Saturday, August 31, 2013

Hard of Hearing

The City Council, when we last checked, purports to be a deliberative body, but when you get really close to examine how it really functions you come to understand that it is deliberately obtuse when it comes to the interests of small businesses, and communities impacted by mega-development. Take the ULURP application for the slyly named Willets West-a project that emerged like Rosemary’s Baby from the failure of the original Willets Point development that passed under a false flag in 2008. If what we have seen so far is any indication, the council is preparing to roll over because of an inordinate obsequiousness to the interests of Joe Crowley and the Queens County Democrats.

In the first case, the initial hearing is scheduled for September the 3rd, the first business day after the Labor Day holiday. Acting like folks who want to remain inaccessible and perhaps even incognito, the notice for the hearing was posted on Thursday the 29th, leaving a single day before the holiday for the word to get out.

When it comes to the hearing itself, the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises is signaing that it really doesn’t want to have a vigorous debate on a project that remains promiscuously controversial considering the illegal lobbying that drove the original council approval five years ago. It is doing so first by shutting down the request from Willets Point United to present a 20 minute power point that deconstructs the numerous erroneous assumptions from EDC - an entity that was forced to reconstruct itself after orchestrating the aforementioned illegal lobbying.

There’s really no excuse for doing this since WPU has been willing to forego the time of five or six of its testifiers so that the power point could be presented. The only conclusion an impartial observer can draw from this is that the committee is trying to tamp down the opposition’s ability to make its case. Will the committee limit the developers to 2 minutes? No, we don’t think so - and Chairman Weprin needs to explain why he needs to act as a homer for the developers.

In addition, the time being allotted to each speaker has been reduced to 2 minutes! - another example of favoritism since the developers, being the prototypical special interests, normally have fewer people coming to testify. Two minutes for some of the folks who stand to lose their businesses and their property if this corrupt deal is approved is the quintessential example of the stacked deck.

The committee is also showing its true colors by disrespecting the expected testimony of many of the Hispanic immigrant workers and business owners. No Spanish translator will be provided at this hearing – despite the ULURP application that is at issue requiring that 100+ businesses vacate the premises that are owned and operated predominantly by people who speak Spanish. The City previously failed to provide any Spanish translator at the eminent domain hearing which was widely criticized at the time. Apparently the City has not learned any lesson and is content to steamroll the 100+ immigrant businesses without hearing them at the Council. And why hasn't Julissa Ferreras, the home rule council member who has been working for years with the tenant businesses, demanded interpretation services for her constituents, or spoken out against the skulduggery being perpetrated by the City against Willets Point land and business owners?

The above points, taken all together, demonstrate the City Council's active contempt for public testimony about the proposed Willets West mall / Willets Point Phase One ULURP application. Speaker Quinn, Land Use Committee Chair Leroy Comrie, and subcommittee Chair Mark Weprin should be ashamed of themselves. These latest examples of bias come a year after the Mayor's Office and NYCEDC selected Sterling Equities and Related Companies, and their plan to expand the development from 62 to 108.9 acres including constructing a shopping mall on parkland, in a private process that shut out the Queens-based Willets Point Advisory Committee from the developer selection process, contrary to multiple written promises. The fix appears to be in; let the Council now show us - and all New Yorkers - otherwise.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Political Corruption and Willets Point: The Christine Quinn Story

Wayne Barrett-as per usual-has a riveting expose of the unlikely rise of Christine Quinn to the Speakership of the City Council in 2005. The rise of this former community activist and neighborhood scourge was predicated on some good old fashioned insider trading-relying on the quid pro quo support of three of the city’s Democratic County bosses: Joe Crowley, Jose Rivera and the now disgraced Vito Lopez.

As Barrett points out:
“It was December 2005 and 39-year-old Christine Quinn, an obscure one-term Chelsea councilwoman, was on her way to the Westchester Square headquarters of the Bronx Democratic County Committee to close the deal that would make her speaker, second only to the mayor in the power she would wield in City Hall. Her path to the Council leadership—positioning her to shape the city’s fiscal and development policies for the next four, and ultimately eight years—was, by city charter design, an inside game.”

And it was a game she played well-and continued to play well as certain special interests feasted on their special relationship with the former enfant terrible of community organizing. This was seen right off the bat in 2006 when Quinn took over and rolled over for the Bronx Terminal Market and Yankee Stadium deals midwived by the Bronx political bosses:

“Just a couple of months into her speakership, in February 2006, Quinn was embroiled in the Council’s consideration of the two projects that meant more to Jose Rivera than any others in his reign as Bronx Democratic leader: the redevelopment of Yankee Stadium and the construction of the nearby Gateway Center Mall. They were giant projects – and, hence, opportunities to gather campaign contributions and political sway. (One measure of the value: between 2004 and the end of 2008, when Rivera was ousted as leader, his varied campaign committees collected $58,625 from the Yankees and the Related Companies, which built the mall).”

