Thursday, June 29, 2006

Are nine acres of interim surface parking part of the plan?

Missing from Forest City Ratner’s latest brochure (below, right) and the web site is any mention of the two huge interim surface parking lots planned for the Atlantic Yards site, in the north central and southeast blocks of the site, blocks that are later slated for towers and landscaped open space.

How big? How many spaces? For whom? For how long? We don't know yet. The two large blocks occupy about nine acres of the 22-acre footprint. An acre can typically accommodate spaces for about 130 cars (plus driving lanes, etc.), so nine acres could provide parking for 1170 cars. It's unlikely that the entire blocks would be used for parking, though.

Still, the project would take at least ten years to build, so it's possible those parking lots could persist in whole or in part, especially if changes in economic conditions alter the development.

No one’s willing to say much for now. Not the city Department of Transportation. Not the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office. And not Jim Stuckey, President of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards Development Group, who, when asked June 15 before the Municipal Art Society session, said that it would all be discussed in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which should be released sometime next month.

Open space doesn't come first

But two large parking lots--one over a segment of the railyards, one on a block that now has several warehouse and factory buildings--would be a distinct contrast from the lovingly detailed open space that is to be designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin. (Example at right from web site)

Parking lots are a magnet for traffic and would perpetuate, rather than heal, the division between Prospect Heights and Fort Greene posed by the railyards and broad Atlantic Avenue.

Why doesn’t Forest City Ratner build the parkland first? It’s not an unreasonable sequence; at Battery Park City a park and part of the Esplanade were built during the early stages.

Said Andy Wiley-Schwartz, VP at Project for Public Spaces, “We always think: what’s the potential to create a place? A surface parking lot is a great place for a market. Or you can throw some sod down and have a park. If you want to provide connections and amenities, and knit together the neighborhoods, that would be quite a statement.”

Final Scope hints

The first hint of the parking lots came in the Final Scope for the EIS, released 3/31/06, which stated:
The blocks on the eastern part of the project site (Blocks 1120, 1121, 1128, and 1129) would be built out during Phase II, though some preliminary work on the eastern blocks, including improvement of the rail yard and interim surface parking, would occur during Phase I.

It added:
Project components expected to be complete and operational at the end of Phase I (2010) include the newly reconfigured and upgraded below-grade rail yard and the development planned for the blocks housing the proposed arena (consisting of Buildings 1 through 4, and the arena) and Site 5; interim parking would be located on Blocks 1120 and 1129. The remainder of the program would be developed during Phase II, to be completed by 2016

This was first noticed by architect Jonathan Cohn in his Brooklyn Views blog on 4/3/06. He wrote:
One change in the Final Scope is the admission that an unspecified amount of “interim surface parking” on the eastern part of the project site will be constructed during Phase I. (P.14). This “use” of the site could be in-place for some time. While the Phase I analysis year is 2010 and Phase II is 2016, schedules for large projects are notorious for being accurate only at the moment they are proposed.

How many spaces?

It's unclear whether the surface parking would be included in amount of parking already specified in the Final Scope, or whether it would add spaces. The Final Scope stated:
[T]he proposed project anticipates providing a substantial number of new spaces: approximately 2,000 parking spaces in the first phase of project development (2010), increasing to approximately 3,800 parking spaces in the full build (2016).
(At right is the parking plan as depicted in the 2/18/05 Memorandum of Understanding between Forest City Ratner, the city, and the state. There are no plans for parking under the arena itself, however.)

Stuckey said in January there would be parking "part on the arena block, part across the street, part down on Block 1129, and dispersed throughout a number of different areas." But he apparently was talking about parking garages, not interim surface parking. Block 1129, which is between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and Pacific and Dean streets, has always been mentioned as a location for underground parking, not necessarily surface parking, as the graphic from the 1/8/06 New York Times indicates (right).

So, if 2000 underground spaces are planned for the first phase, the surface parking could add another 1000 spaces or so. If there are only 1000 underground spaces planned, the surface parking would mean a total of 2000 spaces. What's more likely? The language of the Final Scope suggests that the 2000 spaces in the first phase are permanent spaces, so that suggests that the surface parking would be an addition rather than part of the 2000 total.

Parking for construction workers?

Would the surface parking lots be for arena visitors, residents, construction workers, or all three? One of the lots would be close to the arena, while another would be farther to the east. It seems that the lots would provide spaces for some the 1500 construction workers expected to be working annually on the project. This is anomalous, as large-scale urban construction projects typically don’t provide onsite parking.

Stuckey told a group of Atlantic Avenue merchants at a 3/29/06 meeting that construction workers--that is, those that drive, I assume--would be required to park onsite. (How many is that?) Also, according to Terry Urban, a merchant who attended the meeting, all the construction traffic will be at the east end and onsite, and deliveries would be made at night in order to not disrupt business. (Well, they might disrupt some people's sleep.) Once buildings are torn down, pull-off lanes would be constructed to ease through traffic.

What’s wrong with interim parking

Several analysts of transportation and public space policy added criticism of the interim surface parking. "It sets a bad tone for the rest of the project when one of the first things they do is create a parking lot," said Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "What if something changes in their fiscal situation and the company can no longer afford to build?"

Wiley-Schwartz of PPS added, "If you plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. This project does nothing to cut into the current demand for cars and road space in Brooklyn, and adds to it. I’d suggest traffic calming on Flatbush and Atlantic, making it harder to go there, so people don't choose to use their cars."

Peter Krashes, a Dean Street resident who lives across the street from a potential parking lot, pointed out that, if the southeast block contains an interim parking lot there, "they’d have tear down all the existing buildings on that block, including the historically significant Ward Bakery." (right) The Municipal Art Society has suggested that such a historic resource be preserved.

Krashes said it wasn't clear how soon a platform would be built over the railyard after it's moved to the eastern portion of the site. He lamented the lack of detailed information yet available: "There is no way to differentiate between what is necessary because of infrastructure demands, when it simply saves FCRC money, or serves some other end."

The transit solution

Aaron Naparstek, an organizer at the Open Planning Project, observed, "The way to solve the problem is not to build more parking around the arena." He cited several solutions:
--residential parking permits (priced, not free).
--congestion charging either on the East River bridges or around the Downtown Brooklyn central business district
--direct revenues from cars and parking into transit improvements, particlarly express bus services.

Naparstek wrote in April:
You've got to wonder what ever happened to the original sales pitch: That an arena could work at the congested intersection of Atlantic, Flatbush and Fourth Avenues because it was being built atop of a major transit hub?

Indeed, FCR transportation consultant "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz recently offered this summary of the Atlantic Yards plan he's working on: "Transit, transit, transit."

Within a month, perhaps, the Draft EIS will provide some more clues.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Transportation changes: are congestion pricing, East River tolls on the agenda?

One huge challenge for the Atlantic Yards project--or any other major development at the crossroads of Atlantic, Flatbush, and Fourth avenues--involves transportation, and the solution involves citywide issues, not merely project-related fixes. That's why the decision by the Empire State Development Corporation to exclude the East River crossings from the Final Scope of Analysis--the prelude to a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Atlantic Yards project--was so shortsighted, especially since a good chunk of Nets fans are expected to come from New Jersey.

The graphic at right comes from the New York Post, which published a 6/19/06 article headlined 'NET' RESULT: TRAFFIC CHAOS. The division seems stark:
Opponents of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn claim politicians are ignoring the traffic nightmare - on subways and roads alike - that the $3.5 billion development near Downtown Brooklyn will cause, even when the Nets are not using their new stadium.
Borough President Marty Markowitz - a major supporter of Bruce Ratner's proposed NBA arena, residential and office project - insists the plan should have "zero impact" on local mass transit during rush hours because events in the 18,000-seat arena likely won't start until at least 7:30 p.m.

But the issue goes beyond arena attendance, a transportation consultant Brian Ketcham has stressed, since most of the new traffic would be generated by new residents. Markowitz remains optimistic, according to the Post, that Forest City Ratner will mitigate the impact of the project, such as by providing incentives for people visiting the arena to use mass transit.

