Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hunts Point Market Sayonara?

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Hunts Point Produce market is negotiating to leave the city: "The Hunts Point wholesale produce market in the South Bronx has identified multiple sites in New Jersey for a potential relocation of what is said to be the largest such facility in the world."

If this happens, it would be an absolute disgrace-and an indictment of the Bloomberg administration's failed economic development policies. And the fact that EDC has allowed the market to deteriorate is hard to believe: "Merchants and customers alike say the facility is antiquated and too small. Produce is often stored in trailers because of space constraints. "You have product that isn't being properly cared for in the refrigeration or the cold chain to keep things in great shape, and that means product will start to go downhill quickly," said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, a trade group."

So, let's get this straight. The most important economic engine in the Bronx, and the linchpin in the distribution of fresh fruits and veggies to the entire city, has been allowed to become obsolete? All the while EDC has been building retail malls all over the place? Let's not forget that the city has allowed all of the bakeries to leave the Bronx and other areas of the city under Bloomberg's less than watchful eye.

As the NY Daily News opined: "Two hundred well-paying blue-collar jobs will soon be lost to New York with the closure of the Queens factory that has turned out Wonder Bread since the 1920s. And the city's working-class hemorrhage goes on...Just as happened last summer to 220 workers who held similar positions at Old London Bakery, where Melba toast and other snack foods had been made for decades in the Bronx.Just as happened to 138 workers at the Stella D'Oro bakery, another long-time Bronx employer, after a national snack-food maker bought the company and centralized production in Ohio."

Of course, we can't forget the billions that EDC has earmarked to remove us from our property and develop the Iron Triangle. A case of dropping the ball, we think. And the cost of keeping the Market in the Bronx is a fraction of the Willets Point boondoggle:"The main sticking point in negotiations with the city is the financing of a new facility. The cooperative estimates a new market would cost $320 million in New York, but substantially less in New Jersey. Furthermore, the cooperative wants equity in the facility if it is contributing to its cost."

That's a price tag not much greater than what it will cost to build the useless Van Wyck ramps. Talk about priorities! EDC is now saying that they will do all they can to keep the market in the Bronx: "The city's Economic Development Corp. said in an emailed statement, "We continue to work with local, state and federal partners to develop a plan that will keep the market in the Bronx."

However, the fact that the situation has been allowed to reach this point speaks directly to the misplaced policies of the Bloomberg administration. Billions for pie in the sky projects, or developments that challenge our roads and mass transit infrastructure, but no money to insure that the Hunts Point Market stays where it should-in the Bronx where customers have easy access to the supply of fresh produce.

As one customer of the Market told the WSJ: "Mike Koutsounadis is the owner of a Queens-based distributorship that makes deliveries to about 30 restaurants and stores. Going to New Jersey, he said, "would be much tougher because of the travel distance, the tolls, the extra expense for the trucks…plus the time." Still, "If the prices are that much lower then I would go," he said."

This should have been a no brainer for EDC. But apparently,such a challenge has been above the agency's intellectual capacity. 3000 union jobs hang in the balance. We'll see if EDC can manage to hold on to this economic engine, and not get lost in the pursuit of a Willets Point Holy Grail.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More Coverage of Judge Madden

Curbed covers the Crain's story on Judge Madden's decision: "A ray of hope for Willets Point property owners opposed to the city's plans for redevelopment: a judge is wondering whether she should revoke the city's okay to move ahead. The State Supreme Court judge ruled last summer that the project could proceed, but the city never explained why it had decided it could build the project's first phase without the controversial traffic ramps previously deemed necessary. Now the judge would like to know!"

What will be fascinating to watch is the upcoming legal dance the city tries to do in order to keep the courts away from the environmental issues. In court the other day we heard that the city lawyers told Judge Madden that ramp approval was right around the corner. She replied skeptically, "I've heard you say that before."

What we can say for certain is now that the judge has throw a potential monkey wrench into the city's plans, we can anticipate that it will launch a full court press on state and federal regulators. But the regulators need to continue to tread carefully on this issue. There will be no hiding from the courts if a rubber stamp is pulled from out of the regulatory drawer.

Out of the City's Domain

As we commented yesterday, Judge Joan Madden has thrown the city a curve ball by issuing her order to show cause against that effort to segment the Willets Point project and avoid proper review of the Van Wyck ramps. In doing so, Madden explicitly rejected the city's argument that this entire dispute could be rolled into the eminent domain challenge.

We anticipate that EDC will try to make this case when they submit papers to the judge in response to her order. We know exactly why the city is trying to use the ED gambit-they are on stronger legal ground-given how the NY State courts have ruled on condemnation challenges-in this are then in the environmental arena where its case is much weaker.

This view is brought home in a City Hall story this week, cleverly titled "Imminent Domain," that focuses in on the eminent domain fight at Willets Point:

"By next summer, the dilapidated jumble of auto shops in Willets Point should be starting to transform into a slick new development featuring mixed-income housing, a hotel and a convention center.

But first the city must take on a small band of business owners trying to hold onto their property in the Queens neighborhood, and while recent experience shows that the city has the upper hand in securing the land for the project, the group is eager to learn from recent economic development fights."

Which is precisely why WPU is fighting a two front legal war-the ED battle field is littered with failed litigants: "Two other redevelopment projects in the city, Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and Columbia University's expansion in Manhattan, recently reaffirmed the right of government to take private property in New York and turn it over to private developers. As the city takes its first step toward using eminent domain in Willets Point, opponents are looking carefully at the legal battles over those two projects, as a guide for which strategies to follow and which to avoid."

Norman Siegel, who fought Columbia and the city valiantly, makes the point: "Unfortunately you can't ignore that precedent," said Norman Siegel, an attorney who argued unsuccessfully against eminent domain in the Columbia expansion and has advised the Willets Point property owners. "The court in both Atlantic Yards and Columbia upheld the use of eminent domain, which confirms that the New York courts are extremely deferential to the government agencies with regard to their finding of eminent domain."

WPU is trying a different tack, and is avoiding the public use argument that didn't work elsewhere: "Opponents to the Willets Point development will also try to show that any blight, or substandard conditions that allow the government to take property, is a direct result of the city's failure to install sewers and drainage systems and build sidewalks.The argument is similar to a claim in the Columbia case, in which opponents accused the university of allowing property it had purchased to fall into disrepair.That argument failed to sway the courts, but Siegel, an attorney in that case, said that Willets Point property owners have a strong argument."They had over the years requested the city improve that area, including putting in a drainage system and creating sidewalks, and the city never did that," Siegel said. "If there was blight, it was caused by the city, not by the individual property owners."

City Hall does also mention in passing the WPU environmental challenge: "Willets Point United also filed an environmental legal challenge in late March, arguing that the city must fulfill its promise to get state approval for ramps to connect the development to the Van Wyck Expressway before using eminent domain. The filing also challenges breaking up the project into separate phases, which it says avoids the issue of the ramps by delaying them until a later phase."

The city, commenting before Judge Madden's ruling yesterday, sounded confident: "We feel confident that we are on strong legal footing and look forward to resolving this matter as quickly as possible so that this project, which will create thousands of jobs in Queens, can move forward without further delays," said Julie Wood, an EDC spokesperson."

