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In New Books on Bloomberg and de Blasio, Unreliable Atlantic Yards History


bloomberg jay z barclays

(photo: Spencer T Tucker via the Mayor's Office)


"Atlantic Yards down the memory hole" is a phrase I coined to describe how the facts and history of the controversial real estate project -- which was renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn in 2014 -- regularly get mangled by journalists, public officials, and commentators, often buffing away the controversy so that people may eventually wonder why anyone ever cared.

Part of that surely relates to the project's complex, twisting path, with at least 11 more towers yet unbuilt, joining the Barclays Center and four apartment buildings. It's tough to get right, even for me, and I write about Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park every day.

Also, the documentary record includes newspaper articles and government statements that either were initially flawed or no longer remain correct. Add the pressure of tight deadlines, with little time (or perhaps inclination) to check on, say, whether an old New York Times article was superseded by new information in the mainstream press, or corrected by a blog they don't read.

It's doubly dismaying, though, when book authors err, because they presumably have more time for research and because a hardcover presentation adds gravity. Unfortunately, interesting new books on the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations get the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park history wrong, in both small and significant ways.

It's understandable that the authors give Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park short shrift, as it's but one controversy within a complex set of governing challenges, and authors have to pick their spots. It doesn't ruin these substantial books. But it suggests they've not given careful attention to this project.

Only former Bloomberg Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, in his Greater Than Ever: New York's Big Comeback, adds some new insights, but his triumphant narrative ignores some countervailing evidence.

***

Some authors make simple, though telling, mistakes, likely from sloppily surveying a clip file. Writes Chris McNickle, in Bloomberg: A Billionaire's Ambition, "Forest City Ratner, a national real estate firm, built the Barclays Center...on top of gritty MTA-owned railroad tracks." Put aside that Forest City Ratner was the New York arm of a national firm -- then Forest City Enterprises, now Forest City Realty Trust -- the arena was not built fully on (or over) the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard. The arena was built partly on the railyard. The tracks in the way were moved.

The other half of the arena footprint involved private (plus city/MTA) property and public streets. Had the arena site been limited to the railyard, Atlantic Yards wouldn't have sparked years of controversy and a battle over eminent domain to deliver some of that private property.

This error appeared frequently in the Times and other media outlets, and was only occasionally corrected. Probably the most egregious example was the enthusiastic appraisal of the original 2003 plan by Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp, who wrote, "The six-block site...is now an open railyard."

Doctoroff similarly writes that Ratner "would build a huge development on the railyard at the convergence of the two major thoroughfares in Brooklyn -- Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues -- right next to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn's premier cultural institution." (Also, Brooklynites know that a huge mall and then the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building stand between the arena site and BAM.)

***

McNickle, to his credit, locates the Barclays Center "near Downtown Brooklyn." Doctoroff uses "Downtown Brooklyn" without the modifier, as do Joseph P. Viteritti, in his The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York, and Juan Gonzalez in his Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America's Tale of Two Cities.

The Times used that location a lot, but it also published a correction back in 2006 indicating that almost all the project site was in Prospect Heights. This might be seen as splitting hairs -- today, it could be argued that the Barclays Center extends the boundaries of Downtown Brooklyn, long seen as ending near the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, across Atlantic Avenue.

But the key issue is that the Atlantic Yards site was separate from Downtown Brooklyn, which New York City rezoned for high-rise buildings. After all, exiting from the back of the Barclays Center, you see Prospect Heights row houses across the street. Even Gregg Pasquarelli, the architect who redesigned the arena, called it "a big building in a residential neighborhood."

***

The overall amount of direct and indirect subsidies for Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park remains murky, in part because the project's not finished. But these books don't help.

"The city contributed $100 million in cash, infrastructure support, and tax abatements to the private project," writes McNickle, not specifying the value of the latter two categories. The New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO) estimated a package far more valuable than $100 million.

Writes Doctoroff: "When the financials of the deal deteriorated, the city and state upped our [cash] contributions to the project to $100 million apiece."

Actually, beyond that $100 million, the city later assigned $105 million to Atlantic Yards. Though city officials protested that a good chunk of that would have been delivered anyway -- and the IBO cautiously assessed a $150 million city total -- Forest City itself claimed it had secured $105 million more.

Why does that larger figure matter? Because the IBO, which in 2006 estimated that the arena would represent a net gain for city taxpayers, in 2009 projected a loss, based in part on new subsidy numbers. That goes unmentioned in Doctoroff's book, though the city, which embraced the earlier IBO assessment, attacked the later one. The overall impact remains inconclusive.

Beyond that, Doctoroff writes that, for the new Yankees and Mets stadiums, and the Brooklyn arena, "the city would fund only infrastructure costs, the stadium had to be financed by the team." Putting aside the controversial financing methods -- PILOTs, or payments in lieu of taxes -- that's not true regarding the Barclays Center.