The problem is much bigger than the Atlantic Yards project, and whatever changes are proposed by the developer will have to be seen in context of some citywide planning issues. After all, Also, 40 percent of the traffic in Downtown Brooklyn is going into Manhattan, according to traffic consultant Bruce Schaller, and that could be cut if the city implements some systemic changes.

Citywide solutions

Schaller was among several experts who gathered 5/24/06 at panel discussion sponsored by the New York Metro chapter of the American Planning Association on how to better move people through the city.

Schaller discussed results from his study, Necessity or Choice? Why People Drive in Manhattan, pointing out how inefficiently we use "our most precious resource--space." Cars use ten times as much space per person/mile as buses, and 2.5 times as much space as pedestrians.

How could it be reallocated? Sidewalk widening, bus lanes, and bike lanes all are ways to reprice space. "It's important to show people what a changed city looks like," he said, showing photos of San Francisco, with a dedicated bus lane and a platform for level (and faster) bus boarding.

His study showed that most auto users actually live in the Central Business District (CBD), and that 80 percent of the commuters from Brooklyn live close to the subway. "Driving is a choice, not a necessity," he said. Those surveyed cited comfort, convenience, and speed--plus the availability (for 60% of those surveyed) of free parking.

He pointed to some hopeful signs: pilot programs to close the loop drives in Central Park and Prospect Park, as well as an ongoing study of bus rapid transit in the city. Indeed, a few weeks later, as Schaller explained in a Gotham Gazette article, the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) released concept plans for the 15 routes and held public workshops in each borough.

Gridlock Sam shakes it up

Consultant "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz said we should "break the system entirely and rebuilding it entirely." He cited a "dysfunctional pricing scheme" in which East River bridge crossings are free, but tunnels cost money, and drivers must pay to travel on bridges within boroughs, such as from Southern Queens to the Rockaways. The dysfunctional system also means truckers detour through Brooklyn to save money.

Congestion pricing, in which the price of entry would rise during peak hours, has been suggested in the past, but political leaders didn't have the will to push it. Now the time is right, he said, noting that, because city infrastracture doesn't have a dedicated revenue source, the four East River bridges are all in poor to fair condition.

Congestion pricing, he said, could not only restore the bridges and decongest Downtown Brooklyn and the Central Business District (CBD) in Manhattan, it could bolster the transit system, keep big trucks off city streets, and improve air quality. Discounts for city residents (and even more for CBD residents) could help, he said, could indirectly amount to a partly-reinstated commuter tax.

And several tolls, especially in the outer boroughs, could be removed. While now a version of the EZ pass could be used, he said, within a decade more sophisticated schemes could be available, based on vehicle miles, or hours traveled, among other things.

Who loses? The parking industry--but, as Schwartz observed, they use congestion pricing themselves, with "early bird specials."

How to get there

While Schwartz's scheme met with wide approval from the planners in the audience, it's harder to sell congestion pricing to politicians and the public. Jon Orcutt of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign reprised the presentation he gave at the Park Slope Civic Council in March, sardonically pointing out how New York trails London, where there's a consensus on reducing traffic. "The transportation department is too cowardly to ban cars in parks," he said.

In suburban Nassau County and in Northern New Jersey, local governments grapple with land use and transportation issues together, while New York is behind. Using Brooklyn as an example, Orcutt said there is "no big picture or real goals." By contrast, "San Francisco has a transit-first policy."

He said the city's policy is to "give developers what they want" and criticized the environmental impact statements for the West Side Stadium and Yankee Stadium as "cooked books." (Will the same be said for the Atlantic Yards EIS, which is expected next month?)

As Orcutt said in March, "you need to... blame the mayor," citing Staten Island as the only borough where traffic is a front-page issue. He cited incremental changes, such as traffic calming, residential parking permits, and more bus rapid transit, though he lamented that only one of three potential routes in Brooklyn will be tested.

Business backing

Kathryn Wylde, president & CEO of the Partnership for New York City, indicated that the business community is ready: "We feel that the city, like London, has reached a tipping point. Congestion is a threat to future economic growth."

She said the group was surveying its membership for best practices regarding transportation changes, and will release a report shortly. She said the net conomic impact of congestion pricing was "demonstratively positive," though the effect on specific sectors would be unclear.

She noted London differs significantly from New York; it has one-quarter the number of residents in the congestion zone.

To win over some people who are used to vehicular transportation, she said a major investment in public transportation would be necessary.

Some questions

Asked about the elimination of on-street parking, Schwartz said that there should be space for loading, but in the CBD, it could be eliminated, especially if parking placards for city workers were eliminated.

How to sell the idea to the public? Wylde said she'd talked to several p.r. firms, and they all warned against the use of the term "congestion." The bottom line, she said, it to be able to demonstrate benefits. "The hardest thing is telling people it's not a new tax." She suggested a term used by the Bush administration: "value pricing."

One person in the audience raised a provocative question: is DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall a sacred cow "because of her marital status"? (She's the wife of Sen. Chuck Schumer.) The questioner noted that, after the 2003 Staten Island ferry crash, which killed 11 people and injured 71, there were no calls to dismiss Weinshall.

The question, however, was ruled out of bounds for a policy panel, as was my question about preliminary transportation plans for the Atlantic Yards project. (Schwartz has been hired by Forest City Ratner as a transportation consultant.)

I asked Schwartz afterward if he could provide a glimpse of his work on the Atlantic Yards project. He waved it off, saying it was premature, but gave a three-word summary: "Transit, transit, transit."

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Crain's poll on Atlantic Yards project misses the point

On the heels of Crain's New York Business editor Greg David's misinformed column supporting the Atlantic Yards project, Crain's now offers a stilted poll canvassing readers' opinions:
Developer Bruce Ratner's plan for the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn calls for less commercial space than he had originally envisioned, along with 6,800 residential units--nearly a third of which would be affordable housing.
THE POLL QUESTION: Do you agree with the Atlantic Yards plan?
Yes, the housing market is already tight, and the city needs more affordable units
No, the huge development would destroy the borough's character

Given that the developer traded office space for more lucrative luxury condos in May 2005, the question is a little late--and it treats "the Atlantic Yards" as a place rather than a project. More importantly, it ignores the fact that the developer originally promised 50 percent affordable housing, but violated the spirit--if not the letter--of the affordable housing agreement by adding the condos.

It treats the scale and density of the project as a matter of opinion, rather than something that could be assessed by (or at least in relation to) zoning, or evaluated in comparison to other projects.

Alternative questions

What if Crain's had asked:
Developer Bruce Ratner's plan for the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn would provide more than twice as many apartments per acre as any other major project in the city.

Developer Bruce Ratner's plan for the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn would cost the public at least $1.1 billion in subsidies and public costs over 30 years, by the developer's own estimate.

Developer Bruce Ratner's plan for the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn involves a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) in which the CBA signatories accept money from the developer, unlike pioneering CBAs negotiated in Los Angeles, where the signatories consider payments a conflict of interest.

Developer Bruce Ratner's plan for the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn would involve the use of eminent domain for economic development, even though, as suggested in the Supreme Court's Kelo decision, eminent domain is most defensible when it proceeds from a publicly-derived plan for redevelopment, which is absent in this case.

[Update 6/27/06: Initially the vote was 90 percent against, but it later became 65 percent against. It shouldn't be seen as a referendum; this kind of online poll is unscientific and subject to multiple voting.]

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Crain's editor Greg David gets it wrong: chronology, housing, density, and "status quo"

Crain's New York Business editor Greg David, in a column dated 6/26/06 headlined Atlantic Yards is not about sports (subscribers only), repeats some Forest City Ratner talking points, forgets the eminent domain issue that he's previously addressed, and adds some other misreadings.