But it's Seth Pinsky's comments that need to be drug tested-particularly his statements on the ramps: "In a recent blog post, EDC President Seth Pinsky wrote that he expects the city to "receive all necessary approvals for these planned ramps in the coming months."

If that were so, why is EDC proceeding in its current phased segmentation without the ramp approvals that he says are imminent? Isn't it better to simply wait the pro forma few months rather than proceed in a manner that just might pique the judge that ruled in the city's favor last year? (Based on awaiting the ramp approval)

Pinsky, standing on some softening legal grounds, goes on to make the case a popularity contest: "Pinsky also emphasized the jobs the project would bring and its broad support. "This is a project that is overwhelmingly supported by the City's elected officials, arose out of a community planning process, with a first phase that is funded and ready to go, despite today's challenging fiscal environment," Pinsky wrote."

As City Hall concludes, however, it will be the courts and not any public opinion poll that will determine the outcome of this fight. The exit question for us is, Will the city now continue to pursue the EDPL path without waiting for the environmental issues to play out in Judge Madden's court? If it does it could be playing with fire-further provoking a jurist that has seen that the city's sworn representations aren't to be taken seriously.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Court Decision Maddening to City

As Crain's is reporting, EDC's efforts to make an end run of required ramp approvals from SDOT may have hit a giant pothole-and its bogus Phase I may be on the verge of being phased out:

"The city's bid to redevelop Willets Point, Queens, hit a pothole Tuesday when a judge ordered the Bloomberg administration to show why she shouldn't revoke the go-ahead she granted last summer. State Supreme Court Judge Joan Madden had ruled that the project could proceed because the city promised not to condemn any land until it had approval for new Van Wyck Expressway ramps, which it had deemed essential to the project.

But when state and federal approval of the ramps proved elusive, the city split the project into two phases and moved ahead with condemnations, arguing that the ramps were not required for Phase I."

Judge Madden wasn't buying this mess: "But the administration failed to make that argument to the judge. According to Michael Gerrard, the attorney for Willets Point property owners who object to the city's plan, the judge signed an order directing the city to explain why her order dismissing his lawsuit should not be vacated."

Circling back to last year, you might recall that the city argued in sworn testimony that it wouldn't proceed with condemnation prior to ramp approval (the affidavit of Deputy Mayor Lieber).

In ruling for the city last year, Madden relied on the Lieber's representation-now proven to be of little truthful value. So, what could happen now is that the judge might just re-open WPU's environmental challenge: "City lawyers will prepare a brief, the property owners will write a response, and the judge will hear oral argument in open court July 20. Mr. Gerrard and his clients are asking that she reopen the case."

What is clear, however, is that EDC by looking to take a shortcut to condemnation may have simply cut off its nose to spite the judge's face. If so, the prospects of any successful development of Willets Point might have hit an even larger pothole than the ones found on all of the Willets Point streets that the city has never paved.

Breaking News: Judge orders City to show cause for condemnation

Judge Madden, of New York State Supreme Court, has signed an order directing the City to show cause why her 2010 order dismissing WPU's Article 78 proceeding should not be vacated, due to the City's actions going forward with condemnation without having obtained approval for the proposed Van Wyck ramps.

Judge Madden rejected the City's arguments that she should only consider the procedural issue of whether the Eminent Domain Procedure Law provides the exclusive procedure for adjudicating WPU's new claim pertaining to the lack of approvals of the proposed Van Wyck ramps, and not the substantive environmental issues; the parties' briefing will consider both of those issues. The City will prepare a brief; WPU will reply; and Judge Madden will hear oral argument in open court on July 20 at 2:30 pm. If she decides to reopen the case after that argument, each side will have the opportunity to submit detailed technical affidavits. Today WPU's objective was to get a court-ordered schedule for arguing all of our issues, and WPU's attorney, Michael Gerrard, fully achieved that objective.

Ardizzone Signed Order to Show Cause

Monday, March 28, 2011

Can We Afford Developing Willets Point?

The budget news was not good today for NYC and its mayor-frugal Mike Bloomberg. City Room reports on the mayor's pique: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on Monday dismissed the budget agreement reached in Albany over the weekend as an “outrage,” saying that it was likely to require the city to make another round of steep cuts. In defiant terms, Mr. Bloomberg said the cuts proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders would disproportionately fall on the city, despite the fact that it served as an economic catalyst for the rest of the state. “We are the jewel of the financial crown, if you will, in New York State,” Mr. Bloomberg said after a City Hall news conference. “We’re the one that’s generating the money.”

Of course, we are also the crown jewel of government waste and over spending-and the CityTime scandal is not even the worst of it. The fact is that Mike Bloomberg has squandered his first two terms, doing very little of anything to rein in the size and scope of government. The public payroll-with all of its attendant pension obligations-has been truly bloated, and agency consolidation and smart new government initiatives (certainly not outsourcing) have been few and far between.

Still, as Daily Politics reports, Bloomberg is now all doom and gloom: "Unless the state acts on the mandated relief and the pension reform quickly, the cuts that we’re in the process of right now are going to be greater than people expected perhaps and more cuts to services. And to make matters worse, we have to go ahead right now -- we’re getting to the close to where we just owe it to our employees to tell them -- if we have layoffs in the education department that are not based on merit, but based on seniority, it would just be devastating to our schools...”

What this dramatizes is that we are going through a period of severe fiscal austerity-and for NYC it's a case of the chickens coming home to roost but finding their nests taken through condemnation. How can Mike Bloomberg justify this wasteful boondoggle of a project in these troubled times?

He can, because Willets Point is all about Mike Bloomberg-it's his legacy, and if it doesn't come to pass, too bad, too sad; it will be the tax payers, not the former mayor, who will have to pay the bill.

So we ask all of you who are concerned with lower police manning, closed schools and firehouses, and less sanitation pick ups, to send the mayor a message. The time for personal boondoggles is long gone. CityTime was your mulligan, Mr. Mayor. You shouldn't be given another one at Willets Point.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bloomberg, Outsourcing Scandals, and Willets Point

According to Adam Lisberg at the NY Daily News, Mayor Mike Bloomberg hasn't gotten the memo about the need for the city to reduce its use of outside contractors: "Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg didn't get the memo. Literally. On his Friday radio show, he was asked about a new shift in city policy that had been in the newspaper for two days running - and didn't seem to know it had happened. It's a shift on something that had been a sore point for Bloomberg's critics - outside contractors paid six-figure salaries for tech projects that blow deadlines and budgets, like the scandal-ridden CityTime system."

, still operating on Bermuda time, went on to regal the John Gambling audience of about three people about the wonderful benefits of outsourcing: "On the radio, WOR-AM host John Gambling tossed Bloomberg a softball about it. But instead of explaining the new company line on insourcing, the mayor defended outsourcing. "People say, 'Oh, you're spending too much money on outsiders.' If you didn't do that one contract outside, you'd have to have those people permanently on your staff," the mayor said. "The consultants, they say, 'Oh, they charge a lot more.' Well, because that's the business," he continued. "They don't work all the time, so they have to get paid more. And sometimes they have expertise you don't have in-house."

Can this man really be serious? Hasn't he seen how unsupervised outsiders can rip the city off? Lisberg feels that it could be the result of inattention: "Or perhaps it's a sign of something more worrisome, of a third-term mayor who has delegated the nuts and bolts of government to new aides like Goldsmith but isn't paying enough attention to what they're doing. Those who work closely with City Hall - even Bloomberg's allies - have seen signs of third-term drift. His attention is on national and world issues, not day-to-day business like plowing snow or rewriting tech contracts."

