Saturday, May 06, 2006

Errol Louis stays on course, careless with facts

Errol Louis is back on his Atlantic Yards hobbyhorse. The Daily News columnist and editorial writer, in his column in Brooklyn's black-oriented Our Time Press, takes aim at me and other unnamed Atlantic Yards critics, at the same time betraying his own tenuous grasp of facts.

Louis, under the headline "Atlantic Yards Watch," wrote:
A cottage industry of blogs has sprung up that obsessively detail – and often distort – every twist and turn in the battle over the proposed $3.5 billion Atlantic Yards Project. One antiproject blogger, Norm Oder, recently acknowledged to The New York Times that he spends 25 hours a week writing (and writing, and writing) about Atlantic Yards.

Not correct. The Times reported:
Mr. Oder said he spent up to 25 hours a week on atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com.

That's doesn't mean I spend 25 hours every week--and I certainly wouldn't spend all that time writing. I do the work of a journalist: read documents, go to public meetings, conduct interviews--and then write.

In any other city, a development this big and this controversial would draw much more press attention; my role has been to help fill a vacuum.

Louis vs. facts

I try to source my conclusions, but Louis too often plays fast and loose with the facts. Note his incorrect figure on jobs at a Forest City Ratner mall--a number he could've gotten right had he checked an article in his own newspaper, the Daily News, published two weeks previously.

Caustic attacks?

Louis's recent column continued:
Much of the blogging includes caustic attacks that are a trademark of the anti-arena crowd. These have grown more frequent and more bitter as the developer, Forest City Ratner Companies, moves closer to acquiring the last remaining privately owned parcels near the rail yards along Atlantic Avenue.

First, the volume of coverage does not stem from a reaction to Forest City Ratner's process of land acquisition. Rather, it's generated most significantly by events, such as Forest City Ratner's issuance of a remarkably misleading public relations flyer.

Caustic? (Louis cites no examples.) I'll admit to some tough criticism, and I'll argue that scorn is sometimes in order. Does Forest City Ratner's disregard for the truth deserve nodding acceptance?

The buyout story

Louis then quoted some Forest City Ratner p.r.:
According to a company spokesman, Forest City now owns or controls 64 out of 69 of the condos and co-ops on the project site; 81 out of 102 rental apartments; and 27 out of 43 commercial properties. In other words, 93% of the condos and co-ops have now been purchased, along with 79% of the apartments and 63% of the business properties.
Forest City has also agreed to offer relocation assistance to renters who may be displaced, along with a comparably priced unit in the new development. The end is in sight.


Not quite. Had Louis actually read my blog, instead of dimissed it, he would've learned that the "increase in rent for transitional housing" currently being offered only lasts for three years. Renters leaving subsidized apartments, who are generally have low incomes, would be put in a tough spot if the project isn't built in three years.

Making out like bandits?

Louis wrote:
For a real look at "displacement" – a look you won't find on the antiproject blogs – consider the condo owners, many of them newcomers who made out like bandits when Forest City bought their homes. The New York Times interviewed a 32-year-old lawyer named Erin Coffer who'd bought a unit at 636 Pacific Street in 2003 for $419,000. The next year, they sold it to Forest City for $1.1 million and moved to Manhattan.
So eminent domain – the government's power to legally order people to sell their property at or above market value – may only be needed for a handful of holdouts. Some of the holdouts are well-off newcomers who arrived in the neighborhood only a few months ago but now claim a sacred right to speak for the entire neighborhood and block the project's construction of 7,300 units of housing for other people.


It's hardly clear that the price increase was a huge premium over the general rise in value over two years, and it should be expected that FCR would add something extra to ease the process--especially since the developer is also buying the silence of the sellers, and barring their participation in any organizations opposed to the project.

Forest City Ratner's willingness to pay to acquire land is undoubtedly factored into the developer's internal planning for the project. Last year FCR added 2800 market-rate condos; recently, the developer cut 440 of those units. How much profit per unit?

As for 7300 units of housing, Louis didn't notice that, in FCR's 3/31/06 announcement of project revisions, the cut of 440 housing units means that the project would include 6860 units. That doesn't exactly foster trust in Louis's analysis.

Gag order lifted once

Louis chastises bloggers for not reporting on the happy condo sellers, but doesn't acknowledge that his own newspaper, the Daily News, didn't have the story either. The story was impossible for anyone other than the Times reporter who wrote it--those relocated have been barred by Forest City Ratner's contract from speaking to the press. Were Louis truly in favor of open discourse, he might have mentioned that issue, and even called for the developer to lift the gag order for all members of the press.

