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December 2, 2004

The Plucky Jim Show

Brooklyn Downtown Star
By Reed Jackson

A huge crowd and high emotion gave a public meting regarding Forest City Ratner’s (FCR) Atlantic Yards proposal the feel of a rock concert this week. Hundreds of Downtown Brooklyn residents showed up early for the meeting, which was organized by FCR and Community Boards 2, 6 & 8, forming a bustling line that stretched for blocks outside of the NYC Tech auditorium where it was held. Compounding the furor were partisans of both the pro and anti-Ratner forces, who fanned out across the edges of the mass, handing out pamphlets and often engaging in very vocal arguments with the people waiting to get inside.

This meeting was the latest and the largest in a series of events revolving around the Yards development, which would place massive residential and office skyscrapers, as well as a 19,000-seat arena for the New Jersey Nets, near the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues.

Such an ambitious project would court controversy enough. But the Yards’ possible use of eminent domain, as well as a sizeable chunk of taxpayer monies, has made the development the hot button issue of the past few years, and this meeting provided its largest stage yet.

As the two players with the most information to divulge, the MTA and the Empire State Development Corporation, failed to show, the “informational meeting” as it was billed, ended up being a three-hour presentation by FCR main man “Plucky” Jim Stuckey.

The MTA owns the rail yard currently sitting in the middle of the site; FCR and the beleaguered transit agency are in negotiations over the site, but little is known about the specifics of the transaction. The project will most likely go forward under the aegis of the state, whose review process requires an environmental impact statement to be drawn up, and public comment solicited. But with details of the project as vague as they are now, no statement can be fashioned.

“It’s impossible for me to answer that question because the process has yet to begin,” Plucky Jim said towards the beginning of the night, in what was to become a trademark statement, along with the “The [Draft Environmental Impact Study] will be in charge of analyzing that.”

Left without any supporting cast in front of a large audience, Plucky Jim lived up to his name, standing for over three hours, answering questions, some of them hostile, written on note cards in advance, from the crowd, and pleading his case.

Stuckey divulged little truly new information, instead delivering a pitch well polished from repeated use at community board and civic association meetings during the past months. On many occasions, he could have submitted his answers in advance as well.

His main thrust centered on the pending agreements FCR has reached with various community groups; including providing a certain amount of affordable housing in the project, and firing a certain amount of minorities during the construction of the development, and after, in the offices and stores within the finished complex.

Some of these points will be drawn uop in a Community Benefits Agreement, a legally binding agreement currently being negotiated by a number of community groups and FCR.

Asked about the city government’s proposed participation in the project, he said, “We’re simply asking the city to do what the city does, build infrastructure, which will be necessary to support this project.”

When queried regarding the amount of taxpayer money that the project could use in subsidies, Stuckey allowed a little spin to be put into play. “We are not trying to divert funds that are in play today,” he said. “[Any funds] will be based on incremental revenues that will be brought in by the project.”

Of course, these “future funds” are completely nonexistent at this point, and the amount of actual money that will actually be brought in by the Yards has been debated in several studies. But of course, with exact specifics regarding financing still pending, all opinions on the topic are still highly theoretical.

Towards the latter half of the long evening, Stuckey veered a bit off message, saying things like, “A single project can’t cure all the housing ills,” which were greeted less than enthusiastically by the audience.

But though revelations were few and far between, a few fireworks did go off. About midway through the meeting, a group of about 30 people began yelling at moderator Craig Hammerman, and loudly stomped out of the auditorium.

Led by Darnell Canada, a one-time member of Ratner ally BUILD, the group expressed frustration at the slow pace of the proceedings, and its wish to spur the wheels of progress. “We’re for the project,” he intoned in an interview outside of the auditorium. “We want jobs. You’d better be glad that we want jobs, because if we don’t work, we gotta do something to survive.”

“Darnell is a good guy. His interests are that of the community,” said Bruce Bender, a vice president at FCR outside the meeting.

Canada promised that a “demonstration” in favor of the Yards project would soon be mounted by his group. “Nothing’s gonna stop us from getting it!” he exclaimed.

Judging by the regular outbursts that reupted throughout the night, the audience seemed more sympathetic to Canada’s point of view. This changed however, as the hours drgged on, and union members, some of which were seen filling out the forms verifying their participation in a picket-line-type activity, and MetroTech employees, who were asked by their supervisor to come, according to one, lost patience and headed home.

Before the meeting, the Ratner foes, Develop Don’t Destroy held a press conference, touting their alternative plan for the Atlantic Yards, dubbed the UNITY Plan, a product of architect Marshall Brown and the Atlantic Yards Development Workshop.

“This is a model project for community development and forward thinking,” Brown declared. The “competitive proposal” claim to offer less density, and more retail and open space than Ratner’s plan.

The UNITY plan will be presented to the land use committee Community Board 2 on December 15.

Posted by lumi at December 2, 2004 9:20 AM