Thursday, September 17, 2009

Noticing New York Comment on and at Today’s ESDC Board Meeting

This post furnishes Noticing New York’s comments delivered at the ESDC board meeting today on “Atlantic Yards.” We have to put “Atlantic Yards” in quotes because “Atlantic Yards” is so ill-defined it is quite uncertain what it is other than a giveaway scheme to benefit a developer.

Atlantic Yards Report Coverage

Norman Oder’s prolifically swift and fastidiously accurate Atlantic Yards Report has already started posting multiple accounts of the board’s meeting with the promise of more detailed accounts to come by this evening or tomorrow morning. It would be futile to race Mr. Oder to a full account of the details but we can offer our own comments and a few extra interstitial observations.

(The Atlantic Yards Report Articles so far available are: Thursday, September 17, 2009
ESDC approves project; DDDB warns of lawsuit; electeds comment, Thursday, September 17, 2009, ESDC consultant: ten-year project timetable for housing "not unreasonable", Thursday, September 17, 2009, In spite of the State Funding Agreement, ESDC will now pay Ratner's "soft costs" and speed up $25 million, Thursday, September 17, 2009, ESDC agrees to allow a project cut by one-third; affordable housing depends on availability of subsidies, Thursday, September 17, 2009, Block association criticizes ESDC for bait-and-switch, from "community sessions" to "public informational sessions")

Setting the Stage

We arrived early for the board meeting before any of the rest of the public and watched ESDC’s excellent support staff set up for the meeting, a tableau that reminded us of the tremendous resources that ESDC, for good or for ill, can mobilize in pursuing its goals. There was attention to “setting the stage,” getting microphone levels correct, hooking up the teleconferencing with the ultra-large high definition monitor. The court reporter showed up and plugged in her computer and other specialized devices.

PR Pictures of What the Developer Has at Heart

The just-released renderings of the new design for the “arena” were put on easels. We have been saying that the design is the third design for the arena but is actually the fourth. We forgot about the second Frank Gehry redesign of phase one of the mega-project. Word that Gehry’s second design was dumped reached the public Thursday, June 4, 2009, the same day the highly reviled “airplane hangar” design by Ellerbe Becket was released. Now the public has been informed that it was in the same month, June, presumable after the unfavorable firestorm reaction to Ellerbe Becket’s hangar that Bruce Ratner went to SHoP Architects to “figure out a way to make a beautiful building, and figure out a way to build it” because, in SHoP’s PR-speak Bruce Ratner’s “heart is really in making a fabulous design”and “we were convinced he really wanted to make a great building."

The Blurred Picture Not So Perfect
As we watched, ESDC spokesman Warner Johnston came into the room and reviewed the easel displays. He commented, just as we already wrote, about how the most often featured rendering of the arena used the same colors depicting the arena to peculiarly illustrate the feigned time-lapse photography of “speeding” traffic on Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. We wrote about how we interpreted this peculiarity as an indication that the architects felt uncomfortable that they had not resolved the question of mitigating the huge scale of an arena shoe-horned into a residential neighborhood. The rendering is the only one in which the scale of the arena amongst surrounding buildings is shown. For more on this see: Thursday, September 10, 2009, The Surrounding Light Smears Ratner’s Atlantic Yards Arena and Saturday, September 12, 2009, Really Now! The subject of Rendering the Atlantic Yards Arena Realistically Revisited.

ESDC Has No Way to Ravel Frayed Thread: A Tepidly Un-Negative KPMG Opinion

ESDC’s legal rationalizations for proceeding with this project, particularly without any designs for the bulk of it and without an updated environmental review, were previously hanging by a thread. As of todays’ meeting ESDC didn’t seem to be able to muster anything sufficient to credibly aver that that thread has not entirely frayed through. In his brief presentation to the board, Senior Counsel Steven Matlin said that the real-estate-assessments-for-hire KPMG firm had provided an opinion about whether the residential portion of the project would be built within the time frame used in the original environmental impact statement. To Wit: "KPMG has concluded it’s not unreasonable to assume that the housing units to be developed can be absorbed in the marketplace during the projected development period." (See: Thursday, September 17, 2009 ESDC consultant: ten-year project timetable for housing "not unreasonable".)

This not saying that KPMG thinks the project will be built in ten years. It is not saying that they, KPMG, consider it likely that it will be built in ten years. It is not even saying that they, KPMG, would assume that it can possibly be built in ten years. It only says that if someone other than KPMG thinks that there is a possibility that the units could be absorbed in the marketplace during the ten year project period that other person (i.e. the very biased ESDC itself) should not be considered irrational for choosing to make an assumption there is at least possibility of such absorption. Of course, absorption of housing units is just one factor in whether a megadevelopment will be built within that period. There are actually multiple hurdles that determine whether it is either likely or possible that the megadevelopment would be built within ten-years. Furthermore, though KPMG’s assessment of project likelihood could only be summarized in such a tepidly weak statement, the KPMG report to the directors had to be kept “confidential.”

Why the Fictional “Ten Years” vs. the Candid “Decades” Is Important

Why is all this important? In part because ESDC is trying hard to claim that it is reasonable not to do an environmental assessment that takes into account that the megadevelopment will likely take decades, twenty-five, maybe forty years. That, as DDDB’s Daniel Goldstein said when he spoke at the meeting, is what ESDC and Forest City Ratner officials admit whenever they are speaking candidly. It is also important because it is impossible to have actual plans for a multi-decade project. Things change too much. Office buildings become residential or vice versa. Condominiums becomes rental buildings. Short-term uses become long-term uses. The list goes on. As time stretches out it becomes more and more uncertain what you are actually going to get.

That goes to the other key point covered in our comment. The arena, the only concrete thing the ESDC board was approving (and that being only recently identified and described) is a net money-loser for the city, a $220 million net loss. ESDC was unable to address the fact that the arena is a net negative to the city in any way at the meeting except to say that the rest of the project would make up for the loss. Steve Matlin was asked to state to what extent ESDC disagrees with the Independent Budget Office report that says that the arena will be a $220 million net loss for the city accompanied by more than $726 million in no-bid subsidies to a private developer. He was asked to be specific as to what way ESDC disagreed with the IBO assessment. All he could say is that the as-yet-unidentified rest of the project would make up for the loss. Oh, yeah? How does he know? There is no basis to make such calculations.

Noticing New York’s Board Meeting Comments

Here is our Noticing New York Statement made at the board meeting today:

* * * *

September 17, 2009

Empire State Development Corporation
633 Third Avenue, 37th Floor
New York, NY 10017

Re: September 17, 2009 ESDC Board meeting on “Atlantic Yards”

Dear ESDC:

This comment is in the name of Noticing New York, dedicated to the proposition that developing New York and appreciating New York go hand in hand. I am Michael White, a lawyer and urban planner. A lot of you know me. I have more than a quarter century experience in government, entrusted with the same kind of responsibilities you now intend to abuse.
1. You are approving a $220 million net loss for the city with more than $726 million in no-bid subsidies to a private developer. (We think these conservative Independent Budget Office figures for the arena actually understate its true cost, including the developer’s megalodonic ripping apart of the community.)

2. There is no benefit in the arena. In addition, with no requirement of benefit or corresponding obligation (and again without bid), you are giving a single developer a multi-decade blight-producing monopoly on a swath of valuable Brooklyn real estate.

3. ESDC’s phantom arrangements involving no designs, leave ESDC with absolutely no negotiating leverage to insist on benefit or counteract Forest City Ratner’s future blackmailing of the public for subsidy. (Not that ESDC ever intended anything other than to heap benefit upon Forest City Ratner.)

4. You shower Forest City Ratner now with additional multi-million dollar benefits such as excusing it from its railyard obligations, and we can expect that you will similarly shower more benefits upon them in the future, again without quid pro quo.

5. What you are doing is destructive of neighborhoods, the city, our public finances, destructive of government and destructive of the basic fabric of trust required for a civilized society.

6. Those who have never worked in a public agency and experienced the integrity with which they can operate probably wonder whether this is “business as usual.” It is not. This is cynical corruption, the worst I have ever seen.

7. There are words of a Leonard Cohen song we think apply here:
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over *
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

Michael D. D. White

(* Norman Oder, like “everybody” else, was able to predict with certainly that the ESDC vote today was a forgone conclusion:
No one doubts that the board of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), at its meeting this morning, will approve the 2009 Modified General Project Plan (MGPP) and set the stage for the issuance of tax-exempt bonds and--though delayed by a pending legal challenge--the use of eminent domain.
See: Thursday, September 17, 2009, CBN, DDDB say Supplemental EIS needed; what will ESDC respond at meeting today?)

That was today, but “everybody” had similarly predicted the certainty of today’s board vote as far back as May when the vote was first announced.

Epilogue: We weren’t quick enough on the trigger when in our comment we wrote:
“You shower Forest City Ratner now with additional multi-million dollar benefits such as excusing it from its railyard obligations, and we can expect that you will similarly shower more benefits upon them in the future, again without quid pro quo.”
At the board meeting ESDC was already moving to do exactly this. Treating it like something that could just slip by, Steve Matlin told the ESDC board members their action at the meeting would authorize the dumping of another $25 million in subsidy on Forest City Ratner that had not been previously talked about. For the details on this see: Thursday, September 17, 2009, In spite of the State Funding Agreement, ESDC will now pay Ratner's "soft costs" and speed up $25 million.)

Post-Post Postscript: After we posted this the Atlantic Yards Report posted a lengthening account of the hearing which includes video of our Noticing New York comment at the hearing. See: Friday, September 18, 2009, At ESDC board meeting, new revelations of ESDC's concessions to Ratner and forceful criticisms from opponents (with video).

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