The Atlantic Yards Project: No Longer Inevitable?by Brian J. Carreira
What a difference a year can make. As January 2005 winds to a close, Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards proposal, launched a year ago as the crown jewel in the developer's Brooklyn menagerie, seems to be chugging along on fumes. Twelve months after it was announced that the New Jersey Nets would be sold to Mr. Ratner and a cadre of investors, the fate of the downtown stadium seems much less inevitable than uncertain.
Initially, Forest City was rounding up school kids to hold Brooklyn Nets signs at Borough Hall and describing Prospect Heights as a "blighted" eyesore. With Borough President Marty Markowitz and the mayor's office on its side, Ratner's team was riding a public relations high. Nowadays, the Atlantic Yards marketing team mails out glossy brochures that Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition and others are characterizing as "desperate."
Hagan believes Ratner "underestimated the neighborhood" when he first pitched his project. "I think the opposition is very strong and obviously has been very effective," she says. Supporters of the project, on the other hand, have taken to launching aggressive and somewhat bizarre actions. In January, members of ACORN protested outside of City Councilwoman Letitia James's Brooklyn office. While affirming the group's right to protest, James admitted confusion as to why they resorted to such measures, "Clearly I have an open door policy," she contends, mentioning that "BUILD [the pro-stadium community group] had been in two days prior." During the course of the ACORN picket, James opened her doors and invited the protesters in, and says that she was happy to provide them with water and allow them to use the restroom.
In general, "they're behind schedule," the councilwoman says of Ratner and company's plan. James mentions that "despite what you may hear," Forest City has not purchased the majority of property in the proposed area. And she is hopeful that the current impasse will interest the developer in making compromises regarding the project. "Everything is fluid," says James.
There certainly seems to be something amiss at Forest City's MetroTech office. The Community Benefits Agreement, originally intended to be shuffled through community board subcommittees for a November release, now appears to be on the back burner. Bertha Lewis of ACORN, a negotiating party in the CBA, cautiously sees "February…maybe" as a potential timetable. Lupe Todd, a media representative for Forest City, is even more reserved. "It would be premature to give a date or even a timeframe [for the CBA]," she says.
In addition, the Empire State Development Corporation has not issued a Memorandum of Understanding, which is a requirement to move this proposal through the local and state approval processes. Forest City has also studiously avoided the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), thus shielding the proposal from public comment.
As reported in the January 22nd Brooklyn Papers, Ratner is planning on substantially altering the Atlantic Yards proposal, turning three of the four commercial buildings that would share a block with the arena into residential structures. When asked to confirm this, Forest City's Todd said, "you should assume that to be accurate," adding that "we are still exploring ways to increase housing." On the other hand, she refused to conclude that an increase in housing will result in a decrease in commercial space, which would ultimately result in a substantial decrease in permanent jobs that could be created by the Atlantic Yards project.
Citing as her reason a desire not to "jeopardize" the ongoing CBA negotiations surrounding this issue, Todd refused to explain how the same number of jobs could be squeezed into less office space. Despite the seemingly obvious and serious blow to their cause, BUILD, a proponent of jobs and Ratner-approved community representative in the CBA talks, did not return numerous phone calls for comment.
The recent release of the city's Bid book for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games adds more curiosities to the Atlantic Yards mix. The arena is being presented as the venue for gymnastics competition with "a full array of amenities, support facilities, and practice areas." According to the plan, an access road would allow athletes to "enter the Brooklyn Olympic Arena just a few steps from their locker rooms and support areas from an exclusive drop-off zone." These support facilities and the access road all fall on blocks that are designated in Ratner's original plan as residential space.
One of the project's most vocal supporters has been ACORN, which officially supports the proposal based on the need for more affordable housing in Brooklyn. The group is excited by the developer's promise that 50 percent of the 4,500 units of housing to be built in the Atlantic Yards project would be below market rate. ACORN New York's Executive Director Bertha Lewis balked at the possibility of Forest City not building housing until past the summer of 2012. "Housing is going to be affordable and it's going to be on site. Until we get the Olympics I don't think we should put too much stock in [the bid book]." Lewis adds that, "housing is the piece that makes this project go. It is the jewel in the crown."
Forest City's Todd also says that despite the Olympic blueprint, "our proposal is remaining the same." Two seemingly irreconcilable uses for the same plot of land would seem to cause difficulties warranting communication between the developer and the city, but according to Todd, "that's the city's bid book," and Forest City was not consulted and did not contribute to the information inside.
These incongruities at the very least stand to fray Ratner's coalition of support. How dedicated the mayor's office would be in implementing the varied Olympic plans in accordance with the bid book won't be known before early July, when the host city for 2012 is announced. But when presented with the possibility that housing on the blocks in question would be postponed until after summer 2012, Bertha Lewis simply stated, "there would be hell to pay."
Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, a group opposing the arena, believes the Olympic bid book raises serious questions about the nature of the Atlantic Yards proposal. "I would like to ask [Deputy Mayor] Doctoroff and Ratner what this site is going to look like in seven years," he says. Goldstein surmises that "housing and jobs are the backbone of [Forest City's] PR campaign, but in the bid book they are nowhere to be found seven years from now." His conclusion, shared by many opposed to the proposal, is that "the arena and the Olympics are getting in the way of the true needs of Brooklyn."
Which is at least part of the reason that Develop Don't Destroy recently endorsed the UNITY plan for the Atlantic Yards site. Starting out as a longshot brainstorm in a church basement, this alternate plan for the rail yards has blossomed into a full-blown proposal and has recently been presented at meetings around Prospect Heights. Although it lacks the retro megablock form or the stockroom box chic of Frank Gehry's design, the UNITY plan accomplishes the desired aims of increasing commercial and retail space without destroying existing structures.
Another obstacle for the project is the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to hear Kelo v. New London, which will decide whether a city can use eminent domain to benefit a private interest on the grounds that the proposed redevelopment would increase the local tax base. Even Borough President Marty Markowitz, one of the loudest cheerleaders for the arena and towers, acknowledges that the court's decision "would make or break the [Forest City] plan." Jim Stuckey of Forest City declared at a late November informational meeting that the decision would not hinder the proposal because the city could simply declare the area for condemnation "blighted."
Daniel Goldstein, as a resident of that area, takes umbrage with that notion. "We'd like to ask them what 'blighted' means. This area is clearly a diverse and thriving neighborhood." Goldstein believes that despite what he describes as "bluster" from Stuckey, the facts on the ground tell a different story. Forest City, he says, "is clearly worried about [the New London case] because they've slowed the purchasing of property in the footprint." Goldstein also believes that one of the reasons there has not been a Memorandum of Understanding from the ESDC is that "the people who are signing are waiting to hear what the court decides." Regardless, he concludes, "pretty much every lawyer and every legal scholar has said this decision will affect these sort of projects."
Along with roughly 25 other groups—ranging from the NAACP to the Cato Institute—Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn has filed an amicus curae (friend of the court) brief for this case. This is submitted to the court by parties who have knowledge or interest in the subject, with the intent of presenting information that would not be otherwise heard. As Patti Hagan says excitedly, "this [decision] could stop this abuse of property rights dead," adding that it would "make it more illegal than it is right now."
Over all, it's clear that Bruce Ratner—the "stealth mogul," according to a April 2004 National Real Estate Investor article—has been more than slightly stunned when his photo ops and backroom dealings came up against a well-organized and very public fight. Did his desire for a legacy get the better of him? "Ratner tried to use the stadium as a Trojan Horse for 17 skyscrapers," says Bill Batson, an artist in Prospect Heights and member of Community Board 8. "This isn't about the Nets; it isn't really about housing. It is a monument to hubris."
Whatever the reason, residents of Prospect Heights can take heart in the fact that a development originally slated to bulldoze the neighborhood seems to be running low on gas. Many fights remain, and Bruce Ratner isn't a man to underestimate; but thus far, the neighborhood has proven itself to be more than up to the challenge.
ContributorBrian J. Carreira
BRIAN CARREIRA is a writer living in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianCarreira.