Monday, May 06, 2013

Questions for mayoral candidates (and others) about Atlantic Yards: do you support status quo? will you criticize Forest City Ratner?

As candidates for mayor, City Council, and other offices face voters on the campaign trail, what to ask them about Atlantic Yards? It's tough to frame the right question, as I've contended.

The most critical candidate so far is Comptroller John Liu, who last week suffered a significant blow to his campaign, as two associates were convicted for attempting to defraud the campaign finance system using straw donors.

I think the Atlantic Yards issue can be reduced to a few issues of accountability, which indicate whether the candidate trusts developer Forest City Ratner, or not.

(There's a mayoral forum tonight at 7 pm at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, sponsored by seven civic groups.)

FCR in the driver's seat?

A simple, overall formulation: Do you support the status quo, with Forest City allowed to build the project at its own pace, over 25 years? If not, do you support the option of dividing Phase 2 of the development site for other developers to bid on?

After all, that was the essential divide during the 2/27/13 public hearing on the scope for a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS).

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz congratulated Forest City and its governmental partner/overseer, Empire State Development. Other project supporters urged that any roadblock posed by the SEIS be removed. Project critics and opponents argued for the option to bring in other developers to achieve the promised public benefits on a faster timetable.

What about the CBA?

Various elected officials have claimed they believed in--or still believe in--the much-hyped Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Forest City signed with select groups, most of which didn't exist until Atlantic Yards was announced.

Their posture toward the CBA deserves greater clarity. A simple litmus test regards accountability. After all, the contract requires an Independent Compliance Monitor, but Forest City has steadily shirked that responsibility.

So, why not ask: Will you criticize the developer for failing to hire the Independent Compliance Monitor required by the CBA? Why not? Why haven't you done so?

Analyzing AY economics

Though there have been many promotional statements about the Barclays Center as an "economic engine" and providing "2000 jobs"--1900 or so of them part-time, without benefits--we don't have much clarity on the actual costs and benefits of the project.

Here's another question, which drills down to what I believe to be a significant, uncounted benefit to Forest City Ratner, worth tens of millions of dollars: Will you push to reveal whether and how much Forest City paid for city's property in the Atlantic Yards footprint, and how much it's really worth?

Accountability

A reader reminds me of another question: Do you support a new governance structure, outside the Empire State Development Corporation and incorporating local input, to oversee Atlantic Yards?

This goes to the overall issue of accountability.

The posture so far

When Bloomberg gave his State of the City address in February, as John Petro wrote in Next City,
To critics of Bloomberg’s pro-development agenda, the mayor’s choice of the Barclays Center for his final State of the City was bitterly appropriate — it represented an administration that gave deals to a select group of developers on projects that brought few public benefits.
Among the mayor’s likely critics, however, some have chosen to remain quiet. Several Democratic mayoral candidates, otherwise seeking any way to differentiate themselves from Bloomberg, gave the mayor a pass on Atlantic Yards.
Why is that? Petro didn't get too far into it, but candidates like Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former Comptroller Bill Thompson have ties to the union and community supporters of the project and, like City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, surely don't want to alienate the real estate community.

Heck, de Blasio and Thompson have benefited by Forest City-related campaign fundraising.

Another formulation: combining the answers

In a 4/30/13 post headlined Relevance of Mayoral Debate Discussion About Forest City Ratner Atlantic Yards Misconduct To The Sale and Underfunding of NYC Libraries, Michael D.D. White reflected on answers given at a recent forum:
The answers of all of the candidates acknowledge that there is a serious problem with Forest City Ratner not fulfilling its obligations and promises to the public. I think the combined answers of all of the candidates indicate that if the elected officials and politicians in this city were less financially beholden to real estate developers in general, and to Forest City Ratner in particular, the question of what to do about the giant problem of Atlantic Yards would be relatively easy to solve.

The solution?: Elected officials, not taking money from Forest City Ratner and not beholden to Ratner, should get tough with Ratner, cut off subsidy to Ratner and take the mega-monopoly away from Ratner to divide it up amongst multiple developers.
An impact on the library system?

Warning of Forest City Ratner's potential role in buying the site of the Brooklyn Heights Library and developing a tower with a smaller library inside, White wrote:
Here are three prime reasons it is so difficult to get Forest City Ratner to honor its obligations to deliver public benefit:
• Private/public partnerships are very difficult to manage effectively to produce maximum benefit for the public, especially if public officials are not adequately motivated to do so, which is where Mr. Albanese’s point about not taking contributions form developers has particular pertinence. Those partnerships tend to tilt irresistibly toward private benefit.
• You can’t negotiate effectively with a monopoly
• Forest City Ratner does not seem to be especially inclined to deliver public benefit, which may account for why it seeks to put itself in the two situations of the two bullet points above.

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