Friday, December 14, 2007

After AY announcement, Tish James begins to get her footing

On 12/12/03, the same day that Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner appeared on WNYC radio's Brian Lehrer Show, so too did City Council Member Letitia James, who ultimately emerged as the public official most strongly identified with the Atlantic Yards opposition.

In comparison to her current stand, the interview shows James (right) still working through her Atlantic Yards position, opposing the arena but not the office space and housing--the bulk of the project. And while she mentions eminent domain and emphasizes the specter of displacement, she only touches on perhaps the strongest argument against the project: the undemocratic process.
(Photo from 8/23/06 public hearing by Lumi Rolley)

Warning about subsidies

BL: Joining us now is the newest member of the New York City Council, Letitia James, who just elected on Election Day to replace James Davis, and she's also the first Working Families Party member of the City Council, and she opposes the project.

LJ: You’re absolutely right, I was victorious on the Working Families line, and that’s why I’m opposed to this project. It is my position is any subsidies used for this particular project, and any issuance of any bonds, that we’re going to have to pay back and leverage the future of our children, we should be using it for the economic development of this community and this city and beyond, with regards to creating affordable housing, creating more schools, fixing our playgrounds, fixing our streets, and creating jobs for individuals—permanent jobs--who live in the community. We have a high unemployment rate in the district... There’s a public [housing] development right across the street from this proposed site, where right now there's high unemployment. You have high asthma rates, you have schools that are crumbling in and around that site, and you have a significant amount of opposition to that arena, right across the street.

New revenues

BL: Let me raise a couple of things that Mr. [Bruce] Ratner said, when he was on. One is this is economic development, this would wind up with more money going into the tax base in New York City, and that would be more money for the city to use on all the other worthy things that you’re mentioning…. And he says it’s not a project that’s going to have public subsidy, it’s going to use this tax increment system; do you understand that differently?

LJ: The way I understand it, it’s called a tax increment financing, basically what it does is that all the revenues from the project are basically used to pay off the bonds, the bond debt. So, to that extent, you are using tax dollars. The taxes on the tickets, the tax on the employees, to that extent you are using public dollars, again, to pay off the debt for private ownership. So to that extent it’s a boondoggle for private owners, the owners of the Nets. So you are using public dollars. It’s a scheme that has been used in the purchase of previous arenas around the country.

Such tax-increment financing has not, in fact, been used.

Partial support

LJ: ...The reality is that I support the project in part. I support the commercial element and I support the housing, obviously. The number one issue in this district is the crisis in affordable housing, which is why my victory was a mandate. The reason why I know that is because I had worked in this district. I had worked in the office of several elected officials. And the number one complaint… was the crisis in affordable housing, individuals who are being displaced or who are being evicted. So we need more affordable housing. To the extent that this project has a housing component, I support that, and I support the commercial part--

BL: So if you support the housing and you support the commercial part, all you don’t support is the sports arena?

No arena

James gave a litany of reasons to oppose the arena, including traffic gridlock and eminent domain.

LJ: I do not support the arena… One, it would be a transportation nightmare. At Atlantic and Flatbush, it represents the crossroads of Brooklyn. You already have transportation gridlock in the middle of the day, most of the day. In addition to that, you have a significant number of young families with children, in and around the site. Not only that, what they say—and they just say it very offhandedly, that they’re in the process of issuing eminent domain, a condemnation proceeding. Basically a public taking for a private matter. And that’s not my understanding of how eminent domain works. Usually you take private land for a public good, for a highway, for housing, for the community, not for a private entity such as the Nets. What were talking about is a hundred families that would be evicted, that would be bought out. These are individuals who just purchased and/or who just rented and/or who just moved into the community. Newswalk, Atlantic Commons, Atlantic Terminal, these are major housing complexes in and around this arena that would be adversely affected… In my office, we received a significant number of calls, from churches, from community groups, block associations, tenant associations....

NIMBY response?

BL: Councilwoman James, some would say that that’s too much NIMBYism…. If the project is otherwise good for the area, to not let it go forward because of a hundred homes, which many would say is a small number.

LJ: I can’t dismiss a hundred homes. I can’t dismiss the displacement of children, of families. I can’t ignore the fact that we’re going to disrupt and destroy a community. I can’t ignore the fact that there is a crisis in affordable housing. I can’t ignore that they’re going to be using public dollars at a time when you are raising property taxes. I can’t ignore the cries from the community. And those are only twenty-some odd individuals who were out there protesting yesterday. I truly believe they are a microcosm of a louder audience. And again, what I’m hearing is that the community is opposed to it. But beyond that, I just think that it does not make economic sense. What we should be doing is investing in light manufacturing. What we should be doing is providing more resources for the Navy Yard, What we should be doing is creating permanent jobs. The jobs that would be created as a result of the arena again are low-income jobs, jobs that I don’t know whether or not are permanent. And again these are not individuals that are going to be organized....

As it turned out, those most aggrieved are not necessarily those in the Atlantic Yards footprint, since a majority have sold their property to the developer, and in many cases those deals include gag orders. However, there are many in adjacent neighborhoods concerned about the project's impact, as exemplified in the testimony on the project provided by the three community boards representing the areas in and around the footprint.

Fighting the fight

BL: How are you going to fight the fight?

LJ: Well, we’re organizing. We are going to be having a significant number of town hall meetings, and we will be having our own press conference. Again, I am not opposed to development. I like the housing aspect. I like the commercial development part of it. I do not like an arena, and I do not like transportation gridlock. I believe that the arena could be placed somewhere else in the borough of Brooklyn… in Coney Island, in the Navy Yard, some other location other than in a densely populated residential community. That does not make sense.

Well, the state has to override city zoning to put an arena in a residential neighborhood. The Navy Yard lacks public transit. Coney Island might be a viable alternative--after all, Borough President Marty Markowitz supported a Coney Island arena before Atlantic Yards was announced--but it is farther from the center of Brooklyn. And it is farther from Forest City Ratner's two big Brooklyn malls.

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