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The Columbia expansion, Atlantic Yards, and the cognitive dissonance of Richard Lipsky

When you hire Richard Lipsky, the man behind the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, you get not only an experienced lobbyist on behalf of small business, you get a blogger, a regular commenter on the news.

When clients on different sides of somewhat parallel development disputes hire Lipsky, however, readers get something else: some cognitive dissonance.

Lipsky, as Atlantic Yards watchers know, was hired by Forest City Ratner to organize an amateur sports league at the planned Brooklyn arena and to do other lobbying for the developer's projects. He’s said he typically would oppose a project with eminent domain but it wasn’t bringing in big-box stores or displacing other retailers. (Well, not directly, unless you count Freddy's Bar & Backroom.)

And Lipsky has been hired by Nick Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-it-Away storage, the largest landowner who has yet to sell to Columbia University and thus the most visible opponent of the university’s West Harlem expansion plan.

So that has led Lipsky to use some similar arguments and rhetoric for Atlantic Yards and against Columbia--and it just doesn't compute.

[Update Friday: Here's Lipsky's response, plus a comment from me.]

All or nothing?

Lipsky recently wrote about Columbia’s hiring of political consultant Bill Lynch to generate community support for the plan:
It is, however, somewhat beside the point since the real community concern has been in the all or nothing approach that the university has taken; as well as in the way in which Columbia, unlike Forest City Ratner in Brooklyn, has refrained from engaging the community in direct negotiations.
(Emphasis added)

Of course Columbia is willing to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with the new West Harlem Local Development Corporation that includes members of Community Board 9 and project opponents, who were conspicuously absent from the Atlantic Yards CBA.

The LDC has been rightfully criticized, but compared to the Atlantic Yards CBA, which was negotiated with hand-picked parties behind closed doors, it’s a model of transparency.

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chair of CB9, famously told the New York Observer last year that “We are avoiding the Brooklyn model,” seeking a wider coalition.

Last September, however, Lipsky wrote about Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein’s unwillingness to compromise:
The all or nothing approach is never going to succeed unless you have the full support of an impacted community, and even then it won't be enough if a development has a larger public impact that will affect people well beyond the footprint of a project-which is exactly what AY does have.
(Emphasis added)
… The attack on the arena underscores the scorched earth nihilism of the DDD agenda.

The difference, apparently, is that Lipsky thinks the arena trumps all. (Update Thursday: Lipsky also cites the provision of affordable housing in the Atlantic Yards plan and points out it's not yet part of the Columbia plan; however, the presence of such housing did not convince the three affected community boards in Brooklyn to support Atlantic Yards.)

Lipsky has a regular critic, who posts pseudonymously as “SmithBrotherJoe,” flaying Lipsky for his inconsistencies. SmithBrotherJoe responded:
How easy and honest it would be to replace "Bill Lynch" with "Bruce Ratner/Marty Markowitz/Richard Lipsky;" "university" and "Columbia" with "FCRC/ESDC;""Harlem" with "Prospect Heights." Anyone can see that.

Lipsky doesn't rebut his critic. So let's assume his June 2006 acknowledgement offers his response:
Our goal is definitely to advance certain issues but we like to inform as many as possible on the various sides of any policy debate. Sometimes this wish is limited, as some readers never fail to point out, by the fact that we are in business to defend our clients' interests.

Targeting one guy

Recently Lipsky wrote about attacks by “grassroots” representatives on his client:
In a continuation of our commentary on the attempts by Bill Lynch to generate grass roots support for Columbia's expansion, we want to take a look today at the attempt by the Lynchites to make Nick Sprayregen into a poster child for rich white privilege.
Which brings us to the inconvenient fact that Nick Sprayregen is part of a racially and economically diverse grass roots coalition that thinks the Columbia plan stinks; and this coalition, in turn, is reflective of the unanimous sentiment of CB#9 that has an entirely different vision for the area than does the benevolent university.

A year ago, however, Lipsky hurled similar criticisms at Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's Daniel Goldstein, verging into thinly-veiled threats, calling someone who is clearly principled—wrongheaded to some, of course—into a misanthrope and crank:
Goldstein also told the paper that a size reduction alone would not halt the "my way or the highway"opposition to the project. Even the linchpin of the development for so many in Brooklyn-the team and the arena- is something that this misanthrope wants to disappear. Which means that the best thing that could happen to Brooklyn would be for Goldstein to disappear from the footprint of the borough.
His opposition to the arena, something we are going to advertise far and wide throughout the borough, means that there are now thousands of newly minted volunteers who will be delighted to man the bulldozer when the legal green flag is waived to demolish this obstructionist's abode. He has now gone from being a legitimate critic to just some self-serving crank and a pest.

Sprayregen has a legitimate reason to resist eminent domain, but he’s also a businessman. (Compared to most in the Columbia expansion zone, he has deep pockets, and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the plan; then again, Columbia has much deeper pockets.)

Lipsky recently wrote that Sprayregen and Columbia are negotiating a plan “to swap property with Columbia in order to create affordable housing while at the same time preserving Nick's own ownership rights.” Goldstein has nothing material to gain.

