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Parsing Hakeem Jeffries' views on Atlantic Yards

Attorney Hakeem Jeffries (right), who had previously challenged incumbent Roger Green for the 57th District State Assembly seat, has announced his candidacy for the seat he is vacating, setting up a race against Bill Batson.

Batson unequivocally opposes the Atlantic Yards project. Jeffries, according to a report Thursday in the Brooklyn Downtown Star headlined Jeffries Concerned About, But Not Opposed To, Yards, has more nuanced view. And a closer look at his statements suggests that his fence-sitting could easily migrate to support--especially given the clearer sentiments expressed in an article in the Courier-Life chain.

The Downtown Star reported:
Indeed, Jeffries' rhetoric when discussing the big local controversy was quite elevated. "I'm trying to raise the level of discourse," he told the Star afterwards. "It's important that we all come together. This issue has been threatening to divide people in the district along race and class lines."
Batson has made his opposition to the Yards project clear, while Jeffries is still hedging his bets. He said he would not have supported the $100 million allocation for the project within this year's state budget, only because, "I haven't seen anything comprehensive yet. Bringing in 15,000 people into a community [Prospect Heights] that has only 19,000 already...I need to know how that's going to affect police, fire, sanitation, schools, all kinds of services. I have strong questions."

Strong questions? Andrew Zimbalist wrote a report for Forest City Ratner, claiming that incremental costs for police protection would be "negligible," while the Independent Budget Office disagreed. Does Jeffries need to wait for the Empire State Development Corporation's Draft Environmental Impact Statement to have qualms about Ratner's position on this? (Apparently, he does. See below.)

The Downtown Star continued:
Two of his strongest concerns, in relation to the massive development proposal, are the threatened use of eminent domain and the already signed community benefits agreement (CBA). He said he would oppose eminent domain "unless there was a clearly defined public benefit."

Clearly defined public benefit? Again, has Jeffries tried to analyze Forest City Ratner's dubious claims of $6 billion in revenue, which are hardly embraced by others in urban planning?

The Downtown Star article stated:
As for the CBA, he used the phrase, "mend it don't end it," to describe his attitude. "We need to make sure the jobs provision and the loans consortium provision is enforceable. Based on my experience as an attorney, looking at the current language, I'm troubled by it. I think we need to sit down with the developer and tighten it up."

Well, there's a difference between rewriting a contract to make it enforceable and questioning the premises of the contract. Does Jeffries think the eight signatories--only two of which were incorporated at the time--represent the community?

Clearer in the Courier-Life

In the Courier-Life article, Jeffries suggested he would offer his support after a some compromises:
There has been progress made by the developer and I am very encouraged by the affordable housing component of the project, but there are some additional steps that need to be taken by the developer before I’m prepared to come on board and support the project,” said Jeffries.
Jeffries said there is a complex set of problems that the community faces when thinking about Atlantic Yards, including affordable housing and the massive unemployment among men of color between the ages of 18-35.
“You don’t just tackle these complex set of problems by saying, ‘yes you should build, or no, under no circumstances, should the developer (FCRC) or anyone else,” said Jeffries.
“There is a stridency that come from comments on both sides of this fight and what the community needs to do is find a principled approach for development to move forward that addresses the concerns of the critics in a meaningful way, but at the same time helps to resolve some of the complex social ills that exist in central Brooklyn,” he added.

Does a principled approach involve distortions and lies?

He continued, according to the Courier-Life:
“The developer and the state need to make clear how a neighborhood can absorb a massive infusion of people without creating a serious strain on delivery of public education, fire and police protection, transportation, sanitation and traffic. The hope is the DEIS [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] will address it in a meaningful way,” he said.

Apparently Jeffries hasn't been listening to Brian Ketcham.

Public benefit?

