Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The due diligence of BP candidate Bill de Blasio, or the (AY) end justifies the means

City Council Member Bill de Blasio is now a candidate for Brooklyn Borough President in 2009, and some of his worthy goals pose an essential tension between affordable housing and neighborhood scale, a balance he bypassed in supporting Atlantic Yards.

(Photo from City Hall News)

His statement might leave the impression that he's fighting overdevelopment: I'm running for Brooklyn Borough President to strengthen and protect Brooklyn neighborhoods.

As Borough President, no one will fight harder to make Brooklyn more affordable for working families, stop out of control and irresponsible development, protect our environment and improve the quality of life in every neighborhood.


Then again, an email message he sent yesterday emphasized the first part of that second sentence:
My first priority as Borough President will be to keep Brooklyn affordable by building and preserving affordable housing.

As de Blasio well knows, increased density is often the trade-off for affordable housing, and a major tension in Brooklyn is between figuring out where the location and scale of density turns into "irresponsible development."

He has proven quite ready to protest market-rate development in Brooklyn that is out of scale, but has not offered the same resistance to Atlantic Yards, where the departure from scale is even greater, because it includes affordable housing.

In an interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, he emphasized a 50-foot height limit in Carroll Gardens, saying "to suddenly drop large buildings in like [a proposed building] really tears up the fabric of the community." Yes, Atlantic Yards would be at the northern edge of Prospect Heights, but, as the rendering above shows, it would dramatically change the fabric of the community, with a 272-foot tower right next to four-story buildings.

Due diligence?

Indeed, when it comes to Atlantic Yards, de Blasio remains ill-informed, relying on the progressive allies he trusts to vouch for the project as a whole, but failing to keep up with crucial changes in the project or to take a close look at some controversial aspects.

He’s willing to offer peripheral criticism but not to challenge the project’s fundamentals, given his belief in the “essential truth” of the project.

Probably a closer look at many public officials would turn up similar contradictions. And the press—well, most of the mainstream press—has done too little to point out the flaws in the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement, the decline in promised jobs and tax revenue, and the real contours of the affordable housing deal.

Meeting the bloggers

To his credit, de Blasio is willing to talk freely. He and his staff began two months ago to hold monthly on-the-record meetings with invited bloggers. Part of it was to spread the word through nontraditional media, which fill in several gaps in Brooklyn and his district. And clearly the term-limited de Blasio was anticipating his next step, beyond the 39th District, which extends into Borough Park, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, Kensington, Park Slope, and Windsor Terrace.

So I and five other bloggers met with de Blasio, who was accompanied by three staffers, at the Tea Lounge on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope on September 26. One curious Brooklynite listened in and asked some tough questions. Two of the bloggers were generally critical, even a bit suspicious of de Blasio, as the comments on Brownstoner show, but Ethan of Green Brooklyn had general praise for the Council Member’s willingness to push styrofoam and e-waste legislation and to support the Brooklyn Greenway.

Downzoning, upzoning, affordable housing

On paper, de Blasio may seem like a policy wonk; he’s got an undergrad degree in urban studies and a graduate degree from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. But he's more of a political animal, perhaps best known for managing Hillary Clinton’s successful Senate campaign. He challenged Christine Quinn in the race for City Council speaker.

A former staffer at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, he described himself as “extremely focused on affordable housing.” As Chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee, he deals with issues like hunger, child abuse, homelessness, education, and the environment.

But the discussion with bloggers quickly turned to development and de Blasio, who’s allied with residents fighting out-of-scale development in Carroll Gardens, quickly declared that “current zoning is much too permissive.” While he supports a rezoning in the Gowanus area to add density, he also wants a downzoning to protect residential blocks west of Bond Street.

He said he’d like to see 50-60% affordable housing at Public Place, the ten-acre city-owned brownfield at Smith Street that could supply a lot of units.

Gentrification

The city’s land use policy, he pointed out, developed in a time of economic decline. “You know, ‘Please invest here, we’ll give tax breaks. Please build housing’… And the world is now turned on its head. It’s not all bad… [but] we have too much development.”

He continued: “Gentrification is a complex topic. There is an argument that gentrification is helping speed the clean-up of the Gowanus Canal. And I also think that, as we look at all these development issues, we have to understand that, if we want a diverse Brooklyn, if we believe in that as a value, and if you accept that gentrification is like a tidal wave upon us, then this is part of what motivates me, in terms of these rezonings and other actions that help with some affordable housing... There will be conflict and coming debate between folks who are open to some height and density and folks who aren’t, and I will respect the people who are not.”

