Thursday, August 31, 2006

CBA accountability? Where are the reports to the community?

At the August 23 public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Atlantic Yards project, we heard rhapsodic praise for the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that developer Forest City Ratner signed with eight community groups, only a few of which had any track record in the areas which they must contribute.

The CBA includes affordable housing pledges and a 35% minority hiring goal in construction jobs--approximately 525 people a year for ten years--among its main features. It also has led to payments to some if not all of the signatories--a departure from the CBA template pioneered in Los Angeles, where signatories agree not to accept money from a developer.

But we didn't hear much about what's happened since the CBA was signed on 6/27/05. Yes, Forest City Ratner has helped fund signatories to the CBA and has supported a training session for minority contractors, co-sponsored by the New York Association of Minority Contractors, a CBA signatory.

The CBA coalition has launched invitation-only Meet & Greet sessions, but there's little evidence of accountability to the broader community.

What about compliance?

Has the developer funded an Independent Compliance Monitor, as the CBA directs?

Not yet, acknowledges CBA spokeswoman Cheryl Duncan.

The CBA states:
As soon as reasonably practicable after formation of the Executive Committee, the Executive Committee shall publish a Request for Proposals ("RFP") to qualified, independent persons or entities with experience in overseeing compliance with similar arrangements or who have other experience... Such Independent Compliance Monitor ("ICM") shall be selected and hired by the Executive Committee, at an annual payment of up to $100,000 to be paid by the Project Developer, and shall be responsible for oversight of the Project Developer's, Arena Developer's and Coalition members' obligations under this Agreement, investigation of any complaints brought against the Developers or a Coalition member regarding implementation of this Agreement and review of the Developers reports required under Article X (the "Developer Reports").

Environmental assurances

And what about the environmental challenges posed by the project?

After all, the CBA states that, upon execution of the agreement, the Developers will work with FATHC [First Atlantic Terminal Housing Committee] to establish a Committee on Environmental Assurances to address short and long term environmental issues that may affect the Surrounding Community as a result of development of the Arena and the Project.

That was in June 2005. Since then, FATHC has been renamed the Brooklyn Endeavor Experience (BEE). Duncan said that a report on the environmental issue was due soon.

For now, at least, BEE's web site offers little clue. In fact, an Environmental Day, projected for June, never materialized. (Note that the essay on BEE's web site, "What Sustainability Is to BEE," comes directly from another nonprofit site.)

Who's in charge?

Note that the "Mitigation Measures" cited in the CBA refer to issues raised in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, and that CBA signatories must defer to the state. All the CBA does is require that the developers consult with FATHC [now BEE] regarding concerns of the Community regarding environmental impacts caused by the development of the Arena and the Project, including, but not limited to: an on-site and off-site rodent abatement program; a staging plan for construction that minimizes the effects of idling trucks; a pedestrian and vehicular traffic plan; and encouragement of all contractors to use low sulfur diesel in trucks operating at the Project. In addition, the Developers shall adopt prudent environmentally sound building practices that will take into consideration the goal of promoting sustainable development in an energy efficient manner.

Those were already planned by Forest City Ratner. Ultimately, the CBA acknowledges, the community has little power:
All potential environmental mitigation measures, the cost to implement such measures, and the party deemed responsible for their compliance is ultimately determined by the State. Therefore, the Developer shall be in compliance with this Agreement by following the state mandated process.
(Emphasis added)

Quarterly reports?

The CBA also sets up some other schedules that do not appear to have been met, in part because the ICM does not exist:
Quarterly Reports. Within thirty (30) days after the end of each calendar quarter, the Developers will prepare and submit to the Coalition and the ICM a status report which shall analyze the then relevant initiatives broken down by Development Phase, and, if relevant, specify actions taken by Developers to fulfill their obligations under this Agreement...

Community liaison?

The CBA states that the community should have been provided with status reports:
The Downtown Brooklyn Advisory and Oversight Committee (“DBAOC”) shall be the community liaison for the Arena and the Project and shall provide periodic status reports to the Community on compliance by the Developers and the Executive Committee with this Agreement.

There's no evidence that any status reports have been provided.

Project Implementation Plan?

The CBA also promises a manual:
Upon signing of this Agreement, the Developers, in consultation with the Coalition members, shall create a manual for the implementation of the programs and goals described in this Agreement (the “Project Implementation Plan”)...
(2) Developers shall submit the Project Implementation Plan, as approved by Developers and the designated Coalition members, for comment by the Executive Committee within 120 days from the date hereof. Upon presentation and adoption by the Executive Committee, the Project Implementation Plan will become a part of this Agreement and the ICM shall use the Project Implementation Plan as a tool for judging the Developers’ and Coalitions’ progress in achieving the objectives set forth in this Agreement and the Project Implementation Plan.


Duncan did not respond to several queries about this plan, the quarterly reports, or the community liaison.

BEE's history & goals

For such a publicly quiet group, BEE has some ambitious goals, and a rather sketchy history. Its web site states:

OUR HISTORY
In 1992, a group of friends were eager to tackle the combined problems of Brooklyn. Like many other caring Brooklynites they searched for an organization offering flexible, hands-on volunteer opportunities that were not limiting. After careful consideration, they decided to form a new organization, with a new and unique approach: Brooklyn Endeavor Experience, Inc.


Well, if the group was called the First Atlantic Terminal Housing Committee when it signed the CBA in 2005, it certainly wasn't called the Brooklyn Endeavor Experience all those years.

Perhaps the name was changed because it seemed narrow to have a fledgling group based on one building--the First Atlantic Terminal Mitchell-Lama tower in Fort Greene--shoulder the "community" task of Atlantic Yards environmental monitoring.

The history continues, promising accountability if not coherence:
Since forming this exciting opportunity, their team members have collaborated to produce a preliminary plan that they believe will energize and strengthen their community, and produce long-term benefits for the entire borough of Brooklyn. We are a team of community volunteers with a proven track record in the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill area. Our team is comprised of members who have worked together on numerous successful projects.

Currently, the members are participants in the Atlantic Yards Project and other possible opportunities that can benefit the Brooklyn Community. Our participation is because we want to address not only their interest in the project, but our expectations regarding the project for the good of the Brooklyn Community at large.

We have assembled for this project because of our enormous trust and confidence they have with one another. We understand that right now the plan is clearly a “work in progress” which can only be improved by input from the various stakeholders who care the most about the project in question; keeping in mind that the community at large is not overlooked. With this in mind and a focal point of this huge project Forest City Ratner Companies and the community at large can be assured that the lead partners in our group will manage this project closely and carefully, and be accountable with our participation.

Some of BEE, Inc.’s expectations are to be included in the dialogue of the overall project and vision including, but not limited the following:
1. All environmental Issues and the environmental Impact on the community at large
2. Security and safety issues
3. Need for larger police precinct station house and resources
4. Traffic Issues
5. Sanitation Issues
6. Additional Schools for District 13
7. Job Development – all levels for residents in the immediate area and borough of Brooklyn given preference
8. Housing – all levels for residents in the immediate area and borough of Brooklyn given preference
9. Community Facilities – all levels for residents in the immediate area and borough of Brooklyn given preference
10. Sponsorship for community youth and senior existing and newly developed programs in conjunction with the 88th Precinct Community & Youth Council and program and/or office space for the council members and community within the Atlantic Yards Development. Including but not limited to intergenerational programs, etc.
11. Healthcare facilities for all
12. Small Business Development – all levels for residents in the immediate area and borough of Brooklyn given preference


Note that Delia Hunley-Adossa, head of BEE and chair of the CBA coalition, is president of the 88th Precinct council, which hints at why item 10 above is more detailed. When I contacted her in June about the CBA Meet-and-Greet sessions, she never responded.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

More DEIS hearing coverage

Here's my article from the Brooklyn Downtown Star, which focuses on responses to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Nik Kovac's overview captures a few telling anecdotes, and diarist Kenny Bruno confronts sports, race, development, and the "soul of Brooklyn."

Imagining a 50% scaleback: shrinkage is not surgery

So now there are murmurings of an Atlantic Yards scaleback, and even musings on a 50 percent reduction.

