Friday, December 09, 2005

 

More on Roger Green: where's the "secret report"?

[The Times published a correction on 12/13/05.]

The New York Times profile today of Roger Green, From Conviction to Re-election and Beyond, omits mention of Atlantic Yards, but it also glosses over a significant dispute about the State Assembly's transparency, since the Ethics Committee has not made public the secret report it produced. The article states:
In early 2004, Mr. Green pleaded guilty to two counts of petty larceny and one count of filing a false instrument, acknowledging that he billed the Assembly for travel expenses although he had had free rides to Albany from a prison-services company seeking state contracts.
As part of his bargain with prosecutors in Albany, Mr. Green escaped having to plead guilty to a felony, which would have prevented him from standing for re-election. He agreed to be placed on probation for three years, pay back $3,000 to New York State and pay a fine of $2,000 for the petty larceny convictions.
After his conviction, the release of a secret report by the Assembly's ethics committee recommending sanctions against him, and a request from the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, to step down, Mr. Green resigned the seat he had held for more than two decades.


The release of a secret report? The report has been produced, but it was never made public, and that's been a huge controversy. The same Times reporter used imprecise language in a 6/4/04 article about Green, headlined "Assemblyman's Resignation Puzzles Many in Brooklyn":
Mr. Green resigned from his Assembly seat on Tuesday, after the Assembly's ethics committee issued a secret report recommending sanctions against him and after the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, asked him to step down

Again, the report had been produced, but issued only internally. The lack of public access to it generated significant criticism. In a 6/7/04 piece headlined Silver Refuses to Expose Green, the New York Post wrote:
ASSEMBLY Speaker Sheldon Silver is refusing to release the Ethics Committee report on disgraced former Assemblyman Roger Green, despite hopes by committee members he would do so.
"The expectation was that the speaker would release the report," an Ethics Committee member told The Post.
"The speaker has the power to release it. Nothing is stopping him. It's his decision," said the member, who demanded anonymity.
The refusal by Silver (D-Manhattan) to release the report may violate the state Freedom of Information Law, which says "the Legislature shall . . . make available for public inspection" all "final reports or recommendations" prepared by Assembly committees.
A Silver aide contended another section of the law - barring the release of information constituting an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" - justified Silver's refusal.
But the 2 1/2-page Ethics Committee report doesn't focus on Green's "personal" privacy, dealing instead with his official actions - legal and illegal - in office, those who read the report say.
Ethics Committee Chairman Mark Weprin (D-Queens) refused to say if the report should be made public.
"I'd rather not comment on that," said Weprin, who was named committee chairman by Silver.
'

In a 6/8/04 editorial headlined Release Green report, the Daily News observed:
Speaker Sheldon Silver and Ethics Committee Chairman Mark Weprin refuse to release the committee's report. That's unacceptable.
Silver spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee explained the speaker's position: "The report was given to him in confidence by the committee, and he's going to respect that." What's missing from that nonanswer are some simple facts: The report was paid for by the people of New York, and the people of New York have every right to judge both Green's conduct and the Assembly's response to same. The Assembly's dodge that the public can make its judgments based on the criminal proceedings doesn't cut it.


A 6/14/04 column in the Brooklyn's Courier-Life newspapers directly connected Green's resignation to the report:
Green would rather have not resigned at all, but he did so in a deal with Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver to prevent (or at least forestall) the release of the Assembly Ethics Committee's report on his misconduct, which would have prompted his colleagues to punish him.

The Albany Times-Union, in an 8/25/04 editorial headlined "And now, the cover-up," wrote:
So here's Roger Green, with the gall to run for the state Assembly seat he was forced to resign from earlier this year after pleading guilty to charges of billing the state for false travel expenses. His conviction just isn't an issue to most people, he says.
The scandal on top of the scandal is that Mr. Green, a Brooklyn Democrat, may very well be right. For that, though, thank the Assembly itself. It's so much easier for Mr. Green to pretend that nothing ever happened, or that it was at most a big misunderstanding, when the Assembly refuses to make public the report by its ethics committee recommending that Mr. Green be punished for his travel reimbursement scam.
Worse yet is the excuse that the Assembly offers for its refusal to release the report on Mr. Green. It's saying, in essence, that it's keeping the report secret because the law doesn't require otherwise.
Well, then, the law ought to be changed. It says so much about the arrogance of the state Legislature that it could get away with rewriting New York's Freedom of Information Law so that it was largely exempt from it.


On 11/8/04, the Times-Union referred to "a still-secret Assembly ethics committee report" on Green. So it looks like it hasn't been released after all. And according to Gotham Gazette's Eye on Albany, the Times tried to get the report: The Assembly denied a Freedom of Information request from the New York Times to make the report public.

That same article quoted a good-government watchdog about the issue:
Rachel Leon, executive director of New York Common Cause, said it ultimately is "up to the voters if they want to elect him."
But she noted that the state legislature has refused to release the ethics committee report on Green, keeping from voters information they need. "If it's all on the up and up, people need that information to make an informed decision," she said.


