Saturday, September 30, 2006

DDDB attorney cites failure to plan, evasion of law, misrepresentation of Coney option

The criticisms of the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) keep piling on, as some of the harshest responses were filed just before the deadline yesterday set by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC).

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) lawyer Jeffrey Baker, a veteran of state land use tussles, wrote that government entities failed to plan for the site. Also, he charged, the agency misdescribed the project under the law, ignored key evidence about the potential for an arena in Coney Island, conducted a flimsy blight study, and proceeded in a biased manner.

Failure to plan

Baker's charges set the stage for a challenge to the exercise of eminent domain, since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year in the Kelo case suggests that eminent domain to support redevelopment can pass muster only if derives from a democratically arrived at plan.

The state cites the longstanding presence of the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA), but Baker says that doesn't wash, especially since there was no request for proposals to develop the site with competing bids:
Most fundamentally, this project did not originate from any government or ESDC inspired exercise to identify an area that is blighted, or that needed an arena for professional sports. While Vanderbilt Yards has been included in ATURA, there have not been any proposals or initiatives by any governmental entity to develop the area for at least 30 years. This proposal germinated as a goal of FCR who envisioned the massive mixed-use development with an arena. FCR knew the plan far exceeded what would otherwise be permitted or even conceived of by New York City under existing laws and thus sought out the State to use its powers to override local wishes, procedures and laws to effectuate its goals.

FCR also sought the power of ESDC to use eminent domain to assure control of properties from those unwilling to sell. This is a classic instance of using the constitutional power of a taking for a public purpose as a subterfuge for one private party taking another’s property for its own gain. There was no existing public planning that lead to this project, no request for proposals and no indication whatsoever that this is anything but to assist the vision of a private developer with preferred access to politicians who can assist his goal.

Project misdescribed

The Urban Development Corporation (UDC) Act, which established the ESDC--the successor name to the UDC--is something that few people following Atlantic Yards have read (including me), but Baker has.

He argues that the state is shoehorning a private project with some civic benefits as a Civic Project, even though it will not be managed by a public entity:
ESDC has characterized this project as both a Civic Project and a Land Use Improvement Project as defined in the UDC Act. It is neither. A Civic Project is defined as one that provides facilities for educational, cultural, recreational, community, municipal, public service or other civic purposes. A civic project must be owned or leased by a public entity. This project will be leased to a private entity. The lease to a subsidiary of ESDC and then a sub-lease to a FCR entity is not permitted. An arena dedicated for for-profit enterprises does not qualify. It will be used for the Nets, concerts and other paying activities. While the DEIS discusses the availability of the arena to local colleges and schools, there is no provision for how it will be available and at what price. The intent of the Legislature to limit ESDC’s authority to fund sports arenas is evident by the various acts the Legislature has passed where specific authorization for such facilities was enacted. None of those acts apply to this project.

He also argues that Land Use Improvement Projects require the building of low-income housing, not a mixed-use project with a fraction of low-income housing. In other words, despite the praise for this project from some housing advocates, the affordable housing would be far too little to qualify under the state definition. Baker writes:
The project also does not qualify for a Land Use Improvement Project. That is defined as a project to inter alia rehabilitate a substandard and insanitary area as provided under Article 18 of the State Constitution. Article 18 ties such activities to the provision of low-income rental housing. It does not permit the funding, approval or facilitation of other types of housing. In fact in 1989 and 1991 there was a proposed constitutional amendment to expand the powers under Article 18 to cover all types of housing. That amendment failed. ESDC cannot use its authority to fund and facilitate what is primarily a market rate based, private-ownership residential and commercial project.

Blight study errors

I've pointed out that, based on one ESDC definition in the blight study conducted as part of the General Project Plan, much of New York City could be considered blighted, because properties are not built to 60% or more of their development potential.

Baker writes:
Another glaring error is the mischaracterization in the blight study of what constitutes a blighting characteristic. ESDC includes underutilization of lots as a factor. However there is no legal support for applying that standard to lots such as gas stations that are in active use. There is no legal or planning requirement that a lot be fully built out to the maximum permitted under zoning to avoid being considered blighted.

What about Coney Island?

As I've written, the DEIS dismisses the option of an arena in Coney Island because a site identified in 1974 is no longer available, even though as late as 2003, less than a year before Atlantic Yards was announced, Borough President Marty Markowitz was calling for a Coney Island site.

Project opponents have found two studies that the state apparently ignored. Baker says that only a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) can address the issue properly:
As noted, if this is a State project, and if it can qualify as a Civic Project, ESDC can undertake the project anywhere in Brooklyn, where the stated goal is to provide a means for an arena. During the scoping period, DDDB commented that ESDC must consider Coney Island as an alternative location for the arena. The DEIS failed to consider an alternative with the arena at other locations, let alone on Coney Island. Instead, the sole mention of Coney Island is at p. 1-11 of the DEIS where it identifies it as one of the locations identified in a 1974 study but then claims it is not available due to the construction of Keyspan Park, the minor league baseball stadium.

As noted in the report prepared by Simon Bertrang of Barnacle Planning Studio for DDDB, entitled “Report on Three Decades of Locational Analysis for a Brooklyn Arena” ESDC has seriously misrepresented the facts. First, ESDC audaciously ignores reports prepared in 1984 and 1994, both of which it had access to, which further identified Coney Island as the preferred location for an arena. Second and even more glaring is the mischaracterization about the ability of Coney Island to accommodate the arena. As, Mr. Bertrang demonstrates there are at least two locations on Coney Island that could accommodate the arena. Mr. Bertrang also demonstrates that those locations are in many ways preferable to the Prospect Heights location and are consistent with adopted land use and planning documents.... The bald-faced misrepresentation in the DEIS cannot be cured by trying to address the alternative in the FEIS. This is a significant alternative that can only be addressed in a SEIS.

Should ESDC have managed this?

The ESDC is responsible for both promoting business and, in this case, conducting the environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).

Baker argues that this was not necessary:
We also object to ESDC’s serving in the role of Lead Agency under SEQRA. To the best of our knowledge ESDC never prepared an Environmental Assessment Form under SEQRA and never circulated a request to other involved agencies seeking their input on which agency should serve as lead for the environmental review. ESDC’s pre-disposition toward the project sponsor, Forest City Ratner (FCR) precludes its ability to undertake an objective review of the environmental impacts of the project, particularly the proper consideration of alternatives.
ESDC also violated the mandate of SEQRA that an agency begin the SEQRA process as early as possible in its consideration of the action to evaluate the environmental impacts before it is so far into the review that meaningful consideration is precluded. FCR, the State and the City announced the project in December 2003. Clearly there had been significant discussions between the parties for some time earlier. In February 2005, FCR, ESDC and MTA entered into a series of Memorandums of Understanding concerning the project. In May 2005, MTA released an RFP for the disposition of the Vanderbilt Yards and in July 2005, MTA accepted the proposal from FCR. It was not until September 16, 2005 that ESDC stated its intent to be Lead Agency (without circulating notice to other Involved Agencies), issued the Positive Declaration and initiated Scoping. By that time the project had been under active consideration by ESDC for at least 20 months. Moreover, MTA had already committed to going the FCR proposal and was proceeding to contract. Rather than putting SEQRA at the front of the process to assure environmental integrity, ESDC has placed it at the end of the process, violating both the letter and the spirit of SEQRA.

Is the 8% AY scaleback a "concession"?

Again, we see evidence that reporters new to the Atlantic Yards story get key details wrong. Yesterday's Times "Public Lives" profile of the Municipal Art Society's Kent Barwick stated:
Now, with the planning commission publicly on board for Atlantic Yards, based on the developer’s acceptance of the commission’s suggestion to reduce its 8.7 million square foot project by 8 percent, a concession Mr. Barwick dismisses as a nonconcession, the society has aligned itself with several community groups and declared Atlantic Yards an unfit addition to the borough.

Why does the Times characterize it as a concession rather than a tactic? After all, the Times hadn't used the term before. Also, Brooklyn beat reporter Nicholas Confessore had reported the day before--in the voice of the newspaper, rather than attributing it to a critic, the new reduction only brings the project back to the original size proposed in 2003.

Brownstoner commented (typos and all):
Regardles of whether you're for, againt or somewhere in the middle on the Atlantic Yards project, it's hard not to be disgusted by the transparent dog-and-pony show that's gone on in recent days culminating in FRC "accepting" the city planning commission's recommendation of a 8% cut in the scale of the project

Brooklyn wants an arena?

