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Marty Markowitz on the Barclays Center, Atlantic Yards, and Brooklyn: "I still would always hope" jobs & housing would go to neediest

Recently, at a 2/22/18 Brooklyn Historical Society event featuring the most recent three Brooklyn Borough Presidents, I got to hear former BP Marty Markowitz's reflections and shtick--and, intriguingly, hear his typical enthusiasm for the Barclays Center and Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park get met with general indifference, perhaps indicating ambivalence. More on that below.

So that sent me back to some other public appearances and interviews with Markowitz, who, not surprisingly, has steadily praised the project.

Tellingly, though, when pressed in late 2016 by a prepared interviewer, Tony Guida, on a 2005 statement that "The jobs and housing for this project will go to those who need it the most," Markowitz responded, deflectingly, "I still would always hope that it would go to those."

Of course, that's not what's happened, given the widely publicized struggles of affordable housing aimed at middle-class households or the demise of the much-anticipated training program that was supposed to launch neighborhood people into union jobs.

January 2015: praising Ratner

In an appearance taped 1/8/15 for the real-estate talk show The Stoler Report, interviewer Michael Stoler, a real-estate insider, goes over Markowitz's personal history for a while before even getting to the era of "the best Borough President of Brooklyn, my friend Marty Markowitz."

"So you're elected Borough President, and during the period of time," Stoler related, "I think the comment was, Cousin Brucie [Bruce Ratner]... you were the biggest pain in the rear to him. He had no idea. He said, 'I don't like residential, I don't like stadiums, I don't like sports,' and Marty said, 'I gotta get a team back.'... without you and Bruce and the pushing, I don't think there would be an Atlantic Yards."

"Let me just say, when the history of Brooklyn is written, Bruce Ratner is going to have a large chapter, or two or three," Markowitz responded. "There's no doubt that, initially, when I knew that this was only one shot at Brooklyn getting a national team... But, to his credit, after some pleading and prodding, whatever, he took the steps, he could've walked away a million times. But he knew that Brooklyn--he has invested his life and his company in Brooklyn, and he deserves all the good results that he's gotten, and is getting."

This was taped after Ratner's firm, Forest City Enterprises, had sold 70% of the project going forward to Greenland USA at a loss, but before further losses and the 2018 announcement that Forest City Realty Trust (the parent firm's new name) would sell all but 5% of the remainder to Greenland.

September 2016: some tough questions about housing 

In a 9/3/16 taping of an interview (broadcast June 2017) for Tony Guida's New York on CUNY-TV, a generally genial interview got a little tense toward the end when Guida started pressing Markowitz about "the promise there was it was going to provide affordable housing--"

"It will--" interjected Markowitz.

"--and thousands of jobs," Guida continued. "It seems to not have delivered it either."

"Okay, so we have to revisit the whole history of Atlantic Yards, the eight years of deferrals and lawsuits, and the economy tanking," Markowitz responded. "So there's a--it's got a long and very rich history... it amazing that anything big can actually happen in this city. And it did happen. So the promise that was made then is the promise that's going to be kept in the years ahead: 2,250 affordable apartments. And as we speak, one building is being constructed, that's all affordable."

That was a reference to 535 Carlton, which had its groundbreaking in December 2104, generating much praise but also some pointed criticism.

Guida wasn't buying the "all affordable" generalities.

"Let me talk about that.. 2,250 [units], not an inconsiderable number," Guida continued. "The first one that's about to open, 100% affordable... 60% of the units in this affordable building are going to go to households earning $100,000 or more. That's not what we envisioned when this was promised."

"That is absolutely to the best of my knowledge not true," responded Markowitz.

Wrong. His knowledge, however, did not extend to the already-published advertisement for the 535 Carlton housing lottery, launched months earlier, which confirmed Guida's observation.

"They laid out exactly what the income skews would be," Markowitz continued. "And it would be a leveraged--meaning it would be a diverse income level from the very low income to moderate to working to middle to--the government was very precise at exactly what the pricing would be on all those apartments."

