Monday, July 29, 2013

Condemning the Garden Party

The NY Post is editorializing about the city’s effort to force MSG to move the Garden so a giant refurbishing of Penn Station can be done-and lurking in the background are the city’s Bobbsey Twins, Steve Ross (Related) and Steve Roth (Vornado), who want their companies to be able to cash in on all of this:
Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Chris Quinn are no longer pretending: They want Madison Square Garden gone, so they can rebuild Penn Station. But they don’t have the guts to evict the arena the legal way — eminent domain.
Madison Square Garden will have to move,” Quinn huffed, after the council recently voted for a permit limited to 10 years. The new clarity about ousting the Garden is a step up. For a time, the Bloomberg folks claimed they were OK with fixing up the transit hub and leaving the arena where it is. Now they’re at least being honest about wanting it to move.”
But they do have the guts to evict Nick Sprayregen from his storage company’s sites in West Harlem and the small property owners from Willets Point-beating up the little guys is a time honored tradition with the mayor. No, however, the former community organizer Chris Quinn is fitting smoothly into the methodology of the rich exploiters. But Jim Dolan is not someone that can be easily removed so the political class is trying this zoning permit end run:
But revoking the Garden’s permit in 2023 is still sneaky. If Bloomberg, Quinn & Co. really seek to give MSG the boot, they should invoke eminent domain.”
The last time Dolan got involved in a political fight-over the West Side Stadium-the mayor got his ass kicked. And the Post implies that the little guy may not want a repeat beating:
We know why: Resorting to eminent domain would make clear this is all about taking private property from its owner. That in turn would likely set off a political firestorm that wouldn’t reflect well on our political class — and might even backfire. 
Well, too bad. Abusing a permitting process to squeeze the Garden will only scare off other businesses. Besides, New Yorkers deserve the debate. If our pols want MSG out, let them use the proper tool and make the proper arguments.”

What this would mean is that we would get a public discussion about the city’s abuse of property rights-and that would be a good thing, The use of condemnation over at Willets Point has ended up by ceding other people’s property over to Related and Sterling Equities for a hill of beans ($1). This is not even close to being a public use. Every property owner in the city should know that their land is not safe if the Quinnberg regime is allowed to continue in office.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Never Hedging with Friends: Bloomberg Rewards Yet another Crony at Fresh Direct

For Mike Bloomberg it never gets old to reward his friends and billionaire cronies-and the award of huge subsidies to FreshDirect is justthe latest example:
The city has delivered a sweet deal to FreshDirect. The Industrial Development Agency voted Tuesday in favor of the online grocer's controversial plans to relocate from Long Island City to the Bronx — thanks to $127 million in public subsidies.
The company has promised to use the money to build its new facility in the South Bronx, convert its truck fleet to green energy, and to hire local workers. A spokesman for FreshDirect told residents the move to Port Morris would create 1,000 new jobs over 10 years, a third of which were promised to go to borough residents.
FreshDirect is run by a young man named Jason Ackerman, whose uncle, hedge fund guy Peter Ackerman, is a partner in some of the mayor’s political action ventures. Peter, a former associate of Mike Milken, is naturally a financier like the mayor and the subsidies for his nephew’s company is emblematic of what passes for economic development under the billionaire mayor. [Crains]

For his part, the mayor doesn’t shy away from the associations-and the $80 million dollars he gave to Ackerman’s PAC is just part of the patricianage that permeates his administration: “Well, I’ve always been a big supporter of Peter Ackerman and I’ve known him forever, and I put his wife on the board of Johns Hopkins, which she may still be on, as a matter of fact," he said during the question-and-answer portion of a press conference this morning at the Brooklyn Public Library's central branch at Grand Army Plaza.” [Capital New York]

As it turns out, Jason may be the head of FreshDirect in name only:
Peter Ackerman is a co-founder, Director and the majority shareholder in New York City grocery distributor  FreshDirect. Jason Ackerman, co-founder and CEO of FreshDirect, is Peter Ackerman’s nephew. FreshDirect pays its warehouse and delivery drivers less than $9 an hour.When workers tried to unionize, FreshDirect fought against it.”
All of these subsidies will go to a company that is directly competing with brick and mortar grocery stores in neighborhoods all over the city. Making a bad idea even worse, is the fact that the company’s target markets are all upper income neighborhoods-so in essence the tax payers are subsidizing a company to deliver groceries to upper income New Yorkers-a fabulous idea in the rarefied world of the city’s richest man.

Which brings us to Willets Point where the city is handing over property to two billionaire real estate operators for a symbolic $1. The tax payers forked over $200 million for the land bought at the point of an eminent domain gun. $130 million for Fresh Direct, $200 million for Related and Sterling Equities. Are we able to see any patterns here?

As some shrewd urban planners have noticed, these development plans have done little to uplift the average New Yorker-but have done a lot for the mayor’s coterie of rich friends:
These proposals are classic examples of the most troubling legacy of the Bloomberg administration’s approach to economic development. The city has approved dozens of real estate mega-projects on city- or state-owned land, or on property where the city has changed zoning rules to suit developers. They all promised “economic development,” but haven’t increased employment or reduced poverty."

