Sunday, May 31, 2009

Council candidate Lander, in testimony prepared for Senate hearing, gets tougher on AY, saying deal should be canceled

It was notable that, at the State Senate hearing Friday, the only legislators to appear in favor of the project were three (one via proxy) from Southern Brooklyn, far from the project site and the area from which Forest City Ratner executive VP Bruce Bender can always call in chits. Even Borough President Marty Markowitz neglected to show up or send an emissary.

And, though there was much extraneous testimony that had nothing to do with the hearing's ostensible purpose of government oversight, there were several people who didn't get to testify.

One would-be elected official, 39th District Council Candidate (and urban planner) Brad Lander, submitted testimony calling for legislators to pressure Governor David Paterson and the Empire State Development Corporation to cancel the AY deal. The issues he raised were ones the legislators barely touched.

(In photo, Lander is talking with State Senator Velmanette Montgomery.)


His reasons: 
  • a need for a full accounting of public subsidies
  • a need for a new economic and cost-benefit analysis
  • a need to investigate whether land valuation for the PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) deal would be as questionable as the one for Yankee Stadium.
Changed position

Lander, the fund-raising frontrunner for the seat held by Bill de Blasio, has long had a more nuanced position on Atlantic Yards, previously taking a more BrooklynSpeaks-ish position, on his web site stating that "we should use the opportunity to either fix the flaws or reconsider the project." (Lander, former director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, is now a senior fellow there.)

Recently, in debates, Lander has ramped up his criticism of AY. Lander told me that, when he wrote his position a year ago, "I imagined that the economic crisis (which was then just beginning to become clear) might be an occasion for a renegotiation between ESDC/MTA/City/State and FCRC that might include the opportunity to fix some of the fundamental flaws. But as has become clear over the past year, and was evident at the hearing, that is not the case."

Lander's position also might be seen as an effort to compete with Josh Skaller, who's second in fundraising and has long been fundamentally opposed to the project, allying himself with Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.

Excerpts from Lander's testimony

In 2005, the Pratt Center released
a report that was highly critical of the Atlantic Yards proposal. We found that:

The process through which the project was advanced was not accountable. Planning for the project was initiated by the developer, despite the fact that this is a major site, with a majority of the land publicly-owned. 

Public subsidies – which run into billions of dollars when direct and indirect subsidies are included – were never sufficiently accounted for... To put it simply, ESDC bought this project without any clue of what the taxpayers would pay for it.

The cost-benefit analysis of the project was insufficient and misleading. One particular problem that is amplified today is that the commercial components and residential components were not separated.

There was inadequate information and insufficient planning around traffic, transportation, and parking issues. 

The urban design of the project was deeply flawed for the site (scale, interiorizing the park, lack of attention to context) …

We identified these flaws when we published our early planning assessment in March 2005. None of those issues were sufficiently addressed, and several grew worse as the process proceeded.

Atlantic Yards was not the right project when it was proposed in 2004. It was not the right project when ESDC approved it with insufficient information and through a flawed process in 200x. And it is not the right project now.

I urge you to bring pressure to bear on Governor Paterson and the Empire State Development Corporation to explore options to cancel the [MOU/general project plan/”deal”]. Let’s go back to the drawing board.

A few particular questions that are critical at this moment:

A full accounting of public subsidies is needed more than ever, as the State and City face extremely difficult fiscal situations. We must know the true cost of the project.

A new economic and cost-benefit analysis is required for the project that FCRC actually intends to build, and in light of today’s economic realities. The condo sales prices projected for the market-rate units on the site were probably unrealistic in 2006; today, they are simply fantasy. The challenges and costs of securing financing have risen enormously. It does not appear that the office space will be constructed. 

Land valuation: Information recently came to light that the land valuation for the PILOT in the Yankee Stadium deal was misleading and perhaps criminal. How is land valuation being handled here? 

What is the process for renegotiating or canceling the deal between FCRC and ESDC, as the project shifts and changes and is not completed as contemplated?

ESDC should face up to the reality that the project that was approved is not going to be built in the current economic climate, and that the project that the developer seems to intend to build is not what was approved (and has not been subject to meaningful public review).

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