Thursday, December 13, 2007

Marty, after the AY announcement: "this city has no money, no money to provide"

Nearly four years ago to this day, on 12/11/03, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz appeared on WNYC radio's Brian Lehrer Show, assuring him that he would aim "to make sure that their concerns to the fullest degree possible are resolved" and that, according to Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the "city has no money" to provide to the project.

Markowitz's excited and combative tone presaged four years of controversy, in which he's learned that it's difficult to resolve some questions and the city decided that it did, in fact, have more than $200 million to provide.

The program begin with a clip from the press conference the day before, when Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner announced plans for Atlantic Yards and declared emphatically, “We are going to get the Nets to Brooklyn if it’s the last thing I do.” (More from Ratner on WNYC here, here, and here.)

Reporter Amy Eddings described the changes proposed for the site and quoted Bruce Ratner as saying that "probably the overall guiding principle is inclusiveness."

Lehrer, however, played a clip of a resident as saying, "When you make a plan and then bring in the community, that’s tokenistic, that’s being able to pat the community on the head and say ‘you’ve been involved.’ If you genuinely want to involve the community, the community is involved from the beginning.”

A sports story

Lehrer introduced his guests, Marty Markowitz (below) and Vince DiMiceli, sports editor at the Brooklyn Paper, by focusing, as so many did, on the sports angle: We will talk about having a major league sports franchise in Brooklyn since the Dodgers left town…

BL: Marty Markowitz, why is this good for Brooklyn?

MM: It’s great because Brooklyn is the most loyal fan base in America, basketball is the sport of choice for the great majority of folks that live here, the location of this arena—it’s the most centrally located in Brooklyn, for sure, the third biggest hub for mass transit. You don’t need a car to get there. The economic development, the exciting affordable housing for the first time in many, many years, the retail, it’s unbelievable. I can’t tell you how excited I am about the future of this project for all of Brooklyn and New York City.

BL: Well, it sounds like you have a lot of convincing of Brooklynites to do based on the tape we were playing of people from the neighborhood...

MM: I understand completely how some of them feel about it. And believe me, they will be involved, through organizations, elected officials, to ensure that this project is a win-win for everybody in Brooklyn and for the neighborhood. I want to emphasize: this is a borough project. It is not a neighborhood project, it is a borough project. And we'll work together, believe me, we work together, I want them to feel as enthusiastic as I feel, and most of Brooklyn feels, about the potential of having a world-class arena in Brooklyn.

Markowitz alluded to a legitimate issue that's hard to resolve: what happens when benefits are widespread but specific neighborhoods bear the brunt of the impacts? As a city, we're still looking for ways to harmonize those issues, but even departing Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff believes the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, is better than the state process used by the Empire State Development Corporation for Atlantic Yards.

Getting the Nets


Lehrer pointed out that Ratner didn't own the Nets yet, since a bidding process was under way for the team. DiMiceli suggested Brooklynites were enthusiastic.

VD: The overriding sense is we would love to have him get it done, and we’d love to have the team, and I would hope the winner would be the highest bidder, and Ratner right now is that person.

Markowitz invoked the Brooklyn Dodgers and his youthful anguish.

MM: We have a lot of wrinkles in this… New Jersey is going to fight like the devil…. They’re going to do everything they can, just like I wish I was around, as borough president, back before the Dodgers left for La-La Land,I would’ve fought [with] everything I had to keep them here….

If the current owners say to themselves, besides the amount of money, if they say to themselves, ‘what’s best for the Nets?’ what’s best for the Nets is to be in Brooklyn.

Community consultation

BL: Vince DiMiceli… We played that clip of the resident saying that not necessarily that the stadium complex is a bad idea--

MM: --It’s an arena.

BL: ... but that Bruce Ratner did not include the community from the start… Do you get a sense that that opposition is probably limited to the immediate neighborhood or is there a lot out there in Brooklyn?

VD: I would say the opposition is in the immediate neighborhood. We’ve been covering this for the past six-to-eight months... What people fear the most is Ratner’s track record in the neighborhood. For all intents and purposes, Atlantic Center, which he built, which is right next door to this site, is an absolute failure, it’s basically suburban blight in the middle of Brooklyn, y’know, neighborhood-friendly Brooklyn. And then MetroTech downtown, for all intents and purposes a success… but it kind of separates itself from the neighborhood.

Bruce Ratner responded to both of these charges the next day.

BL: Borough President Markowitz, let me read you an email that kind of crystallizes some of the objections….

“I live two blocks from the proposed development. Much of the land needs development, but not this kind. It would overwhelm the vibrant neighborhood, both architecturally and socially. Frankly, I think it would be a disaster.… Do we want to live in a Times Square-type neighborhood? There has been no communication with neighborhood at all.”

MM: I would respectfully disagree with that. First off, to involve the community, from the get-go, understand number one, that this is not a done deal. To involve the community and get them involved initially, in the planning, when it was far from anywhere completed… I have a pledge, that I’ve made to the residents of that neighborhood, as well as to Bruce Ratner, that is, that my office, me personally, will be coordinating the efforts, through a task force with our community to make sure that their concerns to the fullest degree possible are resolved. But let me tell you the truth, Brian,

Markowitz was making a legitimate point, that it might have been hard to involve the community at that point. Four years later, however, there's a consensus that the community wasn't consulted.

But Markowitz was already reaching a mini-frenzy.

Some of those people, no matter what you do, they don’t want it there. You understand? If this arena was put into Bensonhurst or Bay Ridge, you know what they would say, you know what, ‘this is great for Brooklyn,’ but not here. So I understand that. My job is to represent all of Brooklyn and to represent the residents that live in that immediate area. And I believe, when I saw some of the designs yesterday, the beauty--I believe, from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet, I really believe that their property values are going to be enhanced, their quality of life is going to be enhanced, not diminished. We’re going to get through this, we’re going to work on every possibility to show them that this is going to be a win-win.

He's right that some people just don't want an arena there, and the objections shouldn't be dismissed, even though the location offers several advantages. Markowitz is still saying it's a win-win, but he has to be a little more doubtful than he was four years ago.

Cost questions

A woman identified as "Jezra," actually community activist Jezra Kaye, now of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, got on the phone:
I think one of the reasons there isn’t more widespread objection throughout Brooklyn is that the media haven’t begun to explain what this is going to cost the borough. Let’s talk for a minute about what Mr. DiMiceli correctly calls the failed Atlantic Center mall. Brooklyn and the city of New York gave Mr. Ratner 18 and half million dollars in cash subsidies, a 23-year property tax rebate, 4 million dollars in street improvements. We are now paying him 1.6 million in rent because our state agencies had to move there to bail him out, he could not make the project work, even though 24 million dollars in cash subsidies, free land, and he’s paying no taxes on it.

Yes, we’re concerned about his track record. When we’re told the city is not going to pay for this two and a half billion dollar development, let’s be very very clear about what’s going on here, the fancy title, tax-increment financing TIF… here’s what it means, folks, we pay today, the city shells out two-and-a-half billion dollars today on the promise that tomorrow we’re gonna make enough taxes on this wonderful new development…. to pay us back…. In California, 38 tax-incremental financing districts, four of them have broken even… the biggest one is one-tenth of what they’re proposing here… This is a totally unproven financing method.


As noted, TIF has not been used for Atlantic Yards, despite discussion at the time. Markowitz and DiMiceli acknowledged they weren't experts on the issue, but the Borough President made a blanket statement that turned out not to be true.

MM: I’m not a finance expert. He made it clear, over and over again, the mayor, this city has no money, no money to provide in any way at all. This is all incremental funds. I have to tell you that. And to Bruce Ratner’s credit, he learned, from some of his previous architectural whatever, that this had to be class and he hired a world-class architect by the name of Frank Gehry. So all I can say is, you could say what you want, yesterday, in terms of whatever his architectural choices were. But for this project, this woman, and I really mean this, my fellow Brooklynite: you should be celebrating. You’re talking about two-and-a-half billion of investment, development in Brooklyn, this is one of the best things that happened to our borough in decades.
(Emphasis added)

Markowitz was reflecting on the hangover regarding Brooklyn investment in the 1980s and 1990s. By 2003, should we have been grateful for such a planned investment, or was a savvy developer getting the inside track on some very valuable land? Markowitz thought it was the former: Y’know, it wasn’t that many years ago that no one wanted to invest a dime in our borough. We should be celebrating it, and that’s how I feel, most enthusiastically.

DiMiceli offered a bit of an understatement regarding financing, but enthusiastically endorsed the Gehry design and the arena location: I’m going to have to agree with the borough president here. Obviously, the financing, there’s always some shenanigans going on, trying to figure out where the money’s coming from and who’s going to pay for it. This development—clearly, they brought in Gehry to convince the people of Brooklyn that this is going to be different. What they’ve put together here--it’s not short of fantastic. That area—that location is actually perfect for an arena, or a stadium.