From the Development Agreement
Actually, the project's guiding Development Agreement (excerpt at right), signed in late 2009, defines affordable housing only as participating in government subsidy programs, and it turned out that 535 Carlton, along with another "100% affordable" building, 38 Sixth, had a disproportionate number of units for middle-income households.

In other words, they don't confirm to the nonbinding, non-governmental Memorandum of Understanding that original developer Forest City Ratner signed in May 2005 with the advocacy group New York ACORN.

"I think along the way the developers got the government, the city, to adjust things," Guida observed accurately.

"Well, the pledge, the need of affordable housing, by the way, is that, for those that qualify for public housing," Markowitz continued, going off on a bit of a tangent, then recovering to try to defend affordable housing for middle-class households, "and it also means that if a households is making $80,000 a year, even $100,000 a year.  Let me tell you, if you think those folks are living on easy street... Today, there's a crush for the need of affordable housing at various income levels. So it's a balance. And this was one of the major promises of Atlantic Yards, and it's going to be kept! It's going to be kept and, as you know, now it's Forest City Ratner, under MaryAnne Gilmartin, together with Greenland... that are accelerating construction."

Tough questions about jobs

"Let's talk about jobs," Guida continued. "I think they promised 10,000 office jobs and 15,000 construction jobs... right now, no office jobs... the 15,000 construction jobs hasn't come anywhere near that... most of the jobs at the arena, those are part-time."

"There are some full-time jobs," Markowitz responded. "I don't have the numbers in front of me." [Answer: about 105, as of 2012, at least.]

"And as far as the number of construction jobs, from what I've read, over the next two years or now, the accelerated construction jobs, multiple new buildings, all that will add to the number of construction positions," Markowitz continued. "As you know, coming out of the horrible economy, getting back on the footing... all of this had a hand in this. Y'know they tried to do it via modular housing--"

"Which cuts down on the number jobs," Guida observed.

"And also makes construction more moderate income," Markowitz continued. "Therefore a greater possibility of a whole new industry for the borough. [Which hadn't happened, with the sale of the modular company not long after the taping.] As you know, there's been a lot of turns on that, as well. But I know one thing, of all the companies I've worked with, Forest City Ratner was one of the most progressive, and socially committed. I really believe that. And they're still entrepreneurs. And there's nothing wrong with being entrepreneurs. But they have a social conscience, and they value community."

Then Guida pressed him: "Way back in the beginning, you said, and I wanted to quote you, "The jobs and housing for this project will go to those who need it the most." [See page from 5/25/05 City Council hearing transcript.] "Do you still stand by that?"

"I still would always hope that it would go to those," Markowitz replied, then sought rescue in a tangent. "Of course, that was what--first off, housing was an important part of this project. Really making a new little city within a larger city. But also sports were an important part of this... When I ran for Borough President. I promised...  I would bring a national team to Brooklyn."

Then Guida and Markowitz got into a mini-debate about whether the Nets would replace the Dodgers, with Markowitz saying a championship team would finally conquer the borough. (Maybe.)

January 2017: the Brooklyn Brand

In a 1/11/17 discussion at the Museum of the City of New York, moderator Sarah Maslin Nir (of the New York Times) asked Markowitz about the Brooklyn he left.

"I even wrote it down," Markowitz responded, resorting to a list of Brooklyn-brand cliches: "organic, artisanal, local, ethical, handcrafted, hormone free, grass-fed, free-range, sustainable, eco-friendly, gluten-free, rooftop hydroponic-grown, gourmet, cruelty-free."

"So, that pretty much significantly defines a significant piece of the Brooklyn that is today," he continued, "that I left. Plus the fact that I never thought a day would come when young people would dream of bicycles more than cars... There's no question that Facebook and all of that--social media is a large part of the lives of the Brooklyn I left behind."

"But I also left sports: that's another story, through Atlantic Yards, the battles over that, but I do believe it's added greatly to Brooklyn, in so many different ways," he continued. "So we have a sports team again...Brooklyn has become the entertainment capital, basically, not only for the borough but for the lower part of Manhattan as well."

