Wednesday, October 26, 2005


The Observer's poll says more favor Atlantic Yards, but major questions remain

A poll commissioned by the New York Observer, cosponsored by WNYC Radio and WCBS-TV, and conducted by Pace University suggests that, in comparison with previous surveys, the tide has shifted, and a majority of New Yorkers favor Forest City Ratner's proposed Atlantic Yards complex. (Previous polls by the New York Times--which didn't publish the results--and Quinnipiac University showed respondents opposed a taxpayer-funded arena, though they didn't deal with the whole project.)

The Observer article accompanying the poll states:
“The poll shows a low level of public awareness, but we conducted it in such a way to get a good sense of where New Yorkers would be if they were well informed,” said Jonathan Trichter, the director of the Pace Poll. “There are plenty of tools that the opposition can use to derail this project, but public opinion is not one of them.”

Public opinion is fixed? I think the issue is vastly more complicated, since the "additional information" provided to flesh out the poll was vastly inadequate, and that different results may have been obtained with more complete information about cuts in promised jobs, increases in luxury housing, the actual cost of the project, and the effect on traffic.

The 10/31/05 article, headlined Observer Poll: Nets Stadium Gets Nod From Brooklynites, cites evidence that criticism may be rising against the project, including Marty Markowitz's call for the project to be scaled down and the hearing on October that "turned into a talent show for Mr. Ratner’s opponents." However, it suggests the tide goes in the other direction:
A poll commissioned by The New York Observer and conducted by Pace University finds that more New Yorkers support the plan to bring the Nets to Brooklyn than oppose it—and the trend remains even when people find out more about the project.
Asked outright what they think about the plan, 39 percent of the 538 voters polled said they support it, 23 percent oppose it, and the rest were undecided. Support was even stronger among Brooklynites (50 percent) and black men (59 percent). A set of follow-up questions gave the best arguments in favor (jobs, housing, civic spirit) and against (the large size, a $200 million taxpayer subsidy, use of eminent domain) and then asked respondents to rate their support: 46 percent were somewhat or strongly for it.
Between 30 percent and 36 percent of the public opposed it, depending on how the question was worded.

The Observer gives a Ratner official a chance to comment:
“Many times, people have very visceral reactions to real-estate development, and what I’m pleased about is that people in Brooklyn have obviously been paying attention and understand the concept and the issues,” said Jim Stuckey, executive vice president for Mr. Ratner’s company, Forest City Ratner. “Obviously there are questions, and obviously there are concerns—and there should be. And we will be addressing those.”

And here's the comment from an opponent:
Daniel Goldstein, spokesman for Develop—Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, criticized the Observer survey for low-balling the total cost of the project to taxpayers, which has been estimated to reach $1 billion, everything included. Nonetheless, Mr. Goldstein said the poll results show there is substantial opposition—and not just from neighbors.
...He added: “Still, considering that the developer is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, on lobbying and on public relations, including two newspapers—and grassroots activists just can’t match that—the results are pretty good.”

Let's look at the actual poll results (p. 21-22), with careful attention to the pro and con arguments cited by the pollsters:
We asked voters to assess Forest City Ratner’s plan to develop an arena for the Nets and 16 mixed-use towers in central Brooklyn. Based solely on what they know now and without providing any new information, 39% of voters support the proposal either strongly (21%) or somewhat (18%). In contrast, 23% oppose the proposal either strongly (16%) or somewhat (7%). Nevertheless, more than a third (36%) have not made up their minds about the project. At the moment, the groups most likely to support the Atlantic Yards project are Black men (59%), Brooklyn Residents (50%), and men (49%).
Although some have suggested that opposition to the project will grow as people learn more about it, we found that providing voters with additional information has mixed results. Splitting voters into two groups, we presented one group of voters with some of the best arguments both for and against the project.

Statement A: Some/Other people say that the proposal to bring the Nets to central Brooklyn will create thousands of new jobs and raise Brooklyn’s civic spirit. These people also say that the 16 residential and commercial towers that are part of the proposal will add more than 2,000 new affordable apartments to the area. And they say the project will create new public spaces, like a new community center.

Statement B: Some/Other people say the proposal to bring the Nets to central Brooklyn will waste $200 million dollars in taxpayer money on a sports stadium. These people also say that the 16 new mixed-use hi-rises that are part of the proposal will overwhelm our already overcrowded schools, subways, buses, and neighborhoods. And they say that the project can’t be built without evicting current residents.

