Monday, April 2, 2012

Charlie Rose Does Infomercial For Forest City Ratner

On March 10, 2012 Charlie Rose broadcast what was in effect a half hour, high production value infomercial for Bruce Ratner, his arena and his proposed Atlantic Yards.

Atlantic Yards journalist and expert Norman Oder has already done a thorough dissection of Rose’s March 10, 2012 `interview’ of Ratner, denouncing Rose for his “spectacularly uninformed sycophancy.” (See: Monday, March 12, 2012, Uninformed sycophancy: Charlie Rose interviews Bruce Ratner about "Atlantic City Yards" (sic), betrays zero recognition of controversy.)

Think Coke . . . Or Their Thinking . . . Or Bloomberg's

In an earlier piece about the Charlie Rose interview written before Mr. Oder had an opportunity to actually see the interview (he had only been able to read the very promptly-appearing quotes from the NetsDaily) Mr. Oder noted how conflicts of interest can affect Mr. Rose's show and pointed out that funders of Mr. Rose's show have interests in play in connection with the Ratner/Prokhorov "Barclays" basketball arena. Coca-Cola is likely Rose's biggest underwriter and Mr. Oder noted that “Coca-Cola has a deal with the Barclays Center. If Coca-Cola isn't the biggest funder of his show it is probably because Bloomberg, the business arm of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is outpacing it by providing both free rent and, more recently, syndication for which it also pays Rose.

(Above and below, from Coca-Cola corporate support spot on Charlie Rose. Below that the Bloomberg credit appearing on Rose shows.)

There is no question that Rose has conducted some remarkable interviews but Mr. Oder’s suggestion that Rose’s fawning interview of Bruce Ratner was a nadir is exactly on target.

Rose's interview of Ratner was so much like a late night infomercial that you can read Rose’s questions to, and other exchanges with, Ratner without reading Ratner's responses to know approximately what Ratner came prepared to say and ultimately did say during the interview. I am providing them further below in this article so you can put this assertion to the test. Rose's exchanges are like cue cards to keep Mr. Ratner on track with a predetermined message. Rose's side of the conversation consisted of three categories of things: 1.) friendly and leading questions, 2.) helpful restatements of what he suspected Ratner hadn't said well enough, 3.) oddly enthusiastic exclamations of praise. The eager breathlessness with which Ratner tumbled out his responses added to the feel of this being an infomercial.

Prokhorov . . . That Card!

Much of Rose's side of the exchange seems to come from index cards that Rose can clearly be seen handling at many keep points in the interview, cards prompting Rose to prompt Ratner. Three of the times cards are quite apparent in connection with questions are when Rose asks Ratner about Jay-Z, when Rose brings up Ratner's formation of a partnership with Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, and when Rose mentions that the luxury apartments being rented in the Ratner's 8 Spruce Street City Hall area building benefit from 360 degree views. (That's because Ratner was permitted to build it so much taller than the surrounding buildings and the government helped him by putting a school in its base.) Ratner inaccurately describes the building as being in Tribeca.

(Above, Rose asking Ratner his questions while visibly referring often to index cards.)

Rose's cavalier, jokey exchange with Ratner about Prokhorov may some day come back to haunt him. Ratner joked that Prokhorov almost became president of Russia. Prokhorov has long been one of the insiders who get along with Putin. Most interpret his feint at a run for president as an effort to be deflect real opposition to Putin, but Rose wasn't doing a serious international affairs interview so he simply played along.

A Few Preparational Missteps- Kabuki Pillow Talk

Even though he was working from cards, Rose made several mistakes. There was the simple, slip of the tongue mistake of referring to Atlantic Yards as "Atlantic City Yards." Ratner joined the family real estate business but Rose mistakenly, and awkwardly, assumed that Ratner's father had started the business. Another interesting slip was when Rose seemed to assume more than he knew about the involvement of Amanda Burden, the City Planning Commissioner and Planning Commission Chair with Ratner's Atlantic Yards. Rose has had an on-and-off relationship with Ms. Burden for nearly two decades and is a godparent to two of Ms. Burden's grandchildren. Rose assumed for a moment during the conversation that the planning commission (and by implication Ms. Burden) had been involved in putting affordable housing in the Atlantic Yards project. Not so. The affordable housing is really just a function of Ratner's use of the tax code for subsidies (and therefore being subject to meeting its requirements) and similarly expecting to participate in state and city subsidy programs.

