A busy intersection on the formerly unfashionable side of a major global city river languishes, un(der)developed, until it becomes an eyesore, a blight on the city’s reputation as a world capital. It’s clear that the real estate is worth money, that the location has vast potential, and that the neighborhood could do with the beautification. Does the city/borough:
a) Survey the community as to its needs and desires, garner 80% local support for its plans, and then set about spending public and private funds turning the eyesore into a thoroughly 21st Century community, stating publicly that it wishes to create a place that (among other things):
“supports a successful and diverse mix of affordable homes, shops, businesses and high quality recreation and cultural activities
“creates opportunities for all local residents, and ensures that they are a key part of the transformation of the area
“shifts the emphasis, and gives priority to, pedestrians, public transport and cycling, rather than cars
“has an integrated network of high quality green spaces that draws people into and through the area by improving its appearance and encouraging activity.”
b) Negotiate use for the land with a private developer behind closed doors; present that deal to the public as a fait accomplis whereby the space will be filled by a 20-000-seater sports arena, along with 17 skyscrapers full of office space, retail stores and housing entirely at odds with the local communities; award the land to the private developer despite lack of an open bidding process and the existence of a higher offer; give the private developer publicly-funded tax breaks; encourage the developer to exercise use of ‘eminent domain’ whereby long-term residents can be bought out of their homes over their objects; refuse to canvas public opinion; promote a strategy of divide-and-conquer among local communities, creeds and colors; offer no plans for new schools, fire stations, or police departments to cope with the proposed new residents; initially offer use of public green space and then retract it; boast of 10,000 new jobs and then admit there might be less than 1,000; ignore the impact of these skyscrapers, office workers, new residents and sports fans on the city’s most choked intersection, and offer no plans for improving public transport or promoting alternative means of transport?
The answer is: It depends what city you live in.
If you’re in South London, you might recognize option a) as representing Southwark Council’s plans for the Elephant and Castle – an area which, having just stayed in the region for two weeks this January and after using the underground station and subway walkways almost every single day, I can vouch is a decaying eyesore badly in need of such rejuvenation.
If you’re in South Brooklyn, you will certainly recognize option b) as the plans for Atlantic Yards, above the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, near what I used to call my home in Park Slope. It’s a vast section of prize real estate above train yards surrounded by thriving local communities.
The differences between the two city’s approaches are staggering in their scope. Spend some time traveling around elephantandcastle.org.uk’s web site, download the regularly published newsletters, read the sections marked ‘Our Vision’ and ‘Developers Area,’ check the photo and media sections and fill out a feedback form if you desire; you might not like every aspect of the plan (and I could have done with clearer pictures of the proposed finishes results), but you’ll be hard put to come away feeling less than properly informed.
Then do a Google Search for ‘Atlantic Yards Brooklyn’ and see what you come up with. Top of the returns is a site financed by the private developer in question, Forest City Ratner, entitled Bring Basketball To Brooklyn. (I’m sure that FCR are paying Google for this placement.) Dated 2005, it says that it is “under construction” though I assure you it was previously up and running as a propaganda site for Ratner’s purchase of the New Jersey Nets basketball team. (The bait by which Ratner hooked the local urban community was the promise of professional basketball in Brooklyn; the switch was the small city that came with it.)
Check the official Forest City Ratner site – a logical move – and you will find nothing about Atlantic Yards under the ‘Projects’ section; you’ll find the most recent posting on the News pages dates back to May 2005; and the Press Releases section is full of fluff (“Nets Announce Kids Souvenir Giveaways Series”). There are no architects’ designs, no floor plans, no policy statement, no artists impressions. Then go check the official Brooklyn-USA web site, home of Borough President Marty Markowitz, the man who brokered the original deal with Forest City Ratner, and you will find nothing whatsoever about Atlantic Yards; at least not on the front page or among the recent press releases. You will instead need to visit sites like developdontdestroy, nolandgrab, timesratnerreport.blogspot.com, brooklynviews, naparstek.com and the excellent coverage from the brooklynpapers staff to understand what’s being “railroaded” through in this hub of thriving neighborhoods, and why the local community should so strongly object to being excluded from the process.
The Atlantic Yards project is an insult to Brooklyn but, fortunately, at least one aspect of the deal is under nationwide challenge. After the United States Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision last June in a landmark property rights case from Connecticut, Tuesday’s New York Times reports that “Lawmakers from Maine to California have introduced dozens of bills in reaction to the ruling, most of them saying that government should never seize private homes or businesses solely to benefit a private developer.” In New York State, it has taken a Republican, State Senator John A. DeFrancisco, to table “a measure … that would remove the right to exercise condemnation power from unelected bodies like an urban redevelopment authority or an industrial development agency.” Or, presumably, a private developer like Forest City Ratner.
These legislators would do well to look at the elephant and castle redvelopment to see how it’s possible to work with a community, rather than in opposition to it. In the meantime, this is one occasion on which London trumps – make that, slam dunks – New York.
(I know that several iJamming! readers live in Southwark just as many of them live in brownstone Brooklyn. I welcome readers’ thoughts on each redevelopment.)