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Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park infographics: what's built/what's coming/what's missing, who's responsible, + project FAQ/timeline (pinned post)

The passing of two Atlantic Yards bit players: a critic (former state Sen. Perkins), and an enabler (former MTA Chairman Hemmerdinger)

Bill Perkins, a force in Harlem politics, is dead at 74; ‘Harlem has lost a giant,’ says Mayor Adams, the New York Daily News reported yesterday:
Bill Perkins, a hard-charging, reform-minded city and state lawmaker who championed equality in health care and criminal justice as an energetic force in Harlem politics across three decades, died Monday night in his home. He was 74.

...As he rose in politics, Perkins emerged as an outspoken progressive — a supporter of the Central Park 5, an early voice against the Iraq War and a backer of LGBTQ rights. He had an acute focus on health care, and was a leading voice in the passage of lead-paint inspection laws.

None of the articles--including more extensive coverage in Harlem's Amsterdam News--addressed a memorable set of 2010 hearings state Sen. Parkins,  distrustful of Columbia University's expansion into Harlem, held on eminent domain.

The Amsterdam News did quote what might have been a previous Perkins bio note: "As Chairman of the Corporations, Authorities & Commissions Committee, he led the fight in the State Senate for the law to reform our public authorities like the MTA, and to take their operations out of the shadows, make sure their finances are scrutinized and that they are serving the people."

Targeting a consultant

At one hearing, Perkins pressed Anita Laremont, general counsel for Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC, now simply ESD), the state authority that oversaw plans for Columbia's expansion as well as Atlantic Yards.

Was it wise, he asked, for AKRF to work for Columbia and later for the state?

Laremont, unperturbed, said, "the analysis is really, ultimately, ours." It was "more cost-effective" to work with one firm.

"Has AKRF ever found a situation in which there was no blight?" Perkins asked, provoking laughs.

Laremont said she couldn't answer, then added, sternly, "AKRF does not find blight. Our board finds blight. AKRF does a study of neighborhood conditions and they give us the report." 

Not quite. The firm, as I discovered thanks to a Freedom of Information Law request, was hired to "prepare a blight study in support of the proposed [Atlantic Yards]."

"Have you differed with their point of view?" Perkins asked. 

"No," Laremont acknowledged, but courts had always accepted the blight findings.

Perkins introduced a sweeping bill to redefine blight, eliminating underutilization and proposing reforms adopted elsewhere, such as requiring abatement efforts.

For a large area, the condemnor would've had to show 75 percent of parcels were blighted. Such provisions would have constrained projects like Atlantic Yards. But this was New York, and his bill got nowhere.

A former MTA Chairman

H. Dale Hemmerdinger, Who Led the M.T.A. Through Recession, Dies at 78, the New York Times reported 4/24/23:
Mr. Hemmerdinger, a philanthropist and the third generation to lead his family’s Manhattan real estate company, was appointed chairman of the authority by Gov. Eliot Spitzer and served from October 2007 to September 2009.

“He was wise, incisive in his thinking, reserved in his articulation of his views and had a perspective that the city sorely needs right now,” Mr. Spitzer said by phone. “His sense of urban life was textured, and he understood how to make the city grow and change, all at once. He was a developer, understood budgets and had a great social conscience.”
Well, he was a political appointee. To quote the Times:
When he was appointed, Mr. Hemmerdinger acknowledged that he, like several of his predecessors, was no transportation expert. But the authority had a full-time chief executive, and Mr. Hemmerdinger was known as a capable administrator.

The Atlantic Yards angle 

The Atlantic Yards angle, not surprisingly, didn't enter the obituary, which, in its MTA section, covered fare increases, East Side Access, and board members' free travel.

But the political nature of the chairmanship, as of then, is worth noting. A 2005 statutory change, which took executive powers from the Chairman, had been ill-advised, concluded a commission, which proposed that "an independent full-time MTA Chairman" serve a fixed term.

Gov. David Paterson wouldn't nominate such a leader until after the Vanderbilt Yard deal revision, which was overseen by Hemmerdinger, a major donor to Spitzer.

Remember, in 2005, Forest City Ratner pledged $100 million for railyard development rights. By 2009, though, it had renegotiated to pay $20 million down, with the remainder paid over 21 years, at an implied 6.5 percent interest rate, gentle financing terms at the time.

Moreover, the promised Vanderbilt Yard revamp would contain seven tracks for 56 cars, instead of nine tracks holding 76 cars. 

At a public hearing, the mainstream Regional Plan Association proposed pragmatism. "While there has been little time to digest the proposal," the RPA's Neysa Pranger observed that Atlantic Yards now offered "greatly diminished" public benefits and likely would be "redesigned and renegotiated."

Believing the market wouldn't recover soon, the RPA proposed new terms: share some project revenues with the MTA, conduct a new cost-benefit analysis, and create an ESDC subsidiary to oversee the project. Such prudent suggestions were ignored.

Suffolk County's Mitchell Pally, who'd doubted the 2005 deal, still backed the project but not the compromise. One colleague agreed. Appointees of Mayor Mike Bloomberg appointees pushed back. "The market is what the market is," said mayoral staffer Jeffrey Kay. If the developer defaulted, the MTA could re-sell development rights.

Hemmerdinger looked upbeat. MTA acting head Helena Williams, he said, had vouched for "this transportation solution." Sitting next to him, she nodded slightly. 

"I've been in the real estate business a whole long time and I agree with [board member] Doreen [Frasca] no deal is ever perfect," he said. "You get what you can when you can," Hemmerdinger said. "And I think, in this economy, jobs and an arena in Brooklyn is a public good." The vote was 10-2.

The economy, though, has since gone through multiple cycles. A privately-operated arena that, above all, helped Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov get rich (by boosting the value of the Brooklyn Nets), may not be as much of a "public good" as Hemmerdinger posited. And the jobs, of course, have fallen far short of projections.