I should add that City Councilwoman Leticia James--now an antagonist on the Atlantic Yards issue--was Green's senior staffer during the period of time he billed the state for expenses he didn't pay for. She defended Green in the 6/4/04 New York Times, which reported: City Councilwoman Letitia James said, "The people in this community are still with him." Also, she told the New York Sun, in a 6/2/04 article: "There was no intent on his part to do anything wrong," said Council Member Letitia James, who formerly served as Mr. Green's chief of staff.

 

Atlantic Yards controversy absent from Times profiles of Yassky, Green

New York Times local political reporter Jonathan P. Hicks has a curious blind spot towards Atlantic Yards, as evidenced when he covered two debates in the recent Public Advocate primary and ignored challenger Norman Siegel's forceful critique of incumbent Betsy Gotbaum's posture toward the development--see Chapter 5 of my report, and this post.

So maybe it's not that surprising that the two profiles he wrote in today's paper, of City Councilman David Yassky and State Assemblyman Roger Green, ignore their controversial and highly public positions on Atlantic Yards, the largest development in the history of Brooklyn. The 12/9/05 piece on Yassky, headlined Brooklyn Congressional Contest Tests Traditions of an Ethnic Turf, discusses how Yassky, who is white, is running for the black-majority Congressional seat held by retiring Rep. Major Owens, but may prevail in part because he has a larger war chest and four black candidates may split the vote. The article describes Yassky thusly:
Mr. Yassky, a former professor at Brooklyn Law School, is among the rising stars on the City Council. He was elected in 2001, and he is considered a political maverick who has a solid grasp of complicated issues and someone who is willing to buck the leadership on matters of principle.

Buck the leadership? Perhaps, but Yassky's position on Atlantic Yards is worth noting for his cautious support of the project, and its racial resonance. Now Yassky is indeed better-informed than many about the project, as his questions earlier this week indicated, but his position does seem to reflect both principle and politics. To overgeneralize, the better-off white constituents in the congressional district have greater concerns about Atlantic Yards (scale, traffic) than the more working-class black constituents, who may be seen to embrace the much-hyped promises of jobs and housing. (The complication, of course, is that incumbent Owens and his son Chris, who is running for the office, are black and oppose Atlantic Yards.) So Yassky must be responsive to the range of opinions.

The 12/9/05 piece on Green, headlined From Conviction to Re-election and Beyond, discusses how Green next year may challenge Rep. Edolphus Towns, a 23-year incumbent. Green is still on probation for billing the Assembly for free rides he got from a prison-services company that sought state contracts and resigned only to run again. He is the sole source for the story, other than a brief quote from Towns defending his record. So there's no one to challenge Green's self-report:
Mr. Green, 56, said he did not view his legal skirmishes as a deterrent to career aspirations. He said that few voters in the 10th Congressional District were likely to be concerned about his conviction on misdemeanor charges nearly two years old.

Here's one concern. In a 9/12/04 editorial (Casting a Meaningful Vote), the Times decried "New York's abysmal State Legislature," the fact that "[o]ur state government has totally broken down," and that "[i]f there is a primary race in your district, vote against the incumbent." And the Times singled out Green:
We would normally make an exception to the anti-incumbent rule for the few lawmakers who at least try to make a difference. But the real story this year is less about good men and women under attack than about terrible lawmakers who are getting a free ride. For instance, former Assemblyman Roger Green, who resigned after he was convicted of petty larceny, is running again for his old seat, without a primary. His Democratic cronies in Albany created a special district for him that carved out one house in particular -- the place where a strong possible opponent lives.

Now a Times news staffer wouldn't ordinarily quote the Times's editorial opinions, but you'd think that level of dismay would prompt the reporter to try to see if anyone in the district--or a good-government watchdog--shares those qualms.

Here's how Hicks sketches Green's career:
Indeed, he has proven to be a popular incumbent who is perhaps best known for his education-related work, including development of the Benjamin Banneker Academy, a charter school.

Perhaps best known? A Lexis-Nexis search of articles in the last five years that include Green and Banneker turns up a trio from 2002, from the Sun, the Daily News, and Newsday. You have to go back to 1997 for an article (One Green Vs. Another In a Primary For a City Post, 7/15/97) by the selfsame Hicks to find a mention of the two in the Times:
An Assemblyman since 1981, Roger Green has long been involved in youth issues. A former junior high school social studies teacher in Bedford Stuyvesant, Mr. Green wrote the proposal for the Benjamin Banneker Academy, a public school with an emphasis on math, science and technology. The school opened in his district in 1993.

