In Marty Markowitz Tenure, a Cautionary Tale

In 13 years as Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz has been a tireless, media-savvy cheerleader for the borough, including the controversial Atlantic Yards development. (Photo by Azi Paybarah, Flickr Creative Commons License)

In 13 years as Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz has been a tireless, media-savvy cheerleader for the borough’s renaissance, including the controversial Atlantic Yards Project. (Photo by Azi Paybarah, Flickr Creative Commons License)

When Marty Markowitz was first elected borough president in 2001, the Williamsburg Savings Bank building was the tallest structure in Brooklyn.  Today, the borough looks more like parts of Manhattan, with its world-renowned brownstone landscape now eclipsed by a skyline of modern architecture.

As Markowitz’s third and last term comes to an end this year, Brooklyn voters having to decide who will succeed him are left with many questions about his legacy, and even about the function of the borough president’s office.

Brooklyn’s new landscape is evidence of an aggressive economic development, which started with the Downtown Brooklyn Plan in the early 2000s, and is symbolized by the massive Atlantic Yards Project and its centerpiece, Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets.

A street mural from 2007 includes a reference to architect Frank Ghery who was removed as designer of the Atlantic Yards in 2009.  (Photo by Benben, Flickr Creative Commons License)

A street mural from 2007 includes a reference to architect Frank Ghery who was removed as designer of the Atlantic Yards in 2009. (Photo by Benben, Flickr Creative Commons License)

The massive real estate development project was met with fierce community protests which characterized the project as a land grab. The issue that seemed to cause the greatest angst among longstanding Brooklyn residents was the government invoking its power of eminent domain – the legal instrument the state can use to seize private property without an owner’s consent.

Early in his first term as borough president, though, Markowitz made his intentions clear: He wanted a professional sports team in Brooklyn. The Atlantic Yards and the Barclays deal, both spearheaded by real estate developer Bruce Ratner, was the means Markowitz sought to get a pro-team to the borough.  Writer Rebecca Meade, in a 2004 article for The New Yorker, Marty Markowitz – the man, the plan, the arena, details Markowitz’s persistence in convincing Ratner, who was Consumer Affairs Commissioner under Ed Koch, to purchase the New Jersey Nets basketball team and move it to Brooklyn.

In his second State of the Borough address in February 2004, “Marty,” as he is fondly referred to, promoted the Atlantic Yards as an economic boom and a cultural necessity for the borough.  He announced the construction of 4,400 units of new housing, half of which would be offered below market rate, for middle and moderate-income households. Also, thousands of new jobs would be created, and, he vowed, “We’re going to make sure that those who have missed out on construction and contracting opportunities in the past, especially women and minority-owned businesses, have their rightful place at the starting gate for this project.”

The Barclays Center opened in September 2012 and, as Markowitz predicted, it has created a new vitality in the surrounding downtown Brooklyn area. But the promised jobs, affordable housing and contracting opportunities for women and minority-owned businesses did not materialize.

Last year, clergy representing central Brooklyn congregations called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to hold Ratner accountable for his failure to deliver on the promises Markowitz used to sell the project to his constituents.

Members of Develop Don't Destroy, a volunteer-run Brooklyn group that opposed the Atlantic Yards Project protest Marty Markowitz in April 2005. (Photo by JL McVay, Flickr Creative Commons License)

Members of Develop Don’t Destroy, a volunteer-run Brooklyn group that opposed the Atlantic Yards Project protest Marty Markowitz in April 2005. (Photo by JL McVay, Flickr Creative Commons License)

“If the state is going to take property from people, and public funds are used, there has to be a recognizable public benefit,” said Rev. Monte Malik Chandler, of Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Fort Greene, in a 2012 interview with BlackandBrownNews.com. “There is an obligation to design and develop affordable housing.  They did not deliver.”

Despite years of community wrangling over the Atlantic Yards Project, Markowitz’s incumbent advantage and undeniable popularity led to his easy reelection in 2009.

As he leaves office after three terms and 13 years in office, Markowitz’s role in advocating for a private developer who did not deliver on his promises, is a cautionary tale for Brooklyn voters who will elect a new borough president this November.

The Role of the Brooklyn Beep

One of the many public misunderstandings of New York City’s political system is the role of the borough presidents. How much authority do they actually have? What exactly can they do for their constituents?

In the city’s governing structure, borough halls and their seat holders, do not have substantive power. Unlike City Council members, Beeps, as they are sometimes called, cannot vote on the city budget or pass legislation, and the mayor and City Council decide their operating budget. A borough president can make community board appointments, convene constituent meetings, and exercise one vote on the City Planning Commission. Beyond that, the borough president has no real authority.

It hasn’t always been like that. “The job fundamentally changed in 1989, when the city changed its charter, which effectively diminished the power of the borough president,” says Andrew White, director of the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “Prior to 1990, the Board of Estimate approved all budgets and city contracts, and borough presidents had a seat on the Board of Estimate.”

But that lack of real governing authority does not preclude a savvy and ambitious borough president from using the office to argue on behalf of and advocate for constituents. Or perhaps – as Markowitz demonstrated – for private developers.

