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Lehrer on Gargano: "classic political evasiveness"

Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) Chairman Charles Gargano's halting and evasive locutions on the Brian Lehrer Show last Thursday prompted Lehrer yesterday to revisit the episode--and the Atlantic Yards development in general.

Lehrer called Gargano's performance "classic political evasiveness." Still, neither he nor guest Matthew Schuerman, who covers real estate and development for the New York Observer, had much encouraging to say to Atlantic Yards opponents who hope that the project is stalled until the administration of incoming Governor Eliot Spitzer, who supports the project.

Lehrer set the scene:
It may happen just about every day that someone in politics tries to get away with lying about something on this program. It definitely does not happen every day, however, that that the alleged lie winds up in the New York Times article linked to other alleged media lies on the same topic and becomes fodder for a lawsuit, even. But all of that happened after Thursday’s show.

Actually, the lawsuit was already in progress and referenced other statements by Gargano.


Lehrer replayed a segment from the show Thursday:

BL: Part of that vote is any condemnations that you decide are needed. Does that mean seizing property under eminent domain?

CG: At this point, we have, we do—we have not used, or--have not used to date any eminent domain condemn-condemn-condemnation.

BL: And you don’t anticipate a vote on anything like that tomorrow?

CG: No, there is nothing about that tomorrow.


Lehrer yesterday picked up the story:
Opponents of Atlantic Yards went ballistic after that, firing off e-mails and lawyers ' statements about Gargano lied to mislead the public about whether eminent domain was on the agenda. Gargano’s office justified the statement to WNYC by saying no specific condemantions were going to be voted on, just the authorizing of eminent domain in general, if needed, so the answer may have been technically accurate.

He then cited coverage in Saturday's Times:
But even by the standards of development-speak, where hyperbolic promises and grand rhetorical gestures are the norm, some of those comments have left allies and opponents alike perplexed.
Last May, Mr. Gargano suggested that the condemnations had already occurred, telling a reporter that the development agency “didn’t need to use eminent domain” and that “the amount of condemnation that we had to do was very small.”
During a subsequent television appearance, Mr. Gargano characterized the condemnations that might occur as “friendly,” meaning unchallenged, though several apartment owners have long said that they planned to fight the condemnations in court.

Eminent domain

Schuerman came on, and offered some background on eminent domain.

BL: I guess a court will have to decide, does it fit Supreme Court's definition of economic development for the greater good, even by a private entity, or doesn’t it?

MS: I think, by this point, especially with that case, that’s called Kelo vs. New London, it’s pretty well accepted that a government does have the right to seize private proper for economic development. The question is going to be the circumstances of that economic development, how that economic development project came about. In the New London case, writing for four members, Justice [John Paul] Stevens said the taking was a result of a “carefully formulated development plan,” undertaking by the city of New London. Justice [Anthony] Kennedy, who provided a 5th vote, even went further, said a taking fort could not be for the benefit of one private developer over others. And that’s going to be the big question here: Did this project come about due to a carefully formulated development plan, or did it come about from Forest City Ratner’s mind here?

Indeed. (As former New York City Economic Development Corporation president Andrew Alper said at a 5/4/04 meeting of the City Council Economic Development Committee:
This particular project came to us. We were not out soliciting, we were developing a Downtown Brooklyn Plan, but we were not out soliciting a professional sports franchise for Downtown Brooklyn. The developer came to us with what we thought was actually a very clever plan. It is not only bringing a sports team back to Brooklyn, but to do it in a way that provided dramatic economic development catalyst in terms of housing, retail, commercial jobs, construction jobs, permanent jobs. So, they came to us, we did not come to them. And it is not really up to us then to go out and find to try to a better deal.)

Eminent domain & ESDC

Lehrer asked Schuerman if the ESDC identified the taking of any individual tracts. Schuerman pointed out that the properties were identified in the ESDC's blight study. (They were also identified in other documents.)

In light of that, Lehrer said, he wanted to replay his exchange with Gargano.

BL: So, well, y’know, it doesn’t seem a blatant statement to me to say that he was trying not to draw attention to it.

