Saturday, October 29, 2005

 

Ferrer, Sharpton, and the Journalism of Verification

So Democratic Mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer held a press conference yesterday in which he made his most forceful statement in opposition to the Atlantic Yards project, offering specific criticisms about the amount of affordable housing, the lack of community review, and the prospect of "nearly a billion dollars" (actually, more, according to the developer--see Chapter 3 of my report) in subsidies. But the lead in all the coverage is that the Rev. Al Sharpton disagrees with him, with no effort to factcheck Sharpton.

Now Sharpton's comments were newsworthy, but they need to be examined, and they shouldn't overshadow Ferrer's pointed criticism--showing a real difference with Mayor Bloomberg, who has backed the plan unquestioningly--which the press hardly cited. The New York Times's 10/29/05 story was headlined Ferrer Is Chided Over Atlantic Yards and, in the print edition, the deck stated "Sharpton Says Plan Could Mean Thousands of Minority Jobs." The article began:
Seeking to build support for his mayoral bid in brownstone Brooklyn, Fernando Ferrer said yesterday that he would stop the huge Atlantic Yards development project, but a major supporter, the Rev. Al Sharpton, sharply rebuked him for playing politics with a project that could create thousands of jobs for minority workers.

Thousands of jobs for minority workers? How does Sharpton know? As City Council Member Charles Barron (unlike Sharpton, an elected voice for a minority community, unlike Sharpton) pointed out in questioning Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey at a City Council hearing, no office jobs could be guaranteed to minority workers. As for the construction jobs, estimated by Ratner at 1,500 a year for ten years, and by Mayor Bloomberg at 1,200 a year, the Community Benefits Agreement (p. 13ff.) refers to pre-apprentice training for construction jobs, lists of unemployed local construction workers, customized job training for project tenants, retail leasing preferences for local businesses, and internships. It states:
The Developers will use good faith efforts to meet the overall goal during construction of the arena and the project by employing, or causing to be employed, not less than 35% Minority and 10% women construction workers, of which 35% of each category should have the status of journey-level worker.


If we're talking construction jobs, 35% of 1,500 is 525, and 35% of 1,200 is 420. Add a few hundred in the other categories and the term "thousands of minority jobs" is hardly appropriate. Why didn't Sharpton--or the press--mention that the promised 10,000 permanent office jobs at the project have been cut by at least two thirds, and the actual new office jobs could be under 700?

The Times article continued by quoting Sharpton:
In a statement sent by e-mail to reporters, Mr. Sharpton said that he and Mr. Ferrer "strongly disagree" on the project, which would place a ridge of skyscrapers and a basketball arena at a major Brooklyn intersection and straddle several low-scale neighborhoods where opposition to the project has recently intensified. Mr. Ferrer, he said, "needs to realize that failure to get projects like this done would be a terrible loss for communities of color throughout this city."

Yet the Times article--as did the Times article announcing Sharpton's support for the Atlantic Yards project (see my report, Chapter 4)--did not see fit to quote any other spokespeople for communities of color. The Daily News coverage of Sharpton's original announcement quoted a minister, the Rev. Clinton Miller, who, unlike Sharpton, is based in the community. And, of course, the elected official most prominently against the project is City Council Member Letitia James, who is far closer to the local communities of color than is Sharpton.

The Times article proceeded to sketch the backdrop without filling in some details:
In another sign of how aggressively the Bloomberg forces are campaigning to keep him in office, some of his supporters found a different way to overshadow Mr. Ferrer. Chanting "Jobs, housing, hoops," a group of union members who support the Atlantic Yards project disrupted Mr. Ferrer's news conference.

The Bloomberg forces? Given that Forest City Ratner representatives were present at the press conference, they were likely just as responsible.

The Times article continued:
Mr. Ferrer stood with several supporters on Pacific Street and cast the project as "the twin brother of Mike Bloomberg's West Side stadium boondoggle." But the larger group of union members, inflatable rats in tow, whistled and chanted while Tony Herbert, a Republican candidate for City Council who helped organize the protest, yelled, "Don't sell out the minorities, Freddy."

Tony Herbert is running against Letitia James. James already trounced an Atlantic Yards supporter in the Democratic primary. In a heavily Democratic district, she will undoubtedly defeat Herbert. So Herbert's credibility should be contextualized.

The last three paragraphs of the Times article finally touched on Ferrer's critique:
Mr. Ferrer, who said he saw the hand of the Bloomberg campaign in the disruption, has long complained that the development, which is subject to state review rather than to the city's rigorous approval process, was planned in secret. Still, he had supported the developer's promises that 50 percent of the new homes would be subsidized for low- and middle-income residents and that minorities and female-owned contracting companies would be hired.
But it was only recently that he said that the development, proposed by Forest City Ratner, should be halted altogether and its scope reassessed because the project has expanded since it was first announced, raising questions about how many apartments would be subsidized and who would be able to afford them. "Recently it's come to light that this proposal is not what we all thought it would be," Mr. Ferrer said. "Along with my concerns about infrastructure and total lack of community participation it's clear that this project just cannot go forward as it's currently structured."
But Mr. Ferrer drew fire from other supporters, including Assemblyman Roger Green and Bertha Lewis, leader of the housing advocacy group Acorn. Bruce Bender, an executive at Forest City Ratner, the development partner in building a new Midtown headquarters for the New York Times Company, accused Mr. Ferrer of misrepresenting the facts.


Raising questions about how many apartments would be subsidized? The Times didn't point out Ferrer's answers, but they come from the ESDC's project description. While 50% of the first 4,500 rental units would be "affordable," Forest City Ratner subsequently added 2,800 market-rate units. As Ferrer said accurately at the press conference, "fewer than 15%" would be truly affordable, aimed at people under Brooklyn's median income. Why couldn't the Times report this?

Roger Green and Bertha Lewis might be expected to criticize Ferrer, since they could also be described as partners with Forest City Ratner. Green helped develop the Community Benefits Agreement (see Chapter 4 of my report) and Lewis's group, which gave Ratner street cred after the 50-50 affordable housing plan was announced (for the first 4,500 rental units only), is contractually obligated to support the Atlantic Yards development (see Chapter 7 of my report).

