Friday, November 11, 2005
No blight: Does Roger Green's statement hinder Ratner's plans?
At a legislative hearing November 5, state Assemblyman Roger Green, a project supporter who represents the area, declared that it is not, in fact, blighted.
In a Brooklyn Papers article headlined Atlantic Yards ‘is not blighted,’ says Green, the legislator spoke forcefully:
“For the record, that neighborhood is not blighted, said Green. “I repeat, for the record, that neighborhood is not blighted.”
“Under the definition of blight, as related to poverty or environmental degradation, this definition is not related to Prospect Heights,” Green told The Brooklyn Papers afterwards.
The project would go forward because of a designation of blight:
“I think the state will make its decision, unlike ‘Kelo,’ based on whether or not they believe this is a blighted area,” Forest City Executive Director Jim Stuckey said in a Nov. 3 segment of “Newshour with Jim Lehrer,” echoing statements he made almost a year earlier at a public meeting at New York City College of Technology, Downtown.
Green added that he did consider part of the neighborhood blighted:
“One is the rail yards, which is blight, and then the other part, which is made up of residential and commercial properties. That other part is not blight.”
Well, blight generally implies neglect, and while the railyard has not been developed to support commercial or residential buildings, it has been operating. And it drew a $150 million bid from the Extell Development Corp., and a $100 million from Forest City Ratner to the Metropolitan Transporation Authority--and those bids (the MTA negotiated exclusively with Ratner) didn't require eminent domain to acquire the railyard.
While project opponents said that Green's statement hurt Forest City Ratner's case, it's probably more murky. First, a bill that clarifies eminent domain--such as requiring local government approval--would have to be passed by spring, before the state acted to acquire land in May or June.
And the state has had a lot of leeway, a law professor testified:
“Forest City Ratner argued that the property now being used for the New York Times building [near 42nd Street on Manhatan’s Westside] was blighted even though there were existing buildings and businesses there,” said David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who writes about eminent domain. “The case for the Atlantic rail yards area appears even stronger because there is even less economic activity at that location.”
A Brooklyn Downtown Star article headlined Assembly Questions Eminent Domain Law pointed out that, after four hours of testimony from different perspectives, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who chairs the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, said he lacked a firm definition of what constitutes justification for exercise of the power. "I'm not any closer now that I was at the beginning of the day," Brodsky said.
There is clearly a divide:
Michael Cardoza, Corporation Counsel for the City Law Department, said use of eminent domain, as one of many tools for economic revitalization, is essential to the city's well being. He cited Times Square, Lincoln Center and MetroTech as evidence of the success of urban renewal in formerly blighted neighborhoods.
"Eminent domain is rarely the government's first choice. It can be costly and time consuming but it can be necessary," said Cardoza.
But [Scott] Bullock [of the Institute for Justice] said using the other tools should be sufficient in most cases. "Eminent domain for private economic development is simply not necessary," he said. "Economic development happens every single day in this country without eminent domain."
Forest City Ratner absent when it comes to ULURP discussion
But FCR prefers public events where Atlantic Yards critics don't get equal time. Yes, company representatives have appeared at a few open meetings with mixed panels, but they've also avoided other meetings. Last February, the Fort Greene Association announced that that FCR pulled out of a meeting at which its presence had already been confirmed, and that representatives of BUILD and ACORN, two backers of the Atlantic Yards project, had not even replied to invitations. The FGA press release pointed out that FCR's Bruce Bender had told the New York Times:
"We've [FCRC has] gone above and beyond to meet with the community. We've met with all the community boards. We've never turned down anyone. We have been very open. To say we haven't is wrong, deceitful and outrageous.”
Yesterday, a Municipal Arts Society panel addressed the case of "Large-Scale Plans Removed from the Public Review Process: Focus on Atlantic Yards." Last week, the New York Observer's blog The Real Estate commented:
[N]one of the panelists, however, look ready to take Forest City’s side, or the Empire State Development Corporation’s, for that matter.
