Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blight is now a city planning tool

From City Journal:

In New York, this creative definition of blight is the new central-planning model. Consultants have also cited “underutilization” in West Harlem, where the city’s Economic Development Corporation wants to take land from private owners and hand it to Columbia University for an expansion project. Says Norman Siegel, who represents the owners: “A private property owner has the right to determine the best productive use of his property. It’s not a right to be ceded to any government.”

And in Queens, the Bloomberg administration is preparing a similar argument to grab swaths of Willets Point, an area adjacent to Citi Field that’s populated with auto-repair shops. The city’s recent “request for qualifications” from would-be developers drew a sharp response from the people who owned the land: “We . . . hold the most significant qualification of all: we own the properties. We are motivated to improve and use our own properties, consistent with the American free market system. We would have done so in spectacular fashion already, had the city upheld its end of the bargain by providing our neighborhood with essential services and infrastructure.” Instead, the city has done the opposite, letting streets disintegrate into ditches to bolster its blight finding. The perversity is astonishing: rather than doing its own job of maintaining public infrastructure and public safety, the government wants to do the private sector’s job—and is going about it by starving that private sector of public resources.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Iron Man of the Iron Triangle


From Last Exit Magazine:

Situated in the shadows of Citi Field in Queens — the home ballpark of the New York Mets — Willets Point, aka The Iron Triangle, is a series of junkyards and auto body shops that has been neglected for over 75 years by the city of New York. Though all the owners pay a hefty property tax, the local government has refused to provide adequate sewers, street lights, and sidewalks. The extreme neglect by local officials has forced the area to become a blight making it eligible for eminent domain.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) has decided to move forward with its ten-year plan to buy up the entire property, whether the owners like it or not, in order to build luxury condos, a hotel, and a convention center—putting thousands of workers out of a job. Though the NYCEDC has offered educational classes, the pay rate associated with the degrees is insufficient as a replacement salary.

Joe Ardizzone was born here and remains the only resident and voting person in the district. After 76 years of residency in the house he was born in, he continues to fight for his rightful land and the lives of the surrounding workers.

Ketcham: City's Willets Point EIS and ramp study don't jibe

From Crains:

The traffic engineer who helped kill Westway, the massive West Side highway project proposed during the Koch administration, now has his sights set on derailing the city’s redevelopment of Willets Point.

Local property owners fighting the project are banking on traffic engineer Brian Ketcham’s study that shows two proposed ramps would increase traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway and have made it a key element of their lawsuit challenging the project’s environmental impact statement.

The Bloomberg administration has argued that the ramps are necessary to prevent a traffic nightmare at the site.

The original environmental impact statement, or EIS, showed the massive Willets Point project would generate heavy traffic, but a recent report on the proposed ramps showed a much sunnier picture. The ramp study—an “access modification report,” or AMR, which is technical documentation to support federal and state decisions on whether to approve the ramps—is being redone after Mr. Ketcham used traffic data from the environmental impact statement to demonstrate that the ramps would make a bad situation worse. The entire redevelopment, with 9 million buildable square feet, is projected to generate 80,000 vehicle trips daily.

“Our problem is that [the ramp study] is so incredibly different from the environmental impact statement,” Mr. Ketcham wrote in an e-mail message. “The EIS reports Willets Point will create gridlock throughout community; AMR reports free-flow traffic. An incredible contrast.”

The access modification report was submitted last summer; Mr. Ketcham noted his objections in a letter last month.

Mr. Ketcham is being paid by project opponents, but his assessment that the access modification report underestimates the traffic impact stems from common modeling software that the state Department of Transportation trusts. The opponents see the department as a potential ally because the agency cannot afford to build all the new road capacity demanded of it.

The ramps require state and federal approval, and it is possible that without the ramps, the project would not proceed. Project opponents are meeting Thursday with the Federal Highway Administration and will ask for an independent review of the ramp report that is now being revised by a private consultant on behalf of the Bloomberg administration.

“We will be submitting a revised draft in the upcoming weeks that is responsive to the comments and issues raised by state DOT and the Federal Highway Administration, as well as those from Willets Point opponents,” said David Lombino, a spokesman for the Bloomberg administration’s Economic Development Corp., the lead agency on Willets Point.