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Urban Planners Critique Willets Point Plan

Last week in the NY Daily News, three urban planners offered a blistering critique of the Bloomberg administration’s efforts to destroy Flushing Meadows Park-and the administration’s entire approach to economic development:
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is Queens’ crown jewel. But the busiest park in the borough is threatened on all sides… Recently, the tennis center was given another acre of the park. Then the Related Companies announced they wanted to build a 1.4 million-square-foot shopping mall and parking garage on the parkland-turned-parking-lot next to Citi Field. (The land is supposed to revert to recreational use now that it’s no longer needed by the Mets.)
Next, Major League Soccer set its sights on 13 acres of the park just past the huge silver globe called the Unisphere. Observers expect they’ll ask for stadium-size tax breaks, too. The plan would bulldoze the famous Fountain of Planets. Ironically, that area already hosts some of the 1,500 soccer games played in the park each summer—but they’re just teams of regular New Yorkers, not leagues owned by well-connected investors.” 

What’s clear is that the immigrant communities who are using the park are not high up on the mayor’s list of important people-and immigrants are only useful to him when he can use them as symbolic props for his vaunted immigration proposals.

But what the three professors take real issue with is how the economic development plan for the mall is emblematic of the way in which the Bloomberg administration approaches job creation in exactly the wrong way:
These proposals are classic examples of the most troubling legacy of the Bloomberg administration’s approach to economic development. The city has approved dozens of real estate mega-projects on city- or state-owned land, or on property where the city has changed zoning rules to suit developers. They all promised “economic development,” but haven’t increased employment or reduced poverty.”

And, of course, the “historic” deal on living wage is still historic-if being relegated to the dustbin of history can be characterized that way. The original agreement negotiated to gain the city council’s approval in 2008, is now an artifact since the living wage was excluded from the RFP for the current development.
The professors recognize this deficiency-although perhaps not realizing that the living wage was originally included in the Willets Point development:
If the city decides to continue offering subsidies to big-name deals, the next administration should make sure those subsidies include local hiring and wage requirements. Already, dozens of municipalities, from Los Angeles to Minneapolis to Washington, make sure their tax subsidies support projects that create living-wage jobs for city residents.”
When seen in this light, what’s apparent is that the Bloomberg economic development model is simply the aggrandizement of Big Real Estate-with little apparent benefit for the people who are looking for good jobs:
The next mayor should also focus on industries that build the middle class. Instead of letting hotels and superstores encroach on manufacturing zones while providing low-wage and part-time jobs, the city should study the success of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and develop partnerships in industrial zones like Hunts Point or the Brooklyn Army Terminal to create better jobs.”

Given all of the deficiencies in the Willets Point economic development model, the three urban planners see little choice as to what the planning commission and the council should do with the proposed plans. They deserve the last word:
With the next mayoral election just four months away, the candidates and other elected officials should stand up for good public space and smart economic development. That means opposing the projects in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
It looks like community action will head off one of them, telling the soccer league to build their stadium somewhere other than a busy park. The City Planning Commission votes on another plan, the shopping mall and parking garage that targets land next to Citi Field, in just a few weeks. Voting “no” and bringing this land back to Flushing Meadows would mean parkland within walking distance for another 25,000 residents.
If we can’t all spend our summers at garden parties like Gatsby, we at least need the green of a great city park.”

Some Parks are More Equal than Others

As the city’s continuing effort to decimate Flushing Meadows Park winds its way through city planning and on to the city council, the lingering question is what will Speaker Quinn do. We know that one of the developers of the project, Related, has had an unusually close relationship with her. As Capitol New York has pointed out:
"Related Companies, part of whose massive Hudson Yards project was exempted from the Living Wage bill, has donated more money to Christine Quinn's campaign.
The most recent campaign finance disclosures, released today, show that executives from Related Companies donated $6,600 to Quinn's still-undeclared campaign for mayor, between January and July." 

