The forces seeking to slow consideration of the Atlantic Yards project grew in strength yesterday as the influential Regional Plan Association (RPA) and the Citizens Union, groups that, respectively, had offered cautious support for the project and had not weighed in, called for the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) to delay its vote.
(Later, NY1 reported that the PACB would stall the project.)
The press conference on City Hall steps was organized by the Municipal Art Society (MAS), which has called for major changes before project approval, and the groups assembled took pains not to be portrayed as opponents of development. “We’re not here to kill the project,” declared MAS President Kent Barwick. “We’re here to resuscitate the role of the public.”
Exactly how that might occur remains a question, but the groups expressed hope that a new state administration under incoming Governor Eliot Spitzer—a project supporter—would take a fresh look at Atlantic Yards.
Yesterday the advocates said that not only does the environmental impact require additional scrutiny, but so do the finances. The latter message was driven in part by recent revelations that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) had lowered its estimate of net new revenue for the project by nearly half a billion dollars.
Evolution of scrutiny
MAS last June limited itself to criticizing the design aspects of the project. Steering the launch of BrooklynSpeaks in September, MAS added the issues of affordable housing, effective transit/transportation improvements, and a better public process.
The PACB, controlled by three members (Governor George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) had been expected to vote as soon as Wednesday to approve the project. However, unanimity is required, and there has been pressure on Silver, the only Democrat, to hold it until the administration of incoming Governor Eliot Spitzer.
The RPA in August had endorsed Phase 1 of the project and called for changes in Phase 2, but said, essentially, that the project was too far ahead to start from scratch. Yesterday the organization amplified its criticism without fundamentally changing its stance.
"The Atlantic Yards project will bring substantial benefits to the region and the city, but it is also a major piece of city-making in the midst of successful residential neighborhoods,” said RPA VP Chris Jones. “A delay in PACB approval should be used to develop a more comprehensive transportation plan and improve the project's design.”
(RPA's support was cited by board member Kevin Corbett, a member of the ESDC board, in voting for the project on December 8.)
Citizens Union, a longstanding good government organization, called for a “limited delay” in the process and noted that it “does not align itself with those who oppose the project and wish to use the process of delay to kill the project, because we believe that economic development is needed so that the city can continue to be a dynamic place of business and meet the needs of a growing population.”
The group’s letter to the PACB raised questions about the environmental mitigations and the finances. “The fact that the Empire State Development Corporation, when it adopted the plan, failed to make any public mention of lowering significantly its estimate of how much tax revenue the project would generate is emblematic of our concerns,” said Citizens Union head Dick Dadey.
Finances and more
Brooklyn Assemblyman James Brennan reiterated that he has been unable to get the project financial plan, which would help ascertain whether sufficient returns to support development could be derived from a significantly smaller project.
Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the incoming Spitzer administration needed a chance to review the financial and environmental data. Andy Wiley-Schwartz of the Project for Public Spaces said that the proposed open space wouldn’t work, but that the problems “are all quite fixable.”
Barwick described the project as taking 15 to 20 years to build, a span similar to that posited by Kathryn Wylde of the Partnership for New York City. However, the state and the developer say it would take ten years, with the project complete by 2016.
“There are very few examples of projects that have been completed at the schedule that’s been set out,” added Stuart Pertz, an architect who advises MAS and once worked for Forest City Ratner.
In this case, a delay is even more likely, he said, suggesting that the second stage—which would include all the publicly accessible open space and most of the affordable housing—may be “more of a foil” to get the first stage (the arena block) moving than “a project in fact.”
(ESDC representatives yesterday said that affordable housing would be guaranteed by a memorandum of understanding, but said such a document was still in process.)
Jon Orcutt of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign said the mass transit system was not up to snuff and suggested a “real planning process” to tackle the problems.
So why don’t the groups challenge the process by which Forest City Ratner became the developer? “I believe that the process probably will be challenged,” Barwick said, apparently speaking about ESDC processes in general rather than the selection of the Atlantic Yards developer.
“We’re looking forward to an administration with a completely different kind of management for the Empire State Development Corporation," Barwick continued. "This is a project which, as the next 15 to 20 years go by, ought to have a guiding hand. There ought to be a continuing subsidiary of the state, with citizens from Brooklyn guiding this project.”
“Nobody’s successfully challenged the UDC Act,” he said, referring to the law that established the ESDC’s parent agency and gives the state the power to override local zoning, among other things. “It was designed to provide affordable housing to communities that were closing their doors to low-income people.”
Looking at UDC Act
The UDC Act (Urban Development Corporation Act 174/68, Section 3) is even broader. While the UDC Act describes a "residential project" that would encompass affordable housing, Atlantic Yards is presented by the ESDC as a "land use improvement project" and a "civic project." (Does the UDC Act contemplate market-rate housing for such projects? Unclear.)
