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Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

Praise/skepticism for Nets owner Joe Tsai’s social justice pledge; $50M could make up for some stalled Atlantic Yards promises, while boosting the team and his legacy/image

On August 25, BSE Global-the parent of Brooklyn Nets, NY Liberty, and Barclays Center—issued a SOCIAL JUSTICE COMMITMENT STATEMENT (bottom) on behalf of owners Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai, pledging $50 million over 10 years to local initiatives, building on a recent $10 million pledge over 10 years to the NBA Foundation from each NBA team.

It's primarily aimed to benefit "the BIPOC (especially Black) community," with a priority on Brooklyn.

It was savvily timed just after the Nets were eliminated from the playoffs and before the long-pending announcement of Steve Nash as the new coach, a counterpoint to potential criticism of hiring a white guy--albeit a Hall of Famer close to superstar Kevin Durant--in a mostly Black league.

(The $50 million commitment overshadowed this part of the Tsais' statement, "We will ensure mechanisms are in place to recruit, develop, retain and promote Black employees and employees of color, especially individuals in leadership positions.")

It also came just a day before the brief (and unplanned) player strike over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, which soon prompted a new--albeit unfunded--league-wide commitment to voting, civic engagement, and social justice.

In BSE Global's five-point plan, the new Social Justice Fund seems the most concrete commitment. They also pledge to: amplify the teams’ players, who are mostly Black; build an inclusive culture; share progress with other NBA/WNBA teams; and engage with the local community.

It’s an impressive gesture, since it outpaces other teams in New York and commits—as far as I know—more than any other NBA team owner. It generated supportive coverage from CNBC, the New York Daily News, and the New York Post.

Still, as a longtime observer of the arena and the associated Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project, I also feel some skepticism and recognize some ironies.

$50 million, in context: spending

Yes, $5 million a year for ten years can make a difference, supporting vital programs. Consider that the Brooklyn Community Foundation, which I believe is the largest foundation in Brooklyn, distributed $6.7 million in grants in 2018, the last year for which IRS reports are available.

Then again, $5 million a year is far less than a payroll.

Tsai earned kudos for announcing, when the coronavius pandemic in March ended arena events, that workers would be paid for events that would be held through May. While the Daily News reported 4/30/20 that "A source confirmed to the News that roughly $6 million has been paid to arena employees while the season is on hiatus," no further confirmation has emerged.

While the arena claimed that pledge has been extended since May, it issued no formal statement and offered few details, leaving the promise fuzzy. If the arena will steadily pay its hourly employees--a significantly African-American cohort--the equivalent of their salaries, and can prove it, that might be a bigger deal than $5 million in grants.

$50 million, in context: wealth

For the Tsais, it’s a drop in the bucket. Thanks to his leadership at Alibaba, which dominates ecommerce in China, Joe Tsai’s worth $14.6 billion as of today, up $2.42 billion just this year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index.

Keep in mind that the daily fluctuation in his net worth--as shown in the screenshot below--was $43.7 million, nearly the amount of his pledge. Tsai was worth $500 million more last week.
From Bloomberg

He likely put the money aside years ago. In December 2016, planning for philanthropy, the foundation and other entities affiliated with Tsai adopted a pre-arranged stock sales plan, allowing him to sell some 6.5 million shares of Alibaba’s through October 2017, about 8% of his then-holdings.

Alibaba’s stock price in December 2016 was under $100, and rose above $175 by October 2017. The sale of 6.5 million shares at an average of $140 would have generated $910 million for philanthropy. (Today the stock is worth more than double that, with $299 as the 52-week high.)

Also keep in mind that the pledge does not mean a $50 million hit to the Tsais' bottom line. A private foundation allows donors to avoid capital gains taxes, to reduce their income tax, and to exclude income from estate taxes.

