Gotham Gazette Wed, 23 Jan 2019 12:20:56 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Running for Attorney General, James Takes Strong Atlantic Yards Record Too Far tishjameshoriz license2007 jjbarkeyatyahoo

James at a 2007 press conference announcing a lawsuit challenging the environmental review of Atlantic Yards - she was not a plaintiff or attorney in the case (photo ©Jonathan Barkey)

A May Politico profile of New York City Public Advocate Letitia (Tish) James, the front-runner in the upcoming election for state Attorney General, noted that “she has occasionally shown a flair for exaggeration, which has periodically raised questions about her credibility.” Cited were statements about her age and her claim of credit for a New York Times series on homelessness.

Indeed, I’ve witnessed such exaggeration. Perhaps it’s carelessness, coupled with confidence in her undeniable charisma. Perhaps it relates to James’ alternative career choice of the ministry (as she once told an interviewer), in which parable can trump precision. But as James moves up the professional ladder, such hyperbole gets more hazardous, especially as she asks voters to make her the state’s top legal officer.

So it was surprising and dismaying to hear James during two recent appearances inflate her significant and often brave record opposing the Atlantic Yards project, the arena-plus-towers development announced in 2003 when she was representing the 35th City Council District in Brooklyn.

As the project’s leading political opponent, she asked tough questions at City Council hearings, sponsored an alternative plan for the Vanderbilt Yard, and stood up for residents threatened by eminent domain or denied promised construction jobs. She doesn’t need to overstate her role challenging the political firmament. (Her campaign, informed of examples to be outlined in this column, declined to comment on the record.)

James’ new posture seems politically expedient, since, as I wrote in May 2016, James actually has taken a softer stand in recent years, willing to call a reporter after being nudged by the original project developer, the politically powerful Forest City Ratner. (The project was in 2014 renamed Pacific Park.)

Taking Atlantic Yards to the U.S. Supreme Court?
At the August 15 Democratic attorney general candidate forum sponsored by Indivisible Harlem (at about 55:20 remaining on this video) James responded to a question about the city’s investigation of yeshivas said to be offering an inadequate secular education and got on a riff that segued to Atlantic Yards.

“Lastly, let me just say that I’m the only individual on this stage that’s actually taken a major developer all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and almost bankrupted him, is Letitia James. We took a developer [who wanted] to build a basketball arena for the worst team in the NBA, and engaged in foreclosing upon homes. And I’ll always remember, as a City Council member who looked in the eyes of someone who was a Holocaust survivor”—

The moderator intervened, reminding James that the question concerned yeshivas.

James was unbowed: “So it’s about yeshivas, and about a Holocaust survivor. And that Holocaust survivor said, ‘Tish, stand up and fight back.’ We’ll fight back and make sure yeshivas are educating individuals and we’re going to fight back against abuses by developers in the city of New York and the state of New York. And we’re going to stand up against corruption in the state of New York.”

Hold on. The federal eminent domain case, Goldstein v. Pataki, which James helped herald at an initial press conference, was rejected at the trial court and appellate court levels. Then the plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to hear it; the Court refused, as it does most petitions. (A companion case was then filed in state court.)

So, while the case was brought to the Supreme Court, it wasn’t heard by the Supreme Court. More importantly, Council Member James as an individual played, at best, a supporting role. She was neither named plaintiff nor participating lawyer.

Checking a few details
Did that case “almost bankrupt” Forest City Ratner and developer Bruce Ratner? That’s a bit of a stretch, though Atlantic Yards -- conceived in optimistic times before the recession -- certainly caused major financial pain.

Also, neither Forest City Ratner nor Empire State Development, the state authority overseeing and shepherding the project, were "foreclosing on homes," or taking homes from borrowers in default. James would better have said that, with the threat of eminent domain, the developer was squeezing—and buying, with significant public dollars—people out of their homes.

A Holocaust story
What about that Holocaust survivor? James at least once has dubiously expanded that reference, as I wrote in September 2012, as the Barclays Center was opening, about a TV interview with James.

"The issue is really about standing up and advocating for your community...against the abuse of all is right,” she said. “This woman I know, and I'll always remember her, lived in footprint, she was a Holocaust survivor. She wanted to die in her home. She was 89 years old. She should've been allowed to die in her home and not suffer under the stress of being subject to eminent domain for a basketball arena."

