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“What if?” Looking back (and forward) at Atlantic Yards

In announcing Atlantic Yards in December 2003, developer Forest City Ratner predicted groundbreaking within a year. That was probably optimistic, but I doubt they believed it would take two years more than planned. So opponents and critics had some effect.

Still, the project was passed with no major concessions, so the developer has to be pleased. Then again, the courts may have some significant say in the project’s future.

Could the last three years have gone differently? Sure. The opposition was locally fierce but was not joined by major citywide good government groups, who did join a coalition of more moderate critics in the most recent months. No self-interested, big-pocketed corporation, like Cablevision in the West Side Stadium fracas, stepped in to amplify the voices of neighborhood opponents.

Forest City Ratner, with the aid of public relations advisors, lobbying firms, and campaign advertising, did some smart things. But did the developer make relatively few mistakes, or would a stronger watchdog role by the press and civic groups have placed the focus on the developer’s tactics?

After all, as the hardly radical Regional Plan Association testified in August:
Unfortunately, the public review process for the Atlantic Yards project is part of a pattern in which the State and the City enter into an agreement with a single developer prior to a full debate of alternatives. Ideally, this strategically vital piece of public real estate would have been the subject of a planning exercise… open bidding…. Instead, the state worked exclusively with Forest City Ratner while the MTA entered into a truncated bidding process only after a memorandum of understanding had been signed by FCRC, the state and the city. The details of the project were largely devised behind closed doors by the developer, and only minor modifications have been made in response to public criticisms. While the developer has held numerous public meetings and provided information to the community, most of the decisions regarding the site had already been made. As a result, the public has no way of knowing if this project is the best possible one for the site. It is greatly handicapped in assessing potential alternatives, and has less leverage for negotiating changes that would add to its community benefits.

“What if”?

In the genre of fiction called alternate history, authors imagine how major historical events might have unfolded. Regarding the Atlantic Yards project, I’m not going to engage in a speculative narrative, but I will raise some questions. I think the fundamental questions were raised above, but any of the “what if” selections below could have changed aspects of the story and perhaps had a major impact.

After compiling numerous of my own “what if” observations, I canvassed several people for their nominations, and got several good ones. I then grouped and winnowed them into general categories. The list obviously remains incomplete.

The press

What if any publication other than New York Magazine and the Brooklyn Papers showed a graphic of the project in neighborhood context? What if any newspaper tried to calculate the total subsidies for the project? What if any publication tried to confirm New York Magazine’s estimate of the developer’s billion-dollar profit?

What if the New York Times had taken this project seriously from the start? What if the coverage had appeared in the Metro section rather than Sports? What if one reporter had been assigned to the project before October 2005? (What if I hadn’t written a critique of the Times that appeared a month earlier?)

What if Times reporter Nicholas Confessore’s first article in October 2005, which offered the “modern blueprint” thesis, emphasized that BUILD and Forest City Ratner were admitted liars? What if Confessore, who’d gotten up to speed on AY issues, had written the front-page article about a “six to eight percent” cut in September 2006 rather than the buried follow-up that said the cutback was meaningless? What if the Times had treated my scoop about the source of the cutback as seriously as they treated my scoop on a half-billion dollar decline in fiscal impact--would Eliot Spitzer have said confidently that eight percent sounded right?

What if the Times had published more than one op-ed on Atlantic Yards in three years? What if any newspaper had editorialized about ESDC Chairman Charles Gargano’s evasions on eminent domain?

What if a Times metro columnist had written a single column about Atlantic Yards? What if Post columnist Andrea Peyser and Daily News columnist Denis Hamill checked again on the promises of jobs at Atlantic Yards? What if any columnist had gone to the 8/23/06 public hearing and media extravaganza?

What if the New York Times Company were not in a business partnership with Forest City Ratner?

What if the New Yorker had followed up its incisive reportage about Borough President Marty Markowitz with an analysis of the politics of Atlantic Yards?

What if the Village Voice’s investigative staffers had turned to Atlantic Yards? What if the Voice still challenged big real estate interests and housing reporter Julie Lobbia had not died young? What if the Voice still had a Press Clips column?

