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Op-ed in Metro: The Unreality of Atlantic Yards

I have an op-ed in the free daily tabloid Metro NY today, headlined The Unreality of Atlantic Yards:
Before we can debate a major project like Atlantic Yards, we must get the facts straight. Regarding some key aspects of the development — its size and the cost or benefit to the public — too many people are in the dark.

Atlantic Yards, slated to include a basketball arena and 16 mostly residential towers, would be the largest project in Brooklyn’s history and likely the country’s densest residential community. There’s an argument for high-rise construction near Brooklyn’s biggest transit hub, but overdevelopment could produce ruinous traffic and overcrowded schools. Developer Forest City Ratner moved tactically; after announcing Atlantic Yards in December 2003, FCR last year increased the project’s size by 14 percent. This year the developer twice announced small reductions, bringing the project back to square one — an 8 million-square-foot project that would require the Empire State Development Corporation, a state authority, to override city zoning. Still, gubernatorial shoo-in Eliot Spitzer, on whose watch the project would be constructed, opined that the latest cut was sufficient. Spitzer’s interpretation undoubtedly stems from media reports that announced a recent 8 percent reduction without acknowledging the project’s original size. The Municipal Art Society and other critics say that Atlantic Yards should be truncated by a third, or a half. Even the latter might strain Brooklyn’s infrastructure and overwhelm adjacent neighborhoods.

A larger failure regards the ESDC’s claim that Atlantic Yards would bring $1.4 billion in new taxes to the city and state. For three months, the agency refused to produce its analysis, even denying Freedom of Information Law requests. However, after activists, journalists and Brooklyn Assemblyman Jim Brennan pressed the agency, the ESDC provided a seven-page memo. It wasn’t convincing. For example, while it calculated about $500 million in subsidies and tax exemptions, the agency omitted hundreds of millions more in public spending for such things as public utility relocation, schools, affordable housing and police and fire service. The ESDC says it never calculates such public costs in its models. Still, the city’s Independent Budget Office included most of those costs in its own analysis of Atlantic Yards. So did a report commissioned by the developer.

A poll released by Crain’s New York Business last month compounded the confusion. Those polled were told that “the project will provide” 2,250 affordable apartments, but weren’t informed that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Naturally, few questioned this “benefit,” even though such subsidies might be better deployed elsewhere. Based on the answer to such poorly worded questions, some 60 percent of respondents said they supported Atlantic Yards. Indeed, after a lawsuit against the use of eminent domain for Atlantic Yards was filed last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg defended the project, claiming that Atlantic Yards was “overwhelmingly favored” by Brooklynites and city residents.

We don’t know the Atlantic Yards bottom line. We don’t have a fair sense of public opinion. We do know the project hasn’t been fundamentally reduced in size. And we know that too many public officials are either underinformed or play fast and loose with the facts.

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