These days, Green is best known for his support of Atlantic Yards, which is crucial to gaining state subsidies for the project. Green and Atlantic Yards were mentioned in two recent articles in the Times, (To Build Arena, Developer First Builds Bridges, 10/14/05 and Ferrer Is Chided Over Atlantic Yards, 10/29/05). Also, Green has recently likened Bruce Ratner to RFK and helped sponsor the controversial Community Benefits Agreement. While the school has a longer history, the Atlantic Yards project is a much bigger issue.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

 

Forest City Ratner consultant Andrew Zimbalist, then and now

Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist, a consultant to Forest City Ratner, is behind some of the highly-questionable economic projections regarding the Atlantic Yards project--see Chapter 3 of my report. I plan to take another look at those projections later, but let's now consider an even more basic issue: who should control own sports teams and thus build sports facilities?

In the 1998 book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, co-authored by Joanna Cagan and Neil deMause, the authors suggested that, if sports teams were municipally owned, sports stadiums would be less expensive:
Existing structures wouldn't have to be razed to satisfy an eager owner's desire to see team profits or his own net worth rapidly increase. Instead, cooler heads might prevail when changes in architecture or money-making cause some to cast a longing eye toward sparkling new facilities. For if they aren't inherently cooler-headed, local politicians at least have some democratic accountability to local taxpayers--something corporate owners are sorely lacking.

And who did the authors find to endorse this? Andrew Zimbalist, who had once tried to create a baseball league that would have had teams owned by a consortia of players, municipalities, and private investors:
"It's a logical thing to happen," says Zimbalist. "Sports teams are just perfect vehicles for public ownership for all sorts of reasons--the most important being the large investment the public is expected to make in these teams, but also because it's really a public good, and it has a cultural dominance that's unlike anything else in our society."

Some six years later, Zimbalist had changed his tune. Before he even issued his first report, dated May 2004, he told Erik Enquist of the Courier-Life chain (Brooklyn Politics, 2/16/04):
"The main reason I've been supportive of this project-and I was supportive before Forest City Ratner asked me to help them with some economic projections-is not because of its potential to raise per-capita income or employment, but because it's wonderful for Brooklyn, for cultural enrichment, cultural identity, to restore something that has been robbed from Brooklyn. I think Brooklyn lost an important part of its heritage when [Walter] O'Malley moved the Dodgers.
"The idea of supporting a sports arena is similar to supporting a public park. You don't do it because it's going to raise per-capita income."


Public parks, however, don't deliver profits to a private owner. Of course Zimbalist later did argue that the project as a whole would have a significant economic impact--calculations that deserve further scrutiny. But it's curious that Zimbalist himself seems to have expressed some of the "idealized nostalgia" that John Manbeck, in his New York Times op-ed, claimed of project critics.

 

The Voice questions the Times's coverage of Ferrer--and I add more questions

In an 12/6/05 article headlined "A Times Quiz: Gray Lady Scorns Mirror, Urges Battered Ferrer to Count Self-Inflicted Wounds," Wayne Barrett of the Village Voice begins:
The Times' Clyde Haberman berated Freddy Ferrer last week for failing to mention in a postmortem interview with El Diario that he was "his own worst enemy at times," far more responsible for his demise than the press and pollsters he was blaming. Haberman couldn't find "a smidgeon of self-reflection in the interview," so we thought we'd help Haberman's paper do a little of its own in this, the Times Election 2005 Quiz:

Among the charges:
2. How many blind quotes or paraphrases from "aides, associates, donors, Democrats," and other "people who have spoken to the Clintons" appeared in the same story, all questioning or denigrating the candidate Bill Clinton had just endorsed? 19.
3. How many on-the-record quotes raising questions about the authenticity of Clinton's endorsement appeared in the same story? Zero.
4. How many words of direct or indirect quotation from the former president made their way into this 1,503-word story about what Ferrer viewed as his biggest news day? 3, though the News and Post cited 86 and 91 Clinton words.


Barrett stopped at 16 questions, so I'll add some more, based on my previous reports on Ferrer and Atlantic Yards:
17. When Ferrer finally decided to oppose the Atlantic Yards plan for an arena plus 16 high rise buildings, and the Times, like some other papers, decided to make Al Sharpton's support the lead ("Ferrer is Chided Over Atlantic Yards Plan"), how much did the Times question the claim that the project could create "thousands of jobs for minority workers"? None.
18. If Ferrer was "playing politics," in Sharpton's accusation, did the Times point out that Sharpton was doing the same? No.
19. Though representatives of developer Forest City Ratner were present at the press conference and conferring with union supporters chanting opposition to Ferrer, to what extent did the Times mention any factor behind the protest other than "the Bloomberg forces"? None.
20. When the Times quoted a Republican candidate for City Council who yelled, "Don't sell out the minorities, Freddy," did the article mention that he likely would be trounced by incumbent Letitia James, also a minority, who vociferously opposes the project? No. (And he was.)
21. When the Times ended the article with this sentence, "Bruce Bender, an executive at Forest City Ratner, the development partner in building a new Midtown headquarters for the New York Times Company, accused Mr. Ferrer of misrepresenting the facts," did it ask Bender to specify those facts? No.
22. When the Times tried to factcheck the first mayoral debate, did it check Mayor Mike Bloomberg's claim that the project had received scrutiny from community boards and the press, and that it involves "a place that's been vacant for decades"? No.
23. When the Times covered the second debate, did it question Bloomberg's claim that the city was doing no more for this project than for any other projects, even though Atlantic Yards bypasses City Council scrutiny? No.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

