Copyright 2006 Jonathan Barkey
In the war of attrition that characterizes the epic struggle against the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, opponents feel guardedly optimistic that the unexpected ascension of Lieutenant Governor David L. Paterson to New York’s highest office might allow them to make progress on the hitherto stymied political front.
“I think we’re going to have a more responsive governor in the months ahead,” ventured Dan Goldstein, spokesperson of the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn coalition, during a community forum on Thursday evening that drew over 100 people to hear an update on the status of the largest development project in the borough’s history. The forum, scheduled before the shockingly abrupt resignation of Governor Eliot Spitzer on Wednesday, presented an unanticipated but welcome opportunity to inject political speculation into discussion of the legal and economic hurdles facing mega-developer, Forest City Ratner, as it seeks to finish an expensive and controversial job.
Hastily approved without community input by the outgoing Pataki administration in December 2006, the $4 billion, 22-acre Atlantic Yards development would plop 17 buildings, including looming residential towers, office buildings and an 18,000-seat basketball arena for a relocated New Jersey Nets, over seven square blocks near Downtown Brooklyn. Despite the lack of legislative oversight for the project, which is being shepherded by that opaque public authority, the Empire State Development Corporation, independent analysis finds that the public would help pay to build Atlantic Yards through a combination of $2 billion in direct cash contributions from the city and state, tax incentives and subsidies for Forest City Ratner.
Moreover, some private businesses and residents would be displaced by the state’s use of eminent domain to grab essential parcels of land that Forest City Ratner has not been able to buy. Opponents are challenging the constitutionality of that tactic in an ongoing lawsuit that could reach the Supreme Court, or more likely get refiled in state court. Along with a case now in state appellate court challenging the integrity of the project’s environmental review process, the courtroom double punch has created a drag on the project at the same time that the economic outlook for risky real estates adventures like Atlantic Yards has taken a nosedive.
A slipping economy, credit crunch, battered real estate market, and increasing construction costs all threaten the underpinnings of the Atlantic Yards proposal, of which the celebrated arena portion appears unlikely to reach its scheduled 2010 completion date. Some specific drawbacks include the soaring costs of the arena, estimated to exceed $650 million by this point, and the absence of financing for the affordable housing component of the project, which opponents charge has taken a back seat. In order to build the 2,250 rental units that would be considered affordable under the plan, Forest City Ratner would require a subsidization of $1.4 billion in federally tax-free housing bonds from the New York City Housing Development Corporation.
However, there is currently a housing bond cap of $1.6 billion per year for the entire state, and plenty of other applicants are in line for the scarce funding.
Here is where Atlantic Yards opponents envision a potential role for Paterson, the incoming governor, depending on the circumstances. Should the cap in bond financing jeopardize the affordable housing component, for instance, they ask whether and how he might intervene. They also wonder if the escalating arena costs might encourage another vote by the Public Authorities Control Board, which gave final approval for the financing in December 2006. Then, the all-powerful controlling members of the PACB were Governor George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Now, Paterson enters that mix as one of the proverbial three men in the room.
Still, City Councilmember Letitia James, who represents areas directly affected by Atlantic Yards and was the only elected official to appear at the community meeting, cautioned in an interview afterward, “The reality is that at this point in time there is a contract and obviously he [Paterson] is going to have to comply with the contract because the state of New York is obligated.” Earlier, during her remarks to the forum, she said of the governor-in-waiting, “I don’t know what his position on Atlantic Yards is going to be, and whether or not we’re going to go back to the table.”
Although the Brooklyn-born Paterson has not taken a public stance on Atlantic Yards, other community leaders sounded hopeful as they considered hints from his background, and contrasted his more congenial style with the confrontational tone of Governor Eliot Spitzer.
“Despite the horror this week for New York,” said Candace Carponter, the DDDB legal chair, “It’s a breath of fresh air for us because Spitzer wouldn’t listen to us. He has always either turned a deaf ear to us, or has been abusive to us.” She recalled a particularly rancorous meeting over two years ago, when Atlantic Yards opponents including herself, Goldstein and James met with the then-Attorney General and gubernatorial contender to present their community’s opposition to the project. Although Spitzer had not yet publicly expressed his support for Atlantic Yards, she says the son of a real estate developer belittled their concerns in a shouting match that ran over 20 minutes.
“I have never been berated the way we were in that room,” remembers Carponter. “He was so condescending and so dismissive – I think dismissive is probably the best word –but in an incredibly rude way.”
Paterson, on the other hand, hails from a family of career politicians, and demonstrates a base of support that may make him more sympathetic to affordable housing needs. Tellingly, Atlantic Yards opponents recalled a moment from his tenure as Senate Minority Leader in 2005, when he joined a rally on the steps of City Hall, with Councilmembers Leticia James, Bill Perkins and others, to call for a statewide moratorium on eminent domain use in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London decision. That decision is widely interpreted to have expanded the potential for eminent domain abuse.
If the ultimate stance of Paterson remains uncertain, Atlantic Yards opponents do find some clarity in their immediate agenda. In the coming weeks, they plan to continue their litigation efforts, lay the groundwork for a conversation with Paterson, and protest the annual ball at the Brooklyn Museum that will honor Forest City Ratner head Bruce Ratner on April 3.
Meanwhile, the bigger political lessons of the week continue to feel raw, but strangely relevant to Atlantic Yards.
“This is what happens when someone walks around thinking that the rules do not apply to him,” said Councilmember James, drawing a parallel between the cavalier behavior of Forest City Ratner and Spitzer, her former employer. “What happens is that you fall down in disgrace.”