Monday, December 02, 2013

"Farewell to the King of Brooklyn": the Marty Markowitz retrospectives begin, with a shilling special section and a curious Times profile

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz is taking a long goodbye, though he may not be leaving forever: he's been mentioned as a possible Parks Commissioner or commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, aka “Ambassador for NYC.”

Neither are particularly likely, since Markowitz notably endorsed Council Speaker Christine Quinn, then the perceived front-runner for mayor, over Brooklynites Bill de Blasio (the eventual winner) and Bill Thompson.

The New York Times, on 11/29/13, offered Borough President for Not Much Longer, but a Brooklynite Always: Marty Markowitz Prepares to Leave Office After 12 Years.

The retrospective  was hardly softball--the first person quoted was a critic--but still left omitted key issues and in certain places gave Markowitz the benefit of the doubt.

For a more telling perspective on Markowitz, check out the recent special section (bottom) in the Courier-Life/Brooklyn Paper, and the first advertisement (right), which happens to be from "Bruce [Ratner] & Maryanne [Gilmartin]," the CEOs of Forest City Ratner, who thank Markowitz for his "support and friendship."

It's doubtful the two real estate executives truly like to hang with Marty, but it's undeniable they appreciate his unswerving support for Atlantic Yards.

No matter the issue--a change in architects, a change in affordable housing configuration, a change in timing, a need to shill for the project to Chinese investors, an opportunity to promote a profit-making arena event--Markowitz was there.

As shown in an excerpt at right from the special section, Markowitz endorsed Forest City Ratner's decision to dump starchitect Frank Gehry. Note that, contra the account in the excerpt, the decision was not inspired by the BP; he was merely publicly easing a decision that had been made months before.

In the Times

The Times didn't mention Markowitz endorsed Mayor Mike Bloomberg over fellow Democrats Freddy Ferrer and Bill Thompson, nor the Quinn endorsement. But it did mention Atlantic Yards. The article states:
Mr. Markowitz is not bashful about saying the idea for the Barclays Center, with its attendant N.B.A. team, the Nets, originated with him. He believes bringing a professional sports team back to Brooklyn more than 50 years after the Dodgers left is his signal accomplishment.

But his championing of the Barclays Center and Atlantic Yards project, with only a few nods to community concerns including affordable housing, crystallized criticism from those who believed he had been too quick to support developers at the expense of community needs.

For someone who peppers speeches with quips about his overfondness for Junior’s cheesecake, likes to host Valentine’s Day parties for Brooklyn’s longest-married couples and calls an African gray parrot named Beep his “son,” Mr. Markowitz can be surprisingly polarizing.

During the eight-year Atlantic Yards fight, opponents believed Mr. Markowitz was using all his clout to make the plan reality. He once declined to renew the terms of five community board members who had voted for a nonbinding anti-Atlantic Yards resolution. Unwilling to brook criticism, he turned an icy face to those who questioned him, recalled Tom Angotti, a professor of urban planning at Hunter College who opposed the project.

Atlantic Yards “was presented as a fait accompli, and the train left the station, you better get on it,” Professor Angotti said. “He was not only on the train, he was in the front of the train, leading it. And that was a problem.”
Markowitz at State of the Borough; credit: BP's office
As noted, the first person quoted is a critic. Even so, the Times falls back on attributing neutral facts to  "opponents believed." Of course Markowitz used "all his clout to make the plan a reality." Why else would he make this video?

And while the Times touches on Markowitz's prickliness and his odd parenthood rhetoric, it doesn't capture Markowitz's unique mix of ego and anxiety, one exposed in such indulgences as his epic final State of the Borough address last April, complete with an hour-long "Brooklyn Tonight" talk show.

The BP's role

The article continues:
At other times, Mr. Markowitz has been faulted for conducting his career more like a cruise director than a municipal leader. Part of the reason his initiatives — including a boroughwide weight-loss challenge, a summer concert series and an over-40 singles event — can seem light on substance is the nature of the office itself: The borough presidents lost most of their traditional powers after the City Charter was revised in 1990.

Mr. Markowitz said on Monday that he hoped to someday see the charter amended to give borough presidents a greater role in land-use issues, and set budgets so that they did not have to rely on the mayor and City Council for allocations.