 

Marty to BKLYN magazine: "I don't have to give you 'why'"

The Winter issue of BKLN magazine isn't on the web, but in the BKLYN718 section, on page 10, there's a short item challenging Marty Markowitz's posture on Atlantic Yards. The headline is "Better Late Than Never?"

The item, in its entirety:
We were heartened when we heard that Marty Markowitz is now calling for a reduction in the scale of Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards development--the project he's been selling to the public since 2003. Could the borough president finally have awakened to at least some of the concerns of so many of his constituents? Still, we couldn't help but wonder what took so long. "I thought it was prudent to wait until the project became real," he told 718, explaining that it wasn't real until the lead agency--the Empire State Development Corp.--and the developer--Forest City Ratner--were formally in place. We wanted to know why it was prudent to wait, but Marty replied, "I don't have to give you 'why.'" Not words you want to hear from a public servant, especially one who has always marketed himself as the quintessential man of the people. But okay. When 718 asked him if he's going to stand firm and demand that Ratner & Co. come up with a proposal more in proportion to the brownstone neighborhoods around it, Markowitz stated, "I don't work for Bruce Ratner and Forest City Ratner. I work for the residents of Brooklyn. Those are my bosses." Well, then, prove it. Demonstrate for us, please, how much sway you have over the Patakis, the Bloombergs, the Garganos, and the Ratners.

The challenge is a good one. After all, a 4/25/05 profile of Markowitz in the New Yorker, headlined MR. BROOKLYN: Marty Markowitz—the man, the plan, the arena, portrayed Markowitz as quite responsive to Bruce Ratner:
In the car, Markowitz’s cell phone rang, and the voice of a female assistant announced that “Bruce” was on the line.
“Yes, sir, how are you doing, Bruce?” Markowitz said, picking up the handset and falling silent as he listened. Bruce Ratner, it appeared from Markowitz’s responses, had some urgent questions about the way discussions concerning waterfront development in Williamsburg and Greenpoint might affect his own project. Markowitz, whenever he could get a word in, tried to be both conciliatory and upbeat. “I understand,” he said; and then, “I wish I knew, but I don’t know”; and “It’s hard for me”; and “That’s absolutely right.” Finally, he told Ratner to call someone in his office—better yet, he would have that someone call Ratner.
Across the street, a small huddle of Boerum Hill residents handed Markowitz a sheaf of plans showing an arrangement of planters and greenery they would like to see in front of the restored subway kiosk. Perhaps, a resident suggested, Forest City Ratner might be persuaded to contribute the funds.
“Does Ratner want to prove he cares?” someone asked.
“I haven’t asked him,” Markowitz replied testily. Then he went to look at the other side of the kiosk, which, another member of the group was telling him, would be a perfect place for a Christmas tree next year.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

 

The looming "disaster" of traffic, a call for a pause, and some possible solutions

Anyone stuck at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues in a car, or trying to cross by foot, knows that the crossroads can be overburdened and perilous. So the impact of Atlantic Yards--9.1 million square feet of development, mostly high-rise housing plus a basketball arena--stretching east from the crossroads could only make things tougher. When constituents ask him, 'What are you going to do about the traffic?', acknowledged City Councilman David Yassky at a meeting yesterday at Brooklyn Borough Hall, "I don't have an answer."

Such concerns added urgency to the session, the third in a series held by the Atlantic Yards Committee that includes City Council members, elected state representatives, and the chairpersons of Community Boards 2, 6 and 8. Given that the meeting started at 4 pm, there were only a handful of observers besides invited guests. The New York Post covered it briefly (ARENA WILL SNARL TRAFFIC: B'KLYN BEEP, 12/6/05), noting that Borough President Marty Markowitz, a fervent backer of the project, nonetheless shares deep concerns about traffic.

The committee "will serve as a vehicle for research, information and advocacy for Brooklyn during the planning, construction and post-construction phases of the project," but its power is merely advisory. The project is in the hands of the state Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), which has received much critical testimony. But it's not clear how much the ESDC will increase the scope of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement it is forging, nor who is responsible for implementing (and paying for) changes.

The committee first heard from Ryan Russo, the Downtown Brooklyn Transportation Coordinator of the city Department of Transportation, who described the city's efforts to study traffic--an effort several panelists found wanting. Yassky noted that, with some other issues related to Atlantic Yards, "we can deal directly with the sponsor or the state, but for traffic, we have to work with the city." He added, "The city has does have to be much more proactive, and not wait for [developer] Forest City Ratner to come up with an idea."

