Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Relevance of Mayoral Debate Discussion About Forest City Ratner Atlantic Yards Misconduct To The Sale and Underfunding of NYC Libraries

From the pen of Simon Verity: Is Bruce Ratner going to get the Brooklyn Heights Library?  Maybe.
Why would Citizens Defending Libraries, a group that has mobilized to fight the sale of New York City libraries and the underfunding and shrinkage of the library system (including with a petition) post a clip of mayoral candidates discussing, at an April 3, 2013 mayoral forum, the subject of what to do about the unsatisfactory conduct of Forest City Ratner with respect to its development of Atlantic Yards?

The answer is easy and should be fairly obvious.  In a bit we’ll return to the ramifications for libraries that relate to the difficulty of dealing with Forest City Ratner vis-à-vis Atlantic Yards, but first let’s review what happened at the mayoral forum held at St. Francis College April 3rd by the Brooklyn Reform Coalition.

The Citizens Defending Libraries YouTube video channel clip is here: NYC Mayoral Candidates Debate the Broken Promises of Atlantic Yards.  (For best viewing you may want to go directly to YouTube to watch it.)

Atlantic Yards Report covered it here: Thursday, April 04, 2013, At mayoral forum for Democrats, Liu blasts Atlantic Yards; no candidates understand Community Benefits Agreement.

The Mayoral Forum Question, The True Scope of the Problem, And The Potentially Simple Answer To The Atlantic Yards Problem

The question asked the candidates was:
Forest City Ratner signed a Community Benefits Agreement promising jobs and housing at the Atlantic Yards site. Now that the organizations that signed the CBA no longer exist, the community has no representatives at the table. What are you going to do as mayor to make sure that these promises are kept?
The answers of all of the candidates acknowledge that there is a serious problem with Forest City Ratner not fulfilling its obligations and promises to the public.  I think the combined answers of all of the candidates indicate that if the elected officials and politicians in this city were less financially beholden to real estate developers in general, and to Forest City Ratner in particular, the question of what to do about the giant problem of Atlantic Yards would be relatively easy to solve.

The solution?: Elected officials, not taking money from Forest City Ratner and not beholden to Ratner, should get tough with Ratner, cut off subsidy to Ratner and take the mega-monopoly away from Ratner to divide it up amongst multiple developers.

As it was, the question asked did not express as fully as possible the severity of the problems to be solved, but for it to do so would have been a challenge when the questions were supposed to take about only 20 seconds to read.  Similarly the candidates were limited to a one-minute answer, so perhaps it is appropriate that their answers have to be consolidated to arrive at a true and complete solution.

The question didn’t convey the following regarding the background scope of the problem:
    •    Development in Brooklyn outside the perimeter of the Atlantic Yards monopoly has proceeded at a far healthier, faster pace than within it as was testified to by the Pratt Institute at a recent public hearing on the subject of redoing the original inadquet environmental impact statement and whether Forest City Ratner should be allowed a substantial extension of time to build the project, 25 years instead of the original ten.  The real amount of time that turns into may actually be on the order of 40 years that was the estimate of a former ESDC head supervising Atlantic Yards.  The logical alternative to this extension of time, considered at the hearing, is to take Atlantic Yards away from Forest City Ratner and bid it out in parcels to multiple developers.                                   

    •    The Fifth Avenue Committee testified at that same hearing about how the mega-project’s delays are decreasing its likely eventual level of affordability.

    •    The difficulty of negotiating the delivery of public benefit from the project is not exclusively related to the evaporation of some of the astroturf organizations that signed the so-called CBA (“Community Benefits Agreement”) so that they are not now around to enforce it: More important is the fact that government is in a weak position to negotiate with the government-created Ratner monopoly because it is a monopoly.
The Candidates' Responses

The first thing to note about the candidates' responses in the video is the visual of Christine Quinn’s response of seemingly deep displeasure that the question is being asked at all (still frame below).  (Quinn is normally adept at smiling pleasantly when challenged.)  Quinn, as Bloomberg’s enforcer at the City Council, stands out amongst the candidates as being most responsible for Atlantic Yards going forward and receiving deep city subsidies.
Quinn's reaction to question about getting benefit out of Atlantic Yards
Something else to note and explain is the reaction of audience measured mainly by the volume of its applause.  Notwithstanding that there were good points being made across the candidate spectrum, not every candidate succeeds in getting an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd with them.  The question itself gets enthusiastic applause.  Liu gets the most enthusiastic reaction.  Albanese gets a good reaction talking about the evils of developers' campaign contributions (as does Quinn when mentioning campaign contribution reform).  There is little such enthusiasm for the expression of the other points however valid.   This can probably be explained by the knowledgeability of the crowd respecting the subject and their familiarity with what candidates like Quinn, de Blasio and Thompson have not done to take on Forest City Ratner in the past.

Here is what the candidates said were the solutions, in the order of their responses. . . .

Sal Albanese- Candidates For City Office Shouldn’t Be Taking Money From Developers Like Ratner  

Sal Albanese’s answer was that candidates for public office should not be taking money from developers like Ratner.  The Atlantic Yards Report article on the forum characterized this as `changing the subject,’ but it is not.  It is the core of the problem when our officials in city office get into those positions by taking money from developers.  And it is a vicious cycle when elected officials dispense real estate subsidy and benefits and that subsidy then comes back in the form of political contributions.

Albanese said he didn’t take money from developers so that he could “make decisions on the merits” and with entities such as “Atlantic Yards’ Forest City Ratner” getting huge tax breaks in exchange for promises be able to “actually follow up on those things, and, if they don't, . . . take some strong action.”  He said: “The bottom line is you've got to be independent to do that.”

Albanese pointed out that Christine Quinn has taken over $1 million in contributions from developers, and Bill de Blasio, the runner-up in that category, has taken in the hundreds of thousands.  In fact, Forest City Ratner held an important fundraiser for de Blasio.

Christine Quinn- Elected Officials Should Enforce Public Benefit Notwithstanding Weird Particularities of The Disappeared Astro-Turf CBA signers

Quinn’s response was the least coherent of the candidates and it did not necessarily sound as if she wanted to be entirely clear about what she was saying.  She referred, perhaps euphemistically, to the “unique problem Forest City Ratner had” with the CBA signers “where the groups don't exist anymore” eliding the way in which these astroturf groups never represented the community to begin with and were formed so as to minimize any benefit that the developer might have to agree to provide.

As Atlantic Yards Report says, Quinn threw in:
    . . .elected officials must continue "to focus on what was committed to, being in the room... to get reports on where things are happening, and to be very clear and transparent on where things are at... hands-on follow-up." However, neither she nor anyone else at the table has said a word about the failure to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor.
“Clear and transparent . . .. hands-on follow-up.” It all sounds good but, as the AYR commentary indicates, Quinn has given no evidence she is for real on this.

Quinn did respond to Albanese accusation about taking money from developers, saying she was proud of the campaign finance system and the way she was raising money.  That might seem outrageous except that Quinn, in typical Quinn fashion, was able to spin this saying, while claiming credit, that the campaign finance system was better than it used to be and better than the situation in Albany where some are talking about using the city system as a model for improvement on the state level.

John Liu- Turn The Heat Up- Recognize How The Promised Benefits of The Atlantic Yards Mega-Project Aren’t For Real

Liu said with emphasis that the answer was to “turn the heat up” on what he referred to as the “so-called Atlantic Yards development project.”  He also said that when the Ratner team came to his office “to explain what's so great for Brooklyn” about the mega-project, what he saw that the benefit was, was just getting “some popcorn vendors” in exchange for people “kicked out of their homes.”  He asked: “After hundreds of millions in city, state, and MTA subsidies. .  was it worth all that public subsidy that was surrendered. The answer, so far, is absolutely not” no matter that there is a “Barclays” arena, no matter whether anyone (even Liu himself) thinks it is beautiful.

