Last month’s purge of nine anti-Atlantic Yards members of Community Board 6 is raising new questions that Borough President Markowitz has turned the panel into a crony clubhouse.
Two of the new members of the board — Mark Shames and Maria Reca — are also members of the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, a powerful Brownstone Brooklyn political club. IND’s former president, Greg Atkins, is now MarkoÂwitz’s chief of staff, and a club executive committee member, John Heyer, is Markowitz’s staff liaison to the community board.
With the new appointments, there are now five members of the IND club on the 50-member CB6 — fueling renewed complaints that Markowitz is packing the board with his allies.
“I always thought the community board was a place for independent thinking, not political games. Now I have seen differently,” said board member Celia Cacace, whose seat is not up for reappointment until next year.
Questions over the board’s political independence arose after Markowitz and Councilmember Bill DeBlasio (D–Park Slope) refused to re-appoint nine members who had voted against Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project last year.
IND Executive Board Chairman Kenn Lowy agreed that “political connections help” people get on local boards.
“It’s pretty traditional that if you are a member of the IND, you will make it onto the board,” he said, though he claimed that community board issues are not discussed back at the clubhouse.
Perhaps, but the club was involved in its own Atlantic Yards controversy last year when anti-Yards residents packed the board’s membership rolls before a scheduled vote on candidates that the club should endorse. To prevent the new members from having too much control over IND’s endorsement vote, the club leaders altered the rules to prevent the new members from voting.
Unlike the neighboring club, Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, which opposes Atlantic Yards, IND has not taken an official position on the borough’s biggest development project.
Amidst the controversy over the dismissal of the anti-Atlantic Yards board members, it emerged this week that at least three of the new CB6 members support the project.
“I watch the news. I know people are losing their apartments [to make room for Atlantic Yards],” said new board member, Boerum Hill resident Rajia Thomas.
“That’s not good. But it’s for a good cause. I think an arena and more stuff to do is a good thing. We need more places to go and more jobs.”
Another appointee said Atlantic Yards would be positive for the borough.
“I am pro-development,” said Vanessa Twyford, who owns a real-estate firm on Court Street in Carroll Gardens. “Development happens every day in Manhattan and it doesn’t hurt the city. Brooklyn can have that, too.”
Twyford shares one essential belief with borough booster Markowitz.
“Brooklyn is hot,” she said. “And the bigger picture here is that we need to keep it hot.”
Shames, an affordable housing advocate in Carroll Gardens, would not comment for this story, but has said in the past that he supports Atlantic Yards because it would result in 2,250 units of below-market-rate housing.
The other new members of CB6 are: James Bernard, a lawyer and union activist; Stephen Burzio, a lawyer who has worked for Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D–Bushwick); Daniel Kummer, a Park Slope resident and lawyer for NBC; Brad Lander, a planner and affordable housing advocate; Meredith Taylor, a resident of the Columbia Waterfront District who volunteers with the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative and the Gowanus Dredgers; Lisa Cirando, a lawyer and community activist who recently bought a home in Carroll Gardens; and Suzanne Turret.
Cirando said she had not yet formed an opinion on Atlantic Yards, the $4-billion project, which was the subject of hundreds of community meetings over the past three years.
“I don’t have a position and I am very interested in getting to know the issue,” she said.
Taylor said she was never asked her opinion on Atlantic Yards by Markowitz’s office during her interview. She described Atlantic Yards as a “polarizing issue,” and hoped to avoid such political infighting during future controversial land-use debates, such as the rezoning and cleanup of the Gowanus Canal area.
The other new members declined to comment. Turret could not be reached, and Markowitz’s office would not provide biographical information on her.
The slots became open after Markowitz and DeBlasio declined to reappoint nine members of the board who voted for a resolution last summer opposing Atlantic Yards.
Then-Chairman Jerry Armer — who had been on the board for two decades and, ironically, works for the Ratner-controlled Metrotech Business Improvement District — was one of six board members whom Markowitz did not reappoint. DeBlasio canned the other three.
One anti-Atlantic Yard IND members — Devin Cohen — retained his seat on the board despite his support for the CB6 resolution.
Markowitz said that he did not kick off Armer and the other Yards opponents because they opposed him on the project, but simply because they didn’t tell him in advance that they were going to be casting a vote against a project that he calls “Brooklyn’s future.”
“We had no clue here that they were going to have this resolution for vote at the board,” he said in defense of his decision to appoint members who he believes will consult with him more regularly about board issues.
DeBlasio said he believes that bringing new blood into the community boards is essential now, as the boards face new questions of growth.
The affordable housing advocate said that he has been burned before by board members who didn’t prioritize housing development as much as he does. This time, he said he appointed new members with experience in community activism and professional planning.
He dismissed the notion of an Atlantic Yards litmus test.
Lander, for example, is the director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, which develops affordable housing. He is also a critic of Atlantic Yards.
Although Markowitz and DeBlasio were criticized for ousting the board members who defied them, other said the duo is bringing necessary new voices to the board in preparation for the next stage in the borough’s development
“There is a desperate shortage of housing and all the elected officials know it,” said Buddy Scotto, a longtime activist and IND member who develops affordable housing in Carroll Gardens.
“They were terribly disappointed when the board voted against a plan [Atlantic Yards] that would bring much-needed affordable housing. Now they [have appointed] people who see the need [for housing].”
But there are downsides, too.
“The borough president is interested in people with new ideas,” said CB 6 member Jeff Strabone. “But with the newness … it becomes easier to tell people what to do.”