Louis on eminent domain

My first run in with Louis came last November, when he objected to my account of his appearance at an 11/16/05 forum at Brooklyn Law School concerning the local impact of the Supreme Court's Kelo eminent domain decision. Louis had sent a link to the video of the session, saying that, rather than parsing my "highly misleading account," readers should view the event themselves.

I just watched it again, and now I realize that there were even more holes in Louis's argument.

Misreading eminent domain

Starting at about 16:00, Louis talked about visiting Fort Trumbull, the section of New London, CT, at issue in the Kelo case; the Supreme Court last year, by a 5-4 decision, had upheld the city's use of eminent domain for the purposes of economic development. The court based its ruling, in part, on precedents regarding the use of eminent domain in Hawaii and Washington, DC.

Recounted Louis:
I spent a lovely afternoon looking at the place. But it looks a lot like these places in my neighborhood, nothing going on. What Kelo represents, as far as I can tell, is to say, that, maybe not as dramatic as a land oligopoly in Hawaii, maybe not as dramatic as or two thirds of the all housing in a section of Washington, DC being uninhabitable or beyond repair, what is going on in places like New London, near Fort Trumbull, in places like Prospect Heights, where the railyards have been basically untouched for about a half a century, and when there is dramatic poverty and a serious problem of crime, it is within the purview of the elected legislature to make plans to deal with what I would call the sole holdout problem...

If you had to do whatever degree of development around a single holdout, a single homeowner, or landowning holdout, you'd never get any of these projects done. You'd never break up a land oligoply in Hawaii. You'd never develop a blighted area of Washington, DC. You'd never do much of anything in New London, where they have some serious problems, and you'd never do anything in my neighborhood, where we have serious problems as well.


The railyards have been basically untouched for about a half a century? However, as I pointed out, the Vanderbilt Yard has never been a target for eminent domain; it's owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which hadn't put it out for bid until last year. The use of eminent domain would be to take other property in the proposed 22-acre project footprint; if Forest City Ratner, or another developer, simply aimed to build a large project on the 8.3-acre railyard, there wouldn't be any discussion of eminent domain.

You'd never do anything in Prospect Heights? Yes, holdouts can be an issue regarding eminent domain, but that hardly means those resisting Forest City Ratner's project prevent "anything" from being done. As noted, the railyards have been available. As for renovating empty structures or encouraging affordable housing, there are other tools at the city's disposal, notably changes in zoning.

Nothing going on? Is that why Forest City Ratner agreed to pay owner Leviev Boymelgreen $44 million for a closed bakery--once slated to be a hotel--and another property? Or why Dean Street resident Peter Krashes told WNYC last December: This is inside the footprint, right, a lot of the property has the appearance of being more dormant. That's one of the things that people miss when they walk here they don't understand that what was a pretty active area has been emptied.

As for whether the Atlantic Yards project would help fight poverty--well, how exactly does spending more than $1 billion in public costs (over 30 years) to build mostly luxury housing constitute an anti-poverty strategy?

The elected legislature

Remember, Louis said that, with eminent domain cases, it is within the purview of the elected legislature to deal with holdouts. In New London, there was a plan, approved by the city council, to address local economic development. There was no such plan in Brooklyn derived from a legislative body, and considerable evidence--given exclusive negotiations by the MTA with Forest City Ratner for 18 months--of the presence of a favored developer. The Supreme Court's approval of the Kelo case was based, in part, on the presence of a plan developed by a democratically-elected body.

Investment and jobs

At about 19:00, Louis declared:
I think it should happen. I do not want to wait another 50 years... The railyards look before I was born the way they look today. No developer stepped forward thus far and said "let's put three and a half billion dollars." The estimates of the jobs that would be created are upwards of 15,000 permanent jobs as a result of the project. Certainly those numbers have to be scrutinized and might in fact be debatable, but the general idea of going forward.... is one with which I sympathize.

Let's put three and a half billion dollars? Louis's locution suggests that Forest City Ratner would be investing $3.5 billion of its own money. That's highly unlikely.

Debatable, indeed. Forest City Ratner promised 10,000 permanent office jobs at the start, and when Louis was speaking in November, the developer was promising space for perhaps 2500 office jobs.

Later in the session, asked for the source of his jobs figures, Louis pointed listeners to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce site. But all he had to do was point them to the recent article in the New York Times, or even a blog, with more accurate figures.

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