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Brooklyn Speaks to modify AY project--but which Brooklyn?

Essentially acknowledging that the Atlantic Yards project is a done deal, even before the most significant criticisms of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) emerge, several community groups in Brooklyn have lined up with the Municipal Art Society (MAS) to seek changes to the scale and design of the development. A new web site will be unveiled Saturday, BrooklynSpeaks.net.

As the New York Times reports today, in an article headlined Brooklyn Group to Propose Changes to Yards Project:
The group will prescribe substantial reductions in the project’s size and an increase in the percentage of subsidized housing allotted to poor families, among other changes, but will not take a position against eminent domain.
The groups, including the Pratt Area Community Council, the Municipal Art Society, the Boerum Hill Association and the Park Slope Civic Council, will unveil the proposed changes on a new Web site, BrooklynSpeaks.net, on Saturday, with less than a week until a state-mandated public comment period ends.


Several of the groups are members of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), the umbrella organization formed to recruit experts and present a detailed critique of the DEIS.

Heated debate

Unmentioned in the Times is the heated debate ongoing in Brooklyn, with some groups representing significant constituencies near the proposed project site, notably the Fort Greene Association and the Society for Clinton Hill, refusing to endorse the new venture yet.

Some groups endorsing Brooklyn Speaks are essentially repudiating some of the principles for responsible development for the Vanderbilt Yard that they endorsed, including no use of eminent domain and a project evaluated via the city's more stringent land use process, not the state's fast track. And the Boerum Hill Association just weeks ago reiterated major criticisms of the project, including the use of eminent domain.

The Times did quote Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) spokesman Daniel Goldstein as pointing out that, if the principle is to respect the neighborhood, "by ignoring eminent domain and the arena, they are disrespecting the neighborhood.” The MAS opposes the demapping of streets, such as Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues, but accepts the demapping of shorter streets for the arena.

How much of a scaleback?

What will BrooklynSpeaks say? Many of the principles will derive from the MAS's June critique of the project, including the creation of real public parks, not private enclaves, and the avoidance of superblocks.

The Times said the web site will call for scaling back the project’s square footage. It's unclear whether a target number will be mentioned. Any number would then become a negotiating point to compromise from--rather than a goal. But even a 50 percent reduction could leave the project as dense as the country's most dense census tract, so there's an argument for a cut of that magnitude as a ceiling.

The politics

The Times article suggests that "The new effort follows a series of legal and political setbacks for opponents of the project," citing a failed lawsuit and the recent losses by insurgent political candidates who emphasized their opposition to the project.

On the other hand, it's not clear what leverage--other than the MAS's capacity to earn the ear of some political leaders--this new group would have. After the Empire State Development Corporation approves the project later this year, it must receive the blessing of the three-member Public Authorities Control Board and one member, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, will be pressured to call for modifications.

Brooklyn Speaks will aim to collect signatures supporting its principles--and some of its leaders may be able to claim credit for negotiating a compromise that, to some degree, may have been in the cards already. Architect Frank Gehry said in January that the project is "coming way back."

A hint that a compromise is welcome came from Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, who told the Times that the developer was “pleased to see that these groups want to talk about ways to improve what we believe is a very exciting project for the people of Brooklyn."

If the BrooklynSpeaks coalition wants more affordable housing allocated to the poor, then Forest City Ratner may seek these groups' support for additional subsidies.

What will those who wish to take a harder stand do? One person told me they may join the Brooklyn Speaks campaign, endorse the criticisms of urban design, but add their own criticisms as well.

Whose momentum?

Project critics also have not yet gained much momentum from the public hearing and two community forums held by the Empire State Development Corporation, each of which featured a majority of union supporters of the project. Then again, the pendulum may shift when the CBN submits its extensive criticisms of the DEIS before the Sept. 29 deadline.

The CBN has provided sketches of its criticisms on its web site. Among the litany:
--Many parts of the DEIS read like promotional material for the development, not a balanced analysis of impacts
--In the areas of traffic, transportation, noise, and construction impacts where the DEIS says there will be significant adverse impacts, the mitigations proposed are minimal and ineffective
--The DEIS states many times that this is an example of “transit-oriented development.” But building next to mass transit by itself doesn’t make this or any other development “transit-oriented"

Meanwhile, the MAS's focus on design issues slights some larger questions of process, issues that DDDB has sought to raise in postcards (right) to Assembly Speaker Silver. Brooklyn Speaks apparently ignores the single-source developer deal behind the Atlantic Yards project, the failure to adequately assess the fiscal impact, and the flaws in the DEIS.

(Note that the MAS has criticized the process, but that's more of a lament than a reason to oppose the project.)

Supporters of Brooklyn Speaks apparently believe that the effort is pragmatic politics, given the current constellation of forces, and that the modifications they seek would avert a much worse outcome. Meanwhile, DDDB and some allies will be rolling the dice with a lawsuit over eminent domain and, likely, the legitimacy of the environmental review itself.

As Brooklyn Speaks and DDDB offer dual letter-writing campaigns, DDDB is also raising money for the legal action.

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