Indeed, traffic engineer Brian Ketcham of Community Consulting Services (which works with community groups and public agencies) later warned, "The main entry points to Brooklyn are all at overcapacity, without Atlantic Yards." Noting that some 42 million square feet of development are planned around downtown (and 63 million square feet in northwestern Brooklyn), he said of Forest City Ratner, "It's their responsibility to demonstrate they can come in here and fit."

Ketcham said current methods of estimating traffic use antiquated data and models, and that the city should spend $10 to $15 million--a fraction of the $15 billion in development planned in Brooklyn as a whole--to develop more sophisticated models. Without appropriate studies and subsequent mitigation, "We're going to wake up when this thing's finished to what I observed last Christmas eve: Atlantic Avenue gridlocked for three-eighths of a mile from Atlantic Center." He added that traffic could generate $250 million a year in externalities, including the cost of air pollution, traffic noise, and lost productivity.

"We are heading into a disaster. I think we need to pull back and put this thing on hold for a year," he said after the meeting. "We have 15 years to make development in and around Downtown Brooklyn fit in."

In written testimony, Ketcham offered harsh criticism of the ESDC's Draft Scope of Analysis for an Environmental Impact Statement, noting:
--the study area excludes chokepoints like the Brooklyn Bridge and the BQE
--the method for analyzing traffic does not show how traffic at one intersection affects another
--the time frame for analysis ends at 2016, when the project is fully built out, but state projects use a 30-year horizon for road and transit projects
--the DEIS must heed the Borough President's recommendation that estimates of trips (driving, public transit) be based on counts in Brooklyn rather than 30-year-old surveys from Manhattan.

"We can't double vehicle trips without new roadway capacity," he said, noting that capacity could indeed be increased by either prohibiting on-street parking or implementing congestion pricing to deter use of Brooklyn bridges and roadways. Other consultants supported the concept of congestion pricing, though they noted that the political decision is beyond the frame of the state environmental impact process.

Several meeting participants seemed interested in new tactics such as residential permit parking, transit discounts built into event tickets, shuttle buses, and even a new trolley system. Still, there seemed to be a disconnect between the immensity of the challenge and the preparedness to respond. When Russo described how the city had recently reconfigured the intersection at Flatbush and Atlantic, Yassky asked, "Do you envision additional mitigation?" The answer: "We don't have specific future plans."

"It's just so startling," observed Assemblywoman Joan Millman. "I was there yesterday, at the intersection. It was impossible, without an arena."

Several transportation consultants also testified about the importance of accurate and thorough models developed by the government, not the developer. "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz, speaking before Ketcham, also observed that the scope of the study area should include major transportation arteries. He suggested that Madison Square Garden was the best model for Atlantic Yards arena traffic, with about 50% of visitors using public transit, 40% using cars, and 10% walking. "You want to get as many people as possible underground," he said, citing the importance of subways and trains.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who asked probing questions of several experts, challenged Schwartz, saying, "You can't compare Madison Square Garden to Brooklyn," pointing out that large parts of Brooklyn lack public transit, Manhattan has far more taxis, and that people from Staten Island and Queens might not use public transit. Responded Schwartz, "I'm saying that's what we should strive for."

However, the issue of traffic goes far beyond the arena, as it would account for 19% of the weekday trips, according to Ketcham's statistics.

State Assemblyman Roger Green asked if there were any examples of best practices regarding such projects. Schwartz called it an "excellent request"--and it's possible that, if the Empire State Development Corporation doesn't come up with such a list, Schwartz might be called on to do so. He led off by saying that, when asked two months ago to testify, he had no professional interest in Atlantic Yards, but that last week he was invited by Forest City Ratner to discuss consultant work at an upcoming meeting.

Some of the traffic mitigation tactics mentioned at the hearing--and more--were detailed by transportation analyst and journalist Aaron Naparstek, in a 12/3/05 post on his web site, titled Seven Solutions to the Atlantic Yards Traffic Problem. He canvassed a range of planners to come up with solutions--though, he acknowledges, "The question is whether the city can generate the political will and revenue to make these changes happen."

They include:
1. Improve subway service and facilities to encourage increased use, especially by Manhattanites.
2. Create incentives to take transit, such as free or reduced subway or bus rides connected to event tickets.
3. Limit and manage parking space to encourage use of mass transit, including a residential parking permit program.
4. Design a great pedestrian environment, making the intersection of Flatbush, Atlantic, and Fourth avenues a far more hospitable place. This would require more traffic-calming features at the intersections of residential streets and a redesign of architect Frank Gehry's current plan for superblocks.
5. Get Bus Rapid Transit Rolling (BRT), using dedicated lanes.
6. Make Brooklyn more bike-friendly, encouraging use of the clean and cheap form of transportation with bike lanes and parking facilities.
7. Implement congestion pricing

How to pay for them? Writes Naparstek:
First, it should be remembered that Forest City Ratner is asking for more than $200 million in public subsidies for the Atlantic Yards project. A significant portion of that public money should be invested in improving the public space around the project. It shouldn’t all go into a half-billion-dollar basketball arena, the most expensive ever built.
Second, every transportation expert I spoke to suggested that we take a very serious look at implementing congestion pricing in New York City... Congestion pricing is raising about $175 million a year [in London], all of which is being plowed back into bus, pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure.


Could it work?
If I'm making it sound like these seven ideas will totally get rid of traffic then, yeah, I'm overselling it. But that's not my intent. The truth is that even if they built the Atlantic Yards project and implemented these seven ideas to their fullest, we could still have more automobile traffic coming in and out of the neighborhoods around the development, particularly during arena events.
Still, these seven ideas are some of the very best ways of dealing with that. And, truly, since something like 40% of the rush hour traffic coming down Flatbush Avenue is thru-traffic to the free Manhattan Bridge, a congestion pricing fee really does have the potential of reducing traffic a significant amount in and around Downtown Brooklyn.


So, in essence, the challenge is political more than technical.

Monday, December 05, 2005

 

Taking the Public Editor's cue: how the Times could improve coverage of its own real estate deal

In his 12/4/05 column, headlined When the Newspaper Is the News, New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame describes how newspapers sometimes have trouble covering themselves, and suggests a thoughtful solution. He points out:
Even the best newspapers sometimes have difficulty covering themselves with the same high-quality journalism they offer readers on other topics...
Clear-cut scandals at a newspaper spur the better ones these days to have staffers with special independence do an autopsy or in-depth explanation for their readers.

He cites as examples the Times "explanations of the recent Judith Miller matter and the 2003 Jayson Blair scandal," as well as the Los Angeles Times's 1999 postmortem on an ethically questionable deal with the Staples Center, and the Washington Post's 1981 retrospective on how a Pulitzer Prize-winning story had been faked.

He gives the Times generally good grades, though he doesn't mention the newspaper's coverage of its parent company's 2001 real estate deal to build a new headquarters, the Times Tower, on Eighth Avenue in partnership with developer Forest City Ratner:
My review of The Times's coverage of several business transactions involving its parent company over the past five years suggests that the paper has done a pretty good job. But for a paper with The Times's aspirations and the quality of its staff, it could do better.

One example is inadequate coverage of the C.I.A. leak investigation. Also, he notes:
When the paper's parent, The New York Times Company, acquired About.com last February, it appears that the paper never published any quantification of the tax benefits - even after The Washington Post had quoted a named tax expert who pegged the benefits at about $160 million over 15 years.

The Times Tower deal--perhaps the subject for a future column?--presents a similar situation. Other newspapers have detailed benefits accruing to the Times Company that the Times has downplayed; I'll describe them below. Also unmentioned in the Public Editor's column is a somewhat different challenge: the Times's coverage of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, which is the subject of this blog and my report. (Another future column?)

Calame suggests a solution, both to fill in coverage gaps and to "offset any reader assumptions about the impact of the paper's self-interest":
Make an arrangement with several respected newspapers so that nytimes.com can provide links to their articles about a news-making development at The Times. The links would give Times readers access to a full range of views that could counter the perception problem and fill any real gaps in information. If The Times does an article, an adjacent note could alert readers to the online links. Absent a Times story, the links could simply be posted online in a special box called "Coverage of The Times."
It's not a perfect solution. Competing newspapers may tend to give minor problems at The Times more space than they merit, or quote sources who contradict this paper. Times editors should be free to decide not to post an article from another newspaper that seems too far off the mark.


Calame suggests a topic for a test of this concept: the trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr.

Could his solution work for Atlantic Yards? Would the Times post links to stories in competing daily newspapers that show the Times lagging in its coverage? Would it post links to a critical blog that collects all coverage of the topic, or this blog, which scrutinizes selected articles in detail. Doubtful, especially since Atlantic Yards isn't directly about the Times, and the Times might cover stories later but in greater depth.

But it would be worth a try regarding the Times Tower, a more manageable subject that directly concerns the newspaper company. Most recently, the New York Observer reported, in a 10/24/05 article headlined As New HQ Rises, Old Owners Cause Trouble Underfoot, that ten of 11 landlords--who were paid $86 million after the state condemned their properties for the Times Tower--will go to court. The landlords argue that their property was worth far more. But even if the landlords win, the Times Company and Forest City Ratner must only pay $86 million, according to the development agreement, and state taxpayers would pick up the rest.

Neither the suit nor the terms of the deal have been reported in the Times, even though the Village Voice first detailed the terms in a 6/17/02 article headlined The Paper of Wreckage. That article noted tax breaks to the Times Company worth up to $79 million, which were described in the Times's own 12/14/01 coverage merely as "millions."

