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Would AY arena be more like Newark or MSG? Brian Lehrer Show raises the issue

On the Brian Lehrer Show yesterday, Gersh Kuntzman of the Brooklyn Paper, whose paper has taken a critical look at Atlantic Yards, and Errol Louis of the New York Daily News, a project supporter, tussled over issues like arena security and the meaning of the pending eminent domain lawsuit.

The big pending question, it seems, is whether the Atlantic Yards arena (right) would be more like the significantly glass-walled Prudential Center in Newark, where streets were closed for security reasons, or mostly-concrete Madison Square Garden (below, 31st Street at 8th Avenue), around which streets haven't been closed--though that's not quite so.

Bottom line: There seems to be enough glass in the Atlantic Yards plan to raise concerns similar to those in Newark. Does that portend a change in design?

Opening up

Guest host David Cruz offered a slightly off-key opening: Despite some lingering opposition from community members, the Atlantic Yards project has gotten its approval. You can already see some of the work sites being prepped. So things are moving right along, right? Well, not completely it turns out. The Atlantic Yards project might not be the done deal that many of us think it is. There have been some new developments in the project, and in the lawsuit brought against developer Bruce Ratner.

Well, not quite. The lawsuits are still pending, as Kuntzman noted in response, and the current controversy concerns security. Kuntzman also pointed out the shifting market for luxury housing.

Security concerns a fishing expedition?

DC: So Errol, what is your sense of where the opposition is in this right now?

EL: My sense of it is... the best way to put it, fishing for striped bass, so to speak. Those of your listeners who remember the way the Westway project was killed back in the 1980s was by pushing for what in the end looked like a subsidiary issue, which was whether the Army Corps of Engineers had done an adequate environmental review of the impact of that multi-billion dollar project on the striped bass and the snail darter in the Hudson River. That actually was sufficient for a judge to issue an injunction and kill it. I think the opposition’s tactic at Atlantic Yards has always been three words: delay, delay, delay. They've kind of moved from one issue to another, and they've settled most recently on the security issue that may or may not have any substance to it.
(At right, a rendering of the AY arena from Flatbush Avenue.)

Actually, the security issue, well beyond the question of arena setbacks, was first raised in a 7/22/05 White Paper, and the security issue was raised earlier this year in the pending challenge to the state's environmental review.

And Louis didn't acknowledge that the security issue has drawn concern from elected officials like City Council Members Bill de Blasio and David Yassky and Assemblymembers Hakeem Jeffries and Joan Millman, who are not exactly opponents.

(But he still makes some of the same arguments in his column today.)

Eminent domain

Cruz asked about the status of pending lawsuits.

(Right, the corner of MSG at 31st Street and 8th Avenue)

GK: The eminent domain lawsuit… we’re waiting for the three-judge panel to issue to issue a ruling. There are some substantive issues related to whether the Empire State Development Corporation did it backwards.... It is legal, thanks to the Supreme Court Kelo [v. New London] decision, to condemn property for a private developer. What's still in question even in Kelo and obviously before the federal appeals panel is whether the state can do that knowing who the developer is, or whether the state needs to first declare the area in need of--to have its blight be remedied, and then find a developer after issuing an RFP or something like that... It seems clear that Bruce Ratner actually knew which properties he wanted to condemn before he had his approval. So there's a question about whether he did that the right way.

Actually, Kelo merely reaffirmed settled law, but also brought it to much public attention.

EL: To round that out a little bit, when the case... went to federal court, it was struck down as having no merit. So it's on appeal to see whether it can really get started.

Kuntzman called that a simplification, and Louis disagreed. Yes, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis dismissed the case, but he also neglected to address what plaintiffs consider crucial issues of sequence.

Arena security issues

Cruz asked about problems with the location of the arena.

EL: What I’ve heard is a number that is either plucked out of thin air or taken from what recently happened in Newark [right], but somehow the plans that show part of the arena being 20 feet from Atlantic Avenue and 20 feet from Flatbush Avenue is by the opponents now being declared as inadequate, susceptible to terrorist attacks.... I think it’s a red herring, or a striped bass...

It hasn't been plucked out of thin air; it was revealed belatedly by the developer two weeks ago.

EL: I work a couple of blocks from Penn Station, from Madison Square Garden, and anybody who comes up 8th Avenue can see that it’s not uncommon, or at least it hasn't been found deadly, to have the wall of an arena next to an active street. The notion that a security check wasn't done adequately... is really just one more version of trying to slow the process down and delay the process enough to kill it.

Glass v. concrete

But doesn't it depend on the composition of the wall of the arena? The wall of Madison Square Garden flush against 8th Avenue is concrete (right), while there is glass farther away from the street at the corners of 31st and 33rd streets. At this point, much of the Atlantic Yards arena would be glass (below), much like the Prudential Center, though only a portion of the Atlantic Yards arena would be near the street.

That poses a different challenge and raises the question of whether the arena is being redesigned.

Also, the Madison Square Garden situation is more complicated. According to the Brooklyn Downtown Star:A representative from Madison Square Garden did verify that the arena hosts events, such as Knicks and Rangers games and concerts, without street or lane closures. She did say, however, that after 9/11 the city decided to close a street that operated as a taxi stand and ran in between the Garden and Penn Plaza.

