Saturday, December 17, 2005

 

The Times Real Estate section on Prospect Heights: no blight, and few warnings

You don't look to the New York Times Real Estate section for hard-hitting reporting, at least in its neighborhood profiles, so it's understandable that the 12/18/05 profile, Living In: Prospect Heights, headlined A Neighborhood Comes Into Its Own, deals only briefly with the Atlantic Yards development. And, given the generally positive spin in such articles, maybe it's understandable that there's no mention of "blight," the highly-charged term at the heart of the project justification. At the least, though, maybe it will remind Times headline writers and others covering this issue that the Atlantic Yards project would be in Prospect Heights, not Downtown Brooklyn.

The article sketches how Prospect Heights, "long in the shadow of Park Slope," has recently come into its own:
But in the last few years, Prospect Heights has begun to hold its own, enticing newcomers with attractive lofts, newly constructed luxury condominiums and brownstones that are often larger and more elegant than those in the rest of Brooklyn.

After listing new residential projects, and the opening of restaurants and shops, the 32-paragraph article devotes three paragraphs to Atlantic Yards:
Yet as Mr. Keegan and his fellow users of dailyheights.com are well aware, there is an undercurrent to all of the recent success of Prospect Heights: the plans of the developer Bruce Ratner to build a sizable complex of shopping, offices, housing and a Frank Gehry-designed arena for his New York Nets over the railyards on Atlantic Avenue. Concerns about eminent domain issues and the project's potential impact on the area's density are widespread, as is uncertainty over what form it will finally take.
Still, not everyone is up in arms. Mark McCartney, a computer programmer who rents a one-bedroom apartment on Washington Avenue with his fiancée, Beth Elliott, lives south of the proposed project's area. "We're so far away it wouldn't affect us," he said. "And I don't like basketball."


Concerns are... widespread? Indeed, it might have helped to warn potential Prospect Heights residents of that the concerns include transit and pedestrian issues, as well as traffic. As for the blithe resident of Washington Avenue, perhaps he does not understand that the project could indeed have spillover impacts into his neighborhood (which may be south of the proposed project area but is also east).

[The resident comments, on the DailyHeights.com discussion forum devoted to this article: Oh, I guess according to Mr. Blogger I’m "blithe"...nice. It’s a reoccurring, light-hearted, short, informational piece about a particular neighborhood. Don’t take it for much more than that blogger man.
Point taken: the quote was blithe, not necessarily the person. But "light-hearted" and informational seem to come into conflict when it comes to covering real estate.]

Over the railyards? The railyard would constitute only 8.3 acres of the 22-acre site, and the arena itself would spill over from the railyard boundary at Pacific Street and occupy what is now private property. The Times has made this mistake before.

Note that the Times description here of Atlantic Yards--a sizable complex of shopping, offices, housing and a Frank Gehry-designed arena--contrasts with the more accurate description in an 11/6/05 Metro section article: essentially a large residential development with an arena and a relatively small amount of office and retail space attached to it.

Note to the Real Estate section: read the Metro section. As for "sizable" and "large," how about the largest in the history of Brooklyn? Also note that the team is the New Jersey Nets, not the New York Nets.

Another paragraph in the Real Estate article does acknowledge:
As for the neighborhood's already established housing stock, the most sought after are its polished brownstones, many of which currently feature "No Arena Complex" posters in their oversized windows.

The Times's pro and con paragraphs are hardly comprehensive:
What We Like
Prospect Heights retains the feel of unreformed, unartificial Brooklyn. Spillover or not, it is its own neighborhood, with cultural amenities to beat any competitors.
What We'd Change
Despite the character and beauty of the houses in Prospect Heights, it does not have landmark protection status from the city, as parts of many of the surrounding neighborhoods do.


Um, besides the issues of traffic and transit and all the other environmental impacts of this proposed project, how about mentioning the potential of major construction in the neighborhood through 2016? Or that "unreformed, unartificial Brooklyn" might be preserved if the process of conversion of old buildings--as in the Daily News printing plant mentioned in this article--and contextual development continued rather than be swept aside by a superblock complex.

It almost goes without saying that this article is aimed at the well-off; there's no mention of subsidized housing and poverty within Prospect Heights--unless you take hints from the below-average scores at two schools mentioned--nor of the potential displacement caused by new development.

Footnote: in a paragraph about schools, the Times article notes:
The old Public School 9 on Sterling Place is now a stunning apartment building converted by the Forest City Ratner Companies, and the current version of the school on Underhill Avenue is the only primary school in the neighborhood.

Indeed, it's lovely, but the building, at 279 Sterling, was converted to house those displaced by Forest City Ratner's MetroTech development. And those who fought Ratner signed confidentiality agreements that, if they follow the script of the agreements required of those who sell to Ratner in the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint, also require them to praise the developer. According to a 1/23/04 Newsday profile of Bruce Ratner:
[Donna] Henes was one of 250 residents in downtown Brooklyn whose buildings stood in the way of Ratner's MetroTech development in the late 1980s. She led a group of outspoken residents who tried to block the plan for four years, but eventually they all quietly accepted what she calls "substantial" offers of cash or co-op apartments.
"I think he's really done some good things for the city and he was fair with us after we fought him," said the artist and self-described "urban shaman" who signed a confidentiality agreement barring her from disclosing the amount of her settlement.
"It was huge pain, but eventually everything turned out OK," said Henes, 54.


