Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Atlantic Yards, Metaphorically Speaking

Finding the right metaphor to describe Atlantic Yards can be edifying and, at the same time, a challenge. Recently, ESDC head Marisa Lago formulated the metaphor of Atlantic Yards as a kitchen renovation. We found that her metaphor adapted quite well for our purposes. (See: Monday, June 1, 2009, Negotiating With Your Contractor: The Atlantic Yards As Kitchen Renovation Metaphor.)

It is not so clear that Ms. Lago herself had success with the metaphor because exactly one week after she coined it she was let go from ESDC after having served barely nine months in her position. (See: (See: Friday, June 05, 2009, Observer: internal ESDC turmoil leads to resignation of CEO Lago; AYR: did testimony gnaw at her conscience?.)


We noticed that Develop Don’t Destroy was recently offering a new metaphor, describing Atlantic Yards as a “Zombie Project.” (See: Nets, Ratner, Yormark Desperately Trying to Market Zombie Project, posted: 6.04.09.) The idea behind that, of course, is that the strange political forces that keep re-animating Atlantic Yards don’t seem to recognize when a natural death and permanent grave rest under the lilies is appropriate.

We can offer a quibble on the zombiefication of the project. When it comes to zombies, we had previously declared the developer, Forest City Ratner, to be the “zombie,” not the project.

Our developer-as-Zombie pieces were as follows:

Thursday, March 19, 2009, Willets Point Lawsuit Points Out . . .

Tuesday, March 31, 2009, Looking at Things From Another Point of View: Do We See Distinctions That Make A Difference?

In them we talked about getting into the situation where government props up failing or financially weak developers on the theory that they can’t be allowed to fail. We referred to this as government’s getting into “a zombie subsidy bear-hug” with a developer. Instead, we suggested that the self-serving “contracts” with the zombie developer/subsidy collector Forest City Ratner ought simply to be repudiated. It turns out that with Atlantic Yards no “repudiation” was even necessary since the MTA has never even entered into a contract with Forest City Ratner for the project. (See: Tuesday, June 23, 2009, Thoughts on the MTA’s Finance Committee Meeting Wherein Atlantic Yards Was Considered as an “Information Item”.)

Zombie Subsidy Bear-Hugs

The kind of “zombie subsidy bear-hug” we were referring to is the kind of thing the MTA and ESDC are now getting into with the financially ailing Forest City Ratner (the developer has a speculative credit rating of B1 and a stock value that has been at zero). Both agencies are looking to bail out the developer with a package of sweeteners on Atlantic Yards, the value of which is substantial. It starts with the $100 million in value with respect to the MTA railyard capacity that the zombie developer will be excused from providing, plus the $80 million the MTA won’t be collecting from Ratner for its land in the MTA’s time of financial need. There is a lot more sweetener with other benefits not being provided in the foreseeable future and timetables and deadlines being deferred. For starters see: Tuesday, June 23, 2009, Thoughts on the MTA’s Finance Committee Meeting Wherein Atlantic Yards Was Considered as an “Information Item”.

What we also refer to when we use the term “zombie subsidy bear-hug” is what Raul Rothblatt was talking about when he testified this morning at the ESDC board meeting. ESDC voted to approve the sweetening package for Ratner, worth however many hundred million dollars. Before they did, however, Mr. Rothblatt asked the ESDC board members what possible subsequent request from Ratner they would ever be able to refuse in the future if they approved this one. Probably none. That’s the nature of the hug.

Talking Serious Economics

The developer-zombie metaphor actually has a very respectable antecedent in economics. Essentially we derived it from the term “zombie bank” used by commentators such as Paul Krugman. The term refers to insolvent banks that should go out of business but are propped up by the government. First talked about in terms of the Japanese financial crisis that dragged on for years, zombie banks are generally thought to be a rather bad thing that prevents the economy from acting normally and with its usual vigor because economic incentives for proper performance get all bollixed up. The living dead parade around confusingly in what should be the land of the living. Welcome to the world Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg are fashioning for us.

Political Possum

We thought that while zombie was the best metaphor for the developer, the project could be described with another metaphor: We said that the project had been playing “political possum.” The highly unpopular megadevelopment had been playing dead until recently (the dead thing again) so that politicians like Bloomberg and Paterson could avoid mentioning it or openly supporting it. The problem is that now that possum is getting ready to come back to life and scurry past the public as fast as possible. (For the possum metaphor see: Thursday, May 7, 2009, City Council Races (33rd and 39th CDs): Candidates’ Positions on Development and Effective Action They Would Take to Stop Atlantic Yards (Part III).)

Another Brand of the Undead

We also described the project as Dracula, a desicated corpse frying in the sunlight of public scrutiny that is still not truly dead until a stake has been put through its heart, its head has been cut off and its mouth stuffed with garlic. We called for responsible politicians to affirmatively kill the project. For this see: Wednesday, May 6, 2009, City Council Races (33rd and 39th CDs): Candidates’ Positions on Development and Effective Action They Would Take to Stop Atlantic Yards (Part II).

The vampire description has also been applied to developer Bruce Ratner himself. At the community protest when the Brooklyn Museum “honored” Bruce Ratner, there were signs and chants that “Ratner is a vampire” referring, no doubt, to his willingness to enervate the community by sucking on its blood for his own sustenance.

Monster or Its Creator?

Is Ratner the vampire, or his project? Is the developer the zombie, or the project? This gets into the classic conundrum of how the monster can often be confused with its creator. When we hear “Frankenstein” do with think of the monster or Dr. Victor Frankenstein who created it?

Bait and “Stitched?”

Frankenstein might, in fact, be a another good metaphor for the project since it is such a stitch-together pastiche of dead and improbable promises robbed from the musty tombs that hold so many past ill-conceived megadevelopment projects. We can imagine the laboratory where efforts are made to jolt the cobbled together monstrosity to life using Marty Markowitz’s silly boosterism as energy.


Maybe though the vampire metaphor is a good one to stick with in light of all the recent changes in the proposed monopoly-megaproject. We have seen the departure of Frank Gehry and Laurie Olin, replaced by an incredibly different low-rent design team. Vampires have the power of lycanthropy, the power to shape shift into other animals (yes, similar to werewolves). Perhaps that serves well because these days the moral with Atlantic Yards is that even though it is guaranteed to be something terrible, it is changing around a lot. It has no real defined shape so that if our public officials launch it there is no telling what we might one day actually get.

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