Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Spitzer scandal: any fallout for Atlantic Yards?

Is there any impact on the Atlantic Yards project from the political damage--likely career-ending--suffered by Gov. Eliot Spitzer yesterday?

Any analysis is speculation, and it's too soon to tell. The scandal might slow down the machinery of government in analyzing and responding to the project, which began under Gov. George Pataki and has generated no criticism from his successor, who pointedly ignored calls from civic groups to delay consideration until the new administration. Then again, it also might mean Spitzer's successor lets the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) proceed as before.

In the longer term, the occupant of the Governor's Office might have the opportunity to affect Phase Two of the project, which might be long delayed.

Governor politically doomed?

For those who've been living under a rock, Spitzer is alleged to be a client of a "high-priced" prostitution "ring." He made a contrite public statement about violating his obligations to his family, but didn't answer questions about resigning.

He could be plea-bargaining a resignation in exchange for no or light prosecution. Though Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, caught in a not dissimilar scandal, didn't resign, the consensus in the press coverage I've read suggests that Spitzer can't continue. (Some questions about the scandal from Jane Hamsher.)

While the "Client 9" allegations have generated a tremendous amount of ink, Spitzer's failure to live up to the "Day One, everything changes" pledge he made to voters is undermined far more by his effort to skirt the standard he set for campaign contributions, instead directing large donations to the state Democratic Party (as the Times reported March 4), and his unwillingness to stop "the Atlantic Yards carve-out" that gave a special tax break to Forest City Ratner.

The next governor

What about the next governor? If Spitzer leaves, he'd be replaced by Lieutenant Governor David Paterson. Here's a New York Observer profile of Paterson, which described him as having "a complicated relationship with the truth." Then again, it's as unlikely he's as driven by ego as Spitzer, which suggests he's more amenable to compromise.

Though Paterson has not expressed any public stance on Atlantic Yards, he did give $1000 to Atlantic Yards opponent Bill Batson's unsuccessful 2006 campaign for the State Assembly. (The winner was Hakeem Jeffries.)

Given that Batson was a former Paterson staffer, the contribution signaled loyalty more than policy. And Batson's been away from Atlantic Yards issues recently. That said, let's assume that Paterson might at least take a phone call from Batson about AY.

Then again, Paterson is a champion of minority- and women-owned businesses, according to his web site, and Forest City Ratner has strongly promoted the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) as helping such businesses. (Exactly whom the CBA helps is murky, as I'll explain shortly.)

Though Paterson, unlike Spitzer, does not come from a real estate family, it's unlikely that Paterson would make an agency like the ESDC a priority during the remainder of the term, which ends in 2010.

An AY cameo

WCBS-TV, in a breathless piece of sloppy journalism, sent a reporter to Brooklyn's Fulton Ferry, with a view of Lower Manhattan, billed incorrectly as "live from Brooklyn Heights... where some of the people arrested in connection with the Emperor's Club live." (Actually, just one of the four lived in Brooklyn, and not Brooklyn Heights.)

"Right now you're looking at us at the St. James Street home of [Temeka Rachelle] Lewis, an alleged booking agent for the club," we were told, but Lewis doesn't live there any more.

Actually, there's no "St. James Street" in Brooklyn Heights, let alone Brooklyn, but there is a "St. James Place" in Clinton Hill.

If you look closely, you'll see a current resident has affixed a "Stop Atlantic Yards" sign to the door.

Who's next?

If Paterson takes over, he'd have to stand for election in 2010. As a not-quite-incumbent, he'd have a significant head start, but he also might be vulnerable to a challenge. Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who lost badly to Spitzer in the Democratic primary in 2006, opposes Atlantic Yards, and just might run again.

An even stronger candidate than Suozzi would be one with a statewide profile and, other than Paterson, that means Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. I don't know anything about his views on Atlantic Yards and development issues.

Then again, there's a formidable potential candidate (and Atlantic Yards supporter) who will have just been out of office for one year: New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Influence from the top?


It's not always easy to stop the machinery of government, so, assuming Atlantic Yards is not blocked altogether in court or by the credit markets, Phase One, including the arena, might be well underway by 2010.

So, even if an Atlantic Yards critic gains office, he might have little influence on the arena block. It's more likely that a new governor might influence the design and configuration of Phase Two, which would contain eleven towers east of Sixth Avenue and might take decades to build. The governor also might prospects for a new governance entity, perhaps along the lines suggested by BrooklynSpeaks.

Spitzer & Gargano

I spotted one comment on the Times's City Room blog semi-related to AY:
I knew Spitzer was wrong because in eight years, he never found a reason to prosecute Charlie Gargano. I'm a lifelong Dem who chose not to cast a vote for governor rather than vote for Spitzer.
Now I wonder if Gargano had something on Spitzer.
- Posted by Mrs Panstreppon


That pseudonymous commentator has been going after Gargano, chairman of the ESDC under Pataki, for a while, including on my blog.