I checked with two people who should know, and was told the elderly Holocaust survivor who was stressed by eminent domain was a commercial tenant, not a residential one. No one remembers -- and I asked again this week -- a residential tenant who was a Holocaust survivor.

Yes, an elderly woman in the footprint, Victoria Harmon, didn't want to move, and did end up dying at home, but she wasn’t a Holocaust survivor.

Repeating the eminent domain claim
This past Tuesday, during a Democratic attorney general candidate debate that aired on Manhattan Neighborhood Network, James brought up Atlantic Yards again.

“I took that [eminent domain] case all the way to the Supreme Court," she said at one point, soon amending the claim to “We."

As I wrote on Twitter, James deserves credit for promoting or participating in several Atlantic Yards cases, such as the environmental review case (in the photo at top), but not the claim as stated.

She was a named plaintiff in two lawsuits: one challenging the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s willingness to relax a deal with developer Forest City Ratner, and another challenging the state’s 2009 re-approval of the project, which ultimately led a judge to criticize Empire State Development, the state authority overseeing the project, and to order a new environmental review.

Was my criticism, as one James supporter tweeted, “strangely nitpicky”? I don’t think so, especially if it’s part of a pattern.

A Prospect Park fable
James also exaggerated in her statement at a April 30 public hearing concerning a controversial two-tower project near Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn called 80 Flatbush.

“So, we should not block the clock,” said James, referring to the widespread belief that the towers—one stretching 986 feet tall—would block views of the four-sided clock of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower, now known as One Hanson. (Neighborhood opponents say the clock will be blocked from the west; the environmental review says it won’t.)

“We should respect the lady, the Williamsburgh Bank building, which is an icon,” James continued. “And again, as someone who was born and raised in Brooklyn, when I would get lost in Prospect Park, I would always look to the Williamsburgh Bank building for direction and purpose and a sense of who I am and what I believe in.”

Really? The landmarked tower rises 512 feet. You can’t see near it from the biggest clearing (the Longmeadow) inside Prospect Park; that intersection is just too far away. The places where one might be lost, even in decades past, would further scotch sightlines. (By the way, if you walk up Flatbush Avenue a few blocks today and look northwest toward the bank, the clock is already blocked by a tower flanking the Barclays Center, 461 Dean.)

James had ample reasons to be wary of 80 Flatbush, notably what Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon and state Senator Velmanette Montgomery have called the request for an “unprecedented” tripling of allowable density. But James went beyond criticism to fable.

Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the watchdog blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report. On Twitter @AYReport.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Running for Attorney General, James Takes Strong Atlantic Yards Record Too Far Sun, 26 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
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 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 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

In New Books on Bloomberg and de Blasio, Unreliable Atlantic Yards History Tue, 24 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Pacific Park Developer's Deceptive Affordable Housing Spin 535 carlton pacific park

Part of the 535 Carlton Pacific Park lottery ad

Ashley Cotton's June 22 Gotham Gazette op-ed “Tackling New York’s Housing Affordability Crisis” is deeply deceptive, part of the long-running spin from the developer of the Pacific Park (formerly Atlantic Yards) project.

It's on par with the misleading mayoral press release June 13 for the "100% affordable" 535 Carlton, which I analyzed in City & State.

Cotton, the External Affairs Executive VP for Forest City New York (and thus the spokesperson for the joint venture Greenland Forest City Partners), writes of that new building, "It’s 100 percent affordable, and proof positive that our public-private affordable housing model delivers great results."

Really? Half of 535 Carlton is dedicated to middle-income households earning up to 165% of Area Median Income, or AMI. Translation: studios cost $2,137, one-bedrooms $2,680; two-bedrooms $3,223, and three-bedrooms $3,716.

While those dip below market rates, they hardly supply housing to those who need it most. According to the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development's Affordable Housing "Cheat Sheet," only 7.4% of New York households even fall within 140% and 170% of AMI, above which is clearly market rate.

I recall the 2009 public hearing, where a member of the housing group ACORN urged approval of Atlantic Yards because "[t]he people in my building cannot afford $2,000 a month rent." They still can't.

