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Churches organize "Justice at Atlantic Yards!" protest for June 10; accountability and oversight might come before housing and jobs

In a sign of a new configuration of Atlantic Yards criticism, a group of churches, mostly from central Brooklyn and led by Rev. Clinton Miller of the Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Clinton Hill, is organizing a "Justice At Atlantic Yards" protest on June 10.

Protesters, including parishioners from some 25 congregations, as well as others from the overall Brooklyn community including some active Atlantic Yards critics from BrooklynSpeaks, will gather at 3 pm at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and South Portland Avenue, just north of the Barclays Center arena.

Several elected officials are expected to speak, though the line-up isn't yet set. Miller has a longtime close relationship with Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who joined state Sen. Eric Adams and Assemblyman Karim Camara at a press conference in January expressing their outrage at the lack of results.

Listed after Miller on the poster are the Rev. Mark Taylor of Church of the Open Door in Fort Greene and the Rev. Conrad Tillard of Nazarene Congregational United Church of Christ in Bed-Stuy. Some of the church leaders involved have previously expressed concern or opposition, while others have not. Project opponents Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn are promoting the rally, too.

Goal: fairness

The goal--"Stronger Oversight & the Housing and Jobs Promised!"--is a very difficult one, because the housing and jobs were premised on a full buildout of the project over ten years.

However, given the rather gentle oversight by the Empire State Development Corporation (aka Empire State Development), the state agency overseeing the project, developer Forest City Ratner was given 25 years to build the project. Forest City faces specific penalties only for delays on three towers on the arena block and one tower elsewhere, and has repeatedly delayed the start of the first tower.

(Note that the 300 units of affordable housing in the poster is the minimum required over 12 years; Forest City Ratner surely would say it aims to build more units, and faster. And the developer's plan to hire some 1900 people for part-time arena jobs, however much those are not careers, should win some community support. But Forest City has continually fudged projections regarding permanent jobs.)

Talking with Miller, I pointed out that urging fulfillment of the promises might be seen as playing into Forest City Ratner's presumed effort to gain more public subsidies; Miller said he didn't support additional subsidies.

And while ESD now appears willing to accommodate some measure of community input, that's not the same as a governance body with representatives appointed by elected officials.

Nor is it a commitment to breaking up the site into several parcels and letting other developers bid, a proposal that echoes the community-derived UNITY plan and could deliver faster results--but was rejected by ESD CEO Kenneth Adams.

"When I talk about it on Sundays, it’s a matter of fairness," Miller said. "If taxpayers aren’t getting a benefit, that’s when they start to voice their displeasure." (At a meeting with Adams last September, Miller called for a a more "triangular" version of development, which involves the community.)

Beyond that, when such development helps cause indirect displacement--a trend already in process--people in the congregation are further dismayed, he said.

His congregation, Miller said, has generally not opposed the arena outright, but thought "whatever is done should be done fairly." And the use of eminent domain, and generous deals on public land for the developer, he said, are signs the project has not proceeded fairly.

Not a boycott, but a response

Miller was careful not to use the term boycott, and surely recognizes that the arena will serve diverse audiences depending on the events promoted.

But he said that "if something is not immediately done on the part of the state and the developer, we’re pledging not to go the arena." That may be more symbolic than significant, but it indicates the taint that the arena can't shake off.

The legacy of Battle for Brooklyn

The rally poster suggests a reference to the film Battle for Brooklyn, quoting a memorable line from Mayor Mike Bloomberg at the June 2005 signing of the Community Benefits Agreement (which Bloomberg signed as a witness): "You have Bruce Ratner's word. That should be enough for you."

On April 27, Brown Memorial sponsored a showing of that documentary, which tells the story of the project by focusing on activist Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. And though Goldstein is not exactly a stand-in for the Brown congregation, which is Baptist and mostly black, the audience gave the film, and Goldstein, hearty applause.

(In a rather odd moment during the post-film panel discussion, Council Member Letitia James invited audience member James Caldwell of Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement signatory BUILD, to joint the panel. Audience members did not seem swayed by Caldwell's recounting that, at least for this development, "we" were at the table.)

Miller said he's had occasional, frustrating interaction with representatives of Forest City Ratner and even Irina Pavlova, Mikhail Prokhorov's deputy, but hasn't talked with them recently.

Justice, accountability, and credibility

If the aspiration is justice, accountability might be more achievable. What might accountability look like?

For one thing, I'd suggest, Forest City should hire the Independent Compliance Monitor promised in the Community Benefits Agreement. That would replace the developer's self-reporting of statistics in ways that mislead the public.

For example, the developer reports on minority- and women-owned business contracting without mentioning whether those numbers meet the goals in the CBA. It reports the number of construction workers without explaining what the (lower) full-time equivalent would be.

When at the 4/26/12 press conference at the Barclays Center I encountered Delia Hunley-Adossa, who chairs the CBA coalition, I asked when an ICM would be hired.

"Forthcoming," she responded. Only CBA signatories can enforce the CBA, but elected officials, and project backers could add their voice. After all, CBA signatory Bertha Lewis once responded to CBA doubters by citing the compliance monitor.

The ESD, and Cuomo's legacy

As for Empire State Development (ESD), the state agency lost twice in court (and is appealing) in the case challenging the project timetable. The agency did not study the impact of the 25-year project buildout it allowed, and withheld a document--the Development Agreement--that made that 25-year buildout clear.

In other words, the ESD, in the eyes of critics, has lost credibility. Should Gov. Andrew Cuomo truly care about his legacy--even if he looks forward to a ribbon-cutting, even if he inherited a project he might have shaped differently--shouldn't he make changes, such as enacting governance reform, to achieve credibility? (Or might Atlantic Yards be part of opposition research for his presumed 2016 presidential run?)

At a 9/26/11 community meeting, the ESD's Adams said, "We’re still fully confident that Forest City is going to build this whole thing and, over time, deliver all the promised benefits."

There's much reason for doubt. That was nearly months before Forest City Ratner announced a plan to build all the towers via modular construction to save money--likely lowering the number of workers and almost certainly reducing cumulative salaries and thus tax revenues. The state has performed no new recalculation.

At the same time, Bruce Ratner said, that "existing incentives" don't work for high-rise, union-built affordable housing, even though that's what he proposed--and the state approved.

In the Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding, the developer pledged that 50% of the subsidized units, in terms of floor area, would be larger (2BR and 3BR) units. That pledge is not being met with the first building, even after a tweak in configuration in response to criticism.

The political dynamic

Beyond the Cuomo administration's general support, the political dynamic favors the status quo. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn favors the project, and has blocked any oversight hearing, despite requests from Brooklyn Council Members Letitia James and Brad Lander.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver also favors the project, and has stymied--either directly or implicitly--any oversight hearings. Thus local legislators like Jeffries and Assemblyman Jim Brennan, the latter of whom chairs the Committee on Corporations and thus has oversight over ESD, are hampered.