“At the very least, we have put this off by six months,” claimed Richard Lipsky, the lobbyist for the property owners’ group Willets Point United.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why using blight for eminent domain just isn't right

From the NY Post:

New York's real blights today are government's fault -- like the old Deutsche Bank building at Ground Zero, owned by the city and state since 9/11, whose "deconstruction" is still underway.

Eminent-domain abuse is a symptom of a deeper problem: The belief that central planning is superior to free-market competition. To cure yourself of this notion, stroll around Atlantic Yards, past three-story clapboard homes nestled near corniced row houses -- "blighted" residences. You'll peer up at [Daniel] Goldstein's nearly empty apartment house, scheduled to be destroyed.

And you'll see how Ratner's wrecking balls have made the neighborhood gap-toothed. A vacant lot now sprawls where the historic Ward Bakery was.

Today, Prospect Heights displays what the state wants everyone to see: decay. But it's isn't the work of callous markets that left the neighborhood to perish. It's the work of a developer wielding state power to press property owners to sell their land "voluntarily." Meanwhile, true private investment has been choked off, since everyone knows the state's aiming to hand everything to Ratner.

Free markets aren't perfect, but they're better than the blight of arbitrary government.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Build these ramps, and Willets Point, Corona and Flushing will get screwed."

"Build these ramps, and Willets Point, Corona and Flushing will get screwed. And, as our modeling shows, so will every motorist traveling through north central Queens." -- Brian Ketcham, Traffic Engineer

On January 27, 2010, WPU members testified in opposition to federal recertification of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC).

NYMTC recently amended the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), to include the proposed construction of two new controversial Van Wyck Expressway access ramps. According to the City's own study, these proposed ramps will inflict severe adverse traffic impacts upon popular Queens roadways, and upon residents and commuters who rely on those roadways. WPU believes that NYMTC's amendment of the TIP to include the proposed Van Wyck ramps is an abdication of NYMTC's responsibility to ensure that transportation projects conform to accepted standards and do not harm the communities where they occur.

The New York State Department of Transportation now is considering whether or not to approve the proposed Van Wyck ramps, based upon a deficient report submitted by the New York City Economic Development Corporation which blatantly low-balls the traffic impacts, and contradicts the findings of the Environmental Impact Statement.

For in-depth information pertaining to the proposed Van Wyck access ramps, their severe adverse traffic impacts, and what you can do now to prevent their construction, visit:

Richard Lipsky:
"... the review of the ramp approval has been tainted ..."

Brian Ketcham:
"Build these ramps, and Willets Point, Corona and Flushing will get screwed."

Irene Presti:
"... a very serious error that harms the people of Queens ..."

Joseph Ardizzone:
"It's nothing but traffic gridlock."

Chris Petrizzo:
"... it's been negligently approved ..."

Friday, February 19, 2010

WPU's traffic expert to meet with DOT

From the Neighborhood Retail Alliance:

Representatives of Willets Point United-joined by traffic expert Brian Ketcham-will be meeting with the regional staff of NYSDOT today to discuss just why the group believes that the agency shouldn't approve the city's (actually EDC's) application to build ramps off of the Van Wyck Expressway. This should be quite an interesting get together.

Initially, NYSDOT had cancelled the originally scheduled meeting when it found out that representatives of state elected officials planned to attend in order to learn more about why WPU felt that the ramps were not feasible. The implication for the cancellation was that the meeting was becoming, "too political."

This is a situation that genuinely puzzled us. In close to thirty years of lobbying city and state agencies, we have never seen such skittishness about who's coming to a meeting-and the need to micromanage who should or shouldn't be there. Subsequent to the original cancellation, NYSDOT has tried to further restrict attendance-claiming that we shouldn't be there because the meeting is purely, "technical." Yet EDC, the lead political agency for the development, will be represented.

So what's motivating this need to restrict? In our view, it appears that EDC is playing an overbearing role-and if what we suspect is true, than the above board nature of the approval process is thrown into doubt. Now we know that NYSDOT doesn't have the in-house capacity to evaluate the work of URS, EDC's traffic consultants. And in the absence of that capacity, the agency is normally inclined to (relatively) uncritically accept the proffered work.

WPU has thrown the proverbial monkey wrench into the normal review process by submitting-with today's power point presentation by forty year veteran Ketcham-a detailed rebuttal to the URS assertions. And the flawed nature of the submission will be revealed in an extremely harsh light. Put simply, the traffic ramp report (AMR) so thoroughly contradicts the original traffic study done for the ULURP EIS, that the good intentions of EDC must be called into question.