Bruce Bender, an executive at Forest City Ratner, the development partner in building a new Midtown headquarters for the New York Times Company, accused Mr. Ferrer of misrepresenting the facts. The article ends with an unspecified accusation. What facts were misrepresented? And couldn't Forest City Ratner itself be accused of misrepresenting facts? Let's take, for example, the company's Brooklyn Standard.

The coverage elsewhere similarly featured Sharpton, with even fewer details. The New York Post also led with Sharpton, with the headline REV. TURNS ON FERRER. Here's the Post's paltry attempt at details:
Ferrer spoke out against the massive project — which includes some units of "affordable" housing — as "the twin brother of Mike Bloomberg's West Side stadium boondoggle."
...Hours later, Sharpton — who supports the project — issued a statement blasting Ferrer for campaigning against a project that would produce jobs and housing.


The New York Daily News offered the headline, Freddy gets slap from his pal Rev. Al. The article stated:
Sharpton is on record supporting the Atlantic Yards, where developer Bruce Ratner has promised to set aside 45% of construction jobs to minorities and women and market 50% of rental units as affordable.

Unmentioned were the total number of housing units. Also, as I've noted before, if 35% of construction jobs would go to minorities and 10% to women, the only way they could add up to 45% would be if all the women were white--an untenable scenario.

Newsday, in a story headlined Just call it flashback Friday, also treated it as a story about campaign tactics:
The Rev. Al Sharpton did so by registering his disagreement with the man he endorsed for mayor, Democrat Fernando Ferrer, over a controversial Brooklyn development plan.
Ferrer has said he opposes the Atlantic Yards development project in Brooklyn, which would include an arena as well as high-rise housing and commercial space. Sharpton, in a letter circulated by his publicist, said, "Freddy and I agree on a lot, but we strongly disagree when it comes to the importance of the Atlantic Yards project, [which is] exactly what we need in Brooklyn."


Sharpton's statements deserve scrutiny, not stenography. With relatively little effort, reporters could have both factchecked his assertions as well as found elected minority representatives from Brooklyn who could argue why Sharpton is wrong.

Friday, October 28, 2005

 

Downsizing? Marty says yes, but a 15% cut would barely return Atlantic Yards to the starting point

In a 10/28/05 New York Daily News story headlined Beep's downsize call, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz again called for the Atlantic Yards project to be downsized, but again would not offer specifics:
Plans for the 22-acre miniature city proposed for Brooklyn call for an NBA arena and 16 towers up to 620 feet high.
Nine million square feet of new office and residential space would dwarf surrounding structures, including the iconic Williamsburgh Savings Bank building, currently Brooklyn's tallest.
Markowitz told the Daily News that benefits from the $3.5 billion project such as jobs, affordable housing and park space should be preserved while building heights are reduced.
"The urban design challenge is how do we [preserve] the benefits and downscale the heights of the buildings proposed," Markowitz said.
He didn't offer a specific reduction, however.
..."Now listen, we've got to downscale it," Markowitz said on the TV show [NY1]. "There's no question that the community is right when they call for downscaling the size, and they're right on that."


First, note that calling it "office and residential space" obscures the fact that the vast majority would be residential space, and luxury housing at that.

The original plan, in December 2003, proposed 7.6 million zoning square feet (though Forest City Ratner says 7.7):
While the final details of the plan are still subject to an agreement among the City , the State, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Forest City Ratner Companies, the proposed 7.7 million zoning square feet at Brooklyn Atlantic Yards would be divided into approximately:
· 800,000 square feet for the sports arena – with 19,000 seats for basketball games and 20,000 as configured for other events, such as concerts;
· six acres of publicly accessible open space;
· 4.4 million square feet of residential, in approximately 4,500 units
· 2.1 million square feet of commercial office space;
· 300,000 square feet of retail space;
· 3,000 parking spaces.


On 9/16/05, the scoping document from the Empire State Development Corporation, proposed 9,132,000 gross square feet:
The development program currently includes, at full build-out, approximately 628,000 gross square feet (gsf) of commercial office space, 196,000 gsf of hotel use, 256,000 gsf of retail, up to 7.2 million gsf of residential use (approximately 7,300 residential units), approximately 4,000 parking spaces, more than 7 acres of publicly-accessible open space, and the proposed 850,000 gsf arena.... As part of the proposed project, a portion of the parcel identified as Site 5 of the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Plan would be developed with approximately 356,000 gsf of residential use and 347,000 gsf of office use in addition to the existing approximately 47,000 gsf of retail.

I'm told--though I don't yet have a document confirming it--that the original plan was actually 8 million gross square feet, so the appropriate comparison would be 8 million and 9.132 million.

Some percentages regarding the current plan:
--7.2 million square feet for residential use represents 78.8% of the total 9.132 million square feet. That makes this by far a residential project, so any description of it as "mixed-use" or "office-retail-residential" should acknowledge that it is hardly balanced among those uses.
--5,050 of 7,300 housing units, or 69.2% of the total, would be market rate. Of 7.2 million square feet, 69.2% would represent 4.98 million square feet. That would represent 50.1% of the total project square footage. In other words, it's not just planned as a residential project, it's a luxury housing project.

Some percentages regarding the difference between current plan and the one originally announced:
--9.132 million square feet represents a 14.1% increase over 8 million square feet.
--a 10% cut from 9.132 million square feet would be .913 million square feet, reducing the project to 8.21 million square feet, still larger than originally planned.
--a 15% cut from 9.132 million square feet would be 1.37 million square feet, reducing the project to 7.76 million square feet, only slightly smaller than originally planned.

In other words, even a 15% reduction would bring Atlantic Yards just past its starting point, the largest development in Brooklyn's history.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

 

Ferrer calls for project to be scaled down, defenders repeat jobs/housing mantra

In an interview with the Daily News, in a 10/27/05 article headlined Freddy fires Net salvo, Democratic mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer called for the Atlantic Yards project to be reduced significantly, though he didn't offer specifics.

