Monday, September 19, 2011

"They're in violation": the not-yet-said words (by Bill de Blasio, Bertha Lewis, Al Sharpton) about Forest City Ratner's obligation, under the Community Benefits Agreement, to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor

We've seen some candor about developer Forest City Ratner's obligations to the state--but what about to the Community Benefits Agreement?

A remarkable thing happened at the end of the 6/28/11 community meeting in Prospect Heights over traffic and parking issues faced by those living near the east end of the Atlantic Yards site.

Empire State Development (ESD) planner Rachel Shatz was challenged, cordially, to opine on the contradiction between Forest City Ratner's responsibility to "maintain an on-site construction coordinator" and the fact that the community liaison is present once a week.

"They're in violation," she said, in a episode of candor that seemed to provoke momentary consternation from her colleague Arana Hankin, Director, Atlantic Yards Project.

The next day, Forest City committed to ensuring that a staffer would be present during working hours, while an ESD spokeswoman walked the issue back, asserting that the developer had not been in violation, given that the contractual responsibility did not delineate the number of hours required.

Indeed, the Amended Memorandum of Environmental Commitments signed by the state and Forest City does leave room for interpretation, but someone who's there too briefly can't do the job. Clearly one hour a week would be a violation, though. And 20% attendance, apparently to Shatz's snap evaluation, also suggested a violation.

What about the CBA?

Shatz, at least, answered candidly.

By contrast, none of the signatories of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), nor figures who backed the CBA, have publicly challenged the developer on its failure to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor.

While a RFP for such a monitor was issued in March 2007, the developer claimed last November that there was no need yet to hire one until arena groundgreaking, despite provisions in the document to hire one "[a]s soon as reasonably practicable."

Even under that timetable--that a monitor was needed only after March 2010--there's been no progress. That date was 18 months ago.

Given that the signatories are, in whole or in part, financially dependent on Firest City Ratner and in some cases contractually obligated to support the project, it's understandable that they wouldn't complain publicly.

But that suggests a huge gap in enforcement of the CBA, and leaves non-signatory CBA supporters in the best position to speak up.

Who could speak up? de Blasio

In September 2009, then-Council Member Bill de Blasio, then running for Public Advocate, was asked about Atlantic Yards by talk show host Brian Lehrer.

"I have said from the beginning I believe in the affordable housing, the hiring of local residents and living wage levels," de Blasio said. "I think the company involved has to prove that they will keep to the original interpretation or we should pull the plug."

He didn't quite understand his talking points, as I noted. However, if de Blasio, who issues p.r. statements daily about any number of issues--on September 16, he commented about Palestinian statehood--had any consistency, he'd comment on the failure to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor.

My queries about that issue to his spokespeople went unanswered, When I asked him in July about the CBA, he replied vaguely.

Who could speak up? Lewis

The Courier-Life reported in May 2006 that ACORN leader Bertha Lewis was defending the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), by pointing to the role of an Independent Compliance Monitor:
Lewis further stated the CBA calls for an independent monitoring body that “does not have a dog in this fight” to oversee the CBA’s implementation.
(Emphasis added)

While ACORN has dissolved, defaulting on money owed to Forest City Ratner, Lewis and the successor Mutual Housing NY will be involved in the Atlantic Yards affordable housing, so the latter will gain fees and institutional prestige.

And the Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) required ACORN, and presumably its successor, “to take reasonable steps to publicly support the Project.”

Lewis said at a fiery 2/28/06 debate, defending her independence despite that clause in the MOU, “If the project sucks, I’ll speak out.” Whether the "project sucks" may be in dispute, but there should be no doubt that the independent monitoring body she touted has not been established.

I queried Lewis in early August via the Black Institute, which she heads. I got no response.

Who could speak up? Sharpton

On 11/6/05, the New York Daily News broke the news that the Rev. Al Sharpton, who a week earlier had stuck a knife in the back of mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer for the latter's criticism of Atlantic Yards, was financially supported by Forest City Ratner.

That a crucial fact was not included in the earlier coverage, which was quite solicitous of Sharpton. For example, the Times, in a 10/29/05 article headlined Ferrer Is Chided Over Atlantic Yards, decided that the news was not Ferrer's change of position on Atlantic Yards but a criticism from supporter Sharpton.

In the Daily News report, Sharpton pledged to hold the developer's feet to the fire:
Atlantic Yards opponents have expressed doubts that the project will generate thousands of minority jobs and Sharpton, who led a demonstration in 2000 demanding better wages for workers at Ratner's Atlantic Center Mall (the protest was organized by ACORN), says he'll become the Nets owner's worst nightmare if the project doesn't deliver. "If those commitments are not met, I will denounce the project," Rev says. "If there's any retreat, I'll be crying loud about that."
(Emphasis added)

Many people, including former supporters, don't think the project has delivered, though Forest City Ratner can blame the economy and lawsuits.

Still, whatever their opinion about the numbers, shouldn't project supporters at least want Forest City to meet the obligations of the CBA and deliver credible information via an Independent Compliance Monitor?

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