The city's initial $100 million pledge could be used for infrastructure or for land purchases and, ultimately, it was used to buy arena land. In fact, Forest City's seemingly generous buyouts of condo owners -- prompting a front-page 2004 Daily News headline, "BONANZA," subtitled, "Brooklyn apt. owners offered $1 million-plus to make way for Nets arena" -- were funded by taxpayers, as I reported four years later.

***

"Because the project stood mostly over state controlled land," writes McNickle, "the city's normal review process did not apply." It's hard to fault him for conveying that typical explanation from public officials, though such state land is actually a plurality, not a majority.

Then again, some critics, including former City Planning Commissioner Ron Shiffman, long argued that the city could have negotiated with the Empire State Development Corporation, the state authority (since renamed Empire State Development) that wound up overseeing Atlantic Yards, to use the city's more substantial Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

Indeed, that's one mini-revelation from Doctoroff. "Although we would eventually become masters of ULURP," he writes, "at this point not a single rezoning had been approved and internally we had doubts about pulling off all we were trying to accomplish. Because the state owned much of the land, we decided that for expediency we would skirt ULURP and take advantage of the state's seemingly speedier process. With twenty-twenty hindsight, I am positive we could have placated our opponents in negotiations and gotten the process through ULURP."

He's got a point. The Bloomberg administration might not have placated all opponents -- many were opposed to the arena, period -- but likely would have made some concessions, leading to perhaps more legitimacy and more oversight for the project, as well as a voice for then-City Council Member Letitia James, who represented the area.

***

A more important revelation from Doctoroff is that, while he and the Bloomberg administration were public cheerleaders for Atlantic Yards -- “My role in this was to be as supportive and reassuring as possible,” he writes -- from the start in 2003 he questioned whether such a complex project would work.

Noting that developer Bruce Ratner had to buy the money-losing New Jersey Nets and navigate a complex set of approvals, Doctoroff “thought it was a crazy risk, but, hey, it was his money.” Actually, it involved public money too, as well as the opportunity cost of delaying alternative use for the public property at issue.

After all, given how much Atlantic Yards was sold to the public as providing solutions to the affordable housing crisis, didn't public officials owe us more candor about the risks of delay and nonperformance?

***

How long was Atlantic Yards supposed to take? That too goes down the memory hole. Viteritti writes that de Blasio "picked up the ball on real estate projects he inherited...he got Forest City Ratner, the developer of the massive Pacific Park Project...to accelerate the construction of 2,250 affordable apartments by 2025--ten years ahead of schedule."

To clarify: by 2014, there was a new developer: Greenland Forest City Partners, the joint venture owned 70% by Greenland USA, with Forest City the junior partner. That's worth noting, because community critics seeking a faster timetable tried to pressure the state before approval of that new majority owner was granted.

More importantly, "ten years ahead of schedule," while widely reported and not incorrect, is misleadingly incomplete. That timetable is ten years ahead of the previous schedule, which had been extended from ten years to 25 years.

So a 2025 completion date remains well behind the long-professed timetable. In fact -- and this was public knowledge before the author's deadline -- that target date is now in jeopardy, given that the developer last November paused market-rate development.

***

Doctoroff looks approvingly at Pacific Park so far, saying the arena opened "to (mostly) rave architectural reviews, with critics praising its proportions and its fit into the neighborhood." True, but critics' praise for the arena's innovative, elevator-based loading dock was followed by neighbors experiencing noisy truck lineups on residential streets.

The former deputy mayor also cites an increase in property values and busy restaurants, and none of the "feared terrible traffic congestion." The latter is true, but he should acknowledge that congestion fears were based on a project that had been built out faster, as well as far more fans driving from New Jersey.

Nor does Doctoroff acknowledge that impacts on the nearest residents can be brutal; one resident said she lives near "sh--show corner." He fails to mention that extravagant promises of local/minority/women hiring and contracting have never been confirmed.

"Thousands of units of desperately needed affordable housing are finally coming online," Doctoroff writes. The total is actually 781, in three towers, with new construction paused, and it's doubtful that all of the units are desperately needed.

After all, some 43% of the apartments built so far are aimed at middle-income households earning up to 165% of Area Median Income, far more than the income of the mostly low-income residents who marched enthusiastically for Atlantic Yards affordable housing. That translates, for example, into two-bedroom apartments costing well over $3,000 a month.

In fact, though the two already open buildings drew more than over 176,000 aspirants in the city's housing lottery, the developer was unable to fill all middle-income "affordable" units, presumably because of cost. So those apartments are now open to anyone who fits in the appropriate income category.

***

With affordable housing, the devil is in the details, though readers have no way of knowing from these books just how affordable the apartments are. Housing is called affordable if a household pays up to 30% of its income on rent.

