Friday, November 18, 2005


Marty Markowitz stays on message, except for that affordable housing twist

I ran into Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz at a civic event yesterday and took the opportunity to shake his hand, declare my recognition for his love of Brooklyn, and then question him cordially yet steadily on Atlantic Yards. (No, I didn't tell him I would post this--with anyone other than a political official I would--but Marty is always "on.")

Yes, he still thinks the project should be smaller, but he hasn't come up with any guidelines, at least not for public consumption, since he first acknowledged the need to downscale the project at a September 19 candidates' forum. Still, a 15% cut wouldn't return the project even to its starting place. So some perspective surely would help, as well as an acknowledgement--as City Councilman David Yassky and Assemblyman Jim Brennan have observed--that the planning process has been faulty.

So I mentioned to Marty that people were troubled by the undemocratic process behind the Atlantic Yards plan. "The people spoke last Tuesday," he declared, indicating (I suppose) that the reelection of him and Mayor Bloomberg represented an implicit endorsement of Atlantic Yards.

I asked if he was troubled by the tradeoff from office space (promises of jobs) to housing in the proposed project, as noted in a recent New York Times article. "The people of Brooklyn wanted more housing," he replied. Actually, in that same Times article, Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey acknowledged that the company needed to build more market-rate housing to pay for the affordable housing.

The people of Brooklyn? Was there a plebiscite? Stuckey told City Council last May, as noted in Chapter 1 of my report, that he had been "educated" by housing advocates (including ACORN) that "there is a dire need for residential development in New York City." So the developer then added 2,800 market-rate condos, with a possible 600-1,000 "affordable" condos to be built on or off site, geared to families in the "upper affordable income tiers," including some earning six figures. That's hardly ACORN's constituency. Given the $1.1 billion in public costs over 30 years acknowledged by Stuckey, shouldn't there be more discussion about whether luxury housing should be subsidized?

Marty said that the scale of the project might change, "but the arena is nonnegotiable." (Remember, Marty's goal has been to bring major league sports back to Brooklyn.) What about putting it Coney Island, a site he once supported? He said the transportation wasn't sufficient. Perhaps, though there's an argument that it's easier to empty out an arena into subways at the end of the line. More importantly, only now--after the project is well into the approval process--is the question of the project's transportation impact being discussed.

At a forum on Wednesday, Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) mentioned a February 2004 meeting that community advocates had with representatives of Markowitz's office, Forest City Ratner, and architect Frank Gehry. As later reported by the Brooklyn Papers, a local architect suggested that Ratner tear down the much-criticized Atlantic Center mall and build the arena bridging Atlantic Avenue, thus avoiding eminent domain and the condemnation of private property. The developer cited security concerns. This past August, an unreleased Memorandum of Understanding dated Feb. 18, 2005 obtained by DDDB showed that Forest City Ratner may build up to 875,000 square feet of commercial office space and 711,000 feet of residential space on the Atlantic Center site. (It's unclear whether that would replace the mall or simply be placed on top of the mall.)

I told Marty that some people were skeptical about the developer. "There is no more socially conscious developer than Bruce Ratner," the borough president replied, quoting, uh, himself at the press conference regarding the affordable housing plan at Atlantic Yards. Is it socially conscious to rely on government subsidies and to impose gag orders (see Chapter 7 of my report) on those who sell property to the developer?

More crucially, when I mentioned to Marty that the developer had added market-rate housing to skew the 50 percent affordable housing promise, he barked back, "50 percent of the rentals." True, that is the letter of the housing Memorandum of Understanding but not the spirit: when the housing deal was announced, Marty and the press described it as 50 percent of all apartments at Atlantic Yards. At the time, Marty cited a "commitment to build a full 50 percent of Atlantic Yards housing as affordable." A week after that, as I've noted, the developer announced plans for the new condos.

Though Marty is not an urban planner (see this week's Brooklyn Papers), his chief-of-staff Greg Atkins cites his own Masters Degree in Urban Planning ad nauseum. When a constituent this past July suggested to him that since Michael Sorkin, Director of the Urban Design Program at City College of New York, believed that Coney Island was a better site for the 80,000-seat Jets Stadium than the West Side yards, the same would certainly hold true for a basketball arena.

Oh no, said Atkins, citing (again) his degree in Urban Planning, there's not enough transit access (this despite the fact that the recently renovated Stillwell Avenue transit terminal is the largest in the world). Atkins also dismissed Coney Island's proximity to the Belt Parkway, a key asset considering that only 52% of Madison Square Garden attendees use mass transit, though MSG has even better transit access than does the Atlantic Avenue station.

Neither Atkins or Markowitz would acknowledge the true reason they wouldn't argue for a Coney Island arena - it's not what Ratner wants.
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