The Times profile stated:
Mr. Barwick applauds the project’s ambitions (he says the site is right for high-density development and, if Brooklyn wants it, a sports arena)...

But the issue of "if" went unexplored. As I reported in June, Barwick acknowledged that we can't assess what Brooklyn wants: “That’s the trouble with having no public process."

Friday, September 29, 2006

Is ESDC violating open government laws? State official is suspicious

Can the Empire State Development Corporation get away with not releasing its fiscal impact study regarding the Atlantic Yards project? A state official tells the Village Voice: probably not.

Neil de Mause writes:
ESDC's disdain for public disclosure is nothing new—others who've tried to file FOIL requests for agency documents say it can often take months just to get a reply. (The law requires a response within five business days.) But it's especially troublesome in this case, where the only evidence for the project's estimated public costs ($545 million) and benefits ($1.945 billion) is the state agency's assertion that, well, we know what we're talking about, and you'll just have to trust us.

In this case, says Robert Freedman of the state Committee on Open Government, which oversees the Freedom of Information Law, the ESDC's reasoning "is a partial response, and in my opinion in all likelihood it is at least partially wrong." While the law does exempt "intra-agency materials," he says, certain categories of material explicitly cannot be withheld—one of which is "statistical or factual tabulations or data," which presumably would include economic impact number-crunching.

(Emphasis added)

I was interviewed:
"This has been presented as something that's going to be a fiscal boon to the public," says Oder, who notes that other agencies such as the Independent Budget Office and even Ratner's own consultant, Andrew Zimbalist, came up with more significant projected costs. "It shouldn't just be me getting excited about this—it should be our local elected officials. How can they get away with claiming this number?"

CBN says AY environmental review so flawed it shouldn't be approved

At 1 pm today, just a half day before the close of the comment period regarding the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) plans to deliver a detailed and harsh set of criticisms to the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC).

Said CBN co-chair Therese Urban in a statement, "It is CBN’s hope that the comments of our consultants and community members will be carefully studied by the ESDC and government officials in considering the many, glaring shortcomings of the DEIS. Due to the number and profound nature of the errors and shortcomings of the DEIS, CBN does not believe the current DEIS can be approved.
(Emphasis in original)

CBN, a coalition of some 40 community groups active in Community Boards 2, 3, 6, and 8, gained $230,000 in discretionary appropriations from city and state officials to hire experts to respond to the massive DEIS, which was issued July 18.

CBN is officially neutral on the Atlantic Yards plan, but several of its constituent organizations have opposed it or been strongly critical.

The full response, which runs to hundreds of pages, will be posted on the CBN site Saturday, but preliminary versions released Thursday paint a disturbing picture.

One example: while the DEIS portrays the planned open space as green and unsullied by shadows (first graphic above), a shadow analysis (second graphic) suggests that in spring it would be hard to get much sun in that space.

In other examples, shown below, the Environmental Simulation Center points out that the graphics of the potential impact of the project downplay the size and scale of the buildings. (Click on graphics to enlarge)

Overview critique

According to an overview by Hunter College urban planning professor Tom Angotti, while the DEIS is supposed to disclose significant adverse impacts, the document in fact misses several of them:
• Land Use and Public Policy. The project sharply breaks with the City’s land use, zoning and redevelopment policies.
• Socioeconomic Conditions. The DEIS fails to disclose public costs and understates secondary displacement.
• Community Facilities. The project could have adverse impacts on community facilities, but due to faulty methodology, (incorrect calculations) no analysis was performed.
• Open Space. The DEIS underestimates the open space deficit and inappropriately identifies private space as public.
• Cultural Resources. The impact of the project on historic districts is not accurately assessed.
• Infrastructure. The DEIS fails to demonstrate that there will be no significant impact on Combined Sewer Overflows despite proposed mitigations.
• Traffic and Parking. Cumulative traffic impacts beyond the effect on intersections are not addressed.
• Transit, pedestrians and bicycles. Crowding on transit and risks to pedestrians and bicyclists are underestimated.
• Public Health. Significant air quality, noise, shadow, and displacement impacts will have adverse effects on public health.

Because those impacts are not disclosed, there's no mention in the document of appropriate mitigations.

Further problems

Angotti outlined other problems with the analysis, including study area boundaries that were changed and wound up biasing the results, inadequate dates for analysis, and a failure to address several areas of community concern:
• Environmental Justice
• Security and Terrorism
• Mental Health
• Wind
• Heat Island Effect

The DEIS, he wrote, failed to seriously evaluate alternative plans and failed to provide adequate mitigations for the impacts disclosed. Moreover, while ESDC was "partially responsive" to requests for backup data, it did not fully respond. Thus, he argued, the state should issue a Supplemental DEIS before the ESDC board decides to approve the project.

The ESDC must respond to the comments from CBN and others with a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). "The report will be taken into consideration along with all the comments we receive on this project,” Deborah Wetzel, a spokeswoman for agency, told the Times. After the FEIS, the ESDC board is expected to approve the project. However, a lawsuit over eminent domain is expected, which could stall the approval process.

Subsidies ignored

I and others have pointed out the flaws in the ESDC's fiscal impact analysis, and the chapter on Socioeconomic conditions notes several subsidies ignored, all of which cut away at the claimed $1.4 billion in net new revenue.
1) Property tax exemption.
2) Sales tax exemption.
3) Tax-exempt financing.
4) Non-competitive bid for the railyard rights.
5) “Extraordinary infrastructure costs.”
6) Public utility relocation.
7) Affordable housing subsidies.
8) Mortgage recording tax exemption.

Also, the project would increase public costs, such as for schools, but the DEIS does not estimate such costs, the response notes. Moreover, while the DEIS considers "externality-type issues," including shadows, noise, and congestion, it makes no attempt to evaluate the cost of such issues, though Brian Ketcham of Community Consulting Services estimated that additional traffic would cost millions in congestion, traffic accidents, air pollution, and other problems.

Adaptive reuse

While the Atlantic Yards plan would destroy rather than reuse two buildings of historic merit, the Long Island Railroad Stables and the Ward Bakery, the response points out that new developments can incorporate historic structures, as in the example at right from San Diego.

While there are some 20 chapters to the response, tracking the sections of the DEIS, I'll point at two particularly contentious ones.

Noise: just lock your doors?

The response on noise points out that the solution is not a neighborhood-friendly one, given that Forest City Ratner has proposed to buy air conditioners and double-glazed windows for those who want to avoid noise:
The consultants believe that by sealing people in their homes, the expected significant noise impacts will not impact upon them. This assumes that people will agree to be sealed into their homes. In cooler temperatures, people do open up windows and individuals have this right; even in warmer temperatures, individuals may wish to open their windows.... The proposed mitigation would undermine Brooklyn’s well-known “stoop culture,” condemning everyone who chose to meet with friends and neighbors on the block to adverse health risks. It would also undermine any benefits there might be to the network of “publicly accessible open space” planned for the project.

On the one hand the plan promises more than seven acres of public open space and then tells residents to stay in their apartments with their windows shut.

Public health: bad faith

The CBN response accuses the preparers of the DEIS of bad faith--on the level of the tobacco industry--in assessing the health effects of fine particulate matter, PM2.5, since the state seems to be contradicting itself.

The DEIS discussion, according to the response, appears to have been written by or copied from material written by Dr. Laura Green of Cambridge Environmental Inc., a consultant often hired by polluting industries to defend their practices. Dr. Green prepared testimony for power plant proponents NYPA and TransGas in connection with recent hearings regarding New York State Article X, which has to do with the siting of power plants. The DEIS material appears to have been taken in part from that testimony.

Dr. Green’s views regarding the health effects of PM2.5 and of EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for PM2.5 are considered extreme, and they run counter to the State of New York’s position. New York State has participated actively in the legal defense of EPA’s PM2.5 NAAQS against industry challenge.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Another FOI Law request ignored; call for comment period extension

Others apparently have been trying to figure out how the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) reached its $1.4 billion estimate for the Atlantic Yards project. And others, like me, have been stymied.

From a letter sent today by Jeff Baker, attorney for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn:
On August 31, 2006, I submitted a FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] request to ESDC requesting a copy of the independent economic impact analysis” referenced on page 29 of the General Project Plan. In a letter dated September 8, 2006, Antovk Pidedjian, the ESDC Records Access Officer, acknowledged my request and said he would respond as to whether it would be granted within ten business days of his letter. As of today, there has not been any response.

Ten business days after Sept. 8 would be Sept. 22.

The letter argues that if the ESDC had followed the law and left the public comment period open until Oct. 18 instead of Sept. 29, additional comments could be prepared, including those on the materials that have not been provided in response to FOIL requests with an extended comment period.

