Fans For Fair Play
Challenging Bruce Ratner’s Brooklyn Atlantic Yards project

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Memo to Sheldon Silver 

To: Sheldon Silver, New York Assembly Speaker
From: Fans For Fair Play
Date: Monday, December 18, 2006

It's that time, again...

A controversial PACB vote.

You, George and Joe -- or rather, your reps -- will be meeting on Wednesday to consider, among other things, Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards project. Officially, there's no word on whether it's even on the agenda. But, people are betting it is...in some form or another.

It's a big deal, Sheldon...a very, very big deal. It makes the West Side Stadium look like a Little League field. Ratner's 20 skyscrapers, basketball arena and enough pitfulls to last a lifetime have mostly flown under the radar for the last three years. Now, finally, it's all caught in the spotlight.

So are you.

It's the perfect storm of wielding power while having it wielded against you. You have the power to approve, halt, or reconfigure the Atlantic Yards. Conversely, the media and the the political establishment have the power to beat the crap out of you -- on the editorial pages, at the water coolers, in Albany and here in NYC.

You've already proven you're not scared of bullies. You rightfully used your PACB vote to tell Pataki, Bloomberg and Doctoroff that the West Side Stadium/Javits Center scheme was ridiculous. Ditto for the Moynihan train station project, citing the lack of firm financial data.

This in spite of the enormous pressure put upon you by Pataki, developers, sports teams, local and national politicians, construction unions, the Reverend Al Sharpton, sports fans (many not living in New York City or apparently caring that their tax dollars would have funded another rich team owner's stadium) and the always loud and uninformed newspaper editorial boards of this town.

Enormous pressure.

And now, with the Atlantic Yards in front of you, it's happening again.

We urge you not to fall into the trap that so many local politicians have -- the fear of being painted as an "obstructionist."

("Naysayer," "antiquarian," "contrarian" "hater of poor people," "against jobs and housing," and "NIMBYist" are some of the other unsavory labels.)

By voting against Ratner's boondoggle, you'd be none of those things. Not even close.

You will NOT be the man who kept Brooklyn from being great -- Brooklyn is already great.

You will NOT be the man that prevented jobs and affordable housing from being created in Brooklyn -- you'll be opening the process so that far better, fiscally smarter projects can be built.

You will NOT be anti-union -- there will be development over the rail yards, and with your help, Brooklyn can forge a project that will provide real numbers of union jobs instead of Ratner's inflated figures. (Also, Ratner himself is anti-union -- his office/retail developments are overwhelmingly non-union workforces.)

You will NOT be an obstructionist -- you will be preventing obstructions placed in the public's way by powerful interests trying to subvert the process.

You will NOT be the guy who stopped the area from being developed -- the genie's out of the lamp, and you will have set in motion events which could actually lead to a project with full community input...a development mindful of Brooklyn's needs, not a single politically-connected developer's desires.

You will NOT be using the PACB to corrupt the process -- you will be preventing Pataki, Gargano, and Ratner from doing just that.

You will NOT be a selfish bastard trying to tear down George Pataki and causing his legacy irreparable harm -- selfish motiviations like "legacy" pale when the peoples' needs are at stake.

You will NOT be the terrible things editorial boards will say about you -- instead, you would simply be a politician who took his job so seriously that he did the one thing he was elected to do -- protect the citizenry's collective interests.

Fans For Fair Play doesn't know you personally. We don't know if you're an even-keel guy or if you have a vindictive streak. There are certainly personal reasons for you to terminate Ratner's project with extreme prejudice. Pataki has said nasty things about you for years, and the ESDC's Gargano -- who you correctly called "the most corrupt member of [Pataki's] administration" and a "dismal failure" as head of the ESDC -- shot back with nasty vague references to your ethics.

Worst of all, Pataki tried to bribe Albany lawmakers in the just concluded session. The governor, as you know, tried coercion to gain votes for final bills in the waning moments of his governorship. The penalty for not going George's way? No future payraises. We both know how bad Albany can be, but this was an achinlgy-obvious Boss Tweed chokehold of the worst kind.

