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Jeffries on Downtown Brooklyn development reforms, AY, and the role of critics

An article published in the Courier-Life chain this week suggests that a new effort to defend the Atlantic Yards project involves comparing it to other developments nearby in Downtown Brooklyn that lack minority hiring and contracting goals and affordable housing pledges.

Indeed, the article, headlined Jeffries criticizes Ratner foes, implied that Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who represents Prospect Heights, explicitly criticized Atlantic Yards opponents, though in a later interview with me he expressed a more nuanced position, as well as a request to involve more Brooklynites in pressuring Downtown Brooklyn developers.

The article began:
A local lawmaker last week credited developer Forest City Ratner's record of working with Minority- and Women-owned Business Enterprises (M/WBE) Program thus far on the Atlantic Yards project.
At the same time, Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries took a swipe at opponents of the project for not casting the same critical eye on the billions of dollars in Downtown Brooklyn developments.
"The Downtown Brooklyn developers should be held to the same level of accountability and scrutiny as we have seen directed at the Atlantic Yards project," said Jeffries.
"It would be helpful if some of the passion directed at the Atlantic Yards project would be used as part of the effort to help the NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] residents in our community benefit from the development that is taking place in Brooklyn," he added.

Questions of tone

I asked Jeffries (right) if his comments arose at a public event, or were in reaction to questions from reporter Steve Witt (who’s often written supportively of the Atlantic Yards project). Jeffries said Witt was writing a story and called him for reaction. “He certainly accurately quoted me, but I don’t know that the tone of my comments were meant as criticism but rather as an observation about the development fights in Downtown Brooklyn," he said.

“The constructive criticism of the Atlantic Yards project has raised the standard for development in Brooklyn, which is a great thing,” he said. “The issue becomes whether we can transfer that elevated level of scrutiny to other development projects around the borough, in this case all the activity that’s taken place in Downtown Brooklyn.”

Crucial difference

Atlantic Yards has a Community Benefits Agreement, with such hiring and contracting goals and affordable housing, but such pledges were achieved in the context of a privately-negotiated zoning override. Rather than example of developer generosity, it could simply seen as a cost calculated in trade for support for development rights guaranteeing a certain rate of return, part of a package that also included
hundreds of millions of dollars in direct support and tax breaks, plus other benefits.

In other words, had the CBA signatories thought a smaller project was wiser, the developer wouldn't have afforded to make certain promises. “You have to give them something they can make money off,” said Tunisha Walker of ACORN at the “Priced Out” housing conference in November.

The Downtown Brooklyn rezoning gap

Jeffries noted that, when City Council approved the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning in 2004, the increase in development rights was intended to spur commercial development and office jobs. The market changed, which led to the unanticipated rush of residental luxury housing, without city officials requiring any affordable housing or hiring/contracting goals, even though some of the developments are near the Ingersoll, Farragut, and Whitman housing projects.

Jeffries, City Council Member Letitia James, and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, will " convene a public meeting and invite the development community to participate in a dialogue about what is scheduled to take place and how we can get real community participation in all of the economic activity.”

The Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, the quasi-public organization that spurs downtown development, has helped organize this meeting, to be scheduled in the next 45 days, though, Jeffries acknowledged, “ultimately, it’s the developers who are going to determine whether they participate.”

What carrots and sticks do public officials have at this stage? Jeffries acknowledged that it’s too late to use the tax code or zoning to nudge developers, but bond financing may play a role. If economic conditions change, and developers decide that a mixed-income building makes more economic sense, the availability of bonding for such housing could play a role.

And why should developers participate? “We are past the point where city government can use the fact that municipal approval is required to negotiate woman and minority business participation,” Jeffries said. “But I don’t think developers necessarily look at their activity on a project by project basis. To take a transactional view is very short-sighted. If their track record leaves a lot to be desired, I think it’s going to be a lot more difficult to get their desired governmental approval [for future projects] down the road.”

Concerns on Myrtle

Of particular concern to the lawmakers, Jeffries said, is the development scheduled to take place on Myrtle Avenue immediately adjacent to the Ingersoll housing project. Residents have complained that their supermarket, pharmacy, and laundromat were demolished by developer John Catsimatidis, without any notice. “We’ve been in discussion with Joe Chan and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, who are very open and willing to be helpful as it relates to the restoration of services,” he said.

The luxury housing planned “creates a great deal of uncertainty” for residents in the development, he said. Beyond the Myrtle development, plans for a tower at the Albee Square Mall site nearby, as well as activity taking place in the Brooklyn Academy of Music cultural district also raise concerns.

AY critics' role?

Taking off from the Courier-Life article, I asked Jeffries what Atlantic Yards critics should do? “What didn’t make it into the article is my observation that I can understand why Atlantic Yards has raised the passions of the community, because it’s going to be put down in the middle of three residential neighborhoods: Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, and Park Slope,” he said. “In constrast, the development taking place in Downtown Brooklyn, with exception of the activity on Myrtle, seems one step removed from residential neighborhoods.”

“As I said to Steve [Witt], it makes complete sense to me on one hand why it’s been easier to organize community residents against Atlantic Yards. That said, I think the consequences of the development that’s taking place in Downtown Brooklyn, in terms of the concerns that have been raised related to the Atlantic Yards impact on quality of life, are very similar.” He cited accelerated gentrification and challenges to traffic and transportation. (I pointed out that an arena adds an extra challenge.)

Process concerns

“And then there were a whole host of process concerns that were legitimately raised about Atlantic Yards," Jeffries added. "It’s hard to justify the Atlantic Yards process, as far as I’m concerned, prior to December 31, 2006. I think the [Gov. Eliot] Spitzer administration has attempted to be more accountable and transparent, but there's still room for progress."

“The same process concerns can also be raised, as it relates to Downtown Brooklyn, because it was a bait-and-switch. I don’t think it was intentional, But we have to look at the fact that what was originally contemplated was not done. So I think there should be a renewed discussion of how we can deal with the changed development landscape.”

Well, bait-and-switch may be a little strong, given that, as Jeffries acknowledged, what was contemplated was not achieved and the luxury housing was not the plan. It might be better to note that city officials, legislators, and community advocates were mostly unaware of the possibility. And if the new pressure might seem unfair to developers who are now just playing by the rules, it raises a question of how to reform "rules" that were established with little foresight.

(In a 5/18/06 article, the New York Observer noted that the groups FUREE and ACORN had sat out the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning two years earlier, though ACORN had recently released a report contrasting the affordable housing planned for Atlantic Yards with the absence of affordable housing in Downtown Brooklyn developments.)

The effort to engage the Downtown Brooklyn developers, Jeffries said, would best involve more Brooklynites. “If we can show the development community that all of Fort Greene is supportive of the notion of this development taking place in a way that improves the lives of the more socioeconomically disadvantaged residents, we’ll be in a much stronger position. I think the feeling is out there to be supportive of the residents of Ingersoll, Whitman, and Farragut.”