Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Blight, 1938: it's about profitability

A visit yesterday to the new exhibition at Columbia University, Robert Moses & the Modern City: Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution, turned up this quote from Mabel Walker's 1938 book Urban Blight and Slums:
"Blight is a condition where it is not profitable to make or maintain improvements."

These days, of course, blight is more complicated, involving, according to the Empire State Development Corporation, underutilization and poor maintenance. At the same time, lots just across the street from the project site have been developed and other adjacent units sell well.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

City Hall, obfuscatorily, admits doubling AY funding

The City of New York has more than doubled the $100 million it pledged to the Atlantic Yards project, though a spokesman yesterday offered an explanation that left some questions unanswered.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg's capital budget, released last Thursday, includes $205 million designated for Atlantic Yards, though the city had earlier agreed only to $100 million.

The news didn't generate much scrutiny until I raised the issue on Saturday and Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) sent out a press release yesterday declaring the increase part of the "blank check" known as “extraordinary infrastructure costs.”

City Hall confirmation

I contacted City Hall Friday morning, asking about the source of the funds and the relationship to "extraordinary infrastructure costs," but didn't get a response.

Yesterday afternoon, after sending a reminder, I received the following response from Deputy Press Secretary John Gallagher: "The additional funding is for infrastructure improvements, several of which would have been required with or without the construction of the Atlantic Yards Development and others that are necessary regardless of what is built on the site."

Original pledge: $100 million

However, in the MOU signed 2/18/05 by the city, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), and developer Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC), the city agreed to contribute $100 million for site preparation and public infrastructure improvements on and around the arena site, and also for a portion of the costs of the acquisition of the arena site.

However, another clause states that "Public Parties will consider making additional contributions for extraordinary infrastructure costs relating to the mixed use development on the Project Site (excluding the Arena Building Site)."

Given that the $205 million is listed under "Atlantic Yards," the additional $105 million would seem to fit under the rubric of "extraordinary infrastructure costs." I asked Gallagher about that, but he didn't address that in his response.

However, Doug Turetsky of the Independent Budget Office confirmed the suspicion; he told Neil deMause of the Village Voice that the additional $105 million would go to more infrastructure costs, "some of which might have been on the books prior to Atlantic Yards, but some substantial amount of which is likely related to the scale of the project—such as the need for expanding sewer and water capacity."

I asked Gallagher how much the city might pay over several years, but didn't get an answer. It's likely that some on the City Council, notably Council Member Letitia James, will be asking questions before this budget passes.

Fiscal impact diminishing

Whether $105 million or more, the additional payments would diminish the amount of potential new net revenues, even as those estimates continue to shrink.

Gallagher ended his brief message with some boilerplate: "This project will create jobs, provide affordable housing and generate billions of dollars in tax revenue and represents a solid investment of taxpayer resources."

Whatever the tax revenue, the net new revenues, previously estimated at $944 million, apparently just went down more than ten percent.

And developer Forest City Ratner might have to update the FAQ page on the Atlantic Yards web site that states:
The City and State of New York have each agreed to contribute $100 million to Atlantic Yards, representing less than six percent of the total investment in the development. These monies will be used to fund infrastructure improvements and site preparation on and around the arena site (including streets, sidewalks, utility relocation, environmental remediation, open space improvements and public parking garages).

Too little scrutiny

The New York Post and the New York Sun (which said FCR wouldn't comment) followed up today, but this story remains another example of what Brooklyn College's Paul Moses, a former New York Newsday reporter, has said of Brooklyn and the press:
Nowhere in the country do so many people get so little local coverage.

Remember, Brooklyn would be the country's fourth-largest city by population were it independent. But it doesn't have its own newspaper.

Could you imagine if cities like Houston (fourth-largest) or Philadelphia (fifth-largest) quietly planned to double their contribution to the most ambitious development project in their city's history?

Surely, a reporter at the Houston Chronicle or Philadelphia Inquirer would've noticed the numbers in the mayoral budget. In New York, however, the mayor's office is covered by reporters for the dailies who don't know much about a project in Brooklyn, and the reporters in those dailies' Brooklyn bureaus are often stretched too thin to dig.

So it's up to independent journalists like me and interest groups like DDDB to raise issues that should be part of daily coverage.

Section 8 boost means 22,000 families housed affordably

Yesterday, on the same day that we learned that the city had agreed to put another $105 million into Atlantic Yards infrastructure, came some interesting news about a nearly equivalent sum.

A federal infusion of $100 million--nationwide, but significantly in New York--means that 22,000 low-income New Yorkers will gain Section 8 vouchers over the next two years.

That's significant, because New York's waiting list for the federal Section 8 program--which offers subsidies so households pay only 30 percent of their income in rent--closed in 1994, leaving a 127,000 people in the lurch.

Those eligible for Section 8 can earn up to half the median income--$35,450 for a four-person household. Among the 2250 affordable rental units planned for the Atlantic Yards project, 900 would be within the Section 8 income limits.

90 a year at AY?

If the project were to be completed in ten years, assuming the developer's best-case scenario, that would mean 90 units a year for households also waiting for Section 8. If it were to be completed in 20 years, as even some supporters predict, that would mean 45 units a year.

Such numbers are dwarfed by the new Section 8 announcement. The parallels aren't quite direct--the new vouchers help pay rent, but don't necessarily simulate new construction--but the lesson is clear. A change in government spending or policy would help a lot more New Yorkers than one megaproject.

Confronting the issue

That may seem trite, but, given the way the issue's been framed, it's worth repeating. On the Brian Lehrer Show last May, Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey criticized project opponents, saying, "They really don’t want to confront the issue of affordable housing, and the fact that we desperately need housing."

Maybe it depends on what a government entity does with a spare $100 million--or the overdue reform of a subsidy like 421-a.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Roger Green, CBN, & $100K--an alternative sequence

This may seem like old news, but it’s worth a closer look, especially now that the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) is asking people and member organizations to lobby Brooklyn Assembly members to release the $100,000 promised last year—and blocked by then Assemblyman Roger Green—to pay consultants for their already-completed review of the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

Because something doesn’t ring true about Green’s explanation for his denial of $100,000 in state funds he controlled. Green told the Brooklyn Papers that he withdrew his support for CBN’s request because of hurtful, racially charged remarks by members and supporters of CBN and project opponents.

However, the main example cited—an email comment by Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn’s (DDDB) Daniel Goldstein—was made before Green privately confirmed his support to a delegation from CBN. (The reps from CBN probably wish they’d gotten it in writing.)

So Green’s explanation doesn’t wash. Instead, it’s possible that Green was reacting to personal criticism he later received and/or pressure from developer Forest City Ratner and other supporters of the Atlantic Yards project, who thought that such a review would slow the project.

Indeed, a closer look by experts undoubtedly would have raised more questions. Still, his withdrawal of support for the CBN review seems inconsistent with his recognition that the project needs significant changes. Though an Atlantic Yards supporter, Green recognizes that it would be way too big. He has supported a bill to shrink the project by one-third, and also called for the time period for the environmental review to be extended.

Green’s rationale

The Brooklyn Papers reported:
Green, who is black, told The Brooklyn Paper that he instructed state officials to remove the allocation from this year’s $112-billion budget after Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for the anti-Yards group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, referred to developer Bruce Ratner as a “white master” in June.
Goldstein is white.
“I was not going to approve any money to any group that included members that had used language that was hurtful to the African-American community,” said Green (D-Prospect Heights), who blocked the grant to the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods before his term ended this month.

Under pressure, Goldstein immediately apologized—and then, in a more politic way, did DDDB. (Some black project critics, like former Black Panther Bob Law, didn’t think there was anything to apologize for. "The first person to say that was me," Law told the New York Observer last July.)

Green meeting

Green had supported CBN, at least rhetorically, for months. According to CBN secretary Jim Vogel, Green in October 2005 told him and Deb Howard, a fellow CBN steering committee member that “he was impressed by our inclusive membership and that we were neutral about which project would get built there, having focused our role entirely on ensuring that the community be meaningfully involved in the environmental review as required by regulations.”

