Roaring Over Ratner

If you showed up to last night's public hearing on Atlantic Yards looking for enlightment on the pros and cons of the mammoth, 22-acre, eight-million-square-foot, 60-stories-at-its-tallest development that Metrotech developer and New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner has planned for the northern edge of Prospect Heights, you probably came away disappointed. Actually, there's a fair chance you didn't get in at all: Even starting at 4:30 in the afternoon on a Wednesday in August, it was the one and only scheduled chance for official public comment on the plan, and well over a thousand Brooklynites turned out, straining the capacity of the NYC Tech auditorium where the event was being held. Well into the evening, lines to get in stretched around the block, with Develop Don't Destroy stalwarts commingled uncomfortably with construction workers and members of the community group ACORN—who, in the evening's best moment of unintentional irony, chanted, "The people united will never be defeated!"

Inside, unity was decidedly not the flavor of the day. As a sea of orange carpenters-union t-shirts faced off against an ocean of yellow "We Are Not Blighted" placards, nearly every speaker was all but drowned out by a chorus of cheers and boos, or boos and cheers, depending on their particular proclivities. (Councilmember and wannabe Congressman David Yassky declared himself in favor of the project, but demanded it be scaled down, earning boos from both sides.) With speakers limited to three minutes and the ambient noise in the room at top volume, sound bites were the order of the day: "Our youth need jobs!" did battle with "Our youth are dying of asthma!"; by the scheduled midway point, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade had all been name-checked. Trying to follow the proceedings became like standing outside a Mets-Yanks game and judging from the crowd noise who was winning—all that was missing was Fran Healy doing color commentary: "They're not booing Councilman Fidler, they're shouting 'Lewwwwwwwwwww!'"

The subject of the meeting, meanwhile, sat out in the hallway in four-inch-thick binders: The 1,400-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement, in which the Empire State Development Authority spun out all the likely effects of Ratner's planned development—though given its length and that the state-run quasi-governmental Empire State Development Agency only released it last month, the last half could have been filled with moussaka recipes and no one would have noticed. But even after all the trees killed to generate the report, some pesky questions remain:

  • Who exactly is going to be living in those 6,860 units of new housing—2,250 of them "affordable," in the Ratnerian calculus that deems affordability to be as high as $3084 a month? The plan's supporters, in particular ACORN, have touted it as a solution to the borough's housing crunch; yet economic impact studies have assumed that 6,860 units would bring 6,860 new families (and their tax dollars) to Brooklyn. One way, the economic benefits could be inflated; the other, the housing benefits.

  • What would the economic impact be, anyway? The DEIS is filled with numbers in this regard—up to $154 million a year in new tax money, more than 15,000 new jobs (though only about a thousand of those would continue beyond the construction period)—but silent on how they were derived, or even who did the deriving. (ESDC spokesperson Deb Wetzel, buttonholed at last night's meeting, denied any knowledge of who was behind the state's figures.) Given past experience with the reports generated by economic impact consultants, some skepticism seems more than warranted.

  • How much of a public subsidy is Ratner getting? The DEIS lists only $200 million in infrastructure costs, half of which has already been allocated by the state (the city council has yet to vote on its share), but that overlooks such items as the Get Out of Property Tax Free card that Ratner would get for his planned Nets arena. Develop Don't Destroy (and Wikipedia) say $1.9 billion, which seems on the high side—but even half that amount would be a huge hit to the city and state budgets.
  • At 11:30 pm, three hours into overtime, after about a hundred people had shouted their testimony into the tumult, with dozens if not hundreds more still lined up to speak, the ESDC finally called the hearing to a close. Anyone left out, the state agency promised, will get to testify at a subsequent hearing on Tuesday, September 12, which just happens to be primary day. Perhaps more answers will be forthcoming by then—or we could just be in for more shouting.


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