Friday, July 31, 2009

Sparse turnout on Day 2 of hearing on “Ghost Project Plan”; Jeffries, Kruger testify; open mike night for BUILD, unions

The second day of the two-day Atlantic Yards hearing held by the Empire State Development Corporation was even more of an anti-climax than the first day.

Without a contingent from ACORN and with only a handful of project opponents, no more than 100 people attended during the 2-5 pm day session and far fewer showed up for the 6-8 pm evening session, leaving a sea of empty seats in the Klitgord Auditorium of New York City Technical College. During the latter, hearing officer Edward Kramer several times paused to go “off the record” before new people showed to testify.

In fact, the hearing at times seemed like open mike night for members of the construction unions and Community Benefits Agreement signatory (and Forest City Ratner-funded) BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), who touted the expected benefits of the project.

(Photos by Tracy Collins)

By my estimation, fewer opponents and critics attended the two-day hearing than the 130 who attended the June 9 update on AY held at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene.

While the reasons--location, weather, vacations, belief that the effort was futile?--are unclear, it suggested that, however much residents in the area near the project dislike AY, it’s tougher to get them out. (Still, nearly all candidates for seats in two nearby City Council districts either oppose or are critical of the project and Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn mustered a vigorous press conference/rally before the hearing Wednesday.)

Some telling testimony

Still, some telling testimony was lodged by project opponents, including Patti Hagan (left) of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, who called the Modified General Project Plan under consideration a “Ghost Project Plan” because it lacks a site plan, renderings, and a current financial analysis.

Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee, ramped up previous criticism, said the benefits promised came at much too high a cost: "I believe this project is flawed beyond belief, and ESDC would be wise in stopping this miscarriage in its tracks."

Two elected officials came to speak, following a larger group who spoke on Wednesday. Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, always somewhat on the fence about AY, reminded representatives of the ESDC of legislation--passed by the state Legislature but not yet signed by Governor David Paterson--that they act according to their fiduciary duty. He called for both a commitment to affordable housing as well as a Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement requested by project critics and opponents.

And state Senator Carl Kruger, always a project booster--and also a recipient of campaign cash from FCR officials--continued his vociferous support.

Minimal coverage; process going forward

There was minimal press coverage; the New York Times’s blog The Local sent another “citizen journalist,” whose report does not mention Jeffries or Kruger. (I attended the second segment of the hearing but also have relied on videos, all shot by Jonathan Barkey, to report on the first segment.)

By the way, the Brooklyn Eagle coverage of the first day of the hearing erroneously says that the project must go back to the Public Authorities Control Board--an ESDC official last week said no. Another error: the Eagle states that there's a major change "[t]his is now largely a public plan" in which the state will own most of the land and then lease it Forest City Ratner; actually, that was contemplated in the 2006 Modified General Project Plan (see p. 2 of the PDF).

(Above, Marie Louis of BUILD.)

The ESDC will accept public comments on the plan--essentially changes in the financing of the project and a revised deal between Forest City Ratner and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)--until August 31.

The ESDC board is expected to approve the project during a meeting in early September. Before that, however, the ESDC has committed to another informational session, a bookend to the one held July 22, though no date has been announced and it’s not clear if FCR will show up.

(In photo, ESDC attorney Steve Matlin confers with Forest City Ratner's Jane Marshall.)

Also, before the approval, it’s possible that new litigation spearheaded by DDDB may complicate the situation. A lawsuit, for example, against the MTA, has been discussed but not announced.

Call for SEIS from BrooklynSpeaks

While Jeffries pointedly has not stood with Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the main project opponents, he testified that he joined BrooklynSpeaks--the mend-it-don’t-end-it coalition that has gotten increasingly tough on the project--in calling on the ESDC to conduct a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) “to assess the impact of changes to the phasing and design of the Atlantic Yards project prior to approving a modified plan for the site.”

Jeffries reminded the ESDC of the letter, which was announced on the eve of the hearing. The letter was signed by State Senator Velmanette Montgomery and City Council Member Letitia James, both project opponents, as well as Assemblyman Jim Brennan, who has ratcheted up his criticism and stood Wednesday with DDDB, and Assemblywoman Joan Millman, who’s been critical but closer to the fence. It was also signed by the civic groups that are part of BrooklynSpeaks.

The DBP’s take

Joe Chan, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership--which is funded in part by the city--put aside his prepared remark to “keep this simple, and speak from the heart.”





“My job is to ensure that Downtown Brooklyn grows and continues to grow as an economic center,” he said. “Let me make it very clear that there is no other single project that will have a greater positive economic impact on Downtown Brooklyn and Brooklyn for decades to come than the Atlantic Yards. For all the reasons that have been mentioned—it’s economic opportunity, it’s affordable housing, it’s also treating Brooklyn the way Brooklyn should be treated—to think our downtown does not have an arena, does not have a public gathering space for thousands of people.. .is a shame. This is Brooklyn’s time. This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. I don’t want to be standing here... 50 years from now talking about how we lost the Nets like the Dodgers were lost in 1957.”

