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Systemic changes? Ratner's CBA-compliant architect is already building Downtown Brooklyn towers

It's hard to question the track record of the "minority" architectural firm Forest City Ratner hired to help meet the goal of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) to hire minority-owned professional firms. Ismael Leyva Architects has an impressive list of projects for which the firm designed residential spaces, including the Time Warner Center and a new luxury building at Astor Place.

However, we can question whether hiring the Mexican-born Leyva to design interior residential space in the Frank Gehry-designed buildings fulfills the spirit of the CBA, which includes this passage (p. 2):
Whereas, the Coalition and the Developers seek to maximize the benefits of the Project to residents of Brooklyn, as well as minority and women construction, professional and operational workers and business owners and thereby to encourage systemic changes in the traditional ways of doing business on large urban development projects... (Emphasis added)

Leyva on the block

As I wrote, it's not clear how engaging already-successful companies encourages systemic changes. Indeed, the Manhattan-based Leyva is already working on "large urban development projects" and seems to be the leading architect in Downtown Brooklyn. According to a 4/12/06 Brooklyn Eagle article headlined Two New Projects Redefine Downtown, two towers with more than 500 condos, 40 and 35 stories toll respectively, will rise off Tillary Street at Gold and Johnson streets at the gateway to Downtown Brooklyn.

The Eagle reported: Both of the new buildings, which will be signature structures at one of the two main entrances from Manhattan, will be designed by Ismael Leyva Architects. The 306 Gold St. building is expected to be completed in January 2008.

And Leyva seems to be the architect of the moment. The Brooklyn Downtown Star reported:
"There's about seven or eight new towers coming to the neighborhood," commented Ismael Levya, the architect of the Herschco towers, before adding confidently, "we are doing about five of them. They are all in the design stages right now."

Helping Central Brooklyn?

If you look at photos of the signing of the Community Benefits Agreement, nearly all the signatories and their supporters, outside of public officials and Forest City Ratner executives, are black. That makes sense, given that the signatory groups are mostly African-American groups from Central Brooklyn. The selection of an architect from Mexico who's based in Manhattan has more to do with the letter than the spirit of the CBA. (Photo from

The CBA was signed by the All-Faith Council of Brooklyn, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, the Downtown Brooklyn Educational Consortium, the First Atlantic Terminal Housing Committee (now Brooklyn Endeavor Experience, Inc.), the New York State Association of Minority Contractors (NYSAMC), and Public Housing Communities. Only two of the groups were incorporated at the time.

Our Time Press columnist Errol Louis wrote in January, "At this stage of the game the question should be how and when the dollars will begin flowing into central Brooklyn."

But hiring Leyva surely doesn't boost central Brooklyn. Nor does it represent a change in the pattern of hiring professional service firms. As noted, the CBA process raises the question of how to define the “community”: the geographical area? minority groups? African-Americans? And who speaks for that community?