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

Why the DOT's cars-on-the-sidewalk plan was approved, why it wasn't announced, and how safety has been improved

Yes, it really is kosher for the Department of Transportation (DOT) to approve temporary use of a sidewalk for vehicles, as it did for [updated] 12 weeks--beginning this week--on Pacific Street going east of Sixth Avenue in Prospect Heights, while utility work goes on nearby.

However, after inspecting the initial configuration of the site--perhaps in response to concerns raised online once Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn on Tuesday posted a photo of a potentially dangerous situation--the DOT took additional action to increase safety.

Indeed, as I commented Wednesday on Streetsblog, I walked by there that morning around 9 and a pedestrian--walking west, approaching Sixth Avenue--was smack in the middle of the sidewalk-turned-road, at approximately the location of the black car in the second photo. There was a uniformed traffic cop in the intersection helping steer traffic, but I didn't see (or hear) him motioning for the pedestrian to get out of the way. The pedestrian didn't look confused, but she sure wasn't aware of the change.

Changes made

DOT spokesman Scott Gastel responded on Wednesday:
We approved a plan at this location to permit two-way traffic using a portion of the sidewalk during sewer installation for approximately 12 weeks. This kind of arrangement is not unique and has been used on projects such as the Second Avenue Subway and on major projects on 34th Street in Queens or Richmond Terrace on Staten Island.

We inspected the location this morning and instructed the contractor to replace the wooden barrier with one made of concrete and to extend it in both directions while maintaining at least a five-foot-wide pedestrian walkway, and to install additional signs as was part of the original, approved plan. We will continue to monitor the area.

As the photo above shows, the pedestrian barrier now extends west to the light pole. The photo below right shows that an additional barrier has been set up at the southwest corner of Pacific Street and Sixth Avenue. (Photo above and photos below by Tracy Collins.) It's unclear, however, why the original, approved plan was not fully implemented--I haven't heard back yet from a query posed yesterday to Gastel.

Caught off-guard

However, it does seem that both DOT and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the agency in charge of the project, were caught somewhat off-guard by an unexpected change in the utility work schedule.

As announced in an ESDC Construction Update for the weeks beginning July 6 and July 13, work related to the required Maintenance and Protection of Traffic (MPT) was to commence, but the MPT, as approved by the DOT, was only to include work on Sixth Avenue, with barricades installed to isolate the Chamber 4 (sewer) work from vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and the west lane of Sixth closed between Pacific and Dean streets.

No announcement was made in the Construction Update for the weeks beginning July 20 and July 27; it was issued a week before the DOT implemented the sidewalk-as-street change.

Shift in work causes changes

ESDC spokeswoman Elizabeth Mitchell explained:
As I believe you are aware, the Maintenance and Protection of Traffic (MPT) was installed pursuant to a plan that was approved by DOT. The recent shift to this current configuration was due to a field condition encountered during the construction of Chamber 4 – during the course of this work, the contractor came across private (ConEd) utilities that were not supposed to be in the area.

As a result, they shifted to Chamber 5 work, requiring the reconfiguration of the MPT. Given the real time nature of this, there was no way for it to be reported in the Construction update. The current configuration is expected to be in place for the next 2 weeks – but, note, this is subject to how the work progresses and conditions in the field.

I asked if the traffic changes were to last 12 weeks, as the DOT message seemed to indicate.

Her reponse:
The total timeframe for the construction/installation of Chambers 4 and 5 is 12 weeks. The current configuration of the MPT is estimated to be 2 weeks. This 2 weeks is within the 12 weeks.

Mitchell added:
Furthermore, inquiries were also made directly to the DOT and they requested that there be some modifications made to make it directionally clearer to pedestrians and motorists on where they needed to go in the intersection. This included signage, stripping of the crosswalk and installing barriers/bollards that clearly separated pedestrian and motorists. This has all been done.

Better process?

Given the consternation that ensued regarding an approved but somewhat alarming situation, the Construction Updates, issued every two weeks by the ESDC but prepared by developer Forest City Ratner, obviously can't suffice in all cases.

As pre-construction work and utility work proceeds--and, especially, if arena construction proceeds--it's hardly unlikely that similar situations will occur. Perhaps the ESDC could consider an additional layer of communication, whether via press release or even (!) a project blog, to ensure that community members get information even faster. After all, there is an ombudsman in place.

Indeed, as Collins notes in photo above right, even the new configuration has its flaws, given that the pedestrians in the background didn't seem to realize they were in the traffic lane.

On the radio, Nets' Yormark continues to spin about housing, litigation, arena timing, and arena renderings

In an interview on ESPN Radio's Seth Everett Show, as No Land Grab puts it, "Newark Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi and New Jersey Nets' CEO Brett Yormark give the reality and fantasy on the state of the Nets in back-to-back interviews."

NLG suggests:
The award for best delusional Yormark line? A tie between "we're having one of the best off-seasons that we've had in years" and "I think the world of Nets basketball right now couldn't be better."

Affordable housing

Well, there are other contenders. Yormark perhaps shouldn't be expected to know the nuts and bolts of Atlantic Yards details, but, if so, the uber-salesman shouldn't be so confident as he spews inaccuracies.