Here are the relevant excerpts from state law:
(a) "Residential project". A project or that portion of a multi-purpose project designed and intended for the purpose of providing housing accommodations for persons or families of low income and such facilities as may be incidental or appurtenant thereto.
(c) "Land Use Improvement project". A plan or undertaking for the clearance, replanning, reconstruction and rehabilitation or a combination of these and other methods, of a substandard and insanitary area, and for recreational or other facilities incidental or appurtenant thereto, pursuant to and in accordance with article eighteen of the constitution and this act. The terms "clearance, replanning, reconstruction and rehabilitation" shall include renewal, redevelopment, conservation, restoration or improvement or any combination thereof as well as the testing and reporting of methods and techniques for the arrest, prevention and elimination of slums and blight.
(d) "Civic project". A project or that portion of a multi-purpose project designed and intended for the purpose of providing facilities for educational, cultural, recreational, community, municipal, public service or other civic purposes.
FCR as developer?
What about starting from scratch? “You have to take a look at where you are in the project, and what type of project you’d end up with if you went through that process,” observed Jones. The RPA’s testimony suggested that a project on the scale of Atlantic Yards likely would have emerged.
What of Brennan’s speculation that financial disclosure might suggest that the project could be viable with significant cuts, perhaps as much as a half? “We doubt that it can go down that much,” Jones said. “But that’s why the finances are so important.”
Going to court?
The assembled representatives maintained a cautious distance from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, the coalition that has filed an eminent domain lawsuit. Orcutt observed, “Our alternatives at this point are to sue over the EIS [environmental impact statement] or some other reason, and that doesn’t change the planning process.”
Barwick said, “Who are you going to punish--the guys who left office? You can’t. If this project can’t be made to fit into Brooklyn, can’t be made not to overwhelm that neighborhood, can’t be made to find a way that you’re not breathing the gas of 20,000 cars, then it should be turned down totally. But I think there’s a hope here that if the public was playing its role, the project could be shaped into something manageable.”
“It’s been a political process, not a planning process,” said Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee. “And the reality is, all of us are asking for significant changes for anything to move forward. We may have different views on what those significant changes are, but the reality is, this project is not ready for a vote.”
The group was asked to comment on the relevance of the Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo decision, which is being cited in the pending eminent domain case.
Jo Anne Simon, District Leader for the 52nd Assembly District and a representative of the Boerum Hill Association, commented, “Having read the decision and having been part of an organization that said we didn’t believe eminent domain is not appropriate at the site… the fact is that eminent domain is a tool and a technique and a part of this, but it’s not the overwhelming problem with this project, which is overwhelmingly flawed in so many other ways."
"Eminent domain would be less likely to occur were there adequate community planning," Simon continued. "But that process hasn’t occurred and there’s nothing that requires it to occur, and we’re all fighting the same battle here. We’re trying to call on elected officials and on the people who have the ability to change the way things are done to have those things changed, so there is a better role, and a meaningful role, for the public going forward in changing this project.”
(The plantiffs argue that Kelo requires, if not adequate community planning, a legislatively-derived planning process which fosters competition among developers rather than the process by which the city embraced Forest City Ratner's project.)
Barwick noted there’s been two years of “no planning process.” The choice here can be left to the courts, he said, calling it a “silver bullet” (no pun intended), “or it can be turned back to responsible government to be shaped.”
A Spitzer future?
What recommendations might be made? “They have a terrific new guy, head of the MTA,” Barwick said, referring to Spitzer’s choice of Lee Sander to run the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “The governor’s office could say, ‘Make a plan for handling mass transit at Atlantic Yards.’”
“The public benefit goals of the project have never been fully articulated,” de la Uz said. “We backed into them. We backed into them by saying, ‘It’s affordable housing. It’s the creation of jobs.' If you start with the public benefit goals, then you can design a project that’s rational.”
“If the courts decide that the process has been defective,” Barwick said, again noting the lack of a successful challenge to the UDC Act, “while we’re waiting for the courts to decide that, we have an opportunity to let a new administration take hold of it and assess it, and if it can be repaired to the point where it makes sense for Brooklyn, then perhaps it should be approved.”
Changes easy or difficult?
“There’s one thing wrong with this project that’s so elementary,” Barwick said. “It’s just simply 1950s planning.”
As he continued, he indicated first-name familiarity with Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner. “It doesn’t injure Bruce, or the economics, or affordable housing, to see to it that the open space is public, that it’s not a barrier between communities, that the streets stay open,” Barwick said. “These are things that can be cured easily without significant economic penalties.”
But reducing the scale and thus the number of market-rate housing units would cost the developer. And so might broadening the affordable housing. However, the analysis of that depends on some of the disclosure that the groups yesterday continued to request.