At hearing on environmental review, some surface consensus on timing; electeds call for new oversight, including of impacts; Forest City speaks; housing partner hints at de Blasio boost
Build Atlantic Yards now, they said, to deliver the benefits, predominantly affordable housing, given the promised 2250 subsidized units among 6430 apartments in 16 towers, only one under construction.
But it wasn’t that simple, given vastly different levels of trust in the developer, That's why the atmosphere inside the auditorium at Long Island University sometimes got heated in a hearing that began shortly after 5:30 pm, lasted past 10 pm, and drew perhaps 140 people, a majority of them project critics. Proponents want hands off, critics a new oversight entity.
Atlantic Yards supporters, many working off the same talking points, called for an expedited review and approval of the pending documents before Empire State Development (ESD), the state agency charged with overseeing and promoting Atlantic Yards: the Draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (Draft SEIS) and changes to the Modified General Project Plan to cut parking and shift some bulk from Phase 1 to Phase 2.
“Benefits cannot be realized if there continues to be litigation regarding the project,” stated numerous people, including union members, representatives of Business Improvement Districts, and those connected to the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement, but also others who cited benefits like jobs or new business. “It is very important that we do not put any more restraints on this project.” (See talking points at bottom, distributed by Forest City.)
But ESD (also known as Empire State Development Corporation) in 2009 agreed to let Forest City have 25 years, rather than the oft-cited ten years (and the 15-year period studied in the environmental review, on the effects if delayed), to build the project and a state judge slammed the agency for misleading the public, and thus ordered this new environmental review.
The first tower, B2, was delayed as Forest City conceived its cost-saving modular plan, and a once-announced two-year construction schedule has been delayed another year.
Three types of critics
So the critics most concerned with affordable housing, associated with the BrooklynSpeaks coalition—long concerned with improving rather than stopping the project—said build it now, but don’t let Forest City have 25 years, because gentrification is driving poorer people--especially African-Americans--out of the area near the project.
Others, primarily neighbors closest to the project associated with the Dean Street Block Association, described a regular series of intrusions from poorly-managed construction, often cited on Atlantic Yards Watch, stressed new oversight to ensure their safety. (The Draft SEIS suggests that construction oversight has been sufficient, but at the same time promises new measures.)
And another group, mainly associated with Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), which tried to stop the project, stressed the continuing reasons to distrust Atlantic Yards, its overseer, and its sponsor, especially since Forest City has recently announced plans to sell 70% of the remaining project to the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group, which presumably would be even less accountable.
|During a break, Kenneth Adams, in red tie, talks with|
Jimmy Greenfield of Prospect Heights, with ESD staffer
Marion Phillips III looking on. Photo: Norman oder
“Mr. Adams, I’m going to tell you now, the alternatives need to be studied before this Final Environmental Impact Statement comes out, or ESDC’s going to have a problem,” Carponter declared, calling out ESD CEO and President Kenneth Adams, a Brooklynite who was the first ESD head to attend such an Atlantic Yards public hearing.
Carponter said ESD shouldn't rely on its contract with Ratner to remain in the status quo, as it's claimed, "when the basis of the contract was an illegal SEIS." She asserted that it would be simple to get out of the contract.
(Also see follow-up interview with Adams.)
Public officials, press, and community boards
The few elected officials who spoke—Assemblyman Walter Mosley and Public Advocate Letitia James, plus representatives for state Senator Velmanette Montgomery and Assemblyman Jim Brennan—mainly leaned toward the first two groups of critics, supporting a new oversight entity and asking for a longer time to review an extensive document.
Whether they'll get their way is another question, given the political juice behind the project, including developer Bruce Ratner's connections to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
New 35th District Council Member Laurie Cumbo was distinctly undecided, in contrast to predecessor James, who forcefully opposed Atlantic Yards from her Council seat.
New Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams—in contrast with his predecessor, longtime project booster Marty Markowitz--didn’t show up or send a rep to testify. (Update: I was told he was out of town. Then again, as shown in his appearance at Mayor Bill de Blasio's announcement of a new affordable housing plan, Adams is a vocal proponent of building.)
Also sitting out the hearing were Council Members Steve Levin and Brad Lander, who have previously testified in Atlantic Yards hearings and whose predecessors appeared at 2006 hearings, and Council Member Joan Millman, who testified in 2006/
As a sign of the relatively low valence of Atlantic Yards in 2014, none of the daily newspapers nor TV outlets sent reporters. Here's Brooklyn Paper coverage, which focuses on Public Advocate Letitia James's quote and cites Forest City spokeswoman Ashley Cotton as blaming long-past litigation and the financial crisis for delays--though that has nothing to do with the last several years.
Also, though there's a professed "tug of war" among three community boards to include Atlantic Yards, no one from Community Board 2--which wants to include the whole project--spoke at the hearing. Nor did anyone from Community Board 6, which has been quiet about the dispute.
Three members of Community Board 8--which has resisted CB 2's move--spoke, two (Wayne Bailey, Robert Puca) critical of the Draft SEIS, one (Meredith Staton) in support of the project. Also, Community Board 8 Chair Nizjoni Granville was in the audience but didn't testify.
The hearing was supposed to last until 9 pm but extended more than an hour past that. Several people who signed up to speak didn't stick around.
