Sunday, August 06, 2006

Credulous Times editorial endorses AY; more voices needed

In an editorial today in the City Weekly section, headlined The Atlantic Yards Project, the New York Times wrings its institutional hands a bit, calling for some tweaks in the project and a delay in the environmental review, but nonetheless repeats its endorsement, again with too little scrutiny of some contested issues.

I'll repeat for the record that limiting the editorial's audience to readers in the five boroughs is a disservice to the public. Not only would state subsidies be part of the public support, the project would have an impact in the tristate region and also nationally. It deserves broader scrutiny.

The editorial begins:
If there was ever a place in New York City to put a development that combines housing, businesses and a sports arena, it ought to be the Atlantic Yards site in Brooklyn, an underdeveloped area near the borough’s downtown that has ready access to nine subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road. Yet the proposal by the developer, Bruce Ratner, has been controversial from the start, mainly because of opposition from area residents who fear it would change the character of their neighborhoods.

Actually, a Michael Sorkin has suggested, there are other good sites for a sports facility. And is the site "underdeveloped"? Parts of it have developed just fine.

The opportunities

The editorial continues:
After watching the project evolve for the past few years, we feel — with a few caveats — that it deserves to go forward. The opportunities it presents, and the nearly 7,000 apartment units it will provide a housing-starved city, outweigh the problems it would entail. These advantages have been repeated endlessly by Mr. Ratner, who is also The Times’s partner in building its new Manhattan headquarters. More than 2,200 of the apartment units would have rents targeted to low-, moderate- and middle-income families. The Nets basketball team would bring major league sports back to Brooklyn. The buildings designed by Frank Gehry would add a sense of excitement to the entire area. And, when finished in 2016, the project will add substantially to city and state tax revenues.

The apartments aren't a gift to a housing-starved city. Of the 6860 projected units, 4610 would be market-rate, and a good segment of the affordable units would rent for over $2000 a month. Yet the project would be getting significant subsidies, for intrastructure, and for each affordable housing unit.

The buildings would add a sense of excitement? Or would they overwhelm the area?

And how exactly can the Times be sure that the project would add substantially to city and state tax revenues? Why hasn't the Times commissioned its own analysis of the fiscal projections by Forest City Ratner or the Empire State Development Corporation?

Traffic worries

The editorial continues:
The developers have addressed some of the community’s early objections, particularly worries about traffic. The most important promise involves improvements to the subway stations that would make it easier for riders to move from one line to another, or to the L.I.R.R. That should be a boon to local residents, who deserve to be rewarded for enduring what will be almost a decade of construction.
The plan also calls for changes in traffic light timing and a reconfiguration of traffic flow around the arena; satellite parking for basketball fans; and a program that would combine game tickets with Metrocards to keep as many fans as possible on the subways. Traffic will still be an issue when the project is finished, but the developers are not obliged to hold the neighborhood harmless. Their job is to demonstrate that their buildings will not make a bad situation intolerable, and the promises made by Mr. Ratner and his associates seem like reasonable responses to that challenge.


But how successfully have the developers addressed worries about traffic? Traffic engineer Brian Ketcham thinks the Draft Environmental Impact Statement is inadequate. Has the Times talked to him lately?

Community outreach?

The editorial continues:
Community outreach has been far better in the Atlantic Yards project than it was, say, in the now-defunct plans to build a Jets stadium in Midtown Manhattan. Mr. Ratner has worked hard to deal fairly with the property owners who would be displaced by the project, but he must also take care to accommodate the rent-stabilized tenants who will have to leave.

How does negotiating with residents constitute community outreach, especially when there's a gag order attached to the negotiation? And why hasn't the Times published an article about what the rent-regulated tenants actually face?

Public process

The editorial takes note of the hearing timetable:
A project of this size should have a meaningful public hearing process, so it is troubling that this one has not. It would help if the 60-day public review period on the draft environmental impact statement released last month — at the height of summer — were extended another month, to late October.

Why doesn't the Times follow the skein of "troubling" to a central problem with the project--the absence of any oversight from local elected officials in Brooklyn? And why can't the Times editorialize the way it did in December 2004:
But New Yorkers seem to have little say in this enormous commitment of public money for what would be the most expensive professional football stadium ever, although they have been subjected to a crop of he-said, he-said TV commercials. The approval process is on something beyond a fast track - it's more like a runaway train. And it's time to pull on the brakes.

