Friday, December 02, 2005

 

More on the Observer's Roger Green story: challenging the "modern blueprint"

The New York Observer's 12/5/05 article on Assemblyman Roger Green and the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) at Atlantic Yards (oddly headlined "Ratner Sends Gehry To Drawing Board") makes some important points, thoroughly challenging the Times's 10/14/05 "modern blueprint" thesis, which suggested that developer Bruce Ratner "is creating a new and finely detailed modern blueprint for how to nourish - and then harvest - public and community backing for a hugely ambitious development..."

[Apparently the Observer didn't have the space to add some further details about Green's ties to developer Forest City Ratner. So here are those details. As noted in Chapter 4 of my report, the developer hired Randall Toure, a top aide to Green, to be VP for community affairs. (The Times did point this out in the "modern blueprint" article.) Also, Green in his 2002 campaign listing doesn't work.) Also, as reported recently on No Land Grab, Green's son Khalid, the basketball coach at Bishop Loughlin High School in Fort Greene, has received a few thousand dollars for events his AAU team has conducted.]

I previously questioned the Ratner-RFK simile offered by Green in the article's lead. But article is mostly about the Community Benefits Agreement, which deserves scrutiny. As noted in Chapter 4 of my report, significant questions were raised by the Brooklyn Rail earlier this year, as well as in testimony (ignored by the press) by Good Jobs New York and the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED) at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing. Also, the Observer's blog The Real Estate noted in August that activists in Manhattanville sought to avoid the "Brooklyn model."

So in the new article, the Observer points out that the CBA did not exactly proceed the way such model CBAs began in Los Angeles:
The community-benefits agreement is one of the elements that make Atlantic Yards so politically delicious for its supporters in City Hall and Albany. They think the agreement shows that the community supports the project, and that the community will get something in return.
Politicians say, for example, that the development will create “thousands of affordable apartments”—2,250, to be exact—and “new jobs” for neighborhood people, which is also true. But they never say how many new jobs it will bring.
This isn’t exactly Mr. Ratner’s fault. How can he promise jobs to people whose résumés he hasn’t seen, and who will, in many cases, be hired by his contractors rather than him?
Ideally, as happened with these community-benefits agreements in Los Angeles over the past decade, a coalition of about 15 to 20 groups comes together and presses a developer for concessions: higher-wage jobs, new parks, fancy pollution-control devices. In exchange, the organizations agree to put down their pickets and support the project when it comes time to obtain the City Council’s approval. Mr. Ratner’s development looked like a good opportunity to do the same.
“Growing members of the African-American community want to move away from welfare colonialism, and there is a desire to create new covenants with the markets,” Mr. Green told The Observer. “Ratner’s proposal for the first time presents that opportunity, where we can grow the middle class, where we can build real jobs with benefits both through the construction industry and the service economy.”


However, as the Observer notes, the plan raised suspicions, and a little checking shows that most signatories weren't established:
But in Brooklyn, few very established organizations wanted in. The Pratt Area Community Council, for example, didn’t believe that Mr. Ratner’s company, Forest City Ratner, was willing to compromise, said the council’s executive director, Deb Howard, speaking to The Observer. Instead of existing groups coming together to form a coalition, a mass of interested individuals came together to form new organizations.
Just two of the eight signatories to the agreement—ACORN and the New York State Association of Minority Contractors—existed as incorporated entities before the negotiations. Four of the other groups are still not registered.
A group of black ministers refused to come to the table. James Stuckey, executive vice president for Forest City, said they had demanded that they be the only party to the agreement. The Reverend Dennis Dillon, the leader of the group, gave a different reason: that it was clear from the beginning that the agreement was meant to buy support with favors.


