The footprint. Image via Atlantic Yards or Atlantic Lots.
Yesterday was the long-awaited — like, six years long — first state legislative hearing on Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project, with State Senator Bill Perkins convening his Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions Committee (think of him as the Senate version of Richard Brodsky) at Pratt Institute.
While there were lots of questions that could have been raised, the one most everyone is wondering was: Is it still happening, and if so, does it bear the slightest resemblance to the vision that Ratner and then-architect Frank Gehry unveiled back in the Friends era?
Or will it now be a stripped-down arena surrounded by what the Municipal Art Society has dubbed Atlantic Lots?
Unfortunately, those best able to answer this question — Forest City Ratner, the Nets owner’s family development company — were announced to be a no-show. Errol Louis in Thursday’s Daily News claimed that Forest City Ratner wasn’t invited to testify; Perkins said he did too invite them, by fax, mail, and email. At least one Forest City rep was spotted in the audience, but he declined Perkins’ entreaties to come on down.
In their absence, it was left to various elected unelected officials to make the case that the project is still on track, just with some, um, adjustments. Empire State Development Corporation chief Marisa Lago said that the “value engineering” Ratner is now engaged in — including, reportedly, ditching Gehry for off-the-rack arena designers Ellerbe Becket — didn’t represent “downsizing” of the arena plus office tower plus affordable housing plus unaffordable housing that Ratner originally agreed to: “You’re getting a new kitchen, just some of the shiny chrome finishes are going to be changed.” Metropolitan Transportation Authority interim president Helena Williams noted that Forest City has “proposed revisions to some of the deal terms” it agreed to in 2006, including “a smaller up front payment for the land” than the $100 million the developer originally promised (Louis reported this as a $20 million down payment; Williams declined to name a figure), something she said the MTA board will discuss at its next meeting on June 24th.
And Economic Development Corporation president Seth Pinsky — you remember Seth Pinsky — explained of the housing that Ratner has hedged about building that a number of affordable units equal to 30% of the total (or 300, whichever is greater) must be built: “They may go up at the same time, they may go up sequentially, but they have to be built.” Pinsky didn’t answer questions about what would happen if Ratner, once he got the arena, reneged on the housing piece.
All of which tended to leave one with the feeling that this was less about fact-finding than political theater. The most notable portions of the hearing took place offstage: Construction union members blowing whistles, an appearance outside by the inflatable rat, State Senator Marty Golden interrupting the hearing by walking down the center aisle to applause from project supporters, and everyone in sight proclaiming their attachment to Brooklyn. (MTA director Williams: “The Long Island Rail Road’s operation began in Brooklyn in April 1836!”) Once the pro side stepped down from the witness table and project opponents took the stand, any semblance of public-hearing decorum fell apart, with shouting, jeering, and at one point a 20-minute interruption as audience members milled in the aisles talking. (Best Monty Python moment: When Develop Don’t Destroy attorney Jeff Baker accused Forest City of organizing the construction unions to be “a disruptive force,” a burly man in the back rows interrupted: “We’re not disruptive!”)
In the end, almost all of Norman Oder’s 47 questions went unanswered. One partial exception: Independent Budget Office deputy director George Sweeting testified that while his office hasn’t done a full reanalysis since its 2005 report on the Nets arena (it has never analyzed the rest of the project), the city’s cash outlay has since risen from $100 million to $195 million, while the growing arena price tag has increased the value of city tax breaks by about $12 million – all of which would “eclipse the $25 million net positive benefit to the city that we previously estimated for the arena.”
“Most of the new tax revenue that’s generated from the project comes from the office space,” added Sweeting. “If the project that finally emerges has less commercial office space, then presumably that tax revenue piece that’s spun off from there will be lower.”
Nobody booed, but that could have just been because they weren’t paying attention.