Friday, June 28, 2013

Willets Point: Who Says Crime Doesn’t Pay?

The first phase of the Willets Point redevelopment is going to the City Planning Commission next month-the body that has less independent authority than the Board of Health (and that’s a low bar!) This is a development that has been built on the illegal actions of the city and the collusion in these actions by Claire Shulman and her LDC of developers-one of which, Sterling Equities, is poised to be rewarded for engaging in the illegal lobbying that has brought the Willets Point project to this juncture.

As the WSJ reported last year:

"New York City's economic-development agency and two related organizations admitted in a settlement Monday that they illegally lobbied the City Council on behalf of projects at the heart of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's redevelopment agenda.

The concessions came after a three-year probe by the state attorney general's office. Investigators found that the Economic Development Corp. worked behind the scenes with the groups—called local development corporations—to nudge lawmakers to support projects in Willets Point in Queens and Coney Island in Brooklyn."

What this means is that the entire development project was advanced fraudulently by an illegal scheme. As Schneiderman told the Journal: "These local development corporations flouted the law and lobbied elected officials, both directly and through third parties," Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.”

It is, however, not only the illegal activities that make this development a toxic brew. The fact remains that the current proposal bears little or no resemblance to the original plan first proposed by EDC to the City Council five years ago. The linchpin of that plan-what sold it to the council members-was the grandiose affordable housing plan put forward by the city.

That plan-to use a baseball analogy in honor of the Mets and Sterling Equities-is little more than a player to be named later. As the Queens Chronicle reports:

The city’s announcement that the burgeoning and long-contested development project at Willets Point would not be proceeding as originally outlined and the lack of sufficient affordable housing for the middle- and lower-income families living in the borough led about 100 distraught residents to pack a Queens Housing Coalition meeting on Nov. 20 in Jackson Heights.
The Willets Point Redevelopment Plan was approved by the City Council in 2008 and included the construction of 5,500 mixed-income residential units, 2,000 of which were to be affordable housing.”
This past June, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the affordable housing plan would be delayed until 2025.

This betrayal-because that’s what it is-was not taken well by State Senator Jose Peralta who wrote a scathing letter to the mayor that demands that housing be guaranteed and prioritized in the Willets Point redevelopment. It has been put off indefinitely, when it was originally supposed to be the first part of the project to get done after remediation. 

Making a bad situation worse is the fact that the city-after pledging that the land it bought for $200 million from Willets Point property owners would be fully repaid by the eventual developers-decided to turn it over to the developers for a $1!

The Times Ledger exposed the smelly nature of this kind of crony capitalism last year:

"Unless one believes in the benevolence, integrity and generosity of the Wilpons and Sterling Equities of the New York Mets, the city’s plan for the redevelopment of the area around Citi Field does not appear to be a good deal for the city."

The Ledger isn't sanguine about the postponing of the housing deal-rightly assuming the Wimpy nature of the postponement of the only real public benefit; and the paper gives thumbs down to the crony capitalism that animates this smelly scheme:

"But now we are told the construction of the housing and a school won’t begin until 2025 at the earliest. Worse, we learned last week this piece of land was given to the Wilpons and their partner, Sterling Equities, which formed the Queens Development Group, for free. To thank them for accepting this gift, the city is committed to spending $500 million building sewers, creating better access to the Long Island Expressway and repairing roads."

The Ledger also understands just how much EDC snookered the city council back in 2008: "When the City Council approved the deal, it reportedly knew nothing of the land giveaway and trusted in the mayor’s promise to get back the money spent on buying out the businesses pressed into relocating." 

Finally, there is the issue of the parkland-something that the city is trying to avoid by saying that a Robert Moses-era deal means that the parkland being taken does not have to go through the normal alienation process. This is pure bunk-and a slew of parks advocates have been screaming bloody murder-rightfully so.

As Patrick Arden wrote in City Limits last year:

The proposed shopping mall west of the stadium may face a larger hurdle: The parking lot is part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. State law requires the alienation of parkland before it can be used for non-park purposes.To meet that requirement, Bloomberg has reached back to a law passed 51 years ago, summoning an uncertain ally in the ghost of Robert Moses. But questions surround this curious piece of legislation, setting up the latest in a string of disputes over city-sponsored developments on public parkland."

The city explains its tenuous position: "Yes, this area is parkland," says Benjamin Branham, a spokesman for the city's Economic Development Corporation, "but development is permitted under the 1961 law that authorized the construction of Shea Stadium—known as Administrative Code 18-118—which also allowed for additional uses to be built on the parking lot. It's important to be clear the authorization comes from this law as opposed to a contract or other agreement of some kind."

But going back to the future may not be so easy it seems: "Yet, as recently as 2001, New York's highest court ruled parkland can't be taken, even for temporary use, without an explicit act of alienation passed by the state Legislature and approved by the Governor: "[O]ur courts have time and again reaffirmed the principle that parkland is impressed with a public trust, requiring legislative approval before it can be alienated or used for an extended period for non-park purposes."

City Limits goes on to delve into the 1961 legislative process and sees the devious hand of Robert Moses at work-a deviousness that may not be as effective today:

"The state Legislature approved his building of Shea Stadium in the park, but its 1961 legislation was primarily aimed at granting the city authority to issue bonds to finance construction. It loosely laid out the permitted uses for the stadium and grounds, listing "recreation, entertainment, amusement, education, enlightenment, cultural development or betterment, and improvement of trade and commerce." The law even allowed the city to use the site for "any business or commercial purpose," so long as this activity "aids in the financing of the construction and operation of [the] stadium, grounds, parking areas and facilities" and "does not interfere with the accomplishment of the purposes referred to" above."

Parks' advocate Geoffrey Croft isn't buying this-and is contemplating a lawsuit in response:

"The bill reads like a Robert Moses special," says Geoffrey Croft of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates. The broad powers it conferred were a hallmark of the Power Broker, who was so well-practiced in the black art of political legislating that Al Smith once called him "the best bill-drafter I know." The Parks Commissioner could enter into agreements to use part or all of the stadium grounds, but any agreements lasting for more than a year had to be approved by the Board of Estimate, which included the mayor, the comptroller, the City Council president, and all of the borough presidents." 

In a brilliant letter, lawyers for the Urban Justice Center make the same points. This ULURP application-because of the Public Trust Doctrine-cannot withstand judicial scrutiny and should be withdrawn. 

In sum, this newly created Willets Point development is bad for property owners, housing advocates, friends of the parks, and the NYC tax payers being fleeced by the land giveaway-and we haven’t even touched the traffic issues which we will get to in an upcoming post. All this being said, there is no chance that any of these things will have any impact on the brain dead members of the planning commission. As far as the mayor is concerned, when he wants their opinion he’ll give it to them.

As we approach the July 10th meeting of the CPC get prepared by a major grass roots coalition ready to protest this putrid example of poorly conceived planning and corporate welfare. This is a development that should be shelved for the next mayor and city council. If that doesn’t happen, the courts will be given the opportunity to restore the rule of law in NYC.