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Owens needles Yassky as 11th CD candidates take on AY

At a debate August 9 at Medgar Evers College among the four candidates for the open 11th Congressional District seat being vacated by Major Owens, the issue of Atlantic Yards inevitably came up--and the answers were predictable but telling.

State Senator Carl Andrews and City Council Member Yvette Clarke offered supportive generalizations. City Council Member David Yassky expressed both qualms and support. Community activist and former health care company manager Chris Owens savaged the project--and also took the opportunity to needle Yassky and point out contradictions in the positions of his rivals.

An insufficient question

The candidates were asked, “Please explain your position on Atlantic Yards, which has been criticized as 'instant gentrification.'" Few of them directly addressed the question, which is an important one.

At this point, no political candidate should be allowed to simply offer general support for the project. They should be questioned as to whether they support the project at its current scale--the densest residential development in the country--or how much they believe it should be cut.

[The transcripts are verbatim, except for a few places where my tape was inaudible.]

Carl Andrews

I support Forest City Ratner’s project. I believe that there are some very good things in the project. Affordable housing for senior citizens, and low-income housing, and economic development. There’s also a Community Benefits Agreement, the second one of its kind in the nation. Is it a perfect project? No. Are there some things that need to be worked out? Yes. But the overall concept I support.

Note that the Community Benefits Agreement is not the second of its kind.

Yvette Clarke

When I look at the crisis of affordable housing in the 11th Congressional District and the crisis of unemployment and lack of economic opportunity for Central Brooklyn, I had to weigh the benefits and the burdens of the Atlantic Yards project. And having been an economic development practitioner myself, I can tell you that, when someone says to me that the jobs are just temporary, in a community where people are unemployed for generations, I think there’s an issue around class, there’s an issue around race that has to be addressed. And those who say that perhaps this project will regentrify, well, I tell you it’s happening today, without that project. This is the first project we’ve ever had with that number of affordable housing units in Central Brooklyn in generations. I believe we have an opportunity to help shape it in a way in which the benefits will outweigh the burdens.

Indeed, the DEIS says that gentrification is already happening--the question is whether this would accelerate it. As for the class and race issue, among the people who've criticized the temporary nature of the jobs is former Black Panther Bob Law. As for the "opportunity to help shape it," Clarke should be asked what she means.

David Yassky

On Atlantic Yards, the current project is way too big. There’s no place for 60-story towers in Brooklyn. I believe the project will create traffic nightmares unless it’s [inaudible] back. I want to see a way to make this project go forward so we can realize the benefits that it does promise--good jobs, affordable housing—but without destroying the neighborhoods around Atlantic Yards. I’m the only candidate here who’s put out a specific traffic plan for how to deal with the traffic that will be created by that project.

I later asked Yassky's spokesman Evan Thies about that traffic plan, and was told it had been submitted last year to the Empire State Development Corporation as part of the response to the Draft Scope for an environmental impact statement. Thies didn't forward me to the document, but did respond to a follow-up question: "David has spoken about his ideas for traffic remediation repeatedly at forums and with voters."

Chris Owens

I’m opposed to the project. I’ve been opposed to the project. I don’t believe you jump on board a development that drops 18,000 people in an area—you jump on board and say, ‘Yes, it’s wonderful’--without asking the tough questions. Not one of my colleagues was asking tough questions a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, in fact, all of them, particularly David, were walking around supporting it unconditionally. It took place, David. So the reality is: they weren’t asking the tough questions when there was an opportunity to change it, and now they try to make it sound like we can change it.

The bottom line is, we either go forward or we don’t go forward. We have to shape it by providing our position. I was there opposing it, and I know that the impact on housing, regardless of the number of so-called affordable housing units that will come in, the impact on housing will be devastating. I had a meeting with a woman in Fannie Mae who said to me that she does not know how poor people are going to live in city in 15 years. The ripple effects of this project have yet to be felt and public housing residents… are next, it’s just a matter of time before folks who can’t afford to live here are pushed out… and if you say [inaudible] jobs, make it enforceable, because it’s not that.

