Seven Years to Develop 22 Acres with 22 Left

The New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Monday, March 1, 2009, rejected the final legal challenge by homeowners and businesses to the state’s use of eminent domain for the $4.9 billion, 22-acre Atlantic Yards project (see TimesTopics for more). The news triggered a groundbreaking for March 11, 2009.

How much ground will be broken remains unknown to all, even the developer, Bruce Ratner, is reportedly unsure.  One thing is sure, the general failure of effective criticism of the plan.  Perhaps this was in deference to the mere political disruption of those whose lives and businesses are forever changed.  Perhaps not. Time remains to go on the record regarding the architectural failure of superblocks and the lives of the ‘new people’ or to examine the distracted inability of the MTA and the DOT to address serious public safety questions given the plan as it stands. Where is

the law that protects future residents?

The Other 22

New York State officials will force the last 22 families and companies to move out of the Atlantic Yards project footprint if they don’t leave voluntarily by April 3, 2010.  It began with several hundred families and businesses. Still, Errol Lewis summed it all up best as a reporter for the Daily News and a long time observer of New York’s uniquely imprudent politic.

The seven-year slog leading up to today’s ribbon-cutting on the Atlantic Yards project demonstrates why New York must rethink and restructure the way it handles big land deals.

Nearly no one on either side of the debate over the planned 18,000-seat arena and 6,400 units of housing – not even the winning developer, Forest City Ratner – thinks the process was fair, balanced, and rational.

There were too many lawsuits, too many unanswered questions, and too many heated arguments. Worst of all, the years of bickering and delay have left behind bitterness and civic exhaustion just when we need energy, enthusiasm, and public scrutiny to make Atlantic Yards a success.

I would have readers interested in the urban development process in general and in this part of Brooklyn specifically, to notice Errol’s criticism in this way. The enormously accurate criticisms of the Atlantic Yards plan from an architectural, urban planning, and design perspective are ineffective. Despite grievous errors of design, the less evident event is the obituary of effective architectural criticism. I would settle for useful.

As Lewis points out, the measure of success is tragically blurred, and the lessons learned are painfully slow and easily forgotten.  Our society has the authority to engage in the destruction of one community as a constitutionally guaranteed process for building a new one.

Lewis is right. We must question the current criterion that suggests we are actually making a place better or more life-affirming or more environmentally sound, not just environmentally neutral.

We are currently limited to writing the postmortem. Given the desire to correct mistakes before they are made,  what steps could be taken to give a community affected more control over a design and development process that the law of our land has already deemed inevitable? How can the rules of engagement for community development practices eliminate our tragic acceptance of collateral damage?

Opinion

The history of keeping things “out of your back yard” begins with demonstrable adverse health problems caused by pollution, but it does not end there.  It has advanced to the critique of poorly chosen land uses, how it affects others over time and the kind of society the uses produce.  What happens in this section of a growing Downtown Brooklyn is now one of those questions.  What quality of society will we produce here?

For now, look at it as the collision of two interests. One is private and predictive toward profitable returns. The other is public and prescriptive toward resolving the errors committed to pursuing the first interest, whether the errors were predictable or not.  The contrast between the known and feared leads to expressions of due diligence that prove efforts are made to anticipate damages conducted through project approval and evaluation procedures capable of constant improvement.  In this way, living in the world may not be risk-free, but the path to it is both predictable and prescribed.