"First and foremost, the driver for the project, in many respects, has been job creation and affordable housing," Yormark said. "Those two key components Bruce Ratner has never wavered on. As recently as a month ago, he reiterated, when he started the project there were 6400 units, half of would be affordable... and there would be 6400 when the project was completed, affordable and market-rate rentals."

Actually, there were supposed to be only 4500 units total at the beginning; three of the four office towers around the arena were converted to housing. Half of those unit were supposed to be affordable. The developer later added 1930 market-rate condos.

The renderings

Yormark disavowed the renderings of the Ellerbe Becket-designed arena: "I hate to use the word leaked. They were inappropriate renderings, not approved by us.... 30-45 days, you'll see some great architecture."

As noted, even if they were leaked at first, they later appeared as illustrations in the Empire State Development Corporation's revised documents.

State of the Nets

"Our fans have never wavered," Yormark asserted. "They stay committed. We're having one of the best off-seasons that we've had in years. I think the world of Nets basketball right now couldn't be better.

OK, but From NetsDaily summarized the situation:
A consensus seems to be emerging about the Nets among pundits: They’re going to be awful, maybe God awful, next season, but with a lot of good young players, they’re moving in the right direction.

Arena timing

As for the timing of the project, Yormark said, "We are very confident, as we've stated earlier, that we will break ground this fall. We plan on being in Brooklyn for the 2011-12 season. We are committed to that, and we feel very, very good about it."

"We'll be ready to break ground this fall, it's a two-year build, and we'll be in Brooklyn for the '11-'12 season," he added. "We've shown great perseverence, we're committed, and we'll get there.

Well, the Empire State Development Corporation, more circumspect, has predicted construction by end of the year, not by fall.

Yormark did confirm, as others have suggested, that the arena could be built in two years; the earlier design by Frank Gehry was to take at least two-and-a-half years.

Yormark is known for dubious statements and ever-changing predictions regarding the arena opening date.

As for whether the arena could open at the beginning of the 2011-12 season, that's very unlikely. Could the team move during the season? It's not out of the question, but it certainly would not make things simple for season ticketholders who live near the current arena in New Jersey. The distance is not far, but travel can be dicey.

Litigation scorecard

Yormark continued to repeat the canard about Forest City Ratner's alleged perfect record in court: "We're 25 and 0 in litigation."

First, many of those case involve not FCR but the Empire State Development Corporation. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the eminent domain appeal wouldn't have been put on the calendar of the state Court of Appeals in October if FCR and its allies had a perfect record.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

At lightly-attended (and sometimes raucous) public hearing, dueling electeds, some déjà vu, and a “sham process for a sham project”

In the end, the first day of the public hearing on the revised Atlantic Yards plan, though hardly uneventful, was less raucous and more lightly attended than many expected. Many, but hardly all, of the arguments recycled those at the epic public hearing held on 8/23/06.

The key new argument for opponents and critics emerged from information--or, more precisely, the lack thereof--from the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and developer Forest City Ratner (FCR).

(Photos by Tracy Collins except as two marked below.)

The absence of a site plan, arena renderings, economic projections, a solid timetable, and a meeting with the cops over security informed a series of arguments, backed by several elected officials, that the approval is premature. They called for either a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement or for the project to be scrapped.

The most telling piece of theater occurred when Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein went up to testify and, before speaking about “a sham process for a sham project,” methodically altered the landscape behind him, placing placards with question marks over the three ESDC-provided panels that offered minimal information about the project as it stands. DDDB had both local elected officials as well as several candidates for two City Council races--in districts near the project site--in its corner.

(Indeed, the New York Daily News, the only one of the three daily newspapers to cover the hearing in print, headlined its story Developer Bruce Ratner doesn't offer renderings of Atlantic Yards plan. The New York Times blog The Local, again deploying former Brooklyn Paper reporter Jess Wisloski as an unpaid "citizen journalist," headlined its coverage Atlantic Yards Hearing Attracts Politicians, though, arguably, it was equally interesting for the politicians who didn't show--such as City Council Member and Public Advocate candidate Bill de Blasio. The Brooklyn Paper's roundup coverage was headlined Atlantic antics! A week of Yards hearings did little to change things. The Brooklyn Paper also published A tale of two Yards at hearing, quoting several individuals.)

Meanwhile, project supporters, notably from the construction unions and the housing advocacy group ACORN (left), reiterated their call for jobs and housing, arguing that the economic situation made it more rather than less important to move ahead. (ACORN has been bailed out by Forest City Ratner.) Along with Borough President Marty Markowitz, the elected officials testifying (or sending representatives) supporting the project mostly came from Southern Brooklyn and other areas more distant from the site.

Calmer than meeting last week

Despite the periodic sound and fury, the event--given that no one official was supposed to answer questions--was far less enlightening than the July 22 informational meeting hosted by three community boards, where representatives of the ESDC and FCR were forced to answer or evade questions from the public. Several ESDC executives (right) were in attendance, but no board members were present.

(From left are attorneys Steve Matlin and Joe Petillo; planner Rachel Shatz; attorney Anita Laremont, in second row; and spokesman Warner Johnston.)

