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Meeting on revision of UNITY plan draws large crowd; development principles may be applied to Phase 2 AY site, but political pressure needed

There's some new life in the Atlantic Yards opposition, it seems, as a meeting last night on the UNITY4 plan--a revision of a blueprint for an community-driven alternative use of part of the Atlantic Yards site--drew some 140 people, packing an Atlantic Avenue space known as The Commons.

While some veteran (and weary) Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn activists organized the meeting at the behest of Council Member Letitia James (right, with Daniel Goldstein, center, and Marshall Brown), the meeting not only drew people long associated with the BrooklynSpeaks coalition--once more of a mend-it-don't-end-it contrast with DDDB, now more of an ally--but those new to the struggle.

It was a preliminary meeting, to be followed up in the fall, but it was clear that the effort to revise the UNITY principles--regarding open space, transportation, multiple developers, and street connections--is as much political as anything.

And, despite the presence of three City Council members--and the support of representative state officials who were in Albany for the last week of the legislative session--it will be a challenge to wrest control from the unelected Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and to elect city and borough candidates in 2013 who support an alternative vision for the project site.

(The discussion applied mainly but not exclusively to the Phase 2 site, east of Sixth Avenue and the arena block.).

That said, there's clearly political space now, and perhaps more next year. Quoting BrooklynSpeaks' Gib Veconi, DDDB's Daniel Goldstein noted that, when the arena opens in September 2013, "that's when the outcry will really get much louder, and politicians will have to wake up, because they're going to hear a lot of complaints… or when Forest City Ratner comes back for more money, or some other favor from ESDC or the state, that's another time when a negotiation can take place."

[In an interesting piece of timing, Harvard University is reported to be considering multiple developers and smaller projects to revive a stalled major expansion.]

(Photos by Gilly Youner)

James's speech

"We have witnessed graft, corruption, staged rallies, investigations, and we are sickened by our government, which unfortunately has turned a blind eye," James said.

The arena rises, she said, "but everything else remains in doubt… Can we engineer the project into something that serves the common good" and flows from core values and principles in the UNITY plan. "It is clear that the original plan… is nothing more than a pipe dream."

"I don't know about you, but I'm not prepared to surrender my community to a developer," James said.

Adjusting to the realities

Ron Shiffman, a DDDB board member, former City Planning Commissioner, and longtime head of the Pratt Center for Community Development, said, "The reason we are revisiting the UNITY plan is not to promote the plan we have now," though he noted the principles--connect the streets, multiple parcels for multiple developers, make park space public--are valid.

"We recognize the realities we see," he noted, citing construction of the arena and one tower. "We don't want to see the vast sea of surface parking dominating that for a decade or more. So one of the things we'd really like to look at… the reality that the plan will take far longer than originally envisioned--that gives us a reason to re-engage in the planning process."

He noted that the current decisionmakers--the Borough President, the Mayor, and other elected officials--will be gone for 2013--which means activists must produce a new vision and find support from new electeds. "I'm old enough to remember the first set of plans for that site in the 60s," he said, noting the failed effort to build a campus for Baruch College. "Plans change. They're modified. There's a history of these kinds of modifications."

"We've lost two important issues. One is the building of the arena. The second is the misuse of eminent domain," he said somberly. "It doesn't mean we have to lose the other issues…. reconnecting community across Atlantic Avenue. It doesn't mean we can't develop a transportation plan… that serves the needs of the entire set of communities around the arena. We also have to make a commitment to try to fight for the affordable housing… so it's truly affordable, not the charade that was presented to us."

(That, of course, raises the question of whether more, and disproportionate, subsidies should be directed to the site.)

"We need to develop an open and equitable process of planning," Shiffman added.


Gib Veconi of BrooklynSpeaks reported on several ongoing issues. First, there's a pending legal challenge, filed by both BrooklynSpeaks and DDDB, that aims to stay further construction unless the state studies the impact of 25 years of construction.

"Atlantic Yards was conceived by the developer… to get an unprecedented level of control," Veconi said, not just 22 acres but governmental services. It can be fixed, he said, if the state legislature agrees to direct the ESDC to establish an ongoing subsidiary, as with nearly all large development project. (Bills are pending, and BrooklynSpeaks urges letters.)

Veconi noted that James and the Borough President's Office have set up the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet, a platform for getting information from and posing issues to the developer and involved agencies. The next meeting is at Borough Hall on July 14 at 9:30 am.

