Saturday, October 01, 2005

 

BUILD's lawyer questioned; Roger Green reimagines BUILD timeline

In a 9/30/05 posting headlined BUILDing Blocks in the New York Observer's blog The Real Estate, BUILD lawyer Sharai Erima again explained why BUILD's IRS filing claimed $5 million was coming from Forest City Ratner: because under the Los Angeles airport community benefits agreement, one of the few such agreements in existence, a single corporation—Los Angeles World Airports--is paying for the job training at the rate of $3 million a year.
During subsequent negotiations with Forest City Ratner on the Atlantic Yards CBA, Erima said, “We found out that they would not be willing to be the sole funder.”


Erima's background was questioned, and then he stopped answering questions:
Erima was admitted to the New York State bar in 1999. His registration, under his old name, Sharai Elegba, is currently delinquent, which means that he cannot legally practice law--although that does not mean he cannot fill out tax forms.
When asked about the registration status, which was confirmed with the court system’s Office of Court Administration as well as the Appellate Division, Erima said, “I have no further comment.”


Also, in a 10/3/05 article in Brooklyn's Courier-Life newspaper chain headlined "Ratner Paid Biggest Arena Supporters $5 Million," state Assemblyman Roger Green, a founder of BUILD, claimed it was not formed solely to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement, and that the group was formed "sometime before the Atlantic Yards was announced."


However, BUILD's web site shows clearly that it began in 2004, after Forest City Ratner's December 2003 announcement of the Atlantic Yards plan.

The text at the BUILD site states:
Myth: BUILD is financially supported by Forest City Ratner.
Fact: Since its inception BUILD has been supported by its members and community based supporters. BUILD’s faith in God and strong ties to the community has sustained and perpetuates our operations and advancement of our mission. Space, computers, supplies and time has been donated to the organization by its members since its inception this year (1/2004).

Thursday, September 29, 2005

 

IRS documents show BUILD relies on Ratner--but the Times ignores the Daily News's scoop

Anyone who's attended a public meeting on the Atlantic Yards plan knows that the chief "grassroots" support group for Forest City Ratner is BUILD, aka Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development. The relationship is cozy; for example, BUILD supplied numerous people to attend recent board meetings/hearings of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; Ratner provided breakfast. (I saw it once; it was no secret.) BUILD and FCR staffers work together; FCR suggested BUILD to present the "pro Atlantic Yards" side on the recent Brian Lehrer show on CUNY TV.

So Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, with BUILD's IRS filings in hand, could finally expose the group as "Snake in the grassroots," as his 9/29/05 column was headlined. He wrote:
A nonprofit group that spearheaded neighborhood support for the huge $3.5 billion Atlantic Yards housing and commercial development in Brooklyn, reported to the IRS in January that virtually all its $5 million budget for 2005 and 2006 was coming from Forest City Ratner, the project's developer.
In early 2004, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development Inc. (BUILD), a newly-formed organization, became one of the first neighborhood groups to publicly back the Ratner plan, which includes a proposed new arena for the Nets.
Since then, BUILD's leaders have lobbied fiercely for the project at scores of community meetings, and they played a key role in hammering out a much-touted "community benefits agreement" with Ratner that was announced by eight Brooklyn organizations in June.
As part of that agreement, BUILD will run a program to recruit and train neighborhood residents for jobs in the Atlantic Yards project. BUILD's leaders, who have never run a job training program before, have repeatedly denied receiving any financial backing from Ratner.
"We've developed on our own," Marie Louis, BUILD's chief operating officer, told me last week, calling her group a "grass-roots organization."
...
Both Louis and Joe DePlasco, spokesman for Forest City Ratner, denied yesterday that the developer is currently giving any money to BUILD.
"We are providing them free office space," DePlasco said, and both he and Louis confirmed that the developer will soon begin to fund the job training program that BUILD will run. But they denied any specific dollar amount - such as $5million - has been discussed.
"I can't dispute what's on that form," Louis said. "When we turned that in earlier this year, we were calculating what we needed to implement those [job training] initiatives."
Meanwhile, none of the group's officers is drawing a salary, she added.
But local City Councilwoman Letitia James wasn't satisfied with that explanation.
BUILD's IRS forms "raise questions of conflict of interest," said James, who has been a critic of the Ratner project from the start. "This suggests BUILD's leaders were not negotiating on behalf of the community but for their own self-enrichment."