In our view, the CityTime scandal indicates that there is great danger in unsupervised outsourcing-and that the reliance on outside consultants when the city lacks the expertise to monitor the quality of their work, can lead to disastrous, and expensively disastrous, results. Case in point: AKRF and its traffic subcontractors URS and Eng Wong Taub.

For years, AKRF has exercised a virtual monopoly over the environmental work in this city-and as we saw with Columbia, often has found itself on both sides of an issue. This is not in the public interest, primarily because the consultant cabal is singing in the Big Real Estate choir-and when they aren't, they are seen busily tailoring their data to the interest of city economic planners. Which, when we come to think of it, is virtually interchangeable with their first allegiance. So, who gets hurt? Why all of the communities and small businesses that aren't given a fair analysis of what kind of impacts a project will have on their quality of life or ability to survive and prosper.

Occasionally the city council wakes up from its narcolepsy-as it did on the Kingsbridge Armory, or with Wal-Mart at Gateway-and asks an honest broker like Brian Ketcham for a second opinion. When that happens, we get a rare glimpse of just how dishonest the monopolists at AKRF really are.

Of course, the severe consequences of the city's reliance on this team of self servers at AKRF has been revealed in the ongoing fiasco over Van Wyck ramps at our own Iron Triangle home. Crain's honed in on the situation early last year: "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."

Simply put, the AKRF team-not expecting any independent review of their work-fudged the data to diminish the projected traffic impact on the Van Wyck. And the two traffic reports-one for the original EIS and the other for the AMR-flatly contradicted each other. How could that happen, other than because of conscious fraud, if the general contractor on both projects was none other than AKRF.

As a result of the fraud, and the curative intervention of WPU's Ketcham to call it out for SDOT, EDC was forced to revise the AMR-and went right back to the fraudsters to do the work!

But check out the comments of EDC on how expeditious this process would be: "“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...Mr. Lombino says no significant delay is expected."

The Crain's story was in February of last year-indicating that the Lombino observation was a tad optimistic. But what of the millions of dollars of additional expense here because of consultant error-not to mention the potential fraud against the interests of the members of WPU? Shouldn't Comptroller Liu be on top of this outsourcing scandal as well?

And considering that now EDC is trying to avoid ramp review entirely, shouldn't the comptroller be looking to lock arms with the new attorney general and put a halt to all of this malfeasance?

The use of unsupervised and corrupt outsourcing is, therefore, not a simple one time-or CityTime, as it were-occurrence. A pattern of unethical and corrupt behavior is at the core of the entire Willets Point development as well.

, for his part, sees the mayor's legacy as in flux: " On TV, on the radio and in the newspaper, the signs are clear for Bloomberg that his legacy as mayor is still unfinished and the ending is very much in flux." But it is Willets Point that is viewed as the Bloomberg legacy project.

Given all that has gone on here, the illegal lobbying, the corruption of data, and the lying to the city council and the courts, Willets Point is currently the perfect Bloomberg legacy, one that dramatizes the extent to which he has consistently disregarded the public interest in the service of his cohort of billionaire real estate moguls.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Claire Shulman and the Attorney General

Crain's Insider (subsc.) focuses in on the stalled investigation of the illegal lobbying of Claire Shulman on the Willets Point development. Shulman's efforts were arguably critical in the city's successful navigation of the ULURP process for the project: "Willets Point property owners are still waiting for the results of an investigation by the state attorney general's office of whether former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman's local development corporation lobbied illegally for the project that will displace them."

Readers might excuse us for being conspiratorial since it has been almost two years since we brought this matter to the attention of then AG Cuomo: "The lack of a resolution when Andrew Cuomo was attorney general prompted a conspiracy theory among owners that he had backed off as a favor to Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who supports the LDC and endorsed Cuomo for governor."

And our conspiracy theory is abetted by the fact that, contrary to Crain's observation, this is a relatively simple matter: "But perhaps the case is just time-consuming: It remains unresolved under Cuomo's successor, Eric Schneiderman, whose election opponent was endorsed by Bloomberg. Schneiderman's spokesman said: “We cannot comment on an active investigation.”

Well, we are glad that the AG acknowledges the investigation's ongoing nature, but it would behoove him to move this thing along since the city-as well as Shulman-is chugging along and operating as if there has been nothing untoward happening here. And the issue at hand is not a complex one.

Section 1411 of the NYS not for profit law makes it prima facie illegal for any LDC to lobby-no ifs ands or buts. If this is true, however, what does that say for the entire lobbying effort organized by EDC-itself incorporated under the same statute?

Making matters worse, Shulman continues to meddle in the affairs of Flushing and Willets Point. In the latest manifestation of her meddling, her group-which, in our view, should have been disbanded a long time ago for violating the law-is now advocating the renovation of the Flushing LIRR station.

Talk about adding insult to injury! But first,here's the Queens Courier's report: "Flushing • Willets Point • Corona Local Development Corporation (LDC) believes the time is now to invest in downtown Flushing’s public transportation infrastructure to provide access to what is arguably the city’s most rapidly developing neighborhood. A massive overhaul project introduced by the LDC known as the Flushing Transit Oriented Development (TOD) plan addresses what the LDC calls an overburdened No. 7 subway line while significantly redeveloping and modernizing the Flushing Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) Station."

Sure is timely Claire, especially since your pet development project will cause intolerable-and unmitigatable-burdens on the very mass transit infrastructure that you now gallantly propose to mitigate. This is real chutzpah!

We have already shown just how the Willets Point project will overwhelm local roads and highways. But it is also important to point out that the same slippery consultants that have played fast and loose with the transit data, have done even worse with the mass transit projections.

You see, in order to lower the projected road impacts the consultants arbitrarily have assigned huge proportions of the project trip generation to mass transit (diminishing the actual traffic impacts by low balling the car usage). And these same gonifs have done the same thing with the nearby Flushing Commons development. It's one huge unmitigated mess.

Which gets us back to the open AG investigation. The Willets Point development was conceived and midwifed in illegality-and the Shulman operation should be shut down as a first step. But the AG should not stop there.

The Bloomberg administration has used illegal tactics to bully WPU property owners off their land, and the entire process should be shut down-and this doesn't even touch on the ramp issues, where false data and illegal maneuvering has made the original illegalities of the Shulman effort appear to be almost quaint.

AG Schneiderman has a rare opportunity to tackle malfeasance at the highest and most powerful levels-going after the pet project of not only the mayor, but much of the Queens political establishment as well. By doing so, he would set himself up as a courageous crusader who operates without fear or favor. He should go for it.

Full text from Crain's Insider:

Willets Point Conspiracy Theory

Willets Point property owners are still waiting for the results of an investigation by the state attorney general's office of whether former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman's local development corporation lobbied illegally for the project that will displace them. The lack of a resolution when Andrew Cuomo was attorney general prompted a conspiracy theory among owners that he had backed off as a favor to Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who supports the LDC and endorsed Cuomo for governor. But perhaps the case is just time-consuming: It remains unresolved under Cuomo's successor, Eric Schneiderman, whose election opponent was endorsed by Bloomberg. Schneiderman's spokesman said: “We cannot comment on an active investigation.”