What if Brooklyn had its own daily newspaper? What if Brooklyn Papers paid good enough wages that the reporters who started covering Atlantic Yards since its inception had stuck around?

What if the battles regarding Ground Zero and the West Side Stadium hadn’t sucked up so much media attention?

What if any daily newspaper followed up on the story of Michael Ratner’s campaign contributions? What if Bruce Ratner’s sister-in-law weren’t the producer of “Democracy Now”?

What if the editors of a major local publication hadn’t spiked a tough Atlantic Yards story shortly before the PACB vote December 20? (What if I could explain more about this?) What if that vote had been delayed for a few weeks?

What if the press treated Forest City Ratner’s brochures like political advertising worthy of analysis?

What if Daily News columnist Ben Smith had cared as much about Gloria Waldron’s racially offensive testimony as he did a racially offensive email from Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn’s Daniel Goldstein? (And what if Goldstein had cooled off and not sent that email?)

What if the Daily News gave Atlantic Yards opponents and critics one quarter of the space given to AY booster Errol Louis? What if Louis were critiqued by Assemblyman Richard Brodsky more often?

What if the dailies had followed up on the Brooklyn Papers’ scoop on how the MTA deceived the public about the railyards going to Ratner?

What if any national publication besides Slate noticed the Atlantic Yards story?

What if any press outlet had questioned the recent poll by Crain’s New York Business rather than had quoted it without qualification? What if they had emphasized the opposition or criticism from the three affected community boards?

What if anyone followed up on the Atlantic Center overbuild story?

What if NoLandGrab hadn’t been established to relentlessly catalog (and critique) everything AY-related? What if I hadn't begun a blog to report and comment on the project in September 2005? What if I had started earlier? What if there were no Internet?

Opponents and critics

What if Patti Hagan hadn’t started questioning the project in July 2003? What if the Prospect Heights Action Coalition hadn’t already been organized to spring into action? What if Hagan had a computer?

What if the mid-rise, community-derived UNITY plan for the railyard site had gotten more public traction? What if the AY opponents working on that plan realized that they might have to accommodate some high-rise development, as in the Extell plan they later championed?

What if Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) had organized its big-name advisory board months earlier? What if DDDB had raised money and tapped wealthy advisory board members for a true media campaign?

What if the Municipal Art Society-led BrooklynSpeaks had launched before September 2006? What if BrooklynSpeaks’ Atlantic Yards mailer had come well before the December 20 vote of the Public Authorities Control Board rather than shortly before or after that vote?

What if DDDB and BrooklynSpeaks, if not able to agree on all topics, were able to work together? What if BrooklynSpeaks had followed the logical trajectory of their stance on eminent domain? What if BrooklynSpeaks didn't exist--would some group have stepped forward to call for changes in a plan they thought had too much momentum to stop?

What if a wealthy corporation, as Cablevision did in the West Side Stadium battle, had thrown its money behind community critics and opponents?

What if the DDDB rally last July had not been on such a hot day? What if DDDB had been able to organize a broader (in geography, class, ethnicity) constituency? What if the leaders of the mostly-black churches that opposed the Community Benefits Agreement had organized their parishioners more to challenge the project? What if they made an issue out of “instant gentrification”?

What if the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods had all the money it was pledged to hire experts to respond to the state environmental review? What if CBN’s web address were easier to remember?

What if there had been early recognition by good-government groups of the scope and impact of the project? What if they’d joined with DDDB to created a boroughwide development agenda? What if Marty Markowitz had tried to do so? What if the Citizens Union truly cared about open, accountable government regarding Atlantic Yards?

What if footprint condo owner Daniel Goldstein of DDDB had taken a buyout--would other owners have followed suit and construction be in process? What if other owners hadn't sold?

Forest City Ratner

What if the developer had announced Atlantic Yards two years earlier? Two years later?

What if the developer hadn’t hired Frank Gehry to help win over the culturati? What if Ratner’s “community” supporters were quizzed about Ratner’s neighborhood -unfriendly design of the Atlantic Center mall?

