Friday, September 30, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell, in Grantland, gets the Atlantic Yards big picture: "a man buys a basketball team as insurance on a real estate project"

Well, New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica was right all along, writing 11/13/05:
If Caring Bruce Ratner is still the owner of the Nets in five years, I'll eat my hat.

...He doesn't want the team.

He never really did.

He wants the land.
After the March 2010 groundbreaking, Lupica commented, "It was a hustle in broad daylight by Caring Bruce Ratner from the start."

Enter Gladwell

That same sentiment comes from New Yorker writer and Grantland contributing editor Malcolm Gladwell, in a 9/26/11 essay in the latter headlined The Nets and NBA Economics: David Stern would have you believe the Brooklyn-bound franchise embodies everything wrong with the league's finances. It's not true.

His conclusion:
The rich have gone from being grateful for what they have to pushing for everything they can get. They have mastered the arts of whining and predation, without regard to logic or shame. In the end, this is the lesson of the NBA lockout. A man buys a basketball team as insurance on a real estate project, flips the franchise to a Russian billionaire when he wins the deal, and then — as both parties happily count their winnings — what lesson are we asked to draw? The players are greedy.
We can't blame Gladwell for coming to the story late, but it is an example of the kind of analysis that--despite some factual flaws--gets the big picture right, the picture that the compliant media ignore as they focus on celebrities like Jay-Z and micro-controversies such as branding.

(And, yes, in Internet time, I'm coming to this analysis late.)

About the site

Gladwell begins:
Ten years ago, a New York real estate developer named Bruce Ratner fell in love with a building site at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn. It was 22 acres, big by New York standards, and within walking distance of four of the most charming, recently gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn — Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Clinton Hill, and Fort Greene. A third of the site was above a railway yard, where the commuter trains from Long Island empty into Brooklyn, and that corner also happened to be where the 2, 3, 4, 5, D, N, R, B, Q, A, and C subway lines all magically converge. From Atlantic Yards — as it came to be known — almost all of midtown and downtown Manhattan, not to mention a huge swath of Long Island, was no more than a 20-minute train ride away. Ratner had found one of the choicest pieces of undeveloped real estate in the Northeast.

But there was a problem. Only the portion of the site above the rail yard was vacant. The rest was occupied by an assortment of tenements, warehouses, and brownstones.
The key is that Ratner sought some prime land--and it was not merely "above the rail yard" but around it.

As Gladwell's last sentence above suggests, it was not so much undeveloped as underdeveloped. Some of the buildings were empty, and there were some vacant lots, too. But a rezoning might have taken care of that quickly.

And the railyard could have been rezoned and bid out. Instead, Ratner got the benefit of a state override of zoning--essentially a private rezoning.

And Ratner didn't spot the land ten years ago. Forest City was looking at the railyard site in the early 1990s, as veteran Brooklyn journalist Dennis Holt once recalled.

When Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, in his January 2003 State of the Borough address, kept pressing for a Coney Island arena, as he had in the previous year, was he feinting? Quite likely. Ratner had been discussing the Atlantic Yards site with the city since 2002, as Chris Smith reported in New York magazine.

Also, as Chuck Ratner, then-CEO of parent Forest City Enterprises on 9/9/05 told investment analysts:
I will confess that it was less than two or three years ago we were sitting around in New York wondering where the next deals were going to come from. We had finished a whole bunch of office and we completed MetroTech and we didn't have the next great site in Brooklyn. That was one of the reasons we got so aggressive and creative, Bruce and his team did in this Atlantic Yards project. We saw that land sitting there for this last 10 years, realizing it would be a great opportunity if somebody could turn it on.
Eminent domain

Gladwell writes:
To buy out each of those landlords and evict every one of their tenants would take years and millions of dollars, if it were possible at all. Ratner needed New York State to use its powers of "eminent domain" to condemn the existing buildings for him. But how could he do that? The most generous reading of what is possible under eminent domain came from the Supreme Court's ruling in the Kelo v. New London case. There the court held that it was permissible to seize private property in the name of economic development. But Kelo involved a chronically depressed city clearing out a few houses so that Pfizer could expand a research and development facility. Brooklyn wasn't New London. And Ratner wasn't Pfizer: All he wanted was to build luxury apartment buildings. In any case, the Court's opinion in Kelo was treacherous ground. Think about it: What the Court said was that the government can take your property from you and give it to someone else simply if it believes that someone else will make better use of it. The backlash to Kelo was such that many state legislatures passed laws making their condemnation procedures tougher, not easier. Ratner wanted no part of that controversy. He wanted an airtight condemnation, and for that it was far safer to rely on the traditional definition of eminent domain, which said that the state could only seize private property for a "public use."
It's hard to know exactly what Ratner planned to build while sussing out the site, pre-Nets. But it was likely not merely luxury apartments but also office space and retail. After all, in the 1990s the railyard site was seen as a site for office buildings.

And the Atlantic Yards plan eventually included luxury and subsidized apartments, office buildings, and retail, along with the arena.

The eminent domain justification

Galdwell leaves the impression that, because former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in her Kelo dissent, suggested that a stadium qualified as "public use," justifying the transfer of private property to private parties, that "a light bulb went off inside his head. And he bought the New Jersey Nets."

Actually, Ratner bought the Nets some 18 months before the Kelo decision. So eminent domain was more complex. The main justification on the part of New York State was the elimination of "blight," a bogus issue.

But yes, the provision of an arena--a "public use"--was used by the courts to justify eminent domain.

Stern's deflection

Gladwell points to NBA commissioner David Stern's lame contention that team owners are in peril, claiming that the previous owners of the Nets--before Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov "lost several hundred million dollars on that transaction."

After all, as Gladwell notes, Ratner's plan would, "by some calculations [earn him] as much as $1 billion in profit." (That calculation came from  source quoted by New York magazine's Chris Smith, another major journalist to see the big picture, in August 2006, albeit when the economy was rosy.)

Gladwell writes:
Ratner knew this would not be easy. The 14 acres he wanted to raze was a perfectly functional neighborhood, inhabited by taxpaying businesses and homeowners. He needed a political halo, and Ratner's genius was in understanding how beautifully the Nets could serve that purpose. The minute basketball was involved, Brooklyn's favorite son — Jay-Z — signed up as a part-owner and full-time booster. Brooklyn's borough president began publicly fantasizing about what a professional sports team would mean for his community. The Mayor's office, then actively pursuing an Olympic bid, loved the idea of a new arena in Brooklyn.
I would call it a mixed-used neighborhood, with some thriving and some empty buildings, but gentrifying and very valuable. The key was that it was "a great piece of real estate," in the words of Chuck Ratner.

The Extell offer

Gladwell writes:
Early on, another New York developer, Gary Barnett, made a competing play for the railway yard. Barnett's offer was, in many ways, superior to Ratner's. He didn't want the extra 14 acres, so no land would have to be expropriated from private owners. He wasn't going to plunk a small city down in the middle of an already crowded neighborhood. And he tripled the value of Ratner's offer. Barnett lost. He never had a chance. He wanted to build apartments. Ratner was restoring the sporting glory lost when the Dodgers fled for Los Angeles. As Michael Rikon, one of the attorneys who sued to stop the project, ruefully concluded when Ratner's victory was complete: "It is an aphorism in criminal law that a good prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. With regards to condemnations in New York, it can fairly be said that in New York a condemnor can condemn a Kasha Knish." Especially if the kasha knish is being eaten to make way for a professional basketball arena.
Barnett offered $150 million cash to Ratner's $50 million, after which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, choosing to negotiate only with Ratner, got the latter to up the cash bid to $100 million. (Of course Ratner later renegotiated that deal to put only $20 million down, with the rest to be paid over 22 years at a gentle interest rate.)

The MTA and Ratner argue that the overall value of the Ratner bid was superior, but Extell was never allowed to develop its bid, or to compete on an even playing field, given that the property was seemingly anointed to Ratner for 18 months before a very hasty RFP was issued. It was never a fair fight.

Rikon didn't sue to stop the project, but, as is his specialty, represented property owners negotiating condemnation deals.