Convention center questionable (aka more lies from EDC)

From the Queens Courier:

In an effort to connect with small businesses in the area, newly-elected Queens City Councilmembers recently met with members of the Queens Chamber of Commerce at the organization’s Jackson Heights headquarters.

Some of the issues they discussed included the loss of area hospitals, the Aqueduct Racino project and the possible altering of the original Willets Point revitalization project.

When the meeting touched on the Economic Development Corporation’s possible abandoning of the proposed Willets Point convention center, Councilmember Karen Koslowitz, of District 29, said that dropping that aspect in particular would be disastrous to the local economy.

“To abandon the original plan would be terrible,” said Koslowitz. “What they are doing is taking away jobs and money from us.”

As Queens Crap points out:

The entire project was based on

a) the site being too polluted to stay that way (therefore the entire thing needed to be remediated at once)
b) jobs, jobs, jobs anchored by the convention center.

Part a) was tossed out the window when they went to a phased approach and part b) is on its way out, probably because TDC doesn't think they can build a convention center or it won't be profitable enough for them.

Amazing how the city can approve one plan and then replace it with something entirely different without any elected official raising hell or an investigation being commenced. And the best part is that the City, via Claire Shulman, continues to lobby itself (as well as the state and feds which need to sign off on their disastrous Van Wyck ramp plan) with our tax money even now that we are broke with the electorate begging for crumbs.

Gotta love this city! Developers are ALWAYS the priority!

We couldn't have said it better ourselves!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What are DOT & EDC hiding?

From the Neighborhood Retail Alliance:

In a lengthy piece on the Huffington Post, David Vines examines the proposed project, and some of the key issues that continue to vex the progress of the development:

"Willets Point sprawls across sixty-two acres between the Flushing River and the New York Mets' Citi Field in Queens. It is filled almost exclusively with small auto repair shops and junkyards--although it would be excusable for one to mistake the entire area for a junkyard. Almost all of the shops in Willets Point are family owned. There is not an AutoZone in sight...In May of 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a plan for urban renewal in Willets Point. Two years later, the New York City Economic Development Corporation announced that it would invest $100 million into infrastructure projects in Queens, including development in Willets Point. The NYCEDC aims to create more than 5,300 permanent jobs and 18,000 construction jobs with this project."

Vines goes on to cite our critique of the process: ""Any time you have eminent domain on the table, you're really negotiating with a gun to your head," says Richard Lipsky. Lipsky is a lobbyist for Willets Point United and the spokesman for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, where he fights for small businesses and against large-scale developments in New York. "The Willets Point businesses don't deserve to be thrown out on their behinds in a process that has been corrupted by political favoritism and the type of shenanigans that we've seen," Lipsky claims."

We were, of course, referring to the situation involving the phony Claire Shulman-led not-for-profit-and just where does that Cuomo investigation into the shenannigans stand today? Shulman, for her part, continues to lobby illegally while the AG drags his feet (while movinbg full speed ahead it seems in the case of Pedro Espada). As we told Vines: "The "shenanigans" of which he speaks involve the Flushing-Willets Point-Corona LDC (Local Development Corporation) whose acting President and CEO, Claire Shulman, registered her corporation with the IRS as one prohibited from lobbying. After Willets Point business owners complained, she was fined a record $59,000 last July for failing to register as a lobbyist."

The political weight behind this project may be weighing heavily on the AG's mind-and our dealings with the NYSDOT underscores this since the agency has been getting real skittish about meeting with us to discuss the inadequacy of the EDC-sponsored traffic study for ramps that are proposed off of ther Van Wyck (ramps that are, according to the original EIS, essential for the project to go forward). DOT has been trying to whittle down who should attend our meeting for Friday-after it was cancelled last week because the agency didn't want reps from various state senate offices to attend.

In our view, this means that the folks at EDC are throwing their weight around-trying to dictate who can, or cannot, come to a meeting. Which is truly curious since the meeting was requested by Willets Point United and it was DOT that decided to bring EDC into the picture. The cancellation of last week's meeting was based it appears on the fact that DOT was concerned that it was becoming too political! As if the presence of EDC represented only good government and the public interest.

