Friday, November 04, 2005

 

Critiquing the NewsHour's piece on Atlantic Yards

An 11/03/05 NewsHour With Jim Lehrer piece on Atlantic Yards, called Growing Pains, offered a good amount of time to critics of the project, but still made some important errors.

One was simply one of tone. Correspondent Ray Suarez began with some rhapsodies about Brooklyn: Americans have long had a sentimental affection for the place; it plays the earthy, working-class cousin, to powerful, glamorous Manhattan, just over the bridge.

But he incorrectly concluded: Anti-arena Brooklynites say the debate over Atlantic Yards is not about money. It's about preserving the Brooklyn of Ebbets Field, Coney Island and Juniors Restaurant, home of legendary cheesecake.

While City Council Member Letitia James did say, "We don't want to Manhattanize Brooklyn," that doesn't mean that critics want to preserve Brooklyn in amber. After all, there's much other development besides Atlantic Yards. The questions concern scale, but also public cost and public oversight. It's arena booster Marty Markowitz who invokes Ebbets Field and the loss of the Dodgers.

Other errors: the segment said the complex would cost $1.2 billion; the number was once $2.5 billion, now $3.5 billion. The footprint was described as 24 acres, with 17 high rise buildings; the numbers now are 22 acres and 16 high-rises plus an arena. The arena would cost $555.3 million, not $435 million.

Bertha Lewis of ACORN touted the 50-50 housing agreement as "the most far-reaching... that's ever been reached in this country." Candace Carponter from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn pointed out that "approximately 60 percent of the people who get affordable housing are making over $65,000 a year." More importantly, the segment ignored that the 50-50 agreement applies only to the 4,500 rentals, not to the 2,800 market-rate condos that were subsequently added.

Carponter said Ratner was asking for $2 billion in subsidies, without public input. The subsidy numbers are murky, but I think it's sufficiently powerful to point out that even Ratner's poeple acknowledge $1.1 billion in public costs over 30 years.

There was a good discussion of eminent domain:
JIM STUCKEY [of Forest City Ratner]: There might be a need for eminent domain; there might be a need for condemnation; that is something that the state will decide. There will be a process that goes through. People have a right to content that process. I think the state will make its decision, unlike "Kelo," based on whether or not they believe this is a blighted area.

RAY SUAREZ: One person contesting the process is Vince Burns, one of two holdouts in his building who has sign hanging from his window "I love my home and my neighborhood, I intend to stay here."

VINCE BURNS: If they wanted to take down my building to put in a police station or school - I'd had to leave where I am because I love the place -- but I'd understand that - I mean, that's fine -- but this project is about one very wealthy man who wants to become wealthier by, you know, kicking me out.

RAY SUAREZ: Brooklyn activist Patti Hagan said the "Kelo" case, while appearing to help Ratner will actually help defeat him. So you think you can hold him off indefinitely?

PATTI HAGAN: Absolutely. Holding off using the U.S. Constitution, I mean, using Justice Kennedy's ruling in the "Kelo" case in June which said that if it can be shown that the eminent domain is being used for one developer, one person, or one corporation, identifiable corporation, that's unconstitutional.

RAY SUAREZ: Acorn's Bertha Lewis sees the agreement with Ratner creating new limitations on major developers, and giving taxpayers a clear victory.

BERTHA LEWIS: It's a new day, corporate America. It's a new day, developers. You can't keep feeding at the public trough and expect that the public doesn't get a return on its investment.

Does the public get a return, or does ACORN, by controlling access to the affordable housing? The costs and benefits of this project deserve much more analysis.

 

Legislators consider eminent domain; Manhattan Institute takes on Ratner

The House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would, as the AP reported: withhold federal money from state and local governments that use powers of eminent domain to force businesses and homeowners to give up their property for commercial uses.
..The House bill would cut off for two years all federal economic development funds to states and localities that use economic development as a rationale for property seizures.


But it's not clear if this would affect the Atlantic Yards project. As noted by the New York Observer blog The Real Estate, Forest City Ratner is arguing "blight." Lumi Rolley commented on NoLandGrab:
Ratner has been hedging his bet since he first announced the project, claiming both that the neighborhood is BLIGHTED and that the plan is necessary to increase the tax base of the City and State. The tide has turned on the argument that economic revitalization is a "public use" — Ratner and Marty have long since moved on to Plan B (blight).

Of course, the definition of blight in New York State is murky, and under discussion in the state legislature. Here's testimony from Daniel Goldstein of Development Don't Destroy Brooklyn.

And there's new evidence that Prospect Heights--the neighborhood surrounding most of the Atlantic Yards project--is booming. The New York Observer references Halstead's report that prices have topped $1 million. And The Real Deal reported, in a November 2005 article headlined Park Slope neighbor presents fresh prospects:
Now, it's seeing a slew of new upscale condominium and rental development. As well, it appears Prospect Heights will have to absorb an additional 7,000 apartments as part of developer Bruce Ratner's plan to build a basketball arena and residential and commercial complex on 22 acres in its northwestern corner.
The neighborhood, then, has definitely bounced back from a depressed period in the 1960s and 1970s, partly because of an overflow of residents from ritzier Park Slope.

The article doesn't mention the blight issue.

Discussion of eminent domain in New York should begin with a look at They’re Taking Away Your Property for What?, a lengthy and powerful analysis by Nicole Gelinas in the Autumn 2005 edition of City Journal. The magazine is published by the conservative Manhattan Institute; while some of those most exercised about eminent domain are property rights absolutists from the right, this is issue that has united people from various parts of the political spectrum (including the NAACP), and troubled academics like Yale's Doug Rae and alt-journalists like Paul Bass, cited in the City Journal essay. (Also see the May 2004 Manhattan Institute newsletter, Thinking about Ratner's Urban Renewal, by Julia Vitullo-Martin.)

Gelinas first takes on the Supreme Court's Kelo decision:
But what critics haven’t noticed is that the decision simply expands the Court’s approval of a practice that state and local governments have long used to bring about urban renewal or economic development. More important, they have also failed to notice that, over its long history, this practice has almost never worked.
...If Soviet-style central planning actually worked, America’s vast urban renewal projects that used eminent domain to bulldoze slums would have produced flourishing communities rather than high-rise housing projects awash in social pathology. And the megaprojects of today—the stadiums, convention centers, Renaissance Centers, and so on, for which urban planners have condemned acres of private property—would actually have produced the economic development that their sponsors promised.



While the piece addresses eminent domain in several locations, Gelinas focuses on Ratner's record in Brooklyn. First, MetroTech:
In New York, politicians’ efforts to trap corporate jobs through government planning resulted in a similar centrally planned boondoggle: downtown Brooklyn’s Metrotech. For decades, New York pols had fretted that the city was losing its white-collar jobs to New Jersey, Connecticut, and other lower-cost regions, even as skyrocketing crime and taxes sent middle-class residents fleeing from the outer boroughs.
The solution? Nearly two decades ago, Gotham decided to build a walled camp in the middle of a lower-class area of Brooklyn to lock white-collar jobs in. This project would accomplish two goals, pols thought. In addition to keeping jobs in New York, Metrotech would spark further development in a slummy neighborhood that never had grown on its own, despite its proximity to lower Manhattan. City and state officials used eminent domain to displace 250 owners and tenants so that developer Bruce Ratner could build the suburban-style office campus.
Metrotech tenants have received about $270 million in state and city subsidies (of which more than $200 million went to JPMorgan Chase). But Metrotech hasn’t “kept” the nation’s financial-services jobs in New York: Gotham’s share of U.S. securities-industry jobs has fallen from one in three to one in five since 1980. Metrotech, despite its Class A office space and its quiet campus lush with greenery, can’t even attract enough private-sector tenants to remain fully occupied; its tenants include an array of government agencies.
Nor has Metrotech, completely cut off from the surrounding streetscape, encouraged the growth of an unsubsidized business community in its neighborhood. Metrotech is what it was when it opened: a suburban-style office campus carved out of inner-city downtown Brooklyn. The two worlds don’t meet.