What if the developer hadn’t hired Andrew Zimbalist to produce a dubious set of economic projections? What if the press had taken the Kim/Peebles critique of Zimbalist more seriously? What if the press had commissioned its own critique? What if an independent critique factored in widely divergent predictions of our energy costs and capacity?

What if the developer hadn’t hired Richard Lipsky, longtime foe of big-box stores and chains like those in Ratner’s malls?

What if Ratner hadn’t hired Roger Green aide Randall Toure for community outreach? What if the developer hadn’t made an affordable housing deal with ACORN?

What if Ratner continued to publish the Brooklyn Standard, which was shelved not long after a skeptical article in the Times and the revelation that it included fake bylines?

What if the “Atlantic Yards Information Center” on the third floor of the Atlantic Center Mall had served as a true public space and information center rather than an invitation-only space?

What if any of ACORN’s members had criticized a housing deal in which most affordable apartments would be too expensive for them? What if anyone called Bertha Lewis on her continued pronouncements that this is a 50/50 housing deal?

Politics and government

What if City Councilman James Davis had not been killed? What if AY opponent Letitia James were an insider, rather than an outsider, in Christine Quinn’s City Council? What if James’s rival, AY booster Errol Louis, had been successful in his efforts over the years to get the seat?

What if there were no term limits and Howard Golden remained Borough President? What if Marty Markowitz weren’t so nostalgic for the Dodgers?

What if Assemblyman Roger Green, after he resigned in the wake of a guilty plea, had not run again? What if Sheldon Silver had released the secret Assembly report on Green?

What if AY opponent Bill Batson, a neophyte at campaigning, had faced only AY booster Freddie Hamilton rather than Hakeem Jeffries, a polished candidate with an elusive position on AY? What if Batson had won--would it have had an impact on Silver?

What if David Yassky hadn't entered the 11th District Congressional race and AY opponent Chris Owens had faced Carl Andrews and Yvette Clarke? What if Yassky had opposed the project?

What if the State Senate were Democratic, as it should be without gerrymandering, and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, an AY opponent, had more of an impact? What if the investigation of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, one of the “three men in a room,” had started earlier?

What if Freddy Ferrer had mounted an effective challenge to Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s reelection campaign? What if Ferrer had come out earlier, and more articulately, against AY?

What if Norman Siegel's criticisms of Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum's equivocations on eminent domain had made it into the press? What if Gotbaum followed through on her opposition to the use of eminent domain?

What if New York’s state legislature were not the most dysfunctional in the country? What if campaign finance reform had been instituted years ago, following Eliot Spitzer’s plan to ban such contributions from anyone doing business with the state?

What if Charles Gargano, chair of the Empire State Development Corporation, were taken to task for his evasions on eminent domain?

What if politicians supporting Atlantic Yards were not merely allowed to say they supported dense development near a transport hub, but had to explain why they support what likely would be the densest residential development in the country?

What if the politicians who repeated the "$6 billion lie” actually did some math?

What if City Planning Commission Chairperson Amanda Burden acknowledged that her support for Jane Jacobs-style planning is at odds with her support for Atlantic Yards?

What if Senator Chuck Schumer worried about security at Brooklyn’s busiest crossroads as much as he does at the nation’s ports? What if the city publicly acknowledged its concerns about terrorism and security at Atlantic Yards?

What if the ESDC were truly required to explain why its fiscal impact analysis had changed so dramatically? What if the agency’s were a much more rigorous calculation that included, as had that of the Independent Budget Office, public costs for schools, sanitation and public safety?

What if Assemblyman Jim Brennan had been successful in his attempt to analyze the project business plan and the amount of affordable housing subsidies?

What if city and state agencies followed the law and responded to Freedom of Information Law requests in a timely manner? What if there were no secret documents?


What if the city decided to rezone the area including the Atlantic Yards site? What if the project had gone through ULURP and the community boards and City Council had had a say? What if the rezoning had included a floor area bonus for affordable housing?

What if the city had invested in infrastructure first? What if there were a Brooklyn trolley? An express train to Coney Island? What if redevelopment in Coney Island had started earlier—would Borough President Marty Markowitz have given up on his original plan for an arena in Coney?

