Friday, August 22, 2008

Dear Eliot, . . . . . Please be a true reformer

This is the second in a series of posts I am running. Each post will share one of a number of letters I have written to politicians representing us calling for them to take responsibilty on Atlantic Yards.

I invite others to borrow freely from them in structuring their own letters.

The first in this series was my letter to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to which, as you will see if you refer to my first post, I received a response.

I also received a response to this letter I sent to Eliot Spitzer when he was still governor. More on that later because that is an interesting story in itself.

This letter back in May of 2007 was CCed to the Brooklyn Heights Association. The Brooklyn Heights Association is part of Brooklyn Speaks. Brooklyn Speaks and the Brooklyn Heights Association are quite appreciative of how flawed a (mega!)project Atlantic Yards is. They are not powerless. I have called upon them to take effective action “Effective Action Needed From Brooklyn Speaks, BHA, etc.” (Picked up and posted by No Land Grab, March 19, 2008.)

This May 2007 letter also refers to City Councilman Bill de Blasio. Since the letter goes back a ways it would be fair to say that Mr. de Blasio’s position on Atlantic Yards has been shifting since that time. (Atlantic Yards Report, Wednesday, April 16, 2008 De Blasio's (late) AY conversion and the need for oversight and Brownstoner, April 15, 2008 De Blasio Blasts Ratner on AY Obfuscation) It would also be fair to say that de Blasio’s position needs to shift more and that he is one the politicians from whom we will need more effective action in order to make sure the stake is driven through the heart of Atlantic Yards. Our respect needs to be earned on this.

(Need we comment that, in retrospect, Eliot did not earn our respect or convince us of his legitimate credentials as an honest reformer.)


May 29, 2007

Hon. Eliot Spitzer
State of New York
State Capitol
Albany, New York, 12224

Re: Please Support Reform in Brooklyn- Conduct and Governance of Public Authorities

Dear Governor Spitzer:

We live in Brooklyn Heights and together with many of our colleagues in this neighborhood of skilled and informed professionals we count ourselves as amongst your most effective, aware and first supporters. We naturally contributed heavily, including contribution of our time, to ensure that Democrats won across the board in the last elections. Since Brooklyn Heights is a home community for many Wall-Streeters, we acknowledge that Brooklyn Heights is also replete with a complement of professionals many of whom are hostile to, or have reservations about, certain of the reforms you have pursued (more on this later)- but we must emphasize that we are among those who have strongly supported you because of your reform agenda.

This letter is to urge you to be reform-minded as set forth herein and to urge you to understand that for us reform in Albany begins in Brooklyn.

Last week we received a political polling call asking whether we were within a few blocks of Downtown Brooklyn: Absolutely, we are within fewer blocks than they asked. We were asked about which local politicians we supported, (de Blasio- Thumbs down,- Montgomery- Thumbs up, red-faced Markowitz- thumbs down). Lastly, we were asked whether there were any major issues we thought were affecting our community. To this we were very emphatic that our community and the rest of Brooklyn is very significantly threatened by unfolding events in which you, your administration and the authorities you oversee have a very significant role to play. That is what this letter is about.

We cannot think of anything that has ever threatened Brooklyn so profoundly as the politically embarrassing Atlantic Yards project. As currently proposed it has all of the following things egregiously wrong with it:

1. Excessive Density. The project is absurdly and offensively dense. As what will be the densest area of the entire USA, (seven times the overall density of Manhattan) it will be a significant multiple of what would be an appropriate density which might, instead, be the much lower density of Battery Park City.

