Friday, August 31, 2007

The Times knows how to do better, just not when it comes to Atlantic Yards

The New York Times is capable of fact-checking dubious or incomplete claims and it's capable of sustained reportorial attention--just not enough when it comes to Atlantic Yards.

Consider the tough analysis of the post-Katrina recovery, as noted in an article published Thursday headlined Commemorations for a City 2 Years After Storm. (Click on graphic to enlarge.)

Imagine if, say, the Times had similarly fact-checked the projection (according to a document by developer Forest City Ratner) that Atlantic Yards would be finished by 2015, given that the official date is 2016 and the the timetable is already behind schedule?

Or if the Times had reminded readers that the claim of 15,000 construction jobs really means 1500 jobs a year over ten years?

Or if the Times corrected the multiple claims, which it reproduced uncritically, that Atlantic Yards would be built on the "same site" as the proposed new Brooklyn Dodgers stadium?

Or if the Times, belatedly but responsibly, corrected the flagrantly inaccurate 12/11/03 claim, by then-architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, that the project site "is now an open railyard."

Maybe it's tougher to correct your own mistakes, but the Times has had a significant impact on framing the Atlantic Yards story.

Sustained attention?

Part of what makes for solid reporting is sustained attention to a story or beat, and the Times's coverage of Atlantic Yards has too often been lacking.

After the project surfaced in the summer of 2003, Atlantic Yards coverage was split mainly among a sports reporter, a commercial real estate reporter, and a reporter in the Brooklyn bureau. Only in October 2005 did the Times assign Nicholas Confessore to the Brooklyn bureau with the main responsibility to cover Atlantic Yards. (That was more than a month after my report dissected the Times's poor coverage, though I have no proof of cause and effect.)

A capable political reporter and alumnus of the Washington Monthly, Confessore had joined the paper at the end of 2004 but had no particular expertise regarding Brooklyn or development disputes.

His first two major articles, on the "modern blueprint" and changes in jobs and housing, were quite flawed. Remember, the Times let Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey claim that opponents' criticism was "Orwellian, almost." Stuckey should know from Orwellian.

His article on the AY blogosphere mainly framed bloggers' scoops as partisan talking points rather than important additions to the discourse. (It's hard to know what role his editors played in all this.)

Confessore eventually provided some more responsible coverage, such as about blight, and even challenged then-Empire State Development Corporation Chairman Charles Gargano.

Who's responsible?

Confessore was not responsible for misleading front-page article 9/5/06 about the imminent minor scaleback in the project's size. (Should we expect another Atlantic Yards "scoop" spoon-fed the Times after Labor Day this year?)

And he probably was not responsible for the Times's failure to include any graphic showing the project's scale in neighborhood context--though (I speculate) a more veteran--or foolhardy--reporter might have been more willing to challenge his bosses on the issue.

(Rendering produced by the Environmental Simulation Center for the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods and adapted by Lumi Rolley of NoLandGrab to emphasize Newswalk. Today Rolley's fact-checks an AP photo of "Atlantic Yards" published by

And once the project was approved last December, Confessore was gone, promoted to Albany after 15 months. Atlantic Yards, apparently, was a done deal and didn't require sustained scrutiny.

Since then, the Times has mostly steered clear of the story, failing, for example, to cover the hearing on the state lawsuit challenging the environmental review or the investigation of the collapse of the Ward Bakery's parapet. Still, when the Times was handed a scoop by Assemblyman Jim Brennan, Confessore was temporarily reassigned to write that July 1 article in AY financials.

Three-year assignment?

A 15-month assignment is rather brief and apparently not the norm. Recently, Times Regional Editor Jodi Rudoren, who oversees coverage of New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island and upstate New York (and has nothing to do with coverage of Brooklyn) suggested, in a Talk to the Newsroom feature, a longer tenure for Metro reporters.

A reader asked, in part:
I'm curious about the relative prestige of these departments; it always seemed to me that local reporters were waiting to be promoted to a national or international position, and saw local reporting as necessary, but less exciting and valued. Is this a common perception among the newspaper's employees, or the readership? ...

Rudoren responded:
One of the cool things about journalism careers is that there's no clear hierarchy or path, particularly among the reporting ranks. The key thing is to keep it interesting and challenging as long as possible, but the order of how that might work is up to the individual. ...We certainly have real specialists on the staff... but in general, The Times places a high value on generalists, and most people tend to switch jobs every three to five years. I think that's mostly a great thing, though it does occasionally leave us vulnerable on some beats.
(Emphasis added)

And if they switch within 15 months, well, there's even more vulnerability.

Brooklyn's a big story--it would be the country's fourth-largest city in terms of population, and projects like Atlantic Yards, the New Domino in Williamsburg, the Coney Island rezoning, and more could keep reporters busy for a while.

Unfortunately, Brooklyn College journalism professor Paul Moses's observation about the borough's place in the mediascape again bears repeating: repeating: Nowhere in the country do so many people get so little local coverage.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

New downtown? The Atlantic Yards office space, in DC context

In honor of yesterday's shortsighted Wall Street Journal article on Atlantic Yards office space, it's worth a look at how big that office space might be. Remember, when it was proposed on 12/10/03, Atlantic Yards was to contain 2.1 million square feet of office space, as "New York City requires... additional office space to create and retain new jobs."

But those four office towers, which led columnist Andrea Peyser to rhapsodize about 10,000 office jobs, have mostly been traded for condos. After two rounds of cuts, the proposed Atlantic Yards office space now would cover 336,000 square feet, with space for 1340 jobs and likely 375 new jobs.

That's hardly the new downtown some have claimed for Atlantic Yards, especially since there's no need, as yet, for all the office space proposed in the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning. Atlantic Yards would consist of an arena, a mixed-use office/condo/hotel tower, plus a residential complex--a latter-day Stuyvesant Town, much more dense but at least with retail in the base of the buildings.

Looking at DC

Consider that the entirety of the Atlantic Yards office space could fit easily in one new mid-rise building (above) in Downtown Washington, DC on 15th Street near K Street. The Columbia Center would include more than 389,000 square feet. (Photos taken in April.)

The Columbia Center, according to its developer, "is a new urban landmark, and a striking presence in the Washington office market. The building's bold, angular geometry and a dramatic glass curtainwall combine to create a defining architectural identity along 15th Street."

Broad vs. tall

As Southeast Real Estate Business reported in August 2006:
Much like South Florida, there is little developable land left in the nation’s capital. Washington, D.C.’s office market also faces the challenge of height restrictions that do not allow developers to build any structure higher than the Capitol Building. Typically, the maximum height is 12 stories tall. “The scarce land in the traditional office areas like the central business district and the East End has forced office development down K Street and into NOMA (North of Massachusetts), Southwest and Southeast,” says Rob Hartley, director of market research for Trammell Crow Company in Washington, D.C.

That means that the typical office building in Washington has a broad footprint with little open space, packing a good amount of square footage despite the height limit. The Atlantic Yards office space would be part of a very large mixed-use tower, perhaps 1 million square feet, but if that office space stood alone as a Frank Gehry building, it almost surely would be taller and narrower than the Columbia Center.

But there are a lot of Columbia Center equivalents in Washington. A new downtown needs a critical mass of such buildings, not merely one.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Wall Street Journal, on real estate and AY, needs some footnotes

A Wall Street Journal real estate column (full text for subscribers only) today tagged BLUEPRINT/Brooklyn and headlined 'Dem Bums' No Longer: A Borough on the Rise, begins:
About five decades after the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, some investors are betting that a planned arena for the Nets NBA team and a residential building boom will help clinch the borough's comeback--and push up its commercial real-estate values.

That's an odd formulation. In many ways, the borough has already come back--residential real estate values have rocketed and the question has been managing growth and maintaining affordability. And commercial real estate has been a sideshow, as both plans by the city and Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner have changed dramatically.

But the column's about commercial real estate, and there's little room for complexity.

On to AY

More than half the article is devoted to Atlantic Yards, even though the project is less and less about commercial real estate:

Among the largest projects planned is the $4 billion Atlantic Yards project being developed by Forest City Ratner Cos., an affiliate of Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises Inc. The mixed-use development was designed by Frank Gehry and is partially located over rail yards on the edge of downtown Brooklyn. It is planned to include more than 6,000 residential units and the arena for the Nets, who play in New Jersey. There also will be an office tower, dubbed "Miss Brooklyn" because Mr. Gehry's design is said to have been inspired by a bride. Forest City Ratner plans to begin construction on the arena this fall and have the Nets in Brooklyn for the 2009-2010 season.

Unmentioned: that schedule is highly unlikely.

