The opposition’s greatest resource hasn’t been Goldstein or the Hollywood stars but one unknown man working late at night in his Park Slope apartment. Norman Oder, 45, has a full-time day job as an editor for Library Journal, but for most of the past year, he has spent at least 25 hours a week dissecting the details of the Atlantic Yards plans and posting his analysis at atlanticyards report.blogspot.com. Oder is a skeptic in the tradition of I. F. Stone, proving how much can be accomplished with a URL and an obsession.
Struck by what he considered the weakness of the Atlantic Yards coverage in the Times (which is partnering with Forest City Ratner to build its new headquarters in midtown Manhattan), Oder set out to write one piece of media criticism. But as that essay grew into 160 pages, Oder kept finding more Atlantic Yards issues that sparked his curiosity.
His blog breaks down every arcane detail related to Atlantic Yards and specializes in untangling eye-catching Ratner claims: for instance, that the promise of 15,000 Atlantic Yards construction jobs comes from counting 1,500 people working for ten years. Or how the developer’s recent much-hyped 5 percent “scale back” of the project was really a bait and switch. The Atlantic Yards plan started with 4,500 units of housing in 2003, grew to 7,300 units in 2005, and then “scaled back” to 6,860 units this year. But Oder’s biggest contribution has been shining a light on two crucial aspects of the project: its affordable housing and its astounding residential density.
The project is planned to have 2,250 affordable apartments—50 percent of the rental units. Affordable is one of the great weasel words of modern marketing, however, and the eligibility tiers that Ratner drew up with ACORN, the low-income-housing activist group, leave just 900 units for a family of four with an annual income of $35,000 or less. Although 900 below-market apartments are far better than nothing, just as many spaces are reserved for families earning $70,000 to $113,000.
And Atlantic Yards’ inhabitants, renters and owners alike, could be occupying the densest residential space in the United States. Working with an average of 2.5 people per apartment, Oder points out that Atlantic Yards will have a population density of nearly 500,000 people per square mile. For comparison, the current population-density champ, a census tract in West Harlem, contains 230,000 people per square mile. Manhattan, which popular imagination ranks as the densest place in the city, averages 67,000 people per square mile. It will mean bulky buildings for the project’s residents and also a major strain on the area’s streets, sidewalks, and the already crowded Atlantic Avenue subway hub.
During nine years of living in Brooklyn I’ve gone out of my way to stay out of the Atlantic Avenue station, especially at rush hour. Ten subway lines, plus the LIRR, converge there, and the stairways are a claustrophobic multilevel tangle, congested at any hour, as are the trains that stop there. But here’s what the state environmental-impact report on the expected effects of Atlantic Yards says: “All subway routes through Downtown Brooklyn are expected to operate below their practical capacity in the peak direction in the 8–9 A.M. and 5–6 P.M. commuter peak periods … at completion of the proposed project in 2016.”
Perhaps I’ve been unlucky; certainly my experience with the station has been unscientific. So on a sweaty Thursday morning I went to check it out and found myself standing on the platform, wedged between a pole and six other passengers, waiting for a Manhattan-bound 4. It’s not clear how the state study defines “practical capacity.” But it apparently doesn’t include me boarding the overloaded train that finally arrived. Waiting for another 4, I tried to picture what the station will look like when 15,000 more people live directly overhead.
The section on the Atlantic Avenue subway station merely strains credulity. What the report spells out, once you unpack the charts and the “v/c ratios,” is a tidal wave reshaping the daily life of the surrounding neighborhoods. In the winter, sunset will come to my street at 2:30 in the afternoon, thanks to the shadows stretching from the high-rises lined up like a gargantuan picket fence along the northern border of Atlantic Yards. But I get off relatively easy: The residents of the Atlantic Terminal public-housing complex, across the street from two 40-plus-story Gehry towers, will be in shadow virtually all day much of the year.
The environmental report’s section on traffic predicts that 68 of 93 intersections around Atlantic Yards would be “significantly adversely impacted,” many permanently. That sounds unpleasant enough. But what’s “significant adverse impact”? The study defines it a couple of ways: “saturated conditions with queuing” and delays “greater than 80 seconds per vehicle.” Stand alongside an already busy intersection anywhere in the city; count how long a random car stands still—ten, perhaps twenty seconds—and watch what results: drivers piling up behind the stationary car, blowing their horns, yelling, as the line gets longer. Now picture cars delayed for 80 seconds, for hours on end, in front of your building.