A question of degree

That seemed a little simplistic. A zoning bonus is a standard tool used nationally to achieve affordable housing, but de Blasio's formulation suggested that the choice was upzoning versus stasis, rather than the a question of degree. “I will support a certain level of height and density, because it’s the only way to get affordability,” he said. “If we don’t provide for affordability, we might as well lock up the neighborhood and throw away the key. It’s going to be one demographic, and it’s going to be an upper middle-income demographic.”

“I’m one of these people—the first time we bought in this neighborhood was 1998,” he said of his family, which includes his wife, Chirlane McCray, and two children. "If it were today, we could not afford to live in this neighborhood… The market right now is in such a state that there’s no place for working people and middle-income people unless the government steps in to facilitate it. And that’s my whole argument…”

Indeed, de Blasio touched on a major flashpoint. The question is: who decides, and how?

Whose rules?

So, how to sort out the rules for height and density? “There’s all sorts of eye of the beholder dynamics,” he replied. For Public Place, the subway trestle “creates a context that in my opinion allows for more height.” How much? “Up to 12 to 14 stories… I am comfortable with that… again I only feel comfortable with that if we’re going to downzone residential areas.”

“On the broader role," he continued, "New York City, thank god, has a very extensive public process around any substantial development that requires city action." [Atlantic Yards instead went through state review.]

"Public Place is city owned. Much of the Gowanus area would [go through] a rezoning, so all of that goes through that public review. I think, in that review process, you end up striking a balance. City Planning has come out with what I think is an unusually good proposal, unlike four years ago, when we were doing the rezoning of this immediate area.”

Fourth Avenue failure

De Blasio was pointing to the city’s failure to include an affordable housing requirement when rezoning the area around Fourth Avenue at the western edge of Park Slope. “We used to give away the value in a rezoning, which is ludicrous," he said, offering an important criticism of the Bloomberg administration.

"Literally, four years ago, City Planning denied that affordable housing was a valid planning criterion. I had this argument with [Deputy Mayor] Dan Doctoroff personally, and [City Planning Commission Chair] Amanda Burden. They literally said affordable housing is not a City Planning consideration. That has changed night and day, to be fair.”

(Rendering of the new Argyle from the New York Post.)

There are social costs, he pointed out, to the unfettered market: “What happens when you start forcing your working class farther out,” as in Paris? “We’re not comfortable providing housing for working-class people.”

He supports both affordability and integration by class, noting that, from a purely economic standpoint, affordable housing should be concentrated in neighborhoods where it costs less to build. His goal is more costly, "and that requires a certain amount of height.”

A later rezoning of the South Slope, he noted, did offer a zoning bonus. “And now going forward with Gowanus, I think we have to ensure affordability in the mix,” he said. “If we just make everything the height it is now, there will be no affordable housing. That has to be a decision on what the balance point is.”

What’s affordable

The visiting Brooklynite pointed out that some affordable housing is “laughable,” with those earning $80,000 (gross) paying $2000 a month. (That’s exactly 30%, the federal guidelines.)

De Blasio acknowledged, “There’s a huge debate about what constitutes affordable, both in terms of what family income should be the cut-off point and what rent level people can actually afford.” (Well, there might be a debate about whether people can better afford 30% of net rather than gross income, but the policy won’t change.)

He continued, not unreasonably, “This is what I believe in: a tiered approach, whenever humanly possible, spread them out between the lowest income folks, which is families under $20,000, up to some level of moderate- or middle-income. Some people would cut it off at $60,000; some people would cut it off at $80,000. I don’t have a final number."

He acknowledged the tension between maximizing the number of units—which implies lower subsidies for more expensive units—and maximizing the spread of income levels.

As chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee, he’d prefer to focus on the poorest New Yorkers, he said, but as a representative of his district, seeing families priced out, "then it’s perfectly legitimate to get up to 60 [thousand] or 70 [thousand] or more because it’s a tragic situation. School teacher plus bus driver is, what, $80,000?” (Probably more, with some seniority.)

AY exception

Should those earning six figures get subsidized housing?

“Definitely below six figures,” he responded. “Absolutely below six figures. Over eighty [thousand] I don’t think is what I’m thinking about, although there may be some exceptions.”

