The Issues Behind Atlantic Yards: Why some obsess on this one project
I am quite sympathetic to opponents of the Atlantic Yards project, though I do not consider it the only factor in deciding what candidates to support. I have heard the opponents of the Atlantic Yards uber-development project called a "single issue" group. I have myself referred to them as "single issue," as a matter of fact. Now, there is nothing wrong with focusing on a single issue, but the more I think about it, I realize that issues surrounding NYC development in general, and Atlantic Yards in particular, involve some of the core issues of the progressive movement. Furthermore, in general politicians who understand the problems with Atlantic Yards are the ones who recognize the core values of the progressive movement. Those politicians who donâ€™t get why Atlantic Yards is so wrong donâ€™t get, on a very fundamental level, the core values of the progressive movement. There are exceptions. But in general, it strikes me that Atlantic Yards not only is, but should be one of the dominant issues in local politics. I will add that it should not be the ONLY dominant issue, but it should be one of the dominant issues.
The issues that surround development in NYC in general, and Atlantic Yards in particular, include the culture of corruption that seems to be filtering from the Federal government down to the local level, the neglect or active removal of "undesirable" communities (usually minority and poor), government secrecy, excessive links between business and government, use of tax money to aid big business, and the exclusion of the community from major decisions regarding its own future. The interests of the rich are put above the interests of the city even by the city government, and this is often done in secrecy. It is hard to think of a single issue that encompasses more fundamental concerns of the progressive movement than Atlantic Yards.
One of the key problems with the Atlantic Yards project is the secrecy, dishonesty and probably corruption that surround it. There really have been secret deals made between Rater and the mayor and governors offices promising land and exclusion from full review. The state agency that is supposed to judge if the Atlantic Yards project should be approved, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), not only rents space from Ratner, but wants to hire Ratnerâ€™s own lawyer, at Ratnerâ€™s expense, to advise them on whether they should approve Ratnerâ€™s plan. Yes, I know a court just approved these things, but come on folks! This is stuff worthy of the Federal Republican culture of corruption! It stinks. Add to that blatant lies that have been told to the community by Ratner. Lies, secrecy and what sure looks like corruption even if a court approves it. Even if all of this is legal, THESE are the very practices that the progressive movement was formed to fight. Government honesty, transparency and ethics are at the root of the original progressive reforms.
And I am not alone in thinking so. Recently, investigative attorney, former Senior White House Advisor to President Clinton, and current candidate for Attorney General recently sent out a couple of letters stating his stand on Atlantic Yards. His first such letter does an excellent job of outlining many of the problems with Ratnerâ€™s plans that I will quote directly from it:
â€¦I believe that the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards development must be stopped-cold until some tough questions get asked and answered. As it is today, this project is the face of whatâ€™s wrong with a corrupt culture that mixes business and politics, profits and tax dollars. My objections to the project stem from the flawed and secretive process by which decisions are made. Decisions that could change the face of the community forever. Decisions that deserve more scrutiny, more tough issues like fairness and transparency and including:
Â· The Forest City Ratner proposal is a selective bid.
Â· A profound disregard for community involvement in the decision making process.
Â· The shameful lack of accountability and transparency by Forest City Ratner by failing to provide a detailed financial report.
Â· There is little evidenceâ€¦that the decision making process included concern for the historical character of the neighborhood.
Â· The Forest City Ratner proposal does not adequately address affordable housing questions posed by concerned members of the community.
Â· Although the MTA appraised the value of the rail yards at $241 million, the MTA chose the lowest bidder instead of the higher bid from Extell.
This plan, as it is, cannot be allowed to move forward; however, I would support responsible development that earnestly seeks a partnership and synergy with the community rather than an exploitation of our beauty and resources in Brooklyn.
Like all of us, Maloney WANTS development. But he does NOT want secrecy, corruption and lies. And those are what we have been give by Ratner, Bloomberg and Pataki.
Now look. I have been told that this project is nothing more than free market. But it isnâ€™t! It is a selective bid, not to mention a LOW BID. It involves the use of tax money. It has involved the threat, though not yet the use, of eminent domain to force the transfer of property from one private owner to another. None of this is free market! It is a collaboration, formed partly in secret with no input from the community, between government and a private businessman. This is the kind of collaboration between the rich and the powerful that the progressive movement was founded to oppose.
I would not say that there was no input from the community. And groups like ACORN are in favor of the project, though they have been heavily criticized for this. In fact Ratner has made a good show of interacting with certain community leaders and groups, getting them on board, and promising jobs and affordable housing. But there is no enforcement of these promises and the affordable housing is judged such that as property values go up, the affordable housing will rapidly cease to be affordable. It is not geared to the means of the community so much as being a certain amount below he market valueâ€¦which will go up and out of the range of the community.
