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Errol Louis suggests AY poll results represent democracy

In his 10/16/07 Our Time Press "Commerce & Community" column, Errol Louis asks, "Who Speaks for Brooklyn?" and takes us on a peculiar ride, in which he seemingly concludes that poll results represent democracy. (This column's not online, and may never be.)

He begins:
It would be a disaster if a person who had just moved into a neighborhood could exercise a kind of veto power of development in that area for all time, even if a majority of his neighbors want something different. That is one of the little-discussed aspects of the lawsuits brought to stop the $4 billion Atlantic Yards project.

Actually, we don't know what the neighbors really want, since they haven't been asked about alternatives. What if the city had followed the guidelines it later issued in PlaNYC 2030:
Building communities requires a carefully tailored approach to local conditions and needs that can only be developed with local input. We will begin the process of working with communities, the agencies that operate these facilities, and other stakeholders to sort through these complicated issues.

Time-barred rights?

Louis continues:
Daniel Goldstein, the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit, says he moved into his Prospect Heights condo three months before the announcement of the Atlantic Yards project, and that it would violate his constitutional rights to have the government compel him to sell his unit to make way for a planned sports arena and thousands of units of subsidized housing.

Goldstein is one of 13 original plaintiffs. (Two are expected to leave; one more has been added.) Many of the other plaintiffs have a much longer tenure as residents or property owners. And the lawsuit is supported by donations from hundreds of people, which suggest much broader support.

Also, since when are constitutional rights dependent on length of tenure? Can a new immigrant protest that his free speech rights are being abridged, or must he wait some specified time?

As for "thousands of units of subsidized housing," well, that's hardly the raison d'etre of the project. Remember: 900 units for those at Brooklyn's median income, another 1350 subsidized units, and 4100 market-rate units. Real housing for the real Brooklyn?

And "veto power... for all time"? Louis is exaggerating.

Selective memory

The Atlantic Yards lawsuits Louis strenuously opposes challenge the Empire State Development Corporation's dubious claims of blight in a neighborhood where new construction is coveted and apartments sell for half a million dollars and more.

Louis erroneously called the Atlantic Yards site a "junkyard" and rail parking facility, while Forest City Enterprises executive Chuck Ratner has called it "a great piece of real estate."

Louis's take on Atlantic Yards contrasts with his 11/11/03 New York Sun column headlined "Business, Not Blight" (updated: it's online, as Louis points out in his comment), in which he savaged the ESDC's designation of blight in Manhattan, which would help the "Durst real estate organization to gather a fat bundle of public subsidies" for a new midtown office tower.

In September 2006, Louis declared himself unconcerned about such subsidies in his home borough of Brooklyn. As for Atlantic Yards, he said, "Suffice it to say that the railyards portion in particular and the area in general has been slated for urban development for decades. And there’s been a cost for not doing anything.”

In his 2003 column, he took a much more skeptical line toward corporate welfare:
The blight seems to consist of 21 low-rise buildings, which "contain miscellaneous retail and commercial businesses, including, among others, cell phone stores, a pizza parlor, a check-cashing business, a deli, and a messenger service delivery point." This is claimed to be an economic catastrophe: "The project location has remained in a comparatively primitive state consisting of an anachronistic patchwork of small lots, each developed with comparatively small buildings... there has been no significant development activity within the project location for over 50 years."

Even if the phony "blight" argument had merit, it's not clear why the public should cough up millions to pay the tab. "To date, the private market has failed to eliminate these blighting conditions," the report says, which, in a competitive, free-market system, pretty much should be the end of the story.

Louis sounded there like a pure libertarian. Regarding Atlantic Yards, the free-market system was bypassed; the city could have rezoned the land, thus increasing the value of the development rights, and negotiated with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to put the Vanderbilt Yard up for bid. Instead, Forest City Ratner got essentially a private rezoning.

What the polls say

Louis's recent column continues:
One judge has dismissed the suit and an appeals court is expected to issue its own findings in the coming weeks. But what’s worth noting is that most people in the area, when asked, have said they actually want the project.

It depends, of course, on how they’re asked.

He writes:
A poll was conducted in 2005 by Pace University and sponsored by the New York Observer, WNYC radio, and WCBS-TV. Was reported in the October 31, 2005 edition of the Observer, “Asked outright what they think about the plan, 39% of the 538 voters polled said they support it, 23% oppose it, and the rest were undecided."

Support was even stronger among Brooklynites (50%) and black men (59%). A set of follow-up questions gave the best arguments in favor (jobs, housing, civic spirit) and against (the large size, a $200 million taxpayer subsidy, use of eminent domain) and then asked respondents to rate their support: 46% were somewhat or strongly for it.

