Saturday, February 24, 2007

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.

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