Sunday, October 21, 2012

Willets Point and the EDC Hearing

We discussed the scheduled EDC hearing last week and pointed out that the agency's effort to be able to lobby was not a good idea from any public policy vantage-except perhaps if you are one of the large real estate firms that has been able to benefit from the single minded obsession of EDC that mega-retail development is, and always is, good for NYC. The fact is that the current structure of city government already gives the mayor strong executive powers, and adding to this arsenal is not only unnecessary it is unwise as well.

All of this, however, is in the realm of theory. When we look at the practices of EDC a much grimmer picture is seen. This is an agency that operates too far away from any normal governmental system of checks and balances-designating developers for projects without any transparency and choosing consultants outside of the normal bidding process. As far aw we can see, historically there has been very little city council oversight of its operations-something that has been worsened by the current council leadership that is way too obeisant to the mayor's prerogatives.

The official who is supposed to check the operation of EDC is the NYC Comptroller-and for awhile it appeared that John Liu was trying to do just that. Unfortunately something has appeared to change, and Liu has gone into a kind of hibernation when it comes to the agency. Initially he sounded the alarm about the illegally lobbying uncovered by the AG:

"While these revelations of illegal lobbying are alarming, we cannot say that they come as a surprise. For some time, this Mayor has been using the Economic Development Corporation to create ‘Astroturf’ groups to support his agenda, reward allies and dole out welfare to wealthy corporations. While New Yorkers fund the EDC to create jobs – those jobs seldom materialize,” 

But we haven't heard a peep from Liu about the restructuring and WPU was left alone to carry the ball last month when a court hearing examined the legality of the EDC changes. Now, with the city council planning a hearing for November 1st, it is incumbent on Liu to have his voice heard on this important issue.

That brings us to we we believe is the most important issue that the council needs to examine about these proposed changes that EDC is trying to effect. That is the way in which EDC has run roughshod over too many neighborhoods and small businesses-from the illegal lobbying on Willets Point and Coney Island, to the shafting of parkland in the Bronx and the eviction of minority wholesalers in the now defunct Bronx Terminal Market.

In Queens we saw the advancement of an idiotic idea to take away the key municipal parking lot in Flushing for a mall that will gridlock downtown and harm existing Asian businesses, Everywhere EDC operates we see the ruin of entrepreneurs and the aggrandizement of a select cohort of rich developers.

In the process, EDC has also created a no-bid consulting monopoly for one company-AKRF-and that has led to fraudulent reports and self aggrandizement at the expense of honest environmental reporting.  EDC needs to be reined in, not given even greater powers than it already is able to exercise.

The NYC Council's decision to hold an oversight hearing on the EDC restructuring is a puzzling one. We are at somewhat of a loss to figure out the genesis of the decision since it certainly wasn't in response to any advocacy on our part. We are, however, not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The council hearing needs to generate folks from all over the city who has suffered under the out of control development policies of EDC-and the recommendations coming out of this hearing should address the need to have greater controls over EDC's bidding process. A pre-development role for the city council would be a positive step in the right direction.

But most of all the council needs to see how this quasi-public agency abused the public trust in the run up to the 2008 approval of the Willets Point development at the city council-how it created a phony front group that masqueraded as a charity but was actually a cat's paw for well-healed real estate firms; and how it used close to $700,000 of public money to illegally lobby to dispossess property owners from their land.

The council needs to then take a critical look at how one of the members of the illegal lobbying team-Sterling Equities- was rewarded by EDC with $200 million of property and the development rights to build the largest mall in Queens. This is an agency that wants to legalize this kind of behavior? What gall!

Finally, since it is the topic that is most timely, the council needs to question how this EDC entity can even consider the destruction of Flushing Meadows Park-the kind of thinking that should prompt the legislature to seek the demise of EDC, not its restructuring. That's how we see the upcoming hearing, and we hope that others will chime in with us and sing along on November the first.