Even if BUILD has received no money yet, as its officers and Ratner state, it's clear that the Community Benefits Agreement BUILD signed with Ratner--which is supposed to be negotiated by 1) groups with a track record and 2) adversaries--has been further undermined. Remember, Good Jobs NY offered definitive 5/26/05 testimony criticizing this CBA.

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's comprehensive web page on BUILD assembles numerous quotes from BUILD officers denying connection to Ratner and also offering fulsome praise of the company. Much of this--and some more context about the dubious Community Benefits Agreement--was in Chapter 4 of my report on the New York Times's coverage of Atlantic Yards. But, I guess, it took an actual smoking gun--er, IRS form--for the press to take notice.

Newsday ran an Associated Press story headlined "Brooklyn arena opponents call community group a front." The article noted that:
BUILD said in an August filing with the Internal Revenue Service that it would receive $5 million from the developer's Forest City Ratner Companies. BUILD chief operating officer Marie Louis said Thursday that the group had received no money from Ratner and did not expect to receive any. Cheryl Duncan, a spokeswoman for BUILD, said the group had projected receiving the money from Ratner but no longer expected to. She said Ratner is providing office space to the group.
Louis has spoken in support of the project at public meetings, saying it would help ease poverty and unemployment in neighboring areas. A Ratner spokesman said the developer supported BUILD and other worthy local organizations but had not purchased the group's support.
"It is the right thing to do and FCRC encourages others to do the same," spokesman Joe De Plasco said.


Worthy local organizations? BUILD was formed solely to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), while real CBAs require organizations with some track record. [Addendum: while there's evidence that BUILD did very little before the Forest City Ratner plan was announced, founder Darnell Canada told the Brooklyn Downtown Star that "BUILD was created back in August 2003 to address the unemployment situation in the Ingersoll, Whitman, and Farragut housing developments."] James Caldwell, BUILD's founder, is noted for saying things like "I would be for this project if it only provided 10 jobs." Note that the IRS filing says Caldwell receives a $125,000 salary from BUILD, which, according to the document (which BUILD officials now deny) is funded almost exclusively by Forest City Ratner.

The NY Sun, in a 9/30/05 article headlined Critics Say Ratner Is Bankrolling Supporters, wrote:
"We had a budget, what we proposed the programs would cost,” [BUILD lawyer] Mr. [Sharai] Erima said. Based on other community benefit agreements, he said he thought the developer generally provided the money for community programs.
Mr. Erima, who appeared to be angered by yesterday’s press conference, where he interrupted Mr. Goldstein more than once, said the salaries of BUILD’s officers were projected for 2005 and 2006 and had not yet been paid. The IRS statement showed three salaries of more than $100,000.
A spokesman for Forest City Ratner, Joseph DePlasco, said in a statement that the developer gives funding to nonprofits that provide community benefits, including BUILD, but that no dollar amounts had yet been determined, as BUILD’s IRS document suggested.


[DePlasco later revised his account, saying he was out of the loop.]

In this case, the term "community benefits" is specific--a reference to a negotiated agreement--rather than a general one. The issue is whether a developer should promise benefits--or a negotiating partner should expect one--while a formal Community Benefits Agreement is being negotiated.

The New York Observer's blog The Real Estate adds some more denials and details:
BUILD’s lawyer, Sharia [actually Sharai] Erima, said that the IRS form asks new organizations to project budgets two years in advance, and to list anyone who contributes more than 2 percent of that budget. Out of an excess of caution, he says he listed Forest City as the likely donor.
...
The community benefits agreement states, “The Developers and BUILD will seek and secure adequate public and/or private funding for this initiative.” (PDF p. 7) Yet the IRS application lists no one else other than Forest City Ratner as a potential contributor. Does that mean that BUILD’s “best guess estimate” estimates that this job training program won't inspire a lot of contributors?
Again, Erima said he was being cautious in filling out the form. He said he met with the IRS and went over the application and the agency approved it.
...
Caldwell is listed on the application as receiving a salary of $125,000. But he said that amount was what he expected to receive and that nobody was getting paid now.
...As for the public relations firm that is representing them, Caldwell said he didn’t know who was paying them.
“The Terrie Williams Agency just called us up one day and said they would be doing our p.r.,” he said.