And then, unlike the many journalists who don't place Atlantic Yards in the context of Forest City Ratner's track record, she makes the connection:
The government’s newest solution for “underdeveloped” Brooklyn is another top-down project by eminent domain planned by the same developer nearby....
Ratner’s sweeping master plan for the Prospect Heights neighborhood envisions a basketball arena over some uncovered railyards he’ll buy at a below-market price from New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and he’s petitioning the state and city to condemn the adjoining blocks so that he can build nearly 6,000 [actually 7,300] high-rise apartments there...
But the properties Ratner wants the government to condemn, like the houses in Kelo, are hardly distressed....The taxpayers sure won’t get much in return...Without government intervention, prosperous people have chosen to move in, and one Prospect Heights property owner, Henry Weinstein, had tentative plans to develop his land to its full potential, including, possibly, more luxury condos. In order to win the bid for the state-owned railyards, Ratner also had to stymie rival developer Gary Barnett’s competing bid to build apartment towers over the railyards’ footprint, which did not require eminent domain and massive stadium subsidies. So taxpayers will end up subsidizing economic growth that would have happened naturally, and far more rationally, anyway.
Politicians line up behind megaprojects like Ratner’s Prospect Heights scheme because they can boast that their sponsorship will create jobs and economic growth, whereas no politician can take credit for gradual and organic free-market economic development. The big, politically connected, unionized construction companies love such projects, too, because subsidized construction mandates unionized contractors, and the politically active construction unions love them no less. The Wall Street firms that underwrite the bonds for the public subsidy are also big supporters, as are the industry associations whose members stand to gain, even while other taxpaying businesses stand to lose.



Gelinas also notices Ratner's manipulations:
His new Prospect Heights project comes complete with a 51-page “Community Benefits Agreement,” which could serve as a textbook for politicized economic development. In it, he offers sweeteners to “community” activists, among them at least 2,000 units of below-market “affordable” housing and a generous percentage of jobs for minority contractors and employees.
The sweeteners attracted some powerful, if unsavory, political support. Unsurprisingly, Al Sharpton climbed on board... But, more crucially, Ratner’s chief “community” cheerleader is Bertha Lewis, head of the New York chapter of Acorn, the nation’s biggest left-wing activist group...Acorn’s Lewis, as “enforcing member” (the literal term the agreement uses) of the plan’s affordable-housing component, will have a huge say in deciding who will get the project’s subsidized apartments—a rich patronage plum indeed.... In return, Acorn will take “reasonable steps to publicly support the project...This is no trivial matter, since Lewis is not only a “community” leader but also co-head of the powerful Working Families Party, the political face of Gotham’s public-sector unions.



Some details are missing--such as an analysis of the how "affordable" housing mostly helps the middle-classs, how Ratner added 2,800 condos after getting the 50-50 "affordable" agreement publicly praised, and how the number of promised office jobs has plummeted--but this is as lengthy a treatment of the Atlantic Yards project as you'll find beyond my report. Thus, it points out the failure of the local dailies and weeklies to dig into the biggest project in the history of Brooklyn.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

 

Today's Times correction: another correction needed regarding housing, scale, location

A correction, in the print but not online version of today's New York Times, 11/3/05:
A front-page article on Monday about the first debate between Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his Democratic opponent, Fernando Ferrer, referred incompletely to a development project in Brooklyn that Mr. Ferrer said he would halt. The development, known as the Atlantic Yards project, calls for an arena for the Nets basketball team and office, residential and commercial building--not just residential.

But the correction incompletely described the project, and the original article contained errors and omissions, as noted. The 10/31/05 article, headlined (at least in the final edition) In Equal Footing of a Debate, Ferrer Gets Feisty, reported:
Mr. Ferrer said that he would... halt plans to build a Nets arena and several residential buildings in Downtown Brooklyn, a stand his campaign hopes will be popular in a politically important part of that borough.

As I wrote to the Times today:
Today's correction regarding the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn itself deserves a correction. It stated that the project "calls for an arena for the Nets basketball team and office, residential and commercial building--not just residential." While true, that is incomplete. Of the non-arena component of the project, residential units would occupy 87% of the space. And there would not be "several" residential buildings, as described on Monday; there would be 15. Thus the project would be more accurately described as "predominantly residential." Also, the project would not be located in Downtown Brooklyn," as originally described. The Times has made this error on numerous occasions, though in other cases has described the project as "near Downtown Brooklyn."

For Downtown Brooklyn, see Chapter 11 of my report, as well as this post.

To be specific, the scoping document from the Empire State Development Corporation describes the current plan, at 9.132 million gross square feet (gsf):
--7.202 million gsf of residential use
--850,000 gsf arena
--628,000 gsf of commercial office space
--256,000 gsf of retail and community facility space
--196,000 gsf of hotel use

See p. 4 of the document for the assignment of buildings.

The original plan was 7.7 million zoning square feet (not quite the same as gross square feet):
--4.4 million sf of residential space
--2.1 million sf of commercial office space
--800,000 sf arena
--300,000 sf of retail space

The ratio between housing and office space has changed significantly, from approximately 2-to-1 to 11-to-1.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

 

"Affordable housing" and Crown Heights: rentals vs. condos

A 10/29/05 Brooklyn Papers article, headlined ‘Affordable’ units may go to Crown Hts, overstated the issue, and thus partly missed the point of Roger Green's suggestion during the ESDC hearing.

Green was responding to critics who say the Atlantic Yards project is too big and too dense. One way of reducing density would be to move some of the affordable housing offsite. That would mean moving some portion of the already pledged 2,250 rental units. However, that would make Atlantic Yards less diverse and contribute to the gentrification in Prospect Heights that ACORN head Bertha Lewis said this project would fight.

The Brooklyn Papers article stated:
Forest City Ratner is considering the acquision of the former St. Mary’s Hospital in Crown Heights, leading some to speculate that the 3-acre site could be used for the affordable housing component of the proposed Atlantic Yards mega-project.

It would be have more accurate to say that the site may be used for "some part of the affordable housing component."

Indeed, the Brooklyn Papers article focused on another aspect of the Housing Memorandum of Understanding, a program to build 600 to 1000 affordable for-sale units, either on or off site, over ten years.

The memorandum states: "It is currently contemplated that a majority of for-sale units will be sold to families in the upper affordable-income tiers." Note that those tiers go into six-figures, hardly the constituency of the New York branch of ACORN, the community organization that signed the housing deal with Forest City Ratner.

 

Ferrer vs. Bloomberg on Atlantic Yards: the same unchallenged statements

In their second and final debate, held 11/1/05 on News Channel 4, Democratic challenger Fredder Ferrer and incumbent Republic Mayor Mike Bloomberg basically repeated the charges, mistakes, and distortion from Sunday's debate--this time with an assist from an uninformed member of the press, who incorrectly suggested minorities would get 45% of the jobs at the project.

The segment began with panelist Jorge Ramos calling it "a major economic development project," while it also could be called "mostly a luxury housing project." Then we saw footage mainly of the railyard, not the much larger (nearly twice as much) rest of the potential development. Then a Brooklynite--a youngish black man--told the camera that he supported the arena but was concerned about affordable housing.

Ferrer, given a fairly fat pitch to hit, barely hit a grounder. He called it a "billion-dollar boondoggle" and again said he supported the concept of affordable housing and the Community Benefits Agreement. He again said he was concerned about the addition of market-rate condos--he said 2,600, though the number is 2,800--and elaborated on the "secret memo," which he finally identified as the so-called "Secret MOU," which he said would allow city condemnation of businesses at Site 5.

Forest City Ratner controls much but not all of Site 5. Condemnation would be by the state, not the city. The importance of the memo is that not just that it allows condemnation of the property that Ratner doesn't own, it also allows the developer to override zoning and build much larger. The addition of Site 5 is not the reason Forest City Ratner added 2,800 condos--that has more to do with the increased size of the project and the trading of office space for luxury housing.

Then panelist Ramos paved the way for Bloomberg's response by saying, inaccurately, that 45% of the jobs would be set aside for minorities. Ferrer didn't correct him. First, as noted, the Community Benefits Agreement sets a goal regarding 1,200 (or 1,500) annual construction jobs: 35% for minorities, 10% for women. That has nothing to do with the number of permanent office jobs at the project, once promised at 10,000, now cut by more than two-thirds.

There was no effort by the panelists or the candidates to determine the actual amount of affordable housing (31%), the actual number of office jobs at stake (less than one-third of what was originally promised), the actual amount of commercial space (less than one-third of what was originally promised), and whether in fact the project would fill a void (the railyard would occupy little more than one-third of the project). Bloomberg again claimed the project has been well-studied and that the developer works with the community. See Chapter 4 of my report for an analysis of the Community Benefits Agreement and Chapter 8 for an analysis of Forest City Ratner's track record.

Bloomberg claimed "The only thing we're doing here is the same thing we're doing for other projects." Well, the city doesn't turn over other economic development projects to the state Empire State Development Corporation, which will use powers of eminent domain to condemn existing homes and businesses. And his flip dismissal of the secret memo--if it's out, it's not secret, he said--doesn't explain away why it had to be uncovered by a citizens' group.

