Saturday, October 22, 2005
More questions about the Brooklyn Standard: fake bylines?
--Did Manhattan Media recruit other writers by telling them that they were writing for a community paper rather than a Ratner "publication"?
--If Schweber didn't write the front-page story attributed to him, who did?
--Who are Kim Last and Brigitte Labonte, the other two writers credited with front-page stories? Searches using both Lexis-Nexis and Google turn up no journalists with those names.
Did Manhattan Media--and perhaps even the Standard's top editors, Forest City Ratner officials--approve using fake bylines, especially after a 9/3/05 New York Times story tweaked Manhattan Media staffer Edward-Isaac Dovere for having "scored two front-page bylines"? Note that Dovere, listed as the Brooklyn Standard's Executive Editor, had four bylines in the first issue, and president/CEO Tom Allon, listed as the Standard's Managing Editor, had two bylines. While the two retain their places on the masthead in the new issue, neither has a byline. Is it because they want to distance themselves from the publication? Note that a Brooklyn Papers article describes Dovere's request for an interview with Rooftop Films--which refused to appear in the Brooklyn Standard--which suggests that he's closely involved in the publication. Four other stories in the Fall Brooklyn Standard lack bylines; they may have been put together by Ratner staff, or perhaps by Allon or Dovere.
Sure I speculate, but my speculations are reasonable, based on circumstantial evidence. I sent several questions to Allon in an email, then followed up with a phone call. He would not comment.
So, this raises another question: why is Manhattan Media willing to produce the Brooklyn Standard? Manhattan Media's four weeklies are members of the New York Press Association, which holds a "Better Newspaper Contest" and presumably aims to maintain journalistic standards. Allon is on the New York Press Association's Board of Directors, serving as Secretary-Treasurer. Manhattan Media promises, "Neighborhoods are our business, our only business." The media kit states: Our Town, West Side Spirit, The Westsider and Chelsea Clinton News are award-winning weekly community newspapers whose mission is to lead in coverage of local news in the largest and wealthiest metropolitan region in the United States, as well as serving as Manhattan ’s most important marketing resource for local businesses.
So the Brooklyn Standard seems to be an anomaly for the publisher. It is less akin to those newsprint weeklies it resembles and more akin to the glossy Avenue, which is touted thusly: "The look of the magazine is glamorous. The tone is celebratory and positive." [emphasis added] But even Avenue doesn't exist to support one very large proposed development.
The only paper to follow up, the New York Sun, ran a 10/18/05 story headlined
Ratner-Financed Publication Includes Pro-Yards Articles With Incorrect Bylines. Well, the articles with correct bylines (assuming there are some) also are "Pro-Yards Articles," because nearly everything in the issue, absent the listings, supports Forest City Ratner's agenda. The Sun reported:
The president of Manhattan Media, Tom Allon, told the Sun the misattributed bylines were the result of a production error. He refused to answer further questions.
A spokesman for Forest City Ratner, Joseph DePlasco, said “We make it very clear in the publication that it’s a publication from Forest City Ratner, an effort to share information about Atlantic Yards.” He said if readers of the Brooklyn Standard did not know it is funded by Mr. Ratner, they need “an IQ test.”
A production error? Someone was responsible. As for DePlasco, he changed the subject. Of course readers of the Standard know who funds it, but the question is what contributors were told. Schweber said: I was assigned the articles before the first issue of the Brooklyn Standard had come out and I was led to believe that it was a community newspaper like the other Manhattan Media publications I freelanced for.
Given that the first issue of the Brooklyn Standard was published in mid-June, and the second (front page here) in mid-October, it may be several months until a new issue emerges. Will no corrections regarding the articles attributed to Schweber--and perhaps other articles--appear until then? Will a web version of the Fall issue be posted, and include corrections? And shouldn't a newspaper publisher, whose business depends on openness, be more forthcoming? Will New York media outlets follow up on this, and also analyze the misleading content in the Brooklyn Standard?
Thursday, October 20, 2005
The Times follows up on project opposition, but misses some angles
To longtime opponents of the proposed Atlantic Yards development, the intensity and rancor of Tuesday night's environmental impact hearing was not a surprise. They have spent the last two years, after all, mobilizing coalitions of community groups to oppose the project, passing out reams of antidevelopment pamphlets and news releases, and starting Web sites to dissect the project's every twist and turn.
But the high-decibel hearing on Tuesday clearly demonstrated that the complexion and scope of that opposition has changed since the developer, Bruce Ratner, and his firm, Forest City Ratner Companies, unveiled plans for the office, residential and commercial development in December 2003. As the project has moved out of its conceptual phase, awareness of its sheer size - nine million square feet, the equivalent of four Empire State Buildings - and potential impact has spread across Brooklyn, charging a much broader debate about its virtues and flaws.
"I think people began to realize how big this is," said Assemblywoman Joan L. Millman, who, in a setback for the developer, announced at the hearing that she would oppose the project.
Give the Times credit for following up on the story ahead of other dailies, citing the significance of Joan Millman's public stance, and implicitly contradicting the "modern blueprint" thesis advanced last Friday. But the opposition to the project is broader, it's about the trustworthiness and track record of Forest City Ratner, a company that--just to cite stories emerging in the past few weeks--produces a new Brooklyn Standard, turns promised open space on the arena roof into private space, and denies funding BUILD, then admits it.
Then the Times noted who got organized enough to testify: people not just from Prospect Heights, but also Park Slope and Boerum Hill, who talked about the project's broader impacts on surrounding neighborhoods, including greater demand for day care slots, slower response times for the police and firefighters, and runoff into the Gowanus Canal, the object of a decades-long community revitalization effort.
You can call this new opposition, but comment on those kinds of issues was specifically requested in the scoping document.
