Saturday, May 31, 2008

The (relative) silence about the long-delayed Ingersoll Community Center and the breadth of blogs

When, earlier this month, I covered (for the Brooklyn Downtown Star) the annual convention of FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality), which advocates for low-income women of color, many in the housing projects of Fort Greene, I was surprised to learn that the Ingersoll Community Center, under construction for more than six years, still isn't open, in stark contrast to the steadily rising condos nearby. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), whose web site says not-so-clearly that the center has been "rebuilt," now promises it will open in the fall.

(Photo from New York Daily News. Graphic below from NYCHA site.)

It's a story of promises unfulfilled, one that deserves far more scrutiny, but the media coverage has been scant. I found an 8/31/01 Daily News article indicating that the contract had been awarded. A 4/16/04 Brooklyn Eagle article reported that completion was anticipated by December 2004. A May/June 2005 City Limits article noted that the community center had been "rendered unusable for years." Last August, the Brooklyn Paper quoted a NYCHA spokesman as saying the center was complete and in the "sign-off phase."

On Tuesday, following up on the mention in my Brooklyn Downtown Star article, the Daily News covered the story, under the headline Fort Greene's Ingersoll Center still not open after seven years.

Getting the word out

Some advocates have made Ingersoll an issue. FUREE's Downtown Brooklyn Accountable Development Campaign explains, "The Ingersoll Community Center, rebuilt and beautiful, remains unopened."

Still, it makes me wonder: if Ingersoll residents and their advocates had gotten the word out more, or started--hmm--a blog, wouldn't this have generated more notice?

What about a countdown clock, like the one NoLandGrab mounted regarding the long-delayed Atlantic Yards ombudsman?

Given the paucity of press coverage of Brooklyn in general, I've said publicly that I'm less disturbed by the disproportionate number of bloggers--some good, some not--in Brownstone Brooklyn than by the fact that the Brooklyn bureaus of the city's dailies each have only a handful of people.

I still am. Then again, if online journalism does influence print coverage--and I know some online journalists/bloggers who regularly see their work lifted--then that also impacts subjects like the Ingersoll Community Center.

Perhaps online journalists/bloggers, as with the press in general, should cast a wider net. But there should be ways to encourage and train a broader spectrum of Brooklynites on how to get the word out on their communities.

Friday, May 30, 2008

PlaNYC 2030 and the need for parking policy

Last December, I described how Mayor Mike Bloomberg's much-praised PlaNYC 2030 contains a glaring omission, a failure to address the antiquated anti-urban policy that mandates parking attached to new residential developments outside Manhattan, even when such developments, like Atlantic Yards, are justified precisely because they're located near transit hubs. I called the current situation PlaNYC 1950.

(Ironically enough, the Empire State Development Corporation, which will override several aspects of city zoning to facilitate the Atlantic Yards project, chose not to override the city's parking policy.)

Last month, a year after Bloomberg's plan was announced, a watchdog group identified parking policy as among six administrative initiatives in order to implant the principles of sustainability into the city's governmental structure.

According to Building a Greener Future: A Progress Report on New York City’s Sustainability Initiatives, by The New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund (NYLCVEF), the parking policy is threefold:
Create a variable-price parking program that would increase the price for street parking in the Manhattan Central Business District during peak hours, begin a comprehensive study of the parking requirements in the Zoning Resolution and increase city funding for the MTA.

(Emphasis added. Note that new parking revenues could support public transportation.)

On the city's agenda?

At a panel April 23 on PlaNYC hosted by the NY Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association, Marcia Bystryn of the NYCLVEF pointed to parking policy as a reform that should be on the city's agenda.

Ariella Maron, Deputy Director of the Mayor's Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability, had given a thoroughly upbeat presentation about the city's accomplishments to an appreciative audience, but parking policy wasn't part of it.

I asked directly whether the city would address the antiquated zoning roles that require .4 units of parking for each apartment unit in an outer borough development, no matter its location. She responded briefly: "The city is looking at overall parking issues. There is planning and conversation around it."

Stay tuned. A reform of parking policy seems like a no-brainer, but, even so, it might be too late for Atlantic Yards--unless the plan is scrapped or revised.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

AY ten-year timetable realistic or p.r. scheme? ESDC, residents battle in court

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) has filed legal papers asking for a state court to dismiss the lawsuit filed April 30 that charges that the ESDC’s willingness to give developer Forest City Ratner 12+ years to build Phase 1 of Atlantic Yards violates a provision of the Eminent Domain Procedure Law (EDPL). The suit also requests a new public hearing to evaluate the benefits of the amended project.

In arguing against the lawsuit, filed by 13 residential tenants in two buildings within the project footprint, the ESDC curiously claims that the courts should view Bruce Ratner’s May 4 Daily News op-ed asserting a 2018 completion date as more credible than his interview in the March 21 New York Times regarding the project’s stall, and that the penalties facing the developer for delaying the project are “draconian.”

Ten-year timetable realistic?

While the lawsuit, filed on behalf of petitioners who have lost two other suits filed by attorney George Locker, attempts to break new legal ground and thus must be seen as an uphill effort, it brings an important public policy issue to the legal arena. At essence is whether the project approved by the ESDC in December 2006, with a ten-year “anticipated” timetable for an arena, 16 towers, eight acres of open space and more, remains realistic.

The ESDC says it is: “Petitioners cite an exhibit to the [State] Funding Agreement that describes the draconian contractual remedies that would be available to ESDC if FCRC fails to complete established Project milestones by certain outside dates. The fact that ESDC could bring to bear certain contractual remedies in such circumstances does not change the Project approved by ESDC on December 8, 2006. Moreover, a change in the construction schedule would not be the type of significant change in public use that would require a new EDPL public hearing.”

However, the funding agreement does not address a starting or ending date for the 11 towers of Phase 2, instead leaving that to be resolved in yet-unfinished “Project Documentation.” The petitioners thus contend that the ten-year project “that was studied and approved by ESDC in December 2006, as having sufficient public purpose and public benefit, ceased to exist on September 12, 2007, when by agreement AYP [Atlantic Yards Project] became an uncertain project of an unspecified duration.” The petitioners charge that the agreement “was kept hidden from petitioners and from the public for six months.”

While the deadlines may be a “contractual remedy,” Locker’s legal affirmation states, “these descriptions are public relations jargon, not legal analysis. By agreement, a ten-year AYP has become an amended-AYP of unlimited duration.” Moreover, “The amendments represent an enormous loss of the Project’s stated public benefits--most of the housing, open-space, and construction job/years--and portend decades of developer blight, vacant lots, and ever-mounting public costs.”

The project, as approved, “might have been financially unrealistic from its inception,” Locker states. "Respondent’s 10-year [project] is a public relations and marketing scheme; it does not exist in a legally enforceable form.”

ESDC: under negotiation

An affirmation by ESDC lawyer Philip Karmel explains that “Project Documentation” has not been finalized and remains under negotiation; the term refers “to the real estate, financing, construction and other contracts involving ESDC, FCRC, and the City of New York that are required to effectuate the [General Project Plan].”

While Locker included as an exhibit the March 21 Times article headlined Slow Economy Likely to Stall Atlantic Yards, the ESDC objected to the article’s admission because “the purported quotations from Bruce Ratner are pure hearsay as to ESDC,” the statements do not represent ESDC policy, and the article post-dates the September 2007 Funding Agreement challenged in the lawsuit.

“If and to the extent that [the article] is considered,” Karmel adds, “however, it should be noted that Mr. Ratner has made other recent statements concerning the Project--most notably, in his recent article in the Daily News--that shed light on the statements he is quoted as having made to the New York Times.”

In other words, an op-ed from Ratner trumps an interview.

ESDC: claims fall short

In a legal memorandum, the ESDC argues that Locker’s lawsuit fails to state a cause of action because the provision of the EDPL at issue applies only when the condemnor has already acquired the property by eminent domain, the project has been abandoned, and the condemnor seeks to sell the property within ten years of its acquisition. None have occurred.

Further, the EDPL requires that the property be “materially improved” within a decade after acquisition, and the ESDC states there’s no assertion that it wouldn’t be improved, since the term does not require completion of a project.

Further, the response argues that the petitioners do not have any ownership rights and thus lack standing to sue--a claim that raises questions about a previous lawsuit. Locker responds, “ESDC is walking on thin ethical ice by arguing that petitioners, who were determined to be condemnees at ESDC’s legal urging in a previous action, possess standing to assert rights under EDPL section 207, but lack standing to assert the rights accorded to all condemnees under EDPL section 406."

New public hearing?

The petitioners in the latest case also claimed that the EDPL requires a new public hearing “because the Funding Agreement allegedly changed the GPP [General Project Plan] construction schedule,” the ESDC response states. “The Funding Agreement, however, explicitly requires FCRC to use commercially reasonable efforts to achieve the GPP construction schedule.”

Even if the Funding Agreement had modified the construction schedule, the ESDC argues, construction delays on complex public projects are “hardly uncommon,” so if every delay were to require a new public hearing, eminent domain “would cease to serve the role intended by the legislature when the statute was enacted.”

Indeed, the ESDC cites a case involving Times Square redevelopment in which the Court of Appeals rejected the idea that new hearings were required “because the passage of time had rendered stale the data upon which ESDC had relied to make its blight and environmental findings for the project.” Only when there’s a significant change in public purpose is a second public hearing “potentially required,” the ESDC states, and there’s been no such change in public purpose alleged.

In response, the petitioners include an affidavit by Tom Angotti, professor in the Hunter College Department of Urban Affairs & Planning, who notes that Atlantic Yards was always presented as a ten-year project, with the financial, environmental, and infrastructural, analyes predicated on that timetable. Given that there is no stated commencement date nor completion date for the 11 buildings of Phase 2, which would contain an estimated “70% of the affordable housing units, 100% of the open space, and 75% of the construction job/years,” the ESDC should precisely describe the project and hold a public hearing where the public can comment on the “costs and benefits of the amended project,” Angotti states.

"Draconian" remedies?

The ESDC, in its legal papers, calls the contractual remedies cited in the lawsuit “draconian.” The term is doubly curious because the State Funding Agreement cited in the lawsuit describes the penalties incompletely, leaving any analysis inconclusive without a look at the separate City Funding Agreement. That agreement, released later after a Freedom of Information Law request, spells out some provisions that, to my mind, don't seem very draconian, given that the developer need build only 1.5 million square feet over 12 years to escape penalties.

Beyond those remedies, the ESDC states, “it is expected that the Project Documentation will provide for additional remedies available to ESDC in other circumstances.” The contractual remedies, the agency claims, “do not modify the Project schedule.”

Moving ahead

The ESDC further argues that the State Funding Agreement, rather than retard the project, accelerates infrastructure work because it allows work to proceed before Project Documentation is finalized. Even if the developer defaults completely, that would not mean abandonment by ESDC, which could continue the project with another developer. In other words, the ESDC contends, it’s the condemning agency, not the developer, that must abandon the project.

If the motion to dismiss is denied, the ESDC argues that, if the schedule-related provisions of the Funding Agreement were determined to violate the EDPL, the court should annul specific provisions rather than annulling the Funding Agreement as a whole or requiring a public hearing.

The petitioners respond, “ESDC wisely contemplates losing the instant motion and asks this Court to ‘annul any offending portion’ rather than order a hearing, etc. It is unclear how this Court may alter the completion dates of a $4 billion construction project when one of the parties to the agreement is not even before the court and there is every reason to believe that FCRC could not comply. If ESDC wishes to have a ten-year AYP construction deadline imposed on FCRC, as law requires, ESDC should do so on its own.”

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Voodoo" actuary provokes firestorm, but "voodoo" economist for AY gets a pass

The New York Times and others have rightly made a big deal out of the scandal that an actuary paid by unions was relied on by the State Legislature in its estimate that a bill that would offer early retirement to city workers would not cost a cent. But a not too dissimilar reliance on a partisan source regarding Atlantic Yards raised nary an eyebrow.

The May 16 Times article, headlined Unions Bankrolled Analyst Vetting Pension Bill, made the front page. Later that day, faced with a storm of press criticism, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver decided that any bills with fiscal notes prepared by that actuary would be placed on hold, with new, more objective analyses sought. The headline on the Times's City Room blog: Speaker Tosses Work of ‘Voodoo’ Actuary.

Critical editorial

On May 24, the Times's editorial page was in high dudgeon, in an editorial headlined Have We Got a Deal for You:
Just when it appears that the New York State Legislature has hit bottom, we find a false floor. The Times’s Danny Hakim recently uncovered another appalling example of how a politically powerful group can order up laws in Albany, even skewing the estimates of how much it will cost taxpayers.

... When asked about his estimating methods, Mr. Schwartz told The Times that his job is “a step above voodoo.”

New York City officials would certainly agree since they estimate the bill’s cost at $200 million a year.

AY "voodoo"

Curiously, Atlantic Yards backers openly relied on a partisan expert, but were never called to account for it. For example, the ESDC and governor's office both on 3/4/05 issued press releases relying on revenue projections made by the developer’s paid consultant, Andrew Zimbalist, rather than commission their own analysis. The press release stated:
The project is expected to create 15,000 construction jobs and over 10,000 permanent jobs. According to an economic analysis completed earlier this year for FCRC by the economist Andrew Zimbalist, the net fiscal benefit to the City and State from the Atlantic Yards project is estimated to be at least $2.819 billion over thirty years, or a present value of at least $812.6 million.

Unlike with the pension bill, there was no "other side" sought out to argue that the figures in the governmental projection were off. The city's press release, interestingly enough, cited a study by the NYC Economic Development Corporation that had not been released. I wonder whether city officials were more wary of appearing to endorse a partisan study.

This episode does not directly parallal that of the "voodoo" actuary, given that it involved a press release rather than a bill to be passed by the legislature. However, there was an "other side," just disregarded. Some seven months earlier, the Times reported briefly on a study critiquing Zimbalist's report. But the newspaper gave Zimbalist the last word and never sought independent review of the costs of the project.

Zimbalist's study was, arguably, "voodoo," ignoring costs that, for example, the Independent Budget Office later found. The Zimbalist study was enormously flawed, and should not have been relied on. But it was and nobody blew the whistle on it at the time.

Just as the Times pointed out in recent coverage that city officials reached very different conclusions than that of the "voodoo" actuary, so coverage of Atlantic Yards should have acknowledged that there were alternate views.

For example, see 3/29/07 testimony of Brad R. Humphreys of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, testifying on public financing for sports facilities, during a hearing of the Subcommittee on Domestic Policy of House of Representatives' Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Humpreys stated:
Since “promotional” economic impact studies are forecasts, they have the same inherent weaknesses as any other economic forecast, like a forecast of the growth rate of GDP over the next five years. But “promotional” economic impact studies always project a high degree of precision. Rather than being stated in terms of a predicted value plus or minus some margin of error, the forecasts in these studies are always a single number, implying a higher degree of precision than other economic forecasts, even though there is no evidence that they are more precise.

(Note that Zimbalist's report assumes a timetable for construction and an office space allotment that no longer exist, thus rendering his forecast significantly imprecise. Add to that his reliance on counting taxes paid by new residents, which economist James Parrott commented, "I don't know of any serious cost-benefit analyses of mixed-used economic development projects that count the taxes of residents.")

The importance of peer review

Zimbalist's study got no backup from anyone but Forest City Ratner spokesman Barry Baum, whom the Times quoted.) Humphreys pointed out that "promotional" studies don't get peer review:
The most important difference between evidence from academic research and evidence from “promotional” economic impact studies is the degree of scrutiny they undergo. “Promotional” studies are typically carried out by consultants. They are released with great fanfare in the local media, and typically get widespread coverage for a brief time. The press releases and sound bites associated with these studies are typically short on details and long on large round numbers. Very few people ever read the entire reports. The vast majority of these “promotional” studies disappear within a few days of their release. The methodology used in “promotional” studies, and the results, are not reviewed or evaluated in any way. I do not know of a single instance where the predicted outcomes from a “promotional” economic impact study have been systematically evaluated for accuracy after a sports facility was completed.

In stark contrast, academic research on the economic impact of professional sport published in scholarly journals goes through a rigorous peer review process. In this process, the papers are
distributed to other experts in the field, often stripped of identifying information about authorship, who are asked to anonymously evaluate the quality of the research.

Zimbalist vs. Zimbalist

Zimbalist himself has criticized "promotional" studies. For Forest City Ratner, however, he wrote one. Humphreys, in his testimony, laid out the difference:
In contrast, journals that publish academic research on the economic impact of professional sports charge researchers submission fees to consider their papers for publication. They do not pay royalties to research who write the papers they publish. A researcher in this area has no personal financial stake in the outcome of the research.

Humphreys concluded:
It is imperative that those who make decisions on sports subsidies understand this important difference in the evidence about the economic impact of professional sports. Results that have been through the peer-review process should be given much more credence by decision makers than “promotional” economic impact studies. We do not make health policy decisions based solely on the claims of pharmaceutical companies, and we should not make decisions on subsidies for professional sports based solely on the claims made by professional sports team owners and others proponents of these subsidies.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

At West Side hearing, Brodsky questions subsidies, muses about eminent domain for MSG

Presumably, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) confirmation Thursday of a second developer, the Related Companies, for the Hudson Yards project, after original bidder Tishman Speyer pulled out, somewhat undermined the rationale for the Assembly Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Committee, chaired by Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, to assess the status of various projects on Manhattan’s West Side.

So it’s understandable that the hearing held Friday attracted modest press coverage. To Reuters, the story was Brodsky’s provocative but somewhat theoretical suggestion that the city consider using eminent domain to condemn Madison Square Garden to effectuate a version of the Moynihan Station project. To the New York Observer, the story was MTA chief Lee Sander’s suggestion that the agency might add bus rapid transit or light rail to the West Side district, on top of the 7 line subway extension. WNYC radio reported a related story about how the Moynihan project, if it adds capacity for Amtrak, could draw additional federal funds.

For those concerned with Atlantic Yards, however, the story was Brodsky’s ongoing and unresolved effort to assess the proper level of public investment and subsidies in such projects, and the incomplete responses from government officials.

“We want to create the incentives to get the private sector do things they wouldn’t otherwise do,” explained Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Lieber. “We want to use the resources of the public sector sparingly to create incentives for the private sector.” It was, he said, a question of risk and value.

That question deserves a close look in the context of Atlantic Yards. When calculating the value of direct and indirect government support, to what extent, for example, did city and state officials assess the value of naming rights for the arena (and other buildings) in the Atlantic Yards project? The value of luxury boxes? While not traditional subsidies, the opportunity for such special revenue sources was made possible only by the government’s backing of Forest City Ratner’s plan.

An AY hearing?

While Brodsky (right) mentioned Atlantic Yards in passing more than once, and suggested that the state’s willingness to pursue eminent domain for AY means it shouldn’t be philosophically opposed to using it for Moynihan Station, he wouldn’t commit to holding a hearing on Atlantic Yards.

“We’re going to proceed with a whole host of inquiries on these kinds of projects,” he said, in an interview after the hearing, indicating that, at the least, written questions would be sent. “Atlantic Yards is in that mix. Whether or not I hold a hearing is secondary as to whether I get the information.”

Brooklyn Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, whose district includes Atlantic Yards, is pushing for such a hearing and there are numerous questions--some noted below--that are pending. Indeed, the advantage of a hearing, as shown on Friday, is that in-person exchanges enliven and clarify contentious topics. (Assembyman Jim Brennan and Assemblywoman Joan Millman, whose districts border that of Jeffries, also support a hearing, according to Jeffries.)

Brodsky, who has served since 1982 and has a history of investigating authorities, made an abortive run for Attorney General in 2006 and has been rumored to be interested in succeeding Sheldon Silver as Assembly Speaker.

(Photo from NY Observer.)

Calculating incentives

Notwithstanding the news from Thursday, Brodsky opened the 3.5-hour hearing, held at 250 Broadway near City Hall, by saying that the West Side projects are at best delayed and to a certain extent more costly and more uncertain than ever. He expressed what he called his own bias, that the “single most important economic development and social investment is mass transit.” (Those who challenged Brodsky’s campaign against congestion pricing might allege some cognitive dissonance.)

He blamed a governance structure that scants the role of elected officials. “Bad governance has yielded unsatisfactory results,” he said. Also, as he’s expressed before, he said subsidies distort any view of such projects, since we can no longer tell what the market can produce. “Public investment should be made when it’s essential and necessary, not when it is merely a way to enrich developers,” he said, adding that he wasn’t casting aspersions on any specific project.

The city’s Lieber described “three broad buckets” in which the city could provide support and incentives to developers: direct subsidies, changes in zoning or land use, and financing and tax incentives. He described how the Hudson Yards UTEP (Uniform Tax Exemption Policy) has been amended to offer developers incentives to build office space in the western segment of the Hudson Yards zone; the discounts are 40% on payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) for the first 5 million square feet of development.

“It provides greater incentive to build farther from the core,” Lieber said, which sounds plausible. Then again, critics have suggested that the extension of the subway is an incentive in itself. “It seems particularly hard to justify committing to a policy of property tax cuts several years in advance of market conditions, and inconsistent with committing billions of dollars of public infrastructure investment,” testified James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute in 2006 at a hearing before the New York City Industrial Development Agency.

“The development of Hudson Yards is going to take place over a series of economic cycles,” Lieber said, noting that it would take “decades to complete” 24 million square feet.

