Sunday, December 25, 2005


Beyond scale: the Times finally prints letters responding to its editorial, but ignores key criticisms

So, four weeks after the New York Times published a deeply-flawed editorial about Atlantic Yards (A Matter of Scale in Brooklyn, 11/27/05), calling for the project to be scaled down (by an unspecified amount), the Times finally printed four letters in response. I say "finally" because the Times City Weekly section usually publishes letters within a week or two.

The tally: three letters critical of the development, one in favor, but some key criticisms missing. The first problem is the headline: "Brooklyn's Railyards: The Fight Continues." It's not a fight about the railyard, it's about a 22-acre project that would include construction over the 8.3-acre railyard. How about "Atlantic Yards: The Fight Continues" or "Brooklyn Mega-project: The Fight Continues."

Lucy Koteen, an activist from Fort Greene, pointed out that the editorial ignored that "[t]he approval process bypasses all local oversight," even though the MTA land is only about one-third of the project. Koteen also noted that local residents "desire development over the M.T.A. yards that is fair and inclusive and has a city-led review process, rather than a developer-driven project that relies solely on well-oiled connections to the governor and the mayor for approval." However, unlike Daniel Goldstein's unpublished letter, Koteen diplomatically neglected to chide the Times for speciously suggesting that the residents of the area want the status quo.

Stuart Pertz of Park Slope, a former member of the City Planning Commission and a former consulting architect-planner to Forest City Ratner Companies, suggested that the Times let the developer off the hook:
Emphasizing "a matter of scale" in a debate over the developer Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards rather than character and quality exposes the public to a dangerous ruse.
A focus on scale allows a developer to own the development debate - letting the community steam and fret, and when the furor is exhausted, (reluctantly) reducing the project's scale to very much what the developer intended in the first place.

Peter Levinson of Windsor Terrace contended that Ratner may be gambling by planning 3,000 [actually, 2,800] market-rate condos, given other development in the area, and that taxpayers and politicians should think twice about funding it.

The only defense came from a Manhattanite, Jay Weiser of NoHo, a professor of real estate law at Baruch College. He wrote:
There is no more ideal place in Brooklyn (or even the United States) for a large-scale development like Atlantic Yards, which sits atop one of the densest mass transit hubs in the world.
Your concerns about scale are out of place. Atlantic Yards will rise over massive, empty railyards that have been an eyesore for a century.
Also out of place is your desire to replace Forest City Ratner Companies' market judgment on the appropriate mix of uses with your own. Why build commercial space in a marginal Brooklyn location when there's excess office space in Lower Manhattan?
In contrast, demand for housing is booming. Even if Forest City Ratner reduces the proportion of low- and middle-income units in the project, new market-rate units will add supply and reduce housing prices for all New Yorkers. We need to remove obstacles to build housing for New Yorkers.

Well, we're back to the distinction between "over the railyard" and "over and around the railyard." If the Atlantic Yards project were confined solely to the railyard, Weiser's argument would be stronger. His call to defer to Forest City Ratner's "market judgment" would hold more water if the company were not seeking subsidies and other benefits that distort the free market.

What's missing from these letters? How about criticism of the Times's willingness to overlook the costs of the project as a whole, or the effect of the most expensive arena proposed on those total costs?

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