However, it's chancy to consider the significant presence of middle- and upper-class Brownstone Brooklynites--many part of community boards and civic groups charged to address the project's impact--a referendum on the project. Similarly, the press shouldn't have made too much of the predominance of Ratner supporters at previous events. What if, on Tuesday, the two dozen union members had all signed up to testify? What if BUILD and ACORN decided to bring groups of supporters, as they did for a November 2004 hearing in the same venue? Perhaps, as I noted in a previous post, BUILD members were laying low because of new revelations about payments from Forest City Ratner. Also, many BUILD and ACORN supporters don't live in the neighborhoods nearest the project. (Note that the Times hasn't yet reported that Ratner is paying BUILD to distribute the Brooklyn Standard, nor mentioned Ratner's most recent attempt to explain away the BUILD story.) A good sense of longstanding public opinion comes from two polls, as noted in Chapter 5 of my report, that demonstrate widespread opposition to a taxpayer-funded arena. The Times hasn't mentioned those results, one from a 2004 Quinnipiac University poll, the other from a June 2005 poll by the Times itself.
The Times article cited reasons for the growing awareness of the project: the death of the West Side stadium project; the July release of architectural sketches by architect Frank Gehry; and the Empire State Development Corporation's scoping document.
"For a lot of Park Slope residents, especially, the point of galvanization came with the unveiling of the latest Gehry design," said Eric McClure, a member of Park Slope Neighbors, one group that opposes the plan.
Actually, Gehry's sketches were revealed by the Times, which did not ask in its 7/5/05 exclusive (the disingenuously headlined "Instant Skyline Added to Brooklyn Arena Plan") why the project had grown in size, nor point out that the increase had actually been announced in late May.
The Times gives Brad Lander of PICCED a chance to comment, but the paper still hasn't quoted PICCED's earlier critique of the project and the planning process:
Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Institute's Center for Community Development, pointed out that even if the project were subject to city approval, Tuesday's hearing would still have been the first where the public could have aired concerns about it. "A public process doesn't begin until there's an official plan," he said.
The article ends with Millman:
Yesterday, Ms. Millman said she would urge Sheldon Silver, the Assembly Speaker, to oppose the project. Mr. Silver sits on the Public Authorities Control Board, which must vote on the project.
"He usually tends to follow what the people who represent the area say," she said. "So I intend to chime in with my thoughts on that." [Note: Millman said in early 2006 that she learned that the segment added to the Atlantic Yards plan--Site V, the plot of land with P.C. Richard/Modell's--is not in her district.]
So stay tuned for public and press pressure on Silver to state his position. As noted in Chapter 2 of my report, the reduction of office space at Atlantic Yards was seen by the New York Sun as a gesture toward Silver, since the project would be less likely to compete with office space in the Lower Manhattan district he represents (and he opposed the West Side Stadium for that reason).
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
NY Observer: Ratner and BUILD backpedal, p.r. strategy off course
Forest City Ratner just issued a press release coming clean with just how much the developer has given to community groups supporting its Atlantic Yards project: $138,000 to BUILD, which is supposed to run job training programs, and $50,000 to the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Association, which is supposed to set up a community center and a health center. That’s it. No more—or no more until the developer makes more payments.
The press release is a tacit acknowledgment of how much Forest City’s public relations strategy had veered off course. Instead of doing stories about how much good these community organizations were going to do for the community, the media was doing stories about how BUILD couldn't get its story straight.
FCR spokesman Joe DePlasco explains it's a failure to meet the company's high standards for openness:
“When we provide funding for programs that are good then we should let the public know about that, and when we gave these organizations money after we signed the community benefits agreement, we should have put out a press release at that time,” Forest City spokesman Joe DePlasco told the Real Estate. “If you are trying to operate in an open enough way as possible, when you miss one thing, people will say, ‘Oh you missed one thing.’”
Then DePlasco takes a hit:
Jim Stuckey, the project director, said outside a hearing last night that DePlasco, who is an outside public relations rep, didn’t know, when he first denied money changed hands , that BUILD had received money.
But the Observer's Matthew Schuerman, leading the scrum of reporters facing Stuckey last night, doesn't buy all the explanations:
That doesn’t explain why BUILD President James Caldwell didn’t know it had received money, or that he was getting paid. Cheryl Duncan, a spokeswoman for BUILD, said that the organization’s members had been working for so long without pay, and that it had just received its first general operating support in August, and paid payroll for the first time Sept. 5. Reporters started asking about the payments in late September.
“Quite frankly, they got caught off guard by the question,” she told the Real Estate. “It’s been so long that they have been doing work voluntarily, that it was a relatively new change.”
Let's go to the videotape, with Marie Louis of BUILD. Forgetful? Or stonewalling? See further details here.
The Observer also points out that, even assuming BUILD representatives suffered from some form of volunteer-inspired amnesia about the large payment, that still doesn't explain away their work on the Brooklyn Standard:
(Of course, BUILD got money before that--in June or July--to hire people to hand out copies of the Forest City newspaper, the Brooklyn Standard. But it was $10,000, only about a tenth of which BUILD kept for administrative purposes, Duncan said.)
Does this confirm the modern blueprint thesis the Times advanced last week?
ESDC hears the critics on scale, scope, and more; BUILD is subdued; will affordable housing move east offsite?
Unlike the MTA process, this one should contain significant public input. The hearing on the Proposed Scope of Analysis for the Preparation of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), held at the auditorium of New York Technical College, did attract a good number of project supporters to cheer Borough President Marty Markowitz and boo City Council Member Letitia James, but most people in the audience—and an even larger percentage of those signed up to testify—were project opponents from the brownstone neighborhoods most impacted by the project. This was not the case in some previous hearings
No one from BUILD spoke until president James Caldwell addressed a mostly empty room at 9:45 pm. Were BUILD members ashamed they’d been further pummeled in the Daily News and their denials had been broadcast on WNYC radio? A scrum of reporters surrounded FCR VP Jim Stuckey and Caldwell during the break, and while the New York Times did not follow up on the Daily News report that Ratner is paying BUILD to distribute the Brooklyn Standard (or the revelations here), the 10/19/05 Times article, headlined The People Speak (Shout, Actually) on Brooklyn Arena Project, revealed another example of Ratner’s support of a signatory to the Community Benefits Agreement, albeit buried at the end of the story:
He [Stuckey] said that Forest City Ratner had also provided $50,000 in seed money to the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, a group founded by the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a prominent supporter of the Atlantic Yards project. The money was intended to help pay for programs for children and the elderly.