"Eminent domain insurance"

Gladwell writes:
Ratner has been vilified — both fairly and unfairly — by opponents of the Atlantic Yards project. But let's be clear: What he did has nothing whatsoever to do with basketball. Ratner didn't buy the Nets as a stand-alone commercial enterprise in the hopes that ticket sales and television revenue would exceed players' salaries and administration costs. Ratner was buying eminent domain insurance. Basketball also had very little to do with Ratner's sale of the Nets. Ratner got hit by the recession. Fighting the court challenges to his project took longer than he thought. He became dangerously overextended. His shareholders got restless. He realized he had to dump the fancy Frank Gehry design for something more along the lines of a Kleenex box. Prokhorov helped Ratner out by buying a controlling interest in the Nets. But he also paid off some of Ratner's debts, lent him $75 million, picked up some of his debt service, acquired a small stake in the arena, and bought an option on 20 percent of the entire Atlantic Yards project. This wasn't a fire sale of a distressed basketball franchise. It was a general-purpose real estate bailout.
Yes, it was a general-purpose bailout. (I'd be curious to see which vilifications Gladwell thinks are fair and unfair.)

I wouldn't call it simply "eminent domain insurance" but also insurance--see the cartel discussion below--that political and civic leaders would back the project.

Gladwell also points to how Ratner's malls would be helped by residential properties and the significant profits on the arena, including "$400 million" for naming rights. Actually, the latter figure is closer to $200 million.

I'd add that increased luxury suites, sponsorship opportunities, and TV rights all make a new arena lucrative.

Profits for Prokhorov

Gladwell writes:
And let's not forget Mikhail Prokhorov. How does he feel about buying into the financial sinkhole that is professional basketball? The blog NetsDaily recently dug up the following quotation from a 2010 interview Prokhorov did with the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti:
"We have a team, we're building the arena, we've hired professional management, we have the option to buy into another large project, the building of an office center. For me, this is a project with explosive profit potential. The capitalization of the team will be $700 million after we move to Brooklyn. It will earn approximately 30 [million]. And the arena will be worth around $1 billion."
Let us recap. At the very moment the commissioner of the NBA is holding up the New Jersey Nets as a case study of basketball's impoverishment, the former owner of the team is crowing about 10 percent returns and the new owner is boasting of "explosive" profits.
I'd add that Prokhorov has already gained "explosive" benefits with the publicity attendant on his team purchase, including a fawning profile on 60 Minutes and a cover story in the New York Times Magazine.

The team as a "piece of art" (and part of a cartel)

Gladwell, in a footonote, points to a quote dug up by TrueHoop's Henry Abbott from Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert:
"To me, NBA franchises are like pieces of art. There are only 30 of them. They aren't always on the market, especially a franchise that would have been such a natural fit. … If you just looked at the Cavaliers in terms of revenues, profits and balance sheets — and you paid this amount for it — people would say 'You're insane! You're nuts.' But if you look at all the tentacles, the impact on our other venues, it makes tremendous sense."
Indeed, the same goes for Prokhorov, who in news coverage is often first described to as the owner of the Nets rather than as having a questionable past.

It's not simply a "piece of art." The league is a cartel. It doesn't expand, but pieces can be lured across the state lines. Political and civic leaders love a ribbon-cutting.

One justification for city and state subsidies for the Brooklyn arena is that it would poach revenues from New Jersey. True, but that's no justification for a federal subsidy, and those tax-exempt arena bonds are enjoying more than $100 million in federal subsidies.

About NetsDaily and AYR

In a footnote linked to the Prokhorov quote above, Gladwell writes:
NetsDaily is really very good. Even better is the brilliantly obsessive coverage of the Atlantic Yards project at Norman Oder's Atlantic Yards Report, in which every twist and turn in the entire story has been faithfully and astutely chronicled. I could not have written this without Oder's help.
For the record, Gladwell contacted me and I spoke to him, then sent him some links. He also drew on some other links on my site. (Had this been a New Yorker piece, it would have been fact-checked, and some of the errors would have been avoided. But no one has a budget for that these days, do they?)

I'd say that NetsDaily is very good at rounding up and analyzing basketball news, including from sources far afield, such as in Russia.

When it comes to analyzing the Brooklyn move, well, the main writer, "Net Income,"a veteran journalist, won't use his name. Why? The New York Times Magazine, accommodating his unwillingness to use his name, stated he was "anxious to keep his old- and new-media identities separate."

What does that mean? Well, he manages to produce slanted pro-Atlantic Yards coverage/interpretation and nasty comments without owning up to them. His basic take is that a new arena makes his team better and the backstory is irrelevant: "Why do I care how it came to be? The Nets have the richest owner in sports."

And that leads to party-line coverage such as this:

What's missing? The fact that the  Nets paid 1/8 of the cost of the new playground, as I pointed out, and New York magazine followed up.

I guess recognizing how the Barclays Nets Community Alliance were claiming to "fund" a playground renovation, and how press outlets (the Post and NY1) played along, would be so "old media."

Trucks still idle improperly at Atlantic Yards site, move from Pacific Street "No Standing" zone to Atlantic Avenue "No Standing" zone

Well, someone managing work at the Atlantic Yards site has been reading Atlantic Yards Watch. And they've apparently decided that, if they're going to continue to flout city parking rules by idling trucks in the early morning, it's better to do it on a non-residential street.

But Atlantic Yards Watch contributors are still watching.

In other words, the dump trucks that for weeks have for weeks been idling on Pacific Street between Sixth and Carlton avenues, occupying a "No Standing" zone, yesterday appeared (above) on Atlantic Avenue, occupying a "No Standing" zone between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues.

FEIS said it would be fine

According to Chapter 17, Construction Impacts, of the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Statement (FEIS), there was no reason to expect such a stack-up:
As is the case on almost all large urban construction sites, materials deliveries to the site would be highly regimented and scheduled. Because of the high level of construction activity and constrained space, unscheduled or haphazard deliveries would not be allowed. For example, during excavation, each dump truck would be assigned a specific time that it must arrive on the site and a specific allotment of time to receive its load.

...Block 1129 would be used for the staging of construction materials, and for equipment and trucks that are awaiting their scheduled appointment at one of the construction sites. Entrances to the staging area would be via Vanderbilt and Carlton Avenues onto the closed portion of Pacific Street. During Phase 1, when the construction is taking place on the arena block and Site 5, the exits would be on Pacific Street and Carlton Avenue. The use of Block 1129 as a staging area would minimize the number of trucks waiting on the street for access to the construction area. The trucks, except for concrete mixers, would be required to turn off their engines while waiting.
(Emphases added)

Not "a significant adverse impact"

During Phase I, when a substantial number of construction activities are taking place on the arena block, trucks would exit the staging area at Pacific Street and Carlton Avenue and access the construction sites by Pacific Street. Trucks that are not required to utilize the staging area could access the arena block on Flatbush Avenue or on Dean Street west of 6th Avenue. Therefore, as there would be multiple points of access to the arena block and the staging area would limit the numbers of trucks waiting on the streets surrounding the project site, the construction-related traffic would not have a significant adverse impact on surrounding land uses.

Top Markowitz aide Scissura positioning himself for Borough President; does he agree with his boss that "Brooklyn is 1000 percent behind Atlantic Yards"?

City Hall News reported 9/28/11:
Carlo Scissura is taking another step toward running to replace his boss Marty Markowitz as Brooklyn borough president. The beep’s chief of staff is stepping down from that job to become a special advisor instead, taking a $15,000 pay cut to $124,000, with some of his responsibilities transferred to other staff members. The move frees him from the restrictions that bar top city officials from raising campaign money or doing other overtly political acts. Scissura, who declined to comment, received Conflicts of Interest Board clearance for the move. Markowitz will not replace him as chief of staff.
In other words, Scissura likely will function in several ways as chief of staff, but without the title--for more than two years.

Fundraiser tomorrow

He's holding a fundraiser tomorrow, with one of hosts Andrew Steininger, capital budget/economic development specialist at Borough Hall, and another Sharon Davidson of the North Flatbush Business Improvement District.

(Note how Scissura, in the picture, is wearing a "Brooklyn" pin the way Markowitz does.)

