Photo caption: State Senators Bill Perkins, Velmanette Montgomery and Karl Kruger.
The first State Senate hearing since the 2005 announcement of the Atlantic Yards project was a spectacle to behold. State Senator Bill Perkins hosted the hearing, entitled “Atlantic Yards: Where are We Now, How Did We Get Here, and Where is this Project Going?” State Senators Velmanette Montgomery and Carl Kruger and Assembly member Hakeem Jeffries were on hand to ask questions.
Sen. Perkins is the newly-appointed chair of the State Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, which has a mandate to oversee state entities that engage in state-supported economic and infrastructure development, such as the ESDC and all of its subsidiaries. The committee also shares oversight of the Port Authority and the Thruway Authority.
Perkins opening statement sought to explain why he called the hearing. “We are here to lend the will of the people to this process, to provide the check and balance that helps the Executive Branch do the right thing.” Perkins stressed this point: “Development, as I see it, is generally a good thing. I do not count myself among those who think ‘development’ is a dirty word that denotes the trampling of the powerless for the benefit of the powerful. But the truth is that development does have a checkered history in New York, particularly here in this city. Yet all too often,” he said, “in our strive to ‘go big or go home’ we have not taken into account the needs of all the legitimate stake holders. This is where development goes off track. Our goal here is to do all we can to make sure this project does not go off track.”
Of all the stake holders interested in Atlantic Yards who attended – MTA, Empire State Development Corp. (ESDC), various NYC agencies, Independent Budget Office (IBO), Council member Tish James, signatories to the Community Benefits Agreement, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), various union members, and community residents – the most notable entity missing-in-action was Bruce Ratner, who also failed to send a representative of Forest City Ratner.
Attendees had to walk a gauntlet of about 100 union members to gain entrance to the hearing. Once inside the capacity hearing, attendees were treated to union members heckling and loudly blowing whistles, disrupting those giving testimony. The union message, led by Anthony Pugliese from the Carpenters’ Local 152 and Dennis Milton from the Ironworkers Local 580, was loud and clear: they want jobs, and they want ‘em now! Perkins respectfully asked several times for decorum.
State Senator Marty Golden’s dramatic, disruptive entrance half way through the proceedings irritated Montgomery, who reminded Golden that “This is my district.” (After the hearing, Montgomery noted Golden’s hypocrisy for whipping union members into a frenzy, since Golden is one of the state senators vehemently opposed to a new provision of the Rockefeller drug law that provides “conditional sealing” of criminal records, which would allow the formerly incarcerated to gain employment in the one field they may qualify for: construction trades).
Helena Williams, president of the Long Island Railroad and the interim executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, touted Atlantic Yards’ benefits to public transportation system: new rail yards, a new subway entrance for the arena, and new tax revenues (based upon the assumption that fans from NJ would come to Brooklyn to see the Nets). After intense questioning, Williams admitted the original 2006 deal for Ratner to pay MTA $100 million for the Vanderbilt rail yard would have to be modified due to the current economic climate. When pressed if it would be closer to $50 million, Williams said there may be an upfront payment of $20 million with incremental payments as MTA parcels are consumed by the project. In addition, the new rail yard would be downscaled from nine to seven rails to reduce costs. A final determination is expected when the MTA holds its next board meeting on June 24.
George Sweeting from the Independent Budget Office (IBO), said his office “has not undertaken a full updating of our previous (2005) analysis of the project.” He suggested that costs, increased city contributions and changes in the city’s economic climate, might make the arena a net money loser. Sweeting noted that under a special Internal Revenue code, tax exempt bonds for development of the arena must be issued before the end of the year or lose tax exempt status.
Rev. Herbert Daughtry was the most vocal individual to continuously disrupt the hearing with accusations that elected officials stalled the building of Atlantic Yards, and stated that the hearing was just one more stall tactic. When he testified, Rev. Daughtry described himself as the President and founder of the Brooklyn Downtown Neighborhood Alliance. While touting the Community Benefits Agreement, Daughtry referred to his “highly regarded” daycare centers that would be located in Atlantic Yards; he told of “the opportunity of participation in the architectural design” of an intergenerational complex to be located with the project.
