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Showing posts from October, 2006

FOIL follies III: Ratner's mysterious tower at City Tech

This is the third of four articles about Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. The first concerned the Department of City Planning and the second concerned Assemblyman Jim Brennan's request to the Empire State Development Corporation, both regarding Atlantic Yards.

It slipped under the radar, the plan for a huge mixed-use facility on the New York City College of Technology campus (aka City Tech), in Downtown Brooklyn. The City University of New York (CUNY) decided nearly a year ago to enter into an agreement with the New York State Dormitory Authority (DASNY) and Forest City Ratner Companies.

The site of the building, at Jay and Tillary Streets, is part of MetroTech; the state owns the building site. FCR's portion would contain condos and rental apartments, with 20 percent of the latter affordable (thanks to city subsidies); there would be space for perhaps 400 rentals and 225 condos. City Tech would get classrooms, labs and faculty offices for degree programs in the scien…

Op-ed in Metro: The Unreality of Atlantic Yards

I have an op-ed in the free daily tabloid Metro NY today, headlined The Unreality of Atlantic Yards:
Before we can debate a major project like Atlantic Yards, we must get the facts straight. Regarding some key aspects of the development — its size and the cost or benefit to the public — too many people are in the dark.

Atlantic Yards, slated to include a basketball arena and 16 mostly residential towers, would be the largest project in Brooklyn’s history and likely the country’s densest residential community. There’s an argument for high-rise construction near Brooklyn’s biggest transit hub, but overdevelopment could produce ruinous traffic and overcrowded schools. Developer Forest City Ratner moved tactically; after announcing Atlantic Yards in December 2003, FCR last year increased the project’s size by 14 percent. This year the developer twice announced small reductions, bringing the project back to square one — an 8 million-square-foot project that would require the Empire State Dev…

Three Men in a Room: our dysfunctional state government--and how to change it

The Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), which requires unanimity from its three controlling members—Governor George Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno—is just a symptom of the dysfunctionality of our state government, a dysfunctionality that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg chose to highlight recently in his condemnation of the PACB's rejection of the Moynihan Station plan.

But the phrase “three men in a room” describes much more than the PACB, as former State Senator Seymour Lachman describes in his timely book of analysis and advocacy, Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power and Betrayal in an American Statehouse, coauthored by Robert Polner. Indeed, the entire legislative and governmental process is distorted by an absence of democracy. (Lachman, who calls Albany “one of the country’s most secretive and misruled statehouses,” will be a guest on WNYC radio's Brian Lehrer Show today at 10 a.m.)

Few of our elected repre…

Walking tour of proposed Atlantic Yards footprint next Saturday

I have a small walking tour business, New York Like a Native, and have been giving tours of Brooklyn neighborhoods since 2000. For the past years, the Atlantic Yards plan has intersected briefly with a couple of tours.

Given how much time I spend thinking the Atlantic Yards project, I decided to offer a tour about it. The best way to understand the controversy--including issues of scale, design, and blight--is to take a look around the proposed site and the surrounding neighborhood. (Here are some contrasting views of the site and the proposals.)

Saturday, November 4, 1:30 p.m. $15/person. (Rain date: Sunday November 12 at 1:30 p.m.)

The tour will last 2-2.5 hours. We'll meet outside Brooklyn's tallest building (for now), the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, Hanson Place at Flatbush Avenue, near the Atlantic Terminal transit hub. More info here.

Bloomberg on eminent domain: majority rules!

Mayor Mike Bloomberg is clearly a savvy businessman and, many believe, a good public official. But he's never claimed to be a constitutional lawyer, and it shows. During his weekly appearance yesterday on the WABC AM call-in show hosted by John Gambling, Bloomberg offered a grab-bag defense of eminent domain that failed to engage the issue and suggested that, if most people want a project, condemnation for it is defensible.

The first caller from the public was Daniel Goldstein, spokesman for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn and a plaintiff in the eminent domain suit filed Thursday. He referenced Bloomberg's recent criticism of the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), the state body controlled by three members (Governor George Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno) that had just rejected the Moynihan Station plan.

