What Went Wrong With “Atlantic Yards?”

An Interview With Kent Barwick, President of the Municipal Art Society


"There is disappointment, annoyance, and anger because there hasn’t been any way for anyone to have a voice. Who is listening to the people living around Atlantic Yards?"

With the Pataki Adminstration scrambling to beat the buzzer and win approval for Forest City Enterprise’s "Atlantic Yards" mega-project before the inauguration of Governor-Elect Eliot Spitzer, journalist Ezra Goldstein talks to Municipal Art Society President Kent Barwick about the problems that arise when communities are locked out of the development process in their own neighborhoods.

Municipal Art Society President Kent Barwick has been attacked for not condemning Forest City Enterprises plan to drop 17 high rises and a 19,000-seat basketball arena in the middle of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. He has also been criticized for being too concerned about process when, say his critics, the basic concepts behind the immense Atlantic Yards project are fatally flawed. To Barwick, however, process is paramount, and Atlantic Yards is the poster child for what goes wrong when process is ignored.

Barwick says that the people of Brooklyn and their elected representatives have been shut out of planning for Atlantic Yards and all major decisions have been made behind closed doors. The result is a poorly designed project that has polarized the community and that squanders both opportunity and public trust.

The project can be saved, he says, but only if people are given the chance not just to speak but to be heard. That would happen if the state recognizes that, properly, its client at Atlantic Yards is the citizens and government of New York City, not a private developer.

That is no radical notion, argues Barwick. It is law and policy embedded in regulations and the city charter, thanks in large part to agreements he and the MAS helped hammer out two decades ago after a prolonged battle with the Koch administration over the proposed sale to a private developer of publicly owned land on Columbus Circle.

The city, says Barwick, is obligated to solicit ideas from the public, develop a master plan, put out an RFP (a request for proposals) and then consider bids from several developers before it can give up a significant piece of land. More public hearings follow before construction is allowed to begin. It may be a cumbersome and imperfect process, Barwick admits, but in project after project, the end result has been far superior to the initial concept.

atlantic_yards2.jpgAt Atlantic Yards, a private company developed plans for the 22-acre site before Brooklyn’s communities had a chance to say a word, and long before a token RFP was issued. The community boards, guaranteed participation in neighborhood planning in the 1975 and 1989 revisions to the city charter, were completely shut out of the process, as were Brooklyn’s democratically elected City Council members. The developer never publicly asked the advice of the highly capable (and taxpayer funded) staff at the Department of City Planning which had just completed a major rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn adjacent to the project’s footprint.

The first time Brooklyn residents heard that Forest City Ratner Companies intended to build 16 skyscrapers and an arena in the middle of their borough, it was presented largely as a fait accompli. That was allowed to happen because the city had ceded responsibility for the site to the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), and the ESDC, bluntly, operates above the law. The ESDC has the power to override New York City law and policy, and that is precisely what it has done.

The ESDC was established in the 1960s as the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) with the best of intentions, says Barwick. Its primary function was to get economically mixed housing built outside poor neighborhoods, and "Governor Rockefeller recognized that you couldn’t integrate society if you didn’t have a way to break through local zoning laws. The UDC act gave the state the mechanism when necessary to break local zoning codes to achieve a higher purpose."

But, Barwick says, "that has evolved now into a situation where virtually all major projects in the state use the UDC act, because it is virtually impervious to challenge. UDC projects don’t have to conform to local zoning, or pay any attention to historic preservation, and they give the state the power of eminent domain."

UDC projects also "bypass virtually every opportunity there is for citizens to voice their opinion."


Barwick describes the public hearings on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Atlantic Yards, which came more than two years after Forest City Ratner first presented plans for the site, as "the beginning and the end of the public process." The unelected, unaccountable officials at the ESDC can override even this small bit of public input because they have the power to ignore the final environmental impact statement.

Barwick describes multiple negative repercussions of this non-inclusive, top-down, closed-door process. Large segments of the community have been pushed into warring pro and con camps, and not just the state but also the developer have forsaken input that could have vastly improved the plans for Atlantic Yards.

"There is disappointment, annoyance, and anger because there hasn’t been any way for anyone to have a voice," he said. "Who is listening to the people living around Atlantic Yards? There’s nowhere for them to go and talk, and what processes there are have been anti-democratic and frankly discourteous, and no one should be astonished that many people are angry and disaffected."

ratner_hands_off.jpgAs a result of the way Atlantic Yards has been mishandled, said Barwick, "a lot of people ended up either in an organized cheering section or sending in $10 donations to fund a lawsuit against eminent domain. I’m not demeaning either of these positions, but it’s not exactly a public approval process leading to a better project."

