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At MAS, AY as an example of a neighborhood planning struggle

When it comes to discussions of “David vs. Goliath,” the subject of a Municipal Art Society (MAS) Planning Center Forum on May 14, Atlantic Yards is an inevitable subject, though--as I’ll note below--the politics of AY means that more than one set of parties might consider themselves “Davids.”

(Photos by Jonathan Barkey)

The panel addressed the issue of “neighborhood planning in the face of large-scale development,” and planner/architect Stuart Pertz, in his introduction, noted that some projects are inherently large, and only work if built on a large scale. “Unfortunately, it often gets out of hand,” he said, suggesting that “Goliath in development has extraordinary leverage, using powerful lawyers, contractors, planners, and unions.” Then again, he said, “there are many Davids.”

So how empower communities? Anthony Borelli, Director of Land Use in the Office of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, said the office has tried to even the playing field by offering land use training for Community Board members, a fellowship program that assigns urban planners to community boards, and practiced “proactive planning,” exemplified by a proposal for a West Harlem Special District, a reaction to Columbia University’s expansion. (The Manhattan Borough President is far ahead of the other four borough presidents on land use issues. Unfortunately, long-underfunded community boards are seeing their budgets cut rather than raised.)

City of limits

Architect Marshall Brown (right), a developer of the UNITY plan for the Metropolitian Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard (and beyond), said, with perhaps some retrospective bravado, “Four years ago we realized we needed to have something in place for the probable occurrence of Forest City Ratner’s plans running aground.” He suggested that Atlantic Yards exemplified a “willful ignorance of limits,” including the physical limit of an eight-acre railyard, the legal limit of eminent domain, the democratic limit of ULURP (the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, bypassed in this case for a fast-track state review), and “finally, the all too evident limit of the talents of a single architect.”

He noted that he wasn’t dissing Frank Gehry, just pointing out--as have others, and even Gehry himself--that megaprojects require multiple architects.

Brown suggested that questions of sustainability and the “looming environmental apocalypse” meant that the Bloomberg administration should prioritize quality ahead of quantity: “I’d say it’s a city of limits.”

Lawyer Candace Carponter (right), a co-chair of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), described how the coalition, formed to respond to the Atlantic Yards environmental review, moved from officially agnostic to ultimately oppositional, joining a lawsuit challenging the review, and becoming a supporter of the UNITY plan. She suggested that the combination of a new governor, “detrimental economics,” and the Newark option for the Nets might provide an opening for the UNITY plan--though of course, that remains to be seen.

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, former chairman of Manhattan Community Board 9, offered an earthy explanation for his civic role: “I got involved in the Community Board to keep an eye on the S.O.B.s.” He noted that Columbia President Lee Bollinger wanted to break ground on the expansion project in 2002, the same year it was proposed.

The East Side sleeper project

Ed Rubin (right), of Manhattan Community Board 6 in East Midtown, described the board’s efforts to respond to developer Sheldon Solow, whose 6.1 million square foot proposal on three parcels between 35th and 41st Streets generated less notice than the Columbia or AY controversies. Rubin said that the CB’s own plan, as well as “an incredible Power Point,” helped the community, via Council Member Dan Garodnick, to get Solow to reduce some of the floor area, lower the office tower form 864 feet to 553 feet, pledge $10 million for a pedestrian bridge to an expected park, and include 20% affordable housing. (Not everyone's on board.)

Still, Rubin said that the Department of City Planning, under control of the mayor’s office, wasn’t much help: “Sadly, City Planning, they do rezonings, but I think their policy is, when developers come up with plans, they hold back and think they’re a reviewing agency.”

Tools needed

Moderator Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, Executive Editor, El Diario/La Prensa, pointed out that not all “Davids” and not all Community Boards are equally equipped to critique and resist development. What are the most important tools to have? Rubin noted that Manhattan CB6 had never resisted development, and that its own plan for the Solow site allowed for a significant amount of density.

Reyes-Montblanc argued similarly, saying that CB9’s alternative plan offered Columbia “80%” of what it wanted. Reyes-Montblanc noted that CB9 was able to get help from the Pratt Center for Community Development to provide recommendations and to respond to Columbia’s proposal. (Pratt's Brad Lander, who worked with CB9, has suggested it was 60%.)

Carponter said, that she’d “like to think” that when the story of Atlantic Yards is told, “the fact that we had an alternative plan” was essential. The more opponents get elected officials to support calls for change, the more they’re likely to consider the UNITY plan.

Brown said it was a matter of information (often concealed by developers), communication (tapping collective local intelligence), and storytelling (“you’ve got to tell a better story; who can argue with something as positive as UNITY?”).

ULURP gone?

Vourvoulias-Bush also referred to the rumor that Bloomberg wants to do away with ULURP. In a 5/11/08 column, headlined Mayor Bloomberg puts $2.1M on City Charter revision, Daily News columnist Kirsten Danis wrote that, “depending on various theories floating around,” would enable, among other things, a revision in “the way development deals and zoning changes are done in the city.”

(Lobbyist Richard Lipsky has commented that the phase-out of offices like the Public Advocate "could win the mayor support for what he really wants: putting his stamp on the way government works day-to-day - permanently -- and changing the way land use and development projects are approved.")

Borelli (right) said that it was essential that Community Boards have planning capacity. “Planning is not just about zoning and land use,” he said. He praised ULURP, contrasting New York with Toronto, where, without such a systematic process, development depends on a thumbs-up from the local elected officials.

The 7.5-month timeline in New York is “not that burdensome,” he said, noting that 99% of projects don’t go through ULURP because they’re not large enough. (Also, some large projects, like Atlantic Yards, have deliberately bypassed ULURP.)

News coverage

Vourvoulias-Bush also lamented the paucity of coverage regarding major development projects like Atlantic Yards and the Columbia expansion, observing that coverage is often “extraordinarily superficial,” despite clear evidence of the project proponents’ efforts to manipulate the media.

Borelli commented that it was very important to “use media.” Manhattan Community Board 4 was able to get an editorial from the New York Times backing its stance against the proposed West Side Stadium.

Brown said that, four years ago, a graphic designer friend suggested “you have a marketing problem, not an architecture problem.” Carponter said that blogs have been able to get the message out. (She might have mentioned that Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn has a blog-like news update and a--take your pick--persistent/pugnacious spokesman in Daniel Goldstein.)

She also suggested that Atlantic Yards opponents had helped push the New York Times to cover the delays in AY, culminating in the surprising front-page story March 21 declaring the project stalled.

Reyes-Montblanc said the Columbia coverage had gotten “tremendously large coverage,” most of it fair, some with “subtle pro-Columbia bias.”

Rubin observed that Atlantic Yards and Columbia actually got far more coverage in the Times than the Solow plan. (Indeed, a reporter at another newspaper told me last year that the East Side plan was receiving far less coverage related to its enormous size.)

Major newspapers, Rubin said, don’t necessarily look at a project from a community perspective and examine how the project might affect quality of life.

Some AY support

Then came a question from the audience that challenged one of the premises of the panel, that the side represented by Carponter and Brown constitutes the sole “Davids” of the Atlantic Yards battle. “Atlantic Yards means a lot of construction jobs,” asserted Martin Allen, a representative of People for Political and Economic Empowerment (PPEE), a Fort Greene-based group that tries to place construction workers at job sites and has loudly supported the project at some AY-related events, such as the Ward Bakery demolition and a community forum. “It’s a life-changing thing” for a person who can’t feed his family, Allen said.

Moderator Vourvoulias-Bush gave a partial nod to that sentiment but raised the question about whether pledges of housing and jobs in the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) are enforceable. (He’s editorialized critically about Atlantic Yards and his wife, author Jhumpa Lahiri, is on the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn advisory board. His newspaper is moving to Forest City Ratner's MetroTech.)

“Nobody’s against development,” Carponter said, suggesting it was a question of scale. She pointed out that the template for CBAs created in California involves groups that ordinarily would oppose a project--here's the definitive testimony, from Good Jobs NY-- but in Brooklyn, “the developer created seven out of eight organizations.”

(Actually, both ACORN and the New York Association of Minority Contractors were well-established, BUILD was fledgling, and the other five groups in the CBA had no track record.)

Allen was unbowed. “You all never gave the Community Benefits Agreement a chance,” he said. “You’re stopping [workers] from eating if you delay this project.” Vourvoulias-Bush moved the discussion along, apparently not wanting to turn the event into a debate about AY--after all, the amount of special subsidies granted Forest City Ratner could be brought up as a counter-argument--but the issue surfaced a bit later.

Brooklyn changing

Brown suggested that Forest City Ratner underestimated Brooklyn, thinking the borough was little changed from 1985 or 1988, when MetroTech was proposed: “The areas have come into their own.”

“Atlantic Yards is a world-class location,” Brown said. “Harlem is a famous place. It has to inform how we deal with developers.” The proximity of the AY site to the Atlantic Terminal transit hub and the Brooklyn Academy of Music means that it should’ve been seen as a source of negotiating power. (Of course, there never was a negotiation.)

Carponter noted that, after the passage of Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz “fired” nine members of Brooklyn CB6. (They weren’t reappointed.) There were similar reprisals in the Bronx after Bronx CB4 opposed the Yankee Stadium deal. By contrast, said Reyes-Montblanc, there were no reprisals in Manhattan.

The art of compromise

Did Solow really compromise or had he planned for such a scaleback, Rubin was asked. “Obviously he was pleased at the end,” Rubin said, suggesting that the CB’s backup 197-c plan was helpful. Compromise is essential, he suggested, because “an area that’s fairly well-heeled can litigate forever.”

Reyes-Montblanc suggested it might be easier to deal with a developer than an institution, since the former might compromise while the seemingly-benign institution wants all it requested.

DDDB spokesman Goldstein, from the audience, suggested that community plans could be more powerful if they gained the endorsement of construction unions, since no one opposes jobs. Borelli responded that Manhattan BP Stringer has convened a Community-Labor Task Force on Responsible Contracting.

(According to the BP’s web site, the group “is forging a broad-based consensus in favor of development that provides job opportunities for community members, safe work sites governed by fair labor practices, and real opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses.”)

The goal, he said, is to get labor unions and the community to speak in one voice. And another effort, he said, is to get union members on community boards.

In Brooklyn, so far, the “one voice” goal remains a challenge, as exemplified by the "Time Out" rally and "Build It Now" counter-protest on May 3.


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