The first two installments of the public hearings on Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project were less than hugely informative—the first, on August 23, quickly deteriorated into a yellfest, while the second, on primary night, was mostly attended by people disguised as empty seats. So yesterday’s rubber match promised to be an opportunity to finally weigh reasoned arguments for and against the 8.7-million-square-foot megaproject.
Yeah, right. While reason wasn’t entirely absent—except maybe from the carpenter’s union honcho who gave Bruce Ratner credit for Smith Street’s restaurant row—the arguments were almost entirely of the apples vs. oranges variety. You could peg which side speakers were on by which buzzwords appeared in their first sentence: If they mentioned “jobs” or “affordable housing” they were pro, “traffic” or “scale” and they were con.
Ratner foe Patti Hagan, surrounded by promo stills from The Thing That Ate Brooklyn.
As the day dragged on into evening, this made for a singularly dreary discourse, even if the overt booing was somewhat tempered from the August hearing. This is a battle, it’s increasingly clear, where the two public sides are incapable of hearing each other.
When Patti Hagan, the Prospect Heights community activist who was one of the first to ring alarm bells about the Ratner project, paraded around the room waving blowup renderings of skyscrapers blotting out the sun, proponents saw union jobs erecting all that steel; when Ratner backers in SEIU t-shirts waved “JOBS, HOOPS AND HOUSING” placards, opponents insisted that they were all for affordable housing—but they weren’t willing to trade off sunshine and a working sewage system to get it.
That, ultimately, is the crux of the neighbor-vs.-neighbor battles over Atlantic Yards: What’s it worth for a community to give up in exchange for the goodies being dangled by a big developer? Debating that calculus, though, was beyond the scope of a series of 180-second speeches—as was the corollary question, are we really stuck relying on big developers of the world to be the straw that stirs the city’s economic drink?
Which is probably just as well, as even if Jane Jacobs herself had descended from the heavens to declare one side her true mantle-bearer, there wouldn’t have been much of an audience. The moderator appointed by the Empire State Development Corporation stressed at the start of the proceedings though this meeting had been called to accommodate those who’d been unable to get a turn at the podium at the August hearing, it was not an official “public hearing,” but rather
an unofficial “community forum.” The elected officials who’d jammed the August meeting steered clear; the only sign of officialdom present was city Economic Development Corporation VP Hardy Adasko, swigging bottled water in the front row amidst a coterie of ESDC functionaries.
The next throwdown that means something, then, could come when the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods—a coalition of neighborhood groups that while officially agnostic on the Ratner plan has raised a series of questions about how well it has been thought out—issues its response to the city’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement at the end of the month. Funded by $230,000 in grants from the city council and state assembly, the CBN project has assigned experts in various fields to collect feedback to the plan at a series of community meeting, and use this to come up with its own 300-page critique of the DEIS.
A sneak peek at the preliminary findings, published on the CBN website earlier this month, points to some gaping holes in the state’s documents, including failure to properly analyze the relative impact of alternative plans, failure to report socioeconomic costs as well as benefits of the project, and the absence of any sections on environmental justice, mental health, and security and terrorism—this last of no small concern given that Ratner’s plan calls for Brooklyn’s largest skyscraper to be plunked down atop a subway hub that someone already plotted to blow up once. Now that sounds like the kind of public debate we can really sink our teeth into. We’re ready for our closeup, Mr. Carter!