Thursday, October 13, 2005


Atlantic Yards process a "modern blueprint"? Only if the Times ignores the evidence

So, two weeks after many in the New York media found news in BUILD's curious claim--while negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement with Forest City Ratner--to be receiving $5 million from the developer, the New York Times finally offers its report. And, instead of using the two weeks to further develop the story--the obvious extension would be the way Ratner and BUILD have used race as a tactic (see Chapter 4 of my report)--the Times instead, in a front-page 10/14/05 article headlined To Build Arena, Developer First Builds Bridges, decrees that this project is... a model.

The article states:
the project's seemingly inexorable movement suggests that Mr. 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 that is expected to provide more than nine million square feet of apartments, offices, stores and hotel rooms, as well as the arena, in the middle of a populous, cantankerous and often sharply divided city.

Note: an earlier online version of the story was headlined, "Seeking to Avoid Fate of Jets Stadium, Builder Treads His Way to Brooklyn Arena Plan," and it partly echoes that 6/9/05 Times article headlined Unlike Stadium on West Side, an Arena in Brooklyn Is Still a Go. In both, the Times focused on strategy over substance, skating lightly over numerous issues that deserve some "journalism of verification."

First of all, the Times made no effort to report on how the assignment of those nine million square feet had changed, how the developer had traded office space--a selling point for "jobs"--for luxury housing.

Then, curiously, the article pretty much repeats some main conclusions from the Times article four months previous. The 10/14/05 article stated:
Mr. Ratner scored a coup of sorts when he received the support of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn, the advocacy group that has fought previous Forest City projects, which this time struck a deal to include a significant amount of moderate- and low-cost housing in the project.
He has also found an ally in the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Churches on Atlantic Avenue, who initially fought the plan.
Both were among eight groups that signed a community-benefits agreement with Forest City Ratner in June under which the builder will provide job training, housing and business opportunities to local residents.
But it is Mr. Ratner's links to a different group, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, or Build, that has drawn the most attention from critics, who say it didn't incorporate until after the plans were announced. The company has denied that it provided financial support to launch the group, but a spokesman said that as part of the community-benefits agreement, the company recently gave Build a $100,000 grant and covers its overhead costs.
"There's no doubt that the development community all over the country is very closely watching what happens in Brooklyn. The movement to build coalitions around development is going national," said John Goldstein, national program director for the Oakland, Calif.-based Partnership for Working Families, which helped negotiate a landmark community-benefits agreement around the Staples Center sports complex in Los Angeles.
Mr. Ratner's street-level and high-level public relations campaign began in the fall of 2003, when his company retained Dan Klores Communications, one of the city's top public relations firms. Their team, headed by Joe DePlasco, a veteran of the city's Democratic establishment, began lining up politicians and other supporters before the December news conference unveiling the initial design.

The 6/9/05 article said:
But the Ratner group was courting a different constituency. Bruce Bender and James P. Stuckey, executive vice presidents of the development company, studied the opposition, sending assistants to take notes at public meetings or doing it themselves. Mr. Bender has decades of experience as a City Council aide, notably as chief of staff to the former speaker, Peter F. Vallone. Mr. Stuckey is a former president of the Public Development Corporation and a longtime adviser to Mr. Giuliani. They also hired Joe DePlasco of Dan Klores Communications, a former top aide to Mark Green, to handle public relations.
Using jealousy as a wedge, the developers enlisted the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a group that has fought for low-cost housing. They also courted groups like Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, an employment advocacy group formed by James E. Caldwell, the president of the 77th Precinct Community Council, with promises of community involvement in the planning and a sizable share of the jobs.
They drafted an agreement covering minority contracting, job training and community use of the arena, negotiating with the Rev. Dr. Herbert Daughtry, an influential pastor of the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church, and Mr. Caldwell.