As I noted, there's an argument that a 50 percent cut in the project should've been the ceiling for discussion, in terms of density. What might that look like? I asked graphic designer Abby Weissman to take a crack at project renderings. Above, a look at the project elevations facing south. Below, Weissman's rough attempt at a 50 percent shrinkage, including height and bulk. (Click to enlarge)

First, the renderings don't convey scale all too well. Consider that a 50 percent reduction in the density of three buildings, including the flagship "Miss Brooklyn," would still leave them bulkier than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank.

But there's a certain ridiculousness to the exercise--a reduction in scale wouldn't be accomplished by shrinking the buildings; it would be accomplished by various forms of surgery.

Had the project proceeded via the city's land use planning process, a ceiling would have been set by zoning at the start.

Scale and placement

In an article in the Brooklyn Eagle (registration required), Dennis Holt observes
When people start talking about how tall a building should be, not whether the building should be at all, the argument against the project is lost. And that argument also ignores the real world.
In terms of the Atlantic Yards proposal, the height of new buildings is far less important than how many buildings there should be. Debating how tall buildings should be is easy; debating the number of buildings is very difficult.


Holt suggests that 12 buildings would be more manageable, so perhaps by adding stories the number of buildings could be reduced. This zero-sum change wouldn't do anything, however, about the poor ratio of open space to the number of new residents, or the impacts on traffic and transit.

As for whether the argument is lost, note that Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn has said that scale is only part of the issue.

Whose responsibility?

Holt declares that the number of buildings is a more important question than how many cars will go through a given intersection in plan A versus plan B. Opponents of the plan, whose numbers grew over the years, never became a serious part of possibly serious discussions because they didn’t want to be.

Here Holt turns into a counterpart of Daily News columnist Errol Louis, slamming project opponents for not participating in a nonexistent dialogue with the developer. Once the project was turned over to the Empire State Development Corporation and taken outside the city's land use review process, there was no fair forum for such a dialogue.

Miss Brooklyn vs. the WillyB

Holt writes:
But since people are getting interested in the height of Miss Brooklyn, let’s address that issue here. The height of Miss Brooklyn should be determined by whether what is happening in Brooklyn is rebuilding the old Brooklyn or whether a new Brooklyn is being built. If it is the latter, then Miss Brooklyn should be the tallest building in Brooklyn — it should be the signature structure of all that has come and will come.
Why should the tallest building in Brooklyn continue to be a building that for almost 80 years was a mistake? It was supposed to lead to new change, but the Depression put an end to that. It stood alone and almost aloof. It should no longer signal what Brooklyn is all about.


His point must be music to architect Frank Gehry's ears. Still, the argument about scale is less that the bank should be the tallest building but that views of the bank's clock tower--a "visual resource," according to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement--should not be lost.

Richard Lipsky and the "booty capitalists" of the AY CBA

Credit Richard Lipsky, lobbyist around town against big box stores (yet for Atlantic Yards and other Forest City Ratner projects) for introducing the term "booty capitalists" to the local discussion. Actually, he's used the term regarding Wal-Mart's potential move to Brooklyn, but it's equally apt regarding Atlantic Yards.

As Lipsky has written in his Neighborhood Retail Alliance blog:
We have referred to the potential Wal-Mart partners in this effort as "booty capitalists" and although the term was coined by Karl Marx its modern application refers to some opportunists, especially in the African-American community, who, while having few economic resources of their own, will use their political positions and a company's vulnerabilities to their own personal advantage.

(So "booty" is being used to refer to "treasure," rather than the more slangy you-know-what.)

The CBA

To watchers of the Atlantic Yards project, especially its controversial Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), "booty capitalists" sounds like a description of the several CBA signatories who enthusiastically testified at the public hearing last Wednesday without acknowledging they had received financial support from the developer.

Lipsky wrote:
In the process the booty capitalists will undoubtedly evoke terms like economic empowerment to create an effective symbolic cover for their own aggrandizement. It will also not be surprising if we find out, after the fact, that the development effort cost a great deal more than it should have under normal market conditions.
This is exactly what happened in the original NYC case of booty capitalism: the building of a Pathmark Supercenter in East Harlem...What happened in East Harlem was that Pathmark hooked up with Rev. Calvin Butts and the Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC). The supermarket development was then transformed into a community empowerment project and the mostly Hispanic independent supermarket owners were effectively pitted against “The Community.” As a result, the development was also larded up with subsidies from the federal government, low interest loans from the city and a grant from the Local Initiatives Service Corporation (LISC), a spin-off of the Ford Foundation.


For "the mostly Hispanic independent supermarket owners," substitute "many residents of the neighborhoods near the proposed AY site," and the analogy becomes somewhat more direct.

Connecting the dots

In another piece, headlined Watch For the Booty Capitalists, Lipsky even began to connect the dots:
Our own point-of-view is that Wal-Mart’s best opportunity is to find a site in and around a low-income community of color and, once designated, hook up with a community group and, a la Ratner, incentivize the relationship with a lucrative community benefits agreement.

Will he criticize Ratner's CBA? Nope. In fact, he called it "a historic first" and contrasted it with that regarding the Bronx Terminal Market:
Now that the ULURP process has begun Related and the Bronx BP have set up a hand-picked group to craft a community benefits agreement. What Ratner and company took over two years to negotiate...

Unmentioned is that, unlike with the pioneering CBAs negotiated in Los Angeles, the Atlantic Yards CBA was negotiated with groups that all supported the project.

Lipsky likes the Atlantic Yards project, with some vague points about housing (who's paying for it?) and jobs (exactly how many?):
There are a number of legitimate reasons to oppose the development, foremost among them is the use of eminent domain to oust long time homeowners. There are, however, even more compelling reasons to support the project, a development that will create 7,000 units of housing and thousands of part time and full time jobs.

And above all, Lipsky touts the value of basketball, as he's done before.

Lipsky's blind spot

Will Lipsky point out that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard should have been put out to bid, as he argued should be the case for the agency's Hudson Yard in Manhattan? No.

He can go only so far. As Lipsky acknowledged in June:
We do have a point-of-view but our pro union stance is usually restricted to the box store issue, since our main focus is on defending neighborhood stores. Our goal is definitely to advance certain issues but we like to inform as many as possible on the various sides of any policy debate. Sometimes this wish is limited, as some readers never fail to point out, by the fact that we are in business to defend our clients' interests.
(Emphasis added)

Lipsky on AKRF

So we shouldn't expect criticism of "booty capitalists" at the Atlantic Yards project, just as we should not expect criticism of consultants AKRF, which worked on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Empire State Development Corporation.

As noted, Lipsky has written, regarding another environmental review process: The AKRF folks are simply rationalizing their job which is to make a great deal of money by minimizing impacts and conducting dishonest research.
In another post, Lipsky deemed AKRF accommodating consultants" and "trained in the abject aping of its master’s whims.

At the end of the day

Lipsky, according to an 11/14/05 profile in the New York Observer, is getting paid by Ratner to organize an amateur sports league at the proposed Brooklyn arena and to do other lobbying for the developer's projects. Lipsky generally opposes projects that require eminent domain, but told the Observer, "If it was bringing in big-box stores or displacing other retailers, we might have different feelings."

Or, perhaps, if he weren't being paid.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Another Atlantic Yards mailer from Forest City Ratner

This one quotes editorials from three newspapers. How much more is there to be said about the New York Times's endorsement, which was dissected in my blog and by the Brooklyn Papers?

(Does the parent New York Times Company's business relationship with Forest City Ratner have any influence on the editorial stance? Well, at least the Times discloses the relationship. No such luck with the mailer.)

NoLandGrab has the details, and further dissection. Nope, again there are no tall buildings. Like this:

Yassky calls (almost) for a 50% AY scaleback

City Council Member David Yassky, a contender for the open 11th Congressional District seat, has publicly called for at least a one-third reduction in the size of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards complex—but privately he’s been telling potential constituents that he thinks the project should be cut in half.

On August 9, at a debate among the four candidates for the 11th CD, Yassky, who's had a "mend it, don't end it" posture toward the Atlantic Yards project, declared that "the current project is way too big."