Harmonizing the differences
It took the final speaker of the evening, after many people had left—though Forest City’s crew, many ESD staffers, and Adams took it in—to try to harmonize the differences.
“It’s very clear from this evening, whether you're a stalwart supporter of Forest City Ratner or asking for greater accountability for Atlantic Yards, we all agree the project should move a lot sooner,” declared Danae Oratowski of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC), a component of BrooklynSpeaks. “Actually, it appears that this is what Forest City Ratner wants too. Because in last week, they made several announcements, they expected that, with the help of [new joint venture partner] Greenland Holdings, they expected to begin building three buildings within the year.”
Given that a state court said it was illegal to change the deadline without disclosing potential impacts, Oratowski said crisply, “in light of that, why doesn't Forest City Ratner simply drop its pursuit of a 25-year buildout, refer back to the 10-year buildout—which is still technically in effect--and agree to new terms and real remedies for nonperformance to get the job done. Good night.”
She drew applause but no answer, because, it seems, however much Forest City aims to build faster, it does not want constraints.
New hints about housing
Near the end of the hearing came a hint that, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, a longtime project supporter, the dynamic might change further. (He was supposed to announce his plan to build or preserve 200,000 units today, but it has been put off.)
|Ismene Speliotis; photo by Jonathan Barkey|
(Atlantic Yards was essentially a private rezoning for one developer, with affordable housing a selling point to gain control of some crucial property. In retrospect, the previous administration clearly failed in not requiring affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhood like Downtown Brooklyn, where a rezoning, ostensibly for new office construction, brought luxury towers.)
“Do I think B2 had enough two-bedroom apartments?” Speliotis declared forcefully. “No. And I have testified about that before. Trust me, Forest City Ratner knows exactly how I feel. And the mayor of New York knows exactly how I feel.”
“Is the next tower and the one after that and the one after that going to have more two-bedrooms and three- bedrooms?” she asked rhetorically, hinting at some promises from City Hall. “Absolutely.” (The first tower has far fewer family-size units than Forest City promised in the housing Memorandum of Understanding signed with ACORN, with no three-bedroom units and only 35 two-bedroom affordable units, among 181 apartments.)
“Does the current tower have affordability?” Spelitotis continued. “Yes. I do not know why you cannot understand that there are apartments for people making $25,000 a year, $40,000 a year, $67,000 a year, $100,000 a year, and $126,000 a year. That is what is in B2. And it will actually be better under the new mayor.” (Actually, the 2012 numbers are higher, and will be higher when it opens in 2015.)
“I'm glad we didn't build more under the old mayor. Because I have hope, under the new mayor, that we are going to do better,” she said. “But we're only going to do better if we stop suing, come together, and actually really push the developer, with the city, in partnership, to get the right affordability, the right unit mix, noise mitigation, traffic mitigation. All of that stuff—I agree, transparency. All that is good. But we are losing our neighborhood While. We. Fight. Each. Other.”
Speliotis’s passionate performance drew applause, though she was essentially asking people who had long reason to distrust Forest City and its government overseers to trust them.
Forest City speaks
Whether an admission of vulnerability or just a new strategy, for the first time Forest City Ratner spoke at an ESD public hearing. (Representatives of the developer did testify before City Council twice, but did not testify at a state Senate oversight hearing in 2009.)
In fact, though public officials have always been given the privilege of commenting first, Forest City Ratner Senior VP Jane Marshall got to start. (While it was plausible to have the developer speak early on, ESD didn't explain why. The hearing was to take public testimony, not to answer questions.)
“The main point that I want to make to ESD and the public at large is that Forest City is and remains fully committed to completing Atlantic Yards as expediously [sic] as possible,” Marshall said, reading a statement rapidly and making little eye contact with the crowd. “This includes building 2250 affordable housing units and providing all of the public benefits.”
“We fully recognize that we have obligations to complete these parts of the projects. And together with our partner Greenland Holding Group, we fully intend to meet all of those obligations.”
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Marshall noted that the first building was in construction, and design for the second on the arena block, B3 (now the site of bike parking), was in process. And they intend to launch two buildings on Block 1129, the southeast block and the site of a surface parking log, “as soon as possible,” One will be condos, another will have affordable units.
“Like any other real estate project, the most important determinant of the pace at which it can be built is the availability of financing," Marshall declared. "The barriers to financing are litigation and lack of capital. Litigation makes it difficult to get financing because banks generally won't lend money to a project that is under a cloud. In addition, the great recession of 2008 and ‘9 dried up financing for a long time for almost everyone."
“We have tried and continued to be innovative in coming up with resources to free up and obtain capital to build the project,” she declared. “Most recently, we reached out globally for development partners, the result of which is a pending joint venture with Greenland Holding Group, a major developer in China. The JV has been approved by the U.S. government and is going through approval process in China. We expected it to be finalized in June.”
(That was news; the federal approval had not been previously announced, but was limited to national security issues. It's unclear whether ESD's approval of the new investor is required. Does final approval of the joint venture from Greenland’s end require approval of the SEIS? Unclear, but Greenland is already working with Forest City.)
New construction schedule, and a contradiction
“We are already working with Greenland on a plan and construction schedule that in no way resembles the a timeline analyzed in this SEIS," Marshall stated. "Rather, it resembles the construction schedule that we have always pursued, despite the obstacles thrown in our path, which is to complete the project in ten years.”
