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.