MS: I’d agree with you. What’s interesting is how defensive Charles Gargano has been about the eminent domain issue, perhaps because he realizes this is one of the best arguments opponents have for stopping the project. I will say that the first part of that statement that he gave you, it is true that there has not been any eminent domain so far--

BL: --Right, but even that, y’know, it’s classic political evasiveness. Because I asked him, is there anything on agenda tomorrow about that, and he said, “We have not used anything like that to date.” I asked him a future question and he answered it in the past, apparently to avoid answering directly about what was going to happen the next day.

MS: That’s right. It’s been clear from the get-go that this project is going to require eminent domain. What Mr. Gargano and Forest City Ratner, the developer, have tried to stress is that the developer is trying to buy as much of the property as possible before invoking eminent domain and there for to quote minimize eminent domain.

Gargano redux?

BL: We’ll invite Charles Gargano on the program to talk about this again. He’s always very accessible about coming on and making his case. His office did give us two statements on Friday. One said, he misspoke, which I guess gets called into question by the pattern that the New York Times reported on, of him trying to deflect attention from this in various statements. In one statement, they said he misspoke, in the other statement, they said, well, there were no specific condemnations, and that appeared to be what the question was about. So we’ll see, we’ll invite him, and maybe he’ll stand by one or the other.

MS: Sounds good. I look forward to that one, Brian.

Schuerman allowed himself a slight chuckle.


Lehrer pointed toward the coming weeks.

BL: We may be or we may not be in the Atlantic Yards project political endgame. Because after this vote by the Empire State Development Corporation on Friday, it now goes to what’s called the Public Authorities Control Board, which means Speaker Sheldon Silver of the Assembly, state Senate Majority leader Joe Bruno, and Governor Pataki. They all support the plan, but there’s still this outstanding question, whether, for whatever reason, Silver’s own competition with Gargano, and past bad blood, they called each other names, or whatever reason, that Silver may choose to block and kick it down the road into the Spitzer administration. What do you expect?

MS: I think there’s probably a greater likelihood now than before that the PACB, especially Shelly Silver, will do something to delay that final authorization. For one, it’s just a matter of weeks until the Spitzer administration comes into office. And although Shelly Silver has been favorably disposed toward the project, and I think eventually they’re going to approve it, there’s been a lot of pressure to tinker around the edges, most recently with the amount of affordable housing that’s going to built in the first phase of the project, which is supposed to be done by 2010.

Spitzer's support

Lehrer then played an excerpt from an October interview with Spitzer, who was supportive if not fully briefed.

ES: I’m for it, and I know this riles a fair number of people. Again, I was not involved in the process, and I don’t say that to hedge. I know there are people who feel very fervently that it was too big, and it was just scaled back, by 8 percent, I believe. Without having been involved in the process, that seems to me to be an appropriate compromise.

BL: You don’t think it’s out of scale for the neighborhood?

ES: Certainly those who are living adjacent to it have been saying that, and they’ve been saying it with great energy, and I respect that view. What happened recently with the 8 percent reduction seemed like a reasonable compromise. So that’s why I think: Let’s move forward.

Spitzer vs. lawsuit

Lehrer pointed to Spitzer's words.

BL: Boy, that was not ambiguous, he was not ambivalent. So these opponents of Atlantic Yards who are pinning their hopes on getting it out of Pataki and into Spitzer, are they pinning it on anything?

MS: I think at this point the opponents’ greatest hope is the lawsuit, the two lawsuits, especially the eminent domain lawsuit…. I think they’re hoping that Spitzer, once he gets his hands on it, will delve into and find the same things wrong with it that they see wrong with it, and may tinker with it again, but I don’t see major changes coming about as a result of whether the Spitzer administration gets to weight in or not.

The unknowns

BL: Spitzer talked about, recently…some concern that he has about the finances of it and wheter it’s going to cost more than they say it was.

MS: Well, it’s very unclear exactly what the fiscal impact of this project will be. The state and city are putting up $200 million directly for the project to put up a platform over the railyards and do some acquisition actually of the eminent domain properties. But the real impacts, opponents say, could be as much as two billion dollars. Even Forest City Ratner has said the impact will be about a billion dollars over 30 years.

BL: The debate goes on.