Wednesday, October 19, 2005

 

ESDC hears the critics on scale, scope, and more; BUILD is subdued; will affordable housing move east offsite?

They sat there yesterday, for some six hours, representatives of the Empire State Development Corporation (check the URL: nylovesbiz) and lawyers for project participants, listening to a parade of testimony against the Atlantic Yards project, and you had to wonder if it would be a replay of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) board meetings: pro forma attention to the public passions, but ultimately a decision in favor of developer Forest City Ratner (FCR). The raucous hearing, full of heckling, cheers, and boos from both sides, was supposed to go from 5 to 8 pm but ran twice as long, though at least half the audience left after the 15-minute break at the halfway point. Dozens of people signed up to testify for three minutes each, and the auditorium, according to several press estimates, was mostly full at one point with at least 700 people.

Unlike the MTA process, this one should contain significant public input. The hearing on the Proposed Scope of Analysis for the Preparation of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), held at the auditorium of New York Technical College, did attract a good number of project supporters to cheer Borough President Marty Markowitz and boo City Council Member Letitia James, but most people in the audience—and an even larger percentage of those signed up to testify—were project opponents from the brownstone neighborhoods most impacted by the project. This was not the case in some previous hearings on the project, when BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development) and ACORN and the unions appeared in force. Last night, there was no apparent ACORN contingent, a relatively small group from BUILD, and a few dozen union guys, of whom only two testified. Is this part of the "modern blueprint"?

No one from BUILD spoke until president James Caldwell addressed a mostly empty room at 9:45 pm. Were BUILD members ashamed they’d been further pummeled in the Daily News and their denials had been broadcast on WNYC radio? A scrum of reporters surrounded FCR VP Jim Stuckey and Caldwell during the break, and while the New York Times did not follow up on the Daily News report that Ratner is paying BUILD to distribute the Brooklyn Standard (or the revelations here), the 10/19/05 Times article, headlined The People Speak (Shout, Actually) on Brooklyn Arena Project, revealed another example of Ratner’s support of a signatory to the Community Benefits Agreement, albeit buried at the end of the story:
He [Stuckey] said that Forest City Ratner had also provided $50,000 in seed money to the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, a group founded by the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a prominent supporter of the Atlantic Yards project. The money was intended to help pay for programs for children and the elderly.
Do we know how many members and board members this alliance has? Note: Daughtry wasn't at the hearing.

The reporters were gone by the time Caldwell spoke, and they missed Roger Green's revelation (see below) but the Times had the most space and the most thorough coverage, compared at least to the articles in the New York Sun, At Hearing, Critics Attack Ratner Project, and New York Daily News, SRO crowd takes shots at Nets plan. (The Post didn't seem to cover the story. The New York Observer skewered Ratner and BUILD on their denials.) Here's a report from the Brooklyn Papers, which has long had tough coverage of Atlantic Yards (but recently lost its lead reporter), and a report from the Courier-Life chain, which emphasizes the comments of Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey.

The Times lead, however, set up a false dichotomy:
The meeting exposed deep divisions between residents who want jobs and housing and those who fear the traffic that the project might bring, as well as a host of other problems. Critics of the plan also want jobs and housing, but question the cost and credibility of the Ratner plan. Several cited the Unity Plan and Extell bid as alternatives. Additional note to the Times: the arena is not at the project's "center." The Times did describe the project more accurately than in several past articles: near Downtown Brooklyn at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. More precisely, that's the 22-acre site's western border, where construction would begin. But just last Friday the Times said the project was "in downtown Brooklyn," so call this progress.