ESDC stonewalls FOI Law request, won't release fiscal impact study

So much for getting my hopes up about the Empire State Development Corporation's belated willingness to respond to my Freedom of Information Law request.

I refined my request and said my priority was a copy of the "independent economic impact analysis" in the General Project Plan (section G). This analysis states that there would be a $1.4 billion net gain in tax revenues from this project, but I've already pointed out that there seem to be enormous holes in it.

The response I got yesterday from the ESDC:
ESDC has reviewed your request for additional documentation with respect to the financial analysis performed by ESDC. At this time there are no additional documents that are subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law.
It is possible that additional information will be compiled and made available at a later date. If additional information is prepared for release to the public - ESDC will certainly make the same available to you.

Some of our elected representatives should take responsibility for this issue. The state can't simply make a claim like this without backing it up, can it?

The Times gets the scaleback right, but what about the housing commitment?

The New York Times, in an article today headlined Atlantic Yards Developer Accepts 8% Reduction in Project, reports:
The developer of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn said yesterday that the company would support changes proposed by the city planning commission earlier this week, including an 8 percent reduction in the project’s size, additional public space and changes to the designs of several buildings.

The headline could just as easily have said:
Atlantic Yards Cut Brings Project Back to Square One

Indeed, five paragraphs later, some context that the Times had left out of Tuesday's coverage:
The company’s agreement was to some extent preordained: yesterday’s formal recommendations followed months of discussion. Moreover, the new reduction only brings the project back to the original size proposed in 2003. Critics and supporters of the project have called for it to be shrunk between a third and a half.
(Emphasis added)

The Daily News reported:
Critics called the cuts meaningless and said the project will still be roughly the same size as it was originally proposed in 2003, before it grew.

Again, that's an example of attributing an established fact to "critics" rather than in the newspaper's own voice, which has more weight.

Defending density

According to the Times, Amanda Burden, chair of the City Planning Commission, yesterday defended the relatively modest reduction in scale, saying that the project, which would extend east from the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues near Downtown Brooklyn, would be in an ideal location for a high-density development. “It is a transit hub,” she added. “It is at the crossroads of two wide avenues in Brooklyn. It can accommodate density, and density brings excitement, foot traffic, jobs.”

That of course is developer Forest City Ratner's line. Of course the location would be good for high-density development, but the question is how high. Unmentioned is that the project would remain, by far, more dense than the densest census tract in the country.

Affordable housing

The Times reported:
Ms. Burden also said the developer would ensure that at least 30 percent of the apartments built during the project’s first phase will be below-market rental units. A total of 2,250 such rental units are planned for the project, which will have 8.7 million square feet. The developer, according to the letter, has also committed to building the remaining 70 percent during the second phase.

Unmentioned is that the 30 percent figure means 550 units. Has the developer committed to building the rest during Phase 2? The City Planning Commission's letter states:
The Commission is pleased to note that, following the Commission’s Review Session on September 25, the developers have reaffirmed their commitment that the entire project will generate at least 2,250 units of affordable housing on site, and have agreed that at least 30% of the units built in Phase 1 (approximately 550 units) will be affordable. Phase I is defined as the Arena Block. The developers have further committed that the balance of the affordable units will be built in Phase 2. The units are expected to be built as part of the Mayor's New Housing Marketplace Plan. The Commission understands that these commitments are not reflected in the current GPP, but will be embodied in the City’s Funding Agreement with the developers.

It's a little bit hard to parse this. On Sept. 25, Rafael Cestero, Deputy Commissioner for Development at the Department of Housing Preservation & Development was asked if there was a commitment for completing Phase 2 in a certain time. “There is no commitment on the time,” he replied.

So as long as the funding agreement says so, apparently Forest City Ratner will commit to the additional 1700 affordable units, according to the planning commission letter. But that still doesn't tell us when Phase 2 would be built, as it depends on factors beyond the city's contribution to the affordable housing, so there are no assurances that it would be built by 2016 as planned.

The city still hasn't told the public how much the affordable housing would cost.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

AY Phase I down to 550 affordable units; more criticism from Tish James

According to a letter released today by the City Planning Commission summarizing the recommendations discussed at Monday's meeting, the number of affordable housing units in Phase 1 of Atlantic Yards, due by 2010, would be 550, not 600 as mentioned Monday.

My article in this week's Brooklyn Downtown Star about that meeting adds some new quotes from City Councilmember Letitia James. She was not pleased:
"I thought some of the comments from Regina [Myer, head of the Department of City Planning's Brooklyn office] were a little over the top. I think [DCP commissioner] Amanda Burden served as a spokesperson for Forest City Ratner, and judge and jury. The fact that they wanted to respect the Williamsburgh bank but did nothing to cut back on Miss Brooklyn is sort of a contradiction. There was no discussion of the overall policy issues, whether the city should be relinquishing its power to state, with a project of this size. They were just tinkering around the fringe."

Also of note

Lumi Rolley of No Land Grab amends today's New York Times article about the Hudson Yards:
Instead, under a new proposal worked out over the past week, the city and the authority would do what critics said they should have done in the first place: rezone the 13-acre railyard on the west side of 11th Avenue between 30th and 33rd Streets for high-rise development and sell it to a developer through a bidding process. In addition, the MTA will be applying the same process to the Vanderbilt Railyards in Brooklyn.

NoLandGrab: OK, we made up the last part. It does make sense though, doesn't it?

And Mary Campbell Gallagher, in Metro, portrays the ghost of Robert Moses visiting Mayor Bloomberg and advising him how to evade the city's strict, post-Moses land use review process.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

At City Planning, 8% scaleback surfaces, Phase 2 not guaranteed, and challenges ignored

Here’s the news from yesterday’s first-ever Department of City Planning (DCP) public meeting on Atlantic Yards:
--the City Planning Commission (CPC) seeks an eight percent scaleback in the project, with reductions in the heights of three buildings and the width of another
--most cuts will be in market-rate units, but the number of affordable units might shrink
--the CPC would like open space to increase one acre
--city officials admit they have no assurances that Phase 2 (est. 2016) of the project would be built on time, if at all, thus jeopardizing planned open space and most of the affordable housing
--some 30% of the housing in Phase 1 (est. 2010) would be affordable, a somewhat larger amount than suggested in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS)
--the commissioners have no interest in dicey planning issues like the creation of superblocks, inaccessible public space, and an enormous surface parking lot
--the commissioners have some interest in issues like affordable housing and jobs, which are out of their purview, but they don’t know very much about them, and staff didn't help too much.

It made for a major contrast with the launch of BrooklynSpeaks, which, despite some questionable aspects, still provides more informed criticism than did those trusted to serve the city.

The recommendations must first be ratified by the commission and memorialized in a letter that will be discussed at the commission’s meeting Wednesday. But it was hardly a contentious debate; after all, the plan for an eight percent scaleback was said to be under discussion by the developer earlier this month.

(Coverage in the Times, the Daily News, and the Post failed to point out that the scaleback would bring the project back to its original size. The Times at least quoted City Council Member Letita James as calling the cuts "inadequate" and Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn Daniel Goldstein deeming them "insignificant.")

A reduction of 700,000 square feet could mean the reduction of as many as 700 market-rate units, bringing the number of condos down from 2360 to 1660. Then again, there also could be a reduction in the number of rental units, currently planned at 4500, with half of them designated as affordable.

Why’s DCP involved in the first place? A Memorandum of Understanding requires the ESDC to consult with DCP concerning the override of zoning and other local regulations, though it's unclear what power the city agency actually has.

Brooklyn's representative on the CPC, Dolly Williams, didn't participate. She's recused herself because she's an investor in the Nets.

Staff presentation

The review session got off to an inauspicious start as Regina Myer, director of the DCP’s Brooklyn office, described the project as “incredibly transit-oriented,” on “primarily state-owned land,” and located “in Downtown Brooklyn,” all highly debatable assertions that got some in the crowd muttering, including James—who represents the Prospect Heights project location.

Myer led commissioners through a slideshow about the project, offering periodic kudos, citing “this incredible skyline” and suggesting that the Urban Room, the combination ticket window/team store/hotel lobby/office lobby billed as publicly-accessible open space, contained a “soaring glass space… reminiscent of Bilbao,” Atlantic Yards architect Frank Gehry’s landmark Guggenheim museum in Spain. (Note: That’s the first I’d heard of the team store.)

Reflecting commission chair Amanda Burden’s concern that there be storefronts along Atlantic Avenue near the planned arena, Myer described a “b-market,” a narrow strip of retail to accommodate smaller shops.

