Sunday, April 26, 2009

Markowitz, McCullough, Me and Other Merry Minions of the Blogosphere

A national news magazine, Newsweek, is on our Noticing New York beat, featuring a story we’ve been covering: Dock Street! And we have Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s comment on this, together with other updates on that story. Dock Street, the tower proposed to be built next to the Brooklyn Bridge, is mostly what this post is going to be about.

First, a little about the setting in which Mr. Markowitz commented on Dock Street.

BP’s Bagels for Brooklyn Bloggers

(Marty Markowitz far left. Norman Oder far right.)

Do you want evidence that blogging is becoming a more important part of the local news? Thursday morning Mr. Markowitz held a Bloggers’ Breakfast at Brooklyn Borough Hall to discuss coverage of local events. We were at a conference table full of other bloggers and on-line journalists. The others, including Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards Report, have already reported on the event and there is even some on-line video of part of the morning, courtesy of the Brooklyn Heights Blog. For a fuller account you might want to start with Atlantic Yards Report, which links to the coverage available from the other bloggers, allowing comparison of a few different takes. (Friday, April 24, 2009, Breakfast with Marty: jousting about budget issues and adding urban planners to community boards.) AYR also has made audio availble. We may return to the morning’s discussions in a follow-up report, but right now our focus is mostly on the development issue of Dock Street.

Present besides ourselves were: Atlantic Yards Report’s Norman Oder, Brownstoner's Jonathan Butler; Flatbush Gardener's Chris Kreussling; Ditmas Park Blog's Liena Zagare; Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn's Louise Crawford; Brooklyn Heights Blog (four people), which is announcing the imminent on-line rollout of something called The Brooklyn Bugle, Self-Absorbed Boomer’s Claude Scales;'s Dan Cavanagh; Pardon Me for Asking's Katia Kelly; and the New York Times “The Local” blogger Andy Newman.

What’s “Off” About Restriction What’s “On” the Record

We bristled a bit when we were asked to consent to a segmenting of the morning into on and off the record portions. Crikey, it’s only just recently we wrote about problems we have with this kind of approach (See: (See: Wednesday, April 15, 2009, Permission to Speak Frankly: How We Know More and Less From Breakfast Interviews With Marisa Lago.) In retrospect, we wish we had screwed our courage to the sticking point and pressed for a majority vote to resist this structuring by Mr. Markowitz’s aides. Hindsight convinces us that going off the record didn’t benefit the bloggers present or serve the public. Also, after reading some of the blogged coverage we are not sure that everything that probably never should have been off the record, actually stayed off the record, putting us in a strange position if we want to comment on that published coverage.

Would it be improper to hint at questions the collected bloggers might have been asked? Or what if we extemporized here to say that whatever the differences between print and on-line journalism might be, defining those differences is a rapidly moving target in a world where things are changing fast. It is sobering to think that the renowned and much revered Gowanus Lounge, created by Bob Guskind, a journalist who shifted into on-line journalism, had only existed for two years when Mr. Guskind died. (Noticing New York is coming up on its first birthday. Brownstoner “went live” in late 2004.) And would we be breaking confidences if we were to extemporize about the relative ethics of on-line journalism and the more traditional print media by pointing out that many bloggers and on-line journalists are raising ethical questions about the (increasingly consolidated) ownership of the larger enterprises and whether objectivity and impartiality is adversely affected by such ownership, as well as who their landlords and business partners are? (See: Tuesday, March 31, 2009, Looking at Things From Another Point of View: Do We See Distinctions That Make A Difference?)

Here are some thoughts about being “off the record” parallel to our own from Dan Cavanagh’s

They divide the meeting into “Off the Record” and “On the Record” Which in my opinion there is never an “On the Record” or “Off the record”. Its just another way That a way that they are used to dealing with regular reporters, its also a way to control try and control the way their information gets out there, because if you violate the sacred rule and don’t play nice, you don’t get any more information.

The “Off the Record” part just consisted of the bloggers going around the room, saying who they were and what they do, which Marty listened to. Then their staff asking questions to clarify or to expand on what we actually do. They were mainly curious about how we accept advertising and who is a paid employee or just a volunteer.
(See: Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz Invites Brooklyn Bloggers for a Discussion.)
Here is Louise Crawford of OTBKB on the subject of going off the record:
I know whatever Marty said was supposed to be off the record but what about all the interesting things the bloggers said? We talked about journalistic ethics, advertising, and the role that blogs play in Brooklyn.

I was impressed and surprised that Marty invited Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards Report to the breakfast. Oder, who describes his blog as "a watch dog blog that offers analysis, commentary, and reportage about Forest City Ratner's planned $4 billion Atlantic Yards project, . . . . Needless to say, there was some tension and even conflict during the event between the two.