We also are finding out that Quinn has a real affection for at least one park-even though detractors might call it a faux park. City and State has the story:
The High Line is revered internationally for repurposing a post-industrial wreck into a refreshing aesthetic public experience. The park has also anchored an explosion of billions of dollars of high-end development in the Council-rezoned “Special West Chelsea District,” designed specifically around the High Line.
The organization that built and runs the park, Friends of the High Line, is dominated by a wealthy and politically connected coterie of real estate developers and property owners, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars, directly and as intermediaries, into Christine Quinn’s mayoral election campaign. Friends of the High Line, formed in 1999 as a tiny nonprofit by two civic-minded fans of urban decrepitude, has quickly become the richest park conservancy in the city, after the Central Park Conservancy.”
In spite of its ample funds, however, the High Line is treated with great deference by the city council and by Speaker Quinn:
The City Council, first under Gifford Miller and then Christine Quinn, has doused the High Line with cash. Estimates of city funding for the High Line before it even opened range between $130 and $170 million: This money was only for improvement of an existing structure, because the rail line itself was donated to the city by the CSX Corporation. Since the park opened, despite the largesse of FoHL and its claims that 90 percent of park expenses are raised privately, the Council continues to make allocations to its expansion and maintenance, including a $5 million capital disbursement two years ago.”
What makes this problematic is not only that we have a well funded faux park receiving a great deal of public support when there are ample private funds to support it, but that the funding is inextricably linked with the city council’s “slush fund” scandal:
When the City Council “slush fund” scandal was revealed five years ago, it turned out that the largest beneficiary of these improper disbursements was the High Line. The scandal, in which the Speaker’s office budgeted Council funds to shell organizations in order to dispense the money later to favored groups, resulted in $290,000 going to FoHL. The group has received yearly allocations of $75,000 to $100,000 from the Council since then.”
This at a time when local parks all over the city are being shafted by the current mayoral regime-raising the question of where the speaker’s priorities lie. Even more so since there appears to be a quid pro quo operating in this slushy environment:
The real question is, why give money to the FoHL at all? They don’t need it. The organization is awash in cash from its board and corporate sponsors. The High Line floats in the center of billions of dollars of residential real estate that was built specifically around it. One of the highest paid staffers for the FoHL is a person listed officially as “Director of Food,” who makes more than $100,000 per year. It doesn’t seem like they would miss an annual five-figure disbursement if the Council decided to direct the money toward some other park.
Perhaps the Council’s little allocations are more like tribute than funding: annual tokens that the Speaker makes to the real estate and special interests to whom she owes so much. And they accept it because it affirms to them that here, here is someone we can trust, who will continue to do our bidding.”

And these interests in turn support her political aspirations. This brings us to Willets Point/Flushing Meadows, where a real park that is underfunded is being targeted for extinction-and there are no rich real estate interests that can be seen supporting the park and its maintenance. In fact, the rich real estate interests her want to destroy the park.

Speaker Quinn has a choice: to support the survival of Flushing Meadows, or the greed of the Related Company and its partner Sterling Equities. Quite a troubling choice for the champion of the middle class.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Unequal Treatment at City Planning Commission

The City Planning Commission has bent its rules to accommodate immediate proxy testimony in favor of the proposed Willets Point development, while enforcing its rules and delaying proxy testimony in opposition to the proposed development.

At the public hearing pertaining to the proposed Willets Point development held on August 13, 2008 – during a section of that hearing dedicated to testimony in opposition to the proposed project – the name "Kevin Loyst" was called to testify. In place of Kevin Loyst, a person named Kevin Phillips came to the podium, identified himself, and stated that he was "here to speak on behalf of Kevin Loyst, who's a colleague" who had to depart the hearing after several hours.

Commission Chair Amanda Burden prohibited Kevin Phillips from testifying at that time as a proxy for Kevin Loyst, telling Phillips in no uncertain terms: "You have to sign up on your own. It's a rule, we have to do – You can't substitute for somebody else. Sorry. So if you just sign up on your own. … Just sign up on a new card. You have to sign up for yourself. You can't substitute for somebody else. … We will definitely call you, later."

Kevin Phillips then left the podium, and the Commission called a different speaker.

We would have expected consistent enforcement of the Commission's rules at the public hearing recently held on July 10, 2013, when – during a section of the hearing dedicated to testimony in favor of the application – the name "Dan Hendrick" was called to testify, and an unidentified person who was not Dan Hendrick came to the podium. The unidentified person stated that he was "actually here on behalf of Dan Hendrick, who is the V.P. for the New York League of Conservation Voters".

Neither Commission Chair Amanda Burden nor any other Commission member stopped this unidentified person from testifying "on behalf of Dan Hendrick", or enforced the Commission's strict rules that "you have to sign up for yourself" and "you can't substitute for somebody else". The unidentified person proceeded to deliver testimony as a proxy for the absent Dan Hendrick, in favor of the application.

The Commission has treated unequally those who would provide proxy testimony opposed to the Willets Point development, versus those who would provide proxy testimony in favor of the Willets Point development. Kevin Phillips, who was opposed, was relegated to filling out a new speaker's card and beginning the long wait to testify, again; whereas the unidentified person who appeared on July 10, 2013, who was in favor of the application, was welcomed and testified immediately.

The land use ULURP process must be neutral and devoid of any such bias. It is no less appropriate that a proxy speaker in favor of the Willets Point development be given a special privilege, than it is that the City should fund an unlawful lobbying scheme to influence decision-makers to approve the project. Both of those tactics, and many others, have been leveraged by powers-that-be against Willets Point property and business owners – and the WPU membership will not tolerate it.

The Real Face of Political Corruption

There has been a great deal of attention paid to the efforts of the US Attorney for the Southern District to root out political corruption-and a spate of elected officials have been convicted and imprisoned pursuant to his efforts.

Governor Cuomo, last seen punting on the Willets Point illegal lobbying issue while he was Attorney General, has now jumped into the fray using the Moreland Act commission to root out corruption as well. The NY Post’s Fred Dicker reports:
Despite Cuomo’s high-profile announcement last week that he had assembled “the best minds in law enforcement and public policy . . . to address weaknesses in the state’s public corruption, election and campaign-finance laws’’ to serve on the 25-member commission, he failed to name a single specific area of corruption or individual to be probed. 

As Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody’s getting into the act.” But as helpful - or not - as the current efforts are, they overlook the systemic nature of political corruption-a variant of what Plunkitt of Tammany Hall used to describe as “honest graft.” In a recent issue of City Limits, one such variant is on display in the form of the role political consultants play as both consultants and lobbyists:
The firms that both consult and lobby turn the typical pay-to-play concerns of government watchdogs on their head. The issue here is not who's giving money to a campaign, but who's receiving candidates' money—in exchange for valuable help.
Consultants are, according to political observers, vital components of any operation: They are in many instances the quarterbacks of campaigns, plotting get-out-the-vote efforts, crafting media strategy and exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition. By accepting or rejecting a client, skilled consultants can significantly affect the odds of a campaign succeeding.
"When a firm helps someone get elected to office, that firm may have an easier time getting access to that office when they're trying to influence how they're going to vote on a particular issue," says Bill Mahoney, the New York Public Interest Group's legislative research coordinator.”

This incestuousness has a particular resonance when it comes to the development of Willets Point where the predations of the Parkside Group are skewing the political debate and skirting the bounds of legality:
Remaking the cratered world of Willets Point, Queens has been a developer's dream since the imperious and seemingly everlasting reign of Robert Moses. A veritable galaxy of auto repair shops in the shadow of Citi Field, Willets Point is without sewers or paved roads, but its land, long eyed hungrily by developers, may undergo seismic change over the next decade. According to the glowing blueprints, a shopping mall, affordable housing and glittering office buildings will replace the greasy repair shops that tourists eye warily from the expressways.
Actually making this development—controversial, among other reasons, because it will displace many property owners and immigrant laborers—a reality is partially the job of the Parkside Group, perhaps the most dominant political force in the borough that is not elected by anyone. Since last May, they have represented the Queens Development Group LLC, the name for the duo of real estate companies that have won the bid for phase one of the Willets Point development, Sterling Equities and Related Companies. That's one of many lobbying clients Parkside claims. Last year alone, according to the city's lobbying database, the firm billed $1.8 million for its work with city officials on behalf of clients.”
Parkside is the engine that has been driving the Willets Point project from the get-go-and it was this consulting group that was one of the originators of the illegal lobbying scheme that was finally exposed by the NY State AG. Parkside was the official lobbyist when Claire Shulman’s LDC was fined by the NYC Clerk’s Office a record $59,000 for failing to register as a lobbying entity-something that Parkside should have been aware was the law.

Parkside should have also been aware that it was per se illegal for the LDC to lobby at all-and therefore illegal for Parkside to represent the group in a lobbying campaign to re-develop the Iron Triangle. If it wasn’t the actual originator of the illegal scheme, Parkside was, and is, its major aider and abettor. In this capacity, it should have been sanctioned and removed from any effort to further assist in the city’s corrupt deal to hand over Willets Point property to Related and Sterling Equities.

In fact, no such sanctioning took place-neither EDC nor the Shulman LDC were punished; and the Parkside enablers were allowed to escape punishment as well. But the group not only escaped punishment, it was also allowed (as was Sterling) to profit from its questionable actions:
The battle over Willets Point illustrates how a consultant like Parkside manages to occupy almost every pivotal sphere of the issue. Besides its work for the Queens Development Group, Parkside also lobbies for labor unions that are in support of the Willets Point development, like Local 1500 UFCW and 32BJ SEIU. Meanwhile, Parkside often works side-by-side with the Queens County Democratic Party to ensure, in most instances, their handpicked candidates gain or retain their offices. Four of the elected officials with districts that include or border the Willets Point development—Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz, State Sen. Jose Peralta, Congressman Joe Crowley and State Sen. Toby Stavisky—have employed Parkside for their political campaigns, funneling the firm many thousands of dollars.”
So Parkside-just as Sterling Equities was able to-turned running an illegal scheme into a hugely profitable reward: the representation of the partnership that seeks to redevelop the Iron Triangle at the expense of the existing property owners. Making the situation even more dicey-if that were possible-is the fact that the development’s chief booster, State Senator Toby Stavisky is the mother of Parkside principle Evan Stavisky.
So what we can see at Willets Point is how honest graft operates-and does so at the expense of democracy and the property rights of the Willets Point business owners. In the case of Willets Point, however, the line between honest graft and its more familiar cousin-graft per se-is a thin one indeed.
The US Attorney and the governor are busy fighting corruption-all the while letting a systematic corruption grow and fester under their vigilant noses. As the old aphorism goes:

The law in all of its majesty, punishes the thief who steals the goose from off of the Commons, but lets the greater felon loose, who steals the common from the goose

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Willets Point, Sterling Equities, Related and Patricianage

Yesterday, we posted a commentary on the departure of Seth Pinsky, the leader of the criminal gang down at EDC who led the illegal lobbying effort to remove property owners from Willets Point so their land could be turned over to rich surrogates. We pointed out that EDC under the current mayor has been little more than a cat’s paw for wealthy real estate interests.