“The SEIS that you are considering studies the environmental consequences of a 25-year buildout," she said in closing.
"When we negotiated our definitive documents with ESD and the MTA"--after Forest City renegotiated settled deals in 2009--"they insisted there had to be outside dates by which if we did not finish the project, we would be in default, incur significant financial penalties, and lose our sizable equity investment to date, and lose the right to develop the project," Marshall said. "This 25-year outside date was never viewed by Forest City as a proposed construction schedule but as a date by which we failed. We have always intended to complete the project much, much sooner than that, and we will.”
No one applauded. Marshall left the podium with a somber expression on her face.
Her statement about the timetable is belied by the record, however. In September 2010, then-CEO Bruce Ratner said the ten-year timeline was meant only as a scenario for the environmental review.
"That was really only an analysis as to what the most serious impacts [would be], if all the other planned development in downtown Brooklyn happened right away,” Ratner told WNYC's Matthew Schuerman. “It was never supposed to be the time we were supposed to build them in.”
“I would say it's really market-dependent as to when it will really be completed,” he said.
Moreover, the 25-year date in the Development Agreement for Forest City to build the project may be an outside date set by ESD, but the 21-year timetable for Forest City to pay for development rights to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard is less an outside date than a schedule for payments, allowing the developer to ration its cash flows.
Assemblyman Mosley asks for new oversight
Mosley was the first elected official to speak, and there was a bit of a question mark about what he might say. When Atlantic Yards was announced, Assemblyman Roger Green was a huge project booster, helping set up the Community Benefits Agreement as well as groups that would sign it.
His successor, Hakeem Jeffries, rode the fence, claiming he opposed eminent domain for a basketball arena (but not the rest of the project), but supporting affordable housing.
Mosley has not been very vocal about Atlantic Yards, but he has expressed concerns and sponsored a bill to establish a new governance entity, as community critics have sought, and has been willing to listen at community meetings. "My interest in how we we move forward with this is personal to me and my constituents," he said, citing the importance of equality, fairness, and transparency.
"I'm urging the developers and ESD to ensure that project does not ignore the will and desires of any resident who wishes to take on an active role to establish a new and sincere paradigm, that will seek to truly respect and revitalize the local community and borough as a whole," he said.
He cited the importance of:
- a"buildout commitment within necessary time frame" to meet affordable housing goals
- providing appropriate level of construction compliance
- installing an on-site state sponsored environmental monitor
- putting in place an independent board where community input is guaranteed
Mosley said Draft SEIS findings suggest a "prolonged Phase 2 construction period is imminent," though that's not Forest City says.
Oversight, he said, must include local officials and community members. He also asked that the public review period for the Draft SEIS be extended for an additional 60 days, since having 45 days to respond with written comments is insufficient for a 1200-page document.
By contrast, he noted, there were 85 days allotted to respond to a much smaller document--the Draft Scope of Work for a SEIS in December 2012 and 67-day comment period on the Draft EIS in 2006.
He received healthy applause. (Note: Gib Veconi says that ESDC recently refused a community request for more time.)
Jim Vogel, representing state Senator Montgomery, a longtime project opponent, began with a sardonic "what he said," referring to Mosley.
The problems with Atlantic Yards, according to Montgomery's statement, "reflect very seriously on the accountability, trust, and perceived allegiance of the ESDC, a public authority charged with the oversight of projects to produce public benefits to the people of the state of New York, not certain developers working in New York State, which is now the unfortunate public perception."
The statement noted that the SEIS "addresses only the original timetable extension," rather than other changes "that would logically be part of an EIS but weren't even considered at the beginning of the project."
"Who contemplated experimental modular construction with the risks it entails and the reduction of projected tax revenue? Who would have thought that the considerable public investment in this project and most of the financial benefit would be directed to a new company 100% owned by a foreign government? How could we expect that the commitments made between the original developer and a small group of local residents have no oversight because the developer decided oversight was unnecessary?" (That was a reference to the CBA and Forest City's failure to hire the required Independent Compliance Monitor.)
"Most unexpectedly of all, who could foresee that the ESD would take a hands-off approach in their oversight of an important New York State project," the statement added.
Because delay in the project means the fewer original residents can benefit, Montgomery called for 35% affordable housing in any construction--that's about what the project would promise, actually--"and that a substantial number of those affordable units be two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments." That raises the question of de Blasio's role.
Brennan: meeting with FCR cited
Laurie Wheelock, representing Assemblymember Brennan, noted that, in 2010, the recession was cited regarding the delay. Given the current boom in real estate and the impacts of gentrification, “no matter what happens, ESED and FCR need to work together to accelerate construction.”
Brennan seeks a ten-year timeline, and more family-sized units.
A coalition of elected officials met with ESD’s Adams last September and held a press conference 11/15/13 regarding their concerns, according to the testimony. Last January 24, Wheelock noted, elected officials met with Forest City CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin and asked about the deal for the joint venture.
The testimony didn't explain further, but it doesn't look like they got any commitments at the time.
Opening up, Public Advocate James thanked community groups and members (though not DDDB, with which she was long tied).