When both deals were concluded, the developers of the BTM and the Yankees got the goldmine and the tax payers got the shaft-a trend that was to characterize Quinn’s entire tenure as council speaker:

“The Yankees wanted a new Metro North train stop at the stadium and didn’t want to contribute a cent to the project, even though there was no money in the MTA budget to pay for it. In the final 24 hours of pre-vote negotiations at the Council, they got it, outraging The New York Times editorial board.

The size of the project meant that new parks would need to be built near the stadium, replacing old community parks. At the Yankees’ urging, the Council agreed to pay the entire cost of these parks, which would escalate from $116 million to $190 million over the life of the project. The Yankees also made it a condition of the deal that the city would pick up the cost of a 9,300-space parking garage, which totaled $100 million in direct subsidies and $278 million in tax-exempt bonds.”

The Terminal market became terminal for the 23 mostly minority wholesalers who were evicted in the ultimate sweetheart deal-these entrepreneurs were scattered to the four winds and most have gone out of business after losing the synergy of the market and its location. The developer Related, however, did a tad better owing to the close friendship between Deputy Mayor Doctoroff and Related boss Steve Ross:

“The Related Companies’ no-bid contract for the mall, approved by the Council a few weeks before the Yankees’ deal in early 2006, did not require any percentage payments to the city geared to mall revenues, unlike many projects on city-owned land. Instead, while Related earns $27 million a year from its current mall tenants, it is only paying the city $800,000 as compensation for the project. The justification is that it generates jobs – a point that Yankees President Randy Levine has made repeatedly, at one point saying critics “should be encouraging us to create jobs instead of engaging in political grandstanding.” But the pay averages $8 an hour, a thin reed on which to justify such a huge subsidy. The Council rubber-stamped these terms, and Related became one of Quinn’s biggest financial supporters, having bundled or donated $58,254 to her campaigns since 2006.”
This, as we shall see, was a harbinger of the Willets Point deal that came later.

”Roll the calendar forward to 2009. That’s when Queens leader Joe Crowley surfaced at the Council with a project of his own to champion. A member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Crowley rarely gets involved in Queens controversies. But he interjected himself into the debate over another Related Companies project: the $3 billion redevelopment of Willets Point.”
Here’s where insider trading gave way to outright corruption-with Quinn paddling along with the tide:
“It didn’t help appearances that the project was a bit of an ethical mess. Claire Shulman, the 83-year-old former Queens borough president, had set up a nonprofit local development corporation, Flushing Willets Point Corona LDC, to build grassroots support for the project. The LDC was underwritten by a $250,000 city grant and real estate interests, including Related’s co-developer on the project, Sterling Equities, the real estate arm of Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz. But Shulman had failed to register the group as a lobbyist with the city clerk and was fined $52,000 for the omission. Then she registered it, and a storm ensued, since LDCs are barred by law from lobbying the Council. The Times quoted her saying that “we lobbied the city for the city,” a statement that eventually resulted in a state attorney general’s finding that the LDC had “flouted the law” and a settlement that barred it from lobbying the Council. Quinn did not criticize the grandmotherly Shulman at the time - indeed, she shared stages with her, beaming about Willets Point – and remains silent on the lobbying gaffe.”
A true partner in crime-and Quinn made sure that the council did not do any real over sight of the Willets Point development even though it became obvious that the illegal and unethical actions of the city and its consultants were polluting the development process:

“As quickly as the cheering died down, the angry Willets Point businesses sued the city to block the project. The case dragged on until May 2012, when on the eve of an appellate review of elements of it, the Bloomberg administration suddenly withdrew its plan. The winning lawyer said: “The city knew it was going to lose.” Among other things, the city had presented two conflicting environmental impact statements, one saying that traffic on a new expressway ramp to be built for the project would boom by 50 percent, the other estimating a 15 percent increase. It held a public hearing on the project without a Spanish interpreter, though the room was filled with clamoring Hispanic businessmen.”
At every corrupt step of the way, Quinn shot down any oversight or council review-she was all in for Joe Crowley from the beginning and was not going to abandon him in his hour of need; and the EDC’s fraudulent environmental/traffic review could not garner a council oversight hearing with Quinn’s thumb on the scale.

