By: David A. Smith
When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.
By the early 1990s, as we saw in the preceding Part 3, the SPURA site’s development standoff had defeated three mayors and was well on its way to outlasting its fourth (the urban placeholder David Dinkins) as the community had been unable to embrace developer Sam LeFrak.
GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side) rally
Sources used in this post
New York Times (March 23, 2014): the story damning Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver
New York Times (September 25, 2013; green font): Mr. Rapfogel’s indictment
New York Times (September 17, 2013; blue font): Announcement of development
New York Times Letter to the Editor, November 29, 1989; red font); Local opposition
As Mr. LeFrak built on his father’s legacy of building affordable housing, including the landmark LeFrak City in Queens, his description of a collision of interests rings true, because LeFrak was extremely successful in developing affordable housing elsewhere in New York City.
“It was an exercise in frustration,” said Richard LeFrak, a developer who was twice selected to rebuild Seward Park but was unable to move forward. “You had the collision between the Jewish community in the Grant Houses and the Latino and Asian communities.”
LeFrak City, from the air
LeFrak City, from the residents’ perspective
Once again, SPURA remained parking lots.
In 1994, Mr. Silver became speaker of the Assembly in Albany. Almost 30 years after it was cleared, the vast space on the Lower East Side remained desolate. That year he faced renewed accusations from housing advocates that he and U.J.C. had blocked plans for housing on the site to preserve his power and keep out other groups.
“They would rather have the vacant lots and rats than have minority people there,” said Frances Goldin, a leader in the Lower East Side Joint Planning Council, which fought for housing on the site, speaking to The New York Times that year.
Ms. Goldin’s reliability in divining other people’s motives has to be evaluated in light of her credentials as both a literary agent and a lifelong protester (seeking, among other things, lower rent for a favorite bookstore) who relished the Occupy protests,
In response, Mr. Silver said he only wanted “a buildable consensus plan” in a neighborhood that was too split to proceed.
But months later, he and Mr. Rapfogel quietly put their weight behind yet another new plan, from a handpicked developer who included no housing. According to official memos, Mr. Silver asked city officials to approve a “big box” store, like Costco, on the site.
And is it self-evidently clear that pursuing such a store is inherently nefarious and proof of political corruption?
The developer, Bruce Ratner, would build it.
The man who brought the Nets to Brooklyn: Bruce Ratner
The sponsor would be the South Manhattan Development Corporation, which Mr. Rapfogel then headed.
Aside from being headed by Mr. Rapfogel, the SMDC was and is the development arm of the United Jewish Council, so it was the most logical Jewish developer in the area.
“This proposal’s most prominent supporter is Assemblyman Sheldon Silver,” wrote Deborah C. Wright, the city’s housing commissioner under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, in an internal memo. “I would love to see something positive happen here under our administration, but the conflicts here rival Bosnia!”
Wright though the Lower East Side politically rivaled Bosnia
Charles Millard, then the head of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, wrote in another memo that Mr. Silver told him “the community does not want housing on the site.”
Millard says he was told the community didn’t want housing
The plan was never publicly discussed and went nowhere.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Can we ascribe the plan’s failure to the scheming of Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel?
“We had no idea Silver had done that,” said Harriet Cohen, who argued for affordable housing on the site as co-chairwoman of the Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition.
Even without redevelopment, change came anyhow.
In the years that followed, Jewish dominance waned. A wave of fashionable urban professionals changed the look and feel of the shops and restaurants.
Do my eyes deceive me? Is the New York Times embracing … gentrification?
Stores that sold skullcaps or kosher wine were replaced by hip wine bars and cafes. Kossar’s Hot Bialys, a Jewish institution on Grand Street, remains, but two doors down is Doughnut Plant, which sells things like Valrhona chocolate doughnuts, for as much as $3 apiece.
Getcher hot bialys here
Not only did the minority become the majority, but also the great American wealth escalator worked its desired magic. As New York City’s economy revived, the Lower East Side rose from armpit of Manhattan to being a highly desirable residential location, walkable to burgeoning Wall Street – and those co-operatives, developed to be affordable, had evolved into a source of substantial wealth.
At Cooperative Village, where the Rapfogels and Silvers raised their children and still live, tenants were allowed to sell on the open market beginning in 2000, after decades of values’ being capped. One two-bedroom apartment was recently on the market for $965,000.
In other words, the residents of Co-operative Village have now become fully market acclimated – and that is a good thing.
And the ties between Mr. Silver, Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Ratner strengthened.
The Rapfogel clan: Ora, Michael’s wife, Michael, William and Judy Rapfogl
The Rapfogels’ eldest son, Michael, finished law school in 2005 and soon went to work for Mr. Ratner. The job was seen internally as a way to please Mr. Silver, say people familiar with the son’s work; Mr. Ratner’s company rejects the notion.
While we want to imbue political figures with skullduggeries worthy of the extended families in Game of Thrones, I doubt that young mister Rapfogel would go to work for a company just to please his father.
You will marry whom I tell you to, and you will give me a son by her
Now that connection is and has always been a scandal in its trampling of property owners’ rights.
I posted extensively about Atlantic Yards at the time and several times thereafter, using in part the spectacular, Pulitzer-worthy work by the unceasing Norman Oder. Whatever else it might have been, Atlantic Yards was a gross abuse of eminent domain for economic development, as well as a continuing bait-and-switch as to how much affordable housing would be developed, when and where and for whom, and whether the public benefit of that affordable housing was enough to justify the enormous public resources delivered to the project.
Intervention by Mr. Silver and others enabled the project to retain a lucrative tax break, even as that break was actually being phased out (and even as the affordable housing component kept getting deferred, whittled away, and watered down).
One must honor Norman Oder, who carries on as a self-appointed and incredibly effective investigator.
Norman Oder carrying on. He remains a steadfast witness.
At times, we can only witness
In 2008, Forest City Ratner, which compared to other developers makes few political contributions, gave $58,420 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, which is controlled by Mr. Silver. [And noted carefully at the time by Mr. Oder. – Ed.]
That same year, Mr. Ratner helped raise $1 million for Met Council and was honored at a luncheon given by Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver. “Bruce is responsible for much of the development and growth that’s gone on in Brooklyn and in Manhattan,” Mr. Silver said at the event. “He is a major force in New York City for the good.”
Let’s take another look at the cozy relationship between Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty [the charity Mr. Rapfogel headed and from which he is alleged to have embezzled millions – Ed.], and developer Forest City Ratner. There’s nothing illegal, just another episode of the questionable one-hand-washes-the-other power configuration that seems so prevalent in the city and state.
Silver says that those who care about process are “naive.” Perhaps that’s also his message for those who had hoped he’d ask hard questions about Atlantic Yards.
It’s ironic that the Times is now trying to draw connections between Mr. Silver and real estate development when, six years ago, the Times chose to overlook connections right in front of its editorial face. As I wrote at the time:
One Norman Oder, in time-lapse photography?
In all this, Mr. Oder has run absolute circles around the New York Times, even to the point of highlighting, and returning frequently to, the Times‘ conflict of interest in covering the story, since FCR has been developing the Times new headquarters.
No conflicts, but great interest: Norman Oder
Mr. Oder has done this, as far as I can tell, out of nothing more than intellectual orneriness, a sense that the full story has not been told.
In any case, now that Atlantic Yards is fully completed, and Forest City Ratner is no longer building the Times‘s headquarters building, the Times finally caught up with the story:
Occupied by the Times, built by Ratner
By 2011, with all the neighborhood changes, consensus finally seemed possible. The local community board adopted development guidelines that included 800 to 1,000 apartments, with 20 percent, or as few as 160 units, set aside for low-income tenants.
[Continued tomorrow in Part 6.]