Skip to main content

A Times op-ed critical of AY, 38 months later

Some 38 months after the Atlantic Yards project was announced, the first-ever national edition op-ed on the topic appears today in the New York Times. (One was published in the City section in November 2005.) Headlined A Developing Story, it makes some valuable points, especially in a venue unwelcoming to the topic, though--and who knows what the imposed boundaries were--it also falls short in some ways.

The author, novelist and journalist Jennifer Egan, is a regular contributor to the Times Magazine and an advisory board member of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB). It's understandable that the Times would solicit a piece from a writer it knows rather than others even closer to Atlantic Yards debate, but the latter strategy might have produced an even tougher piece--or maybe one that the Times would've rejected.

The headline and lead

Start with the headline, which is not the writer's doing. It's bland, indirect. Not The Project That Ate Brooklyn, the headline on the flawed previous op-ed. Nothing about a battle or conflict or outrage. The pull quote is "What Brooklyn can learn from the Atlantic Yards affair."

It begins:
The developer Bruce Ratner broke ground this week on his Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, despite an eminent domain suit over property he must raze to build a basketball arena for the Nets. This “preparatory work” is Mr. Ratner’s latest maneuver in a maddeningly effective campaign to make his instant city — a 22-acre swarm of 16 residential skyscrapers (and a 20,500-seat arena) that would create the densest population swath in the United States — look and feel like a foregone conclusion.


That's an important point--"densest population swath"--and one that public officials should be challenged to defend. They haven't. The state has dodged the issue, pointing to high-density at transit hubs but not acknowledging that most is commercial space, not residential space.

In a coincidence that can only be described as "brutally weird," the Times today contains a story irresponsibly headlined Judge Urges Dismissal of Atlantic Yards Suit, thus suggesting that the eminent domain suit Egan highlighted is likely dead--but failing to point out that the case would be re-filed in state court.

In her essay, Egan takes some muted swipes at news coverage, but doesn't--or, perhaps more likely, isn't given the opportunity to--name names. The Times deserves some blame, especially today.

The view from Fort Greene

Egan, as with fellow Fort Greene resident Chris Smith in New York magazine last August, is skeptical of the state's environmental review, citing the already present "strain of poor planning for a rising population," such as the effect on traffic and schools.

She writes of the project size:
Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to about the Atlantic Yards project, whether they favored or opposed it, assumed that it would be scaled back. In fact, the plan approved by the Public Authorities Control Board in December was more than 600,000 square feet larger than the one first unveiled.

Actually, it was just about the same square footage as first unveiled. A more potent criticism would've been that the developer increased the size of the project and then scaled it back twice to square one, offering an illusion of scaleback, enabled significantly by a front page story in last September's Times. (I answered some fact-checking inquiries from Egan but not this one.)

No concessions

Despite "sobering revisions by the city and the developer of his initial heady claims about the project’s benefits to Brooklyn," Atlantic Yards "sailed forward with hardly a concession from Mr. Ratner (whose company is also building this newspaper’s new headquarters)," Egan writes.

Why was this different from the Norman Foster tower on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and the Jets stadium on the Far West Side, she asks.

State review

Her answer:
The most critical fact is that, because part of the property on the Atlantic Yards footprint belongs to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, a state organization, Mr. Ratner was allowed to bypass local checks and balances and work directly with Albany.

True, but someone let this happen. That's Mayor Bloomberg. As I wrote, the state and the city sometimes manage dual jurisdiction.

Egan also notes the absence of a wealthy corporate adversary like Cablevision, which fought the West Side Stadium, and the absence of protected buildings to involve the Landmarks Preservation Commission. (True, but preservationists suggest that a different kind of loss--of a sense of scale and place--should be recognized.)

Why the apathy?

Egan wonders why so many Brooklynites oppose the development but are apathetic. She writes:
What chance do we have, I was asked, when our mayor, governor and borough president are in lockstep with a private developer? News coverage has often left unscrutinized Mr. Ratner’s claims about the development’s financial benefits or the implications of its density and scale. This tacit approval has only added to the perception that the project is a done deal.

Let's add to that. Atlantic Yards has never been shown in neighborhood scale in the Times.

Community benefits?

She offers a bit too much credit to the Community Benefits Agreement:
The commitments Mr. Ratner made to these groups — should he honor them — are good ones: construction job training, small-business development and 2,250 units of subsidized housing.

Even this opponent doesn't point out all the tradeoffs and contradictions regarding the subsidized housing; the large percentage that's not affordable to average Brooklynites; the still-unrevealed amount of public subsidies; and the use of "affordable housing" to gain political support for a project that's out of scale. Indeed, the project, in the developer's p.r., has morphed from hoops to housing.

She notes one contradiction--much of the affordable housing "won’t be completed until 2016"--but could've been tougher. More than two months ago, a major project supporter acknowledged that the project, and thus the affordable housing, could take 20 years, and just this week project landscape architect Laurie Olin made the same point, forcing the developer to publicly contradict him.

What Brooklyn can learn

Egan's closing paragraphs point to the contradiction of Ratner allying himself with handpicked groups "run largely by African-Americans," casting himself as the savior of "working-class Brooklynites who favor jobs and housing in a battle against affluent, spoil-sport newcomers who have the luxury of fretting over their quality of life."

The loss was any real evaluation of the project. "Are we content to let our borough’s future be imposed on us by developers and politicians?" she asks. She points hopefully, if wishfully, to the "progress" evinced in the alternative UNITY plan for the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard, leaving a blueprint "should Mr. Ratner yet fail."

