Monday, October 05, 2009

Divided on development and AY, Marty Markowitz and Kevin Powell talk past each other in the Dreamland Pavilion

At the Dreamland Pavilion: Brooklyn and Development Conference held this weekend at Kingsborough Community College, Atlantic Yards was not only the theme of one panel but the central--yet divergent--example for the two main speakers at the inaugural dinner.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a longtime Atlantic Yards booster, maintained his support for the project, while writer and activist (and periodic political candidate) Kevin Powell offered a more critical take on AY and the process of development.

Beyond greetings

Markowitz, stopping in to offer ceremonial Opening Comments, spent nearly 20 minutes at the microphone, offering some entertaining anecdotes--joshing, for example, about how Brooklyn is an "inner borough" because you must exit through another borough to leave the city--but getting serious when it came to AY.

"If there's anything that I've learned after eight years, it's that there's nothing more contentious than issues of development. Nothing! Everything else, being Borough President, is relatively easy," he said.

"When it comes to land use issues and development, that's when the beast comes out! That's when the layers of sophistication that all of us have--is suddenly shed!" he said, perhaps mindful of some of the insults he's heard. "Then, just stand back, and just wait for the bricks to fall your way, or to be directed your way. I can assure you I've had that for eight years. Atlantic Yards being among those issues, which I know will speak to the future of this borough."

Planning for future generations

"There's not a project in this borough more important than Atlantic Yards for this and future generations," Markowitz declared. "One of the most difficult things that I've had to tackle as Borough President is to somehow get over the limited vision of so many people, who don't think about what tomorrow will bring, only what affects me today. It's very hard, when you're in a position of leadership.... you have to begin shaping what tomorrow will bring as well as what this immediate day and tomorrow brings. And Atlantic Yards taught me that, and continues to teach me that."

Hold on. Markowitz, less than a year before Atlantic Yards was announced, was promoting a new arena in Coney Island. A representative of the Department of City Planning said in 2005 that there had been no effort to develop the Vanderbilt Yard, the central piece of public land in the Atlantic Yards site. And Markowitz has not been willing to follow the lead of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer in empowering community boards with planning expertise.

Summing up the benefits

Later in his remarks, Markowitz returned to AY, claiming that the project "will represent thousands of jobs." Well, thousands of construction jobs--12,000-plus job-years. The project was planned might contain more than 2000 office jobs, but that office tower is on indefinite hold. The number of retail and arena jobs would be well under a thousand.

"What brings people together? Music, religion, sports, family," he said. " That's what brings people together. What Brooklyn is lacking is an arena.... If you want any major entertainment in this borough, year-round, what do you have to do? You have to leave Brooklyn."

"By having an arena, by having a national sports team again--and I'll admit I was an addict for the Brooklyn Dodgers, I grew up with them--but there's no question then, that will bring young families together, fathers and moms and kids, not only for Nets games, Brooklyn Nets, but the great events of the world, that currently have only one choice, Madison Square Garden, will now have two choices, Brooklyn or Madison Square Garden."

The "great events of the world"? As the graphic suggests, Madison Square Garden may be hosting some popular entertainers, but they're not the Olympics.

"That'll bring the jobs, and the economic activity around the area that will create the jobs that people in Brooklyn need so desperately," he closed, adding, "And the affordable housing that'll be built around it."

Doesn't Markowitz know that the New York City Independent Budget Office said the arena would be a money-loser for the city?

Powell's response

Markowitz didn't stick around to hear keynote speaker Powell--he told attendees he had to get to Bay Ridge to visit a "Senior Idol" event"--but it's too bad he didn't engage the debate.

"I'm pro-development, if it really benefits the entire community and a wide range of people," declared Powell, saying that his favorite community development corporation is the Fifth Avenue Committee, given its focus on affordable housing and job training.

Race and class divides

"A lot of folks are not honest in their conversations about development," he said. "It's been very ugly in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights.... I've watched over the last 20 years race and class divide a lot of people. What do I mean? New folks have moved into the communities and old folks have been pushed out of the communities. There are certain kinds of tensions... You have--and I believe that all of us are sisters and brothers--Whites versus people of color. Older white residents versus newer white residents. Middle-class professionals, no matter what their race, versus working-class people, no matter what their race. One neighborhood versus another neighborhood. Fort Greene Park separating people who live in Fort Greene projects versus the folks who live in the brownstones. People against Atlantic Yards versus people for Atlantic Yards."

The AY hearing

"One of the saddest displays of division that I've ever seen was at the Atlantic Yards hearing a couple of weeks back," he continued. "On one side was mostly white liberal organizers from an organization that I support, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, who are opposed to Atlantic Yards. On the other side were working-class and mostly white construction workers, and poor blacks and Latinos--they were in favor of Atlantic Yards."

"Inside the auditorium of New York Tech... tons of police there, because folks didn't know what was going to happen. People were yelling at each other, screaming at each other, cursing each other out, threatening each other," he said. "People in favor of Atlantic Yards called the ones opposed to it 'the rich people.' Some of the people, not all. Some of the people in opposition to Atlantic Yards called those in favor of it 'dumb' and 'uneducated.' Yeah, they did. It was like theater or a movie, with all the scenes planned out ahead of time."

Well, Powell surely saw some ugliness, but the July 29 hearing was nowhere near as tense and ugly as the 8/23/06 hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement or the state Senate oversight hearing this past May 29, or even the July 22 "community information session."

Commonalities?

Powell, noting that he'd risen from poverty thanks to education, said, "I've seen the world through the eyes of poor and working-class people, but I've also seen the through the eyes of someone who's a property owner and a business owner."

"So, as I was sitting there, at this Atlantic Yards hearing, it saddened me deeply, because you began to realize, if you're someone who cares about all human beings... and you really love people, and you really love Brooklyn... you don't want to see that kind of ugliness, because you realize that all these people, ultimately, are being manipulated, and only a handful of folks are really benefiting from this thing."

Well, maybe not everyone's being manipulated, but it's true that the powerful entities in the Atlantic Yards conflict--the state government and the developer--were neither testifying nor answering questions at the hearing.

The future of development

Powell wasn't about to offer a full solution to Brooklyn development, but no one else has that solution either. He did note the importance of community involvement and avoiding hearings with a pre-planned outcome.

"Developers need to understand you can make a profit while also being sensitive to history, the culture, and the character of a neighborhood," he said, citing the impact of high-rises and the removal of shopping on public housing residents in Fort Greene.

He said there needs to be real affordable housing. I think it's a joke when I hear people say that $2000 is an affordable rent." (Actually, some of the AY affordable housing would be well over $2000.)

Beyond Brownstone Brooklyn

Powell pointed out that development is needed in long-neglected neighborhoods like East New York and Brownsville and he challenged his (mostly white, mostly academic) audience: "The next time we say how much we love Brooklyn, ask yourself, how much time have you spent in neighborhoods outside the one you live in and a few neighborhoods, north, south, east, or west?... You don't have to go to a quote-unquote Third World country to see poverty."

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