Sunday, February 28, 2010

Public Advocate de Blasio pushes (voluntary) transparency for Council earmarks, discretionary funds from mayor and borough presidents

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio announced on February 24 a new government web site that will detail how elected officials--City Council members, the mayor, and borough presidents--spend discretionary funds.

It's a good idea, but, as the Daily News noted in an editorial today, a web site based on voluntary compliance isn't enough.

Moreover, as the Daily News pointed out, City Council President Christine Quinn "should have instituted this type of disclosure long ago" regarding "the Council's $50-million-a-year slush fund... a font for thievery." (Indeed, former Council Member Miguel Martinez is n prison and Council Member Larry Seabrook has been indicted.)

Public Advocate or Comptroller

I'll add that it's not necessarily something the Public Advocate must do, since Comptroller candidate David Yassky had the same idea during his campaign, and even set up a web site, It's Your Money NYC, featuring 2009 budget data (but not 2010 budget data), albeit limited to Council Members.

The value of transparency

Such transparency should be part and parcel of city government. I had to request capital budget data last year to learn, as I wrote last May, some $24.6 million, more than a third of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's 2009 capital budget, was directed to the $64 million amphitheater planned for Asser Levy Park in Coney Island, home of one of the two summer concert series Markowitz has long sponsored.

From de Blasio's announcement
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio today announced the new website Open Government NYC, which will make local public funding more transparent and accessible for all New Yorkers. The website will serve as a hub for elected officials to disclose grant applications they receive before making discretionary funding decisions. Open Government NYC will be an easy to use site for the public to search member items, or discretionary funds out of the expense budget, distributed by the Mayor, City Council, and Borough Presidents.

“Transparency is the best way to prevent potential fraud,” Public Advocate de Blasio said. “This new website will give New Yorkers a window into how their government works, and will provide an important safeguard against misuse of public dollars. I look forward to working with all my partners in government to bring a new level of transparency to City Hall.”

The new website, which will be up by mid-April, will increase transparency regarding budgetary decision making by showing detailed information on applications for discretionary funds.

Open Government NYC builds upon a series of measures implemented by Speaker Quinn and the City Council to increase transparency about city government. The website follows the model of the state’s Project Sunlight, which discloses statewide governmental information that is otherwise difficult to find.

Open Government NYC will be easy to use and allow visitors to search applications by date, applicant's name, and elected official. Government offices will be able to submit the information to the website. Participants will disclose their applications as they receive them and will disclose the member items they choose to fund immediately after the budget’s passage.

Participation will be voluntary and the Public Advocate will reach out to Council Members, Borough Presidents, and the Mayor to participate in this initiative.
Coverage in the Times

The Times reported, in an article headlined Public Advocate Wants to Shine a Light on Earmark Funds:
The proposal, which will be formally announced on Thursday, is designed to give the public a fuller picture of an opaque process that has led to a wide-ranging criminal inquiry by federal and city investigators. One former city councilman, Miguel Martinez, is serving a five-year prison sentence for absconding with $106,000, some of which was intended for nonprofit groups. Another councilman, Larry B. Seabrook, was indicted this month on charges that he fraudulently used city money to enrich himself, friends and family members.

City officials have long used the funds, known as earmarks, to aid nonprofit groups on small projects in their districts without going through a formal competitive bidding process. But investigations have shown that some of the nonprofit groups were fictitious or employed the relatives of lawmakers.

A week later, the Times corrects two Atlantic Yards errors

A correction in today's New York Times:
An article last Sunday about Sharon Zukin, a Brooklyn College sociology professor and critic of gentrification who argues for stronger government regulation of rents and zoning, referred incorrectly to the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, which Ms. Zukin cited as an example of inexorable gentrification. It is a project, not a place, and city officials did not in fact rezone the property to allow the development.
While the Times has acted responsibly in correcting the record, I don't see why it should have taken a week. I posted a critique on Saturday, February 20, and sent in a request for a correction that morning.

In other words, even if the Metropolitan section went to press early Saturday, a correction could have appeared in the main section Sunday.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Pathological liar" Paterson, a compromised governor, and Atlantic Yards

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in a post-mortem on Governor David Paterson, who has suspended his campaign but resisted calls to resign:
Paterson, however, was criticized by opponents of the Atlantic Yards/Barclays Arena project, who had hoped that he would come out strongly against the plan.

“We met with the governor and he had promised an independent review of Atlantic Yards in December, but he never followed through,” said Dan Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. Goldstein concurred with Village Voice writer Wayne Barrett’s depiction of Paterson as a “pathological liar.”
Well, I don't think a single episode makes Paterson a "pathological liar," but, like too many politicians, he made a promise and didn't follow through. (See more below on this.)

Updated: The Times reports today:
More than one legislator has left him assuming they have cemented a deal of some sort. But Mr. Paterson can forget these conversations ever happened.
Barrett's take

Then again, Barrett's gotten a lot more opportunity to observe the governor. He called Paterson a "pathological liar" yesterday on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show and, writing on Thursday in the Voice's blog, called for the governor to resign:
Who is running the state of New York? Is there any way an embattled governor, fresh off a national lying tour launched on Larry King, can possibly guide a budget through a divided legislature? Is there a shred of credibility left?
Paterson on AY in December

As I reported December 2, before a "community conversation" at the First A.M.E. Zion Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant the previous evening, Paterson held a hastily-called meeting with a small group of Atlantic Yards opponents.

He promised them "an objective and fair hearing"--seemingly meaningless (and too late) boilerplate given that state agencies like the ESDC and Metropolitan Transportation Authority have already been charged to do so and have vigorously defended their actions in court after being sued.

Sid's Hardware is leaving MetroTech; last June, a representative told the MTA board that Atlantic Yards would benefit it and other local retailers

The Brooklyn Paper reports that family-owned Sid's Hardware, the first local retailer to transfer to MetroTech after the project changed Downtown Brooklyn, is moving to Hamilton Avenue at the southern end of the Gowanus Canal and near Park Slope.

In what in retrospect seems like an act of duty to the AY-supporting Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (on whose board Sid's has a seat), a representative of the story testified last June before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that the arena project would bring new customers and other benefits to Sid's and its neighbors.

Instead, Sid's isn't waiting around. According to the Paper:
“Look, the rents are too high, there’s no parking, and this dead scene isn’t a place to run a business,” said Rich Popper, a store manager. “The other day, I had one guy go around the block for 20 minutes so he could pick up a couple cans of paint.”

...The location change will complete a business model revamp for the 78-year-old shop — moving away from “terrible” retail sales to direct sales. A new service counter will focus on delivery to construction sites and ordering, said sales manager William Ruzzo.
(I think his name is actually Ruzza. Photo from Sid's Facebook page.)

At the meeting

Several forceful critics and a parade of project supporters testified at the 6/24/09 hearing. Ruzza's statement was unremarkable, so it didn't generate coverage. Learning of the move, however, I went back to the webcast.

"Sid's Hardware is a family-owned hardware store that has been serving the Downtown Brooklyn area since 1932 and was the first retailer in the MetroTech area when it opened in 1991," he began, reading a statement.

