Thursday, July 21, 2011

Querying Bill de Blasio on Atlantic Yards progress: "I still believe this is a project that can create a lot of jobs and a lot of affordable housing"

As I reported, at the July 19 conference on the Future of New York City, sponsored by Crain's New York Business, there was no mention of Atlantic Yards, at least at the panels I attended, though there was a caution about reliance on over-optimistic analyses of large projects.

However, when I buttonholed Public Advocate Bill de Blasio to ask about Atlantic Yards, his answers, not surprisingly, were rather vague. No, Atlantic Yards wasn't on the agenda, but you'd think he's thought about it somewhat.

After a panel on jobs, during which there was time for only a couple of questions, I approached de Blasio and introduced myself. He was friendly, recognizing me--after all, we'd spent a memorable couple of hours jousting about Atlantic Yards in in 2007, leading to my rather critical portrayal.

Below is the transcript of our exchange, unedited, but with some commentary.

NO: I'm still writing about Atlantic Yards.

BdB (jocularly): I'm shocked.

NO: Did you read the Times this morning?

BdB: I did not.

Now de Blasio did have to attend an early morning conference, and he does have kids, but you'd think he'd at least skim the metro sections of the city newspapers at breakfast.

NO: There's a big article about where the Barclays Center is at, 430 jobs. So the question I wanted to ask was: one of the reasons you supported the project is because of the Community Benefits Agreement--

BdB: --Yes.

NO: And now the numbers on jobs are pretty low, the numbers on housing are zero. Has that caused you to rethink either the concept of CBAs, or your support, or government's posture--any sort of cause to rethink?

BdB: I want to get the results we wanted originally, or as close to them as possible. So my framework here--I don't think this history's over yet.

NO: --Of course not.

BdB: And I know you feel differently. So let's just--

NO: It's not a question of whether I feel differently, it's whether I analyzed it.

BdB: I appreciate you. I've always appreciated analysis. I remember when we sat in the Tea Lounge long ago--we disagreed, but I admire how much work you put into it, I think you do some good thinking. But my bottom line is, I still believe this is a project that can create a lot of jobs and a lot of affordable housing, and what I want to do is see that come to fruition.

NO: Right--but, fair enough, but how do you do that, to go from the rhetoric to the actual performance?

BdB: Y'know, I don't have the chapter and verse, I didn't see this morning's article--

NO: Understood.

BdB: But my point to you--I'm trying to be honest about the question. I still believe the project can be very effective, and my job is to try and help make it effective, that's the bottom line.

Arguably his job is to protect the public interest, so "effective" means gaining the public benefits without too many public costs. And his reliance on developer Bruce Ratner to help raise funds certainly raises some question of his loyalties.

NO: Right. Just to go back to the original--have you rethought either the concept of a CBA or the way CBAs are done--

BdB: I believe in CBAs, and think that I've said--many a time,  I think we all have to create much more transparency and much more enforcement on CBAs, in general. But the concept, what I guess I would say, if you talk about philosophy, I'd say greater and better employment of the CBA concept in the land use process. I think the follow-through is always a problem with government on many many levels, but that's something we should be trying to perfect, not run away from.

Ok, so what kind of follow through has there been? In February 2011, I queried two of his spokesmen to ask whether the Public Advocate had a position on Forest City Ratner's failure to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor. I never got a response.

NO: This CBA was supposed to have something called an Independent Compliance Monitor. It never happened. And because the only people who can enforce the CBA are the signatories, government can't intervene. In L.A., where the CBA is also signed by the government, government can actually try to enforce it. So your thoughts about CBAs, to the extent that you do think about them, because I know you've got a lot on your plate--have you thought about whether government should be a part of CBAs?

BdB: I think it depends on the context. But again, where I'm trying to focus, I think it's kindred to your point, is clearer definitions, better enforcement. And that's something I'm working on.

What next?

How exactly de Blasio's working on it remains unclear because, at that point, one of his aides intervened and he moved on to another interlocutor.

It's certainly not an easy topic, compared to the topics on which de Blasio issues a steady stream of statements.

Likely de Blasio did not attend the event expecting to be queried about Atlantic Yards. And his reliance on project supporters--unions, ACORN, and now (presumably) Forest City Ratner--surely would cause him to be cautious.

But de Blasio owes the public more candor, and more specifics. When and if he issues a more specific statement, I'll publish an update. If not, Atlantic Yards surely will be a topic for the mayoral race.


  1. One scene that was almost in the film was when Robert puca tried to ask deblasio similar questions about a report at the eis hearing and he trotted out the same lines- we will try to dig out that scene. He shouldn't be relying on the times in the first place- he should know those numbers-and by calling out the developers- where is Norman siegel when you need him

  2. The above commenter is Mike Galinsky, co-director of the documentary Battle for Brooklyn.