Wednesday, September 13, 2006

AY forum on Election Day brief and low-key, though criticism of scale won't disappear

If a Martian had attended the community forum yesterday on the Atlantic Yards plan, the visitor would’ve concluded that citizens—except for a group of construction workers, a few community activists, two happy property sellers, and some other locals—weren’t much exercised about what would be the largest development in the history of Brooklyn.

Perhaps 125 people cumulatively came to New York City Tech’s Klitgord Auditorium in Downtown Brooklyn, a room that can hold more than 800, for a mostly low-key hearing, scheduled from 4:30 to 8 pm, that was over before 7 pm. By contrast, the epic and raucous hearing Aug. 23 lasted seven hours and left hundreds of people frustrated that they couldn't get in and/or testify.

The polls yesterday afternoon were still open, and many of those concerned about the 22-acre, 16-skyscraper-plus-arena project, were busy with politics. Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the coalition of project opponents, urged its supporters to instead participate in the electoral process. (Project opponents supported Bill Batson in the 57th Assembly District, Chris Owens in the 11th Congressional District, and incumbent Velmanette Montgomery in the 18th Senatorial District, and only Montgomery won. Results here.)

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) didn’t bring its red-shirted followers as before. Nor were there nearly as many Community Benefits Agreement signatories present.

Stakes re-established

Still, the "jobs and housing" mantra was heard again from supporters, and several critics pointed out that the ESDC’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) raises the spectre of numerous backed-up intersections, too little open space, and strained community facilities.

Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council argued that the proposed mitigations in the DEIS don’t include the more important one. Atlantic Yards, he said forcefully, must be scaled down, not by six to eight percent (a figure floated in a New York Times report last week, and then quickly criticized), “but radically.”

Veconi, whose group encompasses block associations around the proposed footprint, also pointed out the “absurd claim” that the site would remain blighted without the project. "It's time to stop pretending that a project that leaves our streets and transit system crippled with unmitigated impacts is 'transit-oriented,'" an assertion in the DEIS, he said. "It's time to stop presenting a private courtyard of a luxury apartment complex as public open space.... And we need assurances that more of the promises of affordable housing will become reality at the beginning of the project."

Unlike the previous hearing, there were only a few moments of acrimony. There were no lines to get in, so no controversy over line management—an issue about which the ESDC heard an earful. Also, while the ESDC had asserted that the previous hearing had been run fairly, the agency followed a rule that would’ve made a huge difference on Aug. 23: the microphone was turned off for all speakers when they hit their three-minute limit. (Some speakers at the previous event spoke for nearly double that time.)

Union presence

The single largest contingent Tuesday came from the construction unions—and the dozens of members filled out slips from a pad titled “Mandatory Union Activity Program.” As at previous hearings, they supported Forest City Ratner’s project forcefully, noting that the developer, unlike many others in Brooklyn, uses organized labor.

“It’s a win-win,” insisted Brian McBrearty of the sheet metal workers, who acknowledged that, while he doesn’t live in Brooklyn, “I am compassionate” toward concerned neighbors. “Nothing’s perfect.” He added that he thought the project would “help the Fort Greene and Park Slope communities continue” with the Brooklyn renaissance.

Dennis Milton, a business agent for the ironworkers union, implicitly questioned the importance of analyzing the ESDC’s lengthy and complicated Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). “We don’t need an environmental study; what we need is jobs,” he said. (Today's Times article, headlined At Atlantic Yards Hearing, a Gathering Small and Civil, noted the contradictions in a Long Island-based construction worker carrying a sign stating "Yes in my backyard.")

CB concerns

No politicians were present--though I'm told City Council Member Letitia James stopped by briefly--and only a few community board members testified. Robert Matthews, chair of Community Board 8, one of the three that borders the project footprint, said that CB8 is aware of the need for housing and development, “but we cannot turn a blind eye to the negative effects.”

He cited inadequate efforts to address traffic congestion and community facilities, saying that hospital, police, and fire service would be strained. “Day care centers in the area, he said, “have a two-year or longer waiting list.”

