Chris Smith on Atlantic Yards: The ‘Times’ Screwed Up

20061221timesbk.jpg


So there it is on today's front page: "State Approves Major Complex For Brooklyn; Vote on Atlantic Yards Caps 3-Year Conflict." And it is correct that the Public Authority Control Board — really George Pataki, Joe Bruno, and Sheldon Silver — yesterday signed off on Bruce Ratner's $4 billion stadium-and-skyscraper project. But what was truly "capped" was a farcical, corrupt political process and three years of irresponsible, lazy coverage by the Times.

Individual Times reporters have written significant stories along the way. But the Times, collectively, has never demonstrated the will or interest to examine Atlantic Yards in anything close to the proportion demanded by one of the biggest real-estate schemes in the history of the city. Maybe it's because Ratner is the Times' partner in building the paper's new Eighth Avenue headquarters. Maybe it's because Times editors think Atlantic Yards is an objectively good idea. Maybe it's because the Times, along with the rest of the city's mainstream media, does a lousy job of covering anything outside our midtown backyard. Whatever the reasons, the effect has been an abdication of the Times' civic and journalistic responsibility.

Alan Hevesi's driver shenanigans cost the citizenry $200,000 (which he's repaying) and affected the lives of no one; Atlantic Yards is floating $1.6 billion in state-backed debt, and Brooklyn's 2.5 million residents will feel the project's impact every day. Yet the Times has never seriously challenged Ratner's calculations. In today's paper, in a paragraph near the very end of the story, is a mention of how much money Ratner stands to make from Atlantic Yards — a figure the developer has hidden as zealously as the code to a nuclear warhead. "[Ratner] estimated that the overall rate of return on the $4 billion project, excluding the arena, at about 10 percent over 30 years. The accounting firm [KPMG] estimated the return at about 7 percent."

Is either figure correct? The Times doesn't know; it has had plenty of time to work up its own independent estimate, but hasn't. (New York Magazine did, and came up with a profit closer to $1 billion; see my August cover story, which includes a description of my own self-interest in Atlantic Yards.) KPMG was hired by the state's development agency, the ESDC, which has been a cheerleader for Atlantic Yards from the beginning and is the agency that hid a sudden 33 percent drop in the state's estimated tax revenue from Atlantic Yards, a fact that came to light only through the digging of blogger Norman Oder. The Times wouldn't just passively accept the numbers of, say, the Bush Administration, would it?

Also shrugging his shoulders, just as disgracefully though more predictably, was Assembly Speaker Silver, the last elected official with the power to hold Atlantic Yards up to meaningful scrutiny. "Our role is not to measure the profits that the private investors will make," Silver said. Really? Even when Silver is handing those private investors what will probably be more than a billion dollars in taxpayer money, in the form of subsidies and tax breaks? Would Silver invest his own money in any company without bothering to check its profitability?

Such quibbling is, of course, beside the point when talking about Albany. In the past few days, Silver made a great show of demanding more information about the public financing of Atlantic Yards, and on Tuesday the ESDC dumped reams of financial documents on Silver's office. It would be nice to think that Silver, or someone on his staff, then pulled all-nighters reading and dissecting the material. But Silver's support was assured years ago by Ratner's sophisticated political campaign, which included cutting the amount of Atlantic Yards office space so as not to compete for tenants that Silver would rather see in his downtown Manhattan district. And Silver's formal approval was sealed in a classic bit of last-minute, insider horse-trading: He agreed to green-light Atlantic Yards as long as Pataki dropped the effort to get Moynihan Station approved. But that nugget was in the Daily News, not the Times.

Actually, the Times did have one scoop on the Atlantic Yards endgame, though it was inadvertent, buried, and partly wrong. Last week, tacked on to the end of a sports-section story on a hockey game, was a one-sentence mention that the Rangers are likely to move a minor-league team to Brooklyn, "presumably to play at the proposed Atlantic Yards development." The team would in fact play at the new Floyd Bennett Field complex. But the subtext was more significant: Silver is a huge Rangers fan, and he's very close to the Rangers' owners, Cablevision's Dolan family. Cablevision desperately wants to build a new Madison Square Garden as part of the Moynihan Station deal, something Pataki has blocked. If Cablevision had raised strenuous objections to Atlantic Yards as a competitor instead of relocating a minor-league team to Brooklyn, or if Silver hadn't been able to delay the Moynihan Station deal, Silver wouldn't have waved Atlantic Yards through yesterday.

The Times is finally starting to pay close attention to Albany's tangled culture of self-dealing, with the investment portfolio of Joe Bruno suddenly worthy of page-one play. But that has as much to do with the impending arrival of Eliot Spitzer as any new burst of journalistic enterprise. And it's way too late to do Brooklyn any good. —Chris Smith

Mr. Ratner's Neighborhood [NYM]