David writes:
As Bruce Ratner tells the tale, the Atlantic Yards project took off in 2003 following a phone call from the Brooklyn borough president. The New Jersey Nets basketball team was for sale, and Marty Markowitz pleaded with Mr. Ratner to buy it and return a professional sports team to Brooklyn.
Sports and the borough's psyche had been linked decades earlier, and just as the Dodgers' departure in 1958 seemed to start years of decline, so bringing the Nets to Brooklyn would put an exclamation point on its economic revival.
Three years later, sports are merely a footnote to the project.

But sports were always a footnote. The arena was always a small fraction--little more then ten percent--of the project's total square footage. It was billed as the centerpiece of the project to gain political and public support.

David continues:
Atlantic Yards now concerns making choices about the city's future. Mr. Ratner knew nothing about professional basketball when Mr. Markowitz called. What he did understand was Brooklyn, where he had built Metrotech in the 1980s. The office complex saved the borough's downtown and the city 10,000 jobs that had been headed to New Jersey. Mr. Ratner had long believed that a site nearby, where the Long Island Rail Road parked its trains, was suitable for the next major development.

But the railyard site is little more than one-third of the 22-acre project footprint. That's a key error that persists in the press.

Wrong chronology

David continues:
But he couldn't figure out how to get the public money or political support needed to proceed--until the Nets came along. His original concept envisioned a sports arena, 2 million square feet of office space and 4,000 apartments. Sept. 11 sent Mr. Ratner back to the drawing board. Demand for office space weakened, and Atlantic Yards could be seen as a threat to Lower Manhattan, which would split the politicians he needed in his camp.

September 11 (2001) sent Ratner back to the drawing board? The original concept was unveiled in December 2003. The switch from office space to housing was, indeed, a reaction to the threat to Lower Manhattan (and possible opposition from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represents the area), as well as the need for higher revenue from housing. David, however, misses the switch from the promise of 10,000 jobs (and the "Jobs, Housing, and Hoops" slogan, now put aside) to many fewer jobs.

The housing switch

David continues:
Escalating apartment prices rescued Mr. Ratner. Adding residential units would produce the revenue needed to pay for the arena and for about $1 billion in infrastructure. One of the top priorities of the Bloomberg administration was more housing, so it would be supportive. Mr. Ratner slashed Atlantic Yards' commercial space and turned it into a residential neighborhood with 6,800 units. Mr. Ratner, always a politically astute developer, added an important twist. The condos would be so lucrative that he would use some of the profits to set aside almost a third of the units as affordable housing--more than any developer had ever done in a similar project. Such a move would be popular not only with the mayor but with advocates for the poor. The developer signed them on as supporters; the most notable was the outspoken group Acorn.

The original promise was 50 percent of all housing in the project. Then, when the housing Memorandum of Understanding with ACORN was signed in May 2005, the switch had been made to 50 percent of the rental housing. (Still, Marty Markowitz was on script for the previous version.) So the one-third figure, however impressive compared to some developments, is less than what was promised.

Also, 30 percent affordable housing was recently negotiated by the City Council for the rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. There's been no rezoning for the Atlantic Yards project. In essence, the affordable housing is a privately-negotiated zoning bonus. That means Forest City Ratner can build at a density more than twice that of other major developments. So, in this case, affordable housing would be achieved by overbuilding.

Misreading opponents

But his opponents aren't giving up. They claim that Atlantic Yards will destroy Brooklyn's character. Their hope is to preserve the status quo, even as tens of thousands of people come to New York because of its vibrant economy. If the city is to thrive, it will need to build places for them to live by Manhattanizing some sections of Brooklyn and Queens. With residential housing prices so high, developers can subsidize substantial numbers of less expensive units for the endangered middle class. Mr. Ratner has worked out the economics of this game plan for the future. The fate of his project is a test of whether the rest of New York will embrace it.

There's certainly an argument for building at an increased density over the railyard site and even over adjacent streets. But that doesn't mean Ratner, supervised by the Empire State Development Corporation, should have carte blanche to build at the density decided in the boardroom. What happened to zoning and community oversight?

Also, saying that opponents hope to preserve the status quo ignores the community-developed UNITY plan and the bid for the railyards by Extell, a high-rise project at a somewhat lower density than the Ratner plan. It's disappointing that David, who surely knows Brooklyn and development better than Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry, sounds in this case like he's echoing Gehry's dismissal of critics.

As for the economics of the plan, why does David trust Ratner's claims, given that the developer has been unwilling to produce his economic projections for the project? Is Ratner's claim of $6 billion in revenue from the project credible? Are the subsidies and public costs deserved? And does David remember that, last December, he wrote, regarding eminent domain: What makes the issue so compelling in New York is that eminent domain is exercised here by undemocratic and politically motivated agencies like the Empire State Development Corp.

Friday, June 23, 2006

CBA coalition launches invite-only "Meet & Greet" sessions

For those interested in the Atlantic Yards project, a series of Meet & Greet sessions have begun at the Atlantic Yards Information Center on the third floor of the Atlantic Center Mall. While the term "open forum" is used to describe the meetings, they are invitation-only. According to a press release:
The Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement Coalition has started a series of “Meet and Greets” in Brooklyn, NY to both introduce community residents to the proposed $3.5 billion, Frank Gehry-designed Atlantic Yards project and to elicit additional feedback.... Future Meet & Greets are planned to occur regularly in the ensuing months.

The source for that press release was the Event Calendar Tuesday of the Electronic Urban Report (EUR), which listed the following: Essence Fest adds rap show, Diddy drops out; NBAF in Atlanta; Hip-Hop Theater Fest in NYC; ‘Thug’ film at Urbanworld; Atlantic Yards Meet & Greet. (Emphasis added)

While the issue of community benefits would presumably be interesting to a broad range of people, Forest City Ratner p.r. staff apparently want to get the word out to the black/urban audience.

First meeting June 13

The first event was held June 13. According to the invitation (click on the image to enlarge it):
Our Meet and Greet(s) are intended to be an open forum in which community residents and businesses can gather and meet an assortment of CBA signatory groups and representatives. In addition, these series of Meet and Greet(s) are to inform community residents and businesses more about the community benefits of the Atlantic Yards Project (AYP).
If you want to learn more about the CBA Atlantic Yards Project, have an idea, suggestion or just want to enjoy the company of your Neighbors, please join us! Our Meet and Greet(s) are free and you are welcomed to come via RSVP.

Given to attendees was a copy of the "Connect to CBA Opportunities" brochure produced by BUILD. The same document, which discusses plans for job training, affordable housing, and other CBA components (some of them still emerging), was given out Tuesday at the BUILD meeting, also held at the Atlantic Yards Information Center.

Cops, bankers also join in

The version of the guest list I saw had 66 names. Among the group:
--13 people from nine different public housing projects across Brooklyn, representatives of Public Housing Communities, a CBA signatory.
--4 people representing Brooklyn Endeavor Experience, a CBA signatory
--10 people from the New York State Association of Minority Contractors, a CBA signatory
--12 representatives from BUILD, a CBA signatory
--2 people from Mainline Financial Services
--2 representatives from HSBC
--1 community relations representative from Polytechnic University (a partner with Forest City Ratner on MetroTech)
--5 staffers from the Kings County District Attorney's Office
--7 representatives of the New York Police Department
--1 person from the Department of Education

Not present at this meeting were representatives from three CBA signatories: the Downtown Brooklyn Educational Consortium (DBEC), headed by Freddie Hamilton; the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance (DBNA), headed by the Rev. Herbert Daughtry; and the All-Faith Council of Brooklyn (AFCB), co-chaired by the Rev. Walter J. Morris.

Still in formation?

Based on the "Connect to CBA Opportunities" document, it seems that at least a couple of the CBA signatory groups are still in formation. (Click on the page at right for a larger view.) It states that PHC "will establish a Public Housing Council that will work with NYCHA Residents to ensure full participation in the programs and benefits of this Agreement."

Also, it states that "AFCB will form and facilitate an All-Faith Council, which shall be representative of the religious diversity within the Community, to establish an ongoing mechanism for community input for referrals to the jobs, housing and other programs created by this Agreement."

