"We are truly concerned--we are outraged," declared state Senator Eric Adams (at podium in photo at left). Developer Forest City Ratner "thought we were going to have short memories and a long construction schedule."
Assemblymembers Hakeem Jeffries and Karim Camara, with the under-construction Barclays Center looming in the background, echoed similar sentiments.
"We have been extremely patient with this project," Adams said at one point. "I don't think that you can find three more elected officials who have attempted to be a voice of reason around this project. And if we're saying we're fed up, then clearly the developer had gone too far."
Their statements likely represented some measure of political calculation--two of the three are running for office--as well as a reflection that their constituents are frustrated.
The project, when initially passed in 2006, was supposed to take ten years to deliver 16 towers and an arena, with 15,000 construction jobs (in job-years) and thousands of permanent jobs. It also was to include 6430 apartments, among them 2250 subsidized "affordable" units.
The project, however, was delayed by the economic downturn, unrealistic plans, and litigation, and was revised in 2009, with contractual documents that allow a 25-year buildout. Only the arena is is under construction right now, and that, officials said, does not justify the subsidies and special benefits Forest City gained. Also see coverage in the Wall Street Journal, with un-rebutted comments from Forest City Ratner and Empire State Development, and my posted comment.
(Still photos and set copyright Tracy Collins. In photo above right, Jeffries is at the podium, with Camara to his right.)
A "litmus test" for Cuomo
"This is a litmus test for our new governor," Adams said of Andrew Cuomo. "One of the major problems we've had historically is that too many people have used taxpayers' dollars to give promises, and did not deliver. And he is against that, and this is the perfect opportunity: this developer has become the poster child of how we will not do business [any more] with taxpayers' dollars."
(Indeed, Cuomo has publicly aimed to be a better steward of taxpayer dollars on highway construction projects, at least.)
Displaying his Jesse Jackson-esque knack for political rhyme, at one point Adams declared, "We want real benefits. The developer is offering Jay-Z"--who'll open the arena with a concert in September--"but we're saying j-o-b."
The press conference was held at the southeast corner for Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, with Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls visible across the street. "This is not Midtown Manhattan," Adams said at one point, emphasizing Brooklyn's neighborhood feel. While that's true, it depends on perspective: the north and west borders of the site are far busier than the low-rise southern and eastern borders.
Press conference video
The AY Governance Act
The Atlantic Yards Governance Act, the officials said, could help right the balance. Maybe somewhat, I'd suggest, but the legislation still leaves the state in charge, and developer Forest City Ratner negotiated contracts that give it a long leash to build the project and thus deliver on the housing and jobs.
Even though the legislation would not, for example, allow community control or other significant changes, Forest City has opposed it. So too has the state, via Empire State Development head Kenneth Adams. So passage would represent a significant symbolic shift, with potential real results down the line
What would it take to move the legislation, I asked (at 13:50 of the video), especially since it's passed the Democratic-dominated Assembly but not the Republican-majority Senate?
"We have a new governor, who understands the importance of employment," Adams responded, not too convincingly. "We're going to reach out to Martin Golden," the powerful Brooklyn Republican senator who supports the project. "We're going to give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn't know why this bill was right."
Jeffries left open the potential to pressure Cuomo, who helped get the Senate to pass marriage equality and other bills, to step in. Then again, Cuomo's expressed so little interest in Atlantic Yards that his administration has not appointed a community relations representative to fill a position that's been open since last June.
Adams said he had a meeting scheduled next week with Forest City, and "we're going to sit down and strongly reinforce what our positions are."
Political calculation and constituent response
Why go public now, on a slow-news-Sunday, with a press conference spurred by the elected officials and promoted by the BrooklynSpeaks coalition? (BrooklynSpeaks had long sought to reform the project, rather than stop it, as had Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, though the two coalitions are jointly working on the last AY court case.)
As suggested above, there was surely some measure of political calculation: Jeffries is running for Congress and Adams is running for re-election, with a rumored bid for Borough President in 2013. Camara is an ally.
But the officials also are likely responding to their constituents, many of whom supported the project because they expected benefits from the much-promoted but not-so-reliable Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), but are confronting the reality of few jobs and delayed housing.
"Where were y'all?"
Given the trio's lack of historical opposition to the project, their statements provoked a blunt question (at about 18:25 of the video) from Mary Alice Miller (right), a reporter/columnist at the Bed-Stuy-based Our Time Press.
"All of you are known for somewhat supporting this project, as opposed to James and Montgomery, who were for years vociferously opposed to it, because they smelled that that Community Benefits Agreement was not enough--it was unenforceable." (I'd add that their opposition went well beyond the CBA.)
"So for five years," Miller asked, where were y'all, and where was this legislation?"
Adams said he had never supported the CBA, which was a privately negotiated agreement, not subject to public oversight but used as proof of community support. "I don't believe developers should sit down with hand-picked community residents and decide how to shape a project," said Adams, who added that the project should never have circumvented City Council oversight.
"Elected officials use different methodologies to carry out how they want to see government move forward," he said, by way of explanation. "So I commend Senator Montgomery, and I commend City Council Person Letitia James on their methods... There's not a one-size-fits-all for making sure developers do their job."
Jeffries (left), a polished trial lawyer in his past, parried the question gamely. Neither he nor Adams were in office, he pointed out, when the project was approved in 2006. As Assemblyman-elect, he had written a letter, unheeded, asking Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for the Public Authorities Control Board to delay its vote on the project because there was inadequate information about project benefits.
"So I've expressed a great deal of skepticism from the very beginning," he said.
