Tuesday, November 01, 2005


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

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

The background

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

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

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

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

Tactic #1: Sunny Side Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactic #2: Forest City Ratner as Charitable Entity

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

In a 10/27/05 Daily News article headlined Freddy fires Net salvo, Democratic mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer called for the Atlantic Yards project to be reduced significantly. FCR responded via DePlasco:
Joe DePlasco, who represents the project's developer, said the development team disagrees with Ferrer and welcomes the opportunity to explain the project to him.
"We have generated so much support and excitement because the project will also generate thousands of jobs and thousands of affordable apartments in an area with a dire need for housing and jobs."

Again, remember that the percentage of "affordable" apartments has been cut from 50% to 31% (and most of them aren't affordable to average Brooklynites) and the amount of office space has been cut by more than half--and that the number of office jobs and construction jobs would be far fewer than promised.

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

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

Tactic #3: Reality Be Damned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactic #4: Changing the Subject

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

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

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

In a 10/18/05 New York Sun article headlined Ratner-Financed Publication Includes Pro-Yards Articles With Incorrect Bylines, DePlasco criticized the freelance journalist misled by Brooklyn Standard editors rather than criticizing the editors who misused the freelancer's byline:
A spokesman for Forest City Ratner, Joseph DePlasco, said “We make it very clear in the publication that it’s a publication from Forest City Ratner, an effort to share information about Atlantic Yards.” He said if readers of the Brooklyn Standard did not know it is funded by Mr. Ratner, they need “an IQ test.”

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

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

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

Tactic #5: Stonewall

Sometimes DePlasco talks, and says no more.

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

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

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

Putting it all together

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

The Times article continued:
But on Tuesday, Mr. DePlasco and a new spokeswoman for Build, Cheryl Duncan, revised that account.
In August, Mr. DePlasco said, two months after the agreement was signed, Forest City disbursed $100,000 to the group. The company also provided space for and is paying the overhead of a new Build office near the Atlantic Yards site, and along with other supporters donated furniture and computer equipment to the group. On Sept. 5, Ms. Duncan said, Build began paying several staff members, including Mr. Caldwell and Ms. Louis, who she said are currently being paid at a rate equal to half the salaries listed on the group's original I.R.S. form. Before the signing of the community-benefits agreement, the staff had been working as volunteers, she said.
Mr. DePlasco emphasized that the money given to Build was intended to fulfill the company's obligations under the community-benefits agreement.
"No money was given to Build prior to the community-benefits agreement. What they're supposed to do is begin outreach and job training so that people are ready to apply for these jobs when they become available. If you are going to commit to programs that otherwise don't exist, you have to find the funding for those programs - or at least a big chunk of that funding," he said. "Forest City Ratner Company believes firmly that supporting nonprofits and community groups, and working with them to identify and address needs, is at the foundation of what they do. It's that simple."

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

DePlasco and the journalism of verification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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