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On Brian Lehrer Show, NYC EDC's Pinsky avoids AY CBA discussion, misrepresents railyard, and claims he lives "a few blocks" from the site

On yesterday's Brian Lehrer Show, Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, discussed Mayor Bloomberg's economic agenda and, not surprisingly, defended the city's posture on Atlantic Yards.

But his presentation was full of contradictions. Notably, Pinsky defended Community Benefits Agreements (CBA) only if they operate in an accountable fashion very different from the process behind the Atlantic Yards CBA.

He claimed, without foundation, that the "vast majority" of land in the Atlantic Yards site was a vacant railyard.

He expressed no doubt that 4500 affordable housing units would be built, though there's no assurance subsidies would be available.

And he claimed, in an exaggeration, that he lived just "a few blocks" from the site.

Defending the deals

Early in the show, Pinsky defended most of the city's development deals, asserting that "they had to garner approval not just from City Council but various levels of city government." He made a brief mention of Atlantic Yards, stating that "50% of the 4500 rental units are going to be affordable."

While that's the announced plan, it's hardly assured. As I wrote in September:
The proposed development agreement also includes "no less than Two Thousand Two Hundred Fifty (2,250) affordable housing units, subject to governmental authorities making available to Party B or its applicable successor or assign, after good faith review by the applicable administering agency, affordable housing subsidies consistent with then applicable programs rules and standards then generally available to developers of affordable housing units."
And, of course, a good slice of the subsidized "affordable" units would be at or above market.

Endorsing Bloomberg's take on CBAs

At about 9:00, Lehrer brought up Bloomberg's public statements opposing "so-called Community Benefit Agreements," noting that the mayor calls them a shakedown by local activists. Meanwhile, activists see developers as out to use their communities.

"Does EDC oppose CBAs as apparently the mayor does, as a matter of principle?" Lehrer asked.

"I think it's important to distinguish between garnering community benefits through the legally prescribed process and CBAs," Pinsky responded. "The objection that the mayor has is that communities, and who these community members are, have often tried to make agreements separate from the political process to benefit only those communities and only specific segments of the communities in ways that are completely unenforceable by the city and also in ways that cost the city and cost city taxpayers substantial amounts of money."

However, the Atlantic Yards CBA, to which Bloomberg served as a witness and which was promoted in a city press release, was outside the political process.

"What the mayor feels is the appropriate way is to ensure that communities and the city as a whole benefit, is to use the political process that we have, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, through which the community board, the borough president, as well as the City Council are able to ensure that the communities get the benefits that they need," Pinsky concluded.

None of the three affected community boards participated in the Atlantic Yards CBA; in fact, they protested when Forest City Ratner in May 2006 claimed that the developer has misrepresented their participation in "crafting" the CBA.

An AY question

Noticing New York blogger Michael D.D. White (who also commented online) called regarding Atlantic Yards, suggesting that such megadevelopments involve large transfers of the public realm to private gain.

Lehrer cut him off--the comment wasn't concise--but asked Pinsky about Atlantic Yards and the associated CBA in particular.

Lehrer detailed some of the concerns: that none of the affordable housing might get built, but the government is still allowing the project--at least the arena--to go forward, with allowing "the developer to use eminent domain and close popular local businesses and seize people's homes. Where's the justice in that, especially if the affordable housing may not get built?"

"First of all, I think the premise of the earlier question is simply incorrect," Pinsky responded. "We have agreements with the developer that will ensure that affordable housing is in fact built."

We haven't seen those agreements and, as noted, the affordable housing is dependent on subsidies. Pinsky also ignored the contradiction between the Atlantic Yards CBA and Bloomberg's stance.

"In fact, it's likely that one of the first development parcels will be developed as an affordable project," Pinsky said, in a reference to the promise--made by Forest City Ratner and the state--that at least one tower is expected. "And that will follow very shortly after the commencement of the arena."

Misrepresenting the railyard

Also, it's important to remember that the vast majority of land on which Atlantic Yards is scheduled to be built is vacant land," said Pinsky, failing to recognize that the Vanderbilt Yard represents less than 40% of the 22-acre site.

"It's an open railyard that's divided communities among generations," he said. "And one of the goals of this project, which also has gotten a significant amount of community support--of course there are opponents, but significant surrounding communities have been very supportive of the project from the beginning--is meant to connect those communities to each other."

What "significant surrounding communities"? There are groups, notably paid CBA signatories, that support the project, but the three community boards either expressed opposition or concerns.

State vs. city

"Atlantic Yards itself is a state project," Pinsky continued. "The city has been involved. And through our involvement, we're trying to ensure that the goals that the city has are met, and we're confident they will be."

"That's sometimes the push and pull," Lehrer observed, suggesting that, while surrounding communities may like the project for the arena, shopping, and jobs, "people in the immediate community don't necessarily like it."

Street cred

"I live a few blocks from the project," responded Pinsky, exaggerating what (according to Google Maps) is a 14-minute walk from Montgomery Place and 8th Avenue in Park Slope to Freddy's Bar & Backroom (shown) or a 12-minute walk to the corner of Carlton Avenue and Dean Street, where there would be a large surface parking lot.

"And I understand there are obviously pluses and minuses," he continued. "There are pluses and minuses to any development, especially in a city like New York, where so much of it is already built out. What I also know, though, is that the current condition is not a positive one. It's not a positive one for the neighborhoods that are around that site. It's not a positive one for the the city as a whole. What we're looking to do is to balance the need to be able to pay for the development with the desires of the community as well."

Sure, that's a reasonable question: how to balance cost and environmental impact. But Pinsky can't even defend the process.

And if Pinsky is going to treat himself as a one-person focus group, let me point to the one person I know who lives in his building. My friend there doesn't like Atlantic Yards.

Meanwhile, Community Board 6, which includes Pinsky's block, opposed Atlantic Yards. And the more moderate Park Slope Civic Council, part of the "mend it, don't end it" BrooklynSpeaks coalition, finally went to court to try to stop the project.


  1. Mr. Pinsky should explain the pluses and minuses of a fixed deal bypassing ULURP, and the pluses and minuses of Brooklyn biggest proposed development bypassing any legislative vote.

    He should also explain the pluses and minuses of mischaracterizing the project site, and the pluses and minuses of a money losing arena for what is supposed to be an affordable housing project.

    He should also explain the pluses and minuses of a such a vague and elastic definition of blight as to include most of the city if the developer and agencies say so—even his pretty Montgomery Place/8th Avenue block would be blighted if ESDC wanted to say it was.


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