The word "affordable" sounds good, but vagueness about actual affordability obscures how affordability differs significantly from that originally promised, which got advocates like ACORN on board.

Cotton writes, "We committed to delivering 2,250 units of below market-rate housing by 2025." Yes, but that obscures how the developer, with compliant public officials and cowed advocates, has delivered apartments for households in the top quartile of city incomes.

The 2005 ACORN agreement was supposed to deliver 2,250 units of affordable housing, with only 20% of them -- 450 total -- going to the best-off middle-income cohort. Not only has AMI floated up significantly, this building has 50% of the units assigned to the best-off cohort.

No wonder that I discovered, after analyzing the raw spreadsheet of applicants for City Limits, that while 92,743 households applied for 297 lottery units, only 2,203 applicants even fell within income eligibility for the 148 middle-income apartments among them.

"For lottery winners, these units are life-changing," Cotton writes. Sure, for the woman Cotton features in her essay, who had been trying desperately to get good housing, and luckily won the lottery.

For the relatively small number of those seeking the middle-income units, as well as the significant number of middle-income households who've actually turned down the housing after winning the lottery, it's not so life-changing.

"Pacific Park Brooklyn," writes Cotton, "is already proof that putting affordability first can reap great rewards for the citizens of New York." Actually, it's proof that "affordability" is a great selling point when few look closely.

The unfortunate but deeply important lesson of Atlantic Yards -- 13-plus years in -- is that the developer is always spinning.

Those of us with long memories recall past deceptive essays by the developer. In May 2008, Bruce Ratner, CEO of Forest City Ratner (since renamed Forest City New York), penned an op-ed for the Daily News, contending, "for the first time, I am offering an updated construction timetable for the project...We anticipate finishing all of Atlantic Yards by 2018."

Well, we know how that turned out. The timetable stretched to 2035, and then was said to be 2025, at least for the affordable housing, though officials at Ratner's parent company now hint at well past 2030.

"We're still building the iconic Miss Brooklyn tower," Ratner wrote, regarding the Frank Gehry-designed flagship building at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, which would loom over the Barclays Center and contain an atrium in which arena attendees could gather.

Now, of course, Gehry is long gone, and the Greenland Forest City joint venture -- surely wary of construction over a regularly used arena -- now plans to seek state permission to shift the bulk of Miss Brooklyn across the street. That would transform an already large approved tower -- replacing the current big-box stores Modell's and P.C. Richard -- into an enormous two-tower project.

Consider the Feb 2010 op-ed from Ratner's deputy, MaryAnne Gilmartin, in the Commercial Observer. Atlantic Yards, Gilmartin wrote, "has been about jobs and housing and an historic community-benefits agreement that ensures that the project’s economic and social benefits help the folks who live here and need it most."

Well, it's clear today that much of the "affordable housing," not to mention the market-rate housing, doesn't help those who need it most.

What about that much-ballyhooed Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA? It was a huge part of project promotion, earning a press release from Mayor Bloomberg's office when it was signed in 2005.

One significant part of the CBA, a pre-apprenticeship training program that was supposed to vault struggling Brooklynites into coveted union jobs, dissolved, leading to a bitter lawsuit. Other elements remained vague, unenforceable aspirations.

Who oversees the CBA? Because it's not a government document -- Bloomberg was just a witness -- it's left up to the compromised signatories, which had neither the expertise nor the incentive to challenge the developer. As a consultant Forest City itself hired to evaluate the CBA concluded, the developer financially compensated the organizations for their potential to secure community support for the project, but not for their capacity to fulfill the CBA's programmatic goals.

The CBA required an independent monitor. "Atlantic Yards is setting a new standard," Ratner asserted in March 2007, "and the ICM [Independent Compliance Monitor] will be everyone's watchdog to ensure we reach all of the goals and benefits we have agreed to." The monitor was never hired, despite a Request for Proposals. The developer saved at least $100,000 a year, and the CBA evaded scrutiny.

I remember a November 2004 public meeting in which Forest City's initial Atlantic Yards point man Jim Stuckey, asked how the project would be overseen, replied, "The CBA we have in negotiation calls for an independent officer. Probably more than one." He even told the New York Times in July 2005 that the full project -- which was supposed to take 10 years when announced in 2003 -- might be completed as soon as 2011.