Ms. Burden did get involved with Atlantic Yards but her participation was to engage in a bit of kabuki theater to get its exceptional density over the hurdles of public objection. This then may provide a window on their pillow talk.

One Side of a One-sided Conversation

Here then is Rose's side of the conversation:
Tell me how you see developers and what do you think of the role of developers; what should we admire them and why should we not so much admire them?

Define the “very good.” (In response to Ratner's saying that developers run the gamut from the “very good to the not so very good.”)

That’s what you want to believe, that somehow the developer has some instinct beyond money that respects, that respects history, that respects location, and that respects the future in the sense that people will say that’s more than a building, that’s something that lives and breathes as a sense of where civilization was and where it might be going. (Ratner had said a good developer “has some other aspect other than just making money.”)

What is it about Brooklyn for you?

But you grew up in Cleveland?

And the headquarters of your company is still in Cleveland. - Your father was the largest developer in Cleveland. Did he start the business?

• There was then a brief sort of contest where Ratner and Rose each tried to top each other in an exchange of names of people they knew had lived in Brooklyn:
- Ratner: Jackie Gleason, Walt Whitman, Aaron Copland, Barbara Streisand, Mel Brooks
- Rose: Norman Mailer, Truman Copote

There was a real opportunity there to it [Brooklyn]. I mean it has a certain romance about it. It’s close to . . . across the river from Manhattan one of the great cultural centers of the world. Yet it has its own essence as well.

And what you want to do is rebuild that essence of Brooklyn.

Here’s what’s interesting. You formerly were in government. You have a very good relationship with the president of Brooklyn, the Borough of Brooklyn. And the two of you seem to be in lockstep about wanting to change Brooklyn. He sees you as an ally and you see him as an ally.

So what’s about Atlantic City Yards? What’s that about?

A place that basketball people will love! (The arena.) Ratner responds, expanding the list to mention among other things that the arena will be loved by people who love circuses and people who love concerts (watch carefully for my upcoming, soon to published post about a "concert").

• When Ratner mentions "affordable housing" at Atlantic Yards Rose makes his interesting Amanda Burden reference, saying: “Probably insisted upon by the Planning Commission or someone like that.

You did that out of some instinct for there ought to be public housing rather than what can I do that will give them an opportunity to give the go-ahead to my project?

• [Simulated image of the interior of the arena] Look at that place: tell me about it.

Will you have a lot of those boxes [luxury suites] that people like to have?

You hired Frank Gehry as your architect. You love Frank Gehry. More about that in a moment. So what happened there? Frank was come out there. . He was going to design your place. . . And Frank is no longer there, he's no longer designing this: Frank Gehry, the most admired, best known architect in America. You had him! What happened?

Is that true with most of the star architects, (quote “starchitects”), that what they design is not that much more expensive than what any good architect would design? (i.e. that eliminating expenses after having obtained most of his important approvals was not Ratner’s reason for ditching Gehry on the arena design and the rest of the project.)

OK, so what are we left with at Atlantic Yards?

SHoP architects? (Mispronouncing the firm’s name) Oh, they’re good. They’re good! They’re good they have a good reputation.

• Introducing a Ratner promo slide with appreciative exclamations like: “A night time view of Atlantic Yards from the great Flatbush Avenue. Look at that!”

Did you like the Olympic building that was done in China for the Beijing Olympics?

Because there is a sense of motion.

What is that? [Metrotech?]

I should mention that during this you went into partnership with a Russian billionaire. . . You’re smiling because he’s a good partner?

He has a genuine love affair for basketball and the Nets?

The other celebrity member of this whole organization is Jay-Z. He’s a partner, or he’s what?

How did that happen [flying out to see Prokhorov in Russia]. Did you know he was interested? Somebody was a broker somehow to put you two together?

• Showing a slide of the New York Times building: "This is by the great Renzo Piano, who’s a wonderful man and a wonderful architect who’s done a lot of extraordinary buildings in different places."

So tell me about this building: What’s it about? What did the New York Times hope to accomplish and how did Renzo Piano give expression to what the headquarters of the August New York Times ought to look like?

Was Frank Gehry among the finalists in the competition [to design the new York Times building]?

And what happened to your beloved Frank Gehry on this one?

You know the reasons . . . as he expressed them? It wasn’t you though.

The Times is happy?

