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From "Intractable Democracy": Ron Shiffman on ACORN, Atlantic Yards, and shifting his position on CBAs

In Intractable Democracy: Fifty Years of Community-Based Planning, a new collection of articles and interviews by and with people associated with the Pratt Institute City and Regional Planning Program, there's an interview with former Chair Ron Shiffman, who elsewhere in the book is saluted by Village Voice writer Tom Robbins as deserving the award for translating community advocacy to "the everyday needs of everyday people."

Given the tensions over community advocacy highlighted by the Atlantic Yards fight, with Shiffman opposing ACORN, a longtime ally, the interview is quite timely, especially given that those general tensions are given voice in the new play by The Civilians, In the Footprint.

(ACORN's Bertha Lewis is in the play, though Shiffman is not.)

Does ACORN really believe that Atlantic Yards opponents like Shiffman are, as founder Wade Rathke recently suggested, "among the vast community who were not moved by the need for affordable housing in Brooklyn"? The interview suggests otherwise.

Shiffman vs. a former student

Shiffman is interviewed by a former student, Sandy Hornick, who works for the Department of City Planning. He talks about significant successes--establishing community development corporations in places like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg--and how idealistic planners were once very optimistic about change.

The disappointments

He's tempered some of that, he tells Hornick:
There have been a lot of disappointments. I think some of the things that we had hoped and envisioned never came to pass. We really believed, in 1965, that by this year, by 2010, poverty would be abolished in this country. That's a real disappointment, not only that it has not been abolished but that it's not in our vocabulary any longer. There really isn't a strong set of social movements.

On the other hand, it may have been a totally unrealistic expectation at that point in time. There were other efforts to build housing for the homeless. Some of them did well, but a number of them failed and went to the wayside. But I've always tried to sublimate those disappointments--that's how you avoid burning out.

I am awfully frustrated with your agency [the Department of City Planning] today. In 1983, we published a report on inclusionary housing. You and I fought on that one for many, many years. Now we have a form of inclusionary housing, but it's not mandatory, and its percentages are low. That's a great disappointment I have. On one level, it's a very nice place to live-- but on the other level, it's becoming a bit more segregated than it should be, far more segregated than it should be, particularly around economic lines, and the lack of affordability is a big problem.

...I do do think there are somethings that we could have done better. We tried to start a number of New Vision schools. Some of those worked out well; some of them didn't. We lost on the Columbia University expansion. Atlantic Yards is lost. That's very painful. I'm very close to folks at ACORN and yet we fought on this issue, and we fought in a way that still allows us to be friends. And I like that, but at the same time, I think that this whole idea of community benefits agreements is basically wrong, though I may have been a proponent early on.

I guess the other failing is that some of my students become adversaries from time to time. But I love you, I must admit. There's respect in the differences.
Shiffman is a board member of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. Given his history helping ACORN when the organization first came to Brooklyn, he's one of the few Atlantic Yards opponents with deep ties to ACORN and, perhaps, one of the few who could get past some of the race- and class-baiting practiced by Bertha Lewis.

AY a "sham"

As I reported 5/29/09, Shiffman (right, photo by Adrian Kinloch) testified at a state Senate hearing on Atlantic Yards. He began by citing his long history of working with low- and moderate-income communities.

While Shiffman said he has “a great deal of respect for groups that negotiated the CBA... I totally disagree with them on this project, because I have read and reviewed the plans.”

He pointed out that the claimed 12,000 jobs would occur over a decade or two decades, not this year. “It’s a fraud to talk about this.” (The numbers are even more dubious.)

All the funding for affordable housing, he said, is money “being transferred from other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, housing that could be built right away… at a more affordable rate.”

He noted that the environmental review “shows that more low and moderate income families would be displaced than will be housed” by AY. (Actually, it’s “risk” of displacement.)

As for issues of minority hiring and contracting and affordable housing, he said “it should be part of public policy” rather than part of a CBA because it “allows the developer to literally buy” support for the project. Rather, there should be a level playing field.

He added that the promised open space would be publicly accessible but not truly public space, “it’s the courtyards of the buildings.” (He didn’t mention that the open space wouldn’t come until the unspecified Phase 2.)

Closing by calling AY a “sham,” Shiffman was met by moderate applause and little heckling, given that many project supporters had left.

In other words, it was a lost opportunity for engagement.