That's the developer's record. Their statements, including claims of "Tackling New York’s Housing Affordability Crisis," always deserve skepticism.

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

Pacific Park Developer's Deceptive Affordable Housing Spin Thu, 22 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
James Takes Softer Stance on Atlantic Yards james cumbo DNC Azi

James (at podium) & Cumbo (in green) at Barclays Center (photo: Azi Paybarah)

When Public Advocate Letitia (Tish) James served as City Council Member for the 35th District in Brooklyn, from 2003 through 2013, she was a vocal, high-profile opponent of the Atlantic Yards megaproject, as reflected in the 2011 documentary Battle for Brooklyn.

James was a plaintiff in two lawsuits challenging the willingness of government authorities to relax deals with developer Forest City Ratner, and promoted another lawsuit filed by Brooklynites who went through a coveted pre-apprenticeship training program, run by a Forest City community partner, but didn't get expected union cards and jobs.

In her successful 2013 campaign for citywide office, James even criticized mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, generally an ally, regarding his support for the project, which includes the Barclays Center and 16 towers (of which four are now rising), set to house 6,430 apartments, of which 2,250 are "affordable."

Since becoming public advocate, James, understandably, has paid far less attention to the project, which in 2014 was renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn after Chinese developer Greenland Holdings bought a majority stake, excepting the arena and one tower. James also joined local officials calling for the 2016 Democratic National Convention to come to the Barclays Center.

Still, it was surprising to learn, from New York Daily News Sports I-Team reporter Michael O'Keeffe, the main contributor to a four-part series on Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park that began April 11, that James would talk up the project at the behest of a developer she's long criticized.

As O'Keeffe told it, at about 43 minutes into a podcast, published April 22, in which we both appeared, months earlier, as he began looking into Atlantic Yards,, he reached out to James, but was eventually told she didn't want to comment.

As his publication date approached, and after the developer likely knew there was critical coverage coming about issues like sexual harassment by construction workers, low pay for arena staff, and neighborhood disturbances, O'Keeffe "got a call out of the blue" from James.

While James told him she's not in touch with the grassroots, she said, as O'Keeffe put it, that "she doesn't really hear a lot of complaints from residents, what she hears is a lot of excitement about the possibility of affordable housing."

O'Keeffe asked her if the developer - whose local face remains Forest City Ratner - asked her to call, and she said yes.

James apparently did not know the specifics of O’Keeffe’s coverage, such as the harassment by construction workers and arena attendees toward a 23-year-old African-American woman. (James is the first woman of color to hold citywide office in New York.)

On the podcast, I speculated that James was thinking about a 2021 mayoral run, as Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park criticism has less weight, and friendly relations with powerful developers can be helpful.

But her posture - perhaps a lapse or poor political judgment - still seems strange. (She declined comment, in response to my queries.) Had James looked on my blog or sources like Atlantic Yards Watch or Instagram (see the #bciza tag), problems faced by arena neighbors have been amply documented.

It's precisely her responsibility, as Public Advocate, to serve as a watchdog over the city agencies that have failed to curb, say, illegal parking or construction activities that spill out blocks from the project.

While James understandably supports "affordable housing," the devil's in the details. James was critical of some of that housing, for example, challenging the developer regarding the percentage of family-sized units, lower than promised, in the first tower under construction, the lottery for which just opened up.

She did appear at the December 2012 groundbreaking for that tower but was not quoted in any press release, and has stayed out of December 2014 and June 2015 press releases saluting two "100% affordable" towers. In other words, she had until recently kept her distance.

Beyond a focus on her next campaign, perhaps James has been influenced by Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a Brooklyn nonprofit, who was de Blasio's nominee to the City Planning Commission, and remains James' representative.

De la Uz in 2014 helped negotiate a new timetable to deliver the 2,250 Atlantic Yards affordable housing units by 2025 rather than 2035. (That's faster than the previously extended timetable, of 2035, but a ten-year buildout had been touted when the project went through approvals in 2006 and then 2009.)