The rough stuff could be the reason you vote against the Atlantic Yards superblocks.

But we don't think that would be the reason. Rather, we believe you'll do it because, simply, it's the right thing to do. There are a number of compelling reasons:

Finances. You cited spotty fiscal information for voting down the Moynihan project. If you think Moynihan was spotty, get a load of Atlantic Yards.

Ratner illegally refused to include a future-earnings statement in his bid for the MTA's rail yards at the site. His numbers have wildly fluctuated over the last three years. And the ESDC's latest numbers show a loss of nearly a half-billion dollars in hoped-for city and state revenues from the project without saying why. Just, you know, gone -- that's taxpayer money going poof.

The city's luxury housing market, the expected money-making engine for Atlantic Yards, has slowed down drastically. Three yeas ago, it was assumed by the cioty and state development corporations that office space was badly needed in Brooklyn -- a bad misjudgment, according to the Downtown Brooklyn Partnerhip's Joe Chan, fresh out of Doctoroff's employ.

Today's edition of the New York Times worded it thusly:

Both Forest City Ratner and the development corporation have so far kept the project’s financial projections secret. No one else knows how much the developer expects to make from the Atlantic Yards, how big it needs to be to turn a profit, or how much profit will be needed to sustain its more popular elements, including about 2,250 units of moderately priced housing.

Eileen Larrabee, a spokeswoman for Mr. Silver, described it as "very cursory information, basically what’s available on the Web."

She added, "We have asked for some detailed financial and economic information that has not yet been provided."

That's more than worrisome. It's a recipe for disaster.

The Atlantic Yards is a $4.2 billion project that would be handed $2 billion in taxpayer money. Nearly half the budget for a privately-held, for-profit development extremely short on job creation and affordable housing (see below) would be funded by city and state taxpayers.

Yet its financial data is "secret." Secret! The West Side Stadium and Moynihan projects' finances were public, which gave you the tools to vote against those houses of cards.

Jobs and Housing. Forest City Ratner has made job creation and affordable housing the centerpiece of the Atlantic Yards. Sadly for all of us, FCR will fail badly on both counts.

Jobs: At the outset, Bruce Ratner promised Brooklyn 10,000 newly-created jobs. The number, incredibly, is now down to 375 -- a 96% job loss. Accidentally, that's good for your district, Sheldon -- it's likely many companies would have relocated from lower Manhattan to the likely discount-rent districts of Downtown Brooklyn and, further south, the Atlantic Yards. Some still might...certainly the mayor, anxious to avoid embarrasment over empty commercial space at the Atlantic Yards, will lobby hard for companys with back-office jobs to relocate to Brooklyn. (The Downtown Brooklyn plan is also expected to target other commercial districts throughout the city.)

Construction jobs have also been slashed. The oft-touted figure of 15,000 jobs is actually a small-print fabrication. FCR's language is "15,000 construction job years," meaning 1,500 at any one time on the job site. Depending on the wild fluctuations of a project this big, the bulding trades unions will find they've been duped -- not to mention those many thousands who believe they'd get work at Ratner's construction site. Following FCR's past Brooklyn projects, many construction jobs would fail to go to local residents.

The job-creation-cost figures for the Atlantic Yards, based on data that has been de-classified by FRC, is four times the city's average -- rendering Atlantic Yards' job-creation an incredibly wasteful and inefficient program.

FCR argues that the loss of jobs is caused by the increased number of housing units. But that's a red herring, because...

Housing: ...87% of Ratner's Atlantic Yards apartments would be priced beyond the reach of low-income Brooklynites -- those making Brooklyn's average median income or less. Further, Ratner's first stage of construction, scheduled for a 2011 completion date, would create less than 200 "affordable" units while building nearly 3,000 luxury and market-rate units. "Affordable," according to FCR figures, would mean apartments priced as high as $3,000 a month.

Brooklynites most desperately in need of affordable housing -- and who have been targetted by FCR's relentless p.r. campaigns -- would see virtually no benefits from this project.

