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What's missing? Columnist Louis still sloppy on jobs, the CBA, and AY rhetoric

In his 6/1/06 "Commerce and Community" column in the Bed-Stuy-based Our Time Press, Daily News columnist Errol Louis offered a "back-of-the-envelope analysis" of the jobs at the Atlantic Yards project. Unfortunately he failed to mention some important context, closing with the ahistorical suggestion that "Brooklyn politicians who have already wasted years opposing the project... should be negotiating the details of exactly how to make sure the coming jobs go to constituents who need it."

Louis neglected to tell readers that some jobs at the project have already been subject to negotiations, under the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), and others simply fall outside any political oversight. (This column is no longer online, as it's been replaced by a more recent column, discussed below.) He also ignored the CBA in a recent Daily News column in which he identified five project supporters without pointing out that two are CBA signatories.

Construction jobs

First, give Louis credit for discussing the promised construction jobs with more precision than the developer and some commentators:
Forest City Ratner Companies, the project developer, estimates 15,000 construction jobs will be created over the 10-year life of the buildup. To put it another way, about 1,500 construction employees will be on the job every year for a decade...

Many others simply repeat the term "15,000 construction jobs" without acknowledging that such jobs are calculated in job-years.

There was a CBA

Louis, however, did not mention the already-concluded negotiations about those construction jobs. The CBA calls for "good faith efforts to meet the overall goal... of not less than 35% Minority and 10% women construction workers..." This represents an effort to diversify the construction unions. Louis surely knows this; his Daily News has editorialized about the issue.

Within that goal, 35 percent of 1500 jobs means 525 jobs a year--not insignificant, but also not so large in reference to a $3.5 billion project that, by the developer's own estimate, would involve direct subsidies and public costs of at least $1.1 billion. As Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York testified at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing:
Without a real RFP [request for proposals] process, it is difficult to say whether or not the public is getting the best possible results from its economic development efforts. This is particularly true when it comes to providing subsidies in order to induce development. The public is being asked to pay for part of a project that it has not had a chance to compare with alternatives.

Other jobs at the project

Louis briefly discussed the other jobs:
Next come the jobs associated with the companies that lease space within the arena complex and the other buildings planned at Atlantic Yards. It's hard to know what businesses will lease the planned office space or how many new or existing jobs will be located at Atlantic yards, but Forest City Ratner estimates 2,500 permanent office jobs, 770 retail jobs, 400 arena jobs and 70 hotel jobs.

It's hard to know? Maybe, but we have some hints. As the New York Observer reported last December, those arena jobs are unionized, so current workers at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey would have first dibs at them.

What about the office jobs?

We also have some hints about the office jobs, the largest chunk of permanent jobs. They would not be subject to political oversight, and Louis should have known that. City Council member Charles Barron quizzed Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey about the office jobs at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing (p. 73-74):
STUCKEY: Well, we’re not even sure who those companies will be yet, Council member. I can’t tell you who the employees will be.
BARRON: Those jobs won’t be controlled by you?
STUCKEY: Those jobs are controlled by the companies that --
BARRON: That’s right. So, those, they could hire whoever they want basically.
STUCKEY: Typically that’s what happens with businesses in our country.

Beyond that, consider that, based on Forest City Ratner's track record in filling Brooklyn office space, at MetroTech and the Bank of New York Tower at Atlantic Terminal, it's unlikely that most of the office jobs would be new, as opposed to "retained." The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), a supporter of the project, looked at an earlier (and larger) set of job projections and estimated that fewer than a third would be new:
The fiscal impact analysis, however, assumes that only 30% of these jobs... are new to the New York economy.

Do the math: 30 percent of 2500 jobs would be 750 new jobs. And, to be precise, while Forest City Ratner estimates space for 2500 office jobs, that calculation does not include a vacancy rate. Throw in a typical 7 percent vacancy rate (which is what NYCEDC recommends) and you have to subtract another 175 jobs.

So 30 percent of 2325 jobs represents fewer than 700 new jobs. And how many of these jobs would go to residents of central Brooklyn?

Spinoff jobs

Louis also pointed that new businesses and expanded business would be needed to serve the thousands of families who would move into the project. Indeed, a population increase would stimulate demand for goods and services, though it's unclear how much of that demand would be accommodated by the retail promised within the project and thus be part of the already projected job figures.

As for the "coming tidal wave of new residents and office workers" who represent an opportunity for local entrepreneurs, consider that many would be close to Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls, both of which have significant chunks of vacant space. Could it be that "the tidal wave" might be an opportunity for the developer as well?

Unpaid work

In his 6/16/06 column, under the subtitle "Atlantic Yards in Black and White," Louis wrote that "the smoldering racial undertones of the debate over Atlantic Yards recently burst into flames" when the Daily News's Ben Smith published part of a racially-charged email from Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.

