Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Errol Louis on black leadership: should Roger Green be the model?
Louis has vociferously, if misguidedly, supported the Atlantic Yards project, so we can't expect him to acknowledge the significant criticism of the CBA. After citing Green, he writes:
The rest of the area’s political delegation – Councilwoman Tish James, Congressman Major Owens and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery – has either tried to kill the project outright or mounted endless attacks on it. That’s no way to bring economic prosperity to an area that’s desperate for it.
In almost any other big city – Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C. come to mind – black pols understand the critical importance of positioning black businesses and professionals to benefit from big public-sector projects. In the 1970s, for instance, Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, worked tirelessly to ensure that black companies got a slice of the contracts associated with the building of the city’s airport – and succeeded in putting millions in the pockets of black entrepreneurs, which in turn helped build a solid black middle class.
But it's not exactly clear how many black professionals, business-owners, or workers from Brooklyn will benefit from the Community Benefits Agreement. The document includes this passage (p. 2):
Whereas, the Coalition and the Developers seek to maximize the benefits of the Project to residents of Brooklyn, as well as minority and women construction, professional and operational workers and business owners and thereby to encourage systemic changes in the traditional ways of doing business on large urban development projects...
As noted, most but not all of the groups endorsing the CBA are Brooklyn-based, but the minority-owned engineering firm that will oversee air monitoring and safety requirements during asbestos abatement at several buildings is based in Staten Island, and the minority-owned plumbing company that will disconnect water and sewer lines to the buildings is based in Queens. As for some other minority-owned firms, as noted, it's not clear how much engaging them encourages systemic changes. Construction firm McKissack and McKissack is already doing pretty well; it has offices in New York and Philadelphia, but its web site defaults to Philadelphia, so it's not exactly local (though local subcontractors will be hired). Ismael Leyva Architects and lighting consultant Domingo Gonzales Associates are based in Manhattan and already seemingly thriving (and, if we're counting ethnicity, Latino). The Terrie Williams Agency, also based in Manhattan, seems to be doing well.
But Louis fudges the issue, writing:
Atlantic Yards, unlike any of the other listed development projects, already has a publicly stated, legally binding community benefits agreement that promises hefty percentages of the project’s dollars and jobs will go to minority- and women-owned businesses and local residents. At this stage of the game the question should be how and when the dollars will begin flowing into central Brooklyn.
Green has been diligent about getting and staying at the bargaining table, negotiating commitments for local businesses and residents – but far too many of the other local pols just don’t get it. Many have wasted two years trying to shrink or kill Atlantic Yards rather than fight to get the biggest possible slice of the multi-billion-dollar project channeled to local businesses.
As noted by the New York Observer, the CBA doesn't guarantee much to Green's constituents:
Perhaps more importantly, though, is just how many jobs will go to the poor, black neighborhood residents who live on three sides of the project site. The Brooklyn document sets up a hierarchy whereby public-housing residents get first dibs on spots in a job-referral program and a construction-job training program. But the agreement sets no numerical targets for how many local people will get jobs.
The agreement doesn’t mention the 400 jobs Forest City expects to bring when it moves the Nets basketball arena from New Jersey, which Mr. Stuckey said will be subject to union rules and may be filled with current employees.
Nor does the agreement mention jobs in the proposed hotel, which would also be subject to union rules, Mr. Stuckey said.
That leaves the construction jobs, about 1,500 of them over the next 10 years. The agreement sets a goal of employing 35 percent minorities—a reasonable and achievable threshold which Forest City has met on its other projects. In other words, 525 jobs—not reserved for public-housing residents, or even residents of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, but for minorities from all over the metropolitan region.
Green has been diligent about getting and staying at the bargaining table, in Louis's words? It's a little deeper than that--Green had previously gained support from Forest City Ratner, as noted in Chapter 4 of my report, and a former top aide left to work in community affairs for the developer. Perhaps James, Montgomery, and Owens are looking at the larger picture: a project that would cost the public well over $1 billion over 30 years deserves scrutiny rather than simply a search for a share--and relatively small share, considering the number of jobs and amount of low-income housing--in central Brooklyn.
Footnote: Louis doesn't mention that he was once a potential candidate, along with Letitia James, for the City Council seat won in 2001 by James E. Davis.
[I originally wrote that he and James ran for the seat, but Louis pointed out to me in a followup e-mail that "I never officially declared, never formed a campaign committee, circulated no petitions and was enrolled in law school weeks before Primary Day. In other words, I did not run for council in 2001." OK, but others thought he was running. The Courier-Life chain reported 6/25/01 that Louis had "dropped out of the 35th Councilmanic District race, citing an array of reasons for his decision." City Limits weekly, in a 6/4/01 article, reported that Louis had lost an endorsement to James: Errol Louis, co-founder of Bedford-Stuyvesant's Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union, dropped his race for City Councilmember Mary Pinkett's seat last week. The cost of campaigning this year, said Louis, just didn't add up. Although he won 30 percent of the vote in his 1997 race for the seat, he had only raised about $15,000 to date. "You have to really, really want to do it," he said.
Veteran political observers say they're not surprised Louis dropped out. Louis suffered a blow a few weeks ago when he lost his bid for support from the Working Families Party to Letitia James, an aide to Assemblymember Al Vann who has the backing of Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Clarence Norman.]
After Davis was tragically killed, James won the 2003 election for the seat. James is a former aide to Roger Green, so their opposition on the Atlantic Yards issue likely combines philosophical, political, and personal factors. Green, of course, has his own ethically questionable history. [Louis pointed out that James was Green's senior staffer during the period of time he stole $3,000 in state funds, leading to his misdemeanor guilty plea. I'll add that she defended Green in the 6/4/04 New York Times, which reported: City Councilwoman Letitia James said, "The people in this community are still with him." Also, she told the New York Sun, in a 6/2/04 article written by Louis himself: "There was no intent on his part to do anything wrong," said Council Member Letitia James, who formerly served as Mr. Green's chief of staff.]