton’s fundraising lags.)

Batson asserted that he was the real independent, and Jeffries responded that he had support from a variety of groups (including seven unions to Batson's one) beyond the county organization.

See the comments section on the Times Empire Zone blog for more discussion. Jeffries supporters highlight a Batson verbal slip—he said he had graduated from Pratt, and then caught himself to acknowledge that he hadn’t finished the degree. Batson supporters argue that Jeffries, however polished, may not be trusted to take a clear stand.

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