Some of Louis's characterizations deserve challenge. He called it "a disgusting transparent attack on well-known community leaders like James Caldwell, Bertha Lewis, and the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, who negotiated a Community Benefits Agreement with the developer of Atlantic Yards--leaders who have spent decades building credibility by doing thankless, unpaid work on behalf of poor people in Brooklyn."

However much the abovementioned have done "thankless, unpaid work" in other organizations, a key factor in this CBA is that the organizations that signed the agreement will benefit, and that's not how the CBA model was established in Los Angeles, where signatories don't take money from the developer. BUILD's Caldwell was once slated to earn a salary of $125,000, later amended to about half that. Lewis is a salaried employee of ACORN, which receives donations from Forest City Ratner and would be responsible for marketing the affordable housing. Daughtry's Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance got $50,000 in seed money the Forest City Ratner and, when asked, was unwilling to discuss what percentage of its funding comes from the developer. As noted by the New York Observer, six of the eight signatories did not exist as incorporated entities at the time the CBA was signed.

Racial undertones

As for the racial undertones, the issue is far more complex than black and white, as shown by the comments of two black City Council Members. Though Charles Barron used far more moderate language, he offered a not dissimilar message, declaring that the real divisive figure was not Goldstein but Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner. Using less charged language, he indicted CBA signatories: "Some quick folk made their deals early." Commenting on an attempt by BUILD to secure public funding for the privately-negotiated CBA, Letitia James called it an "Individual Benefits Agreement."

Referring to Goldstein's use of the term "wealthy white masters," Louis called it "pure poison, in the same community that came violently apart at the seams in 1991, in part because of loose reckless talk by irresponsible people." Same community? It depends on where you draw the boundaries. The immediate community is Prospect Heights; the larger community might be seen as Central Brooklyn, or even the borough as a whole; the 1991 riot was in Crown Heights, and related to a turf war between black residents, mainly of West Indian descent, and Lubavitcher Hasidim.

This issue of racially-charged rhetoric regarding the Atlantic Yards project could have--and should have--been covered from the start in perspective. Some Atlantic Yards supporters have offered irresponsible rhetoric. Last June, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Lewis said "a small group of white liberals... don't give a damn about people of color." Last July, Caldwell told the New York Sun, “If this thing doesn’t come out in favor of Ratner, it would be a conspiracy against blacks." (By the way, I ran into Caldwell unexpectedly last night. He was quite cordial.)

Back to the CBA

Louis wrote that it was laughable to suggest that CBA signatories are from astroturf groups, adding, "In fact, more than 200 community organizations have endorsed the Community Benefits Agreement, largely on the strength of the history and integrity and deep roots the signers brought to the table." As noted last August in the New York Observer's blog The Real Estate:
...the coalition claimed that "more than 200 organizations have affirmed" the agreement since its signing in June--”meaning they supported the idea even if they were not involved in negotiating the agreement or will be a part of enforcing it. The Real Estate asked for the list and counted fewer than 175; and that's only if "organizations" include elected officials, restaurants and real-estate agencies, as well as block associations and the like. But we were nonetheless surprised it had traveled so far, so fast. Why, there are groups from as far away as Queens and Manhattan on this list! (Are they part of the "community" in downtown Brooklyn?)

Brooklyn Law School

Louis hearkened back to a forum last November at Brooklyn Law School, where he appeared on a panel with Goldstein:
We differed on a few of the many factual details about the project that are flexible, negotiable or unclear for other reasons. As I recently wrote in this space, it takes a little science and a little guesswork to estimate how many jobs might be created by the project. The number changes, for instance, if more housing and less commercial space gets built.
At the forum, I gave my best estimate and tried to argue the real point--not whether there will be 6000 or 10,000 or 15,000 jobs, but how desperately the jobs are needed. Instead of agreeing that the exact jobs number is an estimate and debating the issue at hand, Goldstein told the audience I was trying to pull the wool over their eyes...."

Well, I was there too, and you can watch the session here: mms:// Louis said:
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.

While Louis did acknowledge doubt at the time, it's hard to call that a "best estimate." The number of jobs makes a difference. Had Louis checked the New York Times and his own Daily News some ten days earlier, he would have known the office space, once projected to house 10,000 jobs, had been reduced to accommodate 2500 jobs--and a closer analysis would have suggested maybe a third of them would be new positions. Since whatever might be built would create jobs, the specific numbers, especially relative to the subsidies and public costs, deserve scrutiny.

False premises

Louis wrote that Goldstein posted an online article about the event saying "Louis lied his way through" the panel. All because my jobs estimate didn't match his.
Goldstein changed the language on his Web site after I sent him a note--but once again, the damage was already done by the same man who is forever calling for "healthy open debate."

