In their laments for the setback, local columnist Michael Daly and op-ed columnist Errol Louis miss a fundamental point: the lack of bonding capacity for affordable housing threatened the project's key benefit well before the credit crunch dampened Ratner's overall plans, as did a long-constricted market in Brooklyn for office space. And public officials approved the project without doing due diligence.
Daly's misguided hope
Daly, in a column headlined As vows fade in Atlantic Yards, so do housing hopes starts off with a misconception:
The drawings promised the best of both worlds, a development with the architectural class of upscale Manhattan, but filled with regular Brooklyn folk, a kind of Rockefellah Center.
Best of all, there was to be lots of what Brooklyn needs most if it is not going to end up a place just for the rich and the poor: housing those in between can afford.
The pledge of affordable housing was at the heart of the Community Benefits Agreement [CBA] that developer Bruce Ratner promulgated to win the support of local groups and leaders. The legally binding document guarantees half of the residential rentals will be within the means of working people.
Sure, there's an argument for mixed-income housing, especially at a site containing a good chunk of public property, but Daly should know that the term "working people" is quite elastic: only half of the 2250 affordable rentals would go to what the Daily News in an editorial called "the real Brooklyn": families on the waiting list for public housing and Section 8 vouchers.
Only 900 of the rentals would go to households at Brooklyn's median income and below.
But Daly recognizes a loophole:
But there is a catch: It only applies if the residential buildings are actually constructed; half of nothing is nothing.
Maybe he should be asking whether the CBA was the best way to guarantee affordable housing, or whether a document signed by a government body would have been preferable. And whether government officials should go ahead with AY documentation without locking in affordable housing.
The bigger fear is that Ratner will end up selling off property that he acquired via eminent domain with the promise of affordable housing. The new developers would be free to erect more of the obscenely overpriced condos springing up everywhere in Brooklyn.
Unless, that is, the city finds a legal way to make all of Ratner's promises apply to anybody who buys property he acquired on the strength of those pledges.
Well, it's a state project, so the state is responsible. I hope to get that question answered soon.
Daly closes with an anecdote about a friend who lived "in a chaotic housing project" who built a shack at the Atlantic Yards site, but eventually had to leave when the economy took an upswing.
When I heard Bruce Ratner had drawn his own, much bigger rectangle in the same dirt I was unsure if it was in keeping with Emuel Benton's spirit or diametrically opposed.
Maybe it was both.
...The Ratner rationale was that he was evicting a few so as to house many, that he would be bringing not just jobs and business but reasonable rents.
Nobody can blame Ratner for the general unraveling of the economy. And nobody can predict how bad things will get, if a building delay will become never.
But Ratner can pledge today that if he is ever forced to sell off any of the property, he will do so only on the promise the new developer will make at least half the housing affordable.
Call it the Benton clause.
Well, we can blame Ratner for overpromising office jobs from the start and promising affordable housing when no financing was available.
The question always was whether the direct and indirect governmental support, including a private zoning bonus, was worth the cost, not the general principle that developers get a density bonus for building affordable housing or that eminent domain can be used for public purposes.
As with the CBA, it's not Ratner's pledge to make. The future of the AY site is a governmental responsibility. Daly's heart may be in the right place, but he should be asking some questions.
In his column, headlined Blight at the end of the tunnel, Louis blames the AY setback not on the developer or the government, but on NIMBYs:
News that key parts of the Atlantic Yards project will be delayed is a disaster for my Brooklyn neighborhood - and a timely reminder of why New York's middle class needs to get serious about fighting for jobs, housing and opportunity against the not-in-my-backyard activists bent on blocking development.
Too many civic, religious, labor and political leaders sat idly by over the past four years while those who objected to the landmark project resorted to a delay-at-all-costs strategy that included protests and lawsuits.
And now, turmoil in the financial markets - compounded by the chaos in Albany - has put the project's future in jeopardy.
Again, the project was built on false promises beyond the credit crunch.
Louis again claims "my neighborhood" when the issue is more complex. As I wrote more than a year ago, the project site is divided between Community Boards 2, 6, and 8, though CB 8 would have a much larger segment. The project would be at the far west end of CB 8, while Louis lives in the central section. Lots of people with equally legitimate voices live as close or closer to the site.
(Map from Department of City Planning. Site map below.)
While the opinions among residents of CB 8 vary, members of the community board who studied the project closely delivered a stack of concerns to the Empire State Development Corporation. And remember how all three CBs said that Forest City had overstated their participation in the CBA?
The project's foes are taking a victory lap, but they should be ashamed of themselves. The casualties will be felt, especially in the lives of struggling Brooklynites.
For now, the first phase of Atlantic Yards - construction of an 18,000-seat sports arena - will proceed. But other parts - a commercial tower, thousands of units of subsidized housing and new street-level retail - will be on hold indefinitely, according to developer Bruce Ratner.
That means more than 6,000 apartments - about a third of them subsidized to bring down the rental cost - will be delayed, and perhaps axed. Ditto for 200 or so condos slated to be subsidized for middle-class homeowners.