The Atlantic Yards story deserves more nuanced attention generally. Gonzalez, in a few glancing mentions, does the best job of suggesting something was sketchy; Viteritti and McNickle acknowledge controversy.

Doctoroff claims success at a transformational project, scoffing at project opponents as brownstone owners wary of crowding, though he allows that we'll never know if Ratner makes money on the project.

What's missing, though, is a sense of the political skullduggery involved. For example, both books about de Blasio cite his relationship with the community group ACORN and its New York leader, Bertha Lewis. But neither mentions how, when the national group faced an internal embezzlement scandal and funders pulled away, Lewis (as ACORN founder Wade Rathke acknowledged) got her Atlantic Yards ally Forest City to deliver a loan and a grant, further cementing their relationship.

Also missing are issues of accountability, ones that will dog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park during its next phases, inevitable twists, and likely requests for more government assistance. As the project's history is still being made, we should see its controversial past more clearly.

***
Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the daily blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report and is working on a book about the project. On Twitter @AYReport.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

On New York’s Amazon Wishlist? More Homegrown College Graduates


amazon go via amazon dot com

(via amazon.com)


Bids are due today for Amazon’s new headquarters and it seems cities across North America have joined the fray. The suitors are lining up with billion-dollar bouquets, and with good reason. What mayor could resist the promise of 50,000 well-paying jobs and all the economic energy that comes with the headquarters—a massive boost to the tax base, new cafes and food trucks, spin-off companies, and a legion of happy vendors? New York City alone has nearly two dozen neighborhoods vying for Bezos’ bounty.

Pundits have frequently written off the five boroughs as Amazon’s second home because of the exorbitant cost of living. Some are pointing to the subway meltdown. Yet an even greater obstacle may be the city’s underprepared workforce.

While New York has always been a beacon for titans of industry, striving immigrants, and the creative cognoscenti, for too long, the city has failed to develop enough local talent into the kind of smart, savvy employment base a modern company like Amazon demands. Just 36 percent of New York City residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the latest Census data, compared to 45 percent in Denver, 46 percent in Austin, and 55 percent in Washington, D.C. In Amazon’s current home base of Seattle, it is a whopping 59 percent.

New York’s ability to lure the world’s fourth largest corporation, or even its 40th or 400th, will hinge on whether its workforce is primed and ready. By that measure, the city has a long way to go.

More than 3.3 million city residents over age 25 lack an associate’s degree or higher level of college attainment. Residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher are largely concentrated in Manhattan, where the attainment rate stands at 62 percent, followed by just over 30 percent in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. In the Bronx, it is a distressing 18 percent.

Amazon should still see boundless potential on the Hudson. New York boasts a booming and entrepreneurial tech sector with more than 115,000 jobs today, an unparalleled smorgasbord of arts and culture, and the brand new Cornell Tech campus, alongside other world-renowned educational institutions.

But if New York succeeds in attracting Amazon, or any large company for that matter, whether GE, Aetna, or Tesla, it will be in spite of the city’s education and training systems, not because of them. New York can do so much more to ensure that its residents can access the opportunities that an Amazon would bring, while offering employers a much larger pool of homegrown talent.

Yes, New York is full of tech talent today. This is true, in part, because the city has become increasingly successful at attracting engineering and computer science graduates from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and other top universities around the world. But in an economy where technically skilled workers are prized—not just on Silicon Alley but in nearly every large and mid-sized company—demand is through the roof. New York needs a much bigger pipeline, not just for Amazon, but for blue chip companies and local start-ups alike.

Even if the vast majority of Amazon’s 50,000 new hires were imported from other places, New York would still be better off with them here than in Denver or Chicago or Atlanta. But no company—and certainly not a company with so many hiring needs—is going to make locational decisions that are completely dependent on bringing in outside talent. It is simply not realistic, or sustainable. Meanwhile, if half those workers or more were born, raised, and educated in New York, the benefits would be far broader—allaying the fears of those who see Amazon as more of an economic development trophy than an opportunity generator.

Such an achievement today would be almost impossible.

While New York City has done an increasingly impressive job of getting students through high school, it continues to struggle with college success, leaving students without the credentials an employer like Amazon demands. Today, fewer than half of all four-year college students at the City University of New York (CUNY) graduate with a degree in six years. Just 22 percent of CUNY’s community college students earn a degree in three years.

CUNY’s highly successful ASAP initiative, which provides supports to full-time community college students, and the CUNY Start program, which provides intensive preparation for students with remedial needs, are important steps in the right direction. But New York has a long way to go to achieve true college success for all.