While buildings along Atlantic Avenue would be tallest, there would be “a dramatic stepdown to Dean Street, which is the northern edge of Prospect Heights,” she said. (Many would say that Pacific Street, one block north and bordering the MTA’s Vanderbilt Yard, is the northern edge.) Such an adjustment had already been announced in May.

Myer described the use of curvilinear, fragmented, and traditional forms, which, she suggested, would “start to break down the bulk” of the project.

And she suggested that DCP had produced specific design guidelines for each building, capping the size (but allowing variety, rather than being shackled by zoning), designating architectural features, and prescribing open space. [Update 1/09: Those actually came out of Gehry's office.]

Changes and cuts

So, what about Miss Brooklyn, the 620-foot (650-foot, with mechanicals) flagship tower that even Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz thinks is too big, dwarfing the iconic 512-foot Williamsburgh Savings Bank? “We really do believe the height it’s proposed at is really appropriate,” Myer said. (Really? Or does that leave Miss Brooklyn for a negotiated trim at a later date?)

However, she declared that the building has “too wide a shoulder base,” which, sounding like a term out of couture, means its middle-section—240 feet across Atlantic Avenue—needs to become slinkier.

Three other buildings, two of them in Phase 1, would be reduced significantly. Building 3, at the northwest corner of Dean Street and Sixth Avenue (currently home to Freddy's bar), would be cut from 428 feet to 240 feet. (It still would dwarf the row houses it would replace, or that would remain on the south side of Dean Street.)

The building at Site 5 (below), in the block bounded by Fourth and Flatbush Avenues and Pacific Street, would be cut from 350 feet to 250 feet “to provide a better transition.” (This was And Building 6, the middle of three buildings over the railyard between 6th and Carlton avenues (and built in Phase 2), would be reduced from 334 to 220 feet, thus making “a tremendous difference in terms of variety,” according to Myer.

DCP also recommended that open space be increased from seven acres to eight acres by reconfiguring it. That still doesn’t address the significant deficit in the open space ratio, given an enormous incoming population.

Commissioners curious

When the commissioners got a chance to ask questions, they were curious, if not always well informed. Commissioner Angela Battaglia asked about displacement caused by the project.

Myer turned the floor over to the ESDC’s Rachel Shatz, Director, Planning and Environmental Review, who gave a defensible but narrow reply. She said that the state Eminent Domain Procedure Law required a relocation plan for anyone who had to move. But she didn’t mention the contentious issue of displacement in the area around the project, a phenomenon the DEIS discounts.

Commissioner Irwin Cantor asked about the evolution of the project, saying that the original proposal was “significantly more modest” before it grew. Myer gave a technical answer focusing on the configuration of buildings: the number of towers around the arena had grown from three to four, and Site 5 was added at a later date.

She didn’t explain that the project was originally proposed at about 8 million square feet, was increased to 9.132 million square feet, and was cut to 8.659 million square feet. An 8 percent reduction would bring Atlantic Yards just below its starting point, to 7.959 million square feet.

Affordable housing & jobs

How long would the affordable housing last, asked Commissioner Kenneth Knuckles. Thirty years, the term of the bonds, said Rafael Cestero, Deputy Commissioner for Development at the Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD).

Knuckles asked how many jobs would be created. Myer responded that there would be 15,000 construction jobs, though actually there would be 1500 jobs a year over ten years.

Knuckles wanted to know about jobs directed to the local community. (He apparently hadn’t heard of the Community Benefits Agreement.) Shatz said that was an issue between Forest City Ratner and the CBA signatories, so she couldn’t speak to that. Her non-answer seemed to buttress the argument, as some politicians have made, for formally incorporating this side agreement into a governmental process.

And what about the permanent jobs? There are numbers in the DEIS, but Shatz passed and Cori Packard of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) was called to the podium. She cited a June 2005 document (p. 6) that projected 7100 office jobs. However, the amount of planned office space has since been cut by two-thirds, but no one saw fit to point that out.

Commissioner Richard Eaddy asked about the minimum number of affordable units. Cestero said that 30 percent of all the units in Phase 1—600 units—would be affordable. That suggests 600 affordable rentals, 600 market rate rentals, and 800 market-rate condos. That would be a distinct contrast from what’s suggested in the DEIS: 404 affordable rentals, 404 market-rate rentals, and 1542 market-rate condos. In essence, that’s a total reduction from 1946 market-rate units to 1400 market-rate units.

(Or did he mean that 30 percent of the planned affordable units would be in Phase 1, suggesting that only 2000 affordable units would be built?)

“We don’t know if it’ll be 4500 [rentals] or 4300,” he said, since the project reduction isn’t complete. He said that Phase 1 would include 1200 rentals, with half of them affordable. Projections in the DEIS said there would be only 808 rentals.


Is there a commitment for completing Phase 2 in a certain time, asked Commissioner Jane Gol. “There is no commitment on the time,” Cestero replied. In other words, depending on market forces and other factors, the majority of the affordable housing and the open space may not be completed by 2016 as currently billed.

How would the affordable housing commitment be enforced, asked Commissioner Lisa Gomez. “It will be memorialized in the funding agreement,” said Cestero, referring to the package of bonds and other subsidies not yet made public. That agreement, according to a representative of the city’s law department, is being developed now, with the first disbursement scheduled for after the project is approved. (That could be later this year.)

How do we get the 2250 affordable units, asked Commissioner Angela Cavaluzzi, pointing to a document that indicated “approximately 2250” units. Cestero gave a slightly different description of the funding agreement, saying that it would be memorialized in a document HPD would sign with the EDC regarding infrastructure.

“We have a commitment for 30% of the units in Phase 1, and will seek the balance in Phase 2,” Cestero said.

More questions

What kind of parking and transit improvements would there be? Shatz mentioned the reconfiguration of Fourth Avenue, the use of remote parking and shuttles, the potential to offer a 50% MetroCard discount, and the extension of rush hour schedules later into the night—mainly mitigations that the Tri-State Transportation Campaign has found wanting.

There was a question about the “intergenerational facility,” which Winston Von Engel, Deputy Director of DCP’s Brooklyn office, explained as a mixed senior center and day care center. He noted that it was a project that Forest City Ratner had agreed to in the CBA. There were lingering questions about the size of the facility, but nobody pointed out that 100 day care slots would make a tiny dent in a new population of more than 15,000.

Critics not pleased

Afterward, Stuart Pertz, a former planning commissioner and now an advisor to the Municipal Art Society on its Atlantic Yards project, observed, “It’s not very timely. It’s not very vociferous.” Given the failure to lock in the second phase, he noted, “They could be left with a hole in the ground and a lot of parking.”

DDDB's Goldstein observed, "Three years into it, it was clear that the planning commission didn't know much about this project. It's been Forest City Ratner's project, which violates Kelo." He was referring to the Supreme Court case which said that the exercise of eminent domain for economic development was justified only if it was derived from a municipally-approved plan. Whether Atlantic Yards does in fact violate Kelo will likely be tested in court.

BrooklynSpeaks principals say it's about strategy

Yesterday, the day after the BrooklynSpeaks web site finally launched, backers of the project spoke at a press conference in Brooklyn--less than an hour after the City Planning Commission, in its only review of the project, essentially ignored many of the flaws in Atlantic Yards pointed out by BrooklynSpeaks, including interim surface parking and open space that looks more like the backyards of buildings.

While the site developers, led by the Municipal Art Society (MAS) and eight other groups, aim to get concerned Brookynites to send letters to public officials, many questions yesterday regarded the groups and their goals. Recently the Boerum Hill Association (BHA) issued a tough set of principles regarding the project, including no use of eminent domain, but BrooklynSpeaks accepts the arena and mentions eminent domain only as a concern that some have expressed.

"Each of our groups has things we feel strongly about," said the BHA's Sue Wolfe, indicating that she didn't consider the two stands contradictory. "We felt that this was more powerful" as a way to get the message out.

The Park Slope Civic Council, said president Lydia Denworth, still might vote on eminent domain. "We don't think it precludes us from participating in this."

DDDB criticism

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, which leads the fight against the project, issued a critical welcome:
However, while the BrooklynSpeaks group takes a position on a few of the relevant issues, they have failed to hear the voice of the community on the issues of the arena, eminent domain abuse, city oversight of the proposal, the unknown public cost, the severe environmental impacts, and the lack of affordable housing guarantees.

Middle ground?

Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee, whose DeGraw Street headquarters in Gowanus hosted the press conference, lamented--as she had at the Sept. 12 Atlantic Yards community forum, a sense of polarization, in which people were listed only as for or against the project. "We hope to have a more civil discourse," she said.

Do the BrooklynSpeaks principles represent an acceptance of Forest City Ratner as the developer for this project, rather than a challenge to the project's legitimacy and the process by which the developer was allowed to proceed? It seems so. Then again, Denworth was asked if the BrooklynSpeaks members would support Atlantic Yards if the request for changes is met.

"Perhaps," she said. "But I feel that between here and there, there's a whole lot of distance to be covered." Without the relatively moderate position distinct from an all-or-nothing lawsuit expected from DDDB and allies, she suggested, "You might get stuck with what they're planning."

"This has not been a public process," Wolfe said. "If this is delayed, maybe there will be an opportunity for a public process." The MAS's Kent Barwick suggested that a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) might be created for ongoing review of the project.

Relations with DDDB

Asked about the role of DDDB, project principals spoke carefully. "DDDB's position is one that's valuable," said de la Uz, who noted that several organizations in BrooklynSpeaks had joined DDDB in a lawsuit challenging ESDC demolitions and the role of an ESDC lawyer who formerly represented Forest City Ratner.

But, she added, "When our agendas align, it's important that we form coalitions."

Denworth said that "work that DDDB has done is very valuable," but suggested the DDDB strategy is primarily legal. (Ultimately legal, perhaps, though the organization and mobilization goes beyond courtroom issues.)

Some of the groups are members of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), an umbrella organization formed to respond to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. "This is to complement the work of the CBN," said Deb Howard of the Pratt Area Community Council (PACC).

Affordable housing

Given that the BrooklynSpeaks principles call for increased affordable housing for poorer Brooklynites, would the two housing advocacy groups seek to play a role in AY affordable housing?

"I didn't place PACC in this position so we'd have a piece of the pie," Howard said. While de la Uz said she never ruled anything out, "I we're not going to compromise our other values."


While the principles oppose superblocks, BrooklynSpeaks accepts the demapping of Pacific Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. "If Brooklyn wants an arena, and this is a pretty good place for one, that portion of Pacific Street has to be lost," Barwick said. Still, as he acknowledged in June, it's difficult to assess what exactly Brooklyn wants.

DDDB pointed out that, given the somewhat murky presentation of this issue on the BrooklynSpeaks site, the group "should be explicit in their support of the arena and their acceptance of the use of eminent domain for the “Atlantic Yards” proposal (which is required to construct an arena)."

Future strategy

At the end of the press conference, the representatives spent some time talking with each other, as it was one of the first few times they'd met as a group. As they work on outreach, they likely will work to harmonize their message.

Some people referred to the principles as "mitigation," as if to complement the role of the ESDC. Others said they represented "real change." Given that BrooklynSpeaks says that plan "must be changed substantially or rejected," it sounds like more than mitigation.

Dissent and agreement

ADDENDUM: I neglected to point out that the Prospect Place Block Association, a member of the BrooklynSpeaks constituent group Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, protested that it was not consulted on the development of BrooklynSpeaks. Given that the block association opposes the arena and eminent domain, the association's Atlantic Yards task force "feels the Brooklyn Speaks initiative does not go far enought."

I've also heard there's some dismay among members of the CBN because--as I pointed out last week--this announcement takes away from the significant critique of the DEIS that will be submitted on Friday.

Bob Guskind of the Gowanus Lounge suggests:
The truth is, we're depressed that you didn't try to work this out privately and didn't come up with a division of labor, at it were, on Atlantic Yards before this all went public. But, it's not too late. It would be for the best if everyone involved in trying to shape the outcome of this fight were to hash out their differences and divide up the work.
How? Well, BrooklynSpeaks ought to acknowledge that eminent domain is not an appropriate tool for developing Atlantic Yards, even if it's politically simpler to ignore the issue. Legal action to block Atlantic Yards on the basis of eminent domain and other issues is entirely appropriate and BrooklynSpeaks ought to support those efforts. That turf, however, is best left to Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn and its supporters.
We do think it's valuable to push for signficant changes in the project, including a redesign with significant public input, as a fallback. This is necessary for the public good, should the legal strategy not stop the development.

Monday, September 25, 2006

BrooklynSpeaks, tougher than hinted, calls for major changes

Now that the BrooklynSpeaks web site has been unveiled, after a two-day delay, the message from the Municipal Art Society (MAS) and the civic groups behind the effort is tougher than hinted:
Tell the decision-makers today that the plan must be substantially changed or rejected. If New Yorkers speak up, we can achieve a better plan for New York.

The project principles draw significantly from the MAS's guidelines announced in June:
1. Respect and integrate with surrounding neighborhoods
2. Include a transportation plan that works
3. Include affordable housing that meets the community’s needs
4. Involve the public in a meaningful way

Not having seen the actual principles, Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco likely was too welcoming, telling the Times that the developer was “pleased to see that these groups want to talk about ways" to improve the project. Does FCR really want to see the project cut in half--a potential change not mentioned in the Times article?

In my piece reacting to the Times article, I gave too much weight to the Times's description that the effort was "focusing on mitigating the project’s impact rather than blocking it altogether." That's not untrue, as BrooklynSpeaks takes no position against eminent domain, but the posture is tougher than both the Times and I allowed.

BrooklynSpeaks represents a split in the opposition (though several BrooklynSpeaks members could be characterized as "concerned" rather than opponents), an assumption--as I wrote--that pragmatic pressure is a wiser tactic than outright opposition and an all-or-nothing legal fight.

Will it acquire more of a critical mass? It currently includes nine civic groups, seven from Brooklyn. Five of the groups are members of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), which was formed to respond to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. CBN has 35 members, ten of them block associations.

Reduced density

The BrooklynSpeaks site notes that the 8.7 million square feet plan wouldn't integrate into the surrounding neighborhoods. One recommendation is to create real public parks rather than building backyards (see graphic); another is to reuse historic buildings. But the major argument is for a substantial scaleback:
A substantial reduction might be:
A reduction of one third in the total amount of sf, as proposed by State Assembly Members James Brennan and others, to cap the development to a maximum of approximately 5.8M sf. This density would create development roughly comparable to the density permitted in parts of Downtown Brooklyn.
A reduction of one half of the total amount of sf, to cap the development to a maximum of approximately 4.3M sf. This would create a development roughly equivalent in density to Battery Park City in Manhattan, which has 152 units per acre. The Atlantic Yards plan would contain more than twice as many per acre if built as currently proposed.

Does that mean that the ultimate compromise would be somewhere between one-half and one-third? Note that Downtown Brooklyn was rezoned for office space, not housing--though most new construction is housing--and that even 5.8M sf would be a significantly dense development. I've suggested that a 50 percent cut should be a ceiling for discussion.

Deadening superblocks?

BrooklynSpeaks calls for the creation of new streets to extend the street grid from Fort Greene and criticizes the creation of superblocks, calling for Fifth Avenue to be left open, which would shift the planned arena to the east.

But that the criticism is selective; Pacific Street should not be demapped east of Carlton Avenue, but the demapping of Pacific between Fifth and Sixth avenues to create the arena superblock is accepted.

Major transportation changes

BrooklynSpeaks recommends significant changes in transportation. This reflects many points already made by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a coalition member:
--minimize construction of new parking
--eliminate the 944-space surface parking lot planned for Phase I on the block bounded by Vanderbilt Avenue and Carlton, Dean and Pacific Streets
--institute residential parking permits
--head off a secondary parking industry, as in the area around Madison Square Garden
--create strong incentives for transit use; rather than including 50% off a subway ride, a mass transit fare should be built into the cost of every ticket
--implement traffic calming to deter overcrowding on neighborhood streets
--take the drop-off lane for the arena and reconfigure it for bus access, so as to hasten bus rapid transit
--plan for additional subway capacity
--begin congestion pricing, as has been successful in London.

Affordable housing

The Municipal Art Society, the most prominent organization in Brooklyn Speaks, is an advocate of urban design, but two members are the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) and the Pratt Area Community Council, which are involved in affordable housing. And though the advocates acknowledge that 2250 units of affordable housing is a step forward, it doesn't go nearly far enough:
However, two thirds of the units in the development will be sold or rented at market rate, and 60% of the affordable units would only be affordable to families making in excess of the Brooklyn median income, which is $35,000 annually.
Also, despite the fact that the proposed project will displace families earning less than $21,000 annually, none of the affordable units currently proposed are affordable to those families.