Markowitz is on board. On 7/4/11, in an article headlined With Boss’ Support, Top Markowitz Aide Eyes Borough President Run, City Hall News reported:
"His passion for Brooklyn and knowledge of education and economic policy are a real asset,” Markowitz said in a prepared statement, “He has a bright future ahead of him and I look forward to whatever he chooses to do next.”

...“I feel like I would be able to do a great job for Brooklyn and I obviously learned from the best borough president we ever had,” Scissura said.
Political assets

The article noted that Deputy Borough President Yvonne Graham, who had planned a run in 2009 before the extension of term limts gave Markowitz a third term, is not running.

Nor is it likely that Council Member Dominic Recchia, who'd compete on geographic/ethnic grounds (southern Brooklyn/Italian) with Scissura, will run, but may instead run for Comptroller.

Surely there will be several candidates. Scissura--as well as the others--will all lack one key source of name recognition that boosted Markowitz name recognition in his 2001 run: a history of offering free concerts at two locations in the borough.

Some baggage

City Hall News noted that Scissura's political baggage includes his willingness to represent Markowitz when his bought a house--a conflict of interest that led both to be fined this year.

I wrote 4/27/10 about a City Hall News article headlined The 20 Most Influential Unelecteds: That most New Yorkers Have Never Heard Of:
Chief of Staff, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.
...Scissura calls himself the “consigliere” to the colorful borough president, and says his job description is simply “everything.”
Markowitz credits him with helping reach out to communities affected by the Atlantic Yards and Domino developments.
“If we aren’t able to get everyone to agree all the time, Carlo is at least able to lower the heat,” Markowitz said. “Plus, I value his judgment. He has a great ability to present all sides of an issue.”
Scissura's surely an able aide and amiable fellow, I noted, but lowering the heat? Remember his June 2009 testimony before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, channeling Markowitz? One of the lines was so classic Markowitz that it deserved its own excerpt.

"As we all know, the Borough President would never support anything that is not in the interests of all of Brooklyn and all Brooklynites," Scissura declared.

Questions for Scissura

Let's ask Scissura if he agrees with Markowitz that Brooklynites are "1000 percent behind Atlantic Yards," as Markowitz claimed in a video aimed to recruit immigrant investors to help Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner save money.

And if he doesn't agree with Markowitz, does he think his boss was right to lie?

What can be done during the next month of jackhammering? Waiting for answers

Two days ago, I queried Empire State Development, the state agency in charge of Atlantic Yards.

I pointed them to an Atlantic Yards Watch posting:
I have filed numerous 311 noise complaints about the jack hammering going on between 10pm and at least 4am every evening for the past 5 weeks. I can't sleep. I had a guest leave my apartment at 3am a few weeks ago to stay in a hotel because of the jack hammering.
This exception to the construction noise rule should not have been approved for jack hammering that goes on for hours on end every single night. It is torture for those of who live in the area.
I have also written to Community Boards 2 and 6. If someone doesn't put a stop to this, I will either have to have my windows soundproofed or move.
The jackhammering, as CB 2 District Manager Robert Perris told the complainant, is mandated to be done at night by the city Department of Transportation.

Forest City Ratner executive Jane Marshall, at an Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meeting last week, likened it to a dentist's appointment that would be over after a month or so.

But Forest City Ratner was to pay for soundproofed windows on certain blocks in the vicinity of the project site

"Is there any plan/option for FCR to pay for additional soundproofing, as they were required at least for certain areas?" I asked two days ago.

I'll update this when I get an answer.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Jay-Z Rocks the House"? Brooklyn Paper stays sunny side up

The Brooklyn Paper, ever eager to boost Atlantic Yards, this week informs us that "JAY-Z ROCKS THE HOUSE."

Well, maybe he will when he plays the Barclays Center next year, but his promotional presentation on 9/26/11 lasted less than two minutes, and was, in the words of a Times hoops writer, "brief and anticlimactic."

I called it "an anticlimax for news," too.

Of course the Brooklyn Paper didn't bother to report on the curious statements made by developer Bruce Ratner or Borough President Marty Markowitz.

(There was a token voice of dissent, from Battle for Brooklyn filmmaker Michael Galinsky.)

Or the meeting Empire State Development CEO Kenneth Adams had that same night with Brooklyn elected officials.

Or the glaring discrepancy between the rules that trucks at the Atlantic Yards site are supposed to follow and their actual performance.

Let's go to the videotape

Did Jay-Z rock the house? The video below will help you decide.

A caution on that BrooklynSpeaks/DDDB press release: wouldn't deferring railyard development prolong blight?

On Monday, before the community meeting with Empire State Development CEO Kenneth Adams, BrooklynSpeaks and Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) issued what I think was their first-ever joint press release, headlined What ESDC must do now to make Atlantic Yards work for Brooklyn.

It was very much BrooklynSpeaks language--DDDB never wanted to make "Atlantic Yards work for Brooklyn" but rather to stop the project. So perhaps it was an exercise in pragmatism.

The recommendations, including opening up the project site to additional developers, would require ESD to amend the project plan and numerous contract documents.

There's never been any sign of the political will to do so. If the state wanted to ensure that the project gets done without opening it up to additional developers, it could have impose tougher deadlines and fines to push Forest City Ratner.

Gentle deadline

And the joint recommendation to defer development on the railyard because of a costly platform--which the developer already has 15 years to start--implicitly endorses that gentle deadline to which the state agreed.

In other words, everyone now seems to agree that the railyard, the most prominent claim to blight on the oddly-drawn Atlantic Yards footprint, can remain a blighting influence.

(Astonishingly, FCR in March 2009 told the Empire State Development Corporation that "the vast majority" of benefits for the community would be "entirely realized in the remote circumstance of MTA's default scenario," in which no platform were built.)

The statement
Construction of the Barclays Center arena is moving ahead, but the completion of Phase I and all of Phase II of the Atlantic Yards project risks being significantly delayed. Sadly, the promises of jobs, economic vitality for the area, income for the City of New York, affordable housing, and open space all seem unlikely to be realized for decades, if not generations.

BrooklynSpeaks and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn want successful development of the Atlantic Yards site. We want what the State and City want: the economic development, the jobs, and the public benefits that a healthy development can provide—not in the 25 years now understood by all as being likely, but within the next few years as needed.

The project’s present path won’t lead us there. Although economic conditions may be discouraging for development, it is the project plan itself that is the constraint. Conceived at a time when financing was readily available and the market was ripe for a large new development, the project was planned from west to east, merging the difficult and expensive site development with the easy. As a result, the project plan has burdened what is feasible with that which has become infeasible, and risks bringing development to a halt. The project’s dependence on luxury housing hampers forward movement and adds exposure to market fluctuations that might otherwise be avoided.

In most ESDC projects, flexibility and managing risk are part of the plan. Without altering the intent or spirit of the Atlantic Yards project, ESDC should now consider pragmatic changes that will foster success and accelerate its benefits.
  • Build first on currently developable parcels, deferring the costly Vanderbilt Yards platform.
  • Develop affordable housing in the manner and context of recent successes nearby.
  • Open the development to additional teams in order to distribute the investment, the risk and the total work effort.
  • Bring the community and its elected representatives to the table so we can all work together and win.
(Emphasis added)

Looking more closely

Well, the most currently developable parcels are on the arena site, and Forest City has 12 years to finish three towers. If the state wants those parcels developed faster, then it could/should change the language.

Forest City won development rights to the railyard by pledging $100 million in cash--and then later renegotiating to $20 million down, with the rest to be paid over 22 years--because its entire bid package was said to be worth much more.

And because it included a plan to build a deck to ensure that the railyard parcels were developable.

I'm not sure what "affordable housing in the manner and context of recent successes nearby" actually means--Atlantic Terrace, developed by a nonprofit group (that's a member of BrooklynSpeaks)?--but it's worth a discussion. Surely Forest City would say the density of the project is driven by its infrastructure and other sunk costs.

The Development Agreement does require the first residential building on Block 1129--the southeast block of the project site, currently planned for interim surface parking--to begin within a decade.

The BrooklynSpeaks/DDDB press release implicitly suggests that the timetable for Block 1129 be speeded up. Forest City Ratner likely doesn't want any timetable changes, but if there are any, that would be the easiest to accommodate--it's a lot easier to build on "terra firma," as FCR executive MaryAnne Gilmartin has said.

The Times's Learning Network flubs Atlantic Yards: three errors in two sentences (but then fixes it)

The Learning Network, which on the New York Times website "provides teaching and learning materials and ideas based on New York Times content" for teachers and students, didn't do a very good job in its initial mention today of Atlantic Yards, part of Sept. 29, 1957 | New York Giants Play Last Baseball Game.

But give them credit for fixing it quickly.

It stated:
After years of contentious debate and taxpayer protest, an arena at Atlantic Yards in downtown Brooklyn is under now construction. It will be the new home of the National Basketball Association’s New Jersey Nets, who on Monday were officially renamed the Brooklyn Nets.
My comment

I commented that there were three factual errors.

First, while those protesting are (like most people) taxpayers, it's not a "taxpayer protest" as usually understood: people exercised by increased taxes associated with the project. Rather, there's opposition to the project's environmental impact and the perception of sweetheart deals granted the developer Forest City Ratner, which also built the new Times Tower with the New York Times Company.

Second, the arena's not in downtown Brooklyn. It's near Downtown Brooklyn. (The Times has published several corrections on this.)

The distinction is worth making--for example, Downtown Brooklyn was actually rezoned for increased development, while the Prospect Heights site for Atlantic Yards was not rezoned, but instead subject to a state override of zoning on behalf of developer Forest City Ratner.

Third, the team can't be officially renamed the Brooklyn Nets until it moves to Brooklyn. There's one more season left. Jay-Z announcing the name change on September 26 does not mean it's done.

The response

The page editor posted a note that it had been corrected:
After years of contentious debate and protest, an arena at Atlantic Yards near downtown Brooklyn is under now construction. It will be the new home of the National Basketball Association’s New Jersey Nets, who will be officially renamed the Brooklyn Nets.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Atlantic Yards Project Director Arana Hankin: project remains on schedule (despite trending slower), trucking procedures "a work in progress" (despite continued violations)

After the cordial but not very productive community meeting on Atlantic Yards Monday with underinformed Empire State Development (ESD) CEO Kenneth Adams, I approached him and Atlantic Yards Project Director Arana Hankin with a few follow-up questions.

Adams listened briefly, but cordially--and not without reason--begged off to greet some of the elected officials who, after all, are his bosses.

The arena schedule

I asked Hankin if the arena was on schedule, given the efforts at expensive after-hours work, unresolved discrepancies reported by a construction monitor, and, as discussed at the meeting with Adams, talk of a "recovery schedule," a construction term used to specific accelerated work.

"There’s not a recovery schedule for the arena," Hankin said. "The schedule is constantly morphing, based on weather conditions."

Are they ahead?

"They’re on schedule," Hankin responded.

"Is that trending?" I asked.

"It’s pretty constant that they’ve been on schedule," Hankin responded.

I pointed to the report, by Merritt & Harris, the consultant to the arena bond trustee, that suggested it was trending more slowly.

"Because of Hurricane Irene," Hankin said.

I pointed out that the trend began before Hurricane Irene. (Actually, that latest report concerned the month before the hurricane.)

"There’s always things that come up on the site," Hankin said.

Will there be more third-shift work?

"It’s possible, if there’s really bad weather for months on end," Hankin said.

Community impacts

Given that Forest City Ratner now has a hard deadline of September 2012 to open the arena, I suggested that community impacts come more into focus.

After all, at the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meeting on September 22, a Forest City Ratner executive said revamped trucking procedures were "very effective" in reducing the number of trucks inappropriately idling on a residential block--but that it wasn't working at all, as documented by Atlantic Yards Watch, again and again.

(For example, in this screenshot from a video taken that morning from Pacific Street looking west, the empty truck in the foreground is illegally parked, and the tractor-trailer in the intersection, poised to go into the arena site but not flagged in, is causing southbound traffic on Sixth Avenue to veer left into the northbound lane.)

“Like I’ve always said, it’s a work in progress," Hankin responded, repeating her mantra. "We constantly nag Forest City Ratner every day to make sure that they improve their game and modify their plan. They’ve already changed the way they manage the trucks at least five times.”

I asked about the first-ever "notice of violation" sent about a month ago to Forest City, giving them 30 days to comply with the state's Memorandum of Environmental Commitments. What did the developer say?

“They said they’re amending the truck rules and regs again,” Hankin said.

It still hasn't been working, I pointed out.

"Like I said, it’s a work in progress," Hankin responded.

Two views of the Barclays Center hypemasters: smiling, and grimacing

Before the big announcement Monday, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, on his Facebook page, posted Paul Martinka's photo of himself (center), Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner (left), and superstar Jay-Z.

The same day, Tracy Collins captured Jay-Z and Nets/Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark looking a little tense.

Atlantic Yards Watch identifies narrower traffic capacity on Sixth Avenue, points to bottleneck for vehicles and pedestrians

Here the news from the latest Atlantic Yards Watch posting, 6th Avenue to have fewer travel lanes than analyzed in the 2006 environmental impact statement:
  • Sixth Avenue was supposed to have four lanes, but now would have three from Atlantic to Pacific and two from Pacific to Flatbush
  • Given increased traffic circulation, congestion "may" be increased (I'd say likely)
  • It's unclear if the change is permanent, because future mitigations may be imposed
  • The state analysis overstated the effective width of the narrow sidewalks on Sixth Avenue south of Dean Street
  • To create additional travel lanes, the sidewalks would have to be narrowed further
  • The sidewalks likely will be heavily used as a route to the arena from Flatbush Avenue and the Bergen Street 2/3 station
My analysis: residents of those blocks will bear the brunt of increased vehicles and pedestrians--and it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate both.

From the latest Construction Alert: some residents to lose water service temporarily; Flatbush Avenue will lose a lane at night

According to the latest two-week Atlantic Yards Construction Alert (below), dated September 25 but distributed yesterday by Empire State Development (after preparation by developer Forest City Ratner), some residents around the 4th Avenue and Flatbush Avenue intersection will lose water service temporarily--but it's unclear how long and how extensive that shutdown will be.

Also, the document indicates that bollard installation--pending Department of Transportation approval (hearing October 5)--is on the way. Also, additional lane restriction on Atlantic Avenue is planned, and from 10 pm to 6 am a lane on Flatbush Avenue will go out of service.

The text below mainly concerns text in the document that differs from the previous document, with the new language in bold.

Water shut down for traffic mitigation site work
• The northbound lanes of 4th Avenue were closed at Atlantic Avenue on July 31, 2011 with temporary MPT (see details below). During the next two-week period work will continue on curb extensions, hydrants catch basins, lights, signals, signs and pavement striping to achieve the closure of the northbound traffic on 4th Avenue, north of Atlantic Avenue. This phase of the work is expected to take approximately 4 to 6 weeks. A water shut down will be required to install parts of the water service facilities. DEP will notify the users impacted by the shut down. The MPT will be modified several times during the course of the work to maintain safe pedestrian passage across the intersection. The details of the MPT have been reviewed by the DOT. The DEP directed the contractor to install a hydrant in lieu of the valve box that was in the original design. Because some of the work is at the edge of the island, a travel lane adjacent to the island must be taken out of service while the work is underway. Therefore all work must be performed at night between 10 PM and 6 AM per DOT stipulations.
Arena bollard installation, site work coming
Once installed in its new configuration, the Flatbush Avenue MPT will allow work to commence on the installation of the Flatbush Avenue façade and the installation of bollards along this same stretch. Part of the overall site work for the arena block, bollard installation, will commence at the intersection of Dean and Flatbush in the area of the southern vents and will continue north along Flatbush, eventually continuing around the entire block. Other work that will be done as part of the site work includes sidewalks, installation of pavers, street furniture, street trees, light and signal poles, way finding signage, hydrants and the canopy to the new subway entrance. Additional detail on the work will be provided as the contractor progresses.
Expanding MPT
Maintenance & Protection of Traffic (MPTs) For Your Safety
• MPT continues to be in place along the southern side of Atlantic Avenue between Flatbush & 6th Avenue. The current configuration of this MPT may be adjusted to accommodate the Stage Three work described in “Replacement of Adjacent Water Mains and other Utility Work”. This adjustment will result in the expansion of the MPT into the southern eastbound lane of Atlantic Avenue. This expanded MPT is in accordance with previously approved MPT.
Losing a lane on Flatbush overnight

Currently, according to the Department of Transportation's web site, there are five travel lanes on Flatbush Avenue at all times, though the configuration shifts:
That will change to eliminate a lane overnight:
• MPT currently installed along Flatbush Avenue between Atlantic Avenue and Dean Street will be reconfigured to allow the construction of site work on the Arena Block. MPT will be adjusted during the times outlined below resulting in the following travel lane configuration along Flatbush Avenue:
o 6 AM TO 10 AM there will be three (3) northbound travel lanes and two (2) southbound lanes;
o 10 PM to 6 AM there will be four (4) travel lanes, two (2) northbound and two (2)
o All other times of the day, there will be three (3) southbound travel lanes and two (2) northbound.
During overnight work hours (10 PM to 6 AM) the 8’ construction fence will be removed and temporary timber barrier will be shifted out into the curbside travel lane to permit site work. The barrier will be removed and the travel lane restored daily in time for morning rush hour. A pedestrian pathway will be maintained along the east side of Flatbush Avenue. However, during night time work hours, 10 PM to 6 AM, the portion of the pathway between 5th Avenue and Dean Streets will be closed and pedestrian swill be directed by a flagger (provided by contractor) to the west side of Flatbush.
New access from Flatbush Avenue
• Hunt has demobilized the access ramp at Dean Street and Flatbush Avenue. This gate will no longer accept primary deliveries. The main gate and delivery ramp is now and will remain for the future at Pacific Street and 6th Avenue. The access route to the Pacific gate remains posted at the site and is the same as it has been throughout the project. Access is also available via the Atlantic Avenue gates at the Fort Greene intersection, midway between the Ft. Greene and 6th Avenue intersection Flatbush, and limited access for concrete trucks on Flatbush Avenue across from 5th Avenue and at the 6th Avenue intersection.
Arena fireproofing second shift
The spray fireproofing will continue throughout this reporting period. The contractor performing this work will use temporary electric to power their equipment. The spray fire proofer will work a second shift beginning September 12th through September 16th in Quad “C”. The second shift will be continued on an as needed basis beyond that date.
Blocking Atlantic Avenue for subway entrance work
Work outside the Fence
• Permits have been secured for the portions of the street immediately adjacent to the “Tip” of the project area. Concrete plank/decking in the roadway (at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic) is now complete. The southern eastbound lane of Atlantic Avenue may be taken behind an expanded MPT in the next two weeks in order to facilitate the removal of the planking/decking to be removed and the installation of temporary roadway restoration. This will then permit the next phase of the water main installation to take place which is scheduled for the fall/winter. This expanded MPT has been approved by DOT Barricades have now been installed at the southern end of the IRT platforms as approved by NYCT.
Carlton Avenue Bridge progress
• New MPT has been put in place for the south abutment soil excavation from Pacific Street, and excavation in underway. This work will continue during this reporting period, and will be followed by forming and pouring the foundation for the South Abutment located in Block 1120.Posillico/Tully will start the installation of the 30 mini-piles required to be installed to support the new north abutment.
A water main repair needed
During this reporting period the Contractor will be continuing the work on taps into the water and sewer mains on Dean Street. The Flatbush taps were completed and inspected by DEP. The roadways were backfilled. Work began on the Dean Street taps during the prior reporting period and exposed a broken water connection to a former business on the south side of Dean Street. Discussions are underway with DEP on how the repair should be done. The excavation work at Dean Street required the removal of approximately 40’ to 60’ of the 16 foot fence on Dean Street. An 8’ tall barrier consisting of plywood on Jersey barrier was installed to replace the 16’ fence and to serve as the construction fence during the work. The contractor will move the barrier out of the way when trenching occurs in the immediate area and will plate over and replace the barrier on a daily basis. Backfill and pavement restoration will be performed after all DEP inspections are complete. All of the water and sewer work in this area must be performed at night between 10 PM and 6 AM per DOT stipulations.
Planned demolition not needed
• It was determined that the walls behind 585 Dean Street do not need to be demolished to accommodate the contractor’s requirements and will remain in place at this time.
After-hours work

All the after-hours work had been previously announced, but it's worth a reminder:
Please Be Advised of Anticipated Nighttime & Weekend Work
During this reporting period the following work will be performed either at night or during the weekend as noted. All work will be done pursuant to approved permits:
• Long Island Rail Road/Vanderbilt Yard/ Carlton Avenue Bridge:
o Construction hours are 6am – 4:30pm.
o Construction work will take place on Saturdays during the hours of 7am – 5:30pm for a period of at least three months. Saturday work is expected to continue for this reporting period.
o Beginning on Sunday, September 18, 2011, construction work will take place on Sundays during the hours of 8:00 AM – 4:30PM for a period of at least three months. The work being performed will be confined to two areas:
 The LIRR car shop for the installation of mini piles and structural support system;
 The area of the former Northeast Gas Station (Block 1121, lot 42) for installation of lagging and tiebacks for the support of excavation.
• Arena Site:
o Arena weekend work will be scheduled no later than close of business on the preceding Thursday, where make-up work due to weather or other delays makes it necessary. Saturday work is expected to continue for this reporting period.
o Subject to receipt of permits, a second shift may be continued throughout this reporting period, from 3 – 11 PM, Monday-Friday only. Also subject to receipt of permits, a third shift may be instituted during this reporting period, from 11 PM – 7 AM, Monday –Friday only.
o Hunt has requested a permit to allow for deliveries from 6 AM to 7 AM to the Arena site from the dispatch center. This work allows for an additional hour of deliveries to take place outside the neighborhood peak traffic patterns and reduce congestion and interference with the local traffic. The permit has been issued and is reviewed/re-authorized on a weekly basis. The intention is to continue to permit deliveries during this timeframe through to completion of the Arena.
o The Developer has been requested to advise ESDC and STV of what contractors will be working over the weekend and what they will be working on. The second shift arena contractors are noted within the arena summary above.
• NYC Transit Improvements:
o Temporary concrete road decking is substantially complete, however, in the event there is a need to do any related work, such work will be performed at night per DOT regulations.
Traffic will be restored every morning according to DOT stipulations.
Work related to of the BMT structure and below grade concrete, steel and MEP work may be conducted on Saturdays, October 1st and October 8th during this reporting period.
• Block 1129 – staging area:
o Contractors conducting night work may have cause to enter and exit this area as it serves as a staging and material/equipment storage area.
• Off-Site Mitigation work:
o Work taking place at Pacific/Flatbush and 4th/Pacific will be done during the overnight pursuant to DOT permits. Work will be concluded by 6 AM so that related MPT is removed for the morning rush hour
During the course of work, conditions may be encountered at the site which may warrant the need for
night and/or weekend work. Work will be done pursuant to approved permits.
Atlantic Yards Construction Alert 9-26-2011

From New York magazine: more skepticism toward the Barclays/Nets' claim that they funded a playground renovation

Update October 10: 4. An item in the “Intelligencer” of the October 3 issue built on information about the New Jersey–Brooklyn Nets that the Atlantic Yards Report first published. We neglected to credit the site’s author, Norman Oder, for the initial reporting.

From this week's New York magazine (dated Oct. 3), Intelligencer section, another piece of skepticism towards the Barclays/Nets' claim that they had funded a playground in Canarsie. I had the news on 9/20/11, but didn't get a credit.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

From HuffPost: Beyond the Hype of Jay-Z's Brooklyn Nets Announcement

Genial ESD CEO Adams meets with community members, gets praised for showing up, says state solidly supports Forest City, opposes governance entity, admits he has much to learn

Despite the general air of mutual cordiality and the non-defensiveness expressed by Empire State Development (ESD) CEO Kenneth Adams, the meeting last night which allowed Adams to meet with Brooklynites concerned about Atlantic Yards was somewhat odd on multiple levels.

