Tuesday, September 26, 2006

BrooklynSpeaks principals say it's about strategy

Yesterday, the day after the BrooklynSpeaks web site finally launched, backers of the project spoke at a press conference in Brooklyn--less than an hour after the City Planning Commission, in its only review of the project, essentially ignored many of the flaws in Atlantic Yards pointed out by BrooklynSpeaks, including interim surface parking and open space that looks more like the backyards of buildings.

While the site developers, led by the Municipal Art Society (MAS) and eight other groups, aim to get concerned Brookynites to send letters to public officials, many questions yesterday regarded the groups and their goals. Recently the Boerum Hill Association (BHA) issued a tough set of principles regarding the project, including no use of eminent domain, but BrooklynSpeaks accepts the arena and mentions eminent domain only as a concern that some have expressed.

"Each of our groups has things we feel strongly about," said the BHA's Sue Wolfe, indicating that she didn't consider the two stands contradictory. "We felt that this was more powerful" as a way to get the message out.

The Park Slope Civic Council, said president Lydia Denworth, still might vote on eminent domain. "We don't think it precludes us from participating in this."

DDDB criticism

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, which leads the fight against the project, issued a critical welcome:
However, while the BrooklynSpeaks group takes a position on a few of the relevant issues, they have failed to hear the voice of the community on the issues of the arena, eminent domain abuse, city oversight of the proposal, the unknown public cost, the severe environmental impacts, and the lack of affordable housing guarantees.

Middle ground?

Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee, whose DeGraw Street headquarters in Gowanus hosted the press conference, lamented--as she had at the Sept. 12 Atlantic Yards community forum, a sense of polarization, in which people were listed only as for or against the project. "We hope to have a more civil discourse," she said.

Do the BrooklynSpeaks principles represent an acceptance of Forest City Ratner as the developer for this project, rather than a challenge to the project's legitimacy and the process by which the developer was allowed to proceed? It seems so. Then again, Denworth was asked if the BrooklynSpeaks members would support Atlantic Yards if the request for changes is met.

"Perhaps," she said. "But I feel that between here and there, there's a whole lot of distance to be covered." Without the relatively moderate position distinct from an all-or-nothing lawsuit expected from DDDB and allies, she suggested, "You might get stuck with what they're planning."

"This has not been a public process," Wolfe said. "If this is delayed, maybe there will be an opportunity for a public process." The MAS's Kent Barwick suggested that a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) might be created for ongoing review of the project.

Relations with DDDB

Asked about the role of DDDB, project principals spoke carefully. "DDDB's position is one that's valuable," said de la Uz, who noted that several organizations in BrooklynSpeaks had joined DDDB in a lawsuit challenging ESDC demolitions and the role of an ESDC lawyer who formerly represented Forest City Ratner.

But, she added, "When our agendas align, it's important that we form coalitions."

Denworth said that "work that DDDB has done is very valuable," but suggested the DDDB strategy is primarily legal. (Ultimately legal, perhaps, though the organization and mobilization goes beyond courtroom issues.)

Some of the groups are members of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), an umbrella organization formed to respond to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. "This is to complement the work of the CBN," said Deb Howard of the Pratt Area Community Council (PACC).

Affordable housing

Given that the BrooklynSpeaks principles call for increased affordable housing for poorer Brooklynites, would the two housing advocacy groups seek to play a role in AY affordable housing?

"I didn't place PACC in this position so we'd have a piece of the pie," Howard said. While de la Uz said she never ruled anything out, "I we're not going to compromise our other values."

Superblocks?

While the principles oppose superblocks, BrooklynSpeaks accepts the demapping of Pacific Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. "If Brooklyn wants an arena, and this is a pretty good place for one, that portion of Pacific Street has to be lost," Barwick said. Still, as he acknowledged in June, it's difficult to assess what exactly Brooklyn wants.

DDDB pointed out that, given the somewhat murky presentation of this issue on the BrooklynSpeaks site, the group "should be explicit in their support of the arena and their acceptance of the use of eminent domain for the “Atlantic Yards” proposal (which is required to construct an arena)."

Future strategy

At the end of the press conference, the representatives spent some time talking with each other, as it was one of the first few times they'd met as a group. As they work on outreach, they likely will work to harmonize their message.

Some people referred to the principles as "mitigation," as if to complement the role of the ESDC. Others said they represented "real change." Given that BrooklynSpeaks says that plan "must be changed substantially or rejected," it sounds like more than mitigation.

Dissent and agreement

ADDENDUM: I neglected to point out that the Prospect Place Block Association, a member of the BrooklynSpeaks constituent group Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, protested that it was not consulted on the development of BrooklynSpeaks. Given that the block association opposes the arena and eminent domain, the association's Atlantic Yards task force "feels the Brooklyn Speaks initiative does not go far enought."

I've also heard there's some dismay among members of the CBN because--as I pointed out last week--this announcement takes away from the significant critique of the DEIS that will be submitted on Friday.

Bob Guskind of the Gowanus Lounge suggests:
The truth is, we're depressed that you didn't try to work this out privately and didn't come up with a division of labor, at it were, on Atlantic Yards before this all went public. But, it's not too late. It would be for the best if everyone involved in trying to shape the outcome of this fight were to hash out their differences and divide up the work.
How? Well, BrooklynSpeaks ought to acknowledge that eminent domain is not an appropriate tool for developing Atlantic Yards, even if it's politically simpler to ignore the issue. Legal action to block Atlantic Yards on the basis of eminent domain and other issues is entirely appropriate and BrooklynSpeaks ought to support those efforts. That turf, however, is best left to Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn and its supporters.
We do think it's valuable to push for signficant changes in the project, including a redesign with significant public input, as a fallback. This is necessary for the public good, should the legal strategy not stop the development.

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