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Atlantic Yards, the E.I.S Game and the Destruction of Brooklyn

The Genius of the Development Industrial-Complex

by CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM

 

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

-the land ethic of Aldo Leopold

Money has proved the most dangerous of modern man’s hallucinogens.

-Lewis Mumford

Be in nothing so moderate as in love of man.

- Robinson Jeffers, from "Shine, Perishing Republic!"

Pack Creek Ranch, Moab, Utah

Rats, like human beings, need enough space to stretch and relax and breath free. Consider a study that researcher John Calhoun conducted in 1962 by gathering 80 Norway rats in tiny pens, conditions far beyond the tolerance level for the average rattus norvegicus. Rodent society went crazy. Mating rituals, nesting, social organization, and health collapsed, while an oligarchy of the super-fattened few took over the high reaches of the pen, gathering a harem and forcing the rest into tenement living. Among the females miscarriages rose sharply; ditto disorders of the mammary glands, sex organs, ovaries, uterus, Fallopian tubes. The males, for their part, became sociopaths: they bit and fought constantly. Ambush tail-biting, generally impermissible in rat society, became the order of the day. In normal conditions, the rats would have policed themselves and punished such aggression. But now, in the perverted conditions of the "behavioral sink"–which scientists define as the pathologic outcome of any situation in which too many animals are crowded in too little space–it was a war of all against all, each rat for himself on what appeared to be a sinking ship. Some rats simply gave up and went into fugues of passivity. What was most compelling is what happened to the kidneys, liver and adrenal glands in the behavioral sink–all were enlarged and sickened. In particular, the adrenals suffered. The condition in many of the rats was in fact something close to adrenocortical hyperactivity–a constant dosing of adrenalin due to stressor conditions. And the adrenalin was killing them.

I was thinking about Calhoun’s rats and spacing and crowds and the death-espresso of the behavioral sink in New York City as Mayor Mike Bloomberg unveiled his "sustainable New York" plan last spring, at a time when I was leaving town for the lonely old canyons of Utah. It was on a Sunday, in the first warm days, and people were out to enjoy the weather and not listening to the mayor. On Atlantic Avenue and 4th Avenue many of them were stuffed in cars backed up and unmoving, awful constipation. On Court Street, more crowds. At the park at the bottom of Atlantic Avenue where the avenue falls into the bay, the handball courts with too many players; baseball diamonds overrun; too many people everywhere in the behavioral sink. I mention all this because the mayor’s big plan for "sustainability" and a "green" future and the reduction of greenhouse gases etc. is to welcome another million people into New York over the next 23 years. You may ask: How do you reduce greenhouse gases by growing the population? Who knows–who cares! The people will come, we’re told. Is there no way to stop them? Won’t mustard gas work? The people are coming! And it is a good thing. So we are told. We must grow–build more houses, shopping centers, retail strips, malls, towers, and, not least, sports arenas to watch grown men chase after leather balls. The consensus trance that all growth, always, everywhere is good is of course insane and comic at once and has been the bane of civilization since men laid mortar in the agglomerations of cities. Because rationally one must ask: Will New York really be a better place to live with another million people added into it? Of course not.

* * *

With this on my mind I went up the canyon not long ago and shotgunned the face of Bruce Ratner, one of the most fearsome developers in New York and certainly the most publicly demeaning face of the growth consensus that I’ve come across. Good feelings all around–Bruce’s laser-printed smugness now shredded wheat; the Remington’s aim true at 70 paces. The occasion for fury, found in my mailbox here in Moab, was a movie called "Brooklyn Matters," which deconstructs the lies and trickery and vicious bigotry that Ratner has employed in furtherance of his $2.4 billion boondoggle known as Atlantic Yards. Not so foreign material for the deserts of the southwest, where cowboy simulacra of Ratner subdivide the mesas into condos–the same real estate scam everywhere in the fair land.

But, like my Remington, the movie also misses the key target, which is not so much beady-eyed developers but the government that lets them loose from the cage in an old-boy game of wink-wink.