We mentioned above that the Atlantic Yards' primary source of income -- and the biggest component that would prevent taxpayers from taking a bath on the project -- is luxury housing stock. With the luxury market flattening, it's unclear if Ratner could reimburse us for our massive outlay of tax breaks, infrastructure money, loans, building materials tax forgiveness, privatized streets, commercial properties turned into private "open space," housing subsidies and PILOT loans.

As with Atlanic Yards' bloated job-creation-cost figures, Ratner's low-income housing stock -- what little there is -- stands to be a great waste. FCR's units would be two to four times higher than what non-profit low-income housing groups are getting it done for these days.

Community Pain. This project has caused great rifts in Brooklyn. The scars may not ever fully heal. Rather than create a template for community-involved development that benefits all, Ratner's machinations are a primer for how to divide neighborhoods, exploit fear and racial mistrust, and avoid community oversight mechanisms that grew out of empowerment battles like the Ocean Hill-Brownsville struggle. Local community boards have been marginalized, as have concerned citizens at the few public events FCR has deemed to be part of.

Though the Times has referred to the staging of "hundreds of meetings and hearings" by only elected officials or groups that publicly support the Atlantic Yards. For the biggest single development in Brooklyn's history, FCR has met pitifully few times with community groups, clergy, grassroots organizations and the legions of concerned citizens who run the gamut from "flat-out opposed" to those simply wanting questions answered before they make a decision. Of those few public meetings, most were called by elected officials or local organizations who hoped that FCR would accept their invitations. Often, FCR has declined to appear at all.

The strategically engineered chasm between FCR and the communities-at-large is due in large part to FCR's insistance that it avoid New York City's more stringent review process. Bruce Ratner urged George Pataki, his law-school friend, to take control of the project, using Gargano's ESDC to faciliate -- a cozy arrangement since ESDC's rental of office space in Ratner's failing Atlantic Center mall helped bail it out.

Sports. Sports stadiums and arenas are notorious money-losers. If they made money, the wealthy would be lining up to build them. Instead, it's taxpayers who are forced to cough up the dough.

FCR's own papers admit that the arena would be a money-loser -- cold discomfort to both taxpayers and legislators. It should be, anyway. FCR has announced that between 235 and 270 events a year would be held the arena. Fiscally, this would run up the bill for police overtime, sanitation, infrastructural wear-and-tear, additional security outlays in our new age of terror concerns, all the while losing money -- putting FCR further away from fulfilling its PILOT obligations to the city and state. Either the city and state will lose money on the arena, or Ratner will -- preventing him from paying back the taxpayers.

Forget for a moment Ratner's terribly misguided appropriation of Brooklyn's sports history and mythology, mostly played out by referencing the loss of the Dodgers fifty years ago. Fiscally, the arena does more damage than just operating up to its neck in red ink. By diverting billions of public dollars into the Atlantic Yards, youth sports programs would continue to go wanting for funding and better facilities. If Markowitz, Bloomberg and Ratner truly cared about Brooklyn's sporting youth and adult amateur programs, they'd redirect funding away from Atlantic Yards and into dozens of state-of-the-art sports facilities, program administration, and after-school initiatives.

Oh, and as you've heard, the New York Rangers have just announced their plans to bring a minor-league team to Brooklyn. Rather than locate it at the Ratner arena, the junior Blueshirts plan to play at the new rink at Floyd Bennett Field -- precisely the idea of spreading athleticism throughout the borough, rather than concentrating it in one location rarely available to anyone but top-rank millionaire pros.

Open Competition. The ESDC's refusal to solicit a wide-range of bids for the project, and the MTA's acceptance of Ratner's bid that was far lower than another developer's, are but two examples the constant fiscal squandering during the project's three years. FCR was clearly a favored son during this virtual no-bid process. A case recently filed by local plaintiffs will determine whether this violated the U.S. Constitution, as well as local and state laws. Regardless, the lack of competitive bidding has cost New York City and State hundreds of millions of dollars. A failed Atlantic Yards could cost billions. FCR has done nothing to assure us that it won't fail.

