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Atlantic Yards: Staving Off a Scar for Decades
By Ron Shiffman. June 3, 2006.

Until this month, I have chosen not to speak out publicly concerning Forest City Ratner’s proposed Atlantic Yards project. After participating in a planning charette sponsored by City Council Member Letitia James in 2004 shortly after the proposal was first announced and after circulating some ideas about the developer’s proposal, I decided not to speak out on the issue in part because I believed that the inclusionary housing component was an important victory and believing that a more rational plan would eventually emerge.

However, that alternative has not emerged. Forest City Ratner (FCR) and, by extension, the City and State of New York, continue to follow a process that is fundamentally flawed in pursuit of a plan that, if implemented, would scar the borough for decades to come.

Like many of my Brooklyn neighbors, I did welcome the idea of Brooklyn once again being the home of a major sports franchise. Some viable sites already existed for an arena, the most obvious being Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Center Mall, a failed design with a limited life expectancy that constitutes a major blighting on the border of Fort Greene, near the proposed Atlantic Yards site.

The mall site would not require the use of eminent domain and would allow for the phased redevelopment of the surrounding area. It would necessitate the reconstruction of the Atlantic Avenue Subway Station, including the development of a concourse to accommodate larger numbers of people, the development of an enhanced transit strategy focused on regulating auto access, maximizing pedestrian access, and emphasizing public mass transit access within Brooklyn, as well as between Brooklyn, Long Island, New Jersey and other parts of the city.

I agree that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard—a portion of the proposed project footprint-- provides the opportunity to weave together the low-rise communities of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. While this area along the Atlantic Avenue corridor could accommodate higher densities, density is a relative term. The density proposed by Forest City Ratner far exceeds the carrying capacity of the area’s physical, social, cultural, and educational infrastructure. The Atlantic Yards density is extreme and the heights of the proposed buildings totally unacceptable.

If Forest City Ratner’s proposal proceeds at the current scale, it would constitute the densest residential community in the United States and, perhaps, Europe, with the exception of some of the suburbs of Paris. There, the oversized designs gained applause from the architectural elite before residents found them inhumane. I fear Forest City Ratner’s proposal will become the Brooklyn equivalent of Pruitt-Igoe, the notorious St. Louis public housing towers that have since been demolished. Quite frankly I do not believe that any of the decision makers from the Borough President to the Governor have a grasp on how overwhelming and out-of-scale this development is.

When the project was announced in December 2003 with endorsements from the mayor and borough president, that signaled a planning process that is both fundamentally wrong and establishes a dangerous precedent. A private developer shouldn’t be allowed to drive the disposition of publicly owned or controlled land without a participatory planning process setting the conditions for the disposition of that land.

This flawed process is compounded by the proposed misuse of the powers of eminent domain. To use “blight” as the basis for eminent domain is ironic when every indicator is that this area of Brooklyn would have seen a regeneration along the lines of Soho and TriBeCa had the Forest City Ratner plan not stemmed the revitalization process already under way. There have been four recent conversions of manufacturing facilities to housing, and, Forest City Ratner bought one site—mainly a former bakery—for $40 million, from a developer who wanted to turn it into a hotel. Any plan, thanks to a zoning revision, could have accelerated this step-by-step revitalization of the area that was already underway.

Sadly, FCR is responsible for the “developer’s blight” that now plagues the area. The only pre-existing blighting influence was the Atlantic Center mall. Everything else was subject to step-by-step private investment that would have facilitated the revitalization of the area, albeit with some displacement of manufacturing and the absence of affordable housing. While courts usually do uphold the “blight” argument, bad law does not mean good planning.

I applaud ACORN’s effort to make sure the developer includes a large percentage of affordable housing—originally 50 percent but no longer—in this development. Such inclusionary housing should become the standard for all significant housing developments in the city that use public land and public funds, and ACORN now calls for 30 percent in new projects. But I believe that those units should be located in viable, livable, and enriching environments and not crammed into out-of scale developments that do not provide adequate open space, community, and/or educational facilities.

If the basis for eminent domain is economic development, I find it hard to see how it could meet any of the criteria of the Supreme Court’s controversial 2005 Kelo decision. The Supreme Court majority approved the use of eminent domain in New London, Connecticut, in part because the plan had emanated from a defined planning process. In Brooklyn, there’s been no planning, and the sole developer and beneficiary is Forest City Ratner-signs of a sweetheart deal.

I had hoped that, in the past two-and-a-half years, the city, the developer, or the civic community would propose a viable alternative to the "Atlantic Yards" plan. The Municipal Art Society’s plan falls short because it avoids discussing the process issues and attempts to apply a design solution to a fundamentally flawed and ill-conceived plan. In the absence of a democratically accountable process and without any rational and acceptable alternative on the horizon, I believe that the FCR plan must be defeated and the process of revitalizing the rail yards completely rethought. I have chosen to support the efforts of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn’s and have joined the group’s advisory board.

Ron Shiffman is a professor at the Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment at the Pratt Institute, director emeritus of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, and from 1990-96 a commissioner on the New York City Planning Commission.