Comparing the communities

Last year, Lipsky criticized the Atlantic Yards opposition:
What was missing in all of this was an honest broker who could represent the community interests. The reason for the absence was that the mood in the community that coalesced around Develop Don't Destroy wasn't looking for any compromise that would have allowed the Nets to come to Brooklyn-the linchpin of the entire development.
So at the end of this long process, the opponents have their fruitless lawsuits, but little else. Knowing Bruce Ratner as well as I do (since I work for him on this development), I know that he was ready to listen to anyone who was willing to be reasonable. On the other hand, if you believe in all of your heart that a project will never be in the community's benefit, then you can't be reasonably expected to negotiate a community benefits agreement.

SmithBrotherJoe couldn’t resist:
Oh, just shut your lying mouth!!!!
Ratner refused to meet with any established organizations and actually CREATED COMMUNITY GROUPS OUT OF WHOLE CLOTH!!!
But somehow that doesn't bother you at all. I wonder why...
"The community coalesced around DDDB..." gee, you acknowledge that the COMMUNITY OPPOSES THIS PROJECT but you're willing to give the developer and his government stooges a pass on this. I wonder why...

(Also today, I compare the two CBAs.)

Lipsky on the poll

Lipsky in April found himself endorsing pollster Craig Charney’s take on the Atlantic Yards poll he conducted. (Here's my criticism.)

Lipsky wrote:
On the contrary, the the grass roots efforts for the two projects are grossly disparate. Whereas Ratner and crew really went to develop local support, the university is looking to build a faux effort through the use of its political muscle. The West Harlem LDC is a prime example of this ersatz effort, and resembles more of a Potemkin Village than a real representation of West Harlem's interests. What local group would hire one of the city's leading real estate attorneys pro bono to represent its interests, someone who has never sided with local groups in any land use battle?

As noted above, whatever its flaws, the West Harlem LDC is a lot more transparent. It even has a web site. In Brooklyn, we get BEE.

Booty capitalists

I wrote in August 2006 about Lipsky’s use of the term ‘booty capitalists” to describe local folk looking to cash in. In a column earlier this month, he criticized Columbia's hiring of consultant Bill Lynch:
The diversionary tactics involve organizing the booty capitalists, and stigmatizing Nick Sprayregen…
There was once a time when folks like Bill Lynch would have been on the front lines in defense of these tenants, but at $40,000 a month Lynch's priorities have been dramatically altered. As Tom Lehrer remarked about the shifting allegiances of the rocket scientist Werner Von Braun: "A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience. Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down. That's not my department, says Werner Von Braun."

Lipsky is paid, too. He writes:
And for those who may be curious about the Lipsky lobbying retainer it is for $6,000 a month. Our experience over twenty five years only reinforces the observation that it doesn't pay as well to battle Goliath; but it generally is a good deal more satisfying.

In the Atlantic Yards case, the Goliath is surely Forest City Ratner and its allies. Goldstein is paid about $6000 a month less than Lipsky.

The role of the CBs

And what of the local community board? Lipsky writes:
Will not Columbia's lion eyes be struck blind? Lost in this bit of sleight-of-hand is the inconvenient existence of a real community organization-CPC-representing scores of local groups and vehemently opposed to the university's solipsistic vision.
…The blatant hypocrisy of these tactics have done little, however, to move the hearts and minds of the community. Oh yes, we almost forgot. There is a community board that is on record strenuously opposed to the Columbia land grab. Did Nick Sprayregen suborn all of those folks on CB9 who unanimously voted in favor of the 197-a plan?

The same goes for Brooklyn’s plan. While the three affected community boards in Brooklyn, 2, 6, and 8, do not share DDDB's agenda, they all either opposed or criticized Atlantic Yards.

Ignoring AYR on Columbia

Lipsky, apparently, didn’t attend the raucous CB9 hearing August 15 where the public mostly opposed the plan and a board committee nearly unanimously voted it down as it currently stands. (On Monday, the board as a whole voted similarly, setting the stage for a recommendation by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and, likely, further negotiations over a Community Benefits Agreement.)

So Lipsky relied on other reportage, in the Columbia Spectator, and secondhand coverage from the Times’s City Room blog, the New York Press, and the Daily News.

It’s curious that he ignored my report, which, whatever its flaws, had several compelling photographs, thanks to photographer Jonathan Barkey.

Was it because I wrote that Sprayregen, though his grievance may be legitimate, does not represent what opponents were describing in a handout, which stressed that eminent domain “historically abuses communities of color and low and moderate income people.”

I doubt it; after all, CB9 Chairman Reyes-Montblanc declared my coverage a “good article.”

I suspect Lipsky blanched at the comparisons between Columbia’s plan, whatever its flaws, and the Atlantic Yards plan.

Lipsky apparently decided that I was not “our new friend,” which he dubbed me in May after agreeing with some of my analysis of the Manhattan Institute’s critique of the city’s environmental review processes. (We’ve never met.) Perhaps he’d read back further in my blog to find some tough criticisms.

The Times’s City Room blog also ignored my reportage. I suspect it was my references to the Times itself, which has supported Atlantic Yards on the editorial page while taking a more cautious approach to Columbia’s plan.


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