That said, Mikhail Prokhorov was a billionaire too, and he did not make this kind of investment in Brooklyn nonprofits, nor did he leave Brooklyn any thank-you donations after he profited enormously by selling the team and arena operating company to Tsai. (Prokhorov did make a strategic $1 million grant to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)

A do-over on the Atlantic Yards CBA's "systematic changes"?

Consider the Tsais’ support for “social justice initiatives and community investments that will benefit the BIPOC (especially Black) community,” including “pilots and programs… which address systemic imbalances and root causes that produce racial gaps in education, health and wealth.”

(Note: the not-uncommon phrase "Black community" can be unwise shorthand. As the New Yorker's Doreen St. Felix recently wrote, regarding the news program Black Journal, it "abandoned the euphemistic notion of the 'Black community,' restoring to the people a sense of their variety.")

“Access to capital for BIPOC and women-owned small businesses and skills training to improve job mobility and wage trajectories will be initial areas of focus," according to the statement.

That, perhaps unconsciously, echoes the much-hyped Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), devised by original Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner and signed in 2005 by eight hand-picked Black-led groups, mostly based in Central Brooklyn.

That agreement aimed to “maximize the benefits of the Project to residents of Brooklyn, as well as minority and women construction, professional and operational workers and business owners and thereby to encourage systemic changes in the traditional ways of doing business on large urban development projects.”

Few cared that the CBA’s language was mostly aspirational, without guarantees or budget commitments. The only stated penalty—$500,000 for not conducting a job-training program aimed to create a pipeline to construction careers—was averted, but that program ran aground, provoking a bitter lawsuit.

While the Barclays Center and larger project have involved minority and women construction workers, as well as minority and women’s business enterprises (MWBE), there’s been no credible oversight. My incomplete effort to analyze MWBE contracts turned up many non-black, non-Brooklyn businesses, fulfilling the letter, not the spirit of the pledge.

So the #blacklivesmatter protests and a deeper-pocketed team owner pushed by circumstance may deliver progress absent from the toothless CBA.

The arena and the CBA--partial delivery

Beyond the pledge, let's see how transparent the decision-making and reporting will be. The arena’s track record is mixed.

Barclays, since it opened in 2012, has steadily given away free tickets to community groups, via the CBA signatory Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance (DBNA), led by the Rev. Herbert Daughtry. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Daughtry’s been a steady booster of the project, and the DBNA's led by one of his daughters.)

But arena operators—including Tsai, who took over last September— have long ignored another promises in the CBA: to offer community use of arena spaces ten times a year, at below-market rents, with proceeds supporting community organizations.

And while the arena readily joined a league-sponsored program to participate as a voting location, managers have ignored calls to offer space for public schooling.

The Jackie Robinson legacy

Not long after the pledge came this tweet.
As one Twitter user wrote, "Feel conflicted given how many black and Latinx folks lost their homes due to the construction of Barclay’s center and the gentrification of Brooklyn but I mean sure."

The project caused both direct and indirect displacement, the latter more extensive, and many (but by no means all) of those directly displaced got reasonable compensation, financed by taxpayers.

The Tsais’ goals don’t involve housing, but, remember, the overall Atlantic Yards project was also supposed to deliver affordable housing to counter gentrification. That has come more slowly that promised, and with far more below-market units aimed at middle-class households—rather than low-income ones—than previously pledged.

The Barclays Center was part of a transformation, including a parallel rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn, that delivered far more for the better-off. (See Amanda Boston's analysis, Gentrifying the City: From Racialized Neglect to Racialized Reinvestment.)

And, as a group of Council Members wrote last week, "The Barclays Center was supposed to be a boon for Downtown Brooklyn, but it [was] merely a high-priced trojan horse for gentrification around the Atlantic Yards that many consider a disaster." (Many consider it a symbol of Brooklyn's rise, but it's safe to say the project has delivered far less than promised.)

The accidental gathering spot

“We aspire to leverage the unique space of Barclays Center and the Nets and Liberty to support the Brooklyn community’s shared desire for justice,” the BSE Global statement said, pledging efforts to “create ongoing and consistent community dialogue.”

