Friday, December 02, 2005


More on the Observer's Roger Green story: challenging the "modern blueprint"

The New York Observer's 12/5/05 article on Assemblyman Roger Green and the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) at Atlantic Yards (oddly headlined "Ratner Sends Gehry To Drawing Board") makes some important points, thoroughly challenging the Times's 10/14/05 "modern blueprint" thesis, which suggested that developer Bruce Ratner "is creating a new and finely detailed modern blueprint for how to nourish - and then harvest - public and community backing for a hugely ambitious development..."

[Apparently the Observer didn't have the space to add some further details about Green's ties to developer Forest City Ratner. So here are those details. As noted in Chapter 4 of my report, the developer hired Randall Toure, a top aide to Green, to be VP for community affairs. (The Times did point this out in the "modern blueprint" article.) Also, Green in his 2002 campaign listing doesn't work.) Also, as reported recently on No Land Grab, Green's son Khalid, the basketball coach at Bishop Loughlin High School in Fort Greene, has received a few thousand dollars for events his AAU team has conducted.]

I previously questioned the Ratner-RFK simile offered by Green in the article's lead. But article is mostly about the Community Benefits Agreement, which deserves scrutiny. As noted in Chapter 4 of my report, significant questions were raised by the Brooklyn Rail earlier this year, as well as in testimony (ignored by the press) by Good Jobs New York and the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED) at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing. Also, the Observer's blog The Real Estate noted in August that activists in Manhattanville sought to avoid the "Brooklyn model."

So in the new article, the Observer points out that the CBA did not exactly proceed the way such model CBAs began in Los Angeles:
The community-benefits agreement is one of the elements that make Atlantic Yards so politically delicious for its supporters in City Hall and Albany. They think the agreement shows that the community supports the project, and that the community will get something in return.
Politicians say, for example, that the development will create “thousands of affordable apartments”—2,250, to be exact—and “new jobs” for neighborhood people, which is also true. But they never say how many new jobs it will bring.
This isn’t exactly Mr. Ratner’s fault. How can he promise jobs to people whose résumés he hasn’t seen, and who will, in many cases, be hired by his contractors rather than him?
Ideally, as happened with these community-benefits agreements in Los Angeles over the past decade, a coalition of about 15 to 20 groups comes together and presses a developer for concessions: higher-wage jobs, new parks, fancy pollution-control devices. In exchange, the organizations agree to put down their pickets and support the project when it comes time to obtain the City Council’s approval. Mr. Ratner’s development looked like a good opportunity to do the same.
“Growing members of the African-American community want to move away from welfare colonialism, and there is a desire to create new covenants with the markets,” Mr. Green told The Observer. “Ratner’s proposal for the first time presents that opportunity, where we can grow the middle class, where we can build real jobs with benefits both through the construction industry and the service economy.”

However, as the Observer notes, the plan raised suspicions, and a little checking shows that most signatories weren't established:
But in Brooklyn, few very established organizations wanted in. The Pratt Area Community Council, for example, didn’t believe that Mr. Ratner’s company, Forest City Ratner, was willing to compromise, said the council’s executive director, Deb Howard, speaking to The Observer. Instead of existing groups coming together to form a coalition, a mass of interested individuals came together to form new organizations.
Just two of the eight signatories to the agreement—ACORN and the New York State Association of Minority Contractors—existed as incorporated entities before the negotiations. Four of the other groups are still not registered.
A group of black ministers refused to come to the table. James Stuckey, executive vice president for Forest City, said they had demanded that they be the only party to the agreement. The Reverend Dennis Dillon, the leader of the group, gave a different reason: that it was clear from the beginning that the agreement was meant to buy support with favors.

The Observer adds another detail that shows that the "community" can connect to politics:
One group, headed by a politically important ally of Roger Green, was added to the mix at the last minute, after the other members had been negotiating for seven or eight months. Its chairwoman, Freddie Hamilton, is the vice chairwoman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party and the executive director of a child-welfare agency. Among other things, her new organization, the Downtown Brooklyn Educational Consortium, will be in charge of trying to fulfill an old Roger Green dream: a charter school devoted to technology. But the charter school, like some other elements in the agreement, won’t be left up to Forest City to create. It would come under the city’s Department of Education.

A critic acknowledges that signatories to the CBA are getting their half-loaf, as Darnell Canada acknowledged last month:
Some opponents say they understand what motivated these groups. “Certainly, there’s a sense among many folks who have seen this happen before that putting up a fight with a developer won’t get you anywhere,” said Francis Byrd, a former Democratic state committee member and district leader from the area. “So whatever little you can get is the best you can hope for.”
So far, BUILD and other organizations have received $275,000 from Forest City to seed their operations.
Mr. Canada, after getting the community-benefits agreement off the ground, ended up resigning from BUILD in March 2004, saying at the time that his colleagues “see this organization as financial self-gain.” (He has recently returned with a new organization, REBUILD, which is partnering with Ms. Hamilton’s group.)

