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As expected, the MTA Board voted 10-2 yesterday to allow Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner to make payments for the Vanderbilt Railyards over 22 years, and to build a smaller railyard worth $100 million less than originally promised.  Read all about it at Atlantic Yards Report.

As Crain’s reports, however, this may not be the end of the story:

“Forest City’s next major agenda item is selling bonds to finance the project’s centerpiece: an arena that where the company’s basketball team, the Net’s will play. The company hopes to begin selling $490 million worth of bonds to finance the $772 million arena this fall. Legislation allowing Forest City to issue tax free bonds expires at the end of the year so timing is critical. If Forest City fails to secure those bonds or other financing by early next year, the MTA deal falls apart.”

Via our friends at Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the following is a letter from Senator Bill Perkins to the Acting Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the MTA. It’s long, but definitely worth a read. The MTA’s Board meets June 22 and is expected to vote on an renegotiated agreement with developer Bruce Ratner for the rights to the Vanderbilt Railyards.


Dear Ms. Williams:

I write to follow up on the hearing that was held on May 29th regarding the Atlantic Yards project.

At the hearing you testified that MTA was engaged in renegotiations with Forest City Ratner regarding the development rights over the Vanderbilt Yards. The original deal required FCR to make various infrastructure improvements and remit 100 million dollars at closing. You reported at the hearing that the developer now wants to significantly scale down its commitments both in terms of infrastructure and money. It has been reported that the new terms of the deal will be voted on at the MTA’s next board meeting, scheduled for June 24th.

I write to request that the MTA immediately fax me a copy of any proposed amended agreements between MTA and FCR. There is already a great deal of public concern about the terms of the various deals at Atlantic Yards, in particular MTA’s acceptance of a substantially below-appraisal offer. Given MTA’s deep financial problems, its reliance on public bailout, and the many concerns raised about the viability of the Atlantic Yards project, MTA must make every effort to engage the public now, so that no new Vanderbilt Yards deal is ratified without the public having a substantial opportunity to review and comment.

Public engagement is always important, but it is particularly critical now that so many of the alleged public benefits of the Atlantic Yards project have diminished or vanished altogether. For example, the state of the art rail yard FCR was to build is no longer on the table as the new yard would have fewer tracks than are currently in place and that were originally promised; the IBO has concluded that the arena will now be a money-loser for the city; promised office space has been scrapped, substantially reducing revenue and jobs; there are no concrete or near-term plans to build the bulk of the promised affordable housing, which is contained in Phase 2 of the project plan, which has no timeline; the “world-class” Frank Gehry design has been scrapped for a cookie-cutter alternative; the much-touted “Urban Room” public space has been discarded; the remaining so-called public space is all contained in Phase 2, which again has no timeline; and then ESDC CEO Marissa Lago stated publicly that the project will take “decades” to complete, which will continue or even exacerbate for a generation the so-called blight the project was intended to resolve, and significantly delay or deny the public’s accrual of benefits.

The public needs to know that it is getting the best deal possible and that the MTA is not granting sweetheart deals to developers at the expense of taxpayers, straphangers and the local community. To that end, in addition to immediately providing a written copy of the renegotiated terms, please provide detailed written answers to the following questions:

1) Why is MTA renegotiating terms with FCR rather than demanding performance or rescinding the agreement and re-issuing the RFP in order to determine whether there are other interested parties?

2) In renegotiating the terms, did MTA consider that most of the alleged public benefits it considered in 2005 have since substantially diminished or vanished altogether?

3) Has the MTA contracted an independent appraiser to appraise the Vanderbilt Yards to determine their current Fair Market Value? If not, why not? What is the current Fair Market Value of the Vanderbilt Yards?

4) Given that the new agreement will be substantially and materially different from the original, making it a new agreement, does not the Public Authorities Accountability Act of 2005 now apply and impose a fiduciary duty on MTA board members and require that the sale of property for fair market value be supported by an independent appraisal? If not, why not?

5) What are FCR’s obligations to the MTA if the deal closes but the developer does not proceed with the project?

Time is of the essence. These answers need to be known and made public prior to the MTA board considering any new deal regarding the Vanderbilt Yards. Therefore please provide a written response to my office no later than Friday June 19, 2009.

Thank you.

Senator Bill Perkins

Cc: Governor David A. Paterson
Dennis Mullen, Acting CEO and President, Empire State Development Corp.
H. Dale Hemmerdinger, Chairman, Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith
Senator John Sampson, Democratic Conference Leader
Senator Martin Malave Dilan, Chair Transportation Committee
Senator Velmanette Montgomery
Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries

Following up on last week’s Atlantic Yards hearing, project opponents Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn will hold a community meeting to provide updates on the plan: Tuesday June 9, 7pm at Lafayette Avenue Church, 85 S. Oxford Street in Fort Greene.  Speakers will include Council Member Letitia James, Pratt Institute’s Ron Shiffman, Develop Don’t Destroy’s Daniel Goldstein, (all of whom are members of the Community-Based Planning Task Force) and others.

