Thursday, February 16, 2012

City Limits package on Atlantic Yards: Bertha Lewis accepts Forest City's failure to live up to housing promises, still thinks AY will live up to its billing

City Limits, via its new Brooklyn Bureau, has published a package of stories on Atlantic Yards. While the package serves as a reasonable overview, recognizing considerable uncertainty about neighborhood impacts and jobs/reveneus, the publication--with some contributors new to the project--misses the chance to dig in some ways.

Take Traffic, Noise & Hope: Atlantic Yards Still Elicits Mixed Views. Of course it does: residents living near the arena are understandably alarmed by the prospect of a surface parking lot and traffic, while business owners, however dismayed by construction, understandably welcome new crowds.

That's not the issue. The issue is whether the state, in overriding zoning to squeeze this project into the northern section of Prospect Heights, bordering--at least on two edges--a residential district, bent over backwards too much for developer Forest City Ratner.

That's what the battle February 14 in court--unmentioned in this package--was all about.

False framing on housing issue

The article headlined Opinions Harden Over Atlantic Yards Housing could better have been framed, perhaps as "Forest City Ratner Reneges on Promises, Maintains Support from Advocate Lewis (Who Owes Them)."

This issue is not "opinions" but accountability.

Without citing my initial coverage, the article points out that, only 12 percent of the units planned for the first tower would be two-bedroom units, though Forest City, in the Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed with New York ACORN, promised 50 percent of the affordable units (in square footage) would be two- and three-bedroom units.

The article states:
Critics are opposed to the plan because it threatens to set a precedent of perpetual transience.
“You have a significant number of families with children in our community,” says City Councilwoman Leticia James, a staunch opponent of the project since the beginning. “And if you build studios and one-bedrooms, that’s geared toward single adults, not families. What we need is stability and families that will have a nexus to the community.”
That's another example of what Jay Rosen calls the "View from Nowhere," the false middle. Why must "opponents" say Forest City Ratner is not living up to its promises, "guaranteed" (in the developer's lingo) in the Community Benefits Agreement?

Why not point out that it shouldn't be "critics" who have to explain the developer's failure to live up to their promises but the Independent Compliance Monitor required by the Community Benefits Agreement?

Why not point out that ACORN's Bertha Lewis, who signed the MOU, said in a May 2006 Courier-Life article that the CBA calls for an independent monitoring body that “does not have a dog in this fight"?

Shouldn't CBA signatories, citizens, and the media at large try to hold the developer accountable? Why does it have to be "critics"?

Lewis defends Ratner

The City Limits article states:
Supporters of the project seem resigned to the fact that the housing will be dramatically different from what was initially promised. Rather than cast aspersions on the community benefits agreement, former ACORN head Bertha Lewis blames economic conditions and litigation for reshaping the Atlantic Yards deal.
Rather than cast aspersions on the community benefits agreement? The aspersions shouldn't be cast on the CBA, but the failure to enforce it--and the failure of CBA signatories such as Lewis to enforce it.

Also, consider that, when Bruce Ratner announced the modular plan last November, he acknowledged that Atlantic Yards--with high-rise towers, and union-built affordable housing--had never been viable as proposed.

Lewis is now president of The Black Institute, but the MOU she signed required her to publicly support the project. And national ACORN, which Lewis headed after leading the New York chapter, was bailed out by Forest City with a $1.5 million grant/loan.

Both those obligations go unmentioned in this article.

The bottom line

The article states:
Lewis says she speaks with Ratner two or three times a month. She sometimes frames the housing issue in racial terms, claiming that some who opposed the Community Benefits Agreement privately lambasted the idea of having a “high-rise ghetto.” She remains convinced the project will live up to its billing.
How can she be convinced that it will live up to its billing, if Forest City has failed to honor its promises so far?

If Forest City does revolutionize building in the city by using modular construction, maybe it will live up to its billing--but not in terms of construction jobs and new tax revenues.

Maybe the lesson is: next time, get an affordable housing commitment up front, including the developer's financial contributions.

And lobby for changes in infrastructure and building methods/rules that will create more lower-cost housing than relying on a single developer.

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