Friday, April 5, 2013

The Willets Point plan: a bad deal in every way

Queens Chronicle OP-ED:

The Willets Point plan: a bad deal in every way
by Benjamin M. Haber

Good and responsible government does not exist in the absence of transparency, and in particular when it involves land use matters which have been notorious in favoring real estate interests and those with political connections. Years ago Daniel Doctoroff, then Mayor Bloomberg’s economic czar, bragged before a group of real estate moguls that under the Bloomberg administration they received about 90 percent of all zoning requests they wanted.

When it comes to transparency the Bloomberg administration earns a failing grade. A case in point is Willets Point. For decades, and most of Mayor Bloomberg’s term in office, the city collected sewer rent from the owners of property in Willets Point, notwithstanding there were no sewers. It collected real estate and other taxes and did not spend any money on the area’s infrastructure.

A body and fender shop’s operations, which for the most part serve the needs of the poor and the middle class, cannot be as spotless as a Bloomingdale’s department store, which makes it all the more important government take care of the infrastructure.

As a coverup for his failure in doing so, Bloomberg declared the site a blight that must go, even though it would mean removing more than 200 small businesses, terminating employment for their 1,000 employees and causing havoc to their thousands of dependents. Cleanup of the so-called blight, which the city will pay for, for the benefit of a developer, could have been done for Willets Point businesses. But it will not be, since they are not real estate moguls with tentacles in the city treasury.

The cost to correct the area and repair the infrastructure, to alienate parkland, free of charge, and to provide subsidies, will be several hundreds of millions of dollars, all to be paid for by taxpayers for the benefit of a private developer. For Bloomberg to allow this taxpayer ripoff ignores his responsibility to be fair and above-board with the public. It’s unacceptable.

It was Bloomberg’s original plan to develop Willets Point into a huge shopping mall, with yet another convention center; luxury housing with a small portion of affordable housing for the middle class; a small park and a school. Building a school next door to LaGuardia Airport, the Mets’ stadium, the United States Tennis Association and a huge mall would be absurd, a feigned icing on the cake to make it appear the proposal was not a private commercial development, but a needed public undertaking.

Willets Point and its surrounding areas have automobile access only through the Van Wyck Expressway, Grand Central Parkway, Northern Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue, private streets being out of the question. These arteries have been and are choked to capacity. Queens was ranked as having one of the most congested vehicular arteries in the country and there is no way — I repeat, no way — to increase their capacity to absorb the tens of thousands of additional vehicles the Bloomberg plan would bring.

Faced with a vehicular nightmare and unable to come up with a solution, Mayor Bloomberg has devised what can be described as the mother of all lack of transparencies. The original Willets Point plan has suddenly been split into two phases. His much-heralded original Willets Point plan is now relegated to phase two, which for all practical purposes will be on the back burner and probably not accomplished for decades.

The reason for the so-called split is not just the vehicular problem, but Bloomberg’s desire to help out his billionaire friend Fred Wilpon, the owner of the Mets, who have not being doing well financially. Phase one will allow Wilpon to move his parking lots — which are on parkland, as is Citi Field — to Willets Point and to construct a huge mall on the current Mets parking lots. Parking in Willets Point and the mall will not address the vehicular problem, but will destroy the small businesses on Northern Boulevard, Roosevelt Avenue and 108th Street, the malls in Rego Park and on 20th Avenue in Whitestone, and the shops in downtown Flushing. Were I in business in any of those areas, I would hesitate to sign a long-term lease. Unless these merchants and the public make known to the mayor, their City Council members and community boards their opposition, the mayor’s plans will be a fait accompli.

Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said he wished to be remembered for what he did for the poor and not for the rich. Notwithstanding some laudable philanthropic acts Bloomberg has accomplished as a private individual, as mayor he has viewed his constituents as the wealthy and powerful and not the poor and middle class. I do not believe he will leave a legacy as noteworthy as that of President Roosevelt.

Benjamin M. Haber is a civic activist and retired attorney who lives in Flushing.