Tuesday, September 19, 2006

At final AY forum, three voids—and some warnings about schools

Yesterday’s third and final public meeting on the Atlantic Yards plan, held by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), was in several ways a rerun of the points raised at the epic Aug. 23 public hearing and the barely-attended Sept. 12 community forum.

The forum at New York Tech’s Klitgord Auditorium drew a somewhat larger crowd than the one Sept. 12—about 200 people—but the expressions of support from union members and minority residents differed little from previous testimony in favor of jobs, housing, and opportunity. The meeting, scheduled to last from 4:30 pm to 8 pm, broke at 7 pm, reconvened a half-hour later, and continued for another 45 minutes.

Besides the void in the 800-plus-seat room—especially after the sizable union contingent left at 6:15 pm, having fulfilled their obligation—there were two other voids. Though there’s been much testimony about the 2250 units of affordable housing, nobody spoke for the unmentioned 4610 (as of now) households that would move into the market-rate rentals and condos that would be the financial engine of Atlantic Yards. The development would include 16 towers and an arena for the basketball Nets, built in two phases, and the market-rate units would be frontloaded in the five towers of Phase 1.

Also, though a representative of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) did testify, experts commissioned by the organization (thanks to city/state grants) are preparing hundreds of pages of testimony that will be submitted by the Sept. 29 deadline for comments. In other words, because of the swift pace of the environmental review and the length of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and General Project Plan (GPP), some of the most and cogent commentary has yet to be heard.

Overcrowded schools

Some powerful testimony came from Mary-Powel Thomas, president of the District 15 Community Education Council, which includes part of the proposed AY site. Thomas warned that the DEIS uses two-year-old figures that are already stale. “The Brooklyn High School of the Arts, for instance, is shown at 47% of capacity. But last year a middle school moved into that building,” she said. “The high school is now bursting at the seams, with classes of 34 students.”

“Another high school in the study area, the Metropolitan Corporate Academy, is listed at 80% of capacity,” she added. “But this year, the school’s at 98% of capacity, with an average of 34 students per class.”

While the DEIS suggests that students might be sent to schools farther out in Districts 13 and 15, in the latter, Thomas warned, “those schools are crowded too.” Last fall, she advised the ESDC to interview the principals of area schools to determine their current capacity. “This was obviously not done,” she said, and again advised such research, “rather than relying on two-year-old numbers that treat children like sardines.”

Opposition points

Sandy Balboza of the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association called for a supplemental DEIS, noting that the document ignores some 47% of the new developments planned in and around Downtown Brooklyn and thus underestimates traffic and other issues. She warned that an extension of the current 4 pm to 7 pm parking ban might benefit arena attendees but would hurt the business and residential community she represents.

CBN co-chair Terry Urban argued that the forum was the equivalent of a public hearing, and that the comment period should thus be moved back a month, to October 18. “ESDC is also in violation of the law,” she said, because it has not responded to the group’s Freedom of Information Law request.

CBN, Urban said, is “very troubled by public officials’ grandstanding” on jobs and affordable housing. “CBN will be addressing all the tasks [in the DEIS] in an objective manner.” For that, she was booed. (At right, renderings of the project scale.)

Timothy Logan, chair of the New York City group of the Sierra Club, warned that the DEIS contained no “environmental justice analysis” that assessed the project’s effect on poor people and communities of color. A representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council criticized the project’s effect on traffic, the provision of too little open space, and disproportionate density.

Dean Street resident Anurag Heda took a combative tone, saying, “I’m here to talk to you about the math,” contending that if the city took the public money for the project and directed it simply to jobs, many more jobs could be created. (The money’s not exactly fungible, since the public spending would include direct contributions, tax breaks, and increased public costs for services.)

Heda read from the chapter on neighborhood characteristics, which acknowledged that the project would bring a new scale to the neighborhood. “This is not new to the area,” he said, referencing the statistic that the project would be twice as dense as the most dense census tract in the country. “This is new to North America.”

