Monday, January 29, 2007

Roger Green, CBN, & $100K--an alternative sequence

This may seem like old news, but it’s worth a closer look, especially now that the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) is asking people and member organizations to lobby Brooklyn Assembly members to release the $100,000 promised last year—and blocked by then Assemblyman Roger Green—to pay consultants for their already-completed review of the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

Because something doesn’t ring true about Green’s explanation for his denial of $100,000 in state funds he controlled. Green told the Brooklyn Papers that he withdrew his support for CBN’s request because of hurtful, racially charged remarks by members and supporters of CBN and project opponents.

However, the main example cited—an email comment by Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn’s (DDDB) Daniel Goldstein—was made before Green privately confirmed his support to a delegation from CBN. (The reps from CBN probably wish they’d gotten it in writing.)

So Green’s explanation doesn’t wash. Instead, it’s possible that Green was reacting to personal criticism he later received and/or pressure from developer Forest City Ratner and other supporters of the Atlantic Yards project, who thought that such a review would slow the project.

Indeed, a closer look by experts undoubtedly would have raised more questions. Still, his withdrawal of support for the CBN review seems inconsistent with his recognition that the project needs significant changes. Though an Atlantic Yards supporter, Green recognizes that it would be way too big. He has supported a bill to shrink the project by one-third, and also called for the time period for the environmental review to be extended.

Green’s rationale

The Brooklyn Papers reported:
Green, who is black, told The Brooklyn Paper that he instructed state officials to remove the allocation from this year’s $112-billion budget after Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for the anti-Yards group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, referred to developer Bruce Ratner as a “white master” in June.
Goldstein is white.
“I was not going to approve any money to any group that included members that had used language that was hurtful to the African-American community,” said Green (D-Prospect Heights), who blocked the grant to the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods before his term ended this month.


Under pressure, Goldstein immediately apologized—and then, in a more politic way, did DDDB. (Some black project critics, like former Black Panther Bob Law, didn’t think there was anything to apologize for. "The first person to say that was me," Law told the New York Observer last July.)

Green meeting

Green had supported CBN, at least rhetorically, for months. According to CBN secretary Jim Vogel, Green in October 2005 told him and Deb Howard, a fellow CBN steering committee member that “he was impressed by our inclusive membership and that we were neutral about which project would get built there, having focused our role entirely on ensuring that the community be meaningfully involved in the environmental review as required by regulations.”

Green was supportive, Vogel recalled, “He then went on to say that he thought there would be an ongoing role for CBN as a citizen's advisory board during the project buildout and through to full occupancy, which he estimated might be as much as 25-30 years.” (25-30 years for a project supposed to take a decade? That's even more than the 15-20 years cited by some supporters.)

Draft scope

Indeed, at the 10/18/05 hearing on the scope of analysis for the Draft EIS, Green had expressed his conceptual support for funding CBN’s work:
I call on [ESDC] Chairman Charles Gargano and Forest City Ratner Corporation to finance a consultant group with experience in environmental impact studies to work with the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods and the Environmental Committee of the CBA [Community Benefits Agreement] to review the EIS, and that I also believe that this process should be coordinated by the Office of Borough President Marty Markowitz.


Neither the ESDC nor the developer was willing to finance such a community review; hence CBN’s request to public officials.

CBA help?

Moreover, the CBA’s environmental committee was never set up to review the EIS. Its role, according to the CBA, is limited to the construction phase, not the project approval, and the CBA gives the committee no teeth; rather, the developer would comply with the agreement “by following the state mandated process.”

The CBA refers to the First Atlantic Terminal Housing Committee (FATHC), one of the CBA signatories. (See Section VIII.) Forest City agreed to work with FATHC to gain public and/or private funding to “pay the reasonable expenses of the working group of this committee” involving meetings space, web hosting, and a message board. But FATHC was to be granted no technical expertise.

While the developer agreed to “consult with FATHC to determine appropriate mitigation measures” such as rodent abatement, a staging plan for construction, a pedestrian and vehicular traffic plan, the CBA states clearly that compliance will be overseen by the state.

