An Atlantic Yards groundbreaking (photo: Spencer T Tucker)
More public participation might help. So might ULURP. But rigorous skepticism is more important.
It was fascinating, having watched in 2004 and 2005 two New York City Council subcommittee hearings on the announced Brooklyn Atlantic Yards project, to see the Council's Committee on Ecomomic Development, with the Speaker prominent, on December 12 take a distinctly adversarial stance toward the proposed Amazon campus in Queens.
Back then, not only were the Governor and Mayor gung-ho for “jobs, housing, and hoops,” many Council members, despite their questions, were essentially enthusiastic. Meanwhile, the developer and supporters got significant time from the hearings’ start, relegating opponents to later slots.
And it was curious to hear both proponents and opponents of the Amazon deal rather tritely invoke lessons from Atlantic Yards (now called Pacific Park), suggesting the need for either broader public participation or the importance of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which gives the Council the final say (rather than using the state General Project Plan, which puts the Governor in charge).
Don’t get me wrong: neither broader participation nor ULURP are necessarily bad things. But they’re hardly saviors when big money and powerful players are at work, and when projects unfold over time and multiple economic cycles.
For example, promises made in Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), or even in state approval documents, as we’ve learned, can be followed by contracts that offer crucial slack. For example, the fine print allowed Atlantic Yards, estimated to take ten years, a 25-year buildout.
So, while these massive development projects differ significantly, the Atlantic Yards experience makes clear that, as the Amazon deal unfolds, more muscular, and consistent, skepticism and oversight is needed. We’ll see how much surfaces at the next hearing, held by the City Council's Committee on Finance, scheduled for January 30.
In December, at about an hour into the first of several promised Council hearings on the Amazon deal, Council Speaker Corey Johnson confronted James Patchett, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, about a line he’d truncated—for faster delivery—from his prepared statement: “this is by no means an attempt to deliberately circumvent the ULURP process.”
“Former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff was asked, when he left city government” about the avoidance of ULURP for Atlantic Yards, recounted Johnson. “If I had to do it over again,” Johnson said, paraphrasing Doctoroff, “I would bring Atlantic Yards through ULURP…because it's the right process to get community buy-in, and the public review is worthwhile.”
“Now, I don't agree with Dan Doctoroff on everything, but I thought that was an interesting comment,” Johnson continued, pressing Patchett on “why it was important…to facilitate the subverting” of ULURP.
Patchett replied that the “UDC Act”—referring to the Urban Development Corporation, the state authority that can override local land use—“is available to do more comprehensive planning,” and is “more powerful” than ULURP for certain projects. Certain things, he said, can’t happen with ULURP, like having the state hold title to project land. Hmm—similar tactics were used with Atlantic Yards, but Doctoroff, in retrospect, would’ve used ULURP.
So when Patchett said the city’s primary focus was getting the promised 25,000 jobs, it sounded like the end justifies the means. “More powerful” also translates as “certain passage by appointees who answer to the governor.” With Atlantic Yards, that meant not only initial passage of the project, but steady agreement regarding revisions of the timetable and thus promised public benefits.
Empire State Development, the successor to the UDC, has, in my observation, steadily affirmed the governor’s (and developer’s) will regarding Atlantic Yards. Only at state legislative oversight hearings have ESD officials faced hard questions. That key state authority, we should remember, avoided the first City Council hearing on Amazon, just as it sidestepped those Atlantic Yards hearings held by the Council.
“We certainly did take lessons from Atlantic Yards,” Patchett continued, citing “the importance of community input, the importance of genuinely involving people in the way the project ultimately looks. That's why we set up the Community Advisory Committee.”
Pre-empting the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) announcement, state Senator Michael Gianaris and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer announced on November 21 that they would boycott such a body, calling it “a thinly veiled attempt to present the Amazon development as a fait accompli.” That’s hard to doubt, though it is possible that the CAC -- supposed to advise on issues like workforce development -- could have some impact.
The CAC has 45 members (though one’s already resigned), appointed in consultation with local elected officials and stakeholders, and is supposed to meet quarterly; its three subcommittees -- including one that will advise on local infrastructure spending -- are supposed to meet monthly. Town halls should be held two weeks after each quarterly meeting, reported Christine Chung of The City. That could add some sunlight.
Given the very low bar, this has more legitimacy than the Atlantic Yards CAC, which was not set up until some 28 months after the project was announced and barely met. When Atlantic Yards opponents, in a lawsuit challenging the project’s environmental review, called the CAC illegitimate, a judge disagreed, saying the law is so slack it’s even legit to establish such a committee after a project is approved.
A somewhat transparent CAC also seems better than the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a private contract that purported to guarantee such things as job-training and affordable housing, but had crucial loopholes; for one thing, the developer never hired the required Independent Compliance Monitor.
The CBA was used as a political wedge. The developer gained support from groups -- some with track records, others astroturf -- led in large part by black leaders in Central Brooklyn, who had legitimate grievances about past developments and could help a large corporation to argue that middle- and upper-class opponents living closer to the project site, largely white, were selfish NIMBYs.
So it’s surprising that Amazon has not already organized some Queens stakeholders to vouch for the company’s intentions to lift up some of the borough’s struggling precincts. After all, Amazon has already taken a page from the big-developer playbook, buying ads in the tabloids (and mailing several flyers to New Yorkers) repeating, for example, the dubious claim that the project would bring $27 billion in new tax revenues.
