Thursday, October 25, 2012

What happened to the Atlantic Yards "opposition"? Or, more importantly, what's happened to civic and press oversight?

I recently was queried by a New York Times reporter--who's barely covered Atlantic Yards and was credited with a dubious account of the arena opening--curious about what happened to long-time Atlantic Yards "opponents," and whether they've moved on or not.

The reporter wanted my take on "the state of the opposition," among other things. I'm responding publicly and at length in the hopes of influencing a more insightful article.

(I haven't had any previous dealings with this reporter, but the Times's senior editor in charge of corrections, who has a rather odd commitment to accuracy, in August told me, "You have lost all credibility with editors and reporters here." So I'm a bit wary.)

Asking about the "state of the opposition" is a narrow question and, while perhaps of some human interest, misses the point in several ways. First, there is no--and never was--a monolithic "opposition," as I describe below. Second, attention to the "opposition" when it mattered was highly sporadic.

The not-so-watchdog press

More importantly, focusing on "opponents" ignores a larger issue: what role should the press play in oversight of a controversial project like Atlantic Yards, passed without any vote from local elected officials? When the press feels it must point out promises unfulfilled or corners cut, it usually relies on the "opposition."

But reporters can and should ask those questions themselves, helping fill a gap in oversight, and serving as a counterweight to the huge effort by developer Forest City Ratner (lobbying and public relations) and its government allies (p.r.) to promote Atlantic Yards. It's never been a fair fight. (See what I call the Culture of Cheating.)

Why focus on "the opposition" when there's news for the taking, such as my report on Forest City Ratner's admission, to investment analysts, that it won't consider building towers over the railyard until after it builds seven towers. That undermines a key justification for Atlantic Yards: removal of blight.

The Times has not exactly distinguished itself covering Atlantic Yards. What about going down the EB-5 rabbit hole? What about the fate of BUILD (and the "modern blueprint")? Marty Markowitz's two-facedness?

Why'd the Times ignore the May 2009 state Senate oversight hearing, the state's only Atlantic Yards oversight hearing? Why did it devote just five print paragraphs to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's June 2009 revision of the railyard deal?

Diminished "opposition," but still need for oversight

I expect the upcoming article to declare that the "opposition" is diminished and "opponents" feel disempowered: after all, there was no "opposition" statement issued yesterday regarding the announcement that the New York Islanders would move to the Barclays Center. (In an effort to point to the larger questions, I did tweet that the announcement did nothing to deliver promised Atlantic Yards benefits.)

The Daily News, on the basis of one interview, reported:
But residents of nearby brownstone neighborhoods were unwelcoming and bracing for more traffic headaches.
“They are a Long Island team and there are more drivers,” said Peter Krashes of the Dean St. Block Association/Atlantic Yards Watch. “Things are likely to get worse, not better.”
Is that an unfounded worry? As I've reported and has been detailed on Atlantic Yards Watch, the city has allowed trucks and livery cabs to park and idle illegally (and honk), and for trucks to be loaded outside--all violations of the law or promised protocols. (Also, the much-touted success of arena operations has relied on an override of traffic lights and a shutdown of Atlantic Avenue.)

In comments to the Times, later scrubbed, Krashes made the larger point that there's no oversight of Atlantic Yards, as the city and state have kowtowed to the developer.

Is that simply a contention? Or is there evidence, such as thorough report (that the Times ignored) that indicated "continual violations and difficulty with enforcement" regarding construction mitigation measures.

What's "the opposition"?

I use quotes for the "opposition" because it's a simplistic catchall.
Those engaged with Atlantic Yards have included, over the years, "opponents," "critics," and just plain neighbors trying to cope with a huge change nearby, one enabled by a state override of zoning that allowed a sports facility to be put close to a residential district, as well as other overrides regarding the size of the towers, signage, and parking.

The Times has too often classified as "opponents" people simply living next to a project they never expected, and responding with understandable wariness. (The Times has, of late, gotten more skeptical about developer Bruce Ratner, however.)

There was never a monolithic opposition and, as evidenced in recent months, there are both commonalities and divergences among those engaged.

The main opposition group, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), was organized to stop Atlantic Yards, and it led several lawsuits. It's understandable that, given that the arena has been built, the effort to stop Atlantic Yards has wound down, though some people remain active in periodic protests, such as around the arena opening. (Such actions engaged a range of people, from longtime opponents to those who focus on ensuring project promises get fulfilled.)

Another group, Brooklyn Speaks, aimed to reform the project, and issued principles regarding such worthy issues as urban design and governance. A strategy of negotiation, however, ultimately got nowhere.

Both groups led coalitions in separate lawsuits, later combined, challenging New York State's failure to study the community impact of a 25-year project buildout, a buildout enabled by the state's stealth decision to give Forest City Ratner 25 years to build the project. (The Times ignored that news too, when it broke.) They won the case, a significant moral victory at least, given the courts' typical deference to government agencies.

In July 2011 and in April 2012, the Times treated those rulings as an afterthought, in round-up articles about Atlantic Yards. The latter article contained the following passage, ever more dubious given the news earlier this week:
For Forest City Ratner, the developer of the project, which was strongly backed by many city leaders, the changes are evidence that the arena has already met its goal of transforming a dreary section of Brooklyn — the Long Island Rail Road’s rail yards and surrounding industrial buildings, which the company’s spokesman described as “ a scar that divided the neighborhood.”
Several people involved in BrooklynSpeaks also are involved in Atlantic Yards Watch, an initiative for, among other things, reporting of community impacts that officials too easily ignore.

Also, it's understandable that those most concerned about the impact of arena and project/construction operations would remain concerned, and some people previously uninvolved would become engaged, such as at the recent meeting on arena quality-of-life impacts.

What about Atlantic Yards Report?

Clearly some people have moved on, and Eric McClure, the main contributor in recent years to NoLandGrab, wrote in a farewell post last month:
We thought the community (and media) would benefit from having a one-stop shop for what was being reported about the project, as well as a venue for the dissemination of information about the fight against what we believed was, and is, a corrupt abuse of eminent domain, a sinkhole for scarce public dollars, a subversion of democratic process, and an urban-planning disaster — among other abuses.
We also intended NoLandGrab as a means of fighting to stop Atlantic Yards, not watchdogging the project as it took shape.
He suggested that my Atlantic Yards Report had "expanded from original reportage to covering a good chunk of the news that we do." Not exactly: I've long had a mix of original reportage, commentary, media criticism, and aggregation. But I now try harder to aggregate coverage, aiming to track the zeitgeist.

I call Atlantic Yards Report a "watchdog blog," which implies a skepticism--based often on clearly sourced evidence--about the project. While such skepticism aligns me closer to project opponents and critics, I don’t necessarily share their views or analysis.

Why did I not shut the blog down, I've been asked, when the construction of the Barclays Center began in 2010? Because the blog was not about "stopping" the arena, it's about looking at a complicated, challenging, and ever-changing story, and trying to hold those in power accountable.

After all, there's a need for institutional memory about Atlantic Yards, given that at least one reporter uncritically reported Mayor Mike Bloomberg's Ratner-serving statement that Atlantic Yards opponents should be blamed for delays in housing.

The reporter querying me didn't ask about important stories I'd broken, but rather wanted to know how many posts I'd written and whether things are different for me now that the arena's open. (The answers should be obvious.)

How long, I was asked, do I imagine "actively producing" my blog, especially if the project takes 25 years? Well, I have no business model, but I don't have an expiration date, either.

The civic need for watchdog coverage and institutional memory persists, especially when the daily press can't (because it's spread thin) and won't (who knows, though stories are there for the taking) pay close enough attention to projects like Atlantic Yards. And yes, I'm still working on a book, though the Atlantic Yards saga is ever-evolving.

If included in the Times article, let's see if I'm classified as a "longtime opponent." In the Times, I was once called a "local blogger and critic of Atlantic Yards"--I had a contentious conversation with that reporter, who in an earlier version of the article described me as an "opponent."

I've also been described as "a journalist who has a blog devoted to the Atlantic Yards project." The use of the term "blogger," however technically accurate, diminishes my experience and credentials.

Let's also see if the Times maintains its sporadic pattern of disclosing that the New York Times Company partnered with Forest City Ratner on the Times Tower in midtown. As I've said, that doesn't mean the Times is in the developer's pocket--at least, not for news coverage. (The editorials regarding Atlantic Yards are generally gentle.) But I do think that business relationship obligates the Times to be exacting in its coverage, and the newspaper regularly falls short.

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