MAS criticism

The Municipal Art Society, which was not called to testify on Aug. 23, emphasized concerns raised in the organization’s analysis of Forest City Ratner’s plan. The MAS’s Vanessa Gruen cited as critical issues “the design guidelines that permit the Urban Room to be surrounded by large-scale, opaque signage” as well as a schedule that calls for the southeast block in the project to supply surface parking and a constructions staging area for several years.

Citing a failure to adhere to five proven urban planning principles—including the creation of real public parks rather than private enclaves and retaining public streets rather than creating superblocks—the MAS recommends that the state not approve the Atlantic Yards plan in its current form, Gruen said.

CBA support

While many Community Benefits Agreement signatories already spoke on Aug. 23, a few did get their turn Tuesday. Len Britton, executive director of the New York Association of Minority Contractors, said he was testifying on behalf of 200 firms and 1000 employees. He said the CBA was “regarded as one of the best in the entire country.”

The CBA would designate 35 percent of the 1500 annual construction jobs for minorities, and ten percent for women. Anne Rascon, executive director of Nontraditional Employment for Women, garnered cheers from the male construction workers when she talked about how her organization ‘preapres women for high-wage jobs.”

She added, in a stretch, “Many of these women will be living in the new housing.” (There would be a lottery, and 50 percent of the affordable housing would go to residents of the three adjacent community boards.)

Neighborhood critics

The Friends of South Oxford Park, which opened in June after ten years of preparation, pointed out that there would be too little open space in the area after the introduction of some 20,000 new residents.

They decried the effort of construction noise on the park: "Why should our newly flourishing park be subject to shadows on the playground on spring afternoons and winter days?” Who, they said, will pay for the replacement of trees with “more shade-tolerant species”?

Michelle Williams, a homeowner in Fort Greene’s Atlantic Village, suggested it was absurd to add a population of nearly 20,000 people and not build new schools—and added that the area was already poorly served by police. She pointed out that the DEIS states that impacts at South Oxford Park of the noise, dirt, and pollution from construction "cannot be practically mitigated." Is the health of youth in Fort Greene insignificant, she asked, compared to building mostly luxury condos? Clinton Hill resident Grace Shannon expressed a personal fear: "My asthma would go out of control."

Jim Vogel, a resident of Pacific Street near the proposed project site, criticized “a developer that has consistently failed to keep his promises.” He made a dig at Forest City Ratner’s transportation consultant, saying “I live on Pacific Street between 4th Avenue and Flatbush, or as Sam Schwartz would describe it, the 4th Avenue Viaduct.” Schwartz has recommended that northbound traffic on busy Fourth Avenue be diverted via Pacific Street, which is residential on one side.”

Vogel questioned “the role of the ESDC, which has said it has assumed the role of advocate for the developer. Who is looking out for the public?” He was speaking personally, though he is secretary of Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, a coalition of community groups that will be submitting detailed testimony on the project.

Also, two representatives of the Sierra Club argued that the project would strain the power grid and wastewater treatment facilities.

Housing advocates concerned

Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community development corporation, noted that, "One of the first questions you're asked when you walk through the door is whether you're for or against this project. It's really a false choice. I think the question before us really is: Can we have an Atlantic Yards development with all of the benefits that this project purports to have, and address the impacts that it has?... A public process should try to rectify those two things."

She went on to criticize assumptions in the DEIS, noting that the affordable housing in the project would serve higher-income people than in existing rent-stabilized units nearby. People represented by her group earn under $20,000 a year and would not qualify "for the lowest-income units in the project." To fight displacement, she said, “We have to increase the number of units at 30% of the Area Median Income (AMI) and below.”

Only 225 of the 2250 affordable housing units (of 6860 total) would be available to those earning 30% and 40% of the AMI. (The rub is that the New York AMI is calculated using not just the five boroughs but also wealthy suburbs, and the Brooklyn median income is just about half of the New York AMI.)

How to pay for such housing remains a question—Bertha Lewis of ACORN has argued that the developer needs both subsidies and market-rate units to produce affordable housing at the current proposed income levels.