And, in the absence of transparency and meaningful oversight, community members have established Atlantic Yards Watch. Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association explained that it allows people to file concerns and submit stories.

Such filings can concern traffic, open space, liquor licenses. "We can actually use our community knowledge, and share information," he said. "ESDC does not do interagency cooperation. They do not monitor 311. Really, what we're trying to do is create a platform for people being impacted by the project to explain how they're being impacted."

Beyond that, added Veconi, a compilation of concerns can bolster the legal case that the ESDC did not fully anticipate potential impacts.


Goldstein mentioned the new documentary film Battle for Brooklyn, which (he didn't say) features him as protagonist. "The narrative about the Atlantic Yards fight is one that Forest City Ratner… wants to control, and this film makes it impossible for them to do that," Goldstein said.

The more the community can take back the narrative, the more it can make arguments about a new plan.

Goldstein said the current status of the site is uncertain. "What's crucially important is that Phase 2… is not fully under Forest CIty Ratner's control, as far as we know," he said.

"There are various points of leverage to get the land back," he said, citing Veconi's observation about political pressure points.

Updating the 2007 proces

Hunter College Planning Professor Tom Angotti went through some elements of the 2007 planning process, which followed up on a 2004 planning process. Some 80 people spent a whole day talking with professional planners and architects to produce ideas fleshing out the principles.

"The doomsday scenario… out of scale development," he said, describing the plan as announced. "Perhaps 20 years of construction noise," he said, "anticipating that the promise that it would be done in three to five years was sort of a lie." (The project was supposed to take a decade; the first phase was to take four years.)

"The second scenario was, what if only the first phase were completed," he said, citing the arena and four buildings. Now, there'd be one, perhaps two buildings, but "beyond that, everything is up in the air."

"The Community Room, which is really a fancy term for the lobby, was basically nixed," he said, referring to the Urban Room, now replaced by a plaza.

Improved affordable housing would require a new Community Benefits Agreement, 60% affordable to Brooklyn residents (compared to a much), all units built on site, "not off in Brownsville" (actually, off-site for-sale units behind the announced 2250 rentals were part of the plan, but Brownsville's never been mentioned), 40% owner-occupied, and a guarantee of permanent affordability. (Again, that would be costly.)

An improved transit plan would increase subway and bus service, enforce parking rules, implement congestion parking prices, and add more traffic calming measures, mandate indoor bike parking in all buildings, and ensure curbside bicycle racks on every block, he said.

"Way back then, four years ago… there were better ideas, there were better visions, community visions, for the future of the site," he concluded.

Illustrating UNITY

Marshall Brown, professor of architecture and urban design at the Illinois Institute of Technology and a former Fort Greene resident, described the UNITY plan with a three-minute video.

"Congratulations to all of you who have been dealing with all this," Brown commented said. "You have made history… and you have become part of a much longer history about the history of this site."

"Number two, I'm going to say something that's sounds especially contrarian," he added. "It's not about the arena, it's about the future of your neighborhood… coming up with a strategy about how to get site control… and land stewardship."

Lander on the politics

Council Member Brad Lander praised community members (including me) for "mak[ing] sure no detail goes unchallenged" and praised colleague James for "what she has done to hold the political space."

"What this presentation shows is that there's lots of room to do right on the site," he said. The project will not resemble "what's originally proposed… and the real question is, where does the political space come from."

And that's not simple. Still, he said, " I really believe there is a deep hunger for a different thinking about what develop and neighborhoods and land use planning and community look like in New York City. It's almost hard to remember it…. that there are other ways of thinking about responsible development…. And candidates… who can connect to that desire…. I think will have much more success."

He pointed to a hearing on living wage policy that cited experiences in Los Angeles. "It's clear their economic development agency is 180 degrees from our economy development agency," he said. "We can elect someone in 2013, at the citywide level and boroughwide level," who articulates a vision that resonates with communities.

"You can't just get by saying Bloomberg was bad," Lander said. "You have to articulate a positive vision for land-use development… It has to include a plan for the Atlantic Yards site that meets those tests."

However, given that the site is currently controlled by the ESDC, it won't be easy to get such control.

[There's no more video from this point; my batteries died.]

Council Member Levin

It was notable that James, a die-hard Atlantic Yards opponent, was joined by Lander, who came later to opposition, and 33rd District Council Member Stephen Levin, who was elected even as he had a much more fence-sitting posture on Atlantic Yards compared to most of his rivals in 2009. Perhaps it's a recognition that the arena, however it will be portrayed as a boon to the borough, will slam the neighborhoods around it.