The article stated:
Ferrer told the Editorial Board that he supported the project's affordable housing and other benefits it would bring to the community, but he lambasted the overall "secrecy and lack of transparency" surrounding the development.
He also rebuked what he called "apparent abuses of eminent domain," citing a secret memo that recently emerged about two businesses that could be evicted if a site were not made available by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.


Secret memo? I'd like to know more.

Ferrer said:
"We're talking about a lot of mass in that project, a lot of mass. And if we don't deal with a lot of the other issues - like traffic, like schools, like police protection, like sanitation and health care - I think we have a problem," Ferrer said.
"We've got to make this human-size now," he concluded. "This can't be the mother of all real estate deals. If it is that, then, I think it's wrong."
Ferrer declined to specify precisely what part of the project he intended to scale back. He said he would only support eminent domain for businesses that were "unperforming."


Unperforming? The standard for eminent domain is supposed to be "public purpose,' though the proponents' interpretation is that the project would yield more revenues. But there are certainly some "performing" businesses within the potential project footprint, such as Simon Liu's art supply company.

Supporters of the Atlantic Yards project fired back at Ferrer:
Stu Loeser, a Bloomberg campaign spokesman, said Ferrer's proposal "means less affordable housing, less jobs, and less economic development for Brooklyn and the city."
...Joe DePlasco, who represents the project's developer, said the development team disagrees with Ferrer and welcomes the opportunity to explain the project to him.
"We have generated so much support and excitement because the project will also generate thousands of jobs and thousands of affordable apartments in an area with a dire need for housing and jobs."


Again, this is an example of lazy reporting. A smaller project may mean fewer jobs and less housing, but Forest City Ratner has already cut the amount of proposed office space by two-thirds--thus already cutting promised jobs, with less than 700 new office jobs to be added to a few hundred arena/hotel jobs and 1,500 (or 1,200) construction jobs a year over ten years. Also, the amount of luxury housing more than doubled after Ratner announced a 50-50 "affordable" housing plan.

So support has been generated because of promises about housing and jobs, but the public has not been informed how the developer hasn't kept those promises.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

 

The Observer's poll says more favor Atlantic Yards, but major questions remain

A poll commissioned by the New York Observer, cosponsored by WNYC Radio and WCBS-TV, and conducted by Pace University suggests that, in comparison with previous surveys, the tide has shifted, and a majority of New Yorkers favor Forest City Ratner's proposed Atlantic Yards complex. (Previous polls by the New York Times--which didn't publish the results--and Quinnipiac University showed respondents opposed a taxpayer-funded arena, though they didn't deal with the whole project.)

The Observer article accompanying the poll states:
“The poll shows a low level of public awareness, but we conducted it in such a way to get a good sense of where New Yorkers would be if they were well informed,” said Jonathan Trichter, the director of the Pace Poll. “There are plenty of tools that the opposition can use to derail this project, but public opinion is not one of them.”

Public opinion is fixed? I think the issue is vastly more complicated, since the "additional information" provided to flesh out the poll was vastly inadequate, and that different results may have been obtained with more complete information about cuts in promised jobs, increases in luxury housing, the actual cost of the project, and the effect on traffic.

The 10/31/05 article, headlined Observer Poll: Nets Stadium Gets Nod From Brooklynites, cites evidence that criticism may be rising against the project, including Marty Markowitz's call for the project to be scaled down and the hearing on October that "turned into a talent show for Mr. Ratner’s opponents." However, it suggests the tide goes in the other direction:
A poll commissioned by The New York Observer and conducted by Pace University finds that more New Yorkers support the plan to bring the Nets to Brooklyn than oppose it—and the trend remains even when people find out more about the project.
Asked outright what they think about the plan, 39 percent of the 538 voters polled said they support it, 23 percent oppose it, and the rest were undecided. Support was even stronger among Brooklynites (50 percent) and black men (59 percent). A set of follow-up questions gave the best arguments in favor (jobs, housing, civic spirit) and against (the large size, a $200 million taxpayer subsidy, use of eminent domain) and then asked respondents to rate their support: 46 percent were somewhat or strongly for it.
Between 30 percent and 36 percent of the public opposed it, depending on how the question was worded.


The Observer gives a Ratner official a chance to comment:
“Many times, people have very visceral reactions to real-estate development, and what I’m pleased about is that people in Brooklyn have obviously been paying attention and understand the concept and the issues,” said Jim Stuckey, executive vice president for Mr. Ratner’s company, Forest City Ratner. “Obviously there are questions, and obviously there are concerns—and there should be. And we will be addressing those.”

And here's the comment from an opponent:
Daniel Goldstein, spokesman for Develop—Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, criticized the Observer survey for low-balling the total cost of the project to taxpayers, which has been estimated to reach $1 billion, everything included. Nonetheless, Mr. Goldstein said the poll results show there is substantial opposition—and not just from neighbors.
...He added: “Still, considering that the developer is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, on lobbying and on public relations, including two newspapers—and grassroots activists just can’t match that—the results are pretty good.”


Let's look at the actual poll results (p. 21-22), with careful attention to the pro and con arguments cited by the pollsters:
We asked voters to assess Forest City Ratner’s plan to develop an arena for the Nets and 16 mixed-use towers in central Brooklyn. Based solely on what they know now and without providing any new information, 39% of voters support the proposal either strongly (21%) or somewhat (18%). In contrast, 23% oppose the proposal either strongly (16%) or somewhat (7%). Nevertheless, more than a third (36%) have not made up their minds about the project. At the moment, the groups most likely to support the Atlantic Yards project are Black men (59%), Brooklyn Residents (50%), and men (49%).
Although some have suggested that opposition to the project will grow as people learn more about it, we found that providing voters with additional information has mixed results. Splitting voters into two groups, we presented one group of voters with some of the best arguments both for and against the project.

