Friday, September 04, 2009

Also on News 12: the 33rd, 34th, 36th, and 39th District candidates on Atlantic Yards

Along with the feisty 35th District debate held recently on News 12, some other News12 debates for Council seats are worth a look, especially for the Atlantic Yards discussion.

33rd District

Candidates in the 33rd District, a crescent ranging from north Park Slope through to Greenpoint, were mostly against the project, though there was some infighting.

Ken Diamondstone said, "I'm probably the first who stood up and opposed the project, as a member of Community Board 2. The process is a top-down boondoggle. It gives hundreds of millions of dollars to a billionaire. We don't need an arena at that site. We have been fed lies, and the site has been obtained through fraud and miscommunication and duplicity. I oppose it very strongly and one of my opponents who's on this panel has said it's OK to leave Mr. Ratner in charge, let's just add a huge level of openness and transparency. I think he should be taken out of the picture altogether."

That was a reference to Jo Anne Simon.

Steve Levin hedged: "From the get-go, I always though that the Atlantic Yards project was too big too much, too much density--and the local infrastructure--the traffic on Atlantic Avenue... local schools, and just our plumbing could not handle such an influx... I always thought that the proposed affordable housing ratio was something to be applauded."

He can't have it both ways; the affordable housing ratio was dependent on the scale.

"At the present moment, it looks like it's probably not going to happen," Levin said. "So I do not support the plan as it currently stands. I think it's too much, it's too big. And I believe that it shouldn't be supported because the silver lining in the original plan, the affordable housing and the union jobs that would be created, does not look like it's going to be there."

Doug Biviano said, "I'm against it. I stand with Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn [DDDB] on the matter... What we need is a more community-based plan. The UNITY plan speaks to that."

He then went on to criticize machine politics, blaming Simon because "she split the opposition with her BrooklynSpeaks movement and divided the opposition when we needed a strong voice to shut Ratner down and get the community involved. And what Mr. Levin does is he rides the pros and cons. Now he conveniently takes a stand when there's political benefit to do so."

While Biviano's critique of Levin was legit, I think BrooklynSpeaks's record is more mixed. It brought an urban planning critique and a vehicle for elected officials to challenge the project outside of DDDB, which had filed lawsuits and thus would be ignored by the city and state. “We believed something’s going to be built there and we wanted to affect it," said the Municipal Art Society's Kent Barwick. Despite the opposition to eminent domain by Simon's Boerum Hill Association, BrooklynSpeaks accepted the arena, eminent domain, and some street closings. Now BrooklynSpeaks has gotten much tougher.

Isaac Abraham spoke without much detail: "It is so huge and so humongous that I can't believe the city and the developer didn't have time to sit down with all the parties and figure out the proper plan."

That's because it was a state project.

Simon said, "In 2003, I was asked to chair the Boerum Hill Association's task force investigating what was then a rumor about a project at Atlantic Yards. The more we investigated, the more we learned, the more troubled we became. It clearly violated every good urban design principle. It used eminent domain in a totally reprehensible way. It was too much, too big. It divided and didn't connect communities. And all of the benefits that were promised were illusory. We said so then and we agree with that now. I have been an active--very active, very involved member of the community working against Atlantic Yards for longer than anybody else here and I've done more work on this than anybody else here. BrooklynSpeaks was an effort to create more room at the table, to create more people who would understand just how flawed this plan is. And, indeed, instead of dividing the opposition, we have gained opposition for the effort."

While Simon may have been a strong critic of AY longer than her competitors, she was not, like Diamondstone (and Ken Baer) a fundamental opponent backing DDDB.

Baer said he got the Sierra Club to sign on to two lawsuits and that "this project did not involve community planning."

Evan Thies was not present at the debate. He now offers strong opposition to AY, but, when working for City Council Member David Yassky, was hardly such an opponent.

In the 39th District

The debate for the 39th District, which includes Carroll Gardens, most of Park Slope, and part of Borough Park, debate featured a chorus of criticism, except for one candidate.