The Observer adds another detail that shows that the "community" can connect to politics:
One group, headed by a politically important ally of Roger Green, was added to the mix at the last minute, after the other members had been negotiating for seven or eight months. Its chairwoman, Freddie Hamilton, is the vice chairwoman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party and the executive director of a child-welfare agency. Among other things, her new organization, the Downtown Brooklyn Educational Consortium, will be in charge of trying to fulfill an old Roger Green dream: a charter school devoted to technology. But the charter school, like some other elements in the agreement, won’t be left up to Forest City to create. It would come under the city’s Department of Education.

A critic acknowledges that signatories to the CBA are getting their half-loaf, as Darnell Canada acknowledged last month:
Some opponents say they understand what motivated these groups. “Certainly, there’s a sense among many folks who have seen this happen before that putting up a fight with a developer won’t get you anywhere,” said Francis Byrd, a former Democratic state committee member and district leader from the area. “So whatever little you can get is the best you can hope for.”
So far, BUILD and other organizations have received $275,000 from Forest City to seed their operations.
Mr. Canada, after getting the community-benefits agreement off the ground, ended up resigning from BUILD in March 2004, saying at the time that his colleagues “see this organization as financial self-gain.” (He has recently returned with a new organization, REBUILD, which is partnering with Ms. Hamilton’s group.)


The Observer has reported closely on BUILD, whose representatives apparently aren't talking:
Now, the president and chief executive of BUILD is James Caldwell, who is currently the head of a local citizens’ committee for police relations. Mr. Caldwell is said to have deep roots in the community, but his online BUILD bio doesn’t mention experience with job training or administering six- or seven-figure annual budgets. The choice of BUILD to funnel the hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars in job-training funds that will come either directly from Forest City or from the taxpayers strikes experts as perplexing.
“My organization is made up of 185 job-training and employment organizations, and I have never heard of this group,” said Bonnie Potter, the executive director of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition, speaking to The Observer. “It’s curious that a developer would choose to put it in charge of its workforce-training program.”
Mr. Caldwell wouldn’t return phone calls, and his spokeswoman, Cheryl Duncan, refused to set up an interview with him. Mr. Stuckey said that BUILD is in charge because BUILD stepped up to negotiate—though he adds that it may subcontract work to established job-training programs.


Note that spokeswoman Duncan is paid for by Forest City Ratner, so this could be seen an example of the developer's unwillingness to be forthright.

The Observer quotes Stuckey as suggesting BUILD could be a savior for the neighborhoods, but then finds some significant countervailing evidence:
“Unfortunately, if these programs were together before this project, I believe the rates of unemployment in many of the neighborhoods—in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant and many of the public-housing projects—would not be as high as they are,” he said. “I think it points to the fact that there are many communities in the city that go unnoticed and unhelped.”
Ms. Potter suggests that federally funded employment centers be put in charge of the development’s jobs. There is such a center just eight blocks away from the Atlantic Yards site; it’s run by the city.
It is, in fact, the place where Target and Chuck E. Cheese’s went to recruit workers when they opened stores in a new mall nearby—a new mall, incidentally, that was developed by Forest City Ratner.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is just how many jobs will go to the poor, black neighborhood residents who live on three sides of the project site. The Brooklyn document sets up a hierarchy whereby public-housing residents get first dibs on spots in a job-referral program and a construction-job training program. But the agreement sets no numerical targets for how many local people will get jobs.
The agreement doesn’t mention the 400 jobs Forest City expects to bring when it moves the Nets basketball arena from New Jersey, which Mr. Stuckey said will be subject to union rules and may be filled with current employees.
Nor does the agreement mention jobs in the proposed hotel, which would also be subject to union rules, Mr. Stuckey said.
That leaves the construction jobs, about 1,500 of them over the next 10 years. The agreement sets a goal of employing 35 percent minorities—a reasonable and achievable threshold which Forest City has met on its other projects. In other words, 525 jobs—not reserved for public-housing residents, or even residents of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, but for minorities from all over the metropolitan region.


Note that the Observer more accurately describes the construction jobs as 1,500 per year over 10 years, rather than the 15,000 jobs figure used by project proponents.

Then the article quotes me; I was asked to respond to the question: "Isn't 1,000 jobs for central Brooklyn better than no jobs?":
“The question is, how much does each job cost in terms of public investment, and could that money be used more wisely?” asked Norman Oder, a project opponent and author of the Times Ratner Report blog. “If this is going to cost more than a billion dollars over 30 years in terms of total public investment, we should have been having a public discussion about costs and benefits years ago.”
Mr. Stuckey responds that the true value of the agreement is how it sets up a structure for jobs to get into the housing projects and other areas that need them. To this end, though, BUILD’s most important work hasn’t begun: guaranteeing that construction unions give preference to take on local residents as apprentices.
Mr. Green says the true value is in the many other jobs that the project will produce, although Forest City hasn’t issued estimates of how many there will be.


I wasn't asked to respond to Stuckey or Green. Obviously there will be spinoff jobs, as in any large project, and this agreement would set up a new structure to reach out to the community, but my basic point remains: we don't know if it's worth it until and unless we analyze it. After all, not every community should subsidize jobs if the cost is too high, as Good Jobs First would advise.

The Observer finds a left-leaning analyst to suggest the program might work:
David Fischer, project director and workforce-training expert at the left-leaning Center for an Urban Future, thinks that even if the jobs program doesn’t make sense now, Mayor Bloomberg, a supporter of Atlantic Yards, will make it work. The failure of MetroTech, a Forest City Ratner office complex downtown, to employ many public-housing residents across Flatbush Avenue is still too fresh in people’s minds, he said.

Interesting, but that still doesn't address whether the cost is worth it.

The Observer finds Charles Gargano, head of the Empire State Development Corporation, showing a real contempt for public input, and skewers him on that:
“There is no need to scale down the project,” Mr. Gargano said, although the environmental-impact study that will gauge the project’s impact on traffic, sewage, school population and so on is still underway.

The article points out that Roger Green has significant power:
Oddly enough, the only person who can stop this project, or reshape it, will be Roger Green. That’s because the state legislature will have to sign off on $100 million that the state is contributing to cover up the train yards, and the legislature generally follows the lead of the local lawmaker. That is likely to happen again, even though the lawmaker in this case, Mr. Green, pled guilty last year to seeking state reimbursement for travel expenses provided by a private company doing business with the state.

Keep in mind that Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has called for the project to be scaled down, as has the New York Times. Also note that Assemblywoman Joan Millman has a small piece of the project in her district, and she has expressed significant opposition to it. [Addendum: Millman later said that Site 5 is not in her district.]

Also, the story behind Green is a bit more complicated. As noted in Chapter 4 of my report, Gotham Gazette’s 7/20/04 Eye on Albany noted that Green said he resigned to prevent (or at least forestall) "the release of the Assembly Ethics Committee’s report on his misconduct." Also keep in mind that project opponents may have a strong eminent domain case as well.

The Observer article ends with two paragraphs that hearken back to the story's awkward headline, Ratner Sends Gehry To Drawing Board:
Forest City officials, meanwhile, are denying rumors that they have sent their architect, Frank Gehry, back to the drawing board to come up with a less bulky alternative.
“We will listen; we have said all along that we will listen,” Mr. Stuckey said.


The unanswered question, however, is what would constitute an appropriate scale for this project, and whether that's just the developer's call, or whether it should emerge through a public process.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

 

Roger Green in the NY Observer: Bruce Ratner like RFK?

The New York Observer's 12/5/05 article on State Assemblyman Roger Green and the Community Benefits Agreement (oddly headlined Ratner Sends Gehry To Drawing Board), begins with this tidbit:
Sometime in late 2003, a Brooklyn activist asked State Assemblyman Roger Green what he thought about developer Bruce Ratner, who was about to propose a massive housing development and new basketball arena for Central Brooklyn.
“You’ve got your Bull Connors and you’ve got your Robert Kennedys, and you are going to treat them differently. Ratner is more of an R.F.K.,” Mr. Green said.