What Maloney does not even mention is the issues of the infrastructure. Traffic congestion, insufficient coverage from firehouses, inadequate schools and a grossly (literally) overtaxed sewage system are EXISTING problems in Brooklyn. Add on top of these existing problems an arena and seventeen massive skyscrapers, and you have a pretty disgusting mess. Even if there are upgrades around the Atlantic Yards project, the remainder of Brooklyn would still be affected by the added strains of the project. People talk about jobs. Well, donâ€™t more schools, firehouses, upgrading the sewer system Borough wide and adding more public transit create jobs? And they improve the quality of life in the Borough. And the issue of fires brings up another problem that goes even beyond what Maloney covers. There already is a very surprising spike of fires throughout Brooklyn that may be due to arson and/or the neglect of these neighborhoods by the closing of firehouses. Some have even suggested that developers are burning down buildings that are inconvenient for them. This accusation seems likely in the case of the Greenpoint fire where the developer had several other convenient and suspicious fires happen to his propertyâ€¦probably covered by insurance. In the case of the area surrounding Atlantic Yards, there has been a particularly sharp increase in suspicious fires there and it is convenient for the developer who wants to portray the area as blighted. Beyond that, I cannot judge whether or now the old NY tradition of arson to drive out unwanted communities is at work. But, since I work in the triangle shirtwaist factory building, I quite aware that there is a longstanding link between the progressive movement and fire safety, particularly regarding poorer classes. Three politicians, Eric Adams, Bill Batson and Wellington Sharpe, each independently observed the suspicious nature of these fires and called them arson. Each of them observed that these fires are destroying the heart of historic black neighborhoods, threatening entire communities. Bill Batson went so far as to point out the convenience of these fires to developers and points out that many of these development projects are destroying the black history of Brooklyn. He used the Harriet Tubbman museum as an example and points out that if you destroy someoneâ€™s culture, you can do anything you want to them.
This threat to our heritage isnâ€™t just affecting the black community. I would say that the Atlantic Yards Project, coupled with the many other giant development plans, changes the entire face or Brooklyn, taking away its great uniqueness. I come from Los Angeles. I am one of the few people who will admit loving Los Angeles. But it does not have much character. Brooklyn has a great character and the current style of overdevelopment destroys that character in large swaths of Brooklyn. Bill Batson calls it the Disneyfication (I think it should be spelled "Disnification," but most people disagree) of NYC through arson. A fellow local activist has called Atlantic Yards project in particular as placing a giant slice of Manhattan in the heart of Brooklyn. Manhattan is fine. But It ainâ€™t Brooklyn.
The politician who I know who has most eloquently expressed what is happening is Chris Owens. He once described it as nothing less than "Losing Home", in essence losing our community, our uniquenessâ€¦our Brooklyn. We want development. Of course we want affordable housing and jobs. But the lies, underhanded and secret deals, the closing of our firehouses, the inadequate concern for our schools and infrastructure all combine to make us afraid that we are losing Brooklyn. The loss is much slower and less dramatic than the loss of large parts of New Orleans through criminal neglect. But there are very real parallels.
Progressives respect home, tradition, history and community. Those politicians who most respect progressive values are those who understand the real danger of Atlantic Yards style development. I honestly think that if our elected representatives (you listening Bloomberg, Markowitz? I thought not!) really laid down strict requirements for these development projects, developers would still be rushing to be in on the action. NYC is one of the worldâ€™s busiest and best cities and no developer will want to stay away. But if we neglect our schools and our fire safety, over tax our sewage system and roads, and lose our unique character that attracts so many tourists, we will no longer be one of the worldâ€™s busiest and best cities. We need a progressive vision for our city, not a vision that has to be formed in secret and covered by lies. That is why so many use Atlantic Yards as a measure for their support of a candidate. It cannot be the only measure. Tom Suozzi gets it when it comes to Atlantic Yards, yet I do not think he quite understands traditional progressive values. Denise Oâ€™Donnell didn't take the kind of stand that Sean Patrick Maloney has on Atlantic Yards, nor is she necessarily progressive. But she, along with Maloney, was still an excellent candidate for Attorney General, and I was having a hard time deciding between them. So this one project cannot be the only thing used to pick politicians to vote for. And I don't always agree with everything said and done by groups like Develop, Don't Destroy Brooklyn. But I really think that those who are perceived as excessively focused on Atlantic Yards may actually understand that what is at risk are many of the things that we, as progressives, value.