The Klitgord Auditorium at New York City Technical College in Downtown Brooklyn was no more than one-quarter full at peak, with perhaps 100 opponents over the course of the day and easily three times the number of proponents, mainly from the unions and ACORN, who supplied their largest contingents in the second segment of the hearing, from 6-8 pm. (The first was 2-5 pm.)

Though numerous red-shirted representatives of ACORN got up to speak in the second segment, the hearing actually ended 15 minutes early, with no one left to offer testimony.

That suggests that turnout might be light today, the second and final day of the hearing, which again will be held from 2-5 pm and 6-8 pm. (Photo taken at about 2:30 pm.)

(The ESDC, via a statement by former CEO Marisa Lago at the June 23 board meeting, also has committed to another community informational meeting in August, before the comment period concludes, but the date hasn’t been set and it’s not clear if Forest City Ratner will appear.)

Media event

Then again, yesterday was more a media event than a public hearing, given that the ostensible formal changes--a revised deal with the MTA and a delayed plan for eminent domain--are largely expected to be approved without question by the ESDC board in September. Several people signed up to testify, both pro and con, were no longer in the room when their names were finally called.

In fact, some of the big names didn’t bother to testify but instead spoke at dueling press conferences, one by opponents outside the event before it began, and one by proponents, in the auditorium hallway even while testimony continued. That made sense; their presence was more to influence the media than the ESDC.

Given concerns about behavior at the packed, epic 8/23/06 hearing as well as last week’s informational meeting, the ESDC set ostensibly strict rules, with a digital clock counting down a speaker’s allotted three minutes, with a chime announcing that they had 30 seconds left and another indicating that time was up.

Hearing officer Edward Kramer, who endured the 2006 hearing, had a light touch; he did not automatically cut off people’s microphones after three minutes but simply urged people to finish, and most complied. (He only cut off one person, at least while I was in the room.)

With numerous New York Police Department community relations officers in attendance, as well as campus security guards, the situation was mostly under control. At times, they had to remonstrate with hecklers and others arguing, but only a couple of people were ejected, notably Goldstein, who was outraged when Assemblyman Alan Maisel declared that "a small group of people should not be deciding what happens to our borough"--a slam at DDDB and its supporters but, they'd say, exactly a description of the unelected board of the ESDC. Goldstein later returned to the room.

(Last week, Forest City Ratner's MaryAnne Gilmartin set the stage by criticizing "a relentless campaign of a few to deny benefits to the many," somehow leaving out her own company. Maisel has received campaign contributions from FCR executives. More from DDDB and NLG.)

The cops also kept watch on--and, at times, quieted down-- the Forest City Ratner-organized hallway press event, less a press conference than a rally. No representatives of the developer spoke. Featured were State Senator Marty Golden, the Partnership for New York City’s Kathryn Wylde, union leaders Gary LaBarbera and Sal Zarzana, and Community Benefits Agreement signatories Bertha Lewis (of ACORN) and the Rev. Herbert Daughtry (of the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance).

Some conflict

It was certainly more calm than last Wednesday’s meeting, where chanting project supporters actually prevented questions from being asked. Yesterday, project opponents had the single rudest moment, notably as Scott Turner of Fans for Fair Play, wearing a DDDB button, bitterly dissed Borough President Marty Markowitz (right) as a “fat fucking slob of a sham.”

Then again, the project supporters probably heckled more. At one point, a group of men chanting about jobs drowned out an outdoor press interview held by Queens City Council Member Tony Avella, a project opponent and mayoral candidate.

Union officials, signing in members, used the flat surface of a police department vehicle. Nearby was a van offering sandwiches to attendees. Walking by, at one moment, I could overhear a union official patiently instructing arrivals on the protocol: cheer for people who support the project, and boo the opponents. (That does not appear on the video below.)

(Photo above and below by Jonathan Barkey; video by Adrian Kinloch)

Some rapprochement

There were some, but relatively few, moments of rapprochement. One project supporter acknowledged that the benefits had declined but the project was still worth it.

One opponent agreed that it was a shame that, as project proponents point out, there are lots of condos built in Downtown Brooklyn with no affordable housing nor union labor. (Then again, some AY opponents did protest the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, aimed at increasing office space but instead leading to a condo boom, and ACORN sat out the opportunity to comment.)

And the recent production by BrooklynSpeaks and the Municipal Art Society of a chart comparing project promises from 2006 to 2009 got respectful attention from at least some proponents. In photo at right, Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association goes over the chart with Delia Hunley-Adossa, chairperson of the AY Community Benefits Agreement coalition.

Con and pro

Among attendees, opponents included City Council member Letitia James, Assemblyman Jim Brennan, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery (at podium below, with Siegel), and a host of candidates, including Public Advocate candidate Norman Siegel, longshot Mayoral candidate Rev. Billy Talen, and several candidates for the city council seats in the area around the project--a group that, Goldstein suggested, would not have been with them five years ago.

As at the meetings last month of the ESDC and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), representatives of several groups and institutions in the Downtown Brooklyn area--notably the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Long Island University--spoke in favor of the project.