That was progress, but de la Uz downplayed the fact that two "100% affordable" towers that came out of that deal skewed toward middle-income households earning six figures and were less affordable - in terms of incomes served - than the developer long pledged. De la Uz and allies in the BrooklynSpeaks coalition had actually once criticized that original configuration as not affordable enough.

Today, de la Uz and allies likely have James' ear more than those bearing the brunt of Atlantic Yards impacts. But the Daily News series, as well as my coverage of a public meeting in mid-April, detailed continued frustration from neighborhood residents, as the harassment victim pointed out how state officials, in a report to an Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park advisory board, had downplayed the harassment. The developer did say it would roll out a color-coded ID system to make it easier to recognize construction workers.

Similar political calculations may be at play for James's successor on the Council, Laurie Cumbo, who in the wake of the Daily News series was curiously silent. After all, Cumbo chairs the Council's Committee on Women’s Issues and has regularly spoken out about issues of sexual violence, including those affecting women and girls in Nigeria.

During her Council campaign, Cumbo did criticize Atlantic Yards, but soon adopted a wishy-washy posture; she's regularly praised the below-market housing without reference to its actual affordability. Had a less powerful constituent than the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park developer been connected to the harassment, I have to think Cumbo would have been less cautious.

Though Cumbo did not respond to an April 18 request for comment, after she was informed that this article was in the works, she sent a statement Wednesday that, among other things, cited her work on women’s issues, including “legislation that will raise awareness to prevent sexual harassment and assault.” She noted that venues in the district had brought more traffic and thus quality of life issues, and that in recent weeks there has been “greater visibility on the need to address sexual harassment within our community.” She said that New Yorkers face “cat calls, lewd gestures, inappropriate language and unwarranted comments about the physical characteristics of their bodies” and that “in the City of New York, these acts will not be tolerated."

Her statement, interestingly enough, didn’t acknowledge the victim but indicated respect for the developer. “I want to acknowledge Ashley Cotton, SVP of External Affairs, Forest City Ratner Companies for working with the NYPD, Barclays Center, contractors, and unions to implement several measures including a color-coded identification system for its workers to improve accountability and a guest code of conduct for Islanders games to enhance public safety,” Cumbo wrote. “These preliminary steps are indicative of our collective commitment to fostering a safe environment for women, the LGBTQ community, and countless others who deserve to freely commute.”

Fewer than 90 minutes later, Cumbo circulated to her mailing list an announcement about the application process for 461 Dean, the first Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park affordable housing tower.

Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder writes the watchdog blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report.

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James Takes Softer Stance on Atlantic Yards Tue, 03 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
The New Yorker's Guide To The New City Government CityHall2

Photo by Bill Alatriste/City Council

NEW YORK — The historic overhaul of New York City government this year goes well beyond the mayor's office.

There are 21 new members of the City Council, four new borough presidents, and fresh, yet familiar, faces in the offices of Brooklyn district attorney, comptroller, and public advocate. With the city’s politics taking an increasingly liberal turn, there are few outright conservatives left in city government.

“Reapportionment and term limits combined to make the City Council younger, a little bit further to the left, perhaps less a product of traditional political organizations or machines, and demographically, a little more like the population of the city,” said Kenneth Sherrill, Chair of the Political Science Department at Hunter College.

New city officials include the first Mexican-American on City Council; old friends of incoming Police Commissioner Bill Bratton from his tenure during the 1990s; yet another member of the Queens Vallone clan; and a progressive new Brooklyn D.A., who has said he wants to re-train the borough's police officers. We've rounded up the full list here.



Bill de Blasio - De Blasio has been involved in New York City politics since he helped the last progressive mayor, David Dinkins, get elected in 1989. Between that first campaign and his mayoral victory, De Blasio served as the regional director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helped Hillary Clinton get elected to the U.S. Senate, spent eight years representing some of Brooklyn’s wealthier neighborhoods on the City Council, and, most recently, served as the city’s public advocate. In an attempt to deliver on a key campaign promise early on, De Blasio has spent the last few weeks drumming up support in Albany for a small tax on the wealthy to fund universal pre-K. Dinkins, somewhat ironically and extremely publicly, recently told him to reconsider, saying “we might have more success” with a commuter tax.


