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ESDC, Ratner & job numbers: collaborative or not?

Exactly how collaborative are the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and developer Forest City Ratner (FCR)? A disputed claim about jobs at the Atlantic Yards project raises a lingering question about whether the state agency is more an advocate for the project or a steward of the public interest.

The legal battle in which opponents of FCR's Atlantic Yards plan and critics of the environmental review process have challenged the ESDC and the developer has raised some significant questions. Is it simply "collaborative" for the agency to use a lawyer who has just represented a developer on the same project, or does that not meet an "arm's length" standard? Justice Carol Edmead disqualified attorney David Paget, and an appeal of her decision will be heard 3/23/06.

Project sponsor, environmental steward

As the proposed amicus curiae brief filed 3/14/06 by the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG) states:
There is an inherent tension between ESDC's statutory role under the UDCA [Urban Development Corporation Act], which one might reasonably argue is to use its authority as a governmental agency to shepherd a project initially recognized as having public merit past the "political and bureaucratic inertia" toward successful completion, and ESDC's role under SEQRA [State Environmental Quality Review Act], which is to determine whether, for the sake of the "ecological systems, natural, human and community resources important to the people of the state," the same project should go forward at all.
...ESDC's role as an advocate of officially favored development must not be allowed to overwhelm and subsume its role as "steward" of the public's interest in preserving and enhancing the natural and community environments.

Space per job: do ESDC & FCR agree?

The tension between advocate and steward may arise in another small aspect of the controversy. I took another look at the 11/6/05 New York Times article about changes in the Atlantic Yards project, headlined Routine Changes, or 'Bait and Switch'?. The article mentioned how Forest City Ratner initially projected 10,000 jobs for about 2 million square feet of office space in the Atlantic Yards project, but now "nearly three-quarters of the office jobs originally projected are gone."

Besides a reduction in office space, another reason was this:
The earlier estimates were also based on a ratio of one job per 200 square feet of space, but the Empire State Development Corporation, which released the September planning documents, uses a less generous ratio of one job per 250 square feet of space, amplifying the reduction.

Howver, the ESDC's Draft Scope of Analysis for the project says nothing about such ratios. Rather, I pointed out, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and FCR consultant Andrew Zimbalist use the 250 square feet figure, which is not just a "less generous ratio," but also the industry standard.

Asking for clarification

More than a week ago, I asked the ESDC if the agency uses 250 square feet per office job, and whether it was in any document. I haven't received an answer. (If I do, I'll add it here.)

[7/21/06 update: the ESDC does use that ratio.)

There are two possibilities here:

1) The Times was mistaken and the ESDC, as the Draft Scope suggests, doesn't calculate a different figure regarding jobs. If so, then the Times portrayed the agency and the developer as more at odds than they actually are--and this small but not insignificant error should be corrected.

2) The Times was correct and the ESDC does in fact count 250 feet of space per office worker. If so, the agency has been inconsistent in its public posture. If the ESDC does use the standard industry ratio of 250 square feet per job, then it should've looked askance at FCR's initial promises (December 2003) that it would fill about 2 million square feet of office space with 10,000 jobs.

ESDC collaboration

However, the agency's pattern has been to support the developer's claims. On 3/4/05, in a press release headlined "Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg Announce Memorandum of Understanding for Atlantic Yards Project in Brooklyn," the ESDC stated, "The project is expected to create 15,000 construction jobs and over 10,000 permanent jobs."

Had the ESDC used the industry standard rather than accepted the jobs figures used by the governor's and mayor's offices in their press releases, it would've calculated 8000 jobs for the same amount of space, assuming all the offices were full. If, like the NYCEDC, the state agency had calculated a 7% vacancy rate, it would have projected an even smaller number of jobs. And the discussion about the number of jobs promised at this project would've started a lot earlier.


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