This would not only accelerate gentrification and displacement, there is no guarantee that more than a few affordable units would be built in the first phase of the project. BrooklynSpeaks proposes:
--many more affordable units be geared to those earning $35,000 and below annually, especially large families earning less than $21,000
--ensure that the proportion of affordable units built in the first phase be consistent with the project as a whole
--a potential increase in the proportion of affordable units in the overall development
--the potential creation of affordable homeownership opportunites on-site, rather than elsewhere.

The latter, however, would increase the project density. And it's unclear how the affordable housing would be financed. We don't know even now the sum of the subsidies for affordable housing. While an increased reach to accommodate poorer New Yorkers would demand more subsidies, the public shouldn't be asked to pay unless there's a clearer accounting of the project's costs and benefits--an issue not raised in BrooklynSpeaks.

Michelle de la Uz of the FAC told me that, even putting affordable housing aside, the profit and loss statements are an important element of transparency. Where could the money come from? Battery Park City has produced $130 million in revenue geared to hard to reach populations, she said.

Process issues

The sponsors of BrooklynSpeaks acknowledge some process issues:
The Atlantic Yards proposal was conceived by the developer and the political decision-makers behind closed doors and has moved forward with no significant input from New Yorkers. No Brooklyn official will get to vote on the project.

The solution:
Redesign the project with public input.
Create a subsidiary with local representation to manage future decision-making and an ongoing public process for the site.

While that certainly would be an improvement, it accepts--likely for political reasons--the project as it has arrived, with a single developer gaining backing for a project including the MTA's valuable Vanderbilt Yards 18 months before the agency put the railyard out for bid.

That legitimacy issue surely will be part of the inevitable lawsuit filed by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) over the eminent domain case.

As noted, some groups endorsing Brooklyn Speaks are essentially repudiating some of the principles for responsible development for the Vanderbilt Yard that they endorsed, including no use of eminent domain and a project evaluated via the city's more stringent land use process, not the state's fast track.

And other issues

BrooklynSpeaks acknowledges other concerns:
In addition to the issues addressed by the principles, community organizations have also expressed concerns with aspects of Atlantic Yards plan that include
disruptions during the project's construction;
increased noise;
air quality deterioration;
strain on police, fire and EMS services;
sewage and storm water runoff;
the effect of shadows on surrounding neighborhoods; and
the potential use of eminent domain;
as well as other issues.

That's a nod to the hugely-charged issue of eminent domain, which distinguishes this group from some other civic groups and the DDDB coalition, which does not accept the use of eminent domain to aid a private developer to build an arena. So far the Fort Greene Association and the Society for Clinton Hill, among others, have not signed on to BrooklynSpeaks.

Bad faith?

The sponsors of BrooklynSpeaks call the public process "deeply troubling" and the proposal "deeply flawed."

The strong implication is that Forest City Ratner, in its plans for the project, and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), in its environmental review, have failed in their public responsibility.

But the language of BrooklynSpeaks is more diplomatic. If you're going to negotiate--and this is the start of a negotiation, with the main leverage newly-mobilized public opinion--professing bad faith is probably an unwise tactic. (In court, however, we might hear about bad faith.)

One lingering question: must all the changes sought be implemented to gain the support of BrooklynSpeaks? Would the coalition accept transportation improvements, a reconfiguration of the project, and increased housing for lower-income Brooklynites without a substantial cut in the density?

What next?

Supporters can use the BrooklynSpeaks web site to send letters to elected officials, including Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and the three state officials who must ultimately approve the project: Gov. George Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. (They will act after the ESDC board approves it.)

To see the letters, you have to log in and check a box saying you support the BrooklynSpeaks principles; if you don't, you're stymied.

As of last night, 695 people were listed as signing on to the principles. That didn't actually represent the number of people who logged on in just a few hours; rather, it included hundreds of people who had already endorsed the MAS principles regarding the plan.

Meanwhile, the Sept. 29 deadline for comments on the DEIS approaches; expect some detailed and tough critiques from the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods. While some of the critiques may buttress the general posture of BrooklynSpeaks, others may point to broader issues regarding the process and the project.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Crain's editor offers weak defense of poll

In his column this week, headlined An Objective View of Atlantic Yards, Crain's New York Business editor Greg David offers a weak defense of the deceptive poll the weekly sponsored last month. He writes:
Many have complained that the questions could have been worded to bring about a different result. That would be true if either Atlantic Yards opponents or Forest City had a chance to influence the poll. Opponents of Atlantic Yards are trying to shoot the messenger because the message is unpalatable.

The "objective" housing question

As I pointed out, the question about affordable housing was worded thusly:
The project will provide 2,250 low-, moderate-, and middle-income rental apartments. Is this a very important benefit, an important benefit, not an important benefit or no benefit at all?

Despite David's statement that Forest City did not formally influence the poll, the phrase "the project will provide" echoes the developer's syntax. The Atlantic Yards web site claims that "Atlantic Yards will also address..." and "The Atlantic Yards development will help..."

Such language suggests that the project itself is the actor, even though the housing would be provided by a developer backed by significant public subsidies.

Alternate questions

Consider some alternative ways to ask that question:
The project would include 2,250 low-, moderate-, and middle-income rental apartments, with an average rent of $1542.

The project would include 2,250 affordable apartments, but more than half would be too expensive for people at Brooklyn's median income.

The project would include 2,250 affordable apartments, but the inclusion of those apartments means the development would be significantly out of scale with its neighbors.

The project would include 2,250 affordable apartments, but most wouldn't be built until after 2010, and could be delayed by the market.

The project would include 2,250 affordable apartments, but we haven't been told the full amount of the subsidies used to support them.

The project would include 2,250 affordable apartments, but most wouldn't be built until after 2010, unlike city rezonings which require affordable housing to be built along with the rest of project.

And what about the pollster?

David also offers two perhaps contradictory sentences regarding pollster Charney Research:
Mr. Charney, a professional pollster whose firm had emphasized political work, wanted to raise his company's profile within the business community and thought a joint project with Crain's might help... His company had no ties to developer Forest City Ratner or its opponents and no vested interest in the outcome, except to embellish its reputation for objective polling.

So one way of raising the profile might be to produce a poll that businesses would appreciate.

I'm willing to believe that Charney did not slant the questions deliberately to favor the outcome achieved. It could have simply been ignorance. But ignorance is no excuse.

David has already written one wrongheaded column about the Atlantic Yards project. He's allowed his opinions, but they'd be more convincing if he didn't miss the facts.

Times's AY Op-Art more questionable than funny

So, was Bruce McCall's Op-Art piece (Six-to-Eight percent Solutions) in yesterday's New York Times a backhanded defense of Frank Gehry's Atlantic Yards design as presented or a suggestion that a six to eight percent cut would be meaningless and even self-defeating?

I've heard both arguments and, actually, am not sure what he was after other than a springboard for some whimsical treatments of imaginary past downsizings.

I still find his premise questionable. First, it assumes the project is a done deal--and Atlantic Yards still must get state approval at two levels, and survive a court challenge.

Second, the piece doesn't make sense; there's no real comparison between a finished project (like the Eiffel Tower), and a design, and McCall doesn't acknowledge that a six to eight percent cut would bring Atlantic Yards essentially back to its original proposed size. (Oops, maybe he only read one of the two Times stories.)

Perhaps most importantly, the Times devoted two-thirds of the op-ed page to fanciful drawings but it still hasn't shown the public any images of what the Atlantic Yards project would look like in the context of the neighborhood.

Friday, September 22, 2006

ESDC finally acknowledges Freedom of Information Law request

So maybe it was worth it for me to comment publicly at the Sept. 12 Atlantic Yards community forum regarding the Empire State Development Corporation's (ESDC) failure to acknowledge my Freedom of Information Law request. I sent the ESDC a letter on July 26, and the agency should have responded within five business days.

I sent a follow-up letter in late August, as well. Both were ignored until I raised the issue in my testimony Sept. 12. On Tuesday I received, via email, a copy of a letter (above) mailed to me. (Click to enlarge)

The ESDC's response blamed "an inadvertent mistake" and promised a response to my request in ten days. Agencies, however, do have discretion over what they can share in response to such requests, so it'll be interesting to see the response.

How did Ratner get to build a downtown Brooklyn tower? The state won't say

So Forest City Ratner will build a $186-million Renzo Piano-designed tower at a site owned by the City University of New York's College of Technology bounded by Jay, Johnston, and Tillary streets. That site now includes the Klitgord Auditorium, where the Atlantic Yards public hearing and community forums were held.