(Borough President Marty Markowitz, testifying in at a May 2004 City Council hearing, set a cap at $80,000. Then again, housing costs have risen considerably since then.)

Indeed, I pointed out, 900 of 2250 Atlantic Yards units would be designated for four-person households with incomes over $80,000. (Actually, I erred; they would be for those over $70,900.)

De Blasio responded, “The point is, as I said, I don’t have a definitive final, but I do feel—I also appreciate where Atlantic Yards has the income spread, which is one of the few places where that’s happening. The tiered approach, and also the sheer number of units: over 3000 units.”

(That number depends on the 600 to 1000 for-sale affordable units cited in the Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding which were not part of the General Project Plan approved by the Empire State Development Corporation.)

Given that the area around the site has been rapidly gentrifying, without "a formulaic approach to affordable housing" the development would have been all market-rate. (Actually, a rezoning as well as the revision of the 421-a subsidy also would bring affordable housing.) "And the number of units in Atlantic Yards, plus the tiered approach, make it worthwhile. I also believe in the idea of job creation for local residents and particularly union scale.”

In other words, start with the result.

Actually, Forest City Ratner’s initial mantra was jobs and tax revenue, not just housing, and de Blasio dutifully signed a 2005 letter to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority citing a panoply of benefits, some of them clear exaggerations, such as about construction jobs or tax revenues.

(From a packet of letters sent by Forest City Ratner to the MTA, as attached to an affidavit (p. 21) in defense of the lawsuit challenging the Atlantic Yards environmental review. Click to enlarge.)

AY to shrink?

De Blasio thinks that, despite his support, the project is "too tall... and I think it can and will be smaller. But less density means fewer units. “You and I both know you need a certain amount of height and density to get to affordability," he responded. "I think there’s more give. There has been give before…. I think there’s more give to be had. I think there’s a lot of esthetics that can change, without question. And I think the infrastructure answers have not been given.”

(Indeed, in April he said a plan was needed to deal with traffic congestion: “Until we have all that, it’s crazy to move ahead with any demolition.”)

Process issues

How could he justify the state’s override of zoning, allowing the project to proceed according to the developer’s template, as opposed to the more consultative city process he described earlier.

“I believe in the city process,” he responded. “Obviously, this wasn’t city land, and state law is preeminent…” (Well, that’s debatable.)

Blaming FCR

“In retrospect,” he added, “I don’t think anyone expected Forest City Ratner to be so untransparent.”

This is where he sounded way out of touch. The developer has produced at least six disingenuous political brochures, launched the Brooklyn Standard “publication,” and required those selling property to sign gag orders (right).

“I still believe the goals are valid,” he said, “but, in terms of your question, the city process is superior. And I think that this is a cautionary tale that we should try and use that process everywhere essentially where there’s a major development.”

Indeed, PlaNYC 2030 suggests far more consultative processes for developing projects over railyards.

Adding transparency

De Blasio expressed some optimism: “I don’t think the ballgame’s over. I think there are plenty of chances to gain more transparency.”

How? “Take the demolitions as an example. I think the demolitions were handled horribly…. There should’ve been a very extensive public discussion of what had to happen and why… how it was going to work, how citizens could relate to the process if there were problems…. I am encouraged that the state is stepping in, with the ombudsman and things like that, but we have to see that work in process.”

“I just think, in terms of the elements of the project, Forest City Ratner would be better served to engage the public discussion, to welcome people in, including opponents,” he said, in what sounded like an endorsement of the BrooklynSpeaks coalition’s proposal for a new governance structure.

Essential value, essential truth

Then de Blasio got to his bottom line: “I still believe in the essential value of the project… Since Day One, I’ve said, I believe in the project in large measure because of the Community Benefits Agreement,” or CBA.

The CBA, actually, wasn’t formally announced until more than 18 months after the project debuted. I asked if he was familiar with the CBA being negotiated regarding the Columbia University expansion, which involves the local Community Board and has generated scorn from the chair of the CB chair regarding Atlantic Yards. He said no.

Later, I asked if he was familiar with criticisms posed by Good Jobs New York, a union-friendly (as is de Blasio) group which pointed out how the Atlantic Yards CBA differed significantly from those negotiated elsewhere. Nope.