But I can't remember if that part was on or off the record.
Face Time

Louise Crawford in OTBKB also offered this observation: “It's always fun to attend blog gatherings because it allows you to put a face to a blogger that you know only on-line.” If you are curious, the collective coverage has quite a few photos of the attendees. The best way to put a face to Noticing New York’s Michael D. D. White is the first photo in the account from Pardon Me for Asking. We can be distinguished by our tie, blue jacket and serious demeanor.

Other On-the-Record Coverage

Atlantic Yards Report has the most thorough coverage of the on-the-record portion of the morning, including Markowitz’s response to an important development issue question: What about endorsing Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s move for more support and resources for community boards. (A related concern discussed by AYR is the independence of individual board members to vote their conscience on a project like Atlantic Yards or Yankee Stadium if it is contrary to what the Borough President wants.) See also AYR’s coverage of the budget for the BBP’s office which relates to the role of the BBP, also discussed by AYR.

As AYR notes, other questions concerned the BP's position on the Gowanus issue, (MM: “I am trying to get a grasp of what it would all mean. Trying to get a handle on it.”), further digitization of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and “the funding of Markowitz's charities by Bloomberg L.P,” which AYR described as our NNY focus with a useful link to our:“Charity?” We Begin to Groan (Monday, October 20, 2008). AYR notes we were told that Markowitz and staff would get back to us on this issue.)

Newsweek’s McCullough “Viewpoint” on Brooklyn Bridge Views and Insight from Marty’s View

That brings us to the question we asked which most directly addressed development in New York: It concerned what is unfolding with respect to the Dock Street project, the tall tower that is proposed to go up in DUMBO next to the Brooklyn Bridge. Despite mounting high profile opposition, the City Planning Commission just approved the project on Wednesday (the day before) with only minor modification. (See: April 22, 2009 DUMBO development: Smaller Dock Street project moves forward, by Ben Muessig, The Brooklyn Paper.) Significantly, the commissioners voted 11-2 in favor of the project despite the fact that Shirley McRae, the commissioner representing Brooklyn, (appointed by Marty Markowitz) voted against the project. Karen A. Phillips, the commissioner appointed by Public Advocate Betsy Gottbaum, also voted against the project. (We remember that Ms. Phillips also courageously voted in opposition to the Columbia University expansion plan’s use of eminent domain.)

We asked for Mr. Markowitz’s reaction to the article about the project, just out in Newsweek, by Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning, historian David McCullough, author of The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. We noted that Newsweek’s cover featured a headline lead-in to the double page spread in the magazine’s interior. Mr. Markowitz is meeting with Mr. McCullough next week. (See the Newsweek article: Viewpoint: A Masterpiece in Jeopardy, The biographer of the great Brooklyn Bridge on how a proposed new building could ruin an icon of American ingenuity.)

Mr. Markowitz offered some interesting observations about the process by which the Walentas’s Dock Street had obtained its approval from the City Planning Commission, including saying that opposition by him to the project, had he offered it, “would have been taken and thrown out the window” and he used interesting slang to describe City Planning Commission Chairman Amanda Burden’s next move after he offered his proposed modification of the project: “Then that got her out and then she `walked the streets’ or whatever she did.” The bottom-line message Mr. Markowitz seemed to be communicating was that while he will meet with Mr. McCullough to “hear him out,” this meeting should not be expected to change something that is on an inevitable political course. Mr. Markowitz refereed a New York Post article for its value in that it “illuminates how the next step may go.” We think a look at the Post’s article makes Mr. Markowitz’s reference ominous.

Here is Mr. Markowitz’s answer at length, after which we will discuss what the Post article portends:

Listen, my Dock Street position - We maximized. . . I chose not to say `no development, no residential development’ it would have been irresponsible because residential development is going to happen. We decided. . . This office took, I can’t tell you how many weeks, to come up with, including walking over that bridge and taking photographs. I mean, really, I wish we had the monies to do like some of the big developers have the money to do. And we came up with a decision that maximized the bridge’s view, maximized the `bowl’ . . Because, listen I sat through close to four hours of hearings upstairs. Over a hundred speakers. I don’t mind telling you . . . everyone of them. And there were certain themes that were coming out. I then went to the Brooklyn Heights Association to talk about it as well.

And I know what he [David McCullough] is going to talk with me about it, obviously, and I share a lot of his concerns. But for me, for instance to have said, `Sorry, I’m against the Walentas proposal:’ It would have been taken and thrown out the window.

So what happened was, that when I came out with my position, Amanda Burden, you know, obviously it prompted her to ah. .then revisit. . because she had to certify, to begin with, her agency, then the Brooklyn Office of City Planning. Then that got her out and then she `walked the streets’ or whatever she did. And then she issued a modest modification, is the best way to put it. Nowhere near mine.