Among opponents, beyond neighborhood groups such as the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association, the major presence was the Municipal Art Society, which has updated its warning of “Atlantic Lots,” featuring indefinite interim surface parking.

Opponents’ press conference

Along with the elected officials mentioned above, 33rd District candidates Ken Baer, Ken Diamondstone, JoAnne Simon, and Evan Thies were present; so too were 39th District candidates Brad Lander, Josh Skaller, and Bob Zuckerman. Given that they had to wait their turn to speak at a fairly brief press conference, several of them seemed to be a bit impatient.

“Let us stipulate that everyone here wants good jobs and truly affordable housing,” Goldstein said, criticizing Governor David Paterson and “his puppets on the ESDC” for pursuing “a public hearing on a phantom project.” (He wore a button on his hat that read "Jobs, Housing, & UNITY," a direct riff on the Jobs, Housing, & Hoops button Forest City Ratner issued early on. The Jobs, Housing, & UNITY slogan also appeared on posters.)

(Video shot by Adrian Kinloch.)

“It’s time to put the proposed Atlantic Yards out of its misery,” James declared, asking, “Mr. Markowitz, Mr. Bloomberg, Governor Paterson, who do you serve?... The Gilded Age is over. The age of Corporate Welfare is over/”

“It’s a racist attempt to divide the community,” James said, referring to the considerable racial tension that has periodically arisen during the conflict.

“Yes,” shouted Beverly Corbin, a tenant activist from the Wyckoff Houses who’s also black.

Brennan addressed opponents as if acknowledging that he had not always been with them, which is true, since he’s more carefully criticized the project without--until recently--standing more with the opposition. “Thank you for your courage,” he declared. “You have been condemned, over and over again. You have only gotten stronger.”

He noted that the MTA deal with Forest City Ratner allows a 22-year payment schedule, which he declared--though the ESDC wouldn’t admit it--stands as the construction timetable for this project and asked, "Does anybody believe it’ll be over in 2031?" 
He predicted that ESDC would rubberstamp the project and people would continue to litigate.

Montgomery called the project a “total subversion of the economic development authority of this state.”

Faye Moore, a union leader from Fort Greene, said she represents people who will be priced out as the development “will move the working class out.” (ACORN contends the opposite.)

Author and former Congressional candidate Kevin Powell said some people thought he was brainwashed for opposing the project. “This is about greed,” he said. “We’re not going to stop until the Nets stay in New Jersey permanently."

Simon, also the 52nd District leader, recalled her testimony at the 2006 hearing and other warnings of lingering blight. “I was not looking to be prophetic, I was hoping there would be changes,” she said. “This project has not been this project for a long time.”

Siegel declared that he was not present as a candidate but “as a New Yorker and a civil rights lawyer.”

Siegel, who formerly represented DDDB and now represents a property owner resisting the use of eminent domain for the Columbia University expansion, said that New York’s processes were uniquely favorable to the state, given the lack of opportunity to challenge a taking in a trial court. “When Daniel is talking about it being a sham, he’s understating it,” Siegel said.

“In his history as a civil rights lawyer,” he observed, “I have learned, it’s good to be smart, it’s good to be right. But the most important single ingredient I have discovered is stamina—you gotta outlast the bastards.”

In testimony

Later, when testifying, Brennan pointed out that the state is ignoring evidence from the New York City Independent Budget Office that the arena is likely a money-loser for the city. Beyond that, he said, the state is “pretending that the recession does not exist;” rather, he said, the recession has killed the commercial office market and the luxury condo market. The fiscal impact statement in recent ESDC project documents, he said “is just a statement; it has no backup documents” and assumes the presence of a commercial tower that is unlikely to be built.

Later, Assemblywoman Joan Millman testified, acknowledging the difficulty some elected officials have had in taking a firm stand. “When I first testified in Octobe 2005 I recognized that the arena and the affordable housing and the union construction jobs were benefit to Brooklyn but the government subsidies, use of eminent domain. and size of proposed project was too high a price to pay,” she said.

Now, she argued, the benefits have all but disappeared. “It’s impossible for me as an elected official to be against affordable housing, to be against construction jobs that pay a living wage,” she said. “The sad irony is that if project had gone through ULURP”--the city’s land use review procedure-- “and if ESDC had respected democratic process, the project would be long along the way to completion.”

Maybe, maybe not--a lot of people still would’ve protested the arena.

Markowitz speaks

(Video shot by Jonathan Barkey)

When Borough President Markowitz spoke, a couple of people stood up and turned their backs to him in silent protest. “I would never any support any project that I didn’t believe was in the best interest of this borough today and for the years to come,” he said, reading his testimony rapidly.

He again said he was confident that the project, when completed, will serve as a model development and that current opponents will support it someday. “For more than 100 years,” the “empty” railyard has been a barrier between neighborhoods, he said, somehow ignoring that it has been a working railyard.

He again said that AY was the right project in the right place at the right time, closing to loud cheers and boos.

Electeds in support

Along with Maisel and Golden, respresentatives of Congressman Ed Towns and Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz were present, both of them mangling some facts.