2. Indefensible Condemnation. The peculiar “Boymelgreen wrench” shape of the project will be as famous to future urbanists, government and political scholars (not to mention all the rest of the public) as the salamander shape that gave rise to the verb “gerrymander.” The wrench shape that has been thrown into the inexcusably odd history of this project will be a perpetual high-relief reminder etched on the Borough’s skin and skyline of two indefensible aspects of the project’s progress through the system. The peculiar wrench shape comes about for two reasons:

a. The unnecessary, unjustified, inappropriate and overreaching condemnation of the Wards Bakery Building block. This block with quality buildings that should be put to adaptive reuse is obviously being condemned because it is not actually over the rail yards. Since expensive platforms will not have to be built and since the zoning override of normal density restrictions will give the developer value far in excess of the condemnation price he will pay, this overreaching is purely for the purpose of creating a windfall gift to the developer.

b. The donut-hole of the Shaya Boymelgreen-developed block of property which is in no appropriate way distinct from the surrounding property. The relationships and special treatment of Boymelgreen in this transaction do not bear examination. Possessed of the knowledge that I have as a former public official (and which I believe is readily available to you and the people who work for you), I feel particularly well qualified to reach a conclusion on this subject.

3. Improper Bid Process. Everyone knows that the process by which the single developer for the project was selected was improper. The public knows the developer was not the high bidder for the property. People are aware of the exclusion of other developers from the bid process. People know that the criteria for the bid and the public benefit were improperly derived from the to-be-selected-bidder and not, as should have been the case, by public officials doing their job. When people consider the matter, they appreciate quite clearly that the site should have been bid out in multiple parcels to multiple developers (which would result in faster development). No one ever says it isn’t so when people aptly attribute the choice of the developer to that developer’s close personal ties with the former Governor. People know that all of this was done with an appalling lack of transparency and that there are no producible documents that can adequately justify or document the making of the choice.

4. Very Poor Design Quality. The project’s design is far below the lowest baseline that ought to be acceptable. The worst part of the project’s design is the residential and public space portions, but the rest of is also inexcusably below standard, the Gehry name being just eyewash. As his “dirty iceburg” building that recently appeared on West Street attests, the name Gehry does not provide any guarantee of good design. Frankly, this is a very big task that is monumentally beyond him. I don’t ask you to accept my comments based on the fact that I have a degree in urban planning but I do ask you to consider the lucid comments from others such as the Municipal Arts Society. Among other things, there should be no wholesale closure of public streets. The poor design is particularly regrettable because in this instance there should be a very high degree of obligation for good design for the following reasons:

a. The Empire State Development Corporation is exercising a zoning override. Zoning overrides are not, per se, always necessary but when they are exercised for the purpose of superseding the minimum design standards of the zoning code there is an opportunity to achieve better, more suitable site designs. In such cases design standards should not be overridden unless better, not worse, standards will be achieved.

b. Extra-high density creates substantial extra sets of problems that can only be coped with, as
in the case of Battery Park City, with good design.

c. Low-quality design should never be accepted from a developer if, as in this case, public officials have abdicated their normally applicable responsibility to themselves specify and impose suitably high design standards that will apply.

5. Public Benefit Mirage. The project has been promoted on the basis that it will deliver public benefit. Should it ever be done, it should only be done on the basis that public benefit will be delivered. But the idea actual that public benefit will be delivered is an uncertain, receding and distant mirage. Brooklyn is split on the subject of whether there should be an arena. We ourselves don’t favor an arena at the project location but we accept the point of view of others and acknowledge that, on this, reasonable minds could differ. However, the arena is being so heavily subsidized with millions of public dollars that it cannot properly be said that the developer is delivering this public benefit. The basic problem with any prospect of public benefit in this project is that the developer, rather than responsible public officials, has been the one coming up with his own meandering assertions of a.) what will theoretically benefit the public, b.) how he “commits” to it, and c.) when it might possibly be delivered. Partly because this project was not bid out in multiple parcels to multiple developers, the more important benefits of delivering the residential and ostensible “public space” portions of the project have been thrust out years further into the future than makes any kind of sense. The practical result is that immediately and for the foreseeable future there is a project that delivers extraordinarily disproportionate private benefit to the developer while the public lives with a perhaps ever-receding mirage of vague promise. The chance that the developer will ever deliver is inadequate and probably totally undermined by the developer’s tack to soak up public housing subsidies that would simply have delivered the same benefit more effectively and sooner elsewhere. That the developer is failing to deliver real and timely public benefit and has no hard commitment to do so is rooted in the fact that there was never a fair bidding process where developers competed to earn the right to develop Vanderbilt Yards/AtlanticYards. Net, net: The project delivers burden not benefit to the public.