The bigger fiscal picture troubled Deborah Howard, executive director of the Pratt Area Community Council, another community housing agency. “What is the true cost of this project?” she asked, pointing to many unknowns. She suggested that $200 to $300 million in subsidies might better spark "good jobs" at the Navy Yard. She also warned that, despite the language in the DEIS, the project would cause displacement among merchants along Fulton Street near the project. (PACC has established a merchants association there.)

Happy sellers

Two property owners who’d made deals with Ratner provided almost comically enthusiastic support for the project. Menachem Friedfertig, a real estate investor from Crown Heights, had bought at auction a garage at 622 Pacific Street within the project footprint, then sold it to the developer. “It was the most amazing thing,” Friedfertig said. “Mr. Ratner, he was so fair. He was such a mensch.” Friedfertig, an Orthodox Jew, unveiled a shofar—the ram’s horn used in Jewish ritual—as a gift to Bruce Ratner and proposed that the developer “should blow it on opening day at Ratner arena.”

(In September 2004, Friedfertig was more confrontational, telling the New York Sun that “I am waiting for Ratner to make a realistic offer, or I could just go ahead with the development.” Forest City Ratner typically requires those who sell property to express support for the project or state publicly that they were treated fairly.)

Paul Hamilton said he’d owned a home in the footprint for the past 26 years, and “I’ve grown up and grown older in that house… I love that neighborhood, and I have loved it during two and a half decades of non-attention by the city and private developers, and I love it now as it’s poised for a new life.” (Hamilton is a minister in College Point, Queens, so it’s not clear how much time he spends in Brooklyn.)

He praised Forest City Ratner as “bridge builders” for having met him and his tenants halfway—“and they’ve met the community more than halfway.” He said, “I call them developers with compassion,” said Hamilton. He teaches human services at Metropolitan College in Lower Manhattan, and claimed that “my students are hitching their wagons to the Atlantic Yards star.”

He later said there was no requirement for him to speak on behalf of the project. Asked if he’d sold already to Forest City Ratner, Hamilton replied, “It’s in the process.” (City property records suggest at least part of it was completed in May.) Hamilton said that his Dean Street building does not contain rent-regulated apartments, though the opposite has been reported. A tenant lawyer has argued that Forest City Ratner needs the state to pursue eminent domain on the developer’s own building to evict rent-regulated tenants and other lawyers have criticized the developer for leaving tenants vulnerable by offering them unfair relocation agreements.

(The Times story gave Hamilton two paragraphs but didn't mention the developer's general policy of requiring sellers to speak favorably of their experience. Then again, the Times was the only daily to cover the hearing in an article today, and the newspaper even deployed two staffers.)

Other supporters

As at the Aug. 23 hearing, supporters cited jobs and housing without addressing the details of the DEIS. Speaking fervently, though mainly to absent targets, Ahalia Smith criticized those opposing the project as hypocrites, unwilling to rent out their brownstones “at rent-stabilized levels.” (Maybe that's because they didn’t get major government subsidies?)

Supporters included representatives of the Harlem Business Alliance, the Salvation Army, and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. Captain Brian Glasco of the Salvation Army's Bushwick Corps said he "constantly interact[s] with Brooklyn residents who are struggling to make ends meet." He cited a woman who works 40 hours a week at $8 an hour. "The constituents I serve will benefit from Forest City Ratner's development," he said. (Actually, as de la Uz's statistics pointed out, someone earning that $8 wage wouldn't even be eligible for the affordable housing.)
Chamber President Ken Adams said the organization’s position had been established via a canvass of its members. Some members welcomed a basketball team, others seek affordable housing for their workers, and others valued the long-term effect of a $4.2 billion project, he said. Some Chamber members have expressed concerned about the project, Adams said, but added that they were meeting with the developer.

A final community forum will be held at the same place next Monday at 4:30 pm. Expect a larger crowd. The comment period closes at 5:30 pm on Sept. 29.

My testimony

Given the low turnout, I decided to testify. I spoke briefly, but didn't address the project's pros and cons. I said I'd filed a Freedom of Information Law request on July 26 and the ESDC had not, as required by law, responded within five business days to acknowledge my request. In fact, the agency hasn't responded at all. Why can't the ESDC follow the law?

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