Skip to main content

The "Modern Blueprint" and the Triumph of Marketing over Memory

In an alternate universe, a Brooklyn newspaper columnist could have filed this dispatch yesterday.

The "Modern Blueprint" and the Triumph of Marketing over Memory

The walk is little more than a mile, but on Tuesday it connected two very different worlds. At lunch hour outside Brooklyn's Borough Hall, there stood a snazzy new trailer, complete with blinking video screens, that was dubbed, in overweening form, "The Experience." A vehicle in service to commerce.

The goal: to sell tickets and suites to the opening season, beginning next year, for the Brooklyn Nets in the new Barclays Center.

Fans and downtown office workers/visitors lined up to shoot baskets, egged on by an animated announcer and DJ, hoping to win a free t-shirt. The Nets Dancers, well-toned lasses in bodysuits, clapped appreciatively. Brisk young men, trim and energetic, hawked season tickets.

One inquiring Brooklynite, hearing the tab was some $4500, shook her head in disbelief, only to be reassured that less expensive seats would someday be available. Others, the ones chosen for quotes by the Nets' fake news service, were more enthusiastic.

At 2 pm, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, the wind-up doll of Atlantic Yards support, emerged from his office. He joked about being too short to play basketball among the celebrated hoopsters at Wingate High School.

“Everything we’ve seen about the team has shown it’s a ‘Net positive’ for Brooklyn,” Markowitz said, in words dutifully captured by the Nets' scribe. “It’s something you have to experience for yourself, and – thanks to the EXPERIENCE – now we can.”

Yes, no one can shill like Marty Markowitz, a man who once claimed, on video, that "Brooklyn is 1000 percent behind Atlantic Yards." That helped save developer Forest City Ratner millions of dollars by raising a low-interest loan from immigrant investors.

Departing from his speech, Markowitz also made a playful dig at the slogan, "Jersey Strong, Brooklyn Ready," which one needy local journalist inflated into a story.

Markowitz, wielding on of his office's ubiquitous proclamations, posed with Nets General Manager Billy King and Coach Avery Johnson and the mascot known as Sly Fox. (Photo from Nets' website)


About a mile away, there was a less scripted, less corporate event, one that did not lure the reporters from the city's three dailies who were watching Markowitz.

A walk down Fulton Street, crossing Flatbush, led to the door of 485 Hudson Avenue, the home of BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), a job training group with a curious and checkered history.

BUILD emerged in early 2004, after the unveiling of Atlantic Yards plans, to "negotiate" and sign a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) in June 2005 with Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner.

BUILD CEO James Caldwell has provided crucial community cred for developer Bruce Ratner, calling him "like an angel sent from God" for putting money into the community, a community Caldwell would describe as disadvantaged black Brooklyn.

Those receiving Ratner's trickle-down largesse--Caldwell's mentioned trips to an amusement park and shopping outlets--don't have reason to look at the big picture, the hundreds of millions in subsidies and tax breaks on the other end.

The payoff was supposed to be community benefits, and those benefits--invoked by sloganeering politicians like now-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio--today are more at issue than ever.

A sign on the BUILD office door directed followers to 67 Hanson Place, the office of City Council Member Letitia James, the Atlantic Yards project's leading political opponent.

James hosted a press conference announcing a lawsuit, in which seven people who went through a competitive and coveted BUILD training program--a program mandated by the CBA--claimed they were duped.

It was another skirmish in a long-running battle over Atlantic Yards, one that the developer, along with the city and state, has, for the near-term, won. Too many people see that new arena and, however deluded, claim "it will bring in a lot of... employment."

Forest City Ratner, responding to the lawsuit, chose denial (its executives had not made such claimed promises) and misdirection (look at how many people we now have working--and more than half the 36 people in the training program have work).

Are those numbers accurate? Who knows. Are they even the right frame? After all, the issue is not whether the cohort of trainees have work--which includes jobs at Mickey D's--but whether they were positioned for high-paying careers in construction unions.

And those questions should be answered not by Forest City but, as Council Member James pointed out, the Independent Compliance Monitor that is supposed to keep Forest City Ratner and the CBA signatories honest.

The CBA--which Forest City swore guaranteed their community commitments--required the developer to budget up to $100,000 a year for such a monitor.

It never paid. Few have tried to keep the developer honest. The only people who could enforce the CBA--signatories like BUILD--have financial ties to the developer.

So it was a different "EXPERIENCE" at James's press conference, a reminder that Atlantic Yards will be forever tainted.

It wasn't just the lawsuits. Or the economic downturn. It was the lies.

The smaller part of the trainees' case seems like a slam dunk. You can't make people do construction work for free and call it an internship, can you? That's what BUILD did, requiring the willing, desperate trainees sign a paper agreeing they wouldn't be paid.

But that's kosher only if the internship is, actually, educational. In this case, the suit alleges, they did the work, under hazardous conditions, while their instructor, a gentleman named Gausia Jones, checked in occasionally.

Forest City, which spent $134,000 on the program, would have had to cough up additional $71,000 to pay the 35 trainees minimum wage. (My rough estimate: 8 weeks x 35 hours x 35 people x $7.25 minimum wage.)

That's not chicken feed, but it's not impossible. After all, Forest City has been saving (up to) $100,000 a year for so long. They spent far more--more than $1 million in some years--just on lobbying.

But Forest City apparently didn't want to spend the money. That might have been an unwise decision.