“Between 30 percent and 36 percent of the public opposed it, depending on how the question was worded.”

I offered numerous criticisms of the poll and also some alternative wording.

Remember that the poll director said that public opinion was "fixed." That's highly doubtful, especially since public contributions haven't been fixed.

What if those polled now were told that the city's subsidy—the direct taxpayer subsidy—has already [corrected] more than doubled to $205 million and that the state and city may ending up paying additional “extraordinary infrastructure” costs?

The Crain's poll

Louis writes:
A second poll was commissioned by Crain’s New York and conducted by Charney Research in 2006. As reported in the 9/4/06 Daily News, “The colossal and controversial 8.7 million square foot Atlantic Yards development of 16 office and residential towers and a basketball arena is disliked by 25% of New Yorkers surveyed.” Support for Forest City Ratner’s $4.2 billion proposal also ran at 60% in Brooklyn, though 33% there view it unfavorably. The survey found the plan is viewed favorably by 56% of African-Americans, 58% of whites, 68% of Latinos, and 72% of Asians.”

I criticized the Crain's poll at length.

Vast conspiracy?

Louis continues:
Opponents of the development dismiss these polls. Their view seems to be that WNYC radio CBS, Pace University, Charney Research, Crain’s, and the Observer are all part of some vast conspiracy of people and institutions who have been bought off by Ratner.

Nah, it's simply that a poll can be "gamed" depending on how you word the questions.

What's democracy?

Louis closes his column:
A more reasonable look at the situation suggests that the people complaining about the development violating the spirit of democracy have a peculiar definition of the word.

It would be more peculiar, even brutally weird, if Louis were in charge of the dictionary. Democracy (definition) may be rule of the majority, exercised "through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections." It has never been defined as poll results. (Even ballot initiatives give the pro and con sides a chance to argue their strongest points.)

Absence of democracy?

In an August 2006 cover story, New York magazine political reporter Chris Smith concluded:
But in looking at Atlantic Yards up close, it’s outrageous to see the absolute absence of democratic process.

Brooklynites were unrepresented, which is why BrooklynSpeaks stated:
The Atlantic Yards proposal was conceived by the developer and the political decision-makers behind closed doors and has moved forward with no significant input from New Yorkers. No Brooklyn official will get to vote on the project.

Only seven people got to vote on Atlantic Yards, despite what the developer says about it being "approved by the state." Four were unelected board members of the Empire State Development Corporation, who took all of 15 minutes to evaluate the project publicly. The others were the “three men in a room” of the Public Authorities Control Board, then Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who took even less time in public deliberations.

Peculiar, indeed.


  1. This blog long ago chased away neutral fact-seekers, but just in case any have strayed here: remember always that Norm Oder’s sole purpose is to generate a vast archive of negative commentary (masquerading as reporting) for the use of those trying to scuttle Atlantic Yards.

    In this case, he does a typical hatchet job, ignoring the many differences between the midtown Bank of America deal and Atlantic Yards. The article he selectively quoted is available at

    One quote from the column suggests the world of difference between the two projects. In Manhattan, I noted: "The corner where the subsidies would go is within a block or two of the New York Public Library, the Harvard Club, the Princeton Club, the headquarters of the Bar Association, the Columbia Club, the Century Club, the Iroquois and Algonquin hotels, and so on. Nevertheless, the developer will argue next week, with a straight face, that the location is ‘blighted.’”

    Not only that: the column points out that Bank of America reneged on an earlier jobs-for-subsidy deal. All ignored by Oder because – always remember – he’s doing a Swift Boat maneuver, posting thousands of words he knows nobody will slog through. Then, long after the fact, he simply links to the earlier critique to show he has already “refuted” neutral polls, other articles, court rulings, even election results.

    In Oder’s hermetically sealed universe, no government institution, court decision, press outlet, pollster, community activist or elected official has credibility if they support Atlantic Yards – and he will spin for as long as it takes to “prove” it.

    Meanwhie, out in the real world, the bulldozers grind on.

  2. As stated at the top of the page, "This blog offers analysis, commentary, and reportage." I trust readers can make a distinction.

    I've posted a link above to the column Louis cites. (It wasn't available via a search engine or through my search of the Sun's archive, but I do prefer to link to full-text sources.)

    How about rewriting Louis's "world of difference" section to describe Brooklyn:
    "The corner where the subsidies would go is within a block or two of properties where apartments routinely sell for half a million dollars and up. Nevertheless, the developer and the state argue, with a straight face, that the location is ‘blighted,’ even though an executive from the developer calls it "a great piece of real estate."

    Meanwhile, out in the real world, the bulldozers can't finish the job--and the arena's official opening date of 2009 is widely disbelieved--because of pending litigation.

  3. While Mr. Louis spurriously claims that "nobody will slog through" this post or others, the thin-skinned columnist himself proves otherwise. And caught red-handed with proof of his double standard, all he can do is obfuscate and resort to his usual namecalling tactics.

    Mr. Oder could also have added that the "Atlantic Yards" project site is within a block or two - or less - of homes and condos that sell for millions of dollars, as at One Hanson Place, as well as historic low-rise neighborhoods, the BAM cultural district, and one of America's 10 best neighborhoods, as the American Planning Association recently designated Park Slope. Like the ESDC and Forest City Ratner, Mr. Louis's definition of "blight" is wholly subjective – and self-serving.

    Mr. Louis's understanding of the U.S. Constitution is also curiously off-base. The Constitution expressly protects people like Daniel Goldstein from the type of tyranny-of-the-majority, rule-by-poll, pro sports-above-all-else nonsense of which Mr. Louis is a proponent. Forest City Ratner could build all of its promised housing and create all of its promised jobs without having to take Daniel Goldstein's home, a fact that Mr. Louis willfully neglects to mention. And for Mr. Louis to suggest that there is some sort of timetable by which one qualifies for Constitutional protections is either misinformed, or irresponsible.

    Shame on Errol Louis, and more power to Norman Oder, for doing the job that so many major-newspaper columnists like Mr. Louis are failing to do in exposing the "Atlantic Yards" land grab for what it is.

  4. Blogs do not chase people away, and clearly the impact of Norman's fastidious analysis and in-depth reporting, infact keeps even Errol Louis engaged. With the holes, and blantant easily trackable lies that Errol Louis laces through his check out stand magazineesque editorials, one hardly needs a hatchet rather just a mere fraction of a brain to shred through his editorials, aka stories.

    To Quote:
    It would be a disaster if a person who had just moved into a neighborhood could exercise a kind of veto power of development in that area for all time, even if a majority of his neighbors want something different. That is one of the little-discussed aspects of the lawsuits brought to stop the $4 billion Atlantic Yards project."

    No Mr. Louis it would be a disaster if someone from Cleveland who lives in the richest neighborhood of New York City, who NEVER moved into the neighborhood, who barely stepped foot in it for that matter, was able to buy and bulldoze his way through the neighborhood because a majority or a minority decided they wanted what is someone elses, in the name of sports and false promises. The fact that Ratner could knock down his own buildings, and sacrifice his OWN property for the greater good, but refuses to - now that is an aspect that is simply never discussed. Ratner has stalled his own project. To force an individual, or thousands of individuals to sacrifice something beyond what one is willing to do them self - well that is a person and deal that can not be trusted. And a reporter such a Louis who continually abuses his editorial privileges and voice and bashes individual citizens for trying to uphold a democratic process, (talk about negative commentary) is simply not to be trusted.

    Thank you Norman.

    "The burden of proof rests with ordinary citizens who have to break
    through the cover-up and develop their own analysis."
    C Krauss

  5. When I first learned of the AY project,I didn't have any fixed opinions. Would love to see some of that area developed with ALL low-income housing to blend in with an environment that every year I have livd in Brooklyn (14 and counting) has become more the domain of the wealthy.
    Two things came to disturb me: the difficulty I, as an individual resident, had in obtaining any information on which to base an opinion on the project, coupled with the eagerness of borough officials to rush the project through to approval. Along the lines of "trust me to know what's best for you." Is that democracy? That made me a bit more skeptical about the project than I might otherwise have been, and look more deeply into it (vs my initial concern, more NIMBY in nature, of construction noise.)
    My second issue is the sheer level of vitriol. If I criticize any facet of this plan (no, I'm not a member of any organization, etc.), I become an elitist, an incomer and yes, even a racist. What????
    I have been particularly disturbed, as a professional journalist for the last 20 plus years, to listen to Errol Louis on WNYC. I admire Brian Lehrer's approach -- he may have opinions, but uses them to form questions for his guests & listeners, not to shut down debate. It's a fine art, and one that Errol Louis hasn't mastered. A good op-ed columnist doesn't try to hector or shout down or ignore or scorn people who disagree with him/her -- rather, they engage with them. Especially in radio, which is all about engaging. I'm now at the point where, when I hear Mr Louis tackle the topic as a substitute host on WNYC, I turn off the radio. He's never a skilful interviewer or host, but is at his worst when he all too often doesn't want to listen to others' views.


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