De Blasio’s Atlantic Yards Support Helped Old Ally

ACORN played pivotal role in 2001 City Council race

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Atlantic Yards site in Brooklyn; the rust-colored Barclays Center (left) opened last fall. (Matthew Schuerman/WNYC)

At a public hearing in August 2006, Bill de Blasio, then a City Council member, came out in favor of Atlantic Yards, the massive apartment complex in the center of Brooklyn that would also include a sports arena. He praised an agreement that the developer had signed with community groups promising affordable housing, job training and other benefits. But he also assigned himself, and his colleagues in government, the job to police that pledge. 

 “It’s the responsibility of all of us, and especially of we elected officials, to ensure that it is scrupulously adhered to,” he told the raucous crowd, which included both supporters and detractors.

Now the public advocate, de Blasio is polling ahead of his Democratic opponents in the race for mayor. He is campaigning in part on a promise to create more affordable housing: 100,000 new units, about half of which would be built by real estate developers in exchange for the right to build taller buildings in certain places.

But his handling of Atlantic Yards raises questions about whether he has been able to push developers to keep their promises.

De Blasio’s support for Atlantic Yards was a tricky political move at the time: many voters in his brownstone Brooklyn district opposed the huge skyscrapers that Atlantic Yards would bring nearby. But de Blasio had roots in the affordable housing field — he had worked as New York regional director at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — and in particular had long-standing ties to New York ACORN, the organization that crafted the Atlantic Yards housing deal.

ACORN wasn't just a housing organization. In the late 1990s, it helped found the Working Families Party, to support pro-union, pro-grassroots candidates and confer on them a sort of progressive seal of approval. In 2001, ACORN was supporting de Blasio in his first run for City Council. But he was in a six-way race. His leading rival was a well-liked champion of the poor, Steve Banks, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society.

“We liked both of them,” recalled Bertha Lewis, who was then executive director of New York ACORN. “It’s always hard when you have two folks you really, really liked, but I do have to say, Bill edged out Steve.”

Many members of the South Brooklyn Club of the Working Families Party, the district where the council race was taking place, felt the opposite. When the club voted on which candidate to endorse, Steve Banks got 50 votes, according to one tally. Bill de Blasio got none. But then, the state-wide Working Families Party reviewed the endorsement.

“When this got to the executive committee, the executive committee overturned that recommended endorsement,” said Dorothy Siegel, the club chairwoman at the time. 

ACORN, as well as other labor unions with strong ties to de Blasio like SEIU 1199, pushed back on the South Brooklyn Club’s recommendation, she said. 

“We almost blew up over that,” remembered Siegel, who is nevertheless supporting de Blasio in the current mayor’s race. “But we came to an amicable milquetoast solution.” The party ended up making no endorsement in the race.

Siegel said the Working Families stalemate may not have helped de Blasio, but an endorsement for his opponent would have hurt him. De Blasio ended up beating Steve Banks handily.

When ACORN convinced the developer of Atlantic Yards, Forest City Ratner, to adopt its affordable housing plan, some affordable housing advocates thought the scrappy organization had sold out. But ACORN considered its price to be sufficiently high: a commitment to build 2,250 apartments for low-, moderate- and middle-income households, half of the total rentals slated for the project.

De Blasio was one of the skeptics who came to ACORN to get more information after the deal was announced in 2005. But Lewis, the former executive director of NY ACORN said she never twisted any arms. She said she said, “How you can help us is, as a City Council person and as public advocate, you need to make it clear that you will use your office to make sure that the commitments that you made are fulfilled.”

Eight years later, ACORN has been rechristened New York Communities for Change, Lewis is head of a different organization, The Black Institute, and the Atlantic Yards project is still far from a reality.

The basketball arena is finished, but none of the affordable apartments have been completed. The first residential building, with 181 subsidized units, is scheduled to go up next summer.

Meanwhile, some opponents and critics of Atlantic Yards say de Blasio has done little to fulfill the pledge he made in the 2006 public hearing – that he would make sure the community benefits agreement is fulfilled. In fact, in June 2011 Bruce Ratner, CEO of Forest City Ratner, had co-chaired a 50th birthday fundraiser for de Blasio.

“He just says things like, ‘Government must make sure there is accountability,’” said Norman Oder, a journalist who has chronicled the project on his blog, The Atlantic Yards Report. “And I’m thinking, what is he? Chopped liver? I mean he’s government as well. He has a bully pulpit.”

Letitia James, a city councilwoman from Brooklyn who opposed the project, has tried to rally other public officials to support measures like a special board to oversee the project, but she said de Blasio has given her little support.

“So many elected officials gave to that project and were instrumental in getting it financed,” said James, now a Democratic candidate for de Blasio’s job, the public advocate’s office. “Not one has made any comment with regard to the fact that New Yorkers and taxpayers were basically duped. And that includes the current public advocate, Bill de Blasio, and others.”