The recent Observer article also cited legal papers, first reported in an 8/16/05 Village Voice cover story headlined 'Times' to Commoners: Go Elsewhere, that prohibit the developers from leasing to fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, but allow rentals to more-upscale companies like Cosi or Starbucks. The lease terms haven't been reported in the Times.

Coverage of the Times Tower through 9/1/05 is detailed in Afterword B of my report on the Times's coverage of Atlantic Yards. Notably, the Times has failed to report on the value of the subsidies for the Times Tower project, the fact that the rent sought by Forest City Ratner for its share of the tower is considered high, and the reason that the developer couldn't get the Liberty Bonds it requested (because it refused terms that could have required it to pay back some money). The Times also failed to report, as the Village Voice explained in an 11/20/04 article headlined The Times' Sweetheart Deal, that the Times Company had underestimated the profit on the sale of its current building by some 50 percent, which might have eliminated the need to subsidize the new headquarters.

These issues are worthy of public discussion, especially because taxpayers are subsidizing the new Times Tower, perhaps by $79 million. (The state's argument for the subsidies is that the new tower will bring in higher tax revenues.) If the Times can't report on such topics, perhaps it can provide links, in print and online, to other publications that do scrutinize the Times Company more closely.

Could it link to blogs? It may be too soon for the Times to link to the intriguing annotated version or blogs like this one. Then again, the Times has taken some first steps in that direction. Calame points out:
And during the latter stages of the Judy Miller matter, nytimes.com posted links to a number of blogs - including some with sharp criticism of the paper.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

 

The Courier-Life's softball interview with Bruce Ratner: an analysis

Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner is not exactly known for talking to the press, as noted in Chapter 8 of my report. The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently published a major series on the Cleveland-based company Forest City Enterprises, the country's largest publicly-traded commercial real estate company (of which Bruce Ratner's New York arm is but a part). The 11/30/05 article, headlined Ratners target New York, noted that Bruce Ratner "declined to be interviewed for this story."

Given that the Atlantic Yards project has both grown and been questioned significantly, a new interview with Bruce Ratner could be news. However, as I'll detail below, Ratner added little to our knowledge. I don't know the ground rules of the interview (which was conducted by email after a lunch with Ratner), but it's possible the questions were prescreened--and apparently there was no chance at follow-up questions. After all, Ratner was interviewed by the Courier-Life chain, which has provided less critical coverage of the Atlantic Yards project than the rival weekly the Brooklyn Papers.

[Here's some background. The Brooklyn Papers suggested in in a 4/23/05 article headlined "Chamber bows to Ratner, that the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, whose chair was Courier-Life co-publisher Dan Holt, agreed to bar residents and merchants critical of Atlantic Yards from a meeting with Ratner officials. Then-Courier-Life columnist Erik Engquist, in his 5/30/06 Brooklyn politics column, noted that Holt "does not interfere with our reporting of the Ratner plan or anything else. Most newspapers have a wall between the business and editorial departments. I’m not sure if that’s the case at the Brooklyn Paper, where Ratner’s people believe publisher Ed Weintrob assigns and rewrites his reporters’ stories to give them an anti-Ratner slant."
Engquist also pointed out that Weintrob bought the URL forestcityratner.com and redirected all visitors there to his paper’s own Web site. Engquist's back and forth with project opponent Phyllis Wrynn concerns the character of the neighborhoods; he argues that creating affordable housing units near public transportation is better than sprawl but says he doesn't support tax breaks for the developer--an interesting prelude to the still-unresolved questions of the proposed project's costs and benefits.]

The 12/02/2005 interview, headlined "Q&A With the Man Who Would Remake Bklyn," begins with a biographical sketch cribbed directly from Forest City Ratner's web site. For example, the article states:
It was while at consumer affairs that Ratner became interested in how major national retail outlets had long underserved inner-city residents and how the city itself had failed to utilize major business and transit hubs to offset corporate flight to New Jersey and the surrounding suburbs.

Ratner's official biography states:
While at Consumer Affairs, Mr. Ratner also became interested in how major national retail outlets had long underserved inner-city residents and how the City itself had failed to utilize major business and transit hubs to offset corporate flight to New Jersey and the surrounding suburbs.

The Q&A leads off:
Stephen Witt: You have been developing in Brooklyn for about 20 years. What are your views toward the future of Brooklyn and how it should be developed?
Bruce Ratner: Brooklyn is a dynamic place, very much its own city with tremendous variety in neighborhoods and people and yet a strong, cohesive character. Clearly, the borough has an amazing future as people from around the world create homes in a place that has already provided other generations with hope and opportunity. The challenge for developing in Brooklyn – for developing anywhere, really – is to respect the character of the place while providing for the needs of today and tomorrow, in terms of housing, work and retail space. That is why we believe the Atlantic Yards project is so important to the continued economic growth and strength of the borough.

Left unsaid is whether and how projects like Atlantic Yards should be evaluated by public agencies. And, as No Land Grab points out, respect and eminent domain don't necessarily mix.

