Ratner Sends Gehry To Drawing Board

Sometime in late 2003, a Brooklyn activist asked State Assemblyman Roger Green what he thought about developer Bruce Ratner, who

Sometime in late 2003, a Brooklyn activist asked State Assemblyman Roger Green what he thought about developer Bruce Ratner, who was about to propose a massive housing development and new basketball arena for Central Brooklyn.

“You’ve got your Bull Connors and you’ve got your Robert Kennedys, and you are going to treat them differently. Ratner is more of an R.F.K.,” Mr. Green said.

Mr. Green had helped the community organizer, Darnell Canada, form an organization a little while earlier called Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, which was supposed to find ways to bring jobs to poor, black residents by latching onto for-profit ventures nearby. Mr. Ratner was the first big fish to swim into their net. So Mr. Canada, with Mr. Green looking over his shoulder, started to negotiate a deal.

Since then, Mr. Ratner’s development, Atlantic Yards, has come closer to fruition. Assemblyman Green, who last year temporarily lost his job because of a mix-up with the law, has made himself somewhat of a player with this approach. His influence can be seen throughout the agreement that Mr. Canada’s group ended up forging with Mr. Ratner in June.

But now that Mr. Green has turned his ear to the clamor from his more affluent constituents, he has found that business and politics don’t always mix nicely. Now he’s trying to persuade the developer to scale down his development, which is about the size of Stuyvesant Town, though twice as high in parts.

The problem: Such a change to the scheme would involve real money, and so far, Mr. Ratner hasn’t budged.

The community-benefits agreement is one of the elements that make Atlantic Yards so politically delicious for its supporters in City Hall and Albany. They think the agreement shows that the community supports the project, and that the community will get something in return.

Politicians say, for example, that the development will create “thousands of affordable apartments”—2,250, to be exact—and “new jobs” for neighborhood people, which is also true. But they never say how many new jobs it will bring.

This isn’t exactly Mr. Ratner’s fault. How can he promise jobs to people whose résumés he hasn’t seen, and who will, in many cases, be hired by his contractors rather than him?

Ideally, as happened with these community-benefits agreements in Los Angeles over the past decade, a coalition of about 15 to 20 groups comes together and presses a developer for concessions: higher-wage jobs, new parks, fancy pollution-control devices. In exchange, the organizations agree to put down their pickets and support the project when it comes time to obtain the City Council’s approval. Mr. Ratner’s development looked like a good opportunity to do the same.

“Growing members of the African-American community want to move away from welfare colonialism, and there is a desire to create new covenants with the markets,” Mr. Green told The Observer. “Ratner’s proposal for the first time presents that opportunity, where we can grow the middle class, where we can build real jobs with benefits both through the construction industry and the service economy.”

Who Benefits?

But in Brooklyn, few very established organizations wanted in. The Pratt Area Community Council, for example, didn’t believe that Mr. Ratner’s company, Forest City Ratner, was willing to compromise, said the council’s executive director, Deb Howard, speaking to The Observer. Instead of existing groups coming together to form a coalition, a mass of interested individuals came together to form new organizations.

Just two of the eight signatories to the agreement—ACORN and the New York State Association of Minority Contractors—existed as incorporated entities before the negotiations. Four of the other groups are still not registered.

A group of black ministers refused to come to the table. James Stuckey, executive vice president for Forest City, said they had demanded that they be the only party to the agreement. The Reverend Dennis Dillon, the leader of the group, gave a different reason: that it was clear from the beginning that the agreement was meant to buy support with favors.

One group, headed by a politically important ally of Roger Green, was added to the mix at the last minute, after the other members had been negotiating for seven or eight months. Its chairwoman, Freddie Hamilton, is the vice chairwoman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party and the executive director of a child-welfare agency. Among other things, her new organization, the Downtown Brooklyn Educational Consortium, will be in charge of trying to fulfill an old Roger Green dream: a charter school devoted to technology. But the charter school, like some other elements in the agreement, won’t be left up to Forest City to create. It would come under the city’s Department of Education.

Ms. Hamilton’s group wasn’t automatically welcomed to the coalition. “I certainly think that Roger Green’s support was helpful,” she said.

Some opponents say they understand what motivated these groups. “Certainly, there’s a sense among many folks who have seen this happen before that putting up a fight with a developer won’t get you anywhere,” said Francis Byrd, a former Democratic state committee member and district leader from the area. “So whatever little you can get is the best you can hope for.”

So far, BUILD and other organizations have received $275,000 from Forest City to seed their operations.

Mr. Canada, after getting the community-benefits agreement off the ground, ended up resigning from BUILD in March 2004, saying at the time that his colleagues “see this organization as financial self-gain.” (He has recently returned with a new organization, REBUILD, which is partnering with Ms. Hamilton’s group.)

Now, the president and chief executive of BUILD is James Caldwell, who is currently the head of a local citizens’ committee for police relations. Mr. Caldwell is said to have deep roots in the community, but his online BUILD bio doesn’t mention experience with job training or administering six- or seven-figure annual budgets. The choice of BUILD to funnel the hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars in job-training funds that will come either directly from Forest City or from the taxpayers strikes experts as perplexing.

“My organization is made up of 185 job-training and employment organizations, and I have never heard of this group,” said Bonnie Potter, the executive director of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition, speaking to The Observer. “It’s curious that a developer would choose to put it in charge of its workforce-training program.”