How much office space, at what cost?

The article continues:
Miss Brooklyn is expected to command rents in the $50-to-$60-a-square-foot range, according to MaryAnne Gilmartin, executive vice president for Forest City Ratner. That is above the $30 average asking rent in Brooklyn, which has historically appealed to financial-services companies as an affordable back-office location that offers good value in comparison to Manhattan. But Glenn Markman, an executive director at Cushman & Wakefield, believes the borough will attract new types of companies, such as those in creative industries that will be willing to pay higher rates for a signature building.

Maybe. The New York Times reports today some comparisons:
Landlords are asking $36.85 a square foot on average for Class A office space in Jersey City now, up almost 14 percent from a year ago. During that time, average asking rents in Lower Manhattan rose more than 25 percent, to $50.59, according to Cushman & Wakefield, a real estate services company.

Actually, according to projections in a Forest City Ratner document released in response to the lawsuit by Assemblyman Jim Brennan and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Class A office space is expected to rent at $39 for the first five years, $42.90 for the next five years, $47.19 for the next five years. It would top $50, at $51.91, only beginning in year 16. (See p. 9 of this PDF.) Those projections are almost a year old, but Brooklyn still has a good amount of empty office space.

Unmentioned: the severe cutback in planned Atlantic Yards office space, from about 2 million square feet to 336,000 square feet, and thus a cut in projected jobs. While Brooklyn may attract creative industries, the justification for the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, and the initial Atlantic Yards office space, was to meet the need for back office space--large floor plates in large building sites for non-creative industries like financial services.

Public opposition

The article continues:
The plan still faces opposition from area residents and legal challenges. Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for a group opposed to the project called Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, says many residents are concerned their neighborhood will be changed for the worse by traffic generated by the arena and the nature of the overall development, which, they fear, will alter the diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups that make Brooklyn special.

Beyond that fuzzy summary, the challenge in state court takes on the government's dubious claims of blight, while the challenge in federal court argues that eminent domain must proceed via a more transparent and democratic planning process.

Developer responsiveness?

The article concludes by giving the developer the benefit of the doubt:
Ms. Gilmartin says Forest City has cut about one million square feet from the project and has worked with state, city and local leaders to address issues of scale and density. In addition, she says the project's location over one of the city's biggest transit hubs makes sense because it will give people access to public transportation, which can help limit traffic.

Gilmartin seems to be channeling her mysteriously-departed predecessor, Jim Stuckey: the project, in terms of square footage, is about the same size as announced, an issue that flummoxed the press nearly a year ago. Of course density is appropriate near a transit hub; the issue is not the prospect of density, but how much.

Our lagging infrastructure, the mismatch with municipalities, and the AY (bad) example

A bridge collapse in Minneapolis and a steam-pipe explosion in Manhattan serve as a jumping-off point for a lengthy New Republic essay by architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen, headlined American Collapse (subscribers only).

And, yes, Atlantic Yards eventually surfaces as a bad example of a public-private partnership that skirts real public needs. Both she and Joel Kotkin, an analyst writing in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, point to an unhealthy municipal focus on sports facilities and other sideshows.

She writes:
Headlines screeching news of these two horrifying events have replaced, temporarily, the usual newspaper rhythm of weekly incantations announcing this or that city's plans for adorning itself with a new stadium, public park, or luminescent museum--announcements that often serve to distract the public's attention from the silent scourge afflicting this country's viscera. One pipe explosion and one bridge collapse just might be enough to rouse the public to the news that America's metropolitan regions are in serious trouble. Bridges, utilities, and flood-prevention systems, whether publicly or privately owned, are grossly neglected…

While these matters are usually discussed as problems related to localities or specific pieces of infrastructure, she warns that a balkanized approach is dangerous, and that we should "dispense absolutely with the dichotomy of city versus suburb" but rather think about metropolitan regions.

In his more brief commentary yesterday headlined Road Work author Kotkin similarly looks at our misplaced priorities:
Rather than deal with the expensive and difficult task of retrofitting the sinews of commerce and communication — bridges, tunnels, roads, rail lines, ports, sewers, and drainage systems — America's urban powers focus on the ephemeral and the glitzy. They emphasize not brick and mortar, but sports stadia, convention centers, arts palaces, dubiously effective new light-rail lines, hotels and condo projects.

Of course, ribbon cuttings for such facilities and announcements of new sports teams tend to provide primo p.r. opportunities for elected officials and the private entities they choose to partner with--witness the Nets jerseys unveiled for the initial Atlantic Yards press conference.

Infrastructure issues

Infrastructure, Williams Goldhagen points out, bridges cities, suburbs, and beyond. (Indeed, why is it that the Washington, DC Metro extends into Maryland and Virginia but the New York City Transit Authority subways don’t connect with New Jersey’s PATH trains?)

She writes:
Infrastructure is one crucial point at which politics and architecture merge. A country's physical plant should be front and center in the policy agendas of its public officials, and it should be front and center in the intellectual and professional agendas of the professional stewards of its built environment. For many reasons, this is not the case in the United States... But infrastructure should be defined not by what it looks like, and not by who designs it or who pays for it, and not by who builds it or actually uses it. It should be defined by whom it is meant to serve.

And much of our infrastructure is in lousy shape. According to the latest (2005) "Infrastructure Report Card" by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the highest grade for any of fifteen categories was C, while ten categories—“including drinking water, waste-water management, navigable waterways, transit, and schools--received scores in the D range.”

How did we get here?

She compares the U.S. to metropolitan regions rapidly developing countries in Asia, “and the gross inferiority of America's physical infrastructure is immediately apparent.” (Indeed; go to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and there’s a speedy, spiffy “train to the plane.”) But even Europe or Canada surpass us; she points to Barcelona’s revamp in preparation for the 1992 Summer Olympics and Vancouver's effort to create a 24-hour city, with the continent’s fastest-growing residential downtown.

But infrastructure is expensive, and hard to plan; she points to recent exhibitions in New York on Robert Moses, which show how difficult it is to plan and coordinate public investment involving federal, state, and local initiatives. Voters don’t like to pay for expensive projects, and thus elected officials don’t like to associate themselves with them. Costly maintenance provides even less political advantage. (So a second-term mayor like Mike Bloomberg, whose PlaNYC 2030 does look ahead, shows unusual foresight.)

Williams Goldhagen writes:
Even in the heyday of American infrastructure-building, from 1930 to 1970, it took an imperious wheeler-dealer such as Robert Moses to take maximal advantage of the funds that the federal government was making available to American cities: owing to Moses, for example, New York City received more than twice the Title I funds for slum clearance of any other city in the country. Robert Caro, Moses’s biographer, who was simultaneously fascinated and revolted by Moses’s labyrinthine anti-democratic conception of his calling, conceded in The Power Broker that “the problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting, where such works impinge upon the lives of or displace thousands of voters, is one that democracy has not yet solved.” American democracy, that is.

Since the 1970s, she writes, it’s gotten worse, since the structure of states and municipalities doesn’t fit in managing a cross-border metropolitan area. (Indeed; how much could Newark, linked into the New York City Transit Authority, contribute to fighting the regional affordable housing problem?) And the federal government has gotten out of the infrastructure business.

She writes:
Shouldn't we think about our country's physical plant in terms not that different from our legal and regulatory systems in general--as a necessary foundation for the social and economic health and growth of this country, requiring substantial federal leadership and funding? We need a national infrastructure for infrastructure.

Moses, Jacobs, and beyond

She also laments “the public's lack of faith” in the expertise of “city planners, urban designers, architects, landscape architects, and civil engineers,” contrasting it to our willingness to trust other experts like lawyers and doctors. She considers some of the blame justified, some not.

She writes:
It began with the widely publicized failures of the federally funded slum clearance and urban renewal programs of the 1960s, which nurtured a crude morality tale of the consequences of governmental intervention in the country's physical plant, a David-and-Goliath melodrama played out in the standoff between a feisty little lady named Jane Jacobs and an outsize predatory "expert" named Robert Moses. An overly simplistic and misleading fable was born, according to which government should keep its grubby hands off our cities. Nearly half a century later, this legend continues to dominate public thinking about how our country's infrastructure should be managed.

Today's city planners are seen as clueless and well-meaning bureaucrats at best, and as anti-democratic elitists at worst. Architects, landscape architects, and urban designers (including the many who do not merit the slander) are depicted as divas who care more about fancy forms than about the people who live in their buildings or the clients who build them. Expertise in the built environment is often held in public ridicule. As a result, folk wisdom has it that it is up to the public-spirited citizen--the community board activist, the local environmental review agency, the historic preservation commission--to stop them: thus unwittingly validating a salient quotation that was prominently displayed in one of the Moses exhibitions. "The critics," he once said, "build nothing."

