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Errol Louis: a defense of MetroTech, weak math, and the walls of the ghetto

Errol Louis, in his August 1 column in the black-oriented Our Time Press, continues his staunch support for the Atlantic Yards project, his badmouthing of opponents, and his casual relationship to facts.

The first segment of his Commerce and Community column is headlined Endgame at Atlantic Yards. I've already discussed some errors in both this column and his most-recent Daily News column, but some choice lines still deserve response.

Eminent domain

He writes:
As die-hard opponents of eminent domain, which is the government’s power to compel holdouts to sell their property at fair market value to benefit the public good, the antidevelopment groups would have opposed the redevelopment of Times Square, the creation of Lincoln Center, the hundreds of units of affordable housing created by the Melrose Commons Project in the Bronx and the Nehemiah Homes in East New York.

Opinions about eminent domain differ, but the important thing is to analyze the Supreme Court's Kelo decision, which raises major questions about whether use of eminent domain is legitimate if there has been no public planning process and it favors a specific developer.


Louis defends Forest City Ratner's MetroTech:
The antibuilders would also have opposed the creation of MetroTech – many of them not knowing, as newcomers to Brooklyn, that in the mid-1980s half of the buildings near Polytechnic University were in poor condition, and that 17% of the buildings in the area were vacant and another 22% of the area was made up of vacant lots and parking lots. No buildings had been constructed in the area for 20 years.
Thanks to a billion in private investment dollars and use of eminent domain by the city, the MetroTech area now has more than 22,000 jobs and eliminated a major crime zone. That, in turn, made it possible for the wave of new apartment buildings now scheduled to be built east of Flatbush Avenue near the Manhattan Bridge.

Louis doesn't mention that large public subsidies were required--justified, in the city's mind, to keep Wall Street firms from migrating offices to New Jersey.

He leaves out a major beneficiary of those subsidies: Forest City Ratner. In fact, in his entire column, he doesn't mention the name of the Atlantic Yards developer.

As for the jobs at MetroTech, Louis is quite selective. Many of those white-collar jobs were retained, not created, and as Matthew Schuerman wrote last year in City Limits:
Seventeen years later, while the buildings are still enjoying a property-tax holiday, no one knows how many low-income residents of adjoining neighborhoods are working at the complex. But business leaders and community activists agree that the number is very low.

The CBA defense

Louis writes:
Meanwhile, groups and local leaders with deep roots in our community and knowledge of the area’s past have been fighting the good fight, trying to ensure that jobs, contracts and housing will be created and distributed fairly as Atlantic Yards moves forward. Thanks to organizations like ACORN and leaders like the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, Freddie Hamilton and James Caldwell – people whose long track records and integrity have been maliciously attacked by the anti-development yuppies – a package of legally binding promises has been negotiated.

Malicious attacked? Is it malicious to point out, yet again, that in Los Angeles, where Community Benefits Agreements were pioneered, signatories don't take money from developers, but in Brooklyn, they do? (Or is it myopic for the press to ignore this?)

Is the Rev. David Dyson of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church an anti-development yuppie? He's the longstanding social activist who told Norman Kelley of the Brooklyn Rail last year:
This project has actually split lifelong partners in the progressive movement. We feel that Reverend Daughtry and ACORN have been brought in by Ratner not as advocates for the community but as private business partners in the deal. We’re trying to prevent the misuse of eminent domain, trying to increase the number of affordable housing units, trying to decrease the number of high-rise luxury office buildings. Those are the kinds of issues that a community group should have, but the Reverend Daughtry—who’s also an old friend—and our friends at ACORN are trying to cut a personal deal so that they can be brokers over whatever little piece or crumb of this pie falls from Ratner’s table. Ratner has been to Brooklyn what Karl Rove was to Ohio and Florida—brilliantly able to play on people’s worst instincts in order to get what he wants in a way that he wants it.