"As a small business, we believe that Atlantic Yards would have a positive impact and [sic] Sid's and other shopowners and merchants in the area," he continued. "This project will create thousands of units of housing who [sic] we hope will patronize Sid's and other retailers within the area."

There's no reason to think they would go to Sid's or other retailers in MetroTech when there would be much retail nearby, including at Forest City Ratner's two malls.

"As importantly, it will create thousands of jobs for residents of Brooklyn and diversify the Brooklyn economy in a way that is beneficial over the long term," he said, despite no evidence that Brooklyn residents would get "thousands of jobs."

"The development will also deliver significant transportation and infrastructure improvements, which are vital to our community's future," he added, not making a distinction between the project and the community.

"I wish to call upon MTA to take into account all the potential economic benefits and all this project stands to deliver in improving the economic and business climate here in Brooklyn," he closed. ""I ask your board of directors to approve this proposal so can we witness the continued revitalization of this wonderful neighborhood many call Brooklyn but we call home."

Friday, February 26, 2010

Document: the revised plan for street closures and traffic changes

Wondering about the revised plan for street closures, and other traffic changes that was debuted at the public meeting on Wednesday, February 24?

I've added it to the original post, and below.

Draft Mitigation Plan Fifth Ave-Pacific St Closures 022410 (2)

Pinsky hopes for AY groundbreaking in weeks, says projects should emerge via RFPs; Gilmartin says FCR's frustrated with absent government coordination

At an interview and panel discussion sponsored by BISNOW on Wednesday February 24, Atlantic Yards was mentioned as an example several times by Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYC EDC), and MaryAnne Gilmartin, the Forest City Ratner executive in charge of Atlantic Yards.

While Pinsky said "we hope to break ground in just a matter of weeks" on Atlantic Yards, perhaps the most interesting statements concerned the unsaid: while he asserted that the city's projects emerge from community consultation and that the best way to proceed was via RFPs (Requests for Proposals), Atlantic Yards proceeded differently.

Gilmartin expressed frustration at the lack of coordination among government agencies working on Atlantic Yards, without acknowledging that, while that certainly may slow things down, it also can give the developer the upper hand.

She also asserted that, in contrast to the example of Stuyvesant Town, Forest City has avoided the "exuberance" of inflated expectations--even though a report from KPMG on Atlantic Yards housing suggests similar expectations.

Entrepreneurship vs. projects

Pinsky, interviewed solo by moderator Ken Frydman, said that NYC EDC aims to transform the way it does business in three ways: one is helping "legacy industries" (such as media) transform from 20th-century business models and another is finding "industries of the future" in which the city has competitive advantages (such as bioscience).

"The third is just trying to encourage entrepreneurship more generally," he said. "What we've found is that when government tries to chase the next big thing, it often ends up chasing the last big thing."

Are not sports megaprojects "the last big thing"? The main benefit, for New York City, comes from capturing tax revenues formerly going to New Jersey, but the New York City Independent Budget Office now calls the AY arena a loss for the city. (NYC EDC won't release its latest economic analysis.)

How to encourage entrepreneurship? Pinsky cited general quality-of-life issues such as public safety, parks, and schools, as well as "traditional economic development: making sure the infrastructure is there."

Dealing with neighborhood opposition

Fyrdman, citing Willets Point and Atlantic Yards, asked how to deal with neighborhood opposition.

"We live in New York and in New York, no matter what you propose, you would always face some sort of opposition," Pinsky replied, noting that such a situation both makes development challenging but also represents the a strength of the city.

"The way that we deal with community opposition is really to try from the beginning to base our projects in community development." he said, ignoring the fact that Atlantic Yards came as a package deal from the developer.

"So, for example, the Willets Point project, although it's certainly garnered fair share of controversy, that grew out of a community development process that we began in early in the first term of the Bloomberg administration, where we put together groups from Flushing area and asked what you want in the area." he said.

"So we worked with community to develop a new plan," he said, disregarding from the "community" most of the businesses and property owners in the busy but unserviced area of Willets Point and the questionable lobbying by the Flushing-Willets Point-Corona Local Development Corporation.

"Notwithstanding high volume of rhetoric and opposition to the project," he said, "it was approved overwhelmingly at City Council... It’s similar approaches to that that we're trying to take throughout the city."

Public-private partnerships and RFPs

An audience member asked if the mayor was trying to attract public-private partnerships.

Pinsky cited "a large number of public-private partnerships that have either been in carried out or in process," including two baseball stadiums "built with private money, but with the assistance of public sector," including "financing mechanisms that the public sector helped put in place… and contributions for infrastructure."

"Similarly, many of our larger developments will involve models where the city and or state are putting in significant seed money to bring infrastructure, then we plan on RFPing the development parcel to the private sector because we believe the private sector does that kind of development best," he said.

The Atlantic Yards project, of course, is a state project and did not emerge from an RFP. There was never an RFP for the project as a whole, just the Vanderbilt Yard, less than 40% of the site, and that RFP emerged from the MTA some 18 months after Forest City Ratner was essentially assured the site.

LeBron James to the Knicks?

In a sign that the LeBron James to the Newark-then-Brooklyn Nets scenario is not yet on the radar screen of many executives, one audience member lightheartedly asked Pinsky if his agency could lure basketball's leading potential free agent to the struggling New York Knicks.

Pinsky handled it with aplomb: "I think that if LeBron James is attracted to new parks and good public schools and safe streets, absolutely."

On the panel

After the Pinsky interview came a panel including Gilmartin; land use attorney Melanie Meyers of Fried, Frank (which represents Forest City Ratner on Atlantic Yards); Columbia real estate professor (and former executive) Vishaan Chakrabarti; and Kohn Peterson Fox President Paul Katz, whose architectural firm has a global practice.

Building in cycles, with government aid

Describing Forest City Ratner, Gilmartin said, "We only do ground-up development... I like to say we're hopelessly devoted to long term."

"A ground-up developer like Forest City doesn't build into one particular market," she added, but rather builds through cycles, with the long-term in mind.

"Because of that one, needs to be patent and tenacious, and be willing to invest the money early. For example, with Atlantic Yards, we have hundreds of millions of dollars in the project. The money has been used to commence infrastructure work," she said. "You need a government and a private developer willing to partner to invest."

The issue, of course, is the ratio. Forest City Ratner takes less of a risk when the city and state put in more than $300 million for land purchase and infrastructure costs, as well as offering major tax breaks, low-cost or free land, and other benefits.

The role of patience with MetroTech and AY

Frydman asked how developer maintain patience and flexibility regarding the City Planning Commission, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and community opposition.

While the question specifically referenced Atlantic Yards, Gilmartin mostly avoided it.

"I'm not a particularly patient person, but as it relates to the business of building in a city like New York, patience is a virtue," she said. "MetroTech, which was built decades ago, had many of the similar characteristic to Atlantic Yards."

In some ways, that's true, given the role of eminent domain, subsidies, and a buildout that--in the case of MetroTech--took much longer than planned. On the other hand, MetroTech created office space for New York City to compete with New Jersey, while Atlantic Yards would be mostly housing, and only the latter would be surrounded by and enveloped in neighborhoods that had already revived.

"As a company we tend not to dispose of a lot of our properties, we take the long haul," she said. "I think that's a virtue. We don't build to flip. Because of that, we can look like a project like Atlantic Yards and understand that it will, like a fine wine, get better with time."

Remember, Chuck Ratner, CEO of parent Forest City Enterprises, said in March 2007, "We are terrible, and we’ve been a developer for 50 years, on these big multi-use, public private urban developments, to be able to predict when it will go from idea to reality."

Frustration with government

Though planning professor Alexander Garvin has described the Empire State Development Corporation as having "truly amazing powers," panelists expressed frustration with the lack of coordination among and powers of various levels of government.

Chakrabarti, who spent five years on the Moynihan Station project while working for the Related Companies, said he was frustrated with the slowness of that project, which has had "three and a half" environmental impact statements, as well as the "embarrassment" of the stall at the World Trade Center site

By contrast, Hong Kong has a modern airport and a fast train that takes you downtown. "We've let the process take over our critical economic advantage," he said, criticizing a "government structure that is highly broken" and "a populace I think is more focused on entitlements than investments."

"Why does Albany have control over large scale land use decisions?" he asked. "We have to look at some sort of redevelopment authority that has real teeth and can take public land and do things like... maybe we should actually take [the] Javits [Convention Center] and move it to Willlets [Point], or move it to Sunnyside."

Pushing ahead

Later in the panel. Gilmartin said that FCR gravitates to people inside and outside government "to people who think like we think," with an aggressive pace. "We are in some ways government’s worst nightmare, because we push... but without it, you do not get things done."

Updating Robert Moses?

How get things done more efficiently, without going back to a Robert Moses situation?

Chakrabarti cautioned that he didn't mean to make a blanket statement. Government does some things well, he said, mentioning the High Line as one example.

"I think where we are in trouble… are the public private partnership that particularly center around building infrastructure and building density around that infrastructure," he said. "In that regard, I think we need some larger entity, whether it's the port, or a city entity, or someone who actually comes in and thinks about those things in conjunction. So developer, whether its Maryanne, or Related or whoever it is… they go to one entity, instead of sitting in a room with 45 people, trying to figure out how to get it done."

"Atlantic Yards is the uber-public private partnership," Gilmartin followed up, citing the city, state, and other agencies involved. "And it is quite frustrating, and the coordination just doesn't exist, even among agencies in state enterprise, for example. It's as if you're dealing with different organizations altogether."

That frustration, such as in the failure to form a planned Transportation Working Group, is also felt among local elected officials and community members.

Learning from Stuyvesant Town

Without criticizing Tishman Speyer--which overpaid for and lost Stuyvesant Town--what's there to learn from the episode, Frydman asked.

"I just think our DNA is so different, as a company," Gilmartin observed, citing " the exuberance of the market, all the notions of rents reaching a certain levels, and those trophy assets."

Hasn't Forest City Ratner exhibited some excess exuberance, such as promising 10,000 office jobs at Atlantic Yards when there was no market for such? Or helping KPMG prepare a report for the ESDC that assumes $1217 a square foot for condos in 2015?

The difference, perhaps, is that those numbers have been used to sell the project to the public and government agencies, not to investors.

"We were never and will never be a Park Avenue developer. We develop in we think more emerging markets," Gilmartin said.

While the latter may be a reference to places like Harlem and 1980s/90s Brooklyn, Atlantic Yards represents the last "great piece of real estate" (to quote Chuck Ratner) near a transit hub in a market that had well emerged.

"So I think our metrics and our calculus are different," Gilmartin continued. "We are perhaps more conservative, Midwestern… It's a different business model. I remember when that project went down, the numbers were baffling to us... We were never able to get there, even in the exuberance of the peak of market."

Paying for Atlantic Yards support, fungible money, and Liu's CBA criticisms

Did Forest City Ratner pay people to attend the meeting Wednesday night on street closings. An audience member told me yes; the developer said no.

Whether you believe one or the other, the developer is still paying in part for community support. And, if you believe money's fungible, some of the subsidies and tax breaks the developer has received have gone to the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) signatories, all of whom have received funds from the developer.

All this means that Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), more than established job-training groups with broader funding, has an interest in the success of the project.

And when FCR executive Jane Marshall thanked BUILD President James Caldwell at the end of the evening, it was--I suspect--for helping make the room seem friendlier to a developer that was not welcoming tough questions.

Liu and the CBA

City Comptroller John Liu has made reform of CBAs a bit of a crusade in his first year, though he hasn't been completely on target.

Two weeks ago, he issued a statement, saying, in part, "From Atlantic Yards to Yankee Stadium to the Columbia University expansion, the public has seen a string of broken promises to communities and questionable involvement by some government officials,"

In the 2/18/10 New York Daily News, he wrote:
At Atlantic Yards, the immediate community was not included in the CBA. The project was then held up by a series of lawsuits while the original signatories continue waiting for the promised jobs and affordable housing units.
Well, that's not quite true. Some people in the "immediate community," however that's defined, were included, though most might be said to be in the somewhat-less-immediate community.

The bigger issue is that only some in the "immediate community" were consulted, while the rest were ignored or stonewalled, including the three Community Boards, which have a significant amount of legitimacy in such matters.

Remember how, in May 2006, the three Community Boards issued a statement saying that Forest City Ratner had overstated their participation in the CBA?

Also note that the project has not merely been held up by lawsuits but by the economic crunch and the developer's planning decisions.

A response to Liu

Liu's op-ed drew a response in a 2/22/10 letter:
Voice of the People: Community on board

Brooklyn: We contest Controller John Liu's assertion that the community around the Atlantic Yards development was not included in the Community Benefits Agreement ("Communities need a voice," Op-Ed, Feb. 18). All of the signatory organizations and principals live or work in community boards within the project's footprint. Liu is right that we haven't seen the benefits of Atlantic Yards - but not because the developer did not reach out to the community. It's because a small group of people delayed the project with litigation.

Delia Hunley-Adossa, chair
Atlantic Yards CBA
NoLandGrab's Eric McClure commented:
This could just have easily read "Voice of the Paid Signatories," since all of the signatory organizations have also received money from Forest City Ratner for their support of the Atlantic Yards project.
I'll add the Hunley-Adossa ignored the question of who makes up the community. And she ignored some of the important elements of Liu's position, including his recognition of the issues of accountability and representativeness.

Accountability issues

Liu wrote:
Specifically, CBAs must contain measurable principles of accountability, transparency, inclusiveness, consistency and scope. Agreements must be enforceable along clear time lines, and should even have clawback provisions to ensure full delivery of promises... Community groups, elected officials and other parties negotiating with developers must be truly representative of the community, and the benefits from the project to the community should be appropriate to its needs and the impact of the development upon it.

Moreover, CBAs should never become a substitute for responsible government policy on development issues.
In an interview with City Hall News, Liu continued to show an iffy grasp of the Atlantic Yards issue:
Likewise, Liu said he believes encouraging private development is important but crucial to keep tabs on developers who receive public help. In major projects like Yankee Stadium and Atlantic Yards, he said he would consider looking back over Community Benefits Agreements signed before he came into office to see if they had been upheld.
Though the Atlantic Yards CBA was "witnessed" by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, it's outside of governmental oversight.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

At meeting on street closings, information (Forest City's planned major ramp-up) and evasions; tension but little conflict; questions left unanswered

Some significant information--and evasion--emerged during last night's meeting on street closings and transportation changes for Atlantic Yards, sponsored by three City Council Members and held at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene.

