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Marty's Atlantic Yards Committee: not quite oversight, but not unimportant, either

Coming up Thursday is the ninth and last in a series of meetings--not really hearings--of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee. Among the topics is land use, which should stimulate discussion about how this project overrides city zoning.

These meetings, set up by Borough President Marty Markowitz, are the closest thing to a public process regarding the massive Atlantic Yards plan as it awaits environmental review by the Empire State Development Corporation, or ESDC. (The ESDC is expected to issue a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, or DEIS, within weeks or months, after which there will be a comment period and public hearing.) The sessions at Borough Hall aim to be a "vehicle for research, information and advocacy" regarding the project.

And though these meetings can be dreary and hardly constitute democratic oversight--the public can't ask questions--it's remarkable how concerns about the project have emerged:
--the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, the western border of the proposed project, was already declared "impossible" and a consultant suggested the project be put on hold to avoid a "disaster."
--local officials declared the boundaries in the scope of analysis to be completely inadequate to address transit and traffic impacts.
--despite Forest City Ratner's promises of landscaped open space, the amount of open space planned for the population influx is deeply inadequate.
--the design process was dismissed as backwards.
--a rep from the City Planning Department acknowledged that the city has no policy about demapping streets, though, as architect Jonathan Cohn argues, it should keep large blocks like Pacific Street open.
--terrorism was dismissed as an issue.

Who's missing

Developer Forest City Ratner has never participated, which means basic questions about the location of affordable housing or the company's plans for storm water runoff remain a mystery. The ESDC appeared only once.

Panelists--usually a mix of bureaucrats, academics, and other experts--typically observe that a question will have to wait to for clarification in the ESDC's DEIS--thus adding an air of impotency to the proceedings. And, given that it's an unofficial process, both the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Transit Authority decided against sending representatives to answer questions.

Criticism and cheerleading

Some tough critics have appeared on panels. Psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove warned how "intense verticality" would transform Prospect Heights. Transportation engineer Brian Ketcham warned of looming chaos and harshly criticized the ESDC's methodology.

Markowitz often acknowledges that he supports the project but wants to see it examined thoroughly so Brooklynites are satisfied. He's occasionally offered some not-so-subtle cheerleading for the project, notably when questioning an Independent Budget Office official as to whether the fiscal benefit would be even greater than the agency estimated.

Unanswered questions

There are many unanswered questions, many of which will be addressed, if not fully answered, in the EIS. Remember, the process requires environmental impacts to be "mitigated," but if they are deemed unmitigatible, the ESDC can still decide to approve the project.

But some issues may remain mysteries. Take this exchange at the 10/24/05 session, when ESDC officials attended, as captured in the terse meeting notes:
Why was there a separate, secret MOU?
At the time, there were two investment groups. ESDC is now treating them as one project.

That second MOU refers to development rights to Site 5, which now contains P.C. Richard/Modell's, and to the Atlantic Center mall. It was signed at the same time the MOU regarding the Atlantic Yards project was signed. The latter was released via a press conference; the former was not made public until obtained by project opponents Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.

Why was it secret, I asked ESDC via email. And why would the presence of a second investment group mean that one MOU would be treated differently? The response I got, in toto, from ESDC spokeswoman Jessica Copen: "There was never a secret MOU. There were always two MOUs and they were both made available to the public. However, there is only one project encomposing both MOU's that ESDC expects to adopt which will be used as the basis for the EIS and the GPP [General Project Plan]."

Preparing for Thursday

In case you're interested in attending the 4 pm meeting Thursday at Borough Hall, here's what you might expect. First, don't worry about being prompt--the meetings usually start late, after 15 or 20 minutes. Is that because the witnesses are late, or because Markowitz runs late? The latter, I think. Then Marty rumbles in, greets everybody, and recites the committe's goals. He then leads off with a few questions; they're obviously prepared by his staff, but compared to many politicians, he at least seems to understand the issues. Marty's chief of staff, Greg Atkins, sits by his side, and chimes in with questions; other aides are behind him.

Around the table are places for representatives of the three affected Community Boards (usually the chairperson, with the district manager in the second row). Assemblywoman Joan Millman usually attends, with an aide; Assemblyman Roger Green comes less frequently. Council Member Letitia James is often there; otherwise she'll have a legislative aide in her place. Council Member David Yassky usually sends an aide, as does Senator Velmanette Montgomery. The elected officials and CB officials then can ask questions; some questions from concerned community members are fed through them.

In the audience, News12 Brooklyn often has a camera. Reporters from the Brooklyn newspapers--the Brooklyn Papers, Brooklyn Eagle, Courier-Life, and Brooklyn Downtown Star--appear sporadically, though sometimes they'll cover the hearing after the fact via a phone interview. Reporters from the city dailies hardly ever attend, though the New York Post wrote one story.

In the audience are a smattering of community members, sometimes representatives of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, which opposes the project. And quietly taking notes, there's usually someone from AKRF, the consultancy that's preparing the DEIS.

The windows are usually open, offering air flow in the cavernous room. Loud traffic rumbles by, and when panelists don't speak into the mikes, they can be inaudible. Sometimes Marty leaves early, a gesture that suggests his attendance at yet another ceremony trumps this unofficial process. The written summaries of the meetings are somewhat skimpy. The importance of close attention to this project remains.