Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What’s Up At Dock Street, Really?

City Council Members Eric Gioia and David Yassky held a press conference Saturday morning on their continuing investigation into the proposed Walentas Dock Street project in DUMBO proposed to be built where it will block views of the Brooklyn Bridge. We try to avoid press release journalism but the Gioia and Yassky press conference was so on-target we’d like to report precisely what they said. They made it clear we have plenty of reason to be alarmed by the conduct of city administration officials and the kind of backroom dealing they are apparently willing to engage in to manipulate favored real estate deals through the approval process.

And to be fair, we will also acquaint you extensively with the thinking of a (possibly now erstwhile) proponent of the Dock Street project who came to the press conference that will, appropriately, give us the opportunity to discuss some related things about the Atlantic Yards mega-boondoggle.

The “Bundle” Bungle

When we first wrote about the Dock Street project we directed ourselves to the inappropriate bundling of the project together with a middle school:

Is there wisdom to the bundling of these decisions? Does the bundling enhance each choice or just cause each choice to be suspect? Shouldn’t we now ask, if the building is a good size, shape and height, if it has to be “sold” to the public by incorporating a school? Is the school really good planning or the one that the public actually wants if it is being tacked-on to “sell” a project of a likely unwanted size, shape and height?
(See: Wednesday, February 4, 2009, Reject the “Bundle” Bungle: Saying “No” to Walentas Dock Street Project Next to the Brooklyn Bridge. For more see: Saturday, March 14, 2009, At the City Planning Commission Hearings on Proposed Dock Street Project: A Reprise.)

From Faustian to Foxily Faux

The New York Times had already referred to this approval of a school conditional on allowing a developer to build a project of extra height as “a Faustian bargain.”Councilman Gioia, when we talked with him at the end of the press conference, referred to it more accurately as a “false choice.” The point of the press conference was to focus on the fact that internal e-mails of the School Construction Authority disclose that the SCA was clearly manipulating to put the school into the Dock Street project in order to get the project approved. Absent using the school as a sweetener to get the project approved, it seems clear the SCA wasn’t interested in providing a school or acknowledging that it was needed. The SCA did, however, think it expedient to perform a charade of pretending to consider other sites presented to it so it could pretend that it had done a cost-benefit analysis.

This is from the New York Post:

. . . while the SCA says it looked at other sites to ensure the most cost-effective school is built, documents suggest otherwise.

For instance, an e-mail dated Dec. 8 from SCA Executive Director Lorraine Grillo to another staffer shows the lack of attention a Water Street site suggested by Yassky actually received compared to the Walentas' plan for nearby Dock Street in DUMBO.

"Now I know that if we don't do the Walentas project that we don't really want to do anything else over there, but I think we have to follow up on this just so we can say that the Walentas project is such a good deal," the e-mail says.
(See: Dumbo Stumble, E-mail Shows Fix Was In: Pol, by Rich Calder, April 1, 2009.)

Yassky and Gioia

David Yassky is the City Councilman in whose district the project would be and although he is opposing the Dock Street project, he has also been asking for a new middle school for some time. It was his office’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request that turned up the smoking gun e-mails. Eric Gioia is a member of City Council land use and zoning committee that will vote on this project. He got involved in the investigation when he grilled SCA Vice President Ross Holden about the e-mails at a City Council hearing on the project. (See: City Council Troubled by Dock Street Project, by Ben Muessig, May 22, 2009.)

It is worth mentioning that Mr. Yassky and Mr. Gioia are running, respectively for the positions of City Comptroller and Public Advocate, both positions where an ability to pay attention to numbers, to question ostensible versus true purpose, and to investigate effectively will be critical attributes.
Mr. Gioia’s Eloquence

Here is what Mr. Gioia had to say at the press conference Saturday:

I am here for a very simple reason. The day before the hearing on this issue I was presented with a package on this issue including some e-mails that I found incredibly disturbing. When I saw these e-mails I knew I had to act. Very simply, government is not supposed to act one way in private and another way in public. It is that kind of conduct that drains people’s confidence and faith in the honesty of government. It is that kind of behavior that drives people away from the process. When good people walk away from government, who walks onto the playing field but lawyers and lobbyists and special interests and we are all worse because of that. The overarching goal of elected officials in this city really has to be to rebuild people’s faith in our process, to rebuild people’s faith in government. All government is a way to stay working together, overcoming superficial differences by common values, common goals and to grow in the same direction.

When people begin to smell something funny, when people begin to see e-mails between government officials that say, in essence, that they are going to deceive elected officials and then the community, that is the sort of thing that turns people off from government. These e-mails raise some very serious questions about the School Construction Authority. These are questions the School Construction Authority has an absolute obligation to answer before this project moves forward. The integrity of this process has been tainted by these e-mails. These e-mails would lead a reasonable person to believe that this middle school was designed simply to justify a real estate deal and that is wrong.

The School Construction Authority in their testimony before the City Council told me, `Councilman, you’re wrong, that’s not what this is about and we have evidence that shows that those e-mails are out of context.’ At that hearing I asked for those e-mails to be produced. They told me that they had them at the ready. I suggested that if they had them ready they could provide them at the end of the day. Well, a week went by and we didn’t hear from the School Construction Authority. A few more days went and we did not hear from the School Construction Authority. So yesterday I contacted them and I said `I’m a really fair guy. If you’ve got evidence that shows that these e-mails would portray things falsely, please provide them. And so my office actually went down and picked up the package of information the School Construction Authority had prepared for me. I read the e-mails yesterday afternoon. I read the entire package last night and I did not find a single thing to refute the e-mail that I raised at the City Council.
And so I will say this. The School Construction Authority and the city government, the city has an obligation to clear the air in this situation. If they have exculpatory evidence then they should make that clear and if they don’t then this project has to be stopped. Because this is exactly,- this is exactly- the way the government is NOT supposed to work. And I will say that there have been times in my neighborhood when there have been projects in my neighborhood and there have been two sides and vigorous opposition. And that’s OK and the truth is that everyone can’t always agree and sometimes government won’t make the right decision and there is no promise that we can always fix that. But what we have to promise is that there be an open, transparent and accountable system. And when that fails we need to go back to the drawing board and start over again. And that, to me, is what this is all about.
Mr. Yassky: A Proposition on Proving Our Worst Suspicions

Councilman Gioia handed off to David Yassky who said:

I just want to remind everyone here, particularly the journalists and people who are here today, about some of the history, because four years ago there was a proposal, same owner, same site, same big building right next to the Brooklyn Bridge and the neighborhood stood together and said, on behalf of everyone in the city, in the country, in the world who cares about the Brooklyn Bridge we are going to oppose this project and we got it stopped. That was 2005. And then someone came up with the clever idea that `if we say we will put a school in it well then maybe we can get them to go along with it.’

Now I see a lot of my neighbors and constituents here. I know that you are here, you live in Downtown Brooklyn area. Yes, we need a school. Yes, we want a school. That’s why we have been demanding a middle school from the School Construction Authority for three solid years. We’ve been telling the School Construction Authority that we need a school in Downtown Brooklyn and all they said was NO, you know you’re fine, you don’t need a school.

Well, the developer comes along and says I’ve got an idea, how about this project, how about we put a school in it and all of the sudden the School Construction Authority changes its mind and says yes, we’ll put a school here. And I was wondering: Now why is that? What could explain? Maybe it really is the strength of our advocacy they finally decided even though I hadn’t seen it anywhere else. . . The School Construction Authority decided, yeah, we’re going to listen to a neighborhood about what it really needs.

And then this e-mail comes out. And then this e-mail come out, this e-mail that says in response to us saying here are some other sites where we would rather see a school. We in this neighborhood think, yes, we need a school, here’s the best place for it. Here are three better places for it than right here. And this e-mail comes out that says that if we don’t do the Walentas project we are not going to do a school anywhere nearby here.

Now that is disgusting. And that is very worrisome. Eric Gioia is right: That is government at its very worst. That just confirms people’s worst suspicions about what goes on in the back rooms out of public view.

And when we asked the head of the School Construction Authority what is this? Maybe a month ago now- - I said well, does his e-mail really reflect your position? This is the only place you will do a middle school? - Oh no, that’s not our position. - Well then, how about these other sites? - Oh no, we ‘ve got a problem with this one, a problem with that one, a problem with other one. That e-mail, you know, we are pretending that is not us, but in fact, this is the only place we will look at for a school.

Outrageous! Outrageous! Now the School Construction Authority: I want them on notice, that after we defeat this project in the City Council, they better come back and put a middle school here. Because, if they do not then they will have proved that they were participating in a sham. If the School Construction Authority does not come back and put a school in Downtown Brooklyn after this project goes down then they will have proved that our worst suspicions about them are actually true.

Others spoke afterwards. Gus Sheha, president of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance said, among other things:

The Brooklyn Bridge should not be the pawn in the dirty politics of developers in dubious dealings by city agencies entrusted to protect the taxpaying public.
Another Wired Deal: Speaker Quinn, Katz, Council and Cash

Kristian Roebling great-great-grandson of Washington and Emily Warren Roebling who built the bridge reprised his testimony before the City Council. You can read more about him in this Jim Dwyer piece from the New York Times, About New York: Money and Politics Meet at the Brooklyn Bridge (May 22, 2009). In it Mr. Dwyer writes:

Whatever its merits, the Dock Street development is as wired politically as the bridge is with steel.
As Dwyer explains, it all comes down to money and campaign contributions to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and company:

Just before new rules severely limited campaign contributions by companies doing business with the city, Two Trees accounted for at least $74,250 in donations to the two City Council members with the most power over the development, Speaker Christine C. Quinn and Melinda R. Katz, chairwoman of the Council’s Land Use Committee. The company has also spent about $400,000 lobbying the Council and city agencies

“I think Two Trees is an example of the many developers who are able to wield huge influence by the donations they make,” said Councilman Tony Avella, chairman of the subcommittee on zoning. “The real estate industry donates the most money to elected officials in New York and they control the agenda.” Mr. Avella, who has announced that he is running for mayor, opposes the project.
As we previously wrote, Borough President Marty Markowitz more or less told us that the pending City Council approval for the project was rigged. (See: Sunday, April 26, 2009, Markowitz, McCullough, Me and Other Merry Minions of the Blogosphere.)

Ed Brown and Troop

Here is an unanticipated surprise. We found that one of the most interesting things at the press conference was speaking with Ed Brown. Mr. Brown had led a group to the press conference to demonstrate in favor of the Walentas Dock Street project. We thought if we talked with Mr. Brown we might learn something interesting and we did. For reasons that will become obvious as we provide our account, it is important to note that we spoke to Mr. Brown before the press conference was underway and before Mr. Gioia and Mr. Yassky had made the statements we set forth above.
Perking on Perkins Hearing

Just the day before we had been at Senator Bill Perkins State Senate hearing on Atlantic Yards where there had been extravagantly raucous demonstrators in endeavoring to use noise (steel whistles included) to drown out any thoughtful legislative inquisitiveness about what is really going on with the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment. (See: Friday, May 29, 2009, Today’s State Senate Hearings on Atlantic Yards and Noticing New York Testimony and Monday, June 1, 2009, Negotiating With Your Contractor: The Atlantic Yards As Kitchen Renovation Metaphor.) Thoughtful and considered, Mr. Brown was a much different sort of demonstrator from the disruptors of the proceedings we had encountered at the hearing the day before. (For more thoughts on the Perkins hearing disruptions from the Daily News, see: June 2, 2009, Time to stop bullying at Atlantic Yards.)

Mr. Brown Representing . . .

Mr. Brown is a member of the local Community Board 2, the board responsible for the area into which the Dock Street project is proposed to go. He is the tenants association president for the Ingersoll Housing Development. He explained that he was there with the group that he had bought, residents of public housing, to represent the Ingersoll Houses, the Walt Whitman Houses and also the Farragut Houses. He had heard about the press conference from an e-mail he received. He said that he was there to support the project because it would give the residents of public housing the chance to send their kids to a diverse middle school within the community.

Developments Causing Discomfort, Including Atlantic Yards

A member of Community Board 2 for just over two years Mr. Browns said that he particularly liked to follow issues with respect to development because the residents of public housing were being affected by so much development that was causing discomfort because, with all the development going on in and around the community, residents just didn’t feel that they “were being included in the plans for the future of Downtown Brooklyn.” He said that, Dock Street aside, there was discomfort with the Atlantic Yards project and several other developments that had taken place in their immediate area. By contrast, he said the Walentases had “reached out, this is the first developer who had reached out BEFORE a project, rather than `it’s already there’ - - and then they engage us once we speak in opposition to it.”

The Walentas Approach

He said the Walentases had come to his group prior to the project’s coming up for approval, “for whatever reason” to let them know what the project entailed and the benefits it would have, not only for the community, but for their particular group. He said those benefits would be the middle school and also the affordable housing. He explained that there were many people in affordable housing that were looking to get out of public housing and stay in Downtown Brooklyn and that all the condominiums and all the high-end apartments with unaffordable rents coming to Downtown Brooklyn made the affordable housing component of the project very important.

Mr. Brown said that the Walentases had reached out to the tenants association (perhaps a little more than a year ago) and had come to some of the schools in the area to make presentations about the project. He said that he had been skeptical about the project at first because it was another developer developing in Downtown Brooklyn and had wondered whether his community would benefit in any way. He said it was the “middle school piece . . . that really captured our attention and then the affordable housing piece.” He said that this was something that hadn’t been seen in this area in approximately the past five or six years.

Atlantic Yards Hearing

As previously observed, Mr Brown had volunteered Atlantic Yards as an example of a project that was a particular source of community discomfort. We asked about Senator Perkins’ hearing on Atlantic Yards the day before and Mr. Brown told us that he has also gotten an e-mail about it and that while he had wanted to attend the hearing he had been unable to because of a prior engagement. He said that one of things he was concerned about with Atlantic Yards was affordable housing. (We have more commentary on that below.)

