Saturday, January 17, 2009

Marty! A portrait of Brooklyn's moody BP and the limits of his office

Probably the definitive profile of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz was Rebecca Mead's 4/25/05 piece in the New Yorker (Mr. Brooklyn), which portrayed, in devastating detail, Markowitz's willingness to play nice with developer Bruce Ratner.

But the profile this week in Manhattan Media's City Hall News, headlined Marty! The Brooklyn BP on being overlooked, and what he plans to do about it, does a very good job of sketching the BP's moods, obsessions, and style, and provides useful contrast between Markowitz's approach and those of his counterparts.

The author, one Edward-Isaac Dovere, is best known to Atlantic Yards watchers as the Executive Editor of Forest City Ratner's promotional Brooklyn Standard, but his profile is not something that would've appeared in a puffy publication that portrayed Bruce Ratner as having a "humble, winsome" manner.

The AY albatross

Dovere describes an African-American crowd cheering Markowitz at the opening of "Notorious," the sanitized Notorious B.I.G. biopic, then moves on to the BP's albatross:
Across the street and up a few blocks, the dream that for so long has consumed his day job remains unfinished, barely started. If Markowitz is remembered for nothing else, he will be for Atlantic Yards, the multi-building project that is still scheduled to one day stand here, centered on an arena for the relocated Nets. Deservedly so: bringing a professional basketball team to Brooklyn was an idea that Markowitz first proposed on the campaign trail in 2001, and, the story goes, shortly after winning he convinced Bruce Ratner to buy the Nets for the purpose of moving them to a new home built over the old rail yards along Atlantic Avenue.

No, not over the rail yards.

The future of both AY and Markowitz's own office are shadowed by the recession, and the BP is not without emotions:
He is clearly annoyed by the people who fought the project through the flush years when construction would have been easier, and stands by the old talking points—that it would spur economic development, bring pride to Brooklyn, create 1,000 units of affordable housing and be a home for events even as significant as a Democratic Convention—which come to him as easily now as they ever did, though not with the same enthusiasm he once had.

If Markowitz has lowered the affordable housing estimate to 1000 from 2250, that would be news, but maybe he was just freestyling.

The blight comes in

Dovere writes:
At best, Atlantic Yards will be stalled and scaled back further. At worst, the blight which Markowitz and others decreed to help pave the way for eminent domain seizures will actually come to pass, an abandoned hole in the neighborhood without either the mega-project or the original businesses that were displaced.

Well, if blight is vacant lots, as the state asserts, then a lot more blight has already been created.

Not at the table

Dovere writes:
Asked whether Atlantic Yards will actually happen, he sighs.

“I don’t have doubts,” he says. “But listen, I’m not at the table.”


To Markowitz, Atlantic Yards has and remains an act of faith. The power lies with the city and the state.

And an act of froth--Dovere missed the most emblematic AY moment in recent months, when Markowitz declaimed defensively at "Brooklyn Day."

The shadows, and the facts

While Markowitz acknowledges his tendency to clown, "for Brooklyn,” Dovere is astute enough to recognize the "darkness" and vindictiveness behind the jocularity.

He writes:
And he is angry. For all the positive coverage he receives, he has also been battered in the press, mostly over Atlantic Yards, but also over the private fundraising he has done on behalf of the nonprofit run out of Borough Hall used to promote his Brooklyn agenda and for the famous summer concert series he has hosted since he was a state senator.

The attacks have gotten to him. A story circulated about his wife taking too many Takashi Murakami placemats from a party at the Brooklyn Museum of Art last April is “a crock of shit.” Claims that he misappropriated funds for his nonprofits are “bullshit.”

Hold on. The Brooklyn Paper has battered him over Atlantic Yards, as have a lot of those new media blog thingies, but the dailies--the Post and the Daily News--have stuck strictly to the issue of his nonprofits.

As for the "crock of shit," Markowitz acknowledged to the Daily News that "It's a little true."

Regarding his nonprofits, the issue isn't whether he misappropriated funds, it's whether it's appropriate--even if legal--to shape contracts for sums just under the threshold to trigger city oversight and to accept money from companies needing the BP's support.

Real grievances

Markowitz does have reasons for his grievances, suggesting that questions over the financies his nonprofit overshadow worthy initiatives like the Brooklyn Book Festival. (Solution: find new sponsors?)

And he portrays Mayor Mike Bloomberg bent on shrinking his office, pointedly refraining from endorsing Bloomberg for a third term.

What's a BP for?

Dovere points out that, "aside from championing redevelopment and rezonings, [Markowitz] has not distinguished himself as an out-front leader on anything divisive in politics and policy" and notes Markowitz doesn't yet have a specific agenda for the third term he inevitably will win, thanks to the repeal of term limits. (Indeed, Markowitz had trouble defining that agenda to the Brooklyn Paper.)

City Council Member Bill de Blasio, who's no longer running for BP but instead for Public Advocate, tells Dovere that his planned platform--that the BP should push back more against development (a bit late for him, right?)--is no longer operative.

Still, Dovere allows that there's a dispute over whether Brooklyn needs big projects or some other kind of development.

And he notes that, in contrast to Bronx BP Adolfo CarriĆ³n, who put most of his capital money toward affordable housing, Markowitz spreads his office's bucks around.

Dovere writes:
“As Borough President I will make sure that Brooklyn never takes a back seat to Manhattan or any other part of New York City,” [Markowitz] wrote in his statement for the Campaign Finance Board’s voter guide in 2001, and indeed, admits his opponent in that race, Ken Fisher, “Marty has been exactly the borough president that he promised he would be—a very visible symbol and face of a borough on the rise.”

What he has not been is a leader on any major policy initiative or distinct focus besides new building projects and the economic development which has flowed from these as well as the various events and promotions he has sponsored. Nor has Markowitz ever been much interested in overseeing a policy shop churning out the kind of data-driven reports which have become a specialty for Scott Stringer’s office and helped the Manhattan borough president create another distinct model for the position.


Brooklyn and its leaders

The profile raises a lot of questions, and they turn back, in a way, to Atlantic Yards. Brooklyn, arena supporters say, needs a team to be major league, though Oklahoma City, which has a team, surely is no Brooklyn.

Brooklyn could use a borough-wide daily newspaper, too. And a political system that would give the borough some more autonomy, leading to a BP with real clout, accountability, and a willingness to withstand vigorous political challenge.

Instead we get an energetic, entertaining, and enigmatic "visible symbol," who manages to be "on the block"(as his promotional publication Brooklyn!! puts it) a heck of a lot. At one point that was enough, but the increasingly testy Markowitz, who's "not at the table," has endured long enough to experience the limits of his position.

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