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Atlantic Yards down the memory hole, again; DCP official suggests the project was an example of public participation

It was a throwaway moment, almost, at Land Use and Local Voices, a conference July 21 co-sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and Manhattan Community Board 1.

But it was another example of how Atlantic Yards may be falling down the collective memory hole, and how even a top bureaucrat at the Department of City Planning doesn't understand the project, suggesting it as an example of effective public participation for some.

(Here's general coverage of the conference, from Streetsblog and Capital.)

Setting the stage

During a panel analyzing what's distinct about the city's land use process, moderator Ethel Sheffer, former president of the New York Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association, addressed panelist Sara Logan, Chair, Housing and Land Use Committee, Bronx Community Board 6, a mostly Hispanic area in the central Bronx with a significant fraction of people on public assistance.

How can people participate in the land use process, Sheffer asked, and do they feel burdened by hosting facilities that do serve a citywide purpose?

Logan lamented that "participation in our community is not as big as it in Manhattan," but added, "for those of us that do care, we are involved." She said the Community Board sought a moratorium on additional facilities for drug addicts or homeless people, as "we've had enough."

Sheffer asked Armando Carbonell, Senior Fellow and Chairman, Department of Planning and Urban Form, at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, to comment.

"I'm not aware of a city that's really figured this one out," Carbonell responded. "I think the real challenge is treating homelessness not as a problem to be contained, but in some about people who need things, and those needs need to be addressed, but it’s very difficult.
"

The segue to AY

Next up was Sandy Hornick, Deputy Director for Strategic Planning, NYC Department of City Planning, who said he had two comments. His second acknowledged the difficulty of siting such facilities.

But his first was an odd segue into Atlantic Yards.

"To tie leadership and participation together, I think in a city like New York, effective leadership inevitably means, somehow, bringing in enough of the constituencies to make that leadership effective," he said. "Let's use the example of original Mayor [Richard] Daley in Chicago: we don’t have that kind of concentrated power, and since Robert Moses, we have a conscious design not to let anybody ever get that kind of power again. We spread it out, and the only way to do it is a participatory way, that you build enough constituents that support it."

"And to just use a project that wasn’t really a [Department of] City Planning project, the Atlantic Yards project was extremely controversial-- by the way I live 1000 feet from it and did not work on it," he said.

(Actually, he lives about 1500 feet from it, by my calculation, just a little closer than I do.)

"But the people who did it--there were clearly some constituencies who chose never to participate in the process, to always oppose it," he said, "and there were other constituencies who chose to get something out of the process and may, if [it] really goes forward, may get all those commitments of affordable housing, and so on. But the nature of our process requires participation.
"

What did he say?

Let me try to analyze Hornick's off-the-cuff and not very considered comments.

There were clearly some constituencies who chose never to participate in the process, to always oppose it

What process does he mean? The city's land use process was bypassed. Those who opposed and criticized the project participated very much in the Empire State Development Corporation's (ESDC) review of the project. They filed numerous comments, which were both responded to and ignored.

In fact, they participated in the official process more than did project supporters. The latter simply cheered for the project as it stood, or mutated. The former tried to analyze the impacts.

(As I wrote 9/19/06, the final community forum crystallized into farce, when a job-seeking single mother asked opponents in the audience, “Why are you talking about the environment?” The Sierra Club's Timothy Logan responded, "Because it’s an environmental impact hearing.")

there were other constituencies who chose to get something out of the process

Those constituencies got something out of a process, but it wasn't the process, because the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) resulted from a private agreement between Forest City Ratner and several community groups, most with no track record. That private agreement was concluded before the official ESDC process began, and it was used to justify an override of zoning for the developer.

At a later panel during the July 21 conference, CBAs were roundly criticized.

may get all those commitments of affordable housing

Well, the individuals who supported the affordable housing are, statistically speaking, unlikely to gain access to it, given that a relatively small amount of housing--perhaps half of the subsidized units--that would be affordable to the constituency of ACORN, and housing will be distributed by lottery. (ACORN, of course, would gain institutionally from managing the housing, or the selection process.)

The affordable housing is less a commitment by the developer than a claim on (perhaps) scarce public subsidies to build it.

But the nature of our process requires participation.


OK, but Atlantic Yards wasn't our city process, so there was no opportunity for even truncated participation under the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

So the three affected Community Boards, which would have had an advisory role under ULURP, were ignored, despite expressions of opposition and concern.

The problem: a fait accompli

I think Hornick's example ran aground when he brought up Daley and Moses. The ESDC process may be closer to that of Daley and Moses than it is to the city process. (Remember, planner Alexander Garvin wrote that the Urban Development Corporation, the ESDC's official identity had "truly amazing powers" when it was approved in 1968.)

Introducing his example, Hornick said:

We spread it out, and the only way to do it is a participatory way, that you build enough constituents that support it.

That's exactly what didn't happen with Atlantic Yards.

It was a done deal from the start. Remember Chris Smith's August 2006 cover story in New York magazine:
Every time I begin to buy into the lyrical people-have-the-power rhetoric of the opposition, to fantasize that Goldstein’s impending eminent-domain lawsuit has a prayer of succeeding, or to get revved up about the density trivia, someone smacks me back into reality. Most recently, it was a prominent Democrat. “In some cases, an army of Davids could take down Goliath,” he said. “But not this one. It’s a fait accompli.”

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