Today was my first day in many months without a heavy work schedule, so I sped straight to the hearing before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) regarding the Vanderbilt Yards in Brooklyn. This is
a controversy I have followed, but with which I was not involved until today.
Bruce Ratner has made a highly-publicized proposal for a basketball arena and other dense, ugly and intense development on the rail yards site in Brooklyn. His high-rise buildings and his arena would overwhelm low-rise Brooklyn. He would pay the MTA for the site, but then he would require substantial state subsidies. The state would have to use the power of eminent domain to take private property of less fortunate New Yorkers for use by this private party, Bruce Ratner. Ratner would offer a certain amount--opinions differed on how much--of affordable housing. In the last couple of weeks, Extell, another developer, has come forward with a counter-proposal that would pay a higher price to the MTA for the property, that would not use eminent domain, and that would result in less dense and disturbing development. Neither developer offered the MTA as much as the appraised value of the property.
Urban planning is not supposed to be done this way. In fact, New York City has no plan. There is a favored developer, in this case, Ratner, and he makes the plan. To me the most distressing aspect of this land grab, however, is that Ratner has used racial divisiveness as his primary weapon. He has behaved the way Ikea behaved in Red Hook. The way Wal-Mart behaved in New Orleans. He has signed so-called Community Benefit Agreements of dubious legal effect with local groups, buying up the opposition and creating his own pressure groups. The only organizations he has dealt with, however, are exclusively black organizations. Other community groups, he did not want to deal with.
Once I was there, I decided to testify. The issue before the MTA was just whether to take the low bid (Ratner) or a higher big (Extell) for the rail yards. However, no one stayed on topic. Representatives of numerous black groups and labor groups testified to the virtues and good works of Ratner. He will subsidize daycare. He will hire minority contractors. He will hire union labor. He will solve unemployment. And so on.
What I said to the MTA board was that they have a fiduciary duty not just to the MTA treasury but to the City of New York. They need not destroy Brooklyn in order to develop the rail yards. All development creates jobs, and any development we want to provide affordable housing will do so. The MTA need not choose a project done by a man whose previous work in Brooklyn has been an economic disaster and an aesthetic catastrophe, a project that is not only disruptive but plug-ugly. They must think of future generations.
There were numerous excellent speeches opposing the Ratner proposal. A fellow named Decker said that the MTA was forcing opponents of the Ratner proposal straight into court, where they would tie up the project for years. Whew! Lawyers are trained never to say anything like that. State Senator Montgomery spoke movingly of how destructive Ratner's plan would be to the small businesses in these neighborhoods. My testimony went over very well, too, as a speech. The MTA paid no attention to any of us.
At the end of the hearing, the MTA board voted to deal exclusively with Bruce Ratner for 45 days, allowing him to raise his bid to the level of the appraised value of the rail yards. There would be no such bargaining with Extell.