It drew more than 120 people, well more than half project supporters, as well as opponents, local elected officials (and their staff members), and representatives and officials of the three local community boards. (Planned for closing are Fifth Avenue between Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, and Pacific Street between Flatbush and Sixth avenues and Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues.)

For example, officials announced tweaks in the traffic plan and claimed political resistance has caused a delay in formation of a Transportation Working Group, which was first announced in May 2007.

Forest City Ratner (FCR) executive Jane Marshall (pictured, with three City Council Members at right) gave evasive answers about the delays in the reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge (now tied to a previously-unannounced four-phase plan for railyard construction), the cost of a lease for the streets (city taxpayers lose $3.7 million), and the reason VMS (variable message signs) announcing street closings were left on for more than two days even after the closings were delayed.

Marshall indicated that, once a ruling approving condemnation of streets and other property emerges, the developer plans a huge increase in activity at the Atlantic Yards site, fostering construction of the arena. (That ruling was initially expected January 29, but was put on hold by a judge after property owners mounted an unusual opposition.)

While Marshall said such a ramp-up could begin in 24 hours, no one could promise how much advance notice would the community get about street closings, which were put on hold last month, and presumably are a significant part of the construction plans. (Council Member--and project opponent--Letitia James recommended two weeks.)

(Photos and set by Tracy Collins; videos shot by Jonathan Barkey.)

What didn't happen

But the meeting was notable for what didn't happen as much as what did. Despite the presence of project supporters, many members of Community Benefits Agreement signatory BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), the meeting was mostly peaceful. (One audience member told me that she overheard people in the row behind her saying they'd been paid to attend. Marshall, queried later, flatly denied it.)

Even though the meeting, billed as lasting two hours, started 20 minutes late, it ended more than 20 minutes early, allegedly because they were out of questions.

But project critics/opponents--including members of the Dean Street Block Association and Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods--told me that numerous written questions were submitted that never made it to the dais, as they were vetted by a trio representing Forest City Ratner, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), and James's office.

(In photo, James reads through some of the question cards, as they are vetted in the background.)

That trio was supposed to eliminate off-topic questions regarding broader project issues--James, actually, took the opportunity to ask some off-topic questions of her own. However, some unanswered questions submitted by the Dean Street Block Association (and myself) were on-topic.

Some tension

Given that James and fellow Council Member Brad Lander are public opponents of the project--Lander, a longtime critic, emerged as an opponent last year--the meeting began with a bit of tension.

James cited the importance of transparency, openness, accountability, and public engagement. She said she hoped some further structure would emerge for further public involvement in the plans.

Lander (speaking) reminded the audience that, while they have a broader set of interests, the meeting was limited to the issues of street closings and traffic changes. Council Member Steve Levin (behind Lander), on the fence regarding the project, merely suggested the importance of dialogue.

Presentations begin: DOT

When the bureaucratic presentations began, the event very much resembled two previous meetings on street closings, one before the Transportation Committee of Community Board 6 and the other before the 78th Precinct Community Council, only with an extra layer of tension in the room, given the larger crowd and proximity to the site.

Chris Hrones, the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Downtown Brooklyn Transportation Coordinator, explained the respective roles of the parties: DOT, FCR, and the "Economic State Development Corporation"--actually, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC).

Atlantic Yards, he noted, is being executed by ESDC and FCR, with the full cooperation of the city. DOT must review and approve the mitigations to ease traffic, he said, though DOT does not have direct control over street closures, which were approved by ESDC (and can override the city).

"We're willing to make changes if they make sense," he said, pointing to one example that recently emerged. At one point, Carlton Avenue was supposed to offer two-way traffic between Dean and Pacific streets. The Community Board 8 Transportation Committee suggested it remain one-way in the interest of pedestrian safety, with Pacific Street between Carlton and Sixth avenues made one-way as well. (It also will retain parking spots.)

"We thought that was a good idea, and asked Forest City Ratner to incorporate it into the plan," Hrones said. As he's said before, the changes are not set in stone, and the impact will be evaluated.

(Standing behind Hrones are Forest City Ratner executive Scott Cantone, left, and Council Member Levin.)

FCR: update

Marshall explained the process leading up to the meeting, beginning with the master closing held in December, and the move to condemnation. FCR, she said, sent out a notice in early January regarding street closures "on or about February 1," because the condemnation was expected to vest on January 29.

"But the judge has not acted yet," she said, " so we are in a little bit of a state of limbo."

"We do expect the closings to be imminent, however," she said. (Everyone's waiting for Justice Abraham Gerges to rule; he said he would move promptly.)

Traffic consultants

FCR consultant "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz of Sam Schwartz Engineering, explained the five elements of the plan: roadway closures, directional changes, mitigation measures, parking changes, and a bus route modification.

Given the anticipated closing of Fifth Avenue--which is already closed to southbound traffic--Sixth Avenue will now allow for northbound movement, he said.

He said FCR had set up 13 VMS signs, which are a DOT requirement. "Those signs have been turned off for the moment," he said.

He cited changes in the timing of traffic lights, and his colleague Dan Schack described changes in lane markings to make it easier to turn on and off Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.

As for parking regulation changes, the biggest change involves no standing at any time along the west side of Sixth Avenue, a block now mainly used as police parking.

A document describing the traffic changes had already been distributed to local officials, community boards, the DOT, and ESDC. (Update: The updated plan is at bottom.)

Lander: constraints on the meeting

The three Council Members took turns reading the written questions, but before that began, Lander said he wanted "to speak with a little more candor about the reason for the constraints on the discussion." As an opponent, he said he had a lot of questions about the project, but the elected officials felt a responsibility to address the street closings.

"Forest City Ratner made it quite clear they'd come to a discussion about street closings, but not about the broader set of issues," he said. So the elected officials will continue to push for further dialogue.

Perpetual gridlock?

Since Fifth Avenue was made one-way, traffic on Sixth Avenue has been backed up, one questioner pointed out, asking if perpetual gridlock was expected when Pacific Street closed.

"I do not expect perpetual gridlock, and my name is 'Gridlock Sam,'" Schwartz responded. He cited the closing of northbound access on Fourth Avenue above Atlantic Avenue, which did not result in gridlock, even though there was a higher traffic volume than expected in the case of AY changes.

Similarly, he said that traffic changes around Times Square, another place of higher volume, have not resulted in gridlock. (The theory is that traffic is fluid, and drivers adjust.) "So I do not believe we will have gridlock in this area. I absolutely believe there will be turbulence and confusion the first few days this goes in."

Safety issues

Given the killing of a Flatbush Avenue pedestrian by an apparently speeding car, street safety is on people's minds. What's the safety plan for pedestrians?

Schwartz said "safety is paramount" and added that, for the first time regarding a Brooklyn project, Forest City Ratner has hired a pedestrian managers, including a retired police officer who works for his firm. Everything the firm does, he said, is consistent with city safety standards.