DG: Last week on this show you called three men in a room in Albany undemocratic and unconstitutional, perhaps. And that s…

City Planning, April 2005: "Public input on the Brooklyn stadium has not started yet"

As late as April 22, 2005, nearly a year and a half after the Atlantic Yards project was announced, a city official acknowledged that there had been no public input. The issue came up during the American Planning Association New York Metro Chapter’s 2005 Annual Conference.

According to the proceedings, Richard Barth, Executive Director, New York City Department of Planning was on a panel titled "New York Area Mega-Projects: Prospects & Priorities." He was asked:
Many of the mega-projects, such as the Brooklyn arena and the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning do not appropriately consider scale, neighborhood appropriateness, integration to surrounding communities, and other quality of life issues. Why?

His response, at least regarding Atlantic Yards: Public input on the Brooklyn stadium has not started yet.

This is a summary, not a transcript. And it's not clear that public input is the same as public planning--a requirement for the use of eminent domain, according to the K…

Some credulousness, some skepticism: two AY stories in the Times

9/5/06, p. A1, Developer Said to Cut Size of Brooklyn Project (lead story!): Facing mounting criticism of its $4.2 billion Atlantic Yards project, the developer Forest City Ratner plans to reduce the size of the complex by 6 to 8 percent, eliminating hundreds of apartments from the largest development proposal in the city, according to government officials and executives working with the developer.

10/27/06, p. B4: Suit Against Atlantic Yards Challenges Eminent Domain: In a widely anticipated legal maneuver, opponents of the Atlantic Yards project filed suit in federal court yesterday, challenging the state’s authority to use its eminent-domain powers to acquire property and make way for the $4.2 billion development near Downtown Brooklyn.

I think it's legitimate to describe the lawsuit as a "widely anticipated legal maneuver." It would also have been equally legitimate to have described the scaleback floated last month as a tactic or a maneuver.

The fifth paragraph of th…

The next eminent domain donnybrook? AY controversy goes to court

For years, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) has complained that the process behind the Atlantic Yards project was a sham. Yesterday, the community coalition put some legal muscle behind it. Ten plaintiffs—three property owners, one commercial tenant, and six residential tenants—filed suit in federal court, calling the planned use of eminent domain unconstitutional.
(Photo of attorney Matthew Brinckerhoff by Jonathan Barkey)

In doing so, they asked that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) halt any action to approve the project. (Developer Forest City Ratner (FCR) has predicted approval next month.)

Named as defendants are FCR and associated entities, the ESDC, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), as well as Gov. George Pataki, ESDC Chairman Charles Gargano, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, NYCEDC officials Andrew Alper and Joshua Sirefman, and FCR’s Bruce Ratner and Jim Stuckey. All of th…

Eminent domain lawsuit coming today; another suit also in the works

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) will announce its expected eminent domain lawsuit, involving property owners and tenants, at a 1 pm press conference today at City Hall.

How much will the suit rely on the contested Kelo decision?

A second suit

Not part of this lawsuit, but expected to be part of another, are 15 rent-stabilized tenants in two buildings in the proposed project footprint, represented by attorney George Locker. He told me, "I will be raising exclusively state claims, in a separate plenary lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court after issuance of the Final Environmental Impact Statement." That could be in November.

Locker added, "I fully support the DDDB litigation and believe that they will prevail on their Federal claims, which will be applicable to my clients, as my claims will be applicable to theirs." Locker believes that the state and developer are using eminent domain to circumvent state law, which otherwise would require a series of hearing…

New location & condo numbers, old photos & claims from FCR

There's not too much new in the Atlantic Yards Project Briefing handed out by Forest City Ratner representatives to some Prospect Heights residents at a meeting Monday night--the developer's confident schedule of a November approval was probably the most dramatic.

