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Errol Louis and the "Atlantic Yards pork pool"

Daily News columnist Errol Louis cares about politicians giving away the public's money, but not when it comes to Atlantic Yards.

In a 4/6/08 column headlined Speaker Quinn and her pork pool, Louis wrote:
It seems there is no limit to how much of the public's money politicians will steal, waste and abuse if we don't keep a close and skeptical eye on them. The piggies have been busy lately, and it's going to cost us plenty.

What we know so far about the budget scandal engulfing the City Council is that the Council has, since 2001, allocated $17 million by giving grants to nonexistent organizations.

"Local selfishness"

Remember Louis's exchange about subsidies with Assemblyman Richard Brodsky in September 2006. The “local selfishness” regarding subsidies, Louis said, is something “I accept as the lay of the land… If they’re going to get a billion-dollar TIF [tax-increment financing] deal in Rensselaer County, I think where I live, in Kings County, if somebody wants to bring a billion-dollar deal there, with way too much paid per job, in my neighborhood, where there’s a lot of unemployment, personally, I would say, ‘You know what? I’ll take that.’”

Brodsky was unimpressed. “That is a prescription for a bigger disaster. ‘My pork is good. Your pork is bad.’ is not a principled response to the pissing away of billions of dollars.”

AY subsidies

A day after Louis's column about Quinn, I reported that, despite $305 million in pledged direct public subsidies for Atlantic Yards, a top executive told investment analysts that "we still need more” subsidies.

Will Louis address that? Nah. A column last month about Atlantic Yards suggested that "those who want prosperity and progress in Brooklyn" project should, among other things, "negotiate improvements to the plan with Ratner."

And today, rather than criticize the "Atlantic Yards pork pool," Louis, in a column headlined Building a better economic outlook, writes a valentine to Avi Schick, acting CEO of the Empire State Development Corporation, an "unsung hero" who keeps "the machinery of growth humming in good times and bad."

Community layoffs?

Louis quotes Darnell Canada of Rebuild:
"I had 10 guys straight out of the community who we trained to be apprentices in construction safety, and another 10 in line behind them," Canada tells me.

All the trainees were unemployed, says Canada, half of them living in the Fort Greene housing projects (as does Canada). They took courses on the ins and outs of construction safety, including spotting when a crane is leaning dangerously and learning how to prevent tons of dirt from spilling and suffocating workers.

The first of Canada's trainees were hired at Atlantic Yards but recently got laid off as the souring economy caused the project's developer, Bruce Ratner, to delay the project. According to Ratner, it will take longer than anticipated to build the commercial skyscraper and 6,400 apartments that will surround a planned basketball arena.

"These were real good jobs. After a year as an apprentice, you take a test and start making $55 an hour - not just a worker's position, it's management. And there's so much need for safety management on these sites, it's crazy," Canada says.

(Canada, a veteran community activist, is also known for his ominous "You're the victim" speech at the hearing on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement, captured in the film "Brooklyn Matters." Next screening May 1.)

Looking more closely

Louis's summary--"According to Ratner, it will take longer than anticipated"--is supremely sketchy, given the longstanding lack of affordable housing bonds and the fact that the project, when it was approved in December 2006, was behind the announced construction schedule.

As for the jobs, it's not at all clear how many people have been hired from the Fort Greene projects and how many of those jobs are on the $55/hour track.

According to a February 6 Report to the Downtown Brooklyn Advisory & Oversight Committee prepared by Forest City Ratner, about $46 million in contracts had been awarded at the time, with 21 placements from the Community Labor Exchange.

That's about one local job for every $2.2 million in contracts. (Of course there are more jobs in total. Then again, at least $55 million in public funds has already been distributed.) There were only three jobs from any one zip code, including that containing the Fort Greene projects (11201).

A less contentious process for developing at the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard might have resulted in a smaller project but one that proceeded more rapidly, with jobs for community members.

But in this case, rather than "keep a close and skeptical eye" on the politicians, Louis essentially endorses the concept of "My pork is good. Your pork is bad."

