The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue

Will James Challenge De Blasio on Atlantic Yards?

“For the first time since the office was introduced in 1993, the next public advocate won’t chomp at the mayor’s ankles,” New York Daily News columnist Harry Siegel wrote on October 9. “That’s because [likely Mayor Bill] de Blasio and [likely Public Advocate]Letitia James are both Democrats, and also Working Families Party stalwarts.” Similarly, on October 16, New York Post contributor Stephen Eide suggested that such synchronicity made the Public Advocate’s job “worse than useless.”

Observers wonder how Council Member James will set herself apart from Public Advocate (and former Council Member) de Blasio when both move up in office. Indeed, when asked in a debate to identify an issue on which she differed from de Blasio (whom she endorsed), James demurred. 

Then again, de Blasio might see longtime Atlantic Yards opponent James become a gadfly regarding mayoral support for the Brooklyn mega-development that includes the Barclays Center arena and 16 planned towers, the first of which is belatedly under construction.

But that’s only if James chooses to spend some limited political capital. After all, she’ll no longer be representing those in Brooklyn’s 35th District, which encompasses the 22-acre project in Prospect Heights, but a much larger constituency. And she’d have to show some subtlety, stressing the goal of good government and fiscal prudence over the siren call of “affordable housing.”

Mayor Mike Bloomberg has been a relentless cheerleader for the arena, holding his final State of the City address there last February, and was rewarded by getting use of the building gratis. His agencies have mostly—but not always—fallen in line. 

De Blasio has received some $73,000 in financial support (including bundling) from developer Forest City Ratner and on-the-ground support from the Working Families Party (W.F.P.), which counts New York ACORN as a founder. Former ACORN head Bertha Lewis—who’s still Forest City’s partner on the affordable housing planned for Atlantic Yards—has played a prominent role in his campaign. Forest City Chairman Bruce Ratner, who co-hosted a campaign fundraiser for de Blasio, thinks the Public Advocate would be a “great” mayor.

So de Blasio has steadily, pragmatically supported Atlantic Yards and, when queried in April, rather vaguely said he would “assure” that the affordable housing gets done at the project. He then shifted more comfortably to explain, as if in a stump speech, why he chose to support the project.

In the race for public advocate, James’s main rival, State Sen. Dan Squadron, gained support from Forest City staffers. Given her opposition to the project, James never expected Ratner’s backing—and now she is not beholden to him. Here’s how she might challenge Mayor de Blasio on Atlantic Yards.

1) The Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (C.B.A.). This private contract, signed by developer Forest City Ratner with eight community groups—most of them created after the project emerged—was supposed to “guarantee” jobs and housing.

For the past several years, de Blasio has often touted the C.B.A. and has said “it must be adhered to,” but he’s has avoided opportunities to criticize Forest City for failing to hire the Independent Compliance Monitor required by the C.B.A. James has occasionally mentioned this. She could easily raise the issue from her new platform.

2) City Council scrutiny. James and fellow Brooklyn Council Member, Brad Lander, had pushed for an oversight hearing to look at the project, but were stymied by Speaker Christine Quinn, a Bloomberg ally. Presumably Mayor de Blasio would not welcome a hearing but Public Advocate James could argue the need for a hearing to establish honest facts about the project.

3) Arena tax revenues. Upon the one year anniversary of the Barclays Center, the Daily News quoted unnamed “city officials” as estimating that the arena delivered $14 million in new tax revenues and quoted Bloomberg as saying such numbers confirmed the arena as a “major win.” 

However, the New York City Economic Development Corporation has been unwilling to provide any backing data for that figure. Nor has any governmental agency analyzed how that new tax revenue compares to the direct subsidies and tax breaks the arena received. Public Advocate James could push for transparency.

4) Jobs at the Barclays Center. Bloomberg has happily echoed the developer’s statement that the arena has “2,000 jobs” and a significant number of those hired have been from Brooklyn, and from public housing projects.

However, about 1,900 of those jobs are part-time, and Forest City has resisted revealing the average number of hours, benefits, and take-home pay—figures that likely would confirm those jobs cannot support anyone trying to live independently and/or raise a family. The developer claims the jobs pay a “living wage,” but that concept is premised not only on pay over $10/hour but also on a 40-hour week. A Public Advocate could drill down.

5) Free or discounted land for Atlantic Yards. In 2005, New York City agreed to give away city property and city streets underlying the arena. (The New York City Independent Budget Office, in my analysis, vastly undervalued that gift at $9.7 million.)

What about other city property in the Atlantic Yards site? In 2006, state documents said that such property—the bed of Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenue, adjacent to the arena parking lot—would be acquired “at their fair market appraised value,” paid by Forest City.