But I will be eager to speak with him. I have met him on a number of occasions. Particularly, the last time was in Fort Greene Park, in fact. And when he visits me I’ll hear him out.

Next, battle now goes to the City Council. That’s where it is. And the Post today, (is it today?), but on-line, had a very interesting story* that I read yesterday and I don’t know if you read it, but I think you ought to. I think that it illuminates how the next step may go.
Prompted by one of his aides to speak about whether the real estate site for which the project is proposed has “as of right”development options, Mr. Markowitz continued:

Right, that’s why I say residential development of a hotel or whatever, and there are those who say, `well, he wouldn’t build a hotel:’ I can’t say that! How do I know?
(* Controversial Dumbo Project Gets Ok: Residents: Building Will Block Bridge Views, By Rich Calder, April 22, 2009.)

Benefits of Post Perspective on Predestination

Here (emphasis provided) is reporting from that Post article to which Mr. Markowitz referred.

Councilman David Yassky, who represents DUMBO, is one of the project's biggest critics. But while the council usually backs the wishes of a local councilman on land use issues, it currently appears divided over the project.

Meanwhile, records show the Walentases' firm, Two Trees Management, spent $409,323 lobbying the city since Jan. 2007, with much of the money going towards trying to sway support for the Dock Street project.

Officials for the company -- including the Walentases – have also dished out $29,700 in campaign donations over this period to Councilwoman Melinda Katz and another $19,800 to Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Katz, a Queens Democrat running for comptroller, heads the council real estate committee, which must eventually decide whether to put Two Trees' request for a necessary zoning change before the full council for final approval.
In other words, it doesn’t look good in terms of the effort to defeat this project.

You can observe from the forgoing a strange alignment that indicates how far the Bloomberg administration is willing to go to honor a deal it has cut with a developer in advance of a public process. Notice that those closest to their local community constituency oppose the project, but they are being overridden by those at a remove who are closer to the Bloomberg administration. A vote from a commissioner purely independent of Bloomberg’s influence like Commissioner Phillips aligns with the community constituency and is in favor of protecting a national monument.

Proof that the Bloomberg administration (at the very highest levels) started its manipulation of the end result far in advance of the public process can be seen in what is coming clearly to light now via FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests: the surreptitious coordination by the School Construction Authority to “bundle” the Walentas Dock Street with a school that the community wants but denying the community that school where it wants it and where it should go.

Bloomberg’s Parochial Partiality to Protecting A Special Developer Deal

We believe that there are times when mayoral influence can be appropriately used to override local community opposition to projects, but we think that those situations are confined to times when a greater public good must be served, such as a prison, transportation network or sewage or trash disposal facility that serves the greater public at large. In the case of the Walentas project the mayor is using his enormous power as mayor (and as the city’s richest resident) to fight for something parochial, a single 18-story tower that benefits only a single developer. The only reason to build this building at this particular site is because the developer owns and controls the site.

McCullough’s View of the Greater Public Good: Stewardship For a Monument to Our National Soul

We think the point of nonparochial view as to what best serves the greater good is expressed by Mr. McCullough in Newsweek, where he calls for us to be stewards of the bridge as a national treasure. A few extracts of his eloquence from the article, which should be read in its entirety:

The most long lasting of great American works, the structure destined "to convey some knowledge of us to remote posterity," said a New York writer long ago, was "not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge." . . .

"The Great Bridge" was news everywhere. It was the moon shot of its time, a brave, surpassing technical triumph, and more. . . . Over the years it has been photographed more than anything ever built by Americans. It has been the inspiration for songs, poems, paintings, no end of personal reminiscences and the setting for scenes in movies. It has remained New York's most famous, best-loved landmark.

Above all it has stood through good times and bad as a majestic symbol of affirmation, still there, still spanning the river for all to see and enjoy,

* * * *

In the 14-year struggle to build the bridge, work in the caissons below the river, accidents of all kinds took the lives of more than a dozen men and left many more crippled for life.

In the years since, its importance has seldom ever been doubted or seriously challenged. The sanctity of its own space has been unviolated by and large. Until lately. . . . To permit such a project so close to the bridge would be a shameful, inexcusable mistake. . .

Would we wish to see an 18-story building go up beside the Statue of Liberty, or next to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or beside the Washington Monument? Of course not.

Would the city of Paris permit an 18-story building beside the Arc de Triomphe or Notre Dame? Unthinkable.
(BTW: If you are interested in assessing the visual impact of the building in greater depth you might want to look at the readback section comments to the Newsweek article. We think that the developer, uncomfortable with the facts, is attempting to deny them.)

