Eye On The Politics: Atlantic Yards Project

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For all the good that they do, occasionally, local elected officials do something that makes you want to say, “Hmmm?” Last Sunday, State Senator Eric Adams teamed with Assemblymen Hakeem Jeffries and Karim Camara to call “Foul” over “Failure of Barclay Arena Developer to Score on Community Givebacks.” Claiming that “many of the community benefits promised by the developers — including job creation, a public safety plan and the inclusion of affordable housing – have failed to materialize,” the trio announced “their plans to introduce legislation that establishes a subsidiary corporation for Atlantic Yards oversight and development.” The group calls on Kenneth Adams, president of the Empire State development Corporation, to “implement oversight changes in the Atlantic Yards development project” which “will ensure transparency and accountability to protect public resources invested in the project.”
State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a staunch critic of the Atlantic Yards development as it was proposed and funded, was not invited to the presser. Neither were Assembly members James Brennan or Joan Millman. Montgomery is the Senate sponsor of the bill; Brennan and Millman are co-sponsors of the Assembly bill. Oddly, Adams has not yet co-sponsored the Senate bill.
Where was the concern expressed this week by Adams, Jeffries, and Camara during five years of displacements, eminent domain law suits, and skepticism from other elected officials and community members over Forest City Ratner’s inflated job and affordable housing estimates. Why is legislation calling for “changes in the governance of the Atlantic Yards Project, the development that includes Barclay Arena, future home of the New York Nets” being announced now?
Adams said, “We have been extremely patient with this project. This has been a difficult project that has uprooted this community. We have been patient and attempted to come to a meeting of the minds. I don’t think you can find three more elected officials who have attempted to be a voice of reason around this project. If we are saying we are fed up, then clearly the developer has gone too far.”
“I supported this project in 2006, much to the chagrin of many of the advocates and neighborhood groups who were in opposition from the very beginning,” said Camara. “I did not support this because of the basketball arena. $225 million in City funds and $100 million plus was not supposed to be for basketball. It was a public interest that was supposed to be adhered to — 14-15,000 construction jobs, 10,000 permanent jobs – yet we have not seen anything close to that number. All we continue to get are false promises.”
Incidentally, Camara received campaign donations in 2006 from individuals close to Forest City Ratner developer Bruce Ratner — Michael Ratner, Bruce Ratner’s brother ($1,000) and Karen Ranucci, Michael’s wife ($2,500). In 2009, Camara received $3,000 from Bruce Ratner himself and an additional $3,000 from Pamela Lipkin, known to be Bruce’s girlfriend. In 2006, Karen Ranucci gave $3,500 to Adams’ campaign; Michael Ratner gave $1,500.
Over the years, Jeffries has not received campaign contributions from Bruce Ratner or his immediate family members. Jefries statement at the presser might explain why. “This project was approved before Sen. Adams and myself were in office, and perhaps a few months after Assemblyman Camara had come into office. My only official act as it relates to this project – I wasn’t even sworn in at the time – was to write a letter to Speaker Silver urging him to suspend the PACV vote because there was inadequate information that the project would actually deliver the benefits that were intended,” Jeffries said. “I expressed a great deal of skepticism from the very beginning. Unfortunately we were not in office at the time to take part in the negotiations that took place prior to the PACV vote in December of 2006.”
Adams added that he “was never supportive of the community benefits agreement. I don’t believe developers should sit down with handpicked community members and decide how they’re going to shape a project. I am in support of government using the bodies that are in place to make sure developers do their jobs. This should have never circumvented the city Council. He (Ratner) should have never been given a sweetheart deal getting this project the way he did.”
The expressed frustration seems to be about jobs, something critics have been concerned about for years. “Our goal was to see jobs and housing come to this community, to bring in apprenticeship programs for young people who live in this area. Their tax dollars went into this project,” said Adams. He anticipated “prosperity and growth. We saw just the opposite. We are not happy with that. As legislators we are saying enough is enough.”
“There should be an accounting, particularly of the jobs. What I find most distressing is there are existing members of the Carpenters Union who I represent who put their names on the list and can’t get on the site. That was the reason why I supported this project, so that we can create much-needed jobs. There was supposed to be a pre-apprentice program. They were supposed to get training. They were supposed to get a skill. Not just have a job for the duration of construction but have a career. Those promises have not been fulfilled,” said Camara. “All we have is a basketball arena.”
“This is a project that has promised much and has delivered little. At the onset of this project, there were over 14,000 jobs that were promised. Less than 100 people from this community have received meaningful employment. There were 2,000 units of affordable housing that were promised. We haven’t seen a single unit of affordable housing. There were businesses – women and minority owned companies – that were promised an opportunity at economic success. The women and minority owned businesses that have gotten contracts appears to be few and far between,” Jeffries said. “It was supposed to be a field of dreams; it has turned into a graveyard of broken promises. It didn’t have to be this way. This should have been a meaningful public/private partnership.”
With $200 million in city funds and $100 million in state funding already committed, a waiver of the land use process, zoning changes, displacements, numerous lawsuits, a stadium that is half built, and an extended timeline of up to 25 additional years in which to complete 16 buildings of affordable housing, Adams believes now is the time to promote legislation to provide structural oversight to the project.
The bill in question is S1597/A1820, first introduced in 2010. It authorizes the Urban Development Corporation to create a subsidiary corporation for the purpose of the future planning, design, and oversight of the Atlantic Yards land use improvement and civic project. The purpose of this bill is to establish a project oversight entity, to supervise the Atlantic Yards Project in order to create increased accountability and oversight in the project’s governance.
This is a second iteration of legislation to provide oversight. The first, the Atlantic Yards Development Trust bill introduced in 2009 was designed to supervise the Atlantic Yards Project in order to create increased accountability and oversight in the project’s governance. It was killed by indicted former State Senator Pedro Espada during the two years of Democratic control of the Senate.
The current version of the bill was introduced during the 2011 legislative session. A vote was taken on June 24 at the end of the Assembly legislative session in the dead of the night. Although it passed, the Senate was unable to vote on it because it had concluded its legislative session a couple of hours prior to the Assembly vote.
Now that Governor Cuomo’s State of the State Address has officially kicked off the current legislative session, the bill has been re-introduced by Senator Montgomery and Assemblyman Jeffries. Created by the legislature, the bill would create a subsidiary corporation under the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), but authority to compel implementation rests with the governor. Behind the scenes, it is hoped that Governor Cuomo would add oversight of Atlantic Yards to his budget.
“We are not asking anything different than what other communities have gotten. The Brooklyn Bridge project had subsidiary corporation. The Moynihan Station project had a subsidiary corporation. The World Trade Center had a subsidiary. Queens West retail and housing project had a subsidiary corporation,” said Jeffries. “Why is our community being treated differently? We are here today to demand that the Empire State Development Corporation step in, step up and do their job.”
Adams pointed out that “we have a new governor that understands the importance of employment. He is moving the state in a new direction that is built on employment.” Jeffries added, “We are going to continue to forcefully advocate with Gov. Cuomo the importance of this bill. The pathway to success is through support of this administration.”
“This is a litmus test for our new governor. One of the major problems we have had historically is that too many people have used taxpayers dollars to give promises and did not deliver. (The governor) is against that. This is a perfect opportunity. This developer (FCR) has become a poster child of how we will not do business with taxpayer’s dollars,” said Adams. “And now we need to send a very clear and strong message.”