Friday, May 29, 2009

Today’s State Senate Hearings on Atlantic Yards and Noticing New York Testimony

We were prepared to testify at the state Senate hearings on Atlantic Yards which Senator Bill Perkins was holding at Pratt. We were called by the senator’s office the night be before to inform us that we might, or might not, be called upon to testify; they knew they were going to have a very full afternoon. We didn’t supply oral testimony but this will supply you with the written testimony we turned in.

Some Manufactured Chaos Delivering Disrespect at the Hearing

To say that the hearings were chaotic would be an understatement. As commented upon at the hearing’s conclusion, much of it was characterized by people who attended (including two senators, Carl Kruger and Marty Golden, who sort of crashed the event) for the purpose of intentionally showing disrespect to the proceedings and who exhibited open hostility toward any legislative inquisitiveness about the vast resources going into Atlantic Yards or about what Forest City Ratner is expected to produce in return. This meant that throughout much of the afternoon men dressed like construction workers with hard hats and red mesh Day-Glo caution vests were standing up to shout and use steel whistles to drown out and/or indicate their opinion on what was happening.

Senator Perkins did not ask security to enforce order and the disruptions were tolerated except for an occasional request for more respect or to tone things down.

Construction Workers Really BUILD?

While the men looked like construction workers it may be that, rather than being supplied by the unions as so often happens, they were instead supplied by BUILD, the Ratner-created and financially supported Astroturf organization.* The best indication of this was that while there were several people who spoke on favor of proceeding with Atlantic Yards (or whatever the megaproject turns out to be), the caution-vested fellows where particularly emphatic about applauding the testimony of two individuals testifying who were actually from BUILD. The hard-hatted men were apparently on the clock. We noted that when one of their number inquired of someone else who seemed to be in charge whether it would be OK to leave, the other responded by holding up five fingers. From this we interpreted that they were committed to stay until 5:00 PM. That assessment seemed to be spot on when, at two minutes of 5:00, the entire group stood up and then exited the doors at exactly 5:00.
(* We can speak only in terms of what we saw INSIDE the building. We were let in the back door by Pratt University staff because they told us hard-hat demonstrators were blocking proper access through the front. When we arrived we wound up in one of the two overflow rooms, even though we possibly testifying, because the main auditorium had been packed with the hard hats. Somewhat later, when things thinned out we were invited into the main auditorium.)
A brief meeting of some of the members of this group outside the auditorium doors ensued, after which a few of them straggled back in, but after that it was considerably more quiet.

Trick Question

At one point earlier on we asked one of these men whether he didn’t think that, if so much effort had not gone into piling so many resources and so much benefit onto this single Ratner project, the public resources would have been distributed amongst a lot of projects throughout Brooklyn (including building in the Atlantic Yards/Vanderbilt Yards area) that would already be happening and providing good jobs. He was starting to agree that a huge amount of benefit was being piled onto Ratne,r saying something like “cause he’s the guy who got it” and then when he heard me use the word “disproportionate” halted himself and said that I shouldn’t be asking trick questions and that it wasn’t fair to be recording what he was saying.

Piling Extra Benefit on Ratner Vs. Taking the Project Back to the Drawing Board

Our Noticing New York testimony endeavors to cover a few points which we guessed that others might not be covering during the afternoon: the relationship of developer-driven upzonings and eminent domain, when special relationships with developers are allowed to supercede proper government process. We think this goes to the heart of why Atlantic Yards needs to be downsized and is also key to why the project must be taken back to the drawing board, redesigned and re-bid. Though the government officials at the hearing indicated that Atlantic Yards is not going to be downsized they clearly indicated that:

1. The project is going to be “value engineered” so that Forest City Ratner will be expected to deliver less to the public (one example being that Ratner will now only be required to construct a 7-train capacity train yard for the MTA rather than a 9-train yard)

2. Ratner is in line to be significantly financially accommodated by the government agencies involved and required to pay less than previously specified for the rights they will bestow upon him.

3. The agencies are quite likely going to be allowing Forest City Ratner substantial time to dawdle over the “decades” with respect to providing any public benefit. It seems that about the only thing that will be expected of FCR is that FCR benefit itself by getting a Nets arena underway in some form before the end of the year. The agencies are apparently willing to allow that no housing would be immediately built to go with the arena and the agencies are also willing to accommodate the idea that the first housing, as and when it would ever be built, would be front-loaded with a higher proportion of luxury and market-rate housing units.
In other words, the public agencies, presumably under the direction of Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson to whom they are respectively accountable, seem content to let all of these things slide in the direction of further, even more disproportionate benefit to Forest City Ratner.
Other Testimony Piling On

Our testimony was about how Forest City Ratner has already piled too much benefit upon itself to the detriment of its neighbors and the general public. In terms of an inappropriate piling on of benefit to Forest City Ratner, our testimony was similarly themed to testimony delivered by Pratt urban planning professor Ron Shiffman and the Fifth Avenue Committee’s Michelle de la Uz. (The Fifth Avenue Committee is an important and committed provider of affordable housing in Brooklyn.) Mr. Shiffman testified (and we agree) about how Atlantic Yards would not actually be providing affordable housing because it would be taking subsidies away from other projects that would provide that housing. Ms. de la Uz. testified about how astoundingly inefficient Atlantic Yards is planned to be in term of using such housing subsidies as opposed to the programs of alternative providers, the Fifth Avenue Committee being one of them.

