Thursday, December 25, 2008

Our Reasons to Love New York Magazine and Elected Politicians

We are going to start this piece by saying a few appreciative things about New York magazine and the proceed with a segue to discuss what will be necessary for us to say appreciative things about our New York politicians.

New York Magazine: Loving Something They Love

In one of its end-of-the-year-round-up special issues New York magazine just featured 59 “Reasons to Love New York.” As has been widely reported, one of those reasons, (#14- the Valentine Numbers?) is the non-building and non-success of the proposed Atlantic Yards megadevelopment. (For the original NYM piece see: 14. Because Sometimes Immense, Gratuitous, Noncontextual Acts of Real-estate Ego Don’t Pan Out . . . by Robert Kolker Published Dec 14, 2008. For some of the reporting on it the article see: No Land Grab: December 15, 2008, Reasons to Love New York 2008, New York magazine, by Robert Kolker, Tuesday, December 16, 2008, NY Mag: "Because Sometimes Immense, Gratuitous, Noncontextual Acts of Real-estate Ego Don’t Pan Out…" and The Brian Lehrer Show / December 18, 2008 / He (Hearts) New York. )

Some of New York magazine’s thoughts about why this is a reason to love New York:

They say New York is the place where your greatest dreams can come true. Of course, it’s also a place where those dreams can die on the vine. Take Atlantic Yards. Lending new meaning to the term noncontextual, Bruce Ratner’s $4.2 billion, 22-acre combination of residential towers and office buildings, anchored by a basketball arena for the Nets, was supposed to completely transform downtown Brooklyn—with seemingly little thought given to what it might do to the already paralyzed intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.

* * * *

. . . Ratner has reportedly laid off workers, and he’s admitted he won’t build anything other than the arena without an anchor tenant for the tallest building. Five years ago, Gehry said what he really wanted was the chance “to build a neighborhood from scratch in an urban setting.” At the moment, the old neighborhood is winning. Score two points for entropy.
Pursuing all the 59 reasons to love New York, this was the only one we could spot that was based on something that is NOT happening. Maybe the closest to it is reason number 3, which is that New York is taking back its streets for pedestrian use. (See: 3. Because Robert Moses Would Have a Coronary If He Were to See Our Streets Now, By Justin Davidson Published Dec 14, 2008.) In this regard we should note that if Atlantic Yards were to happen as proposed, its design involves a strike against the public in that the developer would be taking over for his private benefit public streets, avenues and sidewalks.

New York Magazine as a Resource

New York magazine is a great resource. They publish a wide range of views. The reliability of their guidance may be undermined by a tendency to go for quick, snarky comments, but in the end they contribute valuably with some comprehensive reporting. For instance, we found they provided valuable resources when we were evaluating the World Trade Center site redevelopment. (See: Tuesday, August 5, 2008, TWO, AND FRO?)

Two examples of the snarkily-off-base are in the same list of 59 reasons to love New York: the overly-clever suggestions that Mayor Bloomberg is to be loved as a masochist or that his baseball stadiums are to be loved as example of ill-considered multi-million excess and squandering. (See: 12. Because Our Mayor Is a Self-Regarding Masochist, by Chris Smith, Dec 14, 2008 and 27. Because Our New Stadiums Are Perversely Perfect Symbols of the City Right Now by Chris Smith, Dec 14, 2008 )

New York Magazine’s Greatest Atlantic Yards Service

We can’t write about the value of New York magazine without writing about the cover story they did on Atlantic Yards for their August 7, 2006 issue, with their “Ratzilla” “Battle for the Soul of Brooklyn” cover. (See: Mr. Ratner’s Neighborhood, Manipulative developers, shrill protesters, and a sixteen-tower glass-and-steel monster marching inexorably forward. What the battle for the soul of Brooklyn looks like—from right next door, By Chris Smith Published Aug 7, 2006.)

This cover story was where some people, including ourselves, were introduced to our first credible account of the Atlantic Yards tale. I was still responsible for legal affairs at the state finance authorities. We subscribe to New York magazine (basically since it was in its fledgling incarnation as part of the World Journal Tribune) but I had not read the story. It was brought to my attention in the office by other agency professionals. It was brought into my office noting that I would almost certainly find it a cause for alarm. Even then I did not read the story right away. When I did, I was quite concerned. It got may attention. I kept researching afterward. And there was lots worth researching. There is no better site for deep research on the subject than Atlantic Yards Report. The New York magazine piece was a wonderful initial introduction and overview.

While there was some alarm on the part of professionals at the agency, there was another point of view available. From a technical standpoint the project seemed so harebrained that it could be predicted that it would never succeed. Harebrained, yes, but I think this pont of view could have been more of a protective denial mechanism against ever having to worry that, as a public servant, one might become responsible for something so publicly damaging. I, for one, suffered enormous angst and hoped that a new gubernatorial administration would come in with greater sense to put things on track. Thankfully, the project never came before the staff of the agencies before I left public service and we never had to deal with the project as public servants.

A Pre-PACB Approval Conversation with Councilman David Yassky: New York Times Vs. New York Magazine

One regret I had after the New York magazine article led me to become better informed was that I missed the opportunity to give our representative City Council Member David Yassky timely advice on the project. I remember being at a party one December long before the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) and other approvals were in place. Councilman Yassky was earnestly looking for advice and reactions to the project. We discussed it with him briefly as a constituent and neighboring Brooklyn Heights resident. Unfortunately, all our information about the project up until then had come from the New York Times, which was inadequately reporting the reality of the project. The Times has still not caught up with its responsibilities and though it has occasionally run some good stories since it has a lot to make up for. It is not only a question of whether you report the news well, but when you report it well. The most important time for the Times to have been reporting well about the project was before initial approvals like the PACB’s were in place.

