Saturday, January 10, 2009

AY "on last legs," as per James? Well, Crain's editorial director says "nothing's for certain," points to March decision date

In today's New York Daily News, City Council Member Letitia James pronounces that Atlantic Yards "is definitely on its last legs," without any further stated evidence than the news that a not unusual value-engineering effort has been brought to the arena plan, and that Frank Gehry's role has receded.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber offer statements asserting the project will proceed. Until and unless more information emerges, we're all speculating, but we have to give the edge to inertia, meaning that the city, state, and developer will be reluctant to pull the plug.

David of Crain's: "Nothing's for certain"

Then again, consider an interview yesterday on WNYC with Greg David, Crain's New York Business Editorial Director. The action comes at about 3:42.

The interviewer set up the segment by noting that Forest City Ratner "is reportedly looking to cut costs" and has denied rumors that Frank Gehry has been fired: "You've been a believer in this project. Do you think it will still happen?"

David responded, "Well, I think it will still happen, but nothing's for certain in this economy, is it? There are are two hurdles. First of all, you do have to remember that the opponents of... Atlantic Yards have conducted one of the most imaginative campaigns against it that I've ever seen. Of course, they're not journalists, so they're not responsible for sticking to the facts, and you need to be careful about accepting what they say."

(Graphic from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. More discussion of "sticking to the facts" below.)

March deadline

David continued, "Having said that, there are a series of legal challenges pending at the appellate courts in New York. If those challenges are not dismissed before March, the project will be in trouble. If they are dismissed in March, the project will have a chance to go ahead if it can be financed. A year ago, it could've been financed. Can it be financed today? I have no idea."

David didn't explain why March is the deadline. Parent company Forest City Enterprises has a loan on footprint property with Gramercy Capital due in February. Perhaps that can only be renegotiated with a short horizon in sight? And would attorney George Locker's assertion that new lawsuits would cause further delay affect that March deadline?

As for getting financing, yesterday Charles Bagli of the New York Times suggested that Forest City Ratner couldn't get financing for a billion-dollar arena this year. Whether financing could be found for a $700 million or $500 million arena is an open question, as is whether how much cost-cutting could bring down the tab for an arena last year said to cost $950 million.

The "imaginative campaign"

Let's take a look at what David called "one of the most imaginative campaigns... that I've ever seen." Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn has raised money for multiple lawsuits, helped stage rallies, and maintained a very active web site, blog, and mailing list. The Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods has coordinated a wider range of concerned groups, in responding to the environmental review.

Some of DDDB's statements, such as the "Victory in Sight" message noted above, are hortatory and thus not exactly solid, but other times DDDB is merely citing other news items and commentary that provide a different angle on the official line.

Other volunteer activists, such as the photographers setting up the AY CAM, have also filled in gaps in scrutinizing the project.

Moving around the spectrum somewhat, NoLandGrab is an information portal that takes a critical position on the project. But its commentary is checkable, and, as NLG's Eric McClure pointed out yesterday, NLG's analysis of AY is a lot more sound than, say, that published in the Brooklyn Eagle, which dutifully publishes Forest City Ratner press releases.

Fact-checking and the blogosphere

What about AYR? I don't practice traditional journalism, given that this blog mixes reportage, analysis, and commentary, and I used to say I wasn't neutral. But neutrality can be code for "the mushy middle" and, with Atlantic Yards, it's important to analyze the facts.

And David's publication, Crain's New York Business, hasn't been doing such a good job. Consider the Crain's coverage of the Forest City Enterprises conference call last month, in which the newspaper took at face value the developer's claim that railyard work had stopped because of litigation.

Consider the Crain's report last May that "Critics also mischaracterize $105 million in city infrastructure work as a subsidy. Though listed under Atlantic Yards in the city budget, the work is not part of the development."

As I pointed out, it wasn't just critics who made that "mischaracterization." The developer did so, too.

Consider David's own June 2006 editorial in favor of Atlantic Yards, not exactly "sticking to the facts."

That doesn't mean Crain's can't be incisive. Last September, the publication was blunt: "Forest City Ratner still insists that it can break ground on its Brooklyn basketball arena this year. Reality says otherwise."

That's what opponents and critics, having done some fact-checking, had been saying all along. Most journalists repeated Forest City Ratner's claims uncritically.

So maybe the bigger problem in the Atlantic Yards discourse is not the spinning by opponents but the failure by journalists to check the claims by the developer and its allies.

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