Mr. Caldwell wouldn’t return phone calls, and his spokeswoman, Cheryl Duncan, refused to set up an interview with him. Mr. Stuckey said that BUILD is in charge because BUILD stepped up to negotiate—though he adds that it may subcontract work to established job-training programs.

“Unfortunately, if these programs were together before this project, I believe the rates of unemployment in many of the neighborhoods—in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant and many of the public-housing projects—would not be as high as they are,” he said. “I think it points to the fact that there are many communities in the city that go unnoticed and unhelped.”

Ms. Potter suggests that federally funded employment centers be put in charge of the development’s jobs. There is such a center just eight blocks away from the Atlantic Yards site; it’s run by the city.

It is, in fact, the place where Target and Chuck E. Cheese’s went to recruit workers when they opened stores in a new mall nearby—a new mall, incidentally, that was developed by Forest City Ratner.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is just how many jobs will go to the poor, black neighborhood residents who live on three sides of the project site. The Brooklyn document sets up a hierarchy whereby public-housing residents get first dibs on spots in a job-referral program and a construction-job training program. But the agreement sets no numerical targets for how many local people will get jobs.

The agreement doesn’t mention the 400 jobs Forest City expects to bring when it moves the Nets basketball arena from New Jersey, which Mr. Stuckey said will be subject to union rules and may be filled with current employees.

Nor does the agreement mention jobs in the proposed hotel, which would also be subject to union rules, Mr. Stuckey said.

That leaves the construction jobs, about 1,500 of them over the next 10 years. The agreement sets a goal of employing 35 percent minorities—a reasonable and achievable threshold which Forest City has met on its other projects. In other words, 525 jobs—not reserved for public-housing residents, or even residents of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, but for minorities from all over the metropolitan region.

“The question is, how much does each job cost in terms of public investment, and could that money be used more wisely?” asked Norman Oder, a project opponent and author of the Times Ratner Report blog. “If this is going to cost more than a billion dollars over 30 years in terms of total public investment, we should have been having a public discussion about costs and benefits years ago.”

Mr. Stuckey responds that the true value of the agreement is how it sets up a structure for jobs to get into the housing projects and other areas that need them. To this end, though, BUILD’s most important work hasn’t begun: guaranteeing that construction unions give preference to take on local residents as apprentices.

Mr. Green says the true value is in the many other jobs that the project will produce, although Forest City hasn’t issued estimates of how many there will be.

“To me, I think that the most important thing this can do is to serve as a stimulus, as a source of contracts for the minority business community, so that we can grow the middle class for construction and post-construction and areas, marketing areas, related to specific events,” he said.

“Let’s look at the workers who enter Local 32BJ, the maintenance union,” Mr. Green continued. “If I have 4,500 units of housing that need to be cleaned on a regular basis, those are jobs with benefits, and that’s what we got to do, even with respect for construction jobs. One of the reasons we focus on charter schools is that we feel we have to change vocational education in this city, and the only way we can do that is through charter schools.”

Is this about jobs for the middle class, janitors, or the next generation?

David Fischer, project director and workforce-training expert at the left-leaning Center for an Urban Future, thinks that even if the jobs program doesn’t make sense now, Mayor Bloomberg, a supporter of Atlantic Yards, will make it work. The failure of MetroTech, a Forest City Ratner office complex downtown, to employ many public-housing residents across Flatbush Avenue is still too fresh in people’s minds, he said.

“I feel like the stakes are sufficiently high here. With the disappointing results 15 years ago, they have to get this right,” Mr. Fischer said. “I think that the Mayoral administration, with its focus on jobs, can’t really afford to let this project fail.”

Prospects in Albany

Meanwhile, the project itself—16 high-rise towers over 22 acres of land, including some now occupied by apartment buildings that will be bought or taken over by eminent domain—is wending its way through a state approval process. A number of local officials, including Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, have called for it to be scaled down, but have not given specifics. The Mayor supports it, and the Governor supports it. Charles Gargano—who, as chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, is overseeing the approval process—supports it as well.

“There is no need to scale down the project,” Mr. Gargano said, although the environmental-impact study that will gauge the project’s impact on traffic, sewage, school population and so on is still underway.

“He has been trying to put in a lot of plums all around,” Mr. Gargano added. “Which is a nice thing. I don’t mean the word ‘plum’ to be derogatory; these are things that will really benefit the community.”

Among the plums is about seven acres of open space behind and between the buildings that will be open to the public.

Oddly enough, the only person who can stop this project, or reshape it, will be Roger Green. That’s because the state legislature will have to sign off on $100 million that the state is contributing to cover up the train yards, and the legislature generally follows the lead of the local lawmaker. That is likely to happen again, even though the lawmaker in this case, Mr. Green, pled guilty last year to seeking state reimbursement for travel expenses provided by a private company doing business with the state.

On the Senate side, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery opposes the project—but since she’s a Democrat in a Republican-led chamber, she has less clout.

Forest City officials, meanwhile, are denying rumors that they have sent their architect, Frank Gehry, back to the drawing board to come up with a less bulky alternative.

“We will listen; we have said all along that we will listen,” Mr. Stuckey said.

Ratner Sends Gehry  To Drawing Board