Council fouls out

The Brooklyn Paper
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After battling to have their voices heard in an official public forum, community members were left fuming this week when a City Council hearing on the Atlantic Yards arena proposal left them waiting nearly five hours to testify.

The delay meant that their testimony was not heard by most daily news media, whose reporters left to file stories for the evening deadline, and even many council members and officials had long since departed the council chambers by the time the largely anti-arena testifiers spoke.

By the last hour of the hearing, which ran until about 7:30 pm, only the chairman of the Economic Development Committee that hosted the hearing, Queens Councilman James Sanders, and Prospect Heights Councilwoman Letitia James, a member of the committee and a staunch opponent of the plan, remained out of nine members of the panel.

More than 300 supporters and opponents of the plan packed into the standing-room-only council chambers at 10 am on Tuesday, many taking the day off from work to weigh in on the $2.5 billion commercial, retail and residential development in Prospect Heights.

While representatives of Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner and his Forest City Ratner company, as well as officials from the city Economic Development Corp. and Borough President Marty Markowitz — both proponents of the plan, which would bring the New Jersey Nets basketball team to Brooklyn — all got a chance to speak at some length, community members were offered just two-minute slots and did not get to testify until after 3 pm.

By that time less than half of those who had wished to testify remained and only a handful of council members were still in attendance.

Almost all the press had gone, and even the EDC officials had packed up their bags and headed out.

Bertha Lewis, executive director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which is in support of the plan, blasted officials, saying that if city officials had really wanted community input they would have let the community speak.
ACORN brought six buses of supporters of Ratner’s arena, office skyscraper and housing plan to the hearing.

“Some community members had to leave to go pick up their children from school,” said Lewis, who railed against the hearing’s organizers for putting off community speakers until the end.

Norman Siegel, the lawyer and former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who is representing about 150 residents fighting the condemnation of their property to build the 21-acre development, also called the hearing “extremely unfair.”

“People this morning said they wanted an open process — this shows that at best it’s rhetoric. They would be here,” said Siegel, referring to Ratner and city officials.

Ratner purchased the New Jersey Nets in January and plans to bring them to Brooklyn. In addition to an 800,000-square-foot arena, he seeks to build four soaring office towers and 13 residential buildings.

While the original plan included knocking down more than two square blocks of privately owned property, Forest City Ratner officials
said at Tuesday’s hearings that they are working to minimize the eminent domain taking of property.

“We’re looking at substantially modifying our plan if necessary,” said FCR Vice President James Stucky. “We’re working with many of the residents and we’re doing whatever we can to try and reduce the amount of condemnation because we think there’s a win here, that we can do this project … and do it in a way where we don’t have to condemn people’s homes.”

But Stuckey said it was “a little premature” to discuss specifics, adding that they were looking at both shifting the plan and offering buyouts to residents to reduce the amount of eminent domain.

The Brooklyn Papers reported on April 24 that Ratner and the architect for Atlantic Yards, Frank Gehry, were working on plans to construct a new building to house some of the residents his plan would displace. And Gehry told Newsweek online last month, “Bruce [Ratner] is asking me to design a new apartment building for them [neighbors whose apartments might be destroyed by the complex].
He’s got a specific site nearby.”

Pressed by Manhattan Councilwoman Christine Quinn at the hearing about how much public money would be needed to build Atlantic Yards, Stuckey was evasive, first saying only that it was less than $1 billion and more than $10 million. Pushed further by Quinn, who asked if the price tag would be in “the hundreds of millions,” Stuckey said, “I think that’s fair.”

That cost would put it on a par with the planned stadium for the New York Jets football team on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. That project, which would also be a major part of the city’s bid for the 2012 summer Olympics, would cost the city and state $300 million each.

Ratner has from the beginning pitched his arena, office and housing plan as being primarily funded by the tax dollars it would generate, much of which would come from the personal income taxes paid by the Nets basketball players.

Neither he nor city or borough officials have been willing to divulge the actual projected cost to the city.

An economic study on the arena commissioned by Ratner and released this week, estimated a public contribution of $18 million in city and state funds in addition to $187.5 million in infrastructure costs.

Andrew Alper, president of the EDC, a city-run non-profit intended to spur business and industrial growth, praised the project at the hearing, saying the “benefits far outweigh the costs.”

Alper said the Atlantic Yards plan would create 14,400 construction jobs and 7,600 permanent jobs.

Developers have also agreed to set aside 50 percent of the 4,500 units of housing for middle- and low-income housing.

Asked by several council members how much money the city expected to plunk down, Alper said they were still working the figures.

“Until we know what kind of public financing [is involved] I don’t think we can say the benefits far outweigh the costs,” said Downtown Brooklyn Councilman David Yassky.

Alper said EDC would have those figures in the next few weeks.

The plan will most likely face a state review process and bypass the much more stringent city land use review process.
James, who helped push for the Council hearings, said she was disappointed.

“We didn’t get any commitments on City Council playing a role, eliminating eminent domain, or real affordable housing,” said James.

Before the hearing, James hosted a press conference to discuss alternative design plans for the Long Island Rail Road yards over which about half of the Ratner plan would sit.

Those designs included shifting the arena over Atlantic Avenue on a raised platform and onto the Atlantic Center mall site that Ratner owns across the street.

Architect and urban designer Marshall Brown also presented plans for a site along the rail yards that includes buildings five to 10 stories tall with interlacing streets “stitching together” Fort Greene and Prospect Heights.

Neither plan would require the use of eminent domain as the project would be shifted a block north.

Rep. Major Owens proposes moving the entire plan to the Brooklyn Navy Yards.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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