He quotes Schick:
"What regular people want is for development to happen," Schick says. "They're not interested in whether it satisfies every critic and whether it's the most perfect thing. They say life is difficult, there's not enough apartments, not enough jobs, not enough transportation and they want better. They just want it delivered.

Maybe they do. And maybe developers want more subsidies, too.


  1. As usual, the Oder-ized version of reality depends on omission and distortion.

    Oder has repeatedly referenced a panel from 2 years ago at which Assemblyman Brodsky and I expressed differing opinions about how and when economic development subsidies should be used. Oder, who was sitting in the room, always omits my response to Brodsky during the same exchange, in which I pointed out that Brodsky, who postures as a reformer and budget hawk but has voted, year after year, for member items decided without hearings, testimony or disclosure – a scandal that is part of the permanent rot in Albany.

    In recent days, Brodsky was part of the Assembly clique that killed congestion pricing in a back room without a public vote, then voted to pass a pork-laden budget with – as usual – tens of millions of public money spent on member items that neither Oder nor anybody else knows about in detail because the information isn’t disclosed.

    Mr. Brodsky is also one of the politicians who helped kill the commuter tax years ago, saving his suburban constituents a pretty penny while costing the city an estimated $5.5 billion in lost revenue so far, and at least half a billion more every year.

    Think Oder will ever notice or mention these assaults on the treasury by his from Westchester? Nah. He's too busy whining about every stray reference to “Downtown Brooklyn.”

    Further comments will appear in Daily News and/or Our Time Press, where I will continue the same argument I’ve made publicly for over 20 years: that Central Brooklyn needs and deserves massive amounts of investment in the form of foundation grants, fair access to credit, corporate investments, more and better policing – and, yes, government subsidies.

  2. Brodsky is certainly vulnerable to criticism on multiple fronts.

    Still, it's notable that Louis's skepticism toward Christine Quinn is not matched by skepticism toward Forest City Ratner.

    As for what I "always" omit, had Louis taken the opportunity to post this comment earlier, well, I'd have taken it into account.

    However, a look at the transcript
    shows that the "pork" discussion appears on p. 18 and the response regarding member items--a legitimate criticism but directed more to the legislature as a whole than to Brodsky--appears on p. 26. In other words, it wasn't a direct response.

    Links to the event:

  3. So what Avi Schick, acting CEO of the Empire State Development Corporation is saying is that when it comes to awarding unprecedented megasubsidies ($2-2.5 billion) he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time?- He is only capable of making delivering development, not capable of delivering good development? Not capable of delivering development with subsides that are bid? Not capable of delivering development that holds a developer to a reasonable timetable? Not capable of delivering good design? Not capable of delivering appropriate density or keeping streets and avenues open and in public ownership? Not capable of delivering appropriate government oversight? Not capable of dealing with more than one developer at a time? Not capable of being a government official who takes the upper hand with a developer? Not capable of adaptively reusing valuable old and historic buildings and engaging in other green development practices? No capable of preventing obvious eminent domain abuse by saying “no” to gratuitous eminent domain just for the purpose of windfall? Not capable of stretching subsidies and awarding no more than needed?

    A capable government official leverages public expenditures by doing all of these things well.

  4. Louis writes that "that Central Brooklyn needs and deserves massive amounts of investment in the form of... yes, government subsidies."

    Forest City Enterprises CEO Chuck Ratner said "we still need more" subsidies. The "we" was not referring to Central Brooklyn.

  5. Economic development subsidies, by definition, go to private parties, making Oder's comment nonsensical -- but perfectly consisent with his history of manning the barricades against support for development in Central Brooklyn.

  6. [Errol Louis's previous comment, just posted, didn't show up in my email box but rather on the comments moderation page, which I rarely have reason to check. Hence the delay in posting.]

    I'll trust readers to consider the distinction between subsidies directed at a variety of potential recipients and those directed at, and solicited by, specific parties.


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