Barwick insists that the project still can be turned around if the people are invited into the process. This faith in the benefits of citizen participation is the cornerstone of one of the Municipal Art Society’s major ongoing initiatives: the Campaign for Community Based Planning. The campaign would mandate citizen involvement working through community boards to shape the future of their neighborhoods. (Not surprisingly, the campaign’s web site provides links to the Atlantic Yards DEIS and General Project Plan as "exemplars of those things wrong with the existing system.")

"In our view, the potential for people to be involved in the future of their own neighborhoods is obvious," said Barwick.

In community based planning’s ideal model, government decides on overarching needs, because, said Barwick, "there are some decisions that can only be made on a citywide or regional or state level, like where highways or subways should go, or how health care delivery systems should operate, or how much growth a community should be encouraged to absorb, or how many units of low-income housing need to be built.

"But once a central government has made major decisions, most of the other decisions are ones that local communities are better equipped to handle. They know the physical and human landscape better than anyone else. It is essentially a dialogue: elected government sets standards or targets, but how those targets are realized is determined locally."

It’s not a plebiscite or a poll, Barwick insisted, and elected officials eventuarlly make the final decisions, but those decisions are wiser when the public is involved. "Of course it’s a more cumbersome process than having [ESDC chairman] Charles Gargano and [Deputy Mayor] Dan Doctoroff in a room," he said, "but you also have a better result."

DeanPlaygroundProjected.jpgBy Barwick’s reckoning, he has sat through hundreds of public hearings over the years, which included a stint as chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. "I have never gone away from a public hearing without having learned something," Barwick observed.

Barwick describes how MAS gathered ideas from some 10,000 people after the destruction of the World Trade Center for its project, Imagine New York: Giving Voice to the People’s Visions. Ordinary citizens, he said, had excellent ideas for what should be built on the WTC site-ideas that have been largely ignored by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a subsidiary of the ESDC.

Barwick argues further that NIMBY (not in my backyard) is not the rule when the public gets involved, contrary to what is said by some defenders of ESDC involvement in Atlantic Yards. "We are aware of community based plans that have been implemented in more than 50 communities," he said, "and they have been much more responsive to absorbing growth than critics assume." (Community based planning is state law in Minnesota, and has been widely used in such cities as Seattle, Baltimore, Washington, and Rochester),

Barwick does not think it is too late to salvage at least part of Atlantic Yards. "I don’t think this project is substantially designed in its later phases," he said, pointing out that it could be a decade before construction begins on much of the housing and retail space even if the ESDC rubber stamps the project this winter. "Battery Park City and Riverside South got redesigned several times before they got built," observes Barwick.

"There’s no reason a new governor couldn’t open up the process and get good design people involved. Even neutral architects I have talked to give a failing grade to the developer’s plans for open space, retail space, circulation, and the like. I would like to see the governor create a board above suspicion that has the trust of the public to guide the project from here on out.

"I’m not saying [developer] Bruce Ratner is a bad guy or a crook. I don’t think he is. But there’s no public present. No public official present. This project is far too big and far too important to be left to a private developer. It must involve the public."

Get the process right, Barwick argues, and good ideas will follow. Get the process right, and Atlantic Yards could still be saved from itself.

For information on the Community Based Planning Campaign, see the Municipal Art Society web site and download their booklet, Livable Neighborhoods for a Livable City (PDF). Also see the Brooklyn Speaks web site. This article was originally published in the Park Slope Civic Council newsletter.

Photo renderings copyright of Jonathan Barkey

  • Just a point of clarification to start. There’s no such place as “Atlantic Yards.” It’s a marketing term for a project.

    So there are no people living “around Atlantic Yards.” Yes, I know it may seem more awkward to say so, but the people are living “around the proposed Atlantic Yards site.”


  • Some Guy In Brooklyn

    “”I’m not saying [developer] Bruce Ratner is a bad guy or a crook”
    You may not be saying it Mr. Barwick, but Ratner is just that – a bad guy and a crook. He is bad because unless he is completely oblivious to what’s going on he KNOWS what he is trying to create is extremely destructive to the surrounding neighborhoods. he KNOWS he is using eminent domain to take people’s homes from them who don’t want to give them up.
    He is a crook because he has more or less bought off politicians to subvert the law and make a sham of public process. I sincerely hope Gargano is investigated, which will undoubtedly bring to light Ratner’s improper influence/relationship with the ESDC and pataki administration. It’s long shot he’ll ever go to jail, but certainly that’s where the man belongs.