Did it? While it may have turned out OK for Henes and for Ratner, what about the public at large that has subsidized his development, or the many nearby residents who did not benefit from jobs there.

Friday, December 16, 2005

 

CBA question recurs: is it for the "Brooklyn community" or "minority community"?

In a post on 10/30/05, I raised a question about the minority-owned firms Forest City Ratner had hired for design, p.r., and construction, among other things:
So, is the Community Benefits Agreement [CBA] regarding Atlantic Yards supposed to help the local "community" or the minority "community"? There's an interesting tension there, because the signatories are local (and minority), but several beneficiaries are hardly local, with none based on Brooklyn and some outside New York City.

The question remains. According to a Forest City Ratner press release issued today (after apparently giving the New York Times advance notice for today's paper) regarding the demolition of six buildings:
In accordance with the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) signed earlier this year, FCRC has hired Safety Environmental Company of New York, a Staten Island based, minority-owned engineering firm to oversee air monitoring and safety requirements during the abatement. Top Line Contracting will handle the abatement as a subcontractor to Gateway Demolition Corp., who will perform the demolition.
...Gas and electricity to the buildings will be disconnected by the local utility companies, and the water and sewer lines to the buildings will be permanently disconnected in the streets by Lloyd G. Drummand Plumbing and General Contracting, a minority-owned business from Queens. Buildings will be exterminated by a minority-owned business which has yet to be awarded.

Note that the contractor's name, according to his web site, is Lloyd G. Drummond.

Most but not all of the groups endorsing the CBA are Brooklyn-based, and the document includes this passage (p. 2):
Whereas, the Coalition and the Developers seek to maximize the benefits of the Project to residents of Brooklyn, as well as minority and women construction, professional and operational workers and business owners and thereby to encourage systemic changes in the traditional ways of doing business on large urban development projects...

Businesses based in Queens and Staten Island may fulfill one aspect of the CBA's goals, but they don't necessarily help residents of Brooklyn.

 

"Developers' blight"? Demolitions of six buildings to begin next month

Six buildings owned by Forest City in the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint will be demolished next month, after an engineering firm determined major structural damage. The New York Times reported, in a 12/16/05 story headlined Another Step for Downtown Brooklyn Project:
"The question is, God forbid that a building collapses, God forbid that a falling brick hits someone in the head, or that there's a fire," said Bruce Bender, the developer's executive vice president for community affairs. Mr. Bender said the firm was providing warning of the plans in part to defuse criticism from opponents of the project....
Five of the buildings - two former auto-repair garages on Pacific Street, two unoccupied apartment buildings at Dean Street, and the Underberg Building on Atlantic Avenue - are near the western end of the project's proposed site. The sixth is farther east, on Dean Street near Carlton Avenue.


Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, told the Times: "To justify eminent domain, Bruce Ratner wants to argue that this neighborhood is blighted. It is not. This is his attempt to create developers' blight."

The responsibility, at least according to the Times article, is murky. On the one hand, "a tour of the interiors reveals the damage done by years of wind, rain, and insufficient maintenance." On the other, each building suffers from water damage that means floors and ceilings are on the verge of collapse, and "[s]ome of the damage has occurred only in the past few months."

So it's not clear whether earlier efforts to stabilize and waterproof the buildings--as was done to preserve other buildings in the neighborhood, an argument against claims of blight--would have worked.

Note to the headline writer: the project won't be in "Downtown Brooklyn," despite numerous mentions of that term in the press. The Times's 10/19/05 coverage used "near Downtown Brooklyn," while 7/5/05 coverage used "east of Downtown Brooklyn." This new Crain's article on eminent domain makes the same error.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

 

Environmental impact? Challenges abound to state's "comically limited" process

"If you like a good old-fashioned street fight, you're in the right place," trumpeted City Council Member Letitia James, leading off the community meeting last night sponsored by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. The rousing words, especially from James and closing speaker Bob Law, reflected the political nature of the controversial Atlantic Yards development, and the importance of a coalition that mixes both race and class. (The turnout was reasonable--about 100 people on a cold night--but the audience was mostly white.)

But technical challenges to the approval process represent another front. The project is now in the hands of the state Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), which is preparing a document that sets out the scope--the range of issues and the areas studied--for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The draft scope was already criticized at a hearing in October, and it will remain a target. "The ESDC scope is comically limited," declared Dan Ross, one of three graduate students from Hunter College's Department of Urban Affairs and Planning who presented research they have conducted.

For one thing, he said, the area proposed for the project is not "blighted," despite a state document that says a main project goal is to remove blight--a key justification for the use of eminent domain needed to acquire land necessary for the project. He cited increases in land values in the neighborhood, a significant jump in income (especially within the project footprint), and the conversions of four buildings, three into luxury housing, one into a homeless shelter, all since 2001. (One of those buildings, Newswalk, was cut out of the footprint.)

