Give this man a Pulitzer

July 18, 2007 | Atlantic Yards, US News


Last year, intrigued by an article in New York magazine, I wrote a three-part blog post about Atlantic Yards, the multi-billion-dollar Brooklyn mixed-use property being developed by Forest City Ratner that, if completed as now contemplated, will house an arena, retail and office, condos, market apartments, and some affordable.



Mr. Ratner wants to bring Brooklyn the Nets … and much more


Assessing whether the public got value for money can be a very complex exercise — so shouldn’t we trust the local elected officials?  They all seem satisfied.  But transparency has its beneficial side-effects, for it enables the dedicated amateur to have something to say:


The opposition’s greatest resource hasn’t been Goldstein or the Hollywood stars but one unknown man working late at night in his Park Slope apartment.  Norman Oder, 45, has a full-time day job as an editor for Library Journal, but for most of the past year, he has spent at least 25 hours a week dissecting the details of the Atlantic Yards plans and posting his analysis at  




The centerpiece is an enormous Frank Gehry design dubbed’ Miss Brooklyn’


Back then, I was highly impressed by what Mr. Oder was doing, and commented:


Anyone interested in delving deeper in Atlantic Yards should head over to Mr. Oder’s blog, which is a veritable trove of digging, posting, analyzing, and commenting. 


Oder is a skeptic in the tradition of I. F. Stone, proving how much can be accomplished with a URL and an obsession.



Stone loved exposing the soft underbelly of government


I sent Mr. Oder a link to my post; in mere minutes I received a reply, noting some inaccuracies in the New York article and asking if I were amenable to correcting imprecisions in my post (which, of course, I was and am).  Since then Mr. Oder has regarded me as a source, quoting me on several occasions:


Lots of volatility

Smith emailed me: Even a cursory review of the financing plan materials released so far reveals that this is an extraordinarily complex undertaking, with many moving parts. The moving parts — the financing plan, with multiple phases, multiple property uses, and multiple potential sources including subsidy and concessionary government capital — mean volatility.

It could be a great financial and economic result, or a terrible one. With this much volatility, sequencing is key: what happens in what order, and who decides what changes are made to the development plan? If the developer has all the optionality — that is, control over the responsive actions taken after unexpected favorable or unfavorable outside events — and the city has none of the optionality, then it’s very likely that the developer can navigate through all the complexity to a successful deal, and achieve this result by adjusting the affordable housing to be fewer apartments, to happen later in the development sequence, and to be redefined upwards. (Anyone who does business with any government agency as a counterparty knows that managing expectations over time is a critical developer skill.)


I have to manage what the government expects

The question isn’t, “Could the developer make a lot of money?” nor even “What is the public getting and what is the public paying?” but rather, “As things change in the future, who decides how the gains and losses are shared between developer profit and housing affordability?”


Mr. Oder’s first foray into the arena was in September, 2005, when he wrote:


The New York Times Company and Forest City Ratner (FCR), which has proposed a massive set of 17 towers plus a basketball arena for the Brooklyn site (spanning at least 22 acres), are partners in building the Times Company’s new headquarters on Eighth Avenue, in Manhattan.

As a business collaborator, the Times Company has an interest in Forest City Ratner’s overall success. As a newspaper, the Times has an obligation to cover FCR in all its ventures, including the $3.5 billion Atlantic Yards project, without fear or favor.

A thorough assessment of the Times’s coverage, from FCR’s announcement of the Atlantic Yards development in December 2003 to the present, reveals numerous stories missed, legitimate critics ignored, issues downplayed, and mistakes uncorrected.


The blog is mightier than the press release?

While the report does not accuse the Times of bias, the paper has an obligation–given its business relationship with Forest City Ratner–to report exactingly, to remove any specter of bias. For some two years, the Times has not done this.


Mr. Oder took it upon himself to do what the Times was not.  As he wrote six months later:

The report has not yet spurred the Public Editor of the New York Times to assess the newspaper’s coverage of the Atlantic Yards project. However, I do think my criticisms have contributed to a somewhat better performance by the media, including the Times.

I will continue my analysis of the New York Times’s coverage, and of media coverage in general.  But I also will continue to take a broader view of the biggest development project in the history of Brooklyn.


Ever since then I’ve had Mr. Oder’s blog,, on my blogroll, and I’ve checked in more or less every day to see what new finds he has unearthed. 



Keep digging in the dirt


The stream of information has been unending, and factual, and bit by bit, Mr. Oder has:


·         Unearthed $1.4 billion in projected tax-exempt volume cap bonds, worth (by my calculations) about $600 million of grant funds, as compared with previous statements that Atlantic Yards would be financed with purely private funding.

·         Explored Atlantic Yard’s remarkable (and very valuable!) carveout from the 421-a affordability requirements.

·         Discussed the Kelo-based eminent domain hearings that matter because the developer has assembled a parcel of this size in part using a friendly agency to take private property as eminent domain for economic development (ED4ED). 

·         Tenaciously, one might even say obsessively, compared FCR’s present statements with its past ones.

·         Observed an apparent inconsistency in elected officials’ postures toward using public funds.


Part of the [Starrett City] negotiations involves increased subsidies that would help keep the complex within the state’s Mitchell-Lama program, though the owners have already fulfilled their obligations. The Times reported:

Yesterday, Senator Charles E. Schumer sent a letter to Mr. Deane asking him to lower his sights from $1.3 billion. He said he did not object to the owners making a profit. But, Mr. Schumer wrote, “it cannot be done at the expense of middle class New Yorkers,” nor should the seller’s profit from the sale be reaped from a new infusion of government money.”
[missing quotation mark in the original]


Without opining on the fate of Starrett City, I think it’s worth noting that Schumer has not extended his concern about the appropriate balance between private profit and public subsidy to the Atlantic Yards project that he supports.


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.


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. 


He’s also used the bandwidth freedom of a blog to post graphics, source documents, pictures, maps, anything and everything that can display information.  It’s been an astonishing, virtuoso performance.



Making the blogosphere sing


[Just in case there are paranoiacs among my readers — hey, what’s wrong with paranoia? Ed. — I have no interest whatever in Atlantic Yards nor, as far as I know, any of the players involved, including Mr. Oder, whom I’ve never met nor done business with.  I’m Simply Curious.]



Just because I’m paranoid …


Aside from the storytelling, Mr. Oder’s work is bringing into the public view a fascinating case study of how a developer pursues a highly complex, interdependent project, and the interplay between public and private sector.  However Atlantic Yards comes out, Mr. Oder’s blog will serve as the definitive contemporary reference; several doctoral theses could be written just using his material as the basis for examination of public-private partnership as a financing and development vehicle.



A one-man word factory


Pulitzer prizes are awarded for ‘distinguished’ journalism in areas including investigative reporting.  Joseph Pulitzer himself was a ‘champion for the common man’ who:


“worked at his desk from early morning until midnight or later, interesting himself in every detail of the paper.” Appealing to the public to accept that his paper was their champion, Pulitzer splashed investigative articles and editorials assailing government corruption, wealthy tax-dodgers, and gamblers.


Whatever you think of Atlantic Yards — and I still haven’t made up my mind, because so many things are in flux and shifting — what Mr. Oder has done represents investigative journalism of the highest order.  He’s done the cause of public-private governance a huge service, all on a shoestring, fired (as far as I can tell) by nothing but altruistic motives.


What does it say right on the Pulitzer medal?



“For the most disinterested and meritorious public service.”


Give this man a Pulitzer.