Friday, November 20, 2009

New lawsuit questions the Atlantic Yards CBA

A lawsuit filed against Atlantic Yards this week, while not directly challenging the CBA, calls the agreement's integrity into question. In particular, the petition alleges that Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the project's quasi-public sponsor, and Forest City Ratner (FCR), the developer, ignored calls from the community for more public input and participation:

53. Throughout the review process, the public . . . was provided with only the most limited opportunity to participate in the review of the Project, even though the massive development would admittedly change significantly the character of the area and impose on adjacent neighborhoods very significant environmental impacts. This was due significantly to the use of ESDC as the titular sponsor of the Project; under its legislative mandate, all that was required in terms of public involvement was a legislative public hearing on the GPP [general project plan] and the DEIS [draft environmental impact statement]. And neither ESDC nor FCRC extended themselves beyond the explicit mandate. Indeed, in voting to disapprove the Project, the local community board based its decision on, among other things, “a failure to involve the community board and the community in a meaningful way; misleading and overstating the involvement of the public in the process.” 
54. Following ESDC’s 2006 approval of the Project, concerned civic groups and community organizations began calling for more community involvement, increased transparency of decision-making and reform of project governance. This led in August 2006 to the formation of a group of Brooklyn and citywide civic associations and affordable housing groups, including the petitioners, sponsoring an initiative known as BrooklynSpeaks, which in turn in August 2007 released a proposal for a revised governance structure that would allow for more openness and more meaningful community participation in decisions regarding the shaping of the Project. This proposal was subsequently endorsed by the state and city elected officials from the area and in the spring of 2008, ESDC offered to form a community advisory council. However, it refused to identify any role for the council in future decision-making, and the offer came to naught as local elected officials were unwilling to appoint representatives on these terms. Subsequent efforts by petitioners and others to open up the ESDC process also proved unsuccessful. 
The affidavit filed with the petition more explicitly criticizes the CBA, as pointed out over at the Atlantic Yards Report. It describes how the developer held a meeting for the purpose of creating BUILD, an organization that would later help support the CBA. It also says that community groups asked the developer to reopen the CBA, as the agreement failed to cover many neighborhood impacts. Although Forest City Ratner suggested that it might enter into a "neighborhood benefits agreement," it never followed through.

Lance Freeman, an urban planning professor at Columbia, has been more explicit about the dubious nature of the Atlantic Yards CBA. In 2007, he wrote:

At first glance, CBAs might appear to be welcome tool for fostering a more inclusionary planning process. In an attempt to garner support for the mega-project Forrest City Ratner entered into the CBA with several community based organizations the most prominent of which are ACORN and BUILD. . . .
While the CBA does at least give some of the most disenfranchised residents an opportunity to reap some benefits from the project, this is an undemocratic way to insure community input into a planning process. The signatories to the CBA may indeed represent a disenfranchised segment of the community. They may be organic members of the community. But they may not. The point is there is no mechanism to insure that the “community” in a CBA is representative of the community. If the signatories to the CBA were simply viewed as another interest group, that might be ok. But the CBA is being presented as illustrative of the development’s community input. Public officials are posing for pictures with the developer and signatories to the CBA, giving the impression that the community had significant input into the planning Atlantic Yards. This is not necessarily the case.
In fact, New York City has a planning process to insure community input, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The Atlantic Yards skirted the ULURP requirements because as a state entity the MTA is not subject to local land use regulations. The CBA, however, cannot be viewed as a substitute for a true planning process that includes community input. If a developer is proposing a project that will unduly burden the community, exacting benefits in exchange for tolerating these burdens is fine idea. Ideally, this would be done as part of a democratic planning process. When negotiated by private organizations, however, this is symptomatic of a flawed planning process. When CBAs are used in place of an inclusive planning process they run the risk of legitimating the very process they are supposed to counteract, planning and development that disenfranchises.

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