In April 2006, recognizing how blogs had sprung up in response to the controversial Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, The New York Times suggested the development “may well be the first large-scale urban real estate venture in New York City where opposition has coalesced most visibly in the blogosphere.”
More than five years later, Atlantic Yards continues to provoke web innovation, with the advent of Atlantic Yards Watch, not a platform for opposition but a self-described “community-based initiative to protect the health and livability of neighborhoods” impacted by the now-under-construction Barclays Center arena and the planned 16 towers. While the arena is the only project building under construction, demolition, utility and railyard work continue, as well as construction staging and development of a massive surface parking lot.
Atlantic Yards Watch, the product of three civic groups concerned about gaps in State oversight, is more than a web site; the sponsors — the Boerum Hill Association, the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council and the Park Slope Civic Council — have already partnered with Transportation Alternatives on a survey of illegal parking and hope to hire consultants to analyze issues like traffic.
Very Tight Fit
Atlantic Yards represents a very tight fit — an effort to shoehorn an arena into a residential neighborhood, at its southern and eastern borders, by overriding city zoning that requires a 200-foot buffer zone between arenas and residential districts. So residents near the project site have been submitting regular incident reports — emails, photos, and video — along with links to the associated 311 service requests.
The incident reports offer fodder not only for the Atlantic Yards Watch blog, but also for other media outlets. For example, Atlantic Yards Watch has highlighted the proliferation of rats in the blocks near the 22-acre site, helping focus the attention of a city task force and adding pressure on developer Forest City Ratner to extend abatement efforts beyond the project perimeter. Indeed, on July 14 the developer announced it would buy neighbors new garbage cans as part of a multi-faceted response to the problem.
Atlantic Yards Watch has posted numerous photos of apparent parking violations, including some by construction workers and police officers, leading to sympathetic television coverage. Also, partnering with Transportation Alternatives, Atlantic Yards Watch conducted an offline survey to document the scope of the problem. After that, a representative of Empire State Development (ESD) — formerly known as the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) — and neighborhood residents said that the police have finally cracked down on scofflaws.
Filling a Niche: Transparency
Atlantic Yards Watch, which launched in May and was developed with the help of a graduate class at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, fills a niche that remained despite established advocacy groups and blogs. And it responds to a widespread local perception that the ESD, the State authority with the inherently complicated role of promoting development while overseeing it, has “done the developer’s bidding,” in the words of Brooklyn Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. “Atlantic Yards Watch is intended to address gaps in oversight that we hope will eventually be closed through the establishment of a local development corporation or authority that is accountable to the public,” said Howard Kolins, President of the Boerum Hill Association, one of the co-sponsors of the site.
The three groups behind the project are part of the coalition known as BrooklynSpeaks, initially spearheaded by the Municipal Art Society (MAS), which, beginning in 2006, pursued a “mend it, don’t end it” strategy regarding Atlantic Yards. By contrast, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), formed in 2004, led opposition to Atlantic Yards via lawsuits challenging the use of eminent domain, the legitimacy of the environmental review, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s revision of the deal to sell development rights to the Vanderbilt Yard in Brooklyn.
Pushing for Transparency in Court
By late 2009, however, BrooklynSpeaks (sans MAS) had joined DDDB in court challenging the ESD’s decision to re-approve the project while maintaining, despite significant reason for skepticism, that Atlantic Yards would be finished in ten years. The lawsuit, which included as petitioners three local elected officials, charged that the ESD, in its rush to approve a slightly reconfigured project, had failed to study the neighborhood impacts of a potential 25-year buildout.
That lawsuit was initially dismissed by Supreme Court Justice Marcy Friedman in March 2010, a day before the arena groundbreaking. It was reopened, remarkably, as Friedman agreed to admit into the record the Development Agreement — which allows a 25-year buildout — that the State withheld until after the court argument in the first stage of the lawsuit.
In the latest twist, on July 13 the judge ruled for the community groups, ordering the ESD to produce a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) detailing the impacts — such as noise, traffic, and safety — of the longer construction period. (The ESD has not announced whether it will appeal.) Such a ruling is highly unusual, given that judges rarely second-guess agencies, but in this case Justice Friedman deemed the ESD’s actions “arbitrary and capricious.” What was behind the agency’s rush in 2009? The lawyer for BrooklynSpeaks suggested that the ESD was driven by a end-of-2009 deadline to get tax-exempt bonds issued for arena construction.