"Some would say Atlantic Yards is really part of my legacy, and actually made me," James said, saying she wanted more affordable housing at the start. (Yes, but she wanted it in a more modest project, without an arena.)
"What I wanted then and what I want now is more affordable housing, to stem the tide of gentrification, which is having an adverse impact on the balance--the racial composition of Downtown Brooklyn, something that we all celebrate, I would hope, and something that we all would want to maintain."
She said she prioritized responsible development over an arena, office jobs, and a commercial strip that alienates small business owners.
"This development corporation wants to postpone the plan for 25 years or more," James said, in a worst-case scenario analysis. "We are here today because unquestionable this extended construction will put an unnecessary and unfair strain on the wider community, and the courts agreed with this assessment." (Actually the courts agreed that it needed to be studied.)
She said her concerns were heightened by Greenland's role: "Frankly, it is outrageous that a project that has received hundreds... of millions of your tax dollars, with the expectation that residential construction of affordable housing could so easily relinquish control to a foreign government. It is troubling to me as an elected official that courts have consistently stood as the only entity holding Forest City Ratner and ESDC somewhat accountable."
"Where is the accountability, other than in the courts," she said, her voice rising. "And yet, Forest City Ratner-slash-Greenland is expected to request additional housing subsidy, more of your tax dollars"--hisses--to complete this project...yet there's no commitment for any of the so-called benefits to the community."
She cited no date for construction of the platform needed for vertical development over the railyard, the key to removing the blight that justified the use of eminent domain. "Where are all the promised benefits?"
"I apologize if I get angry," she said, gesturing forcefully, "but this project is a case study, really, of how not to do development anywhere in this country." That drew claps and cheers.
She noted that, despite the Draft SEIS, Forest City Ratner has had no legal impediment to completing units in Phase 1, the four towers around the arena and one on Site 5, now home to P.C. Richard and Modell's.
She called on ESDC to consider new oversight of the project. "Governor Cuomo, you're up for re-election. You need our support. Governor Cuomo, it's time you hold this project accountable," she declared, "and that you get your house in order regarding Atlantic Yards."
Council Member Laurie Cumbo
Cumbo, who in a campaign against rivals highly critical of Atlantic Yards said “As your City Council member, I'm going to be all up in Forest City Ratner's face," was more subdued last night, arriving in the middle of the evening and choosing to listen rather than, as was her privilege, jumping the line.
"As you know, this is really a very complex subject," Cumbo said, emphasizing how she wanted to listen. "I really want to get this right... in a spirit that gets this project to a place where we can come to an agreement on what's going to be best for the community."
"My hope is we are not just going through the motions... to say we've heard from the community," she said, acknowledging those who said the project has been meaningful and those whose lives have been disrupted. "So for me, I'm taking all of this in. I'm desperately trying to understand what position I want to take, moving forward. I want to make sure it incorporates everything I've heard in this room, from everyone. So this is not a political position, this is really just a position to get it right."
She also took issue with the satire, described below, in which Atlantic Yards opponents made satirical reference to Forest City's new partner, speaking Chinese and wearing a Chines garment. "We do have to be, in the new landscape that we're in, with so much diversity and cultural representations in our district, we do have to continue to be mindful of each other's cultural differences and perspectives, and be mindful about how we talk about each other's cultures, or traditions, or our countries of origin."
(Cumbo got in some hot water about some of her own comments last year.)
"At the end of the day, what I find exciting about this, is that we all agree that we want the affordable housing, and we want the affordable housing delivered as quickly and as expeditiously as possible. We want to do it responsibly as possible. And we want to make sure that all of the issues that were brought up were rectified."
"And as additional subsidies are going to be needed for this project, and as our mayor... is talking about his housing program... and this project is a great part of that, we want to make sure we move together in a collective spirit."
It wasn't clear whether "additional subsidies" simply means another round of off-the-shelf housing subsidies or the additional subsidies, beyond those off-the-shelf subsidies, that Forest City has apparently requested.
Vivia Morgan and other supporters
Construction worker Vivia Morgan, representing the Building and Construction Trades Council, gave the first of several similar testimonies based on the talking points, though amended to say Atlantic Yards has "brought steady, good paying jobs to Brooklyn," then proceeded to say that, of 2000 new jobs at Barclays Center, 80% of the workers are from Brooklyn.
However, 1900 of those jobs are part-time, and not good paying.
Several other union workers/representatives testified, as did a representative of the Brooklyn Navy Yard employment center, where workers have been trained/place for the FC Skanska modular factory, and Nontraditional Employment for Women, which also trains construction workers.
Also testifying in favor were the Real Estate Board of New York, the Partnership for New York City, and the Catholic Community Relations Council of New York.
A rep for the Brooklyn Academy of Music--whose board Bruce Ratner once chaired--said the Barclays Center has "been a major catalyst for economic development" and they "eagerly await the construction of the residential units," as "we see each and every one of those people as patrons of BAM, funders of BAM."
A spokesman for Tucker Reed of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership cited the Barclays Center's impact on hotels, bars, and restaurants.
Evangeline Porter, a former board member of the now-defunct Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD) and a longtime activist to improve Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, said Forest City "has supported our community in a lot of ways." (BUILD President James Caldwell was present room but didn't testify.)
