Monday, August 31, 2009

The Daily News follows up on the housing guarantees, gets quotes out of FCR, ESDC, and ACORN, lets them off easy

Well, it's nice that the Daily News, alone among the press, followed up on my article last Thursday questioning the guarantees for Atlantic Yards affordable housing, but the omissions and errors deserve attention.

The article, headlined Weaker plan to finance Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards housing project, was posted today though, I'm told, was actually in the paper Friday.

The article begins:
The final version of a state plan for developer Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards project weakened guarantees that promised affordable housing would get necessary funding, new documents show.

Ratner has pledged to build 2,250 units of affordable housing as part of the proposed Nets arena and 16-tower project, but critics have questioned whether he'll ever come through.

A draft of the plan, obtained under the Freedom of Information Law by the blog Atlantic Yards Report, promises state and city affordable housing subsidies to fund those units.

"City actions include approval of funding . . . for affordable housing bond financing," an April 2006 draft of the General Project Plan states. "The State would also . . . provide funding for affordable housing bond financing."

Those paragraphs were deleted in later drafts. The current plan says the affordable housing is "expected" to be paid for with tax-exempt bonds from city and state housing programs.

Actually, it wasn't the final version that weakened guarantees; those guarantees were discarded in the spring of 2006, before the General Project Plan.

Questioning ACORN

The Daily News queried Forest City Ratner's affordable housing partner:
ACORN director and Atlantic Yards backer Bertha Lewis said she wished public officials would stop "mucking about" with the plans, but expressed confidence all the promised apartments would get built.

"Bruce Ratner's never wavered," she said. "I never look for anybody else to ensure these guarantees. We look directly to the developer to ensure the guarantees."

That's bogus. The Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) ACORN signed required Lewis to publicly support the project. Forest City Ratner has bailed out ACORN with $1.5 million in grants and a loan.

Then consider that, in the March 2006 report ACORN prepared called Sweetheart Development: Gentrification and Resegregation in Downtown Brooklyn, ACORN specifically looked to government, not developers:
ACORN holds that any developer seeking tax abatements should be required to make at least 30% of new housing units affordable, and to tier this affordable housing for different income levels, ensuring that units are affordable, at 30% of household income, for all low- and moderate-income families.

As for Ratner not wavering, well, remember that the developer originally promised that 900 of the 2250 affordable apartments be go to moderate-income people earning 50%-100% of the Area Median Income (or AMI) but quickly switched the configuration, with only 450 units going to moderate-income people and 900 aimed at the middle-class, earning above the AMI.

How would the affordable housing guarantee in the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) be enforced? The CBA provides for binding arbitration, as well as the opportunity to go to court to enforce the agreement.

Given ACORN's unwillingness to challenge Forest City Ratner, it's highly unlikely they'd go to court, and, should the developer cite the lack of housing subsidies, ACORN may just not have a case.

Checking with the ESDC

The Daily News asked the ESDC and the developer about the housing and their answers were reminiscent of that old Marx Brothers line, "Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

Empire State Development Corp. spokesman Warner Johnston couldn't say why the language in the plan was changed, but said the agency "remains committed to developing affordable housing with our partners at Forest City Ratner."

Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco said: "The General Project Plan and the modified General Project Plan both include the affordable housing component and the developer remains 100% committed to what was agreed to."

These statements may not be false, but they're not very meaningful. The General Project Plan (GPP) may include the affordable housing component, but it does not enforce it. Nor is the approval of the GPP contingent in part on the availability of housing subsidies, as the early draft suggested.

Misreading Matlin

The article closes:
In an e-mail also obtained by Atlantic Yards Report, ESDC counsel Steve Matlin acknowledged there's no guarantee that funding will be available - but said that's Ratner's problem.

"Forest City will take the risk that adequate housing programs are in effect," he wrote. "The bottom line is that the affordable housing requirements do not go away if housing benefits are inadequate or are not available."

Actually, the State Funding Agreement gives the developer an out. In other words, current documentation suggests that the requirements are not enforceable.

Also missed in this article: there's no evidence that the state considered the availability of housing bonds when approving the project with an "anticipated" ten-year buildout, and there's no evidence that such bonds would be available. In other words, the promises of 2250 subsidized, "affordable" units over a decade just can't be believed.

FCR consultant on Ridge Hill--a project still under investigation--now works for Senate Democrats

In the Daily Politics, Liz Benjamin suggests that State Senator Bill Perkins, who held a hearing on Atlantic Yards, might have reason to be wary of new Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC) staffer Melvin Lowe.

Benjamin noted that Lowe "has provided consulting services to developer Bruce Ratner on the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn"--news to me--and that Perkins is concerned, given that he feels "more answers" are needed regarding AY.

Lowe, who's worked for several government officials and campaigns, "will be providing 'oversight' at the DSCC," Senate Democratic spokesman Paul Rivera told Benjamin. The DSCC wants to retain and build on a slim Democratic majority, a crucial priority for state Democrats in 2010.

The Ridge Hill connection

Perkins might have more reason for concern. In May 2008, word emerged that federal prosecutors were investigating Forest City Ratner's Ridge Hill project in Yonkers, notably the abrupt about-face of Sandy Annabi, once a fierce opponent of the project.

A 5/6/08 article in the Journal News, headlined Forest City Ratner lobbying campaign for Ridge Hill, described a somewhat limited role for Lowe:
The latest subpoenas sought... e-mails sent and received by Councilwoman Patricia McDow related to Ridge Hill, Forest City Ratner, consultant Melvin Lowe, and another development, the Longfellow project.

McDow, D-1st District, a supporter of Ridge Hill, described Lowe as a lobbyist for Forest City Ratner whom she had met with individually and with other representatives of the developer. McDow said she had assumed that Lowe had been assigned to lobby her because they are both black.

Several current council members and one former member yesterday said they either did not know Lowe or said he did not play a major role in their meetings with developers.

...McDow has said she does not believe she is a target of the investigation, and yesterday pointed out that she had always supported the project.

The Ridge Hill project has been delayed until 2011, reported the Journal News on August 24; the newspaper noted that the corruption investigation is continuing.

Also, FCR just announced a loan extension and new tenants.

Last day to submit comments to ESDC; harsh comments from condemnees' lawyer

Today is the last day in which comments are accepted on the 2009 Modified General Project Plan (GPP) for Atlantic Yards, so the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) likely should receive a host of comments by the deadline.

Will any of them have an impact? Unlikely.

However, the ESDC, likely via its environmental consultant, AKRF, will have to respond to the comments and present a summary of those responses to its board members before the vote to re-approve the plan, likely on September 17.

And those responses, or lack thereof, may be part of future litigation. Note that the ESDC did not issue a Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), as many critics have argued, and comments on the environmental impact--rather than the business terms in the GPP--may be considered off topic.

Still, it will be interesting to see how and if they're answered.