The game is called Developers Gone Wild. Non-sustainability, waste, carelessness, the privatization of public resources, and, of course, the packing of too many rats into too little space are its hallmarks. In New York City, a primary playing piece in the game, if not the queen on the board, is the ironically-named "environmental impact statement," or EIS, which for decades has greased the skids for development by creating the pretense of public environmental oversight. The artfulness and deceit of the EIS process underscores the fact that the most dangerous players in the game are not the private sector’s array of bankers, mortgage lenders, construction companies, unions, big name developers, lawyers, consultants, investors, and speculators and elected officials-qua-boosters (think of the inane yet somehow insidious Marty Markowitz, porcine borough president of Brooklyn) that together comprise what we’ll call the development industrial complex.

The threat, rather, arrives from public agencies that abet the private sector’s predatory ways. The chief offender to sign off on the EIS process is the New York State boosterist agency known as the Empire State Development Corporation. The corrupt collusion of ESDC with developers has had predictable results: During a decade that saw a rush to re-zone or bypass zoning in favor of uncontrolled growth–the boom-time of roughly 1997 to the present–billions of dollars in new development was sausaged through the system without meaningful environmental review, without realistic assessment of impacts, and, by extension, without the public getting a fair understanding of the effect these megaprojects would have on the streets where people live, shop and play. As a political and corporate tool for profiteering, and also as a means of disarming the citizenry, the ESDC is indispensable–and in Brooklyn it has become the key to the kingdom.

* * *

Atlantic Yards, a basketball arena and 16 towers on three superblock platforms, is the largest single development in Brooklyn’s history and among the largest in New York history. But it has no roots in any public planning effort. The owners, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, eyed the air-rights as a salable asset to help fill its budget gap. The serendipitous solution was to morph the childhood dream of cheerleading Borough President Marty Markowitz–who wanted to avenge the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers–into the ultimate trophy of development moguls: ownership of a major league team. Ready to respond to the call was a Clevelander who strategically sat on or chaired almost every major board in Brooklyn. Bruce Ratner used urban planning lingo to seduce BP Markowitz–who had campaigned against the "Manhattanization of Brooklyn"–into believing that Manhattan-like towers, originally 18 for both offices and apartments, were necessary to finance the arena. For more panache, Ratner enlisted peacockish architect Frank Gehry, even though Gehry had accomplished nothing of the scale of Atlantic Yards. The governor, the mayor, New York’s senior senator Chuck Schumer and sundry local politicos early on signaled that their united front would allow nothing to stand in the way of an approval schedule dictated by contract terms of Ratner’s purchase of the New Jersey Nets. Even the Markowitz representative on the City Planning Commission was a major investor.

But it was the grease of ESDC that proved most vital to the machine. That the Empire State Development Corporation greenlights growth without mitigation is part of its purpose–the promotion of "progress," the expansion of commerce, the creation of wealth. The agency website says no less: "NY Loves Business!" Former City Planning commission-member and Yale professor Alexander Garvin writes that when in 1968 the ESDC emerged from the governor’s office as an autarchic answer to urban blight, it was by definition "a superagency with truly amazing powers," powers like no other in the history of modern New York government (except perhaps those accrued to Robert Moses). The ESDC "could condemn [land], ignore zoning and building regulations, and even issue tax-exempt bonds to finance development. Its most remarkable power was the ability to do all this without obtaining the approval of any other city, county or state agency."

Its "amazing powers" are superbly on display in the case of Atlantic Yards. Volumes have been blogged online (see, for example, the vociferous Norman Oder) and logged in court documents as to the dishonesty, the deficiencies, the outright idiocies of the Atlantic Yards EIS as vetted by ESDC. The non-profit Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, headed by area resident Daniel Goldstein with the backing of 16 co-plaintiffs, reports the fundamental falsehood in the ESDC’s study: using the blight pretext for the application of eminent domain, the study pretends that an organically developing post-industrial mixed-use stretch of Brooklyn land is in fact a congealing tenement slum circa 1910.