Hopefully when Liu says “so far” he would not think that the answer would be to give Forest City Ratner more subsidy to get the job done.  As we’ll get to in a moment, Bill de Blasio had an interesting more specific answer on that score: turning off the subsidy spigot.  But would de Blasio actually enforce this?

Bill Thompson- Atlantic Yards Should Not Be One Big Mega-Project; It Should Be Developed As Multiple Smaller Projects Divided Up Amongst Multiple Developers

Thompson started by recognizing that there are problems with how Community Benefit Agreements are idiosyncratically negotiated outside of a standard or government framework.  What he said next was more important:
As you look at development projects across the city . . . here's a project we're giving to ONE major developer.   Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

If you look at something like Battery Park City and other developments like that, where you've done staged development with multiple developers that build in good times and bad times, and you hold each of them as you move along, that's a better way of doing development.  It gives communities an opportunity, it gives them a full voice.  And it's not up to the organization that's no longer there to monitor and have a seat at the table.
This suggestion that mega-projects like Atlantic Yards should be broken up and bid out as multiple parcels to multiple developers reprises what Thompson was saying in his mayoral campaign four years ago.  The problem then, and the problem now, and one reason Thompson was not getting applause from the crowd at the forum is that Thompson has never gotten to the next obvious step and clearly and specifically said that Atlantic Yards itself should be broken up for such reorganization.  That would be easy to do if Thompson, as next suggested to de Blasio vowed to use the “immense power” of the mayor to just say “no,” saying “no,” for instance, to the developer's desire to have multiple decades to complete the project rather than completing it in the originally promised ten years.

Bill de Blasio- Hold The Developer To The Original Agreement and say “NO” When They Come back For More

Bill de Blasio’s response was bifurcated, the first part being the most relevant to a solution:
Let's be real about the fact that a mayor has immense power to create discipline when it comes to the development community.  And if the developers don't keep their promises to the city I don't think the legal limitations stand in our way, because I assure you the developers will be back time and time again wanting considerations from City Hall.  If they don't keep their end of the bargain the answer from City Hall has to be no.  So I think it is our obligation to make sure that Forest City Ratner fulfills all elements of the original agreement.
The problem is that, just as de Blasio says, developers do keep coming back “time and time again” wanting more from City Hall and Forest City Ratner has been a conspicuous example of this, returning over and over again to substantially whittle away at their obligations and increase their subsidy.  De Blasio, taking money from Forest City Ratner, has never, not during his years in the City Council when it would have mattered, nor during his now almost complete four year term as Public Advocate when it could have also made a big difference, objected to or suggested saying “no” at any one of the multiple junctures that presented such opportunities.

My teeth were on edge when de Blasio proceeded to the second part of his answer, given that de Blasio has never taken any opportunity to say  “no” to Forest City.  Atlantic Yards Report points out that de Blasio did not even object when Forest City Ratner departed from the terms of its original promises to provide “affordable” family-sized units and that is especially pertinent to the fact that de Blasio talks about affordable housing in the second part of his answer.  This second part of his answer is essentially an apologetic promotion for the project, endorsing its extreme density while promoting the myth that it is would actually provide significant affordable housing and would ameliorate rather than amplify the bad side of gentrification.  He said:
We need that affordable housing,  let's be clear, and I say this as a resident of Brownstone Brooklyn, if we don't create large amounts of new affordable housing, this neighborhood will continue to be a place for folks who have a certain level of income.  It will not be the diverse place we love.   It's a problem we have all over the city and as gentrification has proceeded.  And gentrification is obviously a multifaceted reality; it's not all good it's not all bad.  But when reality is that we end up with an economically less diverse community, which is why we must make sure that affordable housing is built at that site.
Not mentioned by de Blasio was how Ratner’s Atlantic Yards activity destroyed existing, newly created housing built by completing developers, destroyed affordable housing without so far creating any, and destroyed affordable housing that under the plan it won’t replace.  Mr. de Blasio failed to show any of the skepticism about the actual benefit of the mega-project shown by Liu, showed no apparent awareness of the Pratt Institute's observation that development outside the periphery of the Atlantic Yards site has been much more productive, robust and healthy than within it.  His reference to Brownstone Brooklyn refers to the concern about how Atlantic Yards has been destructive to the neighborhood fabric of Brooklyn, but the reference to the neighborhood being “for folks who have a certain level of income” and then the counterpointing of this with a reference to diversity as an endorsement of the mega-project, conveys misinformation about the project’s gentrifying effects while seeming to echo the race card that Forest City Ratner played when trying to divide the community.