First, the meeting for weeks was billed as an invitation-only affair, with questions to be submitted beforehand and to be delivered via elected officials.

However, just hours before the meeting, held at Brooklyn Borough Hall, ESD opened up the meeting to the press. (Besides me, the only other reporter to attend from the Daily News, and she left early.) During the meeting, community members were allowed to ask direct questions.

Second, though Adams was accompanied to the meeting by no fewer than seven ESD staffers, he pre-empted questions by saying he was "really here to understand." When faced with specific queries, he offered genial promises to look into things, rather than canvassing colleagues for an answer.

For example, Adams said he wanted to get more details about the community-sponsored UNITY plan, which would divide the site into multiple development parcels, as well as the developer’s specific obligations to get the project done.

Surely someone in the room could have told him that his agency long ago dismissed the UNITY plan, during the environmental review. (In other words, the questions themselves were somewhat naive.) Also, while several people, including Council Member Letitia James, said a 25-year project buildout was unacceptable, that’s exactly what the ESD negotiated.

Not discussed was that a state judge had slammed his agency for failure to study the impacts of an buildout that could last 25 years--and, rather than accept those decisions, the ESDC is appealing them (nonetheless while conducting a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement).

Bottom line

Still, the fact that Adams, a longtime Brooklynite who knew a reasonable slice of the 25 or so invited representatives and elected officials, had shown up was considered a major step forward, given the failure of any of his predecessors to hold such a meeting. (Adams previously headed the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, the MetroTech Bid, and, most recently, the Business Council.)

And there may be some progress on transportation planning and coordination between the police precincts and community boards that have a piece of the project site.

But Adams’ bottom line, delivered in his friendly manner, was unswerving: the state supports Forest City Ratner and believes the project will get done as promised.

That drew some cordial incredulity from a few attendees, one of whom pointed out that the first tower has been long delayed and no designs have been released for anything beyond the arena.

Moreover, in response to a question about the state's position on a new governance entity to oversee the project, Adams declared that Atlantic Yards was unlike other projects that do have such entities and, more dubiously, that, "Our board is making decisions about the project."

The ESDC board has not exactly followed the project closely As I've written, the former ESDC general counsel claimed at a state Senate oversight hearing that the board, not consultant AKRF finds blight--even though a board member couldn't even find Pacific Street on a project map.

Moreover, despite Adams’s desire to improve communication, he acknowledged that he had never looked at Atlantic Yards Watch, the community initiative that points to regular violations of Atlantic Yards site rules and, by implication, the state’s failure to press Forest City Ratner.

DDDB and BrooklynSpeaks

It also was curious to see project opponents like Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) and Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors/No Land Grab question Adams cordially, and get cordial, if somewhat brush-off answers in response.

The meeting also featured the first-ever (I believe) joint press release from DDDB and BrooklynSpeaks, which had previously taken different tacks on the project, and have even issued separate press releases on the abovementioned lawsuit, which combines cases each group filed separately.

In the press release, they asked:
Without altering the intent or spirit of the Atlantic Yards project, ESDC should now consider pragmatic changes that will foster success and accelerate its benefits.
• Build first on currently developable parcels, deferring the costly Vanderbilt Yards platform.
• Develop affordable housing in the manner and context of recent successes nearby.
• Open the development to additional teams in order to distribute the investment, the risk and the total work effort.
• Bring the community and its elected representatives to the table so we can all work together and win.
Queries about the developer

The first part of the meeting--before attendees knew that questions would be opened to the floor--began somewhat awkwardly, as James and then Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries queried Adams, while sitting next to him rather than opposite him. There were about 25 people in the audience.

“Does Forest City have the financial capability to build out the remainder of the project?” James asked.

“Well, we believe that they do,” Adams said, though no one asked him for evidence, nor did he provide it. “We are, ESD, a partner with Forest City Ratner. And we remain fully confident that they have the financing and the wherewithal to build out the project.”

Of course the ESD in 2009 said that, while there might be delays in the project, the arena and the first tower would proceed apace.

“How long are you prepared to give Forest City?” James asked.

“I’ll have to get back to you on that one,” Adams responded, though surely one of his staffers could have reminded him that the Development Agreement offers 12 years to build Phase 1 before penalties kick in and 25 years to build the project, with extensions possible.

“Isn’t it time to take the project away?” James asked.

“Well, no,” Adams responded. “While there have been delays, our development partner, Forest City, in terms of contractual obligations, has been compliant.”

Which is true, because the contract has been written pretty gently.

Oversight questions

Jeffries pointed out that former ESD head Dennis Mullen and former Governor David Paterson voiced support for a subsidiary to oversee Atlantic Yards governance, and asked Adams’s position. (The state’s position had not been made public, though Forest City has lobbied against such a subsidiary.)

“Every project’s different,” Adams responded. “And often governance bodies are set up for ESDC projects that are driven by funding sources.” For example, several projects have federal funds.

“For this project, while we have very important responsibilities, we're not the actual developer,” he said. “Again here, with respect to Atlantic Yards, ESDC has this role, we have a board of directors. We have a process--maybe, no doubt it can be improved upon, for communicating with the community, getting your input, making sure we have good communications... I can share that with our board. Our board is making decisions about the project. But there is a governance structure in place. I think we can do better with our existing structure than we’ve done in the past.”

Jeffries pointed out the role significant of public subsidies, zoning changes, and eminent domain, and that the project would not have happened without the state.

Is the state the developer in all the other projects, he asked Adams.

“Well, each one is different,” he said. “We have a more significant development role in Queens West, yes.”

Montgomery’s frustration

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery said she was happy to hear Adams say he wanted to open up communication. “I feel extremely frustrated and a lot insulted. Also, I’m embarrassed, because, throughout this entire process, we have not had [the opportunity to have] anything to say.”

She also criticized the initial format for the meeting, saying it was inappropriate to put her in the position of asking questions on behalf of her constituents--”they are the experts.”

“Up until now,” she said, “it’s been ESDC and the developer against all of us.”

Given that ESDC and the developer are together appealing the judicial ruling, that same framing might still apply.

Transportation issues

Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association contrasted the bi-monthly Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meetings with the additional once-promised Transportation Working Group, which he said was necessary to address upcoming challenges.

Adams said he didn’t know much about either, but said the concerns sounded reasonable.

James said she agreed that the transportation issues are just so complicated that a task force is required, while the cabinet meeting addresses primarily existing conditions.

Adams said he didn’t know anything about the plan but would put it under consideration. (Hankin had said last week that she thought they should be addressed by the cabinet first.)

Goldstein’s questions

DDDB’s Goldstein pointed out that, while Adams said the project had been delayed by litigation, the groundbreaking was 18 months ago.”You also said Forest City can finance the project. Clearly they can’t finance it right now.”

Adams didn't respond directly.

Goldstein pointed to Forest City Ratner’s failure to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor for the Community Benefits Agreement and said that the state had left several property owners in limbo because they don’t know when the second phase of eminent domain would happen.

Adams said he didn’t know when either. He did say that, in the spirit of trying to improve communication, the agency is looking to hire a new community liaison for the project, essentially replacing Forrest Taylor, who left in June.

He invited people to suggest candidates--leaving the impression, contra Hankin’s statement in an interview in August, that a hire might come soon.

AY Watch

Wayne Bailey, a resident of Newswalk, the apartment complex on the path of the trucks going from the staging area to the arena site, asked Adams if he’d seen Atlantic Yards Watch.

Adams said no.

‘That has documents, all the things from traffic, trucks, the assault on the community,” Bailey said, with some frustration. “You’re talking about improving communications. Why do the residents have to to come in the community to develop these things, when you pay monitors?”

“I’ll check it out,” Adams responded.

Forest City “in the driver’s seat”

JoAnne Simon of BrooklynSpeaks said the state had appeared to be “either a defender of Forest City Ratner, or in the dark. And that Forest City is very much in the driver’s seat.. That’s been very problematic and very troubling to people.”

She warned that discussion about the project should involve Phase 1 (the arena block) as well as Phase 2.

