Saturday, March 22, 2014

The unseemly Ratner alliance with Silver and Rapfogel gets aired in Times's long look at stagnant Seward Park renewal area

The cover story in the Times's Metropolitan section tomorrow is They Kept a Lower East Side Lot Vacant for 47 Years, concerns the alliance between Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his longtime--now indicted and finally estranged--pal William Rapfogel (husband of his chief of staff Judy), with a major cameo by favored developer Bruce Ratner.

The story concerns a site on Delancey Street cleared in the 1960s, and the Silver/Rapfogel effort to fight affordable housing that would dilute their local power base of religious Jews. The gist:
Mr. Silver has long characterized his role in plans for the site, known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or Spura, as limited to insisting that all groups have a voice in the outcome, not promoting a specific plan or developer.
...But an extensive review of the archives of four mayors and more than two dozen interviews show Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel diligently working behind the scenes to promote specific plans and favored developers. Mr. Rapfogel made clear that the goal was to maintain the area’s Jewish identity, seemingly at the expense of other communities.
Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel steadfastly opposed any mention of affordable housing, which would have altered the demographics of the neighborhood and put Mr. Silver’s political base in question. And Mr. Silver appears to have occasionally misrepresented the desires of his Chinese and Hispanic constituents in conversations with city officials to quash housing plans for the site.
The Ratner alternative

In the early 1990s, Silver claimed--in response to housing advocates--he wanted “a buildable consensus plan” in a neighborhood that was riven. The Times drills down:
But months later, he and Mr. Rapfogel quietly put their weight behind yet another new plan, from a handpicked developer who included no housing. According to official memos, Mr. Silver asked city officials to approve a “big box” store, like Costco, on the site. The developer, Bruce Ratner, would build it. The sponsor would be the South Manhattan Development Corporation, which Mr. Rapfogel then headed.
The project didn't happen. 

The Ratner connection

But the plot thickened, as the Times reported:
And the ties between Mr. Silver, Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Ratner strengthened.
The Rapfogels’ eldest son, Michael, finished law school in 2005 and soon went to work for Mr. Ratner. The job was seen internally as a way to please Mr. Silver, say people familiar with the son’s work; Mr. Ratner’s company rejects the notion.
“Michael Rapfogel was hired in 2005 as a young lawyer because he is smart, a hard worker and interested in community and economic development,” said Ashley Cotton, a senior vice president at Forest City Ratner Companies. “He is a valued member of our staff.”
This of course is impossible to adjudicate. Surely Michael Rapfogel--whom I once dubbed Forest City's "designated lurker"--is reasonably competent. And surely his family ties helped. (Think how Khalid Green, son of Assemblyman Roger Green, got a job with the Nets.)

The Times describes more ties, which I've described in this blog:
In 2006, the Public Authorities Control Board, over which Mr. Silver has significant control, approved Mr. Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. Intervention by Mr. Silver and others enabled the project to retain a lucrative tax break, even as that break was actually being phased out.
In 2008, Forest City Ratner, which compared to other developers makes few political contributions, gave $58,420 to the Democratic Assembly Housekeeping Committee, which is controlled by Mr. Silver.
That same year, Mr. Ratner helped raise $1 million for Met Council and was honored at a luncheon given by Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver. “Bruce is responsible for much of the development and growth that’s gone on in Brooklyn and in Manhattan,” Mr. Silver said at the event. “He is a major force in New York City for the good.”
Much of the development in Manhattan? That's grade inflation.

One element unmentioned is that, when Ratner last year sponsored a concert of Jewish cantorial music at the Barclays Center, profits went to support Rapfogel's Met Council. The press, notably the Times, unskeptically reported that the concert emerged from Ratner's love of cantorial music rather than, at least in part, political calculation.

I suggested that the evidence suggested an effort to bolster ties with a charitable ally, Rapfogel, and the powerful Silver. I even predicted that Forest City might even wind up partnering with the Met Council on a bid to develop the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. And I was right--though the bid, evaluated after Rapfogel was busted, obviously didn't succeed.

The denouement

Now, there's finally a plan:
By 2011, with all the neighborhood changes, consensus finally seemed possible. The local community board adopted development guidelines that included 800 to 1,000 apartments, with 20 percent, or as few as 160 units, set aside for low-income tenants. Mr. Silver gave the guidelines his blessing. Longtime advocates went along, seeing a portion of something as better than all of nothing.
...Developers bidding for the Seward Park site were required to team up with a local nonprofit. Mr. Ratner chose Mr. Rapfogel’s Met Council. As the process was nearing a close last year, Mr. Rapfogel was arrested. On Sept. 18, another bidder was selected.
In announcing the new plan, the city said priority would be given to some of the mostly Puerto Rican families displaced four decades ago. Construction is expected to begin next year.
...Mr. Silver has steadfastly stood by Judy Rapfogel. But as to his long alliance with Mr. Rapfogel, that is done. “Let’s be clear,” he said in a recent interview, “I have nothing to do with Willie Rapfogel.”
That sounds like some pretty remarkable compartmentalization.

Last year, Rapfogel, as the Times noted, "was arrested and charged in a scheme that had allegedly looted more than $7 million in kickbacks from Met Council’s insurance broker over the years," money used to support political candidates and help one of his three sons (it's unclear which one) buy a home.

What's next?

Rapfogel "is due back in court in April."

At Forest City Ratner headquarters and elsewhere, I suspect some are wondering: does Rapfogel have any dimes to drop?

When Rapfogel was arrested, I suggested there were four potential Forest City angles:

  • The Seward Park bid
  • The cantorial concert
  • Michael Rapfogel's hring
  • Whether Forest City--or knowledge of its interests--played any role in Rapfogel's direction of campaign contributions. As I pointed out, why would an employee of the Met Council's insurer contribute to Delia Hunley-Adossa's longshot 2009 challenge to popular 35th District Council incumbent Letitia James, the leading Atlantic Yards opponent?

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