Not Anti-development but Basic Issues and the Overall Health of the City

He explained that his group was not at all anti-development but that a stigma is attached to people in public housing and that he was working to have people understand that the residents are good, hard-working, law-abiding citizens who are not involved in crime or antisocial behavior or conducting themselves in a way that was detrimental to the overall health of the city of New York. He said that not only was new affordable housing important, but jobs also were because Ingersoll and the other housing developments had upwards of 60% unemployment. He said that when people were employed it served to change the dynamics of everything for the better.

Looking Into One of the Main Criticism of Dock Street

We asked Mr. Brown whether he knew that one of the main criticisms of this project was that the community had repeatedly asked for a school, and in fact was doing a lot of work to go out and find sites that were appropriate for schools and had identified a number of them and was being told over and over by the city administration that they were not going to be provided with a school at the same time that e-mail now showed that the city administration was at the same time working to put the school in this project as a sweetener so that a project the community had previously voted down would then be approved for an up-zoning by the community. I asked him if that sounded like a manipulation by the city administration and the developer.

Mr. Brown said that he had been unaware of this and indicated such information was important to understanding the “full dynamics” of what was going on. He said that now being so informed he would have to go back and do some research on the issue, reiterating that one of the main things that had captured the attention of his group was the placement of the school in the project. Mr. Brown’s next thought was to muse on how change reflected by the new Obama administration represented an opportunity to avoid the polarization of the past and to build truly diverse communities. We confirmed with Mr. Brown that while he was in favor of a new school in Downtown Brooklyn, he was not necessarily in favor, subject to investigation, of manipulations to use this school to get an overscaled project approved that was previously disapproved by the community. Said Mr. Brown:

Oh, I can adamantly say that. You know that if there is any manipulation or underhanded moves taking place to make this thing happen I can say that, no, I am not in favor of anything of that nature.

I explained that was one of the things the press conference would be about so there was a reason to listen carefully and that maybe afterward he would have some more thoughts. Mr. Brown was in favor of looking into things. Accordingly, we suggested that proceeding with the e-mail investigation seemed to be just the ticket.

Affordable Housing: Illusive, at Least in the Case of Atlantic Yards

At this point some of the project opponents listening to our exchange spoke up, wanting to make points about how the affordable housing in the Dock Street project (being described just as “below-market rents”) would not be truly affordable. This then caused me to mention how the quote: “affordable housing” at Atlantic Yards for which ACORN is to blame is largely a sham. I mentioned the peculiarity of the middle band “negotiated” by ACORN which would effectively bar people with those incomes from getting the benefit of occupying the project. See the chart below (click to enlarge):

Incomes below the “missing band” in the above chart will be units required in any event by the tax code (so ACORN negotiated no additional benefit there) while the units provided to families in income bands above that level (especially given the MISSING income band) are being provided essentially at or close to market (so, once again, ACORN essentially negotiated no additional benefit there either). This, of course, gets to the heart of the problematic issue of “community benefit agreements” as sham and manipulations. For more on the way in which ACORN sold out the community see the following: Saturday, June 28, 2008, Selling out the Community for Beans (A Giant Wrong) Thursday, July 24, 2008, Falling Acorn! How Far from the Tree? Thursday, April 2, 2009, Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #14: Project Creates Population Diversity? NO Friday, April 10, 2009, As AMI climbs, a significant slice of Atlantic Yards "affordable housing" seems to track market.

We note that as the morning proceeded Mr. Brown and the opponents of the project remained very much engaged in apparently thoughtful, amicable, productive and mutually beneficial discussions exchanging information and thoughts.
(Ed Brown)

Moral of the Immorality

The window afforded by the School Construction Authority e-mails into the level of manipulation in which the Bloomberg administration is willing to engage should be a red flag and clarion call to action. Not only do we need to be able to trust our public officials to live up to a much higher standard but lawsuit after lawsuit (for instance, in the case of Atlantic Yards) hinge on the courts deferring to the notion that these same public officials can be counted upon to act in good faith and an unbiased manner, and that is something we are repeatedly seeing that the Bloomberg administration officials do not do. As the Bloomberg and Paterson administrations are equally responsible for Atlantic Yards, it appears clear we have a severe problem at both city and state levels of government.

There is an increasingly obvious absurdity to the judicial deference our courts are giving to biased public officials who consciously manipulate the public and disregard facts and fairness. (See: Saturday, July 19, 2008, Reality Denied!) When it comes to things such as eminent domain, our courts, by virtue of such absurd deference, are putting the protection of fundamental constitutional rights out of reach of every citizen. Our public officials, who have proved that they are not worthy, would clearly like for no New York resident to ever be able to win an eminent domain case against the government. And yet, against and for whom are the Bill of Rights-based eminent domain provisions of the New York State and federal constitutions meant to afford fundamental protections if not protection for the individual against the government? We look at the Dock Street manipulation and we say: These are the public officials to whom the courts defer and whom they assume act in good faith? It is absolutely time to think again.

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