Unanswered questions

I wanted to find out more about this meeting and future meetings, so on Wednesday I called and emailed CBA Chair Delia Hunley-Adossa. I haven't heard back yet.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

MAS presentation on design principles, brochure now online

The 62-slide Municipal Art Society presentation from the June 15 session on design principles is now online. Also available is the brochure distributed at the meeting. (Part of the brochure is at right; click for a larger view.) And here's MAS President Kent Barwick's speech. The MAS web site also collects press coverage of the event.

AY information for BUILD invitees, but not for thee

On Tuesday night I was walking home from Fort Greene to Park Slope, on South Portland Avenue, alongside Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Center mall. I needed something from Staples--wasn't there a Staples in the mall? No, but there was something more intriguing: a blue sign pointing to the Atlantic Yards Information Center on the third floor.

I took two escalators up. After all, I'm quite interested in Atlantic Yards information, and the last time I saw that sign was on May 11, when I tried without avail to attend the press conference with Atlantic Yards architect Frank Gehry and landscape architect Laurie Olin. (Then again, I hadn't been back to the mall.)

Next to the Empire State Development Corporation's Brooklyn Community Network Office (coincidence: ESDC is in charge of the Atlantic Yards project), in a medium-sized room that likely was unleased retail space (Forest City Ratner now is its own tenant), there's a little piece of Oz in an otherwise drab mall.

Inside the Atlantic Yards Information Center are numerous wooden models of the Atlantic Yards complex. On the walls are more images of the project than available on the Atlantic Yards web site. Nicely-produced hanging screens introduce themes of the exhibition:
--"Open space by Olin"
--"Architecture by Gehry"
--"How will we create jobs for residents of Brooklyn?"
--"What is the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement?"
--"How will we support all this growth?"
--"What do we mean when we say Affordable Housing?"

Good questions, those. I walked past the entrance and saw that people signing in were being checked off against a list, and that the literature available was from Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), the job training group that has strongly supported the Atlantic Yards project (and has been supported, in turn, by Forest City Ratner, though not as much as originally assumed).

I'd obviously stand out, I concluded; of 30 or so people, I noticed only two other Caucasians, and at least one was a Forest City Ratner p.r. employee. Most of BUILD's members and supporters are black.

I walked a few paces down the hall, turned around and waited on the line. When I reached the table, I signed in with my name and acknowledged that I wasn't on the list. Sorry, I was told, you can't enter. OK, I said, and asked if I could take some literature. Yes.

I started ambling down the hall. To my surprise, someone caught up with me: James Caldwell, BUILD President & CEO. We shook hands. (We'd met briefly twice.) He invited me back into the room.

I was surprised. I said, "You know who I am? I've been tough on you." (Tough, but not unfair, I'd contend, though I'm sure some disagree.) He said yes, and he didn't mind my attendance.

I shook my head at the odd twists in the Atlantic Yards story and walked into the room. I perused the exhibits for a few minutes and took some notes. A BUILD officer asked me how I found out about the session. Her tone was a bit incredulous; maybe she was wondering whether I'd heard from the source who gave me the BUILD flier that distorted the purpose of the Municipal Arts Society meeting.

I told her the truth: I'd wandered into the mall, seen the sign, and went upstairs. Frankly, I was surprised that no other casual mall visitor had been as curious about Atlantic Yards information.

Attendees had gotten their refreshments and began to sit down for the formal program, presumably an explanation of the brochure, "Connect to CBA Opportunities," that was at the entrance table. It was subtitled: "Your guide to employment, business, affordable housing, community amenities, educational and other opportunities at FCRC's Atlantic Yards (Nets Arena) Project."

It didn't say anything about the environmental review process by the ESDC; a Draft Environmental Impact Statement is due next month, and there's likely to be a vigorous debate about the project. So the "It's coming" notation on the meeting flier may be somewhat conclusory.

Before I could sit down, Caldwell materialized by my side. He told me cordially that he'd been overruled--by Forest City Ratner p.r., I assume--and that I had to leave.

I went home and got my camera. I returned to the mall and took a few pictures of Atlantic Yards Information Center signs, which were at both the west and east entrances to the mall.

In the morning, when I stopped by the mall again, the signs were still there. (I guess they leave the signs out.) Anyone following the yellow brick road upstairs for Atlantic Yards information, however, would have found that the door to Oz was closed.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

First Annual Brooklyn Blogfest: Thursday at 8 pm

I'll be there, along with several other Brooklyn bloggers. We each will have an opportunity to talk briefly about our blogs, and even to read aloud or do live blogging. (I'll talk, but that's about it.)

Location: Old Stone House, Third Street, between Fifth and Fourth avenues in Park Slope
Organizer: Louis Crawford of Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn

What's missing? Columnist Louis still sloppy on jobs, the CBA, and AY rhetoric

In his 6/1/06 "Commerce and Community" column in the Bed-Stuy-based Our Time Press, Daily News columnist Errol Louis offered a "back-of-the-envelope analysis" of the jobs at the Atlantic Yards project. Unfortunately he failed to mention some important context, closing with the ahistorical suggestion that "Brooklyn politicians who have already wasted years opposing the project... should be negotiating the details of exactly how to make sure the coming jobs go to constituents who need it."

Louis neglected to tell readers that some jobs at the project have already been subject to negotiations, under the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), and others simply fall outside any political oversight. (This column is no longer online, as it's been replaced by a more recent column, discussed below.) He also ignored the CBA in a recent Daily News column in which he identified five project supporters without pointing out that two are CBA signatories.

Construction jobs

First, give Louis credit for discussing the promised construction jobs with more precision than the developer and some commentators:
Forest City Ratner Companies, the project developer, estimates 15,000 construction jobs will be created over the 10-year life of the buildup. To put it another way, about 1,500 construction employees will be on the job every year for a decade...

Many others simply repeat the term "15,000 construction jobs" without acknowledging that such jobs are calculated in job-years.

There was a CBA

Louis, however, did not mention the already-concluded negotiations about those construction jobs. The CBA calls for "good faith efforts to meet the overall goal... of not less than 35% Minority and 10% women construction workers..." This represents an effort to diversify the construction unions. Louis surely knows this; his Daily News has editorialized about the issue.

Within that goal, 35 percent of 1500 jobs means 525 jobs a year--not insignificant, but also not so large in reference to a $3.5 billion project that, by the developer's own estimate, would involve direct subsidies and public costs of at least $1.1 billion. As Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York testified at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing:
Without a real RFP [request for proposals] process, it is difficult to say whether or not the public is getting the best possible results from its economic development efforts. This is particularly true when it comes to providing subsidies in order to induce development. The public is being asked to pay for part of a project that it has not had a chance to compare with alternatives.

Other jobs at the project

Louis briefly discussed the other jobs:
Next come the jobs associated with the companies that lease space within the arena complex and the other buildings planned at Atlantic Yards. It's hard to know what businesses will lease the planned office space or how many new or existing jobs will be located at Atlantic yards, but Forest City Ratner estimates 2,500 permanent office jobs, 770 retail jobs, 400 arena jobs and 70 hotel jobs.

It's hard to know? Maybe, but we have some hints. As the New York Observer reported last December, those arena jobs are unionized, so current workers at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey would have first dibs at them.

What about the office jobs?

We also have some hints about the office jobs, the largest chunk of permanent jobs. They would not be subject to political oversight, and Louis should have known that. City Council member Charles Barron quizzed Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey about the office jobs at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing (p. 73-74):
STUCKEY: Well, we’re not even sure who those companies will be yet, Council member. I can’t tell you who the employees will be.
BARRON: Those jobs won’t be controlled by you?
STUCKEY: Those jobs are controlled by the companies that --
BARRON: That’s right. So, those, they could hire whoever they want basically.
STUCKEY: Typically that’s what happens with businesses in our country.