The Times barely touched on the Atlantic Yards issue, in an 11/2/05 article headlined Attacks Escalate in Final Debate of Mayor's Race:
But the Democratic candidate was equally ferocious about linking Mr. Bloomberg to virtually anything unpopular with at least some New York voters - including the Iraq war, President Bush, school dropout rates, the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, ground zero rebuilding and subway fare increases.
...He also said he would press ahead with new development projects in a second term, and chastised Mr. Ferrer for being a critic of any grand endeavor that might create jobs.
"I have yet to hear one major development project in this city that my opponent is in favor of," Mr. Bloomberg said.


Create jobs? The Times was putting words in the mayor's mouth. Before mentioning jobs (see transcript below), Bloomberg cited housing, commercial space, creating "spirit," and filling "a void" in Brooklyn.

The Associated Press story called Atlantic Yards a "housing and office complex," ignoring the fact that there's more than ten times as much space for housing than offices:
The Democrat also tore into Bloomberg for supporting the proposed Brooklyn basketball arena project that would include a housing an [sic] office complex, built over the Atlantic Yards rail depot.
Ferrer called it a "billion-dollar boondoggle," and that there are better ways to create jobs and stimulate economic activity. Bloomberg shot back: "You can complain about everything but the real world is you have to go and do something."


The New York Post just reported the exchange:
When Ferrer said he opposed a massive Nets area and residential development project in Brooklyn as a sop to developer Bruce Ratner, Bloomberg pounced.
"You complain about everything. But the real world is, you have to do something," Bloomberg said.
"I haven't heard a major development project in the city my opponent is in favor of," the mayor added.
Afterward, Ferrer said he supported a redevelopment of the Bronx terminal market.


The New York Sun made no attempt at analysis, providing an excerpt:
[Ferrer] called the Atlantic Yards development project, which the mayor is backing, a "boondoggle."
"Why are there secret memos emerging about the city guaranteeing to condemn a property called site 5 that'll give this developer 2,600 units of luxury ... with tax breaks from the city," Mr. Ferrer said. "That's nuts!"


The excerpt left out the phrase "luxury housing."

The Daily News ignored the issue, even though its editorial was apparently the source for Ramos's inaccurate citation about jobs.

Footnote: Ferrer, asked later what he most admired about his opponent, "Mike Bloomberg did not go down the path of exacerbating racial tensions in this city." That may be mostly true, but if you consider Bloomberg's support for the Atlantic Yards project--which has advanced thanks to some manipulative racial politics (see Chapter 4 of my report)--you could say Ferrer was being overgenerous.

Transcript

Jorge Ramos: Mr. Ferrer, you have declared you're against a major economic development project in Brooklyn, the Atlantic Yards. We went to Brooklyn and found this man with concerns about this project.

Brooklyn resident Michael Dryver (on camera):
We're talking about Brooklyn, Downtown Brooklyn, Atlantic Terminal area, which comprises Prospect Heights and the Clinton Hill area of Brooklyn. I believe that the area is an area that needs to be revitalized. I believe that the arena, if built, would be an economic boost to the neighborhood. But I'm concerend about whether or not affordable housing will be a key concern if it is in fact developed. That is my major concern: is it an area that's going to have affordable housing for the residents of the Boroklyn community.

Jorge Ramos: Mr. Ferrer?

Freddy Ferrer: See, I don't confuse economic development projects with billion-dollar boondoggles. In fact, this is looking more and more to me like the twin brother of the West Side Stadium boondoggle. Let me tell you some of the things that I have been impressed with in this project. Fifty percent housing affordability--I thought that was powerful. A Community Benefits Agreement that would include people from the community and small businesses in the full economic life of the project. But I have not supported the lack of transparency, and the fact that there's been no planning for the kinds of mass in this project and the kind of infrastructure it would take to support it. But even more imporant, secret memos begin to emerge, like the one that says, we're going to give you Site 5, and we're going to use the city's condemnation power to take out existing businesses so you can create 2600 units of luxury housing. Well, that breaks the 50-50 percent.

Jorge Ramos: One of your allies, Rev. Sharpton, supports this project because it's going to create jobs, 45% of the jobs are set aside for minorities, which is what is needed in the area.

Freddy Ferrer: It is amazing, Jorge, that we need boondoggle projects to try to do the right thing for communities and people all across this city. Let's put in the work, let's ramp up small business, let's provide real job opportunities for them, ongoing.

Jorge Ramos: Mr. Bloomberg?

Mike Bloomberg: You know, you can complain about everything and the real world is, you have to go and do something. And the Atlantic Yards is a project that should go ahead. It will create affordable housing, it will create housing for middle-class people. It will create a great spirit in Brooklyn. It will give us commercial space. It will fill a void that's been empty since when they wanted to build a new Ebbets Field there. It will create jobs for this community. And if there's any project in the city that has been well-studied, and studied out in the open, and that has worked with the community, one developer--if you have to pick one in the city, this developer is the developer you want to pick to make the neighborhoods blend in with the project and to really make sure that everybody benefits.

Gabe Pressman: You look skeptical, Mr. Ferrer?

Freddy Ferrer: Yeah, I am skeptical. If everyone's reviewed this project, why are there secret memos emerging about the city guaranteeing to condemn a property called Site 5 that'll give this developer 2600 units of luxury housing, by the way, with tax breaks for the city. That's nuts.

Gabe Pressman: Your response, Mr. Mayor.

Mike Bloomberg: Well, if the memo's out, then it's certainly not a secret, so I don't think we have to worry about that. Look, the city's investment is only 150 million dollars. We'll get our money back reasonably quickly. The only thing we're doing here is the same thing we're doing for other projects. I have yet to hear one major development project in the city that my opponent is in favor of.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

 

An open letter to NY Times Public Editor Byron Calame: It's time to address Atlantic Yards

Dear Mr. Calame,

I know you've been busy writing about the Judith Miller "mess," an issue that also provoked a thorough review by a team of Times reporters. I hope you can address the Times's coverage of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project in your next column, scheduled for November 6. The project, encompassing 16 high-rise buildings plus a basketball arena, has emerged as a key point of difference between Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his Democratic challenger, Freddy Ferrer. The Times's coverage of that difference has been inadequate, both in a dismissive report Saturday on Ferrer's announcement and a failure Monday to analyze the statements made in the debate on Sunday. Your analysis would be most useful before the election.

I know you have received letters from numerous readers, as well as my report, released September 1, all criticizing the Times's coverage of Forest City Ratner (FCR). Some people think the Times is biased, given the parent Times Company's partnership with FCR in building the new Times Tower. I don't believe there are any orders to go easy on Ratner. However, I do think that, given the business relationship, the Times has an obligation to be exacting in its coverage--and it has not done so. You delineated the responsibility in your web journal on 6/29/05:
The Times's most important obligation, of course, is to make sure there's no bias in any articles it does publish about Mr. Ratner. But avoiding the perception of any tilt toward Mr. Ratner in its pages is also essential.

The coverage has improved somewhat in recent months, but on the whole, as I have detailed in my report and blog, it has been "inadequate, misleading, and mostly uncritical," to quote the subtitle of my report. [I originally wrote this next sentence: Perhaps this is "Afghanistanism," or what Sydney Schanberg noted is "the phenomenon of not covering your own backyard too aggressively." But the definition of "Afghanistanism," I am reminded, is that "news about something happening far away was less important," and this certainly describes how this Brooklyn project was treated for a while. The citation says the term was coined by J. Anthony Lukas in 1974, but a friend tells me that he used it before then.]

The Times missed important twists in this story. Once Forest City Ratner signed a so-called 50-50 housing agreement with ACORN, guaranteeing half the apartments as affordable, FCR changed its plans. The Memorandum of Understanding with ACORN covered 4,500 rental units--all the housing at that time. The Times covered this in a 5/20/05 news article, However--as I note in Chapters 1 and 6 of my report--the Times failed to cover the 5/26/05 City Council hearing in which Forest City Ratner announced an increase the size of the project, including at least 1,500 and possibly 2,800 market-rate units. (Ultimately, FCR added 2,800 units.) The developer traded office space (jobs) for luxury housing, and the Times ignored the issue. By not covering the hearing, the Times also failed to report authoritative criticism of the Community Benefits Agreement, while the developer and political backers have touted it as "historic." See Chapter 4 of my report and this criticism of the Times's later coverage.