It was also unfortunate that we assumed that other public servants who were working on Atlantic Yards were adequately performing their jobs. That was an incorrect assumption.

As such, we did not sound the alarm with Mr. Yassky. We expressed some concerns about how bad sports arenas are for central city locations (cf. Madison Square Garden) and wondered about the exact location being picked for the arena, but mostly we missed the slew of issues that should have been brought up. The Times let us down and we, in turn, let down Mr. Yassky. Thank you, New York magazine for doing the job the Times did not do.- - Just a little too late.

We have since that time been vigilant in keeping Yassky apprized of where he should be in terms of Atlantic Yards.

Yassky and Atlantic Yards this Week

This Monday evening we had another conversion with David Yassky about Atlantic Yards when we ran into him. We told him that we want to do a Noticing New York interview with him on the subject of how people can make up for the fact that the City Council term limits extension vote is a net negative and setback in terms of properly ending Atlantic Yards. Yassky with his affirmative vote on the term limits extension is importantly among those responsible for this setback. (Our mention of an interview was actually a reminder because we had previously left a message with his office to this effect.) As it was, we began to discuss the subject right then and there.

Councilman Yassky suggested that some confidence could be put in the notion that Atlantic Yards was no longer a threat because the economy was killing it. I expressed concern that until it was truly killed there was continuing concern and that the developer, Forest City Ratner, would no doubt be trying to lure the Obama administration into the grave mistake of finding funding for this project. (We think that the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment is representative of the kind of thing that caused the current economic crisis and is certainly not its cure. More on this later in another piece.)

Yassky asked us why we thought the term limits vote was a problem for Atlantic Yards. We said because Bloomberg is a problem for Atlantic Yards. (We didn’t mention Marty Markowitz, who is less of an issue compared to Bloomberg.) Yassky suggested that Bloomberg had little to do with it. He suggested that Governor Paterson should be exercising his ability to pull the plug on the project. We disagreed that Bloomberg is not central to the problem. We pointed out that, if Bloomberg were not supporting the project the plug would already have been pulled. For instance, the project can’t go forward without housing subsidies. I noted that the state agencies (where I used to work), while they are state not city agencies, would never give subsidies to a project to which the mayor was opposed. The same is true about the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) the agency accountable to Paterson that can now easily pull the plug on Atlantic Yards.

What Yassky should have told me is that earlier that morning he was at a meeting where Forest City Ratner was making a plea to a collected group of elected officials for a redirection of housing subsidies in order to shift affordable housing to earlier phases of the project. (Developer of Atlantic Yards project delays condo plan, by Jotham Sederstrom, Tuesday, December 23rd 2008.) The housing subsidies Forest City Ratner wants can also come from the city housing agencies such as the New York City Housing Development Corporation. In fact they may probably come from the city agencies if they are awarded. The mayor has substantial control over what those city agencies do. Ergo, back to our original point. The term limits extension vote and Bloomberg are a problem in putting the stake in the heart of Atlantic Yards. (BTW: A “delayed” building of the condos doesn’t mean that fewer condos and more rental housing would be built, only that in a poor economy Ratner wants to more subsidy diverted to him sooner.)

We still want to do the interview with Councilman Yassky about how the negative effect of the term limits can be countered. (Bloomberg is a problem on other things too: Not only on the 30-35 acre monopoly Bloomberg wants Forest Ratner to have in the Atlantic Yards area, but also the swaths of the city Bloomberg is handing out in other areas like Willets Point and the West Harlem Neighborhood being given to Columbia.)

The Daily News story that reported on the Monday meeting of elected officials with the Forest City Ratner officials looking for a handout ended with a Yassky quote:

"I don't believe the project approved by the state is going to be going forward anytime soon," said Yassky. "Forest City Ratner should return the taxpayer dollars, and start talking about what actually can be built."
Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn commenting on that article, said, “We second that thought Councilman Yassky.”

Reclaim the Project: No Entitlements

We do not wholly second the Yassky thought. While we do think that "Forest City Ratner should return the taxpayer dollars,” we do not think it should be up to Forest City Ratner to be “talking about what actually can be built." It is up to our public officials to be talking about what should be built. The plug should be pulled. The project should be taken away from Forest City Ratner and a properly conceived and designed project that is actually bid out should be built by multiple developers, preferably, Forest City Ratner not among them.

Atlantic Yards Report ran a story today about how Forest City Ratner is speaking in terms of its being entitled to build Atlantic Yards (and by definition being entitled to a decades-long 30+ acre monopoly on this section of Brooklyn). (See: Wednesday, December 24, 2008, Who's in control? Forest City and the indirect subsidy value of its "entitlements.") Fact is, no one is proposing to build what was ever “approved,” there are no commitments from Ratner and there are no entitlements. (In fact, “entitlements” is a just a made up term. It stands for nothing legal and, at best, a claim upon politicians not the public.) The plug ought to be pulled now and the public funds should be retrieved just as Mr. Yassky says. Then perhaps Mr. Yassky can, as a candidate for City Comptroller, subsequently as City Comptroller Elect and then as City Comptroller start plugging those figures back into the city budget so they can be spent appropriately.

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