The Unfulfilled Promises of Atlantic Yards

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Critics of the Atlantic Yards project have long questioned the developer's promises of jobs and housing.

Photo by: Jim Henderson

Critics of the Atlantic Yards project have long questioned the developer's promises of jobs and housing.

How is developer Forest City Ratner fulfilling its ambitious promises of jobs, affordable housing, local/minority contracting, and more at its controversial Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn?

Not so well, though the developer won’t admit it, nor fund the independent monitor that’s supposed to tell us.

After all, the only construction now involves the Barclays Center arena, due to house the relocated (from New Jersey) Brooklyn Nets in fall 2012, plus associated infrastructure work. Yes, the economic downturn has slowed the promised 16 towers, but the first residential building, slated to include 50 percent subsidized housing, was never supposed to be delayed—and it’s more than a year late.

There are more fundamental problems. Forest City touted the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) it signed in June 2005 as having “guaranteed” community commitments, as indicated in the screenshot from a May 2006 Forest City promotional brochure. Actually, the CBA is full of aspirational, conditional language. When Atlantic Yards was approved in December 2006, it was supposed to include 4,500 rental apartments (2,250 of them affordable to low-, middle- and moderate-income households); 1,930 condos plus office, retail and open space. Such benefits were justification for hundreds of millions of dollars in direct subsidies, tax breaks and other government aid.

In 2009 Forest City dropped architect Frank Gehry and revised settled deals with state agencies, saving well over $100 million. And while the developer long promised that the project would be built in a decade, the contract it signed in 2009 with New York State allows 25 years to build out the full 22 acres. The initial affordable housing can be delayed for eight years on account of “subsidy unavailability.”

Such clauses trump the CBA. No wonder Forest City has avoided one of the CBA’s few seemingly clear obligations: to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor, at up to $100,000 a year, to report on the progress of the CBA.

The only parties who could enforce this clause are the eight groups, based mostly in Central Brooklyn, that signed the private benefits contract. But those CBA signatories, who have benefited financially from Forest City, haven’t said a word, at least publicly.

Nor have elected officials like Bill de Blasio (then a City Council Member, now Public Advocate), who regularly invoked the CBA in justifying their support for Atlantic Yards.

* * * *

What are the Atlantic Yards numbers now?

There’s no housing yet, of course, and the city earlier this year rejected Forest City’s request for more subsidies. The groundbreaking for the first building, long delayed, may occur early next year.

What about jobs? In July, at a bi-monthly meeting in Brooklyn of agencies involved in Atlantic Yards, a Forest City rep said there were 430 construction workers on site. However, according to a June 2009 state document, which assumed only a best-case scenario, there were supposed to be 1,597 workers on site by now.

Forest City’s Atlantic Yards web site offers no current information about jobs, but it does present dubious claims like: “Atlantic Yards will be an economic engine for Brooklyn, New York City and the State, generating more than $5 billion in new tax revenues over the next 30 years. In addition to tax benefits, the project will also create thousands of new jobs: upwards of 17,000 construction related jobs and up to 8,000 permanent jobs.”

The $5 billion is a ridiculous figure. It derives not from any governmental analysis but from an irresponsible report from the developer’s hired consultant.

As construction jobs are calculated in job-years, 17,000 jobs mean 1,700 jobs a year for ten years or, if the current pace continues, some 34 years. To speed the pace, Forest City is considering innovative but risky modular construction, which would save considerably on building costs, including worker salaries.

As for “up to 8,000 permanent jobs,” the phrase “up to” allows much wiggle room. The initial estimate of 10,000 jobs required 2 million square feet of office space. If planned office space has been cut more than 80 percent, shouldn’t jobs decline similarly?

When some former Atlantic Yards supporters angrily protested outside the construction site this past July, citing lack of jobs, a Forest City rep informed the Daily News that BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), which Forest City has funded to provide job training, has “placed 116 people in retail, security, and maintenance jobs at its other properties.”

That’s changing the subject. Similarly, at a September 26 media event featuring Jay-Z, CEO Bruce Ratner rhapsodized about how, given the sources of arena components, Atlantic Yards creates “jobs for America.”

* * * *

Several questions persist. At that July cabinet meeting, a Forest City representative provided general statistics about minority- and women-owned firms gaining contracts, from 17 percent of the $340 million spent on the arena to 45 percent of the $16 million spent on demolition.

She couldn’t say, however, what percentage were local firms. After all, if a woman-owned firm from the suburbs works on the project, that may fulfill Forest City’s M/WBE statistical goals, but it does little for the constituents of the Brooklyn groups that signed the CBA.

How many workers on site were Brooklyn residents? One Forest City rep said 180, while another said that number represented the total “since construction began.”

That not insignificant discrepancy might be cleared up by that Independent Compliance Monitor. Indeed, CBA signatory Bertha Lewis of ACORN in 2006 defended the CBA’s credibility by pointing to the independent monitor. Though an RFP for such a monitor was floated in 2007, no one was hired.

Asked in September 2010 about the Independent Compliance Monitor, a Forest City Ratner executive claimed the agreement went into effect only when the arena broke ground, in March 2010. Even by that dubious math, the monitor is now more than 18 months late. (I queried Forest City recently about plans to hire the monitor, but got no response.)

Today Forest City no longer uses terms like “guaranteed” regarding the CBA. Rather, the developer states that the agreement “focuses on delivering” jobs, housing, and community amenities.

In June 2005, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg prominently signed the Atlantic Yards CBA as a witness. In a scene captured in the recent documentary Battle for Brooklyn, Bloomberg commented condescendingly, “You have Bruce Ratner’s word. That should be enough for you.”

It’s not. It’s not even enough to produce the required Independent Compliance Monitor to give the public accurate information.