The building would be about 1 million square feet--almost as big as Miss Brooklyn, the largest building in the Atlantic Yards plan--which suggests it could be 50 to 60 stories tall. It will include classrooms, luxury condos, and some affordable housing.

While the size of the development is apparently as of right, given the recent rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn, other questions remain. However, as the Brooklyn Papers reported, the state won't release details about the finances or the bid process:
The state will finance the CUNY portion of the development, while underwriting Ratner’s construction through bonds.
Ratner won the development rights in competition with one other builder — but state officials would not release information about either bid, nor what Ratner paid for the right to develop luxury housing at a crucial site at the corner of Jay and Tillary streets.

What transparency?

The Brooklyn Papers said in an editorial:
And then last week, state Dormitory Authority officials admitted that they signed a deal with Ratner to build a $186-million tower for New York City College of Technology that will include new classrooms and a gym.
As part of the deal, Ratner gets the right to build hundreds of units of luxury housing atop the school’s facilities.
Officials told us that Ratner beat out another developer for the lucrative contract, but would not tell us who the other would-be developer was and why Ratner’s proposal was better.
Considering that the winning bidder gets to sell luxury housing as part of the deal, it’s important to know the details of both parties’ bids.

Brooklyn Speaks to modify AY project--but which Brooklyn?

Essentially acknowledging that the Atlantic Yards project is a done deal, even before the most significant criticisms of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) emerge, several community groups in Brooklyn have lined up with the Municipal Art Society (MAS) to seek changes to the scale and design of the development. A new web site will be unveiled Saturday,

As the New York Times reports today, in an article headlined Brooklyn Group to Propose Changes to Yards Project:
The group will prescribe substantial reductions in the project’s size and an increase in the percentage of subsidized housing allotted to poor families, among other changes, but will not take a position against eminent domain.
The groups, including the Pratt Area Community Council, the Municipal Art Society, the Boerum Hill Association and the Park Slope Civic Council, will unveil the proposed changes on a new Web site,, on Saturday, with less than a week until a state-mandated public comment period ends.

Several of the groups are members of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), the umbrella organization formed to recruit experts and present a detailed critique of the DEIS.

Heated debate

Unmentioned in the Times is the heated debate ongoing in Brooklyn, with some groups representing significant constituencies near the proposed project site, notably the Fort Greene Association and the Society for Clinton Hill, refusing to endorse the new venture yet.

Some groups endorsing Brooklyn Speaks are essentially repudiating some of the principles for responsible development for the Vanderbilt Yard that they endorsed, including no use of eminent domain and a project evaluated via the city's more stringent land use process, not the state's fast track. And the Boerum Hill Association just weeks ago reiterated major criticisms of the project, including the use of eminent domain.

The Times did quote Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) spokesman Daniel Goldstein as pointing out that, if the principle is to respect the neighborhood, "by ignoring eminent domain and the arena, they are disrespecting the neighborhood.” The MAS opposes the demapping of streets, such as Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues, but accepts the demapping of shorter streets for the arena.

How much of a scaleback?

What will BrooklynSpeaks say? Many of the principles will derive from the MAS's June critique of the project, including the creation of real public parks, not private enclaves, and the avoidance of superblocks.

The Times said the web site will call for scaling back the project’s square footage. It's unclear whether a target number will be mentioned. Any number would then become a negotiating point to compromise from--rather than a goal. But even a 50 percent reduction could leave the project as dense as the country's most dense census tract, so there's an argument for a cut of that magnitude as a ceiling.

The politics

The Times article suggests that "The new effort follows a series of legal and political setbacks for opponents of the project," citing a failed lawsuit and the recent losses by insurgent political candidates who emphasized their opposition to the project.

On the other hand, it's not clear what leverage--other than the MAS's capacity to earn the ear of some political leaders--this new group would have. After the Empire State Development Corporation approves the project later this year, it must receive the blessing of the three-member Public Authorities Control Board and one member, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, will be pressured to call for modifications.

Brooklyn Speaks will aim to collect signatures supporting its principles--and some of its leaders may be able to claim credit for negotiating a compromise that, to some degree, may have been in the cards already. Architect Frank Gehry said in January that the project is "coming way back."

A hint that a compromise is welcome came from Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, who told the Times that the developer was “pleased to see that these groups want to talk about ways to improve what we believe is a very exciting project for the people of Brooklyn."

If the BrooklynSpeaks coalition wants more affordable housing allocated to the poor, then Forest City Ratner may seek these groups' support for additional subsidies.

What will those who wish to take a harder stand do? One person told me they may join the Brooklyn Speaks campaign, endorse the criticisms of urban design, but add their own criticisms as well.

Whose momentum?

Project critics also have not yet gained much momentum from the public hearing and two community forums held by the Empire State Development Corporation, each of which featured a majority of union supporters of the project. Then again, the pendulum may shift when the CBN submits its extensive criticisms of the DEIS before the Sept. 29 deadline.

The CBN has provided sketches of its criticisms on its web site. Among the litany:
--Many parts of the DEIS read like promotional material for the development, not a balanced analysis of impacts
--In the areas of traffic, transportation, noise, and construction impacts where the DEIS says there will be significant adverse impacts, the mitigations proposed are minimal and ineffective
--The DEIS states many times that this is an example of “transit-oriented development.” But building next to mass transit by itself doesn’t make this or any other development “transit-oriented"

Meanwhile, the MAS's focus on design issues slights some larger questions of process, issues that DDDB has sought to raise in postcards (right) to Assembly Speaker Silver. Brooklyn Speaks apparently ignores the single-source developer deal behind the Atlantic Yards project, the failure to adequately assess the fiscal impact, and the flaws in the DEIS.

(Note that the MAS has criticized the process, but that's more of a lament than a reason to oppose the project.)

Supporters of Brooklyn Speaks apparently believe that the effort is pragmatic politics, given the current constellation of forces, and that the modifications they seek would avert a much worse outcome. Meanwhile, DDDB and some allies will be rolling the dice with a lawsuit over eminent domain and, likely, the legitimacy of the environmental review itself.

As Brooklyn Speaks and DDDB offer dual letter-writing campaigns, DDDB is also raising money for the legal action.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Getting our money’s worth with Atlantic Yards? Few care, and here’s why

Who can oppose economic development, projects that bring--as Atlantic Yards proponents say--jobs, housing, and opportunity? But when major governmental subsidies are involved, the question gets more complicated. As former state Comptroller Carl McCall put it on Monday, “Somewhere along the way, someone has to say, ‘Are we getting our money’s worth?’”

The question hasn’t really been answered regarding the AY plan, but it’s not clear that anyone—besides a few civic groups and a journalist or two—is really asking. The panel discussion that McCall introduced, held at the Harvard Club by the Drum Major Institute, described a dysfunctional discourse in New York about such important civic issues. Reforms achieved in Minnesota, thanks to pressure from groups including unions, seem elusive here.

At the discussion, the most prolific journalistic defender of Atlantic Yards, Errol Louis of the Daily News, was chastised by Assemblyman Richard Brodsky for lacking a "principled response" to the general issue of subsidies.

Lessons from Minnesota

The session was titled Increasing Accountability for Economic Development Subsidies. The keynote speaker, State Sen. John Hottinger of Minnesota (right), described legislation that sets criteria for giving out subsidies (such as minimum wages) and requires subsidies in excess of $100,000 to be subject to public hearings. The law contains a “clawback” clause that requires businesses that fail to reach stated job creation goals to repay a portion of the subsidy.

(The direct subsidies for the Atlantic Yards project, in excess of $200 million, would ostensibly be for infrastructure and site preparation, not for “jobs.” Public spending--including tax breaks, subsidies for affordable housing, and public costs for education, sanitation, and public safety--would be much greater.)

In Minnesota, reformers initially met resistance from state leaders, including then-Gov. Arne Carlson. Hottinger was quoted famously as saying, “When the business community comes home at night and empties their pockets, they find loose change, lint, and Governor Carlson.”

However, a commission on subsidy reform, and some pragmatic deals among stakeholders—business and labor--led to a revision of the law in 1999. Hottinger noted that the state Chamber of Commerce opposed individually-directed subsidies rather than measures that helped the business community at large.

The legislation arose during the Clinton administration when there was a national debate about welfare, and, Hottinger said, “We framed it in terms of corporate welfare.”

The issue wasn’t whether the subsidies are good or bad, but how much they returned to the community. In Minnesota, as in several other states, local communities had competed against each other to attract business, but there was little sense of the overall pattern; the law required that the state department of economic development receive reports about each subsidy.

And in New York?