What we found is that learning more about the project from both of the above arguments increases support for the plan from 39% to 46% while opposition grows from 23% to 30%. That is, after we presented voters with arguments both for and against the project, 46% support the proposal either strongly (25%) or somewhat (21%) and 30% oppose it either strongly (17%) or somewhat (13%). Most relevant, a majority of Brooklyn Residents (56%) support the project, only 35% oppose it.

[Note that 24% remain undecided.]

In addition, we presented the other group of voters with, specifically, the best arguments both for and against the City’s and State’s proposed investment in the project. Here are the arguments this second group of voters heard:

Statement A: Some/Other people say that the City and State should invest $200 million dollars to build the infrastructure for the Nets arena in Brooklyn because an independent analysis concludes that the City and State will earn back all of their original investment plus another $100 million dollars through the jobs and sales generated by the arena. These people also say that the government’s $100 million dollar profit on their investment can help the City and State pay for schools, police, and other vital services.

Statement B: Some/Other people say that the City and State should not spend $200 million dollars to help a rich sports team like the Nets build an arena in Brooklyn because every other government that has invested taxpayer money in sports arenas has lost money and because the team and its supporters are exaggerating how much money the City and State will make from the arena. And they say it would be better to spend the $200 million dollars on schools, police, and other vital services.

After hearing this different set of both pro and con arguments, voters also support the project and the proposed City and State investment: 46% support it either strongly (28%) or somewhat (18%), while 36% oppose it either strongly (24%) or somewhat (12%). Again, most relevant, the majority of Brooklyn Residents (52%) support the City’s and State’s investment in the project, only 31% oppose it.

[Note that 18% remain undecided.]

Here are some unmentioned facts that might cause supporters and fence-sitters to think twice. Even Forest City Ratner officials acknowledge that the public cost of the project would be at least $1.1 billion over 30 years. (See my report, p. 29, or p. 54 of PDF). The arena would be the most expensive ever built. The company's promised public park on the arena roof would be private space. Forest City Ratner produces a "publication," the Brooklyn Standard, which is full of misleading statements, credits stories to someone who didn't write them, and may be using fake bylines. The number of construction jobs would be one-tenth the number used in most media reports.

The amount of luxury housing has more than doubled and the amount of promised office space has been cut by two thirds. In fact, Forest City Ratner originally promised 10,000 office jobs. For the same amount of office space, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) estimated 7,100 jobs. The amount of office space has been cut from 2 million square feet to 628,000 square feet, which, under Ratner's calcuations, would be space for 3,140 jobs. If you follow the NYCEDC's projections--fewer jobs for the same amount of space, plus a 7% vacancy rate--you get 2,229 jobs. However, NYCEDC also estimates that only 30% of the promised jobs would be new to the city rather than moved from elsewhere (a pattern with Ratner projects). Take 30% of 2,229 jobs and you get 669 new office jobs.

Also note that, as Lumi Rolley points out, that "evicting current residents" is not the same as "using eminent domain," a hot-button issue that made it to the Supreme Court.

So even those statements aimed to inform did much too little. More than 2,000 affordable apartment sounds nice, but first "affordable" must be defined--only 900 apartments would go to people earning less than Brooklyn's median income--and then the poll should have noted that there would be 5,050 market-rate units. Creating "thousands of new jobs" sounds nice, but there may be fewer than 700 new office jobs (I had earlier said 1,038, but recalculated it) as opposed to the 10,000 once promised. There also would be--as the Observer's Matthew Schuerman points out--at least 400 permanent jobs at the arena and retail, plus 1,500 construction jobs a year for ten years. Or maybe 1,200, if you follow the mayor's numbers.

A cost of $200 million is vastly less than $1 billion. Even calling the project "mixed use" or "residential and commercial" is too vague. Atlantic Yards would mostly be a housing project--remember, office space was traded for housing--and mostly a luxury housing project at that.

The way questions are framed can affect the outcome of polls. In this case, because the questions did not acknowledge some significant criticisms of the project, the poll developers cannot claim that it was "conducted in such a way to get a good sense of where New Yorkers would be if they were well informed.” Not at all.

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