It isn’t every day that a bunch of good-government groups hold a press conference to demand that an undemocratic, unelected state panel intervene to delay a public project. That was the scene today at City Hall, though, as several elected officials and budget-watch groups called on state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver to use his power as a member of the Public Authorities Control Board to stall Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards megaproject until the new sheriff arrives in Albany next month.
The petitioners included all three of the project site’s city council and state legislative representatives (assemblymember-elect Hakeem Jeffries, who was elected to replace arena proponent Roger Green in November, sent a written statement), along with representatives of the Sierra Club, the Straphangers Campaign, and Good Jobs New York as well as anti-arena stalwarts Develop Don’t Destroy. (The Natural Resources Defense Council signed on, but didn’t show up to speak.) “This is a permanent and very, very drastic change in the environment in downtown Brooklyn,” said state senator Velmanette Montgomery. “We are requesting a postponement until we have time for a new administration to look at this project.”
“This is the new Brooklyn”: State senator Velmanette Montgomery and city councilmember Letitia James show off a rendering of Ratner’s planned streetscape.
What that new administration might do is unclear. During his year-long gubernatorial victory lap, Eliot Spitzer said little about Atlantic Yards, except that he broadly supported it but wanted to see more “transparency” in the planning process. As those gathered today made clear, there’s plenty of room for improvement in that area.
“Three years into this, we do not know the full public costs of the project,” said Develop Don’t Destroy’s Dan Goldstein. “We don’t know the costs of the bonds and the debt service. We don’t know who pays for the platform over the rail yards. We don’t know the full cost of the ‘extraordinary infrastructure costs.’ We don’t know the full cost of the housing subsidies. We don’t even know the PILOT [payments in lieu of taxes] payments for the project.”
Ground zero: The LIRR’s Vanderbilt Yards and the loft buildings that face it across Pacific Street would make way for a Nets basketball arena under Ratner’s plan.
The only fiscal projection for Atlantic Yards remains the summary memo the Empire State Development Corporation released in October, which projected that taxpayers would turn a $1.4 billion profit on the deal, but didn’t exactly say how. ESDC spokesperson Jessica Copen later clarified some of the memo’s most confusing points, but left open the question of whether its figures represent reality or wish fulfillment: For example, the state’s bean counters assumed that few of the tenants at Ratner’s “Miss Brooklyn” office tower would be cannibalized from elsewhere in the city, according to Copen, “since the vacancy rate for commercial office space is low.”
The Atlantic Arts building, which would fall to make way for Atlantic Yards, looms behind the vacant lot where the 19th-century Underberg building stood until Ratner demolished it last winter.
“What is most disappointing to me is that I don’t know of any other project with this much public subsidy where all of the powers of government are working together to push this through with as little public input,” a sour-faced state sentor Montgomery told Power Plays following the press conference. “The lease is 99 years. And we have nothing to say about it.”
With the ESDC having signed off on the plan last week, the only body left with any say about it—aside from the inevitable series of judges—is the PACB, the same state board that eighty-sixed the Manhattan Jets stadium in June 2005. The board, which consists of Silver, state senate leader Joe Bruno, and the governor, is currently scheduled to meet on December 20, and Atlantic Yards is reportedly on the agenda—but then, items have been pulled from the agenda at the last minute before, when the three men in a room couldn’t agree beforehand how to vote.
The key to next week’s vote, it’s widely agreed, is likely Spitzer: Will the new governor-elect want the chance to weigh in on what, outside of Ground Zero, is likely to be the largest single construction project to hit New York in a generation? Or will he ask Silver to pretty please make this hornet’s nest of community turmoil go away before Day One? Asked to weigh the odds at City Hall today, councilmember Letitia James would only say: “I keep hope alive.”