  • SteveFtGreene

    “Barwick does not think it is too late to salvage at least part of Atlantic Yards. “I don’t think this project is substantially designed in its later phases,” he said…”

    Practically speaking, how would this work? Is there a suggestion that the State go ahead and approve this project (eminent domain abuse and all), so that we *might* get a chance to have input on whatever comes after Phase 1? Is there something particularly good about the Phase 1 design that demands it be approved?

    As it is acknowledged, this project has been completely handed over to the developer (who may not be a bad guy or crook but does behave as one). Barring a rejection by the PACB, he will do as he wishes without community input because that’s been his strategy all along.

  • Malcolm Fort Greene

    “I’m not saying [developer] Bruce Ratner is a bad guy or a crook”

    Well if he isn’t he sure is fooling a whole lot of people.

  • ddartley

    “the city . . . ceded responsibility for the site to the Empire State Development Corporation”

    When, and how, exactly was this allowed to happen? Simply with the very creation of the UDC in the 60s? Or was this particular project deliberately steered towards UDC for decisions, and away from City gov?

  • This is a caricature:

    As a result of the way Atlantic Yards has been mishandled, said Barwick, “a lot of people ended up either in an organized cheering section or sending in $10 donations to fund a lawsuit against eminent domain. I’m not demeaning either of these positions, but it’s not exactly a public approval process leading to a better project.”

  • pete

    Could tell where you were coming from by opening line saying project would be dropped down in middle of Prospect Heights.
    Of course, someone not familiar with area would
    infer middle as center of, heart of, whatever of a nice residential community.
    Which obviously it is not. It is on edge of the area, much of it over train yards, former industrial which borders residential and busy commercial downtown area.

  • one of the many partisans

    For all of his claims to be a “liberal do-gooder,” Bruce Ratner is a businessman. His job is to serve his shareholders. I hate what he’s proposing, but it is the elected officials and state agencies that are supposed to be on the side of the citizens. Our governmental system has become woefully corrupt, unrepresentative and untransparent, so Ratner just took advantage of that.

    The Atlantic Yards proposal is not unique in its bad planning and failure to use an open system to create the best result. AY is just the most outrageous.

    Like it or not, DDDb is the most dogged group fighting for transparency and for an end to the conflict of interest that is the ESDC. Our corrupt system will not be fixed unless more citizens stand up and refuse to let our public policy be decided by private interests.

  • P

    BTW- Those shadows on the rendering look pretty phony. The photo is clearly at some point with the sun much higher in the sky.

    Also, the shadows seem to be running parallel with Atlantic Avenue so most of the AY shadows will be on site not in Fort Greene.

    I think it’s a horrible design urbanistically but I’d prefer a little more accuracy in my windmill-tilting.

  • And it’s a apt and accurate caricature, if you ask me, Norman. I think Barwick really nailed it on that point. The way the process was set up and run, it basically forced people into hardcore pro and con postures allowing no room at all for community people to participate constructively.

  • mfs

    ddartley- technically, Bloomberg signed an MOU ceding the City’s interest in the project to ESDC in 2003.

  • indignatio

    Wrong Aaron, its a total caricature to suggest that the opposition is reduced to “ten dollar donations for an eminent domain lawsuit.”

    Perhaps its because Mr. Barwick has freelanced in joining the fray 2 years or more into that he is unaware (thats giving him the benefit of the doubt) of:
    The Unity Plan
    The Extell Plan
    Lawsuit challenging the ESDC/FCR conflict.
    Lobbying trips to Albany
    Community Forums
    and on and on.

    Mr. Barwick’s comment is demeaning. If it weren’t he wouldn’t try to say it wasn’t immediately after. he protests too much.

    sure its a public process for the birds. non-existent. but it is the opposition and critics that have TRIED to broaden and make the process more robust. It is Mr. Barwick who rails against it, then accepts it.

  • SteveFtGreene


    It’s difficult to have a single graphic to describe the shadows that would be cast by this project, and the one used in this article (which appeared in NY Magazine) is not an exaggeration. However, if you prefer a different view, perhaps you will like the one provided by our “friends” at ESDC:


  • CHG

    I didn’t take Barwick’s comment as a criticism of DDDb, which has successfully leveraged its $10 donations into a formidable campaign, but of the absence of any opportunity for local residents to oppose this project other than to take it to court.

    But Indignatio, you’ve clearly proven the point about how divisive this issue is. They’re either with you or against you.

  • Indig,

    I agree that it is somewhat of a caricature. I think it’s a really accurate one.