Green was supportive, Vogel recalled, “He then went on to say that he thought there would be an ongoing role for CBN as a citizen's advisory board during the project buildout and through to full occupancy, which he estimated might be as much as 25-30 years.” (25-30 years for a project supposed to take a decade? That's even more than the 15-20 years cited by some supporters.)

Draft scope

Indeed, at the 10/18/05 hearing on the scope of analysis for the Draft EIS, Green had expressed his conceptual support for funding CBN’s work:
I call on [ESDC] Chairman Charles Gargano and Forest City Ratner Corporation to finance a consultant group with experience in environmental impact studies to work with the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods and the Environmental Committee of the CBA [Community Benefits Agreement] to review the EIS, and that I also believe that this process should be coordinated by the Office of Borough President Marty Markowitz.

Neither the ESDC nor the developer was willing to finance such a community review; hence CBN’s request to public officials.

CBA help?

Moreover, the CBA’s environmental committee was never set up to review the EIS. Its role, according to the CBA, is limited to the construction phase, not the project approval, and the CBA gives the committee no teeth; rather, the developer would comply with the agreement “by following the state mandated process.”

The CBA refers to the First Atlantic Terminal Housing Committee (FATHC), one of the CBA signatories. (See Section VIII.) Forest City agreed to work with FATHC to gain public and/or private funding to “pay the reasonable expenses of the working group of this committee” involving meetings space, web hosting, and a message board. But FATHC was to be granted no technical expertise.

While the developer agreed to “consult with FATHC to determine appropriate mitigation measures” such as rodent abatement, a staging plan for construction, a pedestrian and vehicular traffic plan, the CBA states clearly that compliance will be overseen by the state.

Formal request in '06

CBN made a formal request of the entire Brooklyn Assembly delegation by mail and at a 4/5/06 meeting at the Pacific Branch library. The meeting went “very well,” Vogel said, though Green had a conflict and couldn’t make it. CBN soon learned that the sums it had requested of both the City Council and the Assembly had been modified; the council would give $130,000 and the Assembly would give $100,000, rather than the $250,000 requested of each.

CBN, projecting a budget of $230,000, got its consultants “to discount their already discounted rates,” according to Vogel. In July, however, CBN learned that Green had requested a freeze on the grant. On 7/31/06, four CBN members met with Green, his chief of staff and City Council Member Letitia James.

Expel DDDB?

Vogel offered this account: “At that meeting Roger Green said he was very concerned that public money not be given to a divisive organization. We were very puzzled and it took a while to discover that he was equating CBN with DDDB. We carefully explained that DDDB was a constituent, but that there were 35 other organizations, each with individual opinions about the BAY proposal. We told him that we were also very surprised and disappointed at the language that had been used, and that there was some very unfortunate and disgusting language coming from all sides, which Green agreed with.

But we made it very clear that CBN was remaining removed from such exchanges. We assured him that CBN was not a divisive organization but was rather bringing very disparate groups together to do the job the public had to do according to the SEQRA regulations. Green said that we should expel DDDB, or get them to expel Goldstein. We responded that we, as a matter of policy, left our organizations to their own affairs. They were quite aware of how other constituents felt about the whole affair but that it would be unfair to expel such a large segment of the community (7,000 letters of support) over the mis-speaking of a single individual. We went back and forth. The meeting ended very amicably with Green saying he would remove his freeze. It seemed like a very positive meeting.”

More polarization

While that was nearly two months after the Goldstein incident, the Atlantic Yards debate soon became more charged. Green contributed his share, in a New York magazine cover story, offering a broad-brush dismissal of project opponents and critics:
“Here’s the question: If we were building an 18,000-seat opera house, would we get as much resistance? I don’t think so,” he says. “Basketball is like a secular religion for most Brooklynites. The opposition to the arena is actually coming from people who are new to Brooklyn, who lived in Manhattan, mostly. And who have a culture of opposing projects of this nature. People who opposed the West Side Highway project; people who opposed the Jets stadium; people who opposed a host of other things. Some of those families now live in Brooklyn. That’s the reality. There’s a class of people who are going to the opera. And there’s another class of folks who will go to a basketball game and get a cup of beer.”

Public hearing boos

At the 8/23/06 Atlantic Yards public hearing sponsored by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), Green got booed. Some hecklers called him a crook, which, given Green’s criminal record, was neither unfounded nor a full summary of his record. He couldn’t have liked it.

Some project opponents—though not specifically associated with CBN—were rude, but they were outnumbered by project supporters who cheered for fellow supporters and booed opponents.

At the podium, some project supporters offered threats and insults, while project critics generally limited themselves to the analysis that was ostensibly the subject of the hearing.

Green’s testimony

Green, in his testimony, characterized critics as outsiders who weren’t true Brooklynites, and who didn’t care about the poor. He got booed, and cheered, as referenced by the term “audience participation” in the full transcript below.

ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: My remarks will be -- my remarks will focus on an attempt to arrive at some creative problem-solving with respect to this project.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: Maybe – maybe one of the things that we need to talk about is the fact that the communities aren't based upon brick and mortar, communities are also based upon the concept of being together and resolving crises in a way that doesn't polarize this community, as some people are trying to do.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: I want to start by saying for some of you that I was born in Brooklyn –
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: -- okay. I was raised in Brooklyn.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: I grew up in Brooklyn.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: I walked these streets before some people got here.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: And in walking these streets, like the Reverend Camara said, say some of you have not been in the Fort Greene Housing Project with the unemployment rate.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: Some people have never even dared -- some of you have never even dared to go into Farragut Houses as we got to struggle for –
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: -- affordable housing there as well.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: And some of us will not be lectured to especially by people who are not acting civilly, all right --
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: -- because it's one thing that we must have -- the one thing that we must have is some civility if, in fact, we want to have a democratic process because that's privileged. And you don't come into this house and if you don't understand how sacred it is to act civilly when you articulated your position whether you're pro or con, that's criminal.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: Now we are trying to address several issues here. One is the moral imperative of considering that we have affordable housing in this community; the other is the moral imperative ensuring that we address the economic polarization that's killing many African-American males within this community; the unemployment and underemployment that exists and it has been a conspiracy of silence for some, so we're going to try address that here –
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: -- with this project.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: But we also understand -- we also understand though we have been drowned out far too often, that Dr. King said, an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We understand that.
Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: and in that context we know --
THE HEARING OFFICER: Twenty seconds.
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: -- also -- we know also that we do need to reduce density. We've introduced a bill that would reduce density by some 34 percent and I stand on that. I think that, too, is a moral imperative. We all have said that we need to address the issue, the issue of what would happen in terms of our basic infrastructure. And so we are articulating that within our bill. And have said to the Speaker of the Assembly, to the Majority Leader in the Senate, and to --
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: And finally let me also thank the -- as I said, I'm from Brooklyn.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: I'm from Brooklyn.
(Audience participation.)
THE HEARING OFFICER: Sir, can you please conclude.
(Audience participation.)
THE HEARING OFFICER: Sir, can you please conclude.
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: We – we believe -- we believe that -- and I'll close by saying that we believe that Assembly Bill 11431, which was introduced by Assemblyman Brennan, myself, Joe Lentol -- Joe Lentol and Joan Millman and Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, really to address the core principle to resolve some of the problems that we --
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: -- see within this project. But we do think that we need to move forward in Brooklyn, that we need the progress particularly with respect to addressing the unemployed and also ensuring affordable housing within this great borough. Thank you very much.
(Audience participation.)

CBN at public hearing

At that point, CBN still believed that Green supported the group's funding request. At the podium later in the day, co-chair Candace Carponter thanked Green publicly:
CBN was formed for the sole purpose of participating in this process. We have been working hard for a year and a half to get to this point. Because of our strength in representing over forty community organizations, CBN has been awarded funding--$150,000 from the City Council thanks to Speaker Christine Quinn and City council Members Letitia James and Bill de Blasio. We have also received $100,000 in funding from the State thanks to the support and efforts of Assemblymembers Roger Green, Joan Millman and Jim Brennan, among others. And particular thanks goes to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver out of whose budget this money comes.