Lafayette Gardens Tenant Association President Tyree Stanback said public housing residents had gotten real benefits from attending many shows at the arena--thanks to the ticket giveaway managed by CBA signatory Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance--and said they'd gotten entry-level jobs at the arena, but wanted to see middle and senior management "reflect the neighborhood."
The General Manager of Brooklyn Boulders said the affordable housing might help staff members.
Gib Veconi of PHNDC, one of the key people behind BrooklynSpeaks, said "We didn't sue to stop Atlantic Yards. We didn't sue to delay Atlantic Yards. We sued because Forest City Ratner and the Empire State Development Corporation agreed to delay the completion of Atlantic Yards from ten to 25 years."
He noted that PHNDC asked ESD to study a project involving multiple developers, since multi-developer projects--like the Hunters Point South project in Queens and the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning--get built faster, a "sharp contrast with Forest City Ratner's failure to deliver even a single apartment to date." And Forest City continues to announce delays.
"But ESDC refused to do a meaningful analysis," he said, noting that the Draft SEIS claims agreements signed with Forest City make involving other developers too complicated. "But those agreements hadn't been signed in 2009, when the SEIS should have been done. In fact, the agreements themselves depended on ESDC's approval of the 2009 Modified General Project Plan, which courts have ruled is illegal without an SEIS."
"Think about that," he said. "ESDC is telling us that its failure to comply with state law in 2009 makes it possible to Forest City to have the exclusive right to the Atlantic Yards site indefinitely." He noted that, during the three years it's taken to produce the SEIS, rents have risen sharply.
"Two wrongs can't make a right," he said. "ESDC's failure to explore other options when Forest City Ratner asked for a 15-year delay in 2009 doesn't justify its failure to do a proper analysis now."
Fort Greene resident Susan Lerner said she wasn't there on behalf of any organization but did mention her job as as executive director of Common Cause New York. "I'd like to first say to my union brothers and sisters: if there were adequate oversight, more of you would be employed... oversight is there to protect you."
"The problem is a shocking lack of oversight and a lack of concern for how tax dollars are spent," Lerner said, asking for more time to read the documents and comment.
She also warned of shoddy construction standards in China. "We need to be assured that that culture of construction is not being brought to our shores," she said.
Joe Coello and other CBA signatories
Joe Coello introduced himself as president of Brookman Construction, chair of Brooklyn Voices for Children (a rather quiet signatory of the CBA) and a "proud member and executive board member of Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement."
"Continued delays will have an adverse effect on the economic. growth of this community," he said. "Here's what I do know: the Barclays Center is alive and well at the corner of Flatbush and Dean." He cited jobs for local residents and contracts for minority business.
"There is no project of this size or this scope without controversy or debate," Coello said. "Yes, we need jobs and equitable minority participation. Yes, we need affordable housing for all family sizes. Yes, we need economic growth and the ability to share in the changes to this community. And yes, we need this project to move forward... I urge and encourage an expedited review so the benefits of this project, that we have worked long and hard for, can be realized."
Also supporting the project were CBA signatories Len Britton, executive director of the New York Association of Minority Contractors, Charlene Nimmons of Public Housing Communities, and Bertha Lewis, formerly of New York ACORN (more from her below). There were eight signatories, though BUILD is now defunct.
Nimmons defends Forest City
Nimmons, at the podium, decried "so much selective amnesia in this room." Though Atlantic Yards did not go through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), there were two hearings at City Hall where Forest City had to testify.
"And they were told: this is what you have to do, you have to do a Community Benefit Agreement, you have to engage the community," Nimmons declared, in an account rather different from others recounting the CBA's creation. "When they started calling the community in, we had two sides that formed... rather than figure out how to work together, we had to fight each other... And I'm still hearing the same thing. We're attacking one another, but not attacking the process."
"One thing I'm really pleased about," said Nimmons, whose organization (funded in the past by Forest City) is supposed to connect public housing residents to Atlantic Yards opportunities, and helped recruit people to work at the arena. "The fact that I sat at the table and I fought."
"Do I get on your nerves?" she asked, directing her query to Forest City reps in the back of the room.
"Woo-hoo," responded Forest City Chief of Staff Ashley Cotton, clapping.
"Do the other groups get on their nerves? Yes, we do," continued Nimmons, in righteous tones. (None of them, however, have publicly called for the Independent Compliance Monitor required under the CBA. All have received some form of economic support.)
"And we fight, every inch of the way, saying you must do what you said we're going to do," Nimmons said. "So don't just and say that we have not done anything... don't attack, become judgmental, accusatory, to the wrong people."
"The children of our community as well as the adults have been able to benefit from this. They have gotten jobs. We have taken the children. And me tell you something, about those opposers: when I have community passes... people who opposed the project come to my office and pick up community passes."
Carlo Scissura of Brooklyn Chamber
"You could hold your boos 'til afterwards," declared Carlo Scissura, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and Markowitz's former Chief of Staff, taking the podium.
"I have been to dozens and dozens of events at Barclays: sporting events, concerts," he said. "I have met many people who used to be at Borough Hall yelling at me about the project, who are now at the Barclays arena, enjoying it. And several have said to me, Y'know what, it's not as bad as we thought, it actually is a good project. That's real. If you don't believe it, you should go, and you will run into some of the same people." (Others noted that the hearing was not about the arena.)
