Thursday, January 31, 2008

AY vs. MSG: a larger tax break, but not for the arena

Even though the City Council is much more exercised about tax breaks for Madison Square Garden than Atlantic Yards, City Council Members Letitia James and David Yassky yesterday again called attention to the city's subsidies for AY. While the Council approved Resolution 90, which asks the state to end the 20-year-old property tax exemption for MSG, James and Yassky introduced an amendment that would withhold tax breaks and subsidies for Atlantic Yards.

"If the Council thinks subsidizing MSG is a bad deal for the City and State, they should take another look at the tax breaks and subsidies being offered to the proposed Atlantic Yards Development: they are even worse," James and Yassky said in a statement. It didn't make it past a council committee, but it may recur in the future.

Such tax breaks and subsidies may indeed be much larger, as MSG pointed out (graphic at right), but they are not quite comparable, because they include a whole suite of breaks.

In fact, the tax exemption that now saves the Garden some $11 million a year is much larger than the exemption anticipated for the Atlantic Yards arena, mainly because much of the land would be tax exempt for decades whatever was built on the arena site, thanks to an as-of-right tax break. And if MSG builds a new arena, well, some new subsidies likely would be on the table, as Metro reported today. (Here's more from the Times.)

IBO account

The Independent Budget Office's (IBO) September 2005 Fiscal Brief cited $100 million in city debt for Atlantic Yards. The amount of direct city subsidy for the project, though not necessarily all for the arena, has since been increased to $205 million.

IBO testimony January 9 regarding Madison Square Garden estimated that "the net present value (40 years with discount of 6 percent) of these city subsidies range from $140 million for the Nets arena..."

How did they get that figure, given that we now think of $205 million as the city's direct subsidy? It turns out the IBO is using only part of that sum, but adding other subsidies.

George Sweeting, deputy director of the IBO, replied, "The $140 million figure for Atlantic Yards that IBO used at the MSG hearing attributed only half of the city’s (now larger) capital contribution [$100 million] directly to the arena. We assume the balance will be supporting the other parts of the AY project. This is a change from our 2005 report." (Arguably, some of that additional $105 million could be attributed to the arena.)

The $140 million, he said, "is the 40 year present value of the items listed in the table. This list excludes certain as-of-right benefits that it is assumed any developer would get there such as ICIP for commercial development, and 421-a and other housing development subsidies," Sweeting said.

Indeed, most of those would be as-of-right, but the IBO's calculations don't account for the "Atlantic Yards carve-out," which provides 421-a benefits not available to other developers.

Foregone property tax

The Fiscal Brief states:
Although FCRC will make what the Memorandum of Understanding refers to as PILOT payments to the LDC, these payments are not the equivalent of city property tax payments. Instead they will cover the construction costs for the arena in the first 30 years—and some arena maintenance if the PILOTs exceed debt service. In a more conventional development model, a developer would need to make both construction financing payments and property tax payments for any property tax liability remaining after applying available abatements and exemptions. In the Atlantic Yards case, while the PILOTs are used to pay financing costs in the first 30 years, FCRC will save the cost of property taxes that would normally be due after as-of-right tax benefits expire.

If we assume that the arena would have a market value of approximately $100 per square foot, then the savings have a present value of $14 million in 2005 dollars.

That has now been recalculated to $19.2 million.

Why aren't the annual property tax savings something close to that saved by MSG--now $11 million+ a year? IBO's Sweeting responded, "We based our foregone property tax calculation on the use of ICIP [Industrial and Commercial Incentive Program] which is an of-right benefit. Because ICIP would be available to anybody building at that site, we did not count it in tally of special benefits being given to the arena project. ICIP in that part of Brooklyn provides for 16 years of full exemption followed by a 9 year phase-in towards full taxes. There is also 'inflation protection' in the first twelve years which means that the underlying assessment remains unchanged, which alters the value as the property becomes taxable. Our reported property tax subsidy reflects the full property tax that would be due beginning in year 26 (after expiration of the ICIP exemption) as well as the partial amount that would be due in years 17 through 25.

More details

Also, the value of the arena seems less than 15% of its $637.2 million cost. Sweeting gave the following calculations:

Market value = $100 per square foot x 850,000 square feet = $85,000,000

Assessed value = Market value x .45 = $38,250,000

Tax = Assessed value * tax rate of .10059 (2008) = $3,846,556

Sweeting noted that full taxes are not in place until year 26: "After accounting for growth in the market value beginning in year 13 (the ICIP 'inflation protection' wipes out the first twelve years of growth), the tax in year 26 would be $5.5 million in nominal dollars [not adjusted for inflation] and it would grow to $7.6 million in the 40th year, again in nominal dollars."

Over 40 years, the net present value of the foregone property tax would be $19.2 million, as compared with the $14 million over 30 years. The 2005 report used 30-year figures, but IBO recomputed the numbers to compare them with the 40-year estimates used regarding the stadiums for the Mets and Yankees.

What the difference?

MSG is totally tax-exempt right now. The difference between the estimates regarding MSG and the Atlantic Yards arena is due to two factors, Sweeting said.

First, the Garden’s market value is higher, given the location, estimated at $219 per square foot in 2005, when AY was estimated at $100 per square foot. Now MSG's market value is $250 per square foot, a 14% increase, which implies that the AY arena would be $114 per square foot--and a commensurate increase in taxes.

Second, the MSG is larger: 1,048,620 square feet, compared to 850,000 square feet for the AY arena.

But where do those numbers come from? Sweeting explained that the city's Finance Department lowballs some figures: "The market value we used in our analysis ($100 per square foot) was estimated in 2005. It was based loosely on the Department of Finance’s official market value for MSG at the time, discounting for differences in land value. It is probably true that neither the MSG value assigned by the city, nor the AY arena value estimated by IBO, reflect the actual cost somebody would pay to buy the land and build a new arena. We based our value on an assumption that whatever the Finance Department is doing when valuing MSG, they would do for AY."

What the MOU said

According to the 2/05 Memorandum of Understanding between the developer, city, and state:
The Public Parties and FCRC intend that the LDC will issue tax-exempt bonds to finance all or a portion of constructing the Arena and the on-site Arena garage. The LDC bonds shall be... payable solely from PILOT....

ESDC will lease... the site on which the Arena building... is to be constructed... to a not-for-profit local development corporation ("LDC")... The lease shall be for a term of 99 years and the rent will be $1.00.

ESDC will lease to FCRC, for $1.00 by 99-year ground lease... the Development Sites, and the Arena Site, excluding the Arena Building Site. The lease shall require FCRC to pay a PILOT equal to full real property taxes on the Development Sites and the Arena Development site and improvements, subject to applicable as-of-right tax exemptions.

The Arena Building Site and the Arena and on-site Arena garage will be exempt from real estate taxes and sales taxes on materials used to construct the improvements thereon. ESDC, LDC, and FCRC will enter a PILOT Agreement with a term of 99 years pursuant to which (i) FCRC will pay a semi-annual PILOT not to exceed the full real estate taxes which the City would access were the Arena Building Site and the Arena not exempt from such taxes and (ii) the LDC shall have the right to pledge such PILOT payments to service the LDC tax-exempt bonds as described below... For any annual period during which the LDC's tax exempt bonds are outstanding, if PILOT exceeds the total debt service payments for such annual period, such excess shall be applied as follows: (i) 10% of the annual debt service payments... to pay the cost of maintenance and repair.. of the Arena and (ii) the remaining PILOT shall be paid to the ESDC.

