Thursday, April 04, 2013

At mayoral forum for Democrats, Liu blasts Atlantic Yards; no candidates understand Community Benefits Agreement

The Democratic mayoral candidates met last night in Brooklyn Heights, in a debate sponsored by the Brooklyn Reform Coalition, and the news concerned term limits and member items, according to the Daily News, Post, NBC, and Patch. (The St. Francis College auditorium was crowded.)

They also were asked about Atlantic Yards, and though neither the question nor most of the answers were particularly on-point (or even coherent), the exchange did establish Comptroller John Liu as the candidate most critical of the project, suggesting it was not worth the subsidies granted--though he did call the Barclays Center a "beautiful stadium."

Still, the overall discourse--in which no one seems to fully understand the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) nor the city's (non)role in it--has to favor the status quo.

The question, and the context

The question was read by Ede Fox, president of Prospect Heights Democrats for Reform: "Forest City Ratner signed a Community Benefits Agreement promising jobs and housing at the Atlantic Yards site. Now that the organizations that signed the CBA no longer exists, the community has no representatives at the table. What are you going to do as mayor to make sure that these promises are kept?"

The question generated claps, but it was both misguided, and loaded. The issue is less that the organizations no longer exist--ACORN has been succeeded in the CBA by a related organization, though Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD) has folded--but that they were never accountable to the "community."

I doubt that members of the sponsoring groups ever thought those groups were representative of the community, since at least five of the eight never existed before Atlantic Yards was announced. Moreover, the city was never an official signatory, unlike in some West Coast CBAs, though Mayor Mike Bloomberg signed the CBA as a witness (and later slammed the notion of CBAs).

So the best a mayor could do would be to call attention not only to the lack of progress, but also the fact that a basic commitment--a long-promised Independent Compliance Monitor--has not been met. And the candidates could have done so already--and they haven't.

Video by Jonathan Barkey, via Citizens Defending Libraries YouTube channel

Albanese changes the subject

Former Council Member Sal Albanese, the longshot candidate, took the opportunity to remind people he's pledged not to accept contributions from developers, and that Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, both have done so.

Quinn, sounding a bit stressed, first said, "I'm incredibly proud of the public finance system we have... a system that the state is trying to put in place right now."

Quinn misses the point

She then said that there "have been CBAs all across the city, although many have not had the unique problem Forest City Ratner had, where the groups don't exist any more." Um, that's not a problem Forest City had, it's an opportunity for even less scrutiny, and Forest City's decision not to re-up funding for BUILD furthered its dissolution.

Quinn said elected officials must continue "to focus on what was committed to, being in the room... to get reports on where things are happen, and to be very clear and transparent on where things are at... hands-on follow up." However, neither she nor anyone else at the table has said a word about the failure to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor.

Criticism from Liu

Liu galvanized the crowd, stating, "Come January 2014, I'm gonna turn the heat up. I'm really going to turn the heat up... Bruce [Ratner] and his team have been to my office. They've tried to explain what's so great for Brooklyn... The questions are simple. It's been a decade. People have been kicked out of their homes. Promises of jobs and affordable housing... we don't see any housing. We see some popcorn vendors."

While Forest City likely would say that the economy and lawsuits have delayed things, and one tower is in fact under way, Liu tried to set the framework: "After hundreds of millions in city, state, and MTA subsidies... all we have is a stadium. it's a beautiful stadium, don't get me wrong, but was it worth all that public subsidy that was surrendered. The answer, so far, is absolutely not."

Thompson changes the subject

Former Comptroller Bill Thompson shifted to talk about the importance of using multiple developers, as in Battery Park City, but didn't take the opportunity to recommend that--as some have said--for the second phase of Atlantic Yards.

Rhetoric from de Blasio

de Blasio stated, "Let's be real about the fact that the mayor has immense power to create discipline when it comes to the development community. If developers don't keep their promises to the city, I do not think the legal limitations stand in their way... If they don't keep their end of the bargain, the answer from City Hall has to be no."

That's crowd-pleasing rhetoric, but de Blasio has failed to use his bully pulpit to say anything about the Independent Compliance Monitor. He continued: "I think it s our obligation to make sure Forest City Ratner fulfills all elements of the original agreement."

And he closed by pointing out that affordable housing is needed in a gentrifying neighborhood. Indeed, but he hasn't taken the opportunity to point out that, in the first building under way, Forest City Ratner is departing from the "original agreement" to build family-sized units.

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