However, as moderator Tom Angotti announced at the session, Forest City Ratner "was invited several times to speak and declined the invitation." This was also noted by the New York Sun, in a 11/11/05 article headlined Critics of Ratner Plan Say Oversight of Project Too Lax. Spotted in the audience, however, was a Forest City Ratner public relations representative.
As the Sun article pointed out:
Because the state maintains oversight of the project, as stipulated in a memorandum of understanding signed in February, it is not subject to the city's Uniform Land Use Review Process. Under the more vigorous ULURP oversight procedure, community boards, the relevant borough president's office, the City Planning Commission, the City Council, and the mayor review proposals. Some of the panelists said they see a worrying trend of circumventing the city's land use procedures, which are designed to involve neighborhoods in development decisions.
"The evasion of ULURP looks like it's becoming a habit," the panel's moderator, Tom Angotti, a professor of urban planning at Hunter College, said. "Everything is backwards. Two years ago, a developer comes up with a proposal. It is essentially adopted and approved by the governor, mayor, and borough president. Two years later, the scoping process is mapped out. The planning process is after the fact."
Did it have to happen that way? After all, most of the land either belongs to the city or private parties, not the state:
Panelist Daniel Goldstein, who heads the most vocal opposition group to Atlantic Yards, Develop - Don't Destroy, said that while only about 30% of the development's footprint belongs to the state, the city is now locked out of the oversight process. Both the city and the state will contribute about $100 million to the Atlantic Yards development.
Mr. Goldstein faulted Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council speaker, Gifford Miller, for handing off the project to the state. "If the administration said to the state, 'We want to maintain some oversight on this,' they might have listened," he said.
By the way, a search of the New York Times archive on ULURP and "Atlantic Yards" comes up blank. As noted in Chapter 6 of my report, the only thing I could find was a glancing reference in a general article (What the Teams Want And What the City Gets, 1/16/05) about three sports teams and their demands:
All three projects would be built on public land and use tax-free bonds for financing. All three are also designed to bypass the city's land use review process and a vote by the City Council, thereby avoiding potentially troublesome public hearings.
More recently, the Times, in an 10/20/05 article that followed up on the ESDC season, did mention the land-use process without the acronym:
Because a state agency, the Empire State Development Corporation, is sponsoring the proposal, it will not have to wind through the city's labyrinthine land-use process, which requires input from the local community boards and a vote by the City Council.
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Freddy’s Fumble: Ferrer mishandled Atlantic Yards, but the press made it worse
Then again, maybe he never had a chance. Ferrer also faced a press corps that too often has failed to explain the controversy or to challenge project supporters like Bloomberg and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Let’s recap. Atlantic Yards, the biggest project in Brooklyn’s history, was proposed in December 2003 by Forest City Ratner, the developer responsible for some much-criticized projects in the borough, such as the Atlantic Center mall and the office development at MetroTech. Company CEO Bruce Ratner, no sports fan, assembled an ownership group to buy the Nets at the urging of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a nostalgist obsessed with making Brooklyn “major league” again. But the arena has distracted attention from the greased real estate deal (the Metropolitan Transportation Authority didn't put up the railyard at issue until the last minute, and then negotiated solely with low-bidder Ratner), and, as the project has gone forward, the drastic reductions in promised jobs and increases in market-rate housing.
Atlantic Yards was a significant part of Norman Siegel’s unsuccessful primary challenge to Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and also allowed Gloria Mattera, the Green Party challenger to Markowitz, to score some significant points. But it didn’t become an issue in the mayoral race until October 28, less than two weeks before Election Day.
Ferrer had flirted with the topic. In early May, he said at a press conference, “To call that process not transparent is probably the understatement of the year.” On July 4, when I encountered him campaigning and asked him his position, his answer was indelible: “Not a dime of public money.” (The city had already pledged $100 million in direct subsidies, with hundreds of millions more in public costs to be absorbed.) But Ferrer refused to challenge his Democratic rivals on the issue during the primary debates.