Scissura then cited economic development. "Has everything happened as quickly as we want?" he asked rhetorically. "No. Will it happen? Yes. Do we need this supplemental EIS to be approved? Yes." That put him on the right side of FCR's talking points.
He cited several small businesses near the arena that are thriving because of Atlantic Yards, though the people he said would speak either didn't sign up to testify or didn't stay late.
Echoing Markowitzian criticism that people closest to the project site were parochial, Scissura said of Brooklyn, "it is not just one little place. There are thousands and thousands, and hundreds of thousands of people, across this borough, across this city, who love what's happening to Brooklyn, who are enjoying, who are working, who are making money, because of this development."
Peter Krashes, from Dean Street
Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association, said "The history of Atlantic Yards has been contentious," he said, but "residents live in an area that directly impacted by the implementation and operation of both the first and second phases of the project, whether built fast, slow, or not completed."
"In 2009, New York State and Forest City Ratner broke the law, and our trust, when they failed to assess" a 25-year build-out, he said. "They chose to put the community at risk in order to secure expiring tax-free federal bonds for the arena." (The window of opportunity ended in 2009.)
"The DSEIS is being issued four and a half years late, and we are in the ninth year after demolition began in the project footprint," he said, which means construction impacts have lasted only one year less than the once-promised full buildout. He called for more stringent oversight.
"Any community adjacent to a construction site depends on and has a right to expect compliance with environmental laws, regulations, and commitments," Krashes said, suggesting a pattern of violation back to 2007 documented in more than 1000 incident reports on Atlantic Yards Watch.
"It's not the community's job. It's the state of New York's job" to ensure compliance by Forest City and its contractors, he said. "Unfortunately, for long stretches, the state has not had the ability, focus, or perhaps inclination to understand its own project."
Both the state and developer depends on documentation gathered by FCR's on-site environmental monitor, he said, but "we have no trust" that any system that relies on such a self-serving process "will effectively identify noncompliance."
Wayne Bailey, from Dean Street
"Where are the paid construction monitors that are supposed to monitor the neighborhood around the arena and around the railyards," asked Wayne Bailey, who lives in the Newswalk building on Dean Street and is active in Atlantic Yards Watch. He cited "well over 1000 impact files."
"Either they were there, and they didn't care. Or they weren't there, and that's even worse." He said that, to Forest City's credit, the developer did step up when working on the railyard. "But we the problem is we need that for all of it."
Anthony Newerls and the costs of public assistance
Anthony Newerls, executive director of the Brooklyn Blizzards Youth Organization, which represents more than 45,000 youth citywide, and more than 16,000 in Brooklyn.
"Over the past year, we have taken 722 people to Barclays Center events," he said. "The games were exciting, the atmosphere was nice. But the kids had an opportunity to connect, with the young college athletes that they have seen." That "gave them inspiration to go to college."
"I heard someone speak about the CBA," he continued. "I still have a CBA, because I made a promise to the community members, the young people that they would benefit, in the agreement I made with them to fight for jobs."
"Is there anybody on public assistance?" he asked. Seeing no hands raised, he continued, "That strengthens my case, because you know nothing about the young people in my community."
He proceeded to name seven young people no longer on public assistance thanks to full-time employment at the arena. (There are only 105 or so full-time jobs, the other 1900 part-time.)
"Anything we can give a young person the opportunity to work, to sustain a job and help their parents, I think is a great thing," he said in conclusion. "Anything that we can do to keep employment coming... I'll fight for any job that is going to help our young people sustain income."
"OK, jobs have been created, there have been great benefits," Rothblatt said, "[but] how many jobs created per dollar of public subsidies? How would this project compare to throwing money out of a helicopter? Would you create more jobs, would you create more housing?"
When Lucy Koteen, a Fort Greene political activist and DDDB stalwart, took the podium, she was wearing a red jacket designed in the Chinese style. She began by speaking some Chinese in what seemed like a creditable accent. (Her husband is Chinese-American.)
"I thought you should hear some of the language of the builders coming to Brooklyn," she said in sardonic tones. "As a representative of the People's Republic, I want to thank representatives of the New York government for sharing their generous subsidies, worth billions of dollars, with the people of China. We look forward to sharing this space in a prime real estate neighborhood with our old Communist comrade, now represented by the supreme capitalistic oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov."
"We will work together in this new world in ways we could never work together in the old country," Koteen continued sardonically. "We want to recognize the shared values of our two countries: using eminent domain to turn over the homes and businesses of working people, to give them to private profits to the politically powerful. Building large projects with no government oversight, despite many promises of government oversight. Contributing massive subsidies from the people's taxes to enable wealthy men to become much more wealthy. Ignoring public protests, though we do wonder, Where were the tanks? Encouraging unlimited promises of public benefits, knowing they were never going to be delivered. Using many public officials who promote the boss message of the developer while holding one hand out at the same time for rewards. So much in common."
After a few more remarks in that vein, she directly addressed "my friend Ken Adams: You failed this community.... Don't take your marching orders from the developer."
Bertha Lewis, the president of the Black Institute and signer of the Atlantic Yards housing deal as executive director of New York ACORN, said, "I remember Tish James, Velmanette Montgomery, all of City Council, at a hearing in which we got together with them several years ago" and said they needed to pursue oversight, since they had the power of the purse. The response was "no, thank you."