He returned to the issue of housing. “Atlantic Yards, even with some of its problems, would be a much higher percentage of non-market [housing] than anything we’ve seen previously,” he said.
That may be mostly true--actually, the nonprofit Fifth Avenue Committee's Atlantic Terrace project across Atlantic Avenue would have a much higher percentage of affordable housing--but the percentage of subsidized housing is high in part because the project is so big, with the zoning override.

(Affordability depends on a mix of things, including available subsidies and the income mix. Half of Atlantic Terrace would be affordable at 80% of Area Median Income, while 900 AY units would be at 30-50% of Area Median Income.)

City politics

De Blaiso described himself as “pretty consistently independent,” noting memberships in the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, and the Lambda Independent Democrats. (He's way connected to unions, as well and his wife works, as do some other connected Democrats, in the office of Comptroller William Thompson.)

As for County Chair Vito Lopez, whose support for Quinn was crucial to her election, “I respect his housing work immensely, we obviously did not see eye to eye on the speaker’s race.”

De Blasio suggested that the Bloomberg administration places too much emphasis on the free market in building housing. He suggested that there’s much more consensus in the city, on issues like education. “Here’s the question: will [housing policy] be a central issue in the mayoral race?”

Increased accountability

Given the wars in his district, notably the South Slope, over development, de Blasio sees a role for community activism in fostering greater accountability.

He noted that a 15- to 20-story building could rise at a site on the corner of Court and Union streets: “I think bluntly, through community organizing tactics, we can stop that.”

(Photo from Brownstoner.)

“I believe there are instances when you can negotiate a better outcome with the developer” since they depend on some form of government aid, he said. Presumably, the time is over for Atlantic Yards, though.

Bob Guskind of the Gowanus Lounge asked de Blasio for his recommendations about strengthening oversight. They include more Department of Buildings (DOB) inspectors; stronger legal rights of action for community groups to step in; the licensing contractors; and increased reliance on citizen evidence, such as videotaping, for DOB investigations.

421-a tax break

We got to the issue of the 421-a carve-out for Atlantic Yards. When Atlantic Yards was proposed, all buildings were to receive an as-of-right tax break. The City Council’s 2006 reform, however, would’ve allowed only buildings that included on-site affordable housing to get the tax break, leaving perhaps four Atlantic Yards condo-only towers without the tax break. An “Atlantic Yards carve-out” worth some $300 million was proposed in the state revision; after generating some headlines, it was scaled back, for a benefit of “only” $150-$200 million.

On the one hand, Forest City Ratner was getting no more than it originally expected. On the other, it would now get special treatment, since this project alone in the so-called “exclusion zone” would get the the tax break without on-site affordable housing.

De Blasio said, “Where we stood before the 421-legislation, before December, that to me in terms of Atlantic Yards, was a viable plan. My understanding is that’s where we ended up and, if that’s the case, then I’m comfortable with it. What I saw originally appeared to be a step back from that. I think the final legislation resolved that.”

“Anyone who supports the project, including some level of subsidy for the project, has to own up to the fact that what we are saying is, we want the affordable housing units, we want the jobs, and we’re willing to do a certain amount governmentally to get that. That is not limitless," he said. "Anyone who opposes it, and I respect why people oppose this project, and they say, ‘Well, there should be no subsidies for the project,’ I’m saying, no, there’s an acceptable level of subsidies for the numbers of units that we get, and we have to get them."

Again, de Blasio was setting up a bit of a straw man; while some people may oppose all subsidies, critics of the carve-out were merely highlighting special treatment.

How does he feel about a tax break without on-site affordable housing? “The total number of units, and the way they’re aligned on the project, is still consistent with the original vision,” he said.

Not exactly. The original vision, announced in December 2003, was four office towers wrapped around the arena; some 18 months later, after the affordable housing deal was signed, most of that proposed space was converted to condos.

“You’re still talking about this very central site, this high-value site in the middle of Brooklyn,” he said, making his larger point. “The rental affordability is right there, on site. Would I rather have every building thoroughly mixed affordable and market? Yes, and I do think it’s the model in most cases…”

Disputed numbers

I asked de Blasio what the “original vision” was, in his eyes. His numbers were a bit off: “3000-3500 units. 2200 rentals. 1000+ homeownership…. You could still get as high as 3450, as I understand it.”

I pointed out that the 2250 subsidized rentals were in the Empire State Development Corporation’s General Project Plan, but the additional 600 to 1000 for-sale affordable units had not been governmentally approved.

