Keeping an Eye on a Megaproject

If you’ve been past the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues during the last 18 months, you have seen the Barclays Center arena taking shape. Whatever your views about it, the arena’s existence is now certain. With its opening less than 12 months away, concerns about the challenges of locating an arena amid residential neighborhoods — and at the nexus of three police precincts — grow, and the impacts have moved from the realm of academic discussion to day-to-day reality. The threat of thousands more cars converging on Brooklyn’s most congested intersection becomes more real as plans affecting traffic are revealed. And the biggest question of all still remains: What will become of the rest of the 22-acre site, and when?

One thing that has not changed is the utter lack of voice given the surrounding communities in how this project progresses. Unlike other large, publicly financed projects, New York’s Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) has delegated decision-making authority at Atlantic Yards to developer Forest City Ratner (FCR), circumventing community boards and local elected officials. Much is at stake, not just for the neighborhoods of Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill but for the entire borough as well. That’s why in 2006 the Park Slope Civic Council partnered with other neighborhood civic associations, affordable housing organizations, merchant groups, and citywide planning and transportation advocates in an initiative known as BrooklynSpeaks.

The BrooklynSpeaks sponsors advocate for principled development of the site and for transparency and accountability in FCR’s relationship with the project. In 2007, BrooklynSpeaks published a roadmap for reform of Atlantic Yards oversight that provides formal roles for local legislators, community boards, and civic organizations. Decisions would be made through a board of directors that would include independent members appointed in conjunction with local elected officials.

This roadmap for reform has been praised by project supporters and critics alike, but it requires state legislation to gain traction. BrooklynSpeaks sponsors continue to meet with local legislators to build consensus and move this forward. The first bill targeting reform of Atlantic Yards governance was introduced in June 2008 by Assemblymembers Jeffries, Brennan, and Millman, and cosponsored by State Senator Montgomery; the legislation passed the Assembly in June 2011, over the intense lobbying of FCR.

BrooklynSpeaks sponsors also took a stand against ESDC’s secretly renegotiated concession in 2009 to allow FCR 25 years or more to complete construction of Atlantic Yards. That additional 15 years of construction would blight our neighborhoods. The benefits of affordable housing and job creation under which public funds for Atlantic Yards were justified would be pushed off for decades, if not forever. Several BrooklynSpeaks sponsors, including the Park Slope Civic Council, filed suit against ESDC and FCR, challenging the 2009 plan’s legality.

Here again, persistence and partnership have paid off. This July, the court ruled that ESDC acted illegally when it approved the 2009 plan, and ordered the agency to perform supplemental environmental analyses and reconsider the plan. Both ESDC and FCR have appealed the court’s ruling.

BrooklynSpeaks sponsors have accomplished together what our organizations could not have done individually. Together, our roadmap for oversight and the court decision in our favor have opened a path for Governor Cuomo’s ESDC to restructure development of the site to deliver the promised jobs and affordable housing now, not decades from now. Working in partnership, the BrooklynSpeaks sponsors have demonstrated the commitment of our communities to sensible, sustainable, and fiscally responsible development at Atlantic Yards with representative public input. We’ll continue to speak up until Atlantic Yards truly works for Brooklyn.

— Gib Veconi is a member of the board of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council; Jo Anne Simon is the 52nd Assembly District’s Democratic district leader; and Lauri Schindler is the Civic Council’s first vice president.

Photos: David Herman

from the Fall 2011 Civic News