When Caldwell (who once said Bruce Ratner “is truly sent by God”) spoke, you had to wonder if Ratner’s crew, surveying the scene from the back of the room, think he might be a liability. Caldwell followed a speaker who warned-—as did several others—that the scoping document ignores terrorism and security issues, so he decided to ad lib a rebuttal: “Two days ago, the FBI came out with a report that said New York State is one of the safest cities.”[sic] He must have been referring to this, but the FBI figures have nothing to do with the temptation an arena, set near the third-busiest subway hub in the city, might pose, especially since Arab plotters once tried to blow up the subway station. Caldwell then offered his typical testimony about disinvestment, poverty, and the high rate of unemployment among black men in Brooklyn--legitimate concerns, of course--but gave no details on how Ratner’s plan would actually help, and at what cost. “We support Forest City Ratner one hundred percent,” he declared, ever faithful. In the audience, some held up copies of Juan Gonzalez’s Tuesday column about BUILD. Caldwell made no mention of BUILD’s financial reliance on Ratner.

The politicians were mostly critical. Assemblywoman Joan Millman led off, objecting to the project’s “overwhelming scale,” rather disingenuously saying that “an arena with some housing became a mega-development with an arena.” It was always a mega-development (7.6 million zoning square feet at the start, or 8 million gross square feet), it just got bigger (9.132 million gross square feet). She began the parade of people criticizing the assumptions in the scoping document, pointing out that rush hour is not 5 to 6 pm but 4 to 8 pm. She said ESDC should use fees from Ratner to fund a community-based study. But Millman (whose district includes Site 5, home of Modells/PC Richard and slated for a high-rise building) finally voiced definitive opposition to the project, saying eminent domain “should be a last resort and not implemented for private gain.” [Addendum: in 2006, Millman said she'd learned that Site 5 is not in her district.] And, to the cheers of many, she said she’d ask Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose vote on the Public Authorities Control Board could sink the project, not to support it if eminent domain is included (which is the plan, of course).

Borough President Marty Markowitz, up next because he was late, mostly punted, saying he had concerns about traffic and the project scale (despite his support for the plan), and that he would submit written comments by October 28. “No one cares more about Brooklyn than I do,” he insisted, to the disdain of many in the crowd holding up posters declaring “Ratnerville Unmitigable.”

City Council Member David Yassky, pressed for his position, said, “I’m for the project, I want to see it done right.” That, he said, means the size of the buildings must be reduced, traffic problems must be solved, taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize the arena (but can support affordable housing, as in other projects), and though the project is now managed by a state agency, the ESDC should allow the project to go through the City Council’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP). Can Yassky get his way? For Ratner to build affordable housing and make his desired profits (which are unspecified, and there was testimony requesting Ratner's economic projections), the developer has to build bigger.

[UPDATE: Yassky's statement--he was challenged by the audience, "Are you for it or against it?" and responded as above--caused him some grief. A press release points out that Yassky's not really for it, unless it's done right. "In a statement, Yassky rebuked the Times, saying that he is for housing, jobs and investment for Brooklyn at the site, but will not support the project until significant changes are made." But as Lumi Rolley of NoLandGrab points out, "To be clear, the above link points to the written testimony Councilmember Yassky submitted at Tuesday's hearing, not his oral comments. The distinction between the two seems to be that the Times reported that he was for the project provided it was done right, but really he is against the project, UNLESS it is done right.
Councilmember Yassky appears to be attempting to walk a fine line, neither too "for" nor too "against" the project as he susses out his chances for a congressional run in 2006.

Yassky and Assembly Member Jim Brennan, as I reported, previously called for the MTA to stall the Atlantic Yards bid so the project could be scaled down. So in an earlier version of my post, which said Yassky "maintained cautious support," was inexact. It's probably more accurate to say, based on Yassky's performance at the hearing, that "Yassky, who has criticized the scale of the project, as well as other factors, continued to do so, but his bottom line is support rather than an effort to stop the project, as he previously tried."]

City Council Member Letitia James, sometimes drowned out by cheers and boos, spoke more passionately and pointedly than her official remarks suggest, citing urban planner Jane Jacobs and those (read: Marty Mark) “who wax eloquently about the past.” She added, “This project is being driven by profit, not people.” She called the affordable housing deal—once 50 percent, now 30 percent [actually 31 percent]—“bait and switch,” and wound up quoting Job from the Bible. Supporters gave her a standing ovation.

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, speaking later, made an important request: “I ask you to examine and expose all of the direct and indirect subsidies associated with the project,” adding that it should include additional costs associated with defense against terrorism.