Still, the document remains intriguing, especially since the developer persists in claiming $6.1 billion in tax revenues for the project--a highly dubious figure--and showing pictures of demolished buildings under "Existing Conditions." (We get the backlot building at 463 Dean Street and the Underberg Building (twice), though they were torn down in May. At least the developer has found a current photo of 636 Pacific Street, which had previously be portrayed pre-renovation. The photo below is from Forgotten NY, not FCR.)

And, curiously enough, the project location is described as "close proximity to Downtown Brooklyn," which differs from the longstanding description of "A Vision for Downtown Br…

ESDC says FCR's timetable isn't accurate; still, Nov. 2 may be Final EIS deadline

Despite Forest City Ratner's dissemination of a timeline that predicts two board meeetings of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) to approve the Atlantic Yards project, the ESDC says that's not accurate.

Spokeswoman Jessica Copen contacted me to say, "We haven't scheduled any special meetings for November. We're working towards finalizing the Final Environmental Impact Statement as soon as possible, within the statutory timeframe."

State law, however, does suggest that the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) may be finished soon. It states:
(5) Except as provided in subparagraph (i) of this paragraph, the lead agency must prepare or cause to be prepared and must file a final EIS, within 45 calendar days after the close of any hearing or within 60 calendar days after the filing of the draft EIS, whichever occurs later.

The Atlantic Yards public hearing was August 23. The second of the two Atlantic Yards community forums was September 18. The 45-…

FOIL follies II: Brennan's request for business plan rejected

This is the second of four articles on Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. The first concerned the Department of City Planning.

Yes, the Empire State Development Corporation finally released a memo attempting to back up its prediction that the Atlantic Yards Project would generate $1.4 billion in new city and state taxes.

But that wasn’t what Brooklyn Assemblyman Jim Brennan really asked for. Indeed, his FOIL request for the project’s “business plan”—the crucial estimate of overall costs and revenues—was rebuffed by the ESDC. Now he’s appealing that rejection.

Brennan had previously sponsored an unsuccessful bill to decrease the size of the project by 34% while adding affordable housing subsidies. “The purpose of my request is to enable the public to evaluate the relationship between the size of the project and the arena and the affordable housing,” he told me, noting that project proponents have justified the scale of the project because of the affordable housing.

Brennan would l…

The speedy FEIS? Ratner anticipates AY approval in a matter of weeks

Consultants at AKRF working on the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be working overtime. Though the comment period on the Draft EIS ended on September 29, with lengthy submissions on the final day, developer Forest City Ratner (FCR) anticipates that the Final EIS will be certified by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) during the first week in November.

Then, according to the timeline handed out to Prospect Heights residents by FCR officials at a community meeting Monday, ten days later the ESDC will hold a special meeting to approve the EIS and eminent domain findings, and to approve the General Project Plan (GPP).

[Update: the ESDC says the timetable's not accurate.]

Note the certainty expressed that the agency will approve the project, and that the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) is expected to approve it. Do the findings in the FEIS make any difference?

Who's in charge here?

The ESDC hasn't told us this timeline. There's…

FOIL follies I: City Planning's response a month overdue

This is the first of four articles on Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests.

On July 26, I filed FOIL requests for Atlantic Yards-related documents with three city agencies and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). The New York City Housing Development Corporation was the first to provide documents. The ESDC, after first ignoring my request, finally acknowledged it, then denied it, had it questioned, then reversed itself.

The Department of City Planning (DCP) has been dragging its feet. Though my request arrived the next day, and state law says that my request should've been acknowledged within five business days, the agency's response was issued on August 15, some 13 business days later.

The agency promised it would respond to my request within 30 business days. That would've been Sept. 27--four weeks ago. Earlier this month, I followed up with the department but received no response.

DCP involvement deserves scrutiny. After all, it was DCP that "recomme…

The affordability solution: build bigger?

Harvard economist (and fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute) Edward Glaeser has a piece in the New York Sun today about how to create more affordable apartments. His solution: more construction and less regulation.