But Brooklyn lost the Dodgers not merely because of the intransigence of planning czar Robert Moses but because there was a public consensus against providing Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley with the low-cost land he wanted to build a new stadium near the Atlantic Terminal--not the AY site but what is now Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Center mall.

An effort at rebuttal


Given the paucity of speakers, twice yesterday those testifying took advantage of the opportunity to speak again. After Chan spoke, Audrey Doyle, a 40-year resident--which she announced because everyone seemingly was claiming bona fides--returned to the podum,.

Doyle in her first round of tesitmony said she had been opposed to the original plan, and opposes the modified plan, questioning “pie-in-the-sky promises” of jobs and housing, as well as warning of parking lots and an arena delivering private profits to Forest City Ratner.

She returned to recall how Chan once attended a block association meeting. He was asked him about a construction site at 80 DeKalb Avenue nearby. “He said he didn’t know anything about that building,” Doyle recounted, noting that, within two days, she found online a rendering of FCR’s planned building.

“I don’t trust the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, I don’t Joe Chan, I don’t trust Forest City Ratner,” she said. “I certainly don’t trust ESDC, but I hope they do the right thing in this case.”

A lingering question about ESDC’s AY volunteer

Doyle also raised a question that most likely had been planted by others in the opposition: “Who is Susan Rahm, what is her position in ESDC, and what is her connection with the Atlantic Yards project… We really wonder what it is that she does.”

Indeed, Rahm is a volunteer, as I’ve pointed out, in the unusual position of playing a key consultant’s role on ESDC’s Atlantic Yards team. However, while ESDC sent several staffers working on AY to the two-day public hearing, Rahm was not present.

Historic district

Also, Prospect Heights resident (and Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats' rep) Raul Rothblatt referenced the recent landmarking process for Prospect Heights and said that the ESDC did not respond to his comments he submitted during the process in 2006.

"This is a very important historic district," he said. "It is a glorious neighborhood. If you look at the ESDC documents, it paints an image of a decrepit, blighted neighborhood, and that just bears no relationship to reality, as far as I can tell. And I would think the LPC [Landmarks Preservation Commission] would agree. If you look at the final designation map, it basically cuts close to the Atlantic Yards footprint as possible, because the feeling was, this historic neighborhood... is being threatened by the Atlantic Yards proposal, and taht was not addressed in the environmental impact statement, at all."

(The final map of the landmarks district cuts as close to the AY footprint as possible--indeed, a planned parking lot would be bookended by “fingers” of the district.)



The impact on Prospect Heights

Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, which has spearheaded the landmarking effort and worked with the Municipal Art Society to form BrooklynSpeaks, warned that the likely outcome of the project as it stands would be blight, not benefit to Brooklyn, with the impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

The project could include an arena, one or two buildings, and surface parking lots.

Had the ESDC proceeded in 2006 with a credible analysis of the project finances, he said, the changes now sought might have been foretold. He warned that ESDC appears to be fast-tracking the project without a site plan, and that the agency is setting the stage for another meeting two years from now to again revise Atlantic Yards.

Bruce = GW?

Lance Woodward of BUILD contended that, among great people who have through Brooklyn, "two specifically have changed Brooklyn for the better," one of them George Washington and the second Bruce Ratner. "He has done more for the borough of Brooklyn than any other human being that I am aware of, in terms of development, prosperity and progressive advancement."

Veconi popped back up to discuss how Washington, as an underdog, led the Battle of Brooklyn and went on to continue to fight an uphill battle: "He's the antithesis of a large real estate developer" who enlists government to get a piece of land "and then be able to exploit it for private gain.""

de la Uz on project costs

Brooklyn deserves all of the things promised with Atlantic Yards, said de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee, which builds and manages affordable housing,

But “the project was never designed to actually deliver those things,” she said, citing affordable housing, living wage jobs, and open space. “The revised project does even less,” she said, “and it does so at an incredibly high price tag for the public.”

She noted that FAC was recently chosen with a team of for-profit developers to develop a project at Public Place in Gowanus that “will deliver more affordable housing” than the revised Atlantic Yards plan, at one-tenth the cost to the public. (An apples to apples comparison isn't easy, however, so let's just say the cost issue deserves more scrutiny._

“We have to ask ourselves: are we getting what we deserve for our tax dollars?” de la Uz asked. “If there has been a true public process… we could have a project that would actually deliver on the promises.”

Other supporters

Also testifying were representatives of Downtown Brooklyn entities such as the New York Marriott at Brooklyn Bridge; Polytechnic Institute of NYU; and the Brooklyn Hospital Center. Also testifying were several people from ReBUILD, which places construction workers at job sites.

ReBUILD head Darnell Canada cast the equation as simple. Critics of AY have the luxury to worry about issues like shadows or traffic--required areas of the state environmental review--but those “are insignifciant to people who worry about basic needs” like food, clothing, and shelter.