Harsh criticisms

Attorney George Locker, who represents residential condemnees within two buildings in the AY footprint, has submitted some harsh comments on behalf of those clients:
  • The public notice for July 29 & 30 public hearing was improper
  • The ESDC’s denial of documents regarding the project's costs and benefits precluded full and complete public comment
  • The modified GPP and technical documents allow for the project to be completed "greatly in excess of 10 years," which he contends--so far, unsuccessfully--violates eminent domain law
  • The plan fails to guarantee the construction of affordable housing, and there is insufficient public benefit
  • ESDC and its partner Forest City Enterprises have refused to provide displaced residential condemnees with written leases for their future relocation into affordable housing within the project.
He concluded:
ESDC is a creature of the Legislature and is obligated to implement the NY UDC [Urban Development Corporation] Act, which is remedial legislation, so as to accomplish the letter and spirit of the Act. ESDC’s conduct throughout has evidenced a corruption of its public purpose and a disdain for its duty to be honest and forthright with the public and with condemnees. The hijacking of a public agency for the purely private benefit of a private real estate developer is anathema to the democratic process and a disgraceful abuse of ESDC’s right to exercise eminent domain. ESDC should halt all actions to further AYP [Atlantic Yards Project] until ESDC can be brought under the appropriate legal oversight to assure that integrity prevails over the massive public fraud that AYP represents.

Another look at the "Outlaw Operation" video about the ESDC and the July 29 public hearing

It's not a very subtle polemic, but it's worth another look on the last day in which public comments can be filed on the 2009 Modified General Project Plan for Atlantic Yards.

The 23:41 video from Freddy's Brooklyn Roundhouse, titled ESDC-OUTLAW OPERATION: Eminent Domain in Developer Driven Development portrays the Atlantic Yards opposition on the first day of the public hearing held on July 29 and July 30.

The only people pictured are project opponents and some say things that don't add up. The narration, as well, pushes the envelope. But isn't the process rather one-sided and won't the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) board rubber-stamp the project when it meets September 17?

And the press coverage, notably in the New York Times (which didn't cover the hearing outside the blog The Local), portrayed the issue as the developer's struggle, without raising questions of public accountability.

The two most important figures in the video are veteran attorney Norman Siegel, who provides valuable perspective on the difficulty in fighting eminent domain, and writer Michael Rogers, who offers some crucial perspective.

"There's no reality in today's hearings," Rogers says at one point. "We've been promised fantasy after fantasy: ice skating rinks, public green roofs, vast showplaces of Frank Gehry glass, big checks for the MTA, thousands of moderate housing units, a state of the art railyard. They've all been fantasies. Maybe that worked five years ago, when people believed in fantasies, like the Dow at 14,000, or Lehman Brothers, or housing prices that would appreciate forever. But that's not the world we live in today."

The official description of the video:
The story of a governmental organization bending over backwards to serve one of New York State's real estate barons, Bruce Ratner. Ratner is a former New York City official who was college roommates with former Governer George Pataki.

Actually, they were in law school together, and while there has been some reference to them as roommates then, I think "law school friend" is more precise.

The description continues:
Under Pataki, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) was directed to take 22 acres in Brooklyn for Ratner's Forest City Ratner Corporation. In its 5 year effort (to date) to take people's private homes and give them to another private citizen, the ESDC has played every trick in the book, including supporting race baiting to soften the neighborhood.

Well, it's Forest City Ratner Companies and the pursuit of eminent domain, in the eyes of the ESDC is officially to eliminate blight, construct housing, and lead to transportation improvements, not "give them to another private citizen." As to whether the ESDC has supported race-baiting, that's a stretch; the ESDC has tolerated race-baiting at public hearings and, in its indirect support of the developer, might be said to have some connection to race-baiting by surrogates of the developer. But that's not direct support.

The description continues:
In July, 2009 the ESDC stooped to a new low by having a required public hearing on a revised project plan it was not going to release until after the hearing. Will this "outlaw organization," as it was called by one state senator, succeed in further degrading New York's Eminent Domain laws so that any well-connected billionaire can point to any neighborhood and tell the ESDC to take it for him? This landmark case may well decide the future of public corporations, the limits of Eminent Domain, and the end of huge government subsidies for wealthy corporations when times are tough on the taxpayers.

With Kevin Powell, NY City Councilperson Letitia James, NY Senator Velmanette Montgomery. Assemblyperson Jim Brennan, homeowner Daniel Goldstein, mayoral candidate and performance artist Rev. Billy, former NYCLU chief Norman Seigel, and many others.

It's possible that the AY conflict may clarify the limits of eminent domain, though it's less likely it would end government subsidies.

Starting off

It's not like the producers are alone making harsh claims. "This project represents the total subversion of the purpose of the economic development authorities in this state," asserts state Senator Velmanette Montgomery. She charges the ESDC as "acting as an outlaw operation, and it must not continue."

That narrator describes the ESDC as "perhaps the state's most corrupted public authority," which kind of obscures the issue. The ESDC is not corrupt in the sense staffers are accused of taking bribes.

Rather, the concept of the ESDC is inherently flawed--corrupted, some say--because the authority must simultaneously shepherd projects and evaluate them and because developers with an inside track can gain the benefit of its powers, including eminent domain and and override of local zoning.

"The ESDC is a private corporation that has governmental powers, with its board members appointed by the governor of New York, but on whose behalf?" the narrator says.

Not quite, it's an economic development agency set up by the legislature.

The camera points to three people and the narrator notes that they're paid by the ESDC: from the left, they're Senior Counsel Steve Matlin, Counsel Joe Petillo, and VP of Planning Rachel Shatz.

Affordable housing

Some of the information about affordable housing is misleading. Powell says, "If you're making less than $100,000 a year... this is not affordable housing."

Well, not quite. Most of the subsidized housing would be for families earning less than $100,000 a year, but as I've written, about half the affordable housing units would be "real housing for the real Brooklyn," in the formulation of the Daily News.

CM James

Council Member Letitia James gets a chance to expound, reading a statement: "It's time to put the proposed Atlantic Yards project out of its misery. Tell me why we are still considering the public financing of an arena for a private company? Why are we throwing out low-income residents and small businesses to the street, so that a private company can benefit? Mr. Mayor, Mr. Bloomberg, who do you serve? Mr. Mayor, Mr. Bloomberg, Governor Paterson, who do you serve? Whose side are you on? Where are your priorities? Where is the transparency? Where is the accountability? Where is the oversight? Why have we allowed this private company to hijack our government, particularly when this company and/or ESDC has not released documentation on this revised plan to the public for review? Why has ESDC not conducted a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on this revised plan?"

We then see public housing resident and FUREE activist Beverly Corbin, who points out that the public housing system faces a deficit, but developers like FCR get tax breaks. The money doesn't come from the same pots, but it does indicate priorities.

Dark comedy

The camera goes back to Rogers: "If I was writing a dark comedy about the abuse of public authority and public money, it would be hard to set a scene better than this one, which is a public hearing about a project whose details are secret and will not be revealed until after the ESDC approves it."

In the background, the red-jacketed Kathryn Wylde, executive director of the AY-supporting Partnership for New York City, casually reads a document.

Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn offers a critique: "Without a site plan, rendering, cost-benefit analysis, without financing, without a construction timeline, today we have a public hearing on a phantom project."

Eminent domain

Siegel contends that the Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo v. New London decision does not support the use of eminent domain in projects like Atlantic Yards. He cites the "plurality" opinion--actually a non-binding concurrence--by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who approved the project only because the process was "not developer-driven. This project is classic developer-driven. The federal court should've focused in on that, and hopefully our Court of Appeals will."