Formal request in '06

CBN made a formal request of the entire Brooklyn Assembly delegation by mail and at a 4/5/06 meeting at the Pacific Branch library. The meeting went “very well,” Vogel said, though Green had a conflict and couldn’t make it. CBN soon learned that the sums it had requested of both the City Council and the Assembly had been modified; the council would give $130,000 and the Assembly would give $100,000, rather than the $250,000 requested of each.

CBN, projecting a budget of $230,000, got its consultants “to discount their already discounted rates,” according to Vogel. In July, however, CBN learned that Green had requested a freeze on the grant. On 7/31/06, four CBN members met with Green, his chief of staff and City Council Member Letitia James.

Expel DDDB?

Vogel offered this account: “At that meeting Roger Green said he was very concerned that public money not be given to a divisive organization. We were very puzzled and it took a while to discover that he was equating CBN with DDDB. We carefully explained that DDDB was a constituent, but that there were 35 other organizations, each with individual opinions about the BAY proposal. We told him that we were also very surprised and disappointed at the language that had been used, and that there was some very unfortunate and disgusting language coming from all sides, which Green agreed with.

But we made it very clear that CBN was remaining removed from such exchanges. We assured him that CBN was not a divisive organization but was rather bringing very disparate groups together to do the job the public had to do according to the SEQRA regulations. Green said that we should expel DDDB, or get them to expel Goldstein. We responded that we, as a matter of policy, left our organizations to their own affairs. They were quite aware of how other constituents felt about the whole affair but that it would be unfair to expel such a large segment of the community (7,000 letters of support) over the mis-speaking of a single individual. We went back and forth. The meeting ended very amicably with Green saying he would remove his freeze. It seemed like a very positive meeting.”

More polarization

While that was nearly two months after the Goldstein incident, the Atlantic Yards debate soon became more charged. Green contributed his share, in a New York magazine cover story, offering a broad-brush dismissal of project opponents and critics:
“Here’s the question: If we were building an 18,000-seat opera house, would we get as much resistance? I don’t think so,” he says. “Basketball is like a secular religion for most Brooklynites. The opposition to the arena is actually coming from people who are new to Brooklyn, who lived in Manhattan, mostly. And who have a culture of opposing projects of this nature. People who opposed the West Side Highway project; people who opposed the Jets stadium; people who opposed a host of other things. Some of those families now live in Brooklyn. That’s the reality. There’s a class of people who are going to the opera. And there’s another class of folks who will go to a basketball game and get a cup of beer.”


Public hearing boos

At the 8/23/06 Atlantic Yards public hearing sponsored by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), Green got booed. Some hecklers called him a crook, which, given Green’s criminal record, was neither unfounded nor a full summary of his record. He couldn’t have liked it.

Some project opponents—though not specifically associated with CBN—were rude, but they were outnumbered by project supporters who cheered for fellow supporters and booed opponents.

At the podium, some project supporters offered threats and insults, while project critics generally limited themselves to the analysis that was ostensibly the subject of the hearing.

Green’s testimony

Green, in his testimony, characterized critics as outsiders who weren’t true Brooklynites, and who didn’t care about the poor. He got booed, and cheered, as referenced by the term “audience participation” in the full transcript below.

ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: My remarks will be -- my remarks will focus on an attempt to arrive at some creative problem-solving with respect to this project.
(Audience participation.)
THE HEARING OFFICER: Please.
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: Maybe – maybe one of the things that we need to talk about is the fact that the communities aren't based upon brick and mortar, communities are also based upon the concept of being together and resolving crises in a way that doesn't polarize this community, as some people are trying to do.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: I want to start by saying for some of you that I was born in Brooklyn –
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: -- okay. I was raised in Brooklyn.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: I grew up in Brooklyn.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: I walked these streets before some people got here.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: And in walking these streets, like the Reverend Camara said, say some of you have not been in the Fort Greene Housing Project with the unemployment rate.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: Some people have never even dared -- some of you have never even dared to go into Farragut Houses as we got to struggle for –
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: -- affordable housing there as well.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: And some of us will not be lectured to especially by people who are not acting civilly, all right --
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: -- because it's one thing that we must have -- the one thing that we must have is some civility if, in fact, we want to have a democratic process because that's privileged. And you don't come into this house and if you don't understand how sacred it is to act civilly when you articulated your position whether you're pro or con, that's criminal.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: Now we are trying to address several issues here. One is the moral imperative of considering that we have affordable housing in this community; the other is the moral imperative ensuring that we address the economic polarization that's killing many African-American males within this community; the unemployment and underemployment that exists and it has been a conspiracy of silence for some, so we're going to try address that here –
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: -- with this project.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: But we also understand -- we also understand though we have been drowned out far too often, that Dr. King said, an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We understand that.
(
Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: and in that context we know --
THE HEARING OFFICER: Twenty seconds.
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: -- also -- we know also that we do need to reduce density. We've introduced a bill that would reduce density by some 34 percent and I stand on that. I think that, too, is a moral imperative. We all have said that we need to address the issue, the issue of what would happen in terms of our basic infrastructure. And so we are articulating that within our bill. And have said to the Speaker of the Assembly, to the Majority Leader in the Senate, and to --
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: And finally let me also thank the -- as I said, I'm from Brooklyn.
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: I'm from Brooklyn.
(Audience participation.)
THE HEARING OFFICER: Sir, can you please conclude.
(Audience participation.)
THE HEARING OFFICER: Sir, can you please conclude.
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: We – we believe -- we believe that -- and I'll close by saying that we believe that Assembly Bill 11431, which was introduced by Assemblyman Brennan, myself, Joe Lentol -- Joe Lentol and Joan Millman and Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, really to address the core principle to resolve some of the problems that we --
(Audience participation.)
ASSEMBLYMAN GREEN: -- see within this project. But we do think that we need to move forward in Brooklyn, that we need the progress particularly with respect to addressing the unemployed and also ensuring affordable housing within this great borough. Thank you very much.
(Audience participation.)

CBN at public hearing

At that point, CBN still believed that Green supported the group's funding request. At the podium later in the day, co-chair Candace Carponter thanked Green publicly:
CBN was formed for the sole purpose of participating in this process. We have been working hard for a year and a half to get to this point. Because of our strength in representing over forty community organizations, CBN has been awarded funding--$150,000 from the City Council thanks to Speaker Christine Quinn and City council Members Letitia James and Bill de Blasio. We have also received $100,000 in funding from the State thanks to the support and efforts of Assemblymembers Roger Green, Joan Millman and Jim Brennan, among others. And particular thanks goes to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver out of whose budget this money comes.

With this money we have been able to hire experts to review this 4,000 page document that has been given to us approximately thirty days ago by ESDC. These efforts have given us a virtually impossible undertaking given the incredible size of this document and the incredibly short period of time that we have been given.


Carponter’s measured statement came directly after community activist Darnell Canada dismissed the rationale of the environmental review with a warning--or threat:
But you're saying environment, people are talking about surviving and y’all talking about environment -- Let me tell you something. Let me tell you something, if this don't happen, I guarantee you will have chaos and misery.

Could CBA committee help?

At that 7/31/06 meeting last year, according to CBN co-chair Therese Urban, Green again suggested that the CBN invite the CBA’s Environmental Committee to help with the EIS review. CBN agreed, but Delia Hunley-Adossa, chair of the committee (now known as the Brooklyn Endeavor Experience) never responded, according to CBN representatives.

Brooklyn Endeavor Experience (or BEE), as I reported in August, has not made any public statements about the environmental review. Indeed, at the 8/23/06 public hearing, Hunley-Adossa’s public statement was cheered by many in the audience, but essentially endorsed the developer’s plans. She said, in part:
And I am one of the signatories and took on the responsibility of the environmental assurances component of the CBA. And as an historical document, I signed that on June 27, 2005….And for government -- and our governments are certainly not truly -- they're certainly not worried about benefits as far as sustainable design, as far as development or even giving us any kind of hope…. there will be a $50 million clean up of the existing contaminated site, turning it into seven acres of open public space, environmentally-sensitive buildings, reduce water, sewage, overflows in the Gowanus Canal and what we hope will be first ever leadership in energy and environmental design.