1 comment:

  1. Now is the time for Brooklyn Speaks, made up of members including the powerful Brooklyn Heights Association and Municipal Art Society, to shift and adopt effective tactics in fighting Ratner’s Atlantic Yards.- - I am a member of both the Brooklyn Heights Association and Municipal Art Society and value them when they assert their power effectively. - - (Brooklyn Speaks is also made up of some other great organizations: Atlantic Avenue LDC, Boerum Hill Association, Fifth Avenue Committee, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Park Slope Civic Council, Pratt Area Community Council, Project for Public Spaces, Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, and Scenic America, Tri-State Transportation Campaign.)

    Brooklyn Speaks has been ineffectively looking for the compromise of a reduced, better designed project. This goal is somewhat vague and makes the mistake of presuming that Ratner is to be left in place. Ratner does not take this negotiating stance seriously and has not reacted to it. The Brooklyn Speaks negotiating stance has also created cover for certain politicians to be far less effective than we should be requiring them to be. It is only recently that DeBlasio has shown signs that he might make essential shifts. (Among other things, it is a problem that DeBlasio does not seem to understand the way in which the project will be an inappropriate drag on the production of low and moderate housing.)

    There cannot be effective negotiation with Ratner if the alternatives are between Ratner Alternative A, Ratner Alternative B, Ratner Alternative C and Ratner Alternative D. - In other words ALL RATNER. For one thing he won’t cooperate towards the possibility of making anything work but his greediest take. For another, there is no threat to light a fire under him to be serious because he isn’t faced with a downside for noncooperation. Overarchingly, it is inappropriate to implicitly recognize that Ratner has ever legitimately acquired any rights through a no-bid process rigged through influence.

    One thing Brooklyn Speaks should realize is that Ratner has designed his project as a maximum subsidy-suck. It is designed so that it can soak up and take away as much subsidy as possible that should rightfully be going to others. This is the reason for its extraordinary density. The density proposed to be piled onto the Ratner site through zoning overrides and crushingly overbearing density is near to the point of outright illegality. Ratner is looking at that density as a tool or sponge to absorb subsidies which should rightfully be distributed broadly among a larger population and community just as the density should be distributed that way.

    Brooklyn Speaks needs to go beyond stating principles. It needs to be setting forth specific definite bottom line requirements that it should pursue in a hard and fast way. In the end, what should be insisted upon will look less like a compromise that has vaguely influenced the project and will look much more like the project has been taken back to the drawing board. The project is so bad and so terrible in multiple ways that nothing less should be insisted upon. There is no reason to back away from any of the following bottom line requirements that Brooklyn Speaks should insist upon in negotiations:

    1. Eliminate Megadevelopment’s Inclusion of Ward Bakery Block. - - The megadevelopment should be reduced by subtracting out the gratuitous condemnation (done for eminent domain windfall purposes) of the entire Ward Bakery Building block. (For those unaware the block has nothing to do with the arena.) In his recent political career Governor Paterson has spoken out against eminent domain abuse of the variety that was permitted under the Kelo case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. This condemnation of the Ward Building block goes much further than Kelo style abuse and is a perfect example of the new New York style developer-initiated, developer-driven eminent domain abuse. The condemnation of this block initiated by Ratner is purely for greedy windfall profit. The block is outside a 40-year-old urban renewal area, creates an irregular boundary and was condemned side-stepping the city’s public review process for condemnations. Saving this block from condemnation will help bring the project back to an appropriate scale, save many worthwhile older buildings sorely needed by the community and allow landmarks to be preserved. It will mean helping avoid government fostered monopolistic Ratner ownership of an entire 30 acres of monoculture land. Lastly it will avoid creation of a detrimental superblock and the undesired closing of Pacific Avenue.

    2. Reduce Megadevelopment to More Appropriate Density. - - The project should be reduced to an appropriate density. The density should not be as proposed by Ratner, a density unparalleled in the North American hemisphere and that rivals the most extreme densities in Hong Kong. Ideally, the density should be set through the normal process for setting zoning density that involves community participation. It is to be acknowledged that doubling back to do this properly as the Mayor and his First Deputy Commissioner for Development say should have been done in the first place will perhaps lose time. It may be less time than will be lost with a continued pursuit of the lawsuits but people may resent the time. People may suggest that shortcuts be considered. If shortcuts are considered then, thankfully, there has already been a community process to create an alternative that has involved members of Brooklyn Speaks including the Fifth Avenue Committee, the Council, Pratt Area Community Council, and the Project for Public Spaces. That is the Unity Plan. How dense should the project area be? The Unity Plan gives good guidance from the community perspective on this point and that should be taken into account, if not followed. Alternately, across the street a new development is going up, the Atlantic Terrace project. Atlantic Terrace involves input of all the same city and state agencies that should be participating in setting the density for Atlantic Yards/Vanderbilt Yards. So maybe the answer is that the Atlantic Yards should be the same density as the publicly sponsored Atlantic Terrace across the street. If the feeling was that it needed to be denser, density could be set at 150% which would result in 15 story buildings, 180% which would result in 18 story buildings or maybe 200%.