Do we know how many members and board members this alliance has? Note: Daughtry wasn't at the hearing.
The reporters were gone by the time Caldwell spoke, and they missed Roger Green's revelation (see below) but the Times had the most space and the most thorough coverage, compared at least to the articles in the New York Sun, At Hearing, Critics Attack Ratner Project, and New York Daily News, SRO crowd takes shots at Nets plan. (The Post didn't seem to cover the story. The New York Observer skewered Ratner and BUILD on their denials.) Here's a report from the Brooklyn Papers, which has long had tough coverage of Atlantic Yards (but recently lost its lead reporter), and a report from the Courier-Life chain, which emphasizes the comments of Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey.
The Times lead, however, set up a false dichotomy:
The meeting exposed deep divisions between residents who want jobs and housing and those who fear the traffic that the project might bring, as well as a host of other problems. Critics of the plan also want jobs and housing, but question the cost and credibility of the Ratner plan. Several cited the Unity Plan and Extell bid as alternatives. Additional note to the Times: the arena is not at the project's "center." The Times did describe the project more accurately than in several past articles: near Downtown Brooklyn at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. More precisely, that's the 22-acre site's western border, where construction would begin. But just last Friday the Times said the project was "in downtown Brooklyn," so call this progress.
When Caldwell (who once said Bruce Ratner “is truly sent by God”) spoke, you had to wonder if Ratner’s crew, surveying the scene from the back of the room, think he might be a liability. Caldwell followed a speaker who warned-—as did several others—that the scoping document ignores terrorism and security issues, so he decided to ad lib a rebuttal: “Two days ago, the FBI came out with a report that said New York State is one of the safest cities.”[sic] He must have been referring to this, but the FBI figures have nothing to do with the temptation an arena, set near the third-busiest subway hub in the city, might pose, especially since Arab plotters once tried to blow up the subway station. Caldwell then offered his typical testimony about disinvestment, poverty, and the high rate of unemployment among black men in Brooklyn--legitimate concerns, of course--but gave no details on how Ratner’s plan would actually help, and at what cost. “We support Forest City Ratner one hundred percent,” he declared, ever faithful. In the audience, some held up copies of Juan Gonzalez’s Tuesday column about BUILD. Caldwell made no mention of BUILD’s financial reliance on Ratner.
The politicians were mostly critical. Assemblywoman Joan Millman led off, objecting to the project’s “overwhelming scale,” rather disingenuously saying that “an arena with some housing became a mega-development with an arena.” It was always a mega-development (7.6 million zoning square feet at the start, or 8 million gross square feet), it just got bigger (9.132 million gross square feet). She began the parade of people criticizing the assumptions in the scoping document, pointing out that rush hour is not 5 to 6 pm but 4 to 8 pm. She said ESDC should use fees from Ratner to fund a community-based study. But Millman (whose district includes Site 5, home of Modells/PC Richard and slated for a high-rise building) finally voiced definitive opposition to the project, saying eminent domain “should be a last resort and not implemented for private gain.” [Addendum: in 2006, Millman said she'd learned that Site 5 is not in her district.] And, to the cheers of many, she said she’d ask Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose vote on the Public Authorities Control Board could sink the project, not to support it if eminent domain is included (which is the plan, of course).
Borough President Marty Markowitz, up next because he was late, mostly punted, saying he had concerns about traffic and the project scale (despite his support for the plan), and that he would submit written comments by October 28. “No one cares more about Brooklyn than I do,” he insisted, to the disdain of many in the crowd holding up posters declaring “Ratnerville Unmitigable.”
City Council Member David Yassky, pressed for his position, said, “I’m for the project, I want to see it done right.” That, he said, means the size of the buildings must be reduced, traffic problems must be solved, taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize the arena (but can support affordable housing, as in other projects), and though the project is now managed by a state agency, the ESDC should allow the project to go through the City Council’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP). Can Yassky get his way? For Ratner to build affordable housing and make his desired profits (which are unspecified, and there was testimony requesting Ratner's economic projections), the developer has to build bigger.
[UPDATE: Yassky's statement--he was challenged by the audience, "Are you for it or against it?" and responded as above--caused him some grief. A press release points out that Yassky's not really for it, unless it's done right. "In a statement, Yassky rebuked the Times, saying that he is for housing, jobs and investment for Brooklyn at the site, but will not support the project until significant changes are made." But as Lumi Rolley of NoLandGrab points out, "To be clear, the above link points to the written testimony Councilmember Yassky submitted at Tuesday's hearing, not his oral comments. The distinction between the two seems to be that the Times reported that he was for the project provided it was done right, but really he is against the project, UNLESS it is done right.
Councilmember Yassky appears to be attempting to walk a fine line, neither too "for" nor too "against" the project as he susses out his chances for a congressional run in 2006.
Yassky and Assembly Member Jim Brennan, as I reported, previously called for the MTA to stall the Atlantic Yards bid so the project could be scaled down. So in an earlier version of my post, which said Yassky "maintained cautious support," was inexact. It's probably more accurate to say, based on Yassky's performance at the hearing, that "Yassky, who has criticized the scale of the project, as well as other factors, continued to do so, but his bottom line is support rather than an effort to stop the project, as he previously tried."]
City Council Member Letitia James, sometimes drowned out by cheers and boos, spoke more passionately and pointedly than her official remarks suggest, citing urban planner Jane Jacobs and those (read: Marty Mark) “who wax eloquently about the past.” She added, “This project is being driven by profit, not people.” She called the affordable housing deal—once 50 percent, now 30 percent [actually 31 percent]—“bait and switch,” and wound up quoting Job from the Bible. Supporters gave her a standing ovation.
State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, speaking later, made an important request: “I ask you to examine and expose all of the direct and indirect subsidies associated with the project,” adding that it should include additional costs associated with defense against terrorism.
Assemblyman Roger Green, also speaking during a quieter later segment, called for a debate “in the spirit of civility,” a not unworthy request, but a little late, given that the moderator had long before lost control of the crowd. Green did not reference his ties to FCR and role in founding BUILD; rather, he gave a fairly dry recitation of the issues the scoping process must address—from sewers to schools to mass transit incentives—before letting loose a bombshell. He suggested that some affordable housing be put east of the Atlantic Yards site, thus lowering the density of the project. Unmentioned was that this land is in his district, so he’d gain supporters, and that moving the affordable housing means that the Atlantic Yards project would further foster gentrification. Note that the plan is currently 31 percent “affordable” (2,250 rentals, including 1,350 middle-income units for people earning an average of $75K) but only 12.3 percent low-income (900 units), plus 5,050 planned market-rate units. Will this be a repeat of Battery Park City, where the affordable component was built elsewhere? [See update here.]
A parade of individuals, representatives of community groups, and representatives from community boards also testified. Several said the study area for land use, zoning, and public policy should be expanded to two miles--the document lists the primary study area as a quarter mile and the secondary study area as a half-mile--a compelling point given the scale of the project and the fact that residents of Pacific Street, basically across the street from the project, testified their concerns were being ignored. Transportation expert Aaron Naparstek, representing the Park Slope Civic Council (PSCC), talked about congestion pricing for vehicles and limits on parking spaces. Lumi Rolley, also representing PSCC, warned of the effect on the Brooklyn Bears Community Garden (at Flabush and Atlantic, next to Site 5, proposed for a skyscraper) and warned that architect Frank Gehry’s penchant for titanium, at least in his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, can create oppressive heat and light.
Pauline Blake of Community Board 6 pointed out that the project would affect access to police and fire stations, and that the Pacific Street branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, a Carnegie building, should be landmarked, even as it sits across the street from Site 5, slated for a skyscraper. Craig Hammerman, district manager of CB 6, pointed to a “glaring oversight,” because the document doesn’t address how the project changes the city map: Atlantic Yards would straddle and eradicate both community board and police precinct boundaries.
Celia Cacace, a CB 6 member, questioned the designation of public open space in the document. "'Public' implies that a public entity is responsible," she said; critics point out that Ratner's company manages the public space at MetroTech. Cacace, a gravelly-voiced example of nearly-bygone Brooklyn, provided a few moments of levity; after the moderator warned that she had 30 seconds left to speak, she responded with "You got it, kid." Here's written testimony from five representatives of CB 6, which encompasses Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Columbia Street District, Gowanus, Park Slope, and Red Hook.
Two union guys, Reinaldo Torres of the sheet metal workers and Anthony Pugliese of the carpenters, testified, and basically said the project was about jobs. They pointed out that other developers in Brooklyn, namely Shaya Boymelgreen and David Walentas, don’t use union labor, and Ratner does. The big-voiced Pugliese denounced local elected officials for not criticizing the other developers--a not unreasonable point, though he didn't include Ratner supporters like Markowitz. (He and I had a good discussion about this at the break.) He closed with a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “What’s so good about sitting at the counter if you can’t afford the chopped meat?” (It’s not a quote I could find on the web. Anybody? MLK quotes are usually a specialty of BUILD’s Marie Louis, who likes MLK’s “We can’t wait.” When will someone respond with an MLK quote like, “A lie cannot live”?) Later, after the union reps had left, Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) pointed out that Extell Development Corp., the other bidder on the MTA’s Vanderbilt Yard, also would use union labor (and not require eminent domain).
Goldstein also observed, “It’s a shame this is the first time we’re meeting with ESDC” Shabnam Merchant, also of DDDB, pointed out that ESDC pays rent for space in Ratner’s Atlantic Center mall: “Why isn’t this a conflict of interest?” Later, Green Party candidate for Borough President Gloria Mattera asked the ESDC representatives, “How do you go to sleep at night?”
A supporter of the project, Kwan [or Quan, I didn't get the spelling] Lewis, testified that he didn’t hear anybody from Bedford-Stuyvesant or Brownsville, pointing to the self-interest of the local opponents. (Then again, Bed-Stuy and Brownsville residents live farther away, so they wouldn't have as many responses regarding environmental impact.) “I’m for the project because of inclusion,” which he defined as jobs—though of course the actual number of jobs is an important unanswered question, and the number of office jobs, at least, has been cut by more than half.
Sandy Balboza of the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association pointed to Ratner’s poor track record in building MetroTech and the Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls, which set themselves off from the residential neighborhoods nearby rather than blend in. Henry Weinstein, a property owner in Prospect Heights, called attention to a “gross misstatement” in the scoping document, saying that Ratner claims to control three properties he owns. “This wholly false statement is trying to pull the wood over the eyes of those who would read this document,” he said. “I find it incredible…If lies and treachery are being used to approve this project, then every material fact in this statement is suspect.” He gave ESDC a letter from his lawyer.
Bill Batson, representing CB8, made an important point about eminent domain: “The seizing of property from one private party and giving it to another under the rationale of economic enhancement has never occurred in New York. Once this power is granted, however, eminent domain could be a tool available to any developer who has a higher yielding economic proposal for anyone’s private home or business.” CB8, which encompasses parts of Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, and Weeksville, has a host of concerns, represented in this 10-point plan.
Others pointed out that there is new construction in “blighted” Prospect Heights, and that new zoning could improve it. Robert Puca, a resident of the Newswalk condos that are gerrymandered out of the plan, said “everyone bought into sunshine; now we will have darkness.”
I testified as well, pointing out that an examination of environmental impact has to start with the environment of dishonesty and manipulation created by FCR, exemplified by the Brooklyn Standard. (Someone had to do it; no press entity has yet dissected the Brooklyn Standard, and thousands of copies had been distributed in the previous few days.) Scott Turner of Fans for Fair Play covered some other topics, but wound up in the same place, testifying, “I’m a fan of the truth.”
ESDC is supposed to review alternatives, so here's Doug Hamilton's testimony on the Pacific Plan, which would incorporate an arena but not create superblocks. It's unclear how many housing units--and affordable units--would be created, and what the cost would be. Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors also testified about an alternative, as well as effects on traffic, parking and transit, pollution, and noise, and strains on police, fire and educational services, many of which have not been adequately addressed or provided for in the Draft Scope of Analysis.