What decade is Roger Green living in? It was 1963 when racist Birmingham, AL police chief Connor harassed and arrested civil rights protestors, and Attorney General Kennedy began enforcing civil rights laws even before that.

Let's not doubt that Ratner is more like RFK than Connor, but that's not saying much. After all, RFK--albeit from a wealthy family--said in 1968:
"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things."

Last June, Bruce Ratner told the New York Times Magazine, when asked how he and fellow investors acquired the Nets basketball team:
Like so many things in life, it was just a matter of money.

And no matter how much the Atlantic Yards development might help some segments of the community, the developer's mission is not to serve the public interest. As the company web site states:
Forest City Ratner is an owner and developer of real estate, committed to building superior, long-term value for its stakeholders.

Monday, November 28, 2005

 

The Times editorial on Atlantic Yards: spirit without subsidies?

So the New York Times finally weighs in with an editorial about Atlantic Yards, and while it acknowledges some of the important changes (or, some might say, false promises) in the plan and repeats a criticism of subsidies absent from the previous editorial, it maintains a vague Marty Markowitz-esque call for the plan to be scaled down, unfairly criticizes local opponents as NIMBYs, and praises the "spirit" of the development without acknowledging the avoidance of public process.

The 11/27/05 editorial, headlined A Matter of Scale in Brooklyn , appeared in the City Weekly section. As I pointed out in my report, editorials on such an important topic should appear in the main editorial section. After all, state residents would help pay for the project and a state agency is supervising it, also, it would have an impact on the tristate area as well as on development nationally.

First, the Times acknowledges the changes:
When it was first put forward, the proposed Atlantic Yards mega-development in Brooklyn offered some excellent features, most particularly affordable housing and jobs for local residents. The project seemed promising, if the developer could address the biggest downside: the addition of traffic downtown, where the streets are already clogged. Since then, the plan has become bigger and the number of prospective jobs smaller, and there could be even worse traffic congestion.
The project has an evolving razzle-dazzle Frank Gehry design and an 18,000-seat arena for the Nets basketball team, which could become a real anchor for development - unlike the doomed plan for a football stadium on the West Side of Manhattan, which would have deadened, rather than enlivened, the neighborhood around it. But the project has grown by nearly one million square feet since its unveiling two years ago. For economic, aesthetic and practical reasons, it should be pared back.
Change is normal for a massive project, and this one covers some 21 acres, including the arena, 16 other buildings and 7 acres of green space. But what should remain constant is the spirit of the development. The developer, Bruce Ratner (a partner of The Times in developing its new headquarters), earned much good will by reaching out to surrounding communities and pledging that 50 percent of the housing units would be pegged to low- and middle-income residents. That is no longer the case, given the planned addition of nearly 3,000 apartments for sale at market prices, though another 1,000 moderately priced units could be added off the site.


Reaching out to surrounding communities? The story behind BUILD is a bit more complicated.

Traffic downtown? The project would be located outside Downtown Brooklyn, and thus would have an impact on traffic both in the downtown area and in the neighborhoods surround the project (including Prospect Heights, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene, and Park Slope).

The Times continues:
Meanwhile, the number of jobs projected may be a small fraction of the original 10,000 promised, in part because commercial square footage has given way to additional housing.

Has given way is a passive construction and obscures the reason. As the Times has already reported, the developer needs to build more luxury housing to pay for the affordable housing. There´s another way to look at it: for Forest City Ratner to make the profit it desires (a figure we don't know). And another, as noted in my report: less commercial space means the site wouldn't compete with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's Lower Manhattan district, and thus Silver would be more likely to approve state subsidies.

The Times continues:
Mr. Ratner has always made it clear that he expects government aid in preparing the arena site, and the city and state have each committed to pitch in $100 million in cash to help. There is no reason to expect taxpayer money to be used to help fund a profit-making real estate venture like this one; those costs should be absorbed by the builder.