Because Ferrer was silent for so long during the mayoral election, even the wonky web site Gotham Gazette neglected to mention Atlantic Yards in an Oct. 17 piece headlined “The Real Issues in the 2005 Mayoral Race.” A 3852-word Times profile of Bloomberg-as-manager the next day also neglected the Brooklyn development. But a contentious public hearing on Atlantic Yards that evening (Oct. 18) put the project back in the news, as did a follow-up New York Times headline, “From Huge Project, A Mighty Anger Grows.”
Maybe Ferrer belatedly remembered to do the right thing, or maybe it was his falling numbers in the polls, but he finally scheduled an Oct. 28 press conference to announce opposition to the project. It was a debacle. First, project backers rounded up union members to bring two giant rats, assailing Ferrer for fighting a project that would bring union jobs. Worse, Ferrer read his press statement with little enthusiasm. He failed to bring local City Council Member Letitia James, a forceful critic of the project, who could have served as a counterweight to the numerous black protestors. Afterward, the Rev. Al Sharpton, a supporter of both Ferrer but also of Atlantic Yards, issued a statement criticizing Ferrer for opposing a project that could, in the Times’s phrasing, “mean thousands of minority jobs.”
Sharpton’s criticism, not Ferrer’s opposition, became the storyline; the Times’s headline was “Ferrer Is Chided Over Atlantic Yards.” But Ferrer made some important points. He said that he had found the 50% affordable housing agreement announced in May “powerful,” but that it had recently—actually, it had been more than a month—emerged that Forest City Ratner had added 2,800 market-rate condos, making only 31% of the housing affordable, with less than half of that total accessible to the average Brooklynite.
But that was obscured by Sharpton’s shiv. The Times’s coverage was especially egregious—the reporter quoted project supporter Tony Herbert, a Republican candidate for City Council, without pointing out that Herbert was likely to be crushed by the incumbent James, who had already vanquished a pro-Atlantic Yards candidate in the Democratic primary. (He was, by a 13-1 ratio.) And the Times ended the story by quoting Forest City Ratner officials as saying that Ferrer misrepresented facts, but without any examples nor an effort to check the allegation. (Perhaps here I should point out that the New York Times Company and Ratner are partners in the new Times Tower—no proof of bias, but certainly an argument for exacting coverage to preclude claims of bias.)
Still, Ferrer missed his biggest chance, to challenge Sharpton and other project supporters on the issue of “jobs.” The developer’s slogan is “Jobs, Housing, and Hoops”—a mantra shouted by heckler at the press conference--but the term “jobs” subsumes both temporary construction jobs and permanent office jobs. In both cases, Ratner and project supporters have fudged the numbers. The promised “15,000 construction jobs” would actually mean 1,500 jobs a year for ten years—a huge difference if 35% are designated for minorities. As for the office jobs, Ratner originally announced 10,000 jobs; now there would be space for maybe 2,500 jobs, with less than one-third of them actually new jobs rather than moved from Manhattan.
But you can’t blame Ferrer too much, because the press in New York hadn’t analyzed the job numbers. So, when it came to the first debate two days later, the press let Bloomberg take cover by quoting Sharpton, with no attempt to factcheck Sharpton. Nor did the press counter Bloomberg’s outlandish claims that the project had been scrutinized by community boards and the press.
And Ferrer got one issue backwards. He called the Community Benefits Agreement, an effort to designate some jobs, community facilities, and community services for local residents, “powerful.” However, experts say this CBA isn’t legitimate because it involves only preselected groups. Ferrer should’ve said he supported the concept of a CBA, but not its execution, especially since one group, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), had already been unmasked as receiving money from Ratner while denying it.
It got worse in the second debate on Nov. 1, when questioner Jorge Ramos of Telemundo said, in prefacing his question, that “45% of the jobs” would go to minorities, while misstating the percentage (35%) and the important distinction between construction jobs and office jobs. That left Ferrer on the defensive, saying that it was “amazing that we need boondoggle projects to do the right thing.” He couldn’t make the distinction between construction jobs and total jobs, nor mention how the number of office jobs, once a selling point for the project, had plummeted.
For the third time, Ferrer cited a “secret memo” regarding the project, without explaining it well. Bloomberg was able to defuse the discussion with a quip–“if the memo’s out, it’s certainly not a secret.” No press outlet explained that the memo, which would allow the developer to control more land and build higher, had to be obtained by the anti-Atlantic Yards group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.
