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

In remembering James Caldwell, the notorious Witt again rewrites Atlantic Yards history

I wasn't planning on writing about the late James Caldwell (RIP) and Atlantic Yards until sometime after his funeral Wednesday, but Stephen Witt's Recollections of James Caldwell (1952-2021), posted yesterday on PoliticsNY (part of the Schneps Media network), requires response.

The "notorious" Witt has never been known for nuanced reporting on Atlantic Yards--mostly for the Courier-Life chain, since bought by Schneps--and this summary is no different. So much for Witt's 2012 pledge to "be vigilant to be watchful against my own tendencies to have personal axes [to] grind.

(His recollections address much more than Atlantic Yards, of course, notably Caldwell's salutary role in blowing the whistle on the city's problematic Third-Party Transfer Program.)

Summarizing Atlantic Yards

Witt writes:
My relationship with Mr. Caldwell became closer in 2003 when Developer Bruce Ratner bought the Brooklyn Nets and announced the massive 22-acre Atlantic Yards project including an arena to house the Nets at the Atlantic/Flatbush avenues intersection. 
The once desolate area had become gentrified. Those living in and around the project footprint were mainly white progressives wanting to turn the neighborhood into a quaint urban area of low-rise buildings similar to nearby Park Slope. James, perhaps sensing the political winds, sided with the gentrifiers.
Wait a second. First, Ratner announced the project in 2003, but didn't buy the Nets until 2004.

More importantly, the blocks in Prospect Heights in and around the footprint were, yes, gentrifying--thanks to the conversion of industrial buildings--but there were a lot of renters, some in lower-income units, and there was a homeless shelter. 

There was still desolation, given a large railyard waiting for redevelopment, and a government-owned empty lot at the key intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic.

It's hardly clear that those living there wanted to "turn the neighborhood into a quaint urban area of low-rise buildings"--which presumes adding low-rise buildings, though, yes, some did decry the "Manhattanization" of Brooklyn.

Of course, Witt ignores that the main part of the proposed project site was the Vanderbilt Yard, an 8.5-acre railyard owned by the state, and the city/state owned other property, including the streets, proposed for the project. And no one had previously considered putting the railyard up for bids and plans.

And that the main opposition group, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, soon proposed an alternative plan limited to the railyard, the UNITY Plan, which, while it excluded an arena and was significantly smaller than a plan proposed for Ratner's 22-acre footprint, featured several not-so-quaint high-rises.

As to whether James "sided with the gentrifiers," well... at one press conference early on, Witt asked her why most project protestors were white. The "silent majority," responded James, opposed the project, calling it a "moral fight," not one of race. While campaigning, she'd met a lot of people.

As the New York Times reported, James said less prosperous residents had less time for activism--and yes, black allies of DDDB though it should be more than a one-issue organization.

About the CBA

Writes Witt:
Caldwell, along with a number of black activists and leaders, that included Lewis and Rev. Herbert Daughtry, backed the project. Whereas the gentrified community saw the development as a land grab, the Black community visualized opportunities for Black business start ups, jobs and affordable housing. They signed a community benefits agreement (CBA) with Ratner.

Through the CBA, Mr. Caldwell created a nonprofit, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD). He was tasked with bringing jobs to the community through the project. In order to do this, Ratner rented him a storefront office at Fulton Street and Rockland Place in Downtown Brooklyn.
Putting aside the tortured syntax, yes, some in the Black community saw opportunities, and Bruce Ratner made extravagant promises. And Caldwell was sincere in his hope--maybe closer to a belief--that the project could help.

Note: Caldwell didn't create BUILD--that was the work of Assemblymember Roger Green, with Darnell Canada and Eric Blackwell as leaders. Caldwell stepped in after the latter two left.

But the fact of the matter is that, as a consultant hired by Forest City Ratner reported, CBA signatories were compensated for community support, not program goals, and perceived as "fronts."

The consultant essentially validated the widespread critique of the CBA: that most groups had no track record in the community--individuals associated with groups did have a record--and were set up to support the project.

The CBA was deeply flawed, as I've written, and the developer failed to hire the required Independent Compliance Monitor. Even the state's former Atlantic Yards project manager called the CBA “constructed so poorly as to give the developer maximum flexibility in delivering benefits.”

