Thursday, April 29, 2010

Urbanism, authenticity, and the suburban lives of several people running Atlantic Yards (AKA a "major zoning exception")

Atlantic Yards may be a public-private project, according to the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), but developer Bruce Ratner famously said, "This isn't a public project."

That means the single most influential person regarding Brooklyn's biggest project is Forest City Ratner Executive VP MaryAnne Gilmartin, who lives in the Westchester suburb of Edgemont.

As depicted in a cropped Google satellite photo, her home looks more like an estate than a house. Would Gilmartin lie to maintain her privileged lifestyle?

On authenticity

Why make a big deal of the contested term authenticity? Well, it's prompted new discussion, thanks to Sharon Zukin's book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places.

And some of those overseeing Atlantic Yards have taken pains to establish their (somewhat tenuous) Brooklyn bona fides; remember how former Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) CEO Marisa Lago testified she'd gone to the dentist at the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building and claimed to enjoy bicycling in Brooklyn?

Or how Metropolitan Transportation Authority Acting Executive Director Helena Williams reminded the audience at an oversight hearing that the Long Island Rail Road was born in Brooklyn?

Why it matters

Now consider how so many people running the project live a good distance from Brooklyn, in fact and in spirit: Edgemont, NY; Mountainside, NJ; Montclair, NJ; Hastings-on-Hudson, NY.

Sure, there's no requirement that the people working on a project like Atlantic Yards live nearby, or even in the same city or state.

Still, when a project bypasses intermediate institutions like the elected City Council and the appointed (but local) community boards, it's notable how much responsibility has been thrust on unelected officials and private businesspeople who have little affinity for Brooklyn.

Density issues

Jim Stuckey, Forest City Ratner's point man through the stages of project approval (until his mysterious departure), famously described those protesting the mega-development as “some people who live close in not liking tall buildings.”

"If you can’t put density in at major mass transportation, where would you put it?" Stuckey said, not unreasonably, at another juncture.

But, as I pointed out, the issue's more complicated, and the project density is driven by the developer rather than a public process. I quoted urbanist Roberta Brandes Gratz, who, in her book The Living City, wrote:
Density comes when many people are in the same place doing things that gain strength from their interaction; congestion results when there are so many of them that interaction becomes difficult, access in and out unpleasant, and frustration high.
Far from density

Some people working on Atlantic Yards, such as Executive VP Darren Bloch of the ESDC, President Seth Pinsky of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and Forest City Ratner executive Jane Marshall live in Brooklyn.

Still, as we've seen from the example of Forest City Ratner executive Bob Sanna, fighting an out-of-scale building in his hometown of Millburn, NJ, with deceptive claims, consistency helps. (His house and neighborhood are pictured at right.)

According to a recent report, "Sanna, a trustee of the Concerned Neighborhood Association... hand[ed] out buttons: 'Stop Major Zoning Exceptions.'"

What is Atlantic Yards if not a "Major Zoning Exception"?

Welcome to the neighborhood

The photos below show the neighborhoods--as far as I could determine, from public records--of the aforementioned Bloch, FCR's Gilmartin, ESDC Senior Counsel Steve Matlin, ESDC Director of Planning and Environmental Review Rachel Shatz, and ESDC outside counsel Philip Karmel.

(I've left out the addresses and street names in the interest of privacy and I've subjected myself to the same treatment. I also chose not to hone in any closer on the neighborhoods.)

How were the people picked? They were the panelists (l.-r.), with one exception, chosen to answer public questions at the infamous 7/22/09 informational meeting on Atlantic Yards.

(Karmel was not on the panel, but I'm substituting him for ESDC Counsel Joe Petillo, at far right, who lives in New Jersey but whose location I couldn't determine.)

What might the people who live in the neighborhoods below do when faced with a "Major Zoning Exception," especially one achieved via a process that excluded their elected representatives?

Well, we know what Gilmartin's colleague Sanna did.

Darren Bloch in Brooklyn


MaryAnne Gilmartin in Edgemont, NY


Steve Matlin in Mountainside, NJ


Rachel Shatz in Montclair, NJ


Philip Karmel in Hastings-on-Hudson


My neighborhood in Brooklyn


Freddy's Bar, the AY arena block (after demolitions), and beyond

2 comments:

  1. I remember talking with Jane Marshall back in 2004. I had called her to try to get an idea of what the timing was on the project.

    We spoke for a while and as far as the resistance I was expressing to the use of eminent domain on my home, she said, "If I were in your position I'd be doing the same thing."

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  2. i love this visual post. this could be a very interesting art/installation piece: maps of atlantic yards player's neighborhoods, coupled with basic data: residents per sq mile, median income, distance from atlantic yards site, race/ethnicity, etc. hmmm.... any volunteers?

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