Environment. The Atlantic Yards would bring an additional 23,000 vehicular trips a day to area, endangering residents and exacerbating local asthma rates in neighborhoods already labeled hotspots by city healthworkers. There are grave concerns about sewage runoff, areas of Fort Greene constantly in shadow, and the massive infusion of tens of thousands of people who would live, work, and commute through what would would be become the nation's most dense confluence of census tracts.

The money needed to address these problems is unaccounted for. If the project is built, it would require another colossal outlay of public funding to even begin fixing these issues. These wouldn't be October suprises, but line-item shocks every day of the year.

A prime reason to at least delay the PACB's vote -- if not outright vote against it -- is the ESDC's woefully inadequate Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). Countless facts, figures, and issues are wrong, incomplete or incorrectly compiled. Many citizens concerns are simply not addressed. Though the FEIS is thousands of pages long, we believe it actually fails to adequately address most of the key fiscal issues necessary to vote with confidence on the project.

Local Elected Officials' Recommendations. The local Assemblymember for the district, Hakeem Jeffries, has urged you to reschedule the PACB's vote on Atlantic Yards until the full facts and figures can be gathered, analyzed and digested. Many other local and state officials have urged the PACB to wait until full disclosure by FCR and the ESDC.

On top of that, we also urge the PACB to wait until legal cases filed in both state and federal courts have been heard and ruled upon. This is not a delay tactic. Rather, it's an issue of fairness and fiscal responsibility. We hope to guard against a sadly frequent turn of events: a project gains approval and funding, even though litigation is pending -- only for the courts to rule against the project. The result: empty lots, wasted funding, and no clear direction or mechanism for responsible development. (This sad end-point is also reached when a fiscally-dicey project is hurriedly green-lighted, only to see the developer's financing evaporate.)

Sheldon...our city has been under bombardment in recent years -- big, flashy projects geared more toward governors' and mayors' legacies than improving eight million lives collectively. The Olympics...the West Side Stadium...the Javits Center...the 7 train expansion...The new Yankee Stadium...the new Mets stadium...the Greenpoint/Williamsburg rezoning...the Brooklyn Bridge Park...and the utter failure to replace the World Trade Center and put back on track Lower Manhattan's pre 9/11 aspirations.

Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards is not only more of the same, it is the city's nadir. His machinations in your district should raise banners -- a broken agreement with Pace University followed by the most expensive public school in the history of the city -- the school coming only after community pressure for Ratner to start addressing all the problems his lower Manhattan tower would bring. Oddly enough, that was Ratner's bon mot to Atlantic Yards critics -- a school that still wouldn't come close to providing enough school desks for the area.

Speaking of concessions, Ratner has made none regarding size and scale. The project is virtually the same size now as when it was announced in late 2003 -- 8,000,000 square feet, the most dense development in the United States of America. FCR's announcements of a 6-8 percent shaving came only after they increased the project by over a million square feet mid-way through the process. Ratner's contention that he and architect Frank Gehry have listend to community concerns over the project's scale is a myth.

Conventional wisdom in this town says that you'll eventually vote for the Atlantic Yards project. In the past, you've said you basically support it, that the Atlantic Yards are "worthy of the area." Respectfually, we don't agree. We don't believe it's worthy of any area, anywhere.

There are vast amounts of data that shine the necessarily harsh light of honest investigation upon Ratner's project. Ironically, at the core, there is nothing at all -- a black hole where Ratner's most important figures are kept under lock-and-key. You must demand those figures, and have them examined by independent analysts -- not those hired by the ESDC, but those with no other stake in the matter except the truth of things.

The truth of things...a slippery-slope designation, to be sure. In each of our lives, we often know truth not by what it tells us, but how we got to it.

Sheldon...our future depends on you standing up -- not for or against heroes and enemies, but simply high enough to grab hold of the facts.

Twice now you've been excoriated for voting against big projects, cast in a Beelzebubian realm of superheated evil. You knew that wasn't the case. You knew that you were simply doing the job you were elected to do -- fight for the citizens of this state, the people who asked you fight and keep fighting.

Why is the Atlantic Yards vote any different?

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