There's only one source--that ambiguous quote from Goldstein--to back up the "modern blueprint" thesis. Yes, the development community is watching. But somehow the Times didn't see fit to quote Good Jobs New York, the recognized expert on such CBAs. Once again, let's quote the testimony from the 5/26/05 City Council Economic Development Committee hearing that the Times, alone among major city news outlets, failed to cover--that establishes that this is no blueprint. First, as Bettina Damiani testified, consider the skewed public process: [emphasis added]
The negotiations surrounding the development of the BAY project have been marked by secrecy, with elected officials providing privileged access to one developer for the site. Rather than working with local stakeholders to create a vision for community-driven development and then issuing a Request For Proposals (RFP) to locate the developer that can best meet those community needs, the city instead chose to pursue one idea – that of a sports arena coupled with a prime residential real estate opportunity – that fails to take many local concerns into account and partnering with one development company, Forest City Ratner Company (FCRC), to put that idea into action. Unsurprisingly, this process has contributed to a fragmentation of community responses, as some groups have been able to work with the “designated developer” to advance their concerns while others have not.

Then, Damiani compared this Community Benefits Agreement to the national template: [emphasis added]
The BAY project is the first project we know of in New York City in which the developer has advertised that he seeks to participate in a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). As a sponsored project of Good Jobs First, which provided support for the CBAs negotiated in California and continues to act as a clearinghouse for information on CBAs, we feel it is important to draw the Council’s attention to several major differences between CBAs as they have been used in other parts of the country and the series of negotiations that FCRC is calling a CBA. Perhaps the most striking is that elsewhere CBAs are negotiated by one broad coalition of groups that would otherwise oppose a project, a coalition that includes labor and community organizations representing a variety of interests. The coalition hammers out its points of unity in advance and then each member holds out on settling on its particular issue until the issues of the other members are addressed. This way, the bargaining power of each group is used for the benefit of the coalition as a whole. In the BAY case, several groups, all of which have publicly supported the project already, have each engaged in what seem to be separate negotiations on particular issues.

Nor did the Times point out, as the New York Observer's The Real Estate blog reported in August, in an entry headlined Ratner-Style Deal with Columbia University?, that activists in Manhattan do not see Brooklyn as a blueprint:
“We are avoiding the Brooklyn model,” he [Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, the chairman of Community Board 9] said. “We are wanting to do something else. We are wanting to develop a wide coalition of organizations and people that will be properly represented, perhaps through a local development corporation, but it’s not going to be ACORN negotiating for the community or any similar type of thing.”

Back to the 10/14/05 article Times article, which cites public relations efforts without any room for criticism of them:
Forest City Ratner also contracted with Knickerbocker SKD, a media consultant, to produce two promotional mailings, each going to more than 300,000 households in Brooklyn. They oversaw publication of a newspaper-style brochure, dubbed The Brooklyn Standard. More recently, Forest City retained the Terrie Williams Agency, a prominent black-owned public relations firm, to represent those groups that signed the community-benefits agreement.

The first promotional mailing, as explained in Chapters 2 and 7 of my report, was highly deceptive. The first mailing promised "10,000 new permanent jobs," while other promotional material acknowledged that jobs would also be "retained" (i.e., moved from Manhattan) and, of course, now there's much less office space. The first mailing came from the vague entity "Atlantic Yards," which happened to be located at Forest City Ratner's offices. The developer was not mentioned. And the mailing used a quote attributed to the New York Times ("Almost everything the well-equipped urban paradise must have") that was 1) from the architecture critic and 2) did not include the double disclosure of the critic's and the Times's ties to Ratner. Times Standards Editor Allan Siegal later told project critics that use of the logo was improper.

The Brooklyn Standard? This article makes it seem like a positive example of public relations. The Times itself dismissed the Brooklyn Standard in a 9/3/05 article headlined "O.K., the Whole Paper Is Basically an Ad."

As for the Terrie Williams Agency, somehow the Times missed the juicy quote in the New York Observer in which BUILD's James Caldwell claimed he didn't know who was paying for the agency's services.

The article mentions Roger Green's role in forming BUILD, but neglects to mention that the assemblyman resigned in 2004--for the brief remainder of his term--after pleading guilty to billing the state for false travel expenses. See Chapter 4 of my report.