"Residential housing is at an all time high for all incomes, although, for low-income and moderate-income, of course, whatever we do, we need so much more, there's no question about it," he said, not getting pressed on Atlantic Yards promises. "But we are attracting a different type of person to the borough... we are attracting a young, creative type of community."

February 2018: a surprising silence

The 2/22/18 appearance at the Brooklyn Historical Society is not (yet?) on video, but I did make an audio recording, linked below, of Markowitz's remarks.

The audience was friendly. Markowitz did generate chuckles and claps when describing a not uncommon phenomenon that brings him glee: meeting suburbanites who visited their kids who said, "I couldn't wait to get out of Brooklyn, but guess where my daughter--or granddaughter--lives?" or homeowners who exclaimed, with satisfaction, "Oh, did you hear what my property went for?"

"What we had to do was really brand Brooklyn," Markowitz reflected, describing groups that were attracted, such as techies, authors, and the LGBT community: ""Wherever the LGBT community decides to reside, that's a neighborhood whose real estate values go through the ceiling." (That's, um, not necessarily true, given that the next generation hits a real-estate ceiling.)

He got a few laughs and claps at his quixotic effort to attract Apple to Brooklyn.

"My job was to try to attract business community to Brooklyn," he reflected, "build on the creative community, build on the ethnic diversity...and the cultural organizations... take advantage of everything and help promote Brooklyn."

(Of course, this was all happening as Manhattan became expensive and Brooklyn became ever more attractive as a bedroom community, and the Bloomberg administration rezoned various parts of Brooklyn to add density, thus inviting real-estate development.)

Talking Atlantic Yards

Then, at about 9:48, Markowitz got to his signature project: "The one thing I thought we needed, which I still think is one of the best things that ever happened, thank you, Bruce Ratner, of course I spent five, six years, seven years of my life going through some interesting times when Barclays Center was proposed.... I have to tell you."

"But whatever the case might be, I just felt, because I grew up with the Brooklyn Dodgers, that was then, not now. Howard Golden [predecessor Borough President, present at the event], certainly, would understand this more than me. And they left us sadly," Markowitz continued. "The Mets are in Queens, yes, I support them over the Yankees any day of the year." That got some claps.

"But we did get a [minor league baseball] team in Brooklyn, as you know, which is a great addition to Coney Island... wonderful... but it still wasn't major league," Markowitz continued.

"I knew the sport for Brooklyn would be basketball. And while I'll admit the Brooklyn Nets may not be"--his acknowledgment of their struggles got some laughs--"the Brooklyn Dodgers won a lot of pennants, [but] it took a lot of seasons. All I can say, the Brooklyn Nets, as long as they've got that name Brooklyn on top, that they will in the very near future become champs, I'm confident."

"Equally important to the Nets is the arena, because if you wanted major entertainment or events, you had to leave Brooklyn," Markowitz continued. "Yes, BAM, great culture, but I'm talking about 18,000-seat venue where the greatest stars in the world, rather than having to go to Madison Square Garden or New Jersey, right here in Brooklyn."

It's certainly true that the Brooklyn arena offered an alternate venue, where there was a market for more events. But it was supposed to be so much more.

"Indeed, that's what Barclays has become," Markowitz continued, "besides generating many, many, many jobs"--mostly part-time ones, as noted above--"and eventually, the pledges of the housing, the bumps, mountains, and challenges have happened--but I have to say that Bruce Ratner, [former Downtown Brooklyn Partnership co-chair] Bob Catell, as Howard [Golden] mentioned, and so many other great folks that have served this borough, all should be hailed for their great, great achievements."

As the audiotape indicates, that was met with silence, from a generally friendly audience. Maybe they were a bit worn out by the speeches, or by Markowitz's shtick. But I suspect it also reflects a certain ambivalence toward a project for which the extravagant promises have not been matched by results.