An Interview With Kent Barwick, President of the Municipal Art Society
"There is disappointment, annoyance, and anger because there hasn't been any way for anyone to have a voice. Who is listening to the people living around Atlantic Yards?"
With the Pataki Adminstration scrambling to beat the buzzer and win approval for Forest City Enterprise's "Atlantic Yards" mega-project before the inauguration of Governor-Elect Eliot Spitzer, journalist Ezra Goldstein talks to Municipal Art Society President Kent Barwick about the problems that arise when communities are locked out of the development process in their own neighborhoods.
Municipal Art Society President Kent Barwick has been attacked for not condemning Forest City Enterprises plan to drop 17 high rises and a 19,000-seat basketball arena in the middle of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. He has also been criticized for being too concerned about process when, say his critics, the basic concepts behind the immense Atlantic Yards project are fatally flawed. To Barwick, however, process is paramount, and Atlantic Yards is the poster child for what goes wrong when process is ignored.
Barwick says that the people of Brooklyn and their elected representatives have been shut out of planning for Atlantic Yards and all major decisions have been made behind closed doors. The result is a poorly designed project that has polarized the community and that squanders both opportunity and public trust.
The project can be saved, he says, but only if people are given the chance not just to speak but to be heard. That would happen if the state recognizes that, properly, its client at Atlantic Yards is the citizens and government of New York City, not a private developer.
That is no radical notion, argues Barwick. It is law and policy embedded in regulations and the city charter, thanks in large part to agreements he and the MAS helped hammer out two decades ago after a prolonged battle with the Koch administration over the proposed sale to a private developer of publicly owned land on Columbus Circle.
The city, says Barwick, is obligated to solicit ideas from the public, develop a master plan, put out an RFP (a request for proposals) and then consider bids from several developers before it can give up a significant piece of land. More public hearings follow before construction is allowed to begin. It may be a cumbersome and imperfect process, Barwick admits, but in project after project, the end result has been far superior to the initial concept.
At Atlantic Yards, a private company developed plans for the 22-acre site before Brooklyn's communities had a chance to say a word, and long before a token RFP was issued. The community boards, guaranteed participation in neighborhood planning in the 1975 and 1989 revisions to the city charter, were completely shut out of the process, as were Brooklyn's democratically elected City Council members. The developer never publicly asked the advice of the highly capable (and taxpayer funded) staff at the Department of City Planning which had just completed a major rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn adjacent to the project's footprint.
The first time Brooklyn residents heard that Forest City Ratner Companies intended to build 16 skyscrapers and an arena in the middle of their borough, it was presented largely as a fait accompli. That was allowed to happen because the city had ceded responsibility for the site to the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), and the ESDC, bluntly, operates above the law. The ESDC has the power to override New York City law and policy, and that is precisely what it has done.
The ESDC was established in the 1960s as the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) with the best of intentions, says Barwick. Its primary function was to get economically mixed housing built outside poor neighborhoods, and "Governor Rockefeller recognized that you couldn't integrate society if you didn't have a way to break through local zoning laws. The UDC act gave the state the mechanism when necessary to break local zoning codes to achieve a higher purpose."
But, Barwick says, "that has evolved now into a situation where virtually all major projects in the state use the UDC act, because it is virtually impervious to challenge. UDC projects don't have to conform to local zoning, or pay any attention to historic preservation, and they give the state the power of eminent domain."
UDC projects also "bypass virtually every opportunity there is for citizens to voice their opinion."