An evolution on Atlantic Yards
I tend not to have a problem with major development projects; I like big shiny things (it's a boy thing), and I'm aware, as some seem not to be, that this City will add another million residents in the next two decades, two over the next four. Our grandchildren will live in a behemoth of ten million souls, all of whom will need to be fed, clothed, housed, and entertained. Unless the pre-existing population is willing to double up still further, and see our already appalling vacancy rate of 3% citywide shrink still further, we will need to build new housing. This new housing, if we care about the environment and our carbon footprint, will need to increase the density of the City, and that in turn implies a larger number of high-rises, ideally serviced by public transport. One thing is for certain: those two million new New Yorkers will create dislocations for those of us already here; and considering how many of us came from elsewhere (I'm not a native either), we should welcome these new arrivals, and prepare for them. New York City is a global metropolis, and draws to itself the talent and vigor of every continent; that process has been the engine of our growth for two hundred years, and whether we deplore or celebrate it, it will continue. The least we can do is be prepared.
All of that said, I can't support the Atlantic Yards development any longer. That project amounts to the urban equivalent of rape.
On paper, Atlantic Yards is dazzling. The developer, Forest City Ratner, has prudently hired flavor-of-the-month starchitect Frank Gehry to design it (appeasing design snobs like me); the project bestrides a major transportation hub; it will put to good use the wasteland of a disused MTA lot; Acorn, the grassroots group, supports it, and God alone knows they've done a world of good elsewhere; and there is a community benefits agreement to provide affordable housing.
The problems emerge when you dig just a bit deeper.
The first problem is density. New York Magazine had an article recently (well worth a read) that went into details about that aspect of it.
Atlantic Yardsâ€™ inhabitants, renters and owners alike, could be occupying the densest residential space in the United States. Working with an average of 2.5 people per apartment, Oder points out that Atlantic Yards will have a population density of nearly 500,000 people per square mile. For comparison, the current population-density champ, a census tract in West Harlem, contains 230,000 people per square mile. Manhattan, which popular imagination ranks as the densest place in the city, averages 67,000 people per square mile.
That's comparable to the population density that obtained on the Lower East Side at the beginning of the last century. However, in a replay that should seem familiar to anyone with a sense of this City's history, that density â€“ shades of Calcutta â€“ is not being prepared for by any strengthening of the public infrastructure. No new sewage mains, no new schools, no police station or fire house, no concrete efforts to improve public transportation, a big fat nada. How Atlantic Yards will be anything other than a high-rise slum is not clear to me. Just a thought: density is conducive to crime, always has been, always will be. Who is going to patrol those towers, especially considering that the NYPD is downsizing? Who is going to pay for the extra subway station, or the expansion of the existing one? And what's going to happen when waste water - read: liquid feces - begins backing up in pipes that are a century old? In short, where is the price tag for the public services that will be required to accomodate this project?
The next problem is funding, and this one is complex. First, the City and state are kicking in up to $1.9 billion, in direct subsidies and tax breaks â€“ because, presumably, the New York housing market is in need of public funds we have nothing better to do with. Newsflash: an apartment in the Time Warner Center sold for $45 million. Real estate in this town needs subsidies like Paris Hilton needs a tax break. It's also not entirely clear to me how exactly, considering this town's sad history of cost over-runs, the complexities of building in an urban environment, the non-traditional design (which will require custom-built components), and so on, this project will be paid for. Going through the web site put up by the developer, I can't find a price tag â€“ not a good sign. I'd say the odds are pretty good that the taxpayer will wind up throwing good money after bad.
A third problem is the public process, or more accurately, the lack thereof. Large-scale public projects are not the easiest thing to build in a democracy; building always creates displacement and impacts neighbors, and people do vote. In the past, we have solved this problem â€“ if that's the right expression, a debatable point â€“by executive fiat, specifically, by concentrating immense power in the hands of one Robert Moses. Without going too deeply into that dark chapter, the lesson that this city has learned in reviewing his legacy has been that a democratic process provides essential feedback on viability and consequences of public projects. The burning Bronx of the seventies is still vivid in many minds â€“ and that immolation can be traced directly to the work of Moses.
In the case of Atlantic Yards, this vital democratic feedback has been manipulated, bought off, silenced, and shrugged off. In fairness, opponents of the project have too often played only the shrillest notes in the political register, making it that much easier for the subtle, polished flacks of the developer to dismiss them as the mere angry Nimby of past prominence; but I don't see, having now spent significant time near the site, that many people within forty blocks of the project footprint support it. Some opponents fully conform to stereotype â€“ but most do not, and there are very many of them.
The public review process is ongoing, and it reveals what can only be a deliberate attempt to silence the opposition. Just as one example, the next public hearing is scheduled for September 12th, 4 PM to 8 PM; in a startling coincidence, that also happens to be the day of the Democratic primary, and the part of the day during which most people vote. Call that coincidence what it is: voter suppression, plain and simple. It's hard to see how any development that is truly in the public interest would need to rely on a sleazy tactic like that â€“ and yes, I use the word 'sleazy' with full intent. This is the kind of tactic you would expect to see in a place like Florida, and New Yorkers should be howling with outrage over it.
There is more to be said about Atlantic Yards (the Community Benefits Agreement is legally unenforcable, 'affordable housing' includes units for families earning $109,000 a year, and so on and so forth), but this brief presentation should suffice. This project is an obscenity, and it must be stopped. New Yorkers can't let this happen to our fellow citizens.