City Journal Spring 2014

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Spring 2014
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Eye on the News

Norman Oder
The Barclays Center’s Media Enabler
From the start, the New York Times was reluctant to challenge Brooklyn’s new arena.
6 November 2012

In a 1,600-word article on September 29 chronicling the high-profile opening of the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn—nearly nine years after the controversial Atlantic Yards project was announced—the New York Times focused on the concert by hip-hop star Jay-Z. Though protests against the arena went on outside, the paper dismissed them as “modest in size and often includ[ing] farce as a means of expression.” An earlier web version of the article, however, described a press conference in which one Atlantic Yards opponent called the arena “a monument to crony capitalism.” Such criticism, as well as harsh words from a former project supporter suing developer Forest City Ratner over promised construction jobs and union cards, vanished as the article was revised.

The sanitized story was no shock, given the Times’s erratic, inadequate coverage of the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards development, the largest, most contentious real-estate project in Brooklyn’s history, encompassing 16 towers and covering 22 acres. It again signaled the paper’s inability to get tough on Forest City Ratner, the Times’s partner in the New York Times Building in midtown, which opened in November 2007. Atlantic Yards has involved nearly $300 million in direct subsidies from the state and city, substantial tax breaks, and an inside track (and discount) on public property for the developer, along with the state’s use of eminent domain to deliver purportedly blighted land for Ratner to warehouse. All of this presented ample opportunity for scrutiny.

Then again, it also presented a new “home team” for New York—the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, relocated from New Jersey—and the opportunity for stars like Jay-Z and Barbara Streisand to “come home.” (The New York Islanders recently announced they will relocate to Brooklyn in 2015 and play hockey in the Barclays Center.) So, for most of the press, the opening of the arena, dramatically sited at a key Brooklyn crossroads, nudged back questions about the long-delayed 16 towers and the much-hyped jobs and housing that would go along with them. And the grand opening distracted from the dubious history by which Forest City Ratner steered a “public-private partnership” to build at the giant scale it sought, rather than engaging in a public process involving competitive bidding, alternative plans, and recognition of ongoing incremental redevelopment.

Ratner has enjoyed heavy-duty support from New York’s political class since announcing the project nearly a decade ago. That left the press as the only potential counterweight. The New York Daily News regularly cheered for Atlantic Yards. The newspaper now sponsors the Barclays Center plaza, and on October 28, it produced a 44-page special section, chock full of ads from arena sponsors. The New York Post, while occasionally critical, never really dug, while its sports page was predictably enthusiastic. That left the Times. While it occasionally broke news, the paper never truly mustered the effort to dissect Atlantic Yards. The Times ignored important events or relegated coverage to its online edition. Except for a 15-month stretch ending in 2006, the paper failed to make Atlantic Yards one reporter’s responsibility, losing institutional memory.

If there was no newsroom thumb on the scale for Ratner, neither did anyone dig too hard; in May 2006, the ethics columnist for Editor & Publisher warned that it was “dangerous for the paper to go into business with corporations they are supposed to be monitoring.”

Outside the newsroom, the Times’s preferences were more glaring. The paper’s editorial writers did express early caveats about subsidies: “Mr. Ratner should pay his own way,” they wrote on March 27, 2005, only to diminish and drop such objections after that. The Times brushed away questions about what can be the biggest subsidy of all—the power of eminent domain to seize private property, when coupled with the option to build at a scale unavailable to previous owners—by suggesting that the issue was merely fair compensation. (The Times, as well as Ratner, had benefited from eminent domain in the construction of its own headquarters.) But the newspaper failed to comment on the absurdity of declaring a gentrifying area blighted.

The op-ed page barely ventilated the controversy, waiting until after Atlantic Yards had secured approval from a state board in 2006—and until Ratner had already begun to move forward—to print an essay from an opponent. (In June 2010, the Times sports section published a critical essay of mine.) At the start, in December 2003, the Times’s then-architecture critic rhapsodized about the now-discarded plan by starchitect Frank Gehry to make the arena into an international work of art, rather than questioning whether top-down development was the best architectural model for changing Brooklyn.

On other issues relating to the arena’s development, the Times omitted key information. In October 2005, for example, a front-page article puffed Ratner’s Community Benefits Agreement, through which the developer promised jobs and housing in return for the support of local community organizations. The paper billed the agreement as a “modern blueprint,” neglecting to acknowledge that most of the groups that signed it were formed for the purpose of “negotiating” the agreement itself. This year, as the arena’s opening approached, the metro desk finally got tougher. A long article about potential arena impacts essentially repudiated the “modern blueprint,” acknowledging that the Community Benefits Agreement lacked “city authority” and had “inherent conflicts” because “three of the signatories got financing from Forest City.” (Actually, all did.) But for the most part, the Times’s coverage has remained erratic at best: when one of those groups and Forest City were sued over jobs and union cards last November, the paper made only secondary mention of it in an article about a Nets pep rally.

Then there is the whole matter of Jay-Z, or Hova, as he is also known. A front-page article last August analyzed the hip-hop star’s role in championing Atlantic Yards but failed to dissect how he’d been used for publicity purposes. For example, the Nets told the New York Post that the rapper had not only designed the arena’s exclusive Vault suites; he’d also purchased the first one, presumably a signal to other buyers. However, the Times reported, with no reference to or resolution of the earlier Post claim, that Jay-Z got “free use” of the $550,000-a-year suite. Rather than analyze how Jay-Z has mouthed unsupported claims of how the Barclays Center will benefit Brooklyn, the Times’s September 8 T style magazine supplement put him on the cover, with a fashion spread at the arena, headlined “The House That Hova Built.” More like “The House That Hova Hyped,” given that Forest City Ratner and Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who bought a majority of the Nets and a minority stake in the arena, are reaping the most profits from the project, not Jay-Z. The paper’s August 18 sports section lavished a nearly three-page spread to report—thanks to photos of billboards, t-shirts, and store signage—that “the team’s brand is popping up throughout the borough.” Such free advertising apparently helped fuel the conclusion in a long article the following month: “Brooklyn seems ready to adopt the Nets.”

Finally, in a front-page September profile with the anodyne headline NETS HELPED CLEAR PATH FOR BUILDER IN BROOKLYN, the Times examined developer Bruce Ratner with belated rigor: “His willingness to change plans—abandoning an expensive Frank Gehry design and building a smaller railyard—solidified his reputation for promising anything to get a deal, only to renegotiate relentlessly for more favorable terms.” Though the article omitted key examples—such as Ratner’s repudiation of the long-professed ten-year timeline to build Atlantic Yards and deliver public benefits—it came close to confirming what I’ve called the culture of cheating. But not until the article’s 26th paragraph.

The Times could go only so far. On September 25, the paper, in its “The Appraisal” real estate column, essentially dismissed Brooklyn community activist Daniel Goldstein, who fought unsuccessfully for years to keep his home from eminent-domain seizure for the project, as a hypocrite, because residents living next to his house objected to the addition he’s building. Not only was there a huge scale difference between Goldstein’s project and Atlantic Yards; existing zoning codes also permitted Goldstein’s project. Still, the paper portrayed Goldstein’s backyard addition as a looming giant, thanks to a photo shot practically from ground level. By contrast, the Times has regularly published Atlantic Yards renderings from a “helicopter” view that diminishes the scale of 8 million square feet and 6,430 planned apartments.

The Times too often won’t push when a powerful newsmaker dissimulates. “We’ve kept every single promise we’ve ever made,” Ratner claimed in September, unrebutted. He told another interviewer his firm would build the promised subsidized housing, which he has long delayed, because “We already own all the land.” Not so: In June 2009, Ratner’s firm renegotiated its deal for development rights over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 8.5-acre Vanderbilt Yard, the key piece of public property needed for his project. Instead of paying the $100 million in cash it promised in 2005, Forest City got the MTA, controlled by the governor and mayor, to agree to a $20 million payment for the piece of the railyard needed for the arena, and 21 years to pay for the rest, at a gentle 6.5 percent interest rate. The MTA also agreed to let Forest City build a smaller replacement railyard than promised. (City Journal’s Nicole Gelinas called the deal “an outrageous giveaway.”) But the Times treated all this as a footnote, allotting just five, non-bylined paragraphs in print.

One Times writer’s take on the arena emerged in an article last month neutrally headlined BROOKLYN TRANSFORMED, FOR BETTER OR WORSE? The online version was accompanied by a video whose narrator concluded, “The Barclays Center may be an unwelcome neighbor to some, but like it or not, it’s here.” The last word went to a concert attendee: “The stadium is awesome.”

On November 1, the Times reported that the much-hyped Nets home opener that night, against the New York Knicks, had been postponed one day after the team and the NBA reconfirmed it; the newspaper accepted without skepticism the dubious explanation that the Nets hadn’t known how badly the city’s transit system was hit after Hurricane Sandy. But the paper did find room for a lengthy article about Knicks fans becoming Nets fans.

That same day, Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, a thoughtful urbanist compared to his starchitect-loving predecessors, saluted the arena but slammed the overall project. But his arena rave should have been tempered by more acknowledgment of the neighborhood impacts downplayed by the Times’s metro staff. And however welcome Kimmelman’s criticism—tougher than any other prominent voice from the Times—it came, as one commenter pointed out, “Just five years too late.”

“You’re not buying news when you buy the New York Times,” the late publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger once said. “You’re buying judgment.” When it comes to Atlantic Yards, you’re not getting enough.

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