“In partnership with law enforcement, we will encourage the Plaza at Barclays Center (corner of Flatbush and Atlantic) to continue to serve as a place for peaceful gatherings and for all constituents to listen to each other,” they added.

That not only skates over the occasional vandalism and tense stand-offs as protests began in late May, but also the seeming generosity ignores how arena operators were essentially forced into compliance by circumstance, creating an accidental new town square, as I wrote. Previously, they readily ejected certain groups—like a tour I once led—from the arena plaza.

For any sports team owner, such gestures have multiple audiences, and come with varying degrees of credibility. The Tsais do have a track record; well before the recent #blacklives matter protests, Clara Wu Tsai joined the Reform Alliance, which aims to change parole and probation laws.

But expect the "partnership with law enforcement," which is standard for sports venues, to raise some eyebrows among critics.

The business advantage

There may be a business advantage, too. Surely the Tsais recognize that, especially compared to the Knicks, run by a Trump supporter, their stance can be a differentiator, giving the Nets an edge in recruiting players in a mostly Black league.

In the long run, Tsai surely hopes that the Brooklyn Nets, with superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant finally expected to play together next year, can win an NBA championship, filling seats at the Barclays Center, and boosting sponsorship and media revenues, validating the generous price he paid for the team and arena company.

The reputational gain

Finally, there may be a reputational advantage. Remember how Prokhorov successfully rebooted his image from swashbuckling post-Soviet privateer to charmingly enigmatic team owner.

The Taiwanese-Canadian Tsai, whose fortune has been made in China, is surely mindful of his shifting press coverage.

In contrast with his “woke” statements on racial justice, Tsai last fall generated pushback when, in response to Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey’s tweet “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” he vigorously defended China’s line.

Given that, Tsai’s donations of ventilators and personal protective equipment, at a time when New York City faced shortages, could be seen as not only generous but also strategic. (Note: while the Foundation's official tax returns indicate no giving in recent years, news coverage shows the Tsais made major gifts to Yale in 2016 and 2017, and to The Lawrenceville School in 2017.)

No wonder a few cynics responded to the latest pledge by invoking Tsai’s political stance; on Twitter, one wrote, “That’s why we must support China taking control of Hong Kong.” (Perhaps some will reference the recent Buzzfeed report on internment camps for China’s Uighur population.)

Even if the Nets don't deliver a championship, the Tsais’ relatively adroit response to recent events, and willingness to spend a significant but (in context) affordable sum on community initiatives, has so far helped reframe his reputation.


Brooklyn Nets, NY Liberty, and Barclays Center
Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai
We stand in solidarity with the Black community, and all Indigenous people and People of Color, to end racism in our organization and in our society.

The Plaza at Barclays Center in Brooklyn has become a gathering space for Black Lives Matter. We are proud of our players’ leadership in speaking out against racism and advocating for social justice.

Racial injustice continues to be pervasive in society, and systemic imbalances must be addressed by the government, the private sector, and individuals. We plan to address the inequities by focusing first on our organization and our community in Brooklyn. We believe Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Nets, and New York Liberty can become symbols of how we move forward together as a country. We will provide the resources to accelerate change. We hope to lead by example by supporting our athletes, employees, and community in anti-racist work.

Our mission is to use our platform to bring people together around a shared commitment to inclusiveness, justice, and equal opportunity. Our goal is to promote a society where people of all backgrounds can acknowledge differences and share common values without fear. We will promote a culture of belonging, and our community will be a place for dialogue, respect, and empathy.

Our Principles and Core Beliefs

1. Equality of opportunity, dignity, and respect are fundamental rights for all people, and we will preserve these rights as our first principle. We believe that Black Lives Matter and in all our actions we will protect these fundamental rights for Black Americans and people of color.

2. Diversity is a strength. Diverse perspectives allow us to make more informed and intelligent management decisions and make us a better and stronger company.