Glaeser writes:
There are a host of regulatory barriers to construction. The brawl in Brooklyn over shortening the Atlantic Yards tower shows how effective community groups can be in limiting height and the supply of homes. As these community groups have grown since the 1970s, the heights of new residential buildings in Manhattan have plummeted.

First, the main tower--Frank Gehry's 620-foot "Miss Brooklyn"--has not been shortened, though even Borough President Marty Markowitz, a project supporter, wants it reduced. Second, it's 16 towers, not just one. Third, and most importantly, the main reason community groups are arguing about height and density is because this project is not subject to city zoning, as it's proceeding under the auspices of the…

Tish James, DDDB welcome Bloomberg's PACB comments

Yesterday I wrote about how Mayor Mike Bloomberg's comments criticizing the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) as undemocratic raised the question about whether he'd criticize the process regarding approval of the Atlantic Yards project.

After all, the PACB would have to approve the project after it passes the board of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), itself another agency insulated from the democratic process.

Yesterday City Council Member Letitia James, who represents Prospect Heights and environs, including the area slated for the Atlantic Yards project, issued a statement:
I agree fully that the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) is not a good
example of representative democracy. "Three men in a room" should not have control over development in our city- not at Moynihan Station and not at Atlantic Yards.

The mayor suggested someone might want to "look at" the constitutionality of the PACB. There are many in this community, incl…

Mayor blasts “three men in a room” as undemocratic; does that apply to AY?

After the Atlantic Yards project receives an (almost inevitable) approval from the board of the Empire State Development Corporation, it still must receive a unanimous vote from the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB)—which is controlled by Gov. George Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.

Silver killed the West Side Stadium, he’s being pressured to modify or kill the Atlantic Yards plan, and just this week stymied the city’s plan to renovate the Farley Post Office into Moynihan Station.

That ticked off Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who said Friday on his weekly WABC-AM radio appearance:
Why is there a structure at the state level where three individuals basically have a veto over everything? This PC, PSA, whatever the board is that approves it. And I'm not sure why that's constitutional. Maybe somebody wants to look at that. I don’t happen to think that it’s good democracy to give the governor, the speaker of the assembly, and the majority…

Instead of the Times's railyard photo, consider some alternatives

I wrote yesterday how the photograph (right) the Times used to illustrate its Atlantic Yards City section cover story failed to depict the proposed site. What could the Times have done differently?

Well, the newspaper could've taken a cue from the 5/26/05 presentation by Forest City Ratner to the City Council, which at least outlined the then-21-acre site. The two slides with text below are taken from that presentation. (Since then, another acre has been added at the west end, crossing Flatbush Avenue.) Forest City Ratner's descriptions are, of course, contestable, but at least their graphic shows the outline of the site, including the public streets that would be demapped.

The Times photo was apparently taken looking west from the Newswalk, the tallest building in the wedge cut out of the footprint, between 6th and Carlton avenues and Pacific and Dean Streets.

The building is minuscule compared to the proposed project. Check the Newswalk building at left-center near the top in t…

NIMBY or YIMBY: behind the Times's curious framework (and photo)

Today's New York Times City Section tries to offer voices from the "neighborhood" regarding the Atlantic Yards plan, a sort of gentle distillation of some of the issues raised--and a few not quite raised--during the public comment period that ended Sept. 29. The article is headlined On the Block, but more crucially, the deck in the print edition states: Not in my backyard, yes in my backyard: Neighbors speak out on the Ratner plan.

But it depends on how you define "neighbors"--and backyards. Of the nine people interviewed, those supportive or hopeful are three people from Crown Heights--a single neighborhood to the east--plus a real estate investor (a junior version of Bruce Ratner?) who may or may not live in Brooklyn. Those opposed or concerned are four people from Fort Greene and one from Park Slope, with no representation from the immediate neighborhood: Prospect Heights. (Fort Greene and Park Slope are indeed nearby.)

The project would be located in the west…