Siegel was referencing the fact that such an argument failed in federal court; it will be a stretch for the state Court of Appeals to do so. Also, despite Kennedy's opinion, much evidence later emerged that the Kelo case was developer-driven.

Questionable process

Assemblyman Jim Brennan, who's generally no fire-breather, dismisses the process: "The ESDC is not going to pay any attention to opponents of this project. They're going to rubber-stamp this project. But the people here are going to continue fighting... until finally the state government comes to the table and presents a rational alternative."

Goldstein asks why the hearing's being held when nobody knows what the project even looks like: "Because Bruce Ratner has a December 31 deadline to issue his tax-exempt arena bonds... So Bruce Ratner's interest is being met today, while the public interest is being mocked. it's a sham process for a sham project."

Siegel follows up: "It is in fact no process. When Dan talks about it being a sham, he's understating it. What will happen inside is not a single member of the board of the ESDC will be sitting here in order to make any decision. There will be no decision-makers from the city, the state, the federal government. There will be someone who is a technocrat who will listen to the comments, will not engage. I will bet a good old Brooklyn chocolate egg cream that no questions will come to any speaker."

(Indeed, that wasn't part of the process.)

Siegel points out that, only in New York State, those challenging eminent domain can no longer go to a trial court but can only go directly to an appellate court, with no opportunity to have testimony and only 15 minutes for each side to argue.

Activist and 33rd District City Council candidate Ken Diamondstone says "we want development at Atlantic Yards, but we don't want a rip-off by Mr. Ratner and ESDC."

(Actually, there's no such thing as Atlantic Yards; it's a project, not a place.)

Other testimony

Among others testifying is the somewhat disjointed Pat Senior, who, after suggesting that the developer should participate in "workfare" if he's getting "welfare," then describes the plan as ethnic cleansing, and says she was evicted from her home "by Bruce Ratner from Queens." (In 2006, she blamed someone else.)

The race issue

The narrator returns to the charges of race-baiting, stating that "the Developer has paid and loaned money to only black-based organizations, who have in turn supported Ratner's plan." (They aren't exclusively black by charter, the membership is mostly black.)

Unidentified in the film but well-known to attendees as Tal Barzilai, a Nets fan (wearing a Nets t-shirt) from Pleasantville, NY, testifies more precisely that the Community Benefits Agreement did not allow for any people who opposed the project.

James warns that the project will not be a benefit, calling AY "a racist attempt to divide the community and convince people, and people of color, that this is their savior."

Powell says he's not brainwashed as some have charged, saying he's seen examples of displacement in Brooklyn. He then offers another stretch, saying he knows what the developer does: "If you look at what Forest Ratner's been doing in the Midwest, building casinos in places like Detroit, Michigan," offering lousy jobs.

Actually, parent Forest City Enterprises has not built casinos in Detroit but has tried to build a casino in Pittsburgh.

He said that city development issues were all linked and pointed to the battle in Coney Island--though James, for example, voted with the City Council's redevelopment plan.

Closing words

Siegel offers a money quote: "The thing I say to all of you... It's good to be smart, it's good to be right, but the most important single ingredient that I have discovered is stamina: you gotta outlast the bastards."

James declares, "I stand with those whose resolve has just grown stronger... the end of Atlantic Yards is clear... the days are numbered."

That, of course, may be wishful thinking.

The final words go to DDDB's Goldstein: "The project approved in '06 no longer exists. Therefore a Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement is needed. As you can see, we're here to comment on a project with no rendering, no site plan, no nothing. It's ludicrous, it's a farce, it’s a sham process for a sham project."

And the next steps include approval by the ESDC board and, perhaps, another lawsuit.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

On Paterson, the Times discerns a contradiction; will it ever play 'gotcha' with Bloomberg and Atlantic Yards?

A New York Times article published August 26 was headlined Paterson Steps Back From Race Remarks and subtitled in print "But Answers to Questions Appear to Contradict Earlier Statements."

So the Times, not unfairly, played gotcha.

Here's another gotcha they haven't bothered with: Atlantic Yards financing.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg said in 2004 that "any city monies of any meaningful size will be debt issues financed by the extra tax revenues." Later, however, he contradicted that statement by having the city commit $205 million for land purchases and infrastructure.

"See the Nets and NBA Stars in Newark"

The New Jersey Nets are still promoting preseason games in Newark.

As noted last month, should the Brooklyn arena plan fall through, there might be a lot more NBA stars in Newark.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Barclays reaffirms commitment to AY arena; company head calls community "poor" and predicts 2011 season opening date

Barclays PLC President Bob Diamond tells Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi that, while delays on the planned Brooklyn arena for the Nets are "agonizing and frustrating," the banking company remains committed to the Barclays Center.

That's not surprising--Barclays wants its name around the media for branding purposes--but Politi apparently didn't ask if the naming rights deal, reported at $400 million over 20 years, had been renegotiated.

[Addendum] As noted in March and last November (when Barclays recommitted), the bank may have renegotiated the naming rights deal down. With and since that recommitment, there have been a couple of sweeteners: Barclays got a piece of the bond deal and a naming rights deal for the subway station bordering the arena site.

Under wraps for some

Notably, Diamond said he had seen the new arena design, via Ellerbe Becket and (apparently) an unnamed additional firm, and while less preferable than Frank Gehry's design(s), he was fine with it.

That means that, while the public hasn't had a chance to see designs or a site plan during the comment period (which ends Monday) on the Modified General Project Plan, the developer and its partners have seen them. More importantly, the New York Police Department hasn't yet had a chance to weigh in on security issues.

Unreliable statements

Diamond said, "we think it's the 2011 season that it'll be open." Well, maybe in the second half of the 2011-12 season, but I think the best-case scenario is a 2012 arena opening--and it's unlikely the team would move across state lines late in the season.

Politi reports:
"The original intent ... was branding," he said. "We wanted to continue to enhance the brand of Barclays and do something in New York, where the majority of our clients are. There were many opportunities when it came to naming rights, and what really tripped our trigger on this one was the recovery of Brooklyn and a community that was really quite poor. It not only fit our need to brand, but it fit the fact that we like to give back to the community."
(Emphasis added)

Which community exactly was "really quite poor"? The community that Forest City Ratner recruited via housing advocacy group ACORN?

Or the people living in and around what Chuck Ratner of parent Forest City Enterprises calls "a great piece of real estate" and where there have been numerous speculative market-rate condos built lately?

CNG Watch: Bloomberg interviews, sandwich war, and "banned" book, but nothing on the Carlton Avenue Bridge

Both major Brooklyn weekly newspapers (owned by Rupert Murdoch's Community Newspaper Group) this week put Mayor Mike Bloomberg's interview with the CNG reporters and editors on the front page. It was a reasonable choice and the Courier-Life article even incorporated some critical feedback from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's Daniel Goldstein.

The Brooklyn Paper (right) made the interview the lead story, with the entertaining tale of a battle between two Vietnamese sandwich shops as the off-lead. The Courier-Life (at left, below) placed the interview as the off-lead (which couldn't fit in the scan I made), while placing a story about the Brooklyn Public Library "banning" a book as the lead.