Beyond the classroom, the city’s workforce development system still functions too much like a cumbersome placement agency. The de Blasio administration has laid out an impressive new vision with its Career Pathways initiative, aimed at developing career trajectories through skills building and education. But after more than three years, there is too little to show for it. The city needs to double down on proposed investments in bridge programs, career exploration, and on-the-job training, while strengthening and expanding partnerships with nonprofit providers, employers, and the public education system.  

There’s no doubt that New York City is a formidable competitor in the quest for Amazon’s HQ2. No other city offers so expansive a world of culture and commerce in a single place, a paragon of urbanism and urbanity animated by an astonishingly diverse population. But if Amazon heads elsewhere, policymakers should not just blame cost and congestion. They should look to the serious shortcomings in the city’s human capital development system, which remains far from meeting its full potential.

***
Matt A.V. Chaban is the policy director and Fisher Fellow at the Center for an Urban Future. On Twitter @MC_NYC and @nycfuture.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

As We Close Rikers, Setting Our Sights on Essential State-Level Reforms


Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo at an update prison (Governor's Office)


Anyone following New York City politics knows about JustLeadershipUSA’s mission to close the jails at Rikers Island. In less than a year, the #CLOSErikers campaign successfully pressured Mayor Bill de Blasio to commit to shuttering the jail complex. It is no longer a question of if Rikers will close, but when. But the campaign has always known that closing Rikers would require reforms at the state level as well. An overhaul of our statewide bail, speedy trial, and discovery statutes is necessary to reduce the population at Rikers so that it can finally and expeditiously close its doors.

Even if Rikers were closed tomorrow, these reforms would still be necessary. While New York City has successfully reduced its jail population over the past few years, county jail populations across the state are growing. Today, 63% of people held in jail in New York State are held in jails outside New York City. Of those 25,000 husbands, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, and loved ones who are sitting in jails across our state, 70% have not been convicted but remain unjustifiably caged while they await the outcome of their cases.

This reality is a consequence of punitive and discriminatory criminal justice policies that have decimated communities, primarily poor communities and communities of color, for decades.

To end this human rights crisis, we need bold action from Governor Andrew Cuomo and our state Legislature. That is why JustLeadershipUSA launched #FREEnewyork, a campaign focused on empowering those who have been most harmed by our jails and prisons to hold Governor Cuomo and our elected leaders in Albany accountable and unapologetically demand real solutions to these self-inflicted problems.

Governor Cuomo said that Rikers should be closed in three years. Now he must deliver around the state he leads. He and his colleagues in Albany have both the power and the responsibility to drive us toward that Rikers goal while also addressing the failings of our statewide criminal justice system.

They can start with overhauling our broken bail system. We need reform that eliminates money bail, protects the presumption of innocence and the right to freedom, limits when and how any pretrial conditions are instituted, and prohibits biased risk assessment tools. Bail reform must focus on ending the devastating repercussions that even initial involvement with the criminal justice system can have on people, especially on low-income families who too often must choose between paying bills or paying for their loved one’s freedom. People who can afford bail achieve better outcomes in their cases, and everyone deserves access to these outcomes.

Albany must also enact comprehensive statewide speedy trial and discovery reform. Today, no other state in the country comes close to matching the appalling unfairness of New York’s readiness rule approach to ‘protecting’ one’s right to a fair and expedient process.

We need a true speedy trial law that sets concrete limits on when a defendant must actually be brought to trial. As it stands now, prosecutors can cause unforeseeable and unending delays in the trial process without significant repercussions. Combined with the current state of our bail laws, this leads to human beings trapped in cages while they await their hearing before a judge or jury.

What is already a bad situation is only made worse by New York’s current discovery laws, which are widely regarded as some of the most regressive in the country. We need a new discovery law that requires open, early, automatic, and mandatory discovery, guaranteeing defendants and their lawyers access to vital information about their cases. Without this, defendants and their attorneys have little to no access to information about the charges they face.

These reforms are vital for New Yorkers most affected by mass incarceration, and countless studies have shown that criminal justice reforms like these increase public safety, improve relations between communities and law enforcement, and create better outcomes for victims and taxpayers. Yet, while each of these reforms and each of their respective components are important, none are sufficient on their own if we truly want to end the plague of mass incarceration that grips New York State. Comprehensive, connected reforms are necessary for the real, lasting, and positive change in our criminal justice system that New Yorkers deserve.

Without this action at the state level, New York will continue to commit human rights abuses on a daily basis. The atrocities of our criminal justice system will linger, and New Yorkers will suffer unimaginable harm as a result. To fight for reform, close Rikers, and decarcerate county jails throughout New York State, directly impacted individuals and communities across the state must raise their voice, and, together, bring a simple message to Governor Cuomo and our legislators in Albany: we are watching you, we demand real and bold reform, and the time to act is now.

***
Glenn E. Martin is founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA. On Twitter @GlennEMartin and @JustLeadersUSA.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]



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