“We are certainly confident that the arena’s going to open next September, and Forest City will break ground in that first building in the first quarter of next year, in 2012,” Adams said in response. (Forest City had earlier this year said groundbreaking would be this year.)

“There’s been very much a ‘go-away-don’t-bother-me” from both the agency and the developer” toward community involvement, Simon said. “We really need leadership, and a commitment from ESDC to work with us.”

“I am certainly committed on behalf of ESDC to that engagement,” Adams responded. “I assume you all know everything, because you’re really good at what you do... I don’t like the idea of people feeling really important information... is not getting to you.”

CBA compliance

Melvinia Harris, representing the First Atlantic Terminal Housing Committee, observed, without giving specifics, that signatories to the CBA are not doing some of what they’re supposed to do because “Forest City is really holding back a lot of information they need to get it going.”

(Harris is also on the board of Brooklyn Endeavor Experience, a CBA signatory.)

Adams said he didn’t know.

Cracking down?

McClure also pointed to the continued violations of site protocols as documented by Atlantic Yards Watch. “Part of being a partner is being frank with your partner,” he said. “It would go a long way to community confidence if you would take the bull by the horns and crack down. Can you help make that happen?”

Adams didn’t answer that one.

Security issues

McClure also pointed to the continued concern about security issues, given that Forest City was evasive in 2007 when asked how far the arena would be from the street, after Newark decided to close adjacent streets during events.

He said several groups and elected officials had asked for an independent security study. “We don’t need to know points of vulnerability, but it would really help the community’s comfort level to know, in an ironclad way, we’re not going to close a lane of Flatbush Avenue, or Atlantic Avenue on game nights.”

James added that she’d asked for a security study five times.

Adams nodded.

Getting pragmatic

“At best we can see is that Forest City Ratner has been coy with this community,” said Regina Cahill, president of the North Flatbush Avenue Business Improvement District and not associated with project opponents.

“The biggest concerns are around transportation, what police precinct is it going to sit in. Basically, they have created an environment where people can foment and rumor-monger. I think... being a pragmatic person, we need to know is there a way to wrest control from Forest City, or is that contractually out of the question?.. What can influence can we have?”

She said Adams needed a list from the community, and the community needed a list from him, of what can be pragmatically done.

Adams responded, “Our position, as I’ve said, despite the delays, we’re still fully confident that Forest City is going to build this whole thing and, over time, deliver all the promised benefits... I’m an optimist, you know me. It’s really going to be transformational, I think it’s going to be great. I think it’s going to bring to Brooklyn all the things that have been planned for and hoped for over these years. That doesn’t mean in the process there aren’t these sort of difficult conditions.”

So in the meantime, he said, they have to try to mitigate the impacts and protect people’s quality of life.

Cahill added later that the arena and project sit "at the nexus of three community boards, three precincts... I would think you want to talk to the community about how we use our own community before you draw lines."

Getting skeptical

Lucy Koteen, representing the Fort Greene Association (and a Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn stalwart), said, “You’ve heard here tonight and in the past how we’ve been rebuffed by the ESDC and the developer... and our elected officials... have also been denied access. We were told this was a ten-year project and it’s not... I’m puzzled when you say you trust the developer on his ability to fund this whole project, when we know he hasn’t had the money.”

She noted that Ratner went to China to get loans from immigrant investors seeking green cards and there have been no drawings of the project.

“It’s an enormous burden on all of us,” Koteen said. “We have been so disrespected.”

She pointed that Adams’s father, the late Murray Adams, “himself was opposed to the project... Why are we still being disrespected in our hope for a UNITY plan?”

Adams deflected the question with an anecdote about how he told his parents about the appointment, Both his parents picked up extensions. When he told his father, he said, Murray Adams screamed, “ESDC, that’s the agency that doesn’t listen to the people.”

His father, Adams said, “should be happy I’m here. But I’ve got to do more than listen, I recognize that.”

He said he’d like to learn more about the UNITY plan.

Re-doing the CBA?

Reverend Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Clinton Hill praised Adams: “I’m sure your presence will add to a less combative nature of the dialogue.”

He suggested “a more triangular version of development. Maybe it’s too late to add that template to the Atlantic Yards. But certainly the developer could not have gotten to this point without the ESDC. And it looks like the developer said whatever it had to say to get up to a billion dollars in taxpayers’ money.”

(It certainly wasn’t a billion in direct subsidies, but if you add up the tax breaks, naming rights, and opportunity costs--a billion is in the ballpark. For example, the New York City Independent Budget Office, excluding naming rights, tv revenues, and housing subsidies, counted a net savings on the arena to Forest City of more than $720 million.)

Miller asked if the ESDC and the governor could look at the CBA, given the failure to deliver jobs as promised.

Adams noted that he’d earlier been asked what the agency can do to advance the monitoring of the CBA.

“Not just the monitoring,” Miller said, suggesting a revision.

“We’re not a party to it,” Adams said, but he called Miller’s point “helpful emphasis, so I can look into it.”

Senator Adams's concerns

State Senator Eric Adams pointed to the ongoing security issue and the jobs issues. He suggested that problems be broken down into manageable levels.

“At the top of list for me is the safety plan,” said Adams, a former police captain. “We need to know how the police are going to do a good job.”

Final comments

Montgomery thanked Adams “for turning this ship around” and said, “I’m confident we now can move forward... we can now perhaps think about the future in a very different way. None of us are opposed to development.”

James, in her final comments, cited the ongoing issues of security, lack of accountability, transparency, and governance. “We need real timetables with real consequences,” she said. “Twenty-five years is totally, totally unacceptable.”

Of course that’s already in place.

Carlo Scissura, the Borough President’s Chief of Staff, invited audience members to attend the bimonthly District Service Cabinet meetings--which, I’d point out, are not publicly announced.

Also present was John Keefe, an aide to Assemblyman Jim Brennan. Not present, despite being billed as attending, was Council Member Stephen Levin. Also not present were anyone from Assemblymenber Joan Millman's office or Council Member Brad Lander's office. No one from Forest City Ratner was present.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A belated invite to a now-open Community Forum with Kenneth Adams

Remember the behind-closed-doors community meeting with Empire State Development CEO Kenneth Adams scheduled for tonight?

Well, now it's open to the press. So I'll be there.

The Jay-Z media event: an anticlimax for news (Brooklyn Nets, concert), but a chance for TV coverage; also, Ratner, Markowitz make some curious claims

The media event this morning featuring "cultural icon" Jay-Z was a bit of an anticlimax--there was little response from the generally supportive crowd when Mr. Carter announced that the team would be called the Brooklyn Nets and that he'd open the Barclays Center arena with a concert--actually a couple (though he didn't say eight, as the New York Daily News reported).

After all, in well-planned exclusives accepted by the compliant tabloids, the Daily News placed the Jay-Z opening news on page 4 and the New York Post placed its news--that the team hopes "to steal Knick fans from lower Manhattan"--on page 3.

(In photo, which I took, the sign with Jay-Z inducing ticket buyers was just being put up on the arena facade as the 10 am press conference time approached.)

Aimed at TV

But the event today was aimed at TV, with the Barclays Center rising in the background. There were exclusive interviews first on Fox 5, including with Jay-Z.

(See Battle for Brooklyn director Mike Galinsky's account, Bread and Circuses, that describes his effort to challenge reporters to see behind the media event they were dutifully covering.)

Then, across the street at a tent pitched in front of the Atlantic Terminal Mall, the press conference featured fairly brief words from Nets CEO Brett Yormark, Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner, and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz before Jay-Z spoke briefly.

(In photo above by Tracy Collins, Markowitz, center, greets Yormark, as Jay-Z looks on. Here's Collins's set, shot from outside the event.)

There were no other elected officials in attendance, but representatives from at least six of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement signatories were present. A Times hoops writer called the event "brief and anticlimactic."

Some p.r. surprises

Some of the words were fairly surprising: Bruce Ratner, as the video below indicates, claimed the arena was "largely for the children and youth," given how it would present memorable events.

Eschewing precise claims about jobs created by the project, he offered more precise numbers about unrelated projects, the Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls, as well as the Bank of New York Tower in the Atlantic Terminal mall.