The Cymbrowitz rep, quoting some old (and distorted) Forest City Ratner numbers, said that, over next 30 years, the city stands to raise over $5.6 billion in additional tax revenue. (A representative of CB Richard Ellis also used that figure.)
The Towns rep said, “If we do not act now, mounting construction costs will continue to threaten the viability of the project.” (Actually, construction costs are going down now.)

A few candidates supporting the project also were present, including 41st City Council hopeful Anthony Herbert, as noted in The Local. Also testifying was Hunley-Adossa, who’s challenging James in the 35th District but didn’t mention her candidacy while at the podium.

“Five years later, it’s long overdue that this particular project, Atlantic Yards, be built,” Hunley-Adossa said, adding “I deserve a round of applause from those who are in agreement.” Applause actually was somewhat tepid, given that the majority of project supporters had yet to arrive.

Former Assemblyman Roger Green (right), now teaching at Medgar Evers College, called developer Bruce Ratner “ a person of good will and integrity” and said that, given the current unemployment rate, especially in the housing projects in his old district (now represented by Hakeem Jeffries, who was not at the hearing yesterday).

MAS, BrooklynSpeaks on urban planning

Architect Stuart Pertz, representing MAS, said that, since the project was approved in 2006, “the project design and timeline have changed dramatically. However the information necessary to truly evaluate these changes, such as new site plan, have not been made available.”

(Video shot by Jonathan Barkey)
He said MAS calls on ESDC for a Supplemental EIS and to reconsider certain aspects of the plan. Given the apparent reorientation of arena, he said, “it makes little sense to demap Fifth Avenue,” and also Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt Avenues should be left open rather than used to create a superblock.

It is unacceptable, he said, that AY "has proceeded so long without any meaning public participation.”

Following up a bit later, Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association--and the MAS-affiliated BrooklynSpeaks, said the SEIS “must assess the risk and impact of an Atlantic Yards scenario that contains only the elements that the ESDC and MTA have created meaningful obligations for the developer to deliver.”

(Here's a slideshow from BrooklynSpeaks.)

“A snapshot of the footprint based on the developers funding commitments looks like this,” he said, showing a picture of a large parking lot on Block 1129, the southeast block, and a railyard left uncovered except for the segment below the arena.. “The consequences of this new project were not assessed in the FEIS.”

"The new modifications abandon the disclosed overarching goal and principal benefit, purpose and use of the project, which is to eliminate blight," he said. "In the meantime, the ESDC has not disclosed any credible independent feasibility analysis of the project as a whole and in its parts."

The Salvation Army

Travis Lock of the Salvation Army praised Forest City Ratner for planning to provide an intergenerational facility. “It is not here, because the Atlantic Yards project has been delayed,” he said. He said that while FCR has sponsored dozens of basketball clinics, long term benefits have not arrived because the project has been delayed.

Actually, the intergenerational center would be in Phase 2, and the timetable is very uncertain.

Turner gets tough

(Video shot by Jonathan Barkey)

Turner began by challenging those booing in the crowd, saying, “you don’t even know me.” He quipped that support from a Salvation Army representative “demonstrates how powerful Bruce Ratner is… he’s paid God off.”

“You may think, where’s the unity in this room?” he asked rhetorically, going on to argue that all parties “have been made fools of by the city, the state, and Forest City Ratner,” given unrealistic estimates about jobs and housing. “Stop dragging Brooklyn through the mud.”

“When we are doing being used by Forest City Ratner,” he said, “you won’t hear a peep out of Forest City Ratner.” He closed with his angry attack on Markowitz.

Goldstein's testimony

(Video shot by Jonathan Barkey)

When Goldstein took the stage, he put placards on top of each of the three posters: the AY site plan, the phases of planned eminent domain, and an overhead photo. His placards had headlines—AY site plan, AY cost-benefit analysis, AY affordable housing schedule--but question marks instead of images.

“I’m just doing some housecleaning,” he said leading off, ad libbing a seeming endorsement of Turner’s insult: “I disagree with Scott: Marty’s not fat any more.”

“Is there anyone who doesn’t stand to gain financially from Forest City Ratner who will come up and speak”” he asked, acknowledging that “I’m sure there’s a few.”

He touted the community-derived UNITY plan aimed at the Vanderbilt Yard. “Too many people continue to act and talk like the project is just over the railyards,” he said. “Anyone who says that is lying. If the project is just over the rail yards, we wouldn’t be here, it would be under construction.”

“It’s a farce,” he said of the hearing. “It’s a sham process for a sham project.”

Dark comedy

Author and futurist Michael Rogers, a project opponent, reflected, “If I was writing a dark comedy about the abuse of public authority and public money, it would be hard to set a scene better than this one: a public hearing about a project whose details are secret.”

Where could it be set, he mused: the old Soviet Union? China?

Security issues

Alan Rosner, who co-wrote a 2005 White Paper on security issues, said, "I am here today to thank Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for issuing a report that for the first time states the City can no longer support Atlantic Yards as specified in the Modified General Project Plan."

"This report, Engineering Security: Protective Design for High Risk Buildings, provides the ESDC with criteria and a method for determining which of the City’s endless potential targets are in the very highest risk category."

