Monday, June 13, 2011

Legislators: one week left to get the state Legislature to pass a bill establishing a subsdiary to oversee Atlantic Yards

It seems like an obvious argument: Atlantic Yards, as a massive development project, deserves a subsidiary or authority overseeing it long-term, just as other major projects, from Battery Park City to Brooklyn Bridge Park, have their own governance entities, helping evaluate the terms of the project and revising the schedule and plans as necessary.

And the bill, in its current form, is hardly prescriptive, giving community members a fractional voice but not definitive power, as the subsidiary would be appointed by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC).

That argument, however, has gained relatively little traction in Albany over the last few years, as Forest City Ratner lobbying, which includes a close relationship with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and consistent Atlantic Yards support from governors, has managed to stymie any progress.

With barely a week left in the legislative session, this year the governance bill has a greater chance than before, elected officials said at a forum Saturday sponsored by BrooklynSpeaks. (Photos of the event, which drew some 60 people, by Tracy Collins.) That doesn't mean it's likely, but the bill has passed two Assembly committees, one more than previously, which gives it a fighting chance in the Assembly.

Beyond that, the dynamic surrounding the project--recognition that promised benefits are far off, and Forest City Ratner's entanglement (though not indictment) in a prominent corruption case--has changed somewhat.

BrooklynSpeaks leaders, who handed out letters to be filled out at the meeting to be sent to Albany, urged further phone calls and lobbying. (Letters can be sent from here.)

(There are two more AY-related meetings this week, an official forum on traffic June 14 and another on the UNITY plan June 15.)

The background

At the beginning of the meeting, held in an unfinished ground floor space at the Atlantic Terrace development catercorner to the arena site on Atlantic Avenue, BrooklynSpeaks representatives went through their analysis of the promised benefits and more realistic results. The amount of jobs, housing, and open space would be far less than promised, and delivered over a much longer period.

Moreover, traffic mitigation plans--to be discussed in part at a meeting tomorrow at Borough Hall--remain unfinished.

"Right now the world revolves around Forest City Ratner," commented 52nd District Female Leader Jo Anne Simon, noting how the cast of characters in the Atlantic Yards saga--notably governors and their appointees as ESDC leaders--has changed steadily since the project was announced in 2003.

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a critic of the ESDC but somewhat of a fence-sitter on the project as a whole, said, "It's been a nightmare getting ESDC, given all the dynamics, all thechanges, to get them to focus on this project as a public private partnership... because that in reality is what this project should be about."

It would not be possible without substantial public subsidies, a bypass of the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), and "permitting the developer to use coercive power of eminent domain," he said. (Actually, the ESDC uses it on behalf of Forest City Ratner.)

ESDC, he said, "in many ways simply ceded its authority to the developer," allowing no substantial input for a project that we're going to have live with for 20-25 years."

The arena is not the end of the process but "the end of the beginning," he said. (Patch got that quote slightly wrong.) So, if the project might overwhelm the community for 20-plus years, a subsidiary structure is necessary.

The process

"Every major project has a subsidiary entity; why in the world is the Prospect Heights /Central Brooklyn community being treated differently?" Jeffries said he last year asked the former governor, David Paterson, and former ESDC head Dennis Mullen. "They couldn't answer the question."

Actually, they brought up the Columbia University expansion, he said, but that went through ULURP. "We weren't allowed to go through the ULURP process, because our mayor was in bed with Forest City Ratner," he said. "I'm just telling it like it is."

The dynamics

The bill this year passed the Corporations Committee, now chaired by Brooklyn Assemblyman Jim Brennan, and then Ways and Means "over objection of the developer," Jeffries said.

Now, in the final step before the floor, it's before the Rules Committee, chaired by Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Forest City Ratner. Jeffries said he, Brennan, and Assemblywoman Joan Millman planned to lobby Silver to get the bill to the floor, arguing that substantial public support requires public representations.

"They're objecting quietly, but they might as well come out in the open," Jeffries said.

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery left the impression that the bill would face a tougher path in the Republican-controlled Senate. "I am sorry we were not able to pass it last year, we were in the majority, but for various reasons, political and otherwise, we were not able to pass it."

"We have asked our leadership, on the Democratic side, and written to Majority Leader [Dean] Skelos, and ask that it been on the priority list," she said. Democratic leader John Sampson, it should be pointed out, has had a fundraiser at Forest City Ratner offices. "We're hopeful that it gets out of Rules in both houses."

Montgomery said she'd "appreciate having a lot of mail going to" Sampson, "because we are dealing with an environment where money trumps almost everything... It is only the voters who are going to be able to match the leverage."

Brennan, who said BrooklynSpeaks "has done a spectacular job of advancing the cause of reforming this project," pointed out how the long "mend it not end it"group differed from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), which litigated against the project, but has now drawn closer, as co-plaintiffs on a pending case.

That case challenges the legitimacy of the official ten-year project timeline, given contractual language that allows 25 years, and the failure to do a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

"The ESDC has been the agent of Ratner during this entire time," Brennan said. "A number of people from the neighborhood"--actually Council Member Letitia James and some DDDB activists--"finally got a meeting with Paterson about the project in December 2009." And while Paterson promised a full review of the project, instead the ESDC proceeded to ease the sale of the arena bonds.

"The whole idea that another 15 years isn't going to affect us is crazy," said Gib Veconi of BrooklynSpeaks, pointing to the new Atlantic Yards Watch web site that is tracking construction impacts.

Adams and Cuomo on the fence

So what do current ESDC CEO Kenneth Adams and Governor Andrew Cuomo, respectively an AY supporter and a receiver of Forest City Ratner campaign contributions, think?

Jeffries said he'd talked with both Adams and a Cuomo deputy, who neither oppose nor support the bill. They've expressed concern that the state has experienced a proliferation of useless subsidiaries, "which is a fact," Jeffries said. "But in this particular instance, our argument is that it's completely justified."

In other words, the Adams/Cuomo position is a dodge.

Adams to Brooklyn?

Montgomery also indicated that Adams a Brooklynite, has agreed to visit the area and speak publicly sometime "down the road."

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