No subsidy?

BL: All of the calls that we’ve gotten jamming up the lines so far are people protesting the idea—that’s who has the passion… we’re going to free up a couple of our lines for people who think it’s a good idea or people from New Jersey who think the Nets should stay there.

But Vince, let me follow up… we know that [New Jersey] Governor [Jim] McGreevey… he’s out there announcing plans for a new rail link… and other things that will represent public financing to keep the Nets in the Garden State. Can you really say that this incremental financing plan as it’s called will not mean taxpayer subsidy for another business that should be standing on its own?

MM: I’m going to say it again, it was said publicly by both the mayor and the developer, Bruce Ratner, that this is not the case, that it’s being financed overwhelmingly by private funds. The reason New Jersey wants to build those links… they can’t get folks in Jersey to support the Nets. So they’ve got to bring New Yorkers over to New Jersey to support the Nets. What we’ve got here is the greatest mass transit system and the greatest loyal fan base, and that’s why this will be an overwhelming success.

VD: New Jersey--they're going to invest funds to build a train station we already have in Brooklyn. The infrastructure is there in New York City, and the development in that area would be putting money into that area where it’s desperately needed. This is the location that the Dodgers wanted to build--

MM: --that’s correct.

VD: --the stadium back in the 50s and possibly that should have been done.

Not quite; it was to be across the street. And there's not enough infrastructure; hence the city's pledge of $205 million and the state's pledge of $100 million, both of which can be used in part for infrastructure.

Markowitz's challenge

MM: Brian, I have to tell you. For those listeners that have not been in this particular area, I invite them to walk Atlantic Avenue, from Flatbush Avenue, going easterly. I want them to see how it currently looks, where this arena and development would go. That’s all I ask. Let them go take a look and see what we’re proposing.

He was making the legitimate point that the railyard deserves development; whether it should've been a take-it-or-leave-it plan is another questions.

BL: I should say you got a nice boost from Herbert Muschamp, the Times architecture critic... who endorsed it big time… He said it was the biggest development project--biggest in terms of the most significant and, he thinks, best to hit the city since the 1979 Battery Park City.

Muschamp's assessment had some flaws, as I wrote.

MM: Brooklyn is on the map big time.

Opening up the phones

BL: Dan from Jersey City, who is already ready to cry in his Continental Airlines arena beer…

MM: He’ll be able to get to Brooklyn, easy.

Dan: We finally have a winning team, you have the Knicks, already. You’re proposing this big arena on a piece of land that you don’t even own. We already own this land in New Jersey. They're making major improvements... New Jersey really needs this team. We need the Nets and the Devils to stay here.

MM: First off, as far as the Devils, if you want the Devils to stay in New Jersey, God bless you, I agree. In terms of New Jersey, you’ve got the Giants. When you talk about New York, the Knicks, those are Manhattan, that’s not Brooklyn… Secondly, the team would have never been for sale, understand this, the team would've never been for sale if New Jersey would have supported their team. They don’t support the Nets. Brooklyn will support ‘em.

The new arena also would have many more luxury suites.

VD: I would say the problem with New Jersey, the arena there is built in the middle of the swamp, that you need a car to drive to …

Navy Yard?

Lehrer cited a query from a Brooklyn resident who asked, why here, why not in the Navy Yard? The answers made a cogent point about location if not parking.

MM: The Navy Yard has no public transportation and secondly, no land…. This is the only location that you don’t need a car. Mass transit, every single subway, bus, boom!

VD: I live in Carroll Gardens, I could probably walk to the arena, if it was built. If I lived in that neighborhood and they want to put in parking for 5000 cars, I’d demand they didn’t put in parking at all.

Parking

Well, some 3670 parking spaces are planned, of which 1100 of which would be for the arena; the rest would accommodate the residential facilities.

According to the Project Description chapter of the Empire State Development Corporation's Final Environmental Impact Statement:
The proposed project would provide approximately 2,346 parking spaces upon the completion of Phase I, comprising 750 permanent spaces (350 spaces on the arena block and 400 spaces on Site 5), 652 spaces of interim parking on Block 1120, and 944 spaces of interim parking on Block 1129 (not including the temporary spaces reserved for construction workers). Upon Phase II completion, the proposed project would provide up to 3,670 below-grade attended parking spaces on the project site.

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