Nothing illustrates this fact more than the illegal lobbying scheme first orchestrated by Dan Doctoroff and later implemented by the talented underboss Pinsky. What EDC did-and what the NYS Attorney General cited as lawbreaking-was to fund a local LDC to lobby for the Willets Point project in spite of the fact that the law directly prohibits the LDC from doing any lobbying. 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."
Just who was this local development group? Well, it was a group headed by an aging figurehead named Shulman, but whose members were mainly large real estate firms that used the LDC to garner $500,000 in city funds to lobby on their own behalf. This is a neat trick. Arguably, it was Sterling Equities that was the leading member of the LDC.

This is some scheme that Pinsky masterminded. He took half a million dollars of tax payers’ money and turned it over to a group of real estate moguls to lobby for a development that would benefit their own private interests-and at the end of the day, Sterling Equities emerged as the big winner when it was designated to build a mall in the CitiField parking lot and receive 23 acres of Willets Point property to build a new parking facility. This was all for the cost of $1.

In the process, all of the public benefits that were originally negotiated were trashed and bashed-leading the NY Business Journal to observe; “…there is also a growing sense among local residents, and not just business owners, that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s actions aren’t just an attempt to reinvigorate the area, but a sweetheart deal for the Mets and their development partner, Related Cos.”

Which is exactly what this deal is-an example of what Newsday’s Dan Janison has called patricianage, the dispensing of public spoils to the rich by an administration that believes that the wealthy deserve our support for they are so supportive of the overall public good.

Except when they aren’t-and in the case of Willets Point that means that there will be no affordable housing as promised and those retail workers at the new mall can forget about a living wage that was also promised. After all, this is Related that is involved, and that company will gorge itself to death with public subsidies before it gives a crumb to any minimum wage store clerk.

It’s worth repeating the comment made to the NY Times by a local church leader about the odious nature of this deal:
Msgr. Thomas Healy, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows, a thriving church near the stadium, complained that the 1,900 units of affordable housing that were once the centerpiece of the proposed redevelopment are now an afterthought. Many of his Mexican, Ecuadorean and Dominican parishioners are living, he said, in overcrowded and substandard apartments. 
“Bloomberg promised that the big thing in the project would be housing,” Monsignor Healy said. “Now it’s a grandiose mall, and in 20 years, maybe, we’ll get some housing. He doesn’t care about the poor.” 
But this is what EDC does in the name of the public interest. It is why Pinsky is leaving to go back into the real estate industry in a revolving door scenario that has been ever present since the agency was formed to end run political oversight. It is also why the current development proposal needs to be defeated: it is a sweetheart deal for the Mets and a slap in the face to the public.

If you need to better understand what this is all about please take a listen to Jerry Reed’s lament: “She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft.”

Pinsky Leaves EDC: The More Things Change…

The Observer is reporting that Seth Pinsky is leaving as head of EDC to go for greener pastures at a NYC real estate firm:

“The waning months of Mayor Bloomberg’s reign are expected to be marked by a series of high-powered departures, as one official after another jumps ship before the mayor leaves office. The latest is Bloomberg stalwart and Dan Doctoroff protégée Seth Pinsky, who is stepping down from the Economic Development Corporation to take a private sector gig with RXR Realty, as the agency announced today.”

This brings to mind Shakespeare’s observation about a character in Macbeth; “Nothing in his life. Became him like the leaving it.” Pinsky played the loyal foot soldier (or foot stool) for all of the mayor’s fronting for the city’s big real estate developers-and in its valedictory the Observer forgets the role li’l Seth played in the illegal lobbying scheme at Willets Point.

Using illegal methods to advance the Willets Point project is being thrust down the historical memory hole-after all, the city has done so much damage to small business and communities that we shouldn’t get all bent out of shape by lawbreaking. Should we?

But what the Observer article underscores is just how much the EDC has become a cat’s paw fro big finance and big real estate: “Mr. Pinsky, who worked as an investment analyst and lawyer, refinancing real estate deals for the big banks as an associate at Cleary Gottlieb before leading the EDC…”

Sure he did, and who is replacing him? “As for Mr. Kimball, who worked as a vice president at both Goldman, Sachs & Co. and J.P. Morgan before joining the EDC, the next few months will likely be extremely busy.” Detecting a pattern?

Look at all of Bloomberg’s deputy mayors foe economic development-every single one comes out of the world of Wall Street and high finance. Is it any wonder that the little guys have been pummeled by the Bloomberg regime?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