Mollie Rouzie, representing the Community-Based Planning Task Force, was one of the few to note how planning of Atlantic Yards bypassed normal local land use provisions. She resurrected the Unity Plan, which calls for housing to be built only on the footprint of the Vanderbilt Yards.
Michelle de la Uz from the Fifth Avenue Committee pointed out that per unit housing costs at Atlantic Yards are more than twice what the Fifth Avenue Committee or the Pratt Area Community Council pays. De la Uz compared Atlantic Yards to the project on Gowanus Green where 70% of the housing is permanent and affordable.
Daniel Goldstein, co-founder of DDDB, called upon ESDC to “see the healthy development of the Vanderbilt Rail Yards, with competitive bidding, truly affordable housing, open space the public can use, with a scope and scale that respects the surrounding community while still meeting a desirable and reasonable density.” Goldstein said, “It is time to officially scrap the Atlantic Yards plan and start over.”
Ron Shiffman, professor at the Pratt Center for Planning and the Environment, board member of DDDB, and urban planner for the Unity Plan, said Atlantic Yards “takes housing dollars from other neighborhoods.” Shiffman called “eminent domain dangerous to poor and low income communities,” and said a concrete definition of eminent domain should be a part of public policy, along the lines of the original Urban Development Corp. Use of “eminent domain on a case-by-case basis erodes principles,” said Shiffman. During his testimony, hecklers reminded Shiffman that Pratt Institute was built by non-union labor and was currently using non-union labor in its expansion.
Gloria Woodland, former president of ACORN, said the organization has a “commitment to affordability and housing for low and middle income people.”
Henry P. Weinstein, president of the Pacific Carlton Development Corp., blasted ESDC, saying it “stood silent and allowed the ultimate misuse of the threat of eminent domain to be used by a private developer, caring little for the truth and the rights of those affected.” He accused ESDC of abusing its power and the public trust “by allowing the private developer, who has the most to gain to self-certify almost all documents and facts submitted for public review.” Weinstein said “Bruce Ratner was allowed to self-certify that he controlled my property to ESDC.” (Weinstein recently won an appellate court decision against Ratner, concerning the illegal assignments of the leases of some of Weinstein’s properties in the footprint of Atlantic Yards.)
Assemblymember Jeffries asked strong questions regarding whether or not public benefits will be preserved, including the affordable housing component. Concerned about “gentrification and displacement, with working class folks being forced out,” Jeffries asked “What if housing is not affordable by the people who would build it?” Jeffries said the goal of 200 affordable on-site condos out of 4,500 units is “not significant enough.” Jeffries called for “proportional affordability.”
Sen. Kruger said he was “an early supporter of Atlantic Yards”; is concerned about the “lacking facts and substance from MTA,” and wants to see construction begin.”
Council member Letitia James summed up changes in her district since she took office and described what Atlantic Yards would do. James reminded everyone that “Normally, a project like this would begin the long City planning and approval process known as the Land Use Review Procedure or ULURP. A process with public hearings at each level of city government, ending in a vote by the 51 members of the City Council.” James lamented, “But, this project would be different. ULURP would be bypassed, in favor of a state override and a state process consisting solely of environmental impact disclosures. There would be no vote by the City Council, or by the three community boards that meet inside the boundaries of the proposed project-area.”
It would be a state takeover of the largest project in Brooklyn history,” said James. “Instead of public hearings and strict review, there would be zoning overrides and violations of existing zoning regulations.” For instance, James pointed to a NYC zoning regulation that prohibits arenas within 200 feet of residential areas. “This project would not respect that rule,” she said.
James told the hearing, “It has been five and a half years since the project was unveiled and we still have no idea how much the developer stands to make from this project. There has never been a public cost/ benefit analysis undertaken. We are unsure of the total of direct City and State subsidies. We are even less sure of the indirect benefits the developer would receive, in tax breaks and exemptions, land values, PILOTS, and other incentives. It has been conservatively estimated at upwards of one billion dollars.”
Council member James closed her testimony by saying she wants to see development built at Atlantic/ Vanderbilt Yards, including affordable housing. James told the hearing that a source from ESDC said what will be built is an arena alone. “What we need,” said James, “is housing and housing loans.”