Monday, October 31, 2005


Ferrer vs. Bloomberg on Atlantic Yards (and it barely makes the Times)

Very early in the first mayoral debate (go to 9:08; my transcript is below), Democratic candidate Freddy Ferrer was asked what initiatives of Mayor Mike Bloomberg's administration he'd undo. He gave one answer: Atlantic Yards. It was a spirited exchange, despite lapses from both candidates, as it delineated differences over affordable housing and the transparency of the approval process.

Did it gain prominent press coverage and factchecking? No. One version (for the national edition?) of the lengthy 10/31/05 New York Times account of the debate, headlined Ferrer Is Testy and Feisty in First Debate With Mayor, failed to mention the exchange. Did Times reporters and editors think the deeply flawed account in the 10/29/05 paper constituted sufficient coverage? Nope, it was just a question of space. An earlier version of the article, headlined In Debate, Candidates Offer Different Visions of City and dated 10/30/05, had four additional paragraphs at the end. And so did the final version, headlined In Equal Footing of a Debate, Ferrer Gets Feisty. The final paragraph:
Mr. Ferrer said... he would put an immediate stop to plans to build a Nets arena and several residential buildings in downtown Brooklyn, a plea that his campaign hopes will resonate in a politically important part of that borough.

Several residential buildings? How about 16 towers, nearly all residential? And, yet again, it's not downtown Brooklyn. (See Chapter 11 of my report.) And, if Ferrer wants to be mayor, he should hope his plans resonate with all New Yorkers, since they'd be paying for Atlantic Yards.

A vigorous Times effort to factcheck the debate, headlined In Excitement of Encounter, Exaggerations Join Debate, ignored the Atlantic Yards issue. The article stated:
While the candidates committed no outrageous whoppers, they may have served up some junior whoppers, as well as offered several other assertions that looked threadbare when held up to the light.
Indeed--see below.

A Times news analysis, headlined Ferrer Makes His Candidacy Look Stronger Than the Polls Suggest, noted that Ferrer hinted darkly at "back-room deals" in the proposed Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn.
Well, Ferrer didn't offer specifics, but wouldn't the MTA's decision to negotiate solely with Forest City Ratner (see Chapter 6 of my report) and then accept less than half the appraised value qualify?

Ferrer focused on the issue of affordable housing--once 50% affordable, now 31% affordable, or little more than 12% for average Brooklynites. Actually, project supporters could say--following the letter, rather than the spirit of previous statements--that Forest City Ratner promised 50% affordability only for the first 4,500 rentals. (Check the Memorandum of Understanding.) The additional 2,800 condos were not mentioned in the initial 5/19/05 press conference, because they hadn't been announced yet. A week later, at a City Council hearing, Forest City Ratner announced plans to increase market-rate housing, though it wasn't clear until September whether it would be 1,500 or 2,800 units. And ACORN's Bertha Lewis is still claiming 50% affordable housing.

Ferrer's answer wasn't completely coherent. He mistakenly placed the proposed arena in Manhattan, not Brooklyn. He said "26- to 2,800 units of luxury housing," when, to be precise it's 2800 condo units added on top of the initial 2,250 market-rate (luxury) rentals. He cited a "secret memo" about condemning businesses--which I wish he'd proffer. And he praised the Community Benefits Agreement, apparently not recognizing that experts don't consider it legitimate.

But Bloomberg's defense was much weaker. First, he relied on Al Sharpton's unsupported claim that the project would bring jobs and housing to "the people in that community." (Sharpton used the term "communities of color," which the Times paraphrased as "minorities"--neither of which are necessarily "that community," whatever Bloomberg meant.) Bloomberg said the project had scrutiny from community boards, even though it specifically bypasses City Countil, and the community boards have little power over a state-run project.

