Among the 15 voting members of the trust, eight would be appointed by the governor, two each by the Assembly Speaker, Senate President, and Mayor of New York, plus one by the Brooklyn Borough President. A non-voting member would be appointed by the Stakeholder Council, which would represent local residents.
Such an organizational structure is par for the course; it mirrors the Hudson River Park Trust, which is similarly is governor-controlled. “A balance has to be struck between making sure we maximize community input and the reality of getting legislation passed,” said Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (at dais), a sponsor of the bill, which is likely to receive serious consideration not this legislative session but the next one.
But whether such a trust could actually respond to local concerns, as City Council Member David Yassky put it, about buildings being too tall, and traffic and environmental problems, is another question. Jeffries suggested that the yet-to-be negotiated ground lease for the project gave the state--and, presumably, the trust should it emerge--some leverage.
Kent Barwick of the Municipal Art Society, a major component of BrooklynSpeaks, said the trust aimed not to take the governor’s power away “but get the public’s voice in the discussion.” Barwick (at right in photo) said public involvement was needed because it’s “just basic civics” and also because “large-scale public projects in New York take a long, long time;” such continued oversight is even “in the interest of the developer.”
The group gathered on the steps at City Hall yesterday morning. "Atlantic Yards is a public project built on public land using public money overseen by a public entity for a public purpose," Jeffries declared. "It therefore deserves maximum public participation." (Actually, as Eric McClure of NoLandGrab pointed out, some of those statements deserve footnotes. Update: AY is more accurately a public-private partnership.)
“This developer has promised thousands of units of affordable housing. We want to make sure that affordable housing is built,” Jeffries said. “This developer has promised to build this project in a responsible fashion. We want to make sure this project is built responsibly. This developer has promised thousands of jobs and economic opportunity for women- and minority-owned business. We want to make sure those promises are met.”
Assemblyman Jim Brennan (at left in photo), a co-sponsor of the bill along with Jeffries and Assemblywoman Joan Millman (and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery in the Senate), noted that the governing agency, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) “has been in turmoil."
"In the meantime," he added, "we have a paper concept that, that as it gets tested in the marketplace, continues to show increasing costs, a lack of accountability, and an uncertain future, as the city and state has given the developer up to 12 years before deeming the project to be abandoned." (Actualy, it's 12 years to build Phase 1.) "This is unacceptable to the people of the community, to be forced to deal with a project of virtually indefinite duration, indefinite cost, and no accountability.”
Yassky spoke up for the role of the City Council in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, which was bypassed under the ESDC’s management: “The fundamental mistake that was made here, really the original of this project, is that it was approved in a way that went around all the usual process for approving a big project... We never had a chance to fix all the problems... I believe there is, somewhere buried underneath all the... special treatment, very deep in there, there is a good project, but the process never had a chance to find it.”
Mend it, don’t end it
Yassky’s statement was a reminder that the elected officials, as well as the civic groups that are part of BrooklynSpeaks, follow the “mend it, don’t end it” philosophy regarding Atlantic Yards. Not participating in the press conference were any representatives of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, which has organized two lawsuits still challenging the project.
Thus the presence of City Council Member Letitia James, who represents the project footprint and is the project’s leading political opponent, seemed a covery-your-bases bow to pragmatism. She thanked her colleagues “for stepping up and recognizing that what this project needs is accountability and transparency.”
James echoed Yassky in saying that developer Forest City Ratner “should not be given any further public money until people know what this project is.” Given that they’ve already denounced additional subsidies, I’m assuming they meant already pledged money.
Indeed, Yassky noted that the developer has already gotten $55 million, “and nobody here can tell me when we’ll see the first affordable housing, $55 million when our public housing is falling apart, our schools are underfunded.” In the future, he said, the trust could say, “Not so fast.”
“This notion that this project is a done deal is a false notion,” James declared. “This project is far from done.”
When a spectator, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn supporter Susan Metz, noted that she supported the alternative UNITY plan and asked whether the ULURP process could be reinstated, Jeffries’ answer was brief, and general. “It’s something that we’re looking at,” he said. “Our colleague, Assemblyman Brennan, has taken the lead. I certainly expect we will all work together.”
Brennan, in fact, has drafted a bill that would put Atlantic Yards through a very fast-track version of ULURP by the end of the year. Given that the bill was not even mentioned at the press conference yesterday, it’s safe to say that a revision would be needed before it could gather even local support.