Monday, March 12, 2007

AY opponents and proponents go "off message," confessing doubt, admitting delays

In the past couple of weeks, both Atlantic Yards opponents and proponents have gone "off message," making public statements that alarmed some allies and, in the case of the proponents, required public contradiction.

The episodes aren't exactly equivalent. After all, the opponents who went off-message were mostly expressing personal opinions, while the proponents who went off message have access to more information than has been made public as of yet.

Opponents admit inevitability


Two Thursday ago, an Atlantic Yards question came up at the forum, "Where Goes the Neighborhood: The Past, Present, and Future of Park Slope," sponsored by the Park Slope Civic Council, which drew about 100 people to the Old First Reformed Church.

"Is there really any possibility of preventing Atlantic Yards from being approved?" moderator Craig Hammerman, district manager of Community Board 6, read an audience member's question. Hammerman pointed out that the project has in fact been approved by the state, so the question is whether it could be stopped.

Architectural historian Francis Morrone, a member of the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) advisory board, declared that it could be. Many in the crowd clapped heartily. He described how, on behalf of DDDB, he'd talked at various gathering about appropriate development but acknowledged that he wasn't up on the eminent domain lawsuit organized by DDDB. (Indeed, he was at the forum to talk about the history of Park Slope, not the legal case.)

"It is not too late," added Stuart Pertz, an architect and former City Planning Commissioner. "It is never too late if you can get the public to respond." Then again, he pointed out that a representative of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had said the office received more than 20,000 letters protesting the West Side Stadium. (That's perhaps five times the number gathered last year by DDDB, albeit in a short stretch, regarding Atlantic Yards, and ten times the number gathered by the BrooklynSpeaks campaign.)

"I feel strongly that the courts are not a place to do planning," said Pertz, noting that, if a lawsuit fails, there's no backup. He's an advisor to the Municipal Art Society and the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, which has stayed out of the court battle.

"We're hoping to make some changes to the first phase," Pertz said, acknowledging that would be difficult, "but there is a second phase that could go on for 20 years, and we just have to not roll over."

Morrone picked that up: "Will we stop Atlantic Yards? The question is no. Will we modify Atlantic Yards? The question is yes."

Morrone's statement wasn't included in coverage from the Brooklyn Downtown Star or the Brooklyn Paper. The Courier-Life report got it right, but missed the alarm it caused some in the audience who know that DDDB isn't giving any ground--at least, not publicly--but, rather, aims to raise funds for its current and future court cases.

After all, while DDDB is at some disadvantage in the pending eminent domain case, given a magistrate's recommendation that it be heard in plaintiff-unfriendly state court, that magistrate also acknowledged that the case raised "serious and difficult questions regarding the exercise of eminent domain under emerging Supreme Court jurisprudence."

A few weeks earlier, another DDDB advisory board member, comedian Michael Showalter, in an interview with the New York Observer's blog The Real Estate, declared, "Clearly, we're in a losing battle." (He also was criticized for complaining about traffic congestion when he himself drives; that criticism could be applied to others on both sides of the debate.)

Also last month, novelist and journalist Jennifer Egan, another advisory board member, penned a Times Atlantic Yards op-ed that described resignation among the public and reflected some resignation of her own, using the phrase "should Mr. Ratner yet fail” rather than pointing out that Ratner might be faced with organized opposition. (Then again, who knows what her article looked like before the Times's editing.)

These cases show the potential pitfalls of organizing an advisory board with certain expertise or celebrity but whose members may not be up to speed--or on message--when they speak in public. (They are allowed their own opinions, of course.)

Proponents admit delay

Still, the advisory board members are not central players in the Atlantic Yards narrative. By contrast, project landscape architect Laurie Olin went way off message, in a New York Observer interview last month, declaring that the project would last 20 years, not ten as announced, and that architect Frank Gehry wouldn't design all the buildings.

Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey had to publicly contradict him.

No wonder the developer hasn't let Olin, nor project architect Frank Gehry, talk to community groups. Artists can be candid.

And so can Clevelanders. Just last week, Chuck Ratner, CEO of the parent Forest City Enterprises, acknowledged to investment analysts that the project would last 15 years and the arena would open in 2010, both contradicting the official prognosis. DDDB seized on it; Forest City then issued an unconvincing clarification of the timetable--after all, Ratner admitted that the company was "terrible" at predicting when projects go from idea to reality--and DDDB piled on.

Staying on message

I suspect that, upon learning of the off-message statements, the consternation within Forest City Enterprises was greater than that within DDDB. After all, Chuck Ratner cannot be said to be underinformed.

Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner has been much better at staying on message. Consider his unwillingness to talk about the Barclays Center naming deal but willingness to tell sports writers about his appreciation for just-off-the-trading-block players Jason Kidd and Vince Carter.

And then there's Ratner's conversation with the clueless Post columnist Andrea Peyser, whose “It’s about freakin time” column last week was instantly repackaged as an Atlantic Yards e-newsletter. (Peyser conveniently forgot her previous column touting the promise of 10,000 office jobs, more than 85 percent of which have evaporated.)

Then again, it's easier to stay on message when the press is so tractable.

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