Thursday, March 24, 2011

EDC's "New Data"

The local papers weigh in today on the WPU lawsuits and the city's claim that ,voilĂ , there is no longer a need for those pesky ramps off of the Van Wyck. This is what lies at the heart of the lawsuit, and it is expected that the city is going to try to argue that these issues can be put off to a later date when the eminent domain question is litigated.

This shouldn't surprise anyone close to this controversy, since the last thing EDC wants is any close scrutiny of how it has handled the ramp approval process-preferring to kick the environmental can down the eminent domain road where court precedents make it the favorite. The Flushing Times reports:

"The motion filed Monday accuses the city of going back on a promise it made in court to receive approval for plans to build ramps onto the Van Wyck Expressway before moving forward with the eminent domain process. It suggests that in light of the city’s alleged reversal on the ramps issue, the court should reconsider its dismissal of Willets Point United’s case against the project.

“In view of the newly discovered evidence that the city is changing its plans and is reneging on its promises to the court, the court should vacate its prior order dismissing the Article 78 petition and petitioners should be allowed to reargue the case through use of the new evidence,” the motion states."

EDC makes the following risible case: "EDC President Seth Pinsky wrote in a recent blog post that he believes the city is not yet required to address the ramps issue. “Because our updated analysis shows that the size of the Phase I development does not create any new traffic impacts, we do not expect to build the ramps until the next phase of development,” he wrote. “However, we continue to work closely with regulatory agencies and remain confident that we will receive all necessary approvals for these planned ramps in the coming months.”

If that is so, why the rush to condemnation. Is that Pinsky's nose growing? The agency's, "updated analysis?" What's up with that?

All anyone has ever seen from EDC is corrupted data and, as we commented this morning, "Now clearly SDOT was fighting the idea of any independent review for its own institutional reasons-and that it was trying mightily to expedite the Van Wyck ramp approvals in order to avoid the federal bogeyman. That it has yet to do this-and that EDC is now trying the old end around ploy-dramatically underscores just how deficient the EDC traffic data submitted to SDOT actually was."

The reality is that a truly independent review of EDC's consultants on the ramps would leave the city with rotten egg on its face-hence the anticipated attempt by EDC to subsume this aspect of the challenge on safer eminent domain ground. Of course, the city also doesn't want to get into just how lacking in veracity it is.

As the Queens Chronicle reports: "Michael Gerrard, one of the WPU attorneys, said they were shocked that the city “went back on its promise that it would not condemn property without approval of the ramps.” The city says it has acquired nearly 90 percent of the property in Phase 1, with nine businesses refusing to sell. One of those owners is Jerry Antonacci, who runs Crown Containers and is a WPU leader. “The city has lied, connived and neglected for over 30 years and now they want to hang us for their failures,” Antonacci said."

The Queens Tribune gets to the core of the legal challenge: "The suit’s crux lies in the often ballyhooed ramps to be built off the Van Wyck Expressway, which the Federal Highway Administration has yet to approve. In oral arguments before the court during a prior lawsuit, the agency promised the redevelopment would not move forward until the ramps gained approval. The initial decision in the first case relied “in significant part on [the EDC’s] commitment to obtain necessary approvals for the proposed ramps” the current suit states. “At oral argument, counsel for respondents stated that if the ramps are not approved, the respondents cannot ‘proceed with the plan as conceived and approved.’”

On Monday WPU's Gerrard will be in court to hopefully get a restraining order on the city's condemnation effort. This is one project that would never be able to withstand an independent lie detector test.

Weiner and Willets Point

With the report today in the NY Daily News that Congressman Anthony Weiner is all but announcing that he's running for mayor, let's take a peek at what Weiner has said and done in regards to Willets Point-which is, after all, in his backyard. For years Weiner has cultivated an outer borough toughness and a homegrown neighborhood protectiveness image. No Manhattan limousine liberal is he.

It was precisely for this reason that WPU went to meet with the congressman last year to brief him on EDC's deceptive practices, and to seek his support against the eminent domain railroading of the Iron Triangle property owners. And Weiner was receptive to the pitch-particularly when WPU's Brian Ketcham explained how EDC's deceitful practices over the Van Wyck ramp traffic would lead to gridlock permeating through all of the neighborhoods surrounding Willets Point. He was also swayed by the fact that the NRDC had endorsed an independent review-along with a growing number of local civic groups.

WPU's concern was that the regulatory process might be rigged-especially since we had seen how the Bloomberg administration had used extra legal methods to gain approval for the project at the city council. Clearly, we felt that the billionaire mayor's influence might mean that state and federal regulators would bow-not to the facts-but to the pressure.

Weiner assured us that, if we could show that the process was not above board, he would look to intervene. That was then. Since that time we have bombarded his office with evidence that shows the the regulatory review process has been tainted-even pointing to the fact that the NYC DOT commissioner was cited for threatening a SDOT official for not expediting-rubber stamping in our view-the EDC application for the ramps.

This, as it turns out, was merely child's play. Now we can see how EDC is trying to totally avoid any regulatory review by embarking on a Phase I that is a product of a warped imagination. As Brian Ketcham has once again shown, this phase will generate tens of thousands of daily car trips that need mitigation or else they will inundate the local roads and highways. And minimally, ramps off of the highway are needed to lessen this expected gridlock.

As part of WPU's fight for fairness we have drafted a letter to the Washington office of the Federal Highway Administration that calls for that agency to take a hard look at the ramp proposal. In the letter we cite an email that heretofore we have kept under wraps. Here's the relevant section of the letter:

Via letter dated July 2, 2010, Phillip Eng, Director, NYSDOT Region 11, responded to the Natural Resources Defense Council, in relevant part: "We understand the request for an independent review but believe that working closely with NYCEDC, we can assure that the analysis will be based on sound data".

NYSDOT's refusal to solicit any independent review of proposed roadway project X770.44 is disappointing, especially considering that NYSDOT apparently routinely relies on the independent firm AKRF to perform reviews of environmental analyses on behalf of NYSDOT. Candid internal NYSDOT email communications obtained by our community organization reveal NYSDOT's actual position, that independent review is a plague that could
afflict NYSDOT's future large projects:

"this [request for independent review] is dangerous ground and the Commissioner needs to be prepared to address. The use of a separate consultant, so-called independent, is a waste of the tax payer's money especially at a time when such expense cannot be afforded. We went through this on the Meeker project (to our detriment) and fought successfully against it with the K-bridge. To yield on this point now would reinforce this practice and possibly wind up plaging [sic] all of our subsequent larger projects. It is the responsibility of the Department to exercise this oversight and I think we have done it well. Lets [sic] not abrogate this point." – Peter King, Director, Planning/Program Management, NYSDOT

Region 11, email to Ian Francis, Senior Transportation Analyst, NYSDOT Region
11 and Phillip Eng, Director, NYSDOT Region 11; September 12, 2010, 9:09AM."

Now clearly SDOT was fighting the idea of any independent review for its own institutional reasons-and that it was trying mightily to expedite the Van Wyck ramp approvals in order to avoid the federal bogeyman. That it has yet to do this-and that EDC is now trying the old end around ploy-dramatically underscores just how deficient the EDC traffic data submitted to SDOT actually was. And this is further demonstrated by the way in which NYC DOT Commissioner Sadik-Khan has tried to bogart the state agency into a rubber stamp approval of the ramps.