With this money we have been able to hire experts to review this 4,000 page document that has been given to us approximately thirty days ago by ESDC. These efforts have given us a virtually impossible undertaking given the incredible size of this document and the incredibly short period of time that we have been given.

Carponter’s measured statement came directly after community activist Darnell Canada dismissed the rationale of the environmental review with a warning--or threat:
But you're saying environment, people are talking about surviving and y’all talking about environment -- Let me tell you something. Let me tell you something, if this don't happen, I guarantee you will have chaos and misery.

Could CBA committee help?

At that 7/31/06 meeting last year, according to CBN co-chair Therese Urban, Green again suggested that the CBN invite the CBA’s Environmental Committee to help with the EIS review. CBN agreed, but Delia Hunley-Adossa, chair of the committee (now known as the Brooklyn Endeavor Experience) never responded, according to CBN representatives.

Brooklyn Endeavor Experience (or BEE), as I reported in August, has not made any public statements about the environmental review. Indeed, at the 8/23/06 public hearing, Hunley-Adossa’s public statement was cheered by many in the audience, but essentially endorsed the developer’s plans. She said, in part:
And I am one of the signatories and took on the responsibility of the environmental assurances component of the CBA. And as an historical document, I signed that on June 27, 2005….And for government -- and our governments are certainly not truly -- they're certainly not worried about benefits as far as sustainable design, as far as development or even giving us any kind of hope…. there will be a $50 million clean up of the existing contaminated site, turning it into seven acres of open public space, environmentally-sensitive buildings, reduce water, sewage, overflows in the Gowanus Canal and what we hope will be first ever leadership in energy and environmental design.

Note that the sustainable design would benefit from government tax credits—contra to Hunley-Adossa’s statement about lack of governmental concern. Also note that the CBAs in Los Angeles, which Hunley-Adossa also referenced, have been developed by a much broader coalition than the members of the Atlantic Yards CBA.

About that Cadillac

The recent Brooklyn Papers article on Green’s block on funding referenced another complaint by the former legislator:
“These people have consistently used terms like ‘Cadillac Benefits Agreement’ to describe [the Community Benefits] agreement made [by Ratner] with black leaders,” Green told The Brooklyn Paper after Goldstein’s gaffe. “They have used other radicalized language that has hurt the African-American community — and their chances at fighting this project.”

However, Green has not publicly criticized the occasional racially-charged language used by black supporters of the project, such as ACORN’s Bertha Lewis, who called the opposition a “small group of white liberals... don't give a damn about people of color" and Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development’s (BUILD) James Caldwell, who said “If this thing doesn't come out in favor of Ratner, it would be a conspiracy against blacks.”

And where does “Cadillac Benefits Agreement” come from? A web search does not turn up that phase, though it does turns up a similar phrase used once in print in reference to BUILD, but not by any member of CBN. (I have no idea how often it was used, if at all, in conversation.)

The phrase grew out of this observation, mentioned on the 9/28/05 Daily Heights message board:
let me throw out a point for the debate: The *brand-new* massive silver Cadillac that pulls up in front of BUILD each day… what better instrument to contrast the ‘extreme rates of poverty, unemployment and underclass entrapment’ in the surrounding neighborhood?

That was cited the next day on the NoLandGrab watchdog blog. Then, after IRS documents suggested that BUILD expected a $5 million payment from the developer (the sums were later acknowledged to be much smaller), NoLandGrab on 9/30/05 observed:
The C.B.A. stands for Cadillac Buying Allowance. There's no point in calling it a "community" agreement when the developer handpicked the groups and the leaders of the groups stand personally to financially gain from the agreement.

Was this offensive language or, rather, satirical commentary based on at least some evidence (the Cadillac being driven by BUILD CEO James Caldwell)? Is a reference to any connection between an African-American and a Cadillac out of line, given the stereotype?

(Maybe it depends on who’s speaking. For example, in the hit movie Barbershop, the character played by Cedric the Entertainer said, "What do you think [reparations] gone do? Ain't gone do nothin' but make Cadillac the No. 1 dealership in the country!" That line has been criticized, as well.)

[Update: More from NoLandGrab here (admitting a pot shot) and here.]

Errol Louis weighs in

In his recent Daily Politics post, the Daily News’ Errol Louis explained Green’s action:
But groups and individuals associated with the CBN continued attacking Green’s allies and the ex-assemblyman himself, sometimes in vicious terms – imagining, somehow, that the state funds under Green's personal control would remain untouched. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this caustic style was almost guaranteed to fail.

First, it’s hard to say that any of the attacks were more vicious than those coming from the other direction. And Louis apparently didn't factor in that 7/31/06 meeting with Green.

Then, Louis added a kicker:
I’ve had my differences with Green over the years, but the cries of outrage against him seem na├»ve at best and cynical at worst.

Louis’s link about “differences” goes to a 6/4/04 New York Sun column about Green’s departure from office in which he concluded:
Mr. Green seems determined to ride back to office on the strength of half-truths and racial pandering, rather than simply telling the truth about his actions.

When it comes to half-truths and racial pandering in Atlantic Yards saga, however, staunch AY supporter Louis has taken a pass.

CBN and lawsuits

As for Louis’s contention that Green wouldn’t support an organization that had joined legal actions against the project, well, again that's belied by the sequence of events.

CBN, when entering in the February 2006 lawsuit challenging the role of a lawyer who worked consecutively for the developer and the ESDC, took pains to say it was neutral on the project. Project supporters may not believe that--given some CBN members' opposition to the project--but it apparently didn’t deter Green during his 7/31/06 meeting with CBN.

Green, at least according to the account of Vogel and two other participants at that meeting, seemed ultimately undeterred by either CBN's association with Goldstein and DDDB nor CBN's role in lawsuits.

Beyond Green's public explanation, and Louis's endorsement of it, there must be some other factors. Something changed in August.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ouroussoff: Gehry faces a developer's constraints in L.A., too

Let's try to decode New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff's new take on Frank Gehry's latest Los Angeles project, in a handwringing essay today headlined Corner of Art and Commerce in Los Angeles. Ouroussoff sets out the question:
Designed by Mr. Gehry for the New York-based Related Companies, the master plan for the site, a choice parcel directly across from Disney Hall, provides a case study for one of the most pressing issues in architecture today. Can the bottom-line world of mainstream development produce something of architectural value at enormous scale? Or is Mr. Gehry simply there to provide a veneer of cultural pretension?
(Gehry rendering via New York Times)

Ouroussoff seems doubtful that Gerhy can achieve his goals, echoing his essay last June in which he lamented some of the compromises involved in Atlantic Yards but offered only the gentlest of criticisms of the starchitect.

Ouroussoff details Gehry's challenges and compromises in drawing up plans for Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, a retail, residential hotel, and entertainment complex that will be evaluated next month by the county board of supervisors and city council.

The project, Ouroussoff writes, "may reveal just how willing the city is to address the deep social rifts beneath the area’s newly polished surface."

At the very least, however, it shows that the local political bodies will have some power in shaping the project, rather than the handoff to the unelected Empire State Development Corporation that Mayor Mike Bloomberg sought for Atlantic Yards.

Cost means changes

Earlier, Gehry and his client, the Related Companies (developer of the Time Warner Center in New York) were on the same page, but now they're at odds:
Meanwhile Mr. Gehry and Related have engaged in a quiet tug of war over how open the development should be to its surroundings. In an early version of the design, the two residential towers were set at the site’s northeast and southwest corners, visually framing the complex and anchoring it into the surrounding skyline. A series of two- and three-story retail buildings, loosely stacked upon one another like a child’s building blocks, were scattered along Grand Avenue, creating an informal street wall that served as a counterpoint to the flowing stainless-steel forms of Disney Hall.
...Over the last year, as Mr. Gehry struggled to contain rising construction estimates, his boxlike forms became more static, lending the design a more formal symmetry. The proposed facades of the two towers (one 22 stories, the other 45), which originally included fractured planes of glass that gave the impression that they were coming apart at the seams, are also less dynamic, forming a polite backdrop to Disney Hall across the avenue.

