Skip to main content

Lessons on activism for the preservation movement, and reflections on the AY example

At the 15th annual Historic Districts Council (HDC) conference, Communities and Cornices: Preservation in a Political World, held March 7, Dick Dadey, executive director of the Citizens Union (CU), offered some general observations on effective advocacy.

The lessons apply not only for historic preservationists, but also, to my mind, offer context regarding the Atlantic Yards battle.

(Here's his PowerPoint.)

From LGBT to CU

Dadey described his background in activism, first in LGBT issues, then as a lobbyist on issues like homelessness, health care, housing, and reproductive rights. He then became involved in the Brooklyn Heights Association, the longstanding civic group in his neighborhood. “I wanted to be connected to the city in which I lived.”

He became executive director of the Parks Council, then, for the last five years, executive director of the 112-year-old CU, a longstanding watchdog organization, with its focus on political reform, campaign finance, ethics, and transparency.

Beyond CU’s watchdog role, Dadey said, “we try to be a constructive critic.” CU led the fight against putting a subway under Central Park, help support the effort to build the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and led the effort to enact permanent voter registration, a seeming no-brainer that supplanted an era in which everyone had to register before each election and Tammany Hall controlled things. CU also led the fight against discriminatory City Council district lines and helped get rid of the Board of Estimate, which gave power to each borough president.

And CU launched Gotham Gazette), an online news source that covers civic issues often overlooked by the press.

On Atlantic Yards, however, CU has been quite cautious, calling in December 2006 for a "limited delay" in approving the project, saying "we believe that economic development is needed so that the city can continue to be a dynamic place of business and meet the needs of a growing population.” Evidence, then and now, that AY would provide economic development is questionable.

(Photo by Jesse A. Ward)

Elements of good government

What is good government, Dadey asked rhetorically. He listed multiple factors: transparency, accountability, responsiveness to the people, effectiveness, acting in the public interest.

“Good government cannot function unless the citizens are paying attention,” he said. Thus the importance of advocacy. (And, I’d argue, journalism.)

Effective advocacy

Dadey listed what he called “the five P’s of effective advocacy.”

Principle: you need to have a set of principles that guide your work. HDC and other preservation groups, he said, have a very strong set of principles.

Purpose: a principled organization or effort needs to know what it’s asking for.

(In the Atlantic Yards context, it’s a very big ask, in fact, impossible. Hence lawsuits.)

Pragmatic: it’s not just about being passionate, and knowing your cause, but being wise in how you speak about it.

(Atlantic Yards diehard opponents at times have made common cause with “mend-it-don’t-end-it critics like BrooklynSpeaks.)

Political: “which is not a phrase a lot of us like to use,” when fighting for these principles… but being political, knowing what tactics to use and how to use them successfully.

(AY opponents have been unsucessful in getting project opponents like Assembly candidate Bill Batson and Congressional candidate Chris Owens elected, but longstanding opponent State Senator Velmanette Montgomery was reelected easily. Now City Council Member Letitia James, the leading opponent, faces a challenge.)

People: “How do the issues we care about affect the daily lives of people who live there?

(AY opponents certainly have recruited people in the immediate area of the project, but have not drawn large numbers from beyond.)

The importance of listening

The biggest lesson he learned, Dadey said, was this: “In order for people to hear what you are saying, you have to get them to listen to you first.” He explained that advocates sometimes “get so caught up in the rightness of our cause” they sometimes forget to figure out whether their audience cares.

(In the case of AY, there’s a constituency limited by geography--those closest to the project site who’d be most affected by its impact. Beyond that, the opposition has not recruited followers, for example, in the working-class black community, but, then again, most of those project supporters in that community are connected to groups that expect to gain from the project. Had media outlets reported or editorialized more critically, or had a deep-pocketed opponent like Cablevision entered the fray, as with the West Side Stadium, more people might have been outraged by the deal.)

Historic preservation, Dadey said, is an important part of New York, but it must be presented as a common interest, not a self-interest, and alliances must be built.

Messaging

Dadey pointed out that “it’s not so much what you say, but how you say it.” For example, CU is involved in increasing the public oversight of police conduct, much of which is racially charged. However, the legislation to be introduced will be led not by legislators of color but white City Council members. “We don’t want it to be seen as a racial issue,” he said.

“You may not want to turn opponents into enemies,” Dadey said. “There may be people who don’t support you today… but don’t go around and make the leap and conclude they’re your enemy… because you need to build effective relationships long-term.”

(That’s an interesting observation in the AY fight. There’s more personal bitterness--as Daily News columnist Errol Louis has observed--than in many conflicts, partly because some personalities are particularly combative. Then again, the stakes are very high--and there has been some detente.)

Dadey said activists should provide solutions, not just opposition.

(In the case of AY, the UNITY plan is an alternative, though it has not gone through any public process yet and is not backed by the powers that be.)

What are important tactics? Both legal efforts and the deployment of money.