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:

Read the rest of this entry »

Do you have thoughts you would like to share about the proposed Atlantic Yards development?  If you’re like us, you definitely do!  Now you finally have a chance to weigh in on this proposed $4 billion Brooklyn mega-project.

The Community-Based Planning Task Force will join City and State agencies, environmentalists, planners, and other community members and advocates to give testimony at a public hearing on Atlantic Yards on Friday, held by State Senators Bill Perkins and Velmanette Montgomery.  Oral testimony on Friday is invite-only, but the public may submit testimony via email.

According to an email announcement about the hearing, it’s purpose is the following: “This hearing will trace the history of the Atlantic Yards project to determine its current status. The Committee’s intent is to examine the process by which decisions are made, to understand where the project is now, and to envision where this project might lead. Issues involved include but are not limited to whether this is the best possible deal for taxpayers and the local community; whether the use of eminent domain is necessary and is it being exercised responsibly; the meaning and use of the concept of ‘blight’ in condemnations; what is a ‘public benefit’ sufficient to justify massive state action; and what are the financials?”

The Task Force’s testimony, which we will post online soon, will focus on three main 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.

Although they cannot testify, members of the public may attend the hearing:

Friday, May 29
1PM – 5 PM
Pratt Institute, Higgins Hall
61 St. James Place (corner Lafayette Ave.)
Brooklyn, NY 11238

For some great background on the issues, check out Atlantic Yards Report’s extensive overview of questions that should arise at the hearing.

Hope everyone had a restful holiday! Here are some stories we’ve been following recently:

  • Mayor Bloomberg said that the City will not provide any more public subsidies for Atlantic Yards (above the $230 million already pledged). (Brooklyn Paper)
  • Mayor Mike also allegedly removed Brooklyn Community Board 1 District Manager Gerry Esposito from an event for planning a protest of community board budget cuts. (Greenpoint Gazette)
  • “This is a good time for the city to rethink its approach to both community planning and citywide planning, starting with the real needs and priorities of its residents and workers instead of the amount of floor area that can be built.” (Tom Angotti explores “Zoning Without Planning” in Gotham Gazette)

It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on perpetually controversial Brooklyn projects Atlantic Yards and Coney Island.  Here’s where we play catch-up with a compilation of recent news:

Atlantic Yards:

When  the Architect’s newspaper recently asked starchitect Frank Gehry about the mega-development, he responded, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.” This was followed immediately by much backpedaling and an insistence from developer Bruce Ratner that the project “will get built.” Doth he protest too much?  Project opponents Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn announced earlier this week that they have filed a motion to the Appellate Division seeking the right to appeal a Febuary 26 ruling against them in their legal case challenging the project’s environmental impact statement (EIS).  At issue is whether the state had a “rational basis” for declaring the development site blighted.

In the meantime, delays are costly for Ratner’s New Jersey Nets, who would play at the Atlantic Yards arena, and rumors are flying that Turner Construction is off the project.  yet The Real Deal reports today that Ratner has purchased a property within the footprint, 467 Dean Street, his first such purchase in over two years.

Coney Island:

At this very moment the City Council is holding an oversight hearing on Coney Island development, which is sure to make tomorrow’s headlines.  On the eve of this hearing, the NY Times reports, the City offered Coney landowner/developer Joel Sitt $105 million for approximately 10 acres, which the City hopes to develop according to its own plan.  Will he accept? The Times article makes it seem unlikely.

This monthly feature profiles a plan included in Planning for All New Yorkers: An Atlas of Community-Based Plans in New York City, an interactive, online tool created by the Municipal Art Society and the Community-Based Planning Task Force. This month, we feature the UNITY Plan, a community-based alternative to the proposed Atlantic Yards development.

 As large-scale developments are slowed and perhaps halted by economic woes, decision-makers may be taking a second look at plans that adhere to a more modest, build-able vision, but are better able to justify public expenditure-because they are initiated by the public.

 When the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) and the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development re-launched their alternative to Forest City Ratner (FCR)’s proposed Atlantic Yards development, Understanding, Imagining and Transforming the Yards (UNITY), two years ago, they faced an uphill battle in convincing the public that Atlantic Yards was not a “done deal.”  Today, due to the worsening economy, at least one ongoing lawsuit, and the MTA’s recent statement that Atlantic Yards is not a priority for stimulus funding, the Brooklyn mega-development is clearly anything but a done deal. 

FCR’s original proposal, which became public in 2003, called for 17 “iconic buildings,” to be located between Prospect Heights and Fort Greene (the site is shown above), including an 850,000 sq. ft. basketball arena, 336,000 sq. ft. of office space, 165,000 sq. ft. of hotel space, 247,000 sq. ft. of retail space, eight acres of open space, and over 6,400 units of housing.  The housing component remains particularly controversial, as many of the proposed units deemed “affordable” are out of reach of those making the average income for Brooklyn

Mounting Challenges

The 22-acre development would require use of both MTA property and an area around it, including occupied homes and businesses.  To amass this land, FCR would require the use of eminent domain.  State Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging the use of eminent domain for the project on Monday, and a decision is expected within the next few months.  Plaintiffs are also planning an appeal of yesterday’s ruling against them in a case challenging the project’s environmental review.