The issue of blight is complicated. On the one hand, current legal standards are fuzzy; on the other, even project supporters like state Assemblyman Roger Green have declared the area not blighted. The draft ESDC scope lists several aims for the project, including replacing the current railyard, providing new "affordable and market-rate housing," and creating a "first-class sports and entertainment venue," but the first one listed is:
Eliminate blighted conditions on the project site, including dilapidated and structurally unsound buildings, debris-filled vacant lots, and economically underutilized properties.

However, only the first phase of the project--the arena and five buildings around it--would be built by 2009; the other 11 buildings, and all the publicly-accessible open space, would be built by 2016. That means that numerous buildings--which might have been candidates for renovation, given recent progress in the footprint--might remain economically underutilized. As Dean Street resident Peter Krashes recently told WNYC, in a 12/13/05 piece headlined Atlantic Yards Project Has Long Shadow:
This is inside the footprint, right, a lot of the property has the appearance of being more dormant. That’s one of the things that people miss when they walk here they don’t understand that what was a pretty active area has been emptied.

As for improving the railyard, Daniel Goldstein, spokesman for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, pointed out that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority--which issued "a cover-their-butts RFP"--had never previously set that as a goal. Goldstein, pointing out that Mayor Bloomberg had expressed his own NIMBY tendencies, exhorted attendees not to accept it "when anyone says you are NIMBYs because you don't think Ratner is just or fair or right."

At the meeting, Hunter graduate student Brooke DuBose cited three "glaring problems" in the draft scope. For one, it does not propose to include the highways around the development, just nearby access roads, as it sets out a quarter-mile principal study area and a half-mile secondary study area--an issue also raised at the hearing in October. The draft scope, DoBose added, vastly overstates the availability of parking in the area: "Either a lot more lots will have to go up or a lot of people will be circling." And it sets an area for analysis of the pedestrian impact that is "far too small," she said, noting that it even excludes half of the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint.

Using mapping software, she showed the impact of traffic streaming from overburdened arteries to back up in nearby neighborhoods. "Looks like a heart attack," quipped a voice from the audience. The issues of traffic and transit have been the subject of recent hearings at Borough Hall.

"Albany has given [Ratner] license to deny the reality of the real impacts on the community," Ross said. "He's being permitted to shirk his responsibility and treat this EIS--which is supposed to document the worst [potential] effects--as a formality."

Perhaps not. A final scoping document is due in January, and may be the subject of litigation. Then--perhaps quite soon--emerges a DEIS, after which there will be at least 30 days, and perhaps much longer, for a hearing and comments before the state agency accepts the project or requests modifications. But this project, the largest in Brooklyn's history and the third-largest in New York City since World War II, poses major challenges, so the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) has requested that that period be extended to 180 days. (The CBN describes the general EIS process.)

CBN wants experts to challenge the DEIS, but needs $350,000 to hire them. Foundations and local elected bodies are the most likely sources. Also, CBN Secretary Jim Vogel observed, ESDC can issue charge a developer up to .5% of the project cost to fund experts to represent the community. (From a $3.5 billion project, .5% would be $17.5 million; $350,000 would represent .01%.) Under current head Charles Gargano, who has already pre-endorsed Atlantic Yards sans changes, ESDC has never ordered such a surchange.

Vogel said that CBN has just issued an RFP (Request for Proposals) to several environmental consultants, and hopes to receive bids by January 21. "Borough Hall and the Community Boards have thrown up their hands and said there's not going to be any dollars," he told me after the meeting. "Instead, they're having these meetings at 4 pm on a Tuesday," which exclude most people because of their timing.

Vogel said that the environmental consultants would conduct community outreach and education before the DEIS comes out. "It should not be written until the scoping document comes out, but often they come out the same day."

Law advised attendees to remain in the political process regarding other local issues, and to "support credible leadership." "You know that so-called community support was manufactured by Ratner's dollars," he said. "Nobody can buy what you feel. Nobody can buy what you believe." Law, who is black, scorned efforts to portray local black residents as fixated on the benefits Ratner's plan might provide: "They speak with contempt about black people, [as if] black people don't care about their community."

Taking notes in the audience was Lupe Todd, a public relations representative for Forest City Ratner and also a neighborhood resident. Her presence was derisively pointed out at the start of the meeting by moderator Scott Turner, and when he turned a question in Todd's direction at the end of the session, she declined, saying she was there as a resident. Turner observed that, by contrast to the open meetings held by project critics, Forest City Ratner and Borough President Marty Markowitz have often held closed-door meetings.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

 

Net gain in open space: only four acres, much less than the population requires

Forest City Ratner has been hyping the parklike open space at Atlantic Yards since the beginning--initially six acres of publicly accessible open space, including the top of the arena roof. Note this mailing from the spring of 2004. When earlier this year the developer acknowledged that the roof would no longer be public, the defense was that an additional acre of public space had been added.