Near the end of the hearing, Schellie Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition referenced Caldwell’s praise for Ratner, saying, “We are gathered here tonight in the name of a man sent from God. The man used to be sent from God was named Jesus. That was a long time ago. Now it’s Bruce.” She talked about how the emperor—the state—puts signs on people’s houses: “Your house is no longer yours, it belongs to [Gov.] George [Pataki]. But it really belongs to Bruce, because you, Empire State Developers, will hand it over.” She said sarcastically, “Bruce has been sent to us to mitigate the crisis in luxury housing,” and ended by hoisting a sign declaring Ratner to be God.
Urban planner Tom Angotti of Hunter College provided some dispiriting news, saying that the process of looking at environmental impact cannot be done within the time set out: “We need 180 days.” Written comments are acceptable until October 28, to email@example.com. Sometime after that, ESDC will issue a final scoping document, which will be revised based on comments received on the proposed scope of work. This final document will provide the framework of analysis for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. There will be a second hearing sometime in the next few months.
As the Sun article summarized it: That statement, when completed, will outline necessary state and city approvals, predicted environmental impacts, and measures to mitigate those impacts. It will also list any unmitigated or unavoidable impacts and alternatives to the project
The Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods also will be holding hearings and gaining input.
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
"Modern blueprint"? Evidence points to increased BUILD/Ratner payments and collusion
Forest City Ratner paid BUILD $10,000 earlier this year to distribute copies of a promotional newspaper about the Atlantic Yards project called the Brooklyn Standard.
Then in August, the developer donated an additional $100,000 to the group to pay its salaries.
That was two months after BUILD and seven other Brooklyn neighborhood groups signed a so-called Community Benefits Agreement with Forest City Ratner that promised up to one-third of the housing built would be "affordable" and set aside jobs for local residents.
Ratner provided an entire building rent-free for BUILD headquarters on Pacific St. and supplied all of the group's office equipment. The developer also is paying for a public relations firm to represent BUILD and the other neighborhood groups that support Atlantic Yards.
Last weekend, Ratner issued another $28,000 contract for BUILD to hire 100 neighborhood people to distribute a second copy of its promotional newspaper, said the developer's spokesman Joe DePlasco.
Remember, BUILD's president told the New York Observer he didn't know who was paying for his p.r.
Gonzalez queried a Brooklyn Standard distributor, Margaret Perkins, worker who explained that BUILD has become involved in political work:
"The people at BUILD pay well," she told me yesterday. "I've done work for them before, during the elections."
During the September Democratic primary, Perkins said, she worked the polls for City Council candidate Eric Blackwell. She picked up her pay for her election work at BUILD headquarters, she said.
Blackwell happens to be the former head of the group.
The incumbent whom Blackwell sought to oust was Councilwoman Letitia James. She is a firm opponent of the Atlantic Yards project, while Blackwell's campaign literature prominently stressed his support for the Ratner development.
James won in a landslide.
According to several sources, the BUILD headquarters was a busy place on primary day. A little-known organization called Community Leadership for Accountable Politics Inc. appears to have organized and paid the polling place volunteers.
IRS rules do not permit tax-exempt organizations to campaign for candidates.
I called BUILD headquarters yesterday to ask Marie Louis and the group's current president, James Caldwell, what involvement the group had, if any, with Community Leadership for Accountable Politics, or with the organizing of Election Day operations for Blackwell.
Neither Louis nor Caldwell responded. Efforts to locate a representative for Community Leadership for Accountable Politics were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, at Forest City Ratner, no one had ever heard of Community Leadership for Accountable Politics.
Lumi Rolley of NoLandGrab.org picks up the story, connecting the dots between BUILD and CLAP:
Forest City Ratner denies having any knowledge of a group called CLAP. A Google search for CLAP turns up an Erik Enquist column from July, 2004 that identifies CLAP as a group "running candidates in Ft. Greene and Prospect Heights." The campaigns were managed by "local politico James Caldwell, the president of the pro-development group BUILD." Also, the lawyer listed on the NY State Department web site for CLAP is a name we heard before, Sharai Erima, Esq., the lawyer who erroneously scribbled in "$5 Million Forest City Ratner" on BUILD's IRS 1023 form.
Is this project a "modern blueprint for how how to nourish - and then harvest - public and community backing," as the Times suggested? Or is it old-fashioned underhanded politics?
Monday, October 17, 2005
Sneaky doings at the Brooklyn Standard: How did Ratner's propaganda sheet snag a NY Times contributor?
So why does Times stringer Nate Schweber have his byline attached to four stories, including the lead, in the latest Brooklyn Standard? (The new issue isn't up on the web yet, but here's the top of the front page.)
I contacted Schweber, who said he didn't write that lead story, nor another with his byline, though he did write two others, at least in some form. He sent me a written statement:
I was shocked and sickened on Saturday when I learned that my name was attached to two Brooklyn Standard articles that I did not write.
I did not report or write the front page story, “MTA Approves Atlantic Yards Bid,” nor did I write the story on page 18, “Furthering the Arts in Brooklyn.” The fact that I am credited for those stories is an egregious error on the part of Manhattan Media and I have sent faxes, e-mails and certified letters to CEO Tom Allon as well as Brooklyn Standard Editors in Chief Barry Baum and Scott C. Cantone as well as Executive Editor Edward-Isaac Dovere demanding an immediate retraction and correction.
Schweber said in a letter to Allon, I also demand that my name be stricken from those articles in all future pressings of this issue of The Brooklyn Standard, as well as any and all archived issues including, but not limited to, the web page www.brooklynstandard.com.
I called Allon, who told me, "There will be a retraction in the next issue," but would not comment further. Given that the current issue is labeled Fall 2005, it's possible that the next issue might not appear until December.
So why did this happen? I can only speculate, but it's possible that Brooklyn Standard editors wanted some New York Times-tinged cachet on the front page. Or maybe the articles were all written by Forest City Ratner public relations staff, and they didn't want their names used. Several pieces in the Brooklyn Standard lack bylines, which suggests they may have come directly from Ratner staff: a two-page "Frequently Asked Questions About Atlantic Yards;" a Q&A with Council Member Lew Fidler; a Q&A with new Nets CEO Brett Yormark; and a story headlined "FCRC Associates Pitch In for Prospect Park."
The staff box in the publication says that the Brooklyn Standard is "A Forest City Ratner Companies Publication" and the editors in chief are Ratner employees. Allon, listed as the Managing Editor, is president/CEO of Manhattan Media, which publishes various Manhattan weeklies, under the slogan, "Neighborhoods are our business, our only business." Schweber said he had an ongoing relationship with the company:
I have freelanced for Tom Allon and his Manhattan Media companies since 2002, mainly for the West Side Spirit and Our Town, two weekly, community papers in Manhattan.
For the sake of my name, my reputation and my career I need to make four things abundantly clear. First, the assignment to write the stories on page two was given to me long before my first interview with the New York Times. Second, I turned in my copy before my first interview with the Times. Third, the printed articles differ greatly from the copy I turned in. And finally, I was assigned the articles before the first issue of the Brooklyn Standard had come out and I was led to believe that it was a community newspaper like the other Manhattan Media publications I freelanced for. Immediately after I found out about the stories that I didn’t write but to which my name was attached I researched the Brooklyn Standard and found out that it was not a newspaper but a publication paid for by Forest City Ratner Companies. I am taking steps to set the record straight on this, the first business day after I found out about this problem.
There's a time lag here, since Schweber, who lives in New Jersey, apparently did not notice articles on the Brooklyn Standard in Brooklyn and New York media outlets in June, generated after Forest City Ratner issued its 6/17/05 press release. Nor did he take action after the prominent (Metro section front) 9/3/05 Times article on the Brooklyn Standard, which pointed out:
To counter the impression that it is trying to fool anyone, The Standard avoids calling itself a newspaper, instead proclaiming itself "a Forest City Ratner Publication."
Efforts at transparency end there. The Standard is printed on newsprint, folded like a tabloid, laid out to look like a newspaper and distributed alongside real newspapers.
Still, Schweber's lapses are far less than the misleading copy in the "publication" itself.
The lead story, misattributed to Schweber, headlined "MTA Approves Atlantic Yards Bid," contains a deck stating "FCRC's $445 million overall offer exceeds MTA's appraisal." It also states that MTA board Chair Peter Kalikow noted that the amount of money the MTA was receiving was in excess of its own appraisal. The bid was also praised by the majority of those who testified at the hearing. The article further states that the development is expected to be generating $6 billion in new tax revenues over the next 30 years.
This article, however, isn't journalism. Reporters who covered the hearing noted some dramatic opposition to the MTA's decision from members of the public and elected officials, as well as dissenting board member Mitchell Pally's forceful challenge to Kalikow's willingness to accept the bid. That information isn't mentioned in this article.
No source was given for the $6 billion, but a similar number has been estimated by Andrew Zimbalist, the economist who is Forest City Ratner's paid consultant on the project. Zimbalist's projections have been widely criticized--see Chapter 3 of my report, and the recent Independent Budget Office report.
More fundamentally, the article falsely reframed the bid amount. The New York Times's 9/15/05 article, headlined "Arena Project For Brooklyn Wins Approval From M.T.A.," better contextualized the bid amount:
[T]he authority's decision to accept the $100 million offer by the company Mr. Ratner heads, Forest City Ratner, for the 8.3-acre railyard. The offer was $50 million less than a rival bid from the Extell Development Company and $114.5 million less than the transportation authority's own appraisal.
The comparison between the Times's account and that in the Brooklyn Standard is worth noting, because the Times's own Ethical Journalism handbook states that outside contributors should meet the Times's standards:
152. Times readers apply exacting standards to entire paper. They do not distinguish between staff written articles and those written by outsiders. Thus as far as possible, freelance contributors to The Times, while not its employees, will be held to the same standards as staff members when they are on Times assignments, including those for the Times Magazine. If they violate these guidelines, they will be denied further assignments.
However, staff members are not supposed to be writing for publications that don't meet the Times's standards, The Times handbook continues:
97. Before accepting a freelance assignment, a staff member should make sure that the tone and content of the publication, Web site or program are in keeping with the standards of The Times. In general, a staff member should write nothing elsewhere that could not fit comfortably under his or her byline in The Times or that implies The Times’s sponsorship or endorsement.
Are the other puff pieces attributed to Schweber in the Brooklyn Standard up to the standards of the Times? Well, no, but as my report indicates, the Times doesn't always meet its standards either. One that Schweber wrote (at least in initial form), headlined "Small Businesses Flourish at MetroTech," quotes five happy small business tenants, thus suggesting that Forest City Ratner cares about small business, but it also points out that MetroTech is much bigger than that: Ratner's MetroTech Center provides New York City with more than 22,000 jobs, with a payroll of close to a half billion dollars annually.
A few paragraphs lower, the article acknowledges that the list of tenants includes government tenants, such as the New York City Fire Department, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication, the Police Department's Public Safety Answering Center, the New York City Human Resources Administration, and the Kings County Family Court and New York State Supreme Court Criminal Term. The article does not point out, as critics have regularly observed, that Ratner's projects often rely on government tenants. The article also quotes a florist as saying, "Plus, you end up working less because it's a 9-to-5 work environment." The article does not acknowledge that MetroTech has been criticized because it's empty at night and on weekends.
Still, Schweber said in his statement that the printed articles--the "Small Businesses Flourish" as well as a profile of a hardware store at MetroTech--differ greatly from the copy he turned in. The fourth story that bears his byline, which he says he did not write, profiles Brooklyn Academy of Music President Karen Brooks Hopkins.
Freelancers for the Times are supposed to avoid conflicts of interests. Work for Forest City Ratner, a partner with the parent Times Company on the new Times Tower as well as the subject of major coverage in the Times, could present at least the appearance of such a conflict. The handbook states:
153. Before being given an assignment, freelance contributors must sign a contract with The Times. These contracts oblige them to take care to avoid conflicts of interests or the appearance of conflict.
Schweber has been a stringer for the Times only since September 2, and has contributed to 22 articles, nearly all spot news stories from New Jersey. His work covering New Jersey doesn't intersect with his work for the Brooklyn Standard. Still, Times contributors should not be compromising the newspaper by writing for Ratner's propaganda sheet, and Schweber, who turned in his Brooklyn Standard copy before he started writing for the Times, obviously now recognizes that.
An 8/14/05 column by Public Editor Byron Calame, headlined Outside Contributors: In The Times, but Not of The Times, acknowledged that it was hard to police standards among freelancers:
Monitoring and maintaining the paper's ethical and reporting standards among the growing and far-flung army of freelancers is a crucial and complex task. Two years ago, The Times acknowledged that it needed to do a better job of checking out new freelancers and requiring them to pay more attention to the paper's ethical and reporting standards. But the goals are proving tough to achieve.
Another passage stated:
A new electronic freelance administration system will include a process requiring all freelancers to respond to a set of pointed questions about possible conflicts of interest when they sign a contract. The new system, which began its rollout last week, initially will link freelance contracts to assignments and payments. The Times expects to incorporate the conflict-of-interest questions, which are ready for use, into the electronic system "within a few months," according to [Assistant Managing Editor] Mr. [William E.] Schmidt.
Not soon enough, apparently. The Times may have to add a question that goes something like this: "If you've turned in some freelance work for a publication that you later learn is of dubious quality, have you taken action to try to keep it from being published?
[Note: previously I had written, "Have you taken action to make sure it won't be published?" but I'm told that writers in that position probably don't have such leverage.]
Sunday, October 16, 2005
Dissecting the Fall 2005 issue of the Brooklyn Standard: more distortions, evasions, and lies
One change: there are no longer fake "letters to the editor" from the likes of Mayor Bloomberg. There are no letters to the editor at all, which is curious, since it's likely that some people wrote to the paper. Then again, the Editors in Chief are Forest City Ratner officials Barry Baum and Scott Cantone, so they could be using their editorial discretion to further the company's mission, which is to build "superior, long-term value for its stakeholders."
Let's start with the photo on the front page, which is captioned "A panoramic view of Vanderbilt Yard today." See the four-story brick building in the center? Well, one of the residents won't sell to Ratner, and has posted a banner outside his window that reads "I love my neighborhood and my home. And I intend to stay." Either this picture was taken years ago, before Ratner announced the Atlantic Yards plan, or that banner was excised from the picture.
I dissect the errors in and curious circumstances behind the lead story, headlined "MTA Approves Atlantic Yards Bid," in another post.
Also on page one, a story headlined "Historic Community Agreement" features rhapsodic praise for the Community Benefits Agreement. As I've written before, experts on CBAs say this one isn't legitimate.
On page two, the story headlined "Small Businesses Flourish At Metrotech" is also criticized in another post.
Let's go to the "Frequently Asked Questions About Atlantic Yards" on pages 4 & 5. The third question asks if Eminent Domain will be used. The answer evades that question. Of course eminent domain will be used. Some people won't sell. Also see page 4 of the MOU.
The fourth question asks if the project will "bring in more traffic than the area can handle?" The answer: No. But the whole point of the ongoing Environmental Impact Statement scoping process is to examine that. This City Council briefing paper, dated 5/26/05, points out some of the concerns about traffic.
The fifth question in the Q&A cites $200 million in (direct) city/state contributions but fails to note that even FCR acknowledges that the project would consume over $1 billion in public costs in 30 years. See Chapter 3 of my report.
The last question in the Q&A says the project will generate "15,000 union construction jobs and thousands of new office jobs." First, construction jobs are calculated in job-years, so that would be 1,500 construction jobs over 10 years, as I point out in Chapter 2 of my report.
The "thousands of new office jobs" as pretty vague, an indication that the company hasn't kept its promises. In December 2003, Ratner predicted 10,000 office jobs for approximately 2 million square feet of office space. The NYC Economic Development Corporation, using more conservative figures for amount of space needed per person and building in a 7% vacancy rate, predicted 7,100 jobs. The amount of office space has since been cut to 628,000 square feet (3,140 jobs, at Ratner's formulat of 200 square feet per worker), as Ratner has traded office space (jobs) for luxury housing. That means the number of jobs has been cut significantly. See Chapter 2 of my report and this post, which points out that, according to NYC Economic Development Corporation calculations, there would be 2,229 office jobs, including 669 new ones.
The page six column by Bertha Lewis, executive director of the New York chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) deserves notice for its stubborn commitment to unreality. "ACORN is all about working families," she declares, going on to cite the "50-50 balance for affordable housing, one of our proudest and greatest accomplishments as an organization." Then she writes, "In the years to come, 2,250 more families will have housing in a neighborhood that was moving in the wrong direction... If this project can stem the overwhelming tide of gentrification in central and downtown Brooklyn one iota, then it will have been worth it for the housing alone."
As noted, only 900 units are aimed at those below Brooklyn's median income. The other 1,350 affordable units will go to people with a median income of $75,000, surely not ACORN's constituency. And, as Lewis somehow neglects to notice, there's no longer a 50-50 program for the project as a whole. The 50-50 housing deal covers only the 4,500 rental units. Since then, Ratner has announced plans for 2,800 market-rate condos, surely part of the "overwhelming tide of gentrification."
BUILD's jobs development: distributing Ratner's propaganda sheet
[Note: the new issue of the Brooklyn Standard is not yet available on the web, but I will analyze it in another post.]
Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in the 10/14/05 Times article headlined To Build Arena in Brooklyn, Developer First Builds Bridges, said that the $100,000 was to go to job training:
Mr. DePlasco emphasized that the money given to Build was intended to fulfill the company's obligations under the community-benefits agreement.
"No money was given to Build prior to the community-benefits agreement. What they're supposed to do is begin outreach and job training so that people are ready to apply for these jobs when they become available. If you are going to commit to programs that otherwise don't exist, you have to find the funding for those programs - or at least a big chunk of that funding," he said.
Does Forest City Ratner plan to regularly issue free "publications" that require a street team to distribute? If not, the use of BUILD to distribute the Brooklyn Standard counts as part of Ratner's public relations effort, not the job training in the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). Page 13 of the CBA states that BUILD is responsible for job training for construction jobs. Regarding permanent jobs, page 15 of the CBA says that tenants may request that BUILD provide specialized job training for applicants they intend to hire tailored to the tenants' particular needs.
Then again, page 40 of the CBA says that developers will work with BUILD, among other organizations, to target hard to employ young people (including ex-offenders between the ages of 16-21) who face barriers to employment for employment training opportunities at the Project. Could Joe DePlasco explain away street distribution of the Brooklyn Standard as fulfilling this component of the CBA?
BUILD's mission statement suggests that it's not aiming at short-term jobs:
BUILD is an organization committed to supporting development as a means of creating economic opportunities to promote financial self-sufficiency and prosperity in socio-economically depressed communities....
Testifying before the City Council on 5/4/04, BUILD first VP Marie Louis also emphasized the importance of building skills for the long term:
To safeguard against this, Bruce Ratner and Forest City Ratner Companies has committed to working with BUILD to negotiate an agreement aimed at:
--developing the capacity of working age adults to economically gain and benefit from the revitalization spurred by this project;
--preparing youth for global marketplace success so that they have the capacity to live anywhere they choose well...
Meanwhile, BUILD still hasn't updated its web site to revise its denial of financial support from Ratner. The site still says:
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).
"Seemingly inexorable movement" at Atlantic Yards? The Times. vs. the Brooklyn Papers & the Daily News
The most aggressive coverage has come from the weekly Brooklyn Papers, which, for example, has been the only press outlet to point out that the promised "15,000 construction jobs" actually means 1,500 jobs over 10 years. As I note in my report, the Times has used this more accurate job-years figure in articles about projects other than Atlantic Yards.
Now the Brooklyn Papers has received a national award for its coverage of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project. To quote the Brooklyn Papers' 10/15/05 coverage:
Praising The Brooklyn Papers “on a courageous piece of work” in its “Not Just Nets” coverage of developer Bruce Ratner’s “Atlantic Yards” plan, the National Newspaper Association this week awarded the newspaper its top prize for Best Investigative or In-depth Story or Series.
The 120-year-old NNA, with 3,200 daily and weekly community newspaper members, is the nation’s largest newspaper association.
Throughout 2004, The Brooklyn Papers coverage of Ratner’s proposal set the newspapers apart from the city’s other media, which ignored or downplayed the project’s impact.
The two reporters cited for their "Not Just Nets" coverage, however, are no longer with the paper: Deborah Kolben moved to the New York Daily News last year and Jess Wisloski has just left to freelance.
Now Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica has taken the gloves off, with a hard-hitting and factually grounded attack on Ratner, in a 10/16/05 column headlined Ratner's money tree grows in Brooklyn . Here are some major excerpts:
The mayor and the deputy mayor and the Jets get stopped on the West Side of Manhattan even as the next real estate con, not as big but close enough, grows in Brooklyn. This one comes from a developer named Bruce Ratner, who has convinced everybody he is a sportsman as he tries to buy himself an entire borough. Nobody stops him, at least so far.
Ratner is just smarter than Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff was with his vision for a new West Side, built around a football stadium. Ratner does not try to hide one of the sweetheart real estate deals in the history of New York City behind the Olympics. Instead, he spreads money all over the borough, trying to buy influence and loyalty, acting as if this is all about jobs when it is mostly about highly profitable luxury housing.
Along the way, he allows this idea to grow exponentially along with his con:
That since he has so many blacks in Brooklyn with him, it must be the borough's gentrified whites who are against him. In this case, race is much more productive for him than the 2012 Summer Games. This has nothing to do with Ratner's slogan about "jobs, housing and hoops." No, this is Karl Rove's blueprint for how you get things done, right out of the Bush White House: Divide and conquer.
There is no Cablevision to fund the opposition this time, even though it is the same fight Cablevision fought against the Jets, and one that involves a competing basketball team this time.
So the opposition this time comes from neighborhood coalitions like Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, the constituency of which has seen through Ratner's game from the start. And from the start, the first lie, huge, was this one:
That this was all about bringing a major professional sports franchise to Brooklyn, which hasn't had one since the Dodgers left nearly 50 years ago.
No, this was a real estate deal all along, so much of it to be funded by taxpayer dollars, at least a billion of them before we are through, if Ratner gets his way.
In the end, in a borough where the median income is still listed as $35,000, as few as 900 units will be truly affordable to the people about whom Ratner, Caring Bruce Ratner, says this development of his is all about.
And always there is the use of race by Ratner and his people, as if it is part of his business plan. Of course, this is all tied up with the neighborhood support Ratner says he has. If he has it, he bought it. We hear about groups like BUILD, about which Juan Gonzalez has written in The News. It stands for "Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development." Huge Brooklyn cheerleaders for Ratner. Lots of black faces. The use of innovative only applies here if you think it is new for guys like Ratner to spread money around to get what they want.
On Sept. 29, Joe DePlasco, who comes out of Democratic politics in the city and is now on Ratner's payroll as Ratner tries to buy Brooklyn, told Gonzalez that the only thing Ratner's company, Forest City Ratner, was providing for BUILD was "free office space." Now DePlasco suddenly remembers in the Times on Friday - it is always worth pointing out that the Times and Forest City Ratner are partners in building the Times' new midtown headquarters - that Ratner "disbursed" $100,000 to BUILD in August. It's the old Bob Arum dodge. Yesterday I was lying, today I'm telling the truth.
One of the headlines in the Times was this: "Arena Developer Builds Bridges to Achieve Goal in Downtown Brooklyn." Right. Builds bridges and buys BUILD.
The late Bill Veeck once said that a hustler is somebody who gets you to loan him bus fare, then makes it seem like he did you a favor. Ratner still wants you to believe this is about the Nets. It is about him building his own Brooklyn in Atlantic Yards. And you're supposed to help him. Sound familiar?
Again, it's notable that a sports columnist grasps this deal better than the metro reporters and editorial writers who should also be analyzing it.