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Clear enough? Misreading the Extell interview regarding Atlantic Yards

Errol Louis, columnist for the New York Daily News and the black-oriented Our Time Press, supports Atlantic Yards, which led him to a very selective reading of a recent interview with the head of the Extell Development Company, the only company besides Forest City Ratner to respond to the belated RFP issued by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for its Vanderbilt Yard.

As part of his "Commerce and Community" column (not online, but click below right to enlarge) in the 12/16/07 issue of Our Time Press, Louis included a segment headlined "The Non-Alternative to Atlantic Yards." He began:
Opponents of the Atlantic Yards project, when asked what alternative use they'd like to see at the site, often trot out the plan proposed by Extell Development, which put in a bid that was rejected by the MTA, which owns the rail yards that dominate the project site.

Louis is a tad late on this, given that opponents first proposed the mid-rise UNITY plan in 2004, then endorsed the high-rise Extell bid in 2005, and this September backed a modified UNITY plan with a high-rise configuration quite different from that proferred by Extell.

Rather, Extell is cited as having made a bid whose cash value ($150 million) was higher than that offered by Forest City Ratner ($50 million, then $100 million, for a site appraised at $214.5 million). FCR contends the overall value of its bid was much more, including a new railyard, though, according to project opponents, Extell was never given the information to put together a comparable package.

However, Louis wanted to make a point:
Extell mostly gets cited when observers, including me, point out that much of the opposition to Atlantic Yards is coming from people who want no large-scale development to take place anywhere in New York.

Given the UNITY plan, that's obviously a caricature.

The Extell "problem"

Louis continued:
The problem with bringing up Extell is that the company has no interest in developing the site and no intention of trying to resurrect its failed bid.

Gary Barnett, the president of Extell, recently gave an interview to the New York Observer that explodes the myth being peddled by some opponents.

The problem with bringing up Extell is that it is not being "peddled" very much.

Barnett diplomatic

Louis continued:
When asked for his thoughts about the way the Extell plan still gets held up as a possibility at community gatherings, Barnett answered: "I think we had a very nice plan and use for that space as well then, but we know when we're beat."

And when asked if he had any problem with the way the state handled the bidding process, Barnett gave a one-word answer: "No."

It's a little more complicated. Let's go to the entire segment of the interview.

The New York Observer interview

NYO: With regard to Atlantic yards in Brooklyn—you put in the only rival bid to Forest City Ratner’s $4 billion proposal. Why did you enter the bid?

GB: The MTA put out an RFP [Request for Proposals] in the same way they did on the Hudson Yards, we responded the same way.

Well, not quite. There was no bid for the 22-acre Atlantic Yards site, but rather the 8.5-acre Vanderbilt Yard. And, unlike with Atlantic Yards, where the city and state anointed a developer 18 months before the RFP was issued, the five rivals for the West Side yards in Manhattan all began at the same starting point.

NYO: But a lot of people viewed that as a foregone conclusion before the RFP was even issued. Did you not agree with that?

GB: I hope we don’t have a foregone conclusion on the Hudson Yards. That would make at least four bidders very sad.

Note that he didn't deny that Atlantic Yards was a foregone conclusion; he just avoided the question.

NYO: The city and the state haven’t partnered with a developer publicly beforehand. What type of chance did you think you had on Atlantic Yards? Did you think that was something of a long shot? You said so, if I remember, in your cover letter [for the bid].

GB: We are shocked—shocked—that we bid $150 million, [Forest City Chairman Bruce] Ratner bid $50 million, yet he somehow managed to get it.

Louis conveniently ignored the "shocked" statement, which, whether it was sarcastic or not, surely didn't indicate resignation.

NYO: In almost any community meeting for Atlantic Yards, Extell’s name comes up—still.

GB: I think we had a very nice plan and use for that space as well then, but we know when we’re beat.

Extell's name comes up more as a criticism of the process than as a hoped-for alternative.

NYO: What did you think of the outcome?

GB: I’m not going to comment on that.

Here Barnett has become diplomatic, if not critical.

NYO: It raised the company’s profile some by doing the bid, by getting on the side of opponents. Was that a factor in doing the bid?

GB: Absolutely not.

That makes sense. Barnett's company has antagonized community groups elsewhere, such as on the Upper West Side. The bid in Brooklyn more likely was a combination of a potential business opportunity and a rivalry with Forest City Ratner, with whom he'd clashed over redevelopment over the parcel for the New York Times Tower.

NYO: Do you have any criticisms with the way the state handled the Atlantic yards project?

GB: No.

Without listening to the actual interview, that's a bit hard to judge, but, given Barnett's previous statements, that sounds more like a diplomatic statement than a thorough assessment. What's in it for him to antagonize government agencies? Nothing.

Evidence, what evidence?

Still, ignoring the evidence, Louis concluded:
That seems clear enough. But if history is any guide, that won't stop the anti-project crowd from claiming they're actually pro-development, and that they support the defunct Extell proposal as a viable alternative to Atlantic Yards.

Actually, it doesn't seem clear enough.


  1. Let's not forget the excellent contribution of the Pacific Plan alternative proposed by Doug Hamilton. Although some in the opposition did not promptly get behind it many of us like it as a well conceived alterative that exists it various versions. Preferably, we would do a version without an arena. Among those who like the Pacific Plan is the Brooklyn Heights Association, a member of Brooklyn Speaks and I believe the Municipal Arts Society, also a Brooklyn Speaks member, has good things to say about the Pacific Plan.

    But I am shocked, simply shocked that there is any question that the Gary Barnett’s remark about the bidding was meant “sarcastically.”- Given that his language is such a clear quote from “Casablanca” its meaning is quite clear. - The quote from Casablanca is quite elucidating:

    Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
    [a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
    Croupier: Your winnings, sir.

    Compare Barnett’s “We are shocked—shocked—that we bid $150 million, [Forest City Chairman Bruce] Ratner bid $50 million, yet he somehow managed to get it.”

    The phrase is a colloquial quick way of referencing something that is officially illegal and improper but which everybody knows is actually going on and which the those in officialdom are supposed not to acknowledge even when it is under their noses and affecting what they do.

    How clearly are people on the inside supposed to express things when they acknowledge the bidding was a hopelessly rigged game?

    The person I am really wondering about is Errol Lewis- Why does he trip over himself supporting Atlantic Yards, attacking those who don’t and at the same time indicate that if all things were neutral he wouldn’t? Do I detect the sulfuric smell of some Faustian bargain?


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