(Unmentioned: Jeffries took a moderate, even confusing posture on the project during the campaign, in clear contrast to anti-AY candidate Bill Batson. He also asserted that he opposed eminent domain to build a basketball arena, and wrote a letter, but never backed those who filed suit against the state's use of eminent domain.)
And, Jeffries noted, he'd pushed for the legislation for the last three legislative sessions, and it had passed the Assembly last year for the first time. "The developer is now saying the project is something we have to live with for 20 or 25 more years. If that's the case, we're going to step in as forcefully as we can and urge the governor and ESDC to get involved and bring to light what should be a public-private partnership."
Jeffries: a "graveyard of broken promises"
"This is a project that has promised much but delivered little," Jeffries said in his initial statement. "Less than 100 people from this community have received meaningful employment." (Presumably he meant to contrast jobs at the project site with retail and other low-wage jobs that workers have gotten through CBA signatory BUILD, or Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development.)
"This was supposed to be a field of dreams, it's turned into a graveyard of broken promises," he said. And it didn't have to be this way. When we think about the fact that this should have been a meaningful public-private partnership... $200 million from the city, $100 million from the state, the opportunity and the threat of eminent domain, the waiver of the land use process and zoning changes, all of which were necessary for this project to take place, and yet we see no significant public benefit. And part of the reason is that, from the very beginning the fix was in, and there was not the appropriate government structure that was put in place to make sure there was transparency, and accountability and meaningful public input."
He noted that other projects, like Brooklyn Bridge and Moynihan Station, all have subsidiary corporations.
Camara: hearing the complaints
Camara, who unlike Adams and Jeffries had been a clear supporter of the project, said, "What I find most distressing: there are existing members of the Carpenters Union, who I represent in the Assembly, who put their name on the list and can't get on the site, and that was a reason why we supported the project."
Camara said that "we're not sure" if 100 to 150 people benefited from a pre-apprenticeship training program. (Actually, only 36 people went through a training program organized by BUILD and seven have filed suit, charging they were promised jobs and union cards.)
"All we have is a basketball arena," Camara said. "I would say that's a slam dunk in the faces of many in this community."
Also backing the efforts were several leaders of BrooklynSpeaks: 52nd District Democratic Leader JoAnne Simon; Deb Howard of the Pratt Area Community Council, and Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Association.
Simon, speaking after Camara, pointed out, "Many of us... didn't support this project... in part because we were suspicious of the level of promises that were made, and we also know that this area is so fragile: that if things weren't done right, with meaningful input from community, we would have a much more serious problem on our hands."
Also speaking was Ede Fox (right), president of Prospect Heights Democrats for Reform; she's also an announced candidate for the 35th District City Council seat currently held by James, who's expected to run for another office. "We cannot let the developer choose to provide the benefits he deems valuable, so we must demand accountability and openness."
One Zelig-like figure in some of the photos is a gentleman in a wool cap and dark glasses, positioned between Adams and Jeffries in the photo at top and, though partly obscured, just behind Fox in the photo at left. That's Vincent Haynes, not a member of BrooklynSpeaks but rather a supporter of BUILD. [Update: I should add that at some point in 2012, he was working for Camara.]
Adams for BP?
After the press conference, I asked Adams if this was an issue for the Borough President--yes, he answered.
"And are you going to be running?" I asked at 24:18 of the video.
"Right now," I'm running for state Senate," he said with a bit of a smile. (Translation: I wouldn't bet against it.)
After the press conference, I queried Camara about the evolution of his views.
"I was never completely opposed to the project," he responded, amending his response (after I interjected) to "I was supportive of it. There were also people who would support it with certain provisions, including if there were more teeth to the Community Benefits Agreement, if there was construction jobs, if there were permanent jobs, if there was affordable housing."
"My reasons again--in hindsight, I do have some regrets at being so enthusiastic for it without having more teeth in the Community Benefits Agreement--my support was not because of the basketball arena, but because the potential creation of construction jobs, which I anticipated to be 15,000 by 2016, 10,000 permanent jobs, and affordable housing," Camara said. "The reason I have some reservations and have been disappointed is that those promises have not been met."
"I think that even those people who were against the project would agree that it would be great to have that number of jobs and affordable housing," he added. "Other things, traffic, environmental concerns, quality of life concerns were why people were against it."
I pointed out that I've written skeptically because I know there have been mistaken and misleading projections all along. (I didn't add the specifics: that there was always reason to question the timetable for the project, and that the 10,000 permanent jobs was discarded long ago.)
"In the political world, people say, oh someone flip-flopped," Camara continued. "But I think, as a leader, you make decisions based on the information at your disposal at the time. I was enthusiastically for the project. Now that those promises have been met, and I look at the information that I have now at my disposal, I can admit that I'm very disappointed with the results and why I think that the ESDC bill that Assemblyman Jeffries has is critical, because there would be more monitoring of the project and the promises made by the developers."
I asked what he's hearing from his Crown Heights constituency. Camara said he'd talked to union members "who anticipated being on this job, and or at least have a strong chance.... I don't know of any strong number of people who've been on this job."
He said, that "we should have an accounting from the developer, the total number of jobs, the total number of local jobs."
I asked if he knew about the Independent Compliance Monitor required by the CBA. He said he did, though he then pivoted to suggest that Jeffries' bill might help provide that information.
That may be so, though if Jeffries, Adams, and Camara want to effect change, why not also write a letter requesting that Forest City Ratner hire the Independent Compliance Monitor now, not later?