• Looking at a slide of 8 Spruce Street: "This is a building that architecture critics including the New York Times have just raved about, have they not?"

And how does that make you feel?

This has an interesting kind of configuration: There is a public school on the first floor.

One of my favorite buildings in New York, the Woolworth Building. Unbelievable! [Responding to Ratner’s assertion that 8 Spruce Street complements the Woolworth Building.]

How many stories?

What are the rents?

A huge 360 degree view of everything in Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, Empire State Building and everything else.

Let’s talk a minute about . .because you were interested in this sort of modular building. What does that mean and is that a wave of the future?

Less expensive or not?

Finally, where are we in terms of this?: Everyone understands that the key to economic recovery is housing. It’s been the lagging indicator, because of too much supply of housing, too many people had housing, too many people couldn’t afford housing, the supply got way out of context with the demand. Where are we now?

Everyone wants to build in New York, the great architects and the great developers all want to build in New York Right? Is there much building going on here because we just read what happened down in the World Trade Center, they’re going to cap off a couple of the towers down there at like seven floors, not sixty.

So tell me about your dream.
All right, so I cheated just a fraction, but you can pretty much tell what Ratner said in response. If you are curious about what he actually did say I could advise you to go and listen to the March 10, 2012 `interview’ but given that most of what he said was not the truth (and Rose never challenged him on what wasn't true) you will save time by just skipping to the critically correcting reports of the conversation such as Mr. Oder's. It is, for example, rather disingenuous to depict Mr. Ratner as being an example of a developer who puts other things ahead of making money. Or yes, it's true that when Ratner switched to the arena-standing-alone plan Gehry's design for the arena could not be used but that didn't mean he had to fire Gehry and jettison all his designs for the remaining blocks. (To so note this does not constitute a Noticing New York endorsement of the Gehry plan.)

Interview's Modicum of Value- Truth To Tell

There are a few things you could learn from the interview but only if you were very in the know and quite attentive to details. In David Mamet's plays about con artists he talks about a "tell," the physical giveaway you can pick up on that let's you know when somebody is bluffing. When the subject of modular construction* comes up in the interview Ratner admits that its never been done with a building of the height he is proposing and you can hear a peculiar little catch in his throat making him sound quite uncomfortable that, to my mind, is a "tell."

(* a much cheaper form of construction that would deprive the construction unions of benefits they thought they were fighting for when they came out in force to support the megadevelopement.)

Ratner was very clear in the interview that if and when any other buildings are built on the arena block there will be no more than three such buildings, not the four originally proposed* but he still intends to have sixteen additional buildings on the twenty-two acres that would nominally be the Atlantic Yards sites. (Ratner actually plans that there will be a total of nineteen towers plus two shopping malls on the 30 contiguous acres in this part of his mega-monopoly, something he doesn't talk about and that Rose didn't wind up finding out.) That means one building will move over, cocking the rest of what was his original site plan out of whack. That, in turn, means that the only currently existing proposed site plan for the rest of the site is the community's UNITY Plan.

(* If Ratner did plan to build a fourth building on the arena site it would mean that almost nothing would be left of the decorative metal wreath with which SHoP Architects dressed up the airplane hanger design for the arena that was substituted for Gehry's.)

One thing I realized about the arena as Ratner was slicing his hands through the air to demonstrate the sharp angles involved: What Ratner's Forest City Ratner has been selling as a negative may very well be a negative they are trying to disguise. The company keeps saying that the arena will have exceptionally good sight-lines. It turns out that what this means is that the viewing stands will be exceptionally steep, steeper (Ratner was saying) than any other arena in the country. Desirable? It is likely not being done because it is desirable but as a consequence of trying to cram the arena into a very tiny footprint given the way it is hemmed in by surrounding streets. Viewers are likely to find themselves tucking their chins down on their chests to see down the steep angle. There are psychologists who will tell you that this is frequently counterproductive to getting people into good moods: It sort of goes along with the expression or concept of being "downcast" about something.

Ratneresque Horticulture: How Doesn't My Economic Garden Grow?

There is an old play on words: "You can lead a whore to culture but you can't make her think."

Close to the end of the interview Rose went off base and Ratner really wound up over his head when Rose asked him to explain how the creation of housing interrelates with the national economy. I suppose the idea was that if Ratner, working with government, is getting so much subsidy from the government (he is a master subsidy recipient) he should be able to explain why all this is good for the economy. But Ratner isn't a big player in the bigger national housing economy Rose was asking him to talk about and right now part of the problem explaining why the economy has been so generally listless is that there is too much housing, or more housing than people can afford in a bad economy. The solution therefore isn't to subsidize Ratner to produce more of it. If Ratner really wanted to do some explaining about the economy he ought to own up and admit that the current economy is weak partly because of the kind of crony capitalism he promotes drains it so much . . .

. . . With all due respect for any women who I might seem to have impugned just above by virtue of compensation they might get for their companionship, Ratner's (Harry Brock-like) willful dunderheadness about the harm that his buying of politicians causes the rest of us could provide a marvelous opportunity for a "Born Yesterday"-style civics lesson teaching moment.

Rose's supplying to Ratner this tee-up to discuss why his company should receive subsidy fits in with something Rose did at the outset of the interview: Equate Ratner's subsidized government-assisted building activity with the making of special contributions to "civilization" itself! The script Ratner came with in his pocket clearly included his planned use of the adjective "civic" to characterize his building business, the grand sounding "civic" being a weaselly code word to slip around the fact that he is on record as telling Crain's New York that his Atlantic Yards government-financed mega-project "isn't a public project." Rose's idea that Ratner's private developments are instilled with the quality of "civilization" came out of Rose seeming to help to Ratner sound the right note on this "civic" thing. Repeated again below is what Rose said as he reached and rambled awkwardly to supply Ratner with a restatement about what makes Ratner's private projects worthier than the private projects of others (emphasis supplied):
That’s what you want to believe, that somehow the developer has some instinct beyond money that respects, that respects history, that respects location, and that respects the future in the sense that people will say that’s more than a building, that’s something that lives and breathes as a sense of where civilization was and where it might be going.
Ratner Disdainful of Parking Lots

When Ratner was asked about Metrotech in the interview he explained that it had been designated as an urban renewal area (unlike his Atlantic Yards site) and commented derisively that back in the 1980s it was "nothing but parking lots and empty buildings." That's not exactly true but the derisive dismissal of the value of parking lots is interesting given that parking lots are what he is creating with his Atlantic Yards site.

Picture Pitch Imperfect

A great deal of Rose's interview involves unpacking Ratner's press kit of images, many of them the typically suspect architectural renderings of things that do not yet exist.

One of the images Ratner chose to bring with him of something that actually does exist was an odd choice: a picture of a billboard with an architectural rendering of what was to come, on which was overlaid an instruction to "BELIEVE THE HYPE", (imagine Rose cooing appreciation over the "BELIEVE THE HYPE" instruction) and his choice seemed almost as if it was made in answer to an article Noticing New York ran of the same billboard but making some corrective adjustments to the image:

Here is the very similar but corrected image Noticing New York previously ran.

I will have to go back to see whether the actual billboard has been changed, updated since I last photographed it to remove Jay-Z's image and substitute the basketball players. Here is a link to my earlier post with corrective images: Wednesday, October 26, 2011, Longing For Correcting Images to Jay-Z’s Hip-Hop Hype and Ratner’s Atlantic Yards “Strategy of Distraction”.

Ratner came equipped with lost of images and Rose dutifully showed them all. Predominanetly they promote the basketball arena. Here they are:

(The above view of Metrotech makes it look like the Ratner mega-monoply includes even more buildings than it does.)
(More Metrotech in a selective view)
(Above, are pictures of the New York Times building. Rose did not broach the important subject of how through his real estate partnership with the New York Times- built using eminent domain- Ratner immunized himself from criticism of his mega-project and its abuse of eminent domain.)
(Above the Gehry 8 Spruce Street building: This is the building about which Rose, notecard in hand remembered to tout the 360 degree views. Rose mentioned that there was a school in the building's base but did not ask Ratner about how Ratner had taken advantage of the school being in the building to blackmail the local community board for after-the-fact concessions.)

Between unpacking Ratner's images and helping Ratner get out all his talking points there was nothing more to the interview.

A Rose Role Is A Rose Not . . . .

In one respect I may have been unfair describing Rose's Ratner interview as a grotesque parody of a late night infomercial. State of the art infomercials these days use two interviewers, one is the facilitator, the other is the interviewer who starts out sounding skeptical and then- low and behold!- is won over by the end of the half hour. Rose, playing just one role, left out the skeptical part entirely.

No comments: