Wednesday, June 10, 2009

At DDDB update on AY, talk of changed public opinion, potential strategies, and a crucial next six months

The tide may not have turned regarding Atlantic Yards, which has been officially approved and likely heads for new approvals, but public opinion is shifting, with the widespread disapproval of new designs for the arena.

Yesterday New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called it a “"stunning bait-and-switch" and a "shameful betrayal of the public trust" and today the New York Daily News quotes general disdain from locals.

So last night was an opportune time for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn to hold a long-scheduled community update on the project, drawing some 130 people to the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene.

I saw a good number of unfamiliar faces, and there was a distinct energy in the crowd; they enthusiastically applauded speakers and gave City Council Member Letitia James a partial standing ovation.

The project, as a DDDB handout (below) explained, is neither a dead deal nor a done deal, and the next six months will be crucial, as project backers pursue revised approvals. They hope to get the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to accept a new deal for the Vanderbilt Yard--perhaps $20 million down, instead of $100 million--and get the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) to issue a revised Modified General Project Plan (GPP).

They hope to shed remaining lawsuits--or at least the appeals of the most significant one--and gain tax-exempt bonds by a December 31 Internal Revenue Service deadline.

Before then, project opponents plan to testify at the June 24 MTA meeting and the yet-unscheduled ESDC public hearing after the issuance of the GPP.

(Photos at right with embedded ID by Jonathan Barkey. More photos from Tracy Collins here, including photos below at left.)

The overview from Goldstein

“The opposition to Atlantic Yards was never about who the architect was. Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that removing Gehry was a betrayal of the public trust. Which it was. But the project from the beginning was a betrayal of the public trust,” said DDDB spokesman Daniel Goldstein, citing the abuse of democratic process.

While the project as approved “has been scrapped” in practical terms, it retains government approvals and support, he noted.

Goldstein pointed to other examples of “bait and switch,” including once-promised 10,000 office jobs and $100 million to the MTA. “So ‘Jobs, Housing, & Hoops’ was clearly a hollow slogan,” he said.

“The focus needs to be on Governor Paterson, who so far seems ready to make a deal” to support the project, he said.

James speaks

James said she got inspiration from the unusual murals wrapping around the sanctuary, depicting Fort Greeners from the 1970s, titled Mighty Cloud of Witnesses. The murals portray a mostly African-American group; the group in attendance, while mostly white, was more diverse than at many DDDB events.

(Photo by Tracy Collins)

James, who suggested that the developer has tried to divide the community by race and class, noted later that, though Atlantic Yards has prominent supporters of color--from groups financially supported by Forest City Ratner--she's met many working-class people in and around her district who don't like the project.

James (right), in a mode that seemed part-campaigner, part-preacher, went through the problems with the project--such as scale, bypass of city land use procedures, and lack of a cost-benefit analysis.

“I don’t know about you, but when I knocked on doors five-and-a-half years ago, the need then, as is now, is affordable housing, not a sports arena,” she said.

She warned that new surprises were coming. “The General Project Plan, I have been told, off the record, consists of an arena and one building,” she said.

(I'm not so sure; more likely it would present an arena and one tower to be built at first, but won't omit the other towers.)

And the MTA seems willing to accept a renegotiated and lesser payment from Ratner at a time when it is closing station booths, James said.

Changing landscape

She pointed to the recent "attempted coup" in the state Senate, suggesting that, if the Republicans have indeed taken over, Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, the only other avowed opponents along with James, has lost clout.

“She had the ear of the Senate Majority Leader and of our Governor,” James said.

(Montgomery could not attend the meeting, but sent a staffer, Jim Vogel, to present a message.)

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Marty Golden, who “came to that disgusting [Senate oversight] hearing,” is “back in charge,” James observed.

Still, James expressed optimism. “I am confident that we will be victorious if we just stand firm. We want to develop and not destroy.”

Goldstein referenced the oversight hearing, calling it a “five hour disruption orchestrated” by the developer and its allies. “We can’t allow that to happen again.”

Legal battles

In the handout to attendees, DDDB included an unpublished op-ed by Jeff Baker, who represents DDDB and other groups in litigation challenging the AY environmental review. The op-ed noted that “adverse court decisions should not be construed as a validation or endorsement of FCR’s plan” but rather the “extreme level of deference” that courts must grant to government agencies.

“But just as FCR uses the laws that favor it to bypass local approval and level trumped up ‘blight’ claims against an entire neighborhood,” so may the impacted community go to court, he wrote. Despite misleading claims by FCR that DDDB has engaged in frivolous litigation, he wrote, “the right to seek redress of grievances is a fundamental right.”

Attorney Randy Rasey (right) followed up on the theme. “We’re often accused of frivolous litigation,” he said. “We are fighting to hold our state government to its legal obligations.”

He reflected on the imbalance of legal resources, pointing to the May 2007 scene at an oral argument in state court where the DDDB legal team was met by four or five senior law firm partners and “a phalanx of associates.” He estimated that, for every dollar spent by DDDB, opponents were spending $20-$50.

Pending cases

“I find it amusing that the other day we were called a well-financed organization,” said Candace Carponter (below), DDDB legal director, referring to a column in the New York Post. “Compared to Forest City Ratner, it’s a drop in the bucket.”

Carponter said she was hopeful that the appeal in the case challenging the environmental review--which was dismissed by a unanimous appellate division, albeit with a concurrence that read like a dissent--would be accepted by the state’s highest court.

She said the Court of Appeals should address a question ignored in the lower courts: whether the ESDC should have tried to weigh the public benefit against the private benefit.

(The lower courts stopped after observing the ESDC had concluded there would be several public benefits. Now, of course, those benefits would be attenuated. However, this case, unlike the appeal in the eminent domain case, would not formally impede the ESDC's plan to pursue eminent domain, though it could make the agency more wary of doing so.)

Carponter also said the ESDC’s release of a revised Modified General Project Plan, expected later this month, could provide new grounds for litigation.

The UNITY Plan

The UNITY Plan for the railyards and beyond, developed after a charrette sponsored by James and later revised considerably, was described by one of the trio behind it, planner Ron Shiffman, a DDDB director and founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development.

(Photo at left by Tracy Collins)

By breaking the railyard site into eight parcels, he said, it could generate a diverse set of plans and designs, with different sources of financing, thus potentially providing “more jobs faster.” Meanwhile, Forest City Ratner seems prepared to sit on a 22-acre site it can control, and focus on the arena.

He said that people at the state Senate hearing legitimately wanted jobs and housing, and the Unity Plan could be a solution.

“We did learn some things” at the hearing, he said. “There is not one dollar coming from Ratner for affordable housing. It’s all money being diverted from other community-based groups. It would all come from existing pots of money.”

AY defenders likely would point to the infrastructure costs, including relocating the railyard, within AY and the lack of a financing plan for UNITY. Indeed, Shiffman and Goldstein noted the importance of working on the latter.

Given criticism of the latest designs for the arena block, Shiffman said there was an opportunity to reach out to critics and other news outlets to “show UNITY is a real alternative.” A former City Planning Commissioner (CPC), Shiffman said he planned to contact Amanda Burden, chair of the CPC and a one-time enthusiast for the Gehry design.

He criticized the ESDC, which was born as the Urban Development Corporation in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. “What a travesty it’s become,” he said, arguing that the law must be changed “so the ESDC serves the people, not the developer.”

New strategies

Attendees at the meeting were encouraged to testify at the upcoming June 24 MTA meeting as well as future hearings, but Goldstein hinted that more was in store.

“There’s a need for some form or forms of direct action, targeted at the mayor or governor,” he said. “At times, I think, we have perhaps been a little too genteel. Which doesn’t mean we have to be obnoxious, but it means we have to show this is a serious matter.” He later used the term “creative action.”

He said that DDDB would hold its fifth annual Walk Don’t Destroy fundraiser in October. (The organization, at least according to the most recent IRS Form 990, was drawing down its reserves.)

Goldstein reported on his visit last Friday to the Forest City Enterprises annual meeting in Cleveland, after which he had a conversation with Co-Chair Al Ratner, who had calmly dismissed his public questions.

“I have to say: they are adamant” about doing AY, Goldstein said, though he allowed that it may be a bluff.

(Given the need to stop the losses in New Jersey and the goal of selling the Nets at a profit, Forest City needs a new arena.)

Questions

When it came time for questions, one audience member asked if organizations like BrooklynSpeaks, disturbed by the dropping of Gehry, would ally with DDDB. Goldstein indicated it was was too soon to tell, but “many people are seeing where the tide is going.”

(Photo by Tracy Collins)

What about getting Rep. Dennis Kucinich--who has investigated the Yankee Stadium deal--involved?

Goldstein said he’d been in contact with Kucinich’s office. “I think there’s something we can get them to do, but I don’t know it’ll be a hearing.” (That, perhaps, could be a letter of inquiry.)

He said he hoped the state Assembly would hold a hearing, as it had with Yankee Stadium, noting that the latter was after the fact. (Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who chairs the Committe on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions, has given no indication he would do so.)

Asked about elected officials, Goldstein said that no public official outside Borough President Marty Markowitz publicly advocates for the project. Then again, State Senators Golden and Carl Kruger, who represent areas far from the project footprint, did push AY at the hearing.

Goldstein noted that none of the candidates in City Council races near the project--other than Delia Hunley-Adossa, an uphill challenger to James (right, with attendees)--support AY, while four years ago, the landscape was different.
“The governor doesn’t publicly speak” for the project, Goldstein added. And Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s recent comments in support were “pretty lukewarm.” (Indeed, Bloomberg's campaign web site omits AY.)

One audience member asked about the regular appearance on WFAN sports talk radio by project proponents. Goldstein said he’d been in contact with the producers.

Who's more public?

Near the end of the meeting, Goldstein reflected on a statement made last Friday to him in Cleveland by Al Ratner, who suggested that opponents “can get into our heads because we’re so public.” The translation, Goldstein suggested, was that project opponents know about the upcoming MTA meeting and will try to head off a discount sale.

“Well, we’re pretty public, too,” Goldstein said.

The meeting did back up that statement. But the “direct action” and legal strategies, for now, are under wraps.

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