Tuesday, May 07, 2013

At mayoral forum, Atlantic Yards treated mostly as done deal, several candidates slippery; no tough questions on issues (SEIS) going forward

The mayoral forum last night in Park Slope, sponsored by the Park Slope Civic Council and other civic organizations, was not actually a forum (or a debate), but a sequential series of one-on-one interviews with WNYC's Andrea Bernstein.

The event attracted all the major candidates from both parties, except Republican Joe Lhota, and the attendees--the sanctuary at Congregation Beth Elohim was less than half-full--got a decent chance to observe, at least, the style of the mayoral hopefuls.

Quick: Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Comptroller John Liu, both Democrats, are the most charismatic pols; billionaire neophyte candidate John Catsimatidis, a Republican, is not ready for prime time. On a few issues, a candidate like Democratic longshot Sal Albanese could distinguish himself: support for bike lanes and a refusal to take corporate money.

In the main, however, the candidates obfuscated, and questions about Atlantic Yards and the Barclays Center were perfect examples. The obfuscation was furthered by not so incisive questioning by Bernstein, who treated the project mostly as a done deal, as opposed to pressing the candidates on what they could legitimately do--or take a stance on--going forward.

No one recognized that, despite elaborate promises, developer Forest City Ratner has a very long leash, so it's not in violation of any contract. One basic question, as I wrote yesterday, is whether they support the status quo or the Phase 2 site being divided up, as part of the Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) process. All candidates have been silent. Similarly, none have criticized Forest City's failure to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor for the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

Liu, however, did pointedly state the benefits were not worth the costs, though he hasn't done anything to audit the project. Albanese said there should be penalties/clawbacks, but hasn't otherwise entered the AY fray.

Quinn and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio were the slipperiest, claiming criticism and dismay without any evidence they've done anything to nudge changes. Also slippery was former Comptroller Bill Thompson, who claims he supports dividing up development sites among multiple developers, but hasn't advocated that in the SEIS process. (Thompson and de Blasio have gotten significant Forest City-related campaign contributions.)

In an opening gambit aimed to break the ice but which seemed tone deaf as the evening proceeded, Bernstein asked each candidate if the Brooklyn Nets should have fired coach P.J. Carlesimo. The question prompted befuddled silence from most candidates and the crowd. (Patch called it "a bizarre fixation on the firing of P.J. Carlesimo.")

Only two candidates answered. Quinn said no, declaring it an offense to Seton Hall, where Carlesimo used to coach, and from which her wife is an alumna. De Blasio declared, with rather minimal recognition of the ways of NBA hoops, "It's an act of injustice; you don't get to the playoffs and get fired, that's not cool."

(Also see coverage in The Atlantic describing the contenders as "Bloomberg lite," A Liberal Dilemma: NYC's Mayoral Race, Seen From Brownstone Brooklyn. Coverage in Capital NY, In Park Slope, mayoral candidates teeter on a bike lane. The Brooklyn Paper naively confused rhetoric with action: Candidates call for pressure on developer to build housing at Atlantic Yards.)

The video: Liu, Thompson, McDonald, Albanese, Catsimatidis

Videos by Jonathan Barkey.

Comptroller Liu

"Was the Barclays Center a good thing for Brooklyn?"

I think in itself--it's a great facility that tens of thousands of people are flocking to," said Liu, the first up, "but... you have a tremendous amount of the use of eminent domain.. and a decade later, after all the promises of affordable housing and job creation, we have the stadium, and a few popcorn vendor jobs." (Well, 2000 jobs, 1905 part-time without benefits, adding up to a claimed FTE of 1240. And the use of eminent domain was less than the threat.)

"Is the stadium good? Well, tens of thousands of people are going to it," Liu responded. "And the Nets are doing much better. But on the other hand, what have we gotten in terms of the huge amount of public resources that have been put into it, and I think the promise has nowhere near been met, in terms of what was supposed to be delivered for the people of Brooklyn and the people of new York City."

That provoked moderate applause.

What would he do as Mayor?

"I have called for ending many of these subsidies," Liu said, speaking in general rather than focusing on this project.

Bernstein pointed out that Mayor Mike Bloomberg had moderate his opposition to subsidies. "How else do you spark big projects?" she asked, in a question that bought into the mayor's formulation.

"The reality is that most development in this city is done as of right," Liu responded, citing development in "my hometown of Flushing." His continued criticism of "giveaways" also provoked applause.

What about the arena?

"I would've been happier if they were able to build a center and attract the Nets here without expropriating hundreds of millions of dollars of direct subsidies from the city, the state, and the MTA, kicking out how many families out of their homes," Liu said, "making all these promises of job creation, and having no jobs, or very little real jobs that are available to Brooklyn residents today."

