On a January day last year, about 30 activists walked into a windowless boardroom, high over downtown Brooklyn, belonging to Forest City Ratner Companies.
“Is Bertha going to start something?” one of the Forest City executives asked the group. The activists—members and employees of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now—were more used to knocking on tenement doors in East New York than being put such a question about their executive director across an oaken conference table.
Bertha—Bertha Lewis, ACORN’s colorfully dressed leader—did start something that January day: a mutually beneficial relationship with one of the city’s largest real-estate developers which has become so close that she recently kissed Forest City chief Bruce Ratner on the lips. In public. And Mayor Michael Bloomberg for good measure.
Bertha and Bruce represent the new synergy powering some of New York’s grandest development schemes: the picketer and the developer, happy together. And if the scene seems less incongruous than Jane Jacobs taking out a parks contract to plant the median of Robert Moses’ proposed Westway, that’s simply because the economics—and politics—of development in New York City have changed irrevocably since then.
Bertha Lewis is politely described—when she is described politely—as “a forceful advocate for her causes.” A former Off Broadway producer, the 54-year-old Ms. Lewis retains a flair for the dramatic, and the kisses are just the latest performance.
Her last run-in with Forest City was in 2000, a few years after the developer opened up a mall just a mile away. Ms. Lewis picketed the mall for several days, until the developer agreed to pressure the retail tenants to hire through a hiring hall that ACORN had set up for its members.
Ms. Lewis brings such moral authority to Mr. Ratner’s plan to build 7.5 million square feet of apartments and offices, along with an arena for the Nets basketball team, that it will be hard for city and state officials to do anything to block it.
The M.T.A., which owns the land on which much of the project will be built, may vote on selling the land as early as next week.
In return, Ms. Lewis gets a chance to enact the type of mixed-income housing scheme she has been trying to turn the city on to for several years, and she will probably get a substantial marketing contract for her organization as well. Along the way, however, she has attacked her adversaries with such disdain—accusing them of being (gasp!) gentrifiers and white liberals—that some of her old comrades in the community-organizing world wonder whether she has gone too far.
Forest City wanted to include affordable housing in its Atlantic Yards project, but its proposal—setting aside one-fifth of the units for low-income families—struck ACORN as doing nothing for the wide swath of working people who were getting priced out of Brooklyn. When Ms. Lewis entered MetroTech that January day, she was fresh off a mildly successful campaign to convince the city to change the way it subsidizes mixed-income housing. In 2002, the city’s Housing Development Corporation began offering extra-special financing—1 percent loans—for developers who were willing to set aside 20 percent of their units for low-income tenants and another 30 percent for a rather generous version of the middle class: those with incomes of up to $109,000 for a family of four.
But ACORN believed that those guidelines resulted in “bunching”: The entire middle-income quota tended to come in just under the maximum, so that in one building one could find the very poor, the affluent and the well-off who were renting at market rates, but no one much in between.
Ms. Lewis wanted to change all that. Her plan—hatched with her housing expert, Ismene Speliotis—was to divide up the non-market portion of these complexes into five sections, each with a different income slice, from about $18,400 to $94,200. Rent would initially be set at 30 percent of the household’s income, and would then increase along with other rent-stabilized apartments in the city.
ACORN was only able to persuade the city to set aside $25 million for a tiered-income housing pilot project, so Atlantic Yards represented a chance to convince a private developer to do what the city wouldn’t. (Forest City will ask for city Housing Development Corporation bonds, however.) By the time Ms. Lewis had finished her presentation in the 11th-floor boardroom, Mr. Ratner was sitting in the back, grinning, but with his fingers crossed. “He was saying, ‘I hope you know what you’re talking about. I don’t want you pulling my chain here,’” said Debbie Tiamfook, an ACORN member who attended the meeting.
But ACORN succeeded, then and in subsequent meetings, in convincing Forest City—which is one of ACORN’s top donors, giving about $20,000 a year for its fund-raiser, according to Ms. Lewis—that it could both make a profit and set a model for public policy. The development company had done enough work in Brooklyn to know the value of an important local ally, and so it gave ACORN pretty much everything it asked for. “Usually we don’t give up our final position when we start negotiating, but this time we threw all of that out the window,” Ms. Lewis recalled. “There was never this sense of an opening gambit, and they never played around with us either.” This May, as part of the housing agreement that occasioned the kisses, ACORN formally agreed to appear at events promoting the project—although, in reality, Ms. Lewis has already been doing that for a year. The fight she encountered was unlike any other she had fought in her life: Her enemies turned out to be not crass developers or greedy bankers or stubborn city officials, but the most grassy of the grassroots: neighbors and churches and a local City Councilwoman who objected to Forest City’s proposed swath of towers, so large and shiny that it would rise up out of the plain of Brooklyn three-flats like the City of Oz.
Ms. Lewis likes to characterize these opponents, as she did last month on WNYC radio’s Brian Lehrer Show, as “brownstone folk,” as opposed to the “black and brown people” in the public-housing developments about half a mile away whose cause she champions. She dismisses the black ministers who are opposing the project, or reserving judgment on it, as a mere handful of individuals out to get a piece of the action. (She also neglects to mention the congregations they represent.) The Brooklyn Eagle quoted her as saying: “Whenever you have a small group of white liberals running and screaming about something, people think it’s important.” When asked whether it’s a conflict of interest if her organization gets paid to market the units, Ms. Lewis told The Observer, “Then again, I guess you could ask the same thing of the folks who oppose it. Isn’t it a conflict of interest for people who have been part of the wave of gentrification to oppose something, wanting to protect that asset?”