I caught up with him afterward to ask him to amplify his statements, and to address reports that he'd told constituents he supports a 50 percent cut in the project.

Q & A

Q: So the question is, have you thought about how big it should be?
DY: I’ve said very clearly that it’s way too big now, it’s got to be taken down very substantially. I’m going to testify certainly at the Empire State Development Corporation hearing coming up, and I will have a full statement then.

Note that his oral statement at the hearing did not address specific numbers.

Q: You said to the Brooklynite something about 33 percent, one-third.
DY: I think it should be brought down more than that.

Q: So how much more? I’ve heard from four or five people that you’ve said 50 percent.
DY: I think 50 percent would be acceptable.

Q: Do you think it should be?
DY: Oh, absolutely.

We were walking, so I wanted to make sure Yassky really meant it.

Q: It should be cut 50 percent, is that what you’re saying?
DY: It has to come down substantially. I don’t know if there’s a magic number.

Yassky’s had to play a cautious game regarding Atlantic Yards, expressing dismay over the potential impact on traffic, yet welcoming the concept of development, and even going to bat for BUILD, seeking city money to fund obligations announced under the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

A 50 percent ceiling

Would a 50 percent cut--to about 4.35 million square feet--make the project palatable to community members who oppose the project? Perhaps, for those whose main concern is scale, rather than those who object to the use of eminent domain and the no-bid, no-planning process.

Right now, the project, in terms of population, would be twice as dense as the densest census tract in the country, as the New York Observer has reported. Halving the size of the project would bring it to the level, perhaps, from where the discussion should have started.

(Note that part of the population density would be attributed to a shift from office to residential space. That could shift back somewhat, and Atlantic Yards could have more square feet but a lower residential density if a commercial variant of the project were chosen.)

Backwards planning

Forest City Ratner has said that criticisms of density don’t acknowledge the developer’s significant investment in infrastructure.

And supporters of the project, including Borough President Marty Markowitz and ACORN head Bertha Lewis, have noted that the market-rate housing supports the affordable housing.

But that’s backwards. Infrastructure costs shouldn’t be used by a developer to justify an out-of-scale project. Rather, if development costs are so high, they should be subsidized from the start, by the MTA or the city, which then could have prepared the site for bids—a tactic much like that contemplated for the Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side.

In this case, however, the Empire State Development Corporation overrides city zoning and the density issue is one of tactics rather than benchmarks.

The murmurings of a scaleback, but not of a 50% goal

Everyone expected the Atlantic Yards plan to be reduced somewhat as part of the endgame as state approval approached, and that discussion has now reached the press. A New York Sun article today headlined Pressure Mounts to Curb the Size of Atlantic Yards states:
State officials have discussed with the developer, Forest City Ratner, a reduction in the size of the project, a source said.

Presumably this downsizing, likely to come before the end of the public comment period September 22, would be aimed not simply at the Empire State Development Corporation, but at the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), the body that would then have to give unanimous approval. (PACB member Sheldon Silver killed the West Side Stadium last year.)

And the Department of City Planning, heretofore publicly silent on the project, apparently will weigh in, the Sun said:
City officials said yesterday that the Department of City Planning is drafting written testimony that it will submit to the ESDC that will include comments about the proposed height and how the project fits in the context of the low-rise neighborhood.

It's still bigger

The Sun acknowledged that the project has grown in size, quoting Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn:
Mr. Goldstein said the latest proposal is about 700,000 square feet bigger than the 8 million square feet that was originally proposed in December 2003. Opponents contend that the developer increased the total square footage to about 9.1 million square feet last September, and then in March scaled back plans by about 5%, or 475,000 square feet, to its current total size of about 8.7 million square feet.

Opponents contend? The press shouldn't have to attribute factual information to a partisan side. It makes it sound like proponents and neutrals would disagree about baseline data.

Goldstein called the scaleback discussion strategic:
"They shoot for the sun so they can get the moon. When they get the moon, they act like they have listened to the criticism and responded," Mr. Goldstein said.

How much would a legitimate reduction be? If the project would be twice as dense as the next most dense census tract in the country, shouldn't 50 percent be a rough ceiling for discussion?

Monday, August 28, 2006

The mysteries of Site 5: blight and development rights

When I wrote earlier this month about the Brooklyn Bear's Garden adjacent to the Modell's and P.C. Richard on Site 5, I noted that, when Forest City Ratner acquired the land for the big box stores in 1997, the city retained development rights beyond the elevations of the planned buildings.

Some 308,000 square feet of development rights remained. Did Forest City Ratner get those additional rights a long time ago in a negotiation with the city? No. It turns out that those rights were transferred, along with 328,272 square feet from the Atlantic Center mall in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) dated 2/18/05 but not revealed until August 2005, when Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn publicized the memo it had acquired.

It's the city

The language of the MOU is vague, but the confirmation is in Chapter 20, Alternatives, of the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement. On p. 13, it states:
Block 927 contains two active businesses in two separate one-story structures. Although higher density development could be achieved given its C6-2 zoning, the City of New York owns the air rights on this site. Therefore, higher-density development could not occur on Block 927 without City approval.

That makes it sound like a huge hurdle, but the city of New York has never attempted to seek development for the site. (Above at right, a rendering of the building planned at Site 5. The arrow points to the garden.)

Blame the city for blight

According to the Blight Study that's part of the General Project Plan, the site was found blighted in the 1960s:
Block 927 is located within ATURA, an area that, as described above, was found by the City to be blighted over 40 years ago. The block is zoned C6-2, a zoning designation that allows for a wide range of high-bulk commercial uses requiring a central location (see Figure 7). C6 districts typically accommodate uses such as corporate headquarters, large hotels, entertainment facilities, and mixed use buildings containing residential, retail, or other commercial uses.


The reason, the study concludes, is underutilization C66:
Lot 1 is in a C6-2 zoning district with an FAR of 6.0. Situated at the corner of 4th and Atlantic Avenues, the lot occupies a highly visible location in the shopping and employment concentration that is anchored by Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center. Although the 30,780 sf lot can accommodate up to 184,680 zsf of built space under current zoning, it hosts a single-story 30,300 gsf building, utilizing only about 16 percent of the lot’s development potential. At the time the lot was developed, the market conditions would not support a large-scale development using all of the development rights. As illustrated by Photograph B, the one-story PC Richard & Son building stands in stark contrast to the 34-story Williamsburg Savings Bank building (left), and the four stories of retail (center) and ten stories of office space (right) at Atlantic Terminal. Given its key location in the midst of one of the largest commercial districts in Brooklyn, lot 1 is critically underutilized.
(Emphasis added)

The same determination is made for the adjacent lot with the Modell's store.

Does the study assess the market conditions today or the city's failure to market the development rights? No.

YIMBY! The Williamsburg Hasids want an arena? (Not really)

I already noted that many of the people at the Draft Environmental Impact Statement hearing last Wednesday who wore buttons with a slash through NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) were from neighborhoods far from the proposed Atlantic Yards project site.

Some wore both the slash/NIMBY buttons as well as ones that said "Yes In My Backyard." Probably the least convincing wearers of those messages were a group of Williamsburg Hasidim, as pictured in the Courier-Life chain.

Not only is there no room in South Williamsburg for an arena--the population keeps growing exponentially--but those in this enclave want to keep their distance from people who don't share their ultra-Orthodox beliefs.

As the New York Times explained in a 2/17/04 article headlined 'Plague of Artists' a Battle Cry for Brooklyn Hasidim:
The visitors were from the community of 57,000 Satmar Hasidic Jews who live in south Williamsburg and who have in recent weeks been alarmed by talk of their neighborhood being invaded by ''artisten,'' a Yiddish word that in local parlance is used to describe non-Hasidim who live on the north side.
They had come to the store after seeing fliers around the neighborhood that had portrayed the artisten as a looming threat. One flier even included a drawing of the World Trade Center collapsing, and read, in Yiddish: ''How long did it take the Twin Towers to fall? Eight seconds. How long will it take for Williamsburg??? God Forbid.''