The Times, in a subsequent 6/9/05 article headlined "Unlike Stadium on West Side, an Arena in Brooklyn Is Still a Go," failed to acknowledge the tradeoff. Subsquently, the Times's first account of the increased size,in a 7/5/05 article headlined "Instant Skyline Added to Brooklyn Arena Plan," focused mainly on the project as an architectural phenomenon, without asking the fundamental question: why did the project grow? As noted in Chapter 1 of my report, while Ratner officials claimed they were responding to the need for housing articulated by ACORN, the addition of market-rate units points to the developer's desire for increased profits ("economically necessary").

Had the Times noticed the changes in the plan, it could have produced a more accurate narrative, explaining that not only did the project get bigger, but also that FCR would no longer fulfill promises concerning affordable housing and jobs.

Some other issues not fully addressed include:

The total cost of the project
A 9/15/05 Times article finally acknowledged that the public investment would reach $1 billion. But this sum was acknowledged by Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing. See p. 29, or PDF p. 54, of my report. Why have no headlines or stories addressed this total cost? In fact, the dearth of such coverage probably contributed to the inadequate design of the most recent poll regarding Atlantic Yards.

The debate about the costs and benefits of the project
Chapter 3 of my report examines the reports by Andrew Zimbalist, the sports economist hired by Forest City Ratner to evaluate this urban develpment project, and raises several questions not addressed by the press. More recently, a study by the Independent Budget Office implicitly criticized Zimbalist's projections. This is important, because the mayor and the governor have relied on Zimbalist to project revenue for Atlantic Yards.

The arena--the most expensive ever
The Times reported, as an aside, that this would be the most expensive arena ever constructed. Surely it deserves analysis--and a headline.

The number of jobs at the project
The most recent Times coverage, as of 6/28/05, said there would be 8,500 permanent jobs. See p. 17, or PDF p. 42, of my report. However, 11 days earlier, Forest City Ratner's own Brooklyn Standard (see p. 3) was promising only "6,000 new permanent jobs." A document released by the Empire State Development Corporation on 9/16/05 shows less than a third of the office space originally promised, which would mean some 2,229 office jobs and fewer than 700 new jobs. Even if the Times finally reports on this issue before the election, the story will have come too late for the mayoral debates--just as the Times's belated coverage of the FCR's Brooklyn Standard came ten weeks after the "publication" was issued. The developer's slogan for this project is "Jobs, Housing, and Hoops." Those shouting "jobs" are generally people who hope for construction jobs, which would be temporary. But the developer promised, in December 2003 announcement, and in May 2004 and October 2004 mass mailings, 10,000 permanent office jobs.

The number of construction jobs
In covering other developments, the Times has used the more accurate figure of job-years to analyze promised construction jobs. The Times has most recently reported that the project would bring 12,000 construction jobs. Forest City Ratner says 15,000. Both estimates are in job-years, counting annual jobs over ten years. The accurate construction jobs number would be 1,200 or 1,500 jobs.

Substandard coverage
Some Times coverage has failed to meet the newspaper's standards of fairness and thoroughness. Here are some examples:
--Recent coverage of Freddy Ferrer's stance on Atlantic Yards ended with an unspported quote from Forest City Ratner.
--A story about the developer's attempt at community outreach revealed that, contrary to previous denials, the group BUILD had been paid by the developer yet concluded with a self-serving quote from the developer's spokesperson, who had just been unmasked as either uninformed or a liar. The article claimed that the developer's outreach efforts constituted a "modern blueprint" without offering any solid evidence. The Times hasn't yet reported on further aspects of the story.
--A story about Forest City Ratner's bid for the MTA railyard, which was doubled to $100 million, left out the fact that the land was appraised for more than double that, $214.5 million.
--As noted in Chapter 4 of my report, a Times story on the Rev. Al Sharpton's support for the Atlantic Yards plan failed to quote any critics.
--As noted in Chapter 3 of my report, a Times story on the Kim/Peebles economic study criticizing economist Andrew Zimbalist gave Zimbalist and Forest City Ratner the last word, with no attempt to evaluate the criticisms.
--As noted in Chapter 4 of my report, a Times story on the much-criticized Atlantic Center Mall allowed Bruce Ratner to offer explanations without quoting any critics.

Double standards
--As noted in Chapter 5 of my report, the Times ignored the results from two polls in which New Yorkers said they opposed a taxpayer-funded arena. Notably, the Times reported on other aspects of those polls, thus deeming them legitimate.
--As noted in Chapter 3 of my report, the Times has periodically quoted representatives of the Pratt Institute for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED) regarding development projects, but the Times has not quoted PICCED's pointed criticism of this project in both an extensive report and testimony at City Council.
--As noted in Chapter 3 of my report, the Times has periodically quoted transportation engineer Brian Ketcham regarding various projects. His significant criticisms of Atlantic Yards have not appeared in the Times.
--As noted in Chapter 3 of my report, the Times has periodically quoted the watchdog group Good Jobs NY regarding various development projects. The Times has not quoted the organization regarding Atlantic Yards, even though (see Chapter 4) the organization offered authoritative criticism of the Community Benefits Agreement.

Many other concerns are detailed in my report and blog. Here's one more issue that I hope you address. On 6/26/05, the Times Magazine published a chatty Q&A with FCR President Bruce Ratner (Stadium, Anyone?), which failed to mention that Forest City Ratner is The New York Times Company’s development partner on the new Times Tower. In your web journal on 6/29/05, you chastised the Times Magazine for not disclosing the FCR connection. The Times still hasn't disclosed that connection and, as I point out in Chapters 10 and 14 of my report, the Times has failed to disclose the business relationship in some other relevant articles, most notably architecture critic Herbert Muschamp's rhapsodic initial review of the plan. Muschamp also failed to disclose how he worked with Ratner officials in choosing an architect for the Times Tower.

Mr. Calame, the press should serve as a watchdog on governmental and private power, as well as a forum for public policy analysis. In the case of Atlantic Yards--unlike the West Side Stadium, where a corporate heavyweight, Cablevision, could amplify the voices of critics--the mayor and other leading public officials have joined forces with the developer, endorsing the project without looking closely. In such a case, the role of the Times becomes even more important.

Newspapers like the Times, asserted Times executive editor Bill Keller, should practice "the journalism of verification." I agree, so I look forward to your review.

Yours truly,
Norman Oder
Brooklyn, NY
TimesRatnerReport.blogspot.com

 

The dark genius of Ratner flack Joe DePlasco--and how some resist

Forget CEO Bruce Ratner or even Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, the biggest booster of the Atlantic Yards project. Forest City Ratner's not-so-secret weapon is an outside contractor named Joe DePlasco, a hired gun with a golden tongue, who can spin a seeming setback into a rosy scenario, offering distortions and evasions--if reporters let him get away with it, which they too often do. I catalog his tactics below.

The background

A 6/9/05 New York Times article headlined Unlike Stadium on West Side, an Arena in Brooklyn Is Still a Go, attempted to explain how Forest City Ratner moved its project forward: Bruce Bender and James P. Stuckey, executive vice presidents of the development company, studied the opposition, sending assistants to take notes at public meetings or doing it themselves. Mr. Bender has decades of experience as a City Council aide, notably as chief of staff to the former speaker, Peter F. Vallone. Mr. Stuckey is a former president of the Public Development Corporation and a longtime adviser to Mr. Giuliani. They also hired Joe DePlasco of Dan Klores Communications, a former top aide to Mark Green, to handle public relations.

It's not like Forest City Ratner didn't have its own cadre of inhouse public relations professionals. Four people listed on the "Bring Basketball to Brooklyn" web site work in public relations and community affairs.

The list of press releases on Forest City Ratner's corporate web site shows additional inhouse press people as well the deployment of the firm Geto & DeMilly. Let’s not forget that the minority-run Terrie Williams agency is representing the supposed grassroots group BUILD, paid for by Ratner, though initially BUILD president James Caldwell claimed he didn't know who was paying.

But for the real heavy lifting, Ratner turns to Joe DePlasco.His bio on the Dan Klores Communications (DKC) web site states: Joe DePlasco oversees many of DKC's corporate, crisis, and public affairs accounts. Arguably, the Atlantic Yards account falls under all three of those categories.

Tactic #1: Sunny Side Up

DePlasco offers, with seeming sincerity, deadpan pronouncements of good news and benign motives.