(She wasn't referring to Atlantic Yards, since Speaker Christine Quinn nixed an Atlantic Yards oversight hearing, as did Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Only when Democrats had power in the state Senate, traditionally controlled by Republicans, was an Atlantic Yards oversight hearing called in 2009. Rather, it seems she was referring to general changes in and around Downtown Brooklyn.)
Then developments came into Downtown Brooklyn. Lewis said advocates asked to same elected officials to make other developers do what was done with Atlantic Yards: pledge affordable housing.
(The Downtown Brooklyn rezoning was as of right, and ACORN and other groups sat out the argument for mandatory affordability. Atlantic Yards was a site-specific state override of city zoning.)
She stressed how hard it was to build affordable units. "Fortunately, we have a new administration," she said, with a touch of challenging sarcasm. "So I'm very, very happy to hear all of the local elected officials now... are agreeing they want to be involved in an oversight committee. Something we asked for ten years ago."
"Also, I'm very happy to know that those folks who have built affordable units"--she meant, I think, that they haven't--"know you have to follow New York City building codes," she continued, with an edge in her voice. "Do you think that it is funny to talk about the Chinese government, and the Russian government, in a mocking tone?... You should be ashamed of yourself."
Some in the crowd shouted "liar" back at Lewis.
"Everybody is entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts," she declared, as the hearing officer, Edward Kramer (the same since 2005) tried to quiet the crowd. "Stick to your facts. Thank you very much."
That said, China does have a culture of "murky business." And Ifei Chang of Greenland U.S., told Bloomberg News, "Everybody is afraid of getting sued. In China we may step on somebody else’s feet, but so what? Sometimes somebody else will step on mine. It’s all good. I won’t sue them.”
Later in the hearing, Daniel Goldstein, the face of the opposition for years as spokesman for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, said--in apparently response to the BAM rep's earlier mention that the Brooklyn Nets were winning their playoff game in Toronto--that "The Nets are putting up more bricks tonight than Bruce Ratner has in the past few years." (They ultimately lost, after a comeback)
It's no surprise that the arena's a success, Goldstein said, but it doesn't house anyone. While the SEIS concerns Phase 2, he said, Phase 1 is supposed to have three residential towers and one commercial tower, not five stories (so far) of one tower.
"Let's focus on Phase 1. Why is there a delay in Phase 1? It has nothing to do with litigation," he said. " Why is this hearing happening tonight? Why do you think this has delayed the project? It hasn't.ESDC has almost three years to develop the Draft SEIS. So your blame is misplaced."
Then he directly addressed Lewis, leaning forward and gesturing with : "Bertha, you want to call people ignorant? You're not ignorant, I know that. You are smart. That's why I do not understand why you're not standing out there loudly... The CBA, that does not have a compliance monitor... why are you not out there screaming at them? Maybe you are, in the back room, I don't know. You should be just as angry about the delay in this housing, which has nothing to do with the community that opposed the project. There is no opposition to the project anymore. There is no support of the project anymore. There is a desire to see the project built."
(Lewis did not visibly react. The last interaction between Goldstein and Lewis was considerably more fraught. Lewis has rarely publicly criticized anything regarding Atlantic Yards--the one example was the 421-a "carve-out" for the project--and signed a Memorandum of Understanding requiring ACORN to publicly support the project. Also, Forest City Ratner bailed out national ACORN when it needed a $1.5 million grant/loan in the wake of the embezzlement.)
"I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, I get the feeling we're not working with honest brokers, with ESDC and Forest City Ratner," he said. "When the Chinese government is running the project, we're going to have less accountability."
"This project was supposed to remove blight, alleged blight that does not exist," he said in conclusion. "This Draft SEIS, the evidence is there that it never existed... the ESDC hid information that the area was in the upswing."
He quoted something I'd pointed out, from the Draft SEIS: "According to brokers in the area, the residential market was improving in the neighborhoods surrounding the project site at the time it was announced. The community, the neighborhood was on an upswing, but when it mattered--there was a Blight Study done in 2005, the ESDC did not say that. Now they want to say that. These are not honest brokers and, I'm sorry, they're not going to become honest brokers."
Jo Anne Simon
Simon, the Democratic District Leader in the 52nd Assembly District and former president of the Boerum Hill Association, is also active in BrooklynSpeaks.
"First of all, this is not about the Barclays Center," Simon said. "It's about the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, whether it's been properly constructed to adequately evaluate the impacts of 25 year likely delay in the construction of the affordable housing." (Actually, that's only one of the things evaluated in the Draft SEIS.)
"This DSEIS is only about Phase 2. Phase 1 hasn't happened yet," she said. "And we're here to say, build it now." The only delays in Phase 1, she said, are the result of the developer.
Carponter, the head of DDDB's legal team, said she agreed with Simon's comments about the process, then went into her comments about alternative developers.
"My 20-year-old daughter could look at this contract and tell you how many ways Forest City has breached it," she added, suggesting it would be simple to unravel ESD's deal with the developer. "So to say you're not going to consider alternatives because you have a contract is trying to find an easy way out."
She noted that ESD said Forest City already owned much of the land for the project. "Well, I have an idea for you," she said, her voice rising. "Eminent domain--take it back!" (That played well with some, but of course would be costly.)