He said he thought the December approval of Atlantic Yards by the Public Authorities Control Board “locked in the affordable home ownership piece at the 600 to 1000 level. That’s my understanding.”

I said that it was in the CBA but not the approval documents.

“I would love to go back and check my facts and challenge you on it,” he said.

Two days later, I sent de Blasio’s spokesperson links to the Memorandum of Understanding (p. 4) and then documents considered by the PACB, pointing out that Exhibit D, which consists of ESDC documents, does not address the homeownership issue. I didn’t get a response.

Essential truth

De Blasio's position was developed after “I talked consistently with people who I believe are good advisors on affordable housing.” (I read that as ACORN and unions.)

As for revenues projected for the project, “I did accept, with KPMG, that they were not making up the numbers.” Fair enough, but the numbers in the letter he signed came from Forest City Ratner consultant Andrew Zimbalist, not the KPMG report commissioned by the ESDC more than a year later.

“I’m always willing to be educated, and I think it’s a complex project, but the essential truth of the project, the numbers, and the CBA, I don’t think have changed.” (Actually, the number of projected office jobs has dropped dramatically, and, while the number of promised affordable units remains the same, it's not a 50/50 housing agreement and more units have been targeted to better-off households. Updated: The CBA also applies to construction jobs for local residents, which was his main reference.)

“I still think there can be changes made, but if [critics] don’t believe in a larger project that results in the affordability and local jobs, I part company with them.”

I pointed to the City Council’s recent decision to limit building heights on the Upper West Side. Of course the railyard site can support more density, but who decides and at what level?

“The state of New York went through its process," he responded. "The city obviously is a participant in different ways because of subsidies. In retrospect, there should have been a fuller process. On the other hand, there are objective factors there, like we talked about earlier with the trestle. The Williamsburgh Bank Building is one of the objective realities of that site.”

The Williamsburgh Savings Bank, indeed, is 512 feet, and the flagship Miss Brooklyn, once planned at 620 feet, would be one foot shorter. However, it would be three times as bulky. The 310-foot Atlantic Terminal Site 4B public housing tower has 252,500 square feet, smaller than any projected Atlantic Yards tower. Atlantic Terrace across the street would be ten stories.

Going forward

De Blasio would rather not look back. “But I’m actually a lot more interested in how we manage it from this point. I want to see the CBA enforced. I think the project can then be improved upon additionally. Again, I have not met anyone who opposes this project who is doing it for reasons of ill will... Additionally, for the folks who live nearby, it’s perfectly fair self-interest to be concerned about it."

"Construction is going to be very difficult, no matter what…there’s room to substantially improve the public transportation… if affordability is created as projected it will have a huge impact on who can live in Brooklyn going forward…. We need some consistent creation of jobs for working class people and this will obviously be providing it in the construction phase and beyond. I think there are lot of reasons why it makes sense, but where I’m focused, and where I find a lot of common ground even with opponents, is trying to manage it properly from this point on.”

Jobs and accountability

I put him on the spot for a bit, pointing out that his letter to the MTA promised 6000 permanent jobs in Atlantic Yards office. Did he know the current number?

“I don’t know of a difference,” he said. I pointed to the reduction in planned office space, leaving room for perhaps 1340 office jobs.

I asked if he’d seen the Independent Budget Office report on Atlantic Yards. He said he wasn’t familiar enough with it to answer. So it didn’t make any sense to bring up the likelihood that the arena, as per the IBO’s calculations, might now be a money-loser for the city.

He asked me if anyone had tried to do a cost-benefit analysis. I said there had been a couple (notably by the IBO), none complete, and the Empire State Development Corporation projected only revenues, not costs.

Looking ahead

As of now, de Blasio has a good shot at the Borough Presidency, among three term-limited Council Members. Candidate Charles Barron, from East New York (and an opponent of Atlantic Yards), "unapologetically" declared he'd take care of black Brooklyn first, a statement hardly aimed at unity.

Potential candidate Dominic Recchia, of Coney Island, has strong ties to southern Brooklyn. De Blasio may have a wider net, with ties to labor, to ACORN, and to Italian, Jewish, black and Caribbean communities--his wife is black and he supported Yvette Clarke in her narrowly successful race for the 11th District.

Yes, de Blasio knows politics, and he knows a good deal about some of the central issues facing the borough. On Atlantic Yards, however, he supported the result without applying some of the scrutiny he has offered elsewhere.

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