It was right there in the General Project Plan for the Atlantic Yards project that the state-run Empire State Development Corporation released back on July 18: Bruce Ratner’s arena/condo/office tower complex would “generate $1.4 billion in net tax revenues in excess of the public contribution to the Project.” This according to an “independent economic impact analysis” performed, according to the document, by ESDC itself.
Leaving aside how “independent” a study can be when it’s undertaken by the agency proposing to build the project, a bigger problem has emerged: The ESDC is refusing to let anybody see this report. Asked by the Voice last month who had conducted it, ESDC spokesperson Deborah Wetzel said she “didn’t know.” And now, two months after Norman Oder of the Ratnerville watchdog blog Atlantic Yards Report filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the study, ESDC FOIL officer Antovk Pidedjian has informed Oder that no such documents exist that are subject to disclosure laws. The reason, an ESDC attorney told the Voice: “It is ESDC’s position that internal staff memos that address economic impact are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law.”
ESDC’s disdain for public disclosure is nothing new—others who’ve tried to file FOIL requests for agency documents say it can often take months just to get a reply. (The law requires a response within five business days.) But it’s especially troublesome in this case, where the only evidence for the project’s estimated public costs ($545 million) and benefits ($1.945 billion) is the state agency’s assertion that, well, we know what we’re talking about, and you’ll just have to trust us.
In this case, says Robert Freedman of the state Committee on Open Government, which oversees the Freedom of Information Law, the ESDC’s reasoning “is a partial response, and in my opinion in all likelihood it is at least partially wrong.” While the law does exempt “intra-agency materials,” he says, certain categories of material explicitly cannot be withheld—one of which is “statistical or factual tabulations or data,” which presumably would include economic impact number-crunching.
“This has been presented as something that’s going to be a fiscal boon to the public,” says Oder, who notes that other agencies such as the Independent Budget Office and even Ratner’s own consultant, Andrew Zimbalist, came up with more significant projected costs. “It shouldn’t just be me getting excited about this—it should be our local elected officials. How can they get away with claiming this number?”