Sunday, April 08, 2007

Atlantic Yards: BANANA, or collusion?

It was another Atlantic Yards moment in the midst of Robert Moses revisionism. The scene was a rather diffuse "Civic Talk" presented Wednesday night by Henry Stern's New York Civic, in cooperation with the Museum of the City of New York, held at the museum.

Three of four panelists agreed that the pendulum had swung too far, that, while we don't need a Moses, community groups just have too much power in stopping projects. "We do have problems in getting things done," declared Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the founding president of the Central Park Conservancy. She recounted two episodes in which Central Park projects had been stymied.

Rogers got a hearty second from Herbert I. London, president of the Hudson Institute and a former Conservative Party candidate for state governor and Republican Party candidate for state comptroller and mayor of New York City. "It's virtually impossible to build anything," London exaggerated, citing a conversation with architects who told him that the Empire State Building--which famously was constructed in less than 16 months--would take a decade today.

Former Parks Commissioner Stern, whose mumbling, self-indulgent anecdotes were a drag on the evening discussion, went for a laugh, suggesting that "NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) has been superseded by BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone)."

A corrective emerges

The fourth panelist, Timothy Mennel, a former Fort Greene resident who earned his doctorate in geography writing a novel about Moses, finally offered a corrective. "I'd resist the idea that nothing is getting done," he stated.

Mennel mused that the question was "how much accommodation you make for private capital." Moses, he said, was willing to make such accommodations. Today, he suggested, "You see the city going out of its way to accommodate private capital." His example: Atlantic Yards.

"It's the state," shouted someone from the audience, looking narrowly at the fact that Atlantic Yards is officially a state project, shepherded and approved by the Empire State Development Corporation.

"In collusion," shouted back another audience member (OK, me) in correction, mindful that both the state and city had signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the project, that the city agreed not to press for ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) over parts of the project, and the city has more than doubled its direct subsidy for the project.

"In collusion," seconded Mennel.

Collusion?

The city and state would call it a partnership rather than collusion, and my off-the-cuff comment certainly doesn't describe the entirety of the relationship. Collusion implies deceit--and some of that is alleged rather than proven in the pending eminent domain lawsuit over Atlantic Yards.

Then again, there certainly are elements of deceit, I must conclude, upon reflection.

Why did the city and state not release a second MOU until it was discovered via a Freedom of Information Law request? Why didn't the city announce and explain why its direct subsidy has more than doubled? Why has no government agency been willing to delineate the housing subsidies? Why can't we get a full analysis of the fiscal impact of the project?

The questions continue.

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