Q: Critics charge that the Atlantic Yards plan is out of character with the neighborhood and that you are changing the Brooklyn skyline. What is your response to these critics?
A: I think if you take a look at what Frank Gehry and Laurie Olin are doing, even in these early stages of design, you will see that they are very sensitive to the design motifs in the surrounding communities without artificially trying to historicize the development. While we are building at a larger scale – don’t forget over a 10-year period – they are designing the project to accent other landmarks and to connect streets with open public spaces.

Are they? It's still under development.

Q: Several neighborhood groups say that FCRC should pay for an independent consultant to help during the EIS process on the project. What is the FCRC position on this?
A: As you know, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) is responsible for overseeing the EIS process. As part of the process, the ESDC has hired its own independent consultants which, by law, FCRC pays for. In addition, FCRC is in the process of hiring some of most respected and renowned consultants in the city to work on traffic and related issues.

Ratner hasn't answered the question, since the neighborhood groups want consultants separate from the ESDC, whose chairman, Charles Gargano, has already declared his support for the project as is.

Q: Eminent domain remains a thorny issue. What is your view of the New London case recently heard in the United States Supreme Court and how do you think it pertains to Atlantic Yards?
A: Over a year ago, we made a pledge to do everything possible to avoid the use of eminent domain. As of now, we own or control 92 percent of the private residential units on the site, 63 percent of the rental buildings and around 65 percent of the commercial spaces and we are continuing to negotiate with the remaining owners as we are very serious about our pledge. I cannot comment on the New London case. However, I understand the sensitivity when it comes to private property – especially residential property – and that’s why we made our pledge and paid higher than market rate for the properties we purchased. As you know, we have also created a relocation program for renters and will give them – and other residents – homes to live in while the project is being built and the opportunity to live in new apartments in the Gehry-designed buildings.

Again, Ratner hasn't really answered the question--and the interesting thing about the New London case is that, even though the Supreme Court narrowly approved the exercise of eminent domain, it did so because there was a legislative process behind the redevelopment project--something absent in Brooklyn.

Q: There has been some talk of the affordable housing component moving off-site. Does the commitment remain for the affordable housing on site as agreed with ACORN and are there any plans to developing more affordable housing off site?
A: Our agreement with ACORN has not changed in any way. All of the affordable rental units (roughly 2,250 units) will be located on-site within Atlantic Yards. In addition, we are looking at adding an additional 600 to 1,000 affordable homeownership units either on- or off-site.

Unmentioned is that the housing Memorandum of Understanding states:
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.

Q: What do you like about the CBA [Community Benefits Agreement] and do you feel that such agreements are the future of urban developments as private/community-based-organization partnership?
A: As far as the CBA being a model for other developments, it is not for me to say, but I do think the ideas behind it are key and that our CBA is a very important step in the right direction. As a company, FCRC has always tried to ensure diversity. We have among the highest percentages for minority- and women-owned business participation. It’s something we’re proud of. We also utilize only union labor and work with the unions to bring in new members. It’s an investment in the quality of our construction but also the quality of our communities.

While Ratner avoids claiming the CBA as a model, the developer's Brooklyn Standard calls it historic, as have several public officials. Perhaps Ratner is mindful of significant criticism of this CBA.

Q: Manhattan-based sports columnist Mike Lupica has taken a very anti-Nets-coming-to-Brooklyn stance, making me wonder if he has something against the borough having a major sports team. He has also personally attacked your commitment to the Nets. What is your commitment to the Nets and response to these columns?
A: I’m not going to comment on what he’s written. He has a right to his opinion, even though I adamantly disagree with most of what he has written, and look forward to talking to him one day to explain why. I am very proud of our team and I would not put all the time, effort and money into this team if I was not in it for the long haul.

Ratner may disagree with Lupica, but some issues in dispute are facts rather than opinion.

I'll ignore the final question about how Brooklyn sports and basketball fans might get season passes to detail what more might have been asked, besides the obvious follow-up questions noted above:
--what do you think about the New York Times's editorial that said that the project should proceed without $200 million in subsidies from the city and state?
--what do you think of critics, such as Cooper Union history professor Fred Siegel, who say your projects rely on subsidies? ("He's the master of subsidy. No one does it better," Siegel told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.)
--what profits do you expect from the investment, given that you did not release, as required by the MTA, your 20-year cash-flow assumptions (see p. 15, or PDF p. 18, of the RFP)?
--what would be the total public cost of the project in its new configuration (note that Jim Stuckey estimated $1.1 billion over 30 years, at the City Council hearing last May, as noted in Chapter 3 of my report)?
--why would the arena be the most expensive ever in the country?
--why do you require those who sell property to you to sign confidentiality agreements that prevent them from criticizing the project (as noted in Chapter 7 of my report)?
--why don't you talk to other press outlets or meet with the public?

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