The Observer has reported closely on BUILD, whose representatives apparently aren't talking:
Now, the president and chief executive of BUILD is James Caldwell, who is currently the head of a local citizens’ committee for police relations. Mr. Caldwell is said to have deep roots in the community, but his online BUILD bio doesn’t mention experience with job training or administering six- or seven-figure annual budgets. The choice of BUILD to funnel the hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars in job-training funds that will come either directly from Forest City or from the taxpayers strikes experts as perplexing.
“My organization is made up of 185 job-training and employment organizations, and I have never heard of this group,” said Bonnie Potter, the executive director of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition, speaking to The Observer. “It’s curious that a developer would choose to put it in charge of its workforce-training program.”
Mr. Caldwell wouldn’t return phone calls, and his spokeswoman, Cheryl Duncan, refused to set up an interview with him. Mr. Stuckey said that BUILD is in charge because BUILD stepped up to negotiate—though he adds that it may subcontract work to established job-training programs.

Note that spokeswoman Duncan is paid for by Forest City Ratner, so this could be seen an example of the developer's unwillingness to be forthright.

The Observer quotes Stuckey as suggesting BUILD could be a savior for the neighborhoods, but then finds some significant countervailing evidence:
“Unfortunately, if these programs were together before this project, I believe the rates of unemployment in many of the neighborhoods—in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant and many of the public-housing projects—would not be as high as they are,” he said. “I think it points to the fact that there are many communities in the city that go unnoticed and unhelped.”
Ms. Potter suggests that federally funded employment centers be put in charge of the development’s jobs. There is such a center just eight blocks away from the Atlantic Yards site; it’s run by the city.
It is, in fact, the place where Target and Chuck E. Cheese’s went to recruit workers when they opened stores in a new mall nearby—a new mall, incidentally, that was developed by Forest City Ratner.
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.

Note that the Observer more accurately describes the construction jobs as 1,500 per year over 10 years, rather than the 15,000 jobs figure used by project proponents.

Then the article quotes me; I was asked to respond to the question: "Isn't 1,000 jobs for central Brooklyn better than no jobs?":
“The question is, how much does each job cost in terms of public investment, and could that money be used more wisely?” asked Norman Oder, a project opponent and author of the Times Ratner Report blog. “If this is going to cost more than a billion dollars over 30 years in terms of total public investment, we should have been having a public discussion about costs and benefits years ago.”
Mr. Stuckey responds that the true value of the agreement is how it sets up a structure for jobs to get into the housing projects and other areas that need them. To this end, though, BUILD’s most important work hasn’t begun: guaranteeing that construction unions give preference to take on local residents as apprentices.
Mr. Green says the true value is in the many other jobs that the project will produce, although Forest City hasn’t issued estimates of how many there will be.

I wasn't asked to respond to Stuckey or Green. Obviously there will be spinoff jobs, as in any large project, and this agreement would set up a new structure to reach out to the community, but my basic point remains: we don't know if it's worth it until and unless we analyze it. After all, not every community should subsidize jobs if the cost is too high, as Good Jobs First would advise.

The Observer finds a left-leaning analyst to suggest the program might work:
David Fischer, project director and workforce-training expert at the left-leaning Center for an Urban Future, thinks that even if the jobs program doesn’t make sense now, Mayor Bloomberg, a supporter of Atlantic Yards, will make it work. The failure of MetroTech, a Forest City Ratner office complex downtown, to employ many public-housing residents across Flatbush Avenue is still too fresh in people’s minds, he said.

Interesting, but that still doesn't address whether the cost is worth it.

The Observer finds Charles Gargano, head of the Empire State Development Corporation, showing a real contempt for public input, and skewers him on that:
“There is no need to scale down the project,” Mr. Gargano said, although the environmental-impact study that will gauge the project’s impact on traffic, sewage, school population and so on is still underway.

The article points out that Roger Green has significant power:
Oddly enough, the only person who can stop this project, or reshape it, will be Roger Green. That’s because the state legislature will have to sign off on $100 million that the state is contributing to cover up the train yards, and the legislature generally follows the lead of the local lawmaker. That is likely to happen again, even though the lawmaker in this case, Mr. Green, pled guilty last year to seeking state reimbursement for travel expenses provided by a private company doing business with the state.

Keep in mind that Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has called for the project to be scaled down, as has the New York Times. Also note that Assemblywoman Joan Millman has a small piece of the project in her district, and she has expressed significant opposition to it. [Addendum: Millman later said that Site 5 is not in her district.]

Also, the story behind Green is a bit more complicated. As noted in Chapter 4 of my report, Gotham Gazette’s 7/20/04 Eye on Albany noted that Green said he resigned to prevent (or at least forestall) "the release of the Assembly Ethics Committee’s report on his misconduct." Also keep in mind that project opponents may have a strong eminent domain case as well.

The Observer article ends with two paragraphs that hearken back to the story's awkward headline, Ratner Sends Gehry To Drawing Board:
Forest City officials, meanwhile, are denying rumors that they have sent their architect, Frank Gehry, back to the drawing board to come up with a less bulky alternative.
“We will listen; we have said all along that we will listen,” Mr. Stuckey said.

The unanswered question, however, is what would constitute an appropriate scale for this project, and whether that's just the developer's call, or whether it should emerge through a public process.

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