Neither saw fit to cover the clearly documented news, published on Tuesday morning, well before their deadlines, that the reopening of the Carlton Avenue Bridge would be delayed until at least January 2011 and likely far longer.

Yes, both produce a lot of copy with a handful of reporters, but they are not informing their readers of some important news.

A need for accountability

The Courier-Life's choices are especially dubious, given that, on page 2, the newspaper published a hard-hitting story that followed up on an astonishing New York Times report on state legislators double-dipping.

Thomas Tracy's article was headlined Benefit bonanza: Longtime legislators can reap retirement packages while still in office and subtitled "Which of your Brooklyn representatives are claiming benefits while still in office?"

The article begins by noting how hard it is to get legislators to reveal their age:
Then try to find out if they’re going to claim their state employee retirement benefits while still in office, a perfectly legal, but ethically dubious practice conducted by Flatbush Assemblymember Rhoda Jacobs and several other state lawmakers, according to a recently published New York Times article.

A review of borough legislators carried out by this paper showed that not only are state Assembly and Senate members shy about answering this simple question, they’re even more close-mouthed about their ages.

Dyker Heights Assemblymember Peter Abbate, Sunset Park Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, Midwood Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, and Sheepshead Bay State Senator Carl Kruger, did not return repeated calls for a response. We’ll forgive Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind, and Red Hook State Senator Velmanette Montgomery. Both were reportedly on vacation -- Hikind was out of the country -- when we called.

Williamsburg Assemblymember and Kings County Democratic Boss Vito Lopez refused to comment.

That's front-page news.


Instead, the Courier-Life chose Stephen Witt's dubious article headlined BPL BOOK BAN. First, it's not a ban; as the article indicates; Tintin Au Congo has been moved to a closed collection.

Second, the story was broken on August 19 by the New York Times, which offered a thoughtful analysis--absent in the C-L--of the issues involved. (The Daily News followed up two days later.) Third, the book was moved in 2007. Fourth, Witt closes the article by erroneously stating:
Stephen Spielberg is currently making a movie based on the book.

Actually, the Tintin movie is not based on the book.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Looking at the 35th District debate: Delia Hunley-Adossa surfaces (and shows why she's been inaccessible)

While the Brooklyn Paper’s coverage (headlined Our debate is a brawl! Candidates for Fort Greene seat get testy) of the 35th Council District debate focused on the clash between Council Member Letitia James and longshot challenger Medhanie Estiphanos, perhaps the real news came from watching challenger (and Atlantic Yards supporter) Delia Hunley-Adossa, who currently leads AY opponent James in cash on hand, in action.

Now we know why Hunley-Adossa has been so inaccessible. She relies on platitudes and her speaking style is peppered with malapropisms.

Yes, people speaking extemporaneously shouldn’t be expected to speak perfectly, but Hunley-Adossa was well below the bar for political candidates.

James spent most of her time clashing with Estiphanos, an energetic neophyte who lobbed criticisms both off-base and cogent, leaving Hunley-Adossa mostly unscathed--not a wise tactic for the incumbent. The toughest questions for Hunley-Adossa came from Brooklyn Paper staffers, and she didn’t handle them too well.

(Note that the video, which lasts nearly 49 minutes, often cuts off the heads of the participants. The Democratic primary is September 15, and a victory then is tantamount to victory in November.)

Record and goals

Leading off, James cited her record of bringing affordable housing, open space, streetscape, and school improvements. Estiphanos said city government is broken, citing how “slush funds and discretionary funding have corrupted the system.”

Hunley-Adossa said she’d “bring in inclusion” and referenced the need for both affordable housing and economic development--either generic buzzwords or code words for Atlantic Yards.

Moderator Gersh Kuntzman, editor of the Brooklyn Paper, asked if she thought James hasn’t been good on affordable housing or working class issues.

Hunley-Adossa said she’d “just state the facts,” that there’s been more luxury housing and condominiums built in the district than affordable housing.

“Is that a function of what the Councilwoman has or has not done?” Kuntzman asked.

“She is the Councilperson,” Hunley-Adossa said.

“But is it a function of something she did or did not do properly?” Kuntzman followed up.

“Part and partial to that,” Hunley-Adossa responded.

Yes, that’s what she said.


At about 5:50, Brooklyn Paper reporter Mike McLaughlin asked Hunley-Adossa, “Throughout this campaign you’ve been unavailable to the Brooklyn Paper to answer questions. If you are elected, how do we know that you’ll be there to answer these questions...?”

“I first want to begin by saying that I haven’t been unavailable,” Hunley-Adossa insisted. “And I wasn’t aware that you communicated, or tried to communicate with me. If you called me on my personal cell phone and it’s campaign related, I wouldn’t have accepted that call.”

This doesn’t make sense. Does Hunley-Adossa have an operator screening her calls? If she gets a message on her personal phone, she can always write it down and take it to her office.

“If you called my campaign office, which is--the number is public record, 718-622-3515, or you spoke to my campaign manager, I would in fact accept your call,” she continued. “So it’s not like I’m not acceptable.”

Yes, that’s what she said.

“It is what it is. I was communicated with--probably you tried my cell phone and my home number. That is my home and that is my personal cell. The campaign office is 718-622-3515,” she said. “Now once... as soon as you called the campaign office and you spoke to my campaign manager, I was accessible.”

That’s not so. The New York Times blog The Local spoke to her campaign manager, who did not put her through to the reporter.

“Almost always, I deal with Steve Witt,” Hunley-Adossa said, as if unaware that the notorious Courier-Life reporter writes uncritically about Atlantic Yards supporters and strains for ways to cast doubt on AY opponents. “I never had a problem with [Courier-Life reporter] Tom Tracy or Steve Witt and the other reporters. So I don’t know what happened in the breakdown of communication other than what I stated.”

That doesn’t make much sense.

Both James and Estiphanos said they were more accessible. Hunley-Adossa pledged to have a 24-hour cell phone once elected.

Fulton Street BID

Estiphanos led the charge against the Fulton Street Business Improvement District (BID), saying that property owners, rather than merchants, supported it.

James corrected Estiphanos, who said there was a BID on Washington Avenue; rather, there’s a merchants’ association. She said businesses were consulted, and a $300,000 fund has been created to help those who can’t afford the assessment.

“It’s sort of a bitter pill,” James asserted, calling it “short-term pain for long-term gain.”

Estiphanos said he doubted the money was there for the fund. James began sniping at him for being “new to this business, because you’re new to the community.”

Atlantic Yards

Asked what’s wrong with Atlantic Yards, James said she’s against the current version because now the emphasis is on the arena and arena alone, while she favors building affordable housing, not building an arena.

But the earlier incarnation had affordable housing, Kuntzman said. (Actually, the current incarnation is supposed to have it.)

James went on to criticize “a giant superblock, 16 skyscrapers in a brownstone community.” (Actually, two sides would border a brownstone community, while the others would be at major arteries, one of which is opposite a brownstone community, one not.) She cited abuse of eminent domain and displacement.

At 17:57, Kuntzman asked Hunley-Adossa why she supported it.