That street also went under a glass-walled passageway--clearly a security risk.

Kuntzman's response

GK: Errol makes a couple of good points... I don’t think 20 feet from the sidewalk to the glass wall is plucked out of thin air. That is an actual fact that Forest City Ratner and ESDC did try to conceal for a long time... Is this an attempt to grasp at straws, perhaps, but there is a fact on the ground in this case, in Newark, where the arena is also glass-walled, the Newark police department decided to close off streets on game night. Now that's an important development, because Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue are far busier than the streets that are against the Newark Prudential Center. These are things that, at the very least, whether you're an opponent or supporter, should have been at least disclosed and studied. If Flatbush Avenue or Atlantic Avenue need to be partially closed--

(Photo of an Atlantic Yards model published 5/12/06 by the New York Times.)

EL: I was on a panel the other day with the police director from Newark. If they were going to say tomorrow, well, y'know what, we’re going to change our opinion and open the streets... would that really change people’s concerns about Atlantic Yards?

Kuntzman said he thinks the security issue's a red herring but still should be studied.

GK: We're not worried about Newark. What I think the opponents are talking about is why the NYPD and the ESDC have just not spoken about this. If they really do intend to not close off a lane or two of Flatbush and Atlantic, they need to be very clear about it, they haven't studied it.... Do I think it’s a red herring, yeah, I do. I think that things in New York should be built, whether there's a threat of terrorism or not. Buildings like the New York Times Tower on 8th Avenue, Madison Square Garden, should be glass-walled. They look nice... Things potentially could be bombed. That said, the terror impact should be studied.

Traffic studied?

Cruz pointed out that the streets bordering the Prudential Center in Newark are not so well-traveled.

GK: It would certainly be a major difference, and that's why NYPD is saying it does not intend to do that.... The traffic issues relating to Atlantic Yards have barely been studied, and the project was approved... I don’t think, necessarily, that a jury of their peers would necessarily rule on the side of opponents, but it's something that needs to be discussed, and it just isn't.

NYPD neutral?

EL: I can’t claim to go through the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages of the environmental impact study, but I did see a fair amount of commentary and discussion about traffic patterns, so I don't think it's correct to say it just wasn't talked about.... If the specific question is, is there a security issue… getting out of Newark, and back to New York City.... even just across the street from where you are right now, David, the little pathway they reopened between the Tweed Building and City Hall, we're in a shifting kind of a stance, it was closed for years, allegedly for security reasons… I don’t know kind of what all is going on. But as long as there’s some sort of an airing of it from somebody that everybody acknowledges is a neutral and trustworthy party, and that would be somebody like the NYPD. I think we can maybe put that issue behind us.

(Photo of the pedestrian passageway in that closed interior "street" between 31st and 33rd streets.)

GK: I don't know if I would necessarily let you get away with saying the NYPD is neutral on this, but I have no evidence to the contrary, so I’ll leave it at that.

Nor do we have evidence, but the NYPD does work for the mayor, and the mayor supports the project.

Traffic challenges

Cruz asked Kuntzman about traffic changes associated with Atlantic Yards and Louis added some personal observations.

EL: My perspective is from living about five blocks east of the eastern boundary of the entire project. It’s a pretty serious mess right now. When I have to drive in... like any sensible person who lives near the place, you just avoid that intersection altogether. You drive through Bed-Stuy, you drive through Clinton Hill.

GK: That’s exactly what those neighborhoods are concerned about now, Errol.

EL: I've been doing that for close to 20 years now... They should've been trying to stop me before.

GK: There will be 19,000 of you and your friends on game night.

Well, no, because at least half should be taking public transit, right?

EL: Some people avoid driving through thickly trafficked areas and some people don’t.

That's an understatement.

Arena the target?

Cruz noted that Forest City Ratner considers the arena the centerpiece and oddly questioned whether it could be jettisoned as a compromise. (It's part of the architecture, and it brings huge naming rights.

GK: That’s a bit of a Trojan Horse. The larger project, millions of square feet of office space and housing, that’s actually the project.

DC: You’re saying that the arena is the last chip you can deal away.

GK: You’re mischaracterizing the opposition. The opposition has been focused very clearly on opposing the larger project.... Ratner wants the opposition to focus on the arena, frankly...

EL: Wait a minute... The eminent domain lawsuit is not about the entire parcel, it's about the portion that is supposed to be taken by eminent domain, which includes the arena parcel.

Not quite. One of the major plaintiffs is Henry Weinstein, whose property is between Pacific and Dean streets east of Carlton Avenue.

Also, the lawsuit challenging the environmental review challenges the project as a whole

Spreading the wealth

Louis explained why he likes Atlantic Yards. (Here's more.)

EL: There's a lot in the project.... There are people who like it a lot because of basketball's status as a secular religion in Brooklyn. There are people like me who don't care about professional sports in general and probably would never go to a game, but like things such as the fact that it will create some jobs and it'll create a lot of housing. There's something there for everybody, and that's kind of the whole point of the project.

Well, a lot fewer jobs than originally promised. It may seem like nitpicking to point this out, but that locution--the project "will create"--obscures the mix of private and public and tax-advantaged support needed.

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