Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Last month, Bloomy was offering a boilerplate defense of AY

Mayor Mike Bloomberg seems to be coming to the realization that the Atlantic Yards project shouldn't get a special tax break and is apparently threatening to withdraw some pledged subsidies.

Is that a belated recognition that Atlantic Yards might be a drain on the public coffers or should not get special benefits? Is it part of a larger tactic to resist the state's revision of the 421-a tax break? Or is it something else altogether?

It is clear, however, that until recently, Bloomberg was offering a boilerplate defense of the project. A month ago, after Brooklyn resident Michael D.D. White wrote a thoughtful and pointed letter of complaint to the mayor, he received the following canned response, which he forwarded to me. (The original letter is at bottom.) I've interpolated some commentary.

A token reduction

Dear Mr. White: Thank you for your recent letter about the Atlantic Yards project. Many Brooklyn residents, and especially those who live in the neighborhoods that directly surround the project site, have legitimate concerns about its scale and scope. While our Administration fully supports the Atlantic Yards project, we understand these concerns. That is why the Department of City Planning recently called upon developer Forest City Ratner Companies to reduce the size of the project by eight percent.

However, that reduction would bring the project back to the originally announced square footage, as I've reported, and most of the eight percent was in the cards all along.

Preserving bank views?

The recommendations, which have been incorporated into the developer's plans, include reductions in height of three of the project's buildings to help preserve views of existing landmarks, such as the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building, and an increase in the amount of open space from seven to eight acres.

While the reductions in height may preserve some views of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, the reduction in the height of the flagship Miss Brooklyn tower would still block views of the bank, despite an a pledge by developer Forest City Ratner, in announcing the plan on 12/10/03, not to do so.

Whose answers?

Of course, there are many other concerns that come with such an ambitious project, and we were glad to see that neighborhood residents had the opportunity to voice their thoughts about this issue during the public hearing and community forums held by the Empire State Development Corporation in last year. The Final Environmental Impact Statement, which can be found at the website
www.empire.state.ny.us/atlanticyards, provides answers to many questions asked at those public hearings, ranging form the project's impact on traffic to concerns about noise.

While the Empire State Development provides answers to many questions, it also punts on some other ones.

"Creating" affordable housing

The Atlantic Yards project is important to the future of the downtown Brooklyn area, creating 2,250 units of affordable housing, an 18,000-seat arena, and publicly accessible open space.

There are no guarantees as of yet that the housing would be produced on any schedule, and Assemblyman Jim Brennan thinks it's in jeopardy.

Fuzzy numbers

Nearly 18,000 jobs and 3.5 billion dollars in private investment will provide the neighborhood with a strong economic boost, improving the quality of life for thousands of residents throughout Brooklyn and our City.

By citing 18,000 jobs, Bloomberg is apparently using statistics provided by developer Forest City Ratner, which counts 15,000 construction jobs. However, those are job-years, or 1500 jobs a year over ten years.

As for $3.5 billion, it's not clear whether Bloomberg is referring to a previous iteration of the plan, which did project a $3.5 billion cost, or whether he's suggesting that the $4 billion plan would include $3.5 billion in private investment. Either way, more than half of the cost of the project would be supported either by direct public subsidies or government-authorized tax-exempt bonds, which give the developer a break.

Working together

Our Administration, the State, and Forest City Ratner Companies are committed to working with Brooklyn's civic and elected leaders to ensure that the project meets the needs of local residents and businesses.
Than you again for writing about this vital issue that will play a critical role in the future of our great City.

Those commitments remain under question.

A pointed letter

White's letter was far more pointed. I've bolded it in part, except for the word "appropriate," which was already emphasized in the original.

He wrote:
As a lawyer who has recently exited more than a quarter century of public service, I fully appreciate your reported impatience with adhering to proper public process and your desire to find developmental shortcuts. Also, as the expression goes when process is sidestepped or technically avoided, “Where there is no harm, there is no foul.” But Atlantic Yards is not in this category: It is a stark example of where the sidestepping of process is the instrument being used to deliver the foul.

When I was in government, we had a standard we looked at as a condition to using the powers of the Urban Development Corporation (aka the Empire State Development Corporation). Though the statutory powers of the Corporation might be virtually unfettered, the standard we considered was that we would never use the powers of the Corporation if using them would result in the legislature subsequently taking those powers away. Ergo, the powers should be used only to do what is clearly good and about which there can be a fair degree of reasonable public consensus.

As a real estate development and public finance professional, I can find no shortage of colleagues who seriously question what you are doing with Atlantic Yards. Few believe you or various other elected officials truly understand how bad the proposed Atlantic Yards project is or the terrifically negative legacy it will represent. The consensus approaches unanimity. Nevertheless, there is a desperate shortage of professionals who are willing to express their extreme concerns directly to you.

To be a good project, the Atlantic Yard project should be high density, but needs to be reduced to an appropriate high density. In other words, it needs to be a much lower density than you propose. It needs to be properly and much more carefully designed. That includes properly orient[ed] green space and avoiding most, if not all of the proposed street closings. (Probably, in addition, additional streets should be opened.) It means that the project should be broken up into many smaller parcels that can be properly and fairly bid upon by developers who feel they are actually free to make such bids. Doing so will almost certainly, and appropriately, mean that the overall development will have multiple builders. Plans for unnecessary and destructive condemnations such as that of the Ward Bakery building should be abandoned. In most respects your model for what should be done here in terms of process and quality of design should be Battery Park City.

My wife and I support you for having been the “business mayor” and there are many things we would like get behind you on like congestion pricing, (about which we have heard Deputy Mayor Doctoroff speak eloquently), sustainability and, in general, building for a bigger and better future city. Nevertheless, in assessing your record, a former boss of mine had an expression: “100 `at-aboys’ are wiped out by only one `Oh sh*t’.” I am afraid that is the territory we are in.

If the Atlantic Yards project is ever built in any version approximate to what you have been promoting, not only will everyone experience its blight in ways they might not now all fully anticipate, but in the future people are likely to say: “After Mayor Bloomberg’s Atlantic Yards was completed, the State Legislature stripped ESDC of its condemnation powers and the city Charter was amended to prevent City investment in huge capital projects that have not been ULURPed.”

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