Could Ferrer have shifted the tone of the discussion? Perhaps. Then again, even his criticism of the affordable housing agreement didn’t gain the attention it deserved. Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn’s Oct. 31 press release criticizing Bloomberg, issued after the first debate, had little effect.
On Nov. 6, two days before the election, two Daily News sports reporters--from a paper that had issued an error-filled endorsement of Atlantic Yards--told us that Sharpton’s National Action Network had received thousands of dollars from Forest City Ratner. Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica, who had taken on Ratner in an earlier column, denounced multiple examples of the developer’s dubious math. And the Times, in an article that gave project supporters far more space than critics, finally reported the cuts in promised office jobs, as well as “bait and switch” charges about the housing plan.
But the debates were over and, in the Times's story on Election Day, Atlantic Yards had emerged as part of Bloomberg's second term agenda.
Sunday, November 06, 2005
The Times (and Lupica) address jobs and housing at Atlantic Yards: who's Orwellian?
And, while welcome, the article failed to appear before the mayoral debates, when it might have had some impact (and better informed Atlantic Yards critic Freddy Ferrer). Also unmentioned is the failure of the Times itself to earlier inform readers of the changes in the project.
Look at Forest City Ratner's manipulation of numbers--office jobs, construction jobs, basketball attendance, and more--and there's ample reason for skepticism, as noted by Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica in his 11/6/05 column headlined Math doesn't add up in Ratner world. (Yes, Lupica relies partly on this blog.)
Misreading "Atlantic Yards"
Fewer jobs, more condos
The lead of the new article set the stage at the December 2003 news conference announcing the project:
It would provide 10,000 office jobs and more than 4,000 units of rental housing, half of it set aside for low- and middle-income families. Its centerpiece would be a Frank Gehry-designed arena for the Nets basketball team, topped by a "lushly landscaped" public park with "outstanding panoramic vistas facing Manhattan."
...In other respects, however, the Atlantic Yards envisioned today looks very different from the one unveiled nearly two years ago. The project's size has jumped by a million square feet, and its dollar cost by 40 percent, to $3.5 billion. Commercial space, once a substantial portion of the overall square footage, has dropped dramatically, replaced by thousands of for-sale apartments and a hotel.
Nearly three-quarters of the office jobs originally projected are gone; the new apartments do not count as part of the so-called 50-50 agreement under which 2,250 apartments are to be rented below market rates, and the park on the arena's roof is to be accessible only to residents.
To be specific: there would only be space for 2,500 office jobs, not 10,000, and 2,800 market-rate condos have been added to 4,500 rentals.
"Projects change, markets change"
Several factors have converged to raise the project's price tag, including increasing construction costs, the above-market prices the developer has paid to buy out residents who live on the project's footprint, the extra $50 million the developer offered for rights to build over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority rail yard, and the cost of renovating the yard itself.
The extra $50 million the developer offered? Forest City Ratner's initial $50 million bid for the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard was made in mid-2005, and the additional $50 million was announced in September. The Times's formulation suggests that the developer was only planning to offer a lowball $50 million all along.
So why was office space traded for luxury housing?
Officials of Forest City Ratner said they eventually realized that they would have to reduce the amount of commercial space, to accommodate condominium units that would help pay for the project, including the below-market rental housing.
Eventually realized? That's disingenuous. The developer and the community group ACORN signed the Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) dated 5/17/05 to great fanfare at a press conference 5/19/05. A week later, at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing , Forest City Ratner announced plans to increase the amount of housing by 1,500 or perhaps 2,800 units. (Ultimately, they chose 2,800 units.)
How big are offices?
The earlier estimates were also based on a ratio of one job per 200 square feet of space, but the Empire State Development Corporation, which released the September planning documents, uses a less generous ratio of one job per 250 square feet of space, amplifying the reduction.
Actually, the ESDC doesn't mention the square footage issue at all; that was the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).