"Using those standards, both the Arena and Building 1 rank as high-risk, while the adjacent Atlantic Ave. Station has been a known target since 1997," he continued. "With three high value targets in one convenient, easy to reach location, AY will become one of the city’s highest risk targets."

"Early last year, after the DHS and the NYPD met with FCR, securitizing the arena helped push its cost up over 300 million dollars," Rosner testified. "As the Daily News writes, that is one big bottom line reason for Gehry vanishing, for FCR’s turn to value engineering, and for the ESDC being forced to issue this Modified Plan. Were it not for lawsuits hiding the fact, the security issue has already cost this project over a year’s additional effort."

Here's FCR's MaryAnne Gilmartin on why the developer hasn't yet met with the cops: designs aren't ready.

In response

Several project proponents responded to testimony from opponents. “It sounds like we heard tales from the crypt a minute ago, and we heard insults about our borough president, and that gets us nowhere,” commented Daisy Dobbins, a member of Faith in Action, the little-known CBA signatory founded as the All-Faith Council of Brooklyn.

“Let the dream come," she said. “We as a community will not only enjoy having our own sports team, but we will enjoy a wholesome community upgrade.” (Those concerned about interim surface parking might disagree.)

(Video shot by Adrian Kinloch)

The Rev. Lydia Sloley, who heads Faith in Action, gave an enthusiastic but brief speech, declaring, “I have the audacity to believe in change.”(She didn’t say her group was a CBA signatory.)

While the CBA signatories all receive funds from Forest City Ratner, Carpenters Union leader Sal Zarzana declared, “I’m not paid for by no one.” (True, though obviously the construction unions have an interest in getting work.)

“It’s amazing that after six years, a few are taking over the rights of many,” he declared, adding that, “When Bruce Ratner asks for tax money, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to give it to somebody who’s going to create tax revenue.” (There’s no accurate estimate of the latter.

“Let’s bring a sports arena here,” he said, concluding, “and let’s make some money.”

Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, testified—again, without specifics—that “This will be an economic engine of substantial value to this city.”

(Anderson is at left in the photo, with Alan Rosen of Junior's restaurant at right.)

Housing issues

The affordable housing issue got an airing—if not a particularly factual one—during the second part of the hearing. Maisha Morales, a displaced small business owner and a Fort Greene resident, acknowledged she was torn, feeling both critical of the project but noting that “my people--people of color” were supporting the project.

“The development I want is not 20% affordable housing; the development I want is 70% affordable housing,” she said, not acknowledging that Forest City Ratner’s plan is supposed to be about 35% affordable—though, of course, there are many questions about exactly to whom it would be affordable.
An ACORN member—I believe it was Debbie Tiamfook—responded by saying, not unreasonably, that 70% affordable was not practical.

“You want to know the truth,” she asked. “Ratner--Forest City Ratner was shaken down, they paid market rate for housing; nobody’s house was taken.”

She was cut off by heckling, but the issue is a lot more complicated. Actually, FCR paid more than market for some housing—but it was far less than the perceived value of the new development rights, and it was bolstered by $100 million from the city. And people sold under the threat of eminent domain.

Lewis at the mike

(Video shot by Jonathan Barkey)

Bertha Lewis, CEO and Chief Organizer of ACORN, was pugnacious, as usual, declaring the project “a national model.” “It is finally time to make this a reality. You want to know who’s gonna make sure that the housing is affordable?” she asked.

“We will. We’re not going to make sure that some politician takes care of us,” she stated. “We’re not going to stand by and try to have some agency take care of us. ACORN will take care of us.”

Her big selling point is that “every single rental unit is going to be rent-stabilized. That is unbelievable, considering what’s going on in Albany--losing affordable housing every single day.”

Except that Lewis, not unlike FCR’s MaryAnne Gilmartin on July 22, did not actually mention the potential rents.

Earlier, when I had tried to ask her during a break how much ACORN owes Forest City Ratner, she blew off the question.

Affordable housing for whom?

After Lewis spoke ACORN’s George Finley said, improbably, that the affordable housing in the contract signed with “Forest Ratner” had to be available to those earning $20,000 or less.

That’s not true. As the chart linked here shows, very few of the units--as of 2006, before the Area Median Income has gone up considerably--would go to those earning under $20,000.

A little later, Green Party member Maureen Shea offered a dash of melancholic skepticism: “What I think is so sad is so many people think they’re going to get a good job and a nice house.”

Housing feasibility

David Pechefsky, the Green Party candidate for the 39th Council District, said that, rather than repeat what’s been said about urban planning, he wanted to address the issue of financial viability.

He noted that last week, at the informational meeting, he asked about Forest City Ratner’s internal rate of return--which had not been voluntarily made public by the developer, but had come through in some documents--and FCR refused to answer.

“If this is truly a public project for the public good, it absolutely should be talked about,” said Pechefsky, a former City Council staffer. Back in 2006, he said, “I looked at the numbers on the rental buildings… What they suggested to me that the affordable housing was really unlikely to get built in the time frame of the project, unless there was going to be additional public subsidies.”

