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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tight deadlines, with little time (or perhaps inclination) to check on, say, whether an old New York Times article was superseded by new information in the mainstream press, or corrected by a blog they don't read.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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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