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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 disruption of those whose lives and businesses are forever changed.  Perhaps not. Time remains to go on the record regarding the failure of super blocks and its architecture, or to examine the distracted inability of the MTA and the DOT to address serious public safety questions given the plan as it stands.

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, but 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 with an interest 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 point of view are ineffective. Despite grievous errors of design, the less evident event is the obituary of architectural criticism.

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 controls over a design and development process that the law of our land as already deemed inevitable? How can the rules of engagement for community development practices eliminate our tragic acceptance of collateral damage?

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