From the IBO Fiscal Brief

The IBO's Fiscal Brief raises several questions that remain unresolved:
Low-Cost Financing and Property Tax Savings for the Arena. To provide low-cost financing for construction of the arena and its parking garage, tax-exempt private activity bonds will be issued by a not-for-profit local development corporation (LDC)... The bonds will be an obligation of the LDC—neither the city nor the state can be held legally responsible for repayment. Instead they will be backed by semi-annual payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOTs) from Forest City Ratner Companies to the LDC. The MOU states that the PILOTs may not exceed the property taxes that would be paid if the property was not tax exempt, although the agreement offers no indication as to what if any discount from regular property tax would be used.
(Emphases added)

In the event that the PILOT payments exceed the debt service, 10 percent will go toward maintenance and capital reserves for the arena and the rest will go to ESDC; the city will receive none of the excess. If the PILOT is too small to cover debt service on the full $555.3 million cost of construction, taxable bonds will be sold to cover the difference and FCRC will pay the debt service on these taxable bonds.

Savings for the developer

The IBO stated:
Forest City Ratner Companies will save money from this financing arrangement in two ways: First, financing using the tax-exempt bonds will be cheaper than private financing because bondholders are willing to accept lower interest rates when interest earnings are not taxable. Using the current spread of 1.5 percentage points between interest rates for tax exempt economic development bonds and corporate bonds and assuming that the entire $555.3 million cost of constructing the arena is debt financed over 30 years, this subsidy has a present value of $91 million (in 2005 dollars) over the financing period. If only a portion of the $555.3 million is financed with tax exempt bonds, then the subsidy would be smaller.

Note that only a fraction of this tax break, which has surely grown as the arena cost has grown to $637.2 million, shows up on the chart above because the costs are borne mostly by federal rather than city and state taxpayers.

The IBO continued:
This cost would be borne primarily by federal taxpayers, with relatively little impact on New York City or State. City and state personal income tax revenues would be affected only to the extent that LDC bondholders are residents of the city or state.

Although the city will not make an outlay in this financing arrangement, the city will give up resources. Under federal law, there is a limited allocation of tax exempt private activity bonding authority available to each state for residential and other economic development projects. Although in recent years, New York State has not exhausted its allocation, future competition for private activity bonding authority will depend on the construction timetables for alternative projects.

PILOTs not taxes

The Fiscal Brief states:
There is a second source of savings for Forest City Ratner Companies from this financing arrangement. Although FCRC will make what the Memorandum of Understanding refers to as PILOT payments to the LDC, these payments are not the equivalent of city property tax payments. Instead they will cover the construction costs for the arena in the first 30 years—and some arena maintenance if the PILOTs exceed debt service. In a more conventional development model, a developer would need to make both construction financing payments and property tax payments for any property tax liability remaining after applying available abatements and exemptions. In the Atlantic Yards case, while the PILOTs are used to pay financing costs in the first 30 years, FCRC will save the cost of property taxes that would normally be due after as-of-right tax benefits expire.

If we assume that the arena would have a market value of approximately $100 per square foot, then the savings have a present value of $14 million in 2005 dollars.

As noted, that has now been recalculated to $19.2 million.

In the remaining 69 years, when there is no debt service, 10 percent of the PILOT payment will cover arena maintenance costs stemming from operation of the arena for the private benefit of FCRC, with the balance going to ESDC. The city would get no portion of the PILOT from the arena building.

IBO’s estimate of new property tax revenue lost to the arena PILOT does not include a loss of property taxes for the MTA land that would be part of the arena building foot print. The city currently receives no tax payment from the MTA for the rail yard because the MTA, like other state entities, is exempt from local property tax. Under the MTA’s Request for Proposals, any developer acquiring the development rights to the site would probably enter into a long-term lease, leaving the MTA in place as the owner. Therefore, the property would likely remain off the city’s tax roll, resulting in no impact on the city budget. Indeed, the MTA has an incentive to make a deal that maintains the tax exemption in order to maximize the price it receives for the development rights.

AY "on rail yards"? Error recurs in the Times

From an article in today's New York Times, headlined Scaffold Falls, Killing Worker in Brooklyn:
It is in a section of Brooklyn that is being swept up in new development, with the huge Atlantic Yards entertainment, residential and commercial complex planned on rail yards a few blocks to the west.

(Emphasis added)

I thought we'd resolved that the 22-acre project would be built only in part over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's 8.5-acre Vanderbilt Yard. After all, when the Times had a beat reporter assigned to Atlantic Yards, he wrote that the project "would rise over a railyard and adjacent land...."

However, the Times has been inconsistent about publishing corrections after multiple mischaracterizations of the site. And when the record's not corrected, reporters unfamiliar with the issue look at the clip file and make careless errors.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ravitch: MTA obfuscates full cost of West Side Rail Yards project

A panel discussion last night on "The Fate of the Far West Side" again pointed out the poverty of public discourse regarding Atlantic Yards as the project was under consideration. At the panel, held at the Museum of the City of New York, Richard Ravitch, former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, expressed significant skepticism about planning for both the 59-block Hudson Yards area as well as plans for the MTA's 26-acre West Side Rail Yards.

"I believe in planning," Ravitch said. "But this is planning gone amok. This is planning unfettered by any consciousness of the availability of public resources."

It is in the public interest, he said, to harness "private greed." However, he criticized the MTA for its "shortsighted" desire for revenue--Crain's reported yesterday that the bids for the rail yards may be $1 billion--suggesting that the full value of the property won't be realized until the Moynihan Station project is completed.

Moreover, he charged that the MTA has refused to make available "all the conditions" that the five bidders have included in their bids. Those conditions, he warned, "include significant obligations" on the government to spend more money on the projects, leaving the public in the dark as to the ultimate cost of the project.

He and others stressed that public land was an important public resources. (More from the Rail Yards Blog and the Real Deal.)

The AY angle

Imagine if someone like Ravitch had blown the whistle on the "extraordinary infrastructure" loophole in the Atlantic Yards Memorandum of Understanding, which opens the door for increased public spending. Imagine if anyone with civic responsibility beyond some Brooklynites criticized the Bloomberg administration for more than doubling its announced pledge of $100 million to support Atlantic Yards.

Ravitch and panel moderator Lynne B. Sagalyn, Professor of Real Estate Development and Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, both expressed dismay that the press had little appetite to deal with complex financial issues attached to planning. (Sagalyn's book Times Square Roulette makes that point, as well.)

The value of growth

Ravitch suggested that the extension of the #7 subway line "is a good idea in a world of unlimited resources." However, he said, we don't live in that world.

The most important infrastructure project to accommodate the city's growth, he said, is the construction of the Second Avenue Subway, which "will open up vast areas of the East Bronx" to development.

Timing and oversight

Juliette Michaelson, Senior Planner, Regional Plan Association, suggested that the rail yards will take "two or three decades to be built out."

Given that the project would involve about 12 million square feet of development, as opposed to 8 million square feet for Atlantic Yards, a rough extrapolation suggests that AY would take not the announced decade but 14 to 20 years to build--which is what even those associated with the project acknowledge in unguarded moments.

