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In mayoral debates, Lhota goes after de Blasio on Atlantic Yards; wobbly charges met with evasive rhetoric, but no follow-up

So, it turns out that Atlantic Yards has had a significant--if rather unclearly discussed--cameo in the first two mayoral debates, with Republican Joe Lhota criticizing Democrat front-runner Bill de Blasio for not pressuring developer Forest City Ratner to build the affordable housing.

As he has done in the past, de Blasio got away with generalities, saying he did try to pressure the developer, with no follow-up regarding what he precisely might have done. And while de Blasio certainly avoided opportunities to criticize Ratner, Lhota tried too hard to pin the central blame on the Public Advocate.

In the debate last night, moderated by CBS 2’s Maurice DuBois, the issue came up at about 14:35.Lhota, criticizing de Blasio's plan for universal pre-K, said, "He makes promises that he knows he can't keep," the moved to Atlantic Yards.

"The reality is, Bill de Blasio makes promises over and over that he can't keep. In Downtown Brooklyn, where we have a new athletic facility, Bill de Blasio was instrumental in making sure that that developer built affordable housing. [That was kind of a non sequitur] Well, it's been two years now since the Barclays Center has opened, and they're not even in the ground with affordable housing. Y'know why? Bill de Blasio keeps taking contributions from Bruce Ratner. Bruce Ratner actually paid for his 50th birthday party."

Wait a sec. The Barclays Center has been open one year, not two. They're way behind on the affordable housing, but the first building is under way.

de Blasio has surely avoided every opportunity to criticize the developer, but he sure isn't the main culprit. Ratner did help pay for that 2011 birthday party/fundraiser, but he was one of many hosts.

de Blasio responded, "On the question of affordable housing, I have fought for the kind of development that would maximize affordable housing for the city.... I am proud of the fact that that development, when it is done, will yield thousands of units of affordable housing for the people of Brooklyn and I'll make sure it happens."

"When it is done" is a rather long leash. As for making sure it happens, the Public Advocate really hasn't tried.

Next time, Lhota or the moderator need to ask: How exactly have you pressured Ratner? What public statements or public criticisms have you issued? Did you say anything about the failure to provide the promised amount of family-sized apartments in the first tower? Did you say anything about the failure to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor for the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement?

News coverage

The Atlantic Yards exchange got no mention in the Times, the Post, Politicker, Newsday, the AP, or Capital New York.

The Daily News quoted the exchange, but with no fact-checking:
Lhota also attacked de Blasio over the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, which de Blasio backed as a city councilman. Developer Bruce Ratner’s Barclays Center has opened, but promised affordable housing has not materialized.
“You know why? Bill de Blasio keeps taking contributions from Bruce Ratner. Bruce Ratner actually paid for his 50th birthday party,” Lhota said.
De Blasio said the project will “yield thousands of units of affordable housing . . . and I’ll make sure it happens.”
[Updated] The Nation's Leslie Savan wrote:
There wasn’t much press follow-up, however, on one of the more contentious issues: developer Bruce Ratner’s enormous Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, which de Blasio supports, even though the long-promised affordable housing there is far from being built.
“You know why?” Lhota asked in the debate. “Bill de Blasio keeps taking contributions from Bruce Ratner. Bruce Ratner actually paid for his fiftieth birthday party.” De Blasio replied, “I am proud of the fact that that development, when it is done, will yield thousands of units of affordable housing for the people of Brooklyn and I’ll make sure it happens.” But he didn’t answer the part about the donation.
A headline in Norman Oder’s Atlantic Yards Report blog, characterized the exchange as “wobbly charges met with evasive rhetoric, but no follow-up.” Oder added, “de Blasio has surely avoided every opportunity to criticize the developer, but he sure isn’t the main culprit. Ratner did help pay for that 2011 birthday party/fundraiser, but he was one of many hosts.”
Even de Blasio ally Letitia James, a city councilwoman running for de Blasio’s current job as public advocate, is disappointed on this score. “Not one [elected official] has made any comment with regard to the fact that New Yorkers and taxpayers were basically duped. And that includes the current public advocate, Bill de Blasio, and others.”
I posted a comment:
Atlantic Yards, the 16-towers-plus-arena mega-development in Brooklyn that de Blasio has supported from the start, confounds the left-right dichotomy. After all, wasn't it right-wing-ish Joe Lhota who attacked de Blasio?
And isn't Atlantic Yards, with the promised 2250 units of subsidized "affordable housing" (900 units low-income, 1350 middle- and moderate-income) supported by ACORN and its successor groups? And isn't the Working Families Party, which was started by ACORN, a big supporter of de Blasio, even if the WFP has formally stayed out of Atlantic Yards?
Atlantic Yards might be better seen as an example of crony capitalism, in which a major developer has some bold ideas and gains some sweetheart deals and, because of such deals, is able to make big promises to groups like ACORN. In this case, the state overrode zoning to allow developer Forest City Ratner to build as big as it thought profitable, and in doing so to include space for subsidized housing. (That implied city/state buy-in for future housing subsidies, preferencing Atlantic Yards over other projects.)
de Blasio, who needs WFP support, signed on early, and despite his rhetoric about "pressure" on Forest City and how he believes in the promises of the project, has issued no criticism about, for example, the developer's failure to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor to provide a neutral assessment of promises, or the developer's reneging on promises to ensure that half the affordable units, in square footage, would be family-sized.
Ultimately, Atlantic Yards is a test of good government, whether such a large project could be, as commonly billed, a public-private project or, rather, a private-public one. de Blasio has mostly sat out that battle. Heck, even the New York Times, not known for its tough criticism of the developer, last year described Bruce Ratner as having a " reputation for promising anything to get a deal, only to renegotiate relentlessly for more favorable terms."
Last week's debate