Assemblyman Roger Green, also speaking during a quieter later segment, called for a debate “in the spirit of civility,” a not unworthy request, but a little late, given that the moderator had long before lost control of the crowd. Green did not reference his ties to FCR and role in founding BUILD; rather, he gave a fairly dry recitation of the issues the scoping process must address—from sewers to schools to mass transit incentives—before letting loose a bombshell. He suggested that some affordable housing be put east of the Atlantic Yards site, thus lowering the density of the project. Unmentioned was that this land is in his district, so he’d gain supporters, and that moving the affordable housing means that the Atlantic Yards project would further foster gentrification. Note that the plan is currently 31 percent “affordable” (2,250 rentals, including 1,350 middle-income units for people earning an average of $75K) but only 12.3 percent low-income (900 units), plus 5,050 planned market-rate units. Will this be a repeat of Battery Park City, where the affordable component was built elsewhere? [See update here.]

A parade of individuals, representatives of community groups, and representatives from community boards also testified. Several said the study area for land use, zoning, and public policy should be expanded to two miles--the document lists the primary study area as a quarter mile and the secondary study area as a half-mile--a compelling point given the scale of the project and the fact that residents of Pacific Street, basically across the street from the project, testified their concerns were being ignored. Transportation expert Aaron Naparstek, representing the Park Slope Civic Council (PSCC), talked about congestion pricing for vehicles and limits on parking spaces. Lumi Rolley, also representing PSCC, warned of the effect on the Brooklyn Bears Community Garden (at Flabush and Atlantic, next to Site 5, proposed for a skyscraper) and warned that architect Frank Gehry’s penchant for titanium, at least in his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, can create oppressive heat and light.

Pauline Blake of Community Board 6 pointed out that the project would affect access to police and fire stations, and that the Pacific Street branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, a Carnegie building, should be landmarked, even as it sits across the street from Site 5, slated for a skyscraper. Craig Hammerman, district manager of CB 6, pointed to a “glaring oversight,” because the document doesn’t address how the project changes the city map: Atlantic Yards would straddle and eradicate both community board and police precinct boundaries.

Celia Cacace, a CB 6 member, questioned the designation of public open space in the document. "'Public' implies that a public entity is responsible," she said; critics point out that Ratner's company manages the public space at MetroTech. Cacace, a gravelly-voiced example of nearly-bygone Brooklyn, provided a few moments of levity; after the moderator warned that she had 30 seconds left to speak, she responded with "You got it, kid." Here's written testimony from five representatives of CB 6, which encompasses Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Columbia Street District, Gowanus, Park Slope, and Red Hook.

Two union guys, Reinaldo Torres of the sheet metal workers and Anthony Pugliese of the carpenters, testified, and basically said the project was about jobs. They pointed out that other developers in Brooklyn, namely Shaya Boymelgreen and David Walentas, don’t use union labor, and Ratner does. The big-voiced Pugliese denounced local elected officials for not criticizing the other developers--a not unreasonable point, though he didn't include Ratner supporters like Markowitz. (He and I had a good discussion about this at the break.) He closed with a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “What’s so good about sitting at the counter if you can’t afford the chopped meat?” (It’s not a quote I could find on the web. Anybody? MLK quotes are usually a specialty of BUILD’s Marie Louis, who likes MLK’s “We can’t wait.” When will someone respond with an MLK quote like, “A lie cannot live”?) Later, after the union reps had left, Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) pointed out that Extell Development Corp., the other bidder on the MTA’s Vanderbilt Yard, also would use union labor (and not require eminent domain).

Goldstein also observed, “It’s a shame this is the first time we’re meeting with ESDC” Shabnam Merchant, also of DDDB, pointed out that ESDC pays rent for space in Ratner’s Atlantic Center mall: “Why isn’t this a conflict of interest?” Later, Green Party candidate for Borough President Gloria Mattera asked the ESDC representatives, “How do you go to sleep at night?”