Residential vs. commercial
The move to include more housing also increased the total square footage of the project. Because the ceilings of residential units are several feet lower than those of commercial units, however, it did not require more floors in each building. Indeed, the project will have one building less than originally planned, lowering its overall density somewhat.
Interesting, but it seems to contradict the Times's 7/5/05 article headlined "Instant Skyline Added to Brooklyn Arena Plan," which stated:
But the real impact would be in the size and density of the buildings, which are taller and bulkier than once envisioned.
With 17 buildings, many of them soaring 40 to 50 stories, the project would forever transform the borough and its often-intimate landscape, creating a dense urban skyline reminiscent of Houston or Dallas.
Also the new article didn't point out that Ratner added a building on Site 5, now home to the low-rise Modells and P.C. Richard stores across Flatbush Avenue in Park Slope.
So how many jobs will there be after all? The Times cited unnamed "critics":
Critics said, though, that even the reduced job estimates were overstated, because they do not account for likely vacancy rates or for jobs lost when businesses currently occupying the site are forced out. Based on those factors, they said, the net gain from the project would be fewer than 1,000 new office jobs.
Unmentioned is perhaps the most important factor: many office jobs would likely not be new, just moved from Manhattan. After all, working from the original plans, the New York City Economic Development Corporation stated:
The fiscal impact analysis, however, assumes that only 30% of these jobs...are new to the New York economy.
"The problem is, Bertha Lewis and Mayor Bloomberg and Ratner are out there calling it a 50-50 plan, not a 50-50 plan just for rentals," said Daniel Goldstein, the spokesman for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. "It's a bait and switch. What they announced as a revolutionary housing deal is not."
And the Times pointed out that the numbers were important:
The 50-50 deal and the more generous job numbers were frequently cited by politicians and others supporting the project, and favoring Mr. Ratner's bid to buy air rights over the rail yards for tens of millions of dollars less than their appraised worth.
In letters dated last June and July - weeks after Mr. Stuckey outlined the potential conversion to more residential units at a May hearing - more than two dozen union leaders and elected officials expressed their support for Mr. Ratner's bid. Many of them cited the developer's earlier promise of 10,000 permanent jobs in the project's commercial portion and the so-called 50-50 housing deal with Acorn.
So why were the officials misinformed? The Times article doesn't say, but the press--and the Times itself--could be blamed. It neglected to cover the 5/26/05 City Council hearing and, on 6/28/05 printed a brief article based on a mayoral press release, claiming there would be 8,500 office jobs. A front-page 7/5/05 article about the project, headlined "Instant Skyline Added to Arena Plan," did not mention the decrease in office jobs. Meanwhile, Stuckey had announced the changes at the hearing, and Forest City Ratner's own Brooklyn Standard publication, released 6/17/05, promised only 6,000 jobs. Mayor Bloomberg issued an incorrect 9/14/05 press release claiming there would be 8,500 permanent jobs and only 4,500 residential units.
So why didn't the Times ask some of these officials if they feel they were misled, or of if they have reevaluated their support?
Here's the juiciest part of the article:
In an interview, Mr. Stuckey, the executive of Forest City Ratner, suggested that Forest City Ratner was paying a price for being forthcoming about its plans....
"What's interesting is that we've been out talking to people for two years. And this week, the approval process began," he said in an interview in October. "Here we are opening ourselves up - tremendous transparency, for two years. Yet the criticism is, 'Wait a second, they didn't tell us something about the evolution of their planning process before the public process began'? Just think about what that means."
"It's Orwellian, almost," Mr. Stuckey added.
In Stuckey's defense, the company has published some information about its project in the Brooklyn Standard (the first issue mentioned 6,000 office jobs and the latest issue merely "thousands"), and information has been available from the Empire State Development Corporation since mid-September--though most of the press was too lazy to analyze it.
But are critics Orwellian? Wouldn't the developer's deceptive fliers--like this and this--qualify? Or the Brooklyn Standard, which the Times itself dismissed as "basically an ad." Or the latest Brooklyn Standard, with its deceptive and possibly fake bylines?
