On November 29, residents of Prospect Heights and the surrounding areas were presented with an “informational meeting” hosted by Community Boards 2, 6, and 8 about Forest City Ratner’s proposed $2.5 billion Atlantic Yards Development. The event was held at New York City College of Technology in Downtown Brooklyn. Hovering as a backdrop to the entrance of the auditorium was a potential glimpse of Prospect Height’s future: Forest City Ratner’s office tower complex, MetroTech.
A nighttime stroll though MetroTech’s pavement plazas and across its fluorescent paths illustrates one of the more remarkable elements of the complex: its lack of people. In the evening, after the office workers scuttle home to Long Island and elsewhere, Ratner’s towers cast unnatural shadows across an urban void. Bereft of ground-floor retail spaces outside of the businesses that ultimately serve the commuters during their workday, the empty blocks create a bleak, uninviting wasteland.
A Midwestern developer such as Mr. Ratner potentially could be forgiven for creating this lifeless development. Commercial ghost towns similar to MetroTech are ubiquitous in car-friendly burgs across America. But such forgiveness grows thin when one considers that this same developer is responsible for the Atlantic Center and, most recently, the Atlantic Terminal—hermetically sealed urban malls that turn their backs to the streets, leaving empty sidewalks for Brooklyn residents to traverse.
It is this track record that has many in the area worried about Forest City’s latest proposal, the Atlantic Yards. Exponentially dwarfing Ratner’s previous Brooklyn projects, this 10-year construction project stands to bring more of the same failure, though now wrapped in dilettantish postmodern architecture. Perhaps realizing this, Forest City’s PR team seems to have mostly abandoned attempts to convince those in the community that Atlantic Yards will be engaging or in any way enjoyable for local residents. Forest City has instead turned up the volume on its promises of jobs and affordable housing.
At the informational meeting, which a Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn press release refered to as a “pep rally” for the project, Forest City Executive Vice President Jim Stuckey voiced the party line on these issues. Pro-stadium groups such as BUILD and ACORN, however, are banking on the success of the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that Forest City has initiated (see Carreira, “Ratner Applies Full-Court Press on Downtown Stadium,” Rail, November 2004). A CBA is a legally binding contract establishing guidelines that cover a number of neighborhood concerns.
The CBA is being touted as the first of its kind in New York City. As Stuckey repeatedly reminded local residents, the CBA illustrates Ratner’s magnanimity, since he is not required by law to enter into the agreement. Fortunately, those less inclined to take Forest City’s goodwill for granted do have a precedent by which to judge the document. The development of the Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers, occurred under the auspices of a CBA established in May 2001.
The Staples CBA, as it is commonly known, ultimately represents the 28 neighborhood and community organizations that joined together as the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice. This number does not include the various labor organizations that in separate negotiations also backed the provisions of the CBA. The Atlantic Yards agreement, by contrast, is presently being cobbled together by the developer, subcommittees of Community Boards 2, 6, and 8, and a select few arena groups. Opponents of the proposal were not invited to take part in the negotiations. According to Jim Stuckey, the rationale for this is that Forest City is “trying to work with groups that have a history of creating jobs,” like ACORN. This has not precluded Ratner from including BUILD, despite the fact that the organization only came into existence following the announcement of the proposal last January—with the seemingly solitary purpose of speaking on its behalf.
In general, a CBA can be a sturdy cornerstone that puts residents’ needs into a development, as has been with the Staples Center and the surrounding area, or it can become just another brick in a builder’s PR campaign to sell a proposal to both the public and the government agencies that will dispense tax subsidies. Broad-based local participation is essential in a CBA, since as a legally binding contract, it can only be enforced by those who sign it. This is also the basis for a local community’s ability to negotiate from strength.
A stated goal of the Staples agreement is that 70 percent of jobs created in the project would pay, at a minimum, the living wage of the city of Los Angeles. There would also be consultation with the community on selection of tenants in the new housing. Surprisingly, amidst the fervor of excitement over the job creation the Atlantic Yards promises, there has been no public talk from CBA participants seeking similarly worded concessions. In responding to the issue at the November 29 meeting, Mr. Stuckey wistfully recalled his first job at a deli, then stated, “There’s nothing wrong with having entry level jobs.” Certainly, there is no shame in doing an honest day’s work, but pride alone won’t make ends meet. Knowing the difficulties that would be created by the Staples development with regard to parking and traffic, the Figueroa Corridor Coalition added specific language to deal with the creation of a parking–permit district, to which the developer was expected to contribute monetarily. There was also a liaison position established to handle the inevitable traffic problems that the development would create. Thus far, there has been no mention of similar traffic and parking clauses in the Atlantic Yards contract. And when asked about issues of parking and traffic, Stuckey simply said that they would be addressed during the environmental impact study that occurs further along in the approval process.
Affordable housing and job training are where the Atlantic Yards CBA is most admirable, at least from preliminary promises that 50 percent of the units erected will be below market rate. Still, the issue with this, as well as many other provisions in the agreement, is enforceability. Only those who sign a CBA can bring the developer to task, and thus far those at the table are only those who believe in Bruce Ratner’s promises and who have publicly offered little critique.
Beyond the necessity of a broad coalition of local groups, a CBA can be incorporated into the development agreement entered into with the city or state that outlines subsidies provided to the project. In “Community Benefit Agreement: Making Development Projects Accountable,” a study for Good Jobs First, Julian Gross “strongly recommend[s]” that “a CBA be incorporated into any development agreement for a project, so that the CBA becomes enforceable by the government entity that is subsidizing the development.” Daniel Goldstein, spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, says that any agreement should have “callbacks” so that “money given by the public is taken away if Ratner doesn’t follow through on the agreements.” Develop Don’t Destroy, of course, was not asked to participate in these negotiations. Forest City’s Stuckey notes that “whether or not [the CBA] becomes part of the state process is unknown.” He reiterates that even “if it’s not, in and of itself it is a legally-binding agreement,” which brings the issue back to who is and who is not signing.
Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition dismisses the rice-paper CBA talks as ultimately “bogus”. Many of the area’s local politicians also see it as a bad-faith agreement from a developer who is trying to exploit working-class residents’ concerns over gentrification in Prospect Heights. “This project should not discriminate and it should not separate,” city councilwoman Letitia James exhorted during an October presentation of the findings of a Pratt Community Development (PICCED) survey of local residents’ concerns about the neighborhood. “The reason I oppose this,” James explained, “is that nobody came to the community and asked, ‘What would you like at Atlantic and Flatbush?”’
Bruce Ratner and his PR team, however, are trying to create the impression that the development options are either the Forest City proposal or nothing; you can either support the project as laid out, or you effectively “chose not to participate.” State Senator Velmanette Montgomery takes particular umbrage with Ratner’s alternatives. “What I think is unfortunate,” she says, is that “at none of these public forums do we have opportunities to discuss alternative plans. There are other plans that would avoid eminent domain.”
Bill Batson, a member of Community Board 8, objects to Ratner’s means of recruiting support for the proposal. Forest City says, “[it] is circumventing the ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process and attempting to create a parallel structure in the most ham-fisted way, using PR firms and bused-in hecklers to sidestep fact.”
Indeed, at the information meeting there was a feeling of tension and strong divisiveness among those in attendance. Members of ACORN were particularly vocal, chanting and cheering when Stuckey punctuated his pro-stadium points and hissing down those who questioned their validity. A particularly telling moment came when the cheering squad responded to a question regarding the luxury condominiums on Pacific Street that would be demolished for the basketball arena with shrieks of “tear them down!”
With such a caustic climate, it is little wonder that discussion of alternative proposals has been gaining ground over the last few months. Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn has officially endorsed the UNITY Plan that grew out of the Atlantic Yards Development Workshop last spring. This plan calls for more density at ground level than the Ratner plan, and no arena. This engenders a comparable, and in some cases, greater area of retail, commercial, and residential space while leaving existing residences untouched.
Walking the empty blocks of MetroTech after dark, one is reminded of how far Brooklyn has come since Bruce Ratner played on the borough’s sense of inadequacy so he could erect those lifeless towers. Now, with a nearly identical bag of goods in hand, he is making grand claims about making the Atlantic Yards a “world-class destination” that will help solve Brooklyn’s problems of poverty and lack of affordable housing. But unless the community bands together and resists Ratner’s divide-and-conquer strategy, in the end it may be left only with another world-class disaster like MetroTech.
ContributorBrian J. Carreira
BRIAN CARREIRA is a writer living in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianCarreira.