Thursday, March 11, 2010

Daily News columnist Louis admits qualms about project benefits, still blames opponents, ignores transparency issues, supports governance entity

I admit, when I read the headline of Errol Louis's column today in the Daily News, Developer must build a bridge at Atlantic Yards, I thought that he might have tried to suss out why the Carlton Avenue Bridge, closed for an expected two years for demolition and reconstruction, would be closed for more than four years.

But no.

Rather, its Louis's big-picture reflections on the project, filled with some more qualms than before, including the cost of decking over the railyard, yet with his fundamental hostility toward those who've resisted the project, without attendant concern about issues of accountability.

Rethinking development

Louis begins:
The seven-year slog leading up to today's ribbon-cutting on the Atlantic Yards project demonstrates why New York must rethink and restructure the way it handles big land deals.

Nearly no one on either side of the debate over the planned 18,000-seat arena and 6,400 units of housing - not even the winning developer, Forest City Ratner - thinks the process was fair, balanced and rational.

There were too many lawsuits, too many unanswered questions and too many heated arguments. Worst of all, the years of bickering and delay have left behind bitterness and civic exhaustion just when we need energy, enthusiasm and public scrutiny to make Atlantic Yards a success.
Is this where Louis will reflect on the city's agreement to bypass the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and let the unelected Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) run the project, override zoning, and pursue eminent domain?

Is this where Louis will reflect on the curious role of ubiquitous consultant AKRF, which makes millions of dollars by finding evidence of "blight" in the form of graffiti, weeds, and cracked sidewalks?

No.

Eminent domain

Louis continues:
From the very start of the project, a hard-core anti-development faction embarked on a misguided ideological campaign against eminent domain, the government's power to compel landowners to sell their property - for fair market value, as specified in the U.S. Constitution - to make civic and economic development projects possible.

Every major Supreme Court case regarding the issue has affirmed the government's right to buy property through eminent domain, even if the deal ultimately benefited private interests - railroads, mining companies, landlords and nonprofit housing organizations.

Even now, you can find anti-Yards advocates - many will be protesting today's groundbreaking - calling the project "illegal" and "unconstitutional," despite dozens of state and federal court rulings to the contrary.
As I wrote way back in February 2007 in response to another Louis column, he didn't acknowledge the respectful nod by U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Levy to the substance of the case:
Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint raises serious and difficult questions regarding the exercise of eminent domain under emerging Supreme Court jurisprudence, many of which were explored in some detail at oral argument. However, in light of my recommendation that this court abstain, it would be inappropriate to address plaintiffs’ claims on the merits.
Jobs, jobs, jobs

Louis writes:
The delays caused by the fight came at a high price. More than 144,000 people were laid off in New York State last year, and it's safe to say some of those jobless would be working if the project had begun before today.
Well, it's safe to say there would be some construction jobs, as well as other jobs in the arena and housing. But that delay was an outgrowth of the strategy pursued by the developer and government, as well.

And it's hardly clear the delays came at a high price. The promised 10,000 office jobs were bogus from the start. The state and even more so the developer have distorted estimates about jobs and tax revenues.

Some qualms

Louis, usually an unmitigated AY booster, acknowledges a few qualms:
State agencies and the Ratner company haven't been blameless. We still don't know who will pay to create an expensive deck over the Vanderbilt railyards, the section of the project area where thousands of units of housing are supposed to be built.

The expected cost - as much as $200 million to $300 million by some estimates - may get picked up by Ratner, or the bill may get handed to the city or state a decade from now, long after human and institutional memories of the original deal have faded.
This cost, as far as I can tell, is separate from the new permanent railyard, but has not (as far as I know) been previously estimated. Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials have said that, should Forest City Ratner not purchase development rights, they could always sell them again.

Housing subsidies

Louis writes:
It's also unclear what kinds of housing subsidies will be assembled to fulfill promises of affordable apartments.

I recently sat through a jarring press conference at which officials abruptly announced that the city has run out of Section 8 vouchers. Other tax incentive programs have reached limits that may or may not be curable in the near future. And locating and implementing subsidy programs will be harder now because of unresolved animosity between Ratner and anti-project leaders.
Well, some of us have been warning about the lack of housing subsidies for a long time. But I don't think finding subsidies will be as big a priority as Louis thinks. The administration of Mayor Mike Bloomberg will make it a priority to steer scarce housing subsidies to this project.

Tish dissed

Louis continues:
Much of it is petty.

City Councilwoman Letitia James (D, WFP-Brooklyn), who represents the people who argued for killing the project long after its inevitability was clear, says she wasn't invited to today's groundbreaking. That is an unnecessary slap in the face. (James told me she will remain at City Hall working on budget issues during the ceremony.)
I'm not sure James would choose to attend, but it was a dis not to invite her.

As for "the people who argued for killing the project long after its inevitability was clear," should they have just sat back and let the state and the developer continue to revise the project in the latter's interest?

Doesn't Louis see any value in accountability? Did he read the judge's decision yesterday that found a "deplorable lack of transparency" on the part of the ESDC?

Supporting BrooklynSpeaks?

Louis concludes:
The best way to handle these unresolved issues - and, perhaps, start some sort of healing process - would be to create a special Atlantic Yards development district with appointees from the city, the state, community organizations and the developer.

Bit by bit, such a gathering might start to break down the deep-seated distrust that has marred what can still be a marvelous benefit for New York.
That sounds a lot like the governance structure pushed by BrooklynSpeaks. It's a bit of turn for Louis, who in December 2006 was sneering at the group.

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