Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Marty Markowitz faces the questions: "process" inevitably involves substance, like unresolved issues of scale

Borough President Marty Markowitz, appearing last night before a monthly meeting of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), maintained his public posture on the proposed Atlantic Yards project: an enthusiastic supporter who recognizes community concerns but remains confident it will all work out well. Markowitz was alternately conciliatory, jovial, thoughtful, and feisty, but became tense, if not testy, at times when pressed. Though several member organizations of the group may criticize or oppose the project, the CBN takes no position beyond its role as a community conduit to the environmental review conducted by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). "You will not hear opposition or support for the project," cochair Candace Carponter told Markowitz. "This group is here to talk about process." (Photo at right from Borough President's web site.)

Funding a planner

Will Markowitz provide financial support for an planning expert to help the CBN respond to the state review process regarding Atlantic Yards? "I'm sorry to say we don't have the funding," Markowitz said. "I happen to agree [that an expert should be hired]." He said he had raised the issue twice to Charles Gargano, chair of the ESDC, but Gargano said no.

What about asking Forest City Ratner for the money? "I don't know if it's appropriate for me to ask," Markowitz said, noting that if the report comes out in a certain way, it could be considered tainted. "It has to be independent money." Carponter said that that "we believe" it's ESDC's job to ask the developer to fund the expert. Markowitz added that a lot of people had asked him to ask Ratner for money, "and I've asked for nothing." (Then again, Markowitz did ask Bruce Ratner to buy the New Jersey Nets and move the team to Brooklyn, and Ratner conceived of a much larger project than an arena, according to a New Yorker report.)

City Council Member Letitia James, an Atlantic Yards opponent and the only elected official among the 30 or so people in the audience, asked Markowitz if he'd join the Brooklyn delegation of City Council in asking the Council Speaker for funding. Markowitz said yes.

Demolition questions

Markowitz was asked if he'd help to stop the developer's plans to demolish six buildings an engineer has determined are "an immediate threat to the preservation of life, health, and property"--a conclusion in some dispute. He said, "I don't know that he's prohibited from demolishing buildings that he totally owns and they say are a threat to the safety of the community."

Carponter observed that, under the state review, demolition could proceed only if the buildings were hazardous to life or safety. When pressed why his office wouldn't step in, Markowitz responded, "Because I choose not to. He has a certified engineering company say these buildings are a danger to the public."

Deb Howard of the Pratt Area Community Council observed that the Atlantic Terminal area had been fallow for 20 years while development was pending: "You want to make sure that, when building are demolished, you have the approval and the financing [for the larger project]."

Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn asked, "If they are a public safety hazard, the developer has owned three of them for a year and a half. If they're truly a public safety hazard, why is he not protecting us with sidewalk sheds or why didn't he demolish them a year ago?"

Goldstein, who has not been willing to sell his condo to the developer and is threatened by eminent domain, added, "And it's very good for me to hear you so adamant about private property rights."

Markowitz shot back, "I'll take it as a compliment."

Goldstein continued, "If it's a public safety issue, and I doubt that it is, why is he not moving faster, or why did he not do something sooner?"

Markowitz responded, "Why he didn't do it a year ago, I really don't know." (One answer might be that the engineering review hadn't been completed. Another question might be why the developer waited five weeks after the engineering report was completed.)

Questions of scale

Markowitz maintained his stance that the project should be scaled down, but didn't offer specifics: "I see this as very beneficial to the future of Brooklyn but there are adjustments that can be made to fit more in the tapestry of the community."

Markowitz expressed confidence the project would work out. "I'd be thrilled to live a block or two away from there, even with this project...Maybe one or two of you can buy me a handyman special." After endorsing the idea of a charrette involving architect Frank Gehry and community representatives, Markowitz, acknowledging that he's not an architect, allowed that he'd tossed in his two cents on project design: "I like the idea of stoops--a stoop feeling" and other elements, like brick, that evoke the surrounding area.

He told the CBN that their input was helping find the right balance. "If you don't think the state and the developer are hearing you, they are hearing you. This plan has changed a couple of times--"

"It's gotten bigger," interjected Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition.

"--and I wouldn't be surprised if it changes some more as we move ahead," Markowitz continued.

Hagan asked whether Forest City Ratner representatives had responded to Markowitz's public--and, presumably, private--call that the project should be scaled down, given that the project has grown in acreage and density. The Borough President replied, "My private conversations are my private conversations... I'm sure they are reviewing all parts of this."

How should we think about the scale of the project, given that it bypasses zoning and there's been no public discussion of the appropriate scale and a variety of surroundings? "You get one part [bordering the project] that's relatively low-rise, one part that's relatively high-rise," Markowitz said. "It's kind of hard for me to give you an answer." He added that he was more concerned now with issues like traffic mitigation, infrastructure, and parking.

Because of growth in Brooklyn's population and the decline of available land, "the way it appears to be going is vertically, not horizontally," he said. Indeed, density takes advantage of public transit and saves energy, but the appropriate level remains a question. "The city planners and city mothers and fathers in the days ahead will have to look at what policies will have to be implemented to somehow solve this challenge," Markowitz said. "I don't have any answers for that right now. I'm taking it project by project." As for Atlantic Yards, he seemed to be saying, it's too late--at least for anything more than an ad hoc responses involving community members like the ones he was meeting with--since the process has bypassed city review.

PACB and beyond

James asked him if he'd express concerns to the state Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), which has yet to vote on $100 million in state subsidies and is controlled by Governor George Pataki, State Senate leader Joe Bruno, and State Assembly leader Sheldon Silver. Markowitz resisted: "I can assure you I'll read every word you write. I want it to happen. I share many of the concerns, so that's where that gray area comes in." Silver's opposition to the West Side Stadium project, in part because it contained office space that would compete with his Lower Manhattan district, helped kill that project.

Asked why the public couldn't ask questions of the experts who have been appearing at the Borough Board meetings on Atlantic Yards, Markowitz said that the process was not uncommon, that all members of the board had approved the process, and that City Council Member James, an Atlantic Yards opponent on the board, is free to bring up the issue. He did note that the process is only "information gathering;" indeed, because the project is under state auspices, the Borough Board meetings are outside the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) process. Another meeting is today.

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