Michaelson noted that it's not clear if a public authority, as with Battery Park City, would oversee the rail yards development. (BrooklynSpeaks has called for such an oversight entity for Atlantic Yards, but the Empire State Development Corporation has remained wary.)

Sagalyn said she recommended a "special purpose entity" to oversee the 59-block area and coordinate plans, involving existing subsidiaries of the ESDC, such as that set up for Moynihan Station.

She cited the ESDC's history of creating such subsidiaries. "If it isn't happening that way," she said, "it suggests there's a void in leadership."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Pullout without penalty? Maybe, but not without pain

The New York Post reports today, in an article headlined BUILDER CAN NIX NETS PLAN:
Bruce Ratner can pull out of his $4 billion Atlantic Yards project for Brooklyn without penalty, The Post has learned.

That's because the developer never signed binding contracts for the controversial state-approved project or drew on hundreds of millions in government subsidies, officials confirmed yesterday.

Not that that's likely; Forest City Ratner officials say it won't come to pass. But if so, there'd be questions about who's responsible for the closing and reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge and the start on a new railyard, costs that the government would have to pick up.

(The Empire State Development Corporation has been reimbursed for many of its costs in the environmental review process. As I reported earlier this month, ombudsman Forrest Taylor said that funding agreements and subsidies had yet to be formalized.)

Not without pain

But the developer wouldn't exactly go away without pain. First, the Nets consistently lose money, and the loss of the Barclays Center naming rights deal would be huge.

And Forest City Ratner would be sitting on a patchwork of property for which it paid generously for under current zoning, but would be a bargain given the expected zoning override that allows for much bigger buildings. But the demise of the project would mean the demise of the bargain and a certain amount of pain.

There's surely much more to the potential scenario; if the project does come closer to stalling, we should expect public officials to be more forthcoming.

Room for us all? Reading (and re-reading) Brooklyn Was Mine

When I first read the new anthology of essays Brooklyn Was Mine, I thought it was an accomplished and affectionate, albeit incomplete, mosaic of Brooklyn, as befits a collection whose authors live mostly in the Brownstone belt (though don't necessarily write about it). While not all the contributors are well-known, they include writers--Jonathan Lethem, Jennifer Egan, Colin Harrison--who have put Brooklyn on the map as a home, if not always a subject, for authors.

Is the title phrase a selfish lament? No, it’s a citation from the expansive bard Walt Whitman: “Brooklyn of ample hills was mine.” The past tense suggests a borough in flux, memorialized before parts disappear.

Still, the portrait is inevitably partial. While there are mentions of Brooklyn's rough edges, I didn't get much sense of “two Brooklyns,” rich and poor, that the Daily News highlighted last week, nor of the persistent crime in northern and eastern Brooklyn that New York magazine recently cited. Black Brooklyn and many other Brooklyns get little attention.

OK, the collection can’t be comprehensive; after all, Thomas Wolfe definitively claimed that the borough was so vast that “only the dead know Brooklyn.”

(Photo of Susan Choi and Jennifer Egan by Adrian Kinloch at January 9 reading at the Park Slope Barnes and Noble. Both were well-received.)

The AY angle

When I learned that the editors and the 19 contributors were donating the proceeds to Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn’s (DDDB) fight against Atlantic Yards, I re-read the book through a new lens, more conscious of the gaps. "Brooklyn has given birth to some of America's greatest literary voices," co-editors Chris Knutsen and Valerie Steiker said in a statement issued when the book was released. "Today, a new generation of authors has grown up or resettled here, a testament to Brooklyn's unique quality of life. These writers simply want to protect a community that has provided them with so much.”

Well, the book celebrates what Phillip Lopate in his introduction terms “the fragile, quotidian miracle of neighborhood life.” Lopate catalogs some recurring "key notions" in the collection: "history, immigration, home and exile, neighborhood, public space, pastoral, loss." Brooklyn’s manifold diversity (geographic, socioeconomic, ethnic, and temporal) is celebrated, if not always anatomized.

But what does it say about “protecting” a community and the seismic shifts that may be coming? The answer: not so much. With the goal of reaching a national audience with personal essays, Brooklyn Was Mine periodically acknowledges the tides of gentrification, but offers only hints of some development flashpoints and says almost nothing about Atlantic Yards.

Nothing about the DDDB cause is explicit in the book (though it's strongly hinted in Lethem's piece). The publisher's explanation was that such a mention wasn’t necessary, given that the cause is being promoted only locally. That’s plausible, but there was a missed opportunity, not a lecture (as a Brooklyn Eagle reviewer feared), but more engagement, say, an acknowledgment that AY has been pitched, however unrealistically, as a solution to housing woes faced by poorer, minority Brooklynites. After all, when contributor Alexandra Styron writes about moving to Brooklyn for "affordable housing," the benchmark is Manhattan.

In other words, Brooklyn Was Mine collects a worthy array of personal essays about Brooklyn, but it's not--and maybe that's a lot to ask of a volunteer effort--so good at illuminating the issues around the cause it's supporting.

Incomplete reckoning

Lopate’s introduction, which shares some text from his essay in the Block by Block accompaniment to the Jane Jacobs exhibit, offers an partial reckoning: The genius of Brooklyn has always been its homey atmosphere; it does not set out to awe or intimidate, like skyscraper Manhattan—which is perhaps why one hears so much local alarm at the luxury apartment towers that have started to sprout up, every two blocks, in those parts of the borough lying closest to Manhattan. Much of the chagrin is expressed by people who have moved here from elsewhere; I, a native Brooklynite, never romanticized the place as immune from modernity, nor do I see why such an important piece of the metropolis should be protected from high-rise construction when the rest of the planet is not. But my feelings are mixed: for if the sleeping giant Brooklyn were to awake and truly bestir itself and turn into a go-getter, I would deeply regret the loss of sky. Perhaps it is some deep-seated, native-son confidence that Brooklyn will never quite get it together, which allows me to anticipate its bruited transformation with relatively sanguinity.

Lopate does cite the conversion of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank to condos. Still, as I wrote regarding Block by Block, had Lopate have spent more time reading blogs like Brownstoner and Curbed, he might not have underestimated the real-estate industry. And, of course, Lopate, by joining the advisory board of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, has by implication opposed the borough’s single largest high-rise construction project.

Already, there’s been some sniping about the book on Gothamist; one anonymous critic charged “They just moved there and now feel threatened that their little shangri-la is being destroyed!” My frustration with the book wasn't latecomer posturing, just that it didn't explain why Brooklyn is divided enough for projects like Atlantic Yards to gain support.

Of course, those sniping invite counter-criticism; as another Gothamist commentator riposted, “Bruce Ratner thinks his vision is the only valid vision for Brooklyn.” Indeed, decisions made by Brooklynites like the contributors to this book helped make it safe for Forest City Ratner to muscle its way toward (in the words of Chuck Ratner of Forest City Enterprises) “a great piece of real estate.”

Behind the book

The book, the editors told me, was born of a recognition that anthologies have become popular, their own thoughts about Brooklyn’s places and textures, the phenomenon that Brooklyn has become home to many writers, and Knutsen’s involvement in DDDB. (He lives in Fort Greene; Steiker lives in Brooklyn Heights.)