"I look at this as kind of a moment of opportunity," said Levin (right), who contrasted today's economic scenario with that in 2003, when the project was proposed. "That world doesn't exist any more... We don't have the velocity of capital and this kind of crazed development culture that was prevalent ten years ago."

"I'm all ears, I want to be a partner," he said.

Commented Goldstein, "I sense some disempowerment among our city elected officials... We need advocates in Albany that can crack the stranglehold that Ratner and ESDC have over the site."

He suggested attendees form a working group to address the politics of the issue.


While the meeting was initially planned to break up into small working groups, the unanticipated turnout--filling the space--made that untenable, so the rest of the meeting was devoted to a Q&A.

"We want to kick off a six to nine month planning period," Shiffman said, culminating in a structured charette to make plans for the site.

James said that ESDC head Kenneth Adams, a Brooklynite, was willing to meet with local community groups, and that she and others were putting together a letter of invitation.

Shiffman observed that the ESDC, formally the New York State Urban Development Corporation, was established in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination to build affordable housing in the suburbs and break down segregation, but had come "to undermine every one of the principles Martin Luther King stood for."

Noticing New York's Michael D. D. White commented that Forest City Ratner will seek subsidies that should be going to other developers for more worthy project and said the group should aim to ensure that doesn't happen--and even aim to cap the subsidy.

"It seems counterintuitive," said Stuart Pertz, an architect and planner who advises BrooklynSpeaks, "but all the developers in the city of New York could be our ally," because the UNITY plan offers multiple development sites that could be bid out to them.

Shiffman added that such smaller sites could all be built concurrently, rather than at Forest City Ratner's pace.

City and state

Marilyn Gelber, a former top aide to Borough President Howard Golden, commented that "the threshold mistake here" was the city's willingness to cede oversight to the state. Given that the state has divested itself of projects like Governor's Island and Brooklyn Bridge Park, she asked if there was any chance of that happening, especially since many of the upcoming steps in the project "are largely city functions."

"That is my objective," James said, charging, "I also believe that this 1100-space surface parking lot is illegal." (Note that a surface parking lot was approved, though not at the size to which it ultimately has grown. She didn't say what the grounds of a lawsuit might be.)

Subsidiary impact

Brown commented that Atlantic Yards exemplifies worldwide trends where cities--with the exception of perhaps places like Portland, OR--are letting private developers hold sway, "and I don't know if it's going to be reversed."

Indeed, Shiffman later observed that Forest City Ratner serves essentially as the state subsidiary, controlling the important decisions regarding the project and site.

Still, Brown (left) said that the volunteer responses, up to an including Atlantic Yards Watch, show the possibility of citizen response.

The subsidiary, Goldstein observed, could address some issues regarding how arena is run, such as when is last call to serve alcohol, which has implications for the neighborhood around it.

Howard Kolins of the Boerum Hill Association cited the meeting June 14 at Borough Hall, which offered "another example of something being explained to us, without adequate governance," given the lack of evaluation of the traffic mitigation plans that have alarmed people in Boerum Hill. "The traffic nightmare could be a blessing because it could enable us to reach out to more people."

Uniting Brooklyn?

And though Brooklynites in neighborhoods near the arena site may be primarily concerned about project impacts, James observed that those in Central Brooklyn are upset about broken promises regarding jobs and housing. "And now they're all calling me and saying, 'I guess you were right,' and I hang up," she said, somewhat melodramatically.

Columbia University psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove, author of Root Shock, suggested there's an opportunity to address issues like jobs that divided the borough by race and class. "This is economically a terrible time for people of color in the city," she said.

"I think the urban design principles of the first UNITY plan are fabulous," she said, "but that this new planning process might be used in a new way... [to] talk about how to develop this deeper unity."

James said she agreed. "If we truly celebrate diversity, all of us should be demanding affordable housing," she said.

Of course, had city and state officials responded to such concerns, Forest City Ratner would not have been able to tap such desires with promises hardly fulfilled.

Long-term impacts

James said that, while the turnout at the event was impressive it must be doubled or tripled at a political forum for the 2013 race to have impact.

Brown offered perhaps the longest-term view. "What we're about to start doing is not for us, it's for them," he said of attendees' children.


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