Wednesday, September 14, 2005


The Times on the MTA meeting: finally, the $1 billion cost is noted

In a 9/15/05 article initially headlined "Huge Arena Project in Brooklyn Takes a Major Step Forward," but in final editions headlined Arena Project For Brooklyn Wins Approval From M.T.A., the Times reported that, as expected, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority agreed to sell the development rights to its Atlantic railyard in Brooklyn to the developer Bruce C. Ratner for $100 million, a major step forward for his plan to build a basketball arena and a huge residential and commercial development on 22 acres.

But the curious thing was how the Times finally added some crucial context, as well as some perplexing contrasts with the 9/7/05 report, Offer Is Doubled by Developer to Build Arena in Brooklyn. Notably, this new article pointed out something missing in the earlier one: Ratner's offer was $114.5 million less than the MTA's own appraisal.

Also, for the first time to my knowledge, the Times reported the overall public cost: The project will also receive tax breaks, low-interest financing and other benefits that would bring the total public investment to an estimated $1 billion. Now, Forest City Ratner VP Jim Stuckey, in City Council testimony last May, estimated $1.1 billion in public costs over 30 years, and the Independent Budget Office recently suggested that the company's cost estimates were low. So the Times figure seems low, but still, shouldn't the public have been informed about that billion-dollar figure long before now?

Also, the earlier report called Atlantic Yards a development "of 6,000 apartments," while the new article declaratively said "7,300 apartments." As far as I know, neither is correct; one plan would have 6,000 apartments, and the other 7,300 units, but Ratner hasn't announced a choice. Still, the plan with more residential units is more likely, since residences are easier to fill than office space.

And the Times acknowledged without offering full context the tradeoff between market-rate housing and office jobs: In the last two years, the project has evolved, with office space declining and apartments increasing. Forest City Ratner said that half of 4,500 rental apartments would be reserved for low- to middle-income residents. The remaining 2,800 would be condominiums.

Translation: 69% of the dwelling units would be market-rate, while only 2,250 units (half the rentals) would be affordable, with only 900 (12.3% of total) designated for people earning under Brooklyn's median income of $35,000.

The earlier report said the project would be on a 21-acre site; the newer one noted 22 acres, which is what Ratner has announced. I try to use the formulation "at least 22 acres," since a city document declared the development site 24 acres.

The new Times article noted that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki... contend that the project would provide thousands of jobs, badly needed housing and a home for a professional basketball team, college games and other sports.

Well, that's not just a contention, those are facts that can actually be determined. How many jobs would the project actually provide? The company once promised 10,000 office jobs, but if they build 7,300 apartments, there might be space for only 2,144 office jobs. The projected "15,000 construction jobs" refers to job-years: 1,500 jobs a year over 10 years. And the badly needed housing? Most--perhaps 69%--would be market rate, and most of the "affordable housing" would benefit the middle class, with an average income of $75,000.

Is this the best way to add housing and jobs? Shouldn't that have been under discussion months ago?

The new article mentioned the CBA without context: The developer has also signed a "community benefits agreement" pledging that many jobs will go to local residents and to businesses owned by minorities and women. "This project develops Brooklyn," said Anthony Pugliese, an organizer for the New York City District Council of Carpenters who spoke at the hearing. "It will create the jobs that help people grow."

However, as Good Jobs NY has definitively testified, this CBA isn't legitimate: As a sponsored project of Good Jobs First, which provided support for the CBAs negotiated in California and continues to act as a clearinghouse for information on CBAs, we feel it is important to draw the Council’s attention to several major differences between CBAs as they have been used in other parts of the country and the series of negotiations that FCRC is calling a CBA. Perhaps the most striking is that elsewhere CBAs are negotiated by one broad coalition of groups that would otherwise oppose a project, a coalition that includes labor and community organizations representing a variety of interests. The coalition hammers out its points of unity in advance and then each member holds out on settling on its particular issue until the issues of the other members are addressed. This way, the bargaining power of each group is used for the benefit of the coalition as a whole. In the BAY case, several groups, all of which have publicly supported the project already, have each engaged in what seem to be separate negotiations on particular issues.

Without reading every entry (and I admit that isn't a good way to start a blog comment), I must say that a lot of criticism of the media - and I've noticed the tone of today's entry - doesn't give the media the chance to respond, make amends, and follow up on the crticism first. Sometimes I find critiques on blogs of the paper I work for, and I think, "You know, if they had e-mailed me two months ago, and asked me why we said this, I would have given them the answer" or "You know, if this person had told me this fact, I might have known better." Reporters, even for the Times, are usually covering five stories a week. The movies about Woodward and Bernstein never showed them also trying to run and get the police blotter at 2 a.m. If you want the press to work, you have to work with it. If your interest is truly to see better coverage, then engage in a dialogue with the reporters and editors.
The poster has a point--reporters operate under constraints, and the reporter on this piece actually wrote two stories for today's paper.

Still, one of the reasons I did my report in the first place ( was that the Times coverage was mostly bad, and the Times letters page (and Public Editor) were unresponsive to the letters I sent.

I don't think this is a "bad" article; I just think it leaves out some important information.
The Community Benefits Agreement and the number of jobs promised are fundamental issues that should have been reported a long time ago. Any reporter reading my report would get solid background information on those issues. And shouldn't the Times be covering Ratner's project very carefully?

I'd be interested in hearing directly from the Anonymous poster.
>>The Community Benefits Agreement and the number of jobs promised are fundamental issues that should have been reported a long time ago.

"Should have." That implies a lot. Did you write this in one of your letters? And how long were your letters? Directing the Times to a 25-page report is not necessarily helpful, given the time constraints. Giving a reporter respect and explaining why you think it's important would work.

>>Any reporter reading my report would get solid background information on those issues.

Why would a reporter know to sit and read your report and not the other million pages on the web?

When you sent those letters to the Times, did you e-mail a specific reporter, or just send letters to the editor? They print 1 in 1,000 of those; I'm not sure what happens to the rest, but I don't know that they end up in the reporters' hands.

That said, I admire what you did and what you are doing. I just know from experience that there are ways to be more effective w/the press, if that's really one's aim.
These issues aren't secrets. The CBA & jobs issues were raised at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing. The Times didn't cover it, though most other NYC media outlets did (not that they did so comprehensively). The jobs issue was raised in Ratner's own Brooklyn Standard, which the Times finally wrote about 9/3/05 (but didn't mention the jobs issue). My report, in hard copy, was delivered to several editors at the Times on 9/1/05. There was testimony, including by me, about the jobs and CBA issues, at the 9/14/05 MTA hearing.
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