Monday, April 13, 2009

Senator Perkins begins to gear up for Atlantic Yards oversight hearing, but it won’t be held April 24

If a legislative oversight hearing on Atlantic Yards scheduled this month sounded too soon to be true, well, that was right.

More pressing Senate business has delayed the tentatively scheduled April 24 hearing by the Senate Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions regarding the performance of agencies like the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

It may make for a more thorough hearing, as well, since Senate Committee Chair Bill Perkins, as well as his main staff member working on the issue, are clearly still getting up to speed on Atlantic Yards.

Coming to Brooklyn

Perkins, a Harlem Democrat who last September held an oversight hearing on eminent domain, came to Brooklyn Saturday to meet with about 15 people--mostly but not exclusively critics and opponents of AY--to be briefed on the project.

Among the group were State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, City Council Member Letitia James, City Council candidate JoAnne Simon, Prospect Heights Action Coalition founder Patti Hagan, Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) co-chair Terry Urban, and Lincoln Restler, who was appointed by Council Member David Yassky appointment to Community Board 2. (A CBN officer, Jim Vogel, now works in Montgomery's office.)

The group met privately with Perkins. Then, introduced by Montgomery, Perkins held a brief press conference for, well, myself and a reporter and photographer from the Courier-Life chain.

After the press conference, Perkins and his group left the Fort Greene meeting place for a planned walk around the AY footprint.

Given wind and rain, that plan was untenable, so the group wound up on the third floor of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Center, where a good view was available of the MTA’s Vanderbilt Yard and the rest of the AY footprint’s first phase, checkerboarded with both existing buildings and vacant lots.

(In photo above, Perkins, center, is flanked by Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors/NoLandGrab at right and Ron Shiffman of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn at left. To the left of Shiffman in the photo, in partial view, are Montgomery and Regina Cahill of the North Flatbush Business Improvement District. Photos of group by Steve Soblick.)

Hearing goal

Montgomery explained that Perkins “has agreed to use the experience we had here as an example of what happens or does not happen in terms of megadevelopments around the state.”

Perkins pointed out that, in light of the economic downturn, there are many questions about the viability of Atlantic Yards and other projects, so “it’s appropriate and necessary from the perspective of the public interest, to review where the project is at.”

That involves a look at issues that may need to be reconsidered, modifications that may need to be made, and what additional public resources are being considered for this project.

CBA role

The Courier-Life's Steve Witt asked if Perkins had spoken to any of the signatories of the controversial Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement.

Perkins said he wasn’t sure. Montgomery--a foe of the project--noted that no CBA signatories were present. Perkins followed up by saying he’d look at a broad range of agencies and community groups, but “we’re not at that point yet... we’re just getting a sense of what the project looks like.”

Asked about the priority issues, Perkins focused on the need for transparency regarding changes in the project, the prospect of federal stimulus funding, the current time frame, and community involvement. Eminent domain will remain a theme, as well questions of community benefits, in both their broad and narrow sense, he said.

The walkaround

During the walk to the mall, veteran community planner Shiffman pointed out how the term blight had been used to pursue the project.

“One of the things we’ll have to do is get a real definition of blight,” said Perkins, raising an issue that has been proposed but never moved forward in the legislature.

Perkins was informed of some basic elements of the AY project: the number of housing units planned, the need for major and concentrated housing subsidies, the bid process for the railyards, and the provision--or absence--of public services like schools.

What about the empty buildings and lots? Forest City Ratner bought them, under the threat of eminent domain, McClure pointed out.

(Yards photo adapted from Atlantic Yards site. Red ovals mark buildings since demolished.)

Many property owners did benefit from increased prices, noted Cahill, though commercial businesses, added Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association, did have a harder time.

Of course, the gains made by homeowners came thanks not to Ratner’s generosity but to public funding--and, even if the developer had paid from its own pocket, the benefit in terms of vastly incrased development rights would have been worth it.

Perkins was told of the history of spot rezonings, converting former manufacturing buildings into housing, and of the organic development that emerged along Vanderbilt Avenue (a visit precluded by the rain).

The UNITY alternative

Shiffman explained the UNITY plan he helped devise, in which the railyard site, at least, would be divided into smaller develoment sites, “so you’re not dependent on the economics of one builder and one developer.” The plan, he added, would also connect better to adjacent Fort Greene.

Development over the railyards, Shiffman acknowledged, would not be cheap, but the direct footprint might be reduced, and it may not even be necessary to store trains in Brooklyn should, for example, the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit become knit in a regional transportation system.

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