In June, Forest City Ratner debuted its Brooklyn Standard "publication." As the Daily News reported in a 6/17/05 story headlined Ratner rolls out tabloid to sell $3.5B arena plan:
Just weeks after a group of Brooklyn clergy published a newspaper bashing the proposed downtown Brooklyn Nets arena complex, developer Bruce Ratner has gotten into the newspaper game.
The Brooklyn Standard, a glossy 16-page tabloid with information about the $3.5 billion project, is scheduled to hit the stands today.
"We said from the beginning that we are going to provide as much information as humanly possible," said Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco.


As much information as humanly possible? Is that why the Brooklyn Standard, as noted in Chapter 7 of my report and my analysis of the second issue, is full of distortions and evasions?

DePlasco continued in a similar though slightly attenuated vein, when the New York Times finally covered the Brooklyn Standard, dismissing it in a 9/3/05 story headlined O.K., the Whole Paper Is Basically an Ad. The Times article stated:
Joseph DePlasco, a spokesman for Forest City Ratner, which is the development partner of The New York Times Company for its new headquarters building, said a new issue of The Standard would be published in September. He said readers could expect more overviews of the project, letters from supporters and dates of future hearings.
"We'll still try to do it in a colorful, hopefully engaging way," Mr. DePlasco said, adding that the publication is meant to complement the developer's other efforts to promote the arena project.


Note that DePlasco was no longer promising "as much information as humanly possible."

A 6/5/04 Brooklyn Papers article headlined Nets’ Cracker Jack mailer described the 350,000 pamphlets FCR mailed to Brooklynites, promising a free gift for plan supporters. The article noted that neither Ratner’s name nor the name of his company appeared in the mailing, though a quote from New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp was presented simply as “The New York Times.” Was the developer conducting a poll?
But according to Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, the cards are not a poll.
“They wouldn’t provide a very official count,” he said. “Its just something fun to do … it’s just a giveaway.”
He said there was no particular reason they decided to send out the mailing now.
“It just seemed like the right time, the colors are nice and spring-like and now the weather is nice and spring-like.”


Nice and spring-like? You don’t spend the money for 350,000 mailings, conceal the company’s name, and quote a Times critic as the Times's voice--or, for that matter, hire a spinmeister like DePlasco--because it’s “spring-like.”


Tactic #2: Forest City Ratner as Charitable Entity

If you listen to DePlasco, you might think FCR was a charitable foundation rather than part of the nation's largest publicly traded commercial real estate development company, with a commitment "to building superior, long-term value for its stakeholders."

In a 10/27/05 Daily News article headlined Freddy fires Net salvo, Democratic mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer called for the Atlantic Yards project to be reduced significantly. FCR responded via DePlasco:
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, remember that the percentage of "affordable" apartments has been cut from 50% to 31% (and most of them aren't affordable to average Brooklynites) and the amount of office space has been cut by more than half--and that the number of office jobs and construction jobs would be far fewer than promised.

DePlasco tried to spin the story about BUILD's chummy relationship with Ratner into a homey reassertion of "jobs, housing, and hoops," Ratner's slogan for Atlantic Yards. A 10/3/05 article in the Courier-Life chain headlined (incorrectly) "Ratner Paid Biggest Arena Supporters $5 Million, DePlasco said of the Community Benefits Agreement:
"Will we provide funding for programs that are beneficial and for no-profits that do this work? Yes. Have we agreed to dollar amounts at this time? No. But the issue isn't BUILD projecting costs. It's the double digit unemployment and what we can do to improve the lives of people in the surrounding communities," he added.

The only problem is, there's no real data on how this project would improve people's lives, and any jobs-creation program must be measured against the cost of creating those jobs, which in this case would be huge.


Tactic #3: Reality Be Damned

DePlasco sometimes makes outlandish claims, almost daring reporters to make the effort to find a counterargument.

In a 11/29/04 Brooklyn Politics column from Brooklyn's Courier-Life chain, a section headlined Paper Nabs Ratner's Name quoted DePlasco as suggesting the developer was a more honest source of information than the Brooklyn Papers (a rival chain to Courier-Life):
Web surfers looking for Forest City Ratner's home page at http://www.forestcityratner.com get a surprising result: a Brooklyn Papers site featuring articles critical of the company and its controversial Nets arena project.
...But Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco saw another motive. "My guess is that they know people are more likely to get honest information by going to Forest City Ratner than to Brooklyn Papers and they are trying to kidnap them along the way. As everyone knows, Mr. Weintrob is completely opposed to this project, which is fine, but it would still be nice of him to let his reporters provide accurate and objective information. But hey, it's his newspaper and he wants to impose his view upon his people."


Honest information from Forest City Ratner, publisher of the Brooklyn Standard? FCR hasn't even bothered to update its web site, which contains outdated information about the project from December 2003.

A 9/23/05 Jewish Week article headlined What Will Ratner Reap? quoted City Council Member Letitia James as saying that the co-ops in Atlantic Yards would be marketed toward people now living in Manhattan. “He’s aiming at people making over $100,000, which is totally out of reach of most Brooklynites.”
A spokesman for Ratner, Joe DePlasco, said the plan was intended “first and foremost” to benefit Brooklynites. “Of course new people will come,” said DePlasco. “They are coming now. But we created an affordable and low-income housing program — the largest of its kind with 2,500 units — to ensure that working people have access to these homes.”


First, the "affordable" housing component would be 2,250 units, not 2,500 units. (Is this a DePlasco mini-tactic, offering small exaggerations in his client's favor?) But as noted, there would be 5,050 market-rate units and 2,250 "affordable" units. Given that there are twice as many market-rate units, it's far more likely that the plan was intended "first and foremost" to benefit Ratner's investors. Indeed Forest City Ratner's 5/17/05 Memorandum of Understanding with the New York affiliate of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), contains this passage:
If the projected number of residential units should increase for any reason that the Developer determines to be economically necessary, both the Developer and ACORN will work towards developing a program that follows the same guidelines and principles set forth in this document.

The projected number did increase, and an obvious conclusion is that it was "economically necessary" to Ratner, not to the Brooklynites DePlasco invokes. After all, only 900 of the "affordable" units are aimed at those earning less than Brooklyn's $35,000 median income.

In a 7/26/05 Times story headlined Development Rival Offers Compromise on Nets Arena, DePlasco again claimed there would be 2,500 units of affordable housing (mini-tactic alert) and offered some boilerplate:
“Forest City Ratner has an unmatched record in Brooklyn and throughout the city for developing and completing highly complex projects,” said Joseph DePlasco, a spokesman for Mr. Ratner and his company, Forest City Ratner. “Also, they already have in place a long-term partnership with community groups and community leaders to develop thousands of needed jobs and 2,500 units of affordable housing while generating billions of dollars in revenue for the city and the state.”

Unmatched record? The Times chose not to quote independent critics who could question the developer’s track record.

After protests over the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), DePlasco told the Brooklyn Eagle, in an 8/29/05 article headlined Downtown Clergy-Led Group Keeps the Pressure on Ratner, DePlasco said of the CBA: “At this time, over 200 groups have signed on. What we looked to do was sit down with organizations with recognized expertise in housing.”
Except of course, BUILD has no expertise in housing; that’s ACORN’s job. BUILD has no expertise in anything, since it was formed solely to negotiate a CBA. As for the groups signing on, the New York Observer's Matthew Schuerman pointed out that the "fewer than 175" groups signing on after the fact included restaurants and real estate agencies, as well as entities beyond Brooklyn.


Tactic #4: Changing the Subject

DePlasco sometimes manages to evade a question by talking about something related, but not quite on topic.

When queried about a push-poll by columnist Erik Engquist of Brooklyn’s Courier-Life newspaper chain, DePlasco offered a curious response. According to the 4/12/04 Brooklyn Politics column:
We mentioned the alleged push-poll to Forest City Ratner’s arena project press guy, a friend of ours from Boerum Hill named Joe DePlasco, and asked for the script, the cost, and the purpose of the poll. DePlasco e-mailed back only, “Hey Erik, how are you. You are wrong.” We replied that the poll recipient had a very specific recollection of a 15-minute interview about the project. It didn’t sound like he was making it up.
DePlasco e-mailed back, “I didn’t say there wasn’t a poll that went out-and
I’m sure you are busily reading through the Quinnipiac poll that is out there too, 79 percent favor Nets in Brooklyn proposal-I just said your information was wrong.”
The key word there is “too.” That tells us there was another poll in addition to the Quinnipiac “Nets-Jets” one. So we knew we were on to something.


Actually, only 75% (fudging upward--a DePlasco mini-tactic?) of respondents in the Quinnipiac poll supported the arena if it didn’t cost the public anything. Also, DePlasco ignored the results that showed that a majority of respondents (59% to 35%) opposed using tax dollars to build the arena. He also conflated two different polls: the Quinnipiac Poll gathered a cross section of attitudes for a statistical sample, while the goal of the push poll was apparently to serve FCR interests.