Michelle de la Uz
de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee (a founding member of BrooklynSpeaks), reiterated comments about the dramatic demographic change in the nearby neighborhoods, and the need to create affordable housing before it's too late.
"The DSEIS specifically indicates that the impact of the delay... will not be studied," she said. "As everyone knows, over 1900 of" the affordable units are in Phase 2 of the project, she said. (Actually, there's a minimum for Phase 1, but there could be more.)
Though Forest City has made public statements about accelerating the housing, she said, the developer has not committed to a specific timetable. So they still have until 2035.
An agreement to delay affordable housing more than 20 years, she said, "has a dramatic impact on local residents, in particular African-American residents," since they are being driven out by gentrification.
The Draft SEIS acknowledges higher rents and home value within a three-quarter-mile study area. "Despite that statement, the ESDC refuses to study how the combination of the increases in rent and the delay in providing the affordable housing impacts specifically racial and socio-economic groups. That refusal, combined with ESDC's longstanding inability to hold the project publicly accountable, demonstrates a total disregard for the public interest."
"We must be sure that the disparate impact that has been happening for the last several years is mitigated immediately," she said.
Michael White, Schellie Hagan, and Gloria Mattera
White, of Noticing New York, performed a literal dog-and-pony show, with stuffed animals. "Here's my dog, here's my pony.... We've heard a lot of tall tales. The reason we're here is that a court said the tall tales were not believable."
He put a tin hat on the pony, "and we get a unicorn." He likened it to the mega-monopoly the government gave to Ratner. "Which means my unicorn is ridden not be a dog, but by a fox."
So, he warned those earnestly seeking oversight, they won't get it, "because you can't negotiate with a monopoly."
"Now, who's the fox selling out to? The Chinese... Now we can't negotiate with the Chinese government. Now I understand there are going to be more subsidies that are going to be request. Guess what... all that sweetener goes to the Chinese government, if it's given.. Look, this is all about crony capitalism.... we are strengthening the infrastructure of crony capitalism in this city, and we are going to see more crony capitalism replicated elsewhere in the city... You gotta stop it. "
Later, Gloria Mattera of the Green Party, offered similar satire, enhanced by her wearing a green garment, declaring herself Miss Greenland.
And longtime activist Schellie Hagan, though without her sister Patti, referenced Miley Cyrus's performance at the MTV Video Music Awards and said, "Barclays--not the uber-avant garde Brooklyn Academy of Music--introduced the world to twerking."
"What has he [Ratner] been doing but twerking everything in sight," she said to laughter, " including George Pataki, Andrew Cuomo, Michael Bloomberg, Marty Markowitz, Bill de Blasio, Ken Adams, the Carpenters Union... Reverend Daughtry, Bertha Lewis, most of the City Council, most of the state Legislature, all of EDC... including all of you here tonight from ESDC. Ratner has twerked the entire agency. We know you liked it. Because you wouldn't have... fudged and stonewalled for him all these years, if you hadn't liked being twerked by Ratner."
Ettlinger, a contributor to the Quality of Life committee, cited Atlantic Yards Watch and said it was a model for some of the oversight needed. "I think it's terrible that we citizens have had to create that," he said.
He said there had to be a "somewhat adversarial" role for oversight.
Reschke, who lives in the Newswalk building and was a leader of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, also cited the role of citizens in oversight of construction and operation. "This is not our job."
He said bass from concerts permeating his apartment, and visits from arena operators and city officials. "Why is this my job" to help with the monitoring of the noise, he asked, noting that noise from arena operations was not part of the environmental review.
He said all-night work was done haphazardly and noisily. He said arena deliveries were supposed to not be disruptive to the neighborhood. "Nothing could be further from the truth. After an event, it's chaos." He also cited vehicles idling during events.
Dean Street resident Derryberry said "it's too clear how the government does not have the public interest at heart."
He cited an increase in traffic congestion, the loss of street trees, moving violations by construction workers. "So we neighbors of the project, especially if we're facing ongoing construction, need better accountability," he said.
Puca, who lives in the Newswalk building and is a CB 8 member. "If Forest City Ratner wasn't accountable to our concerns before, who do you think is going to be accountable now, unless you appoint this [independent] board?" he asked. "The Chinese government?"
"We are not NIMBYs," he said. While the Draft SEIS says the developer is generally in compliance, community members have documented a different story. "We need to appoint an oversight board, and a monitor."
Stern, who lives in the Newswalk building, also cited impacts and said, "What it boils down to me is this: a fundamental lack of respect for our neighborhood. And that's what it is: it's our neighborhood. It's not collateral damage."
"Simply put, you need to keep the promises that you made to us," she said.
Friedson, who lives in the Newswalk building, said she'd actually moved to the building in 2009, knowing that Atlantic Yards was going to be built. "So I was signing on for the benefits," she said. "I knew I was going to be living with construction for a while, but I had no idea it might be 25 years. And in my demographic, I might not be around."
"All of us who live in this neighborhood," she said, "and especially those who are characterized in the SEIS as 'likely to experience significant localized adverse impacts from construction'--that's my demographic, too--I think we deserve a decent quality of life during construction. I'm all for the jobs... and I enjoy the stadium. But honestly, we have to finish the apartments... in time for the people who need them to be able to stay in this neighborhood."