If the EIS itself was corrupt, it was merely the inevitable product of a corrupted process–particularly where the ESDC and the private sector commingled. The corruption was open-air and normalized, and vaguely legal, though far from ethical. What’s clear is that the private developer, Forest City Ratner Corporations, asked ESDC, a public agency funded by taxpayers, to employ individuals and groups preferential to the private interests of Forest City Ratner. ESDC’s reaction? It followed orders. A February 18, 2004 letter from Forest City Ratner to ESDC asked that the agency hire a well-known pro-development lawyer named David Paget, once upon a time a respected figure in the environmental law community. Paget’s hiring was par for the course: he is the go-to hitman for developers working with ESDC who want to insure that their EISs are bulletproof in court. The same Feb. 18 letter also asked that ESDC hire the consulting firm AKRF, a $100 million-a-year company that grinds out EISs for scores of private sector developers in New York City and is known for its skewed pro-development preparation of environmental impact statements. Again, FCR’s orders were followed. AKRF was hired.

ESDC’s hiring of David Paget should have raised eyebrows foremost. Paget had already been retained by Forest City Ratner since probably 2003 for the Atlantic Yards Project. Indeed, for an undisclosed period of time, Paget was working both for the public oversight agency (ESDC) and for the private development firm (Forest City Ratner) that was attempting to avoid oversight–a brazen conflict of interest. It was David Paget who, as counsel to Forest City Ratner, helped write the March 2003 memo of understanding between FCR, ESDC, and New York City assuring that at the Atlantic Yards site there would no longer be requirements for contextual design, or a mix of retail and residential use–i.e., that Forest City Ratner would freely evade city zoning laws. The Paget memo of understanding also gave to ESDC total reign over the target area: ESDC would become the fiat power for the 22 acres where Bruce Ratner hoped to plant his mega-complex, thus removing this controversial project from City government and their more restrictive and participatory Uniform Land-Use Review Process. Removing the project from the ULURP process was in effect a master stroke.

As in most corporate welfare enterprises, the returns to the public are not just questionable; they are negative. First, the developers claimed the project would bring $6 billion in tax revenues for the city and state over a period of 30 years. Now that the project is greenlighted, Forest City Ratner admits the revenue for the same period is likely closer to $1 billion. At the same time that real public oversight is tossed out the window, the public is asked to pay for the project at a cost of up to $2 billion over the next ten years. Not mentioned, of course, are the externality costs of the project’s expected traffic, some 100 million added miles a year producing an estimated $80 million in losses from increased congestion, increased fuel use with contributions to global warming, the addition of more traffic accidents with huge costs not covered by insurance and all the environmental damages from air and water pollution and traffic noise. Opponents have taken to calling the project Ratopolis.

State and federal courts have repeatedly struck down objections to the project by groups such as Develop Don’t Destroy. The courts have also struck down conflict of interest objections in the hiring of Ratner’s cat’s-paw David Paget by ESDC. The mind-set of the courts is that wherever the state intervenes in the marketplace for the benefit of large corporations whose effort can be shown to bring "tax dollars" and "progress" and "productivity" –however chimerical–then the government must stand in support. Corruption normalized? Indeed. State courts refuse to challenge or second guess a city or state agency in their support of a project. When the court decides on behalf of developers and approves an EIS, it is cast in stone–the circle is closed.

* * *

Wherever you find the ESDC’s greasy fingers on projects far and wide across the five boroughs and beyond, you’ll find the same modus operandi, the same crew pulling the job. One mile to the west of Atlantic Yards, where Atlantic Avenue drops into New York Bay between Piers 6 and 7, there was once an idea for a park on the old piers, open to all and world class, offering views of the Manhattan skyline and the beacon of the statue in the bay and the lights of the bridges on the river.

Today, the plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park has been hijacked and replaced with Miami Beach-style waterfront condos complete with yachts, private security patrols, "world-class" views open to the few who can pay. The new "park" would enrich politically-connected real estate developers, compliments of New York’s taxpayers. Future real estate taxes have also been hijacked, becoming PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) designated to support the park–instead of police, fire, schools, sanitation and other city services. PILOTS are one more scheme to cheat the rest of us of taxes that would otherwise pay for public needs, like park expenses. Instead, PILOTs are funneled back into the developers’ pockets via the people who are living there. Here, as with Atlantic Yards, the plundered object is not simply the treasury, but space, air, light, streets, sidewalks–all in the name of questionable "economic progress" driven by private interests.