Pratt Professor Brent Porter reprised his warnings about inadequate acknowledgement of the effect of shadows and the failure to assess “the tremendous wind impact.”

Enid Braun of the Friends and Residents of the Greater Gowanus (FROGG) wondered, “Whose basements will flood with sewage and whose lighting and air conditioning will stay on when this project is built?” She got booed.

Brooklyn Heights resident Sarah Rosenthal urged the long view. “Long after the construction jobs, people are going to be living with this development for decades,” she said.

Another opponent cited the new Richard Meier building at Grand Army Plaza, saying it would be profitable to the builder at only 15 stories. (However, there’s no plan to include affordable housing, and were the latter required by zoning, the building would be given a floor area bonus.)

Project supporters

“You don’t need eminent domain for honest work,” said Malcolm Armstrong, a Fort Greene resident, but that didn’t deter union supporters of the project. Speaking after Braun, carpenters’ union official John Holt Sr. commented, “I don’t want to hear about the sewers, the electric. We built it, and we build it big.”

Holt, a black native Brooklynite, segued into a discourse on the “haves and the have-nots,” and, in an echo of some testimony Aug. 23, laid claim to Brooklyn authenticity. “If you didn’t play kick the can, you’re not from Fort Greene,” he said, beginning a litany. Apparently not mindful of the financial profile of most future AY residents, he challenged project opponents: “We don’t have nannies. If we did, we wouldn’t be like you people and not pay taxes on them.”

Sal Zarzana, another carpenters’ union official, suggested that the criticism aired of the Atlantic Yards plan reprised that raised a quarter-century ago regarding Forest City Ratner’s first project, MetroTech. To the surprise of some listeners, he claimed that MetroTech—a well-insulated office park in downtown Brooklyn—is responsible for the success of Fulton Street merchants several blocks away and even the restaurant row farther away on Smith Street.

Suzi Gjoni, an immigrant from Albania who works as a matron at MetroTech and is represented by SEIU 32BJ, said, “I am here to tell you how important it is to have a union job that pays good wages and benefits.”

Authenticity issues

Some black Brooklynites offered support for the project that highlighted race and class tensions. “I’m a member of BUILD,” declared Anthony Wright, citing the jobs development group funded by the developer. “I’m also a member of the streets.” He described how he’d been clean of drugs and alcohol for 16 years: “Bruce Ratner’s project, I know in my heart, that it can change a lot of people’s lives.”

BUILD president James Caldwell, a courtly man, wanted to clear something up. “Our organization does not represent violence in the community,” he said, referencing comments by BUILD founder Darnell Canada (who has since departed), that a failure to approve Atlantic Yards would lead to “chaos” in the streets.

Caldwell was one of the few proponents to acknowledge environmental concerns, which he quickly dismissed. As for traffic, “we have the technology” to remedy the problems, he said. Regarding the heights of the buildings, “the experts will make the proper decisions to address the concerns, up in Albany.” (Actually, the density of the project is a political negotiation more than anything else.)

But Caldwell was most proud of the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), which has been much criticized because it involves only eight organizations, most of them fledgling, and that the promises for affordable housing and job training would be hard to enforce. “People of color can sit down and negotiate a CBA,” he said. “Whites have always negotiated for us.” This comment—as with another proponent’s statement that “I’m not anti-white. I’m just pro-black”—drew no applause from the mostly-white union supporters of the project.

Other proponents questioned the Brooklyn longevity of project opponents. “If you are a true Brooklynite, where were you when they closed two hospitals in Community Board 8?” Leola Holmes asked. “So I say to all the visitors who are visiting in Brooklyn, let’s talk about what people really need.”

Early in the session, William Gillen, a longtime (white) resident of Brooklyn and project critic, offered his own authenticity: “Like [project supporter] Reverend [Herbert] Daughtry, I too hold Brooklyn dear.” He counted off five neighborhoods where he’d lived. “I believe I know something about Brooklyn. I believe this project is wrong for Brooklyn.”

