Thursday, October 19, 2006

Funny Atlantic Yards Numbers Game (and Spitzer Endorsement)

The Atlantic Yards Front has been a bit quiet the last couple of weeks, as the Empire State Development Corporation moves toward its pro forma endorsement of the project and the behind-the-scenes end game to reduce the scale of the project and put a more responsive public face on the project plays out. There was very interesting news yesterday, though.

First, Democratic gubernatorial candidate pretty much endorsed Atlantic Yards in its current form on the Brian Lehrer show, saying he supports the project and that the recently announced eight percent scaleback (which scales the project back to its orginally announced size) is an "appropriate compromise." Atlantic Yards Report offers up observations on Mr. Spitzer's remarks on BL.

In addition, the ESDC finally released some economic impact data on the project, after some significant stink was raised by Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards Report and others.

The result: Nothing that sheds light on true costs and benefits of the development. There are "benefits" outlined on the basis of some very generous assumptions, but there is not a shred of data laying out the costs and subsidies attached to the project.

We have seen our share of economic impact statements attached to big projects in our day. We are keenly aware that very few are worth the paper they are printed on. (To say that most take liberties with facts is an understatement. There is little in the English language that can accurately describe the way in which economic impact statements created by consultants play games with numbers.)

This Atlantic Yards document--which one presumes was released because the complete stonewall of Freedom of Information Law requests could have presented another issue for lawyers litigating against the project to pursue--sets a new standard for obfuscation.

Mr. Oder, whose analysis is always cogent and detailed, concludes:
Can we trust the Empire State Development Corporation's (ESDC) fiscal impact analysis regarding Atlantic Yards? Nope...It's deeply unconvincing. Despite the phrase "public contribution" noted above, there's no reference to public contributions or public costs. In other words, it's a fiscal benefit analysis, not an impact analysis.
There is much more in the way of thoughtful deconstruction in Mr. Oder's post. No Land Grab, meanwhile, concluded that there was nothing in the document "that would earn a passing grade on an economics thesis, which leaves us still wondering, where's the beef?"

If you wish to view the document in its entirety, it has been posted by at No Land Grab. You can click here and the PDF will open.

One can only draw a few conclusions, here, and none of them are good. The first is that the ESDC has a little culture of secrecy or is deliberately thumbing its nose at those that want full disclosure on Atlantic Yards or is trying to make life miserable for those that oppose or raise questions about the mega-project. The other is that the financial data is ugly or potentially controversial in terms of the full public cost and developer profit and there is no way they want it to see the light of day before all the approvals are finalized.

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