Statement A: Some/Other people say that the proposal to bring the Nets to central Brooklyn will create thousands of new jobs and raise Brooklyn’s civic spirit. These people also say that the 16 residential and commercial towers that are part of the proposal will add more than 2,000 new affordable apartments to the area. And they say the project will create new public spaces, like a new community center.

Statement B: Some/Other people say the proposal to bring the Nets to central Brooklyn will waste $200 million dollars in taxpayer money on a sports stadium. These people also say that the 16 new mixed-use hi-rises that are part of the proposal will overwhelm our already overcrowded schools, subways, buses, and neighborhoods. And they say that the project can’t be built without evicting current residents.


What we found is that learning more about the project from both of the above arguments increases support for the plan from 39% to 46% while opposition grows from 23% to 30%. That is, after we presented voters with arguments both for and against the project, 46% support the proposal either strongly (25%) or somewhat (21%) and 30% oppose it either strongly (17%) or somewhat (13%). Most relevant, a majority of Brooklyn Residents (56%) support the project, only 35% oppose it.


[Note that 24% remain undecided.]

In addition, we presented the other group of voters with, specifically, the best arguments both for and against the City’s and State’s proposed investment in the project. Here are the arguments this second group of voters heard:

Statement A: Some/Other people say that the City and State should invest $200 million dollars to build the infrastructure for the Nets arena in Brooklyn because an independent analysis concludes that the City and State will earn back all of their original investment plus another $100 million dollars through the jobs and sales generated by the arena. These people also say that the government’s $100 million dollar profit on their investment can help the City and State pay for schools, police, and other vital services.

Statement B: Some/Other people say that the City and State should not spend $200 million dollars to help a rich sports team like the Nets build an arena in Brooklyn because every other government that has invested taxpayer money in sports arenas has lost money and because the team and its supporters are exaggerating how much money the City and State will make from the arena. And they say it would be better to spend the $200 million dollars on schools, police, and other vital services.


After hearing this different set of both pro and con arguments, voters also support the project and the proposed City and State investment: 46% support it either strongly (28%) or somewhat (18%), while 36% oppose it either strongly (24%) or somewhat (12%). Again, most relevant, the majority of Brooklyn Residents (52%) support the City’s and State’s investment in the project, only 31% oppose it.


[Note that 18% remain undecided.]

Here are some unmentioned facts that might cause supporters and fence-sitters to think twice. Even Forest City Ratner officials acknowledge that the public cost of the project would be at least $1.1 billion over 30 years. (See my report, p. 29, or p. 54 of PDF). The arena would be the most expensive ever built. The company's promised public park on the arena roof would be private space. Forest City Ratner produces a "publication," the Brooklyn Standard, which is full of misleading statements, credits stories to someone who didn't write them, and may be using fake bylines. The number of construction jobs would be one-tenth the number used in most media reports.

The amount of luxury housing has more than doubled and the amount of promised office space has been cut by two thirds. In fact, Forest City Ratner originally promised 10,000 office jobs. For the same amount of office space, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) estimated 7,100 jobs. The amount of office space has been cut from 2 million square feet to 628,000 square feet, which, under Ratner's calcuations, would be space for 3,140 jobs. If you follow the NYCEDC's projections--fewer jobs for the same amount of space, plus a 7% vacancy rate--you get 2,229 jobs. However, NYCEDC also estimates that only 30% of the promised jobs would be new to the city rather than moved from elsewhere (a pattern with Ratner projects). Take 30% of 2,229 jobs and you get 669 new office jobs.

Also note that, as Lumi Rolley points out, that "evicting current residents" is not the same as "using eminent domain," a hot-button issue that made it to the Supreme Court.

So even those statements aimed to inform did much too little. More than 2,000 affordable apartment sounds nice, but first "affordable" must be defined--only 900 apartments would go to people earning less than Brooklyn's median income--and then the poll should have noted that there would be 5,050 market-rate units. Creating "thousands of new jobs" sounds nice, but there may be fewer than 700 new office jobs (I had earlier said 1,038, but recalculated it) as opposed to the 10,000 once promised. There also would be--as the Observer's Matthew Schuerman points out--at least 400 permanent jobs at the arena and retail, plus 1,500 construction jobs a year for ten years. Or maybe 1,200, if you follow the mayor's numbers.

A cost of $200 million is vastly less than $1 billion. Even calling the project "mixed use" or "residential and commercial" is too vague. Atlantic Yards would mostly be a housing project--remember, office space was traded for housing--and mostly a luxury housing project at that.

The way questions are framed can affect the outcome of polls. In this case, because the questions did not acknowledge some significant criticisms of the project, the poll developers cannot claim that it was "conducted in such a way to get a good sense of where New Yorkers would be if they were well informed.” Not at all.

 

How many construction jobs at Atlantic Yards? 1,500 a year? 1,200 a year?

A Metro Briefing in the 10/26/05 New York Times, headlined BUILDER NAMED FOR ATLANTIC YARDS, brings up construction jobs at the project, an issue that deserves further discussion:
The real estate developer Forest City Ratner Companies announced yesterday that McKissack & McKissack, the country's oldest black-owned construction firm, would manage a planned $182 million renovation of the Atlantic Yards rail depot in Brooklyn. The renovation of the century-old railyards is the first major stage of the $3.5 billion development that Forest City Ratner has proposed. Supporters of the development said the selection of McKissack & McKissack was evidence that the developer was keeping its promise to hire contracting firms owned by minorities and women whenever possible. Critics have said that they hope to block the development.

Note that, according to BUILD (but not Forest City Ratner), McKissack & McKissack has also been contracted to build the arena, according to a 5/28/05 article in the Brooklyn Papers.

Also, it's time for the Times, and the rest of the press, to analyze exactly how many construction jobs are at stake, to explain that construction jobs but not office jobs can be steered to local residents, and to explain that construction jobs are customarily calculated in job-years, which inflates their number in casual press accounts.

First, there's a question of the total number. Forest City Ratner has long promised 15,000 union construction jobs, in a December 2003 press release (p. 5), in the June/July issue (available 6/17/05) of the Brooklyn Standard, and in the Fall issue of the Brooklyn Standard (p. 5), issued earlier this month.

However, Mayor Bloomberg used a figure of 12,000 construction jobs in a 3/3/05 press release and a 5/19/05 press release.

Adding to the confusion is that FCR promised 15,000 construction jobs for a project that was initially to cost $2.5 billion and cover 7.6 million zoning square feet and 8 million gross square feet. The company still promises the same number of jobs for a project that now would cost $3.5 billion (a 40% increase) and cover 9.132 million gross square feet (a 14.1% increase). That doesn't add up.

The most recent mention in the Times was a 6/28/05 Metro Briefing headlined "Developer Promises Benefits," which used the 12,000 construction jobs figure, apparently based on a previous mayoral press release:
The developer, Bruce Ratner... promised that he would give local residents the first chance at work on the $3.5 billion development, which is expected to generate 12,000 construction jobs and 8,500 permanent jobs.

That report implies that local residents, as part of the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), would get priority for not just construction jobs but also office jobs, which are projected to be most of the permanent jobs, though the amount of office space has been cut by two thirds since December 2003. Similarly, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, in his 2005 State of the Borough address, also gave the impression that local residents would get a boost:
It is estimated that Atlantic Yards will create about 10,000 permanent new jobs. That is above and beyond the 15,000 construction-related jobs that it will create over the next decade.
And we can all be proud that 100 percent of those workers will be union employees.
Under a proposed groundbreaking Community Benefits Agreement, as many as possible of those new jobs will be filled by Brooklyn residents, and I promise you, those jobs will go to those who need them most — particularly low income residents living in public housing nearby.


To be precise, "100 percent of those workers" refers to only the construction jobs, and "as many as possible of those new jobs" refers only to construction jobs. Unless Markowitz had used the terms "construction workers" and "those new construction jobs," his speech can be read to imply that the CBA applies to all jobs. Rather, the CBA (p. 13ff.) refers to pre-apprentice training for construction jobs, lists of unemployed local construction workers, customized job training for project tenants, retail leasing preferences for local businesses, and internships.

City Council member Charles Barron quizzed FCR ’s Jim Stuckey about the office jobs at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing (p. 73-74):
STUCKEY: Well, we’re not even sure who those companies will be yet, Council member. I can’t tell you who the employees will be.
BARRON: Those jobs won’t be controlled by you?
STUCKEY: Those jobs are controlled by the companies that --
BARRON: That’s right. So, those, they could hire whoever they want basically.
STUCKEY: Typically that’s what happens with businesses in our country.

More fundamentally, as I write in Chapter 2 of my report, construction jobs are temporary jobs, not permanent jobs. A construction job, in standard industry parlance, lasts for one year. So FCR's projection means 15,000 job-years (1,500 jobs each year over 10 years). That means 1,500 people would be working each year. Or, if Bloomberg's numbers are used, there would be 1,200 jobs a year.

Andrew Alper, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, acknowledged as much, at a 5/4/04 City Council Economic Development Committee hearing, where he assumed 14,400 construction jobs, a 4% drop from 15,000, which wasn't explained (p.23):
I should say that is construction people years, so it may not be 14,400 workers, it is that number of jobs for a year per person...

The Brooklyn Papers, in a 6/26/04 article headlined Numbers game over Ratner arena jobs, explained:
From the beginning the project’s developer, Bruce Ratner, has said the project will create 10,000 permanent jobs and 15,000 construction jobs.
But critics of the plan are pointing out that the project will really only create 1,500 construction jobs, which will continue each year for 10 years.
“Fifteen-hundred jobs a year over 10 years is 15,000 jobs and it’s 1,500 jobs a year in an area of high unemployment,” said Forest City Ratner spokeswoman Beth Davidson.


Other press outlets have not used the job-years figure regarding Atlantic Yards. In writing about other projects, the New York Times has done so, however. For example, a 4/10/05 Times article about the proposed West Side Stadium headlined "Mayor’s Guess At Stadium Jobs Is Highest Yet," the proponents’ data were questioned:
The mayor and the Jets contend that the project will generate 18,000 jobs. It actually means, the Jets acknowledge, that there will be an average of 4,500 jobs during the four years of construction.
The budget office’s estimate, however, was far lower than the Jets’—an average of 2,880 construction jobs per year, and it did not bother multiplying that figure by four, because construction jobs by their nature are temporary.


So here are some questions for the press: How many construction jobs are in fact planned? Where did Mayor Bloomberg's 12,000 jobs figure come from? Has the number of construction jobs changed since the project size was increased? And why aren't construction jobs also described in job-years?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

 

A correction: Bloomberg's 'retouched' press release vs. the governor/ESDC

In a post earlier today, I erroneously concluded that Mayor Bloomberg had retouched a press release:
Is Mayor Mike Bloomberg trying to distance himself from Bruce Ratner, the man behind the controversial Atlantic Yards development? An apparently retouched mayoral press release from last March offers a clue. It deletes two sections from the original press release: a reliance on the projections of the developer's paid consultant, as well as thanks to Ratner and his company.

After making that charge, I learned that the explanation was simpler but still confounding--the mayor apparently did issue a press release, a day before the governor and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), with fewer jobs promised and a reliance on the New York State Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) rather than Ratner's paid economist Andrew Zimbalist.

But it remains disturbing that the governor and the ESDC were relying on Zimbalist rather than a more independent agency. And it remains disturbing that the press releases from the governor and the ESDC cite both the mayor and governor--they begin with the boilerplate "Governor George E. Pataki and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg today announced..."--and then quote Zimbalist's figures.

Bloomberg has previously been criticized for relying on the economic projections of self-interested private developers rather than more independent agencies, as in a 5/23/04 New York Times article headlined "Stadium Opponents Criticize City for Adopting Jets' Economic Study." Therefore it was disturbing to see, as I point out in Chapter 3 of my report, that a March 2005 press release from New York's mayor and governor relied solely on the economic projections of Andrew Zimbalist, Forest City Ratner's paid consultant, and that Zimbalist's report contains many dubious assumptions. The press release I was using came from the governor's office but was headlined "GOVERNOR PATAKI AND MAYOR BLOOMBERG ANNOUNCE MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING FOR ATLANTIC YARDS PROJECT IN BROOKLYN." So the mayor can be seen as partly responsible for the press release.

The March 2005 press release appears on three web sites: those of the mayor, the governor , and the Empire State Development Corporation. The latter two releases, which are identical and dated 3/4/05, contain this passage:
The project is expected to create 15,000 construction jobs and over 10,000 permanent jobs. According to an economic analysis completed earlier this year for FCRC by the economist Andrew Zimbalist, the net fiscal benefit to the City and State from the Atlantic Yards project is estimated to be at least $2.819 billion over thirty years, or a present value of at least $812.6 million.
(Emphasis added. Actually the economic analysis was completed in 2004.)

The press release on Mayor Bloomberg's web site, dated one day earlier, 3/3/05, contains the exact same text as the other two press releases, except for two key changes. (Why is it dated a day earlier? In a 3/4/05 article headlined "Deal Is Signed for Nets Arena in Brooklyn," the Times reported that Bloomberg had planned to issue a statement on 3/4/05, but did so earlier as word leaked out.)

The mayor's press release changed the number of projected jobs and didn't cite Zimbalist for the economic projections:
The project is expected to create over 12,000 construction jobs and approximately 8,500 permanent jobs. According to an economic analysis completed earlier this year for the New York City Economic Development Corporation [NYCEDC], the net fiscal benefit to the City and State from the Atlantic Yards project is estimated at $1 billion in present value over the next thirty years.
(Emphasis added.)

The mayor's press release allows Bloomberg to distance himself from Ratner's consultant, but the numbers are confusing, since there's no source for his jobs figure. While the press release contains a hyperlink to the NYCEDC's home page, no Atlantic Yards analysis is available at the site, so it's impossible to confirm that $1 billion figure. The only NYCEDC analysis I know about was dated 6/27/05 and released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. It projects a net fiscal benefit only to the city, not the state. Also, in the memo, the NYCEDC estimates fewer jobs than Bloomberg's press release announced nearly four months earlier:
It is expected that approximately 2 million square feet of commercial space will be added to the City as a result of this project. This new construction creates the potential for 7,100 jobs to be added based on an average of 250 square feet per employee and a 7% average vacancy rate.

Note that Forest City Ratner's projection of 10,000 jobs for the same amount of space was based on 200 square feet per employee--while the industry standard is 250--and with no acknowledgement of a vacancy rate. (The source of the mayor's 8,500 jobs figure isn't clear.) Also note that the amount of office space has since been cut by more than two thirds, and thus an updated NYCEDC analysis should acknowledge some 2,229 office jobs.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz also issued a 3/4/05 press release, citing "over ten thousand permanent new jobs."

The second change in the mayor's press release involves a deletion from the original, which contained this passage:
"Today, we are one step closer to bringing professional sports back to Brooklyn," said Governor Pataki. "But even more importantly, we are also a step closer to creating thousands of new jobs, much needed housing, including affordable housing, and providing greater hope and promise for the future. The new Arena will not only be home to the Nets, but will host local community events, as well as concerts and school athletics for neighboring high schools and colleges. I want to thank Bruce Ratner and Forest City Ratner Companies for contributing to Brooklyn's revival."
(Emphasis added)

The mayor's press release dropped the last two sentences of that paragraph, thus eliminating Pataki's praise for Ratner, who happens to be a friend of the governor's from law school.

It's unclear why the mayor's office made these changes, or why they weren't communicated to the governor and ESDC. The changes on the mayor's press release help him from seeming to irresponsibly rely on a developer's paid consultant. But the other press releases, which also attribute the announcement to both the mayor and the governor, rely on that consultant.

I had suspected, based on strong circumstantial evidence, that someone in the mayor's office revised a press release after the fact. The governor, ESDC, and Brooklyn Borough President issued press releases a day after the mayor, but promising more jobs than the mayor did. Now I suspect that someone in the mayor's office took a shared press release and revised it before it was issued, but neglected to inform others issuing the press release.

I found a New York Observer article from March, headlined "The Jets vs. Nets: Brooklyn Arena Deal Template for Stadium," which cited the mayor's press release:
The Mayor’s after-hours announcement on March 3 of a deal on the Brooklyn arena for the Nets basketball team was first seen as a pleasant distraction from his troubled negotiations over the West Side football stadium.
...Ka-boom! Out comes the press release from the Mayor’s office proclaiming "an historic project that will continue to energize the borough of Brooklyn" and bring 12,000 construction jobs and 8,500 permanent jobs. The city and state will chip in $200 million "in site preparation and public infrastructure improvements," the press release added.
...The city estimates a $1 billion return—which is good, because a new study by the Pratt Institute (the most objective source to conduct a study to date) finds that all these tax breaks could end up costing the city about $1 billion.


Other questions remain about the mayor's statements regarding Atlantic Yards. Notably, why did the mayor's office issue a press release in September citing that 8,500 jobs figure, even thought there's space for far fewer?

 

Behind today's New York Times correction on the location of a new Brooklyn railyard

Today's correction:
An article on Sept. 7 about an agreement by the developer Bruce C. Ratner to double his offer for development rights to the Atlantic railyards in Brooklyn misstated the location of a new yard he plans to build. It is east of the existing site, not west. A reader pointed out the error in a recent e-mail message. (Go to Article)
The print version of the correction also mentions that the error was repeated in a Sept. 15 article.

That reader was me, and I sent them an email about a week ago. Now, I don't mind that the Times doesn't read my blog, where I pointed out these errors a month ago. But apparently no one on the Times, either before or after those articles were published, noticed that the articles were suggesting that, by moving west, the railyard would be placed in the middle of the busiest intersection in Brooklyn, at Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. Lots of Times employees live in Brooklyn.