Yes, he said, we need affordable housing, but we don’t need an arena to do it. He suggested relying on the public sector rather than a private developer, and cited the example of the Mitchell-Lama program, which created hundreds of thousands of units of subsidized housing.

After the break

After the break, the dynamic in the room had changed; much like in the final hour or so of the Aug. 23 hearing, when project opponents dominated. Newly reelected State Sen. Martin Connor of Brooklyn Heights, an AY supporter, nevertheless offered Markowitz-ian criticisms, saying the project was too large, needed better solutions regarding traffic, and should have new schools incorporated into it.

Connor’s rival Ken Diamondstone brought up some issues not previously addressed—“the effect on collision events with migratory birds” and the effect of noise from helicopters deployed for security, traffic, or news purposes.

Jeff Mermelstein, owner of a condo within the footprint that he’s agreed to sell to the developer, said his family would move to the Atlantic Yards project. He saluted Forest City Ratner for having “handled us with the greatest care and respect”--a statement that's been required of sellers in some previous contracts--and suggested that brownstone dwellers concerned about AY “are too afraid of change.”

Prospect Heights resident Steven Sullivan spoke urgently about how disappointed he was the Aug. 23 hearing, where he waited for six-and-a-half hours but was not called to speak. Some speakers then predicted a crime wave were the project not built, but Sullivan warned against “a quick fix” promised by the project: “Bruce Ratner is not a savior. He is a developer. He cares about you shouting down his opponents so he can railroad his plan through.”

With proper governmental planning, Sullivan said, an equilibrium might be reached and “hopefully I won’t ever have to sit in a room full of Brooklynites and feel so much animosity.”

Satire—and farce

Early in the session, Schellie Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition offered some satirical testimony: “I have been heard to speak harshly against Mr. [Bruce] Ratner and his works. Not today. Today I’m speaking for Bruce Ratner.”

Hagan cited the lengthy DEIS: “If you don’t love reading, 4000 pages might seem a lot, but think how many thousands more pages there would have been had Bruce not said, “Skip Terrorism! Skip heat islands! Skip wind!”

Meredith Staton, a project supporter and member of Community Board 8, signed up to testify, but when his name was called, Robert Puca, a fellow CB8 member and project opponent, protested that Staton had spoken at the Aug. 23 hearing. (ESDC barred people from testifying twice.)

The hearing officer queried Staton, who responded that he wasn’t sure at what events he had spoken. (He had in fact testified on Aug. 23.) Staton proceeded to talk about trolley transportation more than urge support for the project, but the bizarre episode led to some angry exchanges when he stepped down from the podium.

When the second-to-last speaker addressed the audience, the session crystallized into farce. “Why are you talking about the environment?” asked Tameika Brown, a single mother with a small child. “There’s already a hole in the ozone layer. I need a job.”

A voice came from the audience. “Because it’s an environmental impact hearing,” responded the Sierra Club’s Logan. The hearing officer chastened Logan for speaking out of turn.

There had been some tension in the final 45 minutes, as members of Fort Greene-based People for Political and Economic Empowerment booed project opponents, and the latter, outnumbering proponents, clapped heartily for those on their side.

But most of the acrimony evident on Aug. 23 was absent. When the hearing ended, several people wound up in spirited but mostly cordial conversations on the Jay Street sidewalk.

Next steps

More testimony, along with that of the CBN, undoubtedly will arrive in the next ten days. After that, the consultants who prepared the DEIS must respond to the comments in a Final Environmental Impact Statement, and the ESDC board must vote to approve it.

Before the project can proceed, the state Public Authorities Control Board must vote to approve it, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver will undoubtedly be lobbied to stop or reduce the project. And a lawsuit over eminent domain--and perhaps the environmental review itself--is likely.

Forest City Ratner executives have said they expect to break ground later this year, with the arena open for the 2009-10 season. Then again, they’re hedging their bets; yesterday they signed an option to extend the lease at the Continental Airlines through 2012-13.

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