Monday, May 14, 2007

At three discussions, the Atlantic Yards burr in Bloomberg's boomtown

If you’re having a discussion about Brooklyn and development issues, Atlantic Yards, it seems, inevitably comes to the fore.

At a panel discussion last Thursday at the Brooklyn Public Library on equitable use of eminent domain, Atlantic Yards was presented as an example of what not to do. At a 5/5/07 seminar on the Municipal Art Society’s Livable Neighborhoods Program, Atlantic Yards was suggested as exemplifying how developers “leapfrog” communities. (I’ll write about both events shortly.)

And Atlantic Yards came up several times on Saturday, Neighborhood Day, a day of panel discussions keyed to the Roots of Modern Brooklyn exhibit at Borough Hall, which focuses on the borough’s struggle to revive in the 1970s and 1980s. (It's on view through May 18 at Borough Hall and will move to Sovereign Bank, 130 Court Street at Atlantic Avenue, from June 15-30. It's well worth a visit, and at a later date I'll write more about the exhibit and the panels. )

No more people power?

Near the end of a discussion Saturday that was presented live on BCAT, Park Slope activist and former Assemblyman Joe Ferris offered a contrast between the 1970s and today: “The thing that troubles me now is the recentralization of power. We showed people that, at the block level, you could make a difference.”

Ferris observed how neighborhood activists once could influence their community boards, their borough president, City Council, and even—when it existed—the Board of Estimate. “Now I see, with Atlantic Yards, that has been circumvented," he said. "ULURP [the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] is being obliterated by an unelected group of people.”

The moderator, author Pete Hamill, noted that time for the 90-minute program had nearly expired, observing wryly, “I heard the fatal words ‘Atlantic Yards’ and knew we could have another two hours” to continue.

"Absolutely reasonable" AY opposition

Earlier that afternoon, a panel of journalists described their experiences in the 1970s and 1980s working for the feisty Brooklyn Phoenix weekly (1972-1995).

At one point, it was suggested that there isn’t much community activism today around development. Panelist JoAnne Wasserman, deputy metro editor of the New York Daily News, responded, “I have two words for you: Daniel Goldstein.” (Wasserman didn’t know that the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn spokesman was in the room until he raised his hand.)

“Daniel is rather a vocal opponent of Atlantic Yards. He’s not going away any time soon,” she continued. “Y’know, there are plenty of people who live in that neighborhood who, for a whole variety of absolutely reasonable conditions oppose the project and would completely disagree with what you have to say. And they’re pretty organized.” She also cited activism regarding the sale of the Starrett City complex.

Bloomberg's undemanding boomtown

Another Phoenix alumnus, Michael Powell of the New York Times, didn’t address Atlantic Yards but criticized the city’s posture toward developers. “I think it’s quite clear that the Bloomberg administration was taken—for a time, it was taken unawares by the sort of explosion of development. That’s one way of putting it. They’ve not put on all the building inspectors, they’ve not beefed up—I mean, this is not something that they should be shocked about, and if they’re shocked about it, that’s shocking. This has been something that has been predicted. Their own reports have looked at it—their reports are terrific. The city quite accurately predicted what’s happened in the past five or six years. And it seems to me that there are a lot of templates for how you develop neighborhoods. You build high-rise up along broader avenues, preserving the interior--this is not rocket science.”

“But there is, along with sort of the gold rush fevers that are out there, there is this real sense that, well, somehow it’s déclassé to get in the way of development, ‘Shut up already, you’re on the wrong side of history.’ … In Park Slope and in some other places, there’s actually been some pretty smart work done,” Powell observed.

(Actually, the rezoning of the central and northern segment of Park Slope was controversial because it increased density on the Fourth Avenue corridor without inclusionary zoning requested by affordable housing advocates. However, the South Slope rezoning below 15th Street did include incentives for affordable housing. See the Gotham Gazette article today on the overworked Department of Buildings.)

Powell continued, “But the city has moved—I think, from my observations living out here--rather slowly and has been I think too slow to challenge developers. Not necessarily to say ‘Don’t develop’ but… a boomtown presents a great opportunity for a city, because with a boomtown, you can demand things of developers and make them jump through hoops that you can’t make them jump through in 1982. They were just happy that anybody wants to put a shovel in the ground. Right now, everyone wants to put a shovel in the ground and therefore there should be, it seems to me, a great opportunity to demand a lot. And I haven’t seen that, and that’s too bad.”

Powell's comments, at least to my mind, contrast with those from Andrew Alper, then president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, who said at a 5/4/04 City Council hearing regarding Atlantic Yards: So, they came to us, we did not come to them. And it is not really up to us then to go out and find to try to a better deal. I think that would discourage developers from coming to us, if every time they came to us we went out and tried to shop their idea to somebody else. So we are actively shopping, but not for another sports arena franchise for Brooklyn.”

While sports franchises may be scarce commodities, Atlantic Yards, above all, is a deal for what Forest City Enterprises VP Chuck Ratner has called "a great piece of real estate."

AY inevitability

Others speaking on Saturday looked at Atlantic Yards as positive, or at least inevitable. Dennis Holt of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, another Phoenix alum, has written positively about the project. “It is going to be built,” he said with certainty. (Still, legal challenges are pending.) Holt admiringly called AY “as dramatic an enterprise… as anything we’ve done.”

At another panel Saturday, photographer Tony Velez presented a slideshow of his diverse work, mainly of working-class Brooklynites. Among the landscapes was a shot of a smoke plume in the distance, the World Trade Center under attack, as shot from Velez’s apartment at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Heights.

Another photo captured the eerie Towers of Light, the anniversary projection aimed to fill the Twin Towers' space in the skyline. “This is before Ratner’s development comes in. This view will be gone for me,” Velez said matter-of-factly, the observations of a photographer assessing a landscape.

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