He doesn't know who's paying for his p.r.? At public meetings, Caldwell regularly confers with Ratner officials. Given that those who pay for the p.r. generally shape the message, wouldn't an organization given the gift of p.r. want to know who's behind it?

BUILD is known for invoking God. A "Connect to CBA [Community Benefits Agreement] Opportunities" document, handed out at the Forest City Ratner booth at the 9/25/05 Atlantic Antic street fair, contained this quote on the cover page of the 11-page document: God used us, the Coalition and FCRC, to achieve this so that the possibilities could be here for you. Now we must all keep and expand the faith and apply it to the task of manifesting the vision.

Used? Who's using whom here? Several news outlets have elucidated some of the story. (WNYC and local TV stations also covered the press conference.) The Times was conspicuously absent. If someone were to read only the Times, the only mention of BUILD came in a 6/9/05 story headlined Unlike Stadium on West Side, an Arena in Brooklyn Is Still a Go that said the developer also courted groups like Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development,an employment advocacy group formed by James E.Caldwell, the president of the 77th Precinct Community Council, with promises of community involvement in the planning and a sizable share of the jobs.

More recently, in a 7/15/05 article headlined Arena Project For Brooklyn Wins Approval From M.T.A., the Times reported praise of the Community Benefits Agreement without any acknowledgement that experts on such CBAs think this one is suspect.

Yet the Times, at least in today's newspaper, ignored the revelations about BUILD that many other media outlets deemed worthy of coverage. In July, as my report points out, the Times ran six stories in eight days about a doctored campaign flier issued by Democratic mayoral candidate C. Virginia Fields. Was that Fields story is any more worthy than examining whether the biggest supporter of the biggest development in the history of Brooklyn has a major credibility gap?

Monday, September 26, 2005

 

Correcting the Times: the railyard would move east, not west

In coverage of the Atlantic Yards project, the New York Times has twice recently reported that the railyard sold by the MTA would be moved to the west, rather than east, which doesn't make sense--that would theoretically put it in the middle of Brooklyn's busiest intersection (Flatbush and Atlantic avenues). On September 7, the article stated: The agency would also get a new, upgraded train yard on land to the west of the existing 8.3-acre yard, which is at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.

On September 15, the article said: Mr. Ratner, whose company is the development partner for the new Midtown headquarters of The New York Times Company, will be building a new and larger railyard to the west at an estimated cost of $182 million, Mr. Pally said... (It's not clear whether Pally actually used the term "west" or whether he simply mentioned a new railyard. There are some parentheticals packed into that paraphrased sentence--I'm certain Pally didn't mention the Ratner-Times connection.)

However, the official scoping document from the Empire State Development Corporation, ATLANTIC YARDS ARENA AND REDEVELOPMENT PROJECT DRAFT SCOPE OF ANALYSIS FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT, makes the layout clear: A reconfigured and upgraded yard... would be built below street grade on the eastern end of the existing Rail Yards footprint...

 

Public open space at Atlantic Yards? Not til 2016, it seems--with a privatization of formerly "public" space

One of the selling points for the Atlantic Yards has been the promise of publicly-accessible open space, such as the six acres promised in this May 2004 flier from developer Forest City Ratner, plus open space on top of the arena.

But don't hold your breath. Even if the project proceeds on schedule, it would be built in two phases, according to the ATLANTIC YARDS ARENA AND REDEVELOPMENT PROJECT DRAFT SCOPE OF ANALYSIS FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT. The phase completed in 2009 would include 2,400 residential units, a hotel, 628,000 square feet of office space, the arena, and "1+ acres" of privately accessible open space on top of the arena. The document states: This rooftop open space would be accessible to users of the buildings constructed as part of the proposed project.

However, this was supposed to be public space. When announcing the plan in December 2003, Forest City Ratner promised: The roof of the Arena offers an exciting opportunity to create new public space, with 52,000 square feet in four lushly landscaped areas for passive recreation and a promenade along the outside edge of the roof with outstanding panoramic vistas facing Manhattan.