But it may be hard to be "united in advance on questions of jobs, housing and scale," given the city's willingness to invest in development over community planning. Thus, Egan's "healthy warning to elected officials who might consider placing these developers’ interests above our own" may have to come in court, as in the Atlantic Yards eminent domain suit, should the "serious and difficult questions" be heard. And the Times today, one section away, ignores Magistrate Judge Robert M. Levy's respectful nod to the merits of the case.

The questions raised in court about the state's designation of blight, the outline of the Atlantic Yards footprint, and the willingness of public officials to give Ratner a deal remain worthy of evaluation.

Previous essay

Egan's piece comes 15 months after the first-ever op-ed, from former borough historian John Manbeck, whose 11/13/05 City section op-ed piece was headlined The Project That Ate Brooklyn. I called it "critical but hardly coherent." (The Sunday City section circulates only in the five boroughs, so many interested in or impacted by the project didn't get to read it.)

As I wrote:
Manbeck's critical take on the project, calling the subsidies a "misuse of public funds," likely won't be welcomed by the developer, but at the same time he misreads critics, calling them NIMBYs, and, while criticizing the approval process, basically throws up his hands.

While Egan's op-ed is not as resigned, the Times today, given the news coverage, may lead readers to similar resignation.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Barclays Center/Levy Restaurants hit with suit charging discrimination on disability, race; supervisors said to use vicious slurs, pursue retaliation

The Daily News has an article today, Barclays Center hit with $5M suit claiming discrimination against disabled, while the New York Post headlined its article Barclays Center sued over taunting disabled employees.

While that's part of the lawsuit, more prominent are claims of racial discrimination and retaliation, with black employees claiming repeated abuse by white supervisors, preferential treatment toward Hispanic colleagues, and retaliation in response to complaints.

Two individual supervisors, for example, are charged with  referring to black employees as “black motherfucker,” “dumb black bitch,” “black monkey,” “piece of shit” and “nigger.”

Two have referred to an employee blind in one eye as “cyclops,” and “the one-eyed guy,” and an employee with a nose disorder as “the nose guy.”

There's been no official response yet though arena spokesman Barry Baum told the Daily News they, but take “allegations of this kind very seriously” and have "a zero tolerance policy for…

Behind the "empty railyards": 40 years of ATURA, Baruch's plan, and the city's diffidence

To supporters of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, it's a long-awaited plan for long-overlooked land. "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, mused on 11/15/05 to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, “Isn’t it interesting that these railyards have sat for decades and decades and decades, and no one has done a thing about them.” Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in a 12/19/04 New York Times article ("In a War of Words, One Has the Power to Wound") described the railyards as "an empty scar dividing the community."

But why exactly has the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard never been developed? Do public officials have some responsibility?

At a hearing yesterday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, Kate Suisma…

Barclays Center event June 11 to protest plans to expand Israeli draft; questions about logistics

At right is a photo of a poster spotted in Hasidic Williamsburg right. Clearly there's an event scheduled at the Barclays Center aimed at the Haredi Jewish community (strict Orthodox Jews who reject secular culture), but the lack of English text makes it cryptic.

The website Matzav.com explains, Protest Against Israeli Draft of Bnei Yeshiva Rescheduled for Barclays Center:
A large asifa to protest the drafting of bnei yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel into the Israeli army that had been set to take place this month will instead be held on Sunday, 17 Sivan/June 11, at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, NY. So attendees at a big gathering will protest an apparent change of policy that will make it much more difficult for traditional Orthodox Jewish students--both Hasidic (who follow a rebbe) and non-Hasidic (who don't)--to get deferments from the draft. Comments on the Yeshiva World website explain some of the debate.

The logistical questions

What's unclear is how large the ev…

Atlanta's Atlantic Yards moves ahead

First mentioned in April, the Atlantic Yards project in Atlanta is moving ahead--and has the potential to nudge Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn further down in Google searches.

According to a 5/30/17 press release, Hines and Invesco Real Estate Announce T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards:
Hines, the international real estate firm, and Invesco Real Estate, a global real estate investment manager, today announced a joint venture on behalf of one of Invesco Real Estate’s institutional clients to develop two progressive office projects in Atlanta totalling 700,000 square feet. T3 West Midtown will be a 200,000-square-foot heavy timber office development and Atlantic Yards will consist of 500,000 square feet of progressive office space in two buildings. Both projects are located on sites within Atlantic Station in the flourishing Midtown submarket.
Hines will work with Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA) as the design architect for both T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards. DLR Group will be t…

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

At 550 Vanderbilt, big chunk of apartments pitched to Chinese buyers as "international units"

One key to sales at the 550 Vanderbilt condo is the connection to China, thanks to Shanghai-based developer Greenland Holdings.

It's the parent of Greenland USA, which as part of Greenland Forest City Partners owns 70% of Pacific Park (except 461 Dean and the arena).

And sales in China may help explain how the developer was able to claim early momentum.
"Since 550 Vanderbilt launched pre-sales in June [2015], more than 80 residences have gone into contract, representing over 30% of the building’s 278 total residences," the developer said in a 9/25/15 press release announcing the opening of a sales gallery in Brooklyn. "The strong response from the marketplace indicates the high level of demand for well-designed new luxury homes in Brooklyn..."

Maybe. Or maybe it just meant a decent initial pipeline to Chinese buyers.

As lawyer Jay Neveloff, who represents Forest City, told the Real Deal in 2015, a project involving a Chinese firm "creates a huge market for…