Tuesday, January 04, 2011

What's next in 2011? Accountability issues, timetable questions, and a reconfigured community response, with BrooklynSpeaks rising, DDDB receding

In my 2010 preview a year ago, I suggested it would be the year of "the final endgame and, likely, a very changed landscape." In the main, that was accurate, as described last week: "definitive progress on arena, Prokhorov emergence, Chinese investors (!), same questions of accountability."

No one could have predicted the astonishing effort to market an investment in the Brooklyn Arena and Infrastructure Project to Chinese (and Korean) investors seeking green cards.

And no one would have bet that a state judge, Supreme Court Justice Marcy Friedman, would hand Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) and allied groups--and BrooklynSpeaks and allies in their first lawsuit--a long-awaited partial victory in court, ruling that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), in "what appears to be yet another failure of transparency," had failed to study the impacts of a 25-year buildout.

What next? The ESDC quickly provided such a study, deeming the impacts unimportant--which may be enough to make it pass the low legal bar, though not sufficient to convince locals that a surface parking lot lasting decades is not a meaningful change.

The legal process may continue for months, though it's highly unlikely Friedman will stop arena construction and unlikely--though more up in the air--whether she'll require any more action regarding Phase 2, involving an indefinite interim surface parking lot and other neighborhood impacts.

Contours of change

It remains to be seen whether the ESDC, under new Governor Andrew Cuomo, will take Atlantic Yards oversight more seriously, and whether any governance entity might emerge. Cuomo hasn't given any signals that he understands Atlantic Yards, and donor Bruce Ratner and some Ratner lobbyists surely have his ear.

It's likely that the center of gravity for citizen activism will shift away from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), which tried mightily to stop Atlantic Yards and highlight the bypass of democracy, to BrooklynSpeaks and cluster of groups more concerned with oversight issues and monitoring of construction impacts.

What little public process that remains includes the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet, which gathers representatives of all affected agencies as well as governmental and community board stakeholders.

It began meeting in November, and is slated to meet quarterly. Such meetings, while open to the public, are held during business hours, and questions must be submitted beforehand (updated) to elected officials, Community Boards, or the Borough President's office.

One sign from the first meeting: the somewhat awkward position of City Council Member Letitia James, who while remaining an opponent of the project also must represent constituents who want to know if the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) is being implemented.

Perhaps she'll ask about the long-awaited Independent Compliance Monitor over the Community Benefits Agreement, which Forest City Ratner has failed to implement.

No elected official, however, has seen it fruitful to keep pounding on Atlantic Yards issues. Otherwise someone might have denounced Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz for his astounding and dishonest claim that "Brooklyn is 1000 percent behind Atlantic Yards."

Timetable issues

The Atlantic Yards timetable has always been a question mark. Remember, when the project was announced in 2003, the arena was supposed to open in 2006! Officially, Phase 1 is supposed to take four years and the entire project a decade, but no one--not even FCR or the ESDC--believes that.

We should know within six months whether the Barclays Center arena is on time for a summer/fall 2012 opening or whether it will be nudged back. (We also should know within the year whether the much-buzzed team name change will be anything more than the likely "Brooklyn Nets.")

Also, the plan for the first tower, Building 2, was supposed to be announced last year, but that was delayed. Expect an announcement this year, as well as a relaunched Atlantic Yards web site promoting the project.

Will Forest City Ratner's new web site give an honest schedule for the project? Unlikely.

According to the Development Agreement suspiciously kept under wraps until after a crucial court hearing last January before Friedman, FCR has three/five/ten years to start each of three towers and 12 years to build a minimum square footage for the first phase, and 25 years for the project as a whole. Even those deadlines, with minimal penalties outside delays in the first three buildings, can be pushed back if subsidies aren't available.

And expect a push to sell Nets tickets and suites, and further evidence of Forest City Ratner/Barclays strategic philanthropy.

Also, we should learn whether Forest City Ratner's immigrant investor fundraising is successful--though, if so, it will take seven years to find out if immigrant investors wind up with development rights to part of the project.

Given the recent focus on abuses in the immigrant investor program, it's possible that the federal government, long laissez-faire, will take a look at the deceptive marketing of this and other programs.

Community response: DDDB

As Atlantic Yards proceeds, however fitfully, who will maintain accountability? Expect, at minimum, a reconfiguring.

DDDB, after five annual fall walkathons, did not hold a sixth this past October. Indeed, after organizing a major protest at the groundbreaking last March and the departure from the footprint of spokesman and symbol Daniel Goldstein (after he lost his apartment to the ESDC and settled under pressure), DDDB has not held any public events and sent out only a few newsletters.

Like many others, DDDB seemed surprised by Friedman's decision in November, using it as an opportunity to send out another fundraising message.

But DDDB's role is ambiguous. In response to my questions, I got a statement from legal chair Candace Carponter. "Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn looks forward to the coming year—its seventh year of community activism. As we move forward, our leadership team and our board of directors remain active and watchful."

"Clearly the environment now is very different than that of 2003, even though in 2010 we came very close to defeating Bruce Ratner's corrupt land grab entirely, but for his 11th hour bailout by a Russian oligarch and a misguided legal ruling by the state's highest court," she added. "Though during the past year we did not achieve the results we all have worked so hard towards, we are proud of our work and are certain that we are on the right side of history."

"The arena is under construction, but the rest of the project is a big unknown—there is not even a design yet for it," she said. "We don't expect Ratner to fulfill any of his promises and, unfortunately, things are panning out very much as we predicted years ago, and as we warned our elected officials about over and over."

What next?

Though Carponter said DDDB's web site will continue and "[we] fully expect to be able to meet our financial commitments," her statement suggested that DDDB is ready to pass the torch: "We commend and support BrooklynSpeaks' efforts to set up meaningful, legislatively mandated oversight of the project, an effort they undertook from their inception. However, oversight of a project that should never materialize is not within DDDB's mission."

Briefs are due in two weeks in the case before Friedman, and Carponter left open DDDB's role: "Currently there are some outstanding legal issues for which we are considering our options. We are certain that the community will pursue these options, whether by our lead, or BrooklynSpeaks, or in conjunction."

The Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, generally allied with DDDB, has also been quiet, though it may resurrect its role. (I didn't check directly with them.)

DDDB poised to return?

However, DDDB apparently will remain poised to respond if and when things go too far. "In the coming months and years, if anything at the Atlantic Yards site takes place that appears to violate the law, if Ratner's attempt to construct the arena falters, or if Forest City Ratner attempts to extract yet more Atlantic Yards subsidies to enrich itself, we will be at the ready to pursue legal and political rectification," Carponter said.

"In other words—we will be actively vigilant about what transpires, and take all steps that we and our members deem appropriate," she said. "In the meantime, the many members of DDDB who are and have become passionate defenders of their communities will continue to speak out against additional governmental subsidies for the Atlantic Yards boondoggle, and the continued abuses of our neighborhoods by Ratner and other developers who seek to remake our city in their own myopic vision."

BrooklynSpeaks steps up

BrooklynSpeaks, formed with the Municipal Art Society (MAS) and several more moderate Brooklyn and civic groups, lost the MAS after it went to court, and, seeing its negotiation strategy come to little, has taken a tougher stance.

"In 2011, BrooklynSpeaks will continue to press for reform of Atlantic Yards governance, and advocate for changes to the project that reduce its environmental impacts and accelerate its public benefits," said BrooklynSpeaks' Gib Veconi. "The last three Governors of New York State have permitted, if not directed, the Empire State Development Corporation to provide the appearance of a public process around Atlantic Yards, while acting to advance the interests of a private developer over the interests of the people of Brooklyn and New York."

"It is too early to tell whether Governor Cuomo will bring accountability to Atlantic Yards, but it’s clear from the response to our public outreach in December there are many, many Brooklynites who remain deeply concerned about the future of the project and demand reform," he added. "The BrooklynSpeaks sponsors intend to make these voices heard through all means available, including political awareness, legislation and litigation if necessary."

In pursuing the lawsuit before Friedman, BrooklynSpeaks marked a move from its longstanding "mend it, don't end it" posture.