And this of course is the ready reaction to Atlantic Yards critics and opponents, even labeling them NIMBYs, though a group that organized the alternative UNITY plan for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard could hardly be called NIMBY.

Williams Goldhagen allows that public mistrust “is not wholly misplaced” and suggests that two “glaringly inadequate” visions dominate architecture and urban design. She writes:
The CNU [Congress for New Urbanism], inspired by the ideas in Jacobs's The Death and Life of American Cities, promotes a more or less sensible set of principles for urban development that are now commonly accepted: zoning should nurture a mix of commercial, retail, and residential uses; density is preferable to sprawl; nodal communities are preferable to bedroom suburbs; infrastructural planning should prioritize mass transit over the automobile; and so on.

But most CNU examples, she suggests, such as Seaside and Celebration, Florida, don't work. She calls the other option, promulgated by Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, "little more than developer-friendly urbanism." Her one hope is James Corner, of Field Operations in New York City, which "is committed to an interdisciplinary approach to the infrastructural, ecological, and social problems facing metropolitan regions," but so far has only proposed rather than executed some major projects.

It's disappointing that she didn't try to address the New York City Department of City Planning's efforts, which are extensive--and, of course, omit Atlantic Yards.

Plans and privatization

On paper, she suggests, Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's Central Area Plan for Chicago, both look good. But on the ground, “much of what is being done is pernicious.” She points to the willingness of city and even state governments to sell off parts of their public infrastructures—roadways, water systems, etc.—to private bidders.

While she doesn't mention it, Forest City Ratner's plan to provide a new Vanderbilt Yard for the MTA as part of a larger development, rather than have the MTA identify its infrastructure needs first, shows another example of a developer taking the lead.

One worthy private effort, she suggests, is the recently opened Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, a public amenity funded almost entirely through philanthropy—and thus not a replicable model.

(I wrote about the park in January. Photo from the Seattle Art Museum.)

The desperation of Atlantic Yards

And then she finds Atlantic Yards the poster child of a public-private partnership gone wrong, though I think she focuses on the wrong thing. She writes:
More typical are the so-called public-private partnerships to which desperate cities across the country have been increasingly turning since the 1970s. One such project is Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. Headlines on this project have predictably run this way: Brooklyn teams up with the developer Bruce Ratner to create a major new project that will contain private residences (which will profit the developer) and new public amenities. This project will jump-start the economic revitalization of downtown Brooklyn. Then a few years go by. New headlines: New York City has granted Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner X, Y, and Z additional zoning, or land use, or other concessions. These concessions threaten to severely limit public access to the project. Yet if the concessions are not granted, the developer may pull out, to the economic detriment of the city. If Atlantic Yards is built as it is now envisioned, its public spaces are likely to suffer the same fate as those "privately owned public spaces" in Manhattan that Jerold Kayden meticulously documented in his book Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience.

The failure to propose truly public space is hardly the greatest vulnerability of the Atlantic Yards plan, and Forest City Ratner has not publicly threatened to pull out without getting additional subsidies or concessions.

Rather, the still-fuzzy accounting of subsidies, the failure to plan in ways PlaNYC 2030 now recommends, and the questionable claims of blight are among the bigger issues raised by AY.

Who's responsible?

The privatization of infrastructure, Williams Goldhagen warns, leaves bottom-line focused companies to ignore larger needs and points to a larger political responsibility:
Infrastructure is the classic public good that the free market does not and cannot provide. On the scale that is necessary, only the federal government can make the difference.

...We need a National Infrastructure Agency... At the very least Congress should establish a federal line-item capital budget, as most other developed countries have, which would help to reduce the perpetual scanting of long-term budgetary needs in favor of short-term ones. State officials should demand federal assistance to address their infrastructural needs. Municipal officials should find the legal and political mechanisms... that would allow them to work in concert with, rather than in competition with, their counterparts in neighboring communities. Leading design professionals should refuse to be merely producers of high-end cultural icons and luxury housing, and make themselves relevant to every part of the infrastructure challenge, and work to re-instate the public's trust in their authority.

The public good

She concludes:
Surely ordinary Americans can recognize this crisis: they drive on it, cursing the traffic, every day. The ribbon of concrete and steel washing into the Mississippi River; the chasm on West 41st Street in New York (or the larger one--very different in origin, to be sure--that remains at New York City's Ground Zero); the boarded-up acres of urban disaster in New Orleans that Hurricane Katrina left behind; the billions of gallons of raw sewage released into our waterways every year; the stupendously mediocre Rose Kennedy Greenway; the bridges and the highways closed because of some spectacular failure or the need for emergency repairs--all these disasters are only the most publicly visible evidence of what happens, or does not happen, when policymakers and design professionals fail to effectively use their power for the oldest and best purpose of all, America's public good.

Brooklyn, as the Empire State Development Corporation has declared, would seem to be getting some elements of the public good via the Atlantic Yards plan: a new subway entrance, a new railyard, affordable housing, open space. However, as Williams Goldhagen's essay suggests, a developer-led process may be enough to convince local decisionmakers, but it may not be a full assessment of community needs, or the appropriate balance of costs and benefits.

However, as she also suggests, an inability or unwillingness to plan and fund projects can lead communities to turn to developers. But that's not the fate for all of New York City and the balance is different elsewhere; the Columbia University expansion and the proposed Coney Island development are both proceeding with greater weight for community and civic skepticism.

Atlantic Yards, which seems to be popping up more regularly as a negative example, seems to have already taught officials some lessons.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The “owner-use” eviction controversy comes to Prospect Heights

As property values skyrocket in New York, the cheapest—though perhaps not the least risky—route to a substantial living space may be the use (or exploitation) of the “owner-use” clause in state rent regulations, which allows landlords of rent-stabilized buildings to take “one or more apartments” for personal use.
(Photos by Jonathan Barkey except as marked.)

And that’s the issue on Bergen Street in Prospect Heights, where dozens of neighbors, along with some elected officials, on Sunday protested plans by the new owners of 533 Bergen to use five of eight apartments for their family, thus evicting rent-stabilized tenants from four railroad apartments, each averaging not much more than 800 square feet.

“I have no problem with them having a big house,” commented lawyer Brent Meltzer of South Brooklyn Legal Services (SBLS), who represents 28-year tenant Evelyn Suarez, who faces eviction. “But why develop on the backs of these tenants?”
(Pictured are Suarez (l.) and fellow tenant Sillather Bullock, who calls her neighbor "a second mom." Bullock does not face eviction. Photo by Adrian Kinloch.)

Because, apparently, it’s cheaper--and follows the letter, if perhaps not the spirit, of the law. The four-story building cost owners Deanne Cheuk, Andre Wiesmayr, Felicity Loughrey, and Dan Bailey $860,000 in 2006, a jump from the $470,000 sales price in 2004, according to city records, but still a relative bargain in today’s real estate market. One rent-stabilized tenant, apparently without much legal counsel, already departed on payment of a pittance. Of the three apartments not targeted, according to Meltzer, tenants pay $2000, $700, and $800 a month.

Indeed, while rent-stabilization laws have kept the rent for Suarez, who lives in her apartment (right) with two children and a grandson, at $402, the estimated market value of the building, according to city records, has skyrocketed.
2003: $232,000
2004: $544,000
2005: $555,000
2006: $666,000
2007: $799,000

Bailey and Loughrey, who live in the building, were out of town, and messages left for them and their lawyer were not answered. But attorney Jeffrey Goldman told the Brooklyn Paper earlier this year that, while Suarez wouldn’t likely find a similar rent, she’s long enjoyed a “very good government deal” and like many others, will face the market. “I don’t think that’s unfair,” Goldman said. “It may be unfortunate. But I don’t think it’s unfair.”

“Do they wish there was some other way?” Goldman said. “Yes, but in today’s market, it’s just not possible.” Suarez, whose apartment has a bunk bed in the main bedroom, says she fears going to a shelter.

"It's a very difficult situation," said tenant Carlos Martinez (right) at the protest, speaking through a translator. He and his family have lived in the building for 17 years.

Meanwhile, Bailey and Loughrey, who have one child so far, seek the same amount of space some other families—wealthier, luckier, more frugal?—have gained elsewhere in the city or country: a first floor with a living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry room, storage room, and bathroom; a second floor with four bedrooms and two bathroom; and a third floor with a guest bedroom and den.

