Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The headline you never saw: "Atlantic Yards jobs estimate cut by 40%" (or 75%)

Press coverage is often driven by press releases or news conferences sponsored by government agencies: witness coverage of the announcement of the Atlantic Yards project, the signing of the affordable housing agreement, and the recent reductions in the project plan, among many other episodes in the Atlantic Yards saga.

But when reporters aren’t provided handouts, it gets tougher. A prime example—and a sign of how inconsistent press coverage has been—was the failure by news outlets to report last May that office jobs at the project would be cut by 40% (or to report in September that the cuts would be 75%). Given that Forest City Ratner’s slogan was “Jobs, Housing, and Hoops” (as shown in the June 2005 Brooklyn Standard) a significant drop in jobs should have been news.

The developer in December 2003 announced 10,000 office jobs: "Brooklyn Atlantic Yards will bring a huge infusion of new jobs to the area – more than 15,000 construction jobs, over 10,000 permanent jobs created and/or retained in the commercial offices…" That promise was reinforced in promotional fliers like this May 2004 example (excerpt at right).

But when FCR announced a reconfiguration of the project at a City Council hearing 5/26/05, the press missed part of the story. Most press outlets emphasized an increase in housing and acknowledged a cut in office space (see for example the Daily News article headlined Ratner quietly moves in), but didn’t explain that the loss of office space meant a loss in jobs. (The New York Times didn't even cover the hearing. See Chapter 6 of my report.)

After months of criticism—in my 9/1/05 report and blog and from others—the Times finally ran a lengthy article 11/6/05, headlined Routine Changes, or 'Bait and Switch'? describing the cuts in jobs, among other things. (The Times deserves credit for following up, though I argued the coverage could've been more skeptical.)

Spoon-feeding necessary?

Why the failure? Part of it was simply poor judgment. Part of it likely derived from constraints on space. Perhaps part of it was an absence of institutional memory—some of the reporters covering the hearing probably weren't thinking about the previous claims about jobs.

Was it simply just a failure to do math, to calculate the amount of office space and then divide it by the space per person (Forest City Ratner said 200 square feet) to come up with a jobs figure?

Well, no. True, Forest City Ratner did not issue a press release announcing cuts in jobs. However, the developer's presentation (right) to City Council clearly promises 6,000 office jobs.

[The presentation actually doesn’t make complete sense. It mentions one version of the project, with 1.9 million square feet of office space, and an alternative with 428,000 square feet. At 200 square feet per worker, the capacity would be either 9500 jobs or 2240 jobs. Where does 6000 jobs--which would translate into 1.2 million square feet--come from? No one asked.]

Because neither Forest City Ratner nor any watchdogs issued a press release announcing cuts in jobs, and because there were other details to discuss, the reporters missed part of the story.

Still, no one is expected to trumpet inconvenient news, so the press should examine the issues and draw some conclusions.

More evidence

In mid-June, Forest City Ratner distributed the first issue of its Brooklyn Standard promotional publication. On p. 3, the Standard offered the same figures provided to City Council: one plan with 1.9 million square feet of office space, another with 428,8000 square feet, and an estimate of 6000 permanent jobs.

A few weeks later, Forest City Ratner released new sketches of the project and the Times put the story on the front page. The 7/5/05 article, headlined "Instant Skyline Added to Brooklyn Arena Plan," stated that “the development would create 1.9 million square feet of office space... An alternate plan would cut the office space to roughly 429,000 square feet." The Times failed to translate that square footage to jobs, note the previous pledge of 10,000 office jobs, or cite the pending pledge of 6000 such jobs. (Given that 1.9 million square feet of office space could house nearly 10,000 office jobs, and that the developer was already pledging only 6000 jobs, the announcement deserved more scrutiny.)

Finally, on 9/16/05, the Empire State Development Corporation released its Draft Scope of Analysis for the project, which announced 628,000 square feet of commercial office space. As I noted, if you use Ratner's formula of one job for every 200 square feet, that means space for 3,140 jobs. If you calculate one job for every 250 square feet--a standard formula according to Ratner's consultant Andrew Zimbalist and the New York City Economic Development Corporation--that means space for 2,512 jobs. That’s a 75% cut.

I don't think anyone in the press followed up.

Finally, some coverage

On 11/6/05, Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica wrote a tough column about Ratner’s math (based in part on my blog) and the Times finally ran its article. The secondary headline, or deck, stated, "Fewer Jobs and More Condos, Ratner's Opponents Complain."

Why was it up to "Ratner's opponents" to “complain” about fewer jobs? The press, including the Times, should have much earlier provided the public with baseline information. The Times even reported that numerous public officials had written letters in support of the project, citing the claims of 10,000 jobs even though the project configuration had changed.