By the way, I'm pretty sure that was free office space, not a rental, at both "10 MetroTech" and previously on Pacific Street, another Forest City property.

About Pacific Street

Crucially, Witt, with an assist from Caldwell, helped validate the extremely tendentious Blight Study produced by the Empire State Development Corporation (today, Empire State Development) used to validate the state's pursuit of eminent domain.

Take this page from the Blight Study, which sites "Unsanitary and Unsafe Conditions" at the Vanderbilt Yard: 
The sidewalk along Pacific Street is littered with trash, overgrown with weeds, and is cracked and uneven in areas (see Photograph C). A metal barrier, covered in rust and painted with graffiti, runs parallel to the sidewalk along part of Pacific Street (see Photograph H). A significant amount of garbage and other debris has accumulated in the narrow space between the barrier and the chain-link fence (see Photograph I); and an August 26, 2005 article in the Brooklyn Heights Courier reported that the narrow space is used as living space by four or five homeless men (see Appendix C). 
That Appendix C consists, in its entirety, of an 8/26/05 Courier-Life article by Witt headlined "Blind Eye to Atlantic Yards Homeless?" It in part blamed DDDB for the blight:
Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD) President James Caldwell said the homeless were the first thing he noticed while moving the organization’s current office to 640 Pacific Street from 609 Vanderbilt Avenue... 
Caldwell noted the contrast on the block, where on the south side of Pacific Street there are several large condominium developments, but on the MTA-owned north side of the street there are high weeds and trash strewn about.
Among the residents who live across the street from the homeless enclave is Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn Spokesperson Daniel Goldstein. 
“How can you live right across the street from that and don’t try to address it with all the meetings they [DDDB] have had,” said Caldwell. “Even the local politicians ignored it. They couldn’t have helped but seen it.”
Note that the state, while cherry-picking this irresponsible anecdote, failed to conduct an obvious literature review for the market study of the area that it was supposed to do--and which would have made the blight claim a lot tougher to sustain.

What BUILD did

Writes Witt:
This storefront became a center point for Blacks looking for a leg-up. Career and social service caseworkers were made available at the office and BUILD placed a number of Blacks in jobs. At the very least, the office was there to help people put together resumes, make copies and send out emails. It was a welcoming place. I often stopped in while covering the project or sometimes because I was in the neighborhood. It was here, I often had long conversations with Caldwell about politics, religion and family.
I had some conversations there with Caldwell, as well, and saw that BUILD did help connect some people with jobs and job readiness.

But what Witt ignores is that BUILD's biggest responsibility--a Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program--to get people into the pipeline for construction careers--ran aground.

Former trainees filed suit and, as I wrote, the sad tale of dashed hopes ended in an out-of-court settlement, after BUILD had already folded.

What Caldwell thought of his former patron

Last July I spoke with Caldwell for the last time. He had reflected more on the demise of BUILD--he hadn't previously read all of my lawsuit coverage--and sounded bitter, if perhaps mindful of the newly urgent national dialogue on race.

Forest City’s treatment of BUILD reflected “the way Black people have been treated” in American history, he said. The company could’ve gone to union leaders and demanded a path to apprenticeships for those in BUILD's program, he said not inaccurately, but “they didn’t fight for us.”

Indeed, as I reported, the unions, one Forest City executive said, were wary of a new program, and the company didn't want to jeopardize contract negotiations.

Caldwell told me he still thought the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project had been good for the community, and he hadn't regretted support for it.

Witt's closing paragraph

Writes Witt:
With the possible exception of Councilwoman James, I gained a lot of respect from the Black community in covering the Atlantic Yards project. I also took it on the chin from the many white journalists who opposed the project. That, along with personal problems influenced my decision to take a buyout as a reporter from News Corp in 2009. Besides, the buyout package bought me much-needed time to write my roman à clef second novel about the project, The Street Singer.
Well, I think it's not simple to say what a diverse Black community thinks.

As to "I also took it on the chin from the many white journalists who opposed the project," I'm not sure how whether there were "many white journalists who opposed the project" or whether being "white" is a more precise descriptor than "willing-to-do-the-research."

But yes, I think that phrase is about me. (I call myself a skeptic, watchdog, critic--"opponent" is too simplistic and narrow.) Yes, I've called Witt "notorious" a lot and, yes, he even put a version of me in his novel.