Atlantic Yards would be an arena encompassing 850,000 square feet and 6.5-7 million square feet of mostly housing, plus office and retail space. While the project, as approved by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) in December 2006, was “anticipated” to take a decade, a State Funding Agreement signed in September 2007 gives the developer up to six years after the close of litigation and the exercise of eminent domain to build the arena, and 12 years to build the four or five towers of Phase 1, with no timetable to build the rest of the project.

No government official has been challenged to justify that timetable, though presumably the issue would be aired in a hearing.

Assessing the incentives

“How do we know if the public investment is insufficient, adequate, or excessive?” Brodsky asked.

“We’re trying to create incentives to encourage development” on the western part of the site, Lieber responded.

“I’m asking for a general rule,” Brodsky continued.

Lieber suggested it was a determination elected officials like Brodsky could make.

“Why is [the discount] zero to 40%?” Brodsky asked. “Why not 40 to 80%?”

Lieber acknowledged that the number could be debated.

Brodsky pressed for the method to determine the discount.

Lieber said the challenge was to determine the “appropriate level” of risk and return to the private sector. He said the city engaged the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield to assess the viability of the project.

How can you defend the 40% figure, Brodsky asked.

Lieber acknowledged that he wasn’t part of that decision-making four years ago, but would search for the analysis and provide it to Brodsky. While he couldn’t immediately explain the total value of the discount, later--after receiving communication via BlackBerry--he estimated the discount at $200 million.

Excess discount?

There are other places for subsidies to emerge. For example, the Hudson Yards Infrastructure Corporation, which finances development to be carried out by Hudson Yards Development Corporation and other public entities, has bought development rights from the MTA and will sell them to developers.

“At market rates?” asked Brodsky.

“Yes,” replied Lieber.

“No way,” uttered Anna Hayes Levin, a lawyer and member of Manhattan Community Board 4, in the audience.

She was similarly skeptical about the state’s plans to sell 5.4 million square feet of development rights for the Moynihan Station project, telling Reuters that the ESDC had priced the rights at half the market value.

Adding infrastructure to the list

Brodsky tried to drill down to the public costs and subsidies. Was it just sales tax exemptions and real estate PILOTs, he asked Lieber.

An aide whispered in Lieber’s ear. “Just to be clear, there are additional costs,” the deputy mayor told Brodsky, citing sewer, water, and utility upgrades. “We have $225 million in the city capital budget for infrastructure.”

That raises questions about the appropriate spending for infrastructure. For Atlantic Yards, a project less than one-third the size of Hudson Yards--and with an overall price tag of one-fifth or less--the city has committed $105 million for infrastructure and the state has committed $100 million. (The city has committed another $100 million for property acquisition.)

Then again, an arena may require more infrastructure, but it would be worth hearing some explanations from governmental officials.

Lieber later added that, on the West Side, there would be subsidies for affordable housing that “would inure to all residential projects.”

He allowed they were “subject to volume cap,” the limit on total bonds issues that has already affected numerous projects, including Atlantic Yards, and has caused Brooklyn developer John Catsimatidis to revise a Myrtle Avenue development from mixed-income to all-luxury units, the Brooklyn Paper reported this week.

Hidden costs

Though it didn’t come up, there may be additional, unmentioned costs in the Hudson Yards project. Former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch, recently appointed by Gov. David Paterson to head a commission on the MTA’s five-year capital plan and operating budget, has expressed skepticism about such costs.

Similarly, there are indications that the public contribution for Atlantic Yards could go up. Both the city and state, according to the Atlantic Yards Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2005, agreed to “consider making additional contributions for extraordinary infrastructure costs relating to the mixed-use development on the Project Site (excluding the Arena Building Site)."

Given that Forest City Ratner once claimed it was paying $163 million in "extraordinary infrastructure costs incurred by the developer to build on the MTA parcels," including a new platform and public open space, but no longer makes that claim, it’s reasonable to conclude that the developer will seek reimbursement.

Who’s in charge?

Gary Dellaverson, the MTA’s chief financial officer, said that, under the agreement between the MTA and Related for the Hudson Yards project, if the 7 line subway extension isn’t available by 2014, there’d be a 50% rent holiday, some $32.5 million a year.

Brodsky: How did the HYIC get the legal right to control PILOTs?

Lieber said the decisionmaking involved both the city and city agencies.

Brodsky: “What is the mayor’s legal authority to assign revenues in a PILOT?”

“He’s the mayor,” Lieber replied, serving Brodsky a fat pitch.

“Here we come to the heart of the problem,” Brodsky responded, with indignation. “If I wasn’t under control I’d make a reference to dictators.”

“I’m certain he doesn’t do this without legal authority,” Lieber replied, not without some exasperation.

It was another opportunity, however, for Brodsky to suggest that properly balanced oversight was missing.

Looking at Moynihan

When it came to the Moynihan Station project, which could involve a new rail station in the Farley Post Office, the relocation of Madison Square Garden, and new office towers and retail over the current Penn Station/MSG site, Brodsky had the same basic questions. “How do I know how the public investment should be made versus private--what’s the rule?” he asked.

You make what’s “necessary to maintain the infrastructure, to maintain the stature of the city” replied Avi Schick, acting president of the ESDC. “This is not a subsidy for economic development. It is maintaining and enhancing transportation.”

Brodsky asked the “value of 5.4 million in FAR.” (He was referring to Floor Area Ratio but meant, simply, development rights.)

It’s not a simple answer, Schick said, saying that the working number is $125/square foot--the figure Levin later disputed.

Brodsky again asked about the appropriate relationship between public and private investment.

“We take into account the nature of the project,” Schick replied gnomically.

Brodsky acknowledged he was facing a formidable rhetorical foe. “I’m going to get you, Mr. Schick, but it’s going to take a bit longer,” he said playfully.

(At the close of the hearing, he offered public thanks to Schick for service to the state, suggesting that this might have been Schick’s last public hearing. Schick is leaving in September, so that suggests that, at the least, Brodsky’s not planning to hold an Atlantic Yards hearing by September.)

Who’s paying?

Brodsky brought up the apparent effort by Madison Square Garden to get government to advance the cost of building an arena.

“To my understanding, it’s not for the Garden, it’s for the [Moynihan Station] project,” Schick said.

Has the Garden asked for such support, Brodsky asked.

No, replied Schick.

Brodsky amended his question: Has the joint venture--involving Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust--asked for such funding.

Yes, replied Schick.

Lieber added the entire financing plan was under discussion.

Eminent domain for MSG?

Then, as if out of left field, Brodsky brought up the eminent domain issue. “What are the arguments for condemning Madison Square Garden” to hasten the project, he asked. (At this point, the Dolan family’s Cablevision, which owns MSG, is planning to finance an arena upgrade in place, rather than move to the post office.)

It would be “a full-employment act for lawyers,” Schick replied skeptically.

“You’re doing it for Atlantic Yards,” Brodsky countered. “You have no philosophical opposition to eminent domain.”

“Within a 22-acre [AY] site, there is a limited use,” Schick said.

“Why pick on a homeowner, when you can pick on the Dolans?” Brodsky asked, to general laughter from the audience, who know the Dolans have been criticized for their stewardship of the hapless Knicks basketball team and their effort to continue a real estate tax exemption for the Garden. “What are the virtues of considering the use of eminent domain to break the logjam on this project?”

“I think if one is talking about breaking the logjam, and bringing certainty and clarity and speed to the project,” Schick responded, “there are very few virtues.”