So, how does New York compare? “On paper, pretty well,” responded Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Democrat who represents a Westchester district and chairs the Corporations, Authorities and Commissions committee (right). “It just doesn’t work. It turns out that a fundamentally corrupt administration of the program undercuts whatever formal transparency exists.”

Though the state has reporting requirements regarding jobs created, Brodsky cited the example of a company that reincorporated under a new name to collect tax credits for jobs held by its predecessor.

“The power exercised in the political process by large corporations is so immense that the amount of subsidies is literally uncountable," Brodsky asserted. "Nobody loves the New York Times more than I love the New York Times. But the New York Times [company] is the recipient of enormous public power subsidies, of bonding and interest rate subsidies. Do they create jobs? Do they not create jobs? Is job retention as valid a reason for giving money as job creation? In the end, most states and most people in government will have to face the fundamental reality that resources are apportioned to the powerful in this state without regard to need. And if that’s going to change, it’s going to take a fundamental change in the political structures.”

Without subsidies, stasis?

Daily News columnist and editorial writer Louis (right) suggested that “part of the challenge of implementing a Minnesota-style subsidy accountability movement… is a lot of political energy kind of moves around from deal to deal." People focus on a project or two but not the broad problem.

Louis suggested that “very few” of the subsidy deals in New York are as outrageous as some mentioned earlier in the session. “Here we have a more mixed and nuanced set of deals.” He brought up the Yankee Stadium deal and then the West Harlem project pushed by Columbia University.

He highlighted the opportunity costs of not using subsidies. “I was born in the Manhattanville houses in Harlem. It’s across the street from where Columbia University’s talking about building its expansion. They gave us a tour… and I am not kidding. It looks pretty much the way it did in 1969… It seems to me, if you’re going to get any progress going, we probably need to spur this in some sense.”

“Ditto for the Atlantic Yards project, which is where I live now,” he continued. (Louis lives in Crown Heights, not Prospect Heights, but they're part of the same community board.) “There’s been too much written about it in the last four years. I know a lot of people in this room know a lot about the project. Suffice it to say that the railyards portion in particular and the area in general has been slated for urban development for decades. And there’s been a cost for not doing anything.”

(Well, was there an RFP? No. Does the urban redevelopment area, ATURA, extend to the entire project site? No. Have some former industrial buildings in and around the proposed project footprint been rehabilitated? Yes.)

Brodsky responded that “it’s just untrue” that New York state doesn’t get some outrageous deals. He cited a couple upstate, then added, “Any stadium deal provides enormous—literally billions—with no ability to understand what we’ve done. So I call on Errol for a little more intellectual rigor. Because his response, which is interesting, is ‘We really need to get something going.’ OK, he’s right. What does that have to do with the creation of massive giveaways?… We get tough with poor people. We don’t get tough with rich people. Let’s find out how much we’re spending. It’s literally billions. Let’s find out who’s getting it. And let’s figure out what they’ve done with it.”

You get yours, I get mine

Louis responded, “What we have here is not a case of jobs simply fleeing… we get something that is probably a good thing, but we paid too much for it.” On the other hand, he said, turning to Brodsky, if a project were in Westchester, “it’s not necessarily such a bad thing for the people in his district and even for you as their representative.”

Brodsky interjected, “Accusing me of insincerity is not a response.”

Louis continued, “The question for me is: What are we going to have? The cost of it is an entirely separate question.” The “local selfishness” regarding subsidies, he said, is something “I accept as the lay of the land… If they’re going to get a billion-dollar TIF [tax-increment financing] deal in Rensselaer County, I think where I live, in Kings County, if somebody wants to bring a billion-dollar deal there, with way too much paid per job, in my neighborhood, where there’s a lot of unemployment, personally, I would say, ‘You know what? I’ll take that.’”

(It sounds a lot like August Wilson’s line in Radio Golf: I don't care if somebody else makes some money 'cause of a tax break. I get mine and they get theirs. And it sounds a lot like Louis’s enthusiastic and unskeptical endorsements of the Atlantic Yards deal. Since May, the Daily News has published five editorials, likely written by Louis, and a Louis column on AY. Why do I think he writes the editorials? Because his latest Our Time Press column sounds much like the latest Daily News editorial.)

Brodsky was unimpressed. “That is a prescription for a bigger disaster. ‘My pork is good. Your pork is bad.’ is not a principled response to the pissing away of billions of dollars.”

State Sen. Liz Krueger, who represents Midtown and the Upper East Side, said she’s made the argument that her district doesn’t need subsidies. “When we don’t have tax revenue for good schools or public transit, the public suffers.”

What next?

“We don’t believe in the free market,” said Brodsky, criticizing large corporations’ reliance on subsidies. “We have perfected in New York state socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.”

Until there’s a political counterforce, nothing will change, said Brodsky, who said a public authority—common in the state, including the Empire State Development Corporation overseeing the AY plan—is “an executive agency unmonitored by a legislature.”

So, said moderator Andrea Batista Schlesinger, this challenges some of our notions about politics. Where, for example, is labor?

“Our experience is that labor has been where they should be in most instances,” commented Adrianne Shropshire, Executive Director, New York Jobs with Justice (right). She obviously wasn’t talking about Atlantic Yards, where the unions supporting the project have expressed little concern about environmental impacts, much less larger questions of pork.

Louis wasn’t optimistic. “Unless there’s a political force to change the way New York does business, I see nothing but bad news.”

He added some skepticism about agencies like the Empire State Development Corporation, and suggested most legislators wouldn’t act: “We also do have to look at the 733 public authorities… it’s not even so much that they do bad deals. They themselves are bad deals. In some of these cases it’s not even a matter of giving the subsidies to a corporation, it’s keeping the subsidy in house… Who is going to shine that light? Every year when we write editorials complaining about the member item that the legislature puts out are not publicized in any kind of systematic way that would enable anybody to figure out who did what. Those are not going to be the people who shine the light on corporations.”

Balance of power

To some degree, the discourse depends on “a big victim,” Brodsky said. The immediate example offered, by Richard Lipsky, lobbyist against big box stores (yet for AY) was Cablevision, which owns Madison Square Garden and poured thousands of dollars into the fight against the West Side Stadium.

It certainly makes you wonder whether a deep-pocketed business helping Brooklyn community groups might have counteracted some of Forest City Ratner’s publicity efforts.

News coverage & owners

Schlesinger asked if there was a relationship between news coverage and the vested interests of the corporate owners. Louis said of Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, a real estate mogul, “As far as I know, he owns half of New York and wants to buy the other half. On any given project, I can tell you, we—the editorial board—we don’t know, or don’t ask to know and usually are not told what interest he may or may not have…. The operating instruction that I receive is: Just go ahead and do your job.”

(There was no time to discuss the New York Times and the parent Times Company’s relationship with Forest City Ratner, as partners in building the new Times Tower on Eighth Avenue. The possible effect of the relationship on Times news and editorial coverage is worth a symposium in itself.)

Louis blamed public indifference. “It’s very hard to report this stuff. It’s very hard to get this into the press. I have probably a little more flexibility than many, but it’s very hard to explain this,” he said, pointing to the example of a firm saving money on a subsidized bond issue, and costs to taxpayers. “It’s tough to make the public care about this stuff.

“If you’re talking about Atlantic Yards, if you’re talking about the West Side Stadium, people want to know what is going to happen in their backyard,” Louis said. “To say that their kids are going to pay more in taxes to pay back the bonds for rich people that they maybe should have. Again, it’s not even a debate about whether the project should happen in a lot of cases, it’s ‘Is there too much subsidy behind it?’ It gets to be very gray, it gets to be very nuanced… And if it’s about transparency, people’s eyes simply glaze over.”

Who sets the agenda?

That raises a question: to what extent do newspapers—on both editorial pages and in news coverage—lead or just react? Why can’t newspapers analyze the fiscal impact of Forest City Ratner’s plan or point out that the state has been unwilling to release its economic study?

Often it’s that news outlets don’t trust their reporters. As Ian Buruma wrote in the New York Times Book Review last Sunday:
A good reporter for an American paper must get sources who sound authoritative and quotes that show both sides of a story. His or her own expertise is almost irrelevant. If the opinions of columnists count for too much in the American press, the intelligence of reporters is institutionally underused.

Louis confirmed that point, as well. “I’ll say—hint, hint—it’s very much easier to say a respected think tank has put a report saying taxpayers are being ripped off, and there’s a press conference about it tomorrow.”

Brodsky didn’t have much hope for the press, calling it “no better than anyone else in society, and no worse.” Progress, he said, must come from “political activism with a coherent intelligible message that unites people around a common agenda.”