You have to wonder about the government being offended by the presence of other members of the government at a meeting to discuss a public project...

Julia Vitullo-Martin's cognitive dissonance

From the Neighborhood Retail Alliance: we have been pointing out, the EDC proposed development would create new environmental hazards-like 80,000 new vehicle trips a day in and out of the new development. [Julia] Vitullo Martin, a shill for development who castigated the defeat of the Kingsbridge Armory deal, scoffs at the suggestion: "When asked about Lipsky's concern that developing the area would create 80,000 new vehicle trips in Flushing every weekday, therefore clogging traffic and increasing the city's carbon footprint, Martin chuckles. "I don't believe that's worthy of a response," she says.

Interestingly, Julia is opposed to the Atlantic Yards development plan in part because of the unmitigated traffic impacts that would result. Yet laughs at the notion that Willets Point, a project 3 times larger than Atlantic Yards, would have any impact.

But that's our Julia...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Perkins bill would eliminate ED based on government-caused blight

From Atlantic Yards Report:

As previewed (Gotham Gazette, New York Times), State Senator Bill Perkins has introduced a sweeping bill (S. 6971) to redefine eminent domain by redefining blight--currently subsumed under the amorphous terms "substandard and insanitary."

Thus environmental consultants like AKRF inevitably find blight when so requested by agencies like the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC).

The bill, which likely will gain both supporters and critics, is clearly a response to the efforts to use eminent domain in the cases of Atlantic Yards, Columbia University, and Willets Point.

It requires that vacant or deteriorating buildings be condemned only after a grace period to abate code violations, pay back taxes, and repair the structures.

And, in cases where multiple parcels are part of a blighted area, the condemnor must demonstrate in writing that 75% of the parcels in the area are individually blighted.

The eminent domain fight on which the bill might have most impact is the city's redevelopment plan for Willets Point, where some business owners are fighting fiercely as Willets Point United, pointing out that the city long neglected the industrial area.

The bill would bar the use of eminent domain where utility services and infrastructure were not provided. (emphasis added)

Given this clear challenge to the Bloomberg administration--and New York City has long resisted any change in blight laws--the Perkins bill likely will face some serious pushback in the legislature.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reverse Robin Hood

From City Journal:

We recently conducted...analysis of 11 locations in the New York metropolitan area (New York City and Long Island) under threat of condemnation as “blighted” or “urban renewal” areas, and thus subject to eminent domain for private development under the court’s ruling. The project areas are in Brooklyn (Atlantic Yards), West Harlem-Manhattanville (the area targeted by Columbia University), Jamaica (Queens), Baldwin and New Cassel (Nassau County, Long Island), and East Harlem—itself home to six urban renewal areas. We found that eminent-domain abuse in New York disproportionately affects ethnic and racial minorities and those less well-off and less educated. The 11 project areas we studied where eminent domain is authorized have a greater percentage of minority residents (92 percent) compared with the counties in which they’re located (57 percent). This disparity is far more pronounced in New York than in our national sample, where 58 percent of project-area residents are minorities, compared with 45 percent in surrounding communities.

Median incomes in New York project areas are considerably less ($21,323.32) than in surrounding areas ($29,880.25). Residents of project areas are more likely to be impoverished (28 percent) than in surrounding communities (17 percent). Forty percent of project-area residents do not have high school diplomas, compared to just 24 percent outside of the project areas. Project-area residents are also far more likely to rent their homes or apartments (87 percent) than residents of surrounding areas (62 percent), and the project areas themselves are more likely to be home to children (28 percent) than surrounding communities (23 percent).

Taken together, the data reveal that especially in New York City, eminent domain falls more heavily on the less affluent—exactly as O’Connor and Thomas predicted it would. Of course, these results do not suggest that local authorities intentionally target these communities for removal. Nonetheless, the data show that local governments wield condemnation against those least equipped to defend their homes and businesses. In effect, New York’s Court of Appeals has endorsed Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor to give to the rich.

And it's about time...

From the Gotham Gazette:

When Henry Weinstein bought a commercial building at752 Pacific St. in Brooklyn 1985 he never expected that 20 years later the government would want to take it away and give to a developer. Weinstein said that he would be shocked if his land was being taken for a hospital, a bridge or a library. But seeing it seized to make way for Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project shakes his faith in the government. "This is the most un-American thing I have ever experienced," he said.