(It should go without saying that most opponents of the Atlantic Yards plan are hardly NIMBY; they support development over the railyards though not at the scale Forest City Ratner has proposed.)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Pleasantville vs. Brooklyn, and other DEIS hearing footnotes

To a great extent, the news coverage of the hearing Wednesday on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) focused on the speakers--both elected officials and citizens--who made it to the podium during the early phases of the seven-hour epic.

That means those who spoke late, or never even had their names called, didn't get the ink. For example, other than in the New York Observer's blog The Real Estate and my blog, the critical yet convoluted comments of the influential Regional Plan Association got no coverage.

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn attorney Jeff Baker got no coverage outside of my blog, even though his contention--that a privately-owned arena does not meet the definition of a "civic project"--likely will be part of a major lawsuit. And, as I noted, Community Consulting Services and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC) offered important criticisms about traffic. They were almost completely ignored, though the Courier-Life chain mentioned TSTC.

And reporters who didn't stay until the end didn't capture a potential metaphor: though project proponents for hours had outnumbered opponents, many of the former left earlier to return home, so by the last hour or so, the opponents--most of whom live closer to the hearing (and project) site--dominated the room.

Pleasantville vs. Brooklyn

One lingering rhetorical image involves Pleasantville, a name so white-bread (or irony-laden) that it was the title of a 1998 film set in the world of the 1950s. As the New York Times reported in its story Thursday, headlined Raucous Meeting on Atlantic Yards Plan Hints at Hardening Stances:
Umar Jordan, 51, a black resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant, said he had come to “speak for the underprivileged, the brothers who just got out of prison,” and he drew loud cheers when he mocked opponents who had moved to Brooklyn only recently. Mr. Jordan suggested that they “just go back up to Pleasantville.”

The Brooklyn Papers, in a lead story headlined Atlantic Yards hearing pits pro vs. con in historic battle for Brooklyn, fleshed it out:
A man from upstate Pleasantville spoke of traffic, the lack of greenspace and how historic restaurant Gage & Tollner was forced to close a few years back because Ratner “failed to live up to the promises he made at Metrotech.”
He was followed by Umar Jordan, who ridiculed his complaints.
“If you never been in the Marcy projects, you’re not from Brooklyn,” he said. “Go back to Pleasantville.”


The Pleasantville resident, Tal Barzilai, has commented on other redevelopment projects, such as in Lower Manhattan. He emailed me to point out that his town isn't considered upstate; indeed, it's a village in Westchester. Despite Jordan's rhetoric, other than Barzilai nearly all the opponents were residents of Brooklyn, many of them longstanding residents.

The reference to Pleasantville made for good theater, but the comments of Barzilai and Jordan were no more representative than the comments of many others who spoke later or whose names were not called. But they were representative of people who had enough time and fortitude to arrive early in the morning for a hearing that started at 4:30 pm.

When the Final Environmental Impact Statement is issued, it will incorporate acknowledgement of and, in some cases, responses to all the comments made, spoken and written.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Democracy vs. demagoguery, and other AY story lines a columnist might've followed

Gather up the press and blog coverage, maybe add some video, and you can approximate the experience of the seven-hour public hearing Wednesday on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). But it really needed a writer with more "voice,” a columnist like Jimmy Breslin or Murray Kempton (R.I.P.).

Why didn’t a metro columnist, or even a sports columnist, from one of the dailies cross the river? After all, it was the day’s—maybe the summer’s--most striking piece of street theater. There were so many threads to follow, building blocks for 800 compelling words, stories with drama and maybe even a moral.

What about all the poor people bused in or organized by BUILD and ACORN, groups that have been paid by developer Forest City Ratner or received donations from them? How does “We need a job so we can eat?” compete with the reality of the relatively few jobs—especially low-skilled ones—the project would produce? (Ditto for the affordable housing.) And how much is their need and pain ignored by our press and politicians?

How many working people, pro and con, who showed up at 5 pm or 6 pm were unable to get in the door because busloads of people organized by Community Benefits Agreement signatories got there first? How many people who spoke in favor of the project were part of groups that have been supported by Forest City Ratner? (How many weren’t? And did the developer pay for the buses, just as it did the lunches?)

What about the construction workers? They want the project, bad, and who can blame them--so many projects in New York are built without union labor. Then again, how many of them were taking up seats from Brooklynites who had questions and doubts about the DEIS? And how many jobs are there, after all?

What about politicians like Borough President Marty Markowitz (in green shirt) and City Councilman David Yassky? They both support the project as long as changes are made, but still won’t specify how much the project should be reduced. Pragmatism or pusillanimity?

Today Marty was the subject of follow-up in the Times, which still didn’t press him on the density issue. (I had asked how he felt about presiding over a project that would be the densest census tract, by a factor of two, in the country. “I don’t know if it’s true,” he responded, “but I know we need the housing very much.”)

What about the use of children as props, those kids in their Nets jerseys and their “In My Backyard” stickers? Did their halting statements at the mike contribute much to the hearing? (Had some children who opposed the project took the stand, it would've been equally questionable.)

What about the regular invocation of ghetto authenticity, as if the project—and Brooklyn—were a rap album rather than a $4.2 billion development of mostly luxury housing? To what degree do such claims distract from the complicated DEIS?

Oh, and for some of the Atlantic Yards opponents, to what degree does sinking to the level of some of your antagonists (they booed City Councilwoman Tish James when she brought up children's asthma) damage your credibility? Does heckling Assemblyman Roger Green--who can dig himself his own hole easily enough--when he’s acknowledging the need for compromise represent a wise strategy?

Where was the columnist who'd been through the civil rights movement, or the police brutality protests of the 1980s, who could comment on the remarkable journey of the Rev. Herbert Daughtry? Once on the outside but now on the inside, Daughtry for three minutes turned the Klitgord Auditorium into a thunderous preaching chamber, declaring the Atlantic Yards project almost a civil rights landmark. [Update: it was nearly six minutes.]

And what about the people who spoke too late for the cameras, like Robert Yaro of the Regional Plan Association, whose complicated testimony deserved notice, or the Brooklyn guy who did some vital research on noise but never got to the podium at all?

Was this democracy, or demagoguery? And to what degree was it an example, as I’ve pointed out, of playwright August Wilson’s description of an inner city development deal: I don't care if somebody else makes some money 'cause of a tax break. I get mine and they get theirs.

The stories remain to be told.

The Times on AY: skepticism about construction jobs, but not about revenue

From the New York Times story yesterday, headlined Raucous Meeting on Atlantic Yards Plan Hints at Hardening Stances:
The $4.2 billion Atlantic Yards project is intended to generate more than 1,500 construction jobs during the 10-year building process, plus hundreds of permanent jobs afterward and $1.4 billion in tax revenue.

1500 construction jobs? Forest City Ratner has long promised 15,000 construction jobs, though construction jobs are calculated in job-years, so that would mean 1500 jobs a year over ten years. And FCR's Jim Stuckey recently began estimating 33,000 direct and indirect construction jobs, based on some more generous Empire State Development Corporation projectings.

I've long urged the media to report the construction jobs figure more accurately. (The point was first raised in the 6/26/04 Brooklyn Papers and was made last December in the New York Observer.)

Rowback?

However, the Times hasn't reported that number before, instead choosing to report the cumulative figures issued by the developer or government supporters. (See my report.) Is the more precise figure a response to the analysis that recently appeared in New York magazine?

Either the Times is wrong, and project supporters should demand a correction, or the Times is slipping in a change without acknowledging it. That's called rowback, which former Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent described in his 3/14/04 column as "a way that a newspaper can cover its butt without admitting it was ever exposed."

Note that the Times practiced rowback on the "Downtown Brooklyn" error before finally publishing a comprehensive correction.

Tax revenue

Atlantic Yards may be intended to produce $1.4 billion in tax revenue, but that's net, not gross. As I've written, there's ample evidence that the net gain would be much lower. The organization doing the intending is the Empire State Development Corporation, which has refused to release documents to back up the claim.