More on the Times's curious inconsistency from NoLandGrab and Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.

Note that the December 2004 editorial appeared on the main editorial page, which circulates in all editions.

Subsidy questions

Today's editorial continues:
And while the Ratner company will finance much of the project, taxpayers are still being asked to underwrite $200 million in direct city and state subsidies. Some $40 million, for example, is for land acquisition for the arena, which should be a developer expense. The project may require the city to build more classrooms, expand sewer and water services and provide more police on game days. It is up to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to demand from the developer every reasonable contribution to defray these extra expenses.

Why haven't these issues been on the table already? And what leverage does the administration have?

Questions of density

The Times acknowledges some density issues:
Finally, there is the matter of density — the biggest, and most reasonable concern. At 8.7 million square feet, the project remains enormous, even after coming down 5 percent. The non-profit Municipal Arts [sic] Society, a respected voice on urban design, came up with a still smaller version by applying city zoning standards, and parts of it are appealing, particularly in how it envisions more publicly accessible park space.

Shouldn't the Times acknowledge that the 5 percent scaleback still represents a larger project than originally announced?

And why exactly is the Times quoting a Municipal Art Society zoning analysis that hasn't actually been released for public discussion? (The design principles regarding parks have been released.)

15 percent cut?

The editorial concludes with an odd effort to distinguish density from scale:
A more important issue is scale. The project would benefit if the square footage came down at least another 15 percent, which in turn would lighten the load on infrastructure, including the streets. Opponents of the plan have pressed for a more dramatic downscaling, pointing to the contrast with the surrounding, low-rise neighborhoods. But the planners are correct in seeing an opportunity to build something grander and doing it at the one place in the borough that can handle it.

Now how exactly does the Times come up with a 15 percent cut in square footage? Wouldn't that still make the project by far the densest residential community in the country?

Maybe the Times has talked to city officials and asked what kind of cut they'd accept. Or perhaps the Times's editorialist has talked to Forest City Ratner.

I don't believe that the parent Times Company's business relationship with Forest City Ratner, in which they are building the Times Tower on Eighth Avenue together, affects news coverage. However, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger has been known to intervene in editorials, so it's plausible that the Times is committed to nudging this project along. After all, the Times Company guaranteed a loan to Forest City Ratner, and a successful Brooklyn project would be in the Times's interest, so as to avoid the loan.

That's speculation, of course, but I'd like to hear other explanations for the Times's inadequate analysis.

Blight and eminent domain

Note that the editorial completely ignored the highly-charged blight issue, which is a component of the crucial eminent domain claims. The blight issue has been analyzed recently in the Times, and the report was quite skeptical. If the area isn't blighted, then that would stall or stop eminent domain, and thus the project. (Is the Times convinced by the crime study?)

But blight is a tough issue for a Times editorialist to grapple with; after all, the Times Company itself benefited from eminent domain in the state's assemblage of land for the Times Tower.

If the Times is going to run such conflicted editorials, it owes its readers some more voices. So far, the newspaper has published just a single op-ed piece on the Atlantic Yards project in the two years and eight months since its the plan was announced. Surely some experts who've analyzed the DEIS deserve to be heard.

2 comments:

  1. An interesting point about the article's confusion re density and scale. Guess packing them in like sardines is the way to whittle down the towers...

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  2. One huge issue that is rarely addressed is the the AY project with its proposed 6,860 units of housing includes no plans to build either an elementary or middle school in the community.

    Incredibly, the environmnental impact statement argues that there is already so much overcrowding in Brooklyn high schools, which are operating at 149% capacity with a shortfall of more than 30,000 seats, that the influx of about 500 new high school students arising from this project wouldn't make much of a difference!

    In addition, the Community Educational Council of District 15 which abuts the project points out that the official figures are out of date and that the equivalent of 2-3 middle schools, 3-4 elementary schools, and 1 small high school would be needed to accomodate the additional students that this project would bring.

    Just another example of how developers come first in this city, while NYC public school children and their parents come last.

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