Friday, March 14, 2008

At DDDB update, Brooklyn Museum honor for Ratner raises ire

At a community meeting sponsored by Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) last night on the status of the Atlantic Yards project, the most galvanizing issue was one not mentioned in the meeting announcement.

(Photos by Jonathan Barkey)

While there were questions and discussion about the viability of the project given the credit crunch and lack of affordable housing financing, as well as the effects of ongoing construction activities, the crowd’s ire was spurred by breaking news that Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner would be honored early next month by the Brooklyn Museum.

And while local elected officials were understandably wary of criticizing the museum, leading the Brooklyn Paper to conclude that that DDDB’s Daniel Goldstein “was nearly alone in his vitriol,” that wasn’t the mood last night. Goldstein (speaking to the crowd above) said DDDB had received a lot of e-mail about it. Prospect Heights resident Irene Porges told the crowd that she had just purchased a museum membership but would ask for her money back.

Others said they wanted to hold a protest on the occasion of the museum’s ball honoring Ratner on April 3, and met afterward to plan the action. The effect of Forest City Ratner’s contributions to local institutions, Goldstein said, “is to silence a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise be silent.”

Hopes for Paterson


DDDB’s Goldstein expressed hope in Governor-in-waiting David Paterson. “I think we’re going to have a more responsible governor,” he said, noting that Paterson in 2005 supported a moratorium on the use of eminent domain. (However, he’s been quiet since and a New York Sun story today (overhyped with a huge headline), without any comment from Paterson, raised the question of whether the issue would recur; a real estate official said he wasn't concerned given Paterson's other priorities. )

More than 110 people attended the event at the Hanson Place United Methodist Church in Fort Greene. Organizers said 111 people signed cards to Paterson urging him to “pull the plug on Forest City Ratner’s ill-conceived Atlantic yards plan,” questioning whether taxpayers should “be shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars for a basketball arena while affordable housing and so many other crucial needs take a back seat.” (Of course, affordable housing is supposed to be part of the AY plan, but there are major doubts about its schedule.)

Whether Paterson has any interest or leverage is an open question. DDDB legal chair Candace Carponter reiterated the belief--not yet confirmed by outside experts--that continued increases in the cost of the arena should bring the project back before the Public Authorities Control Board, whose voting members include Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, the Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and the governor.

Delays and litigation

Goldstein told the crowd about the delays in the project and noted that the preliminary railyard work, demolition of buildings, and utility work do not constitute construction of the project.

“We will take the fight as long as it can go, as long as community opposition and support is there,” he said.

Carponter said lawyers representing plaintiffs challenging eminent domain for the project, whose case has been dismissed at the trial and appellate court levels, would file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court within the next two weeks. Carponter said she was optimistic the court would accept the case, even though it takes fewer than two percent of the cases presented.

If the case isn’t accepted, Carponter said, plaintiffs would go to state court. (Given that state courts are considered less hospitable to eminent domain challenges, that has to be a longer shot.)

And what if the project fails or is significantly stalled? Anna Dietzsch, an architect member of the UNITY plan design team, described some features of the plan, which suggests a role for multiple developers and varied building sizes without use of eminent domain or an arena. The plan could be applied to the entire 22-acre footprint or just to the second phase, east of Sixth Avenue and the arena block. Added Goldstein, “The whole thing needs to be reworked or we’re going to end up with a big parking lot.”

James’s report from ESDC

It was a busy night for civic meetings, several of them sponsored by local political officials, so a lack of attendance wasn’t too surprising. The only public official to attend the meeting was City Council Member Letitia James, who noted it was her fifth meeting of the evening.

She reported on a meeting held that morning at the offices of the Empire State Development Corporation with Avi Schick, the agency’s president and chief operating officer. Several local elected officials or their surrogates attended and, at least by James's account, agency officials weren't quite ready to bend.

“Council Member [Bill] de Blasio and Council Member [David] Yassky, I must say--we were excellent,” James recounted. (Yassky, who’s running for Comptroller, and de Blasio, who’s running for Brooklyn Borough President, have ramped up their questioning of Atlantic Yards in recent months.)

In response to a question about the project’s progress, James said, Schick said it’s going forward, though he expressed a recognition that the economic climate had shifted.

James said officials reported multiple complaints about water lines cut or construction after 10 p.m. “He said, ‘We’re unaware of it,’” James recounted. “[Ombudsman] Forrest [Taylor] was sitting there. I said, ‘You’ve got to do better.”

She said she suggested a multilevel committee on infrastructure. “They said, ‘We’ll think about it,’” she said. (Seemingly such a committee was established as part of a set of initatives the ESDC announced last May.)

Yassky, James said, expressed skepticism about the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) the ESDC wants to establish. James said she mentioned other models previously suggested by the BrooklynSpeaks coalition. “They said, ‘We’ll look at it.”

She said Yassky had repeated a request for Atlantic Yards financing documents and the ESDC said they’d provide them.

Much to do

“Overall, it was a good meeting, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” James concluded. “This is a textbook study of how not to do development in New York City.”

She alluded to the precipitous fall of Governor Eliot Spitzer. “Someone said last night,” she noted, that Spitzer “thought the rules did not apply to him. Often times, I’ve thought that of Forest City Ratner.”

James said she told Schick, “We will bring [Atlantic Yards] to a halt ‘til you get it right.” Schick’s response: “Tish, it’s always nice seeing you.”

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