“It’s distasteful to know the huge impact money has,” Dadey said, but it can’t be ignored. Advocates can spend money on issue advertising and contributions to candidates who support their cause, in this case, historic preservation.

Elected officials and candidates care about two things, he said: money and votes.

(In the case of AY, the money went more to lawsuits than anything else.)

Successful campaigns

Dadey described how different tactics contributed to successful campaigns. The Parks 2001 campaign aimed to ensure that every mayoral and City Council candidate supported 1% of the city budget to be spent on city parks, at a time when the ratio was .4% and parks without private funding (e.g., Central Park and Prospect Park) were neglected.

What made this effective, Dadey reflected, is that a citywide issue was turned into a neighborhood one, as the Parks Council created, for each district, a brochure that analyzed all the parks in it. The campaign stressed that parks were less pastoral, green space as places used by kids, places that, when well-maintained and actively used, raise property values, reduce crime, enhance health, and create community.

While the issue may initially have seemed like an amenity, he said, the establishment of broad value and importance brought in nontraditional allies. While the campaign was initially sidetracked because of 9/11-related budget cuts, today the city spends double what it spent seven years ago.

By contract, the ACT UP story illustrates importance of other tactics and other approaches. Both the government and closeted gay leaders weren’t doing enough about the AIDS crisis, Dadey recalled, so ACT UP took to the streets.

While the group was criticized for in-your-face tactics like getting arrested and blocking traffic, the “bad cop” tactics strengthened the hand of others working on the issue.

Fighting back

Dadey mentioned some other examples. Robert Moses’s Manhattan expressway plans were stopped by the alternative vision (and organizing) of people like Jane Jacobs. The Westway project, backed by the political power structure, was finally defeated in the courts. (The ruling was on a seemingly tangential issue, the effect on striped bass.)

Sometimes scandals can help, he said, citing the effort to achieve public campaign financing.

Other campaigns take time. The Housing First campaign of 2001 campaign called for more affordable housing and didn’t result in immediate success. But Mayor Mike Bloomberg did commit to building more affordable housing.

Dadey described some missteps by Bloomberg. Had the mayor given up his West Side Stadium plans and allowed for a stadium to be built in Queens, New York likely would’ve been the United States candidate for the Olympics. Similarly, his call for congestion pricing is another issue suffered from intransigence on the part of advocates.

Lesson for preservationists

So, what are the lessons? Dadey asked, “Are you arguing for preservation for preservation’s sake along, and is that enough to win?” Beyond that, what’s the public interest and how does the issue affect people? Is the movement about buildings, or neighborhoods, or people?

“There’s no right answer,” Dadey allowed, ‘but it’s important, in your advocacy, in trying to win support, to think through these issues.”

He said preservationists had to transform “what is arguably a narrow interest... and make it seem a vital public interest.”

He asked the audience what they were doing. Among the answers: educating the public; citing the value of neighborhoods; and emphasizing property values.

What are the issues preservation should be linked to? Among the answers: economic development; green efforts; and zoning reform.

A recent controversy

Dadey brought up the fight to preserve the modernist building at 2 Columbus Circle, now the Museum of Arts and Design. “I can understand why it was important to the movement, but why should it be important to the residents of the city, particularly when people saw what happened after it was renovated,” he asked. “To the uninformed observer, which is better?”

(Photo by David Heald)

The answer, he was told, came down to issues of public process and transparency; the Landmarks Preservation Commission wouldn’t even hold a public hearing.

Before and after pictures

Dadey recommended that activists show before and after pictures to illustrate the impact of development, as with the Dock Street development planned for DUMBO.

(Atlantic Yards has never been portrayed in the New York Times in neighborhood scale), even as promotional literature distorts the perspective.

Defending growth

One audience member said, “I’m not a fan of ugly buildings… but the Manhattan is the home of verticality.”

Dadey noted that the question is key to future success of the city, which “depends on a level of growth that some in this audience may not support.”

(Indeed, initial opponents of AY--and some--wanted to keep the area all small-scale. Most eventually came to back the highly dense--but not as dense, nor as extensive--UNITY plan.)

Most preservation movements are too reactionary, one audience member suggested. If the community figured out what it wanted to be, then it could encourage people to do compatible development.

(That may be true, but there’s also a question of structures to get such planning off the ground. After all, in the case of AY, there had been no attempt to market the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard.)

Finding Plan B

Dadey suggested that advocates make historic preservation a public interest, talking about tourism, economic development, public safety, and people. They should explain to elected officials why they should care.

They should recognize, he said, that sometimes outright victory is not always possible, which means there should be a Plan B.

(In the case of Atlantic Yards, however, the Plan B seems to be the long leash granted by the government to the developer, which allows a much smaller project built over a much longer time, and leads the developer to assert that "we control the pace." And the fight will likely go to the end.)

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Barclays Center/Levy Restaurants hit with suit charging discrimination on disability, race; supervisors said to use vicious slurs, pursue retaliation

The Daily News has an article today, Barclays Center hit with $5M suit claiming discrimination against disabled, while the New York Post headlined its article Barclays Center sued over taunting disabled employees.

While that's part of the lawsuit, more prominent are claims of racial discrimination and retaliation, with black employees claiming repeated abuse by white supervisors, preferential treatment toward Hispanic colleagues, and retaliation in response to complaints.

Two individual supervisors, for example, are charged with  referring to black employees as “black motherfucker,” “dumb black bitch,” “black monkey,” “piece of shit” and “nigger.”

Two have referred to an employee blind in one eye as “cyclops,” and “the one-eyed guy,” and an employee with a nose disorder as “the nose guy.”

There's been no official response yet though arena spokesman Barry Baum told the Daily News they, but take “allegations of this kind very seriously” and have "a zero tolerance policy for…

Behind the "empty railyards": 40 years of ATURA, Baruch's plan, and the city's diffidence

To supporters of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, it's a long-awaited plan for long-overlooked land. "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, mused on 11/15/05 to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, “Isn’t it interesting that these railyards have sat for decades and decades and decades, and no one has done a thing about them.” Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in a 12/19/04 New York Times article ("In a War of Words, One Has the Power to Wound") described the railyards as "an empty scar dividing the community."

But why exactly has the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard never been developed? Do public officials have some responsibility?

At a hearing yesterday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, Kate Suisma…

Barclays Center event June 11 to protest plans to expand Israeli draft; questions about logistics

At right is a photo of a poster spotted in Hasidic Williamsburg right. Clearly there's an event scheduled at the Barclays Center aimed at the Haredi Jewish community (strict Orthodox Jews who reject secular culture), but the lack of English text makes it cryptic.

The website Matzav.com explains, Protest Against Israeli Draft of Bnei Yeshiva Rescheduled for Barclays Center:
A large asifa to protest the drafting of bnei yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel into the Israeli army that had been set to take place this month will instead be held on Sunday, 17 Sivan/June 11, at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, NY. So attendees at a big gathering will protest an apparent change of policy that will make it much more difficult for traditional Orthodox Jewish students--both Hasidic (who follow a rebbe) and non-Hasidic (who don't)--to get deferments from the draft. Comments on the Yeshiva World website explain some of the debate.

The logistical questions

What's unclear is how large the ev…

Atlanta's Atlantic Yards moves ahead

First mentioned in April, the Atlantic Yards project in Atlanta is moving ahead--and has the potential to nudge Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn further down in Google searches.

According to a 5/30/17 press release, Hines and Invesco Real Estate Announce T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards:
Hines, the international real estate firm, and Invesco Real Estate, a global real estate investment manager, today announced a joint venture on behalf of one of Invesco Real Estate’s institutional clients to develop two progressive office projects in Atlanta totalling 700,000 square feet. T3 West Midtown will be a 200,000-square-foot heavy timber office development and Atlantic Yards will consist of 500,000 square feet of progressive office space in two buildings. Both projects are located on sites within Atlantic Station in the flourishing Midtown submarket.
Hines will work with Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA) as the design architect for both T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards. DLR Group will be t…

Not quite the pattern: Greenland selling development sites, not completed condos

Real Estate Weekly, reporting on trends in Chinese investment in New York City, on 11/18/15 quoted Jim Costello, a senior vice president at research firm Real Capital Analytics:
“They’re typically building high-end condos, build it and sell it. Capital return is in a few years. That’s something that is ingrained in the companies that have been coming here because that’s how they’ve grown in the last 35 years. It’s always been a development game for them. So they’re just repeating their business model here,” he said. When I read that last November, I didn't think it necessarily applied to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, now 70% owned (outside of the Barclays Center and B2 modular apartment tower), by the Greenland Group, owned significantly by the Shanghai government.
A majority of the buildings will be rentals, some 100% market, some 100% affordable, and several--the last several built--are supposed to be 50% market/50% subsidized. (See tentative timetable below.)

Selling development …

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

"There is no alternative": DM Glen on de Blasio's affordable housing strategy

As I've written, Mayor Bill de Blasio sure knows how to steer and spin coverage of his affordable housing initiatives.

Indeed, his latest announcement, claiming significant progress, came with a pre-press release op-ed in the New York Daily News and then a friendly photo-op press conference with an understandably grateful--and very lucky--winner of an affordable housing lottery.

To me, though, the most significant quote came from Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who, as the Wall Street Journal reported:
said public housing had been “starved” of federal support for years now, leaving the city with fewer ways of creating affordable housing. “Are we relying too heavily on the private sector?” she said. “There is no alternative.” Though Glen was using what she surely sees as a common-sense phrase, it recalls the slogan of a politician with whom I doubt de Blasio identifies: former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative who believed in free markets.

It suggests the limits to …