Sunday, September 01, 2013

Chris Owens in 2003 warned about Atlantic Yards issues that linger: accountability, community usage, affordable tickets

Prospect Heights political activist Chris Owens wrote a letter about Atlantic Yards to the 12/22/03 Brooklyn Paper that has surprising resonance, even though many dismissed it for some seemingly unrealistic demands. I've interpolated some comments in [italics in brackets]:
Prove arena will work
To the editor:
The fact that this grand plan has now been presented to the world without any community discussion or input is an outrage and, furthermore, does nothing to convince the arena’s opponents that there is good faith at work here. It would, however, be even worse to find out that some people actually WERE “in the room” regarding this proposal and behaved as surrogates for grassroots input.
...So with all of these concerns, how can Borough President Markowitz “buy me off”? (After all, that is the name of the game here and will be for many of the players.)
[He was quite right that some were bought off with promises.]
•Prove with numbers that this project is different from the economic and cultural disasters that have taken place in other cities ... and there HAVE been disasters.
[The arena hasn't been an economic and cultural disaster, but consider how the hundreds of millions in subsidies and tax breaks might have gone, say, to keep libraries open and serve a broad cross-section of Brooklynites.]
•Create a Community Development Corporation with a representative, volunteer Board of Directors responsible for the operations of the project and the fulfillment of all obligations — including community input and involvement with meaningful planning and project performance evaluation.
[This goes to the general issue of accountability. Advocates like BrooklynSpeaks have called for a new governance entity... and are still waiting.]
•Make all of this happen with NO public money AND with New York State getting the full value for the land it surrenders.
Put those land transfer proceeds in a trust governed by the CDC and the communities impacted by this project.
[No public money might have been a stretch, since they always say it's needed for infrastructure. But why didn't the state and the city get fair market value for land they gave up? Why wasn't the value of naming rights calculated in a cost-benefit analysis?]
•Provide a community usage plan for the arena. In fact, this proposal should be considered only in the context of a greater articulated vision for all of Brooklyn. Even with all of the rhetoric, a more specific vision for the borough and this city has yet to emerge.
[This was promised as part of the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA): ten events a year, managed by CBA partner Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance. It didn't happen in the first year of operations but is supposed to happen next year.]
•Present a ticket-pricing plan for Nets games that is affordable and sustainable for all residents of Brooklyn — including for the playoffs and championship series.
[Arena boosters made a big deal out of the promised 2000 $15 Nets tickets, which were barely available. Next season the price goes up to $25.]
•Present a plan for ensuring that at least 80 percent of all employees (principals, contractor and subcontractor for construction and for operations) related to this project will be residents of Brooklyn, no less than 80 percent of the employed Brooklyn residents are people of color and that no less than 60 percent of those people of color are of African descent. No excuses.
[Such percentages likely were unrealistic to many, but consider them a starting point for bargaining. Fact is, we still don't have reliable figures on employment and contracting, because the developer never hired an Independent Compliance Monitor required by the CBA.]
•Mr. Ratner and his firm receive no compensation for their involvement with this project.
(After all, this is about Brooklyn, right?)
[This was seemingly tongue-in-cheek, but remember how sports columnist Ian O'Connor suggested that, if the arena was really about Brooklyn, they should've named it for Jackie Robinson.]
If Borough President Markowitz, Mayor Bloomberg and Bruce Ratner can create this covenant with us, then I’m willing to talk about an arena.
— Chris Owens, Prospect Heights


  1. "No public money might have been a stretch, since they always say it's needed for infrastructure."

    The expensive infrastructure at Atlantic Yards is the deck over the rail yards, but the project could have been done in ways that would have brought the city money. Battery Park City, where Amanda Burden first worked in this field, is one model, but it is very different than the model used by the Bloomberg administration.

    Mayor Bloomberg believes in public-private development partnerships. Bloomberg administration practice is to give public funds and subsidies such as greater density or low-cost land to developers, who are always from what we now call the 1%. These partnerships are done through public agencies used to avoid public input and oversight. Normal public process required by law is sidestepped, and the developer gets to avoid a lot of public scrutiny. The theory is that he is doing work that benefits the city.

    Manhattan's Battery Park City was developed by the Battery Park City Authority, which since the 1980s has paid the city $1.4 billion and continues to pay $200 million a year. BPC too had expensive infrastructure: 3 billion cubic feet of fill from the World Trade Center were used to build a 92 acre extension of the island into the Hudson River. This was all paid for with bonds.

    Norman would know better than me, but I would imagine that New York City and New York State have paid out far more than they and the MTA have taken in, or will take in. This is all justified by the argument of increased tax revenue, new housing, new affordable housing, etc.

    Atlantic Yards could have had a governmental entity or authority float bonds to build the deck, and then the authority could have lots to a variety of developers, who would build according to a plan made by the authority. From the developer's point of view, the process is quite normal: typically a New York developer buys a building lot and erects a building according to planning and zoning requirements. The process is much more cut and dry than the process at Atlantic Yards, where the Planning Commissioner's desire to have a complex designed by Frank Gehry resulted in increased density. In the end, of course, we will not have the Gehry designs, but we will still have the increased density.

  2. John, you're right that there could have been a different model... though I should point out that public money is not going to build the deck (though who knows, they may try to offload that). It was originally supposed to be just for infrastructure--streets, sewers, utilities, but of course was expanded to repay developer Forest City Ratner for land purchases.

    I'd attribute the increased density not to the role of Gehry but to Ratner's desire to make the numbers work.

  3. Norman, Look at the "iconic towers" in the East Midtown plan. The plan clearly says, If you hire a Starchitect we like will give you a LOT of extra FAR. That is how the administration works: do what the Mayor wants and the rich get richer. His advisers Amanda Burden and Vishaan Chakrabarti advise him that he wants shiny new Starchitecture. There's nothing controversial or snarky about saying that. It's simply a fact.

    Our Planning Commissioner is a big fan of Starchitecture. Her best friend and architectural adviser was Herbert Muschamps, who was the biggest New York cheerleader for Starchitecture.

    A model for this is London, where the city gives extra height to developers who hire Starchitects like Norman Foster or Renzo Piano (see The Shard, in a city which 20 years ago had short towers, only). It's an alliance between Big Finance, Big Development and Big Architecture (as opposed to urban design). Bankers, developers and architects in Shanghai, Dubai, Hong Kong, London and New York will tell you that it is what cities need to compete in the 21st century. Or in the words of Commissioner Burden, ""Design is, frankly, part of a long term strategy for New York City to compete on the global stage. Great design, innovative, challenging design, keeps a city young, and vibrant and compelling, It shows that a city importantly is open to change, entrepreneurial thinking and creative engagement. Density, diversity, tolerance and aspiration are all quintessential New York City qualities, that are translated through the language of city design, and are key to attracting city investment."

    In Bloomberg circles, London and Shanghai are the models.


    PS: If you have $2 billion in subsidies and you pay a below-market price for the land it should be pretty easy to make the numbers work, even when you have to build the deck. Steve Ross has no problem building the deck at his Hudson Yards sight. One reason for this is that he locked in a low price with the city.

  4. PS: I wasn't implying that the city or the state would pay in this case. I was saying that when the Battery Park City Authority paid for the infrastructure, it also took much of the profit, with $1.4 billion and counting going to the city.