This is a significant point. In Chapter 13 of my report, I criticized the Times's 7/10/05 City Weekly editorial (Skyscrapers Grow in Brooklyn) for ignoring previous opposition to subsidies. A more pointed editorial (A Triple Play for New York Teams, 3/27/05, national edition) stated:
But given the enormous profitability of this sports market, the idea of adding on public subsidies is ridiculous. Sports teams should pay their own way. That includes “infrastructure improvements,” unless that infrastructure is something that was already wanted and needed by the community. The community, by the way, should be consulted whether the law requires it or not.
...A mixed-use development like this could be a shot in the arm for the local economy. The low- and moderate-income housing units would be a big plus, and the developer has agreed to pay fair market value for the railyards at the site. But the city and state are each supposed to contribute $100 million to build streets and sidewalks and prepare the site for development. That’s unnecessary: Mr. Ratner should pay his own way. He should also make more of an effort to work with the community.


Still, the Times's position is incomplete. While there would be $200 million in direct subsidies, the 30-year public costs were estimated by Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey at $1.1 billion at a City Council hearing last May. Forest City Ratner officials say that some subsidies are "as of right," which means they'd be part of any project that includes affordable housing, but street closings and other infrastructure improvements would not necessarily be included. We need a much more specific accounting of the costs and benefits.

At least, however, the Times has maintained some consistency with its previous editorial stance. The editorial continues:
It's understandable that residents bordering the project do not want such drastic change, but that in itself is no reason to stop the development. It is difficult to build in New York as it is. Growth would come to a screeching halt forever if neighborhoods could veto projects to keep the status quo. But the residents are absolutely right in pointing out that traffic in the area, especially at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, is already atrocious almost any time of day - even on weekends. Mr. Ratner wants to promote use of mass transit, which makes sense, considering that the site sits over a major hub for the subway and Long Island Rail Road. Mr. Ratner will also improve the yards as part of the deal. Still, more innovation is needed, like the idea of using a system of shuttle buses and satellite parking for arena events.

The Times repeats John Manbeck's hollow NIMBY charge. Neighborhoods don't want a veto, but they do want local elected officials to have a voice.

As noted in Chapter 13 of my report, the Times´s 7/10/05 editorial also ignored a previous call for an independent report on the costs and benefits of the project. Without hearkening back to that call, the new editorial continues:
The city's nonpartisan Independent Budget Office calculates the arena would produce a modest benefit for the city and state, $107 million over 30 years. Even that may be optimistic - the budget office's projections for the Jets stadium of $210 million over a similar period were based on hopeful and maybe unachievable predictions of its use as a convention space.
The Nets arena is not destined to be a cash cow, but the borough deserves a sports team, so long as the price is not too high. A basketball arena is more likely to get multipurpose use than a football stadium, and since the team plays several times a week for a long season rather than 10 times a year, its impact on the area's night life should be positive.
The Atlantic Yards project deserves to keep moving forward. But the focus now needs to be on building something that is still grand but also manageable.


So long as the price is not too high? This is not an arena project. This is an arena along with 16 buildings, nearly all housing, and mostly luxury housing. So, isn't it time to try to evaluate the budget projections for the project as a whole? The Times cannot suggest that the IBO report, which focused on the arena, is definitive. Moreover, the agency did note much higher potential costs than did developer's consultant. The IBO report also cited a figure of nearly twice as much office space as currently projected, and 6,000 apartments rather than the currently projected figure of 7,300.

That 3/27/05 Times editorial noted: The community, by the way, should be consulted whether the law requires it or not.
That's been significantly absent from this process. And it's notable that the Times, in an 11/27/05 editorial (The Shame of Palookaville) about a Westchester project by the very same developer, lauds the role of public participation. In Yonkers, there's a city council, and in Westchester, there's a county planning board. By contrast, the Brooklyn project was presented as a fait accompli. It's not a question of neighborhoods vetoing projects, it's a question of avoiding local elected officials.

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