About that park on the arena roof
The Times reported:
Officials of Forest City Ratner - the development partner in building a new Midtown headquarters for The New York Times Company - gave several reasons for the switch to a private park. One was that as the buildings rimming the arena were re-mapped to house more residential units, there were fewer public access points for the roof of the arena. Another was that the city building code would have treated the park as a public assembly area, requiring cumbersome safety features. Finally, Mr. Stuckey said, discussions with planning experts revealed that "generally, open space up in the air doesn't work - people don't use it."
While the new plan closes the park to the public, he said, it adds more park acreage to the overall project.
"We took what was on the roof and put it on the ground where people can use it," he said.
Then again, Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco had said that it was also to help the residential tenants.
And the original fact sheet gushed:
The roof of the Arena offers an exciting opportunity to create new public space, with 52,000 square feet in four lushly landscaped areas for passive recreation and a promenade along the outside edge of the roof with outstanding panoramic vistas facing Manhattan. For active recreation, an outdoor ice-skating ink connects the four gardens; in warmer months the rink will become a running track. This open space not only provides a destination for community residents as well as for the workers in the office buildings-–it also allows the commercial buildings surrounding the arena to be connected at the sky-lobby level.
Looking at the housing
The Times noted:
The agreement signed last May between Mr. Ratner and Ms. Lewis applied only to the 4,500 rental units envisioned in the original plan. But it included a provision that if the developer added more residential units, the firm would develop 600 to 1,000 moderately priced for-sale units on or near the project site, in effect offering something close to a 50-50 ratio for all the housing associated with the project.
Not quite. There's no assurance that the new units would be near the project, and it's important to tease out the definition of "affordable." 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 —surely not ACORN’s constituency. Of the Atlantic Yards rentals, 30% would go to middle-income families, 20% to lower-income ones.
Letting Ratner off the hook
At the time, officials of Forest City Ratner said they were already contemplating adding 1,500 condominium units, in part because community leaders had pushed Mr. Ratner to include more housing in the project... Forest City Ratner officials said that they had remained faithful to the Acorn agreement, which did not require that half of the new for-sale units be priced affordably.
They added more market-rate housing to help out ACORN? That doesn't make sense. Also, while the developer has indeed been technically faithful to the ACORN agreement, none of the press coverage of the initial announcement raised the possibility that there would be additional units.
The Times suggested that the project might indeed provide 40 percent affordable housing:
But if the developer chooses to build the maximum of 1,000 moderately priced for-sale units described in the Acorn agreement and builds them off-site, then the total number of for-sale and rental units associated with the project would reach 8,300, of which 3,250 would be priced below market rates - about 40 percent.
Much of the city's moderately priced housing is built through an arrangement called the 80-20 Program, under which city and state agencies subsidize construction projects by providing developers with tax-exempt bonds. In exchange, the developers set aside 20 percent of the apartment units for tenants who earn 50 percent or less of the area's median income.
But what percentage would be truly affordable, to people earning under Brooklyn's median income? Despite the mention of the 80/20 program, Atlantic Yards is actually a 50/30/20 program, noted City Limits Weekly.
Back to Lewis
Ms. Lewis said that Acorn remained a strong supporter of the project and of the agreement with Forest City Ratner. But she said she was negotiating with the company, and with the government agencies that help subsidize housing, to help make a greater proportion of the for-sale apartments available below market prices.
"We know that when we get through this thing, half of all the housing is going to be affordable - half of the rental, half of everything else," she said. "We haven't gotten down to the last part of this. But our whole principle is 50-50."
So the article ends with ACORN, not any critics. Wouldn't it be worth pointing out that ACORN is required to publicly support the project? The MOU states:
"ACORN agrees to take reasonable steps to publicly support the Project by, among other things, appearing with the Developer before the Public Parties, community organizations and the media as part of a coordinated effort to realize and advance the Project and the contemplated creation of affordable housing.”
Why not ask ACORN why its efforts mostly help people outside its constituency?
One more thing. The Times article offered an unsubstantiated assessment of the project design:
The other towers - some smaller than before, some larger - still stand amid acres of green space carefully sculptured to welcome residents of the adjoining streets.
That may well be what's intended, but it certainly deserves comment from an authority.