But, it turns out, Forest City Ratner isn't being so generous. As architect Jonathan Cohn points out on his Brooklyn Views blog, the developer would be taking more than three acres of public streets. Moreover, given that the city aims for 2.5 acres of open space per 1,000 residents, and that Atlantic Yards would house perhaps 14,600 residents, the amount of open space would fall woefully short:
But rather than the required 36.5 acres of open space, not even counting the requirements for the arena or the office space, the developer is proposing to add 4 acres, not counting our currently open streets.

A skeptical reader commented, "City streets count as 'open space'? In that case, New York has a hell of a lot more open space than anyone thought." I don't think that's the point. The city could establish more parklike open space itself by closing streets, but creating superblocks is a controversial tactic. And, by closing streets, as Cohn points out, the developer can increase its FAR (Floor Area Ratio) and thus build bigger:
The intention of an FAR calculation is to limit density on private property relative to the site, with the circulation in public rights of way already factored in.

And how much will Forest City Ratner pay for those city streets? It's unclear. The MOU states, on p. 4:
The City will convey the City Properties and the City Streets underlying the Arena (but not including the commercial office building sites [note: now mostly housing] adjacent to the arena) to ESDC for $1 and the remaining portions of the City Properties and City Streets to ESDC for fair market value (paid for by FCRC) based on an independent appraisal that determines value based on the contemplated Development Plan and the development rights associated with such property, taking into account the amount of the [sic] any capital contribution or other financial contribution by the Public Parties to the Project (exclusive of the contributions for the Arena Site as specified in Section 10 below) and any extraordinary cost to FCRC of relocating public utilities and installing new public utility infrastructure...

We know what can happen to appraisals. But if Forest City Ratner can charge the cost of public utilities against the value of the site, we could use some public discussion of what those costs and the value would be. After all, an acre of land is quite valuable, as Prospect Heights is booming outside the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint.

 

Ratner ties mean the silence (not quite) of Henry Stern's New York Civic

You'd think that "New York's Youngest Good Government Organization," which defines itself as "[p]art watchdog, part cheerleader, part fundraiser, part whistle-blower, part trusted advisor, part muckraker, part think tank, part consciousness-raiser," would comment on the Atlantic Yards project. But the nearly four-year-old New York Civic--which is essentially founder Henry Stern and his writing/informed kibitzing--has said virtually nothing about the largest development in the history of Brooklyn, even though the planning, according to another watchdog, has been "all backwards."

The reason: former Parks Commissioner Stern is an old friend of Forest City Ratner President Bruce Ratner. The group also receives an undisclosed amount of funding from Forest City Ratner--effectively neutralizing it from commenting on Ratner projects. Stern told me, "New York Civic has not taken a position on the Ratner development. The reason we recused ourselves is because I’ve known Mr. Ratner for 35 years, since he came to work for the Department of Consumer Affairs. If we were to take a position, I would support the project, because I feel in general it’s a good thing. But I don’t want New York Civic to be involved, because of the relationship."

Actually, Stern did once comment favorably on Ratner's plan, in a 7/8/05 New York Sun article headlined Ratner’s Atlantic Yards Foes Delighted by Extell Bid Entry. After the Extell Development Company issued a rival bid for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) railyard at the heart of the Atlantic Yards project, the Sun contacted Stern for a comment:
The director of the watchdog group New York Civic, Henry Stern, said the Extell bid might be a “last-minute spoiler which provides a few extra bucks up front” — but less income for the MTA over the long term.

That logic was indeed adopted by the MTA, which accepted a lower bid--less than half the appraised value. Stern told me, "I didn’t volunteer that quote or seek to be involved. I totally disagree with the concept that individual agencies, especially authorities, own the land for which they have facilities and they can proceed to their own enrichment against the public interest. Say that the MTA could get more money from Extell or anyone else and therefore would be benefited financially. I don’t think they can make that judgment; they need to take the whole city’s interest into account. What if someone wanted to build a slaughterhouse there [and offered a higher bid]?...I thought, in that case, the property really belongs to the state, rather than a particular authority that happens to have custody."

Still, a watchdog group might also have commented about the strong evidence of a sweetheart deal between the MTA and Ratner, plus, as the Regional Plan Association pointed out, the MTA's failure to disclose the value of the bids or to analyze potential traffic and transit impacts.

The Sun neglected to disclose that Stern and Ranter have a longtime relationship. It's unclear whether Stern mentioned it. Stern said he doesn't remember, and the reporter (a former summer intern) told me that his notes were elsewhere, but that he doesn't "remember Mr. Stern mentioning any ties to Mr. Ratner in the few phone conversations we had."

Stern added, "If I wanted to support the project, I would’ve done more than answer a call from a Sun reporter. I thought it was in the province of my impartiality [to discuss the issue of the MTA bid]." However, as printed in the Sun, the quote from Stern sounds as much like a snap verdict than an expression of general principles.

A quick check shows Stern praising Ratner in a few articles. A 12/10/03 profile of the developer in the New York Sun, headlined Meet Bruce Ratner, Who Wants To Bring Nets to Brooklyn, contained this passage:
Even before he launched his real estate business, Mr. Ratner was getting noticed. Right after Columbia Law School, he went to work for New York City in the Consumer Protection Division in the Department of Consumer Affairs under Mayor Lindsay.
"He was a nice young man," said Henry Stern, who later would recommend him as consumer affairs commissioner to Mayor Koch. "His skills showed when he got to work on legal matters. He was very effective, he was promoted."


A 1/23/04 profile in Newsday headlined He Knows His Way Around Politics also quoted Stern:
Though Ratner's company still spends significant funds to lobby City Hall, Ratner a few years ago sharply cut back on donating funds to political campaigns - an unusual move for a real estate developer.
"He decided this was getting him into trouble, because every time he won a project, people would say it was because he gave money," said former city Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, who has known Ratner for 34 years.


Unmentioned was Ratner's pattern of giving money to community groups, as noted in Chapter 7 of my report. How much does Ratner's company give New York Civic? Stern wouldn't say, but added, "It's by no means our largest gift."

New York Civic reported contributions of $33,319 in 2004, according to the organization's IRS Form 990, as posted by Guidestar. New York Civic also reported that, from 2000 to 2003, it had raised $43,950, of which $38,000 had been given by donors whose total gifts over that period exceeded $880. This suggests that the organization has some steady donors, which may be why it doesn't solicit gifts on its web site. Still, the funds go mainly toward office expenses and administrative services, as New York Civic seems to run on a shoestring. Stern, who has a city pension, takes no salary.

Bruce Ratner has supported Stern's efforts in the past, chairing the board of the Parks Foundation during Stern's tenure, according to a 9/23/00 article ("Where City Foundation Gathers Its Greenery") in the New York Post.

And Ratner has commented favorably on Stern, in a profile of Stern and New York Civic in the 7/14/03 New York Sun, headlined Henry Stern’s Experience Leads His New York Civic to "Small Victories":
"This is really a wonderful thing for Henry and the city,” said the chief executive of real estate developer Forest City Ratner Companies, Bruce Ratner. “He’s using his wisdom and knowledge of government, and he’s communicating it to people who are interested and have influence."

Or in this case, not communicating. It would be interesting to hear Stern's unvarnished evaluation of the political and planning process behind Atlantic Yards. On the one hand, as quoted in a 7/19/05 New York Sun article on the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park, headlined Residents Charge Development Board Misleading Public on Construction Plans, Stern does defend development against critics:
A former parks commissioner in the Koch and Giuliani administrations, Henry Stern, said that the high-rise at Pier 6 would produce a necessary independent revenue stream to fund the park's maintenance. "The trouble with parks is that even if you put up the money to build them, you still have to run them," Mr. Stern, who is now president of New York Civic, said. "And for years, the city has skimped on parks."
The Willowtown Association was founded in the 1950s to fight Robert Moses's plans for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and Mr. Stern speculated that the neighborhood group's storied history might have left members with a knee-jerk aversion to any sort of development. "Every land dispute we have in this city is cast as Jane Jacobs fighting Robert Moses," Mr. Stern quipped. "The Willowtown people see themselves as Jacobins."


On the other hand, Stern is an old friend of Jane Jacobs, preserver of neighborhoods and human-scale development, and a critic of the type of superblock development proposed for Atlantic Yards. Stern may be "the conscience of a city", but perhaps it's best that he not publicly confront the conflict between his friendship with Ratner and the hard analysis--beyond "in general, it's a good thing," as Stern said of the project--required of a watchdog group.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

 

The Times corrects the Roger Green error: report isn't public

Well, it took a few days, but the Times on 12/13/05 did respond to my request (and perhaps a request from others?) for a correction:
An article on Friday about Assemblyman Roger L. Green of Brooklyn, who is considering a run for Congress despite a criminal record, referred imprecisely to a secret report prepared by the Assembly ethics committee after his conviction for petty larceny in 2004. Although the report, which recommended sanctions, was issued to Assembly leaders, it was not made public.

Monday, December 12, 2005

 

Overburdened transit and "suicidal" pedestrian issues raise concerns, but where's the MTA?

The meeting earlier today at Brooklyn's Borough Hall on the transit and pedestrian impact of the proposed Atlantic Yards plan didn't exhibit the same level of tension as the 12/5/05 hearing on traffic, but the issues are also quite significant--and without easy resolution.

As Jerry Armer, chairperson of Community Board 6 put it, the project poses hazards not just for vehicular but also pedestrian traffic. The intersection of Flatbush, Atlantic, and Fourth Avenues--the western border of the proposed site, "is not chaotic, it's not dangerous, it's sort of suicidal" for pedestrians. Armer argued that the state process for developing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)--overseen by the state Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC)--must consider effects outside the the proposed quarter-mile and half-mile boundaries. He noted that pedestrians have trouble crossing Flatbush Avenue in Park Slope near Eighth Avenue--and that the Grand Army Plaza further down Flatbush is "a pretty interesting intersection." Indeed.

"Raise this to the state and the city," urged Ruby Siegel, director of planning for Systra, a rail consultancy, who works with the Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA). "I think there's guidance in SEQRA [the state law governing the process] that says you need to look at the total impact."

But where was the MTA? Neither the state agency nor the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) sent representatives to the meeting. The reason: the Borough Hall meetings are unofficial and informational, outside the scope of the ESDC process. "They said it wasn't an ESDC project," reported an aide to Borough President Marty Markowitz.

Added Markowitz, "I think we should revisit it. It's purely informational." Indeed, the meeting again highlighted the awkward fit between the state process evaluating this project and the broader needs of Brooklyn and the city. Tom Schulze of New Jersey Transit, former executive director of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, noted that some issues being raised represent a "gray area outside the statutory requirements." The reluctance by the developer to extend beyond the physical and temporal scope of the EIS, he said, is because "the developer would be responsible for fixing the problems."

The MTA did send a written response to two questions. Asked how the services and schedules are adjusted for subways and buses when sporting or other events are held at other facilities in New York City, the MTA described extra service at the baseball stadiums, but said the regular schedule--albeit with monitoring of station entries and exits--is sufficient for Madison Square Garden.

Are any of the facilities models for the proposed Brooklyn Arena? The MTA replied that "Madison Square Garden is the better model, because it is about the same size and situated on multiple lines." However, participants noted, as they did on 12/4/05, that Manhattan and Brooklyn pose different challenges.

One possible solution, mentioned briefly but covered in today's New York Post (Nets Train Hard), involves efforts to devise either a swipeable game ticket or a game-day MetroCard to encourage use of public transit rather than cars. While Markowitz and Assembly Member Joan Millman seemed encouraged by the concept, it's a tougher sell in Brooklyn than at the more remote NASCAR track planned in Staten Island, as the Post reported:
But Gameday officials told The Post that controlling how fans get to the Brooklyn arena — planned for the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues — might not be feasible since, unlike the Staten Island raceway, it would be built in the heart of a mass transit hub.

Commented transportation consultant Carolyn Konheim of Community Consulting Services, a discount of one dollar for a MetroCard is "in the wrong place." To encourage use of public transit, "you discount the [game] ticket by ten dollars."

Millman said one solution might be to use dedicated shuttle buses from offsite parking lots, as far away as another borough. This would not involve existing bus routes.

Konheim, who often represents community and civic groups, spoke after a first panel that included more mainstream consultants. The three consultants addressing the assembled local officials and representatives of community boards mainly focused on nuts and bolts: the importance of good simulation models to estimate the real burden on public transit. They also addressed the possibility of light rail (years off) and bus rapid transit (soon to be demonstrated), which would involve dedicated bus lanes.

While the MTA response stated, "Buses are not a key component of any service plan for these [current] facilities," participants pointed out that buses are far more important to Brooklyn. "Buses carry a relatively small amount of ridership," observed David Sampson of Urbitran. "But given the number of buses downtown, there is a potential for more people to use buses." Still, Konheim suggested that the bus map needs work: "Buses don't go where people want to go." She cited the B61 from Red Hook to Long Island City, saying it represented three distinct trips.

Konheim asserted that it was inadequate to look only at the transporation impacts as of 2016--the current scheduled date for the completion of Atlantic Yards. The planning process should go to 2025, she said, citing the potential of the extension of the putative Second Avenue subway to the borough.

As for the MTA, she said the agency does have a model to expand service, "but they have no cars." While the agency plans to put 907 new subway cars in service in 2007-08, "they're going to junk 907 existing cars." She said that at least 200 of the cars could be rehabilitated. "But the MTA says, we can't take them, because there's no storage space."

Near the end of the hearing, Shirley McRae, chairperson of Community Board 2, said, "We need to stop making assumptions" about the MTA and urged the state assembly members--Millman and Roger Green--to pressure the agency to attend.

"I feel we're talking to each other," Konheim followed up. "Where is ESDC? Where is MTA?" At that point, however, several attendees had already left, including the Borough President. Markowitz apologized, but said he had to preside over a Christmas reception downstairs in Borough Hall.

 

The (two) people respond to the Public Editor; Times Tower ignored

So the Times on 12/11/05 printed two letters, one positive and one critical, responding to Public Editor Byron Calame's 12/4/05 column on how the Times could better cover itself--but neither with reference to the Times Tower deal I cited. In Other Voices: How Can The Times Report on Itself? , David Moorshead of Chicago wrote:
I'm confident that The New York Times's reporting on the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller matters (with the latter being muddy, in my view) is far more significant than its reporting about financial transactions involving its parent company. The connection between the parent company's financial dealings and what ends up in the paper is tenuous at best. Just reporting the facts of these transaction will suffice. But since Mr. Blair and Ms. Miller wrote what appeared in The Times, more lengthy explanation was required.
In the final analysis, readers will judge The Times by what appears on its pages over all, not on specific issues. The Times, like any other publication, isn't perfect. It has to make decisions. And at the end of the day, you've got to get a paper out. The Times steps into the "batter's box" every day, and its success rate is well over 90 percent. That's why readers continue reading it.
Please, stop the hand-wringing - instead, do the best you can for tomorrow's issue. That's all readers expect.


