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Spitzer backs Atlantic Yards, calls 8% cutback "appropriate"

Gubernatorial frontrunner Eliot Spitzer yesterday said that he considers the promised 8% reduction in the Atlantic Yards project a "reasonable compromise," thus suggesting he has no idea that the cutback would bring the project back to the square footage originally proposed.

Then again, if he relies on the New York Times, he doesn't know better. The newspaper last month published a front-page scoop--the lead story of the day--about the planned cutback without pointing out that the move would essentially return Atlantic Yards to square one. (That square footage would be over one additional acre.) Follow-up clarifications were buried.

Spitzer made his comments during an interview on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show.

ESDC performance

Lehrer raised the issue of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the state agency that manages major projects, including Atlantic Yards..

BL: On development in general, you said Governor Pataki’s’ ESDC has spent too much money on the wrong things and not enough on the right things.

Spitzer said that the city real estate market is booming, and that the redevelopment of Madison Square Garden and Moynihan Station is "conceptually a wonderful project." He continued:
The market itself will move those projects, and should, and we should move them as quickly as we can, so we can continue moving to the marketplace thousands and thousands of units.… where there has been a void has been in the area of affordable housing. Mike Bloomberg has done more than anybody else in recent memory. Ed Koch was quite good in this regard... The state has not done what it could. We have large pieces of property, we have capital at our disposal, we have zoning opportunities, in terms of state-owned property, carrots and sticks. Those are the policy tools we have, if we want to relieve the affordable housing crisis. Long term, the only way to do it is to add units, hundreds of thousands of units.

Note that the affordable housing in the Atlantic Yards project derives from a separate negotiation between the advocacy group ACORN and the developer, Forest City Ratner. In fact, the ESDC overrides city zoning, and the city has not rezoned the area to stimulate affordable housing.

Moynihan Station

Before the Moynihan Station project was officially stalled later in the day, Lehrer brought up the project.

BL: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is holding up the Moynihan Station project. Is he doing the right thing?

ES: I don’t know enough…The problem I think, right now, they’re trying to rush through things that may not be fully baked. The concept of the development is great… The financing of that is still unclear. We’re talking about a major infrastructure investment. Who pays for it? Where does the money come from? It’s a bit unclear as of yet how those pieces get filled in. It should happen, it should happen quickly. I don’t know whether the specific proposal before the PACB is right, wrong, or indifferent. I’ve not been part of the discussion.

The PACB is the Public Authorities Control Board, the three-member body, controlled by Gov. Pataki, Assembly Speaker Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, which must sign off on state-funded projects, including Atlantic Yards. It's interesting that Spitzer considers the financing of the station project "unclear," while he hasn't noticed the ESDC's flimsy economic analysis regarding Atlantic Yards. (Neither has Silver.)

Atlantic Yards

BL: And what about Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn? Are you for it as it is? And do you think the Pataki administration should delay approval until after the election?

ES: I’m for it, and I know this riles a fair number of people. Again, I was not involved in the process, and I don’t say that to hedge. I know there are people who feel very fervently that it was too big, and it was just scaled back, by 8 percent, I believe. Without having been involved in the process, that seems to me to be an appropriate compromise.

Exactly why is Spitzer calling it "appropriate" without knowing much about it?

It is a major development in downtown Brooklyn that will help—first, I think getting the Nets there, the stadium, is good for Brooklyn. It will get many units of affordable housing. That is great. It will get commercial space. All of it suggests that this is a very good project with some exciting architecture. I’m not the esthete, I’m not going to pass judgment about good or bad architecture, but I see the pictures and I say, “Hey, wow, that’s pretty cool looking--it’s different.” It seems like a good project.

Affordable housing, commercial space, and "exciting architecture" must be considered in context. Shouldn't the criticisms from citizens' groups and community boards about the project's environmental impact also generate concern?

BL: You don’t think it’s out of scale for the neighborhood?

ES: Certainly those who are living adjacent to it have been saying that, and they’ve been saying it with great energy, and I respect that view. What happened recently with the 8 percent reduction seemed like a reasonable compromise. So that’s why I think: Let’s move forward.

If planner Ron Shiffman thinks Spitzer might call a timeout on megadevelopment project, the presumptive next governor has a lot more to learn. Heck, even the BrooklynSpeaks, which aims to change the project more than to stop it, has a long way to go in informing Spitzer about the density, the provision of open space, and the lack of democratic process.

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