Monday, June 01, 2009

Recapping the Senate hearing: what was learned/missed, plus the biggest deceptions, memorable moments, and more

"Boy, what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?"--CIA employee Joe Turner (Robert Redford), in Three Days of the Condor

The state Senate oversight hearing Friday, held by the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions (chaired by Sen. Bill Perkins), was titled “Atlantic Yards: Where are We Now, How Did We Get Here, and Where is this Project Going?”--an enormous goal that was hardly met.

Almost no light was shed on the past and relatively little shed on the present. As suggested by the quote above, government officials were hardly candid--and they (and others) get their due below.

(Photos are by Jonathan Barkey, Adrian Kinloch, and Tracy Collins.)

What we learned

But we did learn some important things:
  • the Independent Budget Office (IBO), recalculating its 2005 cost-benefit analysis, concluded the arena would be a money-loser
  • the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is willing to compromise with Forest City Ratner on the timetable (and perhaps the total) for the $100 million owed, as well as the quality of the new Vanderbilt Yard
  • neither the state nor the city have updated their analysis of new revenue--already deeply flawed, because it excludes costs--to acknowledge current conditions
  • that the New York City Housing Development Corporation is waiting for Forest City Ratner and ACORN (which is in hock to the developer) renegotiate the configuration of the affordable housing
  • the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) likely will produce a revision of the Modified General Project Plan (GPP) in the next month or two, which will trigger a new public hearing
What we didn't learn

Some other important things we didn't learn:
  • how long the project might take
  • when construction might begin
  • when affordable housing might begin
  • whether there are enough bonds for affordable housing
  • how the per-unit cost of affordable housing compares to other projects
  • whether architect Frank Gehry is on the project
  • whether officials realized FCR decided to seek more subsidies well before the economic downturn
  • why the ESDC lets private companies benefit from naming rights to public buildings
What it all means

Perkins said he'd have more oversight hearings, including Atlantic Yards, but it's unlikely a hearing will be scheduled before the MTA votes (likely June 24) on a new contract with Forest City Ratner and the ESDC board issues a new Modified GPP.

At the very least, the MTA's plan should provoke concern from transit advocates and the IBO's revelations should fuel a new impetus for an accurate cost-benefit analysis. (The IBO looked only at the arena, but at least balanced costs and benefits. The state and city have only added up benefits.)

Can the ESDC pursue eminent domain and Forest City Ratner have arena bonds approved before the end of the year? It's plausible, given that the only formal barrier is the eminent domain case, for which a successful appeal is unlikely.

But Atlantic Yards has many moving parts, and if the ESDC's revised plan ends up in court, that could slow things down, even if not formally impeding eminent domain.

Overview issues

Most diametrically opposite quotes: "Now is not the time for re-debating the project," from FCR's Bruce Bender, vs. "To some folks, it’s value engineering, to some folks, it’s a bailout,” from Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries.

Most flagrant hypocrisy: Forest City Ratner orchestrating pro-project attendance while not sending anyone to testify.

Most ignored issue: Blight, the subject of testimony by Patti Hagan of the Prospects Heights Action Coalition and attorney Michael Rikon.

Most notable geographic divide: The only pro-project elected officials were from Southern Brooklyn, while those closer to the project are generally opponents or critics.

Most missed legislative example: That of Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who, while heavyhanded at times, does his homework before hearings (yes, it was a Senate hearing).

Second-guessing on protocol

Biggest planning error: Failing to maintain order, thus allowing an oversight hearing to deteriorate into a political rally.

Worst scheduling: Putting the IBO's George Sweeting on a panel not with the government officials nor a succeeding panel (which had project opponents), but the one after that.

Most obvious double-standard: Perkins admonishing Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's (DDDB) Daniel Goldstein for choosing to talk back to the crowd in his testimony, even though the crowd had heckled him and DDDB attorney Jeff Baker.

Governmental jaw-droppers

Biggest deception: ESDC CEO Marisa Lago (at right with NYC EDC President Seth Pinsky) claimed that the contours of the project and the benefits are exactly the same as approved in 2006, even though she had previously admitted it could take "decades," throwing all the assumptions out of whack.

Second-biggest deception: Pinsky relied on a 2005 study, which calculated three times as much office space as now officially planned (though the chances of building it now are low) to claim fiscal benefits for the project.

Most startling acknowledgment: NYC HDC EVP Mathew Wambua's (left, with Pinsky) statement that Forest City Ratner and ACORN were working out the affordable housing mix behind closed doors.

(Photo by Tracy Collins)

Vital context ignored

Most important timing issue: while the changed economic environment is cited as a justification for government agencies renegotiating terms with the developer, Forest City was seeking new subsidies in March 2007.

Biggest failure to add an asterisk: Community members who testified for AY came from groups that already gain (or stand to gain) from the project, though Community Benefits Agreement signatories in other cities don't take money from developers they negotiate with.

(Mainstream) press performance

Best press coverage: The Village Voice, the Observer, and the New York Post all got the gist.

Worst press coverage: The New York Daily News missed the point, and the New York Times whiffed on the hearing.

Questions of decorum

Most disruptive individual: the Rev. Herbert Daughtry (right in photo), who heckled throughout the afternoon, more than earning the Forest City Ratner largesse delivered to his Community Benefits Agreement signatory.

Most disruptive group: union members who regularly blew whistles.

Best-behaved witness: Acting MTA Executive Director Helena Williams, faced with legislators who like to beat up on the agency, was so cordial she didn't even let Perkins know he was calling her "Williamson."

Legislators' performance

Best moment for Perkins: going forward with the hearing in the first place, resisting pressure from the developer and some colleagues, as well as obnoxious treatment by the crowd.

(Perkins is at left, with State Sens. Velmanette Montgomery and Kruger)

Worst moment for Perkins: asking if eminent domain was contemplated from the start, thus betraying shaky knowledge of the project.

Best moment for Montgomery: remonstrating with state Sen. Marty Golden for his obnoxious entrance.

Worst moment for Montgomery: not anticipating that government officials would point to the environmental impact statement when she asked about sewage, thus wasting one in her quota of questions.

Toughest questioner: Jeffries (right), who pressed Williams on whether the MTA had a fiduciary duty to maximize its revenue.

Toughest questioner's missed opportunity: Jeffries asked why the percentage of affordable housing in Phase 1 (30%) didn't match the plan as a whole (38%), without asking why the developer has 12 years to build Phase 1 without penalty, and can produce only 300 affordable units because Phase 1 can be 44% smaller.

Toughest questioner's blind spot: Jeffries keeps stressing affordable housing without acknowledging that the ESDC can begin condemnation on the basis of a financing plan for the arena only.

Biggest playing to type: fawning pro-project presentations by ethically-challenged Sens. Carl Kruger and Marty Golden.

When things got "brutally weird"

Most irrelevant invocation of Brooklyn cred: No, not Lago mentioning her birthplace nor Pinsky his residence, but Williams's citation of the LIRR's origins.

Most surprising rhetoric: Golden's enthusiastic support for ACORN, the low-income housing group that's the bane of Republicans.

(Photo by Tracy Collins)

Most overreaching effort: Golden's plan to get Atlantic Yards stimulus funds by having the Senate extend its stay in Albany--even though the Senate is now controlled by the Democrats.

Hoariest cliche resurrected: Pinsky's claim that the Atlantic Yards arena would be built on the site destined for the successor to Ebbets Field.

Most "Monty Python" moment: After DDDB attorney Baker accused Forest City of orchestrating disruptive forces, a construction worker bellowed, "We're not disruptive."

Following up (beyond "What we didn't learn," above

Most obvious follow-up so far missed by the press: that the arena couldn't open, in a best-case scenario, until 2012, despite Nets CEO Brett Yormark's insistent blather about 2011 (because the ESDC after the hearing said construction would begin at the end of the year, and an arena takes more than two years to build).


Second-most obvious follow-up story: if there's no Building 1, as Goldstein pointed out, what happens to the much-touted Urban Room?

Most ignored mystery woman: Surely someday some oversight committee will ask what lawyer Susan Rahm (right), a volunteer, does for the ESDC on the Atlantic Yards project.

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