The Anthony Weiner from the neighborhood that we have always admired would never allow this kind of deceit and bullying to go unchallenged. In the past two years, however, Weiner has been polishing his progressive credentials by bashing national Republicans at every turn. In our view, that's fine, but it's time that he came back to his roots.

This entire Willets Point development process has been tainted by extra-legal methods, influence peddling, and outright strong arming of small business owners. According to Daily Politics, Weiner anticipates the support of the Clintons if he runs for mayor. If so, he should take a page from the old Bill Clinton playbook and triangulate back to the middle-back to his neighborhood roots. WPU needs a champion, and it is precisely the right role for mayoral candidate Weiner to play going into the next election cycle.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Crain's Insider Focuses on WPU Eminent Domain Challenge

In this morning's Crain's Insider (subsc.), the newsletter reports on the WPU eminent domain lawsuit that will be filed soon against the city:

"Mike Rikon, the lawyer handling Willets Point businesses' lawsuit fighting eminent-domain condemnations, says a handful of such suits have succeeded in New York, usually on environmental grounds. That's his primary argument in the Queens case, but he's also asserting that City Council approval of the city's action resulted from illegal lobbying by a city-funded local development corporation and from “special deals” the Bloomberg administration made in buying out property owners favored by the council. Rikon said the city erred by not making formal offers and not giving hearing notices to all owners and tenants."

As we have pointed out before, there are proper procedures for treating potential condemnees-and Rikon has highlighted just how far EDC has strayed from following these legal parameters. So the skirting of the legal niceties continues apace in this development.

From the mayor's, "they do it all the time," excuse for the illegal Shulman role in lobbying for the plan, to the end run of proper environmental review of the Van Wyck ramps, EDC does not ever feel constrained by the law-or certainly by what is ethical and proper. We will now see if the courts will constrain this rogue agency and restore the rule of law on Willets Point. The city's illegal bullying tactics need to be stopped.

Bloomberg Running, or Just Spinning Again?

Daily Politics is reporting that Mayor Mike is funding his own commercials on the budget-and speculates that this might be a prelude to his running for another office. Is this really a serious idea, given the mayor's tanking popularity? Here' DP's take:

"Despite the fact that he's insisted about a thousand times that he's not interested in the White House, you couldn't be faulted for getting the feeling Mayor Bloomberg's running for SOMETHING judging from this new ad he just bought himself.

Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson gave NY1 a sneak peek at the SKD-produced ad, "Independence," earlier today, with the station saying it's a counterbalance to "the nearly $3 million in ads" that unions have aired against Bloomberg and his proposed budget in the last month. (And that's not even to mention his cringe worthy approval ratings.)"

So. let's get this straight. Mike Bloomberg been independent for the past nine years? Now he wants us all to believe that he is holding the line against the unions whose nest he feathered for over two terms? And listen how the mayor is trying to posture as being above the special interests. YNN has this side of the story: "NY1 reports that Mayor Bloomberg is poised to launch a self-funded 30-second TV ad promoting his budget and touting his “independence – not for the special interests, but for all New Yorkers.” That anti-special interest message is big with executives at all levels of government this year, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo."

A new governor has some credibility to present himself in this manner. A mayor who has been the unpaid tool of the mega real estate developers at the expense of small businesses like the ones at Willets Point, opens himself up to ridicule by playing this phony independent tune.

One last point, WPU has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the EDC sponsored project at the Iron Triangle will overwhelm the local streets and highways with a massive increase of car and truck traffic-and in the process make a mockery of his bike lane, carbon footprint reducing, experiment. All of this in order to convert Willets Point into a massive car dependent mall. In this regard, and only in this regard, are the mayor's interests not very special indeed.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lawsuit Filed

As expected, WPU filed its lawsuit against the city for its bait and switch tactics over the formerly essential Van Wyck ramps. The NY Daily News has the story:

"Willets Point property and business owners filed a lawsuit yesterday accusing the city of beginning eminent domain proceedings before meeting key environmental mileposts.

It's the first of two legal salvos expected to be launched by Willets Point United in a bid to keep its land and businesses in the gritty industrial zone.

At the center of the suit, filed in Queens Supreme Court, are traffic ramps that were to be built off the Van Wyck Expressway. The ramps were supposed to ease traffic congestion expected with the sweeping redevelopment of the so-called Iron Triangle, near Citi Field."

We say formerly essentially because EDC had argued to anyone who would listen-and in a sworn court affidavit-that the development could not proceed without the ramps to mitigate the traffic: "EDC officials said the first phase of the development would not require the ramps to be built. "We were shocked that the city went back on its promise to the court and to the community that it would not condemn property without approval of the ramps," said Michael Gerrard, one of the lawyers representing Willets Point United. "This project would generate a colossal amount of traffic, and there would be no place to go," he said."

Indeed it will, but the EDC sleight of hand known as a Technical Memo, is making the unsubstantiated case that Phase I will be hunky dory even without ramps-and wants everyone to simply take it at its word without any concomitant review. That calls for the suspension of a whole lot of disbelief.

The city for its part, however, remains confident: "Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for the EDC, said the city expects to win the legal challenge."We feel confident that we are on strong legal footing and look forward to resolving this matter as quickly as possible so that this project can move forward without further delays," Wood said."

We wonder how strong that footing is-given the public record and the published reports over EDC and NYC DOT's frustration over the regulatory delay on the approval of the formerly essential ramps: "Jerry Antonacci, a property owner and leader of Willets Point United, said the city must follow protocol."They still have to jump through their hoops, and they don't want to do it. If you need approval, you need approval," he said."

What this legal case will dramatize is the extent to which EDC has continued to pursue extra-legal methods in its pursuit of the Willets Point development. This is a Bloomberg legacy project, and some legacy it will be. Conceived in illegality through the hiring of Claire Shulman's LDC, this ends justifies the means agency now seeks to end run the regulations that it itself claimed were necessary preconditions for any eminent domain use.

We should conclude with the comments of Mayor Bloomberg when confronted by the exposure of the illegality of the Shulman hiring. In an interview with the Times Ledger, Emperor Bloomberg famously told his subjects: "These groups are designed to lobby,” Bloomberg continued. “I don’t know if they technically broke the law.”

That friends was the lie on which Mike Bloomberg wants to establish his legacy-and a fitting one it would be considering all of the other fables that have been propagated about his less than stellar accomplishments. But first he has to come through us. And like any good lead off hitter, WPU is going to prove to be one tough out.

City Cites Bike Lane Success, Like Willets Point Ramps?

According to City Room, the city is claiming that the DOT bike lanes are a huge benefit to public safety:

"The Bloomberg administration released an unusual two-page communiquĂ© on Monday laying out its arguments for bicycle lanes, the subject of what one magazine has labeled the “newest urban culture war.”

The memo (pdf), written by Howard Wolfson, the city’s deputy mayor in charge of communications and government affairs, uses statistics to demonstrate improved traffic safety and cites community-based support for the lanes, which have sprouted up under the supervision of Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s transportation commissioner."

Well, pardon us if we don't simply take the city's word at face value-not after what we have seen them do with all of the traffic issues surrounding Willets Point. And we believe that, just like with the ill-fated Van Wyck ramps, any evaluation of the impact of these bike lanes should be done with an independent review.

