Will a reorganized ESDC bring accountability to Atlantic Yards?

On the last day of 2012, the New York Post reported that Governor Cuomo plans to reorganize the Empire State Development Corporation. An official from the Cuomo administration was quoted describing the agency as “disjointed, dysfunctional — and nobody really is sure on the inside who is responsible for what.’’

Many who have followed ESDC’s role in the Atlantic Yards project certainly share that assessment. Instead of providing the type of oversight that would ensure the delivery of jobs and affordable housing promised to justify the massive public aid, zoning overrides, and access to eminent domain the project has received, ESDC has allowed itself to be used as a shield by Forest City Ratner behind which the developer avoids both scrutiny for its actions and accountability for its commitments.

Reports that inadequate bolts were used to secure Barclays Center’s rusted metal shell are only the latest example of the agency’s failure to properly oversee the $5 billion project. A July 2012 study by an environmental engineer retained by community organizations found that ESDC let Forest City get away with repeated violations of environmental commitments intended to protect the health and quality of life of project neighbors during construction. And in 2011, a New York State Supreme Court found that the ESDC acted illegally in 2009 when it approved a renegotiated project schedule extending construction from 10 to 25 years—pushing the majority of Atlantic Yards’ purported public benefits more than a generation into the future.

The Post reports that current ESDC CEO Kenneth Adams will lead the agency’s reorganization. Although Mr. Adams wasn’t in the chair in 2009 when the Atlantic Yards project was renegotiated, it was under his leadership that the agency fought the 2011 court order calling for the project plan to be revisited with two unsuccessful appeals that nevertheless wasted a year in which real reform at Atlantic Yards could have started.

And there is no question that reform is desperately needed. Atlantic Yards’ promises of jobs, affordable housing and open space are now in tatters. Only nine of the 363 apartments in the project’s first residential building are available to families at or below the median income for Brooklyn. The organization that partnered with Forest City under its “community benefits agreement” to deliver on commitments for local construction jobs is out of business, never having placed a single construction worker on the site. The office building that was to account for most of the promised 10,000 permanent jobs has been indefinitely shelved. For the foreseeable future, planned public open space has given way to surface parking for the arena.

Atlantic Yards is the place to judge the credibility of Governor Cuomo’s commitment to reorganize ESDC so it can fulfill its mission of promoting economic development in New York State. The 25-year deal Forest City renegotiated in 2009 on the basis of the then-financial crisis clearly makes no sense today, when real estate in downtown and brownstone Brooklyn is booming, and droves of low- and middle-income families are being displaced. Since July 2011, Justice Marcy Friedman’s order for ESDC to revisit the project plan has given the Governor and CEO Adams a platform from which to bring accountability to Atlantic Yards. Will they now finally use it?