Saturday, June 09, 2007

Forest City Ratner defends the process, but that's government's job

We've heard it before, and we'll hear it again, but developer Forest City Ratner offers a standard explanation of its community outreach, most recently in a New York Law Journal article yesterday headlined Brooklyn Lawyers Dodge "Manhattanization".

But the explanation is irrelevant; the responsibility is that of government.

(The article concerns the highly unusual volunteer effort of lawyers who've formed the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn legal team, providing crucial backup to the attorneys who've been engaged.)

Lawyer vs. flack

The article states:
"The fact that we weren't involved in the discourse was insulting," said [volunteer attorney] Mr. [Troy] Selvaratnam. "If they'd just not been so insulting, our activism could have been assuaged."

But Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for Forest City Ratner, said the developer held "hundreds of meetings" with the community.

"Not everyone is going to agree with us," he said. "But we've tried very, very hard to be as amenable and as open to the community as we possibly can."


Nearly all of the meetings have been with allies, not potential opponents, and the Community Benefits Agreement coalition has defined "community" by invitation. Also, of course, the developer has famously shielded architect Frank Gehry from meeting with the community.

By comparison

More importantly, the process behind Atlantic Yards differs significantly from that behind other major development projects. For the Willets Point plan, the city issued a request for proposals before anointing a favored developer.

And Mayor Mike Bloomberg's PlaNYC sustainability effort describes a much more consultative process for building over railyards and highway cuts:
Building communities requires a carefully tailored approach to local conditions and needs that can only be developed with local input. We will begin the process of working with communities, the agencies that operate these facilities, and other stakeholders to sort through these complicated issues.

Kelo comparison

And, more importantly, does the Atlantic Yards process sufficiently match the process in New London, CT that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the Kelo case, declared legitimate for the purposes of eminent domain? Among other things, Kennedy noted that the "Kelo taking 'occurred in the context of a comprehensive development plan meant to address a serious city-wide depression.'"

There has been a longstanding Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area that covers a majority of the Atlantic Yards site. On the other hand, as Winston Von Engel of the New York City Department of City Planning said in March, 2006: "We didn't decide to take a look at the yards. They belong to the Long Island Rail Road. They use them heavily. They're critical to their operations. You do things in a step-by-step process."

U.S. District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis, in his opinion Wednesday dismissing the case, erroneously called the yards "dormant" and neglected to assess the issue of a "comprehensive development plan."

And Andrew Alper, then president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, told City Council in May 2004, ""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."

That, according to one analyst, could run afoul of Kelo. But that will be an issue for the appellate court, and the defense will be offered by the Empire State Development Corporation more than by Forest City Ratner.

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