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Michael West at AY CDC: "Forest City Ratner cannot act as an exploiter of our communities"

From Devotion NYC
This is among multiple articles covering issues raised at the March 15 Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC) meeting.

It came near the end of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation meeting, and generated only mild follow-up. But in the board's one year existence, the few community members willing to comment at a daytime meeting have mainly addressed community impacts.

This time, Michael West of the fledgling organization Devotion NYC, came to excoriate Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park developer Forest City Ratner (now part of Greenland Forest City partners) for exploiting Central Brooklyn communities that once supported the project's Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

It's not the first expression of disillusionment by a former supporter, or even the loudest, but it may be the most sustained (though perhaps tamped down if Forest City responds with more information and funds for CBA implementation, though I wouldn't bet on it, given the failure to produce promised data or hired the Independent Compliance Monitor who was supposed to start a decade ago). West has already begun attending community board meetings.

(Previous examples of disillusionment include a 2011 protest led by Martin Allen of P.P.E.E., harsh words in 2012 from former stirring speaker Umar Jordan, and a 2011 lawsuit from former trainees promised union construction careers via a CBA pre-apprenticeship training program, which was quietly settled last year.)

Addressing the board

West, who at this meeting did not mention that he used to be an officer in Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), the now-defunct CBA signatory that started the failed pre-apprenticeship training program well after he left, began his comments at about 1:37:46 of the video below.

"I'm with Devotion NYC," said West. "We're an economic advocacy and education organization focused on  low and moderate income communities. We have three basic premises: that low- and moderate-income  members need to develop their economics by buying and selling to each other... Corporations that use the the tax resources... should reinvest in those communities by providing business opportunities and employment opportunities. Finally that political representatives need to focus on that... or communities need to hold them accountable to economic development, using those two methods."

While Devotion NYC has focused on Atlantic Yards, its blog also cites an effort to hold Goldman Sachs accountable for community reinvestment activities.

"I wanted to talk about Atlantic Yards Community Benefits from a business point of view," he continued. "In the Community Benefits Agreement, there were several promises made to our community for our support, we gave Forest City Ratner a lot of support, we came out and rallied for them. We came out and held countless community meetings for them. We gave them $1.5 billion of our taxes." (As I wrote, that total is uncertain, but subsidies and tax breaks are hundreds of millions.)

"We were in turn were promised 35% of construction jobs for people of color and 10% of those construction jobs for women," he said. There's been no credible reporting on the figures, given the lack of government monitoring and the failure to hire the compliance monitor.

West also cited 50% "of condos" (actually, rental housing) and, referring to discussion of the meeting of 35% of the housing units, said he didn't know where that came from.

Actually, once Forest City swapped office space for condos--or maybe not--the overall affordable housing percentage went down to about 35%, but the 35% reference at the meeting regarded the percentage of affordable housing during a certain construction period.

"Job training and apprenticeship programs for community members," West continued. "30% of construction and 20% of the service contracts after construction would go to minorities and women contractors." (Note that even formal compliance can mean the hiring of long-successful mainstream firms that have nothing to do with the Central Brooklyn-based organizations that signed the CBA.)

"We were promised, in the CBA," he added. "15% of retail space for minority and women-owned businesses. as well as low-interest loans and other kinds of promises." (Of course, retail space is yet to come.)

Getting critical

"That when Forest City Ratner reneges on that contract, they're hurting our communities economically," said West, in a statement that pointed to the difficulty, in CBAs, of defining the boundaries of community. "They're hurting us by preventing us from developing our businesses, preventing us from developing our own jobs. And that, when a company comes into our community, like Forest City Ratner, and made the contract that they made, they're supposed to fulfill the contract, and they haven't fulfilled that contract."

"We're asking our governor to intervene," he said, which had a layer of irony given that he was addressing a board dominated by gubernatorial appointees, and which is a subsidiary of a gubernatorially-appointed authority, Empire State Development (ESD).

As ESD's Marion Phillips III told him his time was up, West revved up: "That's what we are about, economic justice. Forest City Ratner cannot act as an exploiter of our communities, or as a parasite corporation."

Board oversight?

Though ESD Chair Howard Zemsky, a Buffalo resident, then said he had to leave, the meeting wasn't quite finished. Board member Barika Williams, an affordable housing advocate, noted the need for responses from Forest City--actually Greenland Forest City--not only regarding the phasing of the affordable housing units, but also "where they are" regarding CBA commitments.

Phillips, ESD's Senior VP for Community Relations, demurred regarding the latter issue. "The CBA is very unique, in the sense that the state and this body is not party to that," he said. Indeed, in 2014, responding to comments (in the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, or SEIS) regarding failure to hire the Independent Compliance Monitor, ESD said, "ESD is not a party to the CBA. The SEIS will not examine commitments that the project sponsors have made in the CBA.

"I have been meeting with Forest City to make sure they work with the CBA group," Phillips said, referring to the extant organizations that signed the CBA, not groups like Devotion NYC. "We can have them come to discuss that at a later date."

A bit later in the meeting, at 1:46:45, Williams noted plans by Greenland Forest City to move 1.1 million square feet of development rights from the tower slated at the arena plaza to Site 5 across the street, creating a giant mixed-use tower with office space.

"They're talking about these changes in commercial and jobs, and there's already being questions raised about the current commitment around commercial and jobs--I think those things are linked," Williams said. "So I think we do need an update on where they have been on their CBA economic development commitments to be able to then evaluate that next chunk of commercial and job piece that they're potentially proposed."

She didn't get a response.


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