It's irresponsible to use the $1.4 billion figure without adding major caveats or doing some additional analysis.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

AY supporters out in force at epic hearing, but opponents go the distance

It began in mid-afternoon with two distinct shows of strength: hours before the 4:30 pm start of the state hearing on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), hundreds of people—many organized by union locals and Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) signatories—were already lining up outside the Klitgord Auditorium of the New York Institute of Technology on Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn. (Developer Forest City Ratner catered 1500 lunches.) Across the street, at 4 pm, the developer held what was billed as a press conference but was really a no-question-time rally, an opportunity for politicians, union/civic leaders, and celebrities to vouch their support for the project. (Photo by NYC IndyMedia)

When the epic hearing ended at 11:30 pm (the building had to close), three hours later than billed yet still too soon for hundreds of people who’d signed up to speak, much of the crowd had left. (For hours, there was a line to get into the room, which holds about 800.) Project supporters were by then outnumbered by opponents, whose resiliency—helped, undoubtedly, by their shorter commute home from Downtown Brooklyn—suggested that the controversy over the borough’s largest development would hardly be put to rest.

With cheers and boos punctuating most presentations, the hearing was as much rally as opportunity for comment, especially for the project supporters who touted jobs and housing, while opponents and critics made less-dramatic efforts to pick apart the lengthy DEIS and to decry the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) for providing too little time to analyze the document.

(Clearly Forest City Ratner had learned an organizing lesson, and the hearing more resembled the 11/29/04 public meeting on the project, when project supporters ACORN and BUILD were out in force, than the 10/18/05 hearing on the scope for a DEIS, where project opponents dominated the crowd. An early reader points out that many project opponents and ordinary citizens with questions and qualms were turned away, because Forest City Ratner's CBA signatories and union supporters managed to fill the room, thus helping skew some news coverage.)

The New York Times suggested, in an article today headlined Raucous Meeting on Atlantic Yards Plan Hints at Hardening Stances, but there was some evidence of a potential compromise. Borough President Marty Markowitz, though vague, offered his most forceful words for a project scaledown. Assemblymembers Roger Green and Jim Brennan reminded the crowd of their effort to subsidize a 34 percent reduction in the project’s size. And Kenn Lowy, of Community Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee, drew cheers from opponents when he declared that the project must be reduced by 60 percent.

Yet project supporters clamored for Atlantic Yards to be built now and, while some future scaleback is inevitable, it undoubtedly depends on political pressures. Late in the evening, lawyer Jeff Baker, representing Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the coalition of project opponents, added a new potential angle to the inevitable lawsuit. The Atlantic Yards General Project Plan, he said, declares that the project is a "civic project," though state law does not define an arena in that way.

Two photo ops

Consider two sets of photo opportunities regarding the megaproject (16 towers plus arena) that would dominate Prospect Heights, near the border of Downtown Brooklyn. At the not-quite-press conference, cameras flashed as Markowitz, a diminutive sparkplug, stood between lanky New Jersey Nets stars Vince Carter and Jason Kidd. And that lady with the ringlets, shades, and big, dangly earrings? That was Roberta Flack, expressing her desire to perform in the arena. (Photo from New York Sun)

Across the street, at the hearing, a photographer named Jonathan Barkey snagged one of the first slots for public comment and riveted the cameras with his deliberative and dramatic testimony, hoisting oversize mockups with photos of the Prospect Heights neighborhood where AY would be built, overlaid with renderings of the oversize project. It was a moment when the highly charged crowd—especially the ACORN supporters in red t-shirts and Carpenters union members in orange t-shirts ready to cheer supporters and boo opponents—was hushed.


Bertha Lewis the host

Though Forest City Ratner president Bruce Ratner opened the press event, he quickly turned the podium over to New York ACORN executive director Bertha Lewis (to the left of Ratner), an earthier and more energetic presence. Her role, along with ACORN’s formidable community organizing skills, was testament to the strategic importance of the housing agreement ACORN negotiated with the developer. “Either we are going to have a model for how to build mixed-income housing,” she said, “or we are just flapping our lips.”

Lewis, perhaps caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, continued by touting the “historic Community Benefits Agreement—legally binding—has never been done before.” (Never in New York City, that is.)

The Nets’ Kidd took the podium, standing in front of at least 30 bigwig supporters and facing perhaps 25 press people and another 60 project supporters. “Getting to know Brooklyn and getting to know the community has proven to me that Bruce is doing the right thing,” declared Kidd, who’s joined the Christian Cultural Center in Flatlands. Added Carter, adding a developer-friendly spin to positive jockspeak, “I feel it’s all about unity in the community.”

United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was the first to acknowledge the controversy, but declared confidently that “the advantages outweigh the risks,” citing the importance of affordable housing to schoolteachers who want to live near the communities where they work. Mike Fishman, president of SEIU Local 32BJ, cited Forest City Ratner’s commitment to union labor in managing the buildings.

Borough president Markowitz, after high-fiving Carter, took the stage and trumpeted his vision—a new city center, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music cultural district, Downtown Brooklyn, and Atlantic Yards. He wound up nearly bellowing, “Brooklyn is a world-class city and we deserve Atlantic Yards.”

After Flack (right) said a few words, a parade of politicians offered more brief remarks. White-haired Assemblyman Joseph Lentol declared, “I don’t know how many of you realize that Atlantic Yards was supposed to be the new stadium for the Brooklyn Dodgers.” (Actually, it was nearby.) He said he had tried “to figure out what the opposition was saying,” but thought criticism paled in favor of a major league team and “a developer bending over backwards for the people in the community.”

Assemblyman Green, who represents the Prospect Heights district where the project would be built and was the first black elected official to speak, mused about the importance of “stand[ing] with this coalition of conscience.” He praised the effort to acknowledge “African-Americans who have historically been marginalized,” praising “the one developer who fought to create a new covenant” regarding promises for jobs and housing, yet omitting Forest City Ratner’s far less impressive record with MetroTech and the Atlantic Center mall. He praised Ratner for “standing in the spirit of Branch Rickey,” the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who broke the color barrier in baseball, by “breaking the color barrier in the economy.”

Council Member Lew Fidler, who represents neighborhoods in southern Brooklyn, dismissed the project site area as “run-down and doing nobody any good. Get in the real world and join us in the glittering future that the Atlantic Yards represents for Brooklyn.” Assemblyman Karim Camara acknowledged that the project would not solve Brooklyn’s social problems, but would set a precedent regarding affordable housing. The Rev. Herbert Daughtry (above, to the right of Ratner), a CBA signatory, recounted his struggles in getting Brooklyn businesses to acknowledge the community.

Public hearing opens

Some 20 minutes into the public hearing, with hundreds of people still waiting outside, the public testimony had yet to begin. Transportation consultant Philip Habib, one of relatively few people in business attire, spoke in low, bureaucratic tones about the findings in the DEIS. “There really are no subway impacts associated with this project,” he said. A mild heckle emanated from the crowd: “Yes, there will.” (Photo by NYC IndyMedia)

Habib continued: “From a parking point of view, the EIS also does not disclose significant impacts.” (The document is a disclosure document, pointing to potential problems though not necessarily requiring them to be fixed.)

But when Habib offered a boilerplate timeline, saying “Construction is expected to span about ten years,” the crowd erupted in cheers. It was clear it was going to be a long, unquiet night.

Markowitz speaks

Markowitz was the first public official to speak, and opponents hoisted yellow signs saying “Ratnerville Unmitigable” and “Housing Yes Atlantic Yards No.” (The counterparts were signs saying “Affordable Housing Now!” and “Jobs Housing Hoops.”)

He began by spelling out R-E-S-P-E-C-T, a commodity in scarce evidence all evening, and praised the project for providing affordable housing and union jobs. But he offered his own concerns, asserting that the iconic Williamsburgh Savings Bank, at 512 feet, should remain Brooklyn’s tallest building, not to be overshadowed by Frank Gehry’s 620-foot “Miss Brooklyn.” He declared that the building planned for the railyards opposite the Newswalk condos on Pacific/Dean streets—and home to numerous project opponents—“must be reduced.” And two other buildings bordering lower-rise Prospect Heights, he said, must be reduced.

“Next, build a school,” he declared, an acknowledgment that the project would bring many schoolchildren but be forced to disperse them. Make sure the open space is inviting and accessible, he added, echoing criticism from the Municipal Art Society and others that the projected seven-plus acres of open space would be too easily defined as backyards for the enormous residential buildings.