The larger issue in the lawsuit--whether the workers were duped with false promises--may go to court, or it may not. These kinds of cases settle when the sides recognize that legal fees might eat up their costs.

So you can wonder if the plaintiffs were doing it for a paycheck, and what a jury might say. The workers don't have any document with those promises, nor do they have the smoking videotape that shows Forest City executives or James Caldwell, BUILD's CEO, promising them the moon.

Forest City denied it had done so. So did Caldwell, about whom the allegations centered.

But the workers--at least a couple who spoke at the press conference--have the courage of their convictions and the righteous anger of the wronged. A confident young man named Maurice Griffin gave up a non-union carpenter job to go in the unpaid program.

He was adamant--you can watch him on video--that he would not have quit had he not been made such promises. BUILD's Caldwell was there to deny it, vigorously. But he has a bit of a credibility problem.

More than six years ago, on 10/14/05, a New York Times reporter unsullied by skepticism regarding Atlantic Yards followed up on revelations that BUILD had reported to the IRS that it expected $5 million from Forest City Ratner over two years.

Atlantic Yards opponents had seized on that evidence to attack BUILD's credibility. BUILD said it was a mistake and, indeed, they never received such sums.

But the Times reporter, late to the story, won a front-page article with a bit of mental jiu jitsu, positing that Forest City had created "a new and finely detailed modern blueprint for how to nourish--and then harvest--public and community backing..."

It was not a "modern blueprint" then and, six years later, even less so.

The "modern blueprint" depended on BUILD, and its curious evasions. BUILD officials weeks earlier had denied they'd received money from Forest City Ratner. As the article approached publication, spokespeople for Forest City and BUILD, in the Times's delicate phrasing, "revised that account."

BUILD, it turns out, had been paid for a few months. No, not the $5 million smoking gun, but six figures, reason for skepticism.

On Monday, a Times reporter visited Borough Hall to write a rather long article about the Nets' "rally." In the midst of the article came an almost parenthetical discussion of the lawsuit, one reported with a "he said" quote regarding the charges and a "she said" response from Forest City.

It was clearly reported via email or, at best, on the phone.

The real story, one which did not require Sly Fox or the Nets Dancers, was live and in person, just about a mile away.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

Is Barclays Center dumping the Islanders, or are they renegotiating? Evidence varies (bond doc, cash receipts); NHL attendance biggest variable

The Internet has been abuzz since Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick reported 1/30/17, using an overly conclusory headline, that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Is Dumping the Islanders.

That would end an unusual arrangement in which the arena agrees to pay the team a fixed sum (minus certain expenses), in exchange for keeping tickets, suite, and sponsorship revenue.

The arena would earn more without the hockey team, according to Bloomberg, which cited “a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season--a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said."

That "signal," however, is hardly definitive, as are the media leaks about a prospective new arena in Queens, as shown in the screenshot below from Newsday. Both sides are surely pushing for advantage, if not bluffing.

Consider: the arena and the Islanders can't even formally begin their opt-out talks until after this season. The disc…

Skanska says it "expected to assemble a properly designed modular building, not engage in an iterative R&D experiment"

On 12/10/16, I noted that FastCo.Design's Prefab's Moment of Reckoning article dialed back the gush on the 461 Dean modular tower compared to the publication's previous coverage.

Still, I noted that the article relied on developer Forest City Ratner and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. From the article: At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's Adam] Greene says.Skanska jabs back
Well, Forest City's estranged partner Skanska later weighed in--not sure whether they weren't asked or just missed a deadline--and their article was updated 12/13/16. Here's Skanska's statement, which shows th…

Not just logistics: bypassing Brooklyn for DNC 2016 also saved on optics (role of Russian oligarch, Shanghai government)

Surely the logistical challenges of holding a national presidential nominating convention in Brooklyn were the main (and stated) reasons for the Democratic National Committee's choice of Philadelphia.

And, as I wrote in NY Slant, the huge security cordon in Philadelphia would have been impossible in Brooklyn.

But consider also the optics. As I wrote in my 1/21/15 op-ed in the Times arguing that the choice of Brooklyn was a bad idea:
The arena also raises ethically sticky questions for the Democrats. While the Barclays Center is owned primarily by Forest City Ratner, 45 percent of it is owned by the Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (who also owns 80 percent of the Brooklyn Nets). Mr. Prokhorov has a necessarily cordial relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — though he has been critical of Mr. Putin in the past, last year, at the Russian president’s request, he tried to transfer ownership of the Nets to one of his Moscow-based companies. An oligarch-owned a…

Former ESDC CEO Lago returns to NYC to head City Planning Commission

Carl Weisbrod, Mayor Bill de Blasio's City Planning Commission Chairman and Director of the Department of City Planning, is resigning,

And he's being replaced by Marisa Lago, currently a federal official, but who Atlantic Yards-ologists remember as the short-term Empire State Development Corporation CEO who, in an impolitic but candid 2009 statement, acknowledged that the project would take "decades."

Still, Lago not long after that played the good soldier at a May 2009 Senate oversight hearing, justifying changes in the project but claiming the public benefits remained the same.

By returning to City Planning, Lago will join former ESDC General Counsel Anita Laremont, who after retiring from the state (and taking a pension) got the job with the city.

Back at planning

Lago, a lawyer, in 1983 began work as an aide to City Planning Chairman Herb Sturz, and later served as the General Counsel to the president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation, Weisbrod himself.