Monday, June 29, 2009

MIA again: The Times editorial page on the MTA's bailout of Ratner (except for the naming rights deal)

It wasn't surprising that the New York Daily News, whose editorial page supports Atlantic Yards without question, published a erroneous and disingenuous editorial on Saturday that justified the MTA's bailout of Forest City Ratner, allowing the developer to defer payments of $80 million over 22 years, at a generous interest rate, and to build a replacement railyard that would cost $100 million less.

It was surprising that the New York Post, whose editorial page has generally supported the project, editorialized on Wednesday, the morning of the MTA's vote, that the board should reject the proposed compromise and accept only the original deal.

It was not surprising that the newspaper editorial pages, faced with an important public policy issue, felt obligated to weigh in.

What about the Times?

And it was not surprising, alas, that the New York Times editorial page was again missing in action regarding the deal as a whole, though today it offered a critical but essentially tangential editorial opposing the deal to add the name "Barclays Center" to the Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street station.  

More on that below, including the Times's erroneous assessment of $200,000 a year as a "goodly sum."

Past silence

Remember, in December 2006, as a vote by the Public Authorities Control Board on AY approached, the Times punted.

The Times editorial page generally favors Atlantic Yards, but three times has argued that direct city and state subsidies were unnecessary, and that developer Bruce Ratner should pay his own way; in March 2007, after the city subsidy more than doubled, the Times passed on a timely opportunity to restate its stance.

Of course, the Times is unlikely to write anything that would fundamentally threaten the interests of Forest City Ratner, business partner of the parent New York Times Company in the Times Tower. After all, as editorial writer Carolyn Curiel has said, "Our goal is to reflect the spirit of the Times and the opinion of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr."

The same thing occurred last week.

In doing so, the Times went against the interests of not merely the Atlantic Yards opposition but the Straphangers Campaign, which represents a broad cross-section of New Yorkers and warned of a "rush to judgment," and even the AY-supporting Regional Plan Association, which, while not denouncing a dubious process, at least made the reasonable point that the deal should be retooled to give the MTA a greater share of future revenues.

Contrast in the past

And the Times's silence was glaring, when contrasted with a somewhat parallel situation in 1994, when the newspaper repeatedly editorialized against renegotiating a deal with a developer:
After so many years of delay, there is no need to rush into a sweetheart deal. The property will still be there in a few years. A rebounding economy will likely increase its value. It is wiser to walk away than stumble into a giveaway.

The naming rights deal

In an editorial today headlined Where Geography Matters, the Times opines:
We know that is a goodly sum and times are very tough for the M.T.A. But there’s reason to be skeptical about all of this, which probably explains why it took so long to sell even this one.

When you get off the train at a subway station, you want to know where you are, not who your sponsor is. Names aren’t as easily changed as all that, especially when they correspond — as the names of subway stations do — to the actual geography of the city.

The names of subway stations are beautifully utilitarian just as they are, shifting only as rapidly as the streets above them shift. The names of their sponsors are likely to shift with the economic climate, and somehow adding a name like Barclays to what is, after all, a public transit station — in Brooklyn — feels even more dissonant. So when it comes to selling naming rights, we’d like to urge the M.T.A. to take another approach: sell the naming rights to individual subway cars.


(Emphasis added)

As for whether it's a goodly sum," Michael D.D. White points out:
We believe that if the MTA were truly behaving like an agency that was cash strapped it would have negotiated a far higher sum, one that should probably escalate each year.

He pointed out that, while the 20-year deal has been described as being worth $4 million, the present value is far less, likely below $2 million, and the MTA had discussed selling ads in a short tunnel for $95,000 a month.

I'd add that naming rights deals tied to sports facilities--at least the sports facilities with corporate names (e.g., Barclays Center) versus team names (e.g., Yankee Stadium) --are inherently fragile, given that sports facility names often change. After all, the Izod Center in New Jersey, current home of the Nets, used to be the Continental Airlines Arena and the Brendan Byrne Arena.

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