And, he added, “Get real about traffic and parking,” saying that to find “an urban transit solution, we need to engage the best minds.” It was a backhanded slap at Forest City Ratner transportation consultant “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz, who surely is one of the better minds, but whose solutions have been met with much criticism. It also failed to acknowledge critics, such as Community Consulting Services and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, who have called for residential parking permits and congestion pricing for East River bridges.

Markowitz exited to boos and deafening cheers. Earlier, I’d caught up with him when he left the first press event and asked how he felt about presiding over a project that would be the densest census tract, by a factor of two, in the country. “I don’t know if it’s true,” he said, “but I know we need the housing very much.”

Crowd dynamics & race

While the hearing officer reminded audience members to save their cheers and boos for after a speaker’s three minutes had concluded, many didn’t comply, and some of the more polite ones held up signs saying “3” or three fingers to indicate that a speaker had overstayed the allotted time. (Enforcement increased somewhat as the night wore on.) One ACORN supporter frequently waved a large red ACORN flag. A project opponent was kicked out early for relentlessly heckling State Sen. Marty Golden.

There was an obvious—but not simple—racial divide in the audience. Most supporters in the room, outside of the union workers, were black and working-class, many of them organized by ACORN or the CBA signatory Public Housing Communities (which includes several tenant organizations across the borough), and coming from long distances in Brooklyn. (Hence the stickers some wore with a slash through “NIMBY” were somewhat beside the point.) Most project opponents and critics present were white and middle- (and upper-) class, though a small number of black opponents stayed until the end, some of them homeowners in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill near the project.

The more dramatic speakers drew raucous responses, but, at times, some of the most serious criticisms—DEIS dissections—were under the radar. Indeed, the event could not reflect full community sentiment. Many people whose names were called long after they signed up had already left—including 57th Assembly District candidates Bill Batson and Hakeem Jeffries—and written testimony will have the same weight as oral testimony.

A follow-up "community forum" (not quite a public hearing) will be held on September 12, with a priority for those who signed up yesterday but whose names weren’t called. Many in the audience, however, expressed frustration that the hearing would inevitably conflict with their obligations on the day of the primary election. The comment period closes September 22. After that the ESDC will issue a Final EIS and possibly change the General Project Plan.

Once the agency board issues its expected approval, the state’s Public Authorities Control Board must vote unanimously—and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose vote killed the West Side Stadium last year, likely will be lobbied hard. If not derailed by the PACB or the inevitable eminent domain lawsuit, Forest City Ratner hopes to break ground later this year, and open the arena in the fall of 2009 and five towers in 2010, with project completion in 2016.

Millman’s criticism

Assemblywoman Joan Millman, who represents Park Slope and other areas near the site, began by expressing her “disappointment with ESDC and the developer for the failure to make this project work for Brooklyn.” (Her phrasing recalled the criticisms issued by the Municipal Art Society.) “I’m outraged by the amount of time” ESDC offered, she said, citing the importance of having the community, including the affected Community Boards, play a role.

She said she agreed that the project should be reduced, then offered some prescriptions that surely conflict with the developer’s economic plan. Build affordable housing and the arena first, she said—even though the luxury housing, as several people pointed out later, is what fuels the project.

Millman cited traffic concerns and said she did not support redirecting Fourth Avenue traffic via narrow (and part-residential) Pacific Street to Flatbush Avenue. (In the hall, posters of the Atlantic Yards plans, including traffic plans, demonstrated the developer’s vision for the site, and at tables visitors could pick up executive summaries of ESDC documents and even hoist binders with the entire DEIS.)

Millman also cited the need for traffic officers to handle traffic on nights of arena games or events, a new school, and sufficient police and fire services. “I object to eminent domain,” she concluded, “not here, not now.” (That would put her advocacy for the arena in question, given that Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein, whose condo lies near the projected center court, has vowed to be an eminent domain plaintiff.)

Green takes the stage

The crowd dynamic got uglier when Roger Green took the stage. “My remarks will be an attempt to arrive at some creative problem-solving," Green declared, even as hecklers interrupted with “You’re a criminal” and “You’re a crook,” a reference to his misdemeanor record.

He offered the first of one of several highly charged claims to Brooklyn authenticity. “I was born in Brooklyn. I was raised in Brooklyn. I grew up in Brooklyn,” he declared, an echo of his claim, in New York magazine, that many project opponents were Manhattan arrivistes. “I walked these streets before some people got here,” challenging those in the crowd who had not dared to walk into the housing projects he represents in Fort Greene.

He cited Martin Luther King Jr. on injustice and commented that the density of the project needed to be reduced, referencing the bill that he, Brennan, and others had sponsored.

Tish counters

After Coney Island Councilman Dominic Recchia spoke in favor of the project—an obvious disappointment to AY opponents who’ve touted Coney as the natural home of a Brooklyn arena (as Markowitz once advocated)—Councilwoman Letitia James, a staunch opponent who represents the project footprint, took the stage. (Photo by Lumi Rolley)

“ESDC is not and could not be an honest broker,” James declared, citing the schedule for public hearings, questionable claims about revenue, and dubious statistics about such issues as noise. “Growth is good,” she said, “but growth has its limits.”

The DEIS, she said, is flawed, and findings were made without sufficient technical support. “There’s no meaningful discussion of alternatives,” she said. Scoffing at claims about the project’s location near a transit hub, she called it “not a transit-oriented development but a traffic-oriented development.”

She declared that the project would trigger asthma attacks and said it would displace poor residents. She talked about attending a funeral for a child who died of asthma and actually got some boos.

After saying that there’s no rationale given for the height of the buildings, especially the one that would trump the historic and symbolic Williamsburgh bank, she concluded, “Lastly, let me say that this community is not blighted,” citing the developer’s choice to carve out the block with the luxury Newswalk building from the project site.

The people speak

When the public comment period actually began, those called were those who managed to sign up early. Karen Daughtry, the wife of Rev. Daughtry and a fellow member of CBA signatory Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance (DBNA) cited Malcolm X, apartheid, and the “legendary and legally binding Community Benefits Agreement.” (Remember, the Rev. Daughtry refused to say how much the DBNA has received from Forest City Ratner.)

She was followed by photographer Barkey and then Umar Jordan, who said, “I’m here to speak for the underprivileged.” He played the authenticity card, stating, “If you’ve never been in the Marcy projects, you’re not from Brooklyn.” (That’s where rap impresario Jay-Z, who owns a sliver of the Nets, grew up, and likely a place that most project opponents and Forest City Ratner staff, not to mention most of the potential Atlantic Yards residents, have not visited.)

As for people “complaining about the size of the buildings,” he said, “Welcome to the ‘hood.’” It was a remarkable example of the way the public debate has been polarized; the most vociferous supporters of Atlantic Yards are poor Brooklynites, mostly black, who have a relatively small chance at jobs and affordable housing in a project that is mostly luxury housing—and in which 40% of the affordable housing would rent for more than $2000 a month.

Later, Rev. Daughtry galvanized supporters with his sermon-like testimony. “I don’t remember any developer stepping up,” he declared of past Brooklyn projects. He cast much-criticized Forest City Ratner projects like MetroTech and Atlantic Center as examples of the developer’s vision. He touted the intergenerational center—for seniors and children, but with only 100 day care slots—as a key part of Atlantic Yards, “and guess what, we have participated in the design,” with “an atrium designed by us.”

He and other CBA signatories have repeatedly cited a feeling of inclusion—clearly an issue with as much an emotional as rational component, since the expenditures on CBA components would be relatively little for the developer, and some aspects would have to be publicly funded.

“I’ve walked these valleys all over the world, from Belfast to Bangkok to Baton Rouge,” closed Daughtry, whose House of the Lord Church on Atlantic Avenue is a few blocks from the western edge of the project site, “and now… I don’t even have to get a cab or a plane. I can walk there.”

A teacher, M’balia Rubie, talked of the lives of children she teaches, saying, “they live in shadow right now. She declared, “I cannot prioritize traffic jams and shadows over housing and jobs.”

