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Push for AY Development Trust begins; how much power would it have?

As elected officials and community representatives from the BrooklynSpeaks coalition gathered yesterday to support the creation of the “Atlantic Yards Development Trust” to oversee the project, one thing became clear: while such an organization--common with other large projects and thus a glaring weakness of the AY plan--certainly might channel public input, it would be unlikely to fundamentally change power dynamics.

Among the 15 voting members of the trust, eight would be appointed by the governor, two each by the Assembly Speaker, Senate President, and Mayor of New York, plus one by the Brooklyn Borough President. A non-voting member would be appointed by the Stakeholder Council, which would represent local residents.

Such an organizational structure is par for the course; it mirrors the Hudson River Park Trust, which is similarly is governor-controlled. “A balance has to be struck between making sure we maximize community input and the reality of getting legislation passed,” said Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (at dais), a sponsor of the bill, which is likely to receive serious consideration not this legislative session but the next one.

But whether such a trust could actually respond to local concerns, as City Council Member David Yassky put it, about buildings being too tall, and traffic and environmental problems, is another question. Jeffries suggested that the yet-to-be negotiated ground lease for the project gave the state--and, presumably, the trust should it emerge--some leverage.

Kent Barwick of the Municipal Art Society, a major component of BrooklynSpeaks, said the trust aimed not to take the governor’s power away “but get the public’s voice in the discussion.” Barwick (at right in photo) said public involvement was needed because it’s “just basic civics” and also because “large-scale public projects in New York take a long, long time;” such continued oversight is even “in the interest of the developer.”

Public promises

The group gathered on the steps at City Hall yesterday morning. "Atlantic Yards is a public project built on public land using public money overseen by a public entity for a public purpose," Jeffries declared. "It therefore deserves maximum public participation." (Actually, as Eric McClure of NoLandGrab pointed out, some of those statements deserve footnotes. Update: AY is more accurately a public-private partnership.)

“This developer has promised thousands of units of affordable housing. We want to make sure that affordable housing is built,” Jeffries said. “This developer has promised to build this project in a responsible fashion. We want to make sure this project is built responsibly. This developer has promised thousands of jobs and economic opportunity for women- and minority-owned business. We want to make sure those promises are met.”

Assemblyman Jim Brennan (at left in photo), a co-sponsor of the bill along with Jeffries and Assemblywoman Joan Millman (and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery in the Senate), noted that the governing agency, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) “has been in turmoil."

"In the meantime," he added, "we have a paper concept that, that as it gets tested in the marketplace, continues to show increasing costs, a lack of accountability, and an uncertain future, as the city and state has given the developer up to 12 years before deeming the project to be abandoned." (Actualy, it's 12 years to build Phase 1.) "This is unacceptable to the people of the community, to be forced to deal with a project of virtually indefinite duration, indefinite cost, and no accountability.”

Yassky spoke up for the role of the City Council in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, which was bypassed under the ESDC’s management: “The fundamental mistake that was made here, really the original of this project, is that it was approved in a way that went around all the usual process for approving a big project... We never had a chance to fix all the problems... I believe there is, somewhere buried underneath all the... special treatment, very deep in there, there is a good project, but the process never had a chance to find it.”

Mend it, don’t end it

Yassky’s statement was a reminder that the elected officials, as well as the civic groups that are part of BrooklynSpeaks, follow the “mend it, don’t end it” philosophy regarding Atlantic Yards. Not participating in the press conference were any representatives of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, which has organized two lawsuits still challenging the project.

Thus the presence of City Council Member Letitia James, who represents the project footprint and is the project’s leading political opponent, seemed a covery-your-bases bow to pragmatism. She thanked her colleagues “for stepping up and recognizing that what this project needs is accountability and transparency.”

James echoed Yassky in saying that developer Forest City Ratner “should not be given any further public money until people know what this project is.” Given that they’ve already denounced additional subsidies, I’m assuming they meant already pledged money.

Indeed, Yassky noted that the developer has already gotten $55 million, “and nobody here can tell me when we’ll see the first affordable housing, $55 million when our public housing is falling apart, our schools are underfunded.” In the future, he said, the trust could say, “Not so fast.”

“This notion that this project is a done deal is a false notion,” James declared. “This project is far from done.”

ULURP redux?

When a spectator, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn supporter Susan Metz, noted that she supported the alternative UNITY plan and asked whether the ULURP process could be reinstated, Jeffries’ answer was brief, and general. “It’s something that we’re looking at,” he said. “Our colleague, Assemblyman Brennan, has taken the lead. I certainly expect we will all work together.”

Brennan, in fact, has drafted a bill that would put Atlantic Yards through a very fast-track version of ULURP by the end of the year. Given that the bill was not even mentioned at the press conference yesterday, it’s safe to say that a revision would be needed before it could gather even local support.


  1. Removing ESDC from the Atlantic Yards picture opens up a lot of possibilities but whether changing oversight over Atlantic Yards (development in the Vanderbilt Yards area) from one gubernatorially controlled entity to another gubernatorially entity will improve public input, and more importantly “fundamentally change power dynamics” is going to depend on other underlying essentials which can and need to be addressed in this process. To “fundamentally change power dynamics” ESDC’s ill-conceived notion that Ratner has some sort of theoretical monopoly on development in the area needs to be jettisoned.

    ESDC’s spokesman’s statement in the AYR post above that ESDC’s goal in lobbying Washington right now is to “maximize the amount of tax-exempt bonds” for Ratner shows how ESDC sets it sites on the wrong goals when it comes to dealing with Ratner, basically supporting disequilibrium where Ratner gets the negotiating power and the benefit. For more on this and ESDC’s cockeyed and unworkable premise that its OK to award Ratner a theoretical monopoly on the development of 22 acres first and“negotiate” subsidy later see the comment at:

    Treating Ratner as having a theoretical monopoly on development in the Atlantic yards area makes it virtually impossible to negotiate with him in more ways than one. It facilitates Ratner’s recent bullying threats to leave the public with a Ratner-created-wasteland unless the public antes up more subsidy in an amounts he has not yet even specified. Further, “fundamental” “power dynamics” are also affected by such a “monopoly” because a monopoly precludes other developers becoming part of the dynamics as an economic constituency with whom the public can ally in moving toward better plans and design.

    It is of primary importance that Ratner’s theoretical monopoly on development in the area of Atlantic Yards be roundly disavowed. There is no reason to give the idea any credence or legitimacy. This is not an approved project. Subsidies, financing and a multitude of other arrangements for the Ratner vision of Atlantic Yards have never been approved and the Ratner vision also needs to go back to the PACB before it can ever move forward. The Ratner vision is also already a far different project than the Ratner vision that George Pataki tried to ram through in the final days of his administration. Plus, there are many more changes to come beyond Ms. Brooklyn’s recent conversion to the stack of discarded pizza boxes which Gehry now refers to as “Building 1.”

    Ergo- Remove ESDC from the picture and, more important, remove Ratner from the picture as the “monopoly-developer.”

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York


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