This is depressingly similar to the deal making in the Bronx-even more so now that Related has been injected into the Willets Point deal with predictable conclusions: gone is the affoirdabkle housing, replaced by-what else?-another mall:
“Now, a revised project is back before Quinn, slated to come to a Council vote in October. Critics note that it cuts the affordable housing units in half, and that the developers may not have to build any if they delay the housing project for a decade, which they are permitted to do under the deal. The emphasis now is on a huge mall, an echo of Related’s Gateway development in the Bronx.”

This brings us to the present and the City Council’s first hearing on Willets Point scheduled for Tuesday. The signs are indeed ominous with Quinn still at the helm-but with a great deal of hope that current mayoral frontrunner will put the kibosh on this corporate welfare deal when and if he gets into office in January (Or that Bill Thompson will also set it aside when he finds out all that went into this toxic farrago).

Making things even more foreboding is that the land use subcommittee is balking at letting WPU do a 20 minute power point presentation at Tuesday’s hearing. The power point is a devastating takedown of the city’s proposal and we can understand why proponents of the project would balk at its use. But why would the council committee not want it shown? After all, the city gets unlimited time for all of its phony dog and pony shows.

Our main concern goes back to Barrett’s original thesis: the unseemly role of the county leaders in the selection of the speaker. That hasn’t really changed, and Joe Crowley still wields enormous power and he definitely doesn’t want a public exposure of all the unethical and illegal maneuvers that he has spawned and continues to sanction.

Exit question: are the aspirants for speaker blocking the Willets Point presentation for tawdry political reasons and not simply housekeeping logistics? If so, they are putting their own political ambitions before the needs of the residents of Queens, the businesses of Willets Point, and the tax payers of NYC-just like Christine Quinn has done for 8 years.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Planning Commission Rubber Stamps Willets West: Morphs into the Board of Health

In what is really not a news story - when was the last time the City Planning Commission turned down a mayoral initiative? (Answer: Never) - the CPC approved the bastardized Willets West development with a lone dissenting vote. As the NY Daily News reports:“The City Planning Commission approved a plan to build a mega mall near Citi Field as part of a larger redevelopment of the gritty stretch of auto body shops.”

We got a big kick out of New York’s Burden - the chair of CPC - who remarked: “Willets Point is on its way to becoming remediated and ultimately becoming an active and inviting destination.”

From a woman famous for her own extreme makeovers, we weren’t surprised by the comment. Amanda Burden has had this sinecure for twelve years and the only thing that would bring more fresh air to the city than the mayor’s departure would be the removal of this toady from her sinecure. Burden gives a certain class comfort to the rubber stamp nature of the CPC - perhaps there will be a spot for her on the Board of Health in a new mayoral administration. After all, she has shown great skill in simply following orders.

There was, however, one dissenting opinion in this charade: “Board member Michelle de la Uz was the lone dissenting voice during the meeting. She argued that there are a glut of malls already in Queens and said “questionable and weak” efforts have been made to relocate the immigrant shop owners working in the auto body shops.”

De la Uz was appointed by Public Advocate de Blasio and it raises questions about what a mayor de Blaio would do if he were asked to review this horrible crony capitalist bait and switch adventure. After all, the litany of the false promises and illegalities pave the road along the way to this mega mall project-and a new mayor is under no obligation to pony up $200 million worth of property and close to $100 million for “remediation” just to aggrandize Steve Ross and Jeff Wilpon’s fortunes.

The measure now goes to the city council where Speaker Quinn will have the opportunity to demonstrate her total obeisance to the agenda of Big Real Estate. There can be no other explanation-the absence of a public good here is blindingly glaring.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Cornerstone of Deception

As the WSJ is reporting, some significant snags have been developing over alleged relocation plans to help the tenant businesses over at Willets Point:
A cluster of several hundred auto-body repair shops and junkyards near Citi Field in Queens has proven resilient to changes that have transformed other parts of the city, but that too could soon come to an end.
About 90 tenants in the so-called Iron Triangle have received letters offering them a payment equal to a year's rent at their current location if they leave by the end of November to make way for the first phase of a more than 60-acre redevelopment of Willets Point that will eventually include a school, retail and housing.” 
The deal, however, is fool’s gold and is little more than a bus ticket out of town for these immigrant Hispanic business owners:
City officials have long said that relocation would be necessary to realize the redevelopment vision. But some tenants have been pushing to relocate in a large group or groups and to recreate elsewhere in the city their unique ecosystem of shops that change tires, reupholster seