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Thoughts on Atlantic Yards

Just over three years ago, developer Bruce Ratner announced plans to build a basketball arena and skyscrapers in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, a block and a half from where I lived at the time. I wrote about the proposal in these pages, highlighting its effects on the local community and the public relations tactics used to sell it to the people of New York.

When I wrote about the manipulations of the developer, the brokenness of the public processes, and the general drawbacks that such a massive undertaking—an arena and 16 towers spread across 22 acres—would entail, I always secretly believed that level heads would rule the day in the end. I assumed that the ugliest extravagances of the project would be scaled back or even eliminated. And that a combination of community pressure and common sense would inform our elected officials to demand less excess and more benefit from Forest City Ratner Companies.

Sad to say, this never happened. Even before it was announced, the Atlantic Yards has resembled nothing other than exactly what Bruce Ratner wanted it to be. That a company which already scarred Brooklyn with ill-conceived malls and a stifling office park was given such carte blanche is irresponsible. That our elected officials abdicated their responsibilities to their constituents by not using the approval process and public relations to gain meaningful benefits from a developer who needed them more than they needed him is unconscionable.

The reasons for this dereliction of duty are puzzling. The explanation of political favoritism only goes so far. It explains why Forest City Ratner was deemed the only worthy developer for the rail yards, but doesn’t explain why no persuasive force was exerted by supporters of the project to address issues such as scale, job creation, and eminent domain before designs were drawn. They seemed enamored with the promises before they examined whether it was even possible that the promises would bear fruit.

The “starchitect” Frank Gehry served up an aesthetic lemon and memorably described those who question his designs as opponents of progress who would “picket Henry Ford.” Affordable housing will only come with great bulk and will be built as many as ten years into the project’s construction. As for jobs, the robust figures sometimes resulted from creative math: 15,000 construction jobs was really 1,500 jobs per 10 years of building. Or from fantasy: 10,000 permanent jobs for the community is really 1,340 jobs—per the Environmental Impact Statement of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC)—of which less than 400 will be new.

Sticking a basketball arena on the corner of the busiest intersection in Brooklyn can hardly be interpreted as a benefit unto itself, and it should be weighed against the fact that professional sports are one of the hottest dupes in the land. Appeals to pride cause politicians to abandon prudence. The idea of an NBA team in the borough overwhelm any concerns about the extraordinary scale of the project. I don’t want to dismiss the enjoyment of professional sports, but a $640 million dollar arena whose purpose is to distract from the sixteen skyscrapers going up alongside it doesn’t exactly convey images of pick-up ball.

That the largest development project in Brooklyn history was able to shield itself from accountability to any legislative body at either the state or local level is also unacceptable. But the negligence of our elected officials goes deeper than this, beginning with an unwillingness to use their political advantage over the developer to shape the proposal.

The proposal essentially underwent two key stages of approval. The first was sanction from the MTA for Forest City Ratner to purchase the land, which occurred on September 14, 2005. These proceedings could hardly be considered public. Then-MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow and the board shut down a legitimate rival proposal while at the same time allowing FCRC more time to come up with an offer in the “open-bid process.”

The second step was the rubber-stamping by the ESDC of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), which occurred on December 8, 2006. First, the ESDC listened to many hours of testimony from the public about concerns over Atlantic Yards’ impact on the area’s environment, traffic, light, and security. They took all this feedback from residents and officially included none of it in the FEIS. They worked through Thanksgiving weekend to move the proposal into the hands of the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) before the new year brought a new administration into office.

On December 20, just days before long-time Ratner friend and Atlantic Yards supporter George Pataki left Albany, the PACB approved the Atlantic Yards project. The notorious “three men in a room”—Governor Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno—took five minutes to deliberate before approving this gigantic proposal.

But the various decisions of the various undemocratic state boards and agencies only confirmed the brazenly pro-Atlantic Yards stances taken by various elected officials. From the get-go, Borough President Marty Markowitz had nary a bad word about the project, only noting in August 2006 the outlandish scale of the Atlantic Yards, belatedly charging that it “must be reduced.” Senator Chuck Schumer referred to those who opposed the proposal as belonging to a “culture of inertia.” And former State Assemblyman Roger Green assisted Ratner in the formation of community groups that would tow the developer’s line and accept his terms in the Community Benefits Agreement.

Such early unconditional support of the project was unwarranted. The relationship between developer and the city has been understood completely backwards, as if Brooklyn needed Ratner. Yet the borough fundamentally does not need the Atlantic Yards in order to grow—it’s been doing just fine without an arena. In other words, it was Brooklyn, not the billionaire developer, who should have held all the cards in these negotiations.

Ratner wanted to build over the rail yards and to do it on a grand scale. Yet political supporters of his proposal treated the proposal with kid gloves, afraid to offer substantive critiques. Instead of plying their obvious advantage to persuade Forest City to determine and meet constituent desires, most of our elected officials settled for a basketball arena and an unenforceable Community Benefits Agreement in which the developer was allowed to exclude critics of the plan from negotiations.

Together, these politicians advocated for the project despite being aware of the real concerns being voiced by community leaders and neighbors from across the spectrum of economic circumstance, profession, and political persuasion. They did this while almost monthly, Ratner curtailed promises regarding affordable housing, jobs, and tax revenue benefits. And yet, there was no reason to cow-tow. FCRC was not going to build this project in New Jersey or Nassau County, or Hawaii. The developer needed to build it in Brooklyn, but our leaders stumbled over themselves to try to sweeten the deal.

Our public servants failed us not because they supported the Atlantic Yards, but because they supported it unquestioningly and continued to support it even as questions were being raised around them. They failed us because they gave their power (and thus our power) to Bruce Ratner without cause. They failed us because instead of defending the public good, they surrendered it to private interest.

The result is a behemoth of edifices that demonstrate a lack of focus, a lack of vision, and a lack of passion. At the end of the day, the Atlantic Yards is only grand in its size, only bold in its unattractiveness, and only groundbreaking in its cynical political gamesmanship.

Unless the very relevant eminent domain lawsuits slow down the juggernaut, the massive Atlantic Yards project will irrevocably transform central Brooklyn. It is a shame, therefore, that so many remained silent when they could have had a voice in what the development could be. But where there was the possibility of conflict and compromise, possibly even novel solutions, our officials gave into FCRC’s most audacious demands. Over the next decade, Ratner will get to count the millions that Barclay’s has coughed up for naming rights to the arena. Meanwhile, Prospect Heights and the surrounding communities will be home to endless destruction and construction, more pollution, and even more traffic. When all is said and done, it’s a pretty steep price to pay for a basketball team.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2007

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