Later, a resident asked why the Fire Department wasn't present, given concerns about response from a firehouse on Dean Street just east of Sixth Avenue, which can no longer use the Carlton Avenue Bridge.

Levin said he took responsibility for not reaching out to the department. Marshall said, "We consulted the fire department, they're aware of everything we're doing. They do not believe it's going to have an impact on them. We also consult with the police on a daily basis. Life and safety is paramount for everybody... We realize it's our responsibility to coordinate with them."

"We also have, looking over our shoulders, in a very, very profound way, the Empire State Development Development Corporation, which has consultants, that are looking into Forest City's meeting their project requirements, on the environmental level and also on the safety and construction buildup."

Carlton Avenue Bridge

What are the plans for the reopening of the Carlton Avenue Bridge? (It was originally supposed to close for nine ten months, and then for two years. Now the timetable looks like four years, even though that was not revealed in the environmental review.)

"The Carlton Avenue Bridge is a bit of a conundrum, so it's hard for people to understand it," Marshall replied. "because it spans the Long Island [Rail Road] railyard, and the Long Island railyard is a storage yard, so it has the trains in it. The tracks are being reconfigured, with a new design and the bridge columns have to be built in sequence with the redevelopment of the yard. So the yard is being done in four phases. The Carlton Avenue Bridge is required to be open when the arena opens. It will be built with the third phase of the yard. So we expect it to open in 2012, with the arena, and we would do it as fast as we can, but unfortunately, it's not just building a bridge, it's building a yard."

In a 9/23/08 email from Forest City Assistant VP Kate Bicknell to mayoral advisor Nnenna Lynch, a three-stage process, not a four-phase one, was contemplated:
The bridge is being demolished and reconstructed in three stages, which correspond to stages 1 (temporary yard), 2 & 3 (permanent yard) of the LIRR yard construction. As you know, we are currently constructing the temp yard (stage 1), which includes the demolition of the southern half of the bridge. The demolition of the northern half of the bridge as well as the full reconstruction of the bridge are part of stages 2 and 3 (permanent yard) of the LIRR yard construction, which will begin after LIRR's sign-off of permanent yard construction drawings. We are nearing completion of the temp yard and the demolition of the southern half of the bridge....
However, in Chapter 17, Construction Impacts, of the FEIS prepared by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), there was no reference to such phasing. Rather, the bridge was presumed to be fully demolished and reconstructed within two years, during the construction of the temporary yard.

Timing of street closings

Several questions regarded the timing of when exactly streets would close, and what kind of notice there would be.

Marshall said FCR had expected that that the judge "would sign the order pretty quickly. It's taken a little longer than we expected, but we expect it very soon."

Later, Lander asked for some more clarity regarding the sequence of the issue.

Marshall said it could be imminent. She noted that the procedures emerged from issues raised in the Final Environmental Impact Statement and later were developed by Schwartz's firm, with DOT's consultation.

But, Lander pressed on, how long would the time period be between vesting and closing of streets?

"Ultimately, when that happens, ESDC has the right to close the streets at any time," Hrones said. "We would obviously encourage ESDC and FCR, as they've been doing up to this point, to provide reasonable notice." But there's no specific guideline

If they asked him, Lander continued, what's reasonable notice?

Hrones demurred, saying DOT hadn't discussed it.

James said, "Before the decision is made, I would hope that elected officials would be consulted. My definition of reasonable notice is at least a two-week window."

Ramping up construction

Why not postpone closing Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues until Phase 2 of the development--not destined for many years--is under way?

"As you know, Atlantic Yards is a rather ambitious project," Marshall responded. "The fact of the matter is, in the first phase of the development… all but three blocks are under construction. In the planning of the project, we spent extensive time developing this plan. We analyzed where could the construction staging would happen... There is no way for us to build just in the yard. We have to build from Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt."

"Block 1129"--the southeast block of the site, between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and Dean and Pacific streets--"is really the only place where there is dirt, where we can stage materials, have construction offices, stage trucks," she said.

"The entire FEIS is based on using the bed of Pacific Street and 1129 as construction staging. As soon as we get the order from the judge signed, which we think will be soon, we are going to ramp up extremely quickly on the arena and on the yard, and probably on B2, which is the first residential building. So there is going to be a substantial number of workers, trucks, materials, letdown, and leaving that street open to traffic would be unsafe, and ill-advised."

She was later asked to clarify that.

"What I mean is, when we get the sites and the land and be able to start construction of the arena, ramp up means immediately we will be out there on the site starting work," she said. "We have already completed most of the utilities around the site in order to allow excavation to start."

"We will be having vehicles and offices set up immediately. As we've stated publicly, we intend to begin design of the first residential building in such a way that it can break ground in the fourth quarter of this year. So you're going to have construction of the railyard, the arena, and residential building, all going on… in the next nine months... and that is why we can't keep Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt open."

What about the VMS?

After Gerges put the condemnation on hold on January 29, the Variable Message Signs (set up by FCR) indicating February 1 street closings were left on all weekend, including through part of the morning of Monday, February 1, leading to significant confusion. Why?

Marshall's answer was a non sequitur: "Again, I think that we expected that the judge would sign the order relatively quickly. And so those Variable Message Signs are important to let people know, drivers know, what's going to happen in their future. So we kept them on, because we were trying to inform the public, that's all."

Instead, they confused the public.

Eminent domain issues

Despite the stated ground rules, James went afield, pursuing a question regarding what would happen to the remaining residents of Pacific Street.

People still living on the site would be permitted access to the streets, Marshall said. "Life would sort of go on but there will signs posted that say 'Private street, no public traffic flow.'"

She gave an outline of the settlement process in condemnation court. "Tenants of the buildings get relocated, through relocation services provided by ESDC," she said, referring to a small payment and services of a real estate agent. (Some have or will get cash settlements from Forest City, as well, and some have been promised apartments in the project.)

Marshall said it wouldn't take too long, but wasn't sure exactly. She left out property owners who live in the footprint, but also cited businesses, which get both a price and an appraisal of fixtures.

"That's all done through a court in the eminent domain process, and Forest City has no role in it," she said.

(Actually, a document known as a Land Acquisition Funding, Property Management and Relocation Agreement--about which I haven't yet written--describes how the ESDC must consult with Forest City Ratner, which ultimately funds the settlements.)

Who owns the streets? What does FCR save?

Who owns the streets and what will change once ownership is vested?

Marshall responded briefly: "The ESDC will own the streets and they will, under a lease, transferred to Forest City for the development of the arena and the rest of the project."

The New York City Independent Budget Office, in its September 2009 Fiscal Brief regarding the arena, explained that it would cost the city nearly $4 million:
The city will provide some property for the project at no cost. According to the latest modified project plan, this will include the street bed of Fifth Avenue between Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues and the street bed of Pacific Street between Flatbush and Sixth Avenues, as well as a small traffic triangle at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Pacific street. Based on recent sales prices in the area, IBO estimates that the 2010 sales value of this property is $3.7 million.

Not selling this land at a market price to another developer or to FCRC adds to the opportunity cost of the project. In the portion of the project east of Sixth Avenue— which is outside of the arena footprint—FCRC is committed to paying a market price for the street bed of Pacific street between Sixth and Vanderbilt Avenues.
Transportation working group?

A transportation working group was announced by ESDC in 2007, but has it met, and has it reviewed the plans? James said she knew of no such group. A member of the audience referenced the announcement.

The question got a response from project Ombudsman Forrest Taylor, the only ESDC official to go to the podium. (Several other ESDC officials were in the audience.)

"It's envisioned that Transportation Working Group would be a committee of the Community Advisory Committee," Taylor said, referring to an organization that most elected officials have boycotted as toothless, instead supporting a more robust form of oversight, such as a local development corporation or authority, such as the Battery Park City Authority.

That may be the vision now, but it was not explained when the working group was announced in May 2007. The ESDC said:
Concerns regarding transportation impacts, during and after construction, have been consistently mentioned by community and elected leaders. ESDC will organize a small working group of city and state agencies, community representatives and local elected officials to discuss anticipated issues and available mitigation opportunities.
In January 2008, Taylor said the working group would be “a subcommittee of a newly-reconstituted Community Advisory Committee.”

Last night, he continued, "So until we decide which direction we want to go in--a number of elected officials have pressed us in terms of different ways to give oversight to the project, Tish James being one of them, [Assemblyman] Hakeem Jeffries being another. So, internally, we're trying to decide the best way to provide community input and oversight for the project. We expect to conclude those discussions internally within the next couple of weeks."

Other questions

Will trucks be making deliveries at night?

Trucks will be required to follow truck rules and regulations, Schwartz said. (Which means? I'll check.)

What bus route is affected?

Just the B63 northbound, which would turn from Fifth Avenue onto Flatbush, rather than on Atlantic.

Can the street closings go forward without eminent domain?


Would road closings be reversed if eminent domain occurs but the project dies?

Yes, though that's not anticipated, Hrones said.

How will people travel from Fort Greene to Park Slope?

Those going south from Fort Greene can use Sixth Avenue southbound, Schwartz said, adding that Vanderbilt and Underhill avenues were alternate routes.

Unanswered questions

Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association (DSBA), which has sent written questions to the DOT, shared with me a list of questions submitted.

Only a few were arguably off-topic, but most were not answered. They were:
Surface Parking and Interim Open Space

1) Jane Marshall: When are you going to release the interim plans for the second phase footprint? What architecture firm/planner is drawing up the plans?

2) Jane Marshall: Please chart across the construction timetable of the first phase of the project, the number and programming of the surface parking places you are going to create.

3) Jane Marshall: Will you be creating open space on the interim second phase footprint? What things are you going to be looking at to define when it is possible?

4) Jane Marshall: What standard are you using for each unit size in the surface parking lots?

5) Marshall, Schwartz: Has FCRC approached the 78th Precinct with an incentive program to use transit? For the NYPD to use transit would have additional benefits for the public because off-duty officers would raise safety levels on the LIRR trains and subways they choose to ride.

6) Marshall, Schwartz, DOT: Have you ruled out every possible option to locate NYPD parking elsewhere: HPD parking lots, other areas of footprint, Atlantic Center mall? Have you considered using parking management strategies to increase the productivity of the surface spaces that already exist in the area?

7) Marshall: When are you planning to complete the agreement with the 3rd party for the surface parking? If it is already complete, who is the operator of the surface parking going to be?

8) Marshall, DOT: Do the NYC DCP zoning regulations for surface parking areas announced in 2007 apply to the interim lots at Atlantic Yards?

Pacific Street and Carlton Avenue Bridge

9) Why isn’t Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt remaining a public street? What plans does FCRC have for it during the project’s first phase?

10) DOT, Marshall: The LIRR has announced the temporary railyard is complete and it is in full operation. Why hasn’t the rebuilding of the Carlton Avenue Bridge started already?

Construction Plan

11) Marshall: It was stated construction staging for the arena could not be placed in the first phase footprint because the residential buildings and the arena were being built as one piece. That is no longer true. Is the construction plan taking advantage of that fact?


12) DOT AND ESDC: In May of 2007, the ESDC announced creation of a transportation working group to included City and State agencies, elected officials and community representatives. How often has this group met since then, and has it reviewed the proposed street closings?

-If the transportation working group has met, what is its governance structure, who are its members, and what protocol is in place for creating, reviewing and implementing plans? Were those protocols followed for these street closures?

-If the transportation working group has not met, what alternative protocol is in place and what document has authorized this alternative?

13) DOT: Specifically what traffic related issues does DOT anticipate in the future will trigger a public process? Locations of curb cuts? Lane changes? Signal changes? Creation of surface parking? Locations of construction staging areas and construction truck routes?

14) Does DOT have any influence over the scale or programming of the surface parking?
DSBA handout

The DSBA also said in a handout:
We believe implementation of street closures are premature given the status of the Atlantic Yards development; even so, on their merits and assuming the project moves forward, these plans would be improved with the interests and knowledge of our community taken into account.

1) NYC DOT should put in place a meaningful period and process for public review and comment on all future transportation changes in relation to Atlantic Yards prior to their approval by DOT.

2) The interim plans of the second phase footprint should be released in full, including the number and programming of surface parking units and the amount of interim open space that will be created.

3) The community does not want to subsidize parking. Steps should be taken to avoid the adverse affects caused by the creation of new off-street surface parking for the 78th Precinct within the second phase footprint when there is a risk development at those sites will be delayed or not completed.

4) The incentive to drive to the footprint should be reduced with programs that create incentives to ride transit given the project’s transit-rich location.

5) Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt should remain a public street and stay open for vehicles and parking.

6) Reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge should begin now.

7) As Brooklyn Borough DOT has endorsed, Carlton Avenue should remain as it is currently and Pacific Street should be turned into a one-way west-bound.
Items 5 and 6 were essentially nixed, but item 7 got a yes.

Draft Mitigation Plan Fifth Ave-Pacific St Closures 022410 (2)

Brooklyn Paper FOIL request on arena security generates one (redacted) email exchange from ESDC; that day, the setbacks issue was in the news

In an article headlined Deadly silence? Officials have had one e-mail exchange over Yards security, the Brooklyn Paper looked into the Empire State Development Corporation's unlikely claim that "its officials have had just one e-mail exchange over security outside the proposed 18,000-seat arena."

And the one document the newspaper did receive was an 11/13/07 exchange of two email messages, with all text redacted.

Now it's plausible that the ESDC hasn't made security a priority, since it's the job of the New York Police Department (NYPD), which has been meeting with the developer. But it's hard to believe that there was only one email exchange.

And that exchange captured in the FOIL request was not a communication with the NYPD. Rather, it was an internal communication.

What was on their mind?

Could they have been discussing my post that day, headlined State secret? ESDC stonewalls on arena setbacks, but graphics hint building's near street?

I noted that the ESDC was unwilling to offer some basic information: how far would the arena be from the street?

I pointed out that, despite the arguments for secrecy, there was a difference between security measures and architectural plans that show the distance from a building to the street, information that eventually would be disclosed.

And, I noted, the ESDC or the developer could have put the setbacks issue to rest, but they didn't. It was just a few days later that we learned that the situation in Brooklyn was much like that in Newark, where police had begun closing the streets bordering the new Prudential Center arena.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Luxury suites at the Atlantic Yards arena: from 170 (2006) to 130 (2008) to 100 (2009) to 104 (2010)

On Tuesday the Nets announced yet another effort to sell luxury suites at the Atlantic Yards arena/Barclays Center, and earlier today I pointed out a slight uptick since September in the number of suites, from 100 to 104.

However, we should remember how the number has decreased, overall. In the KPMG report prepared in 2006 for the Empire State Development Corporation, the Nets were estimating 170 suites, though analysts were skeptical.

KPMG stated (as previously noted in February 2007):
[Forest City Ratner] assumes that approximately 162 of 170 suites will be sold annually through a combination of first ring suites, second ring suites, courtside suites, and loge boxes. The suite price includes the price of tickets to NBA games and approximately 25 percent of other events held at the arena. In addition, it is assumed that three of the four party suites, each with sixty suites, will be sold for all NBA games on an annual basis.

Given the competitiveness of the market, both the total number of suites and the average price per suite assumed by FCRC appear to be on the high end relative to other similar arenas. NBA arenas average approximately ninety suites. Facilities in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Dallas, Toronto, and Philadelphia are the only ones that offer more than 125 suites. Other than the Palace at Auburn Hills in Detroit, all of these facilities host both NBA and NHL teams.
Indeed, by May 2008, the number of suites had been cut to 130. (Here's more on the hype.)

To do the math, 104 represents a 39% decrease from 170.

(Of course, that's all an improvement over the 29 suites at the Meadowlands arena where the Nets languished for so long.)

Brooklyn authenticity, Atlantic Yards, and those "Brownstone" and "Loft" suites now being marketed for the Barclays Center

The term "authenticity" is being bandied about a lot these days, thanks to sociologist Sharon Zukin's new book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, subject of a major article in Sunday's New York Times and a forum at CUNY's Gotham Center for New York History. (Also see this interview with Zukin.)

And the concept has been used, rather aggressively, both to justify a new basketball arena in Brooklyn and to market arena suites named Loft and Brownstone, both references to Brooklyn features erased for the project.

What's authenticity?

But what exactly is authenticity? Zukin writes:
Claiming authenticity becomes prevalent at a time when identities are unstable and people are judged by their performance rather than by their history or innate character. Under these conditions authenticity differentiates a person, a product, or a group from its competitors; it confers an aura of moral superiority, a strategic advantage that each can use to its own benefit. In reality, few groups can be authentic in the contradictory ways that we use the term: on the one hand, being primal, historically first or true to a traditional vision, and on the other hand, being unique, historically new, innovative, and creative. In modern times, though it may not be necessary for a group to be authentic; it may be enough to claim to see authenticity in order to control its advantages.

If authenticity has a schizoid quality, it can also be deliberately made up of bits and pieces of cultural references...
At the panel

At a panel Monday night, Hunter College planning professor (and AY critic) Tom Angotti stated, "Every year we're reminded there's a project being proposed that will bring the Brooklyn Dodgers back. This is as if we missed the Brooklyn Dodgers."

"I really don't care if they ever come back," he said. "I would rather see our children have spaces to play baseball... as those parks that are built are increasingly crowded... while the city is being marketed for global athletic events."

Last March I wrote about a new book on the Dodgers called Forever Blue, excerpted in Sports Illustrated:
Was it true? Had O'Malley crushed Brooklyn's spirit? The answer is no. In 1963, after the Dodgers vanquished the Yankees in the World Series, a New York Times editorial titled Joy in Flatbush declared, "At last the wounds have healed." In 1969, when the New York Mets won the World Series, Brooklyn honored them with a rally at Borough Hall. The victory made the Dodgers seem like ancient history.
Back in November, 2005, Scott Turner of Fans for Fair Play savaged the relevance of Dodgers nostalgia in the context of the Atlantic Yards saga, contrasting owners, their devotion to sports, their commitment to local fans, the players, ticket costs, and commitment to local businesses, among other things.

An exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York in 2007 about the “Glory Days” of New York baseball (1947-57) added a gloss:
Why do the Glory Days continue to exert such a hold on the fans who experienced them? In part, is is because baseball was the big game in town, not yet truly challenged by the other league sports such as football or basketball. But while it was the big time, it was not yet the big business it is today.
Enter the suites

According to a 2/23/10 press release regarding suites:
With construction ongoing at the Barclays Center site in Brooklyn, Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment (BSE), an affiliate of Nets Sports and Entertainment, LLC, is introducing Barclays Center suites to prospective buyers as 'Your Home Away from Home.'

BSE will initiate its public suite sale in March when prospective suite buyers can visit the multi-media interactive Barclays Center Showroom, located on the 38th floor of The New York Times Building in Manhattan.

...The Barclays Center, to be located at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, will be designed with 104 suites, including 68 Loft Suites... In addition to the Loft Suites, the arena will include 15 Brownstone Suites (16 seats each)
Loft? Brownstone? Both brownstones and lofts have already been demolished--and more would be demolished--for the arena.

Note the phrasing: "construction ongoing at the Barclays Center site." Not "construction of the arena." They haven't had a groundbreaking yet.

"Brooklyn's industrial heritage"?

Last September, two architectural critics interviewed on the Brian Lehrer Show took aim at the quote from Borough President Marty Markowitz, who called the arena "a luminous, iconic structure that celebrates Brooklyn’s industrial heritage."

"Now, I think of Brooklyn's industrial heritage and there are people who want to try to bring back manufacturing to Brooklyn," Lehrer mused. "This is instead building a high-rise complex..., and a sports arena. So... Is there something a little untoward about invoking Brooklyn's industrial heritage here or is there is at least something visually accurate?"

"When I heard that from Marty Markowitz, I honestly didn't know whether to laugh or cry," replied Francis Morrone. "Among other things, Forest City Ratner has been demolishing wonderful Brooklyn industrial buildings as part of this project, including Ward Bakery, which was one of the best industrial buildings ever built in Brooklyn... given that Ward Bakery and other buildings were demolished--to say that this building celebrates Brooklyn's industrial heritage is really actually a pretty disgusting thing to say."

"I agree with Francis," added Paul Goldberger. "I think that line wins the prize for the most disingenuous architectural comment of the year."

How many suites?

According to the latest press release:
The Barclays Center, to be located at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, will be designed with 104 suites, including 68 Loft Suites... In addition to the Loft Suites, the arena will include 15 Brownstone Suites (16 seats each) -- 14 of which are sold -- six Studio Suites, and four Party Suites. The arena will also include 11 Backstage Suites, which will offer exclusive access to a Champagne bar.
Though they seem to have added four suites, it looks like they lost one Brownstone Suite and that the Backstage Suites were once called Courtside Suites.

According to a 9/9/09 press release:
There will be 100 luxury suites, including 16 Brownstone Suites (16 seats each), 67 Loft Suites (10 seats each), 11 Courtside Suites, four Club Suites and two Party Suites. The arena will also include 40 loge boxes, six clubs and restaurants, and the Barclays Center Practice Facility on site.

Efforts to use Columbia decision to reopen Atlantic Yards eminent domain, EIS cases rejected by Court of Appeals

They were both long-shot efforts, but attempts by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) and plaintiffs organized by DDDB to reopen two key Atlantic Yards cases have been rejected by the state Court of Appeals.

Thus the eminent domain case--but not the pending challenge to the actual condemnation--is over, as is the case challenging the environmental review.

This narrows the remaining court cases related to the project to three, though two are essentially versions of the same case.

Columbia parallel?

In both unsuccessful efforts, the appellants invoked a similar case in which the Appellate Division blocked the Empire State Development Corporation's use of eminent domain for the Columbia University expansion, citing, among other things, the use of "underutilization" to determine blight.

The decisions by the Court of Appeals imply that they will either overturn the lower court's decision in the Columbia case or they will overturn it on other grounds, such as the court's finding of the ESDC's bad faith in its blight finding.

Eminent domain

The plaintiffs in the eminent domain case had tried to reopen the case, citing the pending appeal in the Columbia case. It was rejected without comment on February 18.

EIS case

The plaintiffs in the case challenging the environmental impact statement (EIS) had filed a motion to renew their previous motion for leave to appeal the Appellate Division's decision rejecting an appeal of a state Supreme Court judge's decision.

Again, the Columbia case, known as Kaur, was cited. The motion stated:
The crux of Appellants’ argument can be found in a comparison of Justice [James] Catterson’s opinions in the two cases. In Develop Don’t Destroy, Justice Catterson wrote a scathing concurrence, more properly characterized as a dissent, but nevertheless concurred finding that there was sufficient evidence to defer to ESDC. However in Kaur, Justice Catterson, writing for the majority, on virtually identical facts found there was insufficient basis to support ESDC’s determination and that it was not entitled to such deference. There is no significant difference between the facts or the underlying theories in the two cases to warrant disparate results on either the law or the facts.
It was rejected without comment on February 16.

What's left?

Still pending is an unusual challenge to the condemnation effort, claiming that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) should issue a new Determination and Findings under the New York State Eminent Domain Procedure Law.

Justice Abraham Gerges put the condemnation on hold on January 29, but his decision is expected shortly.

A parallel lawsuit making the same claims has not yet been heard in court.

Also pending is a case challenging the ESDC's 2009 approval of the Modified General Project Plan. Justice Marcy Friedman, who heard oral arguments last month, is expected to rule within a month or two.

In case you're wondering

Why is this news late? Because Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, understandably, chose not to announce it, and the Empire State Development Corporation and Forest City Ratner, less understandably, also chose not to announce it. And I took a while to notice it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Catching up on the ACORN story: Brian Lehrer, Politico, City Room

The ACORN story and Atlantic Yards, including my role, got three mentions today in the media, and all needed some corrections.

Brian Lehrer Show

First there was the Brian Lehrer Show, on WNYC, ACORN by Any Other Name.

To quote the summary from No Land Grab:

City Hall editor Edward-Isaac Dovere, and senior political writer Ben Smith join Brian Lehrer to discuss the reorganization of New York ACORN, which is now calling itself New York Communities for Change. The inevitable Atlantic Yards question comes up around the 9:40 mark.

Brian Lehrer: And recently, in New York, it wasn't only the right that hated ACORN, it was opponents of the Atlantic Yards project.

Ben Smith: They were among the first yesterday to sort of notice this transformation.

BL: And does this affect their deal with the Atlantic Yards developer to take a lot of money from them to administer community benefits agreements?

BS: Now that is a great question. I have not seen anywhere that Ratner has renegotiated with them. I suspect it gets Bruce Ratner off the hook in terms of even having any responsibility to any group. His community benefits agreements were always negotiated privately with the lowest bidder, essentially, which happened to be ACORN. And because it was a private agreement I don't really see whether Ratner is bound by it at all.

NoLandGrab: Hate ACORN? No. Have big problems with ACORN providing critical political cover for a terrible project in return for a contract — and a bailout? Yes.

My comments

I commented on the web site, as follows:
Ben Smith, following up on Brian Lehrer's casual statement about "Atlantic Yards opponents" hating ACORN, commented that "they were among the first to sort of notice yesterday this transformation."

"Sort of notice" is a euphemism for a well-researched journalistic blog post that laid out several of the changes and fundraising plans well before the report in City Hall News by Edward-Isaac Dovere.

Compare my coverage yesterday to Ben Smith's coverage yesterday.

Funny--today I'm merely an "Atlantic Yards opponent," but when I was on Brian Lehrer's TV show last June, I was an "investigative journalist."

I don't hate ACORN; however, having watched their role in the Atlantic Yards project (which they are contractually obligated to support), I've grown increasingly skeptical.

Lehrer asked if the change would affect ACORN's deal "with the Atlantic Yards developer" for the Community Benefits Agreement. Smith speculated that it might be over. Actually, that's unlikely.

Regarding the affordable housing, the issue is less ACORN but the Development Agreement that you haven't reported on. Forest City Ratner is still supposed to build 2250 units of affordable housing, but the deadline is 25 years, not ten, the penalties for individual building delays are modest, and an Affordable Housing Subsidy Unavailability can be claimed for up to eight one-year periods.

Nor have you reported on Forest City Ratner's $1.5 million bailout of national ACORN.
In Politico

Smith followed up in Politico:
This morning, WNYC's Brian Lehrer asked me what would become of one of ACORN's most prominent New York projects, a "community benefits agreement" the group signed with a real estate developer seeking political support for a huge, subsidized project in Brooklyn.

A blogger opposed to the project, which would include a basketball arena for the Nets, speculated today that the agreement with Forest City Ratner over the Atlantic Yards could transfer to the national group. But an official at the company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the developer continues to work with what he sees as New York's renamed, but otherwise unchanged, ACORN.

"The people that we deal with still exist," said the Forest City official, noting that Jon Kest, ACORN's top official, is now a key player at the new New York Communities for Change, and that the developer will work with that new group.

"It’s ACORN by a different name — all the players are the same," the official said.

My comment:
Despite Ben Smith's account, I didn't speculate that the affordable housing agreement could *transfer* to national ACORN. I wrote that, despite the role of New York ACORN in the Atlantic Yards project, the MOU seems to refer to national ACORN rather than NY ACORN. (Is it speculation to look at contract language?)

But I acknowledged it was ambiguous, given the obvious co-mingling of national and local.

[Then I pointed out the larger issues of the Development Agreement and the FCR bailout.]

PS. Smith disses me (without naming me) as a "blogger opposed to the project." I've been a journalist for a long time. Yes, I'm a critic of the project, and that's based on a lot of research. (There's a long tradition of professional journalism that's not nonpartisan.) And sometimes I'm critical of project opponents.
And in CityRoom

The Times's CityRoom blog picked up on the story:
The Atlantic Yards Report was among the first to notice, early Monday morning, the rebranding effort. New York Acorn had been engaged in the effort to include moderately priced housing as part of the Brooklyn renovation project.

I pointed out that Atlantic Yards is decidedly *not* a renovation project. Everything on the site would be demolished. By contrast, the company behind it does do some renovation.

And again I pointed out that the Times has failed to cover the Development Agreement.

The Times stonewalls on a correction re ACORN coverage

Also see Brad Friedman's comment about the Times's coverage of the "pimp" sting and Friedman's inability--despite mountains of evidence--to get the Times's Public Editor to recommend a correction.