How Many Candidates Does It take To Solve Atlantic Yards?

It says something about how complex we have allowed the Forest City Ratner Atlantic Yards problem to become that five different mayoral candidates can come up with five different points about what needs to be done to fix the situation and have all of them be to a certain extent correct.  What is scary is that you would have to combine what all of them say together to really have the workable solution:
Elected officials not taking money from Forest City Ratner should say "no" to Forest City Ratner based on failure to perform, recognize that Community Benefit Agreement and the mega-monopoly were never really set up to benefit the public, and take monopoly and the project away from Ratner to break it up into a project with multiple parcels bid out to multiple developers, using the Battery Park City model.
Of Obvious Relevance To Libraries: Forest City Ratner Is Not A Good Partner To Create Public Benefit

Another from Simon Verity's pen
Why is it relevant to the selling off the libraries that Forest City Ratner is not fulfilling it obligations or meeting its promises with respect to Atlantic Yards, and that elected officials are finding it difficult to find ways to get it to do so? . .

. . . One of the most important and obvious reasons is that Brooklyn Public Library officials who say they plan to sell and shrink the Brooklyn Heights Library say they are considering that they will do so by entering into a “partnership” with Forest City Ratner pursuant to which Forest City Ratner would be obligated to furnish a smaller replacement library in exchange for having handed to it the right to develop what may be a 40-story building on the site.  Brooklyn Public Library officials describe the relationship as a “public/private” partnership.  In actuality, we have seen this in action as the kind of developer-driven private/public partnership Forest City Ratner has notorious expertise in abusing, one of the very best examples being the Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly where the functions of government have been commandeered by the Ratner firm.
From the pen of Mark Hurwitt: BPL officials say they want to sign a contract with a developer for the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library be fore the end of Bloomberg's term.  The NYPL also plans to demolish the research stacks of the 42nd Street on a similar time frame

The Brooklyn Heights Library property is city-owned.  The library is the city’s tenant.  There are certainly ample reasons to suspect that Forest City Ratner, which procured from the city the property adjacent to the library in 1988 without bid and with subsidy, will also wind up owning the city-owned library site through the partnership the BPL is saying they are considering entering into with Ratner. Based on what is publicly known, it cannot be said that it is definitely now known that Forest City Ratner will be the firm selected, but the mere fact that the BPL says that they would enter into such a partnership with Ratner indicates that, no matter who they enter into such a contract with, the BPL is has no true interest in having appropriately tight control of the partnership relationship so as to ensure that public benefit is achieved.. . . Otherwise, they would learn from Atlantic Yards and the discussions that were part of the mayoral forum.

As representatives of Citizens Defending Libraries, Carolyn McIntyre (my wife) and I recently met with representatives of the office of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz about the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library and were told that, like it or not, we should expect that Forest City Ratner may wind up as the developer “partner” taking over the library site.  They told us that they did not see how it would even be possible to disqualify Forest City Ratner as the ultimate possible recipient of the site.  It is unfortunate to think they would believe disqualification to be impossible.  I explained that in my own experience as a government official involved in the selection and approval of developers it was entirely possible to disqualify developers based on prior unsatisfactory performance or conduct.