Still, the Times is indeed following its policy:
The Times treats its readers as fairly and openly as possible. In print and online, we tell our readers the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it. It is our policy to correct our errors, large and small, as soon as we become aware of them.

Monday, October 24, 2005

 

Factchecking the Daily News editorial on Atlantic Yards

A 10/24/05 New York Daily News editorial on Atlantic Yards, headlined A neighborhood grows in Brooklyn, states:
Complaints from the not-in-my-backyard crowd, who packed a downtown Brooklyn auditorium, made the hearing sponsored by the Empire State Development Corp. drag on for hours longer than was necessary.
Critics complained about everything from increased traffic to the bizarre notion that the steel exterior of the Nets arena, designed by Frank Gehry, might reflect too much sunlight and make nearby streets uncomfortably hot - an alleged problem with a Gehry project in sun-drenched Los Angeles that likely would not be repeated here.
Thank goodness for responsible leaders, including Mayor Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who aren't letting the NIMBY-ites slow the progress on Atlantic Yards. Ratner now owns or controls about 90% of the needed land, and Bloomberg is committed to the project. That means Brooklyn is only a few years from seeing 17 office and residential towers atop what is now an underused railyard.
The plan would create an estimated 15,000 construction jobs and more than 6,000 housing units. Ratner, who has lined up $100 million in private investments, has already signed an innovative community benefit agreement that guarantees thousands of low-cost housing units will be built. And at least 45% of the construction jobs would go to women and minorities.


As Lumi Rolley points out on No Land Grab:
The mandatory hearing's purpose was to submit comments on the Scope of the Environmental Impact of the project, as was not a pep rally for or against the project as proponents and the Daily News seems to believe. Many of the groups who submitted comments and concerns have not taken a stand on the project, but all these groups are working together to make sure that concerns of the entire community, not just handpicked groups receiving finanacial support from Ratner, are addressed.

And let's count Marty Markowitz as a NIMBY himself, since he expressed concerns about traffic and scale, but would not specify them at the hearing.

15,000 construction jobs? As noted by the Brooklyn Papers and acknowledged by New York City Economic Development Corporation president Andrew Alper (see my report, p. 81 of PDF, marked p. 56), construction jobs are calculated in job-years, so that would mean 1,500 construction jobs a year over 10 years. By the way, in May, "responsible leader" Mayor Bloomberg calculated only 12,000 construction jobs.

As for "17 office and residential towers atop what is now an underused railyard," it's actually 16 towers plus an arena, and the railyard is a little more than eight acres. The planned site, according to the Empire State Development Corporation, would be 22 acres.

What the editorial calls an "innovative community benefit agreement" has been criticized by experts such as Good Jobs New York because it involves a small group of handpicked allies rather than a broad coalition that would otherwise oppose a project.

More than 6,000 housing units? Yes, how about 7,300.

"Thousands of low-cost housing units"? Well, maybe 900, plus 1,350 middle-income units, plus over 5,000 market-rate units.

As for 45% of construction jobs going to minorities and women, the Community Benefits Agreement (p. 13) calls for "good faith efforts to meet the overall goal... of not less than 35% Minority and 10% women construction workers..." Unless all those women are white--hardly likely in Brooklyn--that wouldn't add up to 45% of the jobs.

As for the editorial's criticism of the bizarre notion that the steel exterior of the Nets arena, designed by Frank Gehry, might reflect too much sunlight and make nearby streets uncomfortably hot - an alleged problem with a Gehry project in sun-drenched Los Angeles that likely would not be repeated here, note that the problem isn't exactly an allegation. Here's Rolley's response:
[I]n the past, Gehry's experimental forms have been deemed environmental hazards in themselves. The Draft Scope Environmental Impact hearing was just the place to make that point.

Oh, and didn't the editorial writer read the paper's own Mike Lupica?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

 

Courier-Life on BUILD's denials, possible expansion of project

Two articles in this week's Courier-Life chain add intriguing details regarding BUILD's political activities and the possible move of some affordable housing designated for Atlantic Yards east into Crown Heights.

An article headlined Ratner Funneled Money to Downtown Alliance, Too points out, as reported earlier by the Times, that Forest City Ratner gave $50,000 to the Rev. Herbert Daughtry's Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance for the creation and construction of a health care center and inter-generational facility.

More importantly, the article pursues evidence that BUILD has hired workers to both distribute the Brooklyn Standard and do campaign work:
According to the Daily News story, at least one of these workers was also paid at the BUILD headquarters after handing out campaign literature on behalf of Eric Blackwell, who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Letitia James in the 35th City Council district.
James, who has serious reservations about the project, refused comment.
Although BUILD is barred as a non-profit organization from engaging in political campaigns, several of their key executives formed a political action group called Community Leadership for Accountable Politics (CLAP).
BUILD’s Chief Financial Officer, Jasmin Miller, is president of CLAP and refused comment on the allegation.


The article ends with a quote from the Republican opponent of incumbent City Council Member Letitia James, an ardent opponent of the Atlantic Yards project:
But Anthony Herbert, who is challenging James in the upcoming November election, defended BUILD, saying they are still a young organization learning the non-profit ropes.
“It’s just a bunch of ‘hating’ going on. This organization, for the most part, is made up of people from the community,” said Herbert.
“Their bottom line is we want to help the community. No one else has stepped up to do it, so I support them 100 percent. They deserved to be paid with the amount of time and energy they put in,” he added.


Young organization, maybe. But its officers seem to have a background in politics, as noted above, and in stonewalling, as seen above and here.

The second article, headlined Ratner to Reduce Density By Expanding Project?, cited Roger Green's suggestion that the planners "could reduce density by siting affordable housing on this site and other blocks and lots located to the east of the Atlantic Yards project."
Green noted that in both the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) and CBA (Community Benefits Agreement) involving the project, there was discussion to find affordable housing at alternative sites.
Specifically, Green noted an area between Grand and Dean Streets and Washington and Bedford Avenues that need development.


