Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Brennan, Millman, Robinson ask Silver to delay, modify AY project

Three Assemblymembers representing districts near the proposed Atlantic Yards project have asked Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for “substantial modifications to the Project and a delay in approval until those modifications are achieved." Silver is one of three controlling votes on the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), which should get the project later this month, after approval by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC).

Assemblyman Jim Brennan and Assemblymembers Joan Millman and Annette Robinson sent the three-page letter on November 22 to Silver, a fellow Democrat. The speaker, who has expressed support for Atlantic Yards, has said he would consider the opinions of representatives in Brooklyn.

He also has begun a public feud with ESDC Charles Gargano, who just yesterday moved Atlantic Yards toward a December 8 approval. He also may want to let incoming Gov. Eliot Spitzer, also a Democrat who supports the project, reevaluate the plan, when Spitzer replaces Gov. George Pataki as one of the "three men in a room" on the PACB.

The Assemblymembers' concerns include the project’s “extreme density,” the override of land use laws, the opacity of project finances, and the lack of an effective transportation plan. Also, echoing criticism raised by some housing groups and the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, they call for broadening the affordable housing to those earning less than $21,000 a year. They suggested a revival of an Assembly bill that would trade additional subsidy for a project downsizing.

What leverage do the trio have? Beyond Silver's pledge to at least listen, it's unclear. They did not raise the issue of the pending eminent domain case, which could stall or entangle the project. Then again, they call for compromise rather than a rejection of the project, which suggests they’re keeping some distance from Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), which organized the lawsuit and has directly aimed at the legitimacy of the process.

Jeffries on board?

Hakeem Jeffries, the incoming Assemblyman representing the project location in Prospect Heights, did not sign the letter, though he has expressed some of the same general policy ideas and said he’d been working with Millman and Brennan.

Jeffries has also said he opposes eminent domain for an arena and said the project should not be approved until the eminent domain lawsuit is resolved. He could not be reached yesterday evening for comment.

Extreme density

“The current plan is on a scale that would double the legally-zoned density of this area and create an island of population at this Brooklyn hub eight times as dense as that of Manhattan,” the trio wrote. “The EIS acknowledges an additional 20,000 vehicle trips a day and the inadequacy of current subway or bus facilities to absorb additional riders.”

They criticized the role of the Empire State Development Corporation in overriding city zoning and bypassing the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, “which gives the local community an important voice in major land use decisions.”

Without a significant downsizing, the project “will have intolerable adverse impacts on infrastructure, entailing long-term public costs that we believe have not been adequately examined,” they wrote, saying that a “genuine auto use and mass transit mitigation plan” was needed.

Financial disclosure

The scale, they observed, seems driven by a need for a reasonable return on investment. However, they charged, “there has been, to date, no public disclosure of the project’s finances, including detailed cost analysis, anticipated public subsidies, and expected financial return.” (Brennan has so far been stymied in attempts to get disclosure.)

After such a disclosure, “an evaluation of the relationship between the developer’s return on investment and compliance” with zoning should be conducted.

Affordable housing

The trio criticized plans to include 550 affordable units (of 2250) in the first phase of the project, saying that the amount should be doubled.

They also criticized relocation contracts offered to tenants who haven’t yet left the footprint as offering only three years of rental assistance—the amount beyond their current rent—saying they would expire before those tenants could move into the project.

Actually, according to the ESDC (see p. 8), Forest City Ratner has agreed to offer such assistance indefinitely, but it would end if the project is abandoned—a risk the rent-stabilized tenants may not be advised to take.

State assistance redux

The trio referenced an Assembly bill they sponsored in the past session, which aimed to reduce the project by 34%, or 3 million square feet. Given subsequent cuts by the developer, they said the bill “would now compel a reduction by 27%.

They said that a revival of the bill, which would add state aid for affordable housing in the project, “serves as the path” for a downsizing solution. (The bill has been criticized by DDDB for giving too much to Forest City Ratner.)

PACB delay

They asked Silver to ensure that the proposal be returned to the ESDC for modifications. “This will also allow the Spitzer Administration to address the gross defects in the Environmental Impact Statement or conduct other reviews,” they wrote. “A delay of several months while concerns are incorporate into the Project will cause no harm to Atlantic Yards and major long-term benefit to the community.”

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