Big turnout for public hearing on Downtown Plan

The Brooklyn Paper
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Faced with deciding the future of Downtown Brooklyn, the City Planning Commission heard more than eight hours of often-passionate testimony on Wednesday from both supporters and opponents of the city’s urban renewal proposal.

Alternating between traffic and parking concerns, worry that corporations will continue to flea the city if office space is not created downtown, concern over the likely condemnation of seven acres of private property, and the need to preserve historic structures, the testimony stretched from 10 am into the early evening.

The City Planning Commission, which moved its monthly meeting from its Lower Manhattan headquarters to an auditorium at the New York College of Technology to accommodate the flood of concerned residents, merchants and officials, was shy one member, Richard Eaddy, who recused himself from deliberations over the plan.

Asked why the commissioner recused himself, City Planning spokeswoman Rachaele Raynoff issued a statement saying: “A commissioner may recuse himself if there could be a potential conflict without publicly disclosing the reason, as Commissioner Eaddy did.”

But how the testimony registered with the panel won’t be known until May 10 when the commission is due to make its recommendation on the 22 independent actions — including the possible condemnation of 130 residential units and 100 businesses — contained in the massive Uniform Land Use Review Procedure application for the Downtown Brooklyn Plan.

“We believe that Downtown Brooklyn is a gold mine, but this plan treats it like tin — that just doesn’t make sense,” said Jo Anne Simon, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Coalition, which has pulled together several neighborhood associations for critical analysis of the plan.

Most Brooklyn officials, including City Council members Letitia James and David Yassky, say they support the plan, in principal, but have concerns about particular aspects of it. Speaking to reporters outside the college Wednesday and to the commissioners inside, James recommended that the southernmost plot of land in the plan area, one that dovetails with developer Bruce Ratner’s planned Atlantic Yards arena-and-office-tower development, be removed from the Downtown Plan application.

That plot, at Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, would house the dominant structure in Ratner’s Frank Gehry-designed plan for a professional basketball arena and 13 residential and commercial towers stretching east into Prospect Heights.

“Council members, the borough president and community members are on the same page, but there are still parking and traffic changes that need to be looked at, and at businesses in the area, as far as the impact this will have on them,” James said of the Downtown Plan.

If approved by the City Planning Commission, the plan would next be voted on by the City Council. James said that she and Yassky have already begun meeting with the council’s Brooklyn delegation to discuss the massive rezoning proposal.

The plan would pave the way for 6.7 million square feet of office space, 1 million square feet of retail, 1,000 units of housing and 2,400 new parking spaces.

It would also create 8,000 temporary construction jobs and 18,000 permanent jobs, said Josh Sirefman, president of the Economic Development Corporation, the plan’s sponsor.

Carolyn Konheim, a traffic analyst and chairwoman of the private Community Consulting Services firm, submitted testimony in which she charged that a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement released this month was insufficient in gauging the effect both the Downtown Plan and the Ratner plan would have on traffic and parking in the area.

More than 17,000 extra cars, 95,000 additional subway riders and 21,000 more bus riders are expected to be drawn to the area, according to the original impact statement.

Konheim also testified that Brooklyn-bound subway ridership would grow 25 percent by 2012, but that information, she said, was ignored in the revised impact statement.

“These developers are living in an hermetically sealed room that doesn’t have real life in it, real people, so that they design these projects that are from outer space,” said Patti Hagan, president of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, an anti-arena plan neighborhood group. “They should be designing from their observations from urban life. There is no place for Brooklyn in their plan.”

Community Board 2, which had first crack at the plan, in February, failed to make a recommendation because many of its members were confused by its complexities and the way voting on the plan was set up by the board’s leadership.

Borough President Marty Markowitz approved the Downtown Plan earlier this month with recommendations, including that some of the businesses threatened with condemnation should be spared.

“The city has already acted on some of Marty’s recommenda­tions,” Sharon Toomer, a spokeswoman for Markowitz. “For instance, they’ve moved up funding for traffic-calming projects in the Downtown Brooklyn area. Marty’s recommendations were concrete.”

Among the properties Markowitz asked to be spared is the Institute of Design and Construction, a 57-year-old college that 25 years ago narrowly escaped another case of eminent domain when Ratner developed the Metrotech office complex downtown.

“First there was Metrotech, then the Downtown Brooklyn Plan and now the arena project,” said Vincent Battista, president of the school. “Each follows the same deceptive pattern of deceiving the community with respect to jobs, job training, housing, improved infrastructure and fair compensation to those who stand to lose their businesses or homes through the arrogant misuse of the power of eminent domain.”

On several occasions during Wednesday’s hearing the commission­ers’ questions were well received by audience members for their critical nature.

One of the commissioners, Irwin Cantor, drew cheers when he asked Michael Burke, director of the Downtown Brooklyn Council, whether he considered the plan inevitable.

“Did you ever stop to think that total acceptance of your plan is not necessarily the right thing?” he asked to rousing applause.

“They were patient, I thought that was very good of them, and I think they were fair,” said Battista.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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