Keep in mind that even seemingly robust public consultation may only go so far when the state’s in charge. In 2014, a volunteer body, the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), was set up to advise ESD, as part of a 2014 settlement to avert a potential lawsuit on fair housing issues. However, it’s mostly toothless.
A few now-departed AY CDC members have raised questions about the project, while most -- the board is controlled by the governor -- are there to nod yes. Though the AY CDC is supposed to meet quarterly, last year it held its second meeting -- essentially to support an ESD contract renewal -- with just one day’s notice on March 30, and hasn't met since.
How good is ULURP?
Though ULURP offers more public input, and New York City legitimacy, than the state process, it typically leads to tweaks, not significant changes. Doctoroff has said the Bloomberg administration at the time doubted its rezoning prowess, so it pursued the expedient route around the City Council. “With twenty-twenty hindsight,” he wrote in his 2017 memoir, “I am positive we could have placated our opponents in negotiations and gotten the process through ULURP.”
Well, not quite; some people adamantly opposed the arena (now Barclays Center), or the project’s density. But ULURP would at least have put the debate in the public sphere, and empowered the local Council member, then Letitia James.
It should be noted that the two Council committee hearings regarding Atlantic Yards came under the leadership of then-Speaker Gifford Miller. After the project was approved, while the Speaker was Christine Quinn, known for her closeness to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Council wouldn't green-light future oversight hearings requested by James and colleague Brad Lander.
Today, compared to the Atlantic Yards history, the Council Speaker is less beholden to the mayor; the economic impacts of the 9/11 attacks are more distant; we don’t have the distraction (and lure) of professional sports; and we’ve seen the explosion of gentrification near the waterfront. Moreover, Amazon is a lightning-rod company, to say the least.
(Still, it would be interesting to see whether an office project at the Long Island City waterfront without subsidies -- or Amazon -- would generate such pushback. After all, the Amazon site was once to encompass two huge mostly residential rezonings -- Anable Basin, Long Island City Innovation Center -- arguably adding more neighborhood burdens.)
Yet, Johnson surely knows that ULURP is its own political game. Consider the Council’s recent approval of a giant two-tower project, 80 Flatbush, at a site that bridges Downtown Brooklyn and low-rise streets. After the project’s developer sought to nearly triple the allowable density, Council Member Steve Levin expressed concern, while the local community board was staunch in its opposition.
Eventually the project was approved with only modest reductions, and Johnson, according to Levin, was very much in the loop. While the public learned a lot about the expected benefits -- affordable housing, a replacement school, a new school -- ULURP never ventilated a key question: the value of the additional square footage the developer gained via an upzoning.
Regarding Amazon and ULURP, not everyone sees a silver bullet. As urban planner Sylvia Morse tweeted, “The people are shouting NO AMAZON, not ‘we want 7 months of procedural theater, during which speculators will drive up housing prices in LIC, followed by a bad deal getting rammed through anyway after council members get to pretend they tried.’”
A better planning process
Last September, Council Member Lander offered some cogent criticism before the Council-spurred 2019 Charter Revision Commission, suggesting that, with challenges like affordability, sustainability, and aging infrastructure, “our highly reactive ULURP process just is not getting the job done."
"Each application is brought either by a private developer or by the administration,” Lander said, “and it's not judged against a broad set of goals we've collectively agreed to, for sustainability or affordability or how to share and distribute the challenges and benefits of growth.”
He suggested "a comprehensive and proactive planning process.” What might that mean regarding Amazon? Perhaps the city and state should’ve set some goals for transit and other infrastructure for Long Island City beforehand, beyond the modest $180 million announced by the city on October 30. Remember, the two percolating rezonings were not being judged in that proactive way. (See criticism from the Municipal Art Society.)
A broader effort at planning might have put the city and state “incentives” (subsidies) in context. Sure, we’re not necessarily shoveling cash, outside a state construction grant that could be worth $505 million, as a special favor to Amazon, given that most of the subsidies are as-of-right and performance-based.
But some dialogue and data might clarify, as critics have argued, whether such subsidies are wise and deserve to be perpetuated. After all, Amazon admitted that the prime, not sole, driver was the talent pool.
There are also other murky parts of the deal, such as a seemingly low fee for public land and generous lease terms, as I wrote last month for Gotham Gazette. It was interesting to see Speaker Johnson scorn the state projections that saying Amazon would be a financial boon for the city and state, and argue for an independent study.
New York has a vehicle for such analysis; it’s called the city’s Independent Budget Office and, when called in 2005 and 2009, IBO raised serious skepticism about Atlantic Yards (and should probably do an update). With that project, however, government officials and many in the press embraced a study paid for by the developer, which was wrong from the start and which is now clearly way off (in part because the project wasn’t built in ten years).
Another analysis is needed, too. At one point during the Amazon hearing, Council Member Francisco Moya requested an independent study to report on such things as the project’s economic, infrastructure, and housing impact. The NYC EDC’s Patchett, nonplused, responded that, of course, the state process requires a study.
But that’s not a truly independent study. In projects like Atlantic Yards, such environmental reviews, however sufficient to pass legal scrutiny, serve the interests of the project’s sponsors and the agency boosting it.
The Council could fund a such an independent study. Sure, this doesn’t address the question of Amazon-the-company, with business practices that, to some, disqualify it. But, at the very least, if the chief executives of New York City and State are going to offer pre-cooked ambitious plans, the obligation of the legislative branches should be continued oversight.