Picture this: You draw up plans for a new house. You find a well-known contractor who says he’ll need twelve months to build them. A few weeks before the project is supposed to start, you’re still finalizing an agreement with the contractor. One day, he calls up and says he’s got resource problems. Instead of twelve months, now he’s going to need two and a half years. Which would you do?
A. Agree to let the contractor have his way, and get somewhere else to live for the extra year and a half.
B. Find another contractor who can get the job done sooner.
Most of us would choose option B. Not the State of New York. In the summer of 2009, Forest City Ratner made just such an offer to the Empire State Development Corporation when it asked to extend the construction schedule of the Atlantic Yards project from ten to twenty-five years. Not only did ESDC agree to the extra fifteen years, it pretended that the schedule hadn’t even changed so it wouldn’t have to answer to the public or its own board.
Instead, for a change of such magnitude, ESDC was required to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS). Although it primarily focuses on environmental impacts, under State and City environmental guidelines, an SEIS also must consider alternatives to the proposed plan. In 2009, those alternatives surely would have included reducing schedule risk by bringing in additional development teams.
ESDC’s refusal to even consider adding other developers to the project represented a serious breach of the fiduciary responsibility the agency had to the people of the New York State. After all, the Atlantic Yards project was supposed to be about creating jobs and affordable housing. The distant future value of a living wage job or an affordable apartment doesn’t mean much to a working family when that family needs one now. With a fifteen-year delay, the benefit of the subsidies, zoning overrides and access to eminent domain that come with an ESDC project will accrue to Forest City Ratner, not to taxpayers.
Fortunately, courts are still willing to hold big developers and public authorities accountable to State law. ESDC’s to a ordering it to undertake an SEIS . It is time for Governor Cuomo and the agency to correct the omissions by the previous administration in 2009, doing everything possible to get Atlantic Yards—and its public benefits—back on schedule.