The connection between the parent company's financial dealings and what ends up in the paper is tenuous at best? Tenuous, but in the case of the Times Tower, the more aggressive coverage by the Village Voice and the New York Observer provides evidence to debate that connection rather than dismiss it.

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history at New York University, wrote:
Providing links to other newspapers is a fine idea, so far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. First, of course, most readers of the newspaper continue to read the print version. More to the point, providing multiple links doesn't address - and won't affect - the actual coverage in The Times. To get truly independent and critical coverage of yourself, you need to hire reporters that do not work for The Times (I argued this in a Nov. 9 op-ed article in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
A journalist friend told me, "That's a great idea, but no newspaper would ever do it." I asked why, and he said, "Because they don't want their dirty laundry aired in public!" That's an understandable reason, of course, but it's hardly a defensible one.


It actually has been done at least once, when the Seattle Times in 2003 hired a free-lance reporter to cover the Joint Operating Agreement--shared business arrangements but separate editorial functions--between the the Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. As Bob Steele wrote in Poynter Online: The freelancer will be an independent contractor whose reporting will neither be guided nor edited by top Times editors.

Wouldn't it be interesting if, to write about the Times Tower, the Times hired Paul Moses--the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, now journalism professor and freelancer, who wrote those Times Tower articles for the Voice?

Meanwhile, the Public Editor has not taken advantage of his Web Journal to inform readers whether or not the Times Tower deal was among the "several business transactions involving its parent company over the past five years" which "the paper has done a pretty good job" covering. The last post is from 11/23/05, even though the Web Journal is for comments "on matters that aren't appropriate for his column in the Sunday Op-Ed pages, or won't fit into it."

Meanwhile, the Times's troubles with Judith Miller and the leadership of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. are getting attention from bigfoot journalists like Ken Auletta in the New Yorker (THE INHERITANCE: Can Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., save the Times—and himself?) and Seth Mnookin in Vanity Fair (Unreliable Sources).

 

Gotham Gazette debate on eminent domain: the defense ignores the role of the state at Atlantic Yards

Today's issue of Gotham Gazette includes a package of articles on eminent domain. While the article in defense of eminent domain makes some valid points, it remains irrelevant to the controversy over Atlantic Yards. You can't fully blame author Jerilyn Perine, former Commissioner of New York City Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development, because her remarks were adapted from a speech, rather than written to address all the issues facing New York City today.

Her article, Eminent Domain is a Tool, Not a Conspiracy, suggests that eminent domain goes through the city's land use process:
Eminent domain is a tool. Whose hands that tool is in determines whether or not is used for what people may see as “good” or “bad.” The political process is defined by public participation or unfortunately, the lack thereof. Whether government makes the right decision or wrong decision is not a function of the tools that are wielded, but of the process.
When it comes to the issue of eminent domain, I think we are seeing a pendulum swing.
In New York City, we have a uniform land use procedure, known as ULURP, because there was the backlash against the unfettered powers wielded by Robert Moses in building roads, bridges, and other projects. The ULURP process was the people’s way of saying to their government, “Wait a minute, you cannot just make these decisions and slash through our communities.” As good and decent as roads may be, you have to ask people what they think. And there has to be a process where people get to say what they think. So our land use procedure was born.
My fear is that now that we have integrated a way for the voices of the local communities to be heard in the process – which is very good and desirable thing – that many of these voices have become advocates for community museums.


Regarding Atlantic Yards, however, ULURP is bypassed, since the project is proceeding under the state's land use process. The voices of the local communities are not truly being integrated. And the leading voice, as stated repeatedly, favors development, not stasis.

The main article criticizing eminent domain, Eminent Domain Benefits Developers, Not the Public, by Susan Fainstein, a professor and acting director of the urban planning department at Columbia University, also is adapted from a speech. Fainstein argues:
We do not ever hear that it is a public purpose to take the land of the wealthy to benefit low-income people. We never hear that eminent domain is used to take a Hyatt and build mixed income housing. The general stance is always take away land from poor people and give it to someone who is much better off.
There are alternatives to eminent domain. Private developers who want to build large projects can buy the existing tenants out. And if there are holdouts – as was the case with the one building, that refused to sell out for the Rockefeller Center development - it is possible to build around an existing location.


This may be true for part of the Atlantic Yards plan, but not necessarily for the buildings in the first proposed segment, where the arena would be built.

Fainstein argues:
I also believe that when you take a huge swath of property and try to build it all at once we generally end up with a less interesting, less textured, and less vital environment that may not produce as much in terms of economic development as a more mixed plan.
In the case of Atlantic Yards plan with the Frank Gehry buildings and the arena, developers plan on taking over not just residences, but a lot of small businesses as well. There is a tendency of people who run economic development corporations to see anything that is not big business that is not a multi-national corporation, as unworthy. Small businesses are often the birthplaces of larger businesses that drive the economy. We must always look at who benefits and who loses in cases of eminent domain.
I would be less concerned about the use of eminent domain if I thought that it was really for a public purpose, rather than for the benefit of developers. We are in an era of public/private partnerships and what typically happens is a developer comes to the government and says, “We like that property. We think we could make good use of it. Why don’t you condemn it for us.” Then the government goes through with a charade of a public process and does it.
Also the argument that these decisions should be left up to elected officials or legislative bodies is problematic. When we voted for Michael Bloomberg in the last election, we didn’t get to vote on whether we should develop Willets Point or the West Side of Manhattan, we just had to choose between two candidates.


Note that Atlantic Yards has not even been heard by a legislative body--seemingly a standard for eminent domain cases, according to the Supreme Court.

Fainstein continues:
Eminent domain can always be used for a high school or an actual public facility, but it should not be used for economic development that benefits a developer, corporation, or shopping mall operator. We use the public sector, and then rationalize it by saying the development will produce jobs and taxes.
Many of these projects also get tax abatements. So it is not even clear that they create much in taxes. And it is difficult to say whether new jobs are created as a direct result of physical development or whether it is just a movement of jobs from one place to another.


This is certainly an issue with Forest City Ratner developments; the New York City Economic Development Corporation has estimated that only 30 percent of the office jobs at Atlantic Yards would be new.

Also as part of the package, Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn offers Life in the Atlantic Yards Footprint, which points out that the project avoids ULURP and argues:
Ratner already owns two mall complexes and a retail property directly adjacent to the proposed Atlantic Yards site, but has been unwilling to utilize some of his own property along with the rail yards; instead he has chosen to take other people’s property. All of the stated goals of the project could be achieved without any use of eminent domain, which is why the proposal’s opponents see the project as a land grab, abetted by government.

His article also points out that the state Empire State Development Corporation says the project would remove blighted conditions, but that state Assemblyman Roger Green, a supporter of the project, has forcefully declared the neighborhood not blighted. Now there may be a difference between the legal and colloquial meanings of the term, but that should make for some interesting arguments.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

 

The Times ignores letters criticizing its Atlantic Yards editorial; maybe letters should be on the web

The deeply-flawed editorial about Atlantic Yards in the 11/27/05 issue of the New York Times deserves a public response, but today's City section contains just two letters, neither commenting on that editorial. (One letter refers to the issue of 11/27/05 and the other refers to the issue of 12/4/05, so I assume next week's letters will not address issues from November.)

The Times receives many more letters than it can print, so that any decision to ignore Atlantic Yards in favor of other topics--this week, on election reform and the Brooklyn Bridge--is a judgment call. (Then again, the newspaper on 7/17/05 did print three letters critical of its 7/10/05 editorial, "Skyscrapers Grow in Brooklyn.") But the Times, like all newspapers, should be more responsive to the many legitimate responses to its coverage and, especially, its editorials. Perhaps the Times can consider a web version of an expanded Letters section--in which the letters are vetted as in the print edition. Otherwise the newspaper is selling its readers short.

So, in the interest of public discussion, I reproduce three letters--surely there were more--sent to the Times, each making a different point.

My letter:
The Times editorialized, "The Nets arena is not destined to be a cash cow, but the borough deserves a sports team, so long as the price is not too high." However, the arena would be one of 17 buildings, and the September 2005 Independent Budget Office report cited by the Times did not address the price of the development as a whole.
The IBO, in a partial attempt to calculate costs-- the delivery of new education, sanitation, and police services over 30 years to the project as a whole--came up with a figure significantly higher than that projected by developer Forest City Ratner's consultant. That suggests we still need a thorough look at the potential costs and benefits of Atlantic Yards, especially in its current configuration. Indeed, the IBO cited a figure of nearly twice as much office space as currently projected, and 6,000 apartments rather than the currently projected figure of 7,300.


Wrote Daniel Goldstein, spokesman for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn: Your editorial about Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards proposal, "A Matter of Scale in Brooklyn," says: "It's understandable that residents bordering the project do not want such drastic change, but that in itself is no reason to stop the development. It is difficult to build in New York as it is. Growth would come to a screeching halt forever if neighborhoods could veto projects to keep the status quo."
Ratner's opponents don't want the status quo. We seek development that enhances and benefits the entire community, without destroying the existing neighborhoods and relying on massive taxpayer subsidies. We want to develop our community with our input--that's the essence of civic engagement. We even found a developer, Extell Development Company, to submit a community friendly proposal tripling Ratner's offer to the MTA.
We stand by the name of our group leading 50 community organizations against Ratner's proposal: Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.


Fellow activist Shabnam Merchant wrote:
Your editorial "A Matter of Scale in Brooklyn," argues that Bruce Ratner's development proposal in Brooklyn must be scaled down. But it misses the point that Ratner's proposed scale and density is necessitated by his arena's expense. At $555.3 million dollars, a cost sure to increase, the arena is by far the most expensive ever proposed and will be an economic loss for the city. Also, there is no political oversight to mandate a reduction in scale.
You support the arena because "the borough deserves a sports team, so long as the price is not too high" and "its impact on the area's night life should be positive." This contradicts the call for a smaller project--the economics say the arena requires the large scale. With a direct tunnel from the subway to the arena along with traffic and parking nightmares, the area's night life, already vibrant, could be doomed.

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