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.

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