In a 10/18/05 New York Sun article headlined Ratner-Financed Publication Includes Pro-Yards Articles With Incorrect Bylines, DePlasco criticized the freelance journalist misled by Brooklyn Standard editors rather than criticizing the editors who misused the freelancer's byline:
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.”

However, as my post pointed out, the journalist wasn't told, when assigned the articles, that he'd be writing for a Ratner publication.

Then comes the issue of the arena roof, once promoted as public space, now to be privatized. The Daily News paraphrased his remarks:
Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco acknowledges the rooftop park won't be open to hoi polloi. The towers around the arena were originally supposed to be primarily for commercial use, he says, but plans have changed. Now the towers will be heavily residential, and the developer is reserving the rooftop, which would be connected to adjacent buildings, for tenants so they would have easy access to laundry rooms and other amenities.
But that doesn't mean the public is getting stiffed, DePlasco says - new plans call for seven-plus acres of public space, an acre more than the original proposal.


But as I pointed out, Ratner originally announced that the roof was aimed at the whole community, so the changing composition of the towers should make no difference.


Tactic #5: Stonewall

Sometimes DePlasco talks, and says no more.

If Bruce Ratner failed to build Atlantic Yards, he told the New York Times New Jersey Weekly section (For Lame-Duck Nets, Beginning of the End, 10/24/04), “we’d probably re-work the Meadowlands or re-do the arena somehow.”
The Brooklyn Papers followed up in a 10/30/04 article headlined RATNER: I MIGHT LEAVE NETS IN NJ:
It was the first time he publicly conceded that he would consider keeping the team at the Meadowlands if his Brooklyn deal fell through. Ratner has declined to be interviewed by Brooklyn news media.
Enter DePlasco: “There’s no reason to think the team is not moving to Brooklyn for the 2007 season,” said spokesman Joe DePlasco. “Everything is moving along as smoothly as possible and we anticipate it will be a tremendous success.”
“It will not fall through,” he said.
Probed further about Ratner’s comments on the possibility of the Nets remaining in New Jersey, DePlasco refused to comment. He denied requests for an interview with Ratner directly.


Now, of course, the Nets are talking about moving to Brooklyn for the 2008-2009 season, according to USA Today, though the scoping document says the first phase of the project, including the arena, would be finished by 2009. (The arena could be finished earlier, but it doesn't specify that.)

And once, surprisingly (or conveniently?), DePlasco was out of the loop.

Putting it all together

DePlasco, when he's on, offers a spectacular mix of tactics. In a front-page 10/14/05 Times article headlined To Build Arena, Developer First Builds Bridges, DePlasco was challenged to explain why BUILD had lied about receiving money from FCR:
Mr. Caldwell, the group's current president, and Marie Louis, its treasurer, said late last month that Build was not yet receiving money from Forest City and that neither of them was yet drawing a salary.
Note that the Times didn't mention that DePlasco had offered denials as well.

The Times article continued:
But on Tuesday, Mr. DePlasco and a new spokeswoman for Build, Cheryl Duncan, revised that account.
In August, Mr. DePlasco said, two months after the agreement was signed, Forest City disbursed $100,000 to the group. The company also provided space for and is paying the overhead of a new Build office near the Atlantic Yards site, and along with other supporters donated furniture and computer equipment to the group. On Sept. 5, Ms. Duncan said, Build began paying several staff members, including Mr. Caldwell and Ms. Louis, who she said are currently being paid at a rate equal to half the salaries listed on the group's original I.R.S. form. Before the signing of the community-benefits agreement, the staff had been working as volunteers, she said.
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. "Forest City Ratner Company believes firmly that supporting nonprofits and community groups, and working with them to identify and address needs, is at the foundation of what they do. It's that simple."


So here's DePlasco offering the sunny side (committing to the CBA), ignoring reality (BUILD's lies), portraying FCR as a charitable entity (supporting community groups is at the "foundation"), and changing the subject (the issue wasn't whether money was given to BUILD before the CBA, it was whether it was given to them while they were denying it). A tour de force. You'd think DePlasco would've lost credibility after being caught in a lie--or being out of the loop. Instead, the Times gave him the last word in this front-page story about the developer's tactics.


DePlasco and the journalism of verification

Not every journalist takes DePlasco at his word. They recognize that he has an agenda, and that journalism should involve scrutiny, not stenography, or, as Times executive editor Bill Keller says, the "journalism of verification". I'll name some journalists here, though I don't name those who wrote the stories I criticize--those failures are institutional, not individual, since editors play a role as well.

In an article headlined Bruce Ratner: Powerman, the Eroica, and Atlantic Yards in the Brooklyn Rail's September 2005 issue, DePlasco was challenged by Brian Carreira:
“We were of course very pleased that the MTA selected FCRC to enter into negotiations,” says Forest City spokesman Joe DePlasco. Of course. He was more curt about their initial bid, which Chairman Kalikow noted “frankly was not as high” as the MTA expected and was lower in its cash offer of $50 million than either Extell’s bid or the MTA’s assessment of $214 million.
“Actually, how do you know what market value is?” DePlasco chides when asked why the bid was low. Perhaps inadvertent, the FCRC spokesman makes a compelling point: Any college economics major can tell you that if a seller is only willing to speak with one buyer, technically there is no market.
DePlasco stands by the original Ratner bid for the Yards, but acknowledges that, “the MTA made it clear they want more money.”


DePlasco stands by the original Ratner bid for the Yards? The developer bid $50 million for a property appraised at $214.5 million. At the 5/4/04 City Council Economic Development Committee hearing, FCR’s Jim Stuckey had pledged a fair payment, testifying: [F]or the land, the public land, the MTA land, is that, what we have agreed to is that we will lease or buy that land at the fair market value ... by whatever independent process that they normally use.

The Brooklyn Rail article continued:
In February of 2005, Forest City announced with much excitement the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the Atlantic Yards. The same day a second MOU was signed by Empire State Development Corp. (ESDC) Chief Charles Gargano, Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff, New York City Economic Development Corporation President Andrew Alper and Bruce Ratner, and this MOU was not accorded the same hoopla. In fact it was not distributed to the press for release. Uncovered in a Freedom of Information Act request by Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), this document allows Forest City to redevelop the area where the Atlantic Center Mall is located, as well as what is known as Site Five, where at present a PC Richards & Sons and a Modell’s store are located.
When initially asked about the document, Joe DePlasco responds: “I assume you are talking about Site Five. Had you followed all of the presentations, you would know that it has been discussed extensively.” Although this is the case, when an entire project is predicated on the seizing and demolition of others’ property for its completion, the expansion of the proposal to a plot the developer already mostly owns (PC Richards owns the property on which their store sits) does not imply that a document for its disposition yet exists....
“To an extent there is a mea culpa,” DePlasco concedes, “it is that Site Five is not part of the Atlantic Yards project. Since it was not part of Atlantic Yards, [the MOU] was not released at that time.” Not addressed is whether another tower can be expected where the Atlantic Center Mall now sits.


Site Five (south of Flatbush Avenue, now occupied by Modells and P.C. Richard) is not part of the Atlantic Yards project? Not originally, but it's shown on page 3 of the Brooklyn Standard, issued in mid-June, and it's in the scoping document: The proposed project assumes that the 850,000-gsf arena would be constructed during Phase I of the project, and that all Phase I development would be limited to the arena blocks and Site 5; the remainder of the program would be developed during Phase II, to be completed by 2016.

One of DePlasco's most challenging efforts must have been trying to frame the support for emininent domain supplied in a Supreme Court brief by Forest City Ratner supporters BUILD and some trade unions. As Nik Kovac of the Brooklyn Downtown Star reported in a 2/17/05 story headlined Friends of the Court, Enemies Over the Court, DePlasco suggested that community groups were lining up to support the use of eminent domain--but in the case, the reporter actually checked the facts:
A spokesperson for Bruce Ratner's company, Joe DePlasco, echoed this sentiment. "Take a look at all the unions and other groups," he encouraged, "who are filing briefs on this project."
A close look at the Supreme Court filings in the Connecticut case reveals, however, that it does appear to be a coalition of municipal governments against a coalition of civil rights, urban affairs, and libertarian advocates. Of the 11 friend of the court briefs filed on behalf of the City of New London, at least ten were from governmental and development agencies, ranging from the City of New York to the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities to the Massachusetts Chapter of National Association of Industrial and Office Properties to the New York State Urban Development Corporation all the way to the California Redevelopment Association.
In fact, the brief filed by BUILD and Reverend Daughtry was the only one not to include the backing of a governmental or development agency, and it itself was backed, and paid for, by a union group partly titled the "Labor-Management Corporation."


