Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On BCAT, BUILD's Caldwell and Chamber rep talk up arena "win-win" (and a few things are missing)

Last night, on Brooklyn Independent Television's Intersect, on the BCAT TV Network, Lori Raphael, Director of External Affairs at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, and James E. Caldwell, President and CEO of Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), joined host Brian Vines "for a discussion about job and business opportunities for Brooklynites" as "the Atlantic Yards become the Barclays Center."

(The show appears Mondays and Thursdays at 1:30pm & 9:30pm and Wednesdays at 3 pm & 11 pm, on Time Warner 56, Cablevision 69, RCN 84, Verizon 44, and streaming: Channel 3. It also should be available on the web site as an individual episode.)

Given such a focus on opportunities, not to mention the conflation of the Vanderbilt Yard with the Atlantic Yards site, it wasn't surprising that the project was presented as a win-win, with a mild acknowledgment of people who "feel" promises haven't been kept. (Is it just a "feeling" or could it maybe be documented?)

There was no mention of the big picture questions, such as the New York City Independent Budget Office's calculation that the arena would be a net loss for city taxpayers, or, however much there may be trickle-down spending and hiring, whether the big beneficiary is developer Forest City Ratner. Or, as the rather mainstream Regional Plan Association recently suggested, it's too soon to come to a verdict.

Nor was there discussion of other charged issues, such as the failure to deliver promised affordable housing--part of the public promotion of the project--or the much-delayed arena transportation plan. It was pretty much happy talk.

A changed landscape

Caldwell (left) saluted a changed landscape, noting that retail spaces have been filling up on Vanderbilt and Washington Avenues, and even on Flatbush Avenue.

"Once the arena was approved in 2006, I started to see a slow process of businesses starting to move into the community," Caldwell said, allowing that "a lot of them was not for the Atlantic Yards project."

In other words, Caldwell is less credulous than the New York Times reporter who credited the arena with driving retail changes on Flatbush. And the question remains: was the arena project necessary to stimulate development in a "blighted" area or was it happening all along?

"This arena has really shook up the economy in a very positive way," Caldwell declared, "and peoples are excited, very excited, because the arena has really brought businesses back to our community and we're very thankful for that."

Caldwell doesn't exactly speak for everybody, given the fact that the state overrides city zoning barring sports facilities from within 200 feet from a residential area, or the looming interim surface parking lot.

Raphael (left) noted that hotels have been coming to the environs of Downtown Brooklyn, helping the borough "hit its stride" as a destination. It's also driven, I'd add, by a rezoning and by increasing demand in the city.

Asked by Vines about the effort by Hooters to move near the arena and the mix of local/national businesses, Raphael sidestepped mention of the not uncontroversial chain and said it was a "good mix" of local and national.

Thus the boundaries of Downtown Brooklyn are "leaking out further, which is a great thing," she declared. And "an influx of nationals" is "terrific," she said, because "they have a tendency to anchor an area," as "they're light, they're bright, they're kept well, they may stay open long enough to increase that 24/7 nature of the street."

She said that the Chamber has been able to introduce contracting opportunities at the arena--extermination, uniform dry cleaning--to its members, as well as introduce food businesses that are actively being considered.

What BUILD does

Vines (right) asked Caldwell what BUILD does. "We try to build lives in our community. We try to reach out for those that are very unfortunate."

He described some basic employment help: "We try to help them with resumes, pull your pants up, take the do-rag off, make yourself look presentable."

"Generally when big projects come to our community, peoples of color generally don't get an opportunity to participate," Caldwell said,  reverting to his basic mantra. "The fact that we was invited to sit down at the table to sit down with Forest City Ratner Companies... We're there to advocate for the little guy, for the little one in our community, to make sure that they get a chance to participate, and more importantly, get a chance to work in the arena. For example, we have, working along with Forest City Ratner, we have a customer service program... that we're trying to prep our community, that they will get a fair chance at maybe obtaining one of those jobs."

There are 172 graduates of the unpaid training, funded by FCR. Unmentioned was whether BUILD really was necessary to get people hired for this project or whether it played a more important role in cheerleading for Atlantic Yards.

