Monday, January 25, 2010

The evolution of BrooklynSpeaks, now without the Municipal Art Society, to AY opposition (but the governance proposal remains)

The presence of BrooklynSpeaks constituent groups in court January 19 for the combined case challenging the Empire State Development Corporation's (ESDC) 2009 approval of Atlantic Yards was a watershed of sorts, a sign that the coalition, formed in September 2006 under a "mend it, don't end it" philosophy, had recognized the limits of that strategy.

Also, the presence of group members in the audience significantly boosted the contingent of project opponents in the courtroom.

Their willingness to go to court, as described further below, helped generate a split with the Municipal Art Society (MAS), the venerable preservation and planning organization that spawned the coalition and has advocated for AY reforms.

MAS supplied a significant part of the analysis behind BrooklynSpeaks's critique of AY (such as open space that seems private) as well as BrooklynSpeaks's quite reasonable governance proposal that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) form a subsidiary to oversee Atlantic Yards, just as subsidiaries have been formed to oversee other long-term projects, such as Battery Park City.

The 2010 version


The current BrooklynSpeaks web site, as indicated above, highlights the empty space created by demolition on the block bounded by Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and Dean and Pacific streets, space destined for a massive (and lingering) interim surface parking lot.

As with Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, BrooklynSpeaks highlights a notorious quote from project developer Bruce Ratner: "Why should people get to see plans? This isn't a public project."

The current active sponsors of BrooklynSpeaks are listed:
The Atlantic Avenue Local Development Corporation
The Boerum Hill Association
The Brooklyn Heights Association
The Center for New Urbanism (New York Chapter)
The Fifth Avenue Committee
The Park Slope Civic Council
The Pratt Area Community Council
The Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council
Tri State Transportation Campaign
Note that the Center for New Urbanism joined after the group's founding.

The 2006 version


The 2006 web site graphics, as shown above, was more eclectic, contrasting the Frank Gehry skyline, at top center, with a variety of images of Brooklyn.

The sponsors of BrooklynSpeaks at the time were those listed below; those I've italicized are no longer active:
Atlantic Avenue LDC
Boerum Hill Association
Brooklyn Heights Association
Fifth Avenue Committee
Municipal Art Society
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Park Slope Civic Council
Pratt Area Community Council
Project for Public Spaces
Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council
Scenic America
Tri-State Transportation Campaign
Two of those groups, the National Trust and Scenic America, were active specifically in expressing opposition to plans for massive signage at the project--plans that could be revived. I'm not exactly sure why Project for Public Spaces became less active. All three, however, have not been active for a while.

MAS statement

What happened with MAS? The organization has never supported litigation against Atlantic Yards and this case emerged as MAS was going through a transition in leadership. Though new president Vin Cipolla has stated that the MAS aims to be a "big voice" on certain development project, Atlantic Yards is apparently not one of them.

MAS spokeswoman Karen Crowe gave me a statement:
MAS was one of the creators of Brooklyn Speaks, and we are extremely proud of our association with the group. The Brooklyn Speaks coalition has given a powerful voice to community stakeholders concerned with the Atlantic Yards project and its impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

Without commenting on the recent SEIS lawsuit, MAS maintains the same position it had when Brooklyn Speaks was founded: we do not believe that litigation is the best way to improve the project. Because Brooklyn Speaks was so closely associated with the litigation brought by certain of its member organizations, we felt it was inappropriate to remain a member of the coalition.

Through ongoing conversations with ESDC and Forest City Ratner Companies MAS continues to advocate for implementation of the design principles we articulated, with Brooklyn Speaks, when the project was in its nascent stage. We are also continuing to work towards a governance structure that will fully engage local residents and the community.
So MAS is still in dialogue with Forest City Ratner--dialogue that would be hard to maintain if the organization were a plaintiff. It's a fundamental question of pragmatism vs. principle, as I've written, and former allies now disagree.

Philosophical change?

In one place, the BrooklynSpeaks web site seemingly accepts the AY project as a given:
Since its launch in September of 2006, the BrooklynSpeaks initiative has sought to provide the people of Brooklyn and their elected representatives a platform from which to demand change to and accountability from the Atlantic Yards project, helping to promote development at the site that works for Brooklyn and New York City.
However, a subtle shift might be read elsewhere on the site:
Since the approval of the Atlantic Yards plan by the State of New York in December of 2006, the BrooklynSpeaks sponsors have advocated for transparency by State and City government with respect to project governance, as well as for the involvement of the public in the decision-making process. We have also drawn attention to adverse environmental impacts of the plan that remain to be fully and properly addressed.

The sponsors continue to work to create a dialog among residents, Community Boards, elected officials and State and City agencies around responsible development at the Atlantic Yards site that meets Brooklyn's needs and addresses the concerns of surrounding neighborhoods, while maintaining accountability to the taxpayers of the City and the State.
Responsible development does not necessarily mean the Atlantic Yards project.

Update: a comment from BrooklynSpeaks

BrooklynSpeaks spokesman Gib Veconi adds a comment:
Although it is true that there has been change in some of the active BrooklynSpeaks sponsors, there has been no change in the sponsors’ philosophy with respect to development at Atlantic Yards, which is based on the following principles:
-Respect and integrate with surrounding neighborhoods
-Include a transportation plan that works
-Create affordable housing that meets the community’s needs
-Be truly accountable to the public

The continuing purpose of the BrooklynSpeaks initiative is to create a meaningful and constructive dialog between community and government that leads to the implementation of these principles at the Atlantic Yards site. That goal has driven all of our actions to date, including our recent suit against the ESDC and Forest City Ratner Companies.
The governance issue

Still, if the project does proceed, expect BrooklynSpeaks--likely with the cooperation of MAS--to ramp up the governance proposal, which is completely reasonable, given that Atlantic Yards is an outlier compared to other projects that are overseen by structures that have longevity and accountability.

Can the current political appointees and ESDC staffers in charge of Atlantic Yards maintain any long-term vision and local accountabillity?

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