Friday, August 04, 2006

Errol Louis, negotiation, and the CBs' lost dialogue

In a Daily News column today headlined Losing Brooklyn's uncivil war, Errol Louis argues that not only are opponents of the planned Atlantic Yards project likely to lose before the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC):
Ironically, the deal is likely to end up bigger than it might otherwise have been, because somewhere along the way, the anti-project groups abandoned important tools - the ability to be reasonable and civil, and the willingness to negotiate - that seasoned New York activists deploy to great advantage.

But negotiation depends on a framework for decisionmaking. The ESDC was always going to approve the project, and there's no check on scale, given that no local elected officials have a vote. The main negotiation was for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that makes certain promises regarding local/minority hiring, affordable housing, and contracts for minority-owned businesses.

Such CBAs represent an innovative aspect of development deals, but--this apparently must be repeated again and again--there's a crucial difference between the pioneering CBAs negotiated in Los Angeles and the CBA negotiated in Brooklyn: signatories in L.A. don't take money from the developer.

Confrontational politics?

Louis writes of project opponents:
More than two years into a struggle they have lost at every key turn, the main project opponents insist on attacking, confronting and insulting every politician, community leader and journalist - including yours truly - who didn't immediately agree to join them in trying to kill the project.

Lost at every turn? Remember, the project was supposed to break ground in 2004 and the arena was supposed to open in 2006. Now it would be 2009 at best, and the developer is talking about extending the Nets' lease at the Continental Airlines Arena well beyond that.

And now there's the news about the dissolution of Forest City Ratner, which has faced its financial struggles, into its Cleveland-based parent, Forest City Enterprises. The press release is murky, so we'll stay tuned for more interpretation, but NoLandGrab calls it a setback.

Looking into the mirror

How civil is Louis? Cataloging the language in Louis's latest column in Our Time Press, Lumi Rolley finds Louis describing opponents as:
-yuppies,
-antidevelopment protesters,
-antibuilders,
-antidevelopment brigade,
-antidevelopment groups,
-antidevelopment crowd,
-anti-development yuppies,
-middle-class people with loud voices, and
-liberal... serving as sentries guarding the walls of the Central Brooklyn ghetto.

That's quite a list.

The ex-Panther yuppies

And how correct is Louis?

Sure, a good segment of project opponents might be tagged as yuppies, but a good segment of project supporters might be said to be... paid.

Do City Council Member Charles Barron and fellow ex-Black Panther Bob Law count as anti-development yuppies? Do the Reverends Clinton Miller, David Dyson, and Dennis Dillon? Do grassroots affordable housing groups like the Fifth Avenue Committee and the Pratt Area Community Council? The coalition of the concerned is much broader.

Also, it's hard to trust a columnist who still can't get basic facts straight, as he claims more than once that the project would include 4500 apartments. Actually, that's just the rentals. There would also be 2360 condos, which would help make the project the densest residential community in the nation, by far.

More negotiation?

Louis raises an interesting point about patterns of activism. Would greater civility have worked in this case? He acknowledges that sometimes the situation requires confrontation, as with Act Up! during the early days of the AIDS crisis. He writes:
What should have been a dialogue is set to turn into a showdown. When the opponents go down in flames, they will have nobody to blame but themselves

Well, what about the Community Boards, the oh-so-mainstream bodies that represent a broad spectrum of the community? They didn't get much of a chance to negotiate.

In May, CBs 2, 6, & 8 sent a letter to Forest City Ratner after the developer claimed the CBs participated in "crafting" the CBA. The letter said:
We are writing to express our belief that this statement overstates our participation. As you may or may not be aware, we were invited to play a limited role that ended months before the agreement was signed when some eventual signatories barred us from attending the working sessions. Furthermore, we were not given the opportunity to review a final draft of the document despite assurances from Mr. James P. Stuckey, in a letter dated March 23, 2005 to Community Board 2, that FCRC intended to do so.
Given the very limited role played by the three community boards in crafting the CBA and FCRC's overstatement of that fact, we are requesting that you discontinue all mention, in any form, of our participation.

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