A supporter of the project, Kwan [or Quan, I didn't get the spelling] Lewis, testified that he didn’t hear anybody from Bedford-Stuyvesant or Brownsville, pointing to the self-interest of the local opponents. (Then again, Bed-Stuy and Brownsville residents live farther away, so they wouldn't have as many responses regarding environmental impact.) “I’m for the project because of inclusion,” which he defined as jobs—though of course the actual number of jobs is an important unanswered question, and the number of office jobs, at least, has been cut by more than half.

Sandy Balboza of the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association pointed to Ratner’s poor track record in building MetroTech and the Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls, which set themselves off from the residential neighborhoods nearby rather than blend in. Henry Weinstein, a property owner in Prospect Heights, called attention to a “gross misstatement” in the scoping document, saying that Ratner claims to control three properties he owns. “This wholly false statement is trying to pull the wood over the eyes of those who would read this document,” he said. “I find it incredible…If lies and treachery are being used to approve this project, then every material fact in this statement is suspect.” He gave ESDC a letter from his lawyer.

Bill Batson, representing CB8, made an important point about eminent domain: “The seizing of property from one private party and giving it to another under the rationale of economic enhancement has never occurred in New York. Once this power is granted, however, eminent domain could be a tool available to any developer who has a higher yielding economic proposal for anyone’s private home or business.” CB8, which encompasses parts of Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, and Weeksville, has a host of concerns, represented in this 10-point plan.

Others pointed out that there is new construction in “blighted” Prospect Heights, and that new zoning could improve it. Robert Puca, a resident of the Newswalk condos that are gerrymandered out of the plan, said “everyone bought into sunshine; now we will have darkness.”

I testified as well, pointing out that an examination of environmental impact has to start with the environment of dishonesty and manipulation created by FCR, exemplified by the Brooklyn Standard. (Someone had to do it; no press entity has yet dissected the Brooklyn Standard, and thousands of copies had been distributed in the previous few days.) Scott Turner of Fans for Fair Play covered some other topics, but wound up in the same place, testifying, “I’m a fan of the truth.”

ESDC is supposed to review alternatives, so here's Doug Hamilton's testimony on the Pacific Plan, which would incorporate an arena but not create superblocks. It's unclear how many housing units--and affordable units--would be created, and what the cost would be. Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors also testified about an alternative, as well as effects on traffic, parking and transit, pollution, and noise, and strains on police, fire and educational services, many of which have not been adequately addressed or provided for in the Draft Scope of Analysis.

Near the end of the hearing, Schellie Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition referenced Caldwell’s praise for Ratner, saying, “We are gathered here tonight in the name of a man sent from God. The man used to be sent from God was named Jesus. That was a long time ago. Now it’s Bruce.” She talked about how the emperor—the state—puts signs on people’s houses: “Your house is no longer yours, it belongs to [Gov.] George [Pataki]. But it really belongs to Bruce, because you, Empire State Developers, will hand it over.” She said sarcastically, “Bruce has been sent to us to mitigate the crisis in luxury housing,” and ended by hoisting a sign declaring Ratner to be God.

Urban planner Tom Angotti of Hunter College provided some dispiriting news, saying that the process of looking at environmental impact cannot be done within the time set out: “We need 180 days.” Written comments are acceptable until October 28, to atlanticyards@empire.state.ny.us. Sometime after that, ESDC will issue a final scoping document, which will be revised based on comments received on the proposed scope of work. This final document will provide the framework of analysis for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. There will be a second hearing sometime in the next few months.

As the Sun article summarized it: That statement, when completed, will outline necessary state and city approvals, predicted environmental impacts, and measures to mitigate those impacts. It will also list any unmitigated or unavoidable impacts and alternatives to the project

The Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods also will be holding hearings and gaining input.

Comments:
This week's public hearing on the Ratner plan received the most impressive media coverage to date. The exposure of issues are finally becoming brought to light in a more powerful sense. It is obvious that the Nets may end up like the Jets after all; staying in New Jersey where new state-of-the-art sports facilities are already being furnished. I particularly want to point out Mike Lupica's outstanding column on how Ratner's plan was never about bring a sports franchise back to Brooklyn!
 
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