Who wrote and vetted the EIS for the farce that is now Brooklyn Bridge "Park"? ESDC, in collaboration with David Paget and, yes, AKRF. These same three actors also account for the morbidly flawed EIS connected with the renovation of the Upper East Side 7th Regiment Armory theatre and arts venue. Their hands are on similarly flawed EIS’s for the 42nd Street Redevelopment Plan, the Downtown Brooklyn Rezoning Plan, the Javitz Center, the Upper East Side Armory, Metrotech–the smeared prints everywhere. AKRF and Paget are also connected with upstate developer Dean Gitter’s proposal for a Catskill resort in the New York City watershed–threatening the very sustenance of the city.

Which brings me back to the question of sustainability. Look at the case of Phoenix, Ariz., my mega-neighbor 600 miles south of Moab, a poison-sprawl across the low desert where no city should beor its foul sister, Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the U.S. and sometime in the next 60 years soon to be the fastest to dry up and blow away. Does New York want to be Phoenix or Las Vegas? We want to be the model of sustainability, a city for the survival of the human race in what assuredly is a coming cataclysm where demand smacks head-on into a failure of resources.

* * *

The urbanist and humanist Lewis Mumford described in the 1970s what he called the "pentagon of power" that was driving American civilization into a collective ditch. His analysis of this five-fold aggregation of forces quite accurately describes the sociopathology of the land rush in New York City today. The five points are 1) more power; 2) more profit; 3) more productivity; 4) more paper property (e.g.. abstractions such as stocks, bonds, hedged capital, etc.); and 5) more publicity. "Commitment to the power complex and relentless pursuit of pecuniary gainsdefine the power system and prescribe its only acceptable goal," which Mumford identifies as the abstraction known as "progress." And in the name of progress, "the most striking thing about this power complex," Mumford writes in his 1970 book The Myth of the Machine, "is its studious indifference to other human needs, norms and goals: it operates best in what is historically speaking an ecological, cultural and personal lunar desert." The power complex, Mumford notes, recognizes no quantitative limits in the name of "progress."

He makes the comparison to laboratory monkeys hooked up to electrodes which permit a microcurrent to stimulate the nervous tissue in the pleasure center of the simian brain. The test monkey is given a device to control the current. The resulting behavior is sad, and it approaches suicide. "Apparently the stimulation of this pleasure center is so rewarding that the animal will continue to press the current regulator for an indefinite length of time regardless of every other impulse or physiological need, even that for food and even to the point of starvation. The intensity of this abstract stimulus produces something like a total neurotic insensibility to life needs." The pentagon of power, writes Mumford, appears to operate on the same principle.

There’s a particularly awful moment illustrative of this insensibility in the film "Brooklyn Matters." The camera closes on the December 2003 announcement of the Atlantic Yards in its fanfare: Here were Ratner and his assorted camp followers–friends and consultants and lawyers–side by side with the big politicos draped in oversize basketball jerseys, giddy like children, thinking to redeem the borough by the addition of the great stadium and a home team, together on the dais in a kind of hallucinated pep rally: Pataki, Schumer, Bloomberg, Ratner and Markowitz, himself proud as a sow in the wallow, the paradigm of the mindless booster, prattling in the usual language about, yes, progress and profit and productivity, and, needless to say, loving the publicity. In Atlantic Yards was a legacy that would cement a place in the history books for Markowitz, a place in the bank ledgers for Ratner, and, most importantly, much money in lobbying largesse, consultants’ fees to operations like AKRF, continued happy employment in the bureaucracy at ESDC. As for reality–the real human concerns and needs of the borough–this was not the matter of concern.

CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM, a freelance writer, lives in Brooklyn and Moab, Utah. His work can be found at www.christopherketcham.com