Last week, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn asked Letitia James, who represents the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn on the Council, to bring in a few of her angry constituents.
They’re angry about developer Forest City Ratner’s plans to build a 22-acre complex, centered on a new arena for the New Jersey Nets, in the middle of their neighborhood.
It’s the kind of issue in which Ms. Quinn has significant expertise.
Just a year ago, she was at the head of the successful effort to quash plans to build out the West Side rail yards as a large commercial development centered on a stadium for the New York Jets.
It was one of several meetings Ms. James has had with Ms. Quinn’s staff, and still, the new Speaker is reluctant to side with the neighborhood against the project.
Her reluctance surprises some.
“This is more egregious, and worse,” said Daniel Goldstein, comparing the Nets arena plan to the Jets plan. He is Forest City Ratner’s most vocal critic in Prospect Heights. “It would not be a principled position for her to support it as it is currently proposed,” he said.
Ms. James refused to characterize the discussions, saying only, “We’re still negotiating with the Speaker’s office.” But added: “She definitely remembers that I was there for Hudson Yards.”
Mr. Goldstein and other opponents have lately been scurrying to sway Ms. Quinn’s opinion before the Council exerts what little muscle it has over what is largely a state-regulated project. Sometime before June 30, the Council is supposed to vote on next year’s budget, which includes $50 million of the $200 million direct subsidy that the city and state together are spending on the project. (Indirect subsidies are estimated to total $1 billion or more.)
But Ms. Quinn is in a new position now.
The first woman to serve as Council Speaker, she is also the first openly gay Speaker. And lately, though she so recently helped to quash Mr. Bloomberg’s beloved Jets stadium, her relationship with the Mayor has been downright warm. Ms. Quinn recently supported the Yankee Stadium deal, another Bloomberg project that attracted complaints from neighborhood activists. And the two have joined together to undertake a more transparent budget process, and to pass tougher ethics regulations for lobbyists.
Her relationship with the Mayor’s office has drawn contrasts with that of her predecessor, Gifford Miller, at least at the end of his term. Certainly, in part, Mr. Miller and the Mayor butted heads because Mr. Miller was running an election campaign to take Mr. Bloomberg’s place. Ms. Quinn, however, is not—yet.
A supporter of Atlantic Yards with ties to the City Council said that Ms. Quinn would gain nothing politically by opposing the project.
“Ostensibly, she would want to distinguishh herself from the Mayor because she will want to run for Mayor one day herself,” the supporter said. “By 2009, they want to be playing games in there by that point. All of this will be forgotten.”
And now, as Speaker, she has an increasingly contentious borough to keep together under her leadership.
Ms. James said that Ms. Quinn wouldn’t be betraying any principle if she, on the one hand, opposed the stadium and, on the other, supported Atlantic Yards.
“She has different responsibilities,” Ms. James told The Observer. “She has to look at it from a citywide perspective. It has torn the delegation. There is dissension in the delegation about Atlantic Yards, and she has to view it from that perspective.”
All of which goes to show how the relationship of the Speaker to the Mayor has evolved since the position was created in 1990.
Two years ago, Ms. Quinn showed some sympathy for the Atlantic Yards cause. Then just a rank-and-file City Council member, she stood on City Hall’s steps alongside a dozen project opponents, including Ms. James and Charles Barron, another Brooklyn Council member against the project.
She said Forest City Ratner had not provided enough details. And she criticized the fact that the project would skirt the city’s painstaking planning review process.
“When you have a good project that benefits the city, you stand out in public and scream and cheer,” she reportedly said. “So why aren’t these details out in the light of day? Because they are not good.”
The following February, Ms. Quinn spoke at a panel on “Democracy and Development in Brooklyn,” in which, according to Mr. Goldstein, “Her main message was that you should keep fighting. The community should have a say in what was going on.”
Ms. Quinn, in Buffalo for the state Democratic convention, was not available for an interview.
Spokeswoman Maria Alvarado would not detail her position except to say that Ms. Quinn believed the project should voluntarily undergo a city-led land-use review (known incorrigibly in planning circles as ULURP), even though it is a state-sponsored plan.
“She very strongly believes that they should voluntarily submit to the ULURP process,” Ms. Alvarado said. “It allows for neighborhood residents, business owners, local elected officials and planning commissioners to give their input and determine whether it is the best plan possible for the community, and she believes it is important that you involve these parties together.”
But it hasn’t just been neighborhood activists visiting City Hall.
While Joe DePlasco, a spokesman for Forest City Ratner, would not comment on the developer’s efforts to enlist Ms. Quinn’s support, records filed with the City Clerk’s office show that Forest City executive Bruce Bender, a former aide to Democrats Ed Koch and Peter Vallone, met with Ms. Quinn’s predecessor last June. The former Speaker, Gifford Miller, eventually supported the Atlantic Yards proposal.
The report on Forest City’s lobbying activities for the first quarter of this year has not been filed, although it was due April 15.
The 22-acre Atlantic Yards project, which would include a basketball arena for the Nets and 6,860 apartments, could get state approval by the fall. The whole process has been conducted with far less fanfare than the Jets stadium plan, which would also have served as the cornerstone of the Mayor’s beloved 2012 Olympics plan. Atlantic Yards is in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan, and it has no big-money adversary like Madison Square Garden to pay for television ads denouncing it.
Its supporters say that any comparison between a 20,000-seat arena with a 75,000-seat stadium is unfair—although basketball events would take place much more frequently than the eight games a year the Jets were planning. Just as important, Forest City has put together a much more politically palatable package than the Jets and their main patron, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, ever did.
One the one hand, Atlantic Yards would impose 16 towers—one 650 feet high—on the edge of a rapidly gentrifying brownstone neighborhood. On the other hand, those towers include 2,250 apartments with rents affordable to lower- and middle-class households at a time when opposing affordable housing, or even questioning why it must be built here, on top of a $150 million platform over a rail yard, is politically risky.
Most of all, while a number of elected officials representing the site or adjoining districts—Ms. James, a State Senator, two State Assembly members and the Congressman—have come out against the project, and while neighborhood residents have been divided over it, the anti–Atlantic Yards movement does not have the uniformity that the stadium foes enjoyed, in which it was hard to find a politician on Manhattan’s West Side to say a good word about Jets owner Woody Johnson.
“They are very different,” Brooklyn Council member Bill de Blasio said of the two projects. “I feel very comfortable with the fact that she has experienced something in her own community like this that must make her more sensitive to the concerns of the residents. There are specifics about the arena complex that make it far superior.
“The concept from Day 1 involved a real commitment to the community in terms of affordable housing and job development and making sure the housing and job targets were really met,” Mr. de Blasio said. “The stadium revolved around the stadium. It wasn’t so clear what the social impacts were.”
Opponents would dispute how much good Atlantic Yards will do for Brooklyn, but one thing is sure: It is not going to hurt the West Side.