“They come against a man who wants to be benevolent,” Canada said of developer Bruce Ratner, noting FCR’s plan to use union labor.

Of course, taking Canada’s argument to the extreme suggests that environmental and land use controls--how about housing in Prospect Park, as NLG suggested--should be subordinated to the “Build It Now” philosophy.

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries





Jeffries referenced the circus-like atmosphere that sometimes accompany these hearings, noting that the public officials who testify go back to neighborhoods like Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge. (That sounded like a dig at state Senator Marty Golden, a Bay Ridge Republican and loyal AY supporter, who disrupted the May 29 state Senate oversight hearing with his entrance.)

Jeffries, sounding sympathetic to many of the people who testified in favor of the project, said the ESDC should keep in mind "people desperate for employement opportunities" and "people gentrified and displaced." He cited the BrooklynSpeaks letter which articulated his concerns.

"Everyone seems to agree that, if anything should be built there, it should be affordable housing, for the people who have been pushed out," he said. "You must make sure that the affordable housing is not held hostage to the arena. The affordable housing could be built right now." (Well, that's not the developer's priority and, without plans for the arena block, it's not clear how that would work.)

"Second, you must make sure you enforce the promise that the developer made to build on-site affordable condominiums," he said, referencing a Forest City Ratner pledge for 200 on-site condos that has not been memorialized in any state documentation.

He warned the ESDC to make sure that the community "doesn't get shortchanged" by 200 or 300 affordable units over a 12-year period. While the developer has pledged more units and faster in the arena block, it remains possible, according to current documentation, to build just 300 affordable units without penalty.

State Senator Carl Kruger





Kruger began by praising Forest City Ratner's Beekman Tower in Lower Manhattan. "We're talking about incredible things happening," he said of AY. "We're talking about office buildings being built... dreams realized for affordable housing... a world-class sports arena... thousands of jobs... a stimulus package, when it's fully blown, will mean billions of dollars coming back into our city."

(Billions? There's no such claim in new city revenue; in fact, the New York City Independent Budget Office estimates that the arena would be a money-loser for the city.)

"True, it's not the Atlantic Yards we once envisioned," Kruger acknowledged, but said it had the desired components: arena, housing, commercial realization. "It takes blight and it eradicates it from an area that desperately needs it," he said, contradicting others' descriptions of Prospect Heights.

"It's a sad state of affairs when our economy's threatened," he said. "It's even a sadder state of affairs when we're looking to look in a negative way at what a great proposal Atlantic Yards is." He went on to praise Ratner's work on MetroTech.

Michael White of Noticing New York





White, an urban planner and lawyer, specifically targeted ACORN's plan for affordable housing, saying that the low-income housing was required by the tax code and most of the rest would be at market rates.

BUILD President James Caldwell





Caldwell, as is typical, began by citing his belief in Jesus Christ and his history in military service. The latter, he said, was a vision of diversity, while Brooklyn has had a segregated economy.

"Along came Forest City Ratner," he said. "If you need a job, color do no make a difference," he said, taking pains to avoid rhetoric from the meeting of July 22, where he said, "Maybe you don’t want to hear it, but black folks are not working in our community."

Caldwell acknowledged that he's been criticized for saying Bruce Ratner's "like an angel sent from God" but reiterated his belief. Responding to a previous speaker's criticism that there were no jobs for locals at MetroTech, he said of AY, "The project hasn't even started yet, but we have been able to put over 200 people to work."

I'd note that, undeniably, any large project creates jobs and, if tailored via contractual guarantees, can steer jobs and job training to locals. Many other projects don't, but those using public money often do, even if they do not go as far (in New York) as the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

More importantly, the cost of the CBA might be seen as one element of the developer's bottom line. Support for organizations like BUILD is a big deal for those organizations. But if Forest City Ratner can save, say, $100 million on a new railyard, it's easier to absorb those costs.

PHAC's Patti Hagan





Hagan, a 30-year resident of Prospect Heights, said “It’s nonsense to ask the public to comment, much less ESDC to approve the Modified GPP, without a plan. The ESDC cannot be serious.”

She cited the lack of a financial analysis, a description of the height and footprint of buildings, or an SEIS. “To rubberstamp Atlantic Yards in such deplorable ignorance is to shirk your responsibility as a Public Benefit Corporation,” she said.

“This Atlantic Yards Modified Ghost Project Plan is nothing but a Bush-style faith-based initiative,” she said, adding that, “At the July 22 Atlantic Yards informational meeting, it was as if Donald Rumsfeld took over and answered for the ESDC.”

“ We were told that ‘the MTA has determined that the upgraded yard is the upgraded yard,’” she said, referencing the fact that, while there are plans for modernized facilities, the Vanderbilt Yard would get smaller, not bigger.

Union carpenter Derrick Taylor





Bleu Liverpool, an employee at Freddy's



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