Purpose and Need
5th Avenue: A vibrant, mixed-use community.
For those who asked, this is basically what I intended to say at the August 23rd hearing, but after waiting 4 hours didn’t get the chance.
The statement of the “Purpose and Need” in the EIS describes the objectives for a project. According to the CEQR methodology followed for this particular project, the description of the purpose and need “should be framed in terms of how the action meets public needs and responds to public policies”. The CEQR manual further explains that “the (statement of the) project’s objectives is also important because it can help define the range of alternatives analyzed in the EIS”. That is, the point of looking at alternatives is to ascertain if there are other ways of achieving the same or similar objectives, while reducing negative impacts. In order to review a range of means to achieve the objectives, the objectives must be framed in a way that identifies the specific public policies that are intended to be addressed.
Initially, the DEIS for Atlantic Yards is as clear as it can be about the project’s Purpose and Need: “The overarching goal of the proposed project is to transform a blighted area into a vibrant mixed-use community”. It is not required to acquiesce to the use of the term “blight”, necessary for eminent domain takings, to agree that further development of a mixed-use community would be a good thing here. But note what is not required by this initial statement: there is no mention of an “ambitious scale”; there is no mention of an arena in this basic framing of the project’s objectives. So it makes sense that the alternatives explored later in the document include no-arena and reduced scale configurations, implying that the arena and the specific scale of the project are not integral to the project’s objectives, but merely the means to an end: transforming a blighted area into a vibrant mixed-use community.
But further on in the same Purpose and Need section of the document, more detail of the proposed design is provided. Does the Purpose and Need include providing an arena, a hotel, and exactly 6,860 units of housing? These sound more like specific features of the current plan. To include them as part of the Purpose and Need confuses the means with the ends, resulting in a document that can not be disputed but is ultimately meaningless: since the project is the same as the objectives, nothing can be changed. Because if it was, it wouldn’t meet the objectives. And, as we’ve previously noted, we see the results of this in the subsequent dismissal of the alternatives.
So we have two competing interpretations of the Purpose and Need statement: it is either a general statement on goals that we can all agree to, for which it is worthwhile exploring alternatives, or it is a description of the specific features of this particular design, as if this particular plan is the only way to further the goals. We have to believe this second interpretation is not intended by policy, because it is all too clear that there are a range of ways of achieving vibrant mixed-use communities. And when we look for examples of vibrant, mixed-use communities, we don’t need to look far. The areas surrounding the site are great examples of vibrant neighborhoods, continually developing and supporting residential and commercial activity integrated into the communities.
On the other hand, an enormous event venue, which causes huge traffic surges, congestion, noise and air pollution, is in fact the antithesis of a vibrant mixed-use community. That is why, for example, it would be necessary to override current zoning that does not provide for arenas in residential areas. Enormous event venues can be, in fact, blighting influences in and of themselves. If anyone doubts this, a visit to the areas surrounding Madison Square Garden, Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium, or Continental Airlines Arena in the Meadowlands is in order. Show us one event venue of this scale that even coexists with a vibrant mixed-use community, let alone supports it. It is all too apparent that these enormous event places degrade the areas around them, creating and perpetuating blighted conditions. And the requirements of paying for the arena, a condition not explored in the EIS, results in a much denser development than would otherwise be required. As a matter of public policy, an event venue does not remove the conditions of blight, and in important ways constitutes a stronger blighting influence on a mixed-use community than current conditions.
If the Purpose and Need were to be clarified, other chapters would need to be reexamined. For example, Chapter 16 (Neighborhood Character) claims, with no elaboration or argument, that the arena supports the project’s purpose and need by “creating a center of pedestrian activity desirable in higher-density commercial areas.” (P.16-2). This is fudging the issue. Never mind that the desirability of creating a huge event venue in higher-density commercial locations is of dubious merit, the goal here is not a higher-density commercial area, but a vibrant mixed-use area of unspecified density. If the arena is, in fact, part of the purpose and need of the project, say so, and show clearly how it furthers public policy. If the scale is required to make the project financing work, show us. The EIS should not be executed with a nod and a wink. Revise and resubmit a truly transparent document.