In 2009, however, that language was quietly revised. The state noted that such payment could be either the appraisal value or “such other value as shall be agreed to” by the city and the developer. I’ve been unable to discover how much—if anything—Forest City paid for property that could be worth tens of millions of dollars. A more transparent mayor’s office, or more likely a Public Advocate willing to pursue the issue, could explain if this was a giveaway.

6) Forest City’s housing plans. In the housing deal Forest City signed with ACORN, the developer promised that 50 percent of the subsidized housing, in floor area, would be devoted to family sized (two- and three-bedroom) units. 

When the developer unveiled plans for the first tower, the configuration fell far short, with mostly studios and one-bedroom units. Lewis offered no public criticism, but James did. So too did the New York City Housing Development Corporation, which pushed Forest City to increase the number of two-bedroom units, though the configuration still didn’t come close to the promise.

During the campaign, de Blasio, when queried, said he’ll make sure the affordable housing gets done. Does that mean he will push the developer while holding the line on housing subsidies, or will he push for more subsidies to make it easier for Forest City to meet that goal? Will the mayor’s office revise the city policies, as Lewis and others have argued, so the city subsidizes apartments by number of bedrooms rather than by the unit as a whole? (The current policy, obviously, encourages smaller apartments, but Forest City knew the policy when it made its promises.) Could James be a watchdog?

7) Bending Department of Buildings (D.O.B.) rules to help Forest City? According to testimony at a January 2013 City Council hearing James attended, the city D.O.B. bent the rules to allow Forest City to proceed with its innovative modular construction plan—in which finished factory-produced modules arrive at the building site—without the participation of licensed trades workers in the factory.

The D.O.B., according to a lawsuit since filed by contractor groups, at one point circulated a draft document that would have required licensed plumbers and licensed master fire suppression contractors to be part of the modular fabrication process. The draft was never issued, allegedly after intervention by Forest City.

Presumably, the de Blasio administration will continue defending the D.O.B. Would the Public Advocate take a different position?

8) Future assistance for Forest City Ratner. If there’s one thing to expect regarding Atlantic Yards, it’s that the project will change. After all, the architects, timeline, and project configuration have all changed, and financial commitments have been revised.

In a September 2012 profile of company head Ratner, the New York Times cited his “reputation for promising anything to get a deal, only to renegotiate relentlessly for more favorable terms.”

So there surely will be negotiations with the next mayor. For example, will Forest City request assistance to help build the expensive platform over the existing railyard before towers can be built on that segment of the project site? 

On October 11, Forest City announced a tentative deal: Greenland Holdings Group, a Chinese government-owned developer, would buy 70 percent of the remaining Atlantic Yards project, excluding the operating arena and the first tower, now under construction. That should provide Forest City with more capital and make it tougher to argue for more taxpayer support.

Activists in Brooklyn believe that, if the Greenland deal is approved, the state should not only require local officials to have input, but to craft an ongoing role overseeing Atlantic Yards. After all, such officials should aim to balance the project’s cost, impact, and benefits, while Greenland surely cares mostly about earning a profit. It’s likely Forest City would resist new efforts at governance, and its allies, including de Blasio, would follow along. An independent Public Advocate could argue differently.

The ever-changing Atlantic Yards project could be an enduring agenda item for Public Advocate James, who campaigned—almost like a mayor—on broad issues like income inequality and workers’ rights. (There wasn’t even an issues tab on her campaign website.) After all, it should be an easy subject for her to master. 

On the other hand, she owes the Working Families Party for its help in winning the run-off election against Squadron. A major component of the W.F.P., ACORN (and its successors), backs Atlantic Yards. And the W.F.P. helped elect James’s successor in the 35th District, Laurie Cumbo, who has criticized Atlantic Yards but also distinguished herself from James by saying she’s more willing to negotiate with developers. 

Surely James would like to be able to say she’s helped deliver the affordable housing Brooklynites need. But will that housing be at the expense of a fair deal for the public? Atlantic Yards is less a left-right issue—lagging Republican mayoral nominee Joe Lhota actually attacked de Blasio in two debates about failing to deliver the housing, then held a press conference across from the arena—than one of crony capitalism and appropriate oversight.

If James is seeking higher office—and what Public Advocate isn’t—she has ample opportunity to scrutinize Atlantic Yards. And she has, when queried, criticized de Blasio for his solicitude toward the project. But other issues of citywide resonance are likely less fraught. Over the next four years (and beyond), what happens around the Barclays Center will be interesting to watch.


Norman Oder


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues