Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Next City's long look at the Atlantic Yards CBA: "Brooklyn Dropped the Ball" (but that's not the half of it)

The online publication Next City yesterday published a long article (subscription-only) on the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), headlined Selling Low, Building High: How Brooklyn Dropped the Ball on the Biggest Negotiation of Its Life.

There's some useful stuff--CBA Chair Delia Hunley Adossa won't talk, nor will her sidekick Charlene Nimmons. And the piece pronounces:
Seven years after the Brooklyn document was signed, five of the groups have been mostly silent or reconstituted after without much fanfare.
But it still falls short.

My comment

Here's the comment I posted:
It's good that Next City has tried to provide a broad look at the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).
But even the moderately skeptical tone of the article doesn't address the drama and mendacity behind the CBA--or recognize the consistent criticisms of the CBA that came in real time (from groups like Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn and my Atlantic Yards Report coverage) as the project unfolded.
Particularly missing is a recognition of how developer Forest City Ratner orchestrated it all--so much so that, in a dismayingly misguided front-page article in October 2005, a New York Times reporter would declare that the developer had conjured up a "modern blueprint" to nourish and harvest community support.
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo...
Note that despite regular promotional statements claiming "community commitments" were "guaranteed by a legally binding Community Benefits Agreement," the CBA presents the targets as aspirational:
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo... 
Why not ask Forest City how much the developer paid all the signatories?
Or point out that, when Forest City was trying to suggest the CBA was legitimate, it claimed--only to rescind it after protest--that the appointed Community Boards participated in "crafting" the CBA:
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo...
Even the subtitle--"How Brooklyn Dropped the Ball..." sets up a false frame: "Brooklyn" never had a chance to negotiate anything. The whole point of the CBA was to set up a facade of community support while the project evaded the existing--if problematic--land use process, involving advisory votes by the local community boards and a vote by (and debate in) the City Council.
As I commented last November on Next City, Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York in 2005 told the City Council, before the CBA was signed, that this CBA--which featured only groups that already supported the project--had significant differences with more legitimate CBAs negotiated in Los Angeles:
http://nextcity.org/daily/entr...
While Next City does mention "indicators" that the Atlantic Yards CBA "will yield a different result" than the pioneering Staples CBA, some crucial detail is missing. Not only  was the coalition in Los Angeles larger, it involved the City Council as signatory, thus ensuring more oversight, and addressed some yet unresolved issues regarding Atlantic Yards debate, such as residential parking permits, an issue (still) important to the arena's immediate neighbors (mostly middle- and upper-class) but less important to the CBA signatories (mostly working- and middle-class, living farther away).
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo... 
Or take the glancing mention of the "potential for... possibly a long-promised compliance monitor." That obscures the fact that, when the CBA was signed, backers like Bertha Lewis cited the Independent Compliance Monitor, funded by Forest City Ratner, to oversee implementation. Forest City has remained unaccountable, offering weak explanations and then no explanations for its unwillingness to hire that monitor:
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo... 
Or consider that the "eight community-based groups" were not so "community-based." Only two (or three) were operational in their stated capacities before Atlantic Yards was unveiled in December 2003. As CBA experts have steadily said during the debate over Atlantic Yards, it's a conflict of interest for signatories to take money from the developer that signed the agreement:
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo... 
It's not merely that, "In many cases, the [CBA signatories] gave institutional blessing in exchange for operating funds." That also meant vigorous public backing for Forest City's plan at rallies and meetings, not any contribution to shaping the content of public comments. Consider Delia Hunley- Adossa's MCing of a pro-project rally, steered by Forest City executives, and her description of the environmental commitments her group presumably negotiated: "blah blah blah":
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo...http://atlanticyardsreport.blo... 
There are even more reason to be skeptical of those CBA signatories cited in this article. Consider how Hunley-Adossa publicly understated her compensation from Forest City Ratner by more than 100%
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo... 
Or that Charlene Nimmons, who once claimed incredibly that new residents in Prospect Heights were "the real land grabbers, because they took the [already vacant] property first and turned back what was jobs into condos," was cited just this month by Forest City as playing a particular role in monitoring "us on a regular basis."
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo...http://atlanticyardsreport.blo... 
Or that James Caldwell, though a nice fellow, had no background in job training when he was tapped to head BUILD, and most notably rallied for the project by declaring, more than once, that Bruce Ratner was "like an angel sent from God. 
Or that the Rev. Herbert Daughtry was noted for 1) describing Bruce Ratner (in the developer's publication," aka fake newspaper, the Brooklyn Standard) as having a "customary, humble, winsome manner" and 2) heckling regularly at the one state oversight hearing held regarding the project:
http://www.scribd.com/doc/2836...
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo...
And that the health programs are shunted off to the future and the "meditation room" is pretty much a chair storage area:
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo... 
By the way, Jay-Z tickets were distributed to community organizations. But the eight CBA signatories each got a suite, one for each of the eight nights of concerts. Only Bertha Lewis's organization auctioned it off: http://atlanticyardsreport.blo...
Note that Joe Coello has as a partner in his company Roger Green, the former Assemblyman who was a major architect of the CBA:
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo...
As for Bertha Lewis of ACORN, consider that her training is in theater. Yes, ACORN "was used to getting funds from various sources," but Forest City Ratner *bailed out* ACORN after its institutional funding dried up (because of an internal scandal, not the hyped fake-pimp scam). That's how key ACORN was to Forest City's project, and why ACORN, when it declared bankruptcy, was had the developer as its biggest creditor.
Consider Lewis's rhetoric at two occasions in 2009:
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo..."Bruce Ratner's never wavered," she said. "I never look for anybody else to ensure these guarantees. We look directly to the developer to ensure the guarantees."
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo..."You want to know who’s gonna make sure that the housing is affordable?” she asked. “We will. We’re not going to make sure that some politician takes care of us,” she stated. “We’re not going to stand by and try to have some agency take care of us. ACORN will take care of us.” 
"[W]e would have fought to make this project come about the way we said," Lewis says in this article. In reality, the Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding was supposed to set aside 50% of the subsidized units, in terms of floor area, for family-sized units, containing two or three bedrooms. 
The first tower doesn't come close, as I reported, and the small number of two-bedroom units are skewed toward middle-class households, "affordable" but far from ACORN's constituency. Did Lewis raise any criticism? No, she blamed project opponents:
http://www.bkbureau.org/agency...
A couple of more factoids to consider:
--Ratner's seeming generosity in finding an initial place for Kassoum Fofana relied on public funds; city taxpayers reimbursed Forest City $131 million for land
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo... 
--another lens for viewing the artisanal mayonnaise shop: it's half a block from the southeast corner of the "blighted" Atlantic Yards site; do blight and artisanal mayonnaise (as well as cappuccino) really coexist, or does it look like state eminent domain laws allow a rather loose definition of blight?
http://atlanticyardsreport.blo...http://atlanticyardsreport.blo...
I also commented:
At a June 2005 ceremony, as captured in the documentary Battle for Brooklyn, Mayor Mike Bloomberg imperiously dismissed questions about promised housing and jobs in the CBA: “I would add something else that’s even more important. You have Bruce Ratner’s word, and that should be enough."
http://battleforbrooklyn.com/
Four years later, Bloomberg changed his tune. “I’m violently opposed to Community Benefits Agreements,” Bloomberg told The Brooklyn Paper in August 2009. “A small group of people, to feather their own nests, extort money from the developer? That’s just not good government.”
http://brooklynpaper.com/stori...
As it happens, Forest City got very good value for its investment, especially since the only organizations that can enforce the CBA are financially dependent on the developer--and that pesky Independent Compliance Monitor was never hired.


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