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Testimony at ESD meeting on Atlantic Yards: "step in the right direction" and "significant change," say deal negotiators; closest neighbors still wary (video)

They were posing not for AYR but for a photographer
affiliated with the Fifth Avenue Committee
There was a kumbaya moment (right) after this morning's ritual approval by Empire State Development (ESD), the state agency overseeing/shepherding Atlantic Yards, of changes in the project plan pushed by a community coalition, including a faster timetable for affordable housing--15 years instead of 25 years, though the promise was long ten years--and a new entity in six months to channel community input and provide some oversight role.

At left is the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council's Gib Veconi, who only weeks ago slammed ESD for not taking steps to deliver the 2250 units of subsidized housing faster, and, in the white blouse is Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee, the chief negotiators with the city and state.

ESD Executive Director Kenneth Adams listens
At center, in the white slacks, is Ashley Cotton, Forest City Ratner's executive VP for external affairs, and at far right is Marion Phillips III of ESD. Also gathering were Marjona Jones of the Brown Community Development Corporation, next to Veconi; Daron Hudson, a plaintiff in the potential lawsuit that forced the state's hand; 52nd District Leader JoAnne Simon of the Boerum Hill Association, next to Cotton; and Deb Howard of the Pratt Area Community Council.

Despite the good feeling, even those who saluted the state and Forest City Ratner said that this was a first step, and it would take time to earn community trust.

The most forceful testimony came from the dissenters, Rhona Hetsrony and Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association, who said didn't think the safeguards announced would be enough to protect their block, which borders the construction site.

ESD executive director Kenneth Adams said, "Today marks an important milestone, kind of a turning point, for the Atlantic Yards project." He did not mention the impact of a threatened lawsuit on the agreement announced.

Reflections from de la Uz

After the meeting, I spoke with de la Uz--who's was the appointee of Bill de Blasio, when he was Public Advocate, to the City Planning Commission--about the deal. She said that the agreement does not address making the housing more affordable in terms of income "bands" ( or levels), which are typically a function of the city's financing tools and in this case also related to the Community Benefits Agreement.

She said they still believe the units should become more broadly affordable, given that the Brooklyn median income is well below the regional Area Median Income used as a standard in New York City.

I pointed out including 100% affordable buildings in a project that has 35% affordability means that there will be more 100% luxury buildings, thus departing from the 50/50 goal at the outset. (There will be 4500 rentals, 2250 of them subsidized; Forest City later added 1930 condos, of which 200 may be subsidized.)

"On balance, we thought it was critical to accelerate as many units as possible while also maintaining the  overall goal to have inclusion," said de la Uz, who indicated that Ismene Speliotis, who of the Mutual Housing Association of New York, who helped negotiate the original affordable housing deal on behalf of ACORN, was consulted during the negotiations.

What were the factors in pushing for the deal? Assemblyman Walter Mosley's reintroduction of a bill establishing governance was one factor, though de la Uz acknowledged that elected officials played no formal role in the negotiations, though they were briefed on the potential lawsuit, and the potential for a settlement.

"I think it's a confluence of events," she said, citing the recent testimony on the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement about community impacts and the impacts of delayed affordable housing. She praised ESD executive director Kenneth Adams for sitting through the entire April 30 hearing.

She also cited the the mayor's office, "and the alignment between 200,000 units of affordable housing that mayor wants to achieve and role this project plays.... Obviously, the need to close the Greenland in order for Forest City not to default was a portion of this."

What message does she have for the neighbors still wary? "I understand the desire for the state and FCRC to earn their trust before they give it," she said, acknowledging that the oversight is not as strong as once proposed but "I think we achieved what we were able to achieve." She noted that, according to ESD, there will be more local representation than in other subsidiaries.

Does she trust the state and Forest City now, after years of criticism? "I'm cautiously optimistic that their interest and our interests are more aligned than they've ever been," de la Uz responded.

Rhona Hetsrony and Peter Krashes

Hetsrony said the block association sent numerous letters calling for increased oversight.

"The oversight created," she said, "is not adequate to our concerns."

"The community doesn't have access to the governor. The developer has access to the governor," she said, noting the governor would control the new subsidiary.

“There is no one with any knowledge of Atlantic Yards who would expect an unsecured promise of future performance to be fulfilled, when so many promises haven’t been met,” said Hetsrony. “We're the ones being asked to bear the risk."

