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Many familiar faces in Yards watchdog group • Brooklyn Paper

Many familiar faces in Yards watchdog group

Bertha Lewis, executive director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), kisses Mayor Michael Bloomberg at Borough Hall.
The Brooklyn Papers / Tom Callan

The watchdog group that is tasked with monitoring construction at the mega-development formerly known as Atlantic Yards is finally on the job, and it includes several people who have long histories of supporting the project.

The Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation held its first meeting on Friday, more than a month after it was supposed to first get together. The new board was formed as part of a deal reached last June between community groups and the developers. The deal is meant to speed construction of below-market-rate housing in the planned 16-tower complex.

One of the activists involved in the creation of the new group said that it is a step towards meaningful community input.

“This is definitely a sign of change,” said Gib Veconi, a member of Brooklyn Speaks and the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a room full of the stakeholders actually having a discussion about how to move forward.”

The panel lacks enforcement power and answers to the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency managing the development.

Nine of the 14 board members were chosen by Gov. Cuomo, and many have previous ties to the project. They including Joe Chan, the former head of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership and former Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce president Ken Adams, both of Empire State Development, and Sharon Daughtry, head of the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance. Adams is soon to take over as Cuomo’s tax commissioner. Daughtry is a signatory to the development’s community-benefits agreement. She is an ally of Ratner, whose company paid at least three of the groups that signed, including Daughtry’s.

The new board is supposed to monitor the developers’ compliance with construction-timeline commitments that demand the discounted housing be completed by 2025 or face fines — and the mitigation of the effects of construction on the surrounding residential blocks of Prospect Heights. It is also tasked with acting as a go-between for the developers, local community groups, elected officials, and public agencies.

This rendering shows a planned Atlantic Yards condo building on Vanderbilt Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets.
CookFox Architects

Mayor DeBlaiso, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, state Senate president Dean Skelos, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Borough President Adams got one appointment each for the board. Adams’s pick was Bertha Lewis, former head of the now-disbanded activist group Acorn, and another signatory to the community-benefits agreement. Lewis famously kissed Ratner and then-mayor Michael Bloomberg when the agreement, which mandated local jobs and discounted housing, was finalized. Her group was contractually obligated to support the project before it disbanded in 2010.

Forest City originally said the 15-tower town would be completed in 2016, but its latest estimate is 2035.

Last June’s deal called for the board to meet by the end of December, but the state pushed the date back. Veconi said it is a little late, but definitely soon enough to help.

“We’re still in the time-frame where construction is starting to ramp up,” he said.

Mayor DeBlasio’s appointment to the panel was Pratt Institute professor Jamie Stein, an appointee pushed for by the Dean Street Block Association.

That civic group withdrew from the activist coalition that secured the settlement because its members felt that the community development corporation would not be powerful enough. A member was guarded when talking about its prospects.

“This is an opportunity for the state to do a better job,” Peter Krashes said.

Joe Chan, former head of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, now works for the Empire State Development Corporation, and for the new community advisory group.
The Brooklyn Paper / Julie Rosenberg

The group issued a statement saying that in the past, the state has made decisions that favor the developer’s needs without regard to the impact they will have on immediate neighbors to the project.

“Our experience as neighbors is that the state and developer avert their attention from the real-world impacts of the project,” the statement says. “We hope that this board helps improve ESDC’s decision-making and monitoring capabilities.”

None of the groups that ultimately agreed to drop their lawsuits against the development as part of the deal that created the panel ultimately secured spots on it.

The group’s first meeting came one day after state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli issued a report blasting Empire State Development for failing to keep track of the finances of its 168 subsidiaries.

“New York state spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to spur economic development and job creation through ESDC programs,” he said in a statement. “New Yorkers deserve more thorough accounting about whether these programs are achieving desired results.”

The state has hired Tobi Jaiyesimi to direct the new community development corporation. She used to work in the office of Assemblyman Walter Mosley (D–Fort Greene). Despite all the factors working against her, Veconi called her a good choice.

“She has been associated with the community and has also worked with elected officials who have been working for this body’s formation.”

Ken Adams, pictured here back when he was head of the Chamber of Commerce, is now charged with monitoring Atlantic Yards construction for the new subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation.
File photo by Gregory P. Mango

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260–8310. E-mail him at mperl‌man@c‌ngloc‌al.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.

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