What if the city built a platform at the MTA’s Vanderbilt Yard, as it plans to do with the Hudson Yards, and auctioned off the rights?

What if the City Planning Commission planned rather than simply endorsed Atlantic Yards with minor changes? What if the rules governing projects under the Empire State Development Corporation included early community participation?

What if there were more transit-oriented development in the suburbs? In the boroughs? What if other developments in Brooklyn, such as the row houses in Atlantic Commons across from the Atlantic Yards site or the Nehemiah Houses in East New York, had been built at greater density?

What if the Ward Bakery had been landmarked? What if Forest City Ratner, as have its corporate affiliates elsewhere, decided to renovate existing buildings rather than wipe them out?

What if the community had not fought Jonathan Rose in the 1980s and he had built his planned development north of Atlantic Avenue, instead of giving way to Ratner and his malls?

What if the MTA had been obligated to sell its property to the highest qualified bidder?

What if the establishment had learned from Hudson Yards and moved a sports facility to where it had support?

What if the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning had been scrutinized more carefully, including the failure to include affordable housing?


What if reform of the city’s 421-a tax break came along faster and delivered many more affordable apartments than Atlantic Yards? What if the project had been delayed until the advent of the Spitzer administration, which has pledged to invest much more state money in affordable housing?

What if more people understood the difference between low-income housing and “affordable housing”?

What if New York City built a lot affordable housing, as it once did?

What if politicians from economically depressed areas of New York State learned that so much state money would help develop luxury condos in the middle of a red-hot real estate market?

Eminent domain

What if the Supreme Court had blocked the use of eminent domain for economic development in the Kelo case--would the plaintiffs in the Atlantic Yards eminent domain case have a chance fighting the ESDC’s blight claims?

What if Forest City Ratner’s statement that it was minimizing the use of eminent domain had been scrutinized more carefully? What if the ESDC’s deception about “friendly condemnations” had gotten more notice?

What if the state had stricter standards for the determination of blight?

What if the MTA and the city had taken care of the railyard and its surroundings so it wasn’t seen as blighted?

What if federal eminent domain reform passed? What if state reform passed?

Frank Gehry

What if Frank Gehry decided he didn’t need a Brooklyn “ego trip” to feel fulfilled? What if Gehry had been allowed to meet with local residents, as he claimed to have wanted? What if he’d been required to speak publicly, as were the architects competing for the redevelopment of Ground Zero?

What if Herbert Muschamp of the Times hadn’t written that the Atlantic Yards site is “an open railyard”? What if the Times had corrected that glaring error?

What if the Times had hired, as Muschamp’s successor, not the Gehry-friendly Nicolai Ouroussoff, but the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin, known for his critiques of the politics behind architecture? What if the powerful criticisms of the Atlantic Yards plan from the likes of Paul Goldberger and Martin Filler had come earlier?

Looking ahead

What if Daniel Goldstein and other eminent domain plaintiffs take a buyout? What if the plaintiffs succeed in stalling the plan, or stopping it?

What if BrooklynSpeaks succeeds in nudging Spitzer? What if they don’t—how will they remain a watchdog? What if CBN remains a watchdog? What if the community boards get the funds to hire planners?

What if Forest City is prepared to make half the changes that BrooklynSpeaks requests?

What if Gehry, now 77, dies or becomes professionally incapacitated?

What if the condo market tanks? What if it continues to rise? What if the market for office space remains small?

What if Forest City requests large amounts of government aid for “extraordinary infrastructure” costs?

What if the the city seriously tries to solve the traffic/transit problems the project and other develoment present? What if the press listens more to the critiques of Brian Ketcham and Carolyn Konheim?

What if Forest City Ratner sells the Nets?

What if Forest City Ratner continues to crank up the Atlantic Yards marketing machine? What if more people think the project is a done deal?

Additional comments

A reader (who didn't want to use the comment interface) observes:
In all those "what if's", the only true bottleneck to the development of this white elephant was Sheldon Silver. All efforts of DDDB and all other opponents should have been focused on lobbying Silver from the start. That was only ever going to be magic bullet to stop this thing. I fear it's an opportunity squandered.


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