Monday, July 11, 2011

Lack of project oversight means stalled AY governance bill should come back (this summer). What's needed? Legislators pushing harder, press attention, good government groups, organized opponents, and Ken Adams on the spot.

The plague of rats around the Atlantic Yards site, widely believed to be caused significantly by Forest City Ratner's construction work, likely can't be solved without an increased commitment from the developer.

Nor can the illegal parking problem be solved without a push to the city.

Nor can Forest City Ratner's compliance with environmental commitments be thoroughly tracked by a state agency more concerned about business than the community.

Nor can FCR be trusted to provide credible information about project oversight.

So, as I argue below, a new governance entity, however vaguely defined in pending legislation, might help tip the balance.

The problem

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) can't force Forest City to pay for more clean-up. Arana Hankin, Director, Atlantic Yards Project for the ESDC, said June 23 that a directive from the city Department of Health could set the process in motion.

In another, more glaring sign of the ESDC's awkward oversight role, on June 28, Hankin's colleague Rachel Shatz, perhaps inadvertently, declared that Forest City was out of compliance with a contractual Memorandum of Environmental Commitments because it didn't maintain an on-site community liaison.

The next day, as if to say "never mind," the agency evaded the question of compliance, insisting all was well--even as the developer told Patch it would ensure someone was on-site during working hours.

And in the most glaring sign of the ESDC's awkwardness, Hankin has proven unable to nudge police officials to enforce illegal parking.

The ESDC's mission

Yes, it was unusual for Hankin to visit two community meetings in one week. (When a new ombudsman is on the job, presumably that staffer will lead community outreach.)

But it reminds us that the ESDC, whose mission is "to promote business investment and growth that leads to job creation and prosperous communities," has little incentive to prioritize the concerns of community members.

Remember, when a Forest City executive was wiretapped saying "I don't mind fucking the [Carlton Avenue] bridge," did the state express dismay? Nope.

So, a new governance structure for the project might generate greater  responsiveness. And that depends on legislative action.

Governance bill stalls

The Atlantic Yards governance bill, which merely authorizes the Empire State Development Corporation to create a subsidiary (as opposed to the more prescriptive 2008 version), stalled again last month, after making the most progress in the past three years.

The bill:
Authorizes the Urban Development Corporation [Empire State Development Corporation] to create a subsidiary corporation for the purpose of the further planning, design, and oversight of the Atlantic Yards land use improvement and civic project.
The bill, which previously hadn't made it out of committee, passed the Democratic-majority Assembly during the waning moments of the legislative session June 24. But it never progressed in the Republican-dominated Senate.

Though State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a Brooklyn Democrat who represents the project area, did her best to influence the Senate leadership and the bill did make the priority list, the Senate had its hands full with major issues like gay marriage and rent regulation, her staffer Jim Vogel told me. 

Bill can return this summer

Proponents of the bill need not wait 'til next year.

"The bill continues its Priority listing and when the Senate returns later this summer or early fall to pass legislation related to President Obama’s health care exchange, there is no reason to expect the bill won’t be considered then," Vogel stated.

No-brainer?

This bill should be a no-brainer. It wouldn't change the fundamental balance of power regarding Atlantic Yards so much as complicate it.

And, as sponsor Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries has said, it would simply treat Atlantic Yards the way other major projects, from Battery Park City to Brooklyn Bridge Park, have been treated, by assigning an entity with some continuity to oversee the project and channel public input.

FCR opposition and sway

Forest City Ratner has lobbied, using less than credible arguments, to keep the bill bottled up.

And even if FCR didn't stop the bill in the Assembly, perhaps it delayed it sufficiently, or held sufficient sway in the Senate, which is significantly influenced by real estate money.

Remember, Bruce Ratner, whom architect Frank Gehry described as a fellow "liberal, do-gooder," donated $7500 last November to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

Five ways to change the balance of power

So the question is: how change the balance of power? It may be difficult, with a Republican-controlled Senate, but let me offer some suggestions.

1) Elected officials could spend more political capital. That means that legislators like Jeffries, Assemblyman Jim Brennan, Assemblymember Joan Millman, and state Senator Velmanatte Montgomery should make this more of a priority.

Presumably they're doing some lobbying already, but I think they could do more. For example, why not get other Brooklyn-based officials, such as New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, to endorse the bill? Remember, de Blasio has criticized the Atlantic Yards process, though not the project. Is he that influenced by developer money to say he opposes a hardly prescriptive governance bill?

2) The press could weigh in. The Brooklyn Paper has stepped back from its once-intense Atlantic Yards coverage and editorials, but the newspaper owes its readers an editorial on this issue. (Either it thinks this is a good idea, or a bad one. Tell us.) For that matter, so do the daily newspapers.

And former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, the architect of public authorities reform legislation, critic of the Yankee Stadium deal, and now a columnist for The Capitol, should lend his voice to the debate. (Brodsky was curiously quiet about Atlantic Yards, but he's no longer running for Attorney General.)

3) Atlantic Yards opponents and critics could work together. The governance bill has been led by BrooklynSpeaks, the "mend it don't end it" coalition that has moved toward a tougher take on the project, finally going to court.

Project opponents Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, essentially moribund in the past year, recently held a meeting on the UNITY plan that drew a large, energized crowd. So DDDB, even if it doesn't see its role to scrutinize a project it opposed, still has a constituency. But the DDDB web site recently has served mostly to promote the film Battle for Brooklyn.

Sure, neither group is bursting with resources or active volunteers, but there's no reason not to work together.

4) Good-government groups in the city and state could be enlisted. The Municipal Art Society, which helped organize BrooklynSpeaks but withdrew when the latter went to court, surely doesn't oppose a governance bill. Same for the Regional Plan Association, which has emphasized the importance of "city-making."

In December 2006, those groups, along with the Citizens Union, called for a delay in project approval, arguing that both the project's environmental review and its finances deserved more scrutiny. Why not also get Common Cause involved, or even New York Civic, run by Bruce Ratner's friend Henry Stern?

5) ESDC CEO Ken Adams could be put on the spot. He is said to be willing to meet with fellow Brooklynites, and could be pressed on why his agency, and the Cuomo Administration are--according to Jeffries--undecided on the issue.

In this case, such agnosticism amounts to opposition. According to Jeffries, the administration has expressed concern about the plethora of authorities in this state. That's a bogus posture. Sure, New York State has way too many empty governmental bodies; this wouldn't be one.

Jeffries told me he aimed to speak again with the administration. But Adams should defend his position in public and explain whether he agrees or not with Forest City Ratner's talking points.

Changing the dynamic

The irony is that this version of the governance bill wouldn't radically change the dynamic around the project. No citizens' council would hold sway.

But the ESDC's (partial) "capture" by Forest City Ratner would diminish, and ESDC staffers would be reminded of the public interest. After all, if such a bill were meaningless, Forest City wouldn't be opposing it so vigorously.

So maybe the obvious, pressing concerns--and others, such as whether those parking at the site should use narrow sidewalks on residential Dean Street to get to the arena--would get the attention they deserve.

A silver lining?

There even may be a silver lining for Adams, Hankin, and the Cuomo Administration at large. If a governance entity does wind up supervising Atlantic Yards, it, not they, might take the heat for future Atlantic Yards snags and problems.

As I argued last year, the Atlantic Yards story is not ovah.

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