At a campaign stop in Brooklyn this week, de Blasio said he has pushed for the Atlantic Yards affordable housing. When asked, de Blasio wouldn’t comment on the fundraiser.

“I’ve talked to the developer consistently about the need to get the affordable housing done,” de Blasio said. “And when they came along with the idea of the modular construction as a way to speed the affordable housing, I supported it because I thought it was important to innovate any approach that would get us the affordable housing online."


For the full story, click on the audio above.


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Comments [11]

Michael D. D. White from Brooklyn Heights

This story is one of the best that WNYC has doe on Atlantic Yards giving to it the kind of time the subject deserves.

Nevertheless,here is what is absent from the narrative reported. The story is all about failure to enforce the "public benefit" aspects of Atlantic Yards (de Blasio's failures in particular), not about the fact that those public benefit terms were, in the first instance, written by the developer for the developer's benefit, not the public.

Atlantic Yards as originally conceived was not right and de Blasio should have opposed it (He once feinted at doing so) from the beginning demanding a different project divided up and competitively bid amongst multiple developers, one that did not involve tearing down much of the neighborhood with eminent domain. The project should have only be building over the rail yards not on the ruble of what Ratner was allowed to tear down.

Instead, one of the main features of Atlantic Yards that is bad is also now central to the problems negotiating with the developer and enforcing public benefit: That Forest City Ratner has been granted a government-supported mega-monopoly. You can't negotiate with a monopoly. You can't negotiate with a mega-monopoly. Mr. de Blasion and others should insist that the Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly be taken away from Forest City Ratner, Mr. de Blasio's campaign donor.

Noticing New York

Sep. 06 2013 09:39 AM
Frankie D from Park Slope

Deblasio nose gets bigger and bigger everytime he speaks. He has in his district new buildings built by HPD which are falling apart. He did nothing to help out residents. As a public advocate he failed residents of HPD housing when it came to construction defects. He has been a failure as a public advocate who advocate for nothing but himself and as a local council member he just grant stranded around town.

Sep. 06 2013 12:46 AM
Candace C. from Park Slope

Kudos to Matt Scheurman for always telling it like it is and doing his homework as a real reporter should. Matt has been at it re: Atlantic Yards for as long as I can remember, and there is no fluff, just facts, to this and all his reporting. (Of course, no one holds a candle to Norman Oder, who has every bit of minutia of the eight year Battle for Brooklyn at his fingertips!) The most important conclusion to be drawn from the report and all the comments is that DeBlasio has few fans from his own backyard, which should be enough of an indictment. His support comes from the developers and landlords who have curried favor with him, and to those who believe the spin and rhetoric that Bill spews . .

Sep. 05 2013 11:25 PM

I agree that none of the candidates are very appealing or have clean hands. And, De Blasio may not be the worst. However, voters should have their eyes open. People in his former district know how this works. If its convenient for him to cozy up with developers, he will do so. And if you don't like the zoning changes, mega developments, taking of private property for the benefit of some real estate developer, etc.... hey, you must not be in favor of affordable housing!

Sep. 05 2013 09:50 PM

Before everyone buys into the "talk" you are hearing from de Blasio about what he says he will do, it helps to take a look at what he has actually done, and how he has operated to accomplish what he has done. It will be more of the same as mayor if the public chooses to give him that roll. So thanks for the story.

But you forgot to mention how de Blasio treated any of those many people in the community who apposed the Atlantic Yards Project--the working people of this city he claims to care about? And what does his action say about him as a leader?

The councilman, who appoints Community Board members, did away with those members who voted to opposed the project--kicked them out for expressing the a strongly held view in the community. Yes, there was a major firing of CB6 community board members. In place he appointed CB6 members who would approve his agenda so that he could push through more unpalatable development and rezoning that individual developers asked for.

Even the minimal pretense of democracy that community in our city, where appointed community boards are to express a non-binding opinion on development and zoning issues, was silenced by de Blasio, and brought under his control. Today CB6 is no more than a puppet organization.

And that control is what allowed de Blasio to ram through the spot rezoning of the two blocks that Toll Brothers asked for on the Gowanus Canal. Businesses were kicked out and historic buildings torn down to prepare for 445 lux-condos. The community, the real community, highly opposed the project which has displace real jobs, and JOBS ARE THE ONLY THING THAT MAKE HOUSING AFFORDABLE.

De Blasio's stand against the canal Superfund cleanup, which his community highly supported, is another complicated story. And now the Toll Brothers site has been passed to another developer, Lightstone, who is going to build 700 units on that site which Sandy Flooded with filthy sewage water.

And then there is his pet project, which should certainly be explored--putting affordable housing on a toxic coal gas site on Gowanus with a day care center located right next to a coal-tar recovery-well that will emit toxic vapor forever. Choice land for people who don't get much choice?

