Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Daily News editorial claims "win-win-win," evades evasiveness

Talk about some cognitive dissonance. Shortly after Brian Lehrer had finished discussing the "evasiveness" of Empire State Development Chairman Charles Gargano, subscribers to Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards e-newsletter were sent a copy of Sunday's Daily News editorial on the project, headlined Ready, set, go for Atlantic Yards.

It deserves some close analysis.

The $4.2 billion mega-plan to build more than 6,000 units of housing, an arena for the pro basketball Nets and office towers in the heart of Brooklyn won critical approvals from state economic development officials Friday, setting the stage for at long last giving the green light to this vital project.

State economic development officials? Four guys, all unelected appointees of Gov. George Pataki, deliberated for about 15 minutes.

$4.2 billion? No, it’s down to $4 billion.

Office towers? Well, maybe two of 16. The office space has been reduced from 2 million square feet to 336,000 square feet.

Benefits claimed

After three tortuous years, the proposed Atlantic Yards development now goes for final approval to a panel controlled by Gov. Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. And, barring a stunning disclosure on the order of sponsor Bruce Ratner appearing on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List, Pataki, Silver and Bruno must approve this boon to New York.
The benefits of the Atlantic Yards are manifest, among them 2,500 apartments geared for the middle and working classes, $5.6 billion in tax revenues over the next 30 years, 15,000 construction jobs, a couple of thousand permanent jobs and a great entertainment venue for Brooklyn. It's a win-win-win.


Actually, 2250 apartments, not 2500. That's a basic fact. Why add another ten percent or so--is factchecking that difficult?

$5.6 billion in tax revenues? Only if you play with the numbers.

15,000 construction jobs? That’s job-years.

A couple of thousand permanent jobs? Perhaps, but a lot fewer than promised.

Ratner's struggle?

Even so, getting this far has been an uphill battle for Ratner, who has done what the law requires - and then some. He has acquired property; paid handsome premiums to relocate a small number of residents and businesses; competitively bid for the right to build over MTA tracks; voluntarily entered into a "community benefits agreement"; prevailed in court actions filed by project opponents, reduced the development's scope at the request of the city Planning Commission and prepared thousands of pages of environmental impact statements. We should also mention that Ratner recently agreed to build a public school in the complex.

Relocate the residents? Not the rent-stabilized tenants?

Competitively bid? Had the inside track for 18 months.

The Community Benefits Agreement (CBA)? Helped create it, a far different CBA than more legitimate ones pioneered in Los Angeles.

Reduced the scope at the request of the CPC? Had planned for it all along.

Prepared EIS statements? Significantly inadequate ones, critics believe.

Agreed to build a public school? Agreed to provide space for a school that the city would build and pay for.

PACB review

Now, the fate of Atlantic Yards rests with Pataki, Silver and Bruno as the overseers of the Public Authorities Control Board, an entity established in the fiscal crisis three decades ago to make sure quasi-independent agencies didn't issue bonds that couldn't be repaid. The board has jurisdiction because the Legislature and governor agreed to invest $100 million in infrastructure improvements.
By all rights, the panel should consider only one issue: whether the project is financially sound. Not whether its buildings are too tall and its scale is too large, as opponents argue. The review process has settled those questions, but there's concern that one member of the board - Silver - could use his veto power to demand revisions, if not kill the project, as some of his Assembly colleagues want.


The review process has settled those questions? The review process was barely vetted.

Is the project financially sound? That’s a wide-open question, especially given the dubious fiscal impact analysis.

The speaker exercised such muscle in blocking the Jets stadium proposed for Manhattan's West Side and the transformation of the Farley Post Office into Moynihan Station. He says he was on solid ground in both cases, and he hints he's likely to give a thumbs up to Atlantic Yards - while also saying the deal would rise or fall based "on how the developer responds to some of the criticism, either because of the mass of the project or some of the traffic."
There he is wrong. The board was not established to give lawmakers sway over what gets built, wholly outside legally prescribed planning and review systems. If legislators want to assume that role, they should pass a bill detailing the standards they will apply, along with a process that's open and understandable. Suggesting terms under threat of execution is no way to do business.


The editorial has a point—the PACB isn’t exactly a democratic body. (Neither is the ESDC, however.) But if the PACB merely did its job and examined the financial soundness of the Atlantic Yards plan, a whole lot more public disclosure would be required.

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