Thursday, April 05, 2007

Times plays catchup on AY, bobbles several balls (and forgets disclosure)

In a roundup article today headlined Clearing of Atlantic Yards’ Site Proceeds as Legal Thicket Grows Denser, the New York Times catches up on some of the Atlantic Yards news it has missed, but the article also offers some mischaracterizations and fails to ask some hard questions.

The nut graph: But even as preliminary work proceeds on one of the biggest construction projects in the city’s history, new questions are being raised by Atlantic Yards’ opponents, new facts brought to the surface and new suits filed in courts across the city. All are aimed at forcing the developer, Forest City Ratner, to substantially scale back its plans, which currently call for erecting 8 million square feet of high-rise housing, office space and a basketball arena on a 22-acre swath near Downtown Brooklyn.
(Emphasis added)

Well, neither the pending eminent domain lawsuit nor the challenge to the environmental review scheduled to be filed today by a coalition organized by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn aim to scale back the project; they aim to kill it or alter it drastically.

Disclosure missing

Oddly, the article does not include the standard disclosure that the parent Times Company is in a business partnership with Forest City Ratner to develop the new Times Tower in Manhattan. I do not interpret the absence as anything nefarious; however, it's an example of carelessness.

One reason for the disclosure is to remind readers to look at Times coverage of Forest City Ratner carefully; another is to remind Times writers and editors to cover the developer exactingly. So treat the absence as a symptom.

The added $105 million

The Times reports:
In the budget it unveiled in January, for example, the Bloomberg administration quietly doubled its direct subsidy to the project area, to $205 million from $100 million. The difference is bigger than the entire annual budget of the city Buildings Department.
“Are these subsidies that help put the developer over the top so that he can build the project?” asked Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. which opposes the scale of the plan, “Or are they to help him make a superprofit, as we suspect?


But why wasn't the city queried? The unanswered question is why the city felt it could flout the Memorandum of Understanding which promised $100 million.

And, um, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn opposes the plan in its entirety--that's what the eminent domain lawsuit is about. (It's BrooklynSpeaks that opposes the scale of the plan, and more.)

The timeline

Did the ESDC not get a business plan, as Assemblyman Jim Brennan has pointed out? Yes, and no. ESDC says it got sufficient information and, anyway, the project was approved by the previous administration.

The Times quotes Brennan:
Mr. Brennan said it was not too late, though, to lessen the project’s impact on nearby neighborhoods.
“Even though the project has been approved,” he said, “we face a 10-to-15-year window for implementation, and the information is relevant for many years to come in any discussion about amendments or modifications to the plan.”


Note that Brennan suggested that the project could take 15 years rather than 10 years as announced. Landscape architect Laurie Olin suggested 20 years; the time frame is important because some promised public benefits--including all the open space and most of the affordable housing--would come in the project's murky second phase.

FCR's defense

The Times quotes the developer:
A spokesman for Forest City, Loren Riegelhaupt, said that the company was “not able to make our business plan public” for “proprietary reasons.”

Unmentioned: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, in its Request For Proposals for the Vanderbilt Yard, required that pro forma cash-flow statements, with documentation of fiscal assumptions for a 20-year period, be included as part of the bid. The MTA has not released the documents.

Lawsuit rowback

In an article that's trying to cover too much ground in limited space, the federal eminent domain suit gets described thusly:
Another suit, a constitutional challenge in federal court by tenants and property owners aimed at halting the condemnation of buildings on the project site under eminent domain, was deemed a matter for state court by a magistrate judge in February. But last Friday, the federal judge who has control of the case heard several hours of arguments on whether to keep the case in federal court.

That's a rather constricted summary that attempts to correct the inadequate Associated Press brief the Times published, which neglected to point out that, while the magistrate judge recommended that the case be dismissed, he wasn't killing the lawsuit but sending it to state court. (The phenomenon of a correction without acknowledgement of error is known as "rowback.")

What to make of that second sentence? The upshot is that the federal judge is taking the appeal of the magistrate judge's recommendation quite seriously, because he could have just relied on the briefs. Unmentioned is the magistrate judge's acknowledgement that the complaint "raises serious and difficult questions regarding the exercise of eminent domain under emerging Supreme Court jurisprudence."

AYReport approves of ESDC action?

The article closes on an odd note that mentions me:
Not every interaction between Forest City and the government has been condemned by the Atlantic Yards’ critics. Yesterday, Norman Oder, who runs a blog devoted to Atlantic Yards issues, noted approvingly that the state development corporation had closed its local office on the ghostly third floor of Forest City’s Atlantic Center mall, for which the agency had been paying Forest City $30,000 a year.

The community offices “weren’t getting too much foot traffic,” Mr. Cockfield said. “They weren’t worth the taxpayer investment to keep them open.”


Well, the rent was $30,000 a year but the operating cost was nearly twice that--a question that deserves further exploration.

Also, I'm not sure my article can be summarized as "noted approvingly," since the point was that ESDC should never have been in the mall in the first place, given the pledge to put such offices in first-floor, heavily trafficked retail corridors.

My article suggested elements of improper behavior--by Gov. George Pataki and ESDC Chairman Charles Gargano in directing Port Authority funds to the ESDC, and by the ESDC in choosing space in Ratner's mall. While leaving the mall demonstrates more-responsible behavior, that's not the point.

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