“I support it for many reasons," she responded. "Because of the economic development that it will bring to the district, as well as the affordable housing. Also, I differ--I say that I beg to differ with the Councilwoman for the simple fact--yes, it does have eminent domain. I’m a product of eminent domain. I live in a Mitchell-Lama housing development.... Had it not been for eminent domain, I wouldn’t be in the community. It’s a Mitchell-Lama building. But even more than that, I don’t understand why this is such a bad project, but in 2004 with the Downtown Brooklyn plan, when 47 of our Council Members voted for that plan, they have large skyscrapers, they don’t have any affordable housing in it that I’ve seen, and it was eminent domain. So it was pretty much did or is doing the same thing as the Atlantic Yards, so I don’t understand the opposition.”

This is an interesting gambit. Atlantic Yards is not the same as the Downtown Brooklyn plan. First, the latter is clearly in Downtown Brooklyn, while the former is in Prospect Heights. AY is essentially a privately-negotiated rezoning, with affordable housing used by developer Forest City Ratner to achieve the density it wants.

And, perhaps most importantly, the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning was announced by the city as an effort to increase office space and thus jobs; the construction of condos was an unforeseen consequence. While some AY opponents criticized the scale of the rezoning, nobody--including long-time affordable housing advocates like ACORN, or Hunley-Adossa--criticized the rezoning for not addressing affordable housing.

Estiphanos, aiming for a middle ground, criticized James for “demonizing” project proponents like Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Governor David Paterson, and developer Bruce Ratner, and said she’s lost credibility to negotiate.

However, Estiphanos apparently hasn’t listened to Bloomberg demonize AY opponents or Ratner’s allies, such as construction unions, shout down or otherwise interfere with public hearings.

James pointed out that she supported an alternative, the UNITY Plan, and “my opposition”--presumably Estiphanos--contacted AY opponents to learn about it.

Downtown Brooklyn rezoning

Kuntzman asked James to defend her vote for the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning

“As you know, Downtown Brooklyn was split between two councilmanic districts,” James responded. “So I had to respect Council Member David Yassky who supported one side of Flatbush Avenue and decided what was best for his district.” She said she’d negotiated affordable housing for the part of the rezoning in her district on Myrtle Avenue, but it had not yet come to fruition.

CBA ties

At about 21:28, Kuntzman asked Hunley-Adossa how much FCR contributes to Brooklyn Endeavor Experience (BEE), the Community Benefits Agreement signatory she heads.

“When we negotiated the CBA, we had negotiated for a two-year budget, which is a little over a couple of hundred thousand dollars, that would last us through,” Hunley-Adossa said. “That would be for our overhead, office space, it’s all in the CBA. Salaries and different things--and it’s written in the CBA."

Actually, it’s not in the CBA, which talks about working with FATHC [BEE’s previous name] to establish a Committee on Environmental Assurances:
If requested by the Environmental Assurances Committee, the Developers shall work with FATHC to seek and secure public and/or private funding to pay the reasonable expenses of the working group of this committee, in order to provide: an appropriate meeting space within walking distance of the Project, postage and phone communications, webhosting services for a community webpage and message board dedicated to the Project, and the services of an administrative staff to update the community webpage on a regular basis.

Take a look at BEE’s web site for the lack of updates.

Kuntzman asked if that money has been made available? Hunley-Adossa said yes.

According to a 2007 Form 990 report to the Internal Revenue Service, BEE gained $173,000 in contributions. No 2008 Form 990 has yet been made available, so we don’t know if additional contributions have been received, but if it’s “a little over a couple hundred thousand dollars,” there must have been more.

Note that FCR executive MaryAnne Gilmartin said in July that “Forest City has funding obligations and commitments to each of the organizations, and they’re reviewed on an annual basis.” That leaves room for additional funding.

More importantly, experts on CBAs say signatories are not supposed to take money from the developers they negotiate with. And Mayor Mike Bloomberg, an enthusiastic witness to the AY CBA, now calls CBAs "extortion."

What does BEE do?

"What does Brooklyn Endeavor Experience do,” Kuntzman asked.

Hunley-Adossa responded, “What we’ve attempted to do, and I believe that we’ve done--and that’s where opposition and ourselves pretty much agreed on a lot of things. When we were going through the environmental impact statement, we in fact agreed on the downsizing of the project. I lived there. I didn’t want the project to be as huge as it was.”

What? The project wound up essentially the same square footage as originally announced. The developer increased the size and then took it down.

Hunley-Adossa’s written testimony at the hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement had nothing to do with downsizing.

“We also negotiated that it would have LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] standards,” Hunley-Adossa continued.

Her group is supposedly an environmental group. She should be asked about her expertise in this area; there’s no sign of it.

“We negotiated that they would have like, specific--using low fossil fuels, things of that nature, worried about the particulate matter, the rat and rodent abatement, blah blah blah,” she said.

Actually, there was no negotiation. Her group has a Potemkin function. The CBA states:
It is understood that the Project’s environmental impact statement and review process is administered by the State. All potential environmental mitigation measures, the cost to implement such measures, and the party deemed responsible for their compliance is ultimately determined by the State. Therefore, the Developer shall be in compliance with this Agreement by following the state mandated process.

(Emphasis added)

Hunley-Adossa continued, “Once the Empire State Development Corporation and the actual EIS was completed, you end up with a FEIS, which is a Final Environmental Impact Statement.”

While typically people pronounce the latter F-E-I-S, using the individual letters of the acronym, Hunley-Adossa pronounced it “FEES,” showing her unfamiliarity with the issue.

“Little green people”

“After that, what Brooklyn Endeavor has attempted and is attempting to do, is to educate young people on how to be little green people. So, we have classes, biweekly, with youths,” she said.

“Where are those classes?” Kuntzman asked.

“We have them at community centers. At one point, when I did have an office, we used to have it in the office as well. And we use various locations, sometimes in people’s homes. I send them to environmental camps and we do different projects, relative to that. Because the project--because the project in fact is at a standstill, we have not been able to proceed in the manner and form that we intended to.”

“Was that because there’s no additional money from the CBA coming?” Kuntzman asked.

Hunley-Adossa responded, “Not necessarily money from the CBA, but the project in itself. Some of what we want to do--we’re going to be a part of it as it’s going on and as it’s been developed. So once they break ground and the project is under way, then in fact we’ll take on and do some other things.”

Compensation issues

Kuntzman asked, “There have been some reports that BEE’s largest expenditure is on actually your compensation as opposed to program services. Is that accurate?”

“Well, initially, it very well was,” Hunley-Adossa responded. “And that’s because--look at the length of time I’ve been involved. So it made sense. I’ve been involved in this project for almost six years. So it just built up. But you’re talking about $52,000 over six years, you figure it out. How much did I get?”

Kuntzman left it there, but the issue’s actually murky.

It hasn’t been six years. The group wasn't incorporated until 2005 and it wasn’t doing much at the time. According to a 2007 Form 990 report to the Internal Revenue Service, BEE gained $173,000 in contributions and distributed $37,878 in program services and $61,473 on management and other general expenses. That included $51,447 in compensation for Hunley-Adossa.

No 2008 report has been filed yet and it’s unclear what the nearly $74,000 left over has been spent. Hunley-Adossa was not asked about her expertise in this field or why the board consists of friends and relations.

Trusting James

McLaughlin asked James how the can the public can trust her to be a good steward after the mini-scandal of nonpayment of taxes.