    The process that led to the Unity Plan is clearly the kind of community planning that our public officials should have been initiating and supporting on their own.

    But in lieu of a real planning process and a public discussion about how to make big, dense development work in and around Downtown Brooklyn, and with a big developer benefitting from a divide-and-conquer strategy, we’re basically left with these two camps waving signs at each other at public hearings and then filing law suits. That’s a crappy way to build a city if you ask me.

    I’m not sure why this view of the situation would take anything away from the remarkable work that DDDB has done.

  • SteveFtGreene


    Your view is problematic for me because:

    You’re trying to put some of the blame for lack of process of DDDB (one of the “camps waving signs”, as you would have it) instead of on the elected officials who have abdicated their responsibilities. This is not just a matter of “he said she said”. I don’t accept that supporters paid off in one for or another by the developer constitute a responsible position in favor of the project.


    You conveniently avoid the eminent domain issue. Those living on the site should not be forced to leave solely for the benefit of Ratner. These people deserve our support, and ignoring their issue is probably the worst way to treat them.

  • glass towers are crushing my soul

    barwick’s (and MAS’) stance on the project, while politic, ignores the do or die nature of this development. by working within the framework of ratner’s proposed plan, barwick cedes ground that should not be relinquished. ratner is not a crook, and you can hardly blame him for doing what comes naturally to developers. his skill in manipulating the process is mirrored by the lack of competence shown by our elected officials in representing the citizens of brooklyn.

    the process has been rigged from the start. saying so seems redundant.

    i hope dddb is successful in their lawsuit (and urge everybody to contribute to their legal defense fund) and that their victory will prepare the ground for an entirely new vision of what could be built at the site.

  • Tom

    The opposition to the project has been disorganized and largely ineffective, and the $10 donation line is an accurate caricature of that reality. Instead of rallying public support against the project, which certainly would have been possible, DDDB has pursued a largely legal strategy. The weakness of this struck me most at the Atlantic Antic, where I found large lines at the several Ratner-sponsored tables, where the largely uninformed public were given Brooklyn balloons, could shoot hoops for a prize and could get an autograph from a professional basketball player (while being given AY flyers). I was able to get a large pin that said “Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn” at the DDDB table for a $1 donation. Not particularly inspiring. Where were Rosie Perez, Jonathan Lethem, Michelle Williams?

    In the end it is all of our (those opposed to the project) fault for putting most of our eggs in the DDDB basket and keeping them there. An opposition leader with a wider platform and better handle of PR and outreach would put us in a very different position today.

  • Fort Greene

    DDDB has made AY opposition the issue, Tom, I agree that more outreach is needed, but were it not for dddb in the firstplace the project would have slipped through like the 30 story building that’s going up around the corner from me on ashland. but believe it or not all those ballons and buttons cost money….most other opposition to projects has ‘astroturf’ (ie fake grass roots) money backing it, like the Dolans and Howie Rich out in California – Ratner is so powerful, it seems, few people are willing to do that.

  • SteveFtGreene


    If you believe this is over, thanks for your interest.

    Otherwise, I imagine DDDB could use your help in moving forward.

  • Steve,

    Who is saying that DDDB is to blame for the lack of a legit community-input process? Not me. Not Barwick in this interview, as I read it.

    This is why I think Barwick and BrooklynSpeaks contributions are important and vital:

    Even if the development process is horrible, even if it is using eminent domain improperly, even if it involves building an arena on a busy intersection, I still want someone from my community sitting at the table with the various powerbrokers and doing whatever can possibly be done to make this a healthier, saner and less destructive project to the neighborhoods around it.

  • jason

    guys: agree to disagree. just keep the focus on the bigger issue:

    1. bruce’s plan is WAY too big.
    2. the public’s voice was ignored.

    join dddb AND http://www.brooklynspeaks.net and make your voice heard now. let brooklyn be brooklyn.

  • Jane

    Exactly, the local communities — as in all the people who have to live near this monster — were ignored on height, design and open space concerns. Community-based planning is not an abstract dream. It works all over the world. Check this out: http://www.mas.org/viewarticle.php?id=1339&category=53

  • Jim

    It seems to me that from the start, the position of the vocal oposition to AY’s was a no project, period. No attempt to negotiate or influence the design; just no, no, no. The debate has not been very civil with the demonization of Bruce Ratner by the DDDB gorup. Not the way to gain a place at the table.