I emailed Owens afterward to explain what he thinks about the promises of jobs in the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement, which others have also criticized as unenforceable. I was told yesterday that a response was in process; when I get it, I'll post it.

Owens takes on Yassky

Given the opportunity to ask a fellow candidate a questions, Owens, son of the retiring Congressman, pointed out that Yassky had announced support from the family of slain Council Member James Davis, which was later withdrawn, and a number of people who had signed the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA): Do you have any supporters in the African-American community who are not seeking a dollar from you or a major developer?

Yassky stayed cool: There are really good people, in every part of this district, people from one end to the other, people like the head of the residents’ association of Wyckoff Gardens—

I question her, Owens interjected. (She’s Charlene Nimmons, a signatory of the CBA.

—and the head of the residents’ association at the Van Dyke houses at the other.

I question her too, Owens continued, to laughter.

Yassky went on to cite support for his work on affordable housing and gun control, and how he attracts a range of volunteers.

In closing, Owens again took on Yassky:
We have people who talk about their commitment to stopping asthma, but they support a project that is going to increase the amounts of traffic in Brooklyn and is going to destroy air quality all across Eastern Brooklyn. We have people who say they want to support jobs, but I’m still the only person on this stage who wrote a piece demanding a specific assignment of jobs to people who live in Brooklyn, to people of color, but nobody is willing to support that, because they don’t want to set guidelines out for those businesses that might move into Forest City Ratner. So who’s standing up for the people? We talked about education, and we talk about how No Child Left Behind should be gutted. Well, that’s easy to say, but the reality is our education system is failing in large part because we support—we allow a war to continue to suck all of the life out of the education system….These guys in Washington play for blood. If you can’t stand up to a Ratner and some of the big donors, how can you stand up to Bush and the Republicans?


  1. the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement, which others have also criticized as unenforceable. I was told yesterday that a response was in process; when I get it, I'll post it.

    This is a no brainer. FCR is a publicly held company. Its first duty is to its shareholders who will demand an adequate ROI on any major project they undertake. If anything arises during the implementation of this proposal that threatens "must have" financial targets on this project, the plan will be changed to get the project back on target. They might change the housing mix, they might go for cheaper building materials, they might fire Frank Gehry because his design was too costly. The fact that such changes might affect the CBA may go into the risk calculation, but if it loses, it loses.

    As a business consultant, I participate in meetings where very specific contracts with cleary defined financial penalties are broken because the cost/benefit analysis says they should be broken. So even if the CBA carried the same weight as one of those contracts, it would not be "enforceable" if the project financials were in direct opposition to the obligations spelled out in the contract. That is a business decision, just like you might make a personal decision to break a lease.

    I'm not an attorney, but I suspect the CBA is a much weaker instrument than most business contracts, and has even greater room for interpreting whether the obligations have been met by FCR.

    Finally, Marty, Bloomberg and others have talked up Bruce Ratner as being a good guy who can be trusted to keep his word. Even if this were true, it's not nearly as relevant as the politicians would have us believe. FCR is publicly held, and Bruce Ratner is probably not the final authority on whether the CBA obligations will be met.

    Get a clue Brooklyn. If you are the least bit skeptical about any element of this project, you'd better think about stopping it before it gets ESDC approval (assuming it's even possible.) After that, the only recourse is in the courts, and that hole will be there for quite a while.

    Ultimately, that is not the fault of the opponents or FCR. It's the result of a complete leadership vacuum when it comes to strategic growth planning. There is no vision, no process, no ground rules, and no accountability. We must change that.

    This is a big battle, but it's just ONE battle in a larger campaign.

    We don't need a Brooklyn development "Czar" (my how empowering Mr. Mayor). We need a community driven vision and a process that is professionally designed and competently executed. We need to drag NYC kicking and screaming into the 20th century. (YES I meant 20th)


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