Scott Stringer - Stringer left his post as Manhattan Borough President and took on former Gov. Elliot Spitzer in order to ascend to this quietly powerful office overseeing city finances. He brings with him experience as a trustee of the massiveNYCERS pension fund and a track record of spearheadingpopulist economic initiatives, including the New York City Taxpayer Receipt, a website that allows constituents totrack their tax dollars.

Public Advocate

Letitia "Tish" James - James has served Central Brooklyn on the City Council since 2003 and has opposed several major development and rezoning projects, including Atlantic Yards, which, for years, riled up residents around what is now the Barclays Center. Most recently, James joined progressive groups in calling for higher wages and a change in the city’s economic development policies, including more stringent requirements for banks and corporations that receive city subsidies.

Borough-wide offices

Brooklyn District Attorney

Kenneth P. Thompson - Thompson had tobeat incumbent Charles Hynes twice - first, in the primary, when Hynes was a Democrat, and again when Hynes became a Republican for the general election. In anacceptance speech, the first black Brooklyn DA said voters had chosen him as an alternative to "false accusation, fear-mongering, and race-baiting." As a federal attorney, Thompson prosecutedpolice brutality in Brooklyn and now aims to reduce false arrests byassigning prosecutors to police precincts in East New York and Brownsville. “It is not right to have someone subjected to stop-and-frisk, snake through the system and spend two days in jail just to get out," hetold the Daily News.

Brooklyn Borough President

Eric Adams (D, WF) - Counted as anold friend by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, Adams served 22 years in the NYPD before moving on to the State Senate, where he has represented Crown Heights, Flatbush, Sunset Park and Park Slope for the last eight years. A vocal critic of former Commissioner Ray Kelly when stop-and-frisk was on trial, Adams advocates for a "symbiotic relationship" between the police and the community.

Manhattan Borough President

Gale Brewer (D) - Brewer has been a Council member for the Upper West Side and North Clinton since 2002. Her most recent political efforts include a push tomake food trucks greener and to get the city toseek federal funding to expand CitiBike.

Queens Borough President

Melinda Katz (D) - Katz represented Forest Hills, Rego Park, Kew Gardens and other pockets of Queens during her seven-year tenure on the City Council between 2002 and 2009. While on the Council, she was chair of the land use committee, and played a key role in moving forward the massive rezoning the city underwent during the Bloomberg administration.

Staten Island Borough President

James Oddo (R) - After 15 years on the City Council, Oddo is passing his title of Republican minority leader on to fellow Staten Island politician Vincent Ignizio. When it comes to Sandy relief, Oddosupports an "acquisition for redevelopment" plan that would buy out homeowners, open Midland Beach up to developers, and give former residents the option of moving back in.

City Council


Corey Johnson (D) - D3 - Hell's Kitchen, Chelsea, West Village- Johnson, a prominent activist in the LGBT community, will take outgoing Speaker Christine Quinn's seat. Johnson most recently served as Chair of Community Board 4, which also made him aboard member of the Hudson Yards Development Corp. Johnson built much of his campaign around affordable housing, but has been thesubject of controversy as a former employee of GFI Development Co., which has erected its fair share of Brooklyn condos.

Ben Kallos (D) - D5 - Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island - Kallos, a lawyer and lifelong Upper East Sider, advocated for state constitutional reform as the Executive Director of the groupEffectiveNY and has put the issues of government accountability and transparency at the forefront of his campaign. He has also pledged to try toaid local businesses affected by the interminable Second Avenue subway construction.

Hellen Rosenthal (D) - D6 - Upper West Side and North Clinton - Rosenthal, who is coming from a post in the City Hall Budget Office, has been amajor supporter of participatory budgeting and has advocated bringing it to her district, where, in the past, she served as Chair of Community Board 7.

Mark Levine (D, WF) - D7 - parts of Morningside Heights, Hamilton Heights/West Harlem, Manhattan Valley, Washington Heights, and part of UWS - Over the course of his uptown political career, Levine founded the Barack Obama Democratic Club of Upper Manhattan and a credit union called the Neighborhood Trust. He also briefly ran the New York chapter of the controversial Teach for America program, of which he was an early participant. Levine's proposals for city schools includeexpanding the curriculum to teach about LGBT history, animal welfare, and environmental issues.


