» Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Same as the Old Boss

Last Wednesday the Metropolitan Transit Authority voted to enter into exclusive negotiations to sell developer Bruce Ratner the rights to build an arena and 17 high rise towers over the Vanderbilt Railyards in Brooklyn. The MTA selected Ratner despite the fact that his $50 million bid came in $100 million less than a rival developer's and $165 million less than what the MTA believes the 8.4 acre property is actually worth. Though the vote was entirely pre-ordained, the week's events were still a priceless lesson in how big business gets done in New York City.

At about 7:00 a.m. on the morning of the vote, Brooklyn neighborhood advocates started lining up in front of the MTA's Madison Avenue office. They were late. The first nine spots in line belonged to Ratner supporters from an organization called Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development. BUILD members had been camped out in front of the building since midnight.

BUILD is what you call an "astroturf" organization. The group is designed to look, sound and feel grassroots but it was conceived in the Forest City Ratner board room with the express purpose of providing the developer a "community organization" it could deal with. The mission of BUILD, ostensibly, is to create jobs for Brooklyn's unemployed. Notably, the organization has been in business for about a year and a half and the only jobs it has created are the staff positions at BUILD.

Also around 7:00 a.m. a caterer arrived dropping off "what seemed like enough boxed lunches and drinks to feed half the people in Prospect Heights," according to Eric McClure, a neighborhood advocate from Park Slope. A gaggle of cell phone-bearing Forest City p.r. women in designer threads distributed the grub to the BUILD folks. Then a livery van rolled in and unloaded about a dozen more BUILD people. The Ratner crew also continued to multiply. At one point, McClure estimates there were as many as 20 Forest City staff people bustling about the sidewalk.

This has become standard practice at big, public events where the Railyards are being discussed. Ratner buses in supporters. They ensure that anyone who raises questions, concerns or objections to the project are shouted down at meetings or painted as racists and enemies of working people in the media. Their rhetoric is deeply divisive and flat out irresponsible. At a march in Brooklyn the Sunday before the MTA's vote, Ratner supporters promised to "wage war in the streets" if the MTA did not hand over the land to Forest City. The irony of all this, of course, is that the self-proclaimed proletarians have the backing of a multi-billion dollar corporation. The supposedly "wealthy, white" opponents have to take time off work to show up at meetings. Needless to say, the Brown Shirt tactics have been incredibly effective.

At about 9:30 a.m. the MTA meeting began with public comments. One by one opponents and supporters got up and made their two minute statements. By the time all 53 speakers finished it was nearly noon. The moment the comments period was finished, MTA chairman Peter Kalikow declared he needed a board member to introduce the resolution he was holding in his hand and another to second it. Done. The resolution, which he then read aloud, stated that the MTA would take the next 45 days to negotiate exclusively with Ratner in the hope of convincing the developer to increase the value of his offer, which Kalikow described as disappointing and lower than expected. With a vote of 11 to 1, the board quickly approved the resolution.

The lone dissenting vote came from the board's Suffolk County member. Mitchell Pally said both bids were insufficient and rejected the idea of conducting exclusive negotiations with just one bidder, the lower cash bidder at that. Kalikow, a real estate developer for 38 years, countered that he had never negotiated two leases for a property at once. That, he said, would be "immoral." But Kalikow isn't negotiating a lease. Rather, he's auctioning off an incredibly valuable piece of public property. You don't have to be an eBay PowerSeller to know that an auction works best when you've got more than one bidder.

In a funny way you almost have to appreciate the MTA's brazenness. Once public comments were finished Kalikow could have gone behind closed doors for a half hour to give the impression that the public's input had some bearing on the board's decision-making process. But this is New York City. There's no time to waste on a semblance of democracy when business needs getting done.

None of this is particularly surprising. It's the way things have always been done. In the 19th century the political machine ran New York with Boss Tweed honing the art of "honest graft" from his Tammany Hall headquarters. In the 20th century, the all-powerful, unelected bureaucrat took over. Robert Moses tore down neighborhoods to build expressways, reshaping New York by asking, "if the ends don't justify the means, what does?" Here at the dawn of the 21st century it is the big-time real estate developer who doles out the jobs and justifies the means. Meet the new Boss. His name is Bruce Ratner. You can fight him or apply for a job.


Wow! Interesting story, Aaron. Well told.

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