However, the MOU mention of alternative sites does not concern the 2,250 rental units (of 4,500) that are part of the 50-50 plan for low- and middle-income "affordable" housing. Rather, as my report points out, the MOU states: Developer and ACORN will work on a program to develop affordable for-sale units, which are intended to be in the range of 600 to 1000 units,over the course of ten (10) years and can be on or off site. It is currently contemplated that a majority of the affordable for-sale units will be sold to families in the upper affordable income tiers.
The upper-affordable income tiers include families earning more than $100,000 a year.

Later, the Courier-Life article mentioned this issue: FCRC is looking at other properties in the borough to develop a home ownership program for low- and middle-income residents. Among these properties is St. Mary’s Hospital at 170 Buffalo Avenue, which recently went bankrupt and closed.

FCR again provided an evasive answer regarding the reason the project grew:
FCRC Executive Vice President James Stuckey responded that while the company is looking at developing other off-site affordable housing units, it doesn’t see altering one for the other.
...Stuckey further explained that the commercial space for the Atlantic Yards proposal was reduced because of the need for more housing. If the company moved the affordable housing elsewhere, critics would charge they are not living up to their agreement.


The commercial space was reduced because of the need for more housing? The commercial space was reduced so Forest City Ratner could add 2,800 market-rate condos, not any additional affordable housing.

 

The Observer on the Times/Ratner Tower: the market "mugged along;" parallels for Atlantic Yards?

A skeptical 10/24/05 New York Observer article on the new Times Tower on Eighth Avenue, headlined As New HQ Rises, Old Owners Cause Trouble Underfoot, points out the lingering disputes from the state Empire State Development Corporation's (ESDC) acquisition of 11 parcels via eminent domain for the project. The New York Times Company, parent of the newspaper, and developer Forest City Ratner, are partners in the Renzo Piano-designed building, and while the Observer makes no reference to Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, some parallels emerge.

Some of the issues have already been reported by the Village Voice, as I note in Afterword B of my report on Times coverage, but the Observer adds new details. Of the 11 landlords who lost their properties, 10 are suing, but here's the twist:
That’s because, according to the development agreement that paved the way for the condemnations, the Times Company and Forest City Ratner get to divert every dollar beyond that initial $86 million from the substitute tax payments that they’re making. [The Voice had reported this.] And the landlords claim that they are owed two or three or even five times what they’ve received so far. In essence, city and state taxpayers—who are already chipping in several millions dollars’ worth of subsidies—will also be helping out if the court appeals are successful.

But here the defense, which suggests that eminent domain is acceptable as long as the new use will bring more taxes, a point that Bill Batson warned about in his recent testimony at the ESDC hearing. As the Observer noted:
The Empire State Development Corporation, the state economic-development agency, defends the agreement because the Times Company and Forest City needed to know what their maximum outlay for the buying property would be before agreeing to the deal.
“It’s already paying more property tax by multiples than the previous properties were paying,” said an agency official who requested anonymity, speaking to The Observer. (The state has not, however, done an analysis comparing before-and-after tax revenues.)


Here's criticism, and the Times's defense:
“It might put an end to the taking of property, if they had to pay market value,” said Joe Wright, an advisor to community groups fighting eminent domain and a member of the national property-rights group the Castle Coalition. “They wouldn’t have to go through with eminent domain then, because they would get no economic benefit.”
Catherine Mathis, spokeswoman for The New York Times, said that the agreement on acquisition costs was part of a larger deal that would provide amenities to the public.
“The Times and Forest City Ratner Companies entered into a complex arrangement with the city and state to develop this property,” she said in a statement. “There are many components involved in the arrangement, including subway amenities, a publicly accessible auditorium, guarantees to build within set timeframes and make a payment in lieu of taxes.”


Similar issues could be raised regarding Atlantic Yards. Already the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has agreed to sell Forest City Ratner development rights to the Vanderbilt Yard for less than half the appraised value, in part because of the improvements FCR plans, as well as the potential tax revenue from the development. And if the project proceeds, and ESDC must acquire land from property owners unwilling to sell, will the agency pay market rate?

The Observer finds some compelling evidence that the Times Square property owners lost out:
“They gave us 20 cents on the dollar for what the property was worth,” said Sidney Orbach, whose partnership, Three O Realty, owned a 16-story office building on 40th Street. “Their initial offering was $7.2 million, and then they were required to reassess and ended up offering about $8 million. The appraisal we had done was for $35 million, and that’s on the lower side because of the way appraisals are done.”
The state’s appraisal comes to about $83 per square foot of space in his old building. The real-estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield—which isn’t working for either Mr. Orbach or the state on the Eighth Avenue appraisals—told The Observer that a square foot might have gone for between $250 and $300 three years ago.


And the Observer sniffs at the justification for economic development:
In fact, Mr. Orbach’s office building was so prosperous that the Empire State Development Corporation is saying that his rents were above market rate and therefore not a reliable way to calculate the true value of the property. A representative from the state agency wouldn’t elaborate because litigation is pending. Hmmm … if New York real estate isn’t worth whatever you can get for it, then why do we have this thing called capitalism anyway?
Oh, it’s not called capitalism; it’s called economic development. Sometimes the market needs to be nudged along, or else it will be mugged along.


The Observer points out that facts behind the recent 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld eminent domain don't quite fit the situation in New York:
However, property-rights advocates note that the Kelo case differs from the New York Times situation because in New London, a redevelopment agency seized the property first and then sought the best bid from any developer who wanted in.
Also, much of Times Square was redeveloped through an open bidding process. But the Eighth Avenue site was acquired by the state exclusively for use by The Times, which had said it was considering moving 750 jobs to New Jersey in order to save money.


The Observer doesn't point out that many people thought the Times's threat preposterous--would the New York Times actually operate from Jersey? The more important point: just as with the Times Tower site, the remaining portions of Atlantic Yards site would be acquired not through open bidding but for one developer. The New York Times, understandably, has not covered its own real estate deals as aggressively as have the Observer and the Voice. Will the Times, which is finally paying more attention to the Atlantic Yards project proposed by its parent company's real estate partner, notice the parallels between the Manhattan and Brooklyn eminent domain deals?

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