On June 14, Forest City Ratner will hold a public meeting to announce changes to the transportation network surrounding its Atlantic Yards project to be completed in advance of expected Barclays Center arena in September 2012.
The street changes are significant, and include closing Fourth Avenue to northbound traffic at Atlantic Avenue. These plans were not drawn up by the New York City Department of Transportation, but by FCR consultant Sam Schwartz, and they will be implemented by other contractors working for FCR. Schwartz’ assignment also includes scheduling the contractors’ work, as well as scripting answers to anticipated questions from community members at the June 14 meeting.
The traffic mitigations to be presented on June 14 were defined at the time Atlantic Yards’ Environmental Impact Statement was prepared in 2006. In the five years since, DOT has implemented many changes to roadways around Atlantic Yards; a median and bike lanes on Vanderbilt Avenue, a ban on left turns along Flatbush Avenue between Plaza Street and St. Marks Avenue, traffic calming improvements at Grand Army Plaza, and the Prospect Park West bicycle lane, are but a few. None of these elements were considered in the Atlantic Yards EIS, and a reassessment of traffic and pedestrian conditions five years into what was supposed to be a 10-year EIS would seem appropriate. But FCR refuses to do any new study before the arena has been operational for a year, and its will is apparently not subject to question by DOT or our elected officials.
It certainly isn’t the first instance in which FCR has appropriated the responsibility of a government agency for infrastructure and services associated with Atlantic Yards. FCR is building a new railyard for the Long Island Railroad at the site. (Originally, the new yard was to have increased storage capacity, but plans were renegotiated in 2009, and it now will have less capacity.) FCR is also responsible for rebuilding the Carlton Avenue Bridge, now more than two years behind schedule. (FBI wiretaps of Karl Kruger’s phone in December caught FCR executive Bruce Bender admitting, “I don’t mind f-cking the Carlton Avenue Bridge.”) The residents of buildings surrounding the Atlantic Yards footprint are now dependent upon Forest City for everything from snow removal to rodent abatement to enforcing on-street parking regulations among the project’s construction workers (who were supposed to be paying for off-street parking in a lot maintained by FCR).
The Empire State Development Corporation is the State sponsor for Atlantic Yards, and in theory is responsible for project oversight. In every other large ESDC development project, the agency has established a subsidiary dedicated to managing the process. Instead, the ESDC has only a couple of staff assigned to Atlantic Yards (a $5 billion project), and its record on oversight is dismal. In May 2007, a month after the parapet on the former Ward Bakery collapsed and fell five stories to the ground during removal of asbestos by Forest City contractors, the ESDC announced a new oversight regime. The measures included hiring an ombudsman, forming a transportation working group with NYC and NYS DOT and local organizations, forming an interagency working group, and meeting regularly with local elected officials. It took nearly seven months to hire the ombudsman; the other reforms never happened. In 2009, the ESDC capitulated to new development terms for Atlantic Yards dictated by FCR, extending the time allowed for construction from ten to twenty five years or longer. Over unanimous objections of local elected officials, ESDC approved the new plan without study of the effect of such protracted urban renewal on the surrounding neighborhoods in order to help ensure Forest City would be able to close the deal before a deadline that would prohibit it from being able to issue tax free bonds to finance the arena. (I am a board member of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, which, with other civic and community organizations in the BrooklynSpeaks coalition and local elected officials, has filed suit against the ESDC and FCR over ESDC’s approval of the 2009 plan.)
The only visible oversight of the Atlantic Yards project today takes place at periodically-scheduled “District Service Cabinet” meetings convened at Borough Hall. The third meeting held on May 19 was not encouraging. Most of the agenda involved reviewing lengthy PowerPoints presented by two consultants, Sam Schwartz Engineering and HDR, taking time away from answering questions posed by elected and community officials present. Councilmember Letitia James asked to review a copy of HDR's air quality reports. An ESDC representative told her to submit a written request. Incredulous, Councilmember James repeated the question, and got the same answer. (ESDC is supposed to have the report in question available for the New York State Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation on site.)
At the time Atlantic Yards’ schedule was renegotiated in 2009, the first residential building containing affordable housing units was supposed to break ground in the fall of 2010, and a second residential building was to have broken ground in the spring of 2011. However, at the May 19 meeting, no mention of an expected start for the first residential building was even made. Attendees heard from a Forest City Ratner representative that 500 people were working for Atlantic Yards on site and off site, of which 60 were from Brooklyn, with 38 of those coming from the surrounding neighborhoods. Atlantic Yards is obviously a very long way from fulfilling the promise of creating 15,000 construction jobs, and its affordable housing is literally nowhere in sight.
Who is to blame for transferring 22 acres of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene and Boerum Hill to a private developer, helping it to $300 million of City and State taxpayer dollars, and then not bothering to ensure the public gets what it was promised? Four New York State Governors: Pataki, Spitzer, Paterson and now Cuomo, any of whom could have directed the ESDC to take an active role in overseeing Atlantic Yards, and created a dedicated subsidiary with outside directors to ensure transparency and representation of the public’s interest. For all Brooklynites, particularly the thousands of us who live in the communities surrounding the project, it is especially galling to hear Governor Cuomo make speeches about ethics reform in State government, and yet do nothing to address the deplorable state into which Atlantic Yards has descended. His inaction effectively allows the project to act as a government unto itself, with neither the developer nor the State accountable to the public, and the ESDC running interference.
How does this situation get fixed? Atlantic Yards could be split into sections to be built by different developers, potentially speeding completion and reducing single-source risk. However, such a move could only be implemented with FCR’s approval as the 2009 agreement gave the developer control over the entire site. A decision in the pending litigation reversing approval of the 2009 agreement could create an opportunity for changes in the structure of the project, so stay tuned. In the meantime, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries has introduced legislation authorizing ESDC to create a subsidiary to manage the Atlantic Yards project, seeking a model based on the governance reform roadmap put forward by BrooklynSpeaks; public pressure on Governor Cuomo will help. Outside of action by the Governor, the biggest opportunity for change will likely come on the day that FCR comes back to State and City governments requesting even more taxpayer dollars for Atlantic Yards—and we can bet that day is coming. Until then, the community and its elected representatives will need to remain vigilant, tenacious in the fight to make FCR and ESDC accountable to the public, and committed to reassert the rule of the government of the people of Brooklyn and New York.