Sunday, July 16, 2006

The "sophisticated machine," "ostensible" independence, & Stuckey's spin

In an online-only New York Observer article this week about the Atlantic Yards opposition, headlined After “Race” Battle, Dan Goldstein Charges On, reporter Matthew Schuerman observes:
Since news of a basketball arena in Brooklyn ever surfaced three years ago, the opposition has grown from a merry band of hecklers best known for opposing a homeless shelter to a sophisticated machine that is simultaneously fighting legal, political and public relations battles, and sometimes even winning.

The article states:
A recent article on Slate by Jonathan Lethem shows the opposition's synergy. DDDB's inner circle recruited Mr. Lethem for a celebrity advisory board that was unveiled in May. His byline most likely helped get the diatribe published in Slate but the arguments themselves came from a pair of bloggers-the journalist Norman Oder and architect Jonathan Cohn--who are ostensibly independent of Develop Don't Destroy but who do much of the analysis for the group. Then the article ended up photocopied and distributed the following Sunday by volunteers at a fair on Smith Street.

Well, it was more than a diatribe, and Lethem added his own interpretation to some ongoing arguments. Lethem numbered his arguments, so I'll suggest that they came from a broad set of sources: 1) Cohn; 2) me/No Land Grab/DDDB; 3) me/DDDB; 4) Brian Hatch/me/DDDB; 5) DDDB; 6) numerous preservationists, including the Municipal Art Society; 7) a lot of people who read. (OK, he cited my blog for a Frank Gehry quote, but any writer could have done so.)

Too much credit

It's inaccurate to say Cohn and I "do much of the analysis for the group." DDDB has produced or promoted numerous reports and commentaries, on issues like security, taxpayer boondoggles, and eminent domain. More importantly, Cohn and I don't work for the group, since our work is self-generated, driven significantly by the issues posed in public documents and at public events.

It would've been much more precise to say "do analysis that the group finds useful." I started writing about this project last September and Cohn two months later. Cohn has posted only four times since May 9.

Ostensibly independent?

Am I merely "ostensibly independent" of DDDB? It's fair to say that I'm aligned with DDDB--we share similar concerns and critiques--as opposed to aligned with project supporters, but DDDB doesn't speak for me and I don't speak for them. I write a range of pieces, some straight reportage, some commentary. I can point out a DDDB error, question some rhetoric, and note where a DDDB affiliation was missing.

I'm a journalist and critic, not an opponent. My goal is to get it right, not some mythical notion of objectivity, if I may quote former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent. So if say that the project represents "extreme density," that's based on research. I'm in regular contact with a few people involved in DDDB or the broader opposition, but I talk or email regularly with a range of people interested in the Atlantic Yards issue.

Welcome to the machine

Near the end of the article, Schuerman observes:
But the opposition's sophisticated munching machine takes every scrap of information that Forest City or a government agency puts out, every effort at propaganda, and spits it back in the developer's face. Hence the full-color brochure is called the "liar flyer" because it did not picture Frank Gehry's designs for the towers. (Mr. Stuckey said it wasn't meant to be an architectural brochure, and that images were given to the media two weeks later at a press conference with Mr. Gehry.)

(Munching begins) Ok, if it wasn't meant to be an architectural brochure, then why did it suggest that the "Vision for Downtown Brooklyn" included brownstones? And why is Forest City Ratner still distributing the brochures? On Friday visitors heading toward to Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park were handed brochures plus Nets keychains.

"Sophisticated munching machine"? A main component, barely-mentioned in the article, is NoLandGrab.org (NLG), which daily collects and comments on anything related to Atlantic Yards. Lumi Rolley, the main contributor to NLG, is a diligent amateur--a webmaster by training--who's immersed herself in the Atlantic Yards saga. The "sophisticated munching machine" is just a few loosely-organized people who read a lot.

Questioning FCR

The article finds Jim Stuckey, president of the Atlantic Yards project, trying to spin, but reporter Schuerman is skeptical:
As for the expected show of force at Sunday's rally, which organizers estimate will draw at least 2,000, he said, "You don't know how many people will come out because they oppose it and how many people are coming to find out more about it."
It just so happens that Forest City staged an event a few days earlier, July 11, that looked an awful lot like an attempt to show its own support: an information session for people interested in the 2,250 affordable apartments that would be built under the plan.


Well, the rally is billed as "against Ratner's skyscraper city and arena overdevelopment," so it's safe to assume most attendees will not be those on the fence.

Stuckey vs. NLG

The article notes:
Mr. Stuckey added that one of the opposition blogs, No Land Grab, evidenced "a lack of transparency" because it reproduced an ad for the forum without giving the time and place. (The blog did show a phone number and an e-mail address to reserve a spot, however.)

Stuckey is criticizing NLG for "lack of transparency"? (NLG calls it a "pathetic swipe.") NLG quickly corrected the error, but why did it take months for Forest City Ratner to deal with the deceptive "placeholder" photos on the three months-old AtlanticYards.com web site. (A few days ago, the slide show was still portraying a building that had been renovated three years ago and other buildings that have recently been demolished. When I tried this morning, it wasn't working.)

Generating support

Stuckey continues:
"What I think is amazing is that without us doing any work at all, we have received over 4,000 RSVP's," he said the day before the information session. "That is not us working the crowd and putting up posters on lamp posts. That's a couple of newspaper ads and an e-mail sent around to people."
Just a couple of newspaper ads in major city dailies--at a cost that would presumably have bankrupted Develop Don't Destroy.


Not to mention 600,000 fliers that yielded 20,000 response cards. The Forest City Ratner "machine" is backed by some serious dollars.

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