On Friday, the State Senate Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions (chaired by Sen. Bill Perkins) held a hearing on the Atlantic Yards project.  The scene was hectic, with both pro- and anti-development factions representing in large numbers.  Norman Oder has a thorough recap at Atlantic Yards Report.

The Community-Based Planning Task Force prepared testimony, to be delivered by Executive Committee member Molly Rouzie of the Red Hook Civic Association.  While she was not able to deliver oral testimony because of the chaotic nature of the hearing, the following testimony was submitted in writing to the State Senators present:

Hello, my name is Molly Rouzie, and I am a member of the Executive Committee of the Community-Based Planning Task Force, a 100-member coalition made up of local grassroots organizations, community boards, elected officials, academics, and planners that are leading the effort to create a more meaningful role for the public in New York City’s planning and development decisions. Thank you for taking on this issue that is having such a profound impact on Brooklyn communities.

I would like to take the opportunity today to make three points: 1) The ongoing debate over Atlantic Yards shows the need for a comprehensive plan to precede major land use actions; 2) the public should have a strong voice in the use of eminent domain; and 3) community-initiated alternative plans should be given more weight in the decision-making process.

Comprehensive plan

The surge in New York City’s population and associated demands for housing, economic development, increased open space, and improvements to physical and social infrastructure have been acknowledged by our elected officials at both the state and municipal levels. And yet, New York City still lacks a comprehensive planning framework.  Redevelopment of New York City for current and future residents and businesses, where scarcity of land makes nearly every development decision a struggle over contested space, will succeed only when all stakeholders are brought together to work toward consensus around development goals. We need a citywide planning framework grounded in collective vision and based on city policies, city goals, and neighborhood plans.  The framework’s creation should be transparent and participatory, and should take into account the city’s qualitative needs, social and economic diversity, and equitable and sustainable development.

A citywide planning framework would provide an unprecedented opportunity for a dialogue between the City and its communities, to create a shared vision for the future.  It would prevent conflicts such as the one over the Atlantic Yards site, and would keep land use decisions in the hands of the people and out of the courts.

Process

The decision-making process for State development projects is in serious need of reform. The involvement of the State, operating through the offices of the Empire State Development Corporation, means projects such as Atlantic Yards sidestep ULURP—our flawed yet Charter-defined due process for projects seeking discretionary approvals. Removing ULURP meant removing the three affected community boards, the borough president, and the City Council members from the deliberations that could have shaped the Atlantic Yards project to be more in line with community priorities.  In particular, projects such as Atlantic Yards that rely on the taking of private property via eminent domain need more transparency, accountability, and standardization, not less.

The determination of blight that cleared the way for potential use of eminent domain for Atlantic Yards was based on a flawed process.  It is really only those who live in, work in, and represent a community who can understand the full contributions made to the neighborhood and the city by a local business, or an apartment house, or an open space. While the definition of blight is notoriously subjective, who is in a better position to understand the full value of a single piece of local property than the locals? There must be sufficient process in place to allow for community voices in the determination of blight. Without a participatory planning process in place, development gets delayed, faith in government erodes, and major land-use decisions fall to the courts.

The Future of the Vanderbilt Railyards

Because of the many flaws in the process, more than five years after developer Bruce Ratner announced Atlantic Yards, the site remains an eyesore that has yet to be developed.  Where are the promised public benefits on which original promises of subsidies and approvals were predicated?  No part of the project should be allowed to move forward without these elements.  We are heartened by the recent news that Mayor Bloomberg will not allow more than the already-committed $230 million in public funding to subsidize Atlantic Yards.  The uncertainties surrounding the proposal beg the question: what should happen at the Vanderbilt Railyards?

The State has the option to reconsider a community-initiated alternative plan—one that is poised to become a profitable, sustainable, and equitable strategy for redeveloping the rail yards. The revised 2007 UNITY Plan, for example, sponsored by the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, contains many innovative planning alternatives that would allow the project to move forward, even in uncertain financial times.

Rather than one developer creating superblocks, UNITY proposes extending streets over the railyards to create eight individual sites, encouraging diverse participation by multiple developers and architects, who would agree to established community development principles.  Rather than high-rise towers, UNITY calls for buildings of varied heights that would fit in with the surrounding context.  Significantly, UNITY requires use of only the railyards, and would not require taking any privately-held property.

UNITY also includes a detailed plan for the creation of affordable housing, using the median income for Brooklyn as the indicator.  It even outlines transportation improvements, use of green building technologies, open space provisions, and plans for economic development with a focus on local entrepreneurship.  Now that Atlantic Yards seems unlikely to happen as proposed, we encourage you to consider asking ESDC to reconsider the UNITY plan, which encourages development while providing obvious benefits for the surrounding communities, and allowing current residents to stay in their homes. The best plans come out of a dialogue among those with competing visions. It is not too late for our elected officials to demand that a real dialogue over the future of this important part of Brooklyn take place.

The Community-Based Planning Task Force is interested in developing policies surrounding comprehensive planning, use of eminent domain, etc., and we look forward to the opportunity to work with you further.  Thank you very much for the opportunity to provide this testimony today.

For more information contact Lacey Tauber at 212/935-3960, x261.

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