Louis's math

He writes:
Do the math: if even 3% of the contracts and jobs from the proposed $4.2 billion project ends up in local hands, it will mean $126 million for a community in desperate need of revitalization. And the creation of 2,250 subsidized apartments, 900 of which would be affordable to the very poorest New Yorkers, will be a priceless benefit.

Louis neatly conflates "minority businesses" and "local hands." As noted, many of the minority businesses that have benefited from the CBA aren't even in Brooklyn.

A New York Times article published today describes Forest City Ratner and its partner, Turner Construction, helped organize a special eight-week instruction program company for small, minority-run contractors. The three examples cited:
--a Pakistani immigrant (male) who lives on Long Island and runs a subsidiary of a firm based in Long Island City, Queens
--a Chinese immigrant (male) who manages a firm based in Queens
--a Harlem woman who runs her small company out of her apartment.

The program may be worthy, but it doesn't seem to have much to do with the Central Brooklyn ghetto Louis cites later in his column.

Looking at the housing

Louis writes that 900 apartments would be "affordable to the very poorest New Yorkers."

Actually, even the most affordable apartments planned for the Atlantic Yards project would go to families earning between $21,270 and $28,360. The city has just announced a plan to offer affordable housing to "very hard to reach" populations, including those earning below $21,250.

No feasible plan

Louis writes:
The antidevelopment crowd, which has attacked the benefits agreement as inadequate, has no feasible plan to create more jobs or more affordable housing than the Atlantic Yards planners. In fact, they have only promised to try and stop the project in court.

This is a neat trick. He's blaming the "antidevelopment crowd" for not having a plan, while the way to create a plan is to send out a request for proposals, which is what the city and state do for many, many other sites.

Remember, the city made no effort to launch a plan involving the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard in Brooklyn. But now the city wants to buy rights to the MTA's Hudson Yards in Manhattan, build a platform, and solicit bids from developers.

Guarding the walls

Louis closes:
But it’s too early to celebrate: New York has a long history of worthy projects that have been stalled or killed by small groups of middle-class people with loud voices and access to the media. Many of them are liberal, but they still end up serving as sentries guarding the walls of the Central Brooklyn ghetto, keeping people bottled up inside with too few jobs, too little income and not enough affordable housing.
That’s why it’s so important for ordinary people to understand what’s at stake and to show up at the August 23 hearing.

If only Louis looked a little more carefully, he might tell his readers that, for example, there would be an average of 41 two- and three- bedroom apartments per year for people who otherwise could qualify for Section 8 vouchers or public housing.

And he might read the DEIS and conclude that the document, despite itself, warns that displacement would be a problem and that this project might, in its own way, shore up the walls of the ghetto.


  1. "As die-hard opponents of eminent domain, which is the government’s power to compel holdouts to sell their property at fair market value to benefit the public good, the antidevelopment groups would have opposed the redevelopment of Times Square, the creation of Lincoln Center, the hundreds of units of affordable housing created by the Melrose Commons Project in the Bronx and the Nehemiah Homes in East New York."

    Comparing AY to these projects is like comparing apples and oranges. The Times Square redevelopment was in a 100% commercial space so it made sense. Also the affordable housing he mentions in the Bronx and East New York were redevelopments in a 100% residential space so it made sense.

    But his use of the Lincoln Center project shows his immense ignorance. Thousands of poor and low income minorities (including black, spanish and eastern european) were forced out of the West side because of the Lincoln Center deal. And thousands of units of housing that was destroyed was never replaced, although many of the developers "promised" that they would build more housing. In fact 90% of the housing that was destroyed during New York's Urban Renewal years (approx. 1945-1970) was never replaced. One of the reasons why New York is one of the most expensive places to live is because of a lack of adequate, affordable housing. Why? Developers like Ratner will condemn 2000 units of middle income housing to put up 600 units of "luxury" housing, disguising these types of projects as "benefits to the community". Its probably the most successful scam in the history of civil planning.


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