Monday, December 17, 2007

"Not the crime but the cover-up": Why the arena security issue is (sort of) like Watergate

One of the cliches that emerged from the Watergate investigation was "it´s not the crime, it´s the cover-up," a reference to how a third-rate burglary unraveled the presidential administration.

That's a useful, though inexact, way to look at the still-simmering issue of Atlantic Yards arena security. No, there's no crime. But there was something of a cover-up, and the city and state agencies overseeing the issue, as well as Forest City Ratner, have not been sufficiently forthcoming.

That's not to say that the belatedly released information that the Atlantic Yards arena would be (in part) as close to the street as the new Prudential Center in Newark will unravel the project. Or that Forest City Ratner is not taking security seriously. The city has vouched for FCR's preparations, but it's unclear whether the state has done much review.

However, the pattern of behavior by the latter three entities doesn´t inspire much confidence. Rather than answer the basic question--how far would the arena be from the street?--the developer and state stonewalled for weeks.

And that unwillingness to come clean means that, whatever the further explanations, more scrutiny is needed.

Alternative explanations

Once that information was belatedly released, thanks to the New York Times, the expression of confidence was insufficient.

Officials could have said:
--well, the arena would be as close (in parts) to the street as the arena in Newark, but we think Newark officials may have overreacted

--well, the arena would be as close (in parts) to the street as the arena in Newark, but the arena here would be different, because the entrance pathways would be set back farther from the street
(I'm not sure about the distance of the glass-walled Urban Room from the street, however.)

They didn´t. They stood behind a blanket statement that the New York City Police Department had pronounced the security plan sufficient.

Just like MSG?

Then the Empire State Development Corporation, in response to a letter from eight elected officials, declared that, just as there are no streets closed for Madison Square Garden (MSG), so they wouldn't be in Brooklyn.

But that ignored the fact that an interior street bordering MSG was in fact closed, and that the parts of MSG closest to the street are mostly concrete, not glass, as in the Atlantic Yards arena plan.

So that suggests at least four possibilities:
--street closures are on the table, despite denials
--the Brooklyn arena, despite the presence of copious glass, is designed to a greater level of security than the Newark arena
--the Brooklyn arena is being redesigned
--New York officials genuinely believe Newark overreacted but are too diplomatic to say so.

Any of these scenarios deserves greater scrutiny from the outside, even if some of the details may not be subject to public disclosure, just as Congressional committees review some classified security issues.

Forfeiting blanket public trust

Remember, Forest City Ratner's Bruce Bender in October said, "Anyone who has any experience in security knows that you do not discuss sensitive security matters in public for very obvious reasons."

However, as the New York Times´s Andy Newman observed archly, "Somehow the planned location of an 18,000 seat basketball arena had become as classified a piece of antiterror information as, say, the structural vulnerabilities of a bridge."

It can´t be. It shouldn´t be. So the state, the city, and the developer have forfeited blanket public trust on this issue.

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