Darnell Canada, a founder of BUILD and a CBA coalition member, cited the need for jobs among black men in Brooklyn. "I got to fight to get them to keep trying" to look for a job, he said, adding ominously, "If they stop trying, you're the victim." If the project doesn't go forward, he closed, "I guarantee you will have chaos and misery."

Civics criticize DEIS

Representatives of civic groups and community boards around the project site offered numerous criticisms of the DEIS. Lumi Rolley of the Park Slope Civic Council (PSCC) described how the document underestimated transit demand, failing to study the 6-7 pm hour before basketball games. (She's also the lead NoLandGrab blogger.) Lauri Schindler of the PSCC dryly cited the DEIS’s use of the word “queuing—a synonym for gridlock.”

Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors (PSN) cited the projection that the site would be the nation’s densest census tract, by a factor of two, and got little reaction from the crowd—which was more attuned to more dramatic pro and con statements. He pointed out that at Battery Park City, the open space was built first, while it would take ten years before the Atlantic Yards open space would arrive. “For families affected by a lack of places to play, ten years is most of a childhood,” he concluded.

Kristyn LaPlante of PSN generated some crowd pushback with a layer of sarcasm, criticizing the designation of the Urban Room—which would serve as the arena entrance, among other functions—as open space. “I don’t know anyone who brings their kids to play outside the Madison Square Garden ticket windows,” she said. Moreover, she pointed out that the publicly accessible open space would close most of the year before the time arena events conclude. “Drunken sports fans won’t be urinating in the backyards of the luxury condos. They’ll be peeing on the stoops of the rest of us.”

Candace Carponter of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) declared that it was "a virtually impossible undertaking" for the experts hired by CBN under city/state grants to analyze the DEIS in the time allotted. Terry Urban of CBN recounted the "troubling" episode in which a request to the ESDC about procedures at the hearing yesterday was treated as a Freedom of Information Law request, meaning response would be delayed until after the hearing.

Hunter College professor Tom Angotti, a consultant to CBN, pointed out several flaws in the DEIS. "The 'build year' is 2016, but the analysis stops at 2016," he said, suggesting it could not account for the true effects of the project.

CBs want more time

Both individual and institutional representatives of the three affected Community Boards got their say. Meredith Staton of CB8 praised the CBA and criticized project opponents. “They weren’t there when they were closing St. Mary’s Hospital,” he declared. “If you’re going to be part of the community, you need to participate.” (Photo of ESDC staff listening, by NYC IndyMedia)

Jerry Armer, chair of CB6, offered no substantive testimony, but simply asked for more time to review the DEIS and General Project Plan (GPP). “We find the timing… to be an affront to our community,” he said. CB6, he said, would take the full time allotted and submit its comments by the September 22 deadline.

Shirley McRae, chair of CB2, also said the time allotted was too short, and pointed out that the city’s land use review process, ULURP, would require four public hearings. “The Downtown Brooklyn plan was made better by ULURP,” she said.

“I’ve been here in Brooklyn almost six decades,” declared McRae, playing the authenticity card as a member of the black middle-class. “It’s wholly unacceptable to expect that laypeople” can analyze the ESDC documents within the review period.

Politicians come late

While most elected officials testified early, others arrived later in the evening. Councilman David Yassky, a candidate for the 11th Congressional District, offered his “mend it don’t end it” prescription, calling for changes to help realize the benefits and avoid having the project killed.

The project, he said, must be reduced in height and bulk, though he offered no specific numbers. “The impact on traffic will be destructive without serious measures,” he said, adding that he’d submitted a “comprehensive traffic plan”—previously announced but not made available—to the record.

He also added a comment on the CBA that some other elected officials echoed. The promises must be enshrined in the Atlantic Yards approval document, not a side agreement, for them to be binding. “Make these changes so the project can go forward and bring jobs and affordable housing to the people of Brooklyn,” he said.

Councilman Bill De Blasio echoed the CBA accountability issue and cited the importance of addressing the issues of traffic and parking.

Assemblyman Jim Brennan cited his suggestion last October to reduce the project by 50 percent and the more recent legislation that would take it down by 34 percent. He mistakenly suggested that the affordable housing would not begin until Phase II, in 2010. (Both phases would include affordable housing, with Phase I in 2010 and Phase II in 2016.) But he pointed out that the affordable housing is depending on the success of the luxury units, which itself is depending on a shifting market—and that the market for luxury housing at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues may be doubtful.

A lawyer's warning

Jennifer Levy of South Brooklyn Legal Services, which represents 12 families (among some 60 people) still living in the project footprint, criticized the developer's relocation plan, which "doesn't guarantee that they're going to get an affordable replacement" and thus jeopardizes their rent-regulated tenancy. Rather, she said, "It sounds like they're getting a one-way ticket out of town."

"I want to explode the myth of affordable housing," she said, noting that the project would include only 225 units in the lowest-income bracket, which itself would require higher incomes than "a lot of our clients."

A preservationist's plea

Preservationist Christabel Gough was the only person to cite the destruction of two historic structures, the Long Island Railroad Stables, and the Ward Bread Bakery, observing that the DEIS argues that converting them to housing would destroy their character. “To declare they should be destroyed to avoid changing them is an affront to common sense.” A few people heckled the patrician Gough. “There could be housing,” she responded. “It’s done all over the country.” (The DEIS also says that preserving the buildings would reduce the scale of the project and make it unworkable.)

She brought up the example of the Brooklyn Bridge and some boos still emerged. "I'm going to be booed for wanting to protect the Brooklyn Bridge," she said incredulously.

The unions want to build

While numerous union members were fulfilling a union responsibility by attending the hearing, few of them got to speak. Carpenters union organizer Anthony Pugliese, who signed up early and has often pointed out the numerous nonunion developments in Brooklyn, to protest that the scheduling was unfair. (He was backed up on the scheduling issue by some project opponents.)

One who did speak was ironworker Dan Jederlinic, who said that the opposition “makes it sound like tanks are coming” through their neighborhood. However, he wasn’t backing off much. “The bulldozers are coming,” he said, “and if you don’t get out of the way, they’re going to bulldoze right over you.”

Alternatives dismissed?

Shabnam Merchant of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) addressed the Alternatives section of the DEIS, which dismissed other, less-dense development plans, calling the state’s argument a tautology. “Atlantic Yards has certain goals. The alternatives are not the Atlantic Yards. Therefore, they cannot provide the goals” of the AY plan.

She also cited DEIS claims that, without Atlantic Yards, “that phony blight condition would remain.” She decried a project that would bring a billion dollars of profit to the developer—at least according to an estimate in New York magazine—“while the public takes all the financial and environmental risks.” (Forest City has said they’ve already taken risks by investing in the project, though the property has surely appreciated.)

DDDB's take

At 10:05, DDDB spokesman Daniel Goldstein took the podium, in a more than half-empty room, to cheers. He offered a response to some of the authenticity issues; members of the coalition had opposed the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, are opposed to eminent domain on Duffield Street downtown, and are helping displaced tenants from the Prospect Plaza Houses.

"Forest City Ratner has absolutely no legal commitment to anybody unless you are a shareholder," he said, asking why, if this was the largest project in the history of Brooklyn, there were no representatives from the Department of City Planning or the Mayor's Office. (There were, but not speaking.)

He urged the ESDC to remove eminent domain from the plan and offered a threat: "Owners and renters will litigate and no project will be built for years, if ever."

DDDB attorney Baker soon afterward declared that the project was illegal under the law establishing the Urban Development Corporation, now the Empire State Development Corporation, because "a privately operated sports arena does not qualify as a civic project."

He pointed to the CBA's promises of job training and other benefits. "Read the agreement--it disavows any obligation by Forest City Ratner to pay for these things... There is no financial obligation to keep it running."

Other voices

William Howard, representing the West Indian Carnival Day Association, offered a rationale for support that had been little heard before. The highly-popular carnival, he said, "needs to the space in the arena to expand."

Fort Greene resident Lloyd Hezekiah, a longtime homeowner, was dignified in his manner but forceful in his rhetoric: "We say dump these plans in the Atlantic Ocean."