    3. Avoid All Unnecessary Closing of Streets and Avenues. - - The closure of streets and avenues, undesirable from the public’s or a city planning point of view, is being done as a mere pretext for greater, otherwise illegal, density which should not be permitted. In terms of workability, greater density requires more, not fewer streets. The shutting down of streets and avenues is also being used to create a fictional “donation” of open space. The streets and avenue are being gifted by the City which is not receiving appropriate compensation for them.

    4. Create Valuable Additional Streets by Extending the Existing Street Grid in Obvious Ways. - - Placing extra density at the site will be a desirable thing, but no where near the density that Ratner has proposed. Extra density can work when there are extra streets and avenues. The opportunity exists to easily create those extra streets by extending the existing street grid in obvious ways. That will also break up the blocks in a way that will naturally allow them to he bid out among multiple bidders.

    5. Do Not Permit Ratner to Use the Megadevelopment as an Excuse or Mechanism to Receive No-bid Subsidy. - - Housing subsidies are scarce and need to be appropriately distributed. Ratner’s project with its super density has been designed with the idea that Ratner will soak up, without having to bid or compete for it, a great deal or all of the subsidies that would normally be available to others. That should not be permitted. Ratner should not be permitted to get any housing subsides on a no-bid basis. Accordingly, the prerequisite should be that Ratner will get no housing subsidies at all unless the various blocks and building sites upon which housing will be built are individually put out to bid. There should simply be no no-bid housing subsidies. That will also eliminate much of the below-market land price subsidy which the MTA is proposed to give Ratner and which would be inappropriate. Any bid that Ratner wins in a fairly conducted process will result in housing subsidy being able to flow to Ratner for that block, if available.

    6. Location of the Arena at the Site Should Be Scrutinized and the Arena Subsidy Should Be Cut Back to a Reasonable Level Whether or Not it Is Permitted to Remain Located at the Proposed Site. - - Robert Moses was probably right that the general area of site proposed for the arena is inappropriate from a traffic flow and congestion standpoint. The problems identified by Moses are probably accentuated by our modern day security concerns and the fact that the arena is proposed to be at a less appropriate site than the baseball stadium was once proposed to be located. So the arena should almost certainly be moved. In any event, the more than $1 billion in taxpayer subsidies that is proposed to be used to build the arena with no net out-of-pocket contribution from the developer is should not be tolerated. Under any circumstances the subsidy should be drastically reduced. The Moynihan-sponsored law that makes this kind of tax-exempt bond stadium or arena financing illegal should be observed to the letter and spirit. It should also be acknowledged that the subsidy the arena receives, if any, should be lower in amount if the arena remains situated at this high traffic location rather then being moved to a new more appropriate one.

    7. The Projects Should Be Subject to Good and Well Thought Through Design Guidelines. - - The project was rushed through with little thought. The timetable that mattered was apparently a timetable dictated by when there was going to be a change of governors in office rather the amount of time to design a good project or to get and factor in appropriate community feedback. Enough time should now be taken to implement good and well thought through design guidelines. The need will be a little less pressing if the overbearing density of the project is reduced to something appropriate but this is nonetheless important.

    These are the most basic and essential points that should be insisted upon.

    Brooklyn Speaks, the Brooklyn Heights Association, the Municipal Art Society and everyone involved should know they have strength and power enough in this situation to bring about these bottom line good results. Atlantic Yards is very fragile project with many of its approvals not in place, far more than most people appreciate. The project is poorly designed and publicly disfavored. Familiarity with the megadevelopment will breed more public contempt. It does not have financing and anyone thinking of financing or investing in it ought to be quite jittery about lawsuits and possible calamity associated with something so poorly considered. The project is also playing fast and loose with reliance on tax code interpretations that could readily crumble under its foundations.

    Also to be remembered, there is a fair amount of work that is required for the public to be able to recover from damage that Ratner has already done. He has acquired swaths of land to which he should not be considered entitled by making eminent domain his tool through threat. He has blighted the area and his demolitions, including historic buildings, need to be recovered from.

    Brooklyn Speaks and its members such as Brooklyn Heights Association and Municipal Art Society need to take much more effective action and bring their power to bear. The Municipal Art Society has created many valuable forums where Atlantic Yards has been discussed which means that its extraordinary negatives have been talked about repeatedly at high profile events. But organizations like the Brooklyn Heights Association have not been doing even simple things that are worthwhile and important to do. For instance, the Brooklyn Heights Association should be holding information events, its own forums, and should be sponsoring showings of the documentary film “Brooklyn Matters” three or four times a year. The last showing it sponsored was at St. Francis College on March.22, 2007. Since that time the Brooklyn Heights Association has not even sent out informational e-mails about the showings of the documentary sponsored by others. The Brooklyn Heights Association, the Municipal Art Society and all the constituent members of Brooklyn Speaks should be using their resources to be effective toward their announced shared purpose.

    I was listening to preservation historian Anthony C. Wood on the radio the other day. He was explaining that the Brooklyn Heights Association was slow to join the rest of those in the once nascent historic preservation movement but that, once they did, they were powerfully effective. I would like to see the Brooklyn Heights Association be powerfully effective in opposing Atlantic Yards as I know this organization to which I belong can be.

    One final note: all of us should also be expecting to withhold support from politicians that are not seriously supporting an effective agenda.

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