Friday, March 21, 2014

In Times, Barclays Center Meditation Room gets whimsical, skeptical front-page treatment (but more skepticism needed)


Well, that's a surprise.

After ignoring Atlantic Yards for months--the paper still hasn't reported on the deal with the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group to buy 70% of the remaining Atlantic Yards project, nor the developer's dubious effort to raise EB-5 funds--the New York Times today publishes a rather critical article about the Barclays Center Meditation Room and, by extension, developer Forest City Ratner's promises.

On the front page. (It's a far different take than the skimpy, congratulatory coverage in the Brooklyn Paper and News12.)

The headline, Arena’s Meditation Room Raises Its Own Existential Questions, suggests a whimsical approach.

(The caption online is The meditation room for Nets games at Barclays Center is meant to fulfill a pledge by developers," but in print asks, "What is the sound of an empty room?)
Though NBA/Nets reporter Andrew Keh melds skepticism with whimsy--and, as noted below, prompted a Forest City executive to respond with frustration--the Times still misses or misreports some fundamental issues.

The article begins:
Construction has barely begun on the 2,250 promised affordable housing units. Just one of the 15 proposed towers has even started to take root. The leafy plazas remain mere sketches on paper.
Except for the glittering Barclays Center, which opened in 2012, the giant Atlantic Yards project has moved at a glacial pace, to the frustration of many in Brooklyn. But now, those impatient souls can search for solace in the project’s latest amenity: a locked, windowless, cinder-block room tucked near the arena’s first aid office and a sushi stand.
The humble space on the arena’s main concourse is called the meditation room, a place apparently intended for quiet reflection amid the din of Nets home games.
It is, perhaps, the least the developers could do. With the big-ticket items still unfulfilled, the opening of the meditation room means they have lived up to this small promise, laid out in Section E of Part VII of the lengthy community benefits agreement.
Well, the arena's been open 18 months. And, actually, the meditation room has been open too, as I reported. It just hadn't been spruced up for an official opening.

Who uses it?

The article continues:
Very few Nets fans have heard of the room, and even fewer use it, at least not for meditation. It appears to sometimes double as a storage room; several pieces of luggage sat in the corner on a recent night.
The room has been mostly ignored since its official opening last week, but a few fans have stopped to puzzle over it.
“Why would you want to do that when you came here to watch a game?” Roger Kunch, a Nets fan from Long Island, said when informed of the room’s existence.

Unmentioned is, as I reported, that the arena does little to promote the existence of the Meditation Room. News 12 reported, "Organizers say they want to expand the use to more people in the community."

Though the Times notes the room is open only to eventgoers, it doesn't mention the potentially onerous rules: use outside of normal hours "may incur labor and rental fees."

An asterisk in the CBA

The article continues:
The meditation room counts essentially as an asterisk in the long list of promises that Forest City Ratner, the project’s developer, made to the borough after years of tense negotiations and bitter disputes over the 22-acre parcel of land near Downtown Brooklyn.
In the end, Forest City got the land, and the arena, thanks in large part to $305 million in public subsidies. In exchange, the developer promised jobs, affordable housing and $100 million for a rebuilt rail yard. Much of that has yet to materialize.
It's right to call the room an asterisk. But the $305 million (the city says the total's slightly less) represents only direct subsidies, not far greater suite of benefits, including tax breaks, low-cost land, naming rights, and override of zoning that Forest City gained.

The article implies that Forest City got the "22-acre parcel of land," but that's not so. Forest City has the power to acquire the land, but it hasn't paid for it.

It hasn't paid for most of the 8.5-acre railyard, the Vanderbilt Yard, owned by the MTA, since it got the transportation authority in 2009 to extend the payment schedule for 21 years, at a comfortable interest rate.

Nor has the developer gained control of several privately-owned parcels, both homes and business, it needs for Phase 2 of the project. Rather than have the state acquire all the properties via eminent domain at the outset, Forest City, in order to save cash flow (since it ultimately has to pay), got the state to agree to exercise eminent domain in two or more phases.

Daughtry's "pragmatic approach"

The article notes:
The meditation room was the brainchild of the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, 83, a Brooklyn pastor who has long been one of Atlantic Yards’ most ardent supporters.... 
Mr. Daughtry’s opponents argue that he has been co-opted by Forest City, and they point to the group he founded, the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance [DBNA], which was seeded with $50,000 from the developer. Mr. Daughtry’s family members oversee other programs that the developer funds to benefit the community. One of Mr. Daughtry’s daughters is in charge of distributing dozens of free tickets for each Nets game. Another daughter will run the arena’s community events program. His wife picked out the meditation room’s furnishings.
Mr. Daughtry said he was used to being criticized as “a sellout,” but he has taken a pragmatic approach. “Can you imagine all this is happening three or four blocks from my church, and all I had done was criticize from the side?” he said. “And my members and children are asking: ‘Can we get tickets? What happened? Why aren’t you involved?’ ”
It certainly is pragmatic to want to ensure the arena would do something to serve the community. And the DBNA, actually, is far more active and publicly accessible than most of the Community Benefits Agreement signatories.