Why doesn't Louis follow the money and conclude that 1) Ratner's promises were built on an unstable foundation and 2) Ratner's obligations to his shareholders lead him to pursue profits from a well-subsidized arena that brings with it lucrative naming rights, suite revenues, and a television deal?
Also remember that the developer and state promised a project within a decade, while an official from parent Forest City Enterprises told investment analysts the project could take 15 years and the the project landscape architect said it might take 20 years. Bait and switch?
Delay also means that money going to minority- and female-owned businesses will slow to a trickle. So far, those businesses have landed $19 million in construction contracts at Atlantic Yards - nearly half of the approximately $40 million in contracts to date.
Seventeen of the small contractors are Brooklyn companies doing demolition, rubbish hauling, fencing, cleaning, asbestos removal and the like. These small businesses, and the local workers they hire, are going to take a financial hit in a neighborhood where every job is precious.
Well, if the city and state are contributing $305 million in direct subsidies, and much more in indirect subsidies, you'd think there could be local benefits. Any project built at that site could've had local benefits, and a more rational project would've proceeded without such fierce opposition.
Misreading the map
In Community Board 8, where the project site is located, nearly 27% of the residents were receiving some form of public assistance - including welfare, Medicaid and disability - according to figures from the 2000 census.
Their chances of escaping economic dependency are now diminished.
First, as noted, the project site is not "located" in CB8. Second, the "fit" between this project and rescuing people from economic dependency is highly inexact.
Louis fires back
Louis continues by offering one of his favorite epithets (here's a catalog):
That's just fine with the anti-development brigade. Here are the words of one of their number, a man named Joe Boms, who sent a note to me last month that he said reflected the thoughts of his Park Slope neighbors.
"I'm afraid 100 jobs - or 10,000 jobs - are not reason enough. A monster of such scope and complexity simply does not belong in the downtown area," wrote Boms. "We do indeed wish that financiers, insurers, investors and its plethora of assorted cheerleaders will pull out, and let this white elephant die in a spectacular way so as to serve as a lesson to future megalomaniacs."
That kind of smug willingness to condemn others to joblessness is infuriating.
Louis's smug willingness to ignore facts is more infuriating. Remember, Ratner initially promised 10,000 office jobs, as likely as the Easter Bunny. The claimed 15,000 construction jobs would be 1500 jobs a year over ten years.
As for condemning others to joblessness, note that most of the office jobs--however many there might be--would likely be relocated rather than new. Yes, a good chunk of the demolition and construction jobs would go to locals under the CBA--35% Minority and 10% women construction workers, with efforts (though not guarantees) to hire locally.
However, Louis's basic position is that something should get built because there's a cost to doing nothing. Assemblyman Richard Brodsky responded, at a September 2006 panel, “Any stadium deal provides enormous—literally billions—with no ability to understand what we’ve done. So I call on Errol for a little more intellectual rigor. Because his response, which is interesting, is ‘We really need to get something going.’ OK, he’s right. What does that have to do with the creation of massive giveaways?"
Louis later said, "I think where I live, in Kings County, if somebody wants to bring a billion-dollar deal there, with way too much paid per job, in my neighborhood, where there’s a lot of unemployment, personally, I would say, ‘You know what? I’ll take that.’”
Brodsky was unimpressed. “That is a prescription for a bigger disaster."
Louis lays the blame
The column concludes:
When development stalls, civil servants find it harder to land affordable housing. Entrepreneurs can't get a reliable stream of contracts. Kids looking for a career in the building trades can't land that all-important first apprenticeship. And many people, weary of the uphill battle, pack up and move out.
The next act in the Atlantic Yards drama will be crucial.
Honest critics of the project now have an opportunity to separate themselves from the naysayers and negotiate improvements to the plan with Ratner.
Gov. Paterson, an avowed supporter of minority- and female-owned businesses, should fight to get the project back on track.
And pols who fought to block Atlantic Yards, like City Councilwoman Letitia James, should be held accountable by their constituents for contributing to the grim, rising tide of unemployment in my neighborhood.
Above all, those who want prosperity and progress in Brooklyn must get off the sidelines and make their voices heard in the months to come, while there's still a chance to rescue an important project from a slow death.
Negotiate with Ratner? That, apparently, is Louis's code for additional subsidies.
As for the unemployment in Louis's neighborhood, the significant government spending directed to AY might have helped, if directed elsewhere or to a project less likely to draw opposition. And, despite the headline, Louis doesn't acknowledge that Ratner will bring what many warned: years of blighted empty lots to Prospect Heights.
Louis said last December that he didn't really care about the arena: There's a lot in the project.... There are people who like it a lot because of basketball's status as a secular religion in Brooklyn. There are people like me who don't care about professional sports in general and probably would never go to a game, but like things such as the fact that it will create some jobs and it'll create a lot of housing. There's something there for everybody, and that's kind of the whole point of the project.
And if he had looked more carefully, maybe he would've supported a project that would bring jobs and housing--or at least one that wouldn't have brought an arena as the first, and perhaps only, component.