NY Times Weighs in on City’s Willets Point Bait and Switch

Charles Bagli over at the NY Times takes a sharp look at the city’s reconfigured Willets Point plan and notices some real big missing pieces:
Last year, the city suddenly revised the four-year-old plan for Willets Point. It selected a joint venture of the Related Companies and the owners of the Mets — Fred Wilpon and Saul B. Katz — to clean toxic substances from a portion of the land and to build a hotel and some shops on 126th Street and a giant retail and entertainment mall on the other side of the stadium.
Some community and church groups that once supported the project now feel betrayed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, contending that the project is designed to benefit the Mets’ owners and Related more than the surrounding immigrant communities.”
Gee, we wonder why? Could it be that all of the promises used to entice council members have been discarded? The community sure notices bad faith when it sees it:
Msgr. Thomas Healy, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows, a thriving church near the stadium, complained that the 1,900 units of affordable housing that were once the centerpiece of the proposed redevelopment are now an afterthought. Many of his Mexican, Ecuadorean and Dominican parishioners are living, he said, in overcrowded and substandard apartments. 
“Bloomberg promised that the big thing in the project would be housing,” Monsignor Healy said. “Now it’s a grandiose mall, and in 20 years, maybe, we’ll get some housing. He doesn’t care about the poor.”
And then there is the gigantic mall on the CitiField parking lot-a piece of land zoned as parkland. Parks advocates-already upset by the city’s neglect of parks in the outer boroughs-has threatened to take the administration to court over the taking of parkland without going through alienation-a failure that allows the city to not be forced to find any replacement land for the property taken:
Despite the criticisms, the local community narrowly approved the revisions to the project plan, and the Bloomberg administration hopes to get formal approval from the City Council by the end of the year. Opponents, including NYC Park Advocates, plan to file a lawsuit challenging the city’s decision to give the developers 30 acres of parkland to build the mall.
The city, however, never runs out of its plentiful supply of bad faith. Asked to explain its bait and switch, it does what it does best-lies through its teeth: “The Bloomberg administration said the plans needed to be adjusted to meet market demand, with a spokesman calling the most recent incarnation “the only way forward.”

Let’s get this straight. This plan was originally approved in the teeth of the worst economic downturn since the great Depression. If the city could promise 5500 units of housing and all of the other ancillary benefits then, it can’t now say, “never mind,” when the economy is showing some signs of life. This kind of duplicity should be slapped down by a shamed fool me once city council.

The Times lays out the terms of the original deal-and demonstrates why the current incarnation doesn’t resemble the original proposal. In doing so, however, the paper points out that, “…over time it became clear, city officials and real estate executives said, that not one developer could or would meet the city’s original requirements.”

If that’s true, and we have our doubts, it means that the original plan was too ambitious and should have been shelved. To replace it with a mall and a parking lot when, “In 2007, Mr. Bloomberg announced plans for New York’s “next great neighborhood,” a $3 billion development at Willets Point, with 5,500 apartments, a convention center and office space,” is bad faith squared.

To do it by gifting the property to two rich developers who have no obligation to ever build a single unit of affordable housing is shameful-if the administration were actually capable of that human emotion.

The Times goes on to capture why we call this a “Wimpy” deal-after the Popeye character who used to say, “I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” The tax payers pay through the nose up front-to the tune of over $400 million-and the public benefits are pushed way back until we believe, The Twelfth of Never:

First, however, the developer would be required to remediate a 23-acre portion of Willets Point. The plans for affordable housing — now 2,500 units, 875 affordable — have been pushed back until after 2025. But housing advocates fear it may never get built.”
The fear is not groundless given the fact that the city has already reneged on its commitment and has also treated the existing property owners and tenant businesses like skels. The Times tells us that the Bloomberg administration sees Willets Point as one of its major legacy projects. And we couldn’t agree more.

Nothing symbolizes the mayor’s bad faith and hypocrisy, his corporate welfare, his lack of concern for the poor, and his disdain for the property rights of his lessers, than this bait and switch development. It is a monument to arrogance and corporate greed and the mall should be named after the mayor so that if and when it is built and the area around the stadium is gridlocked for hours, the people will know who to credit.

Monday, July 15, 2013

All Star Game Brings Focus to Willets Point

As tomorrow’s MLB All Star Game approaches, the Star Ledger has an article that explains how Willets point remains a “distraction.” From the standpoint of WPU, however, the All Star Game is itself the distraction-a way of misdirecting folks from the illegality and unethical path taken by the Mets in their quest to redevelop the area in pursuit of their own selfish interests:
Across 126th Street, in the shadow of the towering, brick-and-stone facade of Citi Field, the Willets Point section of Queens unfurled into its everyday routine on a humid afternoon.
The piercing zzzzzzzppppppp! of torque wrenches tightening bolts, the clanking of mallets against metal and the hum of Latin music rose from cluttered strips of auto body shops, scrap yards and waste disposal plants along a 10-block stretch.
When the Mets opened their sparkling, $850 million ballpark in 2009, this is not what they had in mind.” 
The reporter for the Star Ledger has no idea just ho right his observation is. What the Mets-and their real estate arm Sterling Equities-had in mind was a land grab. That’s why they situated their stadium right across from the so-called eyesore. That’s why they entered into the illegal lobbying scheme to support the city’s redevelopment effort-willfully accepting over $500,000 for the lobbying of aphony not for profit that they were an integral part of.