She said it was her family’s personal property.

McLaughlin said she paid only after media reports.

James said she was waiting for a tax refund. “The amount was paid. I recognize we all have a duty to pay... I believe it’s a private and personal matter.”

It's less weighty than Hunley-Adossa's ties to a developer, but her dismissal of her obligation and the initial criticism was tone-deaf.

Estiphanos brought up fines posed against James’s previous campaign by the Campaign Finance Board.

“Campaign Finance is very difficult,” James said, unable to state how many times she'd been fined and adding a bit of a non sequitur, noting that Estiphanos didn’t qualify for matching funds. “The rules are strenuous, they’re complicated.”

Coney Island

None of the candidates distinguished themselves on the Coney Island issue. Kuntzman asked James why she supported Bloomberg’s rezoning. He called it a “shocking lack of due diligence,” given that she supported it on the OK of local Council Member Dominic Recchia. (For better or worse, that’s how most Council business is done.)

“There was a significant amount of affordable housing. That was my deciding factor,” James said, sounding not unlike some Atlantic Yards supporters. “[Recchia] assured me that in fact Coney would not lose that character.”

The bottom line is that the rezoning permits towers south of Surf Avenue in the amusement district.

Estiphanos said he supported the rezoning and suggested that the proposed AY arena should be moved to Coney--”it’s not something Tish would come up with.”

Hunley-Adossa said, uninformedly, “I do support the mayor’s rezoning. I think it’s fabulous what they’re doing in Coney.”

James shot back at Estiphanos that “I came out with Coney five years ago... I know you were still in California.”

While James didn’t have a full-blown plan for Coney, a 1/23/04 Bergen Record article quotes Letitia James as suggesting that the arena be moved to Coney Island or the Navy Yard, where eminent domain wouldn’t be abused.

She and Estiphanos continued sniping. James called him “a former Wall Street banker.”

“I’m also a former teacher,” Estiphanos responded.

“And you’re responsible for the decline in the economy,” she continued in an overblown accusation, charging that he’s running for Council because he’s unemployed.

Mayoral control of schools

Kuntzman asked about mayoral control of schools. Both Estiphanos and Hunley-Adossa said it should be tweaked. “Mend it, don’t end it,” James added.

Are schools better? Estiphanos said there was a marginal improvement in graduation rates, but not commensurate with the spending.

At about 33:10, Kuntzman asked, “Some parents claim they don’t have enough voice under mayor control, however, many parents complained they didn’t have any voice under the Board of Education. Where are you on that particular parental voice issue?”

Hunley-Adossa responded carefully, like a contestant on television faced with an unexpected question: “I think that parental voice issue is an issue. And I believe that if we tweak it and we set up a different system and think about, um, changing some of the legislature and less of the rhetoric, we can do something about the Board of Education. We could pretty much have a balance. You can include the parents and then you can still have the mayor and have some sort of oversight.”

Charter schools

Kuntzman asked if the candidates supported charter schools and vouchers.

James said she opposed vouchers, but supported public charter schools.

Estiphanos said James intitially said she was for all charter schools, then amended her position to reflect the will of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). [I haven’t been able to check on this.]

Estiphanos said he supported vouchers.

At about 37:35, Kuntzman turned to Hunley-Adossa: “So charter schools or vouchers or an indirect comment on what’s been said?”

She offered a non-answer: “I’m a product of the--of Catholic schools. I sent my children to both. As far as the charter schools are concerned and the vouchers, y’know, from the school of where I came from, the parents at the time that could afford and sacrifice to send their children to a private school, wasn’t a bad thing. It just wasn’t a bad thing. And if they didn’t pull resources away from the public school system that was in place. So, that’s how I feel about it.”

Estiphanos pointed out that, in a recent hearing held by the Council Education Committee, members were fed questions by the UFT.

Questioning James

The candidates were given an opportunity ask each other questions. At about 40:30, Hunley-Adossa read a long, loaded question--with Kuntzman intervening twice to ask her to get to the point--about why, if James cared for the community as she professes, she supported various condos and the non-union jobs behind them.

“Excellent question. I don’t support any of those projects,” James snapped. “There’s no City Council involvement. They’re all private projects. Thank you.”

“Well, they’re part of the Downtown [rezoning],” Hunley-Adossa tried to say. Actually, several are not.

Estiphanos got a shot: “During the last six years, the one constant about your administration... you’ve insulted virtually any major officeholder... David Paterson, Mayor Bloomberg, Bruce Ratner.”

Um, Ratner is not an officeholder.

Estiphanos pointed out that she compared Bloomberg to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and asked, “how does that help the community”?

James said she took issue with that.

Estiphanos said he had the video on his web site.

“I don’t know if I ever referred to Mayor Bloomberg as Idi Amin,” James said.

Actually, had she spent any time on Estiphanos’s web site, she would’ve seen the clip. As noted in the Brooklyn Paper, James said, “It’s a shame that Bloomberg has the same thing in common as Putin, Chavez and Idi Amin and Bush... That he fears the people. That he believes that the people do not know what’s in the best interest of the city.”

That characterization, she could’ve argued, is within the bounds of political discourse, given Bloomberg's steamrolling of term limits.

Kuntzman broadened the question. “I don’t demonize my opposition,” James responded, gathering steam. “I take issue with Mayor Bloomberg, because he wanted to put an intake center in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. I take issue with Mayor Bloomberg because he wanted to close day care centers. I take issue with Mayor Bloomberg, because he wanted to close senior centers. I take issue with Mayor Bloomberg, because obviously he supports Atlantic Yards. Obviously, if you want to be nice with Mayor Bloomberg, that’s your prerogative. I support [Democrat] Billy Thompson.”

James then went after Estiphanos, asking why he’d last voted in 2004.

Closing statements

The candidates were given one minute each for closing statements. Hunley-Adossa took 27 seconds: “Well, I thank you so much--first, I thank you for inviting me, and I’m very pleased that I came here today. I just want to say to the community that I need your support. I am a candidate running for the 35th Council District. I am the better candidate because I have loyalty, integrity and I have the expertise. And I have volunteered, not only 30 years of my life to the community, I’m very faithful to the community. Thank you.”

What exact expertise she has is unclear. She didn’t even mention her longtime role heading the 88th District Precinct Council.

James cited her record and accessibility.

Estiphanos offered a lame explanation for his lack of voting, saying he was out trying to get votes for Democratic candidates like Barack Obama and John Kerry. (Hasn’t he heard of absentee ballots?)

Echoing Hunley-Adossa, he said candidates should be focused on affordable housing.

If so, perhaps before the next debate they can do some research.

A few questions for the ESDC's phantom community information session

So it looks like no additional community information session will be held, as seemingly promised, before the Monday deadline for comment to the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) on the 2009 Modified General Project Plan.

But what if, by some miracle, a session is held either first thing Monday morning or the deadline is extended?

Here are just a few questions:
  • Despite what Forest City Ratner executive Mary Anne Gilmartin said, does the ESDC believe there would be sufficient housing bonds for the anticipated ten-year project buildout?
  • How long would it take to build the arena and how long would the eminent domain process take before construction could begin?
  • If Forest City Ratner has seen new renderings of the arena and arena block, what's keeping them from sharing them publicly?
  • How long will stages 2&3 of the Carlton Avenue Bridge reconstruction project take to complete?