(Crain's picked up on the job numbers, quoting me as calling the figure for construction jobs "unlikely" and permanent jobs "bogus" and "laughable." In the photo, a salute to some of the sponsors, in panels that flanked the stage.)

Also, opening up a new vein in p.r., he recounted the nationwide impact of such a construction project, given that construction materials are produced and finished in numerous states. (Actually, most of the subsidies came from the city and state.)

And Nets/Barclays CEO Brett Yormark, astoundingly, described Ratner as "the man chiefly responsible for the renaissance of Brooklyn." (Um, I think a lot of people contributed to that renaissance, like the people who invested in the neighborhoods around the project site long before Ratner did.)

Markowitz, showing his vintage, declared that the opening of the arena meant Brooklynites would be "disrespected and belittled" no more.

(Photo of Markowitz and Jay-Z walking to the event by Mike Galinsky/Battle for Brooklyn)

What was missing

No one mentioned the local impact, that, at least as calculated by the New York City Independent Budget Office, the arena counts as a loss for the public.

Meanwhile, as documented via Atlantic Yards Watch, trucks serving the project continued this morning to violate site and city rules by blocking traffic and proceeding toward the site despite it not being ready to receive them.

Good Day NY: Bruce Ratner and Brett Yormark

The Good Day NY coverage on Fox 5, spaced out throughout the morning, must have tickled the hearts of arena backers. "They are going to reveal the Nets new time name, live on our show, how cool is that?” declared Rosanna Scotto.

Scotto pointed out to Ratner that the project had been bogged down. "I always had faith, I knew I’d get to this day," Ratner said, contradicting a previous interview when he'd expressed doubts.

"It’s needed, it’s important, there are thousands of jobs created by this project, and we need jobs," he said, using that vague "thousands" term.

Scotto pointed to talk of 24/7 construction.

"We don’t want to take any chances," Ratner responded. "It’s going on all the time, on weekends, and after-hours." And, I'd add, with some collateral damage.

Yormark was asked how well suites were selling.

"Everything is going very, very well," he responded, saying "we're about 50% sold on our suites" and a new, Jay-Z-fueled phase would be beginning.

Good Day NY: Jay-Z

Scott was even more fawning with Jay-Z. "We have decided that the official name will be the Brooklyn Nets," Jay-Z declared anti-climactically.

"Brooklyn Nets," Scotto enthused.

"You see, I'm really giddy right now," Jay-Z responded.

"Because you grew up in the Marcy apartments about seven minutes away from here." Scotto responded. "This is your neighborhood." (Seven minutes maybe by car. Even the G train takes longer, given the walk.)

"Yeah, and I also had a place at 560 State Street, which I could literally walk to" from here, Jay-Z continued.

A place? A stash spot, as he recounted in Empire State of Mind.

"I'm going to open... with a couple of concerts," he added. "One or two--or eight."

He was noncommittal when asked if his wife Beyoncé Knowles would join him. Now was he ready to announce the color of the Brooklyn Nets uniforms.

"Jay-Z, now that we're friends, I want to tell you that I really love your music," Scotto. "And I know I'm no Alicia Keys, maybe you'll let me just sing a little something to you."

Then she began to sing, "Brooklyn, concrete jungle where dreams are made of," from Empire.

That's morning TV.

"What do you think the arena's going to mean to people in this neighborhood?" Scotto asked.

"Well, it's already created so many jobs, especially at a time like this in the world," Jay-Z responded, untethered to precision or a cost-benefit analysis. "And create more jobs--this place has to be run."

Actually, it's caused a lot of problems for "people in this neighborhood."

Brett Yormark and Bruce Ratner

At the media event tent, Barclays Center p.r. guy Barry Baum introduced Yormark as CEO of the Barclays Center. "Today marks the tip-off of the 12-month countdown" to the opening of the arena, Yormark said.

Steel is 75% up and the roof should be enclosed by early next year, he said. "Forest City Ratner and Hunt Construction continue to do an amazing job."

"The Barclays Center will offer something for everyone," he said, including "Brooklyn's hometown NBA team."

"It was Bruce's vision, perserverance, and character that were instrumental in making the Barclays Center a reality," Yormark said of the man who hired him. He also thanked Markowitz, "who has demonstrated unwavering support for this project."

"Finally, it's a privilege to be here with the number one entertainer in the world: Jay-Z," he said, before introducing Ratner as "the man chiefly responsible for the renaissance of Brooklyn."

Ratner, at the podium, declared, waving his arms "You can see it rising, you can see its size, you can see how beautiful it is. You can imagine basketball there, you can imagine boxing... college sports and the thing I like most, extravaganzas. Something for everybody."

"Not only will it bring this borough entertainment," he said. "There are over 1500 permanent retail jobs in these builidngs. There are almost 2000 office workers... And now we'll have an arena and residential buildings and more jobs. Thousands of construction jobs, thousands of permanent jobs."

Notice how he didn't offer specifics.

"And I have to say something... If you think about it, it's not only jobs for Brooklyn, it's jobs for America," Ratner declared, starting on a new tack. "Each piece of steel, mined from ore in the state of Minnesota. It's smelted in a plant in North Carolina, the coal that supplies that plant is from Pennsylvania. The ingots are rolled in another one of our states. It's cut and fabricated in Virginia. And it's shipped here to Brooklyn, where our great construction workers put it up in stands made in Detroit. All America benefits by this."

(Photo by Tracy Collins)

"Mayor Bloomberg has been an unwavering supporter," Ratner said, thanking city agencies. He then thanked "the state government, led by our new governor, who has given us all hope... and our thanks in particular to the ESDC."

He thanked the MTA, the Long Island Rail Road, Borough President Markowitz, and the CBA partners, citing specifically the Rev. Herbert Daughtry and James Caldwell, president of Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD).

He saluted Irina Pavlova, president of Onexim Sports and Entertainment, the company for the team's majority owner. "Michael Prokhorov," Ratner added, again showing his unwillingness to pronounce the name Mikhail. "Brooklyn loves you and America loves you."

"As Jay-Z knows, this arena is largely about the children and youth of Brooklyn," Ratner said. "We can give them more moments--each one of us has had a time in our life--that first circus, that first basketball game, that first ice hockey, or whatever it happens to be--we all remember those moments, and we want to give those first warm moments to every child in Brooklyn and have that feeling and inspiration that'll lead them to become more Jay-Z's, more Brett Yormarks, more of the many, many people who are out here."

Marty Markowitz

"Thank you for making my personal dream, and the dreams of Brooklynites a reality," Markowitz said, to Ratner.

"What I can say today, to the residents that are here, thank you for keeping the faith. Thank you for keeping the faith," he said. "I know the taunts that you receive, and that's saying it nicely. I know. You kept the faith and you realized what this would be for the future of Brooklyn and New York. And I congratulate each and every one of you."

He congratulated people for accepting money from Forest City Ratner to represent the community in the Community Benefits Agreement?

"So I can say, today, that Brooklyn is in the house, big time. And for generations, Broklynites were belittled and disrespected"--his voice rose--"disrespected and belittled, no more. That's all I can say. Next year, when we formally open the arena, the ghosts of Ebbets Field will forever be lifted."

(Photo by Tracy Collins)


From the podium, Jay-Z called for a group of students from his old high school--George Westinghouse--to join him. The actual content of his remarks lasted less than a minute.

"I have so much pride, as a kid who came from Marcy Projects to stand here," he said. "I asked for two things, two things, out of my partners in ownership, is that we name the New Jersey Nets the Brooklyn Nets, and the second one is that I open it with a concert."

He made it sound like it was a radical request. Both were obvious strategies.

"So we're opening this arena here with a concert, maybe, one, maybe two, maybe--I sound like LeBron [James]," he said, to laughter. "Maybe one, maybe two--definitely more than one."

"Without Brooklyn, I wouldn't be standing here right now," he said in conclusion. "I'm humbled, I'm excited, so we're ready for the Brooklyn Nets... let's make some noise."

And then he walked out, to applause, to a waiting limo. The only questions he'd answered were the ones posed by Scotto.

(Photo by Tracy Collins)