His point was never addressed by the affordable housing advocates who spoke later.

BAM and beyond

Alan Fishman, co-chair of the (city-funded, in part) Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, spoke as the chairman of board of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).

He suggested that the project could benefit BAM by bringing in more diverse crowds and more activity in the area. (He didn’t mention traffic.)

Someone heckled a piece of relevant information: “[Bruce] Ratner’s on your board.”

Later, Michael D.D. White of Noticing New York caught up with Fishman and found out that, no, the BAM board was not consulted.

In the ‘hood

Several people pointed, as some did in 2006, to what they consider the transformative potential of the project, with statements that some may have interpreted as threats.

Rasheem Allah of Central Brooklyn Housing Contractors, said, “I save lives by trying to keep these kids from killing each other in these projects. Ratner is offering us an opportunity.”

“If this thing is not getting taken care of”—a reference, seemingly, not just to Atlantic Yards but the struggles in Brooklyn for jobs—there’s going to be chaos,” he said.

“This project was supposed to go forward a long time ago,” declared Darnell Canada of ReBUILD, which places workers at construction sites.

“Community Benefit Agreement. It speaks for itself. It says Community Benefits," he said. "It’s simple to me, but it seems to be a problem, and I know people are against it, I know people are for it, but the reality is: what is the state of affairs in our country. I walk around every day with hundreds of people who are looking for jobs.”

“I’m constantly on the van looking for work,” added Kareiff McDuffie of ReBUILD, who claimed that, “under this Community Benefit program, they’re giving us 17,000 jobs.”

He added, “You want a better community--you have to give these kids a reason to kids to get off the street. I can’t tell that brother to stop robbing, I can’t tell that brother to stop selling drugs.” He went on to slam “these frivolous lawsuits.”

At one point, architect (and Park Slope Civic Council trustee) Gilly Youner, who turned her back on Markowitz when he spoke, referenced Forest City Ratner's anti-urban design for the Atlantic Center Mall, quoting Bruce Ratner as saying it was "built inside-out to keep out 'tough youth.'" (Actually, the quote was "tough kids.") Ratner, of course, has pledged to do better, and the mall went unmentioned by supporters.

Some jousting

There was some interesting jousting in the auditorium for about half an hour into the second segment of the hearing. Rev. Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Clinton Hill, an ally of Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, led about 15 men from his church into the auditorium, an effort—as he said earlier this week—to help ensure that the hearing was orderly.

One of the men with Miller got into a dispute with another man—a construction worker?—and the cops had to smooth things out for a moment.

Miller, when he spoke, warned against a “circus-like atmosphere” and said, “I’m here insofar that the process be transparent, and we engage ourselves in a civil environment.”

(Video shot by Adrian Kinloch)

While he said that his group was neither for or against the project, he warned of a pattern in which jobs and contracts don’t go to people in the area where the project is being built. He added a personal note: “I have introduced a qualified contractor to the developer only not to get a callback.”

“We will not allow people from other neighborhoods come and intimidate people from the community,” he said. “We will not allow people come in and have people disrespect our officials, especially Velmanette Montgomery, Hakeem Jeffries, and Tish James.”

Montgomery and James, of course, are project opponents, while Jeffries has been more on the fence. But Miller seemed to be saying that he was taking care of his people no matter what.

Miller added a note of clerical portent: “As I told Borough President Marty Markowitz, if the process is not right, and the process not fair, God is not going to allow it anyway.”

Comic relief, and enlightenment

Near the end of the hearing, musician Steve Espinola, who was either very philosophical or very spacey, got up and acknowledged, “I have no idea what I’m going to say. I keep changing my mind. You’re either making a circle or breaking a circle at any moment.”

He went on to acknowledge that “We’re all just animals… and we all just gotta eat.” A “Build It Now” chant emerged from the crowd.

Espinola, getting his groove, acknowledged the chant: “There’s something to be said for that. You could do it… just dismantle democracy. You can take out due process. You can turn a hearing about it into a public mockery.”

He went back to his “circle” reference, leaving many in the audience befuddled, including--as the video shows--ESDC attorneys Matlin and Petillo, having a chuckle after a very long day.

(Update: More here on Espinola's motivations.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

BrooklynSpeaks, electeds call for Supplemental EIS; DDDB plans rallies, press conferences outside hearing today

So, what should we look for at the public hearing today and tomorrow on the 2009 Atlantic Yards Modified General Project Plan (MGPP)? (The official times are 2-5 pm and 6-8 pm, at the the Klitgord Auditorium of New York City Technical College at 285 Jay Street.)

The cameras, most likely, will focus on the conflict, the signs and chants displayed by project supporters and opponents, both outside the venue--and, perhaps, inside. It would be newsworthy if disruptive people are ejected, as the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) promises.

But the news might more concern which elected officials--and candidates--show up, and what they say. There's not much to say directly about the ostensible purpose of the hearing, which concerns, among other things,the plan to pursue eminent domain in two stages rather than one and Forest City Ratner's revised deal with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the Vanderbilt Yard.

But there is a lot to say about the project, and the process.