In other words Markowitz’s office didn’t seem to be on the same page with de Blasio’s rhetoric in the mayoral forum that, “If they don't keep their end of the bargain the answer from City Hall has to be `no.'”     And when you are saying “no” to a developer on one project you shouldn’t be thinking of handing them other projects at the same time.

There is another reason you can decline to select a developer: To avoid giving the developer a monopoly or augmenting an existing monopoly.

Here are three prime reasons it is so difficult to get Forest City Ratner to honor its obligations to deliver public benefit:
    •    Private/public partnerships are very difficult to manage effectively to produce maximum benefit for the public, especially if public officials are not adequately motivated to do so, which is where Mr. Albanese’s point about not taking contributions form developers has particular pertinence.  Those partnerships tend to tilt irresistibly toward private benefit.

    •    You can’t negotiate effectively with a monopoly

    •    Forest City Ratner does not seem to be especially inclined to deliver public benefit, which may account for why it seeks to put itself in the two situations of the two bullet points above.
Also of Obvious Relevance To Libraries: Forest City Ratner And Astroturf
From Simon Verity
Here’s another matter relevant to libraries: It relates directly to the question the candidates were asked at the forum.  In the case of Atlantic Yards, delivery of public benefit became less likely because community organizations that were supposed to be representing the community and enforcing public benefit disappeared.  In fact, the problem originated and stemmed from the bigger problem that, from the get-go, the Atlantic Yards controversy swarmed with community groups that were supposed to be representing the community but didn’t really.  While Quinn referred to the “unique problem Forest City Ratner had” in connection with its Atlantic Yards mega-project; that “unique problem”  was a situation that was largely of Forest City Ratner’s own making because, as was seen with Atlantic Yards, part of the Forest City Ratner play book was to pave the way for its mega-project by preceding its unveiling with the creation of astroturf groups that would promote rather than oppose the project.

To be clear, the term “astroturf” refers to groups or campaigns set up to give the appearance of coming from a credible, disinterested, grassroots participant but actually generated, in a masked way, by a sponsor interested in steering to a privately intended outcome.

Alert to that issue, we are witness to a very odd situation in the case of the planned sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library: Two groups supposedly representing the community are both taking identical positions, saying they accept the sale and shrinkage of the library.  They are the Brooklyn Heights Association and a small recently shrinking group (now with under 200 members) called “Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library, Inc.”

Stepping into the breach, Citizens Defending Libraries sprang up and mobilized quickly in February to oppose the Brooklyn Height library sale and shrinkage as soon as it as announced. 

Explanation of the Brooklyn Heights Association's implicit support for the sale and shrinkage of the library is a case unto itself, probably having much to do with the power of certain of the wealthy elite in Brooklyn Heights and the influence within such circles of David Offensend, a former president of the Brooklyn Heights Association and now as Chief Operating Officer of the NYPL, one of the key and most central figures behind the city-wide real estate deals selling off libraries going all the way back to the announcement of the Donnell Library sale in 2007.  The BPL is in some respects a technically different library system, but I have been told that Offensend, talking with locals, refers approvingly to the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library using personal possessive pronouns.   But even while the position of the Brooklyn Heights Association must be examined as its own special case, the Brooklyn Heights Association takes cover by saying that it adopted its position in support of the position of the very small “Friends” group.

When plans for the sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library were first unveiled on January 29, 2013 (they had been in the works for a long time prior), the BPL chose to reveal them to the public at a “Friends” group meeting.  The almost immediate condoning of the sale and shrinkage by the “Friends” group is suspicious and there is substantial indicia of an astroturfing effort involving the  “Friends” group that needs to be studied.  See: Saturday, April 13, 2013, Condoning The Sale and Shrinkage Of The Brooklyn Heights Library, Does The Brooklyn Heights Associations Think Of Friends Group As A Fig Leaf? It Should Think Again.
If, indeed, Forest City Ratner is the developer in the wings waiting to take over the Brooklyn Heights Library site then there is all the more reason to study lessons from Atlantic Yards about Forest City Ratner’s play book of astroturf tactics.

