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Atlantic Yards: Why the rush?

My column in today's Metro newspaper:
The Atlantic Yards project to build an arena and 16 towers would not only be the largest development in Brooklyn’s history, but it has generated a Draft Environmental Impact Statement of epic length and complexity. That’s why both supporters and critics of the project have urged the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency that must approve the project, to provide more time for review.

More than 2-1/2 years after the project was announced, the ESDC on July 18 issued the DEIS and associated documents, scheduling a public hearing on Aug. 23. Not only would many people be away at the end of the month, but that’s simply not enough time for a serious review. The ESDC plans a follow-up forum on Sept. 12, which also happens to be the date of the primary election, when public and media attention will be elsewhere.

A quick look at the documents suggests several questionable claims. Would the addition of more than 15,000 new residents — in what would be the densest residential community in the country — and thousands of arena-goers strain subway service?

The DEIS says no, even though rush-hour riders through the Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street complex might beg to differ. The state claims that the proposed 22-acre site is blighted, but blight is a fuzzy concept. One blight characteristic: if a building uses less than 60 percent of its allowable square footage under current zoning. By that measure, many parts of the city are blighted.

The DEIS declares that the project wouldn’t displace poorer Brooklynites because, among other things, the percentage of affordable rental units in the project would be similar to the existing percentage of affordable rentals nearby. But “affordable” simply means that people pay 30 percent of their incomes in rent, and the rents at Atlantic Yards would be higher than those nearby.

Traffic congestion is probably the biggest community concern, and developer Forest City Ratner has proposed some innovative solutions. Still, the developer-friendly DEIS declares some problems “unmitigatable,” a red flag that demands more scrutiny.

City Council Member Letitia James, a project opponent, and Assemblyman Roger Green, a project supporter, both represent the Prospect Heights area where Atlantic Yards would be built and have called for more time. So have gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. So has the Municipal Art Society, a respected voice on planning issues, and the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, a coalition that’s been scrambling to coordinate a detailed response.

Because Mayor Mike Bloomberg allowed Atlantic Yards to proceed under the auspices of the state agency, which would override local zoning, there’s no meaningful city oversight for the project. The two-month review schedule — is it so Gov. George Pataki can preside over a groundbreaking before he leaves office? — detracts further from democratic legitimacy. Even the smaller Yankee Stadium project — albeit under the city’s jurisdiction — got a four-month review.

The Atlantic Yards project, if built, would have an enormous impact on the surrounding neighborhoods and strong ripple effects on the borough and city. It deserves a brake.

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