BrooklynSpeaks: new SEIS needed

Yesterday, the BrooklynSpeaks coalition--which has taken a tougher line on AY while steering clear of litigation organized by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB)--and several elected officials called for a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) to assess the impact of changes to the phasing and design of the Atlantic Yards project. 

The electeds include Assemblymembers Jim Brennan, Hakeem Jeffries, and Joan Millman; State Senator Velmanette Montgomery; and City Council member Letitia James. Only the latter two have consistently stood with DDDB.

They expressed concern about indefinite interim surface parking, the delay in providing stormwater management measures to reduce runoff, the reduction in railyard track capacity, the possibility that delayed affordable housing would represent only a small net gain (and at a high price), and the possibility the risk that Atlantic Yards will fail to complete the decking of the rail yards.

DDDB efforts

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) promises a press conference at 1:30 pm and a protest at 2pm, then another cycle, with a press conference starting at 5:30 and a protest at 6 pm.

Scheduled for the first press conference are Faye Moore, President of Social Services Employees Union (SSEU) Local 371; City Council Member Letitia James; State Senator Velmanette Montgomery; Assemblyman Jim Brennan; and Public Advocate candidate (and former DDDB lawyer) Norman Siegel.

Scheduled for the second press conference, so far, is City Council Member Tony Avella, a longshot candidate for mayor.

It will be interesting to see how many elected officials both endorse BrooklynSpeaks's call for a Supplemental EIS and go beyond it.

Other electeds

How many pro-AY elected officials will show up, and what will they say beyond "Build It Now"? Will Borough President Marty Markowitz defend approval of a project that lacks a rendering, a site plan, and a fiscal impact analysis--and which has not been the subject of a security review by the New York Police Department?

And will Council Member Bill de Blasio, last year somewhat critical of the project, maintain his strategic silence in his quest to become Public Advocate? 

What about Council Member David Yassky, who's been somewhat critical of AY in his pursuit of the Comptroller position?

ACORN rally at 3:30 pm

Surely project supporters will rally as well. ACORN, I'm told, is recruiting supporters to come to a rally at 3:30 pm, asking them to wear red shirts. Here's the carrot: food and drink will be provided at 4 pm.

I'm sure that other Community Benefits Agreement signatories will bring groups of supporters as well.

The second day

Though the New York Times's blog The Local warned yesterday, "Prepare for two days of sound and fury over Atlantic Yards. Significance to be determined later," I suspect that the second day will be pretty quiet, at least during work hours.

Most cameras likely will be gone. Even in 2006, the community forums that followed up the public hearing were relatively calm.

A sidewalk becomes a street

Meanwhile, DDDB points to (right) something brutally weird--the temporary conversion of a Pacific Street sidewalk into a street to accommodate cars as utility work continues nearby. (Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why the rush? Because Forest City Ratner needs to save money; also, MAS produces new rendering with tower, open space

Why, as I write today, is the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) preparing to approve the Atlantic Yards plan in early September without having renderings of the arena (but having Design Guidelines), without having the New York Police Department examine security, without having an updated fiscal impact analysis (not to mention a real cost-benefit anlaysis), and without even clearing up how high the buildings would be?

Well, the timing is all driven by the needs not of the public but of developer Forest City Ratner. 

Remember, the answer by Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) CFO Gary Dellaverson, when asked in June why the MTA board had less than 48 hours to examine a revised deal for the Vanderbilt Yard.

"I think that, in terms of why must it be now in the summer versus in the fall, I think that really relates to Forest City's desire to market their bonds as a tax-exempt issuance [by a December 31 deadline]," Dellaverson replied. "If the structure... is not such that allows for the marketability of the bonds, then the financial aspect of the transaction, as it relates to arena construction expenses that Forest City Ratner would incur, become less viable and perhaps not viable. That's not something that I'm prepared to say from my own knowledge... but I would be remiss if I suggested anything other--that's the principal driver of the timing."

New MAS rendering

Meanwhile, in the absence of any official renderings, the Municipal Art Society (MAS) has produced a new rendering of the project, as shown in the New York Post, with no Building 1 office tower nor Urban Room but instead interim open space, plus one tower.

The ESDC last month acknowledged that “prolonged adverse economic conditions” could slow all buildings after the arena--scheduled for first quarter of 2012--and just one tower.

MAS also has produced a list comparing projected "public benefits" between 2006 and 2009. Keep in mind that the identity of the architects is not a public benefit--and, allegedly, Frank Gehry's master plan is still in force--and that in both 2006 and 2009 the ESDC merely "anticipated" a timetable rather than guaranteed it. The difference now is that the ESDC more readily acknowledges the potential for a delayed buildout.

After all, former ESDC CEO Marisa Lago said the project could take decades--even though it officially is supposed to take just ten years to build.

The Post quotes the head of MAS:
"The rendering reveals the dramatic differences between the new design for the Atlantic Yards arena and what was approved in 2006, and it highlights why the state must reevaluate the new project and its environmental impact," said Vin Cipolla, President of the Municipal Art Society.

No such reevaluation is planned; the main purpose of the hearing over Wednesday and Thursday is to accept comments on the revised financial terms, including a new deal with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and a delayed acquisition of the project site via eminent domain.