Keeping an Eye on a Megaproject
Atlantic Yards is the project located on 22 acres of Brooklyn, stretching from the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue east to Vanderbilt Avenue, and between Atlantic Avenue and Dean Street. The megaproject, being developed by Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC) and the New York State Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), includes the Barclays Center arena and 16 residential and commercial towers. With an estimated budget of $5 billion, Atlantic Yards is the largest single-source development in New York City history.
The project was first announced in December 2003. Since then, it has attracted political support through a number of promises from FCRC and ESDC: returning professional sports to Brooklyn; creating some 10,000 permanent jobs and 15,000 construction jobs; and providing 2,250 units of affordable housing, 8 acres of open space, and a public school, among other public benefits. Atlantic Yards also generated significant controversy through its anticipated use of eminent domain to assemble the necessary parcels of property from private owners.
Because Atlantic Yards is being executed under the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC) law, developers have able to override New York City regulations for public review and a City Council vote in order to proceed with construction. Because it is a UDC project, no elected official from Brooklyn has ever been allowed to vote on Atlantic Yards.
In September 2006, the Park Slope Civic Council joined with the Atlantic Avenue Local Development Corporation, the Boerum Hill Association, the Brooklyn Heights Association, the Fifth Avenue Committee, the Pratt Area Community Council, the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign to launch an initiative known as BrooklylnSpeaks. The BrooklynSpeaks sponsors have since worked together to advocate for accountable development at Atlantic Yards involving local communities and elected officials in a meaningful way. Among other things, BrooklynSpeaks has called for the creation of an ESDC subsidiary with outside directors to oversee Atlantic Yards.
At the time of ESDC’s approval of the project in November 2006, Atlantic Yards was to be completed within 10 years. After market disruptions in 2008 and 2009, FCRC was able to renegotiate the project terms with ESDC and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the MTA had agreed to sell the development rights over the Long Island Rail Road’s Vanderbilt Yard for $100 million). The new terms, contained in the 2009 Modified General Project Plan (MGPP), gave FCRC up to 25 years or longer to complete development. FCRC could also acquire the development rights from the MTA in stages, paying only an initial $20 million for the rights necessary to build the arena.
The BrooklynSpeaks sponsors, including the Civic Council, continue to have significant concerns about the project’s future.
That November, several BrooklynSpeaks sponsors filed suit against FCRC and ESDC, claiming that the agency’s approval of the 2009 MGPP was done without proper environmental review. In July 2011, New York State Supreme Court Justice Marcy Friedman agreed, and ordered FCRC and ESDC to revisit the project plan and prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS), with a view to reducing the impacts of 25 years of extended construction. Even though many elected officials called on ESDC to honor the court order, the agency and FCRC chose to appeal the decision. In April 2012, a five-member panel of the State Supreme Court Appellate Division ruled unanimously to uphold Justice Friedman’s decision ordering the SEIS.
The ruling ordering review of the 2009 MGPP represents an important moral victory for the community that shows the Atlantic Yards project is not above the law. However, as of April 2012, the BrooklynSpeaks sponsors continue to have significant concerns about the project’s future:
- The current ESDC CEO, who reports to Governor Andrew Cuomo, has said that the agency is not willing to reform its oversight of the project and create a dedicated subsidiary.
- ESDC has not announced plans for the SEIS, even though FCRC is only weeks away from breaking ground on a “temporary” surface parking lot for 1,100 cars that could continue for decades under the 2009 MGPP.
- FCRC has indicated it may be two years behind schedule breaking ground on the first residential building to contain affordable housing. The developer’s current plans include only eight affordable units suitable for families.
- The construction jobs expected for local residents have not materialized. A recent report by an independent construction monitor shows only 607 people employed at the site, and ESDC has reported that as few as 167 may resident in Brooklyn.
- With the opening of the Barclays Center scheduled for September 2012, neighborhood protections against impacts from arena operations announced to date have been limited. The Police Department has not finalized plans for which precinct will have responsibility for policing before and after arena events. Barclays Center management has refused to specify a cut-off time for sales of alcohol to patrons.
For all of these reasons, the BrooklynSpeaks sponsors, including the Park Slope Civic Council, will continue to work together and advocate for accountability at Atlantic Yards. You can keep up with these efforts on the Civic Council’s website, or by visiting BrooklynSpeaks and Atlantic Yards Watch.
With the arena moving closer to operating, there has never been a more important time to come together around a plan for Atlantic Yards that will work for Brooklyn.