Laurie Cumbo (D) - D35 - Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, and part of Bedford Stuyvesant - Cumbo is best known in Brooklyn for her leadership and expansion ofMoCADA, the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts, and other cultural programs she has jump-started. But Cumbo has had a rough start as a Council member. She already had toapologize to her new constituents for racially chargedcomments she made about the 'knockout attacks' in Crown Heights last month.

Robert Cornegy, Jr. (D) -D36- Bedford Stuvesant and parts of Crown Heights - Cornegy is transitioning from a position as Legislative Analyst for the Council's Aging and Veterans Committee. The former district leader and president of VIDA, Central Brooklyn's Vanguard Independent Democratic Association,eked out a primary win in a race that ended with a highly contested recount.

Rafael Espinal, Jr. (D) - D37- Cypress Hills, Bushwick, East New York, City Line, Ocean Hill, Brownsville - Two years ago, Espinal, then 27, became the youngest member of the State Assembly, representing District 54. Most recently, hesponsored legislation related to domestic abuse and, in the past, has sponsored bills that would require insurance companies to expand women's health coverage. Espinal has said he is determined to repair the infrastructure in neighborhoods that have been "completely ignored" by the city, like Cypress Hills, where he grew up.

Carlos Menchaca (D) - D38 - Bayridge Towers, Greenwood Heights, Red Hook, Sunset Park, Windsor Terrace - Menchaca'srelief efforts in Red Hook following Hurricane Sandy helped him get the support he needed to beat his district's incumbent. Now, he and incoming Council Member Mark Treyger want tostart a Sandy relief committee on the City Council. Proudly claiming the dual titles of "first Mexican-American on the City Council" and "first openly gay legislator in Brooklyn," Menchaca cut his teeth in the offices of outgoing Borough President Marty Markowitz and outgoing Speaker Christine Quinn.

Inez Barron (D) - D42 - NEIGHBORHOODS - In her five years representing State Assembly District 60, Barron hastaken a progressive stance on issues from gun regulation to sex education. She alsofought to end mayoral control of city schools after a decades-long career as a public school teacher and administrator. Barron's more incendiary husband, Charles, is passing her the torch in their Council district.

Alan Maisel (D) - D46 - Canarsie, Mill Basin, Marine Park, Bergen Beach, Gerritsen Beach, part of Sheepshead Bay - Environmental issues and public safety, including 'fracking' regulation, have been prominent among the legislation Maisel hassponsored in his tenure serving State Assembly District 59. Much of Maisel's civic work in Brooklyn has been done through the international Jewish organization B'nai B'rith, although he has also served on his local school and community boards.

Mark Treyger (D) - D47 - Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Coney Island, and Sea Gate - After Superstorm Sandy hit, Treyger founded STRONG, the Sandy Task Force Recovery Organized by Neighborhood Groups, and is now joining forces with fellow incoming Council Member Carlos Menchaca to call fora Sandy relief committee on the City Council. Treyger, long active in local politics, has been a high school teacher since 2005, with strong involvement in the United Federation of Teachers.

Chaim Deutsch (D) - D48 - Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach, and Brighton Beach - Over the past 20 years, Deutsch, who has a strong foothold in Brooklyn's Jewish community, has taken community safety into his own hands as president of the Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol. He founded the Patrol in the early 1990s in response to rising crime and has worked closely with both Commissioner Bill Bratton and outgoing police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Deutsch even held an appreciation ceremony for Kelly, during which hepresented the city’s top cop with a mezuzah, which Jews hang in their doorways for protection. He alsopraised Bratton for having "excelled at police-community relations and law enforcement strategies" during his previous tenure on the NYPD.

Antonio Reynoso - D34 - Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn; Ridgewood in Queens - Reynoso is taking the seat of his former boss, Councilwoman Diana Reyna, who he has been working for since 2007, most recently as her Chief of Staff. A Williamsburg native, Reynoso has made affordable housing his top issue, speaking out frequently about the neighborhood's luxury makeover. He beat out a seasoned politician, former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who was forced out of the Assembly earlier this year following a sexual harassment case.


Paul Vallone, Jr. (D) - D19 - College Point, Auburndale-Flushing, Bayside, Whitestone, Bay Terrace, Douglaston, and Little Neck - Leaving his practice at Queens law firm Vallone and Vallone to take a seat on the City Council, Vallone seems to be leaving onefamily business for another. His father, former Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr., served on the City Council for 25 years, leaving in 2001, when his brother, Peter, Jr., was elected to represent the 22nd District (his term is up this year). Beyond his family ties, Vallone has established thousands of dollars in scholarship funds for Queens high school students and based his campaign platform on a mix of progressive issues — such as women's access to birth control — and local issues like noise pollution from overhead flights.

Costa Constantinides (D) - D22 - Astoria, Long Island City, part of Jackson Heights, Rikers Island, Randalls Island, and Wards Island - In the district that includes the city's largest jail, Constantinides earned valuable campaign support from the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association. Constantinides aims to reduce both crime and unemployment by hiring more police officers. He has also been active in the fight for voter rights throughout the state as a member of the New York Democratic Lawyers Council, and says it's time to dump thehundreds of outdoor trailer classrooms” that are disproportionately found in Queens schools.

Rory Lancman (D) - D24 - Briarwood, Fresh Meadows, Hillcrest Estates, Hillcrest, Jamaica Estates, Jamaica Hills, Kew Gardens Hills, Utopia Estates, and parts of Forest Hills, Flushing, Jamaica and Rego Park - When Lancman attempted to run for Anthony Weiner's old seat in Congress last year,WNYC reported that he had made some enemies and that one source had even called him the "most hated member of the state Assembly." Lancman, a lawyer who served Assembly District 25 for six years, has also passed a significant volume of legislation, including theLibel Terrorism Protection Act, which aims to protect journalists writing about terrorism abroad from being hit with defamation lawsuits, and a host of bills related to equality andsafety in the workplace.

Daneek Miller (D) - D27 - St. Albans, Hollis, Cambria Heights, Jamaica, Baisley Park, Addisleigh Park, and parts of Queens Village, Rosedale, and Springfield Gardens - In December, Millerreceived a "Champion of Labor" Award, along with Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James. In Southeast Queens, where subway service is spotty, Miller has championed bus drivers and riders as president of the local chapter of the Amalgamated Transportation Union. He also co-founded a mentor program called Brothers Unlimited.


Andrew Cohen (D) - D11 - Kingsbridge, Riverdale, Woodlawn, Norwood, and parts of Bedford Park, Wakefield, and Bronx Park East - Cohen, a Riverdale attorney, has had a long career in law, including several years as a court attorney to a Bronx Supreme Court Justice, legal counsel to State Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz, and a stint as an assistant adjunct at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He has called for raising the minimum wage and has gained the support of the United Federation of Teachers.

Ritchie Torres (D) - D15 - Bathgate, Belmont, Crotona, Fordham, East Tremont, Van Nest and West Farms - Torres, only 24, is one of many young Latino Democrats making their way into city politics. He has worked with Councilman James Vacca since his 2005 campaign and was named his housing director in 2011. Torres, who grew up in NYCHA housing, has worked to create tenants' associations and to advocate for basic rights of NYCHA residents in the Bronx, like building improvements andheating.

Vanessa Gibson (D) - D16 - West Bronx, Morrisania, Highbridge, and Melrose - A Bronx transplant from Brooklyn, Gibson was elected to State Assembly District 77 in 2009, where she has focused on housing and social services. She began her political career as the Bronx district office manager for Assemblywoman Aurelia Greene.

Staten Island

Steven Matteo (R) - D50 - in Brooklyn, parts of Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, and Bath Beach; in Staten Island, Arrochar, Bulls Head, Concord, Dongan Hill, Emerson Hill, Fort Wadsworth, Grant City, Graniteville, Grasmere, Island of Meadows, Midland Beach, New Dorp, Prall's Island, Richmondtown, South Beach, Todt Hill, Travis, Westerleigh, Willowbrook - Sandy relief is still the number one priority in Staten Island, but Matteo has identified other issues affecting residents, including rampantprescription drug use. Matteo also said hehopes to work with the mayor  "to wrestle toll setting authority” from the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

This is an updated version which corrects the number of incoming City Council members to 21 and adds information on Councilman Antonio Reynoso.

The New Yorker's Guide To The New City Government Tue, 31 Dec 2013 16:55:08 +0000