Though it's no longer on the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn web site, the revised posting stated:
Errol Louis, New York Daily News editorial board member, columnist and Ratner supporter, can't even get his basic facts why should we trust what he or his board write? Especially inane stuff like this.
TimesRatnerReport covers two November 16th forums; at the first Mr. Louis repeatedly misstated established facts.

I didn't use Goldstein's language, but I think Louis was much too sloppy in his research and presentation. And I think he downplayed the differences in the debate, which went beyond estimates over jobs. I used the term "false premises (on eminent domain)" and pointed out the following flaws in Louis's argument:
--he suggested that the conditions in Prospect Heights were analogous to the two rather different cases Justice Sandra Day O'Connor cited as legitimate exercises of eminent domain
--he emphasized that the railyard owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been undeveloped for 50 years, which is true, but didn't acknowledge that eminent domain would not be necessary to develop the property
--he estimated 15,000 permanent jobs at the project.

Minor details?

A lack of attention to details can produce a distorted portrait of the big picture. There's a big difference between 15,000 new permanent jobs and 2500 total office jobs (or my more recent estimate of 1590 new permanent jobs). There's a big difference between last year's Kelo eminent domain case, where the project emerged from a publicly-approved plan, and the fait accompli of the Atlantic Yards project.

There's a big difference between describing the Atlantic Yards debate as a black-white battle rather than a more complex political (and racial) divide. And there's a big difference between the pioneering Community Benefits Agreements negotiated in Los Angeles, where groups agree not to accept money from a developer, and the Atlantic Yards CBA, where that ground rule has been ignored--not just by the signatories but by most of the press.


  1. Where would we be without the always tedious, always pedantic Norm Oder? On this outing, the Mad Overkiller wastes over 2300 words to dispute an article I wrote that ran 626 words.

    One revealing nugget worth noting is Oder’s skeptical comment “same community? It depends on where you draw the boundaries” in response to my suggestion that Crown Heights and Prospect Heights make up a community. I don’t know when Oder got here, but he ought to know by now that Community Planning Board 8 and the co-terminous 77th Precinct – which cover less than 2 square miles – includes Prospect Heights and northern Crown Heights.

    Much of my dispute with Oder and his anti-development friends stems from their refusal to acknowledge the history, needs, expressed wishes, and very existence of many people from the lower-income end of the neighborhood, even though they (we) make up a majority of the planning board where the project is based and have reached informed conclusions about Atlantic Yards that happen to differ from the crowd at Freddy’s.

    Oder likes to hand out epithets like “sloppy,” so I’ll assume his rhetoric in this case is precise and intentional – as well as divisive and reprehensible. And remember, the point of my comment was to lament the use of racially inflammatory language -- which Oder for some reason felt compelled to defend. Instead of being cute about it, Oder should come clean and tell readers how he feels about Goldstein's recent comment; what he thinks the community boundaries are; and how many tens of thousands of his neighbors he’d like to sever from the debate.

  2. Louis has a point: Prospect Heights and part of Crown Heights are in the same community board (CB8). The Atlantic Yards project would mostly be at the western edge of CB8. Because the project would be built at or near the junction of three community boards (CBs 2,6,&8), those three boards consistently have been part of the public discussion of the project.

    Also, the term "community" has been fuzzy, especially in discussing the Community Benefits Agreement: is it for Brooklyn at large? Central Brooklyn? minorities in Brooklyn? (I haven't heard the suggestion that it should be CB8.)

    As for the Crown Heights riot, it began at the corner of Utica Avenue and President Street, which is near but not inside the southeast boundary of CB8.

    Louis wrote that people from the lower-income end of the neighborhood make up the majority of the planning board where the project is based. Again, the role of the three CBs suggests that the project has a much broader impact.

    While Louis says people "have reached informed conclusions," one of my points was that Louis's conclusions about jobs are underinformed. (Does that make me pedantic or just someone willing to do some homework?) As for the needs of lower-income people, I've written a good deal about the issue of affordable housing in recent months and will write more soon.

    I didn't defend Goldstein's language and I've written about that previously. (I called it "offensive and intemperate.") My point was that there was a larger context, as well.

    As for the boundaries of the community affected by the project, I think that the three CBs are a start, but, because the project would have larger impacts in Brooklyn, those boundaries should be extended.

    Regarding divisiveness, I don't want to sever anyone from the debate; in fact, were this project proceeding under typical city land use procedures (ULURP), there'd be much more opportunity for citizens and their elected representatives to be part of the debate. Instead, because of decisions made by political leaders like the mayor, the project bypasses ULURP and goes through the less-representative state process, supervised by the Empire State Development Corporation.

    Is "sloppy" a worse epithet than "anti-development"? To be critical of of this project doesn't make one anti-development. But calling people anti-development is a way of marginalizing their views.


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