As New York City has reshaped itself over the past decade, the government has given private developers, such as Forest City Ratner, a powerful tool -- an eminent domain law that allows them to seize land from other property owners. Now some politicians believe the law needs change to protect property owners, such as Weinstein.

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has put together a package of legislation that would create a commission to review the state's eminent domain process, give land owners fair compensation for their property and establish an ombudsman who would help land owners whose property is targeted by eminent domain. Later this week Sen. Bill Perkins will unveil legislation that he says would change the state's eminent domain laws to better protect property owners. The situation in the legislature, along with a recent appellate court ruling that found the process the state used to take land for a Columbia University satellite campus in upper Manhattan was unconstitutional, could result in the first major changes to New York's eminent domain laws in more than 30 years.

The possibility that the state might finally redo its eminent domain laws -- laws that have remained the same as other states updated theirs -- has caught the interest of civil rights lawyers, property owners and advocates. But developers, real estate interests and some politicians fear changes could make it more difficult for the state to improve blighted neighborhoods in desperate need of investment, infrastructure and jobs.

According to attorney Michael Rikon, who represents property owners in the Willet's Point section of Queens, where the city is planning a major redevelopment, the term is so vague that the contractors used by the government basically make up formulas as they go along. "The definition of blight is so broad it could come down to cracks in the sidewalk. Even the mayor's townhouse could be blighted, because it only supports one family," he said.

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who represents Tuck-It-Away, a storage company that is fighting Columbia University's expansion plans, agrees. "Basically they are saying if there is a Motel 8 and Hilton comes along and says they can make the property more valuable, then it [the Motel 8] can be declared blighted." Many advocates, Siegel said, have begun saying the land in these cases should not be labeled "blighted," but "coveted."

Siegel calls eminent domain one of the premier civil rights issues of this century. "I really think it is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. It disproportionately impacts poor neighborhoods and people of color. It cuts across partisan lines," he said.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Is change in NYS eminent domain law coming?

From the Architect's Newspaper:

...Now, a clutch of Albany pols are preparing to begin changing what some consider the worst eminent domain laws in the country.

Perkins and Alessi at an eminent domain hearing in Harlem earlier this month.
Tracy Collins

Leading the charge is state Senator Bill Perkins, whose district covers much of Harlem. “I think the forces are coming together for change to take place,” Perkins said. “There is, from my observation, growing interest on a grassroots level.” As chair of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, Perkins oversees the main executor of eminent domain in New York, the Empire State Development Corporation.

Among those joining Perkins is fellow senator James Alesi, a republican who represents the rural areas surrounding Rochester. “After many decades, it is time for an overhaul for what has become a double-edged sword of beneficial economic development but also deleterious theft,” said Alesi at a January 5 hearing held on eminent domain reform, the first of many planned in the coming months across the state.

As chair of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, Perkins has some oversight of the main executor of eminent domain in New York, the Empire State Development Corporation. The senator stressed that he has some ideas about how to address eminent domain, but he does not want to tip his hand this early and also hopes to gain insight and ideas from the public.

There were proposals aplenty, ranging from compensation reform to abolishing the ESDC. One of the most obvious suggestions was to essentially reverse *Kelo and outlaw the taking of private property for anything but use by the government. But given the power of real-estate interests in the state and the proclivity of certain politicians, *including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, toward development, such a provision is unlikely.

The simplest changes may affect eminent domain litigation. Numerous attorneys advocated for a more open legal process to allow landowners to challenge eminent domain proposals. In New York, all such cases forbid jury trials, a practice exercised by no other state. “You slip on the floor, you get a jury,” Michael Rikon said. “You have your property taken, you get nothing but a judge. Let the people decide what’s right and wrong.”

Gideon's Trumpet is not as optimistic, however:

"Our view of that thankless endeavor is that there will be eminent domain reform in New York when pigs learn to fly. That state has over a period of decades evolved such a kleptocratic legal culture that we have difficulty seeing what forces would take the lead in getting the legislature to make effective reforms. And as for New York judges, . . . Just read up on how judges are picked in New York. It’s all there in the archives of the New York Times.

So we offer our best wishes to the beleaguered New Yorkers trying to keep their property out of the clutches of local redevelopers, or at least to be fairly compensated when their property is taken. As that old, politically incorrect punchline from an old World War II joke went: Rots of ruck, guys."