Henry Weinstein, who owns a building in the project footprint but has refused to sell to Forest City Ratner, testified, "I will vigorously protect my property rights."

Kate Galassi, a University of Chicago student and Boerum Hill resident, was the only person testifying who cited sports economist Andrew Zimbalist's study for Forest City Ratner. Important assumptions in Zimbalist's work are not cited in the DEIS, she said, and "without this evidence, it is impossible for the public to believe" in the promises offered.

Scott Turner of Fans For Fair Play claimed to have an autographed basketball, then tossed it to the crowd. "It's a fake," he said, "but we're also willing to buy a $4 billion fake project." He also challenged the crowd regarding Ratner, "a rich white guy; you're calling him your savior."

Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, the first person to organize opposition to the then-rumored Ratner plan in 2003, sardonically read from the ESDC's blight study, emphasizing the word Empire in the name of the agency.

Near the end of the night, an eccentric fellow named William Stanford (but "that's Mr. X to you," he said at one point), made references to "Daniel Ratner" and pro wrestling, and declared, "The damn project belongs in Queens." He put the timing of the follow-up forum on Primary Day in some earthy perspective: "Are you stuck on stupid?"

Stuckey’s overview

One of those staying to the bitter end was Jim Stuckey, president of the Atlantic Yards Development Group, the project’s mastermind. He was busy taking notes and conferring with a squad of aides, but he took the time, after the meeting closed, to answer a few questions.

No, he didn’t have any opinion on DDDB attorney Baker’s claim that Atlantic Yards was not a civic project; that’s a question for the lawyers. No, he didn’t know the sum of city subsidies that would be used for the affordable housing component of Atlantic Yards. (City officials have so far not answered my question about that, either.) As for his overall observation on the night, he said he was "incredibly impressed" that so many people had taken the time out of their day to express support for the project.

Indeed, Forest City Ratner and its allies helped engineer an impressive turnout. But Stuckey and the ESDC and the politicians and the involved parties have a lot more work before they reach the next stage of the Atlantic Yards endgame.

[This incorporates several updates during the day.]

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

How big? Way big! New graphics show projected AY impact

Mainstream media outlets like the New York Times, as I've pointed out, have done too little to show the public what the Atlantic Yards project would actually look like, so the New York magazine cover story earlier this month was a step forward.

Projections have been the work of inspired bloggers like Jon Keegan and Will James. Now photographer Jonathan Barkey, combining some shots around the Atlantic Yards footprint with graphics, offers some dramatic new visuals, now and projected. (Click to enlarge.)

The Dean Street playground




A view of the arena from Dean Street




Carlton & Atlantic avenues, from Atlantic Terminal 4B housing project


The intersection of Dean Street & Sixth Avenue



An elevated view, from Bergen Street, of the Dean Street playground



A view from the Newswalk roof on Dean Street


Ketcham: Traffic/transit analysis so bad a Supplemental EIS needed

How bad would the traffic be? The Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) suggests it would be a challenge, but not unmanageable, by the time the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) is issued.

Yes, 68 of 93 intersections analyzed would be “significantly adversely impacted,” according to DEIS Chapter 12, on traffic, but proposed traffic mitigations would take care of 29 of them, leaving 39 intersections with unmitigated impacts at certain hours by 2016. Moreover, “Additional measures to further address all unmitigated significant adverse traffic impacts will be explored between the DEIS and the FEIS.”

DEIS myopia

To transportation engineer Brian Ketcham of Community Consulting Services, that’s balderdash. “With Atlantic Yards, the entire Downtown Brooklyn area and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in 2016 will be at a standstill, radiating problems across the region,” he wrote in a recent unpublished letter to the New York Times. “It nearly is now and will be more so with completion of development in the pipeline by 2016, when Atlantic Yards is expected to be fully built.” (Ketcham has pointed out that the DEIS accounts for only about half of the planned development.)

Wrong model

Ketcham pointed out that the traffic model CCS used “graphically simulates the ripple effect throughout the area of delays of more than 10 minutes at intersections along major routes revealed in fine print in the DEIS.” Meanwhile, the intersections in the DEIS are examined “as if they were entirely unconnected.”

Many critics have pointed out that the state review ignores the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway; Ketcham noted that the crowded BQE will push other traffic through local streets. One solution: congestion-based tolls to deter some traffic over the East River bridges.

Ketcham scoffed at Forest City Ratner’s proposal for half-price MetroCards as well as remote parking. “No savvy New Yorker would be believe that a $2 Metrocard discount would get enough $100+ Nets ticket buyers out of their cars to reduce auto use on game nights by 20% (even 2% based on the DEIS logic is optimistic), that the transit pass would do anything for non-game traffic and that it should be subsidized by MTA riders. Discount satellite parking would require a caravan of a shuttle bus a minute (not every 10 minutes as in the DEIS) to get fans to the game on time, add to the drop-off chaos, and necessitate nearby lay-over space and further tax-payer subsidies.”

Supplemental EIS

What to do about “this mockery of State environmental law"? Ketcham proposed a Draft Supplemental EIS (DSEIS) to deal with the problem more accurately, just as a DSEIS was issued to account for the effect of the proposed Atlantic Yards project on the Downtown Brooklyn Development DEIS.

Further warnings

CCS also issued a paper with further warnings. By 2016, with realistic growth, six of 10 subway lines will be over capacity, three with severe “crush loads.” Also, seven of 10 bus lines will be over capacity. The DEIS, doesn’t assess the probability that affluent Brooklynites use autos more than their counterparts in Manhattan.

Despite parking management strategies to divert drivers to more distant parking facilities, some drivers will try to find free on-street parking, and they are not accounted for. The only effective safeguard, CCS says, is a resident parking permit program, not mentioned in the DEIS (but part of the push-poll likely from Forest City Ratner).

Subway stresses?

DEIS Chapter 13, covering Transit and Pedestrians, acknowledges that there could be crowding on platforms, but argues that it would be resolved by additional subway service:
During the weekday 10-11 PM and Saturday 4-5 PM post-game periods, when surges of subway trips generated by an event at the arena would be arriving on the subway platforms, the potential may exist for crowding on the platforms at the Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street subway station complex under certain post-game conditions. Such crowding, if it were to occur, could constitute a significant adverse impact, which could be addressed by providing additional subway service (i.e., more trains) during post-game periods.

The DEIS continues:
Subway trips generated by the proposed project would be distributed among the numerous subway routes serving Downtown Brooklyn... All subway routes through Downtown Brooklyn are expected to continue to operate below their practical capacity in the peak direction in the 8-9 AM and 5-6 PM commuter peak periods with development of Phase I of the proposed project in 2010, and at completion of the proposed project in 2016. The proposed project is therefore not expected to result in significant adverse impacts to subway line haul conditions in Downtown Brooklyn under CEQR criteria.

At CB2, disbelief

At the Community Board 2 Atlantic Yards hearing on August 3, former CB 2 member Kenn Lowy, representing Friends of Brooklyn Bridge Park, didn't buy the subway claims. He said:
The Atlantic Yards project is massive, and even when it is scaled back, it will drastically change this part of Brooklyn. In 2004, the Traffic and Transportation Committee of Community Board 2 looked at the Downtown rezoning plan, that plan had already been approved, and it’s basically next to where the Atlantic Yards project is... But the vehicular traffic is only part of the problem. The mass transit area is actually even worse. What [Forest City Ratner consultant] Sam Schwartz didn’t tell you earlier is that, in 2004, MTA officials told the Traffic and Transportation committee that Downtown Brooklyn subway stations, and this was in 2004, were currently at saturation. The Downtown rezoning plan is going to add an additional 5000 riders in the morning and 7000 in the evening. If the MTA has no way of addressing those riders, then how will they be able to accommodate the new riders from the arena and the 16 new buildings? This will make a bad situation much worse. I think we all agree a certain amount of growth is welcome in Brooklyn. The question is: how much is too much?

Lowy had in 2004 reported the anecdote on his web site:
At a meeting several months ago MTA officials told The Traffic & Transportation Committee of CB2 that the downtown Brooklyn subway stations were currently at “saturation”. Yet the DEIS ignores this.