Also of Relevance: Do Public Subsidies From Atlantic Yards Flow Back To Attack The Public’s Ownership of Other Assets Like Libraries?
From Simon Verity
In connection with Sal Albanese’s commentary we noted the vicious cycle that occurs when elected officials dispense real estate subsidy and benefits and that subsidy then comes back in the form of political contributions. .. .  followed by more subsidy flowing out from the officials who get elected.  There is another related vicious cycle to worry about. . . .

. . .  As John Liu said people were “kicked out of their homes” to create Atlantic Yards.  Businesses were also evicted and the city turned over public streets, sidewalks and avenues to the politically connected developer.  That private property was taken through the developer’s abuse of eminent domain.  In theory the abused eminent domain endowed the land turned over with public characteristics when it was given to the developer for the developer's private use.

Despite all of this and copious other public subsidies, the private profit from the so-called “Barclays” arena is unrestricted: Ratner as the developer/subsidy collector owning the arena can charge any price it desires for tickets, making as much profit as possible.

Where does all this unrestricted profit go?  There is nothing to prevent it from going into financing and laying the groundwork for the next set of seizures whereby politicians and elected officials can steer publicly owned or controlled assets into private hands.  So when we see that the Brooklyn Heights Library is under siege because its valuable real estate is craved by a developer we must ask whether profits from the “Barclays” arena are, behind the scenes, funding the attack.  The same thing with the attack on Long Island College Hospital: Forest City Ratner may, or may not, be the real estate company that expects to get LICH property that the real estate industry is obviously after there but there are certainly rumors that the Ratner firm is among the sharks circling in the water with that hope.

As the real estate industry seems to know no bounds to its attacks or methods this is a very dangerous vicious cycle indeed.

So all of this explains why a mayoral forum discussion of the government’s difficulty getting Forest City Ratner to deliver benefit at Atlantic Yards is extremely relevant to the subject of the protection of libraries.
Citizens Defending Libraries outside the mayoral forum on April 3rd
Where do the mayoral candidates stand on the selling off of libraries, shrinkage of the library system and the intentional underfunding of the city’s increasingly used libraries as an excuse to sell them off in these special real estate deals?. . .

. . . April 2nd, the day before the mayoral forum, Citizens Defending Libraries issued an open letter to all the mayoral candidates asking them for their support of its campaign.  So far:
    •    John Liu and Sal Albanese have been very supportive and have each come to more than one Citizens Defending Libraries event.  Comptroller Liu coordinated with CDL to hold a City Hall press conference event to decry the sale of libraries, at which Sal Albanese also spoke.

    •    Randy Credico has delivered a short message that he stands with CDL

    •    Citizens Defending Libraries met with a representative of Bill de Blasio but so far not heard back from de Blasio on his position.  Twice recently de Blasio has been personally reminded while attending mayoral forums that he needs to get back to CDL.

    •    Bill Thompson has twice been reminded while attending mayoral forums that he needs to get back to CDL.   He says he will, but so far hasn’t.

    •    At one mayoral forum Quinn gave her assurance that her staff would get back to Citizens Defending Libraries on this subject that day, but that didn’t happen.

    •    Nothing to report on the Republican Candidates and Adolfo Carrión, about getting back to CDL.
Let’s conclude by turning the question around: Based on where they are on the subject of libraries, which candidate would you predict would best and most appropriately address problematic situations like Atlantic Yards?
City Hall Citizens Defending Libraries press conference with Comptroller Liu, Albanese and Assemblyman Micha Kellner

No comments: