Monday, November 25, 2013

At church meeting, a call for pressure on planned Atlantic Yards sale and new accountability

meeting yesterday at Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Clinton Hill aimed to alert community members to elected officials' efforts to put conditions on the planned sale of 70% of the remaining Atlantic Yards project. (I wasn't able to attend, but I do have some video coverage.)

One key message: Atlantic Yards is a test case for balancing community concerns and a developer's bottom line, and the developer for now is winning.

"We were promised permanent living wage jobs, and housing, and that's not what's happening right now," meeting host Gerald Marcus Harris of the Brown leadership team told the more than 100 attendees.

Michelle de La Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, explained the work of the BrooklynSpeaks initiative and said that if developer Forest City Ratner completes the sale to the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group, that means they'd be "cashing out before any of the major promises" are delivered.

"Broadly, we're talking about accountability," said Gib Veconi, who said that Atlantic Yards is unlike other public-private partnerships, because most do not have community representation on an oversight body.

Because of that, he suggested, "we've seen the deal change," from a full project buildout--he said an arena and 15 buildings (but it's actually 16) to "an arena and three buildings by 2022... from 2250 affordable apartments to just 300 by 2022." Note that latter numbers are what's required, but Forest City says it aims to build faster.

Veconi noted that Forest City promised 15,000 construction jobs, but there were "about 600 at the height of construction." (Forest City says 880 during arena construction, but all numbers are unreliable, given the developer's failure to hire the Independent Compliance Monitor promised in the Community Benefits Agreement).

Affordable housing

While there are 2,250 units of affordable housing promised, that doesn't mean 2000 families will get to stay in Brooklyn, since, of the 181 affordable units in the first tower now under construction, B2,, less than half will be affordable to people who make the average Brooklyn income (about $46,000), with only ten of them two-bedroom units suitable for families.

There will be 36 subsidized two-bedroom units but most will be available to moderate- and middle-income households.

The Greenland transaction is "a real concern, given the fact there is almost no oversight over the Atlantic Yards project... We're very concerned that... a foreign government will have more say on whether affordable housing gets built in Brooklyn than the elected officials who represent us."

So elected officials have asked that the sale not be approved until alternatives are studied, a new set of written commitments put the affordable housing on the original ten-year schedule, and oversight is reformed.

Attendees were asked to sign a petition that also appears on the BrooklynSpeaks site.
Dear Governor Cuomo:
Forest City Ratner promised the people of Brooklyn 2,250 affordable apartments at the Atlantic Yards project in exchange for hundreds of millions in public subsidies. Then it pushed back completing that housing for 25 years. Now Forest City wants to pull its money out of the project by selling a majority interest to a foreign developer.
That's an outrage to thousands of families in danger of displacement, and it's a raw deal for the taxpayers of New York State.
Brooklyn's elected officials have said the State should allow the sale only if there are new guarantees for affordable housing to be delivered when originally promised and appropriate oversight to make sure they’re enforced. I agree, and call on you to direct the Empire State Development Corporation not to let the deal move forward until those conditions are met.
I'd note that neighbors of the project want oversight for a much broader set of issues, including arena operations and project construction.

The local impact

Given the mismatch between the affordability of apartments and local impact, it's likely the project--as currently planned and scheduled--will have little impact on Community Board 8.

de la Uz explained that Area Median Income, established by the federal Department Housing and Urban Development, includes more affluent suburban counties, and AMI has continued to rise.

For example, New York AMI in 2000 was $57,000 for a family of four, but in CB 8, it was $35,000, so 60-80% of AMI would be affordable to Brooklyn residents. In 2010, New York AMI was over $70,000, but in CB8, it was $45,000. (The latter is actually a faster rise, despite what was said at the forum.)

So to truly impact the local community, "you have to go to a deeper level of affordability, 50% of AMI or below," she said. Meanwhile, CB 8 has gone from 93% African-American in 1990 to 65% in 2010.

"Why is this important?" de la Uz asked rhetorically. "For every five or ten years the project gets delayed, that means the folks that needed the housing when it was first approved are no longer around."

She noted that there's a 50% preference in a housing lottery for residents of the local community boards, but there's much more demand than supply. For 59 affordable apartments in the Atlantic Terrace building the Fifth Avenue Community sponsored, more than 5000 people applied.

Marjona Jones of the Brown Community Development Corporation reminded attendees how many attended protest rallies before the Barclays Center opened. "What happened after that? Nothing. Governor Cuomo was silent, the mayor kept talking about how great it was."

"We may need to leave because we're being priced out and pushed out," she said. "If we can't hold FCR accountable around this project, how are we supposed to hold a foreign corporation that has no investment in Brooklyn, that knows nothing about the working people in Brooklyn." Several people clapped.

"That was first time I've heard that much unity from elected officials," she said of the recent press conference, noting demands for a speedy timetable, with larger, family-friendly units, and "real affordability."

Personal concerns and the larger message

Several attendees lamented the loss of affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods, including efforts to raise rent-regulated rent via MCIs (major capital improvements).

Atlantic Yards won't solve the crisis, de la Uz acknowledged, "but it sends a signal to the development community" regarding public concerns. "If you're going to get hundreds of thousands of dollars [hundreds of millions, actually]  in direct and indirect subsidies, if you're going to get preference in terms of density, the ability to take over public streets, use eminent domain then we expect a fair exchange, and that's not what's happened here."

"Other developers are looking at how this development has been rolled out," Jones said. "We have to remain vigilant." She added that elected officials are "getting heat from the other side...we have to stand with them."

Renee Collymore, the female District Leader for the 57th Assembly District, criticized groups that signed the Community Benefits Agreement (which is not part of any state documents). "A lot of these groups are already in the pocket of the developer," she said.

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