Tomorrow, the state's Public Authorities Control Board will vote on public financing for the $4 billion Atlantic Yards basketball stadium and housing project. Governor Pataki wants the project approved as part of his legacy, but he should be careful what he wishes for, because Atlantic Yards stands for much that is wrong with New York.
For starters, New York won't trust the free market. Sure, a private-sector developer, Forest City Ratner, conceived the plan to erect the stadium and an instant high-rise neighborhood of 6,430 apartments atop a 22-acre, seven-block "footprint" of central Brooklyn.
But this private-sector veil doesn't mean Atlantic Yards is anything other than a centrally planned, public-sector project. Forest City Ratner couldn't pursue Atlantic Yards without a half-billion dollars in public subsidies, the government's power to condemn private property, and exemptions from local zoning. Rail yards owned by the state's Metropolitan Transportation Authority occupy 40% of the area, but the rest of the project site is already a developed neighborhood.
Further, the rationale behind Atlantic Yards is vintage New York central planning. To justify the use of eminent domain, state officials have determined that the area, some of which falls under a 44-year-old "urban renewal site" designation, "has been physically blighted and underutilized for decades."
But the reality is different. A visit to the project site last year revealed historic warehouses converted into condos alongside modern factories serving New York's arts community. Working-class and middle-class apartment buildings as well as a popular establishment called Freddy's Bar, which dates back to Prohibition days, face the wrecking ball in the name of state-sponsored urban renewal.
One business owner in the footprint, Drew Tressler of Global Exhibition Services, uses his 45,000-square-foot loft to design commercial exhibits and museum displays. As Mr. Tressler wrote in a letter to state officials: "Our building is a classic loft building in very good condition. What sense does it make to knock down a commercial building located on a six-lane highway … while … putting in jeopardy the jobs of 28 Brooklyn employees?"
As for the auto-body shops in the area, no, they're not beautiful, but who appointed the state to determine that private property is "underutilized"? In any case, if the state left the area alone, it's likely that the owners eventually would sell to developers, as they have all over the city. Manhattan has lost gas stations and parking lots to development over the past decade through market economics, not through central planning.
Second, New York pursues redistributionist policies. The business owners and residents who already have a stake in central Brooklyn oppose Atlantic Yards. The supporters, by contrast, are groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as Acorn, because the developer has pledged to make 2,250 apartments "affordable" for low- and middle-income families. One supporter, Gabriel McQueen, said the project was a good idea because it would put "everyone on an equal playing field,…" providing "affordable apartments and not luxury apartments. … Affordable housing is a good thing and no other developer has been willing to step up to the plate."
"Public support" for the project amounts to this: Brooklyn residents who cannot afford brand-new, "luxury" apartments want the government to take the private property of others, in the hopes of having the government distribute that property to them via the developer. New Yorkers who live in brownstones or other low-density housing should beware, for under this logic, it would be good to condemn other low-rise neighborhoods and replace them with high-rises that include affordable housing.
Third, New York's unaccountable government plays favorites. Atlantic Yards can bypass development regulations because its gatekeepers — the Empire State Development Corporation, which already has approved the project, and the Public Authorities Control Board —aren't impartial government bodies.
The development corporation isn't a fair, transparent government arm. Mr. Pataki has allowed a partisan fund-raiser, Charles Gargano, to head it. The state Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, reportedly allocated half a million dollars in ESDC grants to a company whose major investor had given him plane rides. Now the development corporation will use eminent domain not to benefit the public but to benefit Forest City Ratner because the developer knows how to play city and state politicians with its "affordable-housing" plans.
As for the Public Authorities Control Board, three appointees — one each controlled by Messrs. Pataki and Bruno and the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver — staff this board. But the "three men in a room" don't consider the board to be a nonpolitical, fiduciary body. Rather, they use it as a political tool. As widely reported, Mr. Silver didn't use the control board to kill the West Side stadium because it was a bad idea, although it was. He killed it because a supporter, Madison Square Garden, didn't want competition.
Fourth, New York's finances are opaque. New York taxpayers, city and state, would shovel nearly $500 million into Atlantic Yards because it's supposed to make a "profit," meaning new tax revenues, on such subsidies. But the development corporation drastically changed the amount of that estimated "profit" in early December, at the last minute, to $944 million from $1.4 billion, and without discussing the change before approving the project. Blogger Norman Oder first reported the change at atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com. ESDC's projections of future jobs are just as sketchy. It cut permanent jobs to be "produced" to 5,000 from 7,400, but, as the New York Times notes, either estimate is "guesswork."
Finally, New York ignores the obvious solution. The rail yards keep the neighborhood from reaching its potential. The city should rezone the space above the yards so the MTA could sell them through a fair bid.
The Public Authorities Control Board should vote Atlantic Yards down. If it doesn't, the project could be a target for Governor Spitzer on day one because killing Atlantic Yards is like killing a little bit of everything wrong with the Empire State.
Ms. Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.