Some excerpts from the article:
Nearly three-quarters of the office jobs originally projected are gone…
But critics of the project say some of the changes, particularly the reduction in office jobs and the addition of thousands of market-rate condominiums, make Atlantic Yards into a less sweet deal for Brooklyn residents.
Some opponents go further, saying the developer lured politicians and community groups with grand promises and then backtracked after the spotlight had passed.
…The 50-50 deal and the more generous job numbers were frequently cited by politicians and others supporting the project, and favoring Mr. Ratner's bid to buy air rights over the rail yards for tens of millions of dollars less than their appraised worth.
In letters dated last June and July - weeks after Mr. Stuckey outlined the potential conversion to more residential units at a May hearing - more than two dozen union leaders and elected officials expressed their support for Mr. Ratner's bid. Many of them cited the developer's earlier promise of 10,000 permanent jobs in the project's commercial portion and the so-called 50-50 housing deal with Acorn.
"The more than 10,000 jobs that will be created at Atlantic Yards will be a historic achievement for the future of Brooklyn's economy," read a letter from the Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz. Similar letters came from Senator Charles E. Schumer, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and several members of the City Council.


Was FCR forthcoming?

Whose fault was it? The Times quoted FCR VP Jim Stuckey:
In an interview, Mr. Stuckey, the executive of Forest City Ratner, suggested that Forest City Ratner was paying a price for being forthcoming about its plans. He noted that the developer had met with dozens of community groups, had appeared at two Council hearings though it had no legal obligation to do so, and had publicly released pages and pages of documents before it would have been required to.

That wasn't quite the issue. FCR was somewhat forthcoming. It had twice announced there would be 6,000 jobs. The ESDC's 9/16/05 Draft Scope revealed there would be even fewer jobs. The developer was just not as forthcoming as when it had distributed press releases and fact sheets promoting 10,000 jobs. The Times had ignored the role of the press in failing to follow up.

Initial claims

Another look back at the press coverage suggests that initial coverage of the job claims was somewhat circumspect. The Times (A Grand Plan in Brooklyn For the Nets' Arena Complex, 12/11/03) quoted Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz but didn't use the 10,000 jobs figure: "This plan goes even further, creating thousands of apartments affordable to Brooklynites of every income and producing thousands of jobs."

Later, some reporters and columnists quoted FCR statistics. A 1/24/04 Times article, in the Sports section (but written by a Metro desk reporter) and headlined "Ratner Signs Contract To Complete Nets Sale," stated that "construction of the arena would create about 10,000 jobs and that its operation would create a few thousand more. In addition, Ratner plans to build some 2.1 million square feet of office space over the railroad yard."

[The numbers here are odd: the project, not simply the arena, was estimated to create 15,000 construction jobs, at 1500 a year, and the project, not the arena, was estimated to created 10,000 office jobs. The arena itself has never been estimated to create more than several hundred permanent jobs. And the location would be over and beyond the railyard.]

Columnist hype

A 1/27/04 Daily News column by Denis Hamill, headlined OPPOSITION TO NETS IS STRICTLY NIMBY quoted information from Forest City Ratner's press release: I've received dozens of E-mails opposing this $2.5 billion construction project that would bring Brooklyn a 19,000-seat arena, 2 million square feet of commercial space, 300,000 square feet of retail space, and 4,500 new housing units, creating 15,000 temporary construction jobs and 10,000 new permanent jobs.

A 4/12/04 New York Post column by Andrea Peyser, headlined "NETS' ARENA WILL 'WORK' WONDERS," began: The naysayers, whiners and professional "no" people will whine and say nay. But I offer 10,000 incontrovertible reasons why the planned Nets basketball arena in Downtown Brooklyn is not just a good idea, but a crucial one: Ten-thousand jobs.

Such firm statistics were later promulgated in straight news coverage. A 6/18/04 Daily News story, headlined HARDHATS & ACTIVISTS CHEER ON RATNER PLAN, stated: Energized by the prospect of 15,000 construction jobs, 10,000 permanent jobs and the project's proposed housing component, the noontime crowd roared their approval at every mention of job and housing opportunities.

That seems a little conclusory, since most at the rally were union workers hoping for construction jobs and members of ACORN or BUILD concerned about affordable housing or job training for construction work. Office workers were in short supply; indeed, most of the office jobs, based on the pattern at Ratner's previous Brooklyn projects, would be moved from Manhattan rather than new.

A 6/18/04 New York Sun article, headlined "Union Members Unite Behind Ratner's Development Plan for Brooklyn," explained where the numbers came from: According to the plan - as outlined by an Atlantic Yards Fact sheet that was distributed at the event - the project will construct an arena with 52,000 square feet of usable space, new housing designed for all income levels, offer reasonably priced game tickets, and create 15,000 construction jobs and 10,000 permanent jobs.

Needless to say, neither Peyser nor Hamill has taken another look at the not-so-incontrovertible numbers. Nor have most reporters and editorial writers, even as Forest City Ratner now conflates construction and other jobs and spuriously promises "18,000 jobs created."

The changes in "Jobs, Housing, and Hoops" still deserve attention.

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