Friday, January 06, 2006


After the CBA, will Ratner negotiate a Neighborhood Benefits Agreement?

Forest City Ratner seems willing to meet and negotiate with representatives of Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods around the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint over issues like traffic and urban space. Still, it's unclear whether the company would hire an urban designer to facilitate a community planning process and doubtful that it would agree to not use eminent domain. Those are some conclusions from a meeting last night of the Park Slope Civic Council (PSCC), which sent a delegation to meet with the developer five weeks ago.

First came the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), an innovative (for New York) but controversial effort to ensure that local residents and minorities get access to jobs, job training, and housing, among other things. But the CBA was signed with only eight groups, and it's hardly clear that they represent "the community." So when the PSCC representatives met with Forest City Ratner, they asked that the CBA "be reopened and expanded to include Neighborhood agreements," to include input from the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the project.

The answer: not quite. The developer won't reopen the CBA, reported Council President Lydia Denworth at the group's monthly meeting, but it would consider a neighborhood agreement with groups representing Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods. And what did the group ask for? "[A]greements between FCR and local government community groups on issues including: traffic, transportation, and parking; building size and urban design; city services; and public space"--in other words, the issues already raised to the Empire State Development Corporation. (More testimony.)

Does that mean that Forest City Ratner will downsize the project and do more to "repect and connect with" adjoining neighborhoods? "They didn't make any real commitment [at the meeting], but I think were ready to negotiate," reported Trustee Louise Finney, who chairs PSCC's Atlantic Yards Committee (and co-chairs the CB6 Transportation Committee). But FCR wants to meet first with groups from neighborhoods like Boerum Hill and Fort Greene, Denworth said, noting that "a Neighborhood Benefits Agreement with just one neighborhood isn't the point." Note that the Park Slope Civic Council--whose board represents a diversity of opinions--has not taken a public position for or against Atlantic Yards, but has expressed community concerns about the project's potential impact. The meeting with Forest City Ratner was initiated by Borough President Marty Markowitz.

Denworth at one point responded to a board member who thought the PSCC's posture was too confrontational. One tactic is opposition, she said, but another is, "whether you like it, or are in the middle [and may object to certain aspects], or you think it's going to happen, is to try to negotiate change and mitigation. It's the view of the Executive Committee and the Atlantic Yards Committee that that's what we should do. The big question is: 'are they operating in good faith?' and we have no idea. We are operating in good faith."

Trustee Lumi Rolley, who also runs the NoLandGrab portal for Atlantic Yards-related news (and apparently had been respecting a news blackout), pointed out, "If he [Forest City Ratner VP Jim Stuckey] reopens the CBA, it's an admission that the CBA is incomplete." She said a Neighborhood Benefits Agreement could cut both ways: on the one hand, neighborhoods could complain that they weren't considered "good enough to be part of the community"; on the other hand, groups like the PSCC don't want to revisit the jobs and housing issues that have already been negotiated in the CBA. (Unmentioned was the implication in the CBA, as local African-American activist Bob Law has pointed out, that black Brooklynites care only about benefits, but not about issues like scale and neighborhood character. Note that some 175 entities have been said to have "affirmed" the agreement since its signing, but they include elected officials, restaurants and real-estate agencies, according to the New York Observer's The Real Estate, as well as groups from Queens and Manhattan. The definition of "community" is a contentious issue.)

Denworth described the effort to negotiate a neighborhood agreement as separate from the role of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), which is providing community input for the state process of environmental review. The PSCC board authorized its Atlantic Yards Committee to continue discussions and to reach out to other neighborhood organizations to further the idea of a Neighborhood Benefits Agreement.

More challenging requests

In the meeting with Forest City Ratner, along with asking for neighborhood negotiations, the PSCC delegation also asked the developer "to withdraw the threat of eminent domain and limit the project to the property that you already control." There was no indication of assent, and Forest City Ratner, while saying that it aims to minimize the use of eminent domain, likely will have to seek it, as some property owners have said they won't sell their land.

Also, the PSCC group asked the developer--with the help of city, state and borough funds--to hire an urban designer "to engage in a full-fledged community planning process." What kind of designer? "A widely recognized expert, such as Peter Calthorpe, who is designing the Stapleton, Colorado project for Forest City Enterprises, or Jan Gehl, the renowned Danish city planner." Those are interesting choices, since Calthorpe--who focuses on "diverse, mixed-use, and pedestrian friendly" communities--is already working for the corporate parent of Forest City Ratner, and Gehl recently visited Brooklyn and criticized Forest City Ratner's Metro Tech and expressed misgivings over the plan for Atlantic Yards.

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