But this is history and analysis is inadequate. First, while the DBNA was seeded with $50,000, a number that probably appears in the Times's clip file, that sentence implies that the organization then succeeded without Forest City's support. Actually, the developer is the organization's largest funder.

As shown in the screenshot below, the DBNA got $854,849 over five years, according to its most recent report to the IRS. Add $106,090, the 2006 figure, and the total exceeds $960,000. Surely the amount donated in the past two years puts the sum well over $1 million.


Daughtry has been criticized as a "sellout," and he has a reasonable--to some--response. But that's the wrong debate.

The article doesn't mention--because it's not in the clips?--that the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement departs from more legitimate ones in Los Angeles because the signatories here were mostly fledgling rather than established, and also financially dependent on the developer.

Nor does it grapple with the question of nepotism.

Nor has Forest City hired the promised Independent Compliance Monitor for the CBA, which Daughtry once said was a condition for his support. 

This demolishes the "modern blueprint" posited by another Times reporter regarding the CBA way back in October 2005. (Atlantic Yards goes down the memory hole.)

The article allows for some criticism:
Eric McClure, a co-founder of Park Slope Neighbors, a group that has opposed Atlantic Yards, said the empty meditation room distilled many of the project’s flaws. (He has not visited to meditate, or for anything else.)
“It’s a fig leaf,” Mr. McClure said. “They’ve done the absolute minimum necessary. People don’t know about it. They haven’t publicized it. Even if they did, I don’t know who would use it.
An irony

Reporter Keh finds Brooklyn fans "bewildered by the room," but he did find one arena employee who said he and other Muslim workers sometimes prayed there during their shifts.

Indeed, on Twitter, one (presumably Muslim) reader, wrote, " actually it's incredibly helpful to those who have prescribed prayer times, makes it much more likely that they'll attend."

That might suggest an irony, that a meditation room that evolved from a chapel proposed by the minister of a Pentecostal church is most useful to those of the Muslim faith. But at least it's being used.

Following up

The comments section has been lively. (I posted several comments last night that somehow have not been approved.)

male reader Brooklyn
Despite all the public subsidies and a monopoly on a large tract of land, there is no independent board overseeing Atlantic Yards. This has enabled the developer to make promises to the public that are improbable, if not infeasible, while at the same time State and City government bend over backwards to assist FCRC's interests. Incredibly, the public may never be in a position to get an unprejudiced assessment of the costs and benefits of the project overall.
Beyond the project agreements, one of the few avenues for accountability is the independent compliance monitor stipulated in the Community Benefits Agreement signed by Reverend Daughtry. The monitor was to report to the CBA about the developer's delivery of jobs, affordable housing and compliance with environmental commitments. Only CBA signatories can enforce their agreement, and they have chosen not to do so.

If we keep taking the developer's word for everything, the public is going to be paying for more meditation rooms, while the meaningful benefits (elimination of blight, jobs, housing, open space) remain ephemeral, or cost us more than we were told. And there will continue to be no trustworthy framework for overseeing environmental impacts.