(It would also help to look at the endorsements de Blasio did get as he moved from School Board official to councilman and then on to Public Advocate. Just who are the operatives in those democratic clubs?))

Sep. 05 2013 03:49 PM
LK from Brooklyn

Well deserved bashing, it is. De Blasio has gotten a free ride until recently from the press who has been swallowing his faux-gressive stands and statements about how the real estate industry did not want him to be Mayor. The people in his old district and surrounding districts have been fuming over this free pass as we had observed him ignore his constituency at every turn for years as he approved every hated development project that came through his district. Let's not forget the Toll Brothers fundraiser for him as his reward for opposing the Super Funding of the Gowanus Canal and the pushing through of a zoning change so that the Toll Bros could get a permit to place over 300 units of housing on one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country. And his support for luxury housing in Brooklyn Bridge Park, even getting Hilary Clinton to retract her statement that said there should not be housing in the park.
Great thanks goes to Norman Oder for sticking with the story for all these years. Mr. Schuerman has also followed the story for many years.

Sep. 05 2013 02:32 PM

I couldn't believe it...8 minutes of smearing deBlasio during AM Drive. That's a long story in the morning. You're blaming deBlasio for all that's wrong with Atlantic Yards? Quite disappointed in wnyc.

Sep. 05 2013 12:36 PM
Jezra Kaye from Brooklyn

So when Bruce Ratner builds his first 33-story prefab monstrosity in our low-rise, brownstone neighborhood, de Blasio will be able to proudly claim that his support helped create 181 units of sort-of affordable housing!

And just think, it only took roughly $2 billion worth of public subsidies, tax abatements, and land given to the developer to make this happen.

It's too bad about all those poor, long-term residents and small business owners who got thrown out so that their buildings could be razed for Ratner. But I guess that's the price of progress, de Blasio-style.

Sep. 05 2013 11:51 AM
bb from brooklyn

thank you so much for this article, i am having a hard time deciding between all of the less than savory candidates and am beginning to do the research but have not gotten very far yet. that this guy supported the atlantic yards project and ratner's developments is a very big "BAD" and has absolutely knocked him out of the running for me. thanks again for this, huge help in the decision making process, you saved me a lot of time. by the way, letitia james is great, hope she wins for public advocate. next article maybe something about her potential replacements? having a hard time with that one too...

Sep. 05 2013 11:22 AM
Radish Beet from Bronx

ACORN stole my home on 136th Street in the Bronx! ACORN got far more than this deal for supporting bloomberg and the atlantic destruction yards project. They got a number of buildings in the city including where I and over 20 other people lived for years. They got the police to throw us all out and when we fought in court and tried to get back in their workers lit a fire on the roof. Then they got millions to "renovate" for "low income", we were poor people living there already!

Sep. 05 2013 09:38 AM
Norman Oder from Brooklyn

I'd encourage people to listen to the audio, rather than rely on the text version, since there are some key differences and shadings.

Notably, in the audio version, the last word goes to the skeptical Letitia James, rather than the self-serving Bill de Blasio. And she deserves it.

Also, the audio cites the reporter's search of de Blasio's web site for reference to Atlantic Yards, and comes up with only two: a speech mentioning Atlantic Yards supportively, and a meeting with executives from developer Forest City Ratner and their lobbyist.

Both audio and article touch on de Blasio's commitment to fulfill and enforce the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). However, de Blasio has delivered nothing but bromides about how it should be fulfilled, or government should do better.

One thing he could have done--and still could do--is simple: criticize developer Forest City Ratner for failing to appoint the Independent Compliance Monitor promised as part of the CBA.

Also, de Blasio gets off way to easy in claiming that his support for Forest City Ratner's modular construction plan represents his effort to get the affordable housing done.

The housing agreement that Bertha Lewis negotiated--and de Blasio saluted--promised that half the subsidized units, in terms of floor area, would be devoted to family-sized (2-BR and 3-BR) units. The first building falls way short: with no three-bedroom apartments among the 181 subsidized units.

The 36 two-bedroom subsidized units, as I've reported, would not be distributed evenly across the five affordable income "bands," but would have only nine (instead of 14+) units for households in the two low-income bands, which is ACORN's constituency.

To save Forest City Ratner money, some 17 (instead of 7+) units would be designated for the highest middle-income band, with households earning well over six figures. Subsidized, yes, but hardly affordable to those who rallied for the project.

Neither Lewis nor de Blasio publicly raised a question.

More here:
(The above link includes a critique of the speech cited on the Public Advocate's web site.)

I should add that Mr. Schuerman does a service in teasing out exactly how the Working Families Party non-endorsement went down: ACORN and unions like 1199 pushed back on the locals' choice.

Norman Oder
Atlantic Yards Report

Sep. 05 2013 07:05 AM

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