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An academic looks at NYC politics, relies on a New York Times clip file, gets Atlantic Yards mostly wrong

Last week’s opportunity to have Bruce Berg, a Fordham University professor of political science, answer questions from readers on the New York Times’s CityRoom blog, sent me to Berg’s January 2008 book New York City Politics: Governing Gotham, a book that treats the West Side Stadium and Atlantic Yards as prominent examples.

In covering AY, he gets part of the story right, notably the bypass of local elected officials, but he gets a lot wrong, proving that a reliance mainly on clips from the New York Times (hardly the "paper of record" when it comes to AY) is simply irresponsible.

The "modern blueprint"

Notably, he relies on an article listed as "Confessore 2005b," which is academic-speak for To Build Arena in Brooklyn, Developer First Builds Bridges, the notorious 10/14/05 Times article that posited that Forest City Ratner had achieved a "modern blueprint" in outreach, a statement that was dubious from the start and more dubious today.

Berg should have done a lot more digging. In fact, his citation of Times articles, unencumbered by his own fact-checking or a willingness to seek out critiques of those articles, suggests that academic research ossified into a book can be far less incisive than continuing coverage via a blog.

And because academics like Berg rely on the Times, it's important for the newspaper to get things right and, when it doesn't, to correct the record. And the Times so often doesn't--still, as shown in its recent assertion that the city agreed to finance Atlantic Yards affordable housing.

Economic development or eminent domain?

Also, Berg classifies Atlantic Yards as an economic development project without acknowledging the widespread scholarly consensus that sports facilities do not offer a significant benefit to local economies.

And nowhere in the book does not mention the city's use of eminent domain for urban redevelopment or the loose definition of blight that allows the city and state to pursue such projects.

In fact, rather than take seriously two charged 2007 court arguments over eminent domain and the AY environmental review, Berg instead writes:
Despite contrived lawsuits by project opponents, the basketball arena (at the time of this writing) appears to be on its way to realization.
(All emphases added)

Well, the arena's still not on its way. Perhaps if the Times had covered the court cases, he wouldn't have considered the lawsuits "contrived."

The official description

From the book description:
Most experts consider economic development to be the dominant factor influencing urban politics. They point to the importance of the finance and real estate industries, the need to improve the tax base, and the push to create jobs. In New York City Politics: Governing Gotham—the first comprehensive analysis of New York City’s political system in four decades—Bruce F. Berg acknowledges the key role of economic development, but also maintains that two other forces are equally important.

The first of these is the city’s relationships with the state and federal governments, which influence taxation, revenue, and public policy responsibilities. The second is the city’s racial and ethnic diversity, resulting in calls for representation, recognition, and equity in the delivery of services. Berg’s focus is on all three forces, as well as the interplay among them. He examines these forces within the context of the governance of New York City’s political system, including the maintenance of democratic accountability and civil harmony and the delivery of public goods and services

Along the way, Berg covers a range of topics, including the Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg administrations; the battles over sports arenas; party politics; rising immigrant groups and the role of their leaders; changes to the city’s charter; and New York City politics in the post-9/11 era.

Looking at the full range of forces and activities, Berg is able to test major theories that have been used to study urban politics—pluralism, the growth machine perspective, and regime theory—demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Setting up the story

Berg treats two sports venue megaprojects as prime examples in his effort to understand "political system governance." But he leads off with some lousy research. (I've added hyperlinks to the articles cited). He writes:
Unlike the Olympics/Jets Stadium project, which would have required at least $600 million of state and city financing, developer Bruce Ratner announced at a press conference that his project "will be almost exclusively privately financed" (quoted in Bagli 2003). The city and state each were expected to contribute $100 million for “site preparation, new streets and utilities and environmental cleanup” (Bagli 2005a). Ratner was also relying on the state to condemn one block in the project area that housed approximately 100 residents (Bagli 2003). At the center of the opposition were several hundred individuals who would be displaced if the state condemned the property on which their residences stood. These individuals were supported in their opposition by community groups who feared the Atlantic Yards project would change the character of the Brooklyn community.
Let's count the errors. Actually, that "almost exclusively privately financed" was, as they say in academia, a crock. The city now will contribute $205 million. The state has given away $400 million in naming rights. There would be more than $1 billion in housing bonds--a scarce resource. There would be many other financial concessions.

Also, it wasn't one block with 100 residents that was subject to condemnation, but four-plus blocks with several hundred residents (in a project site containing five full blocks and two additional partial blocks) many of whom left under the threat of eminent domain.

In other words, all this needed fact-checking.

Berg goes on to mention overdevelopment and the failure to go through ULURP but doesn't capture the notion that the project, as Michael D.D. White has memorably put it, is a "wired deal." So he fails to understand the level of outrage.