Michael Tobman, a political consultant based in Brooklyn, said of Mr. Markowitz: “He’s done more with the office than could’ve ever been expected in anyone’s imagination. At a time when the city was heading in a direction of celebrating wealth and money as the drivers of our economy, he stayed a working-class, middle-class, ethnic stalwart.”
But this ignores how other Borough Presidents worked differently. Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, however low-profile, devoted a significant chunk of her capital budget to libraries, which Markowitz neglected.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer turned his office into a policy shop, producing reports with impact, and reformed the process for selecting and supporting Community Board members. Then Bronx BP Adolfo Carrion put a lot of capital money into affordable housing.

Retail politics

The article continues:
With his nostalgia for the Dodgers and the Coney Island of yore, Mr. Markowitz can seem an unlikely cheerleader for a place now better known for artisanal coffee than egg creams. But constituents, particularly those not in the gentrified corners of Brooklyn, embrace him for his boosterism and apparent delight in helping them. It is not uncommon for junior city employees to receive calls from him, inquiring after a constituent problem.
I think the Times should have mentioned the simple fact of Markowitz's retail political presence: by giving out more than three proclamations a day over 12 years, he managed to reach hundreds of thousands of Brooklynites, in the Brooklyn Paper's calculation, "honoring an average of 41 different exceptional people, places, ideas, things, events, and restaurant openings."

(The proclamation I once got--for volunteering at a house tour--was given to dozens of others.)

Style and substance

The article continues:
Still, opponents say, he could have used his mastery of the limelight and his stature as a power broker to enact policy reforms that might have more impact than a basketball stadium, like initiatives to address income inequality and government transparency.

Mr. Markowitz defended his strategy, saying that his programs and charities helped ease life for low-income Brooklynites, and that his light touch “put a smile on people’s faces.”

“I made the most of what is a modest role in government,” he said. “Some may feel the depth wasn’t there because of my lighthearted approach.” He added, “A lot of the dreams I had for Brooklyn are being realized as we speak — no question about it.”

Among his greatest achievements, he said, were several development projects he has supported — including the Barclays Center, a Coney Island amphitheater and the restoration of the Loew’s Kings Theater in Flatbush — that have helped revitalize Brooklyn.
What's with "opponents"? Do you have to be an opponent to recognize that Markowitz made choices, some of the them debatable?

Ethics trumped?

The article cites some of Markowitz's "ethical stumbles," including two fines from the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board and a 1985 campaign finance violation:
More recently, he has been questioned about the close ties between Borough Hall and his network of charities, which have often received donations from developers or corporations — several of which subsequently earned Mr. Markowitz’s approval for projects in the borough. He has said his nonprofit organizations do important work, and dismissed suggestions that his political influence had anything to do with the donations.

These troubles have done little to dent his boisterous career. Only term limits, it seemed, could put a damper on Mr. Markowitz, who cannot say what next year will hold for him.

“I hope I could find something where I could continue putting a smile on people’s faces,” he said, “and that has a public purpose.”
So if Markowitz dismisses suggestions that political influence had anything to do with the donations, does he deserve the last word? He doesn't.

In the Brooklyn Paper/Courier-Life

As shown at right, the Brooklyn Paper/Courier-Life special section comes to a similar conclusion, suggesting the Markowitz's love for Brooklyn trumped any ethical transgression.

Maybe it does, for most people, but the Markowitz model is a lesson as much as a legacy.

The newbie reporters working on the special section were forced to raid the clip file and, in several cases, didn't quite get it right.
Consider, for example, the claim that Markowitz "downsized" his support for Atlantic Yards.

Actually, he called for an unspecified shrinkage of a project that was inflated past what the developer wanted, and was later publicly scaled down.

In other words, Markowitz was part of the strategy.

Or consider Markowitz's purchase of a house in Windsor Terrace, which was enabled in part by the BP's successful pursuit of a questionable lawsuit.

In conclusion

Consider the conclusion to one article on the growth of Brooklyn's skyline: "It's unfortunate that anyone would get priced out of their neighborhood, but that's been the story of New York City for 200 years."

The "inevitable" meme posited by condo-owner Burkan (apparently a Republican who works in "wealth management") obscures the fact that Markowitz made policy choices.

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