Mayor de Blasio can work with Governor Cuomo to fix the Atlantic Yards problem by reforming project oversight. It is long past time for an independent board to oversee the project.
RM Brooklyn
Here is the irony: Opposition to Atlantic Yards delayed the project by a good five years. Had there been no opposition, Ratner could have secured loans ahead of the recession, ground could have broken much sooner on the original proposal and at least a few of the apartment towers could have been out of the ground before 2008. But with funds drying up the project got delayed and severely value-engineered. The result is a loss for everyone.
I wouldn't trust Ratner as far as I could throw him, but the Atlantic Yards saga has made me even more suspicious of the motives of self-declared community activists. Turns out they are frequently just small-minded folks with nothing better to do.
CEG4 Brooklyn
“Can you imagine all this is happening three or four blocks from my church, and all I had done was criticize from the side?” he said. “And my members and children are asking: ‘Can we get tickets? What happened? Why aren’t you involved?’ ”
.... That's when you remind them that “It’s about values, decency, fairness, trying to teach people that there’s more to life than materialism.” Not only is Mr. Daughtry a sell out but he's clearly a weak or at worst insincere spiritual leader. Just another reminder of why people need to be more careful when elevating their peers to the status of "religious leader": the corrupting power of influence and money.
Liam Brooklyn
I actually used this room during Wednesday night's game. Suffice it to say that nothing in this article comes as much of a surprise. This was my first time inside the Barclay's Center and I did a double take when I saw the sign for the meditation room. I wanted to try it, as much for a social experiment, as any need to seek inner peace. It certainly has every indication of a begrudging concession to a previous agreement; sitting between workers lounging in the first aid area and a busy information desk, it feels entirely like an afterthought. It's spartan, prison feel is incongruous to every other aspect of the hip new arena. The person I asked to let me in seemed incredulous at my request. They had to get the key from a manager, who also seemed surprised, and then I had to wait because an employee was praying inside. This was truly a zen challenge, to stand around a busy hallway, waiting to meditate, game ticking away, while a single other person prayed. The room had all the charm of a subway restroom, though mercifully none of the smells. The sounds of the game thumped right through the cinder-block walls. When I asked why only one person could use a room with so many chairs, the look I got seemed to say, "Honey, you and that other guys are the only ones who are ever going to use that place. Throw us a bone, we've gotta stretch things out."
Al White, Jr. Springfield Gardens, NY
What a joke, Brooklyn.
Keep waiting for that 'affordable housing'.
This room looks like it belongs in the basement of a shelter, not as the "Meditation Room" in a sparkling new multi-million dollar arena! Bare cinderblocks painted pink? I know that there is a punchline to a joke somewhere here...
And to the Rev. Herbert Daughtry: I am so glad your family has benefitted from the debacle that is the Barclay Center. And remember, sir-you settled for tickets. Tickets!!!
Good Gosh, were I Daughtry, I'd be ashamed to show my face. Ahh, but that's the point isn't it? He's (already) lined his (and quite obviously, his family's) pockets!
How many pieces of silver to accept this, Reverend?(Where were those furnishings purchased? Good Will?)
Allow me to repeat:
What a joke.
Chicken Underwear Brooklyn
I remember, years ago, they said there would be a running track on the roof of the arena. 
They said they were going to build schools and parks.
PaulF New York, NY
The medication room might be a nice idea. I've got a better one. Lower the blaring PA system audio in the arena, have periods with no irritating announcements for advertisers, cheesy contests, silly promotional stunts, etc - give us time to enjoy our expensive seats without constantly blaring audio at us, The Jerry Buss influence of keeping the fans "entertained" has become a monster. Many of us money-paying fans want to actually hear the basketball game, the shouts, the shoe squeaks, and, yes, the occasional silent periods when I can relax and talk with friends in comfort. I have even seen numerous times when loud music was played to within 1 second of a free through. And musical promotional; stings for Mo's within the game - help sell the product to the folks. WHY do they let this happen. To keep us sheep STIMULATED? I for one have had enough. It is worse than the cacophany that is a Knicks game and I refuse to go back until they respect the fans who pay high prices for the privilege of having ringing ears after a game. Meditation room? How about just a more respectful arena environment that lets us talk, listen and not be STIMULATED every second.
A debate

RM Brooklyn
Here is the irony: Opposition to Atlantic Yards delayed the project by a good five years. Had there been no opposition, Ratner could have secured loans ahead of the recession, ground could have broken much sooner on the original proposal and at least a few of the apartment towers could have been out of the ground before 2008. But with funds drying up the project got delayed and severely value-engineered. The result is a loss for everyone.
I wouldn't trust Ratner as far as I could throw him, but the Atlantic Yards saga has made me even more suspicious of the motives of self-declared community activists. Turns out they are frequently just small-minded folks with nothing better to do.
Eric McClure Brooklyn
So back in 2004, we all should've said okay to the massive subsidies, forced relocation of home and business owners, and pre-cooked, no-bid deal, because there might have been a recession coming four years later and once the project steamrolled all our legitimate concerns, it might've been harder for Forest City to secure loans?
Forest City's response

Ashley Cotton Brooklyn, NY
Andrew Keh’s story (March 20, 2014) correctly notes that the newly opened meditation room at Barclays Center fulfills one of Forest City Ratner’s commitments to the community. Unfortunately the story fails to recognize so many of the other commitments that we have and will soon be delivering to Brooklyn.
The arena itself provides 2,000 good union jobs, 80 percent of them filled by Brooklyn residents. We have spent more than $75 million on transit improvements, and millions more on a new rail yard for the Long Island Rail Road. Despite delays caused by more than 30 lawsuits, the first residential building is underway and will open next year with 50 percent of its homes affordable. The building – B2 – is being built using modular construction, a new industry for New York that is already providing more good union jobs at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Mr. Keh doesn’t have to understand why a meditation room was important to members of the local community, but he must get the facts straight on the economic impact of the Atlantic Yards project and the progress that has been made

Sincerely,
Ashley Cotton
Forest City Ratner Companies
My comment (posted)
Ashley Cotton's statements demand rebuttal.

First, while she blames "more than 30 lawsuits" for the delays, her ultimate boss, Forest City Enterprises CEO David LaRue, last September said, "Delays that occurred for numerous reasons, the recession being obviously the largest."
http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2013/09/forest-city-ceo-recession-not-legal.html
Also, there were not "more than 30 lawsuits." That's a canard.
As for those "2000 good union jobs," 1900 are part-time, and though they pay more than $10/hour, they do not include any benefits, as Cotton herself has acknowledged.
Nor will arena officials provide statistics on the numbers of hours worked, which would allow observers to calculate how much the workers actually earn.
http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2013/10/do-barclays-center-jobs-really-pay.html

2 comments:

  1. Jobs that do not include benefits, and that are part-time, can hardly be considered "good."

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous2:29 PM

    Saw that meditation room. The rev really took that bait didn't he.

    ReplyDelete