Wolfson, no Gridlock Sam, needs to release all of the city's raw traffic data-along with the time frames that its so-called review took place. And support from one local community board or another doesn't by itself make the bike lane experiment a fabulous idea. Might any particular supportive Board reacted differently if the lanes had undergone a full SEQR review?

And a full environmental review would also have to address the business impacts of the lanes-customer access and delivery impediments. These are factors that should, but haven't gone into any decision making process at bike crazy DOT.

The bottom line is that, just as has been the case with school test scores and the evaluation of menu labeling, it is never a good idea to allow self interested policy makers to grade their own papers. One aspect of the Wolfson memo did get our complete attention: "The memo also points to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week that found that 54 percent of New Yorkers agreed with a statement that the lanes are a positive development “because it’s greener and healthier for people to ride their bicycles.”

If the public feels that strongly about, "greener and healthier," public policies, we wonder what the opinion survey would reveal if the folks were asked about not conducting independent review of ramps servicing a project that will generate 80,000 car trips each and every day? Or, how they feel about the hypocrisy of an administration that is actively promoting car dependent malls that will destroy any greener and healthier impact of any bike lane plan?

The Bloomberg administration wants to have it both ways. It wants to mall the city to death-and do so by taking private property from its rightful owners in Willets Point-and at the same time it wants to posture as cutting edge green policy makers. But its first instinct simply overwhelms even the self proclaimed traffic calming gains of bike lanes.

As with the Van Wyck ramps, bike lanes are badly in need of an independent second opinion.

Monday, March 21, 2011

WPU Ramps Up Court Challenge

WPU goes in to court today to re-open the group's legal challenge to the Willets Point development. The case for re-opening devolves-as we have pointed out-from the city's complete disregard of everything it has ever said it would do, and is now ignoring all of the protocols that it claimed were essential to mitigate the project's environmental impact.

This is a classic case-almost a textbook case-of bad faith. The great Queens gadfly, the estimable Ben Haber, has laid this out in succinct clarity in a recent letter to the Flushing Times:

"An integral part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s misguided Willets Point project is the use of ramps to and from the Van Wyck Expressway to handle the expected huge increase in vehicular traffic the project will cause. This is so that even without the project the Van Wyck Expressway and Grand Central Parkway are often clogged.

The traffic issue has not as yet been resolved nor approved by the federal and state Departments of Transportation. Previously, Bloomberg officials have gone on the record saying that no attempt to acquire Willets Point property through eminent domain will be made until the Van Wyck ramps have been approved.

In the devious manner in which the Bloomberg administration has proceeded, notwithstanding that the ramp issue is still open, the city is now beginning the eminent domain process that will destroy many small businesses and their employees and families (“Willets backers plan to reopen suit against city,” Flushing Times, March 3-9.)"

WPU's attorney Mike Gerrard transposes the Haber argument into its proper legal framework-making the case for the need, indeed the required need, for court re-opening: "Respondents acknowledged the centrality of the proposed Van Wyck Expressway ramps to their plans in their opposition to the Article 78 proceeding, asserting that the ramps were an “integral” and “key” part of the Development Plan. FGEIS, Response 10 at 29-9 (Gerrard Aff., Ex. 1 to Ex. A); McKnight Aff. at ¶ 64 (Gerrard Aff., Ex. C). Respondents represented to this Court that if the FWHA did not approve the proposed ramps, the Development Plan could not proceed as currently contemplated and further environmental review would be required."

Haber captures the dishonesty:"In an obvious attempt to hide from their previous agreement not to proceed without the ramp issue resolved, the city Economic Development Corp. now claims that the ramp issue is irrelevant at this time because the current eminent domain thrust dealing with “the first phase of the project does not require building the ramps.” This is a dishonest ploy on the part of the EDC consistent with the manner in which it has been operating."

Gerrard explains just how deep the dishonesty has gone, and why the court must take this critical second look: "On August 16, 2010, this Court dismissed Petitioners’ Article 78 Petition in its entirety, relying in significant part on Respondents’ commitment to obtain necessary approvals for the proposed ramps in rejecting Petitioners’ arguments.

Significantly, the FGEIS assumes that the ramps will be approved and states that they are ‘an integral part’ of the plan to alleviate the already degraded traffic. FGEIS, Response 10, at 29-9. At oral argument, counsel for respondents stated that if the ramps are not approved, the respondents cannot ‘proceed with the plan as conceived and approved.’ Transcript at 33. For the purposes of this review, this court assumes that if the ramps are not approved, additional review under SEQRA will be required."

What EDC is desperately trying to do is avoid rigorous environmental review-especially since its traffic submissions to the SDOT have been either fraudulent or deficient. In an easy to see through sleight of hand, the agency has issued a Technical Memo that it claims demonstrates that the ramps are simply not needed for the first part of the development.

But, as Gerrard points out: "After this Court dismissed the Article 78 Petition, the City reversed itself in Technical Memorandum 004, stating that it would proceed with condemnation proceedings despite not having approval from the FHWA for the ramps. Technical Memorandum 004 at 5 (Gerrard Aff., Ex. H); Statement of Thomas McKnight, 3/2/2011 EDPL Hearing (“The completion of the new connections to the Van Wyck Expressway is not necessary for the initial development phase, and thus may be deferred until after the completion of Phase 1.”). However, the City has not undertaken the further environmental review necessary to evaluate the environmental impacts from proceeding without approval of the ramps." (emphasis added)

EDC and the city has reneged on its promises and is proceeding with a segmented plan that violates the SEQR law: "Similarly, in this case, the City is proposing to proceed in a manner contrary to its prior representations. The Van Wyck ramp approvals -- a key feature of the Development Plan’s measures to mitigate local traffic impacts -- have already taken longer than anticipated, and there is no indication that they will be obtained at a point that would permit the City to maintain its current schedule. The City has admitted that failure to procure ramp approval will require splitting the project into phases. Its decision to ignore the potential impacts of a further delay or denial of ramp approval and to start condemnation proceedings without preparing an SEIS or providing a reasoned elaboration of its decision is arbitrary and capricious."

Frustrated and stymied by the measures that WPU has taken to protect their businesses, EDC has decided to try to muscle this ill-fated development forward, and jam state and federal regulators in the process. Ben Haber's conclusion is also our own: "The game is clear. Once we get the first phase, it will argue it cannot stop now, so just forget about the ramp issue. Hopefully, a court will see the charade for what it is, let right be done and hold the EDC to the letter of the law."

Friday, March 18, 2011

Sweetheart Deals and Cannon Fodder

Knowledgeable observers were surprised that the original Willets Point business coalition, the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association, hired Peter Vallone Sr. to lobby on its behalf. Vallone had no record of engaging in adversarial battles against the political establishment-quite the opposite. Vallone's entire political carer was spent in cutting deals, and if WPU's lawyer Mike Rikon is correct in his submissions to the city, many of the larger members of this original group knew exactly what they were doing by engaging Mr. Vallone.

For a select few, the Vallone representation resulted in sweetheart deals cut for their benefit; agreements that were not available to any of the smaller property owners who were not part of the WPIRA inner circle. According to attorney Rikon, this violates the essence of the state's Eminent Domain Procedure Law (EDPL). Once the city council passed its ULURP application for the Willlets Point project, all of the proper protocols under the EDPL should have been triggered and observed. This is not anywhere near what happened.