3. Building community is the central collective value of Barclays Center, Brooklyn Nets, and NY Liberty. We bring world-class live music and sports to Brooklyn and the world. By doing so we gather diverse communities together to enjoy and appreciate excellence. We plan to build this community around social justice and belonging.

4. Together with our players, we have the ability to influence, and we are stronger together. What we do matters. Players are in a position to influence and empower people, especially youth, around many issues, including education and social justice. As leaders of our organizations, we have a responsibility to build a culture of equity and inclusion, and to influence other leaders in business and cultural institutions – including the League and other teams’ leadership – to stand against racism.

Our 5-Point Plan

1. Social Justice Fund

In addition to our recent $10 million pledge to the NBA Foundation, we will commit an additional $50 million over 10 years for social justice initiatives and community investments that will benefit the BIPOC (especially Black) community, with a priority on Brooklyn. We are committed to listening and learning from community members, our players, and our employees as we design and implement this plan. We will fund pilots and programs that are scalable and which address systemic imbalances and root causes that produce racial gaps in education, health and wealth. Mentorship of young men and women of color will continue to be an emphasis. Access to capital for BIPOC and women-owned small businesses, and skills training to improve job mobility and wage trajectories will be initial areas of focus. We will also address immediate needs created by COVID-19, which has disproportionately impacted communities in Brooklyn.

2. Player Voice

Black women and men comprise a majority of our team rosters. While many live their lives in the spotlight, they also face racism on a daily basis. We are committed to supporting our athletes and amplifying their voices for activism around anti-racism, anti-discrimination, and equal opportunity. We will provide team and venue assets — for example, social media accounts and billboards — to speak out on these issues that represent the collective voice of our players. We will also bring in experts from the academic, legal, media, and business communities to support the players’ continuing education and personal and professional growth.

3. Inclusive Culture

We will strengthen and redouble our commitment to a racially equitable and inclusive corporate culture and environment at BSE Global. The commitment starts at the top. Specifically, we will commit to the following actions:

We and the Chief Executive Officer of BSE Global will be responsible for ensuring a diverse workforce and an inclusive environment. We will ensure mechanisms are in place to recruit, develop, retain and promote Black employees and employees of color, especially individuals in leadership positions.
We do not tolerate racist behavior in the workplace. We will develop an even more comprehensive anti-racism policy that clearly defines behaviors that will not be tolerated at BSE Global. This policy will continue to be part of our Employee Conduct Handbook and violations of our anti-racism policy will be grounds for termination of employment.
Ensure our workforce, in both business and basketball operations, are provided with anti-discrimination, empathy, and diversity training.
Strive for diversity in selecting vendors and suppliers, and work with our sponsors to support Black and minority-owned businesses.
Establish executive leadership programs for BIPOC employees in managerial positions.
Strengthen and develop new internship and entry-level employment programs for BIPOC applicants to work at BSE Global in both business and basketball operations.
Continue conversations with all of our employees about social justice and racial equality through town halls and guest lectures.

4. League-wide Influence

As Governors of one of 30 NBA and 12 WNBA teams, we are stewards of important community institutions. Through our access to the Governors of other teams in both leagues, we will work with the NBA/WNBA League Offices and the leadership of NBA/WNBA teams to create opportunities for dialogue in order to coalesce around shared values. We will initiate regular conversations among team Governors and leadership to share ideas and discuss progress on implementing diversity and anti-racism programs in their respective organizations.

5. Community Engagement

We aspire to leverage the unique space of Barclays Center and the Nets and Liberty to support the Brooklyn community’s shared desire for justice. We will be visible in our efforts to create ongoing and consistent community dialogue around social justice and to convene experts from various disciplines to engage in meaningful conversation. In partnership with law enforcement, we will encourage the Plaza at Barclays Center (corner of Flatbush and Atlantic) to continue to serve as a place for peaceful gatherings and for all constituents to listen to each other.