  • CHG

    I think DDDb’s strategy is the best way to go – and I have contributed my time and money to them – in order to fight the unjustifiable use of eminent domain. But I’m not convinced by DDDB’s frequent pitch that a victory in court will stop the entire project. It’s entirely possible that they will not win, leaving us with the project as is. AND it’s entirely possible that they COULD WIN and a restructing will spare their homes but leave us with the rest of the project. It’s not clear to me that they’ve got a backup plan.

  • wundering

    Jim, you wrote:

    “It seems to me that from the start, the position of the vocal oposition to AY’s was a no project, period. No attempt to negotiate or influence the design; just no, no, no. The debate has not been very civil with the demonization of Bruce Ratner by the DDDB gorup. Not the way to gain a place at the table.”

    Thats a myth.

    Does anybody on this board have an idea, at this stage of the game, how this project can be changed other than lawsuits? what is the incentive for FCR and political leaders to sit down, when beyond the lawsuits the project actually is a done deal? if the lawsuits don’t winits left to a negotiation, with one side having zero leverage.

    its always strike me as strange:
    Billionaire developer proposes outlandishly dense and large project at an overstressed hub and intersection, asks for hundreds of millions in public money along with cheap/free land PLUS eminent domain.

    Community groups say “hold on there, we don’t want that.”

    Community goups are then called “unreasonable” “uncivil,” even when they say over and over they want development, not a land outsized land grab. even when they bring in a higher bidder to develop the yards.

    if it’s the community one thinks is being “uncivil” and “unreasonable” its time for a paradigm check.

  • CHG

    Wundering, I agree with your point: “If the lawsuits don’t win it’s left to a negotiation with one side having zero leverage.” However, I’d go a step further – if the lawsuits don’t win, there will be no negotiation. This is why a litigation only strategy is very worrisome.

    The only other leverage we’ve got at this point is the yet unapproved financing, which is why it’s so important for people to contact their elected officials NOW, not later. You can sign two different letters through DDDB BrooklynSpeaks websites. It’s a numbers game – and at this point we don’t have the numbers.

    Another point about leverage – you give something up that another party wants in order to get something you want in return. In this case, the only people in the community with any real leverage are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Ratner wants their properties and might give up something else in order to build the arena. But the point is- the plaintiffs don’t want to give up their homes. The leverage belongs entirely to them, not the community, and I don’t expect them to give anything up for anyone else.

    I completely support them, but I’m not convinced that an eminent domain win would achieve anything more than sparing their homes.

  • Steve

    FYI, there is an interesting exhibit at the event below, a demonstration by NYU students of cutting edge interactive digital technologies. It is an interactive video representation of the section of Brooklyn for which the Atlantic Yards development has been proposed. You walk into the room and it looks like you are walking down Flatbush toward Bergen Tile, and suddenly your proximity to the screen triggers a transformation and Ratner’s mega-tower is looming above you. I believe the creator has programmed in a number of proposed developments around New York so that you can “see the future unfold” as you through the screens. It’s free, lots of fun, and today is the last day:

    ITP Winter Show 2006
    Sunday, December 17 from 2 to 6pm
    Monday, December 18 from 5 to 9pm

    A two-day festival of interactive sight, sound and technology from the student artists and innovators at ITP.


  • “Battery Park City and Riverside South got redesigned several times before they got built”

    If those are his models for the “potential” to make Atlantic Yards better, that ain’t saying much. You’d thing for MAS to take a stand like this they would have better examples to offer as hope. But they don’t because most big projects happening right now are all terrible, no matter the process, which is why their “compromise” position is so hopeless.

  • Also, Barwick’s comment about “$10 Donations” is pretty damn demining and ignores the variety and scale of outreach and activism DDDB has been engaged in. It’s fucking ironic for Barwick to so casually sling that line and then come parading in as the voice of reason and sage. What the hell was Barwick and MAS doing six months ago, 1 year ago, 2 years ago? Oh, that’s right – ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! So now he comes in, in his popmus white shirt and tie at the last minute acting like he is the great visionary of community representation. I wrote about this before in a post at my site, and then chilled for a while to see if MAS’s Brooklyn Speaks (BS) project could move the dialog, but this statement of his is infuriating. Barwick is a lucky sob to have any hope of effecting this project thanks to the tremendous efforts by DDDB and the commnity over the past 3 years.

  • Ok – I spoke with a MAS person and they said this was not at all how this was intended. Which I can except – their point being the public process has been so bad that we are now looking at the lawsuit as being the only option. But MAS to me needs to work on how they say that. To lump BUILD and ACORN in with DDDB and not dicuss DDDB’s history in trying to make this a public process, while ACORN has not, is an over simplification, if inadvertant.


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