BrooklynSpeaks has remained active in pushing for a governance entity over the project, and maintains ties with local elected officials who might help make it happen.

BrooklynSpeaks allies

Groups allied with BrooklynSpeaks, including the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC) and the Dean Street Block Association, also should remain active in monitoring issues of construction, as their members live close to the site and bear the brunt of routine stresses and anything going wrong.

"Along with the other BrooklynSpeaks sponsors, the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council will continue to press our new Governor for genuinely transparent and accountable governance of the Atlantic Yards Project," said the PHNDC's Danae Oratowski.

"PHNDC remains extremely concerned about the impact of Atlantic Yards on Prospect Heights and the other communities that surround the project," she added. "Of special concern are the impacts on the many residents who live in the immediate vicinity of Project construction and the soon-to-be-built surface parking lot, both of which could last for as much as 25 years. Those residents are already experiencing disruptions from construction, rodents, traffic changes and developer-created blight."

What next? "We will continue to press the ESDC to protect the public and address these impacts," she said. "As part of this effort, and as a way to document changes to the Project generally, PHNDC and other community groups are organizing local residents to monitor the site."

Dean Street Block Association

Dean Street resident Peter Krashes, speaking for the Dean Street Block Association, 6th to Vanderbilt, observed, "The arena may be moving forward, but the many unresolved issues that have made Atlantic Yards controversial continue. Many of the project goals outlined to the public that are deeply relevant to our community -- the elimination of designated blight, the connecting of neighborhoods, the creation of eight acres of open space, the replacement and development of affordable housing -- already appear to have fallen by the way-side, or at minimum appear to be long delayed."

"The members of our block association are primarily residents who live in an area all stakeholders of the project agree will be significantly adversely affected due to the project’s implementation, operation and construction," he added. "When it comes to Atlantic Yards, FCRC and the ESDC have long eluded accountability and transparency. Nothing is more critical than ensuring that in challenging circumstances, FCRC and ESDC become accountable both to the public at large and the specific communities that depend on the outcome of the project."

What next? "Our block association will continue to identify and advocate for opportunities to improve the project when they arise," he said. "We will also not stop working to ensure the many adverse impacts on our community members are mitigated meaningfully, that hard to come by information is disseminated where it needs to be heard, and that all stakeholders’ voices are weighed fairly and reasonably.

The media and the blogosphere

Atlantic Yards is still a big story, but most media organizations are tired of it. Witness the general indifference to the Chinese visa story and even Markowitz's astounding claim.

The Brooklyn Paper, once aggressively covering Atlantic Yards, has stepped back since its 2009 purchase by Rupert Murdoch. It and its former competitor and now sister paper, the Courier-Life chain, now publish mostly the same articles.

One uptick in coverage has emerged from the new Prospect Heights Patch, part of the chain of Patch hyperlocal web sites, owned by AOL, but it's too soon to see whether it will have the institutional knowledge to probe.

Last year I wondered if No Land Grab would remain as a daily compiler (and commenter on) all things Atlantic Yards and it did, with Eric McClure shouldering most of the work. However, just as DDDB has receded, I wouldn't be surprised if NLG, too, steps back somewhat.

Last year, I wrote that the pace of Atlantic Yards Report would slow if news drops off, but it didn't slow very much. Such a drop-off could happen this year, as I focus on an Atlantic Yards book, but I'm not leaving.

Toward history

After all, the story won't go away. As the civic watchdog Henry Stern, dismayingly (and selectively) silent on Atlantic Yards, observed last September:
"The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
That steals the common from the goose."
Stern asked for "guardians of the public interest" to speak out on the issue of 15 Penn Plaza. There are too few such guardians, I wrote, and some of them are timid or compromised.

Atlantic Yards, at the least, will continue its march into history. The Battle of Brooklyn documentary should be finished this year, likely provoking further discussion of Atlantic Yards--at least, if the pattern from the play In the Footprint continues, on the Arts pages.

And, given the last seven years, I wouldn't be surprised if there's a new Atlantic Yards twist that no one has expected. Atlantic Yards, as I've said, is a "never say never" project.

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