Krashes said, "The history of Atlantic Yards is that the devil is in the details.... What is delivered is rarely more than what is spelled out in written agreements and often is less.” He noted that "neighbor after neighbor has already detailed the noncompliance with environmental commitments," but they still have oversight to themselves.

"There's a difference between being pro-business and being pro-a-specific business," he said.

"Atlantic Yards is complicated, and there numerous categories of stakeholders," he said, suggesting that the threatened litigation and behind-the-scenes negotiation is not a public process runs the risk of emphasizing one category of interest over another.

He also asked to read a statement by another block association member, Wayne Bailey, who couldn't attend. "I'm truly at a loss that any agreement has been negotiated" without any clear remedies and penalties for violations of construction protocols but has "grave and specific" penalties regarding affordable housing."

Bailey, in his message, cited violations of hours of construction just in the past 12 hours.

The affable Adams said ESD had six months to create the new subsidiary and said he hoped the activities "capture your recommendations around oversight so we can do better."

"Peter, I expect you to provide oversight of the oversight," Adams quipped.

Michelle de la Uz

Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee, responding to a question, said that there was a question about Forest City's pledge to commit 50% of the units, in floor area, to be two- and three-bedroom units suitable for families.

The story of Atlantic Yards offers many lessons about getting the balance right about the roles of government, the private sector," and community leaderships. "The public benefits need to be guaranteed and delivered up front."

"It is government's role to ensure that that happens on the public's behalf, just as it's government's role to ensure proper and timely monitoring" related to the project, she said. "Getting this balance right in a government-sponsored public-private partnership is critical to success. It is only fair."

"Relying on the community and local residents to assume the roles government should play is at the very least inefficient and at its worst a total abdication of responsibility," she said. 'Today we are taking a step in the right direction in getting that balance right for Atlantic Yards."

"I'm extremely proud of the community groups... I'm grateful for the support of our new mayor... I'm heartened by Forest City Ratner's openness to turning the page... and resetting the balance in this ambitious public private partnership, and expect that Greenland Holdings to continue with that as we move forward. I'm thankful for the governor and ESD's leadership and ability to seize the moment to right the wrongs of Atlantic Yards' past.

"Perhaps most importantly, I know, deep in my soul, it will take time and concerted effort on everyone's part and measurable and repeated actions on the part of the developer and the state, such as the ones being taken today by ESD, for the legitimate feelings of righteous indignation that have been built up as a result of this project to be replaced by genuine trust."

Gib Veconi

Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Council (PHNDC), said, "We believe the items you're going to vote on today represent a significant change in the Atlantic Yards project. They represent a significant acceleration of affordable housing benefits and also represent a significant enhancement of the project oversight."

He tossed an olive branch of sorts to his neighbors on Dean Street, who recently withdrew from the PHNDC in protest. "There is no way to overestimate" the impact of arena construction on residents next to the project, he said.

"We continue to be very concerned about the impacts of construction on residents surrounding the project. We believe that, while not the decision-making body that we had called for, the creation of a subsidiary," he said, the new body "does represent a significant improvement in public participation... and project oversight. And it's our hope that you all as directors will work very cooperatively with that organization, will listen to and act on its recommendations."

"And continue to engage the community make sure that the project benefits are delivered and the project impacts are mitigated," he said. "And you will know that you are successful because, at future meetings, Atlantic Yards agenda items are going to go much, much more quickly."

Marjona Jones

Marjona Jones of the Brown Community Development Corporation called the agreement "a huge achievement that means a lot to folks that are getting priced out in our community... We're not anti-development. We just want to make that long-term residents benefit..."

JoAnne Simon

JoAnne Simon, former president of the Boerum Hill Association (and a candidate to succeed Assemblywoman Joan Millman), said, "I want to say one thing: this agreement represents a huge step forward. It does not represent a resolution of the community's concern. It is the first concrete step that shows keeping the public's trust, which has been so sorely lacking in this process."

"The framework.. is that there is a place where we can come together and engage. We have shown,' she said, "that, when the community is at the table with government, we make better decisions... If nothing else, this process will give us a forum to actively engage, and engagement is the answer for this project and so many others."

The ESD vote was fast 


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