It would be a disaster if a person who had just moved into a neighborhood could exercise a kind of veto power of development in that area for all time, even if a majority of his neighbors want something different. That is one of the little-discussed aspects of the lawsuits brought to stop the $4 billion Atlantic Yards project.
Actually, we don't know what the neighbors really want, since they haven't been asked about alternatives. What if the city had followed the guidelines it later issued in PlaNYC 2030:
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.
Daniel Goldstein, the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit, says he moved into his Prospect Heights condo three months before the announcement of the Atlantic Yards project, and that it would violate his constitutional rights to have the government compel him to sell his unit to make way for a planned sports arena and thousands of units of subsidized housing.
Goldstein is one of 13 original plaintiffs. (Two are expected to leave; one more has been added.) Many of the other plaintiffs have a much longer tenure as residents or property owners. And the lawsuit is supported by donations from hundreds of people, which suggest much broader support.
Also, since when are constitutional rights dependent on length of tenure? Can a new immigrant protest that his free speech rights are being abridged, or must he wait some specified time?
As for "thousands of units of subsidized housing," well, that's hardly the raison d'etre of the project. Remember: 900 units for those at Brooklyn's median income, another 1350 subsidized units, and 4100 market-rate units. Real housing for the real Brooklyn?
And "veto power... for all time"? Louis is exaggerating.
The Atlantic Yards lawsuits Louis strenuously opposes challenge the Empire State Development Corporation's dubious claims of blight in a neighborhood where new construction is coveted and apartments sell for half a million dollars and more.
Louis erroneously called the Atlantic Yards site a "junkyard" and rail parking facility, while Forest City Enterprises executive Chuck Ratner has called it "a great piece of real estate."
Louis's take on Atlantic Yards contrasts with his 11/11/03 New York Sun column headlined "Business, Not Blight" (updated: it's online, as Louis points out in his comment), in which he savaged the ESDC's designation of blight in Manhattan, which would help the "Durst real estate organization to gather a fat bundle of public subsidies" for a new midtown office tower.
In September 2006, Louis declared himself unconcerned about such subsidies in his home borough of Brooklyn. As for Atlantic Yards, he said, "Suffice it to say that the railyards portion in particular and the area in general has been slated for urban development for decades. And there’s been a cost for not doing anything.”
In his 2003 column, he took a much more skeptical line toward corporate welfare:
The blight seems to consist of 21 low-rise buildings, which "contain miscellaneous retail and commercial businesses, including, among others, cell phone stores, a pizza parlor, a check-cashing business, a deli, and a messenger service delivery point." This is claimed to be an economic catastrophe: "The project location has remained in a comparatively primitive state consisting of an anachronistic patchwork of small lots, each developed with comparatively small buildings... there has been no significant development activity within the project location for over 50 years."
Even if the phony "blight" argument had merit, it's not clear why the public should cough up millions to pay the tab. "To date, the private market has failed to eliminate these blighting conditions," the report says, which, in a competitive, free-market system, pretty much should be the end of the story.
Louis sounded there like a pure libertarian. Regarding Atlantic Yards, the free-market system was bypassed; the city could have rezoned the land, thus increasing the value of the development rights, and negotiated with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to put the Vanderbilt Yard up for bid. Instead, Forest City Ratner got essentially a private rezoning.
What the polls say
Louis's recent column continues:
One judge has dismissed the suit and an appeals court is expected to issue its own findings in the coming weeks. But what’s worth noting is that most people in the area, when asked, have said they actually want the project.
It depends, of course, on how they’re asked.
A poll was conducted in 2005 by Pace University and sponsored by the New York Observer, WNYC radio, and WCBS-TV. Was reported in the October 31, 2005 edition of the Observer, “Asked outright what they think about the plan, 39% of the 538 voters polled said they support it, 23% oppose it, and the rest were undecided."
Support was even stronger among Brooklynites (50%) and black men (59%). A set of follow-up questions gave the best arguments in favor (jobs, housing, civic spirit) and against (the large size, a $200 million taxpayer subsidy, use of eminent domain) and then asked respondents to rate their support: 46% were somewhat or strongly for it.
“Between 30 percent and 36 percent of the public opposed it, depending on how the question was worded.”
I offered numerous criticisms of the poll and also some alternative wording.
Remember that the poll director said that public opinion was "fixed." That's highly doubtful, especially since public contributions haven't been fixed.
What if those polled now were told that the city's subsidy—the direct taxpayer subsidy—has already [corrected] more than doubled to $205 million and that the state and city may ending up paying additional “extraordinary infrastructure” costs?
The Crain's poll
A second poll was commissioned by Crain’s New York and conducted by Charney Research in 2006. As reported in the 9/4/06 Daily News, “The colossal and controversial 8.7 million square foot Atlantic Yards development of 16 office and residential towers and a basketball arena is disliked by 25% of New Yorkers surveyed.” Support for Forest City Ratner’s $4.2 billion proposal also ran at 60% in Brooklyn, though 33% there view it unfavorably. The survey found the plan is viewed favorably by 56% of African-Americans, 58% of whites, 68% of Latinos, and 72% of Asians.”
I criticized the Crain's poll at length.
Opponents of the development dismiss these polls. Their view seems to be that WNYC radio CBS, Pace University, Charney Research, Crain’s, and the Observer are all part of some vast conspiracy of people and institutions who have been bought off by Ratner.
Nah, it's simply that a poll can be "gamed" depending on how you word the questions.
Louis closes his column:
A more reasonable look at the situation suggests that the people complaining about the development violating the spirit of democracy have a peculiar definition of the word.
It would be more peculiar, even brutally weird, if Louis were in charge of the dictionary. Democracy (definition) may be rule of the majority, exercised "through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections." It has never been defined as poll results. (Even ballot initiatives give the pro and con sides a chance to argue their strongest points.)
Absence of democracy?
In an August 2006 cover story, New York magazine political reporter Chris Smith concluded:
But in looking at Atlantic Yards up close, it’s outrageous to see the absolute absence of democratic process.
Brooklynites were unrepresented, which is why BrooklynSpeaks stated:
The Atlantic Yards proposal was conceived by the developer and the political decision-makers behind closed doors and has moved forward with no significant input from New Yorkers. No Brooklyn official will get to vote on the project.
Only seven people got to vote on Atlantic Yards, despite what the developer says about it being "approved by the state." Four were unelected board members of the Empire State Development Corporation, who took all of 15 minutes to evaluate the project publicly. The others were the “three men in a room” of the Public Authorities Control Board, then Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who took even less time in public deliberations.