Friday, November 30, 2007

Officials redouble call for AY security study, warn that street closings would unleash a “tsunami”

Elected officials and community activists yesterday again called for an independent study of Atlantic Yards security, given the belated revelation last week, thanks to the New York Times, that parts of the planned Atlantic Yards arena would be only 20 feet from Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues.

City and state officials, along with developer Forest City Ratner, have not been willing to explain why the facility would be safer than the Prudential Center in Newark, where two adjacent blocks are closed during (and before/after) events because the arena was deemed too close to the street.

(Photos by Jonathan Barkey)

While members of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn were in attendance at the City Hall press conference yesterday, and CBN’s Eric McClure (above, flanked by City Council Members Bill de Blasio and Letitia James) hosted the event (here's the CBN press release), the strongest words came from two City Council members, de Blasio and David Yassky, who have generally supported the project while calling for it to be downsized.

Potential "unyielding opposition"

“If they start talking about street closings, they will have unyielding opposition,” declared Yassky (right, with Assemblywoman Joan Millman behind him), expressing the widely-held speculation that some additional setback might be needed for security reasons. “They will have two choices—push the building back, or close streets.”

That might not work, McClure said a bit later: “If you move this basketball arena, you’ll either be playing half-court or you won’t be able to put an arena there.”

“When the security thread is pulled, it may unravel a whole ball of yarn,” Yassky said, noting that security considerations in Lower Manhattan caused “serious changes” in building designs. McClure noted that the Freedom Tower had been moved back 90 feet from the original 25 feet after a security review.

What's the difference?

Some differences between the designs in Newark and in Brooklyn are obvious, notably that the Prudential Center is a standalone box rather than an arena nestled, in part, in four buildings.

And there may be a difference in process, given that that the New York Police Department has been involved early in the design stages, while it's unclear how much input the Newark Police Department had.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle yesterday cited a forceful statement from Forest City Ratner spokesman Bruce Bender: "We do not play around with public safety and neither should politicians who have no experience or background in security issues. Our security plan has been vetted and approved by the NYPD and the best anti-terrorism experts in the city. At some point, a base level of common sense needs to be followed and those people who do not have any security experience need to let the NYPD and the security experts do their jobs.”

The developer has surely taken the security issue seriously, hiring top-flight consultants. On the other hand, the unwillingness by Forest City Ratner and public entities to reveal basic architectural information--that the arena would be 20 feet from the street--until last week has not exactly inspired confidence.

Independent review needed

The official statements haven't convinced the elected officials. “I don’t think that people want to be baited and switched,” said de Blasio (right). “We need an independent review that says there’s no need for street closings.” He said he had some hope that the administration of Gov. Eliot Spitzer would recognize the importance of transparency.

“The ball game’s not over,” he said, noting that subsidies and other issues must be resolved for the project to move forward. If the developer doesn’t behave more transparently, “then the future of their project is in danger,” he warned.

Skepticism or opportunism?

It’s hard to tease out the legitimate skepticism from political opportunism on display yesterday. Some officials have long made security an issue; in December 2005, James, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblyman Jim Brennan, Millman, and then-Congressional Rep. Major Owens wrote a letter to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly requesting a security study. Now they’ve been joined by de Blasio, Yassky, and two newly-elected officials: State Senator Eric Adams and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries.

Perhaps Yassky and de Blasio have gained new insight into the issue. Alternatively, their posture may be a way to show their constituencies they do take the project seriously, without backing lawsuits that oppose it. Either way, candidates for, respectively, City Comptroller and Brooklyn Borough President probably want as much media exposure as possible.

Some disclosure possible?

“The project has been shrouded in secrecy from Day One,” declared James (right), the staunchest political opponent of the project. Acknowledging concerns that too much disclosure could compromise security—the blanket explanation for the cap on public discussion—she suggested that documents could be redacted so some information emerges.

If no independent study is ordered, James said, she will again ask for a hearing on the project before the Council’s transportation committee. Then she topped Yassky's formulation, deeming that the closure of streets near and at a notoriously congested intersection would yield a “tsunami.”

“I’m really tired of signing letters and not getting responses,” declared Millman. “We’ve asked for this study in 2005, only to be completely ignored.” She added, “When I go back to Albany, I will hand deliver another copy to the governor.”

A representative from Brennan’s office read a statement: “The public interest in these basic questions is obvious."

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