The New York Times reported on 12/12/2003, in an article headlined "A Grand Plan in Brooklyn For the Nets' Arena Complex," that the arena would be topped by a park: Under the proposal, the tracks for the train storage yard would be moved to the east, allowing the developer to build the $435 million, 19,000-seat arena for basketball, topped by a park with a running track that could be converted to an ice rink in the winter.

Architecture critic Herbert Muschamp (Courtside Seats to an Urban Garden, 12/12/03) wrote: Here, the stage will be activated by a running track around the perimeter of the arena's roof. In winter, the track becomes a skating rink. Other areas of the roof will be set aside for passive recreation.

As for the "7+ acres" of publicly-accessible open space? That would come by 2016. Does that mean it's going to be a park? Not clear. If the publicly-accessible open space at Forest City Ratner's MetroTech development is any clue, there will be a host of rules regarding usage of the space. See p. 77 (or p. 102 of the pdf) of my report. The rules (against littering, loitering, etc.) may not be that unreasonable, but they're enforced by the developer, not a public agency.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

 

Downscaling the project? Marty says yes, and the ESDC plan offers a hint

So, after being an unabashed booster of the Atlantic Yards project, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, now that the plan is proceeding, has voiced some misgivings. Why didn't he do so before the Atlantic railyard was sold a few weeks ago by the MTA? He knew the scale of the plan since May, if not sooner. Maybe it was pressure from rivals in the Borough President's race, notably Gloria Mattera of the Green Party, who criticized him at a candidates' debate September 19. It's not that Marty, the Democratic nominee, won't be reelected; maybe he's just worried about the margin.

A 9/22/05 Brooklyn Papers article headlined MAKE IT SMALLER
Marty downsizes his support for Ratner
reported:
Borough President Marty Markowitz has urged that developer Bruce Ratner downsize his Atlantic Yards mega-development, a project vigorously supported by Markowitz since 2003.
“We do have to scale down this project,” Markowtiz said during a debate Monday among Markowitz and three challengers seeking his job in the November election.
“There is no question, in terms of the project, in terms of the housing, and in terms of the buildings, it is time for all of us to join together to work cooperatively and downscale the project and to make it more reflective of the needs and aspirations of those of the environment it’s in.”
His comments came after two of Markowitz’s rivals voiced their opposition to the way in which Ratner’s bid to erect skyscrapers, high-rise housing and a sports arena was being handled.
...However, Markowtiz declined to elaborate on his statement when asked to do so by The Brooklyn Papers immediately after the debate.
“Here’s what I’m saying: I’m calling on the developer, now that the Atlantic Yards have been sold, now it’s the time to review and downscale this project,” said Markowitz in a vestibule behind the church.
...He declined to say whether that applied to the number of buildings, number of apartments or to the height and density of the skyscrapers and high-rises Ratner has proposed.
Said [Fort Greene Association chair Philip] Kellogg, “I don’t think anybody should be allowed to throw out a comment like that at this stage in the game and have it go unchallenged. Without specifics it has the potential to be window dressing.”


A 9/22/05 Brooklyn Downtown Star article titled Standing Up Against Marty also reported that Markowitz called for the proposal to be smaller:
"We do need to scale down the project," he said. Additional concerns about environmental effects, affordable housing and traffic, he said, "All of those are absolutely meritorious concerns...The first thing I ask of any developer is to guarantee a certain percentage of affordable housing." But he did not say what that percentage was, and whether it was still the 40 percent he demanded during much of the Greenpoint/ Williamsburg rezoning hearings.

The Empire State Development Corporation's ATLANTIC YARDS ARENA AND REDEVELOPMENT PROJECT DRAFT SCOPE OF ANALYSIS FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT notes that they are considering a "Lower Density Alternative." Remember, this was originally a $2.5 billion project with 4,500 residential units and about 2 million square feet of office space. Now it's a $3.5 billion project with 7,300 residential units and 628,000 square feet of office space. We really need a breakdown of total square footage in both the original and the current plan--the current plan layout is in the ESDC document--to figure out whether a "Lower Density Alternative" would be at the scale of the original plan, or less, or more.

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