Thursday, November 10, 2005


Freddy’s Fumble: Ferrer mishandled Atlantic Yards, but the press made it worse

He coulda been a contender. Maybe Freddy Ferrer wouldn’t have won the election, but if he’d raised the Atlantic Yards issue early enough, and forcefully enough, he could’ve had Mayor Bloomberg on the defensive. At the least, he would’ve sparked some real debate about the mega-development in Brooklyn, a $3.5 billion project to build a Nets basketball arena and 16 high-rise buildings, nearly all of them housing--and mostly luxury housing at that.

Then again, maybe he never had a chance. Ferrer also faced a press corps that too often has failed to explain the controversy or to challenge project supporters like Bloomberg and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Let’s recap. Atlantic Yards, the biggest project in Brooklyn’s history, was proposed in December 2003 by Forest City Ratner, the developer responsible for some much-criticized projects in the borough, such as the Atlantic Center mall and the office development at MetroTech. Company CEO Bruce Ratner, no sports fan, assembled an ownership group to buy the Nets at the urging of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a nostalgist obsessed with making Brooklyn “major league” again. But the arena has distracted attention from the greased real estate deal (the Metropolitan Transportation Authority didn't put up the railyard at issue until the last minute, and then negotiated solely with low-bidder Ratner), and, as the project has gone forward, the drastic reductions in promised jobs and increases in market-rate housing.

Atlantic Yards was a significant part of Norman Siegel’s unsuccessful primary challenge to Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and also allowed Gloria Mattera, the Green Party challenger to Markowitz, to score some significant points. But it didn’t become an issue in the mayoral race until October 28, less than two weeks before Election Day.

Ferrer had flirted with the topic. In early May, he said at a press conference, “To call that process not transparent is probably the understatement of the year.” On July 4, when I encountered him campaigning and asked him his position, his answer was indelible: “Not a dime of public money.” (The city had already pledged $100 million in direct subsidies, with hundreds of millions more in public costs to be absorbed.) But Ferrer refused to challenge his Democratic rivals on the issue during the primary debates.

Because Ferrer was silent for so long during the mayoral election, even the wonky web site Gotham Gazette neglected to mention Atlantic Yards in an Oct. 17 piece headlined “The Real Issues in the 2005 Mayoral Race.” A 3852-word Times profile of Bloomberg-as-manager the next day also neglected the Brooklyn development. But a contentious public hearing on Atlantic Yards that evening (Oct. 18) put the project back in the news, as did a follow-up New York Times headline, “From Huge Project, A Mighty Anger Grows.”

Maybe Ferrer belatedly remembered to do the right thing, or maybe it was his falling numbers in the polls, but he finally scheduled an Oct. 28 press conference to announce opposition to the project. It was a debacle. First, project backers rounded up union members to bring two giant rats, assailing Ferrer for fighting a project that would bring union jobs. Worse, Ferrer read his press statement with little enthusiasm. He failed to bring local City Council Member Letitia James, a forceful critic of the project, who could have served as a counterweight to the numerous black protestors. Afterward, the Rev. Al Sharpton, a supporter of both Ferrer but also of Atlantic Yards, issued a statement criticizing Ferrer for opposing a project that could, in the Times’s phrasing, “mean thousands of minority jobs.”

Sharpton’s criticism, not Ferrer’s opposition, became the storyline; the Times’s headline was “Ferrer Is Chided Over Atlantic Yards.” But Ferrer made some important points. He said that he had found the 50% affordable housing agreement announced in May “powerful,” but that it had recently—actually, it had been more than a month—emerged that Forest City Ratner had added 2,800 market-rate condos, making only 31% of the housing affordable, with less than half of that total accessible to the average Brooklynite.

But that was obscured by Sharpton’s shiv. The Times’s coverage was especially egregious—the reporter quoted project supporter Tony Herbert, a Republican candidate for City Council, without pointing out that Herbert was likely to be crushed by the incumbent James, who had already vanquished a pro-Atlantic Yards candidate in the Democratic primary. (He was, by a 13-1 ratio.) And the Times ended the story by quoting Forest City Ratner officials as saying that Ferrer misrepresented facts, but without any examples nor an effort to check the allegation. (Perhaps here I should point out that the New York Times Company and Ratner are partners in the new Times Tower—no proof of bias, but certainly an argument for exacting coverage to preclude claims of bias.)

Still, Ferrer missed his biggest chance, to challenge Sharpton and other project supporters on the issue of “jobs.” The developer’s slogan is “Jobs, Housing, and Hoops”—a mantra shouted by heckler at the press conference--but the term “jobs” subsumes both temporary construction jobs and permanent office jobs. In both cases, Ratner and project supporters have fudged the numbers. The promised “15,000 construction jobs” would actually mean 1,500 jobs a year for ten years—a huge difference if 35% are designated for minorities. As for the office jobs, Ratner originally announced 10,000 jobs; now there would be space for maybe 2,500 jobs, with less than one-third of them actually new jobs rather than moved from Manhattan.

But you can’t blame Ferrer too much, because the press in New York hadn’t analyzed the job numbers. So, when it came to the first debate two days later, the press let Bloomberg take cover by quoting Sharpton, with no attempt to factcheck Sharpton. Nor did the press counter Bloomberg’s outlandish claims that the project had been scrutinized by community boards and the press.

And Ferrer got one issue backwards. He called the Community Benefits Agreement, an effort to designate some jobs, community facilities, and community services for local residents, “powerful.” However, experts say this CBA isn’t legitimate because it involves only preselected groups. Ferrer should’ve said he supported the concept of a CBA, but not its execution, especially since one group, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), had already been unmasked as receiving money from Ratner while denying it.

It got worse in the second debate on Nov. 1, when questioner Jorge Ramos of Telemundo said, in prefacing his question, that “45% of the jobs” would go to minorities, while misstating the percentage (35%) and the important distinction between construction jobs and office jobs. That left Ferrer on the defensive, saying that it was “amazing that we need boondoggle projects to do the right thing.” He couldn’t make the distinction between construction jobs and total jobs, nor mention how the number of office jobs, once a selling point for the project, had plummeted.

For the third time, Ferrer cited a “secret memo” regarding the project, without explaining it well. Bloomberg was able to defuse the discussion with a quip–“if the memo’s out, it’s certainly not a secret.” No press outlet explained that the memo, which would allow the developer to control more land and build higher, had to be obtained by the anti-Atlantic Yards group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.

Could Ferrer have shifted the tone of the discussion? Perhaps. Then again, even his criticism of the affordable housing agreement didn’t gain the attention it deserved. Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn’s Oct. 31 press release criticizing Bloomberg, issued after the first debate, had little effect.

On Nov. 6, two days before the election, two Daily News sports reporters--from a paper that had issued an error-filled endorsement of Atlantic Yards--told us that Sharpton’s National Action Network had received thousands of dollars from Forest City Ratner. Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica, who had taken on Ratner in an earlier column, denounced multiple examples of the developer’s dubious math. And the Times, in an article that gave project supporters far more space than critics, finally reported the cuts in promised office jobs, as well as “bait and switch” charges about the housing plan.

But the debates were over and, in the Times's story on Election Day, Atlantic Yards had emerged as part of Bloomberg's second term agenda.

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