Comments on Brownstoner yesterday ran the gamut, with defenders of the owners calling rent-stabilized units “an incredible perk” and pointing to the disconnection, in some cases, between actual need and access to such units and the difficulty of evicting illegal subletters. Defenders of the tenants, however, pointed out that the price of the building factored in the presence of rent-stabilized tenants.

The protest was organized by the Fifth Avenue Committee, along with SBLS. A letter to Bailey and Loughrey handed out at the block party stated, “Your intent to evict our neighbors is nothing less than an affront to this community and to the character which it embodies.” And promotional material referred to Cheuk as an “international design favorite” and Loughrey as a “celebrity journalist,” questioning whether “good artists” could be “good neighbors.” In other words, without the law on their side, the tenants and their advocates must try moral suasion--and beyond, as the snake on the balloon indicates.

The law evolves

Also attending the protest were several tenants from 47 East Third Street in the East Village, where an even more dramatic owner-use eviction case is unfolding, and has led so far to a state court decision denounced by tenants and tenant advocates, including a good number of elected officials in Manhattan.

Catherine and Alistair Economakis, who own the building, live in a floor-through apartment on Pacific Street with two children but want a larger space for their family. They initially filed plans to evict all tenants from the 15 apartments at the six-story building, turning an 11,600 square foot, 60-room building into a home with five bedrooms, six bathrooms, a den, a playroom, a gym, a library, and a two-floor living room. (Next door is a Catholic Worker soup kitchen and down the block is the Hell's Angels clubhouse.)

While a trial court ruled that allowing a landlord to recover all the remaining units in a tenement building for owner-occupancy purposes would be incompatible with the Rent Stabilization code’s intent to provide affordable and stable housing to city residents, the New York State Appellate Division February 15 unanimously overruled that decision.

The judges ruled:
We disagree because the Legislature has determined that an owner's need to recover units for personal use and occupancy as a primary residence is a legitimate exception to the rent stabilization scheme. Plaintiffs' argument that a restriction on the number of units that may be recovered for personal use is more consistent with the rent stabilization scheme is more appropriately directed to the State Legislature.

Assemblymember Deborah J. Glick called the landlords’ proposal “cruel” and said that, “along with more than 25 of my colleagues in the City and State Legislatures, I sent a letter to New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo about the dreadful Appellate Division ruling.”

A letter to Gov. Eliot Spitzer handed out at the protest said, “It is a cruel irony that the long term residents who fought to make our neighborhoods better places are now being displaced, ‘victims of their own success.’” The letter urged that the law be amended to limit the number of units a landlord may recover for his/her family to one and to enhance penalties for those who evict tenants and then, rather than use them for family as stated, rent the apartments at market rate.

(Tenant advocates in the New York Is Our Home! Affordable Rent Campaign request: Make the rules for NYC the same as those used in the suburban counties: restrict landlords two units for their own personal use, should have to show an immediate need for the unit, and seniors, disabled tenants and tenants in occupancy for 20 years or more should be protected against owner-use evictions.)

In The Villager, Economakis said that the building cost about $800,000 and noted, “The cost to renovate this property and convert it to a single-family home is significantly less than anything comparable on the market.” (A renovation would cost about $350,000).

The Villager reported:
Asked whether he felt turning a 11,600-square-foot tenement into a single-family dwelling was excessive, Economakis replied: “As long as an owner can prove he has a good-faith intent to occupy the space, no one should tell him whether he has the right to live in a certain size home.”

So far, the courts agree.

Economakis now says six of the remaining nine rent-stabilized tenants could stay, but, according to The Villager, would not say if that offer was still on the table.

A 6/26/05 New York Times article on the conflict, headlined Everybody Out?, quoted Andrew Scherer, who represents tenants and wrote Residential Landlord-Tenant Law in New York, "The size of the space that somebody claims they intend to live in must pass what lawyers call the 'giggle test' -- the notion that the claim is believable and will not cause a judge to start to giggle. The idea that someone would take 15 units with 60 rooms as a primary residence is absurd."

The case in Brooklyn is surely less “absurd,” but the principle is similar.

AY effect?

Both City Council Member Letitia James (right) and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery cited the looming effect of Atlantic Yards, as did advocates for the tenants. But Atlantic Yards may be more a symptom than a cause. Bergen Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues is a diverse block in a less diverse district. The eastern segment is mostly row houses, several with "No Arena" signage.

The western segment, which includes 533 Bergen, is a mix of old tenements and industrial buildings; one of the latter houses a city Department of Housing Preservation and Development service center, another was torn down for new housing, while another houses Lava, an all-female troupe whose work combines dance, theater and acrobatics.
(Photo by Adrian Kinloch)

Nearly across the street from 533 Bergen is the Iglesia Evangelica Latina, a sign of the neighborhood’s Spanish speaking community. Next door to 533 Bergen is a home operated by Girls and Boys Town (right), where some two-thirds of the youth “have had formal court involvement for delinquent acts such as theft.” To the east, at Carlton and down one block to St. Marks, a bodega was supplanted in 2005 by Restaurant Sorrel.

Two doors to the west is the Dean Street playground, site of some stupendous renderings of Atlantic Yards, which would encroach on the north side of Dean Street. At the corner with Sixth Avenue is the 78th Precinct headquarters.

Census figures from 2000 place this block of Bergen Street smack in the middle of an upper-income district, suggesting it was a bit of an anomaly. (Click to enlarge; mark indicates location of 533 Bergen.)

Concerns about Atlantic Yards-related traffic may dampen, rather than enhance property values. The most dramatic changes are likely to come in outlying areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant, where tenants without rent regulation would see rents rise.

In other words, the most likely explanation for this conflict is that this building was a relative bargain in the midst of gentrification, Atlantic Yards or not.

And times certainly have changed. A search on “533 Bergen Street” turns up a 5/16/85 New York Times article, which reports that two Brooklyn men, one a resident of 533 Bergen, robbed a Brooklyn wholesale clothing and knitwear manufacturer in Gowanus. One of the gunmen died in the shootout. Not only has crime declined in 22 years, but so has manufacturing. Meanwhile, housing values have rocketed.

Monday, August 27, 2007

At the beach volleyball tourney, Nets synergy but no ticket promotion

The just-concluded second annual Brooklyn Open, the new stop on the AVP pro beach volleyball tour, signals a commitment to a broader borough presence from Forest City Ratner subsidiary Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment (BSE).

And there's surely synergy; as the NetsDaily blog pointed out yesterday, Nets star Vince Carter and Nets owner Bruce Ratner presented the winning check, and the tournament winners wore Nets jerseys.

However, it looks like the FCR folks are fine-tuning their approach. Last year, according to an interview quoted by NetsDaily, a BSE executive referred to the new company as "Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment in partnership with Atlantic Yards." And that, of course, is what the signage said last year (below).

This year's model, however, eschewed the Atlantic Yards mention, though a press release mentioned it. Of course, Barclays, which bought naming rights to the planned arena, signed on as a sponsor.

Does Atlantic Yards no longer need a plug, now that it's been approved?

No Nets tix

When I wandered by temporary tour stadium off the Coney Island boardwalk at about 12:30 pm on Saturday, there were many empty seats, as the photos below show. More fans were on their way, so maybe it filled up later, as it apparently did last year.

One noticeable difference: unlike at last year's event, there was no booth promoting Nets tickets next to the main ticket table.

What to make of it? Was it more important last year to promote the Nets? Were ticket sales too low to make it worthwhile? Is the focus now on selling high-rollers access to more expensive suites in the planned Barclays Center?

Still, as the photos show, Forest City Ratner and Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment got plenty of exposure.

A Nets fan's candor: 2009 deadline "increasingly unlikely"

As part of a blog post yesterday on the efforts by Forest City Ratner to become more of a sporting presence in the borough, via Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment's (BSE) sponsorship of events like the pro volleyball tour, the anonymous fan behind the NetsDaily Blog lists potential arena events and muses, "None of this can happen until the arena is built and that 2009-10 deadline looks increasingly unlikely."

Indeed, the project is way behind schedule.

NetsDaily also cites a 2006 quote from BSE executive Chris Brahe: "As you know we are moving our team to Brooklyn, hopefully for the 2009 season..."
(Emphasis added)

Forest City Enterprises executive Chuck Ratner in March seemingly confirmed a 2010-11 opening season, then insisted afterward, "We remain committed to our goal of opening the arena in time for the 2009-2010 NBA basketball season.”

The future of Coney Island will not look quite like this

Thor Equities may call its changing, not-yet-approved plan for a prime chunk of the Coney Island amusement zone "the future of Coney Island," and that may be so--at least for that central portion.