Still, as Comptroller he hasn't taken the opportunity to audit the project or otherwise use his power.

Former Comptroller Bill Thompson

"You were Comptroller when the Barclays Center deal was put together," Bernstein noted, asking him his position.

"I was supportive," Thompson responded, adding, "It was the Atlantic Yards development. It was never supposed to be just a stadium. It was supposed to be housing, and affordable housing, housing for seniors. There was supposed to be commercial space. I supported the proposal, but it was supposed to be something other than just Barclays Center, and, look, I was sitting there rooting for the Nets these days. But it was supposed to be more."

"Are you happy the stadium is there?"

"I think the stadium has worked, and at some points has become more popular as it's there, but I think that the rest... where were the jobs that were promised? Where's the housing, and affordable housing?" That provoked claps. "That was all part of it."

So, if elected mayor, Bernstein asked, what would Thompson do: would he penalize the developer? This question downplayed the mayor's limited powers--though the mayor does have influence over city housing bonds--and ignored the ongoing process in which Thompson has been silent.

"If you enter into an agreement with the city of New York and you don't live up to it," Thompson replied, ignoring that the Atlantic Yards agreement is with the state, and offers generous deadlines that Forest City Ratner has not violated, "they owe us money"--claps from the crowd--"and there are penalties that can be brought against you."

"But also, the way that development is done," he continued, prompting Bernstein to ask if he'd push for penalties against Ratner.

"Penalties against anyone," he responded, "if they fail to live up to their agreement with the city of New York. But also: it's the way we do development. I had the opportunity to chair the board of the Battery Park City Authority. Battery Park City has been very well-planned"--though, he didn't mention, without affordable housing--"you didn't give one developer the whole project. You broke it up and picked multiple developers over a period of time... It's something I favored even before... staged development, done with multiple developers over a period of time. I think that makes more sense."

Except he's said nothing about that in the current Atlantic Yards process.

The Doe Fund's George McDonald

McDonald, a longshot Republican, was also asked if the Barclays Center is good for Brooklyn.

"Well," he replied archly, "I saw all the nice low-income housing as I came here." He shook his head. "It will be, right?" he asked rhetorically. "They'll have to build the housing."

Actually, of the 2250 subsidized "affordable" housing units, only 900 would be low-income.

"How long is it acceptable to wait for that?" Bernstein asked.

"I don't think it's acceptable to wait beyond the first six months of the new administration," he said, apparently unaware that the developer has very gentle deadlines.

What could he do?

"In a civilized society, you go to court," he said. Actually, community groups went to court, and won a new environmental review, and one of the pending issues is whether the site should be broken up among multiple developers.

Would he have supported Atlantic Yards?

"Yes... because I think that we need the low-income housing."

Former Council Member Sal Albanese

Has the Barclays Center been a good thing for Brooklyn?

"Well, I'm the only candidate who's not accepting contributing from developers and lobbyist," Albanese responded, initially avoiding the question. "The Barclays Center is here. I have a real problem with the way... development projects around the city have been addressed. The developer made commitments about jobs, about affordable housing--none of those commitments were kept."

"So I believe that as a mayor, we need to clamp down on these developers when they make commitments and get these huge benefits from the city," he said, suggesting penalties or clawbacks. "It's outrageous that we give them these incentives, and then they basically go back on their word."

However fine that sounds from a public policy statement, that's not possible the way the contracts have been written.

Is there a place for large developments?

"I'm not against large developments, if it makes sense, and the community is involved," he responded.

Businessman John Catsimatidis

Catsimatidis was the most effusive. Asked if the arena was a good thing for Brooklyn, he responded, "I think it's a great thing. I saw Barbara Streisand there, and she did a great job, and it's a place, a destination, that's going to create a lot of good things for Brooklyn."

The video: Quinn and de Blasio

Council Speaker Quinn

With the first five candidates, Bernstein asked questions about the arena without pointing out that Atlantic Yards emerged from a state process, not a city one.

Only the next to last interviewee, Quinn, was told the project was approved by the state and bypassed the Council.

"It could have," interjected Quinn, prompting her interviewer to ask how she would have changed it.

"There was a small proposal for a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan," Quinn said a bit archly. "The neighborhood opposition, in part, facilitated that proposal going through ULURP, even though it didn't have to, because it was state land."

But Quinn, it should have been pointed out, was hardly a vigorous advocate for putting Atlantic Yards through ULURP, and she has quietly supported the project, in essence, by blocking any oversight hearing sought by Council Member Letitia James.

"One of the things I would say as mayor moving forward," Quinn continued, "is I would always take the position that land, even when it isn't required to, when there's large development... on public land, it would have to go through ULULP, because they you can really have a full community conversation, with the community board, with the residents at the table... you might have ended up with a different proposal that might not have had so many folks in opposition... I think the project would've looked different had it gone through ULURP."

"What would you have liked to have seen in it?" she was asked

"I think it would've seen," Quinn replied, "a lot of the affordable housing and other components that have yet to become realized, I think you would've potentially seen the phase in differently, that those would have been phased in earlier, and the requirement of a certain level of affordable housing almost to trigger the stadium part of it."

What Quinn didn't mention is that contracts negotiated by the state--and left uncriticized by her and most other pols--give Forest City Ratner a long leash.

"I think you would've had clear structures of more community input around the development," Quinn continued. "I believe you would have had a more robust traffic study."

Apparently "robust traffic study" is a good phrase to throw out.

"How do you think it's worked out so far?"

"From what I understand, a lot of the worst fears haven't come to fruition," Quinn observed safely, "but I also think it's too early for anyone pro or con to draw a conclusion yet."

What does she mean? Forest City Ratner promised jobs and housing, on a ten-year schedule, then repudiated that schedule.

Public Advocate de Blasio

"Barclays Center--has it been a good thing for Brooklyn?" de Blasio was asked.

De Blasio replied, "It's been a good thing for Brooklyn but it's not why the development at Atlantic Yards was worth it, and that will only be true when the affordable housing is built."

That drew some applause, while de Blasio continued to say he'd "follow through." Except he's done nothing to criticize Forest City's reneging on the promise to include 50% larger units (2BR and 3BR) in the first tower.

"I thought that, and I think saying that Atlantic Yards was controversial was a great understatement of our time," he continued, "but what I felt is that in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, the possibility of creating a really extraordinary amount of affordable housing and an extraordinary number of jobs, union scale jobs, for folks in the surrounding neighborhoods, many of which are disadvantaged, that was a worthy goal. Government I don't think has done a very good job of following through on that goal, and I think the next mayor has to do that very aggressively."

What is he talking about? De Blasio is government too, and he has avoided every opportunity, for example, to criticized Forest City for failing to hire the Independent Compliance Monitor.

"Was the deal structured in a way that the developers could be held accountable?" Bernstein asked.

De Blasio responded by citing not the deal signed by the Empire State Development Corporation but the unenforceable CBA, signed by hand-picked groups that are, in the main, financially dependent on the developer and have no reason to challenge their patron.

"The Community Benefits Agreement was stronger both in terms of the amount asked of the developer proportionate to other similar agreements around the city and one of the strongest we've ever seen," he said, failing to compare the CBA to more legitimate ones in Los Angeles, "and I think it would've been much stronger had there been more of a participation in the guarantee process. That was a structural flaw. I think it's now the role of government to step in and do it."

What does he mean? The government has already signed the Development Agreement with Forest City. It supersedes anything in the CBA.

What could he do, Bernstein asked.

"I think the fact is that the current developer, like every other developer, they endlessly want other opportunities from government, other permissions... on a host of projects," de Blasio replied. "I think there can be an appropriate linkage: if you want to continue to do business, you have to keep your previous commitments. If you can't keep your previous commitments, let's find someone else who can."

That would have been a perfect opportunity to ask if he supports dividing up the Phase 2 site among multiple developers.

When the project is built out, "that census tract would be the densest in the nation," Bernstein continued. (Actually, the site, over multiple tracts, would be be more dense than densest tract if built as approved.) "Is there the appropriate infrastructure to support that?"

"Well, I think the original environmental impact statement was lacking," de Blasio replied safely, "and I think there were a lot of things along the way that could've been done better, but I think we can catch up on the infrastructure, because let's face it, buildout will be ten to 15 years minimum."

What can be done, and what could you do, to assure appropriate sewage and right number of schools, and even the transit, Bernstein asked.

"The underground transit options are exceptional," he said. "I think the bigger issues are around sewer and water and other types of infrastructure. If we objectively look at the needs, and we find we have to do some buildouts, there's time to do it, it's a worthy public investment considering the amount of housing that we created.... but I'm most concerned about the affordable housing. I think that the central challenge in the city: we have an affordability crisis, and an income disparity crisis... We don't want to see New York City become unavailable..."

If he's most concerned about  the affordable housing, he hasn't said a word of criticism. And parse his words: de Blasio was essentially saying he'd offer more public subsidies to get the affordable housing done.


  1. Best article on the candidates so far. Thanks, Norman. Rustie Brooke (Zarda), I used to work at MAS where we met a few yrs ago.

  2. Anonymous10:11 AM

    If its state approved, city cannot audit. Comptroller position on CBAs is very skeptikal, the projects and benifits are never checked up on after the fact. I know early in his term the Xomptroller was putting together a taskforce, dunno wat happened with that.