Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But official…

At 550 Vanderbilt, big chunk of apartments pitched to Chinese buyers as "international units"

One key to sales at the 550 Vanderbilt condo is the connection to China, thanks to Shanghai-based developer Greenland Holdings.

It's the parent of Greenland USA, which as part of Greenland Forest City Partners owns 70% of Pacific Park (except 461 Dean and the arena).

And sales in China may help explain how the developer was able to claim early momentum.
"Since 550 Vanderbilt launched pre-sales in June [2015], more than 80 residences have gone into contract, representing over 30% of the building’s 278 total residences," the developer said in a 9/25/15 press release announcing the opening of a sales gallery in Brooklyn. "The strong response from the marketplace indicates the high level of demand for well-designed new luxury homes in Brooklyn..."

Maybe. Or maybe it just meant a decent initial pipeline to Chinese buyers.

As lawyer Jay Neveloff, who represents Forest City, told the Real Deal in 2015, a project involving a Chinese firm "creates a huge market for…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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