In addition, Atlantic Yards faces major financial challenges due to the economic downturn.  In fact, Borough President Marty Markowitz recently asked the State for “bailout” money for the project from the national stimulus bill, and called for a redesign to reduce project costs.  In short, completion of the project as originally proposed seems unlikely.

Voices Raised

The UNITY plan’s creators anticipated such a scenario as early as 2004.  In March of that year, in cooperation with Council Member Letitia James, a team of architects and urban designers joined hundreds of citizens, elected officials, designers and developers to imagine a community-based model for development at the site and to examine issues such as affordable housing, ecology, public open space, traffic, retail, jobs, and infrastructure. The original UNITY Plan evolved out of this workshop.  The plan formed the basis for the “Principles for Responsible Community Development” of the railyards, which was endorsed by elected officials from the project area and 25 organizations.  

Three years later, in April 2007, about 80 community groups and residents revisited the plan and sought to create a more specific vision.  They attended a day-long UNITY workshop focused on the issues of affordable housing; sustainable transportation; accessible open space and connections; jobs and economic development; urban design and site planning; and the planning and development process at the site.  Later that year, CBN and Hunter released an updated UNITY Plan, which depicts one example of how the Principles for Responsible Community Development could be realized, and is designed so that all or part of it may be implemented, depending on what FCR is ultimately able to accomplish.  Currently, the extent of FCR’s ability to develop remains unclear, but CBN Co-Chair Candace Carponter said, “We have UNITY at the ready,” should FCR’s plans fall through.

An Alternative Vision

The UNITY plan differs from FCR’s plan in a number of important ways.  Rather than one developer creating superblocks, UNITY proposes extending streets over the railyards to connect Park Slope and Fort Greene and create eight individual sites, encouraging diverse participation by multiple developers and architects, who would agree to the 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 only requires use of land over 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.  Under this plan, 60 percent of housing would be available to low-income residents, 40 percent would be owner-occupied (co-ops or condos), and provisions would be put in place to ensure that tenants of affordable units in the surrounding area are not displaced. 

Transportation improvements, use of green building technologies, open space provisions, and plans for economic development with a focus on local entrepreneurship are also included in the UNITY Plan. 

For more information, please visit the Atlas of Community-Based Plans, where you can download a detailed summary.

The Brooklyn Paper has a thorough wrap-up of yesterday’s opening arguments in Goldstein et. al. vs. Empire State Development Corporation, the case brought before the State Supreme Court by tenants who are threatened with displacement via eminent domain for the proposed Atlantic Yards development.

At issue, reports the Brooklyn Paper, is whether developer Bruce Ratner’s claim that the project has “public benefit” has merit, or whether the claimed public benefit is “incendental” compared to the developer’s planned profit.  Gersh Kuntzman reports, “Justice Robert Spolzino of the Appellate Division appeared to be sympathetic to [plantiff’s attorney] Brinckerhoff’s argument, asking ESDC lawyers several times to explain how the agency determined that the project has what they called an ‘overwhelming’ public benefit if the ESDC had not also measured the private benefit to Ratner.”

In addition, the Brookyn Paper reports, the plaintiffs’ attorney argued that under the State Constitution, eminent domain may not be used for the creation of luxury housing, as planned: “In Monday’s arguments, he reiterated his contention that Article 18, section 6 of the state’s Constitution bars the use of public money from being allocated to an urban renewal project unless ‘the occupancy of any such project shall be restricted to persons of low income.'”

A ruling on the case is expected in several months.

A diverse coalition of community groups,  good government groups, political organizations, and local clergy sent a letter (PDF) to Governor David Paterson today, asking that he deny the floundering, $4 billion Atlantic Yards development financial assistance from the $24.6 billion in federal stimulus money that will soon come to the aid of New York State and City.

Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, NYPIRG Straphangers, and Good Jobs New York were among the 40 organizations and clergy who wrote, “The intent of the…’stimulus bill’ is to generate jobs and kick-start the economy, not to bail out projects which have been found to deaden economic growth, such as sports arenas.”

Despite confusion about whether the project is even eligible to receive stimulus funds, there’s no question that developer Bruce Ratner has been lobbying for a handout.  While the MTA has stated that AY is not on its priority list to receive funding, the Post reports that the project could still receive money directly though Governor Paterson.

In response, the community writes, “An arena on land obtained through the questionable use of eminent domain violates both sound planning processes and sound community economic development.”  The letter goes on to point out a few key facts:

  • Atlantic Yards is not “shovel-ready,” since Ratner does not own the land on which the development is planned;
  • The process by which the development proposal has proceeded violates provisions of the stimulus bill that require a transparent and competitive public bidding process; and
  • The development proposal already has the financial benefit of City, State and Federal subsidies estimated at around $1.5 – $2 billion.

For those interested in sending their own letter to Gov. Paterson, his contact information is available here.

Since 2000, The Community-Based Planning Task Force has been leading the effort to create a more meaningful role for communities in New York City’s planning and decision-making processes.

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