Friday, February 22, 2013

Behind that Barclays Center cantorial concert, a whiff of Lower East Side development politics (Ratner + Met Council/Silver = Seward Park edge?)

The New York Post and Pomegranate market are sponsors
When the New York Times last month got the scoop on the new Barclays Center's first-ever concert of Jewish music, it was explained as an outgrowth of a three-decade friendship between violinist Itzhak Perlman and arena developer Bruce Ratner, whose daughters went to private school together.

The concert also features cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot and Ratner, we were told, "remains an aficionado of cantorial music." Jewish publications like the Forward took the same angle. The latest detail, as reported in the Huffington Post, is that this concert unusually will offer separate seating for men and women.

But Ratner didn't get to be Brooklyn's most powerful developer simply by indulging in artistic passions and helping out a friend.

The Seward Park RFP
Other evidence--even if Ratner won't confirm it--hints at business calculation, an effort to bolster ties with a charitable ally and one of the state's most powerful politicians.

That could help Forest City Ratner in the heated competition for the last large development site on Lower East Side, the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Project, which the city's economic development agency calls an "unprecedented development opportunity."

The Met Council connection

Consider: profits from the Feb. 28 concert, expected to draw 6,500 people, will go to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and a music camp associated with Perlman.

The Met Council, which since 1972 "has been the voice of New York's Jewish poor," according to its website, has grown into a social services powerhouse that serves a broader, non-denominational constituency with home care, kosher food, career services, and affordable housing.

The Silver connection

The Met Council boasts a tight relationship with Sheldon Silver, the longtime Speaker of the New York State Assembly and an Orthodox Jew from the Lower East Side. In fiscal year 2010, according to its IRS filing, the Met Council raised $24.4 million, with support from a wide range of private and government sources.

Silver's chief of staff, Judy Rapfogel, is married to William Rapfogel, who has headed the Met Council since 1992. The Rapfogels are longtime Silver friends, and Silver has regularly directed state funding to the Met Council via so-called "member items."

The Met Council is no slack at reaping city funding, either, in one year receiving more than any other religious organization. William Rapfogel's annual compensation, over $400,000, has also raised eyebrows.

Valuable land

Enter the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Project, a plan that took 45 contentious years to emerge after urban renewal leveled blocks near the Williamsburg Bridge and created SPURA, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.

While this is a city project, Silver, the area's most powerful official, remains a key voice.

The six-acre development includes 1.65 million square feet of buildable area over nine sites, including a new Essex Street Market. The project's 1000 apartments, half of them subsidized, will occupy about 60% of the space; the rest will be commercial.

Silver was crucial in brokering the plan; while it may reflect the current demographics of the gentrifying Lower East Side, critics point to the failure to fulfill promises to rehouse the poor after their tenements were razed in 1967.

New York developers are salivating over the site. An RFP (request for proposals) for the Seward Park project was distributed in January; respondents must file plans by May 6.

Forest City representatives, Crain's New York Business reported last week, were among the 300 people who filled an information session on the project. (Even before then, one rival groused to me about Forest City's perceived inside track.)

The Ratner connections

Forest City Ratner has long had a close relationship with Silver and with the Met Council, and Silver has long delivered for Ratner. In 2006, Silver green-lighted the Atlantic Yards project from his position on the Public Authorities Control Board, the "three men in a room" body that earlier killed the proposed West Side Stadium.

In 2007, intervention by Silver and others into an ongoing reform of a tax break known as 421-a enabled Ratner's Atlantic Yards, alone among projects, to retain the tax break even in buildings that included no subsidized housing.

Meanwhile, despite enormous controversy over Atlantic Yards, the Silver-controlled Assembly has kept hands off; the only oversight hearing emerged in 2009 when the state Senate was briefly in Democratic hands.

Ratner in turn has rewarded Silver. In January 2008, his company gave $58,420, to the Democratic Assembly Housekeeping Committee, essentially a slush fund for party activities. That gift was cited by civic watchdogs as an argument for campaign finance reform.

Ratner and Silver also converge at the Met Council. In August 2008, Ratner helped raise $1 million for the organization and was honored at a luncheon attended by several elected officials; Silver presented Ratner with what a Met Council press release called a "beautifully decorated charity box." One of the Rapfogels' three sons, Michael, works on government relations for Forest City Ratner.

Business trumps all

For Ratner, business considerations have always trumped ideology. According to an interview in the Jewish Voice, "Ratner is a staunch Democrat and liberal and cannot imagine people, especially Jews, who are not."

However, in November 2010, Ratner wrote a check for $7500 to the New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee, ensuring smooth relations with the party that controls the legislature's second chamber.

Bruce Ratner's brother Michael Ratner, the eminent human rights lawyer, and his wife, live in Greenwich Village, but have made campaign contributions to Brooklyn political hacks, using Forest City Ratner's Brooklyn office as the return address. (When I first wrote about this, Michael Ratner wouldn't comment.)

Seward Park faces the music

So maybe this concert isn't just a concert.

It's notable that this first Barclays Center event with a charitable focus, will benefit the Met Council rather than an organization in Central Brooklyn, the base for the groups--reflecting mostly black constituencies--that signed the controversial Community Benefits Agreement regarding Atlantic Yards. As part of that agreement, Forest City agreed to hold ten events at the arena, with proceeds going to charity.

Forest City might even wind up partnering with the Met Council on the Seward Park project; the organization describes itself as "one of New York City’s premier developers of low-income senior housing and a top choice of private developers to partner with in building inclusionary housing."

We won't know until May, at least. But whether Forest City responds to the RFP solo or with a partner, the cantorial concert at the Barclays Center might be seen not merely as a reflection of Jewish culture but also as lobbying in a different guise.

Caution from The Lo-Down

Lower East Side blogger Ed Litvak suggests caution:
A couple of points worth making. First, Silver has no direct role to play in the awarding of the Seward Park contracts, though there’s always been a widespread belief that he has influence over practically everything that happens on the Lower East Side. Second, it’s not known for certain that Ratner is preparing a bid.

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