6. Improper Review and Conduct of Environmental Impact. The improper handling of the Environmental Impact Statement for the project is another part of the project’s processing and consideration which should have been handled properly and wasn’t. The EIS was rushed through in an attempt at perfunctory dispensation of a legal requirement before the last governor left office. The essence of the EIS requirement is that there should be due and proper substantive consideration of the environmental issues which was quite palpably not the goal, nor was it what was done by those charged with this further responsibility to the public.

We know that, in the end, you and your team need to evaluate all of the above. The public might perhaps excuse bad process if it brings about a good project. Or the public might overlook a project of normal density that is of somewhat below-average or mediocre design. A project delivering real public benefit on a timely basis, notwithstanding a peculiar set of condemnation procedures, might evoke only a normal level of public regret. But a project that rises 1.) with crushingly oppressive and unprecedented density, 2.) awful and insensitive design, 3.) a peculiar footprint that announces the project’s errant DNA and genesis, and 4.) whose public benefit is a mere distant mirage, achieves a trifecta-plus-one that ensures permanent public opprobrium. This will be an irritatingly monumented public opprobrium that appears on every city map, subway map and picture of the Brooklyn skyline.

We think that everyone understands that even though your administration was not involved initially, that the Atlantic Yards project will not now happen as proposed without your administration’s active support, which makes you one of the officials most responsible for the project going forward.

We noted at this letter’s outset that our community is comprised partly of those in the financial community with reservations and doubts about your reform agenda. When you took on Wall Street you stood up and did things that people disagreed with in the name of reform and we believed earnestly in what you were doing. Atlantic Yards cries out for the kind of reform you have said you believe in. It is one thing, a good thing, to stand up against the crowd and the powerful for what is right.- It is an entirely different matter to go against the community and its interests to escort to completion a project which is poisoned by corrupt process and unconscionable inequity and windfall. (With simple and straightforward wisdom, the local Community Board 6, in September, voted 35-4 to disapprove of the project as proposed in the July 18, 2006 General Project Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Statement "because it will cause irreparable damage to the quality of life in the borough of Brooklyn.") This is a defining moment for your administration which will inform, in retrospect, how people view your goals and values.

We need to report to you that people in the community are saying that you are not willing to listen to opposition to the project. People who are saying this also ascribe certain meanings to their assertion, usually mentioning that you have family involved in the real estate business. We are able to argue against some of the most cynical assertions, pointing out that now and in the future contributions from Forest City Ratner and kin will forever be off-limits to you. Arguments notwithstanding, in the end everyone is expecting to make their ultimate judgements based upon your actions.

Everyone knows you have excellent people working for you. Everyone knows that there are plenty of people working for you who are fully sensitive to everything that is wrong with the project as proposed. If you listen and let the wisdom and concerns percolate up from the people you hired to do their jobs, they will tell you that the project desperately needs to be fixed and it cannot be fixed without some serious back-to-the-drawing-board activity. (Going back to the drawing board there is opportunity to create a fabulous project.) You just need to tell them that you want to hear the truth and that they should think in those terms.

Many people are dealing with the proposed Atlantic Yards making the assumption that it won’t happen as planned or with some other mixture of denial. Some say the conventional wisdom in Albany is that the entire project will never be consummated as currently planned. Some say that decision-making politicians such as you are simply inadequately informed and some say that much of the public likewise doesn’t yet truly know what to expect. Rest assured though that it will not be until the project is physically manifesting itself that public alarm and scorn will climax. Until then, let our voice be the “canary in the coal mine” for you.- At the Brooklyn Heights Association we hung on your words, fascinated to hear once again what you had to say when you addressed us. We thought then we were ahead of the pack in picking the right man. We hope that we were right then and hope that you prove us so by realizing that we are right about this now.

I am writing this letter jointly with my wife who is cosigning it below reflecting our shared and common viewpoint. Sincerely, this matter is critically important.


Michael D. D. White

(& my wife)

CC: Brooklyn Heights Association

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