At last week's debate, de Blasio was challenged by a moderator at 2:27: "You did have a chance as Public Advocate to fight for affordable housing in Brooklyn, specifically the Atlantic Yards project, but as Public Advocate you did not publicly pressure the developer, Bruce Ratner, to provide affordable housing on time and at rents that are indeed affordable. Mr. Ratner happens to be a campaign supporter and contributor of yours. Why didn't you advocate for affordable housing?"



The candidate handled it reasonably well, by stonewalling. "Well, I did advocate," de Blasio insisted in response. "I did consistently advocate for it. And I thought that that could have been done I understand there were lawsuits, I understand that the bad economy cut off a lot of credit that was needed for that project. But I did push hard for affordability there--"

"With Mr. Ratner?"

"Yes, there, and many other places in Brooklyn and around the city," de Blasio said, without evidence, but making a more comfortable segue to a policy issue. "The bottom line is we have to require the creation of affordable housing in all now development we do. Right now, the Bloomberg policy is, it's optional... It should be required. We have the powers in city government to require the creation of affordable housing. To me, it's not debatable."

"Look, the situation with Bruce Ratner and what's gone on in Downtown Brooklyn needs to be rectified," Lhota followed up. "There was a need, and actually agreed to be, affordable housing. But it's not being built. We need to make sure that, whenever we do these deals that there is an ability to make sure that we can get something back. He was given tax breaks, tax reductions, and the housing isn't there. We need to get the housing there, we need to hold their feet to the fire, and make sure that they do what they promised they're going to do."

Neither of them seemed to recognize that a state agency gave Ratner 25 years to build the project. Neither have taken the option to weigh in on the ongoing environmental review or to ask that the deadline be changed. de Blasio hasn't used his bully pulpit.

An MTA giveaway

At 5:15, Lhota tried to distinguish his affordable housing policy and, in the process, suggested the Metropolitan Transportation Authority gave away the Vanderbilt Yard to Forest City Ratner: "The distinction that I made, and you made, is that, if New York City gives the developer the property--then you have the ability to create the affordable housing as you want. But if a developer owns the property today, and they fully own it, the ability to do mandatory exclusionary [sic] housing has been held not constitutional by the Supreme Court."

He responded to a question for clarification: "What I'm saying is that, if they were given the property, as Bill just described it, by the city of New York, the way Ratner was given the property by the MTA, then, and only then, should we make sure we get as much affordable housing as we can."

Well, "given" is surely a shorthand. Ratner did agree to pay $100 million in cash after initially bidding $50 million, but that's because the MTA agreed to negotiate only with him, despite a rival bid from Extell for $150 million. But it was clearly a sweetheart deal, and Ratner got the MTA to renegotiate the terms in 2009 and beyond.

That's not exactly "given." But the shorthand is not outrageous: Ratner didn't get a giveaway, but he got a big advantage.

And Ratner has no plans to build over the railyard in the near term.

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