Sunday, June 10, 2012

A protest today about accountability, and the need for oversight when public-private projects have a significant private upside

Today's Atlantic Yards protest is about the failure to deliver on promises, but ultimately about accountability, the fundamental issue regarding Atlantic Yards.

At the same time, endless process and too much public input, as Atlantic Yards backers argue in opposing a Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement, cause further delays and continued litigation.

So, how to balance democracy, accountability, and progress?

The NIMBY crowd

That question was raised in Brooklynite Will Doig's 5/26/12 Salon column When the 1 percent say no: Cities need public transit and affordable housing. But outdated laws make it easy for the wealthy to block progress:

For years, Beverly Hills has been trying to derail the planned alignment of the West Side Subway Extension, saying it would be safer to run it beneath Santa Monica Boulevard (though their own study indicates otherwise). The threat of lawsuits and endless public hearings have delayed the project but not killed it; now opponents have released a video claiming that the subway could ignite pockets of methane gas and blow the school to bits....
You could make an equally scary video about the dangers of NIMBYism, which has essentially become an official part of the urban planning process in many cities. From bike lanes in Brooklyn to desperately needed housing in D.C., public micromanagement has become such a problem that several cities are now trying to rein in the Not-In-My-Backyard crowd. “The current process does not work for anyone,” one urban design expert told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We want the Planning Commission to focus on big planning issues, not micro-design issues.”
I mostly agree with Doig, but question his tone: are "the anti-development gadflies who have time to go to years of public hearings" really worse for the public interest than the lawyers and public relations professionals paid big bucks to attend them--at least when the hearings concern projects that might be better described as private-public?

And one of the reasons people get alarmed about projects like Atlantic Yards is that city and state planners never contemplated plans for the potentially valuable Vanderbilt Yard and adjacent property. Also, two courts have essentially said that Empire State Development Corporation mislead the public in failing to study a project that could last 25 years.

Status quo bias

Doig makes a very interesting point about "status quo bias," defined as "an irrational desire for things to stay exactly as they are, even when change would be beneficial," as people mistakenly think their neighborhood is at an optimum state and also overestimate "the potentially unpleasant period during which the change is taking place."

"A perfect example of this is old transit systems," Doig writes, pointing out that the transit system not only serves to move people around the city but ultimately fights climate change.

The real questions, he suggests, quoting planner Rob Goodspeed, is this: “‘Should the subway happen or not?’ is not the right question. The question is, if it disrupts their lives and is dangerous for them, how can we mitigate that?”

And that, curiously enough, sounds like the environmental review process in New York, and for Atlantic Yards: the question was never whether the impacts would stop the project, it was how they could be mitigated, with the recognition that some could not.

Maybe that's fine, at least for a subway, or another public project.

Public-private/private-public partnerships

But not every project is as clearly in the public interest and, I'd suggest, the less it's in the public interest, the more the role for civic oversight and pesky process.

That's not my original idea; I'm drawing on a paper academics Lynne Sagalyn and Martin Gold wrote last year (my coverage) how to evaluate blight.

Their paper describes a hierarchy of seven levels of uses, from pure public use to pure private use. At the top is pure public use, including such thing as transportation, airports, and sewer systems. At the next level are facilities operated by private companies, such as transportation facilities and private prisons.

Moving down the hierarchy, the public versus private benefit ratio will decrease. Some projects have both large public and large private benefits, and some have small amounts of each. The issue, to the authors, is not the absolute amount but the ratio.

Consider the case of Atlantic Yards: the promised 2,250 units of "affordable housing" have always been seen as a benefit, but have rarely been contextualized in terms of public and private benefits; after all, Forest City Ratner will draw on a yet-unspecified amount of public subsidies, and has steadily tried to cut costs with contemplated modular construction.

Further bollixing up any attempt to evaluate public/private benefit, FCR CEO Bruce Ratner last year said, astoundingly, that existing incentives--the ones presumed by the state when it approved the project--don't work for high-rise, union-built projects.

In looking at eminent domain, the authors suggested that the highest level included projects in which the initiating entity is the government and the public sector has developed a careful plan--factors not present with Atlantic Yards.

Those at the bottom of the hierarchy deserve the most scrutiny, and thus a closer examination of blight findings. The authors mention Atlantic Yards as falling somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy and criticize some of the definitions used in the AY eminent domain case, notably underutilization.

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