Who's cleaning up Pacific Street blight? Forest City Ratner

Way back in November 2006, several people commented to the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) in response to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, saying the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) should be blamed for failing to take care of the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard. (More here.)

In response, the ESDC punted, ignoring the question of responsibility:
Chapter 1, “Project Description,” and Chapter 3, “Land Use, Zoning, and Public Policy,” describe in detail the present condition of the project site, including the Vanderbilt Yard.

More clean-up

In September 2007, some AY opponents bushwhacked a clean-up along Pacific Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

Last Saturday, when I took a tour group around Prospect Heights, that stretch of Pacific Street looked pretty trim. But the stretch between Sixth and Carlton avenues looked pretty messy, even though a large residential building, Newswalk, occupies most of the street opposite it.

Now, however, it's been cleaned up, as the sequence of photos below shows. And who's responsible for removing this Pacific Street blight? As the name on the blue car indicates, Commons Associates of MetroTech Center--an organization led by Forest City Ratner.

They're not really in charge of the sidewalks, are they? But if they take a hint from the city or state to perform the clean-up, that suggests that the city or state could have nudged someone else well before the AY environmental review. (See Comment below for the back story of how the City and MTA punted until a resident complained to FCR.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Markowitz, endorsing Levin in the 33rd, joins Lopez (and Moses) in prioritizing results over process

One of the enduring (and simplified) debates regarding the legacies of urbanist Jane Jacobs and master builder/power broker Robert Moses is the balance between results and process.

You can't make an omelet, Moses liked to say, without breaking eggs, and Moses was notably callous about the impact of his major projects on the people living in the way. On the other hand, neighborhood activists invoking Jacobs have used process to gum up any change, even when it might be wise and even though Jacobs did believe in certain big projects, like public transit.

The Levin endorsement

The issue re-emerges in a Brooklyn Paper article regarding Borough President Marty Markowitz's endorsement of machine candidate Steve Levin, chief of staff to Assemblyman (and Brooklyn Democratic Party head) Vito Lopez in the crowded 33rd District Council race

Levin is the only candidate to support the Lopez-backed Broadway Triangle rezoning, which Markowitz supports:
“I know Steve’s opponents think process is more important than results … but he understands that results are the most important thing,” said Markowitz.

“By working closely with Vito Lopez, Steve Levin understands the necessity of delivering affordable housing to his community,” the Beep added.

Well, Lopez also prizes results over process: "“People want housing... What groups get it is another story."

In the case of Broadway Triangle, the recipients of no-bid contracts are groups tied to Lopez.

AY parallels

And, of course, Markowitz has long supported Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards plan, erroneously claiming, "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years." 

He hadn't suggested that the Vanderbilt Yard--or the privately-owned (and generally occupied) properties around it--be put out for bid or declared blighted.

Documents show affordable housing guarantees considered but discarded; no apparent effort to ascertain if housing bonds were sufficient

So, did the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), during its approval process for Atlantic Yards, evaluate whether there'd be sufficient tax-exempt housing bonds to meet the ten-year timetable for 2250 affordable units?

Documents received in response to a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request suggest no; in fact, the state considered but rejected a General Project Plan provision that stated explicitly that approval was needed for affordable housing financing. 

Thus, it's likely the ESDC board approved the project in December 2006--and will re-approve the project next month--without any assurances the affordable housing could be built as promised.

Moreover, the State Funding Agreement signed in September 2007 gives the developer a pass, asserting that a good faith application for housing bonds was expected to lead to their receipt--without evaluating whether such bonds would be available.

Also, it's not clear whether the ESDC can enforce any affordable housing requirements if the funding is not available.  

Beyond that, former ESDC CEO Marisa Lago said in April that the project would take "decades" and a Forest City Ratner executive in July deflected the question about bond availability with a non-answer.

In my FOIL request, I sought "records that describe whether the board or staff, before the project approval, discussed or evaluated the likelihood that there would be sufficient tax-exempt housing bonds (from New York City or New York State) to construct the project within the anticipated 10-year project timeline."

I filed it last December and finally received documents last week.

Early draft mentions housing bonds

An early draft of the Atlantic Yards General Project Plan (GPP), dated 4/10/06, shows (right) that the approval process included city and state approval of funding for affordable housing financing. The draft was produced by a law firm working for Forest City Ratner. It did not reflect comments from either the developer or the ESDC.

It stated:
City actions include approval of funding to effectuate the City's $100 million investment in the Project from the Capital budget, [and of funding for affordable housing bond financing]...

The State would... [...provide funding for affordable housing bond financing.]

Interestingly enough, a 5/5/06 revision, including comments from Forest City, maintained the provision concerning city and state actions and approvals.

(Click on all documents to enlarge)

Revision cuts reference

A revision (left), attached to a 6/1/06 email from ESDC Senior Council Steven Matlin, indicated that both sections, on city and state approvals, had been crossed out.

It did not appear in the GPP and I couldn't find any documents that explained why it was cut. I queried the ESDC last Friday to learn the explanation. I was told yesterday that the only person (Matlin?)  who could offer answers was away through Labor Day. (The comment period on the project ends Monday.)

The GPP did state, in its various iterations, including the current 2009 Modified GPP:
Affordable housing is expected to be financed through tax-exempt bonds provided under existing and proposed City and State housing programs, such as the City's 50-30-20 program.

Phase 2 requirement dropped

Also, as indicated in the excerpt below right, only four days before the GPP was approved on 12/8/06, the draft of the document had more teeth in it than was ultimately approved. It stated:
The Project will generate at least 2,250 units of affordable housing on site for low-, moderate- and middle-income persons and families, and at least 30% of the units built on the Arena block will be affordable. The balance of the affordable housing units will be built in Phase II, however not more than 50% of the Phase II units will be completed without the completion of 50% of the Phase II affordable units. 
(Emphasis added)

While the requirement for 30% affordable housing on the arena block did appear in the GPP, the requirement for Phase 2 was dropped.

The subsequent State Funding Agreement, signed in September 2007, was silent on any requirements for Phase 2, leaving them to future "Project Documentation."

What about bond cap?

There are very few references to the issue of "bond cap" or "volume cap"--whether the city and state agencies would have sufficient bonds available.

Only a few months after Atlantic Yards was approved in December 2006, the New York Observer reported in March 2007 on the state's huge deficit in "volume cap," and in May 2007, Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Shaun Donovan (now the head of HUD) testified before Congress about an "immediate crisis" facing the city.

I was trying to figure out whether that issue had been considered in December 2006.

The issue apparently came up not before the ESDC but before the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), which voted on 12/20/06 to approve the project. On 12/12/06, Andrew Kennedy of the state Division of Budget forwarded several questions to the ESDC regarding AY. Two of the questions were redacted by ESDC as nonresponsive.

On the evening of 12/19/06, less than a day before the PACB approved the project, city official Maria Torres forwarded ESDC officials an email (left) regarding Atlantic Yards housing issues.

One section regarded "the bond cap issue."