“We wanted the pieces to be personal,” Knutsen said regarding instructions to the writers. “We wanted them to find a story, or look at a neighborhood, or remember an incident, that delivers something personal about the writer’s relationship to Brooklyn."

So Atlantic Yards, obviously, wasn’t the focus. Steiker said, “I think that we wanted [readers] to get a sense of Brooklyn as a place, a compilation of the many, a feel for its people, its streets, its neighborhoods.” She added that the editors wanted the book to stand on its own as a literary collection; indeed, as she noted, an essay by Darcey Steinke stands as a portrait of Prospect Park and environs while it also describes “starting a new chapter in your life.”

There is, indeed, "a compilation of the many." John Burnham Schwartz accompanies his dad back briefly to Brownsville, immeasurably changed since the latter’s youth. Elizabeth Gaffney recalls how manhole covers provoked youthful curiosity about Brooklyn's sewer system, and hopes her child finds similar inspirations. Emily Barton interviews one of the borough’s last seltzer delivery men. Harrison traverses Brooklyn with his son for youth baseball games, offering a tantalizing observation that invites further exposition: "a lot gets worked out among players, parents, coaches, and umps. Father-son stuff. Racial stuff. Class and education differences. Talent differences. The problem of tribes."

Real estate storms

Some pieces capture Brooklyn in flux. Susan Choi tracks decline and hard-won revival in Clinton Hill through a close look at a park and her neighbors. Vijay Seshadri, a Carroll Gardens resident since 1987, cites “the great real estate storms of the past decade,” how the “Puerto Rican and Dominican social clubs” social clubs on Smith Street have “been mostly replaced by restaurants. “Almost without my noticing it,” he observes, “the neighborhood has changed, leaving me with the commonplace but nonetheless sharp recognition that I only began cherishing it when I understood it was disappearing."

Philip Dray, who with his musician wife was the first wave of artist-types coming to Williamsburg, writes warmly of his (newly wealthy on paper) Ukrainian landlady and expresses unease about his place in the neighborhood. Ethiopian-American Dinaw Mengestu, author of a great gentrification novel set in Washington, DC, describes himself as “an eager and poor writer” setting down in polyglot Kensington. And Lethem, the Brooklyn uber-author of his generation, who recreated the bad old 1970s Brooklyn in The Fortress of Solitude, finds madcap prose to try to come to grips with the “Ruckus Flatbush” that he sees in and around Downtown Brooklyn, including AY.

But there’s not enough about Brooklyn’s transformation, that after the waves of writers and others settled in Brooklyn, prices have continued to rise. (Maybe I’m just betraying my status as an anxious Park Slope renter.) The train has left the station—maybe not for Atlantic Yards, but for Downtown Brooklyn and for the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront.

So the essays, while deft enough for a “love letter to Brooklyn” (as the book was introduced at a reading in Park Slope), don't aim to answer that. Some look to history, like Darin Strauss's piece on his great-grandfather’s Brooklyn baseball history or Egan’s charming “Reading Lucy,” which evokes a spirited woman who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II and regularly sent letters to her husband overseas.

Schwartz’s essay about returning to Brownsville notes that the neighborhood has recovered somewhat, but surely Greg Donaldson, who wrote a book called The Ville (and is apparently writing a sequel), could have filled in more details. Robert Sullivan’s piece on the “vortex” created by wind in Downtown Brooklyn is intriguing, but even he admits, “Try as I may, I still can’t predict the wind in downtown Brooklyn... or how it will feel when downtown Brooklyn is redeveloped, or ‘utilized.’”

Katie Roiphe recalls a date spent on the Cyclone, which gives her a sense of Coney Island’s “seediness and greatness,” but an even stronger piece would have acknowledged Coney's current limbo, the locus of a grand battle between the city and developer Joe Sitt. Even Lawrence Osborne’s out-of-left-field essay in which he compares Red Hook to Bangkok (!) suffers for the absence of the looming Ikea.

Room for us all

The housing issue coalesces in Styron’s Reading My Father, a distinguished enough essay to be published in the New Yorker. She describes how she never read her father William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice, set partly in Brooklyn until she moved to Brooklyn and felt some synchronicity.

Her piece begins by citing the first line of the novel: “In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.” In 2005, after 17 years in Manhattan, Styron “had crossed the East River in search of affordable housing.” But affordable, as Assembly Housing Chairman Vito Lopez might say, is a “relative thing."

Not that Styron lived in luxury. She writes of experiencing vermin and mice in some affordable but not-so-commodious buildings. Eventually, however, she and her husband bought a house in Park Slope. Readers in flyover country might not realize what an achievement that is, how Park Slope’s charms have become so dear, how the neighborhood has become “a parody" and "affordable housing" a wedge issue for development controversies like Atlantic Yards and the New Domino. That context should be somewhere in the collection.

Mengestu concludes hopefully, calling the remnants of a Jewish community down the road from the Pakistani/Bangledeshi zone “proof, if one was ever needed, that Brooklyn is always reinventing itself, that there is room here for us all.” (The collection is bookended with immigrant writers; in the opening, Lara Vapnyar writes acidly about Brighton Beach as “a parody of Russia at its best.”)

In Brooklyn, “room here for us all” is the question of the moment. It’s one Atlantic Yards, to backers like ACORN's Bertha Lewis, may help solve, though at the expense--to its critics--of Brooklyn’s scale and infrastructure, not to mention manipulation of process to gain subsidies and eminent domain.

How to square the legitimate desire to preserve what’s good about Brooklyn while accommodating the tides of growth and the imperatives of sharing the wealth? If AY is not the right solution, well, what's the bigger picture? A few hints would've been welcome.

Genre issues

Ultimately, some of my reader’s frustration reflects the limitations of personal essays rather than reportage--or fiction. Collections of fiction like Brooklyn Noir and Hard-Boiled Brooklyn get much more diversity in neighborhood and authors, and provide a lot more grit: racism, sexism, landlord harassment, tenant harassment, double-crossing, murder.

It’s not surprising that there’s no author from or writing about, say, Hasidic Williamsburg or Chinese Sunset Park, but there’s only one black author, Mengestu. (An essay by novelist Michael Thomas, who's black, apparently fell through, as it was announced on the galley.) “There are lots of ethnic groups unfortunately that weren’t represented, not out of any design,” Knutsen said. “We asked a lot more writers than who ended up saying yes. The book is diverse, even if it doesn’t hit every corner.”

“We were also asking them to do something for free,” added Steiker. “It doesn’t always work with people’s lives and schedules and realities.”

I don’t know who was asked, so it’s not fair to second-guess the editors, but a number of potential contributors came to mind. If four of the contributors--Lethem, Egan, Sullivan, and Lopate--are members of DDDB's Advisory Board, it would've been nice to see a contribution from black cultural critic (and DDDB board member ) Nelson George or the novelist Gabriel Cohen, who charts Brooklyn’s combustible complexities.

Lethem’s “line in the sand”

The collection's must-read for Brooklynites is Lethem’s hybrid “Ruckus Flatbush,” which requires a translator for those new to the Brooklyn map. In the first part of the piece, he writes manically about places called Butt Flash (Flatbush), Full Time (Fulton), Albeit Squalor Mall (Albee Square Mall), The Aggravated Antic, (Atlantic Antic), Pathetic Street (Pacific Street).

In the second part, an author's note pregnantly titled "Was Brooklyn Mine?", Lethem explains more conventionally how he avoided Brooklyn as a topic for so long: For similar reasons, Brooklyn’s battles... never seemed my own: I mean, of course, Brooklyn’s battles to be reclaimed but not gentrified, to be exalted but not kitschified, and to remain in the hands of the people to whom Brooklyn rightly belonged and not to those ‘others’--those, you know, carpetbaggers and despoilers. Always easy to spot those when you see them, right?

He stayed away: Then, recently, with my own neighborhood facing a quite enormous and shockingly bad revision at the hand of politicians and developers, I found I wanted to draw a line in the sand...

So, in response to an invitation to write for the book, "Ruckus Flatbush” is a kiss-off or poison pill: A memo to those who think they can control or define a place like this. Brooklyn: You Break It, You Buy It. Meanwhile, under the looming shadow of such operations, living people and ghosts merely carry on, side by side. Sometimes you can’t tell one from the other around here.

The germ of something more

Lethem's anguished piece is the germ of something troubling, hinting that “the improbable ideal of a place where the whole world can live together in more or less harmony,” profferred by Lopate, may not exist or, if it does, is vanishing.

The Brooklyn Paper suggested that “the sum of the collection does end up equaling more than its parts.” I'm not so sure. Yes, as the Eagle review pointed out, the book captures some new angles on the borough's multitudinous life. However, the development changing Brooklyn demands greater attention.

Monday, January 28, 2008

FCR official: lawsuit casts doubt on arena financing

Is the legal battle over Atlantic Yards having “a chilling affect” on Forest City Ratner’s ability to get financing? That's what a lawyer for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said more than a week ago, according to lawyers for the 26 petitioners challenging the Atlantic Yards environmental review, though he denied it to the Brooklyn Paper.

Well, that kerfluffle is moot now that an FCR official has said essentially the same thing in legal papers, arguing for an expedited appeal of Supreme Court Justice Joan Madden's decision. (The New York Post has the story first today; the article's headlined COURT TROUBLE: RATNER ADMITS ARENA-FUNDING WOES.)

In an affidavit filed Thursday, Andrew Silberfein, FCR's Executive Vice President and Director of Finance, stated: As the Court surely is aware, the credit markets are in turmoil at this time. Many lenders and bond insurers are facing financial difficulties, and are becoming much more cautious. It is not clear what the financial climate will be in several months, when the arena bond financing is made available to the public.
Although the decision that was issued by Justice Madden in this case on January 11, 2008 should be helpful in providing comfort to potential investors that there is no significant risk that the courts will annul the approvals for the Atlantic Yards project, there is a serious question as to whether, given the current state of the debt market, the underwriters will be able to proceed with the financing for the arena while the appeal is pending before this Court.

(Emphasis added)

FCR wants the appellate arguments to be heard by May rather than held over until September; the developer would like to open the arena in 2010, even though the three-year bridge reconstruction clock, which started when the Carlton Avenue Bridge closed January 23, suggests that the earliest would be 2011.

Beyond the lawsuit

Of course, the general climate for financing isn't exactly that solid, even without a lawsuit. The stock of parent Forest City Enterprises rose steadily over the past two years, only to plunge last summer. In December, Goldman Sachs downgraded FCE stock from buy to neutral, three months after RBC Capital Markets analyst Rich Moore nudged the stock down from "outperform" to the middle ranking of "sector perform."

Other litigation

Silberfein acknowledged that other state litigation regarding Atlantic Yards "is a possibility" and acknowledged that "other litigation remains pending"--a reference to the appeal of the federal eminent domain lawsuit. He suggested, however, that this case is particularly significant: Nevertheless, an affirmance of Justice Madden's decision by this Court — which is, as I understand it, the only appellate court to which the petitioners have the absolute right to take an appeal — would help to allow the financing and long-delayed construction of the project to proceed.

As long as the state case remains pending, he predicted significant difficulties and cost increases in concluding the bond financing that is essential to the arena's completion.


ESDC attorney Philip Karmel wrote that petitioners' attorney Jeffrey Baker had provisionally agreed to a schedule in which petitioners' briefs would have been submitted by February 19, but later disavowed it, stating that co-counsel had conflicts that required delay. Karmel opined that the delay represented "a strategy to string out this appeal" rather than a legitimate need for more time.

Final check?

In court documents, Baker acknowledged that the appellants recognize that agencies are afforded deference by the courts regarding decision-making on projects like these. However, he said that court review is the only protection for those aggrieved.

Moreover, he pointed to the 2006 case in which a trial court judge disqualified an ESDC lawyer, David Paget, for having previously advised Forest City Ratner on Atlantic Yards matters. That decision was reversed by an appellate court.

Baker wrote: With respect to petitioners claim that the close relationship between FCRC and ESDC and ESDC’s reliance upon an attorney employed by FCRC, this Court noted that the project was still undergoing governmental review and that petitioners would have the opportunity to comment during that process and seek judicial review if necessary...

This case demonstrates that the relationship between ESDC and FCRC was far too cozy and that rather than take an objective look at the various issues involved in the project, ESDC facilitated a sham process intended to grant FCRC the approvals for which it was not otherwise entitled. Appellants are counting on this Court to provide the meaningful judicial review that has otherwise been denied.

Irreparable injury?

In asking for a temporary restraining ordered (denied) and a stay (moot) on the closing of the Carlton Avenue Bridge, Baker wrote:
If the Court does not grant the within emergency stay, the Petitioners and residents of Brooklyn will be irreparably harmed. The closure of the Carlton Avenue Bridge, if it moves forward, would result in a permanent change in the environment of Brooklyn including significant impacts on traffic and significant delays for Fire Department emergency responders. Further, the closure and eventual demolishing of this bridge would irreparable harm, as Petitioners’ success on the merits of this Appeal would leave Petitioners and residents without a necessary bridge and without adequate funding to reconstruct the bridge.

The Empire State Development Corporation responded that, in light of the public benefits, the balance of equities weight heavily against granting such a preliminary injunction, since it change the status quo by disturbing existing construction contracts and interrupting the work taking place at the project site.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The closing of Fort Greene's 4W, the demise of Bogolan, and the AY effect

The story of the closing of 4W Circle of Arts and Enterprise at 704 Fulton Street, a unique incubator for artists and craftspersons from the African Diaspora is an "end of an era" in Fort Greene, and I told a good piece of the story in an article a few weeks back the Brooklyn Downtown Star. (Today from 4-9 pm 4W is holding "The Circle is Unbroken Celebration, Celebrate 17 years of Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Pride, Ujimma (Collective Work and Responsibility) and the continuation of People Power.")

It's too simplistic, as I reported, to consider the closing simply a casualty of gentrification, and as Selma Jackson, a co-founder of 4W and its sole proprietor now, explained in an email yesterday via the Fort Greene Association. It wasn't that 4W's rent was rising precipitously, it was that the artists and craftspersons were less willing to pay a fee for space and services at 4W, preferring to work on consignment.

Jackson also cited a desire to spend more time with her grandchildren and to expand the work she's doing internationally, currently coaching women business owners in Rwanda. She aims to write a book about 4W and will have " special events periodically."