This brings us to today-and the Star Ledger recognizes the stakes of the battle:
Enduring is a classic blue collar-white collar clash and a struggle over what to do with the land, wedged between the Flushing River and Citi Field. Everyone is impatient for repairs, but although the city — along with the Mets owners — sees an untapped destination spot and a vehicle to draw more fans, the businesses, including some that have been here for more than 50 years, say they deserve to be part of any modernization, and they are refusing to budge.”
WPU has been engaged in a successful effort so far to prevent the theft of its property by the Mets and the city:
In 2007, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a plan for urban renewal in the neighborhood, famously calling Willets Points "another euphemism for blight." Two years later, the pitch fell apart when local business owners filed suit, claiming the plans had undergone inadequate environmental reviews.”
In NYC, as others have found out, “blight makes right.” And the fact that this blight is a direct consequence of the city’s neglect makes no difference to the land grabbers-they want your property and they have a billionaire mayor as an accomplice:
The merchants of Willets Point say a complete makeover isn’t necessary. If they had proper roads and sewers, the neighborhood would improve on its own. "If the city of New York was to invest money into an infrastructure, the area would redevelop," said Michael Rikon, an attorney who represents some Willets Point business owners. "But that requires the investment to give services everyone else has."
The dispute has been tense and bitter, and people in Willets Point are scared of losing their livelihoods.”
David Antonacci of Crown Container lays out the indictment of the city’s willful neglect:
Crown Container Corp., a family-owned waste management company, has been around since 1959. It provides service to more than 2,000 customers — homes, restaurants, shops, offices, factories and warehouses. Like many in Willets Point, those at Crown are fearful of being pushed off the land.
"They throw people out, where they going?" said David Antonacci, a Crown co-owner. "They’re just killing businesses."
But Antonacci acknowledges Willets Point desperately needs infrastructure. Like most business owners there, he had a water pump rolled up on his property to discard dirty, trapped rainwater.
"Let me tell you something," he said, looking overhead as a plane from nearby La Guardia Airport zoomed through the sky. "The reason this place is an eyesore is because the city created it that way. I pay taxes for clean streets. I get no services here. There’s no sewers. They don’t do snow removal. They just steal our tax money. There’s no lights, no stop signs, no streetlights."

What the Star Ledger shows, however, is that in spite of the neglect and the city’s attempt to steal the property of small business owners, there is still a vibrancy at Willets Point-real economic activity by immigrant entrepreneurs that in other contexts the mayor is hypocritically extolling:
But rain or shine, Willets Point never slows, Antonacci said. Shops are open seven days a week, 365 days a year. The area has provided jobs for generations of immigrants. On 126th Street is Chile Auto Glass, next to International Auto Body. A Halal truck sits on the corner of 37th Avenue. Men and boys in front of shops beckon to passing motorists, offering better prices than the next guy.”

Five years ago, Mike Bloomberg called the redevelopment of Willets Point the heralding in of the city’s “first green neighborhood.” Instead, we are being asked to swallow a parking lot and a mall to enrich the Wilpons and their partners-underscoring that the green in this new neighborhood is exclusively residing in the pockets of the Mets.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Introducing David Schwartz

David Schwartz of Willets Point United Inc. opposes the development plan of Sterling Equities (owned by the owners of the New York Mets) and Related Companies, during a rally held in Willets Point across the street from Citi Field on July 8, 2013.

The development plan of Sterling/Related adds a 1.4 million square foot mall to be constructed on public parkland, and expands the total size of the Willets Point development from 62 acres as approved during 2008 to 108.9 acres as intended now. The Bloomberg administration intends to gift 23 acres of Willets Point property to Sterling/Related for the price of $1 (one dollar), despite the city having spent $200+ million to acquire it, and despite decision-makers being told that the city would recoup its costs via the sale of the property; intends to give a grant of taxpayer funds totaling $99 million to Sterling/Related to pay costs that they were supposed to pay; delays the project's housing component for 15 years, and makes the housing contingent upon new highway ramps that no one is obligated to construct.

Audio/visual material copyright 2013 LoScalzo Media Design LLC. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

City Planning hearing Covered by Newsday

The City Planning Commission hearing received good coverage from Newsday today:

“A $1 billion retail-and-entertainment mall planned for the site of what is currently a parking lot of the New York Mets' stadium would spearhead a major transformation of a blighted neighborhood, developers testified Wednesday.

But opponents argued that the 1.4 million-square-foot mall and other plans for their Queens neighborhood would simply benefit developers while pushing out local businesses.”

Once again, Irene Presti got the focal point as she rebutted the self serving statements of the developer:

“Richard Browne of Sterling Equities, which is developing the mall complex along with Related Cos., said it will serve the local community because "Queens doesn't have enough retail." At the same time, he said, development promises to bring in more affordable housing.

Not so, said Irene Prestigiacomo, who owns property used by an auto repair business.

"It's all smoke and mirrors," she told commissioners. "They want to take my property and give it to developers. It's a land grab."

The community also came out and noted the impossible infrastructure challenges with the proposed development:

“Other residents who testified said the mall would rise on city-owned land while developers receive tens of millions of dollars in subsidies.

Ed Westley, a member of Community Board 3, noted that traffic to the area will increase and the subway will be so overcrowded "that the No. 7 train will need to be a double-decker."
Unmentioned in all of this is the planned destruction of Flushing Meadows Park-as the city looks to expand the USTA facility and looks to build a soccer stadium: “Other separate proposals for the area include expanding the National Tennis Center and building a 35,000-seat professional soccer stadium.”

There is no possibility that the city would even think of doing such a thing in Central Park or Prospect Park-apparently the immigrant communities adjacent to FMP are not very important to the elitists who make up the current administration.