Beyond that, consider that, based on Forest City Ratner's track record in filling Brooklyn office space, at MetroTech and the Bank of New York Tower at Atlantic Terminal, it's unlikely that most of the office jobs would be new, as opposed to "retained." The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), a supporter of the project, looked at an earlier (and larger) set of job projections and estimated that fewer than a third would be new:
The fiscal impact analysis, however, assumes that only 30% of these jobs... are new to the New York economy.

Do the math: 30 percent of 2500 jobs would be 750 new jobs. And, to be precise, while Forest City Ratner estimates space for 2500 office jobs, that calculation does not include a vacancy rate. Throw in a typical 7 percent vacancy rate (which is what NYCEDC recommends) and you have to subtract another 175 jobs.

So 30 percent of 2325 jobs represents fewer than 700 new jobs. And how many of these jobs would go to residents of central Brooklyn?

Spinoff jobs

Louis also pointed that new businesses and expanded business would be needed to serve the thousands of families who would move into the project. Indeed, a population increase would stimulate demand for goods and services, though it's unclear how much of that demand would be accommodated by the retail promised within the project and thus be part of the already projected job figures.

As for the "coming tidal wave of new residents and office workers" who represent an opportunity for local entrepreneurs, consider that many would be close to Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls, both of which have significant chunks of vacant space. Could it be that "the tidal wave" might be an opportunity for the developer as well?

Unpaid work

In his 6/16/06 column, under the subtitle "Atlantic Yards in Black and White," Louis wrote that "the smoldering racial undertones of the debate over Atlantic Yards recently burst into flames" when the Daily News's Ben Smith published part of a racially-charged email from Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.

Some of Louis's characterizations deserve challenge. He called it "a disgusting transparent attack on well-known community leaders like James Caldwell, Bertha Lewis, and the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, who negotiated a Community Benefits Agreement with the developer of Atlantic Yards--leaders who have spent decades building credibility by doing thankless, unpaid work on behalf of poor people in Brooklyn."

However much the abovementioned have done "thankless, unpaid work" in other organizations, a key factor in this CBA is that the organizations that signed the agreement will benefit, and that's not how the CBA model was established in Los Angeles, where signatories don't take money from the developer. BUILD's Caldwell was once slated to earn a salary of $125,000, later amended to about half that. Lewis is a salaried employee of ACORN, which receives donations from Forest City Ratner and would be responsible for marketing the affordable housing. Daughtry's Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance got $50,000 in seed money the Forest City Ratner and, when asked, was unwilling to discuss what percentage of its funding comes from the developer. As noted by the New York Observer, six of the eight signatories did not exist as incorporated entities at the time the CBA was signed.

Racial undertones

As for the racial undertones, the issue is far more complex than black and white, as shown by the comments of two black City Council Members. Though Charles Barron used far more moderate language, he offered a not dissimilar message, declaring that the real divisive figure was not Goldstein but Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner. Using less charged language, he indicted CBA signatories: "Some quick folk made their deals early." Commenting on an attempt by BUILD to secure public funding for the privately-negotiated CBA, Letitia James called it an "Individual Benefits Agreement."

Referring to Goldstein's use of the term "wealthy white masters," Louis called it "pure poison, in the same community that came violently apart at the seams in 1991, in part because of loose reckless talk by irresponsible people." Same community? It depends on where you draw the boundaries. The immediate community is Prospect Heights; the larger community might be seen as Central Brooklyn, or even the borough as a whole; the 1991 riot was in Crown Heights, and related to a turf war between black residents, mainly of West Indian descent, and Lubavitcher Hasidim.

This issue of racially-charged rhetoric regarding the Atlantic Yards project could have--and should have--been covered from the start in perspective. Some Atlantic Yards supporters have offered irresponsible rhetoric. Last June, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Lewis said "a small group of white liberals... don't give a damn about people of color." Last July, Caldwell told the New York Sun, “If this thing doesn’t come out in favor of Ratner, it would be a conspiracy against blacks." (By the way, I ran into Caldwell unexpectedly last night. He was quite cordial.)

Back to the CBA

Louis wrote that it was laughable to suggest that CBA signatories are from astroturf groups, adding, "In fact, more than 200 community organizations have endorsed the Community Benefits Agreement, largely on the strength of the history and integrity and deep roots the signers brought to the table." As noted last August in the New York Observer's blog The Real Estate:
...the coalition claimed that "more than 200 organizations have affirmed" the agreement since its signing in June--”meaning they supported the idea even if they were not involved in negotiating the agreement or will be a part of enforcing it. The Real Estate asked for the list and counted fewer than 175; and that's only if "organizations" include elected officials, restaurants and real-estate agencies, as well as block associations and the like. But we were nonetheless surprised it had traveled so far, so fast. Why, there are groups from as far away as Queens and Manhattan on this list! (Are they part of the "community" in downtown Brooklyn?)

Brooklyn Law School

Louis hearkened back to a forum last November at Brooklyn Law School, where he appeared on a panel with Goldstein:
We differed on a few of the many factual details about the project that are flexible, negotiable or unclear for other reasons. As I recently wrote in this space, it takes a little science and a little guesswork to estimate how many jobs might be created by the project. The number changes, for instance, if more housing and less commercial space gets built.
At the forum, I gave my best estimate and tried to argue the real point--not whether there will be 6000 or 10,000 or 15,000 jobs, but how desperately the jobs are needed. Instead of agreeing that the exact jobs number is an estimate and debating the issue at hand, Goldstein told the audience I was trying to pull the wool over their eyes...."

Well, I was there too, and you can watch the session here: mms:// Louis said:
The estimates of the jobs that would be created are upwards of 15,000 permanent jobs as a result of the project. Certainly those numbers have to be scrutinized and might in fact be debatable, but the general idea of going forward.... is one with which I sympathize.

While Louis did acknowledge doubt at the time, it's hard to call that a "best estimate." The number of jobs makes a difference. Had Louis checked the New York Times and his own Daily News some ten days earlier, he would have known the office space, once projected to house 10,000 jobs, had been reduced to accommodate 2500 jobs--and a closer analysis would have suggested maybe a third of them would be new positions. Since whatever might be built would create jobs, the specific numbers, especially relative to the subsidies and public costs, deserve scrutiny.

False premises

Louis wrote that Goldstein posted an online article about the event saying "Louis lied his way through" the panel. All because my jobs estimate didn't match his.
Goldstein changed the language on his Web site after I sent him a note--but once again, the damage was already done by the same man who is forever calling for "healthy open debate."

Though it's no longer on the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn web site, the revised posting stated:
Errol Louis, New York Daily News editorial board member, columnist and Ratner supporter, can't even get his basic facts why should we trust what he or his board write? Especially inane stuff like this.
TimesRatnerReport covers two November 16th forums; at the first Mr. Louis repeatedly misstated established facts.

I didn't use Goldstein's language, but I think Louis was much too sloppy in his research and presentation. And I think he downplayed the differences in the debate, which went beyond estimates over jobs. I used the term "false premises (on eminent domain)" and pointed out the following flaws in Louis's argument:
--he suggested that the conditions in Prospect Heights were analogous to the two rather different cases Justice Sandra Day O'Connor cited as legitimate exercises of eminent domain
--he emphasized that the railyard owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been undeveloped for 50 years, which is true, but didn't acknowledge that eminent domain would not be necessary to develop the property
--he estimated 15,000 permanent jobs at the project.

Minor details?

A lack of attention to details can produce a distorted portrait of the big picture. There's a big difference between 15,000 new permanent jobs and 2500 total office jobs (or my more recent estimate of 1590 new permanent jobs). There's a big difference between last year's Kelo eminent domain case, where the project emerged from a publicly-approved plan, and the fait accompli of the Atlantic Yards project.

There's a big difference between describing the Atlantic Yards debate as a black-white battle rather than a more complex political (and racial) divide. And there's a big difference between the pioneering Community Benefits Agreements negotiated in Los Angeles, where groups agree not to accept money from a developer, and the Atlantic Yards CBA, where that ground rule has been ignored--not just by the signatories but by most of the press.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Would Atlantic Yards CBA be part of the emerging template? More doubts emerge

Does the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) negotiated by Forest City Ratner and eight community groups stand as a template for good development? Not if you look at the CBAs negotiated in Los Angeles, where signatories didn't accept funds from a developer, unlike several of the groups in Brooklyn.
(At right, image from Forest City Ratner brochure.)

I went to the Black Brooklyn Empowerment Convention (BBEC) on Saturday at the Concord Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant to see whether the CBA issue would come up. It did, though glancingly. In a discussion of housing and economic development issues, Lois Blades-Rosado, executive director of the Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center, said activists should be "holding elected officials and community boards accountable for the creation of Community Benefits Agreements."

While Blades-Rosado spoke generally, with no reference to the Atlantic Yards CBA, her formulation presents another alternative. Elected officials were not involved in the negotiation of the Atlantic Yards CBA, and not only were the three affected community boards shut out of the discussion, they have protested Forest City Ratner's public relations statement that the CBs participated in "crafting" the agreement.

That's not to say that participation by community boards and elected officials always legitimizes a CBA, since the process, in New York at least, can be highly political. Critics of the Yankees CBA on a Bronx community board have not been reappointed, as the New York Times reported yesterday. Lobbyist (and Forest City Ratner supporter) Richard Lipsky observed:
The community boards are representative of nothing but the elected officials who appoint them and, as the furor over Board 4 in the Bronx demonstrates, if they go off the political reservation they are quickly shown the door.

As the New York Times reported last week, there's increasing dismay in New York about CBAs, with "signs that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's administration is rethinking its position" about them and Council Member Melinda Katz, chair of the City Council's land use committee, "saying that New York 'can probably learn a lot from other jurisdictions.'"

Redefining Economic Development

One plank in the action plan distributed at the BBEC called for support of efforts by RED New York (Redefining Economic Development New York, which "has begun to draft a set of principles to which a publicly supported development project should comply." The BBEC, said the action plan, should seek to ensure that:
--New York's poor and working poor have support and the first opportunity at available jobs
--housing units for low and moderate income families and individuals are included in all publicly assisted housing development projects
--contracting and procurement opportunities are made available to minority- and women-owned businesses
--job prequisites are limited to only those requirements that are necessary for success in the job
--environmental burdens on the poor and communities of color are mitigated and environmental benefits are equitably distributed regardless of race and class.

Those goals are part of a larger discussion being held by several groups, with the goal a blueprint "for future progressive economic development campaigns in New York City."

Earlier this year, in a Gotham Gazette article about RED's fledgling efforts, Mark Winston Griffith cited Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee, who criticized the deals made with Forest City Ratner on the Atlantic Yards project:
What de la Uz envisions is a set of standards for job creation, environmental impact, buy-in from the surrounding area, etc. that the city or a private developer could be held to whenever they planned to use public resources. In her opinion such a standard would have set a much higher bar for Ratner to clear before he was able to pursue the Nets Arena project.

In other words, this discussion, while valuable, may be a little late. Forest City Ratner can call the Atlantic Yards CBA historic, but there's increasing evidence that it's not a model.

Novelist Lethem to Gehry: "Walk away"

In an open letter headlined Brooklyn's Trojan Horse, published yesterday on, Brooklyn-based novelist Jonathan Lethem, a member of the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn advisory board (which should've been mentioned in his bio), suggests that it's time for architect Frank Gehry to abandon the Atlantic Yards project.

The reasons:
--the project's oversize scale
--"your partner's manipulative dishonesty"
--"Ratner's abhorrent track record"
--"the divisive zero-sum politics"
--"the principle of eminent domain"
--blocking the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower
--that not-so-comely Miss Brooklyn tower.

He quotes Gehry's words in a January presentation:
"If I think it got out of whack with my own principles, I'd walk away." I can only hope that what was once perhaps just a seed has grown. For I'm positive that is exactly what you should do, Mr. Gehry. Walk away.

It's notable that, two-and-a-half years after the project was announced, it took a name novelist to get a piece in a national publication. The project has been long overdue for scrutiny and, even though some on the message boards say that the issue is too local, it's not. It's a development debate with national implications.

Gehry recently told the Times of his relationships with developers, "They have to meet me as an equal." Given that Gehry's professed a willingness to meet with Brooklynites but has not been allowed to do so, and that his predictions of significant cuts in scale have not been realized, the jury's still out on Gehry's claim.

Monday, June 19, 2006

BUILD claims MAS meeting was "trying to stop" jobs, housing, and opportunities

It turns out the strongest spin on last Thursday's Municipal Art Society forum came not from any of the groups critical of the Atlantic Yards project but BUILD, fervent supporters of the project.

The notably highminded session on design principles for the project was marked by some pre-meeting skirmishing among community groups critical of or opposed to the plan, and even by some press releases issued before the session began.

And, as Neil de Mause observed in the Village Voice's Power Plays blog: [MAS president] Kent Barwick insisted he didn't want to make simplistic headlines, he made them nonetheless with the declaration that "the [Ratner] plan in its current state would not work."

BUILD misreads meeting

Then there is BUILD. The organization, which has vigorously advocated for the Atlantic Yards plan at various public meetings, gets free office space from Forest City Ratner, and receives significant funding from the developer (though representatives at first denied they got such money).

BUILD sent a message to supporters that was not merely simplistic but thoroughly distorted the purpose of the meeting. "Come out to support affordable housing, jobs and business opportunities for our community," the flier said. There was no mention of the Municipal Art Society.

The flier went on to list the groups and political figures sponsoring the MAS session--groups that actually were careful not to endorse the MAS's conclusions--and declared that they are "trying to STOP Jobs, Affordable Housing And The NETS Arena and Opportunities from coming to our community. Over Fifty (50%) percent of Black Men in OUR Community are unemployed."

"Please come out and support the nets Arena and The Atlantic Yards Project," it continued. There was no reference to the MAS's attempt to assess design guidelines for the project.

While some BUILD officers and representatives of affiliate groups were at the meeting, no large contingent was obvious.

BUILD and unemployment

Recently, city Council Member David Yassky asked for $3 million from the City Council to fund BUILD, under the weak explanation, from spokesman Evan Thies, that “There is an eight-and-half percent unemployment rate in [the area] and that is not going to go down unless there is more access to job-training programs.”

There's obviously a need for jobs and training for black men in Brooklyn--and other Brooklynites as well. Should public funding for the privately-negotiated Community Benefits Agreement--and a signatory with no previous record in job training--be the priority?

Also, the source of BUILD's unemployment figures--and the definition of the community boundary--is unclear. A BUILD press release states that "[t]here is a 78% unemployment rate in the Fort Greene housing project and a 66% unemployment rate within the Farragut housing project."

As for black unemployment in the city, the New York Times reported last year on a study that said 60.7 percent of working-age black men in the city had jobs. That does not, however, mean that 39.3 percent are unemployed, because the study didn't count those who "neither sought nor wanted a job, such as students, stay-at-home fathers, early retirees, and the disabled, among others."

Equally unclear is how much of a dent the project could make. The Community Benefits Agreement, as the New York Observer reported last December, does set aside some construction jobs for minorities:
The agreement sets a goal of employing 35 percent minorities—a reasonable and achievable threshold which Forest City has met on its other projects. In other words, 525 jobs—not reserved for public-housing residents, or even residents of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, but for minorities from all over the metropolitan region.

But any jobs and benefits also should be seen in the context of direct subsidies and public costs that would be well over $1 billion. It's all part of a larger debate that goes beyond assertions that the MAS session was about stopping jobs and affordable housing.

Friday, June 16, 2006

MAS says FCR's current plan "won't work;" panel, crowd pile on criticism

Updated 8/21/16: Brochure and presentation embedded at bottom.

In a way, the message was clear, wrapped up in a brochure deftly mixing text and graphics. “Can it work for Brooklyn?” asked the influential Municipal Art Society (MAS), a longstanding advocate for good urban design and sensible development.

The brochure offered a startling analogy: the 17 buildings in the Atlantic Yards project would be the equivalent of more than 23 Williamsburgh Savings Banks. The bank may be the tallest building in Brooklyn, at 512 feet (the proposed Miss Brooklyn would be 620 feet), but it’s tapered, not bulky.

On the other side of the brochure, the answer:
Forest City Ratner’s current plan won’t work for Brooklyn.

The reasons: And while the Atlantic Yards site is right for development, the Forest City Ratner plan threatens Brooklyn’s special qualities. It would overwhelm surrounding neighborhoods with enormous towers. It would eliminate streets to create deadening superblocks that don’t work anywhere in New York City. It would create a private-feeling enclave of a park on what is now public land. And it would add 40,000 new vehicular trips every day with no plan to avoid gridlock.

No consensus

But the brochure, and the elaboration by two MAS experts, wasn’t enough for many among the 400-plus people packing the room last night at the Hanson Place United Methodist Church in Fort Greene. During the meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, they expressed greater criticism of the project’s density, the role of an arena in demapping streets, and a planning process that excluded them.

And it wasn’t enough for the panel of four respondents. Ron Shiffman, co-founder and until recently head of the Clinton Hill-based Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED; now the Pratt Center for Community Development), was first off the blocks.

After praising the principles articulated by MAS, he added, “What concerns me is what they didn’t say. Good planning and good design… cannot be divorced from good public process.”

Though some questions from the public strayed into speeches, the session featured more detailed discourse than previous large public meetings, and not the anticipated “hornet’s nest” created by a confluence of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) supporters and union carpenters. Despite some cheers and catcalls, the crowd was mostly low-key, and no large union contingent showed up.

[The Times covered the session, in an article today on B4 (sans graphics) headlined Group Calls for Major Changes in Atlantic Yards Plan. It included the MAS principles, Ratner's response, and some of the community skirmishing--but not the panel's forceful take. The New York Post, in an article I initially missed headlined Slap at Ratner, ran a three-paragraph story that said that the MAS said "the developer should reduce its size and figure out a way to control traffic in the neighborhood." Imagine: in a city the size of Brooklyn with its own newspaper, last night's meeting would have been on the front of the Metro section, at least.

The Brooklyn Papers' online coverage cited the audible gasp when the crowd was told that the project would be the "equivalent of “three Empire State Buildings, 23 Williamsburgh Savings Bank buildings, or 2,200 brownstones — which is roughly the entire population of Prospect Heights.” In the Village Voice's Power Plays blog, Neil de Mause offered a good summary.]

Ratner's response

Jim Stuckey, President of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards Development Group, was on hand for the pre-meeting press conference, sitting with arms crossed and a serious expression. After the formal briefing, reporters gathered around Stuckey, and he appeared unruffled. He said that the developer was moving toward meeting some of the MAS’s concerns and declared others not worth the tradeoffs they would entail.

He assured questioners that the project would avoid big box retail and thus create lively streets, promised a major effort to cope with traffic, and asserted that “keeping streets to nowhere” would stymie the developer’s plans to manage more wastewater than is currently dumped from the area to the Gowanus Canal.

As for the scale of the project—the elephant next door--he said, “I think [MAS president] Kent Barwick said it correctly: There is no magic number here.” He added, "We're sitting here doing this incredible analysis of a project that hasn't even started a public review process yet." Then again, the project was announced in December 2003.

"This report, admittedly by them, didn't look at the economics of the project," Stuckey continued. "It's a nice thing to say that 'we're going to come up with five design principles,' but ignore the fact that there's a billion of costs in infrastructure and land acquisition." Whether that justifies the scale remains a mystery, however, since the company hasn't released its fiscal projections.

"It's a very nice thing to say that we're looking at design principles but also not take into consideration that we're trying desperately to address the affordable housing crisis in New York City right now, which I think is admirable about our plan," he said.

However pious the statement--Forest City Ratner has used the affordable housing component to justify a density far greater than other major projects in the city--it was delivered in a church next to the Williamsburgh Savings Bank (right), currently under conversion into luxury condominiums exclusively.

Pre-meeting tension

Some tension over the session surfaced days before, as DDDB emailed volunteers urging them to bring signs and questions (and "be respectful") to MAS’s presentation of a “plan” calling for a development only 20 percent smaller than Forest City Ratner's current outline, and even suggesting that a donation from the developer, and the presence of board member who's invested in the Nets, might have tainted the analysis. (The MAS's Vanessa Gruen told the Observer the support had no effect.)

MAS, however, had not planned to raise the issue of density last night, without more input from the community and a better analysis of the project's economics.

“We do not have a plan,” said Barwick emphatically at the press briefing. The distinction was partly semantic; MAS had done a “zoning analysis” that produced a figure over 6.5 million square feet, a good deal less of a scaleback than the one-third cut proposed by Assembly Member Jim Brennan.

Barwick yesterday wouldn't be pinned down on the appropriate number of apartments or square footage. “The arithmetic matters less than the impact,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any scientific way to get to a number.” As for the Brennan bill, “We don’t know the real-life fiscal implications faced by the developer,” he said.

“In our view, if Brooklyn wants an arena, this is a good place to have an arena,” he said, citing the nearby transportation hub. But how assess what Brooklyn wants? “That’s the trouble with having no public process,” he allowed.

At the press briefing, Barwick said, “Forest City Ratner has been terrific in sharing their plans, models, and professional assistance.” At the same time, he criticized the process. “Whether Atlantic Yards turns out to be great project or a flawed project, no local official will ever get a vote. That’s just wrong,” he said, calling for a system that “involves rather than alienates citizens.”

He suggested that it was the fault of neither the community nor the developer, though it's certainly in Forest City Ratner's interest for the project to be managed by the state Empire State Development Corporation--a process to which the mayor agreed.

Elaborating the principles

Stuart Pertz, an architect who serves on the MAS Planning Committee and was formerly on the city Planning Commission, elaborated on the principles:
1) Respect the existing neighborhoods
2) Don’t eliminate streets
3) Create a real public park
4) Promote lively streets
5) Don’t choke the streets
(At right, a view of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank from Flatbush Avenue in Park Slope.)

He cited the scale of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, the importance of public parks that face streets, and the problem if a development presents “an extreme difference in scale” with neighboring streets.

While the Atlantic Yards plan would eliminate streets, he noted that both the Rockefeller Center and Tudor City plans in Manhattan added streets to ensure the flow of pedestrians, and Stuyvesant Town, which demapped streets, created park space pleasant for residents but cut off from the city.

As for Forest City Ratner’s MetroTech, “I know it well because I was part of the process,” said Pertz with a tinge of regret. When the project was conceived in the late 1980s, firms from Manhattan considered Brooklyn a dangerous and foreign land, and both the developer and partner Polytechnic University exerted great pressure to close the streets—against the recommendation of Pertz, an architect on the project.

Applying the principles

The community-developed Unity Plan, as well as the Pacific Plan by local architect Doug Hamilton both provided guidance for MAS. Urban planner John West proceeded to apply the MAS principles to Forest City Ratner’s current plan.

One suggestion: don’t block the clock of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which could be achieved if buildings were further set back from the street, the arena moved east of Fifth Avenue, and one of the towers eliminated. (At right, a rendering by Gehry partners shows Miss Brooklyn blocking the clock, in a view from Flatbush Avenue and Prospect Place--not St. Marks Avenue.)

Also, in the principle about promoting lively streets, the prime example in the brochure was the blank wall of the P.C. Richard store at Site 5, the corner of Flatbush, Fourth, and Atlantic Avenues, part of Forest City Ratner's Shops at Atlantic Center.

Another suggestion: reuse existing buildings like the Ward Bakery (right), which has been suggested as a historic resource. (The unstated implication: if no tower or a smaller tower were built there, the project density could decline.)

He also suggested a graduated hierarchy for the size of buildings, in some contrast to the current plan: taller along wide Atlantic Avenue; intermediate heights along Pacific Street; and lower on Dean Street, opposite low-rise blocks.

Even though MAS recommends against demapping streets, even if the arena were moved east of Fifth Avenue, it would require the demapping of Pacific Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Perhaps, West said, it could be countered by adding streets, pointing to extensions of the street grid from Fort Greene.

Moving the arena would also require the elimination of one planned tower. “The developer has looked at this,” West said. “They say it doesn’t work, but we hope they can try a bit harder.”

West had harsh words for the planned open space, saying much of it came from demapped streets and other portions would be directly adjacent to Atlantic Yards buildings and approached as privatized space.

“An alternative way of thinking,” he said, would to have parks delineated by streets and distinctly mapped. Pertz pointed out that, given that open space would not be due for a decade, were parks distinct pieces of real estate, they could be built separately.

West said that, regarding plans for retail around the arena, “the developer is trying hard to make this work.” He was less optimistic about placing stores in the base of residential buildings that are situated off the street grid. “It’s a little difficult to understand how they would be successful stores.”

Principles--or arena?

In the Q&A session, Daniel Goldstein, spokesman for DDDB, challenged the analysis. “You have very nice principles, but you violate all of them with the arena,” he asserted. “Are your principles more important than the arena?… If you say the arena is more important, then you're saying, 'Yes, it’s Ratner’s framework we’re working with,' not the community's and not the Municipal Art Society's.” His question drew sharp applause.

“It’s a very difficult question to answer,” allowed Pertz, who said alternatives could involve an arena on the site of the Atlantic Center Mall or in Coney Island, or no arena at all. He acknowledged that the arena did close streets and otherwise ran afoul of the principles, but said that there had been "enormous" sentiment in favor of having an arena.

Pertz allowed that his personal opinion might be more critical than his presentation, but said, “I am representing MAS. We have certainly heard you. There will be a lot of conversations.”

Beyond the principles

Larger issues were raised in the panel discussion. If the issue of eminent domain isn’t discussed, declared Shiffman, a former member of the Planning Commission, “you lose the insight of what those buildings [in the footprint] could and would become,” citing the conversion of manufacturing buildings to housing. “They were step by step regenerating this neighborhood.”

“I like the idea of bringing back a major league franchise,” allowed Shiffman, who’s old enough to remember the Dodgers. “I also believe that maybe downtown Brooklyn was a good place to locate an arena.”

However, he took aim at the argument that Atlantic Avenue transit hub could support an arena. The facility is already crowded, he said, adding, “I’m not sure we have the capacity” for arena crowds; he contrasted it to the more spacious underground layout of Penn Station around Madison Square Garden.

Shiffman said density is important, as was affordable housing--a principle that should be kept under all plans--but expressed doubt that “probably one of the densest developments in the world can really be done properly.”

“We have some great architects,” he said, in a nod to architect Frank Gehry and landscape architect Laurie Olin, “but they are some lousy planners.” Shiffman, who has a long association with grassroots groups, including ACORN—one of the prime community proponents of Forest City Ratner’s plan—has recently joined the advisory board of DDDB.

Shiffman pointed out that the use of eminent domain would serve as a signal for the process in Manhattanville, where Columbia University seeks to expand its campus. “Eminent domain is an important tool when it meets a public purpose,” he said, but not when it does not address a public purpose and is used to transfer property from one private owner to another private owner. "Now we need to stand up and speak out against it.”

Framing the discussion

Marshall Brown, architect of the UNITY plan and now an architecture professor at the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art, & Planning, criticized MAS’s approach, saying “the major part of the discussion has been framed by the developer.”

Rather, he said, the discussion should be shifted, and elevated. “It’s not really about an arena,” he declared. “It’s about one developer getting a foothold on the best site in the cultural core of Downtown Brooklyn.” (Actually, it’s Prospect Heights.)

As for the goal of “respecting the existing neighborhoods,” Brown declared, “it’s setting the bar a little low. We’re sitting on a gold mine… It should not just respect the surrounding community but enhance the community.”

Andy Wiley-Schwartz, a VP at the Project for Public Spaces and a Brooklyn resident, praised MAS, saying “It’s very easy for us to be marginalized because we live around the site.” He noted that good design could make people choose not to drive. “I think we need to plan this whole area to create a great destination.”

Lance Brown, a professor of architecture at CUNY, suggested that the Atlantic Yards plan is part of a national phenomenon. “All across the country, every city is rebuilding its railyards,” though in most cases the yards are next to industrial areas rather than thriving neighborhoods. “There’s a need to sit down and rethink what the community wants to happen,” he said.

Neighborhood response

The meeting was sponsored by New York State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, State Assembly Members Joan Millman and Brennan, and City Council Member Letitia James, and the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association, the Boerum Hill Association, the Brooklyn Heights Association, the Fort Greene Association (FGA), the Society for Clinton Hill, the Park Slope Civic Council and the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC). Both James and Montgomery addressed the crowd. The sponsors took pains to point out that they were not endorsing the MAS presentation.

Before the session, DDDB handed out a press release criticizing MAS for not using “the community’s guidelines for development over the rail yards,” endorsed by 22 community groups and three of the four elected officials representing the area including the project footprint.
The FGA issued a press release pointing out that “design alone cannot present a comprehensive solution to the fundamental problems of the proposed development,” citing the use of eminent domain, excess density, and issues of traffic, shadows, and community facilities.

By contrast, the PHNDC handed out a more moderate statement, acknowledging that design issues are just one element in assessing the project, but suggesting—in a bit of a stretch—that the MAS’s advice was presented “while maintaining the economics and site programming sought by the developer, thus demonstrating that community-friendly design is not incompatible with their stated objectives.”

More from the audience

Martin Goldstein, a Fort Greene resident, even offered criticism from the perspective of his neighborhood, saying that concerns raised about blocking the clock were “Park Slope-centric.” He cited the Atlantic Center mall, with its blank walls on Hanson Place and South Elliott Place; “everyone believes it’s a terrible mistake.” Pertz said that “next time” such concerns would get more of a hearing.

While the moderator, Leonard Lopate of WNYC radio, urged the audience to stay on the topic of design and keep the questions short, some among the long line of people waiting at the microphone didn’t comply.

Alan Rosner brought up the issues of global warming and terrorism, saying that the planned towers would block access to solar technology. “We understand they are significant issues,” responded Pertz, “but answers we don’t have.”

A member of the group REBUILD, which is involved in transitioning ex-prisoners to the community, lamented that "Mexicans" were working on local construction projects and said that any project in the community should hire people from the community.

While the comment was off-topic, Brown answered that any project should indeed do so. The commenter was one of relatively few black attendees at the forum; at previous public meetings, the community groups ACORN and BUILD, both signatories of the controversial Community Benefits Agreement, had brought large contingents of people of color.

Also in the audience were about two dozen people in hardhats and orange reflector vests; they were members of People for Political and Economic Empowerment, a Fort Greene group that has been a supporter of BUILD.

Rallying the troops

At times, the meeting had the flavor of a rally. “Forest City Enterprises [parent company of Forest City Ratner] cannot build this without my home and the home of my neighbors, and I’m not giving it to them,” declared DDDB‘s Goldstein, the last remaining resident of a condo building that would be near the arena's center court.

“Even better than that, Jim Stuckey called my lawyer and begged me not to be an eminent domain plaintiff.” (Stuckey doesn't seem like the begging type, and Goldstein allowed afterward that he’d used a bit of dramatic license in describing the effort to acquire his apartment.) He added: "They're concerned about an eminent domain lawsuit, because they will lose that lawsuit."

Several speakers urged audience members to get involved in the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, which will coordinate responses to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is expected next month.

Some expressed optimism that the momentum from the meeting could lead to a more open review for the project. More certain is Barwick’s description of the project: “a major fork in the road for Brooklyn.” Expect congestion ahead.