Bloomberg also claimed the project had received scrutiny from the press. Well, this blog and my report began because of inadequate press coverage. Quick: how many articles have started from the premise that this would the most expensive arena ever, or that the project would cost the public more than $1 billion? The Times has mentioned these as asides. How many articles have analyzed how the 10,000 office jobs originally promised has been cut by more than two-thirds? How many articles have reported the true percentage of affordable housing?

Bloomberg also said the project involves "a place that's been vacant for decades." But the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard is little more than one-third of the proposed 22-acre Atlantic Yards project site. And, given that this is a crucial place for development, why did the MTA negotiate exclusively with Ratner accept a bid for less than half the appraised value?

The Post didn't analyze the content but simply relied on Bloomberg's Sharpton defense:
Bloomberg defended them as worthy projects, and criticized Ferrer for opposing the Nets arena-Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn — noting that even the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Ferrer supporter — backs the project.

New York Newsday similarly punted:
Bloomberg cited a statement from the Rev. Al Sharpton, who endorsed Ferrer, in favor of a massive Brooklyn building project that Ferrer calls "the twin brother" of the mayor's defunct West Side stadium "boondoggle."

Post columnist Andrea Peyser chided Ferrer for being out of touch--mistakenly saying the arena would be in Manhattan--while herself calling it the "Nets stadium."

The New York Sun gave it a little more coverage, but was still inaccurate:
When asked whether he would undo any of Mr. Bloomberg's initiatives if he were elected mayor, Mr. Ferrer said he would "halt" and "re-evaluate" the Atlantic Yards project, Forest City Ratner's $3.5 billion proposal to erect more than a dozen offices, residential towers, a hotel, and a basketball arena in Brooklyn.
"I object to the lack of transparency, I object to the backroom deals, I object to the things we're beginning to see emerge about a project that is becoming the twin brother of the West Side boondoggle," he said, referring to the fight over the Jets Stadium on the far West Side of Manhattan.
Mr. Bloomberg snapped back that Mr. Ferrer's stance countered that of an unsuccessful 2004 presidential candidate, the Reverend Al Sharpton.
"I couldn't disagree more, and I think Al Sharpton, who supported my opponent, said it very well: This is about jobs for people in that community, this is about housing for people in that community, this is a project that has had enough scrutiny as anything," Mr. Bloomberg said.

More than a dozen? It would be 16 towers plus an arena. "A dozen offices"? According to the project description by the Empire State Development Corporation, there would be 628,000 square feet of office space and 7.2 million square feet of residential space. This is a housing project most of all, and a luxury housing project (5,050 of 7,300 units) at that.


Errol Louis of the Daily News editorial board: Mr. Ferrer, in the first few weeks of his administration, Mr. Bloomberg undid many of the initiatives of his predecessor. If you’re elected mayor, which, if any, of the initiatives of the Bloomberg administration would you plan to undo?

Freddy Ferrer: Well, there’s one important one that I will undo and that’s Atlantic Yards. I will call a halt to that project and reevaluate it. Look, as we’re beginning to scratch under the surface of a Nets arena in Manhattan and the construction of thousands of units of housing. The original promise was 50% affordability. Now we’re finding secret memos emerging that talk about condemning businesses that are ongoing and building then 26- to 2800 units of luxury housing. Those are things I think that deserve full view and a full review of the people who live there. Now I supported, and I felt strongly about the powerful aspects of 50% housing affordability, and the Community Benefits Agreement that would bring small businesses and community people into the full life of the project. But I object to the lack of transparency. I object to the backroom deals. I object to the things we are beginning to see emerge about a project that is becoming the twin brother of the West Side boondoggle.

Mike Bloomberg: Well, I couldn’t disagree more. And I think Al Sharpton who supported my opponent said it very well: this is about jobs for people in that community, this is about housing for people in that community. This is a project that has had as much scrutiny as anything: community boards, and scrutiny from the newspapers, and scrutiny from every single state agency that’s involved. This is the right kind of project for the city, builds houses, creates jobs, helps the spirit of Brooklyn, and takes a place that’s been vacant for decades--50 years or more—and does something with it that will help this city.

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