Lost in the hoo ha, however, is the fact that this entire proposal is based on a foundation of lies. As Irene Presti told the Commission, the unethical bait and switch is alive and well:

“This was a deal, however, that generated a great deal of controversy down at the city council-the legislative body that needed to approve the project. Most of the times the use of condemnation is seen as a drastic act and is used sparingly, and only for a tangible public use. Not seeing any great public use in the city’s proposal, the city council balked-sending EDC scrambling.

Here’s where the deal making began and various interests came into the negotiations and thousands of units of public housing-along with an agreement to provide a so-called living wage to retail workers-was added to give this land grab a public flavor. My mother always told me that if you’re going to bake a lie, you need to frost it with the truth. And so it went. With the land grab being frosted with the adding on of these perceived public benefits.

Fast forward to today. Gone is the housing-pushed way back into the distant future with no guarantee that it will ever get built. Gone also is the pledge to provide the workers with a living wage. The only thing that is left is something that was never there in the first place-a massive, traffic generating nightmare of a retail mall that was never part of the original deal; and would never have passed the smell test with council members concerned with the use of eminent domain to take away property from small owners like myself.”

Willets Point Opposition Grows

On Monday night a rally was held at Willets Point and affordable housing advocates joined with the property owners to voice their opposition to the current “bait and switch” deal the city has come up with to redevelop the Iron Triangle. Yesterday, opponents of the plan came down to the City Planning Commission hearing on the project to forcefully voice their concerns. As property owner Irene Presti told the Commission:

“This unneeded and unnecessary mall will be built on the site of the current CitiField parking lot. So where will the Mets fans park? They will park on the land that the city has purchased from Willets Point property owners for $200 million! So the city used the threat of eminent domain to grab land that will now be used for a parking lot.

Back when the mayor extolled the virtues of this deal he called Willets Point the “city’s first green neighborhood.” Not in our lifetime. What the city is getting for its overall investment of around $500 million dollars is a mall and a parking lot. Everything else is simply smoke and mirrors with no guarantees whatsoever.

Making all of this so much worse is that the city administration told the city council that it would recoup its investment when the selected developer was chosen. Instead, the city has decided to gift the property to Related and Sterling Equities for $1!”

On the heels of the rally and hearing political opposition is also growing-and the NY Daily News has the story:

“Two City Councilmen — who happen to both be running for Queens borough president — are trying to block the plate against a proposed mega-mall next to CitiField. The lawmakers, Leroy Comrie and Peter Vallone Jr., announced Monday they oppose the current plan, which includes a 1.4-million-square-foot mall and is currently rounding third and headed for home in the city’s land-use review process.

“The community has responded negatively,” Comrie said. “They don’t feel their needs are being kept in the forefront.” Comrie heads the powerful Council Land Use committee, and said changes may be needed before it gets the Council’s rubber stamp.”

In addition to Vallone and Comrie, WPU’s old ally Tony Avella has also weighed in on the plan and has found it wanting: “Shame on any politician who votes for this,” said state Sen. Tony Avella, a third candidate opposed to the proposal.

All of this took place at a Queens BP candidates’ forum. Vallone also made the strong point that the current plan was not the plan that the council approved in 2008: “That’s not what we approved,” said Vallone (D-Astoria).
“You can’t change it after we approve it.”

The one candidate who voiced support of the project was Melinda Katz who has decided to forego her self-described libertarian philosophy (and her stated uneasiness with eminent domain) and go all-in with the Queens Democratic Party that is supporting her:

“But former Councilwoman Melinda Katz appeared more bullish on the Iron Triangle overhaul. She said there weren’t any aspects of the current plan she would change. “It’s an urban renewal plan.” said Katz. “It’s so easy to talk about amending. We have to look at how to make it happen and move it forward.”

Shame on her, but we’re not surprised because Katz was one of the council members who publicly expressed bewilderment over the ramp issue back in 2008-and has done little since then to educate herself on the project. But then again, ignorance is bliss when the Party’s big guns and the entire real estate and you’re making big bucks as a land use lawyer.

What we now can see that if Katz is elected borough president, the communities of Queens will have been abandoned for the special interests and the small businesses of the borough be damned as well. Keep this in mind Queens Civic Congress when, in the future, a developer comes into your neighborhood.

Comrie, for his part, understands the foolishness of the housing and ramps issue:
“Comrie (D-St. Albans) blasted a “ridiculous” provision that hinges the construction of the affordable housing to connecting ramps to the Van Wyck Expwy.”

We’ll give Irene Presti the last word:

“When the city came for my property and the rest of the land owned by small owners like me, they claimed it was for the purpose of cleaning up Willets Point-alleging that it was essentially a toxic waste dump. Ladies and gentlemen the only thing toxic here is the deal for Willets Point-a spectacular example of crony capitalism and bad faith.

For the citizens of New York and the property owners of Willets Point, the current development proposal should be relegated to the dustbin of history-and a planning commission that lived up to its name would unceremoniously send this proposal back to the city. Do the right thing. Don’t be a rubber stamp for the mayor. Say no to Willets West.”