Gary Reilly said Atlantic Yards "is sort of the poster child of how not to do development." He cited Jane Jacobs, criticized superblocks, and said no public money should be spent on "a stadium," but said it was an "an ideal place to do development."

Brad Lander said, "We should scrap the Atlantic Yards plan and go back to the drawing board." He referenced a critical report he co-authored in 2005 and said the developer "had time to address" the critiques but made the project worse.

Josh Skaller, in a subtle reference to Lander's evolution on the topic from critic to opponent, said, "I'm very proud of the fact that much of the leadership of Develop Don't Destroy... has been supporting my campaign." He cited an absence of community planning.

Bob Zuckerman said he opposed the project from the beginning and said the railyards should be put out for an open bid.

John Heyer, an aide to Borough President Marty Markowitz, tried to thread the needle: "There are many problems with the project. Brooklyn and New York is made up of a street grid, through streets... unfortunately, a superblock idea negates that. The entire development should have through streets, and would actually help reduce the entire plan and building scale by about 15%."

That's impossible, however, since a superblock must be created for the arena, and the closure of Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues on the eastern end of the site is needed by the developer to maintain a minimum open space ratio.

"We also need to mitigate the traffic, especially during game nights and event nights," Heyer said. "We need to be able make sure that driving is not really the option. The preferred option is mass transit."

So, does he oppose a massive interim surface parking lot on the southeast corner of the site?

"I believe this project will go forward," Heyer said. "I'm more realistic, I think we need to come and face facts--court cases have not worked--so we need to now go forward and make it the best viable project for the community, along with Forest City Ratner."

Court cases, however, are not over.

34th District

In the 34th District, which covers Williamsburg and Bushwick, the candidates were asked about AY but mostly deflected the questions.

"I call for responsible devleopment. We can't be against development, but we have to strike a balance," said incumbent Diana Reyna, who then lapsed into generalities.

Maritza Davila said, "I am completely for affordable housing," then went on to talk about her work in the district.

Gerry Esposito, not inappropriately, called out the moderator for the question and said the debate should concentrate on issues in the district.

36th District

The 36th District, which covers Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights east of the project site, showed nearly all the candidates present supporting the project.

(Absent were incumbent Al Vann, a project supporter, as well as William Carrington. The wide field has some energetic candidates, but the large number likely will help Vann stay in office for a third term. It's another argument for Instant Runoff Voting.)

David Grinage said he was wary of eminent domain but said it would create employment and housing opportunities for the district.

Robert E. Cornegy said he supported the project, given that it represents jobs.

Adrian Straker said she was "in agreement with it" and more concerned about transportation and other local impacts.

Saquan Jones said "I think it brings a tremendous amount of economic development" but warned that the "affordable housing component is happening way too late."

Tremaine Wright, not unlike Straker, said she accepted that the project is going forward and that she was concerned that it involved increased services to the community.

Mark Winston Griffith, who has the most activist backing to challenge Vann, said, "Actually, I'm very much opposed to the Atlantic Yards project in its current form. I think it did not start with a conversation about what's best for that particular community. It started with a developer saying that he wanted to build on that land and then pushed all the right buttons, spread money around, and put the politicians in place to actually make it happen. So what you now have is he has broken many of the promises that he started with and now we're in a situation where he cannot afford the project and what he has done is taken eminent domain to now build a project that is really going to cater to not affordable housing but luxury housing. So I think it's been a betrayal of the community. So I think there is a better way, that there are other plans that would have suited the neighborhood better, that would've created jobs, would've created affordable housing. That is not the route that the city and state took to do that, unfortunately."

Does that mean that Griffith supports AY in its previous form? Given his criticism of ACORN, perhaps not.

The developer has promised that the first buildings would include affordable housing, not only luxury housing; the question is whether there are sufficient subsidies and how the subsidy per unit compares to other affordable housing.

Or, perhaps, Griffith was referencing the fact that a significant slice of subsidized housing would be at or near market levels and unaffordable to residents of the 36th District.

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