As Rikon points out: "There has been a violation of the entire process set forth in the Eminent Domain Procedure Law at Section 303 thereof which requires independent appraisals of the properties to be condemned with a written offer of 100% of the highest approved appraised value. This was not done for all condemnees or even for a single condemnee. Rather, what followed were individual oral offers and negotiations to select individuals but not to all of the property owners. This is a violation of the statute. It is also a violation of equal protection of the law. See EDPL Section 101.

And Rikon goes on to say:"What was done in the Willets Point Development Project was to make deals with prominent owners of property who had garnered political opposition to the project’s approval. But the deals did not follow compliance with EDPL Section 303. The deals, containing extraordinary provisions, were made only to appease the opposition from the members of the City Council supported by the select property owners."

What this also means is that the entire opposition to the Willets Point development was Kabuki theater-a staged production designed to enhance the bargaining position of the larger members of the WPIRA coalition. The corollary to this observation is that the little guys-property owners, tenant owners, and workers-were simply used as cannon fodder. They were sold out in the end, but in reality, their disposal was planned for from the beginning.

In some ways, we can appreciate the skill in which this was done-and kudos to those businesses that, as a result, made out like bandits. That, however, doesn't excuse the city's violation of the EDPL which, if true, adds to the growing list of illegal and unethical behaviors we have seen in this entire process.

But let's put a face on the sweetness of the deals we are talking about-as Rikon does in his discussion of the deal made with Part Authority:

"The NYCEDC also entered into a contract with Parts Authority Partners Real Estate, LLC on September 26, 2008...The NYCEDC contract agreed to pay the seller $18,150,000 for a 24,739 square foot site.

In addition, the contract provided the seller with numerous extraordinary benefits. The contract was conditioned upon the seller receiving $1.5 million dollars in relocation assistance. The seller and its multiple tenants (Hunt Construction, Mets Stadium Auto Glass, Anjo Realty and CBS Outdoor) were permitted to remain on the property for at least, but possibly more than, 24 months.

During that time, the seller was only required to pay rent in the amount of $1 per month. The NYCEDC would pay all real estate taxes. In addition, despite the fact that NYCEDC would be the owner and landlord, the seller was permitted to collect all rents from its tenants/subtenants on the property. The NYCEDC also agreed to pay New York City Transfer Taxes and any title insurance premiums."

Sweet indeed-and a justification for the Vallone hiring if there ever was one. Rikon summarizes: "In light of the above, it is clear that a select group of property owners, but not all, received preferential treatment from the City of New York including “sweetheart deals,” relocation assistance, a significant loan at a discount rate, rent free accommodations, option contracts at preferential values, agreements by the City to purchase land on the owner’s behalf, the entitlement to collect rent from subtenants but without having to pay any rent to the City, and title to newly constructed City facilities and buildings. This selective preferential treatment is clearly a violation of the statute and a violation of equal protection of the law."

How below board and corrupt was this? Recall Fernanda Santos' City Room article that revealed nicely the EDC scheme: "Whenever the city pursues a development project that involves buying land from private parties, it usually keeps details of the negotiations with property owners under wraps. Sale prices are rarely disclosed to avoid influencing other owners into asking more for their property.That has been the case in Willets Point, a 62-acre section of Queens next to Citi Field that is the target of one of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s most ambitious development plans."

Except, as Rikon points out, the invocation of the EDPL protocols legally requires the city not to do this: "When asked which parcels the city had bought and how much it had paid for them, David Lombino, a spokesman for the Economic Development Corporation, said he could not disclose that information “because it would impede negotiations with other landlords going forward.”

The scheme was so important to EDC that it screamed bloody murder at the City Room expose-calling Santos to have her correct some of the property sale details. But in the end, there was one thing that EDC refused to do-comply with the terms of EDPL: "Mr. Lombino still declined to disclose how much the city paid per square foot of land — or building — it has acquired in Willets Point."

What about the rest of the "holdouts?" To this day they have yet to receive any written offer as required by law-and the city has commenced condemnation of their property. So, a process that began with the illegal lobbying work of Claire Shulman has continued along the same tawdry vein-with EDC acting outside of the law because it believes that it can, after paying off the larger property owners, simply beat up on the little guys.

Mike Bloomberg’s Popularity: Slip Sliding Away

City Room reported the other day that the popularity of Mayor Mike Bloomberg is heading due south: “When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg mounted his campaign to amend the term-limits law so he could serve a third term, he argued that he needed to extend his tenure to guide the city through turbulent economic times. Mr. Bloomberg was certainly right about the turbulence. But a lot of it has involved his job performance. And New Yorkers are giving Mr. Bloomberg pretty poor grades.”

From the standpoint of WPU, it’s about time. This is a mayor who has trampled property rights all over the city-someone who feels that the religious liberty of those who want to build a mosque at ground zero is sacrosanct, but the property rights of small land owners like ourselves can be discarded like yesterday’s rotten garbage.

WPU has the support of many of the area’s local civic groups and each and every one of them understands the importance of the constitutional rights of property. So perhaps this issue of eminent domain is playing a small role in the declining fortunes of Mike Bloomberg. If so, no one deserves it more.

EDC UnPhased: What About You?

The NYC EDC. frustrated in its efforts to gain approvals for ramps that will grind the Van Wyck to a halt, is now claiming that its partial first phase of development can move forward without any stinkin' ramps. Yet, these are the same sleight of handers that tried to slip fraudulent traffic data passed NYSDOT, only to have WPU's Brian Ketcham smacked the effort down over one year ago.

The real danger here is that it will be all of the surrounding communities-Flushing, Corona, East Elmhurst and College Point-that will be made to suffer if no one steps up and forces a full and independent review of what EDC is trying to pull. Yet, as we have seen, the area elected officials-with the exception of Senator Avella and CM Halloran-have remained timidly on the sidelines.

This is not an example of righteous representation. You don't have to be an opponent of the project to want to insure proper oversights and control over the development agency-not when we have seen how certain mayoral agencies have screwed up managerial projects such as CityTime and cost tax payers millions as a result.

So, does anyone want to simply take what EDC at face value that this first phase will not need ramps? To get a better picture of what the potential traffic impacts will be, we once again rely on Brian Ketcham's analysis-data that will be the foundation of the lawsuit brought by WPU against the city's illegal segmentation of the Willets Point project.

As Ketcham points out, "The proposed Phase One Willets Point project totals 1.35 million square feet and includes a 650,000 square foot big box retail center generating 84% of all vehicle trips. NYCEDC has proposed this scaled down project in order to avoid dealing with ramps connecting with the Van Wyck Expressway at the northeast end of the Iron Triangle—ramps they are having a hard time getting approved."

Attention Wal-Mart shoppers! This is still one humongous development-and it will be anchored by box stores! Yet the city council doesn't want to exercise the oversight over this? And, as Ketcham highlights, EDC is up to its old tricks-rooking the guests and cooking the books. How so? Under counting, and false baseline analyses.

As Ketcham tells us:

"EDC claims this Phase One project will have a lower traffic impact than earlier proposed for this development. They make this claim based on estimates for traffic impacts based on under reporting trip generation rates.

EDC assumes few people will drive to the site but will walk or use transit to shop. Willets Point is remote from transit and is more than a mile from downtown Flushing, the closest population center.

They assume trip generation rates that produce relative few auto trips—rates that are below accepted standards and lower still than used at nearby Flushing Commons and the Gateway Center in East New York.

They assume vehicle occupancy that is higher than assumed for either of these other projects that cuts traffic volume by a third."

Same old EDC it seems. But what happens when we adjust for a more accurate baseline analysis? Well, the number of trips simply jumps: "EDC reports the project will generate about 1,400 car and truck trips for weekday PM peak hours. Adjusting for auto use and trip generation rates will double this number to 2,800 trips. Adjusting for vehicle occupancy will increase the number of trips to nearly 4,000 trips in the PM peak hour.EDC has shaved the numbers used in estimating project impacts to minimize project traffic and thereby eliminate the need for Van Wyck ramps."

Would anybody buy a used car from these people? But the part we really like is the assumption-the last refuse of traffic scoundrels-that masses of folks will be using the train and buses. Unbelievable-and simply more evidence that the good citizens from Bay Terrace, Mitchel-Linden, Bowne Civic, Malba Gardens, Juniper Civic and Comet were right to join with WPU and the Natural Resources Defense Council to call for an independent review of all the traffic assumptions in this project.

But Ketcham isn't finished-and his coup de grace is in his comparison of this phased development with Gateway Mall in East New York: "EDC is proposing 910 parking spaces to service a 650,000 square foot big box retail complex. Gateway Center in East New York provides nearly 3,000 spaces for the same size retail center."

Con man Robert Preston in the Music Man couldn't do a better job than EDC in trying to beguile the people with false promises. Yet in spite of all of its attempts at minimization, EDC can't diminish the fact that this large partial development will have a massive and unmitigatable impact that necessitates those ramps:

"In spite of all the data manipulation EDC reports severe gridlock conditions at the two entry portals to this project: 126th Street at 34th Avenue and 126th Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Technical Memorandum 004, provided by EDC on March 14th, four days before the deadline for submitting comments on this proposal itself reveals that with Phase One traffic volumes overall LOS for 126th Street/GCP Ramp at 34th Avenue with Phase One traffic are a severe F with average vehicle delay of 422 seconds (7 minutes) with 4 of 5 approaches LOS F with delays of 7.7 to 13.5 minutes, sufficient to completely block access to the project site. These conditions will be much worse once reasonable adjustments are made for trip generation characteristics that could double or even triple project traffic impacts."

So, EDC has under reported project traffic impacts, has failed to investigate how traffic will move into and out of the proposed Phase One project including how shoppers might access off-street parking, is proposing far less parking for a 1.35 million square foot multi-use project than is standard practice, claims the project will have a low traffic impact and buries the truth in their Technical Memorandum 004 that reports severe gridlock conditions at critical portals that will prevent access to the site for most of the day.

It is clear from this brief summary that EDC must provide more access to the Phase One project and the Van Wyck ramps must be one of these access points. Of course, what the resultant impact would be on the Van Wyck is an entirely different story-one that EDC can't continue to dodge forever.

A Question of Fairness

The Ridgewood Times-Ledger editorializes this week about the use of eminent domain on the Willets Point businesses-and even though the paper supports the project, it still is queasy about how the city is using the power of condemnation:

"The redevelopment of Willets Point will be a good thing for Queens. It will create middle-income housing and hundreds of jobs. It will generate tax revenues for a city still reeling from the recession and turn a junkyard into a thriving commercial area.

But a price has been paid to make the $3 billion redevelopment possible. An independent study should be done to see if the envisioned end result justifies trampling on the rights of area property owners. In particular, questions have been raised about the use of eminent domain for a private development."

Oversight, oversight, where for art thou? What a novel idea-a cost benefit analysis of this boondoggle to see if it is, not only worth it, but even doable. Add this evaluation to the traffic snafu we have been covering, and you have one big mess. But we particularly like the paper's last point on private development.

This is likely to be one of the major thrusts in any legal challenge, and yesterday WPU's eminent domain attorney raised the issue with the city: "The proposed taking is without logic or reason.Quite simply, you cannot take private property on speculation.There is no developer.The Executive Summary for the Willets Point Development Plan from the Office of the Mayor, dated February 10, 2011 admits “there is no specific development plan”...The proposed condemnation is also speculative because nothing can be developed unless the extraordinary traffic problems are dealt with by obtaining approvals to build new ramps to the Van Wyck Expressway. The necessary State and Federal approvals for these ramps have not been approved."

Finally, as the local paper highlights, when taking private property for something other that a school, hospital or road, great care must be given to insure that businesses being condemned are treated with some degree of fairness: "Eminent domain was intended to assist governments in building a courthouse or school when a private property was in the way. The U.S. Supreme Court later allowed governments to extend eminent domain to private development that will serve a public purpose. In that scenario, care must be taken to protect property owners’ rights.

What WPU will be arguing in both of its law suits is that this care has been forfeited because a frustrated EDC has decided to move forward speculatively with a project that has no developer and no ability to accommodate the massive traffic it will generate. It should not be allowed to continue along a path fraught with danger-not only for the businesses, but for the communities in the eye of this proposed storm.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


At the eminent domain hearing of the other week, EDC reached new heights in deception-or, perhaps, depths is a better turn of phrase. Somehow the agency is trying to find a way to make its totally new Phase I segmentation of the Willets Point development pass muster- even though there has never been any portion of the project that has been conceived that doesn’t include ramps.

Here’s what the agency’s crack spokesperson told the hearing:
“The plan does not anticipate completion of new connections to the Van Wyck Expressway during Phase 1, as was previously contemplated. This is primarily attributed to the need to prioritize among the multiple infrastructure and site improvements that will be provided by the City as part of the district's redevelopment. The completion of the new connections to the Van Wyck Expressway is not necessary for the initial development phase, and thus may be deferred until after the completion of Phase 1. We are continuing to work towards the necessary regulatory approvals for the ramps, and anticipate approval in the coming months. Phase 1 will be completed and the substantial Phase 1 benefits will be realized, even – even if the connections are not approved by the Federal Highway Administration and the New York State Department of Transportation."

Read the first two sentences with great care. Somehow, the decision to leave the building of ramps to a later phase of development is a result of needing to, “prioritize among the multiple infrastructure and site improvements...” Oh, please! The reason for leaving out the ramps is because WPU has traffic jammed EDC with the regulators.

But the real nugget in the EDC statement is the assertion that the new phase of development will go forward to completion “even if” the ramps are not approved. Really? What does this mean?

If the ramps are never approved, then only the small Phase 1 can proceed. That is a major departure from what the City Council reviewed and approved, because ALL scenarios considered by the Council included at least the possibility and promise that the entire 62 acre site would eventually be developed.

It was that goal that the Council deemed worthy of supporting, and (rightly or wrongly) worthy of the use of eminent domain. ("… it is a transformation exercise on all 62 acres" -- Bob Lieber testimony to Council, November 29, 2007.) Had the Council been asked to approve just a mini-development to complement the Wilpons' CitiField, and to authorize eminent domain to achieve it, the outcome might have been very different.

But there is another real sticking point in the EDC strategy-segmentation. As WPU’s lawyer Mike Gerrard told the Daily News: “All of their documentation shows it's a single project for which the ramps are needed." If it now turns out that it isn’t a seamless development, EDC must submit a supplemental EIS for a land use review.