Monday, May 05, 2014

Goldstein on the divide at the hearing: "to call us opponents as if we are still trying to kill or stall the project is simply a misnomer"

For those who remember how Atlantic Yards supporters would change "Build It Now" at rallies and hearings before the project received its official approval, the dynamic at the public hearing last Wednesday was curious.

Supporters, professedly eager to see Atlantic Yards get built, stressed the importance of a free hand for Forest City Ratner and, implicitly, its not-quite-formalized partner in a new joint venture, the Greenland Group.

Such a free hand would remove any specter of litigation over Phase 2, the subject of the hearing on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Draft SEIS). But there's no litigation now, nor any possible litigation concerning the five towers in Phase 1, on the arena block and Site 5 (now home to P.C. Richard and Modell's). Forest City has always been able to build.

Several people long associated with opposition toward or criticism of the project, however, urged that Atlantic Yards be built quickly, essentially recognizing they've lost the fight not only against the project itself, but also the issue of scale. But they don't want the land fallow, and they want to see the promises kept.

In some ways, that's an ominous precedent, since Atlantic Yards emerged not from any public process regarding how big it should be (as well as the number of apartments), but gained what I call a privately negotiated zoning bonus. 

"What I wanted then and what I want now is more affordable housing," declared Public Advocate Letitia James, who criticized the state's willingness to give Forest City 25 years to build the project, and warned about the city's willingness to provide more subsidies without any commitment to providing benefits, presumably on a timetable.

(James wanted more affordable housing, but not attached to an arena, and on a different scale.)

"We're here to say, build it now," said Jo Anne Simon, a leader in the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, pointing out that there were no impediments to Phase 1.

(Still in question are future subsidies and increased oversight, as well as the character of the subsidized housing in terms of range of affordability and distribution of units. Forest City once promised 50% of the units, in floor area, would be two- and three-bedroom apartments, but falls quite short in the first tower.)

Goldstein's words

Perhaps the most surprising words, at least on their face, came from Daniel Goldstein, who as spokesman for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) was the face of the opposition.

"You should be just as angry about the delay in this housing, which has nothing to do with the community that opposed the project," Goldstein said, addressing Bertha Lewis, who as leader of New York ACORN signed the housing deal with Forest City, trading her organizations support for a commitment to a 50/30/20 plan for market units, subsidized middle- and moderate-income units, and low-income units. "There is no opposition to the project anymore. There is no support of the project anymore. There is a desire to see the project built."

No opposition? It didn't look like Goldstein had drunk Atlantic Yards Kool-Aid, since he warned that ESD and Forest City Ratner were not "honest brokers."

But what did Goldstein mean? Afterwards, I asked him to elaborate. He indicated opposition to more subsidies, support for new oversight, and support for finding additional developers, as detailed below.

Atlantic Yards is approved, he wrote, but "will always be illegitimate."

Goldstein's message

In three minutes there is little room for nuance or clarification. So let me make more clear what I meant, and also the conclusion I was drawing from the declaration in the DSEIS that the area did not exhibit blight but rather was exhibiting the kind of neighborhood real estate upswing that is the direct opposite of blight. My point is that AY is an illegitimate project: if the fundamental purpose of the project was to remove alleged blight, and if that blight didn't actually exist, as the DSEIS makes clear [AYR: see this], then the whole basis of the project is a sham and therefore illegitimate. 

It will always be illegitimate in my view for this reason and others.

DDDB and I were once opponents of the project, meaning we were trying to kill the project and replace Ratner's plans with a community based plan such as the UNITY Plan. And though it was an uphill, imbalanced, unfair struggle, we were not tilting at windmills, we had an overall strategy, tactics and, most importantly, legal firepower to stop and/or kill the project. We had far fewer political avenues to stop it or make substantial changes because of the ULURP bypass and the limitations of SEQRA. 

From 2003 through 2010 when our legal options for killing the project were extinguished, we were best characterized as opponents of the project. But now we are not opponents of the project, illegitimate as it is, because the project is approved, the legal avenues to stop it are closed and the political possibilities to stop it are nil. Are there political means to change the project? Potentially. Are we opposed to gifting Ratner yet more subsidies, beyond the original commitments, so that the public is penalized for FCR's ineptitude? Yes. Are we opposed to moving forward in such a way where Ratner and Greenland have carte blanche to continue the non-responsiveness to the community and proceed without any meaningful accountability and oversight? We certainly are opposed to that.

But to call us opponents as if we are still trying to kill or stall the project is simply a misnomer. And that is what I was getting at, because at the hearing that was the sentiment expressed over and over by Ratner's allies.

The script has been flipped and those who were opponents trying to kill the project are the ones now saying: you've eminent domained and demolished the neighborhood, you had better now meet your promises about affordable housing with all expediency. (As spokesman for DDDB I repeatedly and continually told reporters that what we could not let Ratner get control of 24 acres in the heart of Brooklyn only to have him sit on those acres for decades. That is exactly what is happening.) And it is the "tear it down, build it now" crowd of unions and ACORN and BUILD that are publicly silent about the extreme delay (non-existence at this date) of the promised benefits of affordable housing. Though I do suspect that privately that crowd, particularly the remnants of BUILD and ACORN, are livid about the way things have gone down.

And when I say "there is no support," what I mean is that Ratner rode the support he needed to get political approval and now controls the land and the rights and no longer really needs any of that support as long as the Mayor and Governor stick with him.

The "desire to see the project built" is because now that the land had been taken and the buildings demolished and the resources committed by the public to the construction of affordable housing they damn well better get it done as promised. But this does not mean Ratner deserves or should get more subsidy, it means that if he can't build as promised then the ESDC must act quickly to find developers who will build. Emphasis on the plural. Unfortunately to date the ESDC has shown no inclination to do this.

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