Markowitz giving one of the many proclamations he has delivered during his tenure. (Photo by Reclaimed Home, Flickr Creative Commons License)

Markowitz giving one of the many proclamations he has delivered during his tenure. (Photo by Reclaimed Home, Flickr Creative Commons License)

Markowitz’s astute grasp and mastery of the art of public relations and promotion worked for him and his agenda.

Since the 1990s, Markowitz has organized two major summer concert series in north and south Brooklyn, drawing concertgoers from across the city. He has two drivers and travels all corners of Brooklyn seven days a week, from the early morning to late night. He has unending energy, and can be counted on to show up at constituent family reunions, bar and bat mitzvahs, restaurant openings, block parties, church events, parades and senior citizen centers. His office churns out proclamations to just about any group or individual. At one point in 2004, Markowitz had a nine-person communications office and a separate events department.

“Marty is a showman, a promoter, and the borough president’s job was perfect for him to engineer economic development,” says White. “Marty pushed events and public relations. That was his priority.”

The Candidates for 2013

The borough president’s office, with its potential for high visibility, is an ideal placeholder and branding station for politicians with greater political or career ambition.

New York State Sen. Eric L. Adams, the clear front-runner in this year’s borough president’s race, explicitly told his supporters last September that he has aspirations of becoming Mayor of New York City one day. A 52-year-old Brooklyn native with a law enforcement background, Adams retired in 2006 as an NYPD captain, and ran for statewide office.  He is an outspoken Democrat who launched the not-so-effective Stop the Sag public relations campaign, urging men and boys to end the fashion trend, and lift up their trousers.

In May, Adams was named as one of seven elected officials taped as part of a federal corruption investigation. The senator has not been charged with a crime and denies any wrongdoing.

Also running is long-shot candidate John Gangemi, of Bensonhurst. The-74 year-old Brooklyn attorney was a city councilman during the administration of Mayor John Lindsay in 1971.

Challenges Ahead for the Next Boro President

The challenges ahead are many. The next borough president will have to contend with an affordable housing crisis spurred by increased housing costs in the borough,and a lack of low- and moderate-income housing. Also, several Brooklyn hospitals, which many in the black and Latino communities depend on for services and employment, are in deep financial trouble and on the brink of shutting down, including Interfaith Medical Center, Long Island College Hospital, SUNY Downstate Brooklyn and Brookdale Medical Center.

A protest poster near Barclays displayed around the time the arena opened in September 2012. (Photo by The Eyes of New York, Flickr Creative Commons License)

A protest poster near Barclays displayed around the time the arena opened in September 2012. (Photo by The Eyes of New York, Flickr Creative Commons License)

“I would like to see a basic human rights agenda from the next borough president,”says Lumumba Bandele, a native of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and an adjunct lecturer at CUNY’s Lehman College. “More attention to issues around educational, healthcare, employment and housing opportunity.”

David McGruder, an attorney and Bedford-Stuyvesant homeowner, identifies infrastructure as a main issue.  His family of five relies on their car for transportation, and since moving to the borough in 2005 the cost of maintaining their vehicle has increased because of damaged roadways that are ignored and unfixed.

“I am part of a tax base that pays a lot of taxes, but the roads and quality-of-life do not reflect that. Where does all these high taxes go?” says McGruder. “To advocate for an arena and not fix the roads is immature [public policy].”

“The next borough president will have to contend with the social effects of economic development,” says Martine Guerrier, a longtime Brooklyn resident and former Assembly candidate for Fort Greene/Clinton Hill.

Guerrier points to the borough’s dated and problematic public transportation system, which has not kept up with growth. “For communities like Canarsie, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville there is a system of buses that the MTA can tinker with at will,” says Guerrier. “That hinders community movement. That type of challenge is huge.”

“A lot of Brooklyn communities had projects happen to them,” says Guerrier. “The borough president has limited power, but part of the job is pushing for what we need in the borough.”

Sharon Toomer is publisher of BlackandBrownNews.com (BBN) and the publication’s “BBN Brooklyn Town Crier” service. In 2004, for four months, she was communications director for Borough President Marty Markowitz.

This article was written as part of the Covering NYC: Political Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation. 

Power Lost, a Brief History

Prior to 1989, New York City’s eight-member Board of Estimate was the ruling authority for the entire city. The mayor, the City Council president (now the speaker), the comptroller, and all five borough presidents had a seat, with voting rights, on the Board. These eight individuals controlled New York City by approving budgets, awarding city contracts and pushing through land use projects.

 That was the city’s system of governance since 1898, and it happened to be an imbalanced system, prone to corruption.

 In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the unassailable Board of Estimate violated the 14th Amendment’s “one man, one vote” protection clause. Consequently, the city was ordered to change its governing structure.

The court ruling happened during Mayor Koch, whose own administration was vexed by scandal and corruption.  In one 1986 corruption case, Queens Borough President Donald Manes – one of eight Board of Estimate members – committed suicide while under investigation for bribery.

Finally, in 1989, the city changed its charter, effectively stripping the borough presidents of their power.  Gone too, for good, was the weight of the eight-member Board of Estimate.

Sharon Toomer 

One Comment

  1. normanoder says:

    Here’s another piece on the agenda for next BP, including equity, transparency, and community board reform:

    http://www.bkbureau.org/2013/04/09/for-next-brooklyn-borough-president-whats-the-agenda/

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