Changing times

Still, the closing of 4W does show how quickly (and, to some, painfully) Fort Greene has changed, and raises questions about ways to encourage retail stability and the effects of large projects like Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Center mall and Atlantic Yards.

Before the merchants arrived, Fulton Street had drug dealers and prostitutes at night; by the second half of the 1990s, revived Fulton Street was Bogolan, Brooklyn, a testament to the Afrocentric nature of many of the businesses in the Bogolan Merchants Association. Now there's a Fulton Area Business Association sponsored, in part, by condo developers.

In an anguished response to the news of 4W's closing, which first came in a New York Daily News article blaming rising rents, Laurie Cumbo, director of MoCADA, Museum of the Contemporary African Diaspora), stated:
The closing of 4W circle marks a fatal wound to the community and the cultural diversity that made Fort Greene what it is today. Unless we recognize how important it is to make a conscious decision to support "our" businesses, the domino effect that has been planned for us will progress with rapid fire.

Keeping community

While Jackson did not echo Cumbo's rhetoric, she echoed some of the sentiments. In her farewell letter, Jackson wrote:
In closing, I want you to think of the importance of special places in our community and what our role and responsibility is in ensuring that they remain. We must actively support our services, we must actively ensure that change does not affect the places that we hold near and dear to our hearts, and we need to be concerned about community wealth building: passing on our history and ownership of community spaces.

Indeed, 4W in 2006 was designated by City Lore and the Municipal Art Society as a Place that Matters, an inventory of historically and culturally significant spaces.

Lesson: own your own

So how to manage change, and to protect "community spaces" that are businesses? One lesson from Fort Greene, as former Bogolan executive director (and now Daily News columnist) Errol Louis pointed out last December, is that, to steer their destiny, merchants must own their own buildings or have a long lease.

Jackson, a former bank manager, knows that well; she tried more than once to buy her building, but that never worked out, even though in 1999-2000, Bogolan attracted funds from a local bank to assist merchants in buying their buildings.She even considered moving to slower-to-change Myrtle Avenue, but fellow merchants on Fulton Street were dismayed at the prospect.

Indeed, the urbanist Jane Jacobs, in a 2001 speech in Washington, DC, suggested that increased rents in improving neighborhoods can diminish retail diversity and bring a "monoculture" of "whatever happens to be most profitable on that street at that time." She suggested that, just as the government subsidizes home ownership through tax deductions, so much businesses get a boost, since "ownership is the surest protection against being priced out of a place of work."

The sense that small business were disappearing in New York at large was the topic of the first panel last October tied to the Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibition, Is New York Losing its Soul? Among the topics that have surfaced since are commercial rent control, encouraging nonprofits as landlords, and legislation limiting chain stores.

Bogolan & AY

In a 7/5/05 Daily News column headlined CRUSADER DREW NABE BLUEPRINT FOR SUCCESS, Louis saluted the recent signing of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement and reflected on the recent passing of Bogolan founder Bilal Muhammad, "[o]ne of Brooklyn's unsung civic heroes," who did as much as anyone to help turn "Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights from troubled areas into three of the city's hottest neighborhoods."

Louis concluded:
The tiny grants we landed - $5,000 here, $25,000 there - helped make the neighborhood the kind of place where a developer like Ratner can now line up $2 billion in investments and persuade banks and national retail stores to set up shop. And a great many of the black restaurants, cafes, bakeries and fashion shops managed to stay put.

A lot of people have theories about the best way to attack inner-city deterioration. Here's my suggestion: persuade bankers, real estate developers and city planners to spend time and money finding and funding community leaders like Muhammad, who so often remain unseen and unrecognized. They hold the key to turning ailing inner-city areas into prosperous, family-friendly neighborhoods.

It's not clear to me how that translates into supporting megaprojects as the next step in the solution.

How many stayed?

Another question is how many of those black businesses have managed to stay put. The picture was already mixed by the time Louis wrote the column; see the 3/31/03 article by a NYU journalism student describing the demise of Bogolan. Several merchants that were members of Bogolan remain, such as the clothing designer Moshood and Cake Man Raven, while others have left, such as Nigerian Fabrics and Fashion and (last year) the Senegalese restaurant Keur N'Deye.

An 8/4/04 article in the Amsterdam News headlined Rebellion in the heart of Brooklyn described "the triple forces of Brooklyn Academy of Music, MetroTech and the Atlantic Center Mall," noting that BAM audience were not drawn into the adjacent neighborhoods. Bilal Muhammad's t-shirt shop tried, for a time, to establish an outpost in the mall, but "the environment was not conducive to the sale of custom-made items."

The Bogolan Merchants Association had already dissolved, and several members had moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant or closed, according to the article. By now, 2008, two of the three "key establishments" cited--the Brooklyn Moon Cafe, 4W Circle, and Keur N'Deye--have closed.

Mall effects

In a 4/24/00 New York City Real Estate Forum at Baruch College, Louis, then at Bogolan, spoke warily, and with echoes of Jane Jacobs, regarding the Atlantic Center mall:
Atlantic Center, that's a very different kind of development and a very different commercial vision for Fort Greene and it doesn't necessarily have to be in conflict, but at times it might be... The mall itself is fundamentally different from the area that we're talking about... And what's going on in Atlantic Center, it's everything that Fort Greene is not. It is not diversity of uses, it's just business. If you're not going to shop, you have no business over there. It shuts down at night with the exception of the 24-hour Pathmark and it's dark and it's sort of dangerous and it's not very pleasant after hours. Now, one block over you get an entirely different commercial vision which is sort of mixed-use residential upstairs, commercial downstairs, it's where people live, it's where people care about. It's a pedestrian sort of place, you don't bring a car down Fulton Street because while there is parking, it's kind of hard to find because there are no meters there yet. And so we're sort of seeing -- we start to nudge a little bit. Sometimes we bump heads a little bit. At one point there was a proposal floated the MetroTech bid to expand across Flatbush Avenue and into our area. And we began to talk with them and it didn't seem like what they had in mind was what we had in mind...., it's in City Limits currently, so I'm not saying anything out of school, but when someone says this is going to be the BAM cultural district and our group says this is and has been an African arts cultural district for 50 years, there can be a whose culture and on what terms do we cooperate or how do we straighten all of this stuff out.

Louis's reference to City Limits was a May 2000 article, headlined DOES IT GIVE A BAM?, that addressed the expansion efforts of the BAM Local Development Corporation. Louis was quoted in the article as saying that “Anything that brings more cultural dollars and tourism and arts and entertainment has got to be a good thing.”

However, some Bogolan members said BAM LDC was too insular; the article stated that Bogolan members were to get two seats on the LDC board. (By the way, Bruce Ratner from 1992-2001 was chairman of BAM.) Now BAM LDC has been subsumed into the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership.

Jackson on AY

It's impossible to assess how all the merchants of Bogolan feel about Atlantic Yards, but not all share Louis's optimism. Jackson (right) commented critically on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement:
For all the talk about what it will add to the community, including jobs, as a business owner I have seen very little benefit from the Atlantic Center development phase I or II. What it has done is decreased street parking for my customers, increased sanitation ticketing for small businesses—as one sanitation officer said to me “well the neighborhood has changed and we need to keep it clean”. Where was that philosophy when I opened in 1991? Why did it take until 2000 to be concerned about a “cleaner neighborhood? And finally it has given the landlords reason to increase the commercial rents based on the future potential of the neighborhoods, forcing small businesses out of the area now.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The magical vanishing of Pacific Street blight

It seemed intractable, didn't it, the blight bordering the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard. As the Empire State Development Corporation declared in its Atlantic Yards Blight Study:
In contrast, as illustrated by Photographs H and I, the blocks south of Atlantic Avenue host a combination of vacant, underutilized, and physically deteriorating structures and vacant lots, and are lined with cracked and crumbling sidewalks that are overgrown with weeds and strewn with trash...
(Emphasis added)

The ESDC punted on what agency was responsible for upkeep. But in the past couple of days, a clean-up has begun on the blocks. (Who's responsible? I'm not sure--I queried the ESDC and haven't yet heard back. I know it wasn't the same crew that blitzed Pacific Street one Sunday last September.)

Similar views

Photographer Tracy Collins yesterday captured the clean-up on Pacific between 5th & 6th avenues (first photo; similar perspective to Photograph C) and between 6th and Carlton avenues (second photo; it's across from the Newswalk condos and has been better taken care of then the blocks to the east and west).

Photograph H at top captures the scene one block further east, between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues. (Update 5 pm: Today Collins shot Pacific between Carlton and Vanderbilt, as shown at bottom; there's less obvious "blight removal" because of construction on the street.)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Would JJ like AY? An exhaustive "no"

Would Jane Jacobs approve of Atlantic Yards? I've written before about how the planners behind the project certainly were not unmindful of the Jacobsian qualities for a healthy city, but the project really wouldn't qualify. And I also wrote about the AY angle regarding the Jane Jacobs exhibit.

Now urban planner and lawyer Michael D.D. White ups the ante, with an essay and chart in the Brooklyn Paper concluding that AY would be very, very not Jacobsian.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

In Williamsburg, Vito Lopez wants "real" affordability

Brooklyn Democratic Chair Vito Lopez, who represents Williamsburg and Bushwick in his Assembly district, is a strong proponent of affordable housing, so strong he's threatening to use eminent domain to ensure that the recently-closed Pfizer site would lead to truly affordable housing.

In a statement to the Observer, he said that the "company’s definition of affordability in no way matches the annual income of working class New Yorkers, nor the low and moderate incomes of Williamsburg residents."

Regarding Atlantic Yards, however, Lopez supported the "carve-out," ensuring a special break for Forest City Ratner and affordability that also departs from the incomes of working-class and average Brooklyn residents.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Carlton Avenue Bridge closes (for two years)

Tracy Collins took some photos today (and here's his photostream) of the bridge closing needed to accommodate a rebuilt railyard and a platform for construction. There's apparently potential for some traffic jams. (More on that from Amy Greer.) That's Atlantic Terminal 4B in the background, across Atlantic Avenue, one sign of high-rise construction in contrast to more mid-rise and low-rise buildings on the south side of the project footprint.As I wrote, this starts a three-year reconstruction clock, given that the Carlton Avenue Bridge is supposed to take two years to rebuild, and the Sixth Avenue Bridge an additional year. That suggests that (assuming pending challenges fail) the arena couldn't open until January 2011, unless work speeded up and/or the developer and city agreed to open the arena with an adjacent traffic artery blocked.

Atlantic Yards will (eventually) spawn some Jacobsian "investigative theater"

Atlantic Yards has spawned several blogs, at least one documentary film, a book of photography (and other photographic work), and numerous songs. So why not some theater?

In December, the Rockefeller Foundation announced that 16 cultural organizations were the first award recipients of the Foundation's $2.6 million New York City Cultural Innovation Fund, supporting “trailblazing initiatives that strengthen the City's cultural fabric."

One of those grants, $150,000, was awarded to an innovative theater troupe called The Civilians, for “Development and Brooklyn Neighborhoods, a two-year theater lab exploring the Atlantic Yards Project.” The Civilians, in its self-description, “develops original projects based in the creative investigation of actual experience."

Not an AY documentary

Its grant application stressed, "The project is NOT a talking heads documentary about the various positions on Atlantic Yards. Instead, it will draw on the unique skills of theater artists to reveal the fabric of everyday life in these neighborhoods, and to discern how a community interacts with larger forces."

Given the Rockefeller Foundation's funding of Jane Jacobs's writings and its current funding of related activities--the Jacobs Medals and the Jane Jacobs & the Future of New York exhibition--it's not surprising that the foundation would support an innovative theater troupe that takes some inspiration from Jacobs.

Civilians background

Since its founding in 2001 by Artistic Director Steven Cosson, The Civilians have created several original and diverse shows. Soon, the troupe will debut This Beautiful City, a play with music, created from interviews, that explores the Evangelical movement, centered in Colorado Springs, its unofficial capital.

Off-Broadway through January 6 was Gone Missing, a documentary musical “about things that go missing -- keys, personal identification, a Gucci pump...or one's mind.”

I spoke with Cosson in late December, before the news of the dismissal of the state lawsuit challenging AY, to learn more about the Civilians' project. An edited version of the exchange is below.

Why Atlantic Yards

AYR: Why Atlantic Yards?

SC: I am a former resident of Fort Greene, it was the first place I lived when I moved to New York in 1999, I had an apartment on Lafayette Avenue and Vanderbilt, and I moved a couple of years ago to Bed-Stuy. I’ve certainly known about Atlantic Yards since it started, something I followed. In the past year, I thought that our theater company could potentially find a way to engage in what’s going on. Part of that was having tried to make a show about a city [Colorado Springs], and becoming more intersected in how cities function, from how things work in a neighborhood or even within a small block, and how they work on the macro level.

Atlantic Yards, and in different ways what's going on the rest of Brooklyn, is bringing up important questions about how democracy works in our country and our cities, and what sort of say people have in how a neighborhood changes.

It’s not necessarily going to be the story of how decisions were made. That’s probably told by straight journalism. We can find a way to start at the grassroots level, asking how does an urban neighborhood work, in many ways taking inspiration from Jane Jacobs, and try to get a picture of these various neighborhoods that will be affected by Atlantic Yards, what’s at stake if an urban ecology like this has sort of a radical change imposed from above.

Diversity of views

AYR: To what extent will you get the pro-Atlantic Yards view in or just the larger view that there has to be planning on behalf of the larger city? Someone like Hilary Ballon, who curated the Robert Moses exhibitions--she’s frequently made the point that projects have to serve a larger public.

SC: Our strategy is to try to sit and listen to every possible stakeholder. I think, even on the grassroots level, we certainly will get a large diversity of opinion. We do intend to try to work our way up to the top. I’m hoping I’ll be sitting in the offices of Forest City Ratner [one day].

[American Theatre reported: Cosson coaches the Civilians to ask non-judgmental questions—"How did you get to Colorado Springs?"—and then to try not to show a personal reaction.]

AYR: Well, they pretty much don’t talk to me. They do talk to some in the press, but they don’t say much.

SC: Who knows. But the most important thing is that we’re going on in with a plan but not a determined outcome. We intend to let the material drive the process. We intend to work in a variety of different formats. We might end up curating a couple of evenings of music performance. Some work might take place in a school or a community center. Some Internet radio programs might come out of this. Let that be a catalyst for conversation. Those sorts of events [won't necessarily] feed directly into the show, but certainly will inform our thinking.

The work they do

AYR: American Theatre magazine described your work as “interview-based documentary cabaret.”

SC: How I describe our work is a lot more broad. We create original theater from investigations into real life. Some work has been more musical theater; [Gone Missing] is more of a cabaret theater piece. We have other projects that are more like straight plays. This project could end up being anything.

Everything comes out of some engagement with real life; it could be a contemporary subject, or a historical subject. There’s intensive research at the beginning. For contemporary stuff, we try to do very much a grassroots, face-to-face research process.

We’re premiering a new show... We spent a lot of time in the city of Colorado Springs. We interviewed several hundred people, attended church services, community meetings, and attended the freethinkers’ potluck. With each project, we try to find the best way to learn the story from the ground up.

AYR: This sounds a little like Anna Deavere Smith, who did Fires in the Mirror about Crown Heights, or Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project.

SC: There’s been a real surge in documentary theater in the past ten years. Certainly we take inspiration from all sorts of places. But probably our greatest influence is an English theater company called Joint Stock. They were active in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Caryl Churchill wrote plays for them, David Hare. My graduate school professor had been a member of Joint Stock.

AYR: You don’t call it straight documentary theater.

SC: I call what we do investigative theater. I think of a documentary theater as the theatrical expression of something that is more expository, in which the goal is to tell a particular factual story. [With] the Joint Stock company, research fed into a creative process. With our Colorado show, even though we were there when the Ted Haggard thing happened, and it’s part of the show, our work is an effort to get into some of the deeper questions of what’s going on in this phenomenon, rather than telling the story of Ted Haggard.

AYR: Do your pieces have one author or multiple authors?

SC: It’s all different. We’ve had shows authored by a single playwright. In some cases, we’ll have a research phase and hand it over to a playwright. In other cases, they’re all authored by a writer or writing team, but in some cases, the writers are using mostly verbatim material from the interviews.

AYR: How many shows do you do?

SC: We premiere one show a year, but we’ll have various projects in production over the course of a given season. This year, there will be three shows.

AY starts in the fall

AYR: What’s your timetable for the Atlantic Yards work?

SC: We’re starting early work this summer, but really working more in earnest in the fall and winter.

AYR: How many people do interviews?

SC: Maybe a core group of 15 people. I’m hoping to involve a number of students; we’re hoping to have theater and ethnography and urban planning students. All told, there might be a 100 different people having different types of conversations. With our Colorado project, we ended up working with a Colorado college and also having as diverse a group of interviewers as possible. College-age kids will be able to have a different type of conversation with younger people. [Maybe] we can find nonprofessional interested people who might want to participate, and have conversations with their neighborhood.

AYR: What’s the timetable for producing something?

SC: Because we are interested in having constant dialogue, we’d like to have to something on stage in a month or so [after the start], but as far as a culminating show, it’ll probably take a couple of years. As opposed to a documentary film or a journalistic work, it can’t necessarily engage with the same timetable as to what’s happening politically. But my hope is whatever’s happening will inform what’s happening politically, and will have broad enough interest that it will inform what’s happening on the national level.

AYR: Have you looked at video of public meetings?

SC: I’ve read transcripts of the public meetings. Lately I’ve been reading what’s online.

AYR: Some of the real drama was last year. Have you seen the documentary Brooklyn Matters?

SC: Yeah. Again, it’s such an early stage, it’s hard to say exactly what we choose to put in the show, but it may not be the dramatic conflict that was happening when Atlantic Yards got decided. In a way, it’s trying to take, say the way Jane Jacobs describes her neighborhood in her writings, to see if there’s a way to do that in theater.

The Jacobs influence

AYR: Have you read Jacobs recently?

SC: In putting together the plans for this project, I re-read [Death and Life of Great American Cities]. One question that just puzzles me about what’s happening in New York City... As a layperson, the impression I had was that the sort of authoritarian master planning model had its limitations. And the lessons of Jane Jacobs were really valuable to how a city decides how it changes. And what’s happening on the ground is a totally different story.

Looking for the difficulty

AYR: I think you’ll have no trouble finding things interesting, controversial, and difficult.

SC: That’s what we look for. We look for the difficulty.

AYR: Anything you want to add?

SC: It’s certainly good for us that the word will be getting out. Just from the Rockefeller announcement, a few people have been getting in touch with me. But our big Colorado show opens March 8. [Photo]

I've got to finish with the Christians first. After that we have a show in New York called Paris Commune, a historical show [inspired by an actual concert that took place in the overthrown imperial palace during the 1871 revolution], and that opens in early April.

So once I’m done with Colorado and France, I’m going to move forward into Brooklyn.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Before Gehry joined Ratner: "one architect" model was wrong way to go

In February 2002, some months (presumably) before developer Bruce Ratner asked him to work alone on the Atlantic Yards project (and towers over the Atlantic Center mall), architect Frank Gehry suggested that a "one architect" model to build "sections of the city" was precisely the wrong way to go.

The video from the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference has just been posted. Gehry's musings on the issue began at about 12:28, under the "City building" segment.

Not like Rockefeller Center

Gehry said:
The issue of city building in democracy is interesting, because it creates chaos, right? Everybody doing their thing makes a very chaotic environment, and if you can figure out how to work off each other--I mean, it's not that... if you can get a bunch of people who respect each other's work and play off each other, you might be able to create models for how to build sections of the city without resorting to the "one-architect, like the Rockefeller Center model," which is kind of from another era.

Whatever the flaws of Rockefeller Center, it added streets, not subtracted them, as with Atlantic Yards. Gehry in 2005 said of AY, "Normally I would’ve brought in five other architects, but one of the requirements of this client is that I do it."

The question is why he agreed; perhaps the opportunity to build his first arena, and a "neighborhood practically from scratch" trumped Gehry's qualms about the "one architect" model.

The Regional Plan Association, using a somewhat different gloss on the term Gehry used, argued last May that Atlantic Yards shows we must get much better at "city building."

The back story on collaboration

The prelude to Gehry's 2002 remarks on city building regarded plans for a new building at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Gehry explained:
[Art Center President] Richard [Koshalek] wants to add a library and more student stuff. It's a lot of acreage. I convinced him to let me bring another architect, from Portugal, Alvaro Siza.

Interviewer Richard Saul Wurman: Why'd you want that?

Gehry responded:
Alvaro Siza grew up and lived in Portugal and is considered Portugal's main guy, in architecture... His early work has a resemblance to my early work... [He] evolved a modern language that relates to that historic language. I always felt he should come to Southern California and do a building... I like the idea of collaboration with people like that, because it pushes you. I've done it with Claes Oldenburg, and with Richard Serra... It's a richer experience... It's like jazz; you improvise, you work together, you play off each other, you make something, they make something.... For me, it's a way of trying to understand the city and what might happen in the city.

It sounded promising, and you could imagine Gehry saying the same thing about a mega-project in Brooklyn if he had brought in other architects.

The collaboration with Siza, however, came to an end after three years, Architectural Record reported, because of the long-distance relationship proved too difficult. Gehry's designing the building himself, but construction won't start for at least 18 months, according to the Pasadena Star-News.