But it's unlikely that the future will be defined by the enduring Coney Island icons--the Cylcone, the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump--Thor has chosen for its oft-repeated graphics, which line the walls of prime but empty property along Stillwell Avenue, the straight shot from the subway to the beach.

For Atlantic Yards watchers, it may hearken back to 2003, when the 16-tower Atlantic Yards megaproject was launched with a web site called

Showdown in September?

A Daily News article yesterday, headlined Sands of time catch up to Coney Island, suggests a showdown next month:
Megadeveloper Thor Equities and its president Joe Sitt envision hotels, entertainment venues and amusement parks in a new Coney Island that draws crowds year-round.

The success of that vision — as well as another plan to build mostly luxury housing by developer Taconic Investment Partners — hinges on a city zoning overhaul expected to be released in September.

The city has never been thrilled with Thor's Las Vegas-style vision. Earlier this month, a high-ranking city official told The News, "Thor's proposal is dead in the water."

One concern is that land may remain fallow and boardwalk storefronts empty if the city and Thor remain deadlocked.

Channeling Jane Jacobs?

An esteemed historian of Coney's good times and bad offered a money quote to the Daily News:
"What's strange is Coney Island has always had this sense of anarchy and now here's somebody who's trying to sterilize and impose a vision of retail-tainment," said Coney Island historian Charles Denson. "Sitt's not an evil guy. But this is his vision and the worst thing to have in Coney Island is one person's singular vision."

Denson sounded like he was channeling urbanist Jane Jacobs, patron saint of mixed uses and diversity of ownership. She wrote:
The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop -- insofar as public policy and action can do so -- cities that are congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans, ideas, and opportunities to flourish.

She was writing about neighborhoods, not amusement districts, and surely many amusement parks or areas have just one owner. But Coney is different, right? The Department of City Planning has been resistant to Sitt's plans, so let's see what emerges.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Civic project? The (unmoored) Nets net Wrigley as "off-season presenting sponsor"

Still pending, with a decision expected in September, is a lawsuit, filed in state court, by Atlantic Yards opponents and critics challenging the legitimacy of the environmental review. “The legislature did not intend a privately owned sports facility” to be a civic project, plaintiffs' attorney Jeff Baker contended in court on May 3.

But what is a civic project? It's defined as “A project or that portion of a multi-purpose project designed and intended for the purpose of providing facilities for educational, cultural, recreational, community, municipal, public service or other civic purposes.” Attorneys for the Empire State Development Corporation argue that sports facilities of course constitute civic projects.

That may be so, but how much are sports franchises about community spirit--remember the attorney for the MTA cited "civic pride"--and how much are they about marketing opportunities?

Wrigley's and the Nets

That brings us to... gum. Wrigley has become the National Basketball Association's official chewing gum. And a Forest City Ratner press release avoids the location New Jersey--no civic pride for the Garden State?--in announcing some special news regarding the Nets:
The Nets have named Wrigley as the first-ever off-season presenting sponsor for a sports team in the metropolitan area.

In presenting Nets Overtime: The Summer Season, Wrigley will receive rotating brand exposure of its five chewing gum brands -- Big Red, Juicy Fruit, Doublemint, Wrigley’s Spearmint and Winterfresh – on all communications including, but not limited to, press banners, press releases, email campaigns and, as well as all materials associated with basketball clinics, community programs, season ticket holder events, ticket sales collateral and the 2007 NBA Draft.

Nets Overtime runs throughout late spring and the summer until the opening day of training camp in October. It will include an extensive series of events and activities such as the Nets Draft Party, basketball camps and clinics, coaching clinics, street fairs, and auditions for the Nets Dancers, Nets Kids, Team Hype, and the NETSational Seniors.

"Nets Overtime is a unique opportunity to create value for the Wrigley brands by strengthening their awareness to our fan-base and beyond in the number one media market,” said Nets CEO Brett Yormark. “Wherever our brand goes, the Wrigley brands will be visible. We are thrilled that Wrigley is demonstrating its commitment to Nets Basketball and are confident that this new partnership will provide a powerful opportunity for it to deliver a direct, positive message.”

In addition, Wrigley, a Chicago-based company, will be a valued partner of the Nets throughout the 2007-08 season. The agreement includes an extensive list of unique elements tailored to the company’s communication goals such as the branding of the Nets locker room and ball boys, gum dispensers on the team benches and scorers’ table, courtside and LED signage, presence on, unique in-store retailer promotions, and a fan-friendly in-arena feature.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Governor signs 421-a revision; Times, others ignore "Atlantic Yards carve-out"

So Governor Eliot Spitzer has signed the reform of the 421-a tax break, which includes an "Atlantic Yards carve-out" worth up to $200 million for developer Forest City Ratner. When the "carve-out" was worth $300 million, it was criticized by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, ACORN's Bertha Lewis, Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, affordable housing advocate Brad Lander, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), the Brooklyn Paper, and others.

When it was reduced but not eliminated, the only official to offer measured criticism was Jeffries. (He issued it after I queried him, but he may have been prepared to issue a statement anyway.) DDDB seemingly stood alone in its forceful criticism.

Affordable housing advocates, city officials, state officials, and the public at large all had something to gain in the revised legislation, beyond the "carve-out." So perhaps some critics felt they could only go so far.

But what about those seemingly independent? Good government advocates were silent, as were editorial pages beyond that initial Brooklyn Paper comment. The New York Times, in its reporting, managed to mangle the historical record. No one beyond a few Brooklynites questioned whether signing the bill comports with Spitzer's claim of being a reformer.

Moses redux?

It's somewhat reminiscent of the success of Robert Moses, the power broker and master builder who changed the face of New York not merely by leveraging significant federal funds but by getting the pillars of New York liberalism to concur. (Also, he had the press on his side.)

We've recently been through some Moses revisionism, but that began years ago. One example is Joel Schwartz's 1993 book The New York Approach: Robert Moses, Urban Liberals, and Redevelopment of the Inner City, which is available online in full from the Ohio State University Press.

Schwartz concludes:
The New York approach depended not only on Moses and his men on the Committee on Slum Clearance, but also on his allies in the liberal city. He could not have succeeded without them and the era of active, interventionist government that they shaped. The Title I program, the product of postwar liberalism, could not have been engineered by the AFL building trades alone or by Tammany, which was battered and in eclipse. It also depended on the ambitions of liberal New Yorkers. Moses could count on a realtor such as William Zeckendorf, a Brooklyn banker such as Thomas Shanahan, and a political fixer such as John McGrath. But redevelopment also needed stalwart liberals such as Samuel Rosenman and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., union housing visionaries such as Abraham Kazan and Maxwell Tretter, ethical realtors such as James Felt and Milton Saslow, inspired capitalists such as David Rockefeller, and inspired planners such as Lawrence Orton. Some were Randall's Island cronies. Others were only limited partners in particular projects. Still others managed to convince themselves that their own decent pursuits were detached from Moses's ruthless deals. But they were all participants in the redevelopment of New York.

(Emphasis added)

The Times's report

From today's New York Times, an unbylined article, headlined New Laws for Housing Tax Break, seems based on the governor's press release, but ignores the carve-out:
Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed into law yesterday three bills to revamp a popular tax break for developers and encourage the construction of thousands of apartments for low-income New York City residents.

The laws are expected to expand the number of neighborhoods where developers are required to include apartments for residents of limited means in order to receive tax breaks. Advocates for lower-cost housing have long said the laws would mean more housing for low-income residents and fewer incentives for developers to build luxury high-rises.

“This legislation will allow New York City to target its limited tax abatement resources to more effectively promote the construction of affordable housing in the neighborhoods that need it most,” the governor said. The tax program that is being revamped, known as 421-a, was started in the 1970s to spur housing development of any kind. Under it, developers received a 10-to-25-year exemption from increases in property taxes resulting from their work. But government officials and advocates for affordable housing say that given the change in New York’s real estate market since the program’s inception, the tax breaks are no longer needed in Midtown and other thriving parts of the city.

Under the new laws, developers will be required to meet more stringent affordability standards, give priority to neighborhood residents for lower-cost units, and ensure that units remain affordable for at least 35 years.

The governor's press release

Spitzer's press release mentions Atlantic Yards, but fails to explain how it would get special treatment. The headline is GOVERNOR SPITZER SIGNS BILL TO REFORM NYC TAX EXEMPTION FOR HOUSING DEVELOPMENT: New Law Will Encourage Construction of Affordable Housing. It states:

Governor Eliot Spitzer today announced that he has signed bills that will encourage housing construction throughout New York City, with an emphasis on the construction of affordable housing. The package of bills reform New York’s outdated 421-a law to better target limited resources to neighborhoods in need of affordable housing.

“This legislation will allow New York City to target its limited tax abatement resources to more effectively promote the construction of affordable housing in the neighborhoods that need it most,” Governor Spitzer said. “This reformed law will build on our efforts to solve the housing crisis that has pushed too many working New Yorkers out of the middle class and prevented those struggling New Yorkers from climbing up into economic security.”

The 421-a program was initially established 36 years ago to promote the construction of multiple dwelling housing units in New York City during a housing market downturn. The law has provided property tax exemptions to housing developers, particularly developers of desperately needed affordable housing, and has produced more than 110,000 apartments in New York City.

Given the dramatically changed real estate market in New York City since the program’s inception, tax breaks are no longer necessary as incentives for pure market-rate housing projects in many booming areas of the city. Thus, reform of the program was necessary to direct more of these tax dollars toward the production of affordable housing.

The three bills signed into law amend the 421-a program to significantly expand the areas within which affordable housing is required for tax abatements; require that these units meet more stringent affordability standards; give community residents priority for the affordable units; assure that these units will remain affordable over a long period of time; and require projects receiving City tax subsidies to pay prevailing wages to their building service employees. Moreover, a grandfather provision is included that prevents the disruption of projects already in the development pipeline by exempting them from these new regulations.

The Legislature has also agreed to swiftly pass further reforms that address some outstanding concerns. Among other provisions, these promised amendments will assure New York City’s continued ability to provide tax abatements to moderate and middle income housing projects for which it is providing substantial government assistance. They will also assure that the buildings that make up the Atlantic Yards project will receive enhanced abatements only if they meet on-site affordability requirements during each phase of project construction.

“I am pleased that all sides were able to come together to produce this important reform, which is critical to the future development of affordable housing in New York City,” Governor Spitzer said.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “I want to thank Governor Spitzer and our partners in State government, along with the City Council and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, for coming to a landmark agreement on 421-a reform. Through inventive rezonings and the largest municipal affordable housing plan in the nation’s history, we have already built tens of thousand of affordable units, and today’s signing - along with the additional amendments that the Legislature has agreed to swiftly pass - will ensure that we have the tools to spur even more affordable housing construction for years to come.”

Assemblyman Vito Lopez, Assembly sponsor of the legislation, said: “I commend Governor Eliot Spitzer for signing the 421-a Reform Bill into law. This groundbreaking reform will for the first time require the production of on-site affordable housing for working class families in many of the City’s up-and-coming neighborhoods. In an unprecedented effort to offset gentrification, our reform also mandates that 50% of the affordable units built using 421-a will be set aside for community residents, and that all the affordable units will remain affordable for at least 35 years. In addition all building services workers in buildings over 50 units will receive a prevailing wage for their services. This is a major victory for low-income and middle-income New Yorkers.”

Senator Marty Golden, Senate sponsor of the Legislation, said, “After a great deal of work from all the stakeholders in the process--governmental, private, and consumer--we have a bill that will not only preserve but will expand and target affordable housing in New York City, and help preserve the vitality of the housing market generally. This measure comes just in time, as the national housing market undergoes tremendous pressure, brought on at first by the collapse of some sub-prime mortgage investors, but with troubles now expanding to some of the more blue-chip lenders. It is no surprise that the first sector to be affected by problems will be affordable housing. This is the right time for government to provide the help needed to stabilize and expand the market.”

Who's paying for the affordable housing? New Domino-watchers want to know

If one of the lessons of the Atlantic Yards project for developers--like those of the New Domino project proposed in Williamsburg--is that they should hook up with affordable housing advocates to override zoning (or achieve a rezoning), a lesson for critics is that they should follow the money.

After all, Atlantic Yards has been touted as "providing" affordable housing without any reference to the public funds behind the units or any analysis of whether they represent a good bang for the buck.

So the Municipal Art Society (MAS), in its comments to the Department of City Planning (DCP) on the New Domino draft scope, a prelude to the environmental impact statement, begins:
Discussion of irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources to develop the project should, to the fullest extent possible, disclose the sources of the public funding that will be used to subsidize the affordable housing units; the total amount of the funding; and the percentage of that funding devoted to the projected site in relation to the total funding available citywide.

And Williamsburg architect Leah Kreger has started a blog, Domino Sugar Redux, and posted her comments on the draft scope. Among her requests:
Since the affordable component figures prominently, please have the applicant describe the strategy for financing the affordable component as they relate to tax and government subsidies.

Questions lingering

There's no guarantee those questions will be answered. Last year, the MAS, in comments filed after the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement was issued, asked:
In order to accurately assess whether the Atlantic Yards proposal will result in a net gain of affordable housing units, there needs to be an accounting of the public expenditures on this project versus the total amount of public subsidies available in the same fiscal year so that decision makers can accurately assess the public costs versus the public benefits. What percentage of the city’s total funds for housing will be required to build the project’s 2250 units?

In response, the Empire State Development Corporation offered only generalities. (Only after the project was approved did details emerge.) Will DCP be more forthcoming? The EIS will be written by the same environmental consulting firm, the ubiquitous AKRF.

On height and open space

While a rezoning further north along the Williamsburg waterfront allows buildings that are 400 feet, the height of two proposed New Domino towers, the MAS points out that neighborhing structures are generally no taller than 50 feet. The organizations suggestes a 250-foot height limit "in order to better respect the adjacent inland neighborhoods."

Assemblyman Vito Lopez has recommended that each of the tallest planned towers, two at 300 feet and two at 400 feet, should be reduced by ten stories, or 100 feet.

The MAS also suggests that the analysis consider waiving parking requirements, "in order to deter car traffic to retail destinations," a restriction on construction of condo-hotels; and allowance of ground-floor manufacturing use for new development.

MAS, commenting on the proposed open space, warned, as it had with Atlantic Yards, that “publicly-accessible” but privately owned open space may not "be a meaningful public amenity." MAS suggested that the open space could be mapped as public parkland, handed over to a local conservancy, requiring commercial retail or a community facility at the base of the restored Domino refinery facing the water, to draw people, and requiring retail frontage along the base of all buildings facing the waterfront.

Cumulative impacts

The New Domino project, as currently proposed, would mostly not be out of line with the height and density proposed for other areas of the Williamsburg waterfront. (An upland parcel would contain taller buildings than permitted upland elsewhere.)

But the Domino site was not rezoned, nor was it considered when the rest of the neighborhood was rezoned. So the MAS argues for consideration of cumulative impacts:
The Lead Agency must assess the impact the recent rezoning of a large section of Greenpoint/Williamsburg, in combination with the proposed rezoning here, will affect all the areas of concern. These two rezonings should not be examined independently of each other. In order to accurately analyze the significant environmental impacts of the proposed rezoning, this EIS should take into account the predicted and actual impacts resulting from the adjacent rezoning of Greenpoint/Williamsburg

Kreger comments similarly:
We hold the opinion that the proposed rezoning of Domino needs to be considered cumulatively with the effects of the zoning adopted in 2005 for the waterfront from N4th to Manhattan Avenue. The neigborhood needs assistance financial and otherwise to create a comprehensive plan instead of spot rezoning such as that proposed for Domino.

The Times corrects some ten-year-old errors; what about the "same site" error?

A correction in the New York Times on Thursday:
An article on Aug. 13, 1997, about an investigation into the police beating and torture of Abner Louima while he was in custody at a Brooklyn station house misstated his age at the time. (The same error appeared in at least nine other articles in 1997 and 2002, the year his case came to trial.) He was 30 then, not 33, and is now 40. A reader of The Times’s Web site noticed the error on a Times Topics page that was updated around the 10th anniversary of the attack.

The attack was 8/9/97, which means that, for the anniversary, the Times managed to do the research and issue a correction in about two weeks.

So why has it taken so long for the Times to correct the multiple errors, from 8/8/03 to 11/13/05, in which Atlantic Yards was described as potentially occupying the same site Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley wanted for a new stadium? The newspaper was put on notice more than two-and-a-half months ago.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Errol Louis denounces jock spousal abuse, but where's JKidd?

Daily News columnist Errol Louis on Thursday took up the case of Michael Vick, the quarterback with an unsavory appetite for dogfighting. In a column headlined It's a dog and pony show: While Vick gets ripped for animal cruelty, the jocks who beat their wives get a pass, Louis made a quite reasonable point:
The same sports execs falling over themselves to sever Vick from the sport have been downright lenient when it comes to other offenders.

His examples:
--Michael Pittman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a fourth domestic-violence arrest.
--Lionel Gates of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, charged with beating a pregnant woman.
--Lamar Thomas, formerly of the Miami Dolphins, put his pregnant fiancée's head through a window.
--Brett Myers of the Philadelphia Phillies allegedly dragged his wife around by the hair publicly.
--Bobby Chouinard of the Colorado Rockies, doing a year in jail after putting a loaded pistol to his wife's head.

What about JKidd?

I wondered if Louis would cite an example closer to home: New Jersey Nets point guard Jason Kidd, whose wife Joumana, in a recent divorce filing, accused him of serial adultery and regular physical abuse--front-page news in Louis's own newspaper.

Kidd was arrested in 2001 for hitting her; here's the 911 call. He pleaded guilty to a spousal abuse charge and was ordered to attend anger management counseling.

A fund-raiser

I checked to see if Louis has written about Kidd. A Lexis-Nexis search turned up no results.

A web search did show one intersection; Louis in June MC'd a Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service (BBCS) celebration event. BBCS, which runs a variety of social services, is surely a worthy cause, but any association with the event meant an association with Barclays, the title sponsor, Forest City Ratner, and the Nets. (Bruce Ratner's on the BBCS board.)

According to the BBCS web site:
Notable guests included Jason Kidd of the Nets; Bruce Ratner, President and CEO of Forest City Ratner Companies; Gerard LaRocca, Chief Administrative Officer, Americas, Barclays Capital; Charles J. Hamm, Chairman Emeritus of the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service; and Brett Yormark, President and CEO of Nets Sports and Entertainment.

(The caption on the BBCS web site for the above photo: Nets legend Darryl Dawkins and Errol Louis during the Nets live sports memorabilia auction. Louis seems to be using his hand as a visor or saluting.)

A columnist's connection

Now that Louis has hobnobbed with Kidd and his bosses, in service of a good cause, maybe it's tougher for the columnist to classify Kidd in the same category as Pittman, Gates, and the rest.

I don't know the Daily News's ethical guidelines, but if Louis worked at the New York Times, he'd probably be running afoul of the guideline that says:
[Staffers] may not lend their names to campaigns, benefit dinners or similar events if doing so might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or their newsroom's ability to remain neutral in covering the news.

As it happens, I have my doubts about the concept of neutrality and acknowledge I'm not neutral, that my skepticism aligns me closer to project opponents, though they don't speak for me and vice versa.

But I do think the accuracy and general quality of my work stands up much more than does Louis's Atlantic Yards coverage. He could've taken a step toward improving that record, however, had he included Kidd in his list.

ESDC says it's not not-hands-on, but could it do more?

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) is indeed a little touchy about whether it's perceived as not-hands-on-enough regarding Atlantic Yards.

Last week, the ESDC issued out a statement:
ESDC Chairman Pat Foye never told the New York Observer that he was taking a hands-off approach to the Atlantic Yards project. The paper is running a clarification in its next edition.

ESDC has been thoroughly engaged with the community on this project. Our representatives have met with elected officials, community leaders, and even project opponents.

What Foye sought to convey to the Observer is that unlike the government-led projects our agency is shaping right now, Atlantic Yards was approved before this administration and is led by a private developer in partnership with government actors. Despite that distinction, ESDC - under its new leadership - has and is taking steps to closely monitor the project and address community concerns as it gets built.

This week's Observer noted:
Clarification: An Aug. 20 article ["Easy Does It for Pat Foye"] stated that Patrick Foye, downstate chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, "has previously explained to reporters that he has not taken as hands-on an approach" with Atlantic Yards as with the Javits Center and Moynihan Station projects. Mr. Foye has said that he has taken a different approach, as explained elsewhere in the article, but does not characterize it as any less vigorous.
(Emphasis in original)

The ESDC's effort regarding AY may be no less vigorous than regarding other projects, but the agency is vulnerable to criticism that it is less vigorous than it could be. For one thing, Foye was supposed to take a walking tour of the AY footprint in March; as far as I know, that hasn't occurred.

And, however much the ESDC wants to be careful in choosing an ombudsperson, the clock has already hit 108 days. While the current administration isn't responsible for the timetables of its predecessor, Brooklynites weren't given the same kind of slack in responding to the voluminous Draft Environmental Impact Statement. It was issued 7/18/06; comments were due little more than two months later, on 9/29/06.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Flashback, 1999: Developers, said FCR, must be "more creative" in finding sites

An article in the January 1999 issue of the late Brooklyn Bridge magazine, headlined "King of the Deal," suggested that Forest City Ratner was not only not yet imagining Atlantic Yards, it had run out of land in Brooklyn.

Given other evidence that the developer already had its eye on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard, it's safe to consider that a feint for public consumption.

The article begins:
Sandeep Mathrani used to fly over Brooklyn in a helicopter, videotaping traffic patterns and housing concentrations. As director of retail development for Forest City Ratner, he was searching for large spaces within residential neighborhoods on which to build new shopping complexes. "It's hard to drive and get a bird's-eye per­spective," says Mathrani.

The spaces winnow

And, after describing the developer's Atlantic Center mall and the emerging Atlantic Terminal mall, the article ultimately finds Mathrani almost wistful:
Mathrani no longer takes helicopter rides over the borough. In fact, his market research has led him to conclude that Brooklyn has little land suitable for further development. "There aren't any options," he says, sounding almost wistful. "Three or four years ago, it was an emerging market. Today, it is well-defined."

When Mathrani speaks about the number of stores in the suburbs versus Brooklyn, you can almost hear the sound of heartbreak in his voice. "We have 2.6 million people in Brooklyn, and four department stores," he says. "If you look at Nassau County in Long Island, which has the same population as the borough, they have twen­ty-six Staples, where I think we have five or four."

Mathrani expects the pace of retail development in the borough to slow down soon, simply because there will be no places left to build. "Developers are going to have to be a lot more creative."

The railyard beckons

At that point, clearly, the developer was not stating plans--at least not publicly--for building a platform over the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard. But that was before the price of land in Brooklyn skyrocketed and such a platform became financially feasible.

As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle's Dennis Holt wrote last November, hearkening back to the 1993 groundbreaking for Atlantic Center, the developer did have its eye on the railyard, if not for retail than for a larger building:
“For the first time in a public setting, officials from Forest City Ratner Companies and their consultants revealed their plans for the Atlantic Center site.

“Forest City also revealed its desire to expand the project site to include space across Atlantic Avenue from Sixth Avenue west to Flatbush, where they hope to build an office tower over the open Long Island Railroad Tracks. These officials even talked about their vision of a new subway and rail complex.”

Plans change

The office tower became an arena and 16 towers, with retail at the base of several, and the ambitions of the plan required the developer to purchase land on the private market, convince the city government to convey streets and other properties, to win a belated bidding process for the railyard it had seemingly been promised, and, most contentiously, get the state to exercise eminent domain to assemble the 22-acre site. The latter effort is still in court.

Tellingly, the developer succeeded in leading careless journalists into describing the site as an "open railyard" (even though little more than a third of the site would be a railyard) and stating that the project would be built "on the... railyards" (rather than on and around the railyards).

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Columbia expansion, Atlantic Yards, and the cognitive dissonance of Richard Lipsky

When you hire Richard Lipsky, the man behind the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, you get not only an experienced lobbyist on behalf of small business, you get a blogger, a regular commenter on the news.

When clients on different sides of somewhat parallel development disputes hire Lipsky, however, readers get something else: some cognitive dissonance.

Lipsky, as Atlantic Yards watchers know, was hired by Forest City Ratner to organize an amateur sports league at the planned Brooklyn arena and to do other lobbying for the developer's projects. He’s said he typically would oppose a project with eminent domain but it wasn’t bringing in big-box stores or displacing other retailers. (Well, not directly, unless you count Freddy's Bar & Backroom.)

And Lipsky has been hired by Nick Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-it-Away storage, the largest landowner who has yet to sell to Columbia University and thus the most visible opponent of the university’s West Harlem expansion plan.

So that has led Lipsky to use some similar arguments and rhetoric for Atlantic Yards and against Columbia--and it just doesn't compute.

[Update Friday: Here's Lipsky's response, plus a comment from me.]

All or nothing?

Lipsky recently wrote about Columbia’s hiring of political consultant Bill Lynch to generate community support for the plan:
It is, however, somewhat beside the point since the real community concern has been in the all or nothing approach that the university has taken; as well as in the way in which Columbia, unlike Forest City Ratner in Brooklyn, has refrained from engaging the community in direct negotiations.
(Emphasis added)

Of course Columbia is willing to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with the new West Harlem Local Development Corporation that includes members of Community Board 9 and project opponents, who were conspicuously absent from the Atlantic Yards CBA.

The LDC has been rightfully criticized, but compared to the Atlantic Yards CBA, which was negotiated with hand-picked parties behind closed doors, it’s a model of transparency.

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chair of CB9, famously told the New York Observer last year that “We are avoiding the Brooklyn model,” seeking a wider coalition.

Last September, however, Lipsky wrote about Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein’s unwillingness to compromise:
The all or nothing approach is never going to succeed unless you have the full support of an impacted community, and even then it won't be enough if a development has a larger public impact that will affect people well beyond the footprint of a project-which is exactly what AY does have.
(Emphasis added)
… The attack on the arena underscores the scorched earth nihilism of the DDD agenda.

The difference, apparently, is that Lipsky thinks the arena trumps all. (Update Thursday: Lipsky also cites the provision of affordable housing in the Atlantic Yards plan and points out it's not yet part of the Columbia plan; however, the presence of such housing did not convince the three affected community boards in Brooklyn to support Atlantic Yards.)

Lipsky has a regular critic, who posts pseudonymously as “SmithBrotherJoe,” flaying Lipsky for his inconsistencies. SmithBrotherJoe responded:
How easy and honest it would be to replace "Bill Lynch" with "Bruce Ratner/Marty Markowitz/Richard Lipsky;" "university" and "Columbia" with "FCRC/ESDC;""Harlem" with "Prospect Heights." Anyone can see that.

Lipsky doesn't rebut his critic. So let's assume his June 2006 acknowledgement offers his response:
Our goal is definitely to advance certain issues but we like to inform as many as possible on the various sides of any policy debate. Sometimes this wish is limited, as some readers never fail to point out, by the fact that we are in business to defend our clients' interests.

Targeting one guy

Recently Lipsky wrote about attacks by “grassroots” representatives on his client:
In a continuation of our commentary on the attempts by Bill Lynch to generate grass roots support for Columbia's expansion, we want to take a look today at the attempt by the Lynchites to make Nick Sprayregen into a poster child for rich white privilege.
Which brings us to the inconvenient fact that Nick Sprayregen is part of a racially and economically diverse grass roots coalition that thinks the Columbia plan stinks; and this coalition, in turn, is reflective of the unanimous sentiment of CB#9 that has an entirely different vision for the area than does the benevolent university.

A year ago, however, Lipsky hurled similar criticisms at Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's Daniel Goldstein, verging into thinly-veiled threats, calling someone who is clearly principled—wrongheaded to some, of course—into a misanthrope and crank:
Goldstein also told the paper that a size reduction alone would not halt the "my way or the highway"opposition to the project. Even the linchpin of the development for so many in Brooklyn-the team and the arena- is something that this misanthrope wants to disappear. Which means that the best thing that could happen to Brooklyn would be for Goldstein to disappear from the footprint of the borough.
His opposition to the arena, something we are going to advertise far and wide throughout the borough, means that there are now thousands of newly minted volunteers who will be delighted to man the bulldozer when the legal green flag is waived to demolish this obstructionist's abode. He has now gone from being a legitimate critic to just some self-serving crank and a pest.

Sprayregen has a legitimate reason to resist eminent domain, but he’s also a businessman. (Compared to most in the Columbia expansion zone, he has deep pockets, and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the plan; then again, Columbia has much deeper pockets.)

Lipsky recently wrote that Sprayregen and Columbia are negotiating a plan “to swap property with Columbia in order to create affordable housing while at the same time preserving Nick's own ownership rights.” Goldstein has nothing material to gain.

Comparing the communities

Last year, Lipsky criticized the Atlantic Yards opposition:
What was missing in all of this was an honest broker who could represent the community interests. The reason for the absence was that the mood in the community that coalesced around Develop Don't Destroy wasn't looking for any compromise that would have allowed the Nets to come to Brooklyn-the linchpin of the entire development.
So at the end of this long process, the opponents have their fruitless lawsuits, but little else. Knowing Bruce Ratner as well as I do (since I work for him on this development), I know that he was ready to listen to anyone who was willing to be reasonable. On the other hand, if you believe in all of your heart that a project will never be in the community's benefit, then you can't be reasonably expected to negotiate a community benefits agreement.

SmithBrotherJoe couldn’t resist:
Oh, just shut your lying mouth!!!!
Ratner refused to meet with any established organizations and actually CREATED COMMUNITY GROUPS OUT OF WHOLE CLOTH!!!
But somehow that doesn't bother you at all. I wonder why...
"The community coalesced around DDDB..." gee, you acknowledge that the COMMUNITY OPPOSES THIS PROJECT but you're willing to give the developer and his government stooges a pass on this. I wonder why...

(Also today, I compare the two CBAs.)

Lipsky on the poll

Lipsky in April found himself endorsing pollster Craig Charney’s take on the Atlantic Yards poll he conducted. (Here's my criticism.)

Lipsky wrote:
On the contrary, the the grass roots efforts for the two projects are grossly disparate. Whereas Ratner and crew really went to develop local support, the university is looking to build a faux effort through the use of its political muscle. The West Harlem LDC is a prime example of this ersatz effort, and resembles more of a Potemkin Village than a real representation of West Harlem's interests. What local group would hire one of the city's leading real estate attorneys pro bono to represent its interests, someone who has never sided with local groups in any land use battle?

As noted above, whatever its flaws, the West Harlem LDC is a lot more transparent. It even has a web site. In Brooklyn, we get BEE.

Booty capitalists

I wrote in August 2006 about Lipsky’s use of the term ‘booty capitalists” to describe local folk looking to cash in. In a column earlier this month, he criticized Columbia's hiring of consultant Bill Lynch:
The diversionary tactics involve organizing the booty capitalists, and stigmatizing Nick Sprayregen…
There was once a time when folks like Bill Lynch would have been on the front lines in defense of these tenants, but at $40,000 a month Lynch's priorities have been dramatically altered. As Tom Lehrer remarked about the shifting allegiances of the rocket scientist Werner Von Braun: "A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience. Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down. That's not my department, says Werner Von Braun."

Lipsky is paid, too. He writes:
And for those who may be curious about the Lipsky lobbying retainer it is for $6,000 a month. Our experience over twenty five years only reinforces the observation that it doesn't pay as well to battle Goliath; but it generally is a good deal more satisfying.

In the Atlantic Yards case, the Goliath is surely Forest City Ratner and its allies. Goldstein is paid about $6000 a month less than Lipsky.

The role of the CBs

And what of the local community board? Lipsky writes:
Will not Columbia's lion eyes be struck blind? Lost in this bit of sleight-of-hand is the inconvenient existence of a real community organization-CPC-representing scores of local groups and vehemently opposed to the university's solipsistic vision.
…The blatant hypocrisy of these tactics have done little, however, to move the hearts and minds of the community. Oh yes, we almost forgot. There is a community board that is on record strenuously opposed to the Columbia land grab. Did Nick Sprayregen suborn all of those folks on CB9 who unanimously voted in favor of the 197-a plan?

The same goes for Brooklyn’s plan. While the three affected community boards in Brooklyn, 2, 6, and 8, do not share DDDB's agenda, they all either opposed or criticized Atlantic Yards.

Ignoring AYR on Columbia

Lipsky, apparently, didn’t attend the raucous CB9 hearing August 15 where the public mostly opposed the plan and a board committee nearly unanimously voted it down as it currently stands. (On Monday, the board as a whole voted similarly, setting the stage for a recommendation by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and, likely, further negotiations over a Community Benefits Agreement.)

So Lipsky relied on other reportage, in the Columbia Spectator, and secondhand coverage from the Times’s City Room blog, the New York Press, and the Daily News.

It’s curious that he ignored my report, which, whatever its flaws, had several compelling photographs, thanks to photographer Jonathan Barkey.

Was it because I wrote that Sprayregen, though his grievance may be legitimate, does not represent what opponents were describing in a handout, which stressed that eminent domain “historically abuses communities of color and low and moderate income people.”

I doubt it; after all, CB9 Chairman Reyes-Montblanc declared my coverage a “good article.”

I suspect Lipsky blanched at the comparisons between Columbia’s plan, whatever its flaws, and the Atlantic Yards plan.

Lipsky apparently decided that I was not “our new friend,” which he dubbed me in May after agreeing with some of my analysis of the Manhattan Institute’s critique of the city’s environmental review processes. (We’ve never met.) Perhaps he’d read back further in my blog to find some tough criticisms.

The Times’s City Room blog also ignored my reportage. I suspect it was my references to the Times itself, which has supported Atlantic Yards on the editorial page while taking a more cautious approach to Columbia’s plan.