However, the developers nixed Gehry's cascading staircase, which would have linked the project to the busy street life nearby. He's tried to fix that, Ouroussoff writes, with some new details, but that doesn't quite work:
But the towering block-long facade that faces Olive Street is an eerie echo of the clifflike 1980s-era corporate plazas just to the south. And he still faces the challenge of overcoming the social apartheid of downtown Los Angeles: high culture separated from low, upper-middle-class concertgoers from working-class Latino shoppers.

Gehry's compromises

Ouroussoff considers Gehry's awkward position, in which he evolved from an outsider-ish "populist hero" to a "global name" working for cultural institutions "open to architectural experimentation" (think Guggenheim Bilbao). Gehry says he has more leverage today with mainstream developers than he did two decades ago.

However, as in Brooklyn (unmentioned in this essay), Gehry's no free agent. Ouroussoff writes, in closing:
But the Grand Avenue development may ultimately say more about the limits of any architect’s power than about Mr. Gehry’s elevated status. Scanning a collection of study models for the plan at his office recently, I asked whether he might draw on his early history — the cheap materials and crude populist aesthetic that could be used to break down the avenue’s sense of exclusivity — for inspiration here.
In other words, why not pick up the thread he discarded years ago rather than try to create glamour on the cheap?
Mr. Gehry paused for a minute. “My question has always been how well the developer could adapt themselves to this mixed ethnic neighborhood,” he said. “It’s uniquely L.A. and it’s very powerful, and the push-pull is about how do you do that. Hopefully it’ll happen over time.”
If not, he may have to stick to clients whose values better match his own.

Which clients?

Ouroussoff didn't take the opportunity to point out that a superficial sharing of values--Gehry said last January that "Bruce Ratner is also politically like me"--may not paper over professional conflict.

Ouroussoff last June wrote about Gehry's Atlantic Yards design:
The problem is not that Mr. Gehry's layout won't work, and it is a notch above the conventional. But given the clout he has, he had the opportunity to propose a far bolder design. I still hope he will revise the master plan, which is, after all, in the earliest stages.

He hasn't. Or, more to the point, the project was approved mainly as presented six months previously.

Ouroussoff wrote:
Whatever Mr. Ratner’s ambitions, a mainstream developer is not about to promote radical changes in local housing policy. And Mr. Gehry is an architect, not a politician. But he has a public responsibility to put his formidable talents to full use.

If Gehry has a public responsibility, why has he been so combative in public? Why hasn’t he met with the community? Why did he not, as he would have preferred, get other architects to design parts of the project? He remains constrained by his client.

So the question Ouroussoff might have posed to Gehry is this: how much are you willing to compromise your professional ideals to complete an ambitious project, especially one with a building you call your "ego trip"?

Times fails to correct Moses story, despite ample warning

On Wednesday, after I posted my critique of the New York Times's story to be published today (and already online) on Robert Moses, I sent a request for corrections to the Times. I pointed out that the article, Rehabilitating Robert Moses, misleadingly cited "the reconstruction of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn," an impossibility, given that Atlantic Yards is the name of a 22-acre project rather than an 8.5-acre railyard.

And I pointed out that, while the article--which today is the lead article in the Arts & Leisure section--suggests that post-Moses projects must go through a gauntlet of approval, it avoids mentioning the Empire State Development Corporation fast track process to which Mayor Mike Bloomberg agreed regarding Atlantic Yards.

No response

I never got a response--often the Times is quick to respond, though not necessarily to provide a coherent explanation. There's no correction in the roundup box on page A2 today. So much for the "journalism of verification."

And so much for the Times's policy, according to its 2004 Ethical Journalism handbook, which states:
The Times treats its readers as fairly and openly as possible. In print and online, we tell our readers the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it. It is our policy to correct our errors, large and small, as soon as we become aware of them.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

$205 million for AY seems to double city's pledge

Mayor Mike Bloomberg's capital budget, released Thursday, includes $205 million designated for Atlantic Yards--a sum far greater than the $100 million formally pledged.

I asked the mayor's press office early yesterday morning for details, but did not get a response by the end of the day.

One explanation may be that the city is relying on a vague clause in a 2005 Memorandum of Understanding to steer more city funds to the project. If so, that opens the door for even more city contributions in the future--a potential Atlantic Yards slush fund.

If not, could the city's capital budget somehow have included the $100 million in state funds also pledged to the project?

Original pledge: $100 million

In the MOU signed 2/18/05 by the city, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), and developer Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC), the city agreed to contribute $100 million, as did the state.

The city's portion could be used for site preparation and public infrastructure improvements on and around the arena site, and also for a portion of the costs of the acquisition of the arena site.

The "extraordinary infrastructure" loophole

A curious clause in the MOU, however, left the door open for further contribution. It states that "Public Parties will consider making additional contributions for extraordinary infrastructure costs relating to the mixed use development on the Project Site (excluding the Arena Building Site)."

Is that additional $105 million for "extraordinary infrastructure"? Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn has regularly pointed to the potential for uncapped "extraordinary infrastructure" costs.

If so, how much will the city pay? And how would that factor into the cost-benefit analyses that have consistently, if diminishingly, painted the project as a fiscal plus?

Maybe there's another explanation for $205 million sum, such as a commingling of state funds. (Even so, that would push the commitment over the $200 million mark, albeit by only $5 million.) The city owes the public some details.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Learning from Seattle: a sculpture park and a market

Seattle is quite different from Brooklyn, but citizens there have confronted similar challenges—whether to invest public money in a sports arena, and how best to guide growth—and come up with some interesting and instructive answers, like the new sculpture park depicted at right, an oasis in the midst of development.
(Photo from Seattle Art Museum)

The Seattle experience may not be directly applicable to the Atlantic Yards controversy, but it does suggest that civic debate—which was short-circuited in Brooklyn when the city/state political establishment backed AY from the gate—can produce alternatives.

Arena subsidies?

First, as I’ve noted, a community group called Citizens for More Important Things got a ballot measure passed last year that ensured that any public money toward a new arena would have to generate legitimate financial returns.

That’s served as a brake on the owners of the Seattle SuperSonics, who are now seeking $300 million in public funds for a new arena in the metro area outside the city. (That arena likely would not be a standalone like the current Key Arena but more of a mixed-use complex.)

Note that the AY project would get $200 million in direct subsidies but much more in tax breaks, public spending, and access to below-market city streets. The amount of subsidies for the affordable housing has not been publicly revealed.

New sculpture park

My visit to Seattle last week coincided with the opening of the Olympic Sculpture park, a dramatic and arresting addition to the cityscape and waterfront. The park occupies a complicated 9-acre site in the northern section of Belltown, the booming neighborhood, formerly an industrial/warehouse district, just north of the center city, along the mostly-developed waterfront.
(Photo from New York Times)

Echoes of Atlantic Yards were inevitable. The site is just about the same size as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard, the main component of the planned 22-acre AY development. The Seattle site, formerly an oil transfer and distribution facility, required an expensive clean-up (as does the Brooklyn railyard).

The Seattle site, bisected by a busy (though not commercial) four-lane road and bordered by another road and a rail line, required some complicated bridging. Even greater challenges abound in Brooklyn, where a platform must be built to support construction. At least builders in Brooklyn wouldn’t have a site sloping downhill, as in Seattle.

Brooklyn’s Vanderbilt Yard is more than a century old; the Seattle site, established by UNOCAL (Union Oil Company of California), dates back to 1910. UNOCAL closed the site in 1975, leaving ugly empty lots—an eyesore, certainly blighted (at least under New York’s loose standards)--and later spent a decade on cleanup efforts. The time wasn’t right for development.
(Photo from Seattle Art Museum)

Building boom

In the late 1990s, as a building boom spread to Belltown, developers hatched a plan to build condos. As the New York Times reported, UNOCAL was sympathetic to the idea of turning the site into a green space—the city is environmentally conscious--so when museum officials approached the company, they were given six months to raise $17 million. (SAM hired a staffer from the Trust for Public Land for the project.) Philanthropists offered $5 million and said they’d give another $20 million for free access if SAM raised the rest of the money.

Indeed, the museum raised $173 million of a $180 million capital campaign, fully funding the $85-million sculpture park. Grants from the federal government, King County and the City of Seattle helped both add slightly to the cite and provide $21 million for toxic waste cleanup and salmon restoration. More than 52 designers competed for the commission, with Weiss/Manfredi Architects of New York selected. (Remember, there was no competition for the Atlantic Yards project.)

Zigzag site

Construction began in 2005, and the park opened on January 20. The park occupies a zigzag site—three connected parcels of land--sloping down the hill to Elliott Bay. The sculptures are striking—a cluster of five 14-foot high Richard Serra steel slabs called "Wake," a playful 19-foot tall "Typewriter Eraser, Scale X," by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, and Alexander Calder’s 39-foot-tall "Eagle" (below, right).

Is it frivolous? Actually, the park has stimulated a construction boom. While in one direction, the park offers stunning views of the bay and the distant mountains, in the other three, cranes and new construction are visible. Condos are going up—eight, 12, 15 stories. (Taller buildings are in the center city.) Real estate folk now call this “the Park District.”
(Photo from Seattle Times)

The amount of open space is only a bit more than the eight acres promised for the AY site, but the latter would be shrouded by tall buildings, and the 15,000 immediate residents would get first dibs.

The Vanderbilt Yard couldn’t be a sculpture park—its value is easily tenfold that of the Seattle site, and the railyard functions are costly to relocate. New York faces population pressure and density does belong near a transit hub. But the Seattle example shows that “blight” or underdevelopment can be cleared up by strategic public investment.

Transformational project

Seattle Post-Intelligencer architecture columnist Lawrence W. Cheek called the park “a gloriously rewarding intersection of art, architecture, urbanity and nature” and declared it “the best public space in Seattle,” with the architects triumphing over the “outrageous difficulties of the 9-acre site - a 40-foot slope plus a four-lane road and train track punching through it.”
(Photo from Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Sheila Farr, the Seattle Times art critic, suggested that the park opening was transformational moment for the city, just as in the early 1960s the Space Needle arose as part of the nearby Seattle Center. That complex, by the way, now includes the doomed Key Arena and the much-criticized blob that is the Experience Music Project, designed by Frank Gehry. (It’s an entertaining museum, but the building has no context--not that it's supposed to.)

"That area might have developed very differently, have turned into condo and retail space and not the wide-open panorama it now provides," Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, an architect, told Farr: "It's next to [Belltown] the state's fastest growing and densest area, denser even than Capitol Hill, and it's going to continue. [The park] will spur new economic development in the area, which will be positive."

Density issues

For all its environmental virtues, Seattle has long lacked public open space in and around downtown. So this serves as a crucial corrective, and a reminder of balanced growth. In a Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed, Seattle Art Museum director Mimi Gates (wife of Bill, Sr.), director of the Seattle Art Museum, and Gene Duvernoy, president of the Cascade Land Conservancy, wrote:
…If we cannot find comfort in a monumental work of art such as Teresita Fernandez's 220-foot colorful glass trellis along the bridge over the railroad tracks that captures incredible views of the Seattle skyline amid the green of a major sculpture park, our cities will be hollow places, as colorless as the thin sunshine of a winter's day.
This all comes together around the recent debates on building heights downtown, really a debate about that word we all dislike - density. That word is often the problem - it is algebraic, dealing with such and such per-square something or other and avoids the critical question of how we live together. It's a two-way street. Density can bring good things to urban neighborhoods but good things need to be explicitly provided to neighborhoods to make density a good thing.

(Emphasis added)
(Photo from Seattle Art Museum)

Indeed, that’s the debate we haven’t had in Brooklyn. “Growth is good, but growth has its limits,” City Council Member Letitia James said simply but gravely at the 8/23/06 Atlantic Yards public hearing, as captured in the documentary “Brooklyn Matters.” And shortly after that sentence, as James began talking about asthma that the new development would likely increase, she got booed.

Because the state overrides local zoning, we haven’t had a debate about what size and kind of development should go there. Rather, city and state officials essentially let the developer decide. And the decision to include some measure of affordable housing—funded by the public, of course--gives politicians a reason to support something out of scale. The density of Atlantic Yards, I’ve argued, was a privately-negotiated affordable housing bonus.

Learning from Pike Place

There’s another lesson for Brooklyn—heck, for all urbanists—in the heart of Seattle. Everybody knows the Pike Place Market at the downtown waterfront—it’s a tourist attraction (10 million visitors a year) and a working market, scruffy but busy, with genuinely local, independent restaurants, fishmongers, fruit sellers, craftspersons, and purveyors of goods. The first Starbucks opened there. (Photo from here.)

While the market’s official history leaps between the 1907 establishment of a public street market to connect farmers with consumers and its success a century later, the nine-acre market barely survived some lean years. According to the 1989 book Downtown, Inc., by Bernard Frieden and Lynne Sagalyn, by the 1950s, the market was on its last legs, and the arcade buildings were almost collapsing. Downtown business leaders wanted to put up offices, apartment towers, and hotels. (The Project for Public Spaces, which praised the market, notes that it was deemed "blighted.")

An architecture professor named Victor Steinbrueck (father of the abovenamed councilman) led a citizen effort for a voter initiative to save the market, which passed by a 60 percent vote in 1971. “It was an abrupt repudiation of the business coalition’s goal of a thoroughly modern city center dedicated to economic development,” Frieden and Sagalyn write.

Mayor Wes Uhlman, who’d previously helped save Pioneer Square—just below downtown—from the establishment of office towers, was sympathetic. ("I wanted to save it because it was human scale," he said of Pioneer Square.)

It wasn’t easy to renovate the market. A manager had to find tenants that would satisfy the newly-established Historical Commission and had to generate significant aid to subsidize the merchanges. The city funded most of the project with $40 million in federal money—just as Robert Moses did in his most of his projects in New York.

The preservationist mindset, according to the book, led to conflicts over security, as the market bordered Seattle’s sleaze district. Just three years ago, on my previous visit, the blocks nearby had several sketchy businesses. Now most are gone, a testament to Seattle's steady growth.


Sure, the market is a product of its time and place, and such federal subsidies are no longer available on that scale. Still, it’s remarkable how an alternative vision, based on the wisdom of a community, could prove enormously successful.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

AY's Stuckey spins on WFAN; opponent Turner attempts brief rebuttal

I finally got a chance to listen to the 1/18/07 “Mike and the Mad Dog” show on WFAN radio, in which hosts Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, rather uninformed about Atlantic Yards, interviewed the smooth-talking Jim Stuckey, president of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards Development Group.

Notably, Stuckey downplayed the number of people filing suit to block/stall the project (ten rather than 26), hinted that the unfunded day care and health care facilities in the project would serve all new residents, and claimed that property owners who signed deals to sell to Forest City had "come forth" to praise the developer.

While the same day the Barclays Center deal had been announced, the hosts, who began their discussion before Stuckey got on the line, focused more on the legal issues.

CR: I just spoke to [inaudible] outside, who lives in Brooklyn, 15 minutes away, he thought that–he did not think that there are that many people against it, the eminent domain thing.

MF: There is a group--

CR: There is a group that says develop Brooklyn, don’t destroy it. They don’t have any political clout, but you can find a group to be against anything.

MF: I agree. I don’t know if [it’s] a fair statement or not, I don’t know the answer.

CR: You could build a hospital in a desert and they’re going to find 30 people, ‘What are you doing this for? It’s a beautiful desert you’ve got here.’

MF: There’s always someone in the way of progress. Sometimes it’s fair, sometimes it’s not.

That sounded a little like former Empire State Development Corporation Chairman Charles Gargano, who said last October, "We cannot stop progress."

CR: Now listen, they didn’t have a lot of big political backing here. There wasn’t, as you said--.anybody on the West Side, Cablevision was not in the mix, no [Assembly Speaker] Sheldon Silver type. They didn’t have that powerhouse guy as an engine behind their--

MF: They weren’t going after the same kind of real estate that they were going after in Manhattan.

Nor would the Brooklyn site compete with Cablevision's Madison Square Garden or include sufficient office space to compete with Silver's Lower Manhattan district.

Enter Stuckey

Then Stuckey got on the line, and stayed on message.

CR: Let’s just get to the—we had a little issue with this eminent thing today. How many folks did you, through government, or just make deals with, and how many folks balked? What are the numbers as far as the eminent domain thing?

JS: Here’s what I want to say. This site is 22 acres, and we control and have purchased and have made substantial deals with 90 percent of the site. There is a small group of people who we would still like to make deals with, because we’d like there to be zero eminent domain. But for 90 percent of 22 acres of land, we have now controlled that by going out and making arm’s length transactions with people.

That’s not quite true. The developer claims to own or control 90 percent of the site; I’ve already pointed out how ownership is not control, because the developer can’t evict rent-stabilized tenants, and that control—allegedly via a lease—does not represent ownership.

Beyond that, the largest segment of the site was gained via a controversial bid to the MTA, which chose to negotiate only with Forest City, and the second largest would be city streets that the mayor has agreed (P. 4) to convey for, alternatively, $1 and "fair market value."

JS: In addition to that, the other thing that we’ve done is that we’ve said, we’re building, in addition to the arena, a major residential project, with over 6000 units of housing, at every income level, and what we’ve said, is that, we would of course like to have everyone come back, so the truth is, is that any single person who’s on site today, whether they’re renting, or whether they own their unit, could come back and rent or own and the difference will be--it could even be on the same exact piece of land that they’re at today.

There would be varied income levels. However, while the project would include 900 units for "very low income," defined as 50 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), that AMI is based on statistics including wealthy suburbs. So 50 percent of the AMI is close to Brooklyn's median income. Lots of low-income Brooklynites wouldn't qualify.

Nor could every person return at this point, because Stuckey has ruled out negotiating with those who are suing the developer.

'Over the top' deal?

JS: The only difference would be is that they’d be a little bit higher in the air, with a better view of Manhattan. They would have a building with a doorman. They would have security, they would have amenities, they would have day care, they would have health care. They’d have a workout room. It would be a far superior place. We’ve gone over the top to try and make sure that everyone who’s on that property today has the opportunity to come back.

The day care facility would have just 100 slots, serving a new population of some 15,000 people. There's no information on how either the day care or health care facility would be funded, according to the Response to Comments chapter of the Final Environmental Impact Statement:
The source of funding for the day care center amenity is not necessary for impact assessment...The source of funding for the health care center amenity is not necessary for impact assessment.

MF: Jim, 90 percent in, ten percent balking, the ten percent--

JS: I don’t think ten percent is balking. All I’ve said is that we’ve been able to make--

Rough numbers on plaintiffs

MD: What is the amount—in a number—how many people have showed resistance, is it two, is it ten, is it 200?

JS: Well let me just say that, there are a couple of lawsuits on this project, which I obviously can’t get into the details of, but on those lawsuits, there’s maybe ten plaintiffs--

MD: Ten plaintiffs?

JS: Yeah, I think roughly.

Actually, there were ten plaintiffs in the eminent domain lawsuit when it was originally filed; now there are 13 plaintiffs. Two separate lawsuits have been filed by another 13 people, tenants occupying rent-stabilized apartments. Total: 26.

CR: It seems like there are only ten families or whoever owned this units that are against this project then--

JS: There might be more, I’m just saying that--

Indeed, there might be more. Russo was apparently trying to identify the opposition only as those willing to sue. Several community groups representing constituencies outside the project footprint are expected to join in a lawsuit challenging the environmental review, and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, for example, collected 3600 letters asking that state approval be postponed until the eminent domain case was resolved.

CR: In the lawsuits there’s ten, roughly?

Poll numbers

JS: Exactly.

No, roughly. Very roughly.

JS: Overwhelmingly, just to put it into perspective, there have been a number of polls that were conducted by private entities, not by us, but by Crain’s New York Business, and by one of the local television stations, overwhelmingly, the support for this project hovers around 68-70 percent of the people who support this project, when they’re privately polled.

The Crain’s poll said support was at 60 percent. As I’ve noted, it was deeply flawed.

JS: And then when you look at the affordable housing, y’know New York City is going to grow in the next ten years by a million people… and about 300,000 of those people are going to end up in Brooklyn. People need to live someplace. There’s no place to live right now. Only four percent of the land in Brooklyn is vacant. So where will people live if you don’t build projects like this?

Yes, the decreasing availability of land is an argument for density; the question is how much.

CR: That sounds nice--

What's condemned

MF: Here’s the question I have…. Should anybody have a problem with the fact that this is a misuse of eminent domain, in that this is a private project versus doing it to build a highway or build a road or build a railroad station or whatever eminent domain has been used for in the past?

JS: Well, the courts have actually—in fact, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on this issue, and what the Supreme Court has ruled is that economic development projects are valid public purposes to do a project. Creating housing is a valid public purpose. Eliminating blight is a valid public purpose. If you were to read and listen to some of the arguments, you know, you would think we were [tearing down brownstone buildings]

Actually, several row houses on Dean Street west (above) and east (r.) of Sixth Avenue would be demolished.

JS: This is an area that has had vacant and abandoned industrial buildings, many of which were falling into the ground, for the last 30 to 50 years.

Vacant industrial buildings have been steadily converted to housing, as well. The largest building, the Pechter Fields Bakery (formerly Ward Bakery), closed in 1995. Another developer planned to turn it into a hotel before selling it to Ratner.

Income levels

JS: You’ve had a railyard that separates neighborhoods for over 100 [years]. If you look at the economic levels surrounding this railyard, these are many, many people who fall into the lower-income category.

Actually, it’s mixed. There are several buildings in the footprint with low-income, rent-stabilized tenants. There were also two buildings with luxury condos, and the largest building bordering the footprint is the high-end Newswalk condos, converted from a former Daily News printing plant. It would’ve been more relevant to say that lower-income people in nearby neighborhoods would be threatened with displacement if the project proceeds.

Office jobs

JS: So, the public purpose here isn’t about whether we’re building a highway, or whether the state’s building a highway. The public purpose really is the elimination of blighted conditions, the creation of housing, the creation of jobs, keeping offices here, giving people a place to live and, also, obviously, bringing a great professional basketball team back to New York City.

Stuckey’s use of the term “keeping offices here” may be telling. The office space has shrunk significantly, from a projected 2 million square feet and 10,000 jobs, to a projected 336,000 square feet and 1340 jobs, of which perhaps 375 would be new. All along, a question has been whether those office space would accommodate new jobs or mainly jobs relocated from Manhattan, as with a large segment of the developer MetroTech complex in Brooklyn. Stuckey’s locution suggests they'd be relocated.

Corporate motive

The Mad Dog didn't buy all of Stuckey's spiel, despite his support for Atlantic Yards.

CR: That all sounds great and Jim, Mike and I are for this, so I don’t want to say we’re against it, but you are sounding like you’re doing this out of the goodness of your heart…. Let’s be also honest, you guys are going to make plenty of money on it.

JS: Look, we are a business. You’re absolutely right. We’re not going to apologize for the fact that we’re a business and that we’re making money. But businesses don’t have to invest in New York. And businesses don’t have to invest in hard-to-develop areas.

What exactly does Stuckey mean by that? MetroTech was in some ways a hard-to-develop area, but Forest City got significant subsidies to reduce its risk.

The Atlantic Yards project is a very complex undertaking, especially construction over a railyard, but had the city and state put the railyard out for bid rather than championed Forest City for 18 months, numerous proposals for this exceedingly valuable plot of land likely would’ve emerged. One bid, from Extell, emerged even though Forest City had the inside track.


JS: And businesses don’t have to make agreements with the community the way we did, with a historic Community Benefits Agreement, where we said we’re going to work with the community.

As noted, the Community Benefits Agreement is deeply flawed more than historic.

JS: So, the answer is, businesses should make money, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you can make money the right way and you can make money the wrong way. And making money the right way is making sure that, when you do your project you include people and you hit important social goals. When we do this project, we’re going to own it, so we’re going to be in this neighborhood just as we have been in Brooklyn for the last 20 years.


CR: And you built MetroTech, correct?

JS: Exactly. We built a retail center, for example, at Atlantic Terminal, where 80 percent of the employees live within five miles and 50 percent of the managers come from Brooklyn. You have--you can marry goals. You can marry good business with good social policy.

CR: Why do you have to have an arena here? MetroTech doesn’t include an arena. Why in your eyes is the arena so essential for making this project work?

This was an interesting question, since the arena has driven $200 million in direct subsidies, and has helped Forest City garner political support, notably from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. But the conversation strayed.

Bruce loves hoops

JS: First, bringing a professional sports team back to Brooklyn, and to New York City--

CR: [Forest City Ratner CEO] Bruce [Ratner] doesn’t care about that--

JS: Of course Bruce cares about that. Bruce is at every game. Bruce completely cares about that.

CR: Yeah, but he’s into the Nets, is he into Ebbets Field and the history of Brooklyn?

Ratner doesn’t live in Brooklyn. But Stuckey changed the subject.


JS: Of course he is. The interesting thing about us is that many people who are attacking this project weren’t here when Bruce planted the seeds to start MetroTech and other projects. The interesting thing is we have people who are sometimes criticizing MetroTech and other things we’ve done, who are doing revisionist history, they weren’t here. When we started MetroTech, quite honestly, there were times when Chase Manhattan bank opened their building, there were bullet holes in some of the glass in that building.

CR: We’ve heard those stories.

JS: We have to be honest. We were here as the pioneers, and now there are a lot of other people who think it’s fashionable to say they’re pioneers, but the truth is, there’s a lot of history that this company has in terms of the renaissance of Brooklyn. I know that there are some that would like to re-spin that because they think people forget, but the truth is that Bruce Ratner came to Brooklyn when a lot of people didn’t know it existed.

Stuckey focused on Forest City’s highly-subsidized and well-defended commercial and retail development, but many critics of the developer were pioneers in reviving residential neighborhoods long before the developer’s projects.

Naming rights

MF: Jim Stuckey, president of the Atlantic Yards development group. We brought this up today, because of the fact that they announced the naming rights for the arena. Barclay will be the name on the building. The Barclay—is it the Barclays Center?

JS: Barclays Center.

CR: And they do the Westchester golf…

MF: So that’s what they announced today. There are still some people to be dealt with, there are still some lawsuits, as you stated, you’d like to get all your ducks in a row. Is it still reasonable to feel you can placate or come to agreements with everyone who has a gripe or is that a unrealistic view?

JS: We certainly hope we can, and it’s our goal… we’re willing at any time to step up to the table and speak and work with anybody.

Not if they’re suing.

Making deals

CR: Jim, how did you come up with the price? Of the 90 percent of the 22 acres, where people lived, you made deals with them, did the government fix that price of what their apartment or what they’re unit would cost?

JS: Nope.

CR: How did those deals work?

JS: We met individually with each and every single one of the owners or residents or tenants, every single one personally. In some cases they decided to come back into the project. In other cases they wanted to move into a comparable facility at a comparable or a different location, so we helped work with them to make that happen. In some cases, we had people who for example decided that they had personal situations that gave them an opportunity to make a relocation…. We had one person who had a medical condition and wanted to move back to the Midwest to be with their family, and this gave them an opportunity to do it.

CR: How’d you negotiate the price?

Market value

JS: For example, if somebody owned a condominium unit, we can’t violate their confidence…. they came to us and said, ‘It’s not relevant what we paid for our condominium unit, what’s relevant is we’re going to have to go buy another one in Brooklyn, so what we need to be is compensated for what it costs today'--

MF: --that’s a good point.

JS: --and we thought that was completely reasonable. So we worked with them on an individual one on basis, helped them find a unit that they liked, and then helped make it happen so they could move.

This “completely reasonable” point has been ignored by columnist like Errol Louis, who wrote last May:
For a real look at "displacement" – a look you won't find on the antiproject blogs – consider the condo owners, many of them newcomers who made out like bandits when Forest City bought their homes.

CR: They did OK--the bottom line is, the folks that you moved out, or displaced, or made deals with the new facility that you’re building, you made ‘em happy.

JS: We worked very hard--

CR: You didn’t penny pinch ‘em, you gave them a good deal.

Ignoring the gag order

JS: We made it very easy to make them happy. In fact, there have been a lot of stories where people have come forth to the press and basically talked about the fact that they were happy and thought they were treated very fairly.

There’s a distinction between the condo owners who were paid a healthy market rate and the tenants with whom Forest City offered deals that left them vulnerable to losing their rent-stabilized leases.

As for “come forth,” some of the agreements Forest City signed with those selling property require them to speak positively about the developer and not contribute to groups opposing the project. For a Times article, the developer agreed to lift a gag order.

CR: Now with these extra ten people you got, that you gotta take care of, do you have to be extra good to them, which is not fair to the original 90 percent? You almost gotta give the new ten the same deal you gave to the old 90, right?

Russo had the numbers all wrong and obviously doesn’t know that renters and owners have been offered different deals, not to mention that owners of businesses have resisted because relocation would be a hardship.

JS: I want to be clear, I don’t know that it’s ten people or more than ten people. I want to distinguish ten people—there may be ten people or organizations that have sued, but that doesn’t mean there’s only ten people. We ultimately don’t know how many there might be, but yes, we’re going to work very hard with them, just as we did with the first 90 percent, to try and work on a one on one basis, if they’re willing to do that.

MF: But you can move them out. You’ve already won the right to move them out, right?

JS: Let’s also be clear. Forest City as a business doesn’t have the right to move anyone. The government has the right--

Court fight over?

MF: --but they’ve already had their day in court and lost?

JS: The project has been approved from a public approval point of view, from a legislative point of view, and now they have filed suits, and they will indeed have their day in court.

A legislative “point of view” may be a good way to describe it. While the city and state have approved subsidies, there’s been no legislative vote on the project as a whole. The appointed board of the Empire State Development Corporation approved the project in 15 minutes; it was later passed by the three-member Public Authorities Control Board.

MF: Will they hold up the project?

JS: Y’know, I don’t really want to comment on the legal process.

Stuckey left the call.

Summing up

CR: Here’s what I would say. I’ll be fair. Ten percent is not enough to close the deal. How come 90 percent say it’s OK and ten percent are going to give this a hard time? If this is 50/50, I’d say, y‘know, jeez, half the people there have an issue. If 90 percent are OK with it, that’s a pretty nice percentage, is it not?

First, constitutional rights are not defended by a majority vote. Second, there’s a difference between public attitudes toward the project and the percentage of property owned or controlled by the developer.

MF: Well, I’m sure we’ll hear from the other side, the opposition, at some time, very quickly.

Turner responds

A little later, Scott Turner of Fans for Fair Play got a few minutes of airtime and found himself being challenged more aggressively by the hosts.

ST: The project’s a bad deal for Brooklyn. It doesn’t—well, for one thing, I know you guys will agree with this, in fact it does involve public money, it’s expected to involve two--

CR: If that’s the case, we shouldn’t build Shea, we shouldn’t build a new Yankee Stadium, because that involves public money too.

That’s a bit conclusory. The amount of public money should be evaluated against the expected return and competing uses. Projects differ.

ST: We feel that way. The rich team owners should be doing this. This project in Brooklyn is going to cost $2 billion, and the sports arena’s just a small part of it. It’s primarily luxury condominium buildings--

The $2 billion cost is a cumulative estimate involving tax breaks, direct subsidies, and public costs. The costs would be significant, but we really don’t know.

CR: So in other words, we can’t build Yankee Stadium then, we also can’t build Shea, because they’re being built with partly public money as well.

He didn't seem to get Turner’s point that the Atlantic Yards project is primarily a land deal.

ST: WFAN wouldn’t get a government grant to build a new studio and I wouldn’t get a government grant for my business. And I think these guys are not putting enough money back in. They had a referendum out in Seattle that said that, if the owners are going to be loaned this money, then it should return the same amount as a bond.

MF: Do you live in that area?

ST: I used to live there. I lived there for ten years, and then I got priced out: me, my wife and my dog. So now we’re living closer to Greenwood Cemetery.

Displacement questions

CR: How about the people who are being displaced? We had Jim Stuckey on, he said… 90 percent agreed to it, no problem, there’s been ten percent holdouts. Are those correct numbers?

Saying that “90 percent agreed” is not the same as control or ownership of 90 percent of the site.

ST: Well, about 1000 people have been displaced, either their jobs or their living spaces. And the things is, they didn’t have a choice but to agree to it—they could either take his money or have their properties condemned by eminent domain, and that is so anti-American that either take a person’s money you don’t like or you’re forced to move when the government say have to get out of here. And then they don’t get fair value for their property.

CR: I do think they get fair value.

ST: They don’t get fair value. When Ratner had property condemned for the Times building project in Times Square, the property owners there received 30 percent on the dollar. And that was through a state condemnation process. So there’s no guarantee that they’d get fair value.

The condo owners in the AY footprint certainly did get fair value. Not all renters and business owners and remaining homeowners believe they’d get fair value.

Arguing over history

CR: Did he do a good job at MetroTech?

ST: No, he did a terrible job at MetroTech. He promised jobs. First of all, he turned that area into a ghost town--

The failure to provide jobs has been documented.

CR: It was a ghost town before that--

ST: It’s a big corporate nine-to-five ghost town--

CR: Hold on, Scott, there were gunshots all over the place before MetroTech--

ST: There are gunshots in East New York today, but he’s not building there… If he really wants to do good for Brooklyn, he should be building truly affordable housing without government subsidies, for people out in East New York, in Bushwick.

Affordable housing

Affordable housing depends almost exclusively on government subsidies, so that’s asking a bit much.

CR: Isn’t he building affordable housing with this big development?

ST: 88 percent of the housing in the Ratner development, in Atlantic Yards, is priced beyond the reach of low-income Brooklynites, 88 percent. That’s the median income level.

It would be more precise to say that nearly 88 percent is priced beyond the reach of the average Brooklyn household, which is, according to the regional AMI, low-income.

MR: What are we talking about, what price?

ST: He’s got an affordable housing scheme where apartments for $3000 a month are listed under affordable--

That’s true, though only a few would be over $3000.

MF: What’s the purchase price of these, are they only for rent?

ST: He’s making a tiny amount available for purchase, but before that, there were no units available at all for purchase, for low-income Brooklynites.

It’s not clear whether any of the 200 affordable for-sale units would be for low-income Brooklynites. Then again, most affordable homeowner units, including those in projects beyond Atlantic Yards, are aimed at moderate- and middle-income households.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Robert Moses revisionism, Atlantic Yards "reconstruction," and the Times

Three upcoming exhibitions in New York herald a revisionist, more welcoming look at master builder Robert Moses, reports the New York Times in a Sunday article (Rehabilitating Robert Moses) just posted online.

Excluded from the main panel discussions--though later added as a solo speaker--is author Robert Caro, whose landmark critical biography, The Power Broker, is deemed by Columbia University's Hilary Ballon as placing too little emphasis on Moses's accomplishments. (The New York Observer has much more on the controversy.)

AY reconstruction?

Caro's biography is, in many ways, an indictment of a passive and cheerleading press, so perhaps it's fitting that this Times article makes two key mistakes regarding the Atlantic Yards project. First, a description:
With the city on the brink of a building boom unparalleled since Moses’ heyday — the reconstruction of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, an overhaul of the Far West Side, sweeping redevelopment downtown — Ms. Ballon and other scholars argue that his legacy is more relevant than ever.

There's no such thing as "the reconstruction of Atlantic Yards." Atlantic Yards is a project, not a place, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's 8.5-acre Vanderbilt Yard would be a key component, but hardly a majority, of the AY project.

Planning for AY?

The Times article suggests that post-Moses projects must go through a gauntlet of approval, but somehow avoids mentioning the Empire State Development Corporation fast track process to which Mayor Mike Bloomberg agreed regarding Atlantic Yards:
THOUGH the city is building big again, the process by which it’s doing so is forever changed. Planners point out that whether a project is driven by the city, like the Javits Convention Center expansion; the state, which initially led efforts to redevelop the World Trade Center site; or a private developer, like the Related Companies’ Time Warner Center (or any number of architecturally ambitious condominium projects), checks and balances now guarantee that no one planner can wield the power of Moses.

With his multiple hats and broad authority as parks commissioner and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority chairman, Moses managed to steamroll community opposition and ignore preservation concerns. Today the Landmarks and Preservation Commission, established in 1965, reviews projects like the proposed 30-story tower by Norman Foster in the Upper East Side Historic District, whose height the commission rejected this month. The Uniform Land Use Review Procedure [ULURP], adopted in 1975, ensures that a project undergoes a thorough public review process.

“Can there be another time when you can get big projects done all over the city?” Mr. Doctoroff said. “I think the answer is yes, and we’re in one now. Could you ever have one person who with imperiousness, with concentrated power, with lack of community input, could get things done? The answer is no.”

Regarding Atlantic Yards, the landmarks commission has had no role, and the state process bypasses ULURP. The project at Ground Zero went through far more hoops and public review than the AY plan.

City Planning?

The Tims article states:
And while Moses had no interest in aesthetics (which may be one reason he could move so quickly), the current city administration emphasizes design in its approval of projects, with standards imposed by officials like Amanda M. Burden, the city planning commissioner, and David Burney at the Department of Design and Construction.

As noted, Burden played no role in actually approving the project, but provided cover for a token cut.

Moses lives on, enabled by the press.

The RPA's criticism

To quote the Regional Plan Association's AY testimony:
Unfortunately, the public review process for the Atlantic Yards project is part of a pattern in which the State and the City enter into an agreement with a single developer prior to a full debate of alternatives. Ideally, this strategically vital piece of public real estate would have been the subject of a planning exercise… open bidding…. Instead, the state worked exclusively with Forest City Ratner while the MTA entered into a truncated bidding process only after a memorandum of understanding had been signed by FCRC, the state and the city. The details of the project were largely devised behind closed doors by the developer, and only minor modifications have been made in response to public criticisms. While the developer has held numerous public meetings and provided information to the community, most of the decisions regarding the site had already been made. As a result, the public has no way of knowing if this project is the best possible one for the site. It is greatly handicapped in assessing potential alternatives, and has less leverage for negotiating changes that would add to its community benefits.

Caro on the Times

From The Power Broker (p. 460):
Mrs. Sulzberger [wife of the publisher] believed that Moses came "close to our ideal of what a Park Commissioner should be"; the Times evidently believed so, too. Its reporters and editors may never have been directly ordered to give Moses special treatment but, during the Thirties as during the Twenties, they were not so insensitive as not to know what was expected of them. Moses' press releases were treated with respect, being given prominent treatment and often being printed in full. There was no investigating of the "facts" presented in those press releases, no attempt at detailed analysis of his theories of recreation and transportation, no probing of the assumptions on which the city was building and maintaining recreational facilities and roads. The Times ran more than one hundred editorials on Moses and his programs during the twelve-year La Guardia administration--overwhelmingly favorable editorials.