Berg continues:
Contrasting his support for the Atlantic Yards project with his opposition to the Jets/Olympic Stadium, [Council Speaker Gifford] Miller noted the importance of the community involvement and the commitment by Forest City Ratner to build low-income housing (Confessore 2005a).
Actually, no. The Times article cited "moderately-priced housing" and quoted Miller as saying "you have historic commitment to affordable housing." That isn't low-income housing, as ACORN members seek. A political science professor should know better.

Deflating the opposition?

Berg, taking his cues from the Times, overstates the developer's case:
Ratner was able to deflate the opposition with a multifaceted strategy. First, he hired one of the city’s leading public relations firms with Democratic Party connections. The firm assisted Forest City Ratner in recruiting local politicians to support the arena project. The public relations firm organized presentations for “community boards, businesses, block associations and others” (Confessore 2005b). Second, Forest City Ratner hired a media consultant who produced promotional mailings that were sent to households in Brooklyn surrounding the project (Confessore 2005b).
Actually, the use of "liar fliers" inflamed some people in the opposition, rather than deflated them. And it requires continuing skepticism; I wrote in May 2006 that Forest City Ratner's latest brochure should be treated like campaign advertising and fact-checked.

He continues:
Third, Forest City Ratner reached out to select community groups in Brooklyn, especially those who had been addressing issues of unemployment among low-income Brooklynites.
Actually, the main group addressing job-training, BUILD, launched in January 2004, after the project began, according to the group's web site.

He continues:
The most significant blow to the opposition was the signing of an unprecedented legally binding Community Benefits Agreement between Forest City Ratner and a number of community groups. Among the agreement participants were groups who would have been expected to oppose the project, including the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a national grassroots advocacy organization for disadvantaged communities, as well was leading minority clerics in the Brooklyn community. The agreement covered the inclusion of low-income housing in the project, the use of minority contractors in the construction of the project, job training, and community use of the arena and its facilities (Rutenberg and Brick 2005; New York City Mayor’s Office 2005). While the Agreement did not eliminate the opposition, it significantly weakened it (Kolben 2005). In 2006, the State Public Authorities Board approved the Atlantic Yards project.
Actually, the Kolben article cited, headlined Ratner touts Net gains to nabe, does not suggest that it weakened the opposition. While now we know that Mayor Mike Bloomberg thinks Community Benefits Agreements are "extortion" and is "violently opposed" to them, he began criticizing CBAs in June 2006, as the Times reported.

Berg never noticed 2005 testimony criticizing the Atlantic Yards CBA by Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York. Maybe that's because the Times didn't report on it.

By the way, it's Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, not for.

The theory behind AY?

Berg moves on to offer a dollop of theory:
Urban political systems make binding decisions on their citizens. As was illustrated in both the Olympic stadium and Nets Arena cases, governance of an urban political system includes the processing of inputs (demands and supports) and the production of outputs (binding policy decisions) (Easton 1965). Scarce resources/supports limit the number of demands who which any political system can respond. Not every demand gets a positive response. Given the number and variety of demands that urban political systems receive, officials inside the system have considerable discretion in choosing which demands to respond to. They are not however entirely free to pick and choose as they please. Societal forces, both inside and outside the political system, influence the choices they make.

Governance of an urban political system such as New York City encompasses a complex set of functions. These include the maintenance of democratic accountability by which the demands enter the political system, the delivery of goods and services (outputs) based on decisions by political officials regarding the use of supports, and the fact that these sometimes highly charged political decisions occur amid varying levels of civil harmony.
To which I say: OK, but.... How about Brooklyn's most powerful developer trying to control "a great piece of real estate"?

Economic development

Oddly enough, Berg treats Atlantic Yards as an economic development project, even though sports facilities, as should be generally known in academia, never return expected revenues to the local government. And even though a sports economist in Forest City Ratner's employ said this one would've been a boon, Berg should've looked into the $6 billion lie.

(No, Neil deMause and his book/site Field of Schemes do not appear in this book. They should.)

Berg writes:
The debates and decisions surrounding the Far West Side Olympics/Jets Stadium and the Atlantic Yards Nets Arena reflect the governance issues facing many urban political systems today. They reflect the demands being made upon urban political systems and the constraints under which these political systems must respond. Public officials want to expand their cities’ tax bases and make their cities attractive for their constituents as well as those outside the city. They must do this, however, amid a context that imposes constraints. In both the arena and stadium debates, public officials wanted to respond positively to the demands being made, but they were influenced if not constrained by other political constituencies. Although these other constituencies shared the broad value of economic growth, they brought with them other values that inhibited, if not prohibited, the achievement of consensus on the particular issue at hand. These other values included ethnic, racial, as well as intergovernmental interests.
Atlantic Yards is not about economic growth. I think "intergovernmental interests" means the absence of local oversight. But he's ignoring another important value: good government.

Minority groups and money

Did the role of minority groups make the difference? It depends, he suggests:
In both the Olympics/Jets Stadium case and the Nets Arena case, proponents sought to include minority groups in their coalitions. In the Nets Arena case, the inclusion of these groups, via the Community Benefits Agreement, appeared to be enough to marginalize the remaining opposition. In the Olympic/Jets Stadium case, the inclusion of minority groups was not sufficient to reverse the balance of power against the stadium.
Well, that's because Cablevision, owner of Madison Square Garden, spent a lot of money to reverse the balance of power.

Local oversight

He does acknowledge a lack of local oversight but failed to inquire as to whether anyone had second thoughts, as Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff expressed in December 2007, after the book's deadline. Berg continues:
Similarly, New York State played a major role in the decisions regarding both projects. Both projects were exempted from the city’s land use review process because of the state involvement. While this freed the projects from many local political forces, it tied the projects to a small number of state officials, especially the Public Authorities Board. The board was responsible for rejecting the stadium project due to a combination of upstate indifference, if not antipathy, toward the city, and concern about the Far West Side’s possible competition with Lower Manhattan’s recovery. The same board, however, supported the Nets Arena, although it could have just as easily rejected that project too. At the same time, the two projects’ exemption from the local land use process angered local politicians and threatened civil harmony, especially the Atlantic Yards project, in which a number of local politicians, excluded from key decisions regarding the project, challenged its legitimacy.
Um, that's the Public Authorities Control Board.

Getting the project wrong

Berg returns to the issue of economic development:
The proposed conversion of the Hudson Rail Yards to an Olympic/football stadium and the conversion of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards to a professional basketball arena and office/residential complex were supported by governing elites because they were viewed as economic development projects that would benefit the city’s tax base as well as creating jobs and wealth for the citizens of the city.
What if they were about constructing a new edifice? About ribbon-cutting on a shiny new arena? About Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz leaving a legacy?

He continues:
Economic development, however, also affects the governance of the city through its relationship to the other governance functions of democratic accountability and, less directly, civil harmony. As the Hudson Rail Yards and Atlantic Yards projects illustrate, large economic development projects are controversial for a number of reasons. First, they have an impact on the community where they are located. Some will view the impact positively and will support the project. As in the case of the Olympic Stadium and the Nets Arena, however, some will view the impact negatively and will oppose the project. Second, given the investment of public resources to subsidize the development, some will oppose the project, arguing that it is a bad risk for the city, a poor investment of public resources. Third, as in the case of Madison Square Garden’s opposition to the proposed Olympic Stadium, some will oppose a project because they believe it compromises their own competitive advantage.
The existence of opponents and proponents to economic development projects, together with the fact that such projects include and investment of the political systems resources, necessitates that decisions regarding such projects take place through a process that id democratically accountable. The lack of such a process in making decisions regarding political system support of the project will result in some calling the legitimacy of the decision into question.
Well, yup. Maybe an update of this book could look at the Independent Budget Office's September 2009 conclusion that the arena would be a money-loser for the city.

Final mention

Later, Berg expresses dismay over the state role:
Yet even those economic development decisions that are not the result of a transparent process are still receiving more public attention. As in the case of the Atlantic Yards, even without ULURP, communities and groups at the grassroots level can still influence economic development decisions… To the extent that major pieces of the city’s economic development future are controlled in Albany and not through the city’s political system, democratic accountability is not being served.
Unmentioned: Bloomberg wanted it that way.

Berg concludes the AY mention:
The promotion of economic development affects civil harmony through demands that some neighborhoods bear the burdens of economic development projects or policies whose benefits accrue to the entire city. As in the case of the Atlantic Yards development, the Broadway Theater Air Rights Initiative, or even the failed attempt at the Olympic/Jets Stadium on the Far West Side of Manhattan, communities are frequently opposed to economic development projects targeted for their neighborhoods. These projects exact costs on communities including disruption, environmental health issues, and the changing character of the neighborhood. If these communities and their citizens are excluded from the process by which the economic-development decision is made, the legitimacy of the project/program is called further into question. These issues would also exist for those communities neglected by economic development but bearing the burden of economic growth through the placement of necessary infrastructure such as highways, bus depots, or waste transfer station. The negative impacts of economic development do not fall equally across the city’s neighborhoods.
Fine, we've figured that out. A much more interesting analysis would have taken the Times coverage with a major grain of salt and taken the Atlantic Yards opposition more seriously.


  1. And he's a teacher ...

  2. Atlantic Yards is one of the great, politically corrupt land swindles in the City's history. Any analysis that misses that as the fundamental cause of intense controversy and opposition is no analysis at all.


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