Here's the article's finale: [emphasis added]
According to Internal Revenue Service documents first reported by The Daily News, Build was not formally incorporated until Feb. 4, 2004, just a few days before the group held a press conference to announce that it was supporting the project. The same I.R.S. form also estimated that the group would receive $5 million over two years from Forest City Ratner as part of the community-benefits agreement then being negotiated. Build officials later said that that amount was never promised by or discussed with the developer.
Soon after the group decided to support Mr. Ratner, Mr. Canada, its original president, resigned, citing in a news release "the need to distance myself from those in the organization who see this organization as financial self gain" rather than "for the needs of the Brooklyn community."" That has led some of Mr. Ratner's critics to question whether the group was too close to the developer to fairly represent the community.
"Build and the other signatories of the so-called community-benefits agreement are Bruce Ratner's partners. They are contractually obliged to speak on behalf of his project," said Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for the anti-arena group Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. Mr. Caldwell, the group's current president, and Marie Louis, its treasurer, said late last month that Build was not yet receiving money from Forest City and that neither of them was yet drawing a salary.
But on Tuesday, Mr. DePlasco and a new spokeswoman for Build, Cheryl Duncan, revised that account.
In August, Mr. DePlasco said, two months after the agreement was signed, Forest City disbursed $100,000 to the group. The company also provided space for and is paying the overhead of a new Build office near the Atlantic Yards site, and along with other supporters donated furniture and computer equipment to the group. On Sept. 5, Ms. Duncan said, Build began paying several staff members, including Mr. Caldwell and Ms. Louis, who she said are currently being paid at a rate equal to half the salaries listed on the group's original I.R.S. form. Before the signing of the community-benefits agreement, the staff had been working as volunteers, she said.
Mr. DePlasco emphasized that the money given to Build was intended to fulfill the company's obligations under the community-benefits agreement.
"No money was given to Build prior to the community-benefits agreement. What they're supposed to do is begin outreach and job training so that people are ready to apply for these jobs when they become available. If you are going to commit to programs that otherwise don't exist, you have to find the funding for those programs - or at least a big chunk of that funding," he said. "Forest City Ratner Company believes firmly that supporting nonprofits and community groups, and working with them to identify and address needs, is at the foundation of what they do. It's that simple."

So there is some news: BUILD officials were lying when they said in September that they hadn't received money from Forest City Ratner. But that doesn't fit the "modern blueprint" storyline, does it? And so, Joe DePlasco, paid flack for the developer, gets the final word, not, for example, any of the numerous public officials involved in this debate. Marty Markowitz, for example, would've been good to interview. See below.

Note: unmentioned in the Times are the six-figure salaries expected by BUILD's top three officers, according to the IRS filing. See Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's comprehensive page on BUILD. Rather the Times takes care of the issue discreetly: On Sept. 5, [spokeswoman] Ms. [Cheryl] Duncan said, Build began paying several staff members, including Mr. Caldwell and Ms. Louis, who she said are currently being paid at a rate equal to half the salaries listed on the group's original I.R.S. form. Before the signing of the community-benefits agreement, the staff had been working as volunteers, she said.

Here are some other issues, unmentioned in the Times article, that suggest that the Atlantic Yards project is more accurately a national model in public manipulation and broken promises:
--The number of office space has been cut by more than two-thirds, and the original number of promised office jobs, 10,000, may be as few as 2,229, with fewer than 700 of them new.
--The amount of luxury housing, once 2,250 units, has been more than doubled, to 5,050 units.
--ACORN is contractually required to publicly support the project. (See Chapter 7 of my report.)
--The number of promised construction jobs, either 15,000 (according to Ratner) or 12,000 (according to a mayoral press release), is actually job-years, so that would be 1,500 jobs a year over 10 years. (See Chapter 2 of my report.)
--A public park on the roof of the arena, once a major selling point for the project at large, will now be private space accessible only to tenants of the high-priced condos (and, ok, some fraction of 'affordable' housing units) Ratner plans to sell. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a chief booster of Atlantic Yards, has said he opposes this change.
--Markowitz, pressed during a debate with his small-party opponents, acknowledged that the project is too big and should be scaled down.
--Let's not forget that two polls, one the Times's own, said that the public opposes an arena if it requires public subsidies--and that the Times never reported this. (See Chapter 5 of my report.)

Other people also see something fishy about this project too. The Municipal Art Society has a program scheduled for Nov. 10 titled Large-Scale Plans Removed from the Public Review Process: Case Study of the Atlantic Yards. The session is allotted an hour and a half. It could use a week.

Great points. This site and your reports should become a case study for all journalism students. As for the "strategy over substance" phrase, that is because all issue / political reporting is handled like a sports story. If they give you the score and a play by play they think that they have done the job. In this case, they forgot the score (Times poll).
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