Brodsky: Has ESDC considered use of eminent domain.

Schick: No.

Lieber backed Schick up, saying that there’s been no discussion of the issue, to his knowledge.

Brodsky again asked if eminent domain could achieve the project more quickly and effectively.

Lieber said he didn’t know the answer to the question.

It’s an opinion, Brodsky said.

“My own view, philosophically," Lieber mused, "is that the role--what would you do, if you condemned the Garden, the Dolans out of the Garden, for what purpose--?”

“The same purpose you’re doing in Brooklyn,” Brodsky interrupted, with a touch of exasperation.

“Where would they go?” Lieber continued.

“Same thing in Brooklyn,” Brodsky cut in.

“We would be looking at wanting to maintain their presence in New York City,” Lieber said.

“I want their presence in New York City too,” Brodsky said. “I think they’ve been great corporate citizens. I think they deserve a fair shake. I don’t think it’s necessarily a thing we ought to do. But I certainly think it ought to be considered. Would you gentlemen get back to us with your considered views on the wisdom of using eminent domain to advance this project?”

“As a legal analysis?” Schick asked.

‘No,” Brodsky replied. “The wisdom to whether it would advance the public interest.”

“With all respect,” Schick said, “the touchstone, the starting point for any condemnation--while I’ve never practiced law in this area, I believe, is the neighborhood condition study, is there blight? There are a number of preconditions. So I’m not sure that, in a vacuum, what Avi Schick or Robert Lieber on a random Tuesday think... is the right way to go with it. It’s a much more detailed and focal process, which is, what are the preconditions, as a legal matter, what would the analysis be, and what could be done?”

[Lawyer M. Robert Goldstein, who represents condemnees, writes, “While property may only be condemned for a 'public use' or 'public purpose,' the terms being synonymous, the definition of those terms, has become so broad that almost anything a condemnor wishes to do for the health safety and welfare of the public fits under this umbrella.”]

Brodsky shook off Schick's lawyerly analysis: “You won’t get to doing the studies until you decide you want to do the studies. My question is: Is it an attractive enough tool to go through the exercise of deciding whether it should be used in this project?... Will you get back to us with your policy conclusions?”

“My current thinking is that, given what the process needs is certainty and clarity, and what it suffers form is delay,” Schick said, “eminent domain would certainly inject a lack of clarity and... significant and substantial delay. So my current position is that, since it would just further some of the issues that came with the project and it would not solve any of those, it would not seem at first blush to make sense. But if the thinking changes I will certainly get in touch.”

“Mr. Lieber?” Brodsky said.

“I would say, as a policy matter, sitting here in front of you today, we’ve not considered it,” Lieber said. “It’s the first time it’s been asked.”

Speed and clarity?

“In terms of speed and clarity, I disagree with Mr. Schick,” Brodsky said. “You get control the day you write the check. You litigate the price. You can move forward. That’s a difference of opinion, but I understand your answer.”

Given that the Atlantic Yards eminent domain case, filed in October 2006, remains unresolved, and that the deep-pocketed Dolans spent nearly $19 million on lobbyists to fight the West Side Stadium, Brodsky was perhaps a tad optimistic.

Did Schick’s statement constitute an acknowledgement that the need to use eminent domain injected "a lack of clarity and significant and substantial delay” into the Atlantic Yards project? That's a question worth asking at a hearing concerning Atlantic Yards.

Afterward, I asked Brodsky if using eminent domain for MSG was a new idea or if had it come up before.

"It came up today," he responded.

"The rationale would be blight?" I asked.

"Don't get to be a lawyer on me," he responded. "The issue there is, whether or not, rather than concede to a"--he paused and shifted gears, apparently unwilling to put Cablevision on the spot--"this is a theoretical answer to your question. Eminent domain exists when an individual, by stubbornness or greed, is trying to hold up a project that is in the overwhelming public interest. I believe in eminent domain, and I asked today, without making a recommendation, whether that analysis should be applied to the Garden.”

Calculating the price tag

In closing, Brodsky attempted to tally the price tags for all the projects on the West Side, including Moynihan Station, Hudson Yards, and expansion of the Javits Convention Center. “We haven’t talked about downtown [projects],” he said. “We haven’t talked about Atlantic Yards.”

Does the public sector have the money to do all this? Brodsky asked. “If I had to choose, which ones should be done first?”

“You have to carefully assess costs and benefits,” Lieber said.

Brodsky pressed on. “What should I do first, with $10 billion?” he asked.

“I think you use it to seed multiple projects like we’re doing,” Lieber said.

Brodsky asked about the first $2 billion. Lieber said that’s where the city was with Hudson Yards.

Lieber further pointed out that, to some extent, Brodsky’s question of priorities is moot. “In many of [the projects], the city’s contribution and funding has already been made.”

That’s the case with Atlantic Yards--except that there might be additional contributions for “extraordinary infrastructure” costs as well as support for affordable housing. After all, CEO Chuck Ratner of parent Forest City Enterprises told investment analysts in April that "We still need more" subsidies.

Priming the pump

Earlier, Brodsky had asked about the general rationale for subsidies.

“From an economic development perspective, we think the city is going to benefit in the tens of billions,” Lieber said. “We think we can spend a couple of hundred million to do that.”

Brodsky said that, because he lumped the cost of the $3.5 billion #7 line extension into the costs for West Side development, he calculated some $4 billion in public support.

Lieber said that there’d be “significantly in excess of $20 billion” in private investment on the West Side.

The numbers for Atlantic Yards are more modest. It would be a $4 billion-plus project, with more than half of the funding for the project depending on government resources, both direct aid and a limited pool of tax-exempt financing.

Summing up

In closing the hearing, Brodsky said the general question of whether we’re subsidizing projects at an appropriate level still remains. Still, he said he appreciated the government officials’ willingness to answer questions at a public forum, calling it an important part of the governmental process.

“I hope we can move forward on these [West Side] projects,” he said. “I fear we’re in more trouble than we’re letting on.” (He noted that it was news to him that the hearing brought out the city’s commitment to spend up to $3.5 billion on the #7 line, given that he'd previously criticized the city for committing to only $2.1 billion.) He said he was recessing rather than closing the hearing, given that he hoped Port Authority representatives would testify as well.

Does the legislature have any power, he was asked after the hearing. While it may not have direct oversight of such project, he said, in the long run the legislature has the power to pass laws restricting certain actions.

Again he criticized governance mechanisms to manage projects that bypass democracy. "What we've structured is a set of governance mechanisms that eliminate democratic institutions," he said. "And the net result is that anonymous people.... this is a set of Soviet-style bureaucracies that are acting without any public accountability, even when they’re right. They would much rather discuss whether they're right or wrong.... The reason we're in this problem with these projects is that the governance is secretive and out of touch, and we don't have enough money."

Doesn't Brodsky favor a new authority, however, to oversee the Hudson Yards project?

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," riposted Brodsky, never at a loss for words. "The answer is, right now, I'm wrestling with a series of emergencies and the fact of the matter is that the Hudson Yards deal does not represent a thought-out economic development strategy or priority for what the city and the region need. In defense of that, we're scrambling for ways of gaining some control. It's not necessarily intellectually consistent."

"Having said that," he continued, "what today's hearing was about was bringing out into public view the realities of decisions, like on Moynihan, like, for example, the Garden is now seeking public monies." (He said he'd seen documents that have not been made public.)

"The Dolans have every right to seek public support," he said. "The public ought to deal with it intelligently. That's what this is about. This is about returning these things to the control of public agencies."

Agencies, perhaps, but not--as per his comments--public authorities.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The "will to blog" and the need for distinctions

Way too many people have already commented on ex-Gawker editor Emily Gould's self-referential New York Times Magazine cover story, Blog-Post Confidential, but I have to complain not so much about Gould but about her editors.

New York Magazine's Daily Intel got there first:
What troubles us about Gould's oncoming article is not that it will be a rehash of everything we've seen before. It's that people will mistake her perspective on the Internet, writing, and fame as the perspective of an entire generation of bloggers.

The "will to blog"

Indeed, this paragraph from Gould's essay stopped me cold:
The will to blog is a complicated thing, somewhere between inspiration and compulsion. It can feel almost like a biological impulse. You see something, or an idea occurs to you, and you have to share it with the Internet as soon as possible. What I didn’t realize was that those ideas and that urgency — and the sense of self-importance that made me think anyone would be interested in hearing what went on in my head — could just disappear.

How did the magazine's editors let her get away with such a gross generalization? The "will to blog," as she refers to it, should be applied (mainly) to writers like her who are essentially publishing instant online diaries.

Stop lumping us all together

The term "blog," as a verb, is already way too inclusive. To quote Bob Guskind of the Gowanus Lounge, who paraphrased his remarks at the Third Annual Brooklyn Blogfest earlier this month:
In our own remarks, we noted that the blogging world had changed dramatically in the 24 months since the first event was held and that the universe of blogs had grown so large that the very term “blogging” has been rendered almost meaningless. Like the label “indie music,” it has come to mean so much that it means almost nothing. There are distinctions to be made between online journalism, place blogs, personal blogs, niche blogs, advocacy blogs and other sub-genres we probably haven’t even thought of.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The FCE annual report looks like the NYT Magazine

The cover of the Forest City Enterprises (FCE) annual report, featuring the highly-successful New York Times Tower, jointly developed by FCE subsidiary Forest City Ratner with the New York Times Company, not only uses the typeface from the New York Times Magazine but also is printed on paper of similar dimensions and heft, as opposed to the narrower dimensions of previous reports.

If anyone else did this, there might be some grumbling, but I bet Forest City can get away with it.

A recent New York Times Magazine cover.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Two more the Times got wrong early on

Wouldn't it have been nice if they'd gotten it right? And shouldn't they correct it? Looking back at early New York Times coverage of the Atlantic Yards project, a couple of errors surfaced.

In a 1/23/04 article headlined Bid for a Brooklyn Sports Complex Faces Challenges From All Sides, the Times reported:
The arena would sit on what is now the Long Island Rail Road's Vanderbilt storage yard. Mr. Ratner needs the railroad to move the 11 tracks crisscrossing the nine-acre site to the east.

He also needs the state to condemn four blocks to the east of the rail yard, which includes the homes of 864 people and businesses with about 200 jobs.

(Emphases added)

As the page from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn reminds us, the arena would be built over not just the railyard. Also, he blocks extend south rather than east.

The first error, as I've pointed out before, is particularly important, because an arena built just over the railyard would not have required eminent domain and the ensuing court fight. Still, the Times has resisted making corrections.

(Top graphic from DDDB; bottom graphic from the Empire State Development Corporation. Click to enlarge.)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Jeffries says Assembly should hold AY hearing; FCR instead offers breakfast update

While the State Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions is holding a hearing today on the progress of development projects on Manhattan's West Side, there's a strong argument for a hearing to assess the status of the Atlantic Yards project as well.

Whether that hearing, including representatives of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and developer Forest City Ratner, will get scheduled is another question. Assembly leadership--apparently Speaker Sheldon Silver--has so far balked, according to Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries.

Joint committee hearing

Jeffries, who represents Prospect Heights and the AY footprint, is a member of the Corporations committee. He said last night that he and two neighboring legislators--Assemblywoman Joan Millman, who chairs the Oversight, Analysis and Investigation committee, and Assemblyman Jim Brennan, who chairs the Cities committee--want to hold a joint hearing of their committees regarding Atlantic Yards, given the uncertainty regarding the project.

"I'd like to get all of them, ESDC and the developer, on the record, under oath," Jeffries said at a meeting of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council at P.S. 9 on Underhill Avenue. (Among the questions worth asking: how exactly were the generous timetables for the project determined?)

"There's been some resistance," Jeffries said. "The developer has offered to meet with legislators at a legislative breakfast. I think there's been enough back-room conversation."

He said hoped a hearing could sort out plans regarding eminent domain, the financing of the arena, the commitment to build affordable housing, and any negotiations to sell the Nets to an ownership group that would have them play in Newark's Prudential Center instead.

In Silver's court

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who chairs the Corporations committee, supports such a hearing, Jeffries said, but, "ultimately, leadership has to make the call."

While Jeffries didn't directly blame Silver, the Speaker wields ultimate power in the Assembly. Silver has supported Atlantic Yards. And Forest City Ratner's $58,420 contribution on January 7 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee's Housekeeping account probably helps Silver bend an ear in the developer's direction.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ward Bakery update: injured worker in good condition

Several people asked me about what happened at the Ward Bakery on Tuesday, after a worker was seen being removed on a stretcher and a stop-work order issued.

Empire State Development Corporation spokesman Warner Johnston offers this update: "The injured worker appears to be in good condition and we expect him to be released today. He was immediately taken to a nearby hospital... and my understanding is that he was kept over night for evaluation."

"With regards to the cause of the incident, the investigation is still being conducted," he added. "I don't have specific information to share until the investigation is complete." The stop-work order suggests a rotted beam as a possible cause for the collapse of a section of the floor.

(See pictures on Tracy Collins's blog.)

At MAS, AY as an example of a neighborhood planning struggle

When it comes to discussions of “David vs. Goliath,” the subject of a Municipal Art Society (MAS) Planning Center Forum on May 14, Atlantic Yards is an inevitable subject, though--as I’ll note below--the politics of AY means that more than one set of parties might consider themselves “Davids.”

(Photos by Jonathan Barkey)

The panel addressed the issue of “neighborhood planning in the face of large-scale development,” and planner/architect Stuart Pertz, in his introduction, noted that some projects are inherently large, and only work if built on a large scale. “Unfortunately, it often gets out of hand,” he said, suggesting that “Goliath in development has extraordinary leverage, using powerful lawyers, contractors, planners, and unions.” Then again, he said, “there are many Davids.”

So how empower communities? Anthony Borelli, Director of Land Use in the Office of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, said the office has tried to even the playing field by offering land use training for Community Board members, a fellowship program that assigns urban planners to community boards, and practiced “proactive planning,” exemplified by a proposal for a West Harlem Special District, a reaction to Columbia University’s expansion. (The Manhattan Borough President is far ahead of the other four borough presidents on land use issues. Unfortunately, long-underfunded community boards are seeing their budgets cut rather than raised.)

City of limits

Architect Marshall Brown (right), a developer of the UNITY plan for the Metropolitian Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard (and beyond), said, with perhaps some retrospective bravado, “Four years ago we realized we needed to have something in place for the probable occurrence of Forest City Ratner’s plans running aground.” He suggested that Atlantic Yards exemplified a “willful ignorance of limits,” including the physical limit of an eight-acre railyard, the legal limit of eminent domain, the democratic limit of ULURP (the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, bypassed in this case for a fast-track state review), and “finally, the all too evident limit of the talents of a single architect.”

He noted that he wasn’t dissing Frank Gehry, just pointing out--as have others, and even Gehry himself--that megaprojects require multiple architects.

Brown suggested that questions of sustainability and the “looming environmental apocalypse” meant that the Bloomberg administration should prioritize quality ahead of quantity: “I’d say it’s a city of limits.”

Lawyer Candace Carponter (right), a co-chair of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), described how the coalition, formed to respond to the Atlantic Yards environmental review, moved from officially agnostic to ultimately oppositional, joining a lawsuit challenging the review, and becoming a supporter of the UNITY plan. She suggested that the combination of a new governor, “detrimental economics,” and the Newark option for the Nets might provide an opening for the UNITY plan--though of course, that remains to be seen.

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, former chairman of Manhattan Community Board 9, offered an earthy explanation for his civic role: “I got involved in the Community Board to keep an eye on the S.O.B.s.” He noted that Columbia President Lee Bollinger wanted to break ground on the expansion project in 2002, the same year it was proposed.

The East Side sleeper project

Ed Rubin (right), of Manhattan Community Board 6 in East Midtown, described the board’s efforts to respond to developer Sheldon Solow, whose 6.1 million square foot proposal on three parcels between 35th and 41st Streets generated less notice than the Columbia or AY controversies. Rubin said that the CB’s own plan, as well as “an incredible Power Point,” helped the community, via Council Member Dan Garodnick, to get Solow to reduce some of the floor area, lower the office tower form 864 feet to 553 feet, pledge $10 million for a pedestrian bridge to an expected park, and include 20% affordable housing. (Not everyone's on board.)

Still, Rubin said that the Department of City Planning, under control of the mayor’s office, wasn’t much help: “Sadly, City Planning, they do rezonings, but I think their policy is, when developers come up with plans, they hold back and think they’re a reviewing agency.”

Tools needed

Moderator Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, Executive Editor, El Diario/La Prensa, pointed out that not all “Davids” and not all Community Boards are equally equipped to critique and resist development. What are the most important tools to have? Rubin noted that Manhattan CB6 had never resisted development, and that its own plan for the Solow site allowed for a significant amount of density.

Reyes-Montblanc argued similarly, saying that CB9’s alternative plan offered Columbia “80%” of what it wanted. Reyes-Montblanc noted that CB9 was able to get help from the Pratt Center for Community Development to provide recommendations and to respond to Columbia’s proposal. (Pratt's Brad Lander, who worked with CB9, has suggested it was 60%.)

Carponter said, that she’d “like to think” that when the story of Atlantic Yards is told, “the fact that we had an alternative plan” was essential. The more opponents get elected officials to support calls for change, the more they’re likely to consider the UNITY plan.

Brown said it was a matter of information (often concealed by developers), communication (tapping collective local intelligence), and storytelling (“you’ve got to tell a better story; who can argue with something as positive as UNITY?”).

ULURP gone?

Vourvoulias-Bush also referred to the rumor that Bloomberg wants to do away with ULURP. In a 5/11/08 column, headlined Mayor Bloomberg puts $2.1M on City Charter revision, Daily News columnist Kirsten Danis wrote that, “depending on various theories floating around,” would enable, among other things, a revision in “the way development deals and zoning changes are done in the city.”

(Lobbyist Richard Lipsky has commented that the phase-out of offices like the Public Advocate "could win the mayor support for what he really wants: putting his stamp on the way government works day-to-day - permanently -- and changing the way land use and development projects are approved.")

Borelli (right) said that it was essential that Community Boards have planning capacity. “Planning is not just about zoning and land use,” he said. He praised ULURP, contrasting New York with Toronto, where, without such a systematic process, development depends on a thumbs-up from the local elected officials.

The 7.5-month timeline in New York is “not that burdensome,” he said, noting that 99% of projects don’t go through ULURP because they’re not large enough. (Also, some large projects, like Atlantic Yards, have deliberately bypassed ULURP.)

News coverage

Vourvoulias-Bush also lamented the paucity of coverage regarding major development projects like Atlantic Yards and the Columbia expansion, observing that coverage is often “extraordinarily superficial,” despite clear evidence of the project proponents’ efforts to manipulate the media.

Borelli commented that it was very important to “use media.” Manhattan Community Board 4 was able to get an editorial from the New York Times backing its stance against the proposed West Side Stadium.

Brown said that, four years ago, a graphic designer friend suggested “you have a marketing problem, not an architecture problem.” Carponter said that blogs have been able to get the message out. (She might have mentioned that Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn has a blog-like news update and a--take your pick--persistent/pugnacious spokesman in Daniel Goldstein.)

She also suggested that Atlantic Yards opponents had helped push the New York Times to cover the delays in AY, culminating in the surprising front-page story March 21 declaring the project stalled.

Reyes-Montblanc said the Columbia coverage had gotten “tremendously large coverage,” most of it fair, some with “subtle pro-Columbia bias.”

Rubin observed that Atlantic Yards and Columbia actually got far more coverage in the Times than the Solow plan. (Indeed, a reporter at another newspaper told me last year that the East Side plan was receiving far less coverage related to its enormous size.)

Major newspapers, Rubin said, don’t necessarily look at a project from a community perspective and examine how the project might affect quality of life.

Some AY support

Then came a question from the audience that challenged one of the premises of the panel, that the side represented by Carponter and Brown constitutes the sole “Davids” of the Atlantic Yards battle. “Atlantic Yards means a lot of construction jobs,” asserted Martin Allen, a representative of People for Political and Economic Empowerment (PPEE), a Fort Greene-based group that tries to place construction workers at job sites and has loudly supported the project at some AY-related events, such as the Ward Bakery demolition and a community forum. “It’s a life-changing thing” for a person who can’t feed his family, Allen said.

Moderator Vourvoulias-Bush gave a partial nod to that sentiment but raised the question about whether pledges of housing and jobs in the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) are enforceable. (He’s editorialized critically about Atlantic Yards and his wife, author Jhumpa Lahiri, is on the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn advisory board. His newspaper is moving to Forest City Ratner's MetroTech.)

“Nobody’s against development,” Carponter said, suggesting it was a question of scale. She pointed out that the template for CBAs created in California involves groups that ordinarily would oppose a project--here's the definitive testimony, from Good Jobs NY-- but in Brooklyn, “the developer created seven out of eight organizations.”

(Actually, both ACORN and the New York Association of Minority Contractors were well-established, BUILD was fledgling, and the other five groups in the CBA had no track record.)

Allen was unbowed. “You all never gave the Community Benefits Agreement a chance,” he said. “You’re stopping [workers] from eating if you delay this project.” Vourvoulias-Bush moved the discussion along, apparently not wanting to turn the event into a debate about AY--after all, the amount of special subsidies granted Forest City Ratner could be brought up as a counter-argument--but the issue surfaced a bit later.

Brooklyn changing

Brown suggested that Forest City Ratner underestimated Brooklyn, thinking the borough was little changed from 1985 or 1988, when MetroTech was proposed: “The areas have come into their own.”

“Atlantic Yards is a world-class location,” Brown said. “Harlem is a famous place. It has to inform how we deal with developers.” The proximity of the AY site to the Atlantic Terminal transit hub and the Brooklyn Academy of Music means that it should’ve been seen as a source of negotiating power. (Of course, there never was a negotiation.)

Carponter noted that, after the passage of Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz “fired” nine members of Brooklyn CB6. (They weren’t reappointed.) There were similar reprisals in the Bronx after Bronx CB4 opposed the Yankee Stadium deal. By contrast, said Reyes-Montblanc, there were no reprisals in Manhattan.

The art of compromise

Did Solow really compromise or had he planned for such a scaleback, Rubin was asked. “Obviously he was pleased at the end,” Rubin said, suggesting that the CB’s backup 197-c plan was helpful. Compromise is essential, he suggested, because “an area that’s fairly well-heeled can litigate forever.”

Reyes-Montblanc suggested it might be easier to deal with a developer than an institution, since the former might compromise while the seemingly-benign institution wants all it requested.

DDDB spokesman Goldstein, from the audience, suggested that community plans could be more powerful if they gained the endorsement of construction unions, since no one opposes jobs. Borelli responded that Manhattan BP Stringer has convened a Community-Labor Task Force on Responsible Contracting.

(According to the BP’s web site, the group “is forging a broad-based consensus in favor of development that provides job opportunities for community members, safe work sites governed by fair labor practices, and real opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses.”)

The goal, he said, is to get labor unions and the community to speak in one voice. And another effort, he said, is to get union members on community boards.

In Brooklyn, so far, the “one voice” goal remains a challenge, as exemplified by the "Time Out" rally and "Build It Now" counter-protest on May 3.

The Manhattan Borough President stresses land use

As noted in the discussion May 14 at the Municipal Art Society, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has advanced ahead of the other borough presidents in stressing the importance of land use issues and in training Community Board members on land use issues.

A series of screenshots (click to enlarge) helps tell the story. Note, for example, how Community Boards and Land Use get two tabs at the top of the page.

Like other borough presidents, Stringer offers a page on ULURP.

Unlike the other Borough President, Stringer has urban planners devoted to community boards, as well as planning interns to offer additional help.

Particularly useful is the Land Use 101 presentation--one example is below.


Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's web page describes a range of roles and issues, including a certain amount of borough promotion. ULURP appears somewhat lower on the page.

Applications for Community Boards appear further down the page.


The web page for Queens Borough President Helen Marshall lists issues alphabetically, with Community Boards near the top, and Planning and Land Use somewhat lower down. Queens comes in second to Manhattan, at least according to how information is provided and presented on the web.

The Planning and Land Use page has several sections.

Notably, the page on Community Boards to a new Queens Community Board web site, with events, announcements, and other information, thanks to a grant from Con Edison.

Staten Island

Land use doesn't seem too high a priority on the web page for Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro.

There is, however, a zoning map with a special report on overdevelopment.

The Bronx

The web page for Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion mentions Community Boards near the top, but not land use.

The page on Community Boards does mention land use issues.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Stop-work order at Ward Bakery

[Updated: 11:05 am] Demolition at the Ward Bakery between Pacific and Dean streets was met with a stop-work order because the work is alleged to undermine an adjacent building and also because of an injury.

While the overview indicates it's been resolved, Department of Buildings spokeswoman Kate Lindquist says, "The Stop Work Order is not 'resolved.'” (The word is used by DOB as an administrative tool to track complaint dispositioning.)

(Photo by Tracy Collins.)

She offered this explanation, "The Stop Work Order was issued on Monday after a worker, employed by Gateway Demolition, was injured during demolition work. The worker was brought to a nearby hospital. The Stop Work Order remains in effect. Workers are able to conduct remedial work to maintain a safe site – such as removing loose debris and tools – but demolition remains halted at this time. The Stop Work Order will remain in effect until the engineer of record, Thornton Tomasetti, fully assesses the structural conditions of the building and submits a revised demolition plan taking into consideration its findings."

Brodsky on West Side deal: subsidy info needed

From yesterday's New York Times, in an article headlined New Developer Signs $1 Billion Deal to Transform West Side Railyards:
“Until we get a handle on the level of subsidies involved, there’s no way to determine whether this is a good deal or a bad deal,” said Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, a Democrat from Westchester who is holding a hearing on West Side development on Friday.

Last week, I reported on similar comments. "Developers have learned the fight is about the subsidies," Brodsky said. "That distorting element is so powerful we don't know how much to give, what is proper." That, he said, makes it hard to assess "what exactly is the public good."

The same questions could be raised about the Atlantic Yards deal, where, for example, the amount of scarce housing bonds needed was not made public until after the project was approved.

Gehry's dutiful B1 charade and the marketing of naming rights

In for a dime, in for a dollar--or many, many thousands of them. The opportunity to build his first arena, and maybe even "a neighborhood practically from scratch", means starchitect Frank Gehry dutifully participated in a charade over the name of the flagship Atlantic Yards tower, which is now--as predicted by me and NoLandGrab--up for a naming rights sponsorship.

The New York Observer's Real Estate blog reported yesterday:
Bruce Ratner is looking for a new name for the signature office tower in his $4 billion-plus Atlantic Yards project.

The Frank Gehry-designed tower was known as “Miss Brooklyn” until it was shrunk, redesigned and re-unveiled in April under a new, more staid moniker: “B1.” It turns out that that name, too, may change, should developer Forest City Ratner, led by Mr. Ratner, find a tenant eager enough to attach its name to the building.

B1 was the original moniker.

Gehry's statement

“The design for Miss Brooklyn, which we now call Building One, has become very special for me," Gehry said in a May 5 press release from developer Forest City Ratner.

In a May 5 e-newsletter, the developer upped the ante, suggesting that the utilitarian placeholder "B1" had been "christened": And today Forest City Ratner released new renderings showing Frank Gehry's beautiful redesign of the Barclays Center arena, the first residential building and the office tower now christened B1 (formerly known as Miss Brooklyn).

As I wrote May 6, actually, it was always Building One; I noted comments in September 2006 from the Department of City Planning and the official site plan. It's likely, I added, that B1 is just a placeholder, ready to be jettisoned if and when an anchor tenant is recruited.

Unskeptical press

Still, the press wasn't skeptical enough. The New York Daily News, on May 5: Originally envisioned as a 620-foot residential and commercial tower, the newly named "B1" - or Building One - will be slashed to 511 feet and feature commercial office space only, Gehry said yesterday.

Curbed on May 5 called it [T]he unfortunately named B1...

The Brooklyn Paper, on May 6, wrote: Ratner has said he won’t build the Frank Gehry–designed tower, now called “Building B-1”

(Lumi Rolley of NoLandGrab commented on the likelihood the name was just a placeholder.)

Even Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's press release stated: The paper reports that the so-called "Miss Brooklyn" signature skyscraper, is now called simply "Building 1."

Metro , on May 6, reported: Gehry — who once said his inspiration for his centerpiece building, “Miss Brooklyn,” was a bride he saw in the borough — jilted her for a tower now called “B1” (Building One).

The Toronto Globe & Mail, on May 19, wrote: The now dubbed B1 replaces the former Miss Brooklyn...

Expect more coverage if/when Forest City Ratner secures an anchor tenant.