Choreographing the Inevitable

If the process Mr. Markowitz described for the Dock Street project and the ultimate disregard for the Brooklyn Bridge is (like the mayor’s third term race itself) one of Bloombergian inevitability and predestination, then what are we to think about Markowitz’s description of his weeks of work to propose a compromise? However earnestly he describes his efforts, Mr. Markowitz’s proposed compromise was not well received. Coming out just before the City Planning Commission hearings, it tended to confuse things somewhat and while Mr. Markowitz observes that Ms. Burden’s compromise was “Nowhere near mine” it might be said that Mr. Markowitz’s proposed compromise actually paved the way to make “Ms. Burden’s” non-compromising-compromise seem more acceptable. (Notice, in terms of mayoral control by Bloomberg, how the one-story reduction of the project is referred to as Ms. Burden’s rather than the work of the City Planning Commissioners collectively.)

Violins Doing Violence to Process

If the deal with the developer that the School Construction Authority manipulated to put in place in advance is an inevitable result orchestrated by Bloomberg, then the “public process” that precedes it is just a dance. That makes Mr. Markowitz’s proposed compromise just a part of that dance where various functionaries get to play various face-saving roles. Some of the song for that dance is being provided by Amanda Burden herself. Listen for the violin music for this one; according to the Post:

City Planning Director Amanda Burden called the application "one of the most difficult to come before the commission in many years."

We have heard the “agony” theme before. We heard it from Councilman David Yassky when he voted to extend the mayor’s term limits and we heard if from Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Fred Bland when he voted to let the St. Vincent’s proposal go forward. The expression of agony should not be a refuge for an inexcusable vote. The good news is that Councilman Yassky is working hard to defeat Dock Street, including leading the FOIL investigation into the activities of the School Construction Authority. Commissioner Bland’s architectural firm, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP, is responsible for the design of the Dock Street project so you can see how readily things become tangled.

(City Councilman David Yassky, who is running for Comptroller, testifying against Dock Street project before City Planning Commission.)

There is no reason for Ms. Burden’s agony because there really was no reason for her to approve the Walentas building, putting the interests of the developer ahead of the interests of the greater pubic. And if there was a reason for her agony, why shave off only one story of what the developer proposed? And don’t we know that a part of these dances is for developers to propose more than they expect to get to begin with? (We do not agree one whit with the Brooklyn Paper’s suggestion that the shaving off of the single story from the development was because the commission was “partially swayed by a late push by Brooklyn Bridge historian David McCullough.” We think this was part of the prearranged dance choreographed long ago. See: Saturday, March 14, 2009, At the City Planning Commission Hearings on Proposed Dock Street Project: A Reprise.)

How Inevitable is What Bloomberg Wants?

We would like to think that the Bloombergian plans to push the Dock Street project through City Council are not inevitable and we think the opposition should continue to fight with the assumption they have a chance of winning. How often do you have David McCullough and the rest of the nation on your side? This week’s Brooklyn Heights Courier in a cursory article (Stars Sock Dock!, by Stephen Witt) is reporting that other recognized stars are mobilizing in opposition to Dock Street. The list includes: film maker Ken Burns who did a PBS documentary on the Bridge, Gabriel Byrne of “In Treatment” and “the Usual Suspects,” as well as actors Helen Hunt, Gary Sinise, Ana Gasteyer and Skipp Sudduth.

Perhaps, with attention from a national news magazine like Newsweek, Bloomberg can be swayed from his obstinate fight. He should care: Wednesday morning at a New School forum the Media and the Mayor: Michael Bloomberg's Transformation, (Thursday, April 23, 2009, Debating whether Bloomberg's changed, media panelists offer mixed but critical views of the mayor), Wayne Barrett a reporter who has written for the Village Voice some of the best thoughtful, well researched and deeply considered pieces about the Bloomberg administration, talked about the likelihood that Bloomberg will be running for president in 2012, looking to oust Obama. Bloomberg tried running in 2008 and Barrett says he thinks Bloomberg still “harbors the dream.” We agree.

At that same New School forum, the panel discussed how inevitable Bloomberg’s election to a third term as mayor might be. Right now people are betting the odds are strongly in favor.

Dock Street and Bloomberg third term victories? The fights to stave off these Bloomberg orchestrated seeming inevitabilities are difficult. But just imagine how much more overwhelming the odds will be for those opposing Bloomberg if Bloomberg wins, particularly if he ascends to a third term so that more checks and balances fall away. It is likely that in most future fights the opposition will not have on its side a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning historian like David McCullough. The more one thinks about it, the more one realizes how critical it is to hand Bloomberg the defeats he deserves as quickly and as decisively as possible.

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