In a 4/5/04 Village Voice article by Matthew Schuerman headlined Ratner Rules, DePlasco was challenged on his lame explanation for why the recently converted Newswalk condominium was cut out of the project footprint:
Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco said that since Newswalk was already residential, it fit into the arena plan, which includes residential space. Of course, many of the buildings slated to be razed are also residential.
...Ratner had numerous other reasons to let Newswalk stay. It would cost a fortune to buy back 140 condos that had just sold for six figures each. Forcing residents out would have won him that many new opponents. Boymelgreen, meanwhile, also benefits. He still has about 30 empty units.
...But if Ratner could design around Newswalk, he could have spared other properties as well. "I've tried to figure out why they constructed their plan the way they did," said Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development. Lander might support the plan, but only if it comes with stronger guarantees of jobs and affordable housing. "You could do substantial work without invoking eminent domain at all."


In this case, the reporter found a critic who could provide another view. In other cases, reporters examined available documents and refused to accept DePlasco's spin. None of this is rocket science. Without a compliant press corps, DePlasco wouldn't be a dark genius. He'd just be an increasingly less credible flack.

Monday, October 31, 2005

 

Ferrer vs. Bloomberg on Atlantic Yards (and it barely makes the Times)

Very early in the first mayoral debate (go to 9:08; my transcript is below), Democratic candidate Freddy Ferrer was asked what initiatives of Mayor Mike Bloomberg's administration he'd undo. He gave one answer: Atlantic Yards. It was a spirited exchange, despite lapses from both candidates, as it delineated differences over affordable housing and the transparency of the approval process.

Did it gain prominent press coverage and factchecking? No. One version (for the national edition?) of the lengthy 10/31/05 New York Times account of the debate, headlined Ferrer Is Testy and Feisty in First Debate With Mayor, failed to mention the exchange. Did Times reporters and editors think the deeply flawed account in the 10/29/05 paper constituted sufficient coverage? Nope, it was just a question of space. An earlier version of the article, headlined In Debate, Candidates Offer Different Visions of City and dated 10/30/05, had four additional paragraphs at the end. And so did the final version, headlined In Equal Footing of a Debate, Ferrer Gets Feisty. The final paragraph:
Mr. Ferrer said... he would put an immediate stop to plans to build a Nets arena and several residential buildings in downtown Brooklyn, a plea that his campaign hopes will resonate in a politically important part of that borough.

Several residential buildings? How about 16 towers, nearly all residential? And, yet again, it's not downtown Brooklyn. (See Chapter 11 of my report.) And, if Ferrer wants to be mayor, he should hope his plans resonate with all New Yorkers, since they'd be paying for Atlantic Yards.

A vigorous Times effort to factcheck the debate, headlined In Excitement of Encounter, Exaggerations Join Debate, ignored the Atlantic Yards issue. The article stated:
While the candidates committed no outrageous whoppers, they may have served up some junior whoppers, as well as offered several other assertions that looked threadbare when held up to the light.
Indeed--see below.

A Times news analysis, headlined Ferrer Makes His Candidacy Look Stronger Than the Polls Suggest, noted that Ferrer hinted darkly at "back-room deals" in the proposed Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn.
Well, Ferrer didn't offer specifics, but wouldn't the MTA's decision to negotiate solely with Forest City Ratner (see Chapter 6 of my report) and then accept less than half the appraised value qualify?

Ferrer focused on the issue of affordable housing--once 50% affordable, now 31% affordable, or little more than 12% for average Brooklynites. Actually, project supporters could say--following the letter, rather than the spirit of previous statements--that Forest City Ratner promised 50% affordability only for the first 4,500 rentals. (Check the Memorandum of Understanding.) The additional 2,800 condos were not mentioned in the initial 5/19/05 press conference, because they hadn't been announced yet. A week later, at a City Council hearing, Forest City Ratner announced plans to increase market-rate housing, though it wasn't clear until September whether it would be 1,500 or 2,800 units. And ACORN's Bertha Lewis is still claiming 50% affordable housing.

Ferrer's answer wasn't completely coherent. He mistakenly placed the proposed arena in Manhattan, not Brooklyn. He said "26- to 2,800 units of luxury housing," when, to be precise it's 2800 condo units added on top of the initial 2,250 market-rate (luxury) rentals. He cited a "secret memo" about condemning businesses--which I wish he'd proffer. And he praised the Community Benefits Agreement, apparently not recognizing that experts don't consider it legitimate.

But Bloomberg's defense was much weaker. First, he relied on Al Sharpton's unsupported claim that the project would bring jobs and housing to "the people in that community." (Sharpton used the term "communities of color," which the Times paraphrased as "minorities"--neither of which are necessarily "that community," whatever Bloomberg meant.) Bloomberg said the project had scrutiny from community boards, even though it specifically bypasses City Countil, and the community boards have little power over a state-run project.

Bloomberg also claimed the project had received scrutiny from the press. Well, this blog and my report began because of inadequate press coverage. Quick: how many articles have started from the premise that this would the most expensive arena ever, or that the project would cost the public more than $1 billion? The Times has mentioned these as asides. How many articles have analyzed how the 10,000 office jobs originally promised has been cut by more than two-thirds? How many articles have reported the true percentage of affordable housing?

Bloomberg also said the project involves "a place that's been vacant for decades." But the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard is little more than one-third of the proposed 22-acre Atlantic Yards project site. And, given that this is a crucial place for development, why did the MTA negotiate exclusively with Ratner accept a bid for less than half the appraised value?

The Post didn't analyze the content but simply relied on Bloomberg's Sharpton defense:
Bloomberg defended them as worthy projects, and criticized Ferrer for opposing the Nets arena-Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn — noting that even the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Ferrer supporter — backs the project.

New York Newsday similarly punted:
Bloomberg cited a statement from the Rev. Al Sharpton, who endorsed Ferrer, in favor of a massive Brooklyn building project that Ferrer calls "the twin brother" of the mayor's defunct West Side stadium "boondoggle."

Post columnist Andrea Peyser chided Ferrer for being out of touch--mistakenly saying the arena would be in Manhattan--while herself calling it the "Nets stadium."

The New York Sun gave it a little more coverage, but was still inaccurate:
When asked whether he would undo any of Mr. Bloomberg's initiatives if he were elected mayor, Mr. Ferrer said he would "halt" and "re-evaluate" the Atlantic Yards project, Forest City Ratner's $3.5 billion proposal to erect more than a dozen offices, residential towers, a hotel, and a basketball arena in Brooklyn.
"I object to the lack of transparency, I object to the backroom deals, I object to the things we're beginning to see emerge about a project that is becoming the twin brother of the West Side boondoggle," he said, referring to the fight over the Jets Stadium on the far West Side of Manhattan.
Mr. Bloomberg snapped back that Mr. Ferrer's stance countered that of an unsuccessful 2004 presidential candidate, the Reverend Al Sharpton.
"I couldn't disagree more, and I think Al Sharpton, who supported my opponent, said it very well: This is about jobs for people in that community, this is about housing for people in that community, this is a project that has had enough scrutiny as anything," Mr. Bloomberg said.


More than a dozen? It would be 16 towers plus an arena. "A dozen offices"? According to the project description by the Empire State Development Corporation, there would be 628,000 square feet of office space and 7.2 million square feet of residential space. This is a housing project most of all, and a luxury housing project (5,050 of 7,300 units) at that.



TRANSCRIPT

Errol Louis of the Daily News editorial board: Mr. Ferrer, in the first few weeks of his administration, Mr. Bloomberg undid many of the initiatives of his predecessor. If you’re elected mayor, which, if any, of the initiatives of the Bloomberg administration would you plan to undo?

Freddy Ferrer: Well, there’s one important one that I will undo and that’s Atlantic Yards. I will call a halt to that project and reevaluate it. Look, as we’re beginning to scratch under the surface of a Nets arena in Manhattan and the construction of thousands of units of housing. The original promise was 50% affordability. Now we’re finding secret memos emerging that talk about condemning businesses that are ongoing and building then 26- to 2800 units of luxury housing. Those are things I think that deserve full view and a full review of the people who live there. Now I supported, and I felt strongly about the powerful aspects of 50% housing affordability, and the Community Benefits Agreement that would bring small businesses and community people into the full life of the project. But I object to the lack of transparency. I object to the backroom deals. I object to the things we are beginning to see emerge about a project that is becoming the twin brother of the West Side boondoggle.

Mike Bloomberg: Well, I couldn’t disagree more. And I think Al Sharpton who supported my opponent said it very well: this is about jobs for people in that community, this is about housing for people in that community. This is a project that has had as much scrutiny as anything: community boards, and scrutiny from the newspapers, and scrutiny from every single state agency that’s involved. This is the right kind of project for the city, builds houses, creates jobs, helps the spirit of Brooklyn, and takes a place that’s been vacant for decades--50 years or more—and does something with it that will help this city.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

 

An alternate version of the Pace Poll--could tougher questions have made a difference?

After I posted my criticism of the recent Pace Poll on Atlantic Yards, I decided to query poll director Jonathan Trichter. I wrote:
While I appreciate your effort to go beyond simple yes/no questions, I dispute your statement [in the New York Observer] that the poll regarding the proposed Atlantic Yards project was conducted "in such a way to get a good sense of where New Yorkers would be if they were well informed." While those polled were given both "pro" and "con" arguments, the arguments were hardly comprehensive.

Here are some unmentioned "con" facts. Forest City Ratner officials acknowledge that the public cost of the project would be at least $1.1 billion over 30 years. The arena would be the most expensive ever built. The promised public park on the arena roof now would be private space. The number of construction jobs would be one-tenth the number used in most media reports. Since the project was announced, the amount of luxury housing has more than doubled and the amount of proposed office space has been cut by more than half.
[I erred: it would be cut by more than two-thirds.]

See more criticisms/citations here.

So I'd like to know:
--who was responsible for designing those poll questions and pro/con statements?
--did you know of the additional "con" facts I cite?
--if yes, then why not choose to include at least some of them?
--if no, then do you think they should have been included?


Trichter wrote back promptly and cordially:
Thank you for your note. To answer your questions, although I do receive some input from our media partners in this study (The New York Observer, WCBS 2 News, and WNYC Radio), ultimately I design all the surveys and all the questions. I was aware of some of the arguments against the project that you illustrate, but not all. After reading them, I am impressed, of course, with your knowledge of the project; it vastly exceeds mine. Still, in my judgment, I do not believe the valid arguments you highlight are better than the ones we chose. Unfortunately, the confines of a poll make it impossible to list all the arguments for and against an item. And I used my best judgment to select those I thought made the strongest case both before and against the Atlantic Yards project. If we poll on this project in the future, I will revisit all of the arguments both for and against the project, including yours.

So I decided to try to write different versions of both "con" paragraphs read to those polled. These were characterized as some of the best arguments against the project:
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.

Here's a much stronger alternative, just two words longer:
Some/Other people say the proposal to bring the Nets to central Brooklyn will waste more than $1 billion on a project that’s mostly luxury housing, with one-tenth of the new office jobs once promised. These people also say that the arena and 16 hi-rises near Brooklyn’s busiest intersection will compound existing traffic problems. And they say that the project depends on evictions through eminent domain.

These were characterized as some of the best arguments against the city and state's proposed investment in the project:
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.

Here's a much stronger alternative, three words shorter:
Some/Other people say that the City and State should not spend $200 million dollars immediately and $1 billion over 30 years because the arena is a Trojan Horse for a project that’s mostly luxury housing. Project supporters have relied on a biased study that claims, for example, that the arena would not increase police costs. Critics say it would be better to spend the millions on vital services and developments that are accountable to the City Council, which has been bypassed.

I do think the alternatives would have made a difference. I don't blame the Pace Poll so much as the generally weak press coverage that has failed, for example, to analyze the changes in housing and jobs.

 

Questions about the CBA: Is this "systemic change in doing business"?

So, is the Community Benefits Agreement regarding Atlantic Yards supposed to help the local "community" or the minority "community"? There's an interesting tension there, because the signatories are local (and minority), but several beneficiaries are hardly local, with none based on Brooklyn and some outside New York City.

So a 10/28/2005 story in the Courier-Life chain headlined Forest City Ratner Hires Design & Construction Firm reported:
Forest City Ratner hired the nation’s oldest minority-owned design and construction firm to oversee the reconfiguration of the Atlantic Rail Yards.
“We’re extremely excited. The fact that FCRC has entrusted us with the whole infrastructure piece alone is significant,” said Cheryl McKissack Felder, president of McKissack & McKissack, the firm tapped to do the job.
...FCRC Executive Vice President James Stuckey said the firm was tabbed to oversee the $182 million rail yard portion of the overall project in part to fulfill the CBA commitment to hire minority and women-owned contactors.
However, mainly McKissack & McKissack was picked because they have a rock-solid reputation in the construction industry, he said.


The Brooklyn Eagle added a detail: In response to a question, the Forest City executive [Jim Stuckey] didn’t know whether McKissack was chosen by a bidding process, but stressed that his firm has known of McKissack’s rail experience for quite some time.
He didn't know whether the contract was bid?

The Courier-Life article adds some details on how FCR has begun to fulfill the CBA:
The CBA also requires that at least five percent of pre-construction contract dollars will go to minority-owned firms and three percent to women-owned firms.
During the construction phase, at least 20 percent of construction contract dollars will go to minority firms and 10 percent to women-owned businesses.
Thus far, FCRC has hired several minority and women-owned firms to do consulting, bookkeeping and public relations work.
These include Ishmael Leyva Architects as a residential design consultant, Domingo Gonzales Associates as a lighting consultant, the Quantum Partners for financial services, and the Terrie Williams Agency for public relations.


The CBA was signed by the All-Faith Council of Brooklyn, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, the Downtown Brooklyn Educational Consortium, the First Atlantic Terminal Housing Committee, the New York State Association of Minority Contractors (NYSAMC), and Public Housing Communities. While groups like ACORN and NYSAMC are long-established, BUILD was formed to negotiate the CBA, and it's not clear how many of the other groups have a history before the CBA.

The CBA they endorsed includes this passage (p. 2):
Whereas, the Coalition and the Developers seek to maximize the benefits of the Project to residents of Brooklyn, as well as minority and women construction, professional and operational workers and business owners and thereby to encourage systemic changes in the traditional ways of doing business on large urban development projects...

It's not clear how much engaging these companies encourages systemic changes. McKissack and McKissack is already doing pretty well. It has offices in New York and Philadelphia, but its web site defaults to Philadelphia, so it's not exactly local (though local subcontractors will be hired). Ismael Leyva Architects is based in Manhattan, as are lighting consultant Domingo Gonzales Associates and the Terrie Williams Agency--all apparently thriving firms. As for the Quantum Partners, the trail is murky, an 11/1/04 Federal Communications Commission notice indicates that a firm with that name is connected to the hardly-impoverished George Soros:
Quantum Partners LDC... Quantum LDC, a Cayman Islands company, is wholly-owned by Quantum Emerging Growth Partners C.V. (“Quantum EGP”)...
Quantum Endowment Fund N.V. (“QEF NV”) is a limited partner of Quantum EGP with an equity interest of over 50%. No entity has an ownership or voting interest of 10% or more in QEF NV. Emerging Growth Fund Management C.V. (“Emerging Growth”) is the managing general partner of Quantum EGP. Quastro N.V., wholly-owned by George Soros, is the managing general partner of Emerging Growth. George Soros also owns Soros Fund Management LLC.


The role of the Terrie Williams Agency deserves a closer look. The agency represents BUILD and the CBA, though BUILD's James Caldwell first claimed to the New York Observer that he didn't know who was paying the agency. The agency then spoke for BUILD, explaining away BUILD's lies about not receiving payments.

So BUILD--an astroturf group founded by Assemblyman Roger Green, whose top aide Randall Toure went to work for Forest City Ratner (see Chapter 4 of my report)--helped negotiate an illegitimate CBA. [Addendum: while there's evidence that BUILD did very little before the Forest City Ratner plan was announced, cofounder Darnell Canada told the Brooklyn Downtown Star that "BUILD was created back in August 2003 to address the unemployment situation in the Ingersoll, Whitman, and Farragut housing developments."]

The group received money from Ratner but lied about it. Ratner also hired BUILD to distribute the propagandistic Brooklyn Standard--much more of a political job than long-term job training. The CBA is supposed to foster "systemic changes in the traditional ways of doing business on large urban development projects." Does helping to create a "grassroots" group, funding it to distribute your public relations material, and also supplying a press spokesperson for the group constitute systemic change? Is this part of the "modern blueprint"?

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