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Planners blow off council ‘park’ meet

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State officials appointed to plan and build the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park blew off an Oct. 6 City Council joint committee meeting on the contentious project, leaving community activists and officials hopping mad.

One community leader went so far as to say the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (BBPDC), a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation, had “hijacked” planning of the 1.3-mile waterfront development from the public.

Last Thursday’s joint Waterfront and Parks committees hearing was hosted at City Hall by the committee chairs — David Yassky, whose district encompasses most of the neighborhoods that would border the development, and Helen Foster, of the Bronx. Ten other council members attended the five-hour hearing, which overlapped six other committee hearings throughout the day.

The development plan proposes a mix of open green space and river trails with a hotel, five luxury condominium high-rises, a soccer field, restaurants and other commercial establishments along the waterfront from roughly Jay Street in DUMBO to Atlantic Avenue on the Brooklyn Heights-Cobble Hill border. The bulk of the development rests on the Brooklyn Heights piers.

Issues arose regarding financing, recreation, design and social implications, and the officials from the city’s Economic Development Corporation, Department of Parks and Recreation, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Dan Doctoroff’s office and one of the commissioned landscape architects talked for two hours.

“It all amounts to a hill of beans, since the development corporation didn’t show up,” said Judi Francis, a resident of Willowtown, a section of Brooklyn Heights that borders the site of a planned 30-story luxury condominium proposed to help finance the housing, open space and commercial development.

“It’s indicative of how they’ve always treated us. It was just shown against a brighter light in front of our local elected officials,” Francis said, adding, “It was shocking, actually.”

City officials in attendance to field questions on the plan tried their best to defend the process of community involvement.

Foster, chairwoman of the Parks committee, asked Joe Chan, senior advisor to the deputy mayor, “How much involvement did the community have in saying ‘This is what we would like to see’?”

“I know there were over 40 meetings with community groups as the master plan was being developed,” said Chan. “Obviously the BBPDC has met with Community Board 2, Community Board 6 — I know that there were at least 40 meetings being held around the community.”

Later panelists, like CB6 District Manager Craig Hammerman, countered Chan’s statement, saying the BBPDC had “hijacked” the process from the community.

“Some of the statements that were made by the panelists earlier were perhaps a bit misleading, so I just want to clarify that there was an exact total, an extensive and exhaustive series of one meeting with the development corporation and the community board,” Hammerman sarcastically noted, “despite repeated requests subsequent to that [February] meeting to turn out and address the public, including to brief us on the general project plan.

“Basically, what’s happened in the last two years, from our perspective, is that the process was hijacked from the public,” Hammerman charged. “The plan before us is not the public’s plan, and we would like to help put this runaway train back on its track.”

Late last year, the BBPDC released a radically altered park master plan from one that had been formulated based on public planning sessions held in 2000, by shifting the emphasis for financing of the self-sustaining development from commercial establishments and recreational facilities to 1,210 luxury condo apartments.

Yassky’s attempts to get BBPDC officials to attend the hearing sounded similar to Hammerman’s tale.
“We had invited the development corporation at least two weeks in advance [of the hearing], probably more,” said Yassky. “I traded [voicemail messages] with the head of the development corporation [Wendy Leventer]. I never spoke with her directly.

“Then I heard from the mayor’s office that they were not attending,” Yassky told The Brooklyn Papers.
In addition, it was requested that the committees submit all questions to the development corporation in writing — the process standard for press inquiries to the state authority.

“They provided written answers to our questions,” Yassky said.

The BBPDC did not respond to inquiries as to why no agency official attended the hearing.

“I was disappointed that they chose not to do it, but I think because this project was not going through the usual city procedure there’s an obligation to have the public involved,” the committee chair said.

Because the plan is being led by a state authority, and is being built largely on land owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that will be ceded to the BBPDC’s control, it does not have to pass through the city’s rigorous Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which requires hearings before and recommendations and approvals by the community boards affected, the borough president’s office, the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

Instead, the plan must pass a state environmental review, which only requires public hearings to address an environmental impact statement regarding the plan. The council committee hearings are not part of that official process.

Fort Greene-Prospect Heights Councilwoman Letitia James, who sits on the Parks committee, took a pragmatic approach.

“Who will ultimately approve that plan?” she asked of one of the panelists, who answered that it would be approved by the BBPDC.

“So this body does not have a role in the approval of this plan, correct?” she asked Chan.

“Um, again, this park is going through a state approval process,” he said, rattling off a lengthy explanation about the BBPDC’s place as a state subsidiary and partner with the bi-state Port Authority.

“So the answer is, ‘No,’” she said bluntly.

“The short answer is, ‘No,’” Chan confirmed.

Among the Brooklyn Council members present besides James and Yassky, who represents Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO and Cobble Hill, were Bill DeBlasio (Park Slope-Carroll Gardens), Vincent Gentile (Bensonhurst-Bay Ridge) and Erik Martin Dilan (Brownsville-East New York)..



Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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