Hearing the “No Benefit” Oh-Pin-ion Drop

Senator Perkins commented after the hearing was over that the most important testimony was that provided by George Sweeting of the city’s Independent Budget Office. Senator Perkins noted that during that testimony “you could hear a pin drop” which he pointed out was quite something given the many people in the crowd who had come specifically to be raucous and disruptive. What we heard from the IBO was that the Atlantic Yards megaproject has changed enough so that, even though there are still further reductions that need to be taken into account in the calculated amount of benefit the project will provide, it is already clear that the reductions in benefit which are already known, identified and susceptible to calculation now “eclipse” (that means “wipe out”) the meager amount of “net public benefit” that the IBO had once been able to calculate that the project could deliver. (Technically, the calculations done so far extend just to the arena, as we noted all that will be built at first, but see the section above per the benefit of the housing and read on with respect to what we say about the zoning override.) In other words the project is NOT delivering any public benefit.

Agencies Carrying On By Rote

Hearing that the project is not delivering any public benefit (something many of us figured out long ago) reminded us how Ms. Lago, head of the Empire State Development Corporation and responsible for Atlantic Yards on behalf of Governor Paterson, once described how public agencies can get in the habit of continuing to engage by rote in programs that cease to deliver public benefit. She was, in fact, speaking specifically about her own agency though not speaking directly about Atlantic Yards. In other words, even Ms. Lago seems to appreciate that agencies need to know when to halt the momentum and break the inertia to take time to stop and think. (See: Wednesday, April 15, 2009, Permission to Speak Frankly: How We Know More and Less From Breakfast Interviews With Marisa Lago.)

Atlantic Yards Report Account of the Hearing

Our own account of this hearing has already been preceded by a very thorough report by Atlantic Yards Report which we have not yet had time to thoroughly absorb. That account notes: “This will be updated” something we might do here, at least to add a few pictures. (See: Friday, May 29, 2009, Senate hearing: no tough questions for ESDC; MTA yields on yard; IBO calls arena a loss; arena 2012; raucous AY supporters make for 8/23/06 flashback)

Today’s Noticing New York Testimony

Here then is our own Noticing New York testimony supplied for the hearing today.

May 29, 2009

Senator Bill Perkins
Office of State Senator Bill Perkins
163 West 125th Street, Suite 912
New York, New York 10027

Re: May 29, 2009- Hearing on Atlantic Yards

Dear Senator Perkins:

This comment is being offered in the name of Noticing New York, an independent entity dedicated to the proposition that developing New York and appreciating New York go hand in hand.

I offer this testimony as an attorney experienced in real estate, as an urban planner and as former senior government official who worked for more than a quarter of century in the areas of public finance and development for the state finance authorities.

Atlantic Yards is such a spectacularly bad and indefensible project that it will take far more time than we have available for me to comprehensively lay out all its major flaws.* Instead, let me focus on three interrelated things: 1.) zoning, 2.) eminent domain, and 3.) the effect on the aforementioned two when special developer relationships are allowed to supercede proper government process.

(* As just an example of how deeply you can go into the subject of the project’s flaws we attach a copy of our Jane Jacobs Report Card assessment.)

1. First, it should be borne in mind that upzoning is the natural and conventional alternative to eminent domain when development of an area is desired. With upzoning the benefits of development in an area flow to the residents of that area. This process of development is unlikely to involve wholesale destruction and the organic nature of that process will likely provide greater opportunity to integrate the sensible preservation of historical and other worthwhile buildings valued by the community.

2. By contrast, upzoning is misused in connection with eminent domain. Atlantic Yards is a prime example (as is the Columbia University expansion) of the strong lure that exists for developer-driven eminent domain to be accompanied by significant upzonings that preferentially benefit the developer. Why? Because upzoning allows the developer driving the process to collect eminent domain windfall. Eminent domain accompanied by an upzoning redirects the benefits of the upzoning that would normally flow to the community to, in this case, Forest City Ratner.

3. Atlantic Yards, which involves a zoning override provides monumental testimony to how such a zoning override, when developer-driven, is immediately abused. You see this in the colossal density of Atlantic Yards. It is proposed to tower over its adjacent neighbors for which there is no comparable upzoning. In fact, because Forest City Ratner has with Atlantic Yards usurped disproportionate development rights, development rights that will not be available for distribution elsewhere and to other members of the community. For instance, because Forest City Ratner will disproportionately overburden the subways and infrastructure, other Brooklyn developments can’t take advantage of those assets. Because Atlantic Yards will infuse so much additional density to Prospect Heights and Fort Greene it will not be possible to distribute density to other sites in the vicinity. What planning sense does it make for Atlantic Yards to tower by many multiples over another brand new government-sponsored and -assisted project, Atlantic Terrace, which is just across the street? Why should the contemporaneously planned Atlantic Terrace stand ten-stories tall on one side of the street while immediately across it will be dwarfed by a fifteen-story tall illuminated animated sign on a building that will itself stand more than five times as tall?

4. Zoning needs to be done carefully and needs to be driven by government. The classic definition of zoning is that it is a societal compact implemented between neighbors through the mediation of government. In essence, everyone in a neighborhood agrees that they will mutually refrain from inflicting the damage of overbearing development on each other, collectively agreeing to restrain themselves to workable norms. When zoning is commandeered to be driven by a single developer, the norms by which society customarily lives cease to apply and the one-sided harm is obvious.

5. These abuses are all driven by special developer relationships that we advise you to look into. The irrationality of the decisions being made can only be explained in terms of the special relationships that are being allowed to take precedence over good procedure and governance. Therefore, when something does not make sense like Atlantic Yards’ unprecedented density or its peculiarly-shaped footprint, we urge that you question carefully and deeply the relationships that drive them.


Michael D. D. White

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