Jeffries made some very curious comments to the Courier-Life about eminent domain and public benefits:
Jeffries said a second concern is the issue of eminent domain utilized by a private developer under circumstances where the benefits of the public are not clearly defined.
“My understanding here is the public benefit in the revenue generated by the sports arena. To me the public benefit is far clearer in the affordable housing component, and that there are people in public housing who do not have access to jobs,” he said.
Jeffries said he is far more bullish on the housing component than the arena, in which he still wants to examine the tax dollars spent to build it and the jobs it purports to give to the community.
The arena, though, may be needed as a practical matter so the developer can make enough money to support the affordable housing, he said.
“If it’s necessary to create the jobs and housing, then I think we have to take a hard look at the arena,” said Jeffries.

While the direct subsidies would mainly go to infrastructure at least connected with the arena component, the long-term public subsidies would go to the project as a whole. According to the Independent Budget Office, the arena is very modest economic plus--though the IBO's figures have been disputed. Forest City Ratner, however, claims that the public benefit would be enormous new tax revenues.

The arena would not be the profit center for Ratner to create jobs and housing; the profits come from the market-rate housing, built at a scale in excess of what city zoning would allow.

And if the public benefit is in the affordable housing, why was that public benefit negotiated by ACORN and the developer, rather than hashed out--say, as in the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning--by elected representatives?

Some interesting support

Jeffries has gained the support of some critical of the Atlantic Yards project, including the Reverend Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church, and Eric Adams, candidate for the neighboring 20th senatorial district. But as the New York Observer's Politicker blog reported, there was another supporter in the audience at the launch of Jeffries' candidacy: Dan Klores Communications employee and Forest City Ratner spokeswoman, Lupe Todd, a friend of Mr. Jeffries' who worked on his 2002 race for the 57th district, prior to working for DKC."
When reached at her office, Ms. Todd had no comment.
Activists opposed to the Atlantic Yards project are dismayed at the connection between Ms. Todd and Mr. Jeffries. Daniel Goldstein, activist resident of the 57th district and supporter of Jeffries' opponent, Bill Batson, emails over: "The community and district need advocates it can trust. Mr. Jeffries' campaign's association with Ms. Todd, one of Bruce Ratner's 'Atlantic Yards' PR reps and lobbyists, is troubling. It raises serious questions about the infusion of private, billionaire interests into Mr. Jeffries' assembly race."

Going too far?

Jeffries followed up to point out the presence of Miller and Adams, as well. Goldstein's quote generated some fierce debate on the blog message board. Was it going too far? As a private citizen, Todd is allowed to do what she wants--and she has attended public meetings held by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn claiming that she was there just as a concerned citizen.

On the other hand, former Democratic Mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer said he thought the Bloomberg campaign had a hand in the disruption of a campaign event, and Forest City Ratner representatives were there as well. So these things can blur. Will Todd be visible at other events? How much will Forest City Ratner representatives contribute to Jeffries' campaign?

Can either affect Atlantic Yards?

One poster on the Politicker wrote:
Anyone making the case that this is a race about Atlantic Yards will first have to demonstrate that the election of Bill Batson will actually be able to stop what is an already runaway approval process. The incoming 57th Assembly member will have no vote on this project. The PACB will vote on this project long before either of these guys gets into office. And it would be foolish to believe that after so much backroom bargaining, Shelly Silver will simply defer to the wishes of the Assembly member. If Pataki-Bruno-Silver needed Roger's vote, they wouldn't have cut him loose to run for Congress.
If anything radically changes this project, it will be a lawsuit, which, if successful, may force the community and the developer to come to negociate a "principled compromise." If we came to that point, I don't think we'd find that Jeffries's and Batson's views were very far apart.

Indeed, when I wrote in March that Batson's candidacy could stop the Atlantic Yards plan, that was before the state legislature and Governor Pataki agreed to support $100 million for the project. As for the Public Authorities Control Board, it's not clear whether they will vote before the election--that could be delayed by lawsuits.

Yes, a lawsuit may force a "principled compromise." Would the views of Jeffries and Batson be similar on the scale and design of the project, and on eminent domain? It's too soon to tell. Maybe we'll learn in the eventual debates.


  1. FYI: Freddie Hamilton, District Leader in the 57th AD is throwing her hat into the 57th AD race on Monday. Word is that Ratner is funding her. But it doesn't mean that he can't bet on two horses.


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