Thursday, October 20, 2005
The Times follows up on project opposition, but misses some angles
To longtime opponents of the proposed Atlantic Yards development, the intensity and rancor of Tuesday night's environmental impact hearing was not a surprise. They have spent the last two years, after all, mobilizing coalitions of community groups to oppose the project, passing out reams of antidevelopment pamphlets and news releases, and starting Web sites to dissect the project's every twist and turn.
But the high-decibel hearing on Tuesday clearly demonstrated that the complexion and scope of that opposition has changed since the developer, Bruce Ratner, and his firm, Forest City Ratner Companies, unveiled plans for the office, residential and commercial development in December 2003. As the project has moved out of its conceptual phase, awareness of its sheer size - nine million square feet, the equivalent of four Empire State Buildings - and potential impact has spread across Brooklyn, charging a much broader debate about its virtues and flaws.
"I think people began to realize how big this is," said Assemblywoman Joan L. Millman, who, in a setback for the developer, announced at the hearing that she would oppose the project.
Give the Times credit for following up on the story ahead of other dailies, citing the significance of Joan Millman's public stance, and implicitly contradicting the "modern blueprint" thesis advanced last Friday. But the opposition to the project is broader, it's about the trustworthiness and track record of Forest City Ratner, a company that--just to cite stories emerging in the past few weeks--produces a new Brooklyn Standard, turns promised open space on the arena roof into private space, and denies funding BUILD, then admits it.
Then the Times noted who got organized enough to testify: people not just from Prospect Heights, but also Park Slope and Boerum Hill, who talked about the project's broader impacts on surrounding neighborhoods, including greater demand for day care slots, slower response times for the police and firefighters, and runoff into the Gowanus Canal, the object of a decades-long community revitalization effort.
You can call this new opposition, but comment on those kinds of issues was specifically requested in the scoping document.
However, it's chancy to consider the significant presence of middle- and upper-class Brownstone Brooklynites--many part of community boards and civic groups charged to address the project's impact--a referendum on the project. Similarly, the press shouldn't have made too much of the predominance of Ratner supporters at previous events. What if, on Tuesday, the two dozen union members had all signed up to testify? What if BUILD and ACORN decided to bring groups of supporters, as they did for a November 2004 hearing in the same venue? Perhaps, as I noted in a previous post, BUILD members were laying low because of new revelations about payments from Forest City Ratner. Also, many BUILD and ACORN supporters don't live in the neighborhoods nearest the project. (Note that the Times hasn't yet reported that Ratner is paying BUILD to distribute the Brooklyn Standard, nor mentioned Ratner's most recent attempt to explain away the BUILD story.) A good sense of longstanding public opinion comes from two polls, as noted in Chapter 5 of my report, that demonstrate widespread opposition to a taxpayer-funded arena. The Times hasn't mentioned those results, one from a 2004 Quinnipiac University poll, the other from a June 2005 poll by the Times itself.
The Times article cited reasons for the growing awareness of the project: the death of the West Side stadium project; the July release of architectural sketches by architect Frank Gehry; and the Empire State Development Corporation's scoping document.
"For a lot of Park Slope residents, especially, the point of galvanization came with the unveiling of the latest Gehry design," said Eric McClure, a member of Park Slope Neighbors, one group that opposes the plan.
Actually, Gehry's sketches were revealed by the Times, which did not ask in its 7/5/05 exclusive (the disingenuously headlined "Instant Skyline Added to Brooklyn Arena Plan") why the project had grown in size, nor point out that the increase had actually been announced in late May.
The Times gives Brad Lander of PICCED a chance to comment, but the paper still hasn't quoted PICCED's earlier critique of the project and the planning process:
Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Institute's Center for Community Development, pointed out that even if the project were subject to city approval, Tuesday's hearing would still have been the first where the public could have aired concerns about it. "A public process doesn't begin until there's an official plan," he said.
The article ends with Millman:
Yesterday, Ms. Millman said she would urge Sheldon Silver, the Assembly Speaker, to oppose the project. Mr. Silver sits on the Public Authorities Control Board, which must vote on the project.
"He usually tends to follow what the people who represent the area say," she said. "So I intend to chime in with my thoughts on that." [Note: Millman said in early 2006 that she learned that the segment added to the Atlantic Yards plan--Site V, the plot of land with P.C. Richard/Modell's--is not in her district.]
So stay tuned for public and press pressure on Silver to state his position. As noted in Chapter 2 of my report, the reduction of office space at Atlantic Yards was seen by the New York Sun as a gesture toward Silver, since the project would be less likely to compete with office space in the Lower Manhattan district he represents (and he opposed the West Side Stadium for that reason).