Note that the sustainable design would benefit from government tax credits—contra to Hunley-Adossa’s statement about lack of governmental concern. Also note that the CBAs in Los Angeles, which Hunley-Adossa also referenced, have been developed by a much broader coalition than the members of the Atlantic Yards CBA.

About that Cadillac

The recent Brooklyn Papers article on Green’s block on funding referenced another complaint by the former legislator:
“These people have consistently used terms like ‘Cadillac Benefits Agreement’ to describe [the Community Benefits] agreement made [by Ratner] with black leaders,” Green told The Brooklyn Paper after Goldstein’s gaffe. “They have used other radicalized language that has hurt the African-American community — and their chances at fighting this project.”

However, Green has not publicly criticized the occasional racially-charged language used by black supporters of the project, such as ACORN’s Bertha Lewis, who called the opposition a “small group of white liberals... don't give a damn about people of color" and Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development’s (BUILD) James Caldwell, who said “If this thing doesn't come out in favor of Ratner, it would be a conspiracy against blacks.”

And where does “Cadillac Benefits Agreement” come from? A web search does not turn up that phase, though it does turns up a similar phrase used once in print in reference to BUILD, but not by any member of CBN. (I have no idea how often it was used, if at all, in conversation.)

The phrase grew out of this observation, mentioned on the 9/28/05 Daily Heights message board:
let me throw out a point for the debate: The *brand-new* massive silver Cadillac that pulls up in front of BUILD each day… what better instrument to contrast the ‘extreme rates of poverty, unemployment and underclass entrapment’ in the surrounding neighborhood?

That was cited the next day on the NoLandGrab watchdog blog. Then, after IRS documents suggested that BUILD expected a $5 million payment from the developer (the sums were later acknowledged to be much smaller), NoLandGrab on 9/30/05 observed:
The C.B.A. stands for Cadillac Buying Allowance. There's no point in calling it a "community" agreement when the developer handpicked the groups and the leaders of the groups stand personally to financially gain from the agreement.

Was this offensive language or, rather, satirical commentary based on at least some evidence (the Cadillac being driven by BUILD CEO James Caldwell)? Is a reference to any connection between an African-American and a Cadillac out of line, given the stereotype?

(Maybe it depends on who’s speaking. For example, in the hit movie Barbershop, the character played by Cedric the Entertainer said, "What do you think [reparations] gone do? Ain't gone do nothin' but make Cadillac the No. 1 dealership in the country!" That line has been criticized, as well.)

[Update: More from NoLandGrab here (admitting a pot shot) and here.]

Errol Louis weighs in

In his recent Daily Politics post, the Daily News’ Errol Louis explained Green’s action:
But groups and individuals associated with the CBN continued attacking Green’s allies and the ex-assemblyman himself, sometimes in vicious terms – imagining, somehow, that the state funds under Green's personal control would remain untouched. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this caustic style was almost guaranteed to fail.


First, it’s hard to say that any of the attacks were more vicious than those coming from the other direction. And Louis apparently didn't factor in that 7/31/06 meeting with Green.

Then, Louis added a kicker:
I’ve had my differences with Green over the years, but the cries of outrage against him seem na├»ve at best and cynical at worst.

Louis’s link about “differences” goes to a 6/4/04 New York Sun column about Green’s departure from office in which he concluded:
Mr. Green seems determined to ride back to office on the strength of half-truths and racial pandering, rather than simply telling the truth about his actions.


When it comes to half-truths and racial pandering in Atlantic Yards saga, however, staunch AY supporter Louis has taken a pass.

CBN and lawsuits

As for Louis’s contention that Green wouldn’t support an organization that had joined legal actions against the project, well, again that's belied by the sequence of events.

CBN, when entering in the February 2006 lawsuit challenging the role of a lawyer who worked consecutively for the developer and the ESDC, took pains to say it was neutral on the project. Project supporters may not believe that--given some CBN members' opposition to the project--but it apparently didn’t deter Green during his 7/31/06 meeting with CBN.

Green, at least according to the account of Vogel and two other participants at that meeting, seemed ultimately undeterred by either CBN's association with Goldstein and DDDB nor CBN's role in lawsuits.

Beyond Green's public explanation, and Louis's endorsement of it, there must be some other factors. Something changed in August.

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