Wednesday, December 14, 2005


Ratner ties mean the silence (not quite) of Henry Stern's New York Civic

You'd think that "New York's Youngest Good Government Organization," which defines itself as "[p]art watchdog, part cheerleader, part fundraiser, part whistle-blower, part trusted advisor, part muckraker, part think tank, part consciousness-raiser," would comment on the Atlantic Yards project. But the nearly four-year-old New York Civic--which is essentially founder Henry Stern and his writing/informed kibitzing--has said virtually nothing about the largest development in the history of Brooklyn, even though the planning, according to another watchdog, has been "all backwards."

The reason: former Parks Commissioner Stern is an old friend of Forest City Ratner President Bruce Ratner. The group also receives an undisclosed amount of funding from Forest City Ratner--effectively neutralizing it from commenting on Ratner projects. Stern told me, "New York Civic has not taken a position on the Ratner development. The reason we recused ourselves is because I’ve known Mr. Ratner for 35 years, since he came to work for the Department of Consumer Affairs. If we were to take a position, I would support the project, because I feel in general it’s a good thing. But I don’t want New York Civic to be involved, because of the relationship."

Actually, Stern did once comment favorably on Ratner's plan, in a 7/8/05 New York Sun article headlined Ratner’s Atlantic Yards Foes Delighted by Extell Bid Entry. After the Extell Development Company issued a rival bid for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) railyard at the heart of the Atlantic Yards project, the Sun contacted Stern for a comment:
The director of the watchdog group New York Civic, Henry Stern, said the Extell bid might be a “last-minute spoiler which provides a few extra bucks up front” — but less income for the MTA over the long term.

That logic was indeed adopted by the MTA, which accepted a lower bid--less than half the appraised value. Stern told me, "I didn’t volunteer that quote or seek to be involved. I totally disagree with the concept that individual agencies, especially authorities, own the land for which they have facilities and they can proceed to their own enrichment against the public interest. Say that the MTA could get more money from Extell or anyone else and therefore would be benefited financially. I don’t think they can make that judgment; they need to take the whole city’s interest into account. What if someone wanted to build a slaughterhouse there [and offered a higher bid]?...I thought, in that case, the property really belongs to the state, rather than a particular authority that happens to have custody."

Still, a watchdog group might also have commented about the strong evidence of a sweetheart deal between the MTA and Ratner, plus, as the Regional Plan Association pointed out, the MTA's failure to disclose the value of the bids or to analyze potential traffic and transit impacts.

The Sun neglected to disclose that Stern and Ranter have a longtime relationship. It's unclear whether Stern mentioned it. Stern said he doesn't remember, and the reporter (a former summer intern) told me that his notes were elsewhere, but that he doesn't "remember Mr. Stern mentioning any ties to Mr. Ratner in the few phone conversations we had."

Stern added, "If I wanted to support the project, I would’ve done more than answer a call from a Sun reporter. I thought it was in the province of my impartiality [to discuss the issue of the MTA bid]." However, as printed in the Sun, the quote from Stern sounds as much like a snap verdict than an expression of general principles.

A quick check shows Stern praising Ratner in a few articles. A 12/10/03 profile of the developer in the New York Sun, headlined Meet Bruce Ratner, Who Wants To Bring Nets to Brooklyn, contained this passage:
Even before he launched his real estate business, Mr. Ratner was getting noticed. Right after Columbia Law School, he went to work for New York City in the Consumer Protection Division in the Department of Consumer Affairs under Mayor Lindsay.
"He was a nice young man," said Henry Stern, who later would recommend him as consumer affairs commissioner to Mayor Koch. "His skills showed when he got to work on legal matters. He was very effective, he was promoted."

A 1/23/04 profile in Newsday headlined He Knows His Way Around Politics also quoted Stern:
Though Ratner's company still spends significant funds to lobby City Hall, Ratner a few years ago sharply cut back on donating funds to political campaigns - an unusual move for a real estate developer.
"He decided this was getting him into trouble, because every time he won a project, people would say it was because he gave money," said former city Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, who has known Ratner for 34 years.

Unmentioned was Ratner's pattern of giving money to community groups, as noted in Chapter 7 of my report. How much does Ratner's company give New York Civic? Stern wouldn't say, but added, "It's by no means our largest gift."

New York Civic reported contributions of $33,319 in 2004, according to the organization's IRS Form 990, as posted by Guidestar. New York Civic also reported that, from 2000 to 2003, it had raised $43,950, of which $38,000 had been given by donors whose total gifts over that period exceeded $880. This suggests that the organization has some steady donors, which may be why it doesn't solicit gifts on its web site. Still, the funds go mainly toward office expenses and administrative services, as New York Civic seems to run on a shoestring. Stern, who has a city pension, takes no salary.

Bruce Ratner has supported Stern's efforts in the past, chairing the board of the Parks Foundation during Stern's tenure, according to a 9/23/00 article ("Where City Foundation Gathers Its Greenery") in the New York Post.

And Ratner has commented favorably on Stern, in a profile of Stern and New York Civic in the 7/14/03 New York Sun, headlined Henry Stern’s Experience Leads His New York Civic to "Small Victories":
"This is really a wonderful thing for Henry and the city,” said the chief executive of real estate developer Forest City Ratner Companies, Bruce Ratner. “He’s using his wisdom and knowledge of government, and he’s communicating it to people who are interested and have influence."

Or in this case, not communicating. It would be interesting to hear Stern's unvarnished evaluation of the political and planning process behind Atlantic Yards. On the one hand, as quoted in a 7/19/05 New York Sun article on the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park, headlined Residents Charge Development Board Misleading Public on Construction Plans, Stern does defend development against critics:
A former parks commissioner in the Koch and Giuliani administrations, Henry Stern, said that the high-rise at Pier 6 would produce a necessary independent revenue stream to fund the park's maintenance. "The trouble with parks is that even if you put up the money to build them, you still have to run them," Mr. Stern, who is now president of New York Civic, said. "And for years, the city has skimped on parks."
The Willowtown Association was founded in the 1950s to fight Robert Moses's plans for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and Mr. Stern speculated that the neighborhood group's storied history might have left members with a knee-jerk aversion to any sort of development. "Every land dispute we have in this city is cast as Jane Jacobs fighting Robert Moses," Mr. Stern quipped. "The Willowtown people see themselves as Jacobins."

On the other hand, Stern is an old friend of Jane Jacobs, preserver of neighborhoods and human-scale development, and a critic of the type of superblock development proposed for Atlantic Yards. Stern may be "the conscience of a city", but perhaps it's best that he not publicly confront the conflict between his friendship with Ratner and the hard analysis--beyond "in general, it's a good thing," as Stern said of the project--required of a watchdog group.

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