While ESD documents, conducted by the ubiquitous environmental consultant AKRF, used the bloodless language common to environmental reviews (e.g., “significant adverse neighborhood character impacts”), Atlantic Yards Watch brings the impact of construction home, posting video of trucks idling outside a residential building at 5:45am, photos of trucks leaving the construction site with piles of dirt uncovered, violating an agreement with the State, or photos of a wrong-way truck blocking traffic.
It also serves as a longitudinal archive of area conditions. In response to widespread belief that the construction site contributed to the rat problem, City health officials recently surveyed the Forest City Ratner-controlled site, and announced that it appeared to be well-maintained. However, it’s plausible that the developer had stepped up site maintenance in anticipation of that walk-through. After all, Atlantic Yards Watch had previously posted photos of lingering piles of garbage. And Forest City did agree to add new trash receptacles in the construction site for food waste only.
The Atlantic Yards Blogosphere
Atlantic Yards Watch complements an established, and evolving, blogosphere regarding Atlantic Yards. The most prolific site is NoLandGrab, a daily anthology of articles and blog posts related to the project, often with critical commentary appended. Prospect Heights photographer Tracy Collins has been documenting both the neighborhood around the project and Atlantic Yards-related events; photographers Adrian Kinloch and Jonathan Barkey also chronicle events. All have been vital for my own daily blog, Atlantic Yards Report, which features original reporting, plus analysis and commentary.
Both DDDB and BrooklynSpeaks use a blog format for announcements and articles. Other Atlantic Yards-related blogs have been published for shorter periods, such as the urban design-focused Brooklyn Views. A more personal blog, the Footprint Gazette, in 2008 chronicled the significant disruptions faced by a smaller number of Prospect Heights residents within the project footprint, as pre-construction utility work went on outside their windows.
“If Jane Jacobs had the tools and technology back when she was fighting Robert Moses’ plans to bulldoze Lower Manhattan, I bet The Death and Life of Great American Cities would have been a blog,” Brooklyn blogger and activist Aaron Naparstek told the Times in 2006. Perhaps, though Jacobs and her allies also had the Village Voice, which crusaded along with them. These days, established media outlets, with shrinking numbers of staff and a universe of topics to cover, give projects like Atlantic Yards relatively little scrutiny.
Can it be Duplicated?
While the overall response to Atlantic Yards may seem a salutary example of citizen media, using widely available innovations like blogs and YouTube, it also relies on several educated professionals with formal or informal journalistic, programming and photographic skills, and the capacity to put in significant volunteer hours.
Regarding Atlantic Yards Watch, said Peter Krashes, an artist (and Dean Street Block Association president) who helped develop the initiative, “I think it is duplicable.” After all, he observes, most community controversies are far less complicated, involving fewer problems and fewer agencies. A community board, he mused, could even adopt the model of establishing on online repository to register and track concerns.
Making an Impact
Atlantic Yards Watch sponsors hope to do more. With $4,000 in support from Council Member Letitia James, the aim is to hire consultants and/or reach out to other community groups in areas impacted by the project.
The initiative has already changed the ecosystem for discussing Atlantic Yards. Arana Hankin, Director of the Atlantic Yards Project for the ESD, gave Atlantic Yards Watch an off-the-cuff compliment at a June 23 community meeting on rats, calling the web site “fantastic and wonderful,” but at the same time — to the frustration of some — suggesting that complaints must be filed directly with the agency to provoke changes. However, thanks to Atlantic Yards Watch and that public meeting, the media had become aware of the “rat tsunami,” spurring official concern.
This weekend, the site’s most prolific contributor posted another incident report, documenting how trucks delivering steel idled on the public street rather than used the designated staging area. Once again, citizen watchdogs were making sure that government overseers could not plead ignorance.
Journalist Norman Oder has written about the Atlantic Yards development — and other urban issues — in his watchdog blog Atlantic Yards Report since 2006 and is now working on a book about Atlantic Yards. Until late 2010, he spent 14 years as an editor at the magazine Library Journal. In 2000, he began operating a tour guide business specializing in Brooklyn, New York Like a Native. He lives in Brooklyn.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.