Sunday, October 22, 2006

NIMBY or YIMBY: behind the Times's curious framework (and photo)

Today's New York Times City Section tries to offer voices from the "neighborhood" regarding the Atlantic Yards plan, a sort of gentle distillation of some of the issues raised--and a few not quite raised--during the public comment period that ended Sept. 29. The article is headlined On the Block, but more crucially, the deck in the print edition states: Not in my backyard, yes in my backyard: Neighbors speak out on the Ratner plan.

But it depends on how you define "neighbors"--and backyards. Of the nine people interviewed, those supportive or hopeful are three people from Crown Heights--a single neighborhood to the east--plus a real estate investor (a junior version of Bruce Ratner?) who may or may not live in Brooklyn. Those opposed or concerned are four people from Fort Greene and one from Park Slope, with no representation from the immediate neighborhood: Prospect Heights. (Fort Greene and Park Slope are indeed nearby.)

The project would be located in the western tip of the neighborhood--plus one piece of land (Site 5) across Flatbush Avenue in Park Slope. (Graphic is from the Times's 12/18/05 Real Estate section article on Prospect Heights.) Crown Heights is to the east of Prospect Heights, past Washington Avenue, and Boerum Hill just a block to the southwest. Park Slope is to the south. Clinton Hill is just to the east of Fort Greene.

Worse, the photo and caption continue a parade of misleading media portrayals. The caption states: STREET-CORNER VIEW: Nine neighbors, from a merchant to a mother to a Nets fan, all see Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards plan through lenses colored by their own lives. (Accompanying the front-page photo are headshots of people who get larger portraits on the jump page, along with their quotes.)

The photo provides a misleading perspective on the proposed footprint. The photo focuses on the western segment of the Vanderbilt Yard, which itself would be about 38 percent of the 22-acre project. Atlantic Avenue and the residences and malls north of it are visible in the photo, while there’s no indication that the buildings on Pacific Street, in the left of the photo, would be demolished for the project. And there's no indication that any buildings further to the south, on Dean Street, would be demolished as well, nor what streets would be demapped for the project.

The photo perpetuates the myth that the project would be built over an "open railyard." And the Times has still failed to show any renderings of the proposal in neighborhood context. Given that this photo was likely taken from the top of the Newswalk condos (maybe 130 feet up), and people are concerned about shadows, shouldn't the Times have shown the scale of buildings 400, 500, and 620 feet tall?

Scrupulous balance?

The intro to the piece attempts scrupulous balance:
The plan is colossal — 16 high-rise buildings and an 18,000-seat basketball arena on 22 acres near the borough’s busy downtown — and fans and opponents have matched its magnitude with their own statistics. The developer, Forest City Ratner, which is also the development partner of The New York Times Company for its new headquarters in Midtown, says that the $4.2 billion project will bring 4,000 permanent jobs, billions of dollars in tax revenue and more than 6,000 units of housing. Opponents counter that the plan will corral $2 billion in public money and tax breaks, crowd 15,000 new residents into the area and clog local streets with thousands more cars.

Why can't the Times try to sort out the fiscal claims? Would there really be "billions" in tax revenue, or $2 billion in public costs? At some point this can't simply be a "he said, she said" debate.

As for crowding, why can't the Times simply acknowledge that this likely would be the densest residential community in the country--or compare it to other large projects in the city? Why is it the "opponents" who have to establish basic facts?

As for the clogging of local streets, isn't that what the state acknowledged in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement? And isn't that what local community boards--highly concerned analysts more than opponents--have predicted? (The Times hasn't reported actions by the community boards, who also have questioned the process behind the project.)

Those quoted

The intro continues:
Ever since the idea was floated in 2003, the sides have also framed their appeals broadly, citing big-picture concerns about urban policy and socioeconomic justice.

Less noticed amid the large numbers and loud clamor is the sound of the street: the skepticism and dread, or hope and excitement, of people who live and work near Atlantic Yards.

But that sound is there, on the neighborhood’s sidewalks and stoops, in its stores and coffee shops, in its kitchens and parlors. There is the Nets fan dreaming of walking to home games. The mother worried about steering her stroller across an even busier Flatbush Avenue. The teacher hoping that one apartment in the tall towers has her name on it. And the gardener fretting over the shade thrown by those same towers.


This is a false dichotomy, the big picture vs. the sound of the street. Many who have experience on the street, at public events and private discussions, have found themselves learning about the big picture. Indeed, many of those quoted by the Times are pointing to elements of that big picture.

In essence, it's jobs, housing, and hoops (plus profit) vs. shadows, traffic, displacement, and neighborhood character--often what was argued during the DEIS public hearing and community meetings.

Nine neighbors

The intro continues:
Nine neighbors all see Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards plan through lenses colored by their own lives.

If they're neighbors, the geographic distribution, as noted, is a bit curious.

Kelly Burwell, the basketball fan, is from Crown Heights and wants to be able to walk to an arena.

Audrey Doyle, the homemaker, is from Fort Greene and is concerned about gentrification and racial balance.

Christopher Morris, the investor, has purchased property “near the stadium” with the expectation that values will rise. (The Times doesn't say, but he's apparently part of the Clarett Group, which is building a luxury residential tower in Fort Greene and plans to demolish a Civil War-era mansion in Clinton Hill for a new development. The Landmarks Commission is taking a look.)

Mildred Davis, the retiree
is concerned about being pushed out of the neighborhood and her Mitchell-Lama building in Fort Greene.

Ludlow Beckett, the merchant, has a store in Fort Greene and concerned about people being able to drive to his store.

Jon Crow, the gardener, is from Park Slope and is concerned about the effect of shadows on his community garden.

Mildred Coleman, the apartment seeker, is from Crown Heights and said, "I’ve heard they’re supposed to build this complex that gives you a laundry room, places to exercise, places to shop."

Sarah Caylor, the mother, lives in Fort Greene and is concerned about shadows and traffic.

Brian Saunders, the business hopeful, is from Crown Heights and hopes for assistance in opening a small business in the footprint.

A closer look

So there are four people from/in Fort Greene, three from Crown Heights, one from Park Slope, and one whose location is unclear. Those closer are all worried about the project, but those from Crown Heights, which is farther away, see opportunity.

It's curious that there are three people from Crown Heights, none from Prospect Heights, and only one from Park Slope, which is much closer. Missing are anyone from Boerum Hill, which is also closer than Crown Heights, and Clinton Hill, which is as close. A broader geographic distribution probably would have changed the racial distribution: seven black, two white.

And, most of all, missing are the voices of the majority of potential new residents: wealthy people paying for market-rate housing.

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