Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Real Estate Industry Code: The Special Interests of Forest City Ratner vs. The Rest of the Real Estate Community And New York City at Large

“At large”: That’s an interesting phrase.

“At large” can mean “as a whole” or it can mean “roaming” as in free, unfettered or escaped as in “reporter at large” (good) or “criminal at large” (bad). To a juvenile mind (mine was one once) the idea of a “criminal at large” sounds all the more ominous as it seems to imply the dangerous criminal looming as some sort of extra large, bigger-than-the-rest-of-us being.

This short post is about largeness at large, largeness that’s not good for the city at large. . specifically Forest City Ratner’s largeness. While it is largeness that’s intended to work well for Forest City Ratner it is largeness that doesn’t work well for the rest of the real estate community, notwithstanding that the rest of the real estate community doesn’t protest it.

Last week I was telling an activist I ran into about the New York City Housing Development Corporation's hearing that was coming up Wednesday to take comment concerning the issuance of more tax-exempt bonds to finance into existence more of Forest City Ratner’s envisioned Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly.

My listener, who hadn’t gotten wind of the hearing even though he was talking about how to appropriately express opposition to the opening of the Ratner/Prokhorov (“Barclays”) basketball arena, asked me what testimony I was going to give at the hearing.

Summing up what I knew was going to be some long and comprehensive testimony, I said I would testify that Ratner was a bad dude and that his mega-monopoly should be broken up and distributed among multiple developers.

Ratner’s mega-monopoly should be broken because he is a bad dude, and, as I later testified at the hearing, it should also be broken up because, irrespective of whether he is a bad dude, monopolies (particularly a really big one like this) are deleterious the city as a whole and therefore to all the rest of us.

Further, I told my listener, I would make the point that Ratner’s over-scale and overly dense mega-project was a subsidy hog, that it misdirects scarce subsidy that should be divided up to better benefit multiple developers, not-for-profits and minority developers more likely to be among them.

“That's great,” my listener said, “you should be able to get a lot of real estate developers to come to the hearing and testify to the same thing!”

“No,” I said, “they won't be doing that.”

“Why?” asked my listener. “That should be something they should really want.”

I offered my explanation. “They won't do it, and they don't do it,” I said, “because the real estate development community has a code. They NEVER testify against each other. It doesn’t matter how preposterously greedy another developer’s proposal may be or how deleterious that proposal is to the rest of the real estate community and to the city at large; they won’t do it.”

“It’s a club in which Forest City Ratner is one of the biggest members,” I said. I told my listener that the powerful Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) always supports Forest City Ratner’s proposals even when those proposals are specific just to Forest City Ratner (and outrageous) notwithstanding that the Ratner proposals are not generally beneficial to the real estate board's members and can actually represent sacrifice or jeopardy for them.

At a November of 2007 Municipal Art Society “Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York” panel discussion I asked developer Douglas Durst about the Real Estate Board of New York going to bat for the a special Atlantic Yards 421a tax law carve-out that cost the city $300 million. The mere asking for such a provision put in jeopardy the passage of a law that was highly desired by the rest of the real estate community and yet REBNY sought it. By contrast I asked Durst whether developers wouldn’t want to work together through an organization perhaps REBNY, or an alternative, to bring about a better city where the economics would be better for everyone, presumably including for the entire real estate industry. Durst responded that REBNY never takes positions against a member and also said that developers won’t work together.

In my testimony Wednesday about HDC’s proposed issuance of more tax-exempt Ratner bonds I expressed the following about why monopolies like the Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly are bad for the city economy, bad for development and therefore bad for all of us:
Monopolies stultify development. They are antithetical to it because true development must partake of a diverse, richly dynamic environment of interacting elements and competitive testing of the best adaptations. Monopolies suppress development opportunities. Furthermore, in the words of Jane Jacobs: “Monopolies established by cronyism and strong-arm methods, along with pervasive extortion and corruption, falsify actual costs” [shall we note they falsify benefits as well?] Enterprises “prefer eliminating competition to competing with . . prices, quality and service.” Tax-exempt bonds are supposed to be issued by “development” agencies to foster development, not suppress it. Government officials shouldn’t replace economic ecosystems with a single privileged crony.
But developers have their real estate community club and that means that even if what Forest City Ratner is doing is bad for the rest of the real estate community, even though it would be good in multiple ways for the rest of the developers in that community for the Atlantic Yards mega-monpoly to broken up and distributed, together with the associated very scarce subsidy, amongst multiple developers (including some developers who are not bad dudes), this is not something that those other developers are going to get out and advocate. . .

. . . Developers have their code. The code isn't written but it never seems to be broken: Don’t work against other members of the club and that means don’t work against bad things and don’t work for the greater good.

This is a reason New York’s real estate community does more damage to the city than might otherwise be expected. It is a reason Forest City Ratner’s mega-monopoly’s largeness is still at large.

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