Forest City, by the way, does want to hire ACORN as its marketing agent, according to James P. Stuckey, a Forest City executive vice president and the Atlantic Yards project manager. “I think ACORN has proved to be a very, very strong advocate for affordable housing in Brooklyn,” Mr. Stuckey said.
Ms. Lewis seems to reserve her strongest feelings for the local City Council member, Letitia James, characterizing her to Brian Lehrer as an elected official who “doesn’t choose to represent all of the people in her district.” Ms. James, like Ms. Lewis, is black; she is also a member of the Working Families Party, which was founded by Ms. Lewis and a number of labor unions in 1998 to bring the Democratic Party more to the left. Usually, the Working Families Party is content to endorse the Democratic or, occasionally, the Green Party candidate, but Ms. James actually won her race by running solely on its line. The Atlantic Yards project has split the members of Working Families down the middle—but strangely enough, it didn’t poison the party’s endorsement for the 35th District Council seat, which Ms. James won this spring. What ACORN does with its endorsement is another matter.
“This is really not a debate between ACORN and myself,” Ms. James said. “This is really about development and how development should go forward in the city of New York, and whether we in the city and the state of New York should be subsidizing a basketball arena and 17 buildings.” Ms. James is all in favor of affordable housing, but she says she wants the towers to be lower, and she also wants to devote the land that would be used for the arena to build more affordable housing. She helped draft a plan with some neighborhood architects outlining such a project, and many of its aspects were adopted by a rival development company, Extell Corporation, which submitted the only other bid to the M.T.A. (besides Forest City’s) for the Atlantic Yards.
Extell wouldn’t need the government to seize property under eminent domain—another major grievance in the Forest City plan—but it is asking for at least some of the $200 million that the city and state have offered Forest City to cover the rail yard, purchase property and do other improvements. (A study by the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development estimates that the true cost of Forest City’s plan—including tax credits that the city and state offered under an exclusive agreement signed in March—might exceed $1 billion.)
Extell is still vague about affordable housing—the company only learned that the M.T.A. had put the land up for sale a few weeks ago—but it has said that it would put aside 30 percent of its units at non-market rates. How that compares to Forest City’s plan is a matter of some debate. The housing agreement, signed by Ms. Lewis and Mr. Ratner in May, stipulates that 2,250 units will be non-market units. (The top price, at $1,440 a month for a studio, however, is about market rate for the area.) But it’s less clear about the condominiums and additional rentals that Mr. Ratner is suggesting he will build instead of office space, for which there is less of a demand. If Ms. Lewis fails to win any more units through subsequent negotiations—a possible but unlikely scenario—Forest City would end up devoting just 31 percent of its rentals to non-market rates.
Forest City seems flexible on the height of its towers, but it won’t start discussing lowering them until the governmental review begins. “We are completely prepared to address the density issue and the density question, which we know they will raise with us as part of the approval process,” said Mr. Stuckey, the Forest City executive vice president. “Although we have a lot of reasons to believe that what we have proposed makes perfect sense, obviously we know that there is a process, and we haven’t begun that process yet.”
Ms. Lewis, on the other hand, long ago sacrificed the scale of the neighborhood. If this debate, at heart, is about the “community”—the “brownstone people” versus the “brown and black people”—then Ms. Lewis’ position is all the more curious, considering that the housing plan she had fought for will set aside 225 units for families making as much as $94,200 a year—a tacit acknowledgment that the upper-middle class needs help also. “I think the density issue actually helps to address the jobs problem, the housing problem and the amenities problem,” Ms. Lewis said. “I don’t think any other plan does it. We have no problem with the density, because it is so far outweighed by other benefits.”
The opposition is trying its best to pick apart the housing agreement, as well as the so-called community-benefits agreement that Mr. Ratner signed last month with eight community groups, including ACORN. Again, do eight groups represent the entire community? The most visible opposition group, Develop-Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, lists 48 groups as either being against or having serious reservations about the Atlantic Yards project on its Web site. The community-benefits agreement—which includes goals for Forest City to meet in terms of minority hiring, job training and leasing to minority-owned stores—is too easy to get out of, according to one critic, the Reverend Clinton Miller of the Brown Memorial Baptist Church.
But the very diversity of the project’s opposition—advocates for low-income residents joining property owners concerned about a changing neighborhood—is also problematic. On the one hand, how can critics complain that only 20 to 30 percent of Forest City’s units will be truly low-income, when Extell’s lower towers wouldn’t accommodate any more? Few people with experience in grassroots work think that ACORN could have won any more concessions. “They did better than I thought they would, and they didn’t beat anybody up to do it,” said Brad Lander, the director of the Pratt Institute Center and former head of the Fifth Avenue Committee. But he remains ambivalent about the project, waiting to hear more details on traffic and the subsidies. “I just don’t feel ready to pick between Ratner and Extell,” Mr. Lander said. “I have a lot of reservations, but I also think it’s a lot of affordable housing and a meaningful number of union jobs—and I like basketball.”
Another community organizer put it this way: “One day I think, ‘Oh, it’s a pretty good arrangement,’ and the next morning I wake up and say, ‘What the fuck is going on?’”
What sort of day will it be when members of the M.T.A. board—and other public officials down the line—wake up and have to make a decision on Atlantic Yards? Whether or not they think the plan has its imperfections, they know that by rejecting it, they’ll be rejecting a massive affordable-housing package. And “affordable housing” has become as American as apple pie in New York today. Ms. Lewis knows that. It will be very hard for anyone to take away her slice.
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