As seen by the screenshot, the ESDC redacted the response. It was not marked "nonresponsive," as were several other redacted sections. So perhaps it was redacted as an "inter-agency communication" exempt from disclosure "to protect the deliberative process of government."

The bottom line: they discussed it, but we don't know what they said.

FCR response

In July, when asked if there would be sufficient housing subsidies, Forest City Ratner official Mary Anne Gilmartin deflected the question: “There are bonds being issued for the construction of the arena, and there are programs that are being accessed for construction housing, and there are two different things. 80/20 bonds, which are the bonds used to build market-rate housing with 20 percent low-income, are volume cap bonds, which are readily available in this state, because there’s an absence of construction, nothing, frankly, is being built right now, so there is not a concern about the availability of that financing for housing."

First of all, she referred to 80/20 bonds (80% market, 20% subsidized), which were used for FCR's 80 DeKalb Avenue project but are not expected to be sought for Atlantic Yards (the rental buildings of which would be 50% market). Also, she has no way to estimate the availability over the life of the project. Indeed, last year, New York City Housing Development Corporation president Marc Jahr said demand well exceeded supply.

Slack in the Funding Agreement

Other documents suggest continuing questions about housing issues. In May 2007, there were a few emails between ESDC officials and Priscilla Almodovar, who heads the state Housing Finance Agency.

There were later some emails between ESDC and FCR officials in anticipation of the State Funding Agreement, signed on 9/17/07. It left room for considerable slack, as shown in the excerpt below:
It is the expectation of the parties that Developer or its Affiliates will apply for financing and other incentive programs then generally available to developers of Affordable Housing (as defined herein) and that, if such application is deemed by the applicable administering agency after good faith review to be consistent with then-applicable program rules and standards, then Developer or its Affiliates will receive incentives under such programs consistent with what developers of such Affordable Housing are receiving at that time.

Unclear is why the parties had that expectation without checking to see whether the housing bond programs were available.

However, another clause of the funding agreement, regarding affordable home ownership, did acknowledge the availability of subsidies:
Developer shall seek to build 200 of these affordable home ownership units directly on the Atlantic Yards project site (assuming the appropriate subsidy required to fund these affordable home ownership units is available and the density levels approved in the ESDC GPP are maintained.)

FCR requirements

Subsequently, in April 2008, emails indicate discussion between the ESDC and the governor's office regarding affordable housing.

I tried, without response, to get some clarification on the somewhat confusing 4/29/08 email (right) from the ESDC's Matlin.

It states:
In the Funding Agreement, we basically set forth the understanding that Forest City would apply for existing housing subsidies and incentives, and that if the application is deemed to be consistent with program requirements, then they will be entitled to the benefits.

We expect that the documents will provide that Forest City will take the risk that adequate housing programs are in effect--however, if there are no housing programs available we would be precluded from exercising our remedy to purchase back the premises. (We also expect that Forest City will not close unless adequate programs are in place at that time.)

The bottom line is that the affordable housing requirements do not go away if housing benefits are inadequate or are not available.
(Emphasis added)

It's not clear what Matlin means by "documents," but I suspect the reference is to yet-unsigned documents regarding the Master Closing. Still, if housing benefits are inadequate or not available, there's no way to fulfill the ten-year timetable.

The State Funding Agreement signed in September 2007 cites a yet-unestablished Final Deadline:
If Developer or its Affiliates fails to complete the balance of Phase 2 by the Final Deadline, subject to Force Majeure and subject to Governmental Authorities making available to the Project affordable housing subsidies then customarily available to developers of such housing, ESDC shall have an option to purchase Developer's or its Affiliates' interest in the parcels not yet developed pursuant to the GPP, as it may be amended. Such option to purchase shall be pursuant to terms negotiated in the Project Documentation and shall provide for a purchase price equal to the Developer's or its Affiliates' cost and land carrying cost, adjusted for inflation.
(Emphasis added)

That suggests that if affordable housing subsidies are not available, ESDC will not have an option to purchase and will not be able to enforce the timetable, despite Matlin's email. However, I've been unable to get a response from the ESDC.

Also, the meaning of this statement is unclear: We also expect that Forest City will not close unless adequate programs are in place at that time.

It's unlikely that this means "close on the project as a whole." After all, the developer's priority is to build the arena. It may mean "close on each parcel"--but I haven't had that confirmed.

Lingering questions

Also, if "the affordable housing requirements do not go away if housing benefits are inadequate or are not available," how then are they enforced? As noted, the State Funding Agreement suggests that the developer has an out.

A day after Matlin's email, he informed Susan Rahm, the consultant volunteering for--and, perhaps running--the Atlantic Yards project for the ESDC, that the law firm Bryan Cave had two partners with affordable housing expertise. 

A week after that, she asked if they should be speaking to Almodovar of the state housing finance agency.

In other words, the affordable housing issue remained in flux--and may well remain in flux.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Yes, the time frame for the Pacific Street sidewalk-as-street is 12 weeks

My bad. When I reported July 31 on the Department of Transportation's (DOT) plan to allow a portion of the Pacific Street sidewalk be used as a street, I gave the benefit of the doubt to the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC).

DOT indicated that the plan would be in place for 12 weeks. ESDC said two weeks.

However, the sidewalk is still being used as a street. Now, says ESDC in essence, never mind.

AY CBA witness Bloomberg blasts CBAs as extortion; signatory Nimmons brushes off questions from The Local

There's an interesting addition to Mayor Mike Bloomberg's interview with reporters and editors from the Community Newspaper Group:
He also blasted the kinds of community benefits agreement that Ratner signed with several groups, some of which did not exist before they signed an agreement to support the project in exchange for some financial backing.

“I’m violently opposed to community benefits agreements,” he said. “A small group of people, to feather their own nests, extort money from the developer? That’s just not good government.”

Despite the segue, it's unclear whether Bloomberg specifically targeted the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement. As reported in the Times, he began criticizing CBAs in April 2006, less than a year after he presided over the ceremony for the AY CBA.

(Despite the headline on the mayor's site, he was a witness, not a signatory. Moreover, the press release was incoherent, having the mayor declare, "This Community Benefits Agreement is the largest private sector investment in Brooklyn's history.")

So much for the "modern blueprint" to harvest community support for AY, as discerned by a Times reporter in October 2005, during his first weeks on the AY beat.

Nimmons stays silent on AY

In The Local, Andy Newman describes how he got a press release from Council Member David Yassky naming Charlene Nimmons, who heads the CBA signatory Public Housing Communities, as contact person.

However, Newman couldn't get her to talk about Atlantic Yards or the City Council campaign of her friend Delia Hunley-Adossa, for whom she no longer serves as treasurer (but remains a supporter).

I wrote in March that neither Nimmons nor Hunley-Adossa would discuss whether Forest City Ratner supplies most of the funds to their organizations.

On July 22, Forest City Ratner executive Mary Anne Gilmartin confirmed at a public meeting that the developer provides funds to *all* of the signatories of the Community Benefits Agreement (including groups headed by Nimmons and Hunley-Adossa).

So, given the light workload of both nonprofits, the salaries Nimmons and Hunley-Adossa both draw from their nonprofits give them an opportunity to work on the campaign--which suggests that the developer is supporting the challenge to Council Member Letitia James even without direct contributions.