Forest City, Caldwell said, is trying to keep the promises they made in the Community Benefit Agreement.

Actually the most important promise in the CBA may have been the pre-apprenticeship training BUILD was supposed to organize.

Vines did ask about the program, but without pointing out that seven of the 36 people in the program have sued BUILD and Forest City Ratner for unfulfilled promises of jobs and union cards.

Caldwell deflected the question, suggesting that construction jobs were usually temporary, and that people with a "consistent job... can do more for their families." Thus he plugged the customer service and hospitality training that BUILD's done, without pointing out that the latter prepares people, generally, for low-wage jobs, whereas unionized construction work pays much more.

BUILD and FCR

Caldwell at one point dismissed critics' claims that "we're puppets" by saying "we're independent." He did acknowledge that "Forest City has been funding us," along with grants the developer helped BUILD get. His interviewer didn't press the issue, but however formally independent BUILD may seem, it's financially dependent on the developer. And that's one of the issues in the lawsuit.

Caldwell, for the first time to my knowledge, used a particular formulation in describing the Community Benefits Agreement: "Eight black organizations that signed on to be partners with Forest City Ratner to ensure that peoples living in the surrounding communities would get a shot."

Now Caldwell's a personable man with a folksy style, and has a definite record of community work at the 77th Precinct Community Council, but statements like that are why longtime BUILD Chief Operating Officer Marie Louis, who died late last year, usually went on TV ahead of him.

First, Caldwell was excluding the diversity--at least among people of color--implied by the role of CBA signatories ACORN and the New York State Association of Minority Contractors. But he's right, essentially: those who signed the CBA were black, and they represent mostly black constituencies.

And that leads to a question: how could it then be a true "Community" Benefits Agreement?

Also, does the head of a neighborhood organization that's supposed to negotiate with a powerful developer like Forest City Ratner inspire confidence it's a fair match when he talks about how "peoples are excited" or how "peoples... would get a shot"?"

Net gains?

Vines asked if his guests saw the arena "as a net positive gain for Brooklyn businesses."

Unsurprisingly, his guests concurred. Raphael said "the stadium" is a tool for the Chamber to introduce smaller businesses to the larger business community to present procurement and other opportunities.

Caldwell said it's going to create all kinds of opportunity.

Vines, showing mild familiarity with less happy talk, said he knows "there's a segment of people" who "feel like there's still a lot of promises not kept in terms of job creation."

Even if there are only part-time jobs, Vines said, serving Caldwell a fat pitch, what do they "mean to people who walk through your doors"?

Caldwell cited a young man he met he wanted any job to get custody of his child. Then he acknowledged that the CBA "is not going to happen overnight."

Vines later asked what they asked for from Forest City that hasn't happened. Caldwell allowed that he would have liked to have seen more BUILD members working on the construction site.

Raphael followed up by saying that "construction jobs by their very nature are temporary" and "we've got to concentrate our positive energies where the growth is." (Does that mean part-time arena jobs? She didn't say, but I doubt it.)

And, after referencing the long gestation period of MetroTech, she suggested it would 20-25 years before the fruit of current development is clear.

Irony note

Instead of Caldwell on the show with Raphael, it could have been me--or so it seemed. I was actually invited last Wednesday to appear on the show:
We are requesting that you appear as the second panelist on this half-hour talk-show, to weigh in on our conversation about the status of the Atlantic Yards project and where opportunities can be found for local businesses and residents. We are consistent readers of your “Atlantic Yard Report” blog and hope you will be able to provide perspective for us, based on the on-going coverage you provide.
Doubtful that they were "consistent readers" of my blog, I called the producer for more information. I never got a response. (Update: I was told that my return call was missed.)

Maybe someone in the office pointed out that Caldwell and I might have different perspectives on the extent of the opportunities and even the role of BUILD.

But if it is truly Brooklyn Independent Television--and I wonder--I look forward to my invitation to appear on an episode later this year. After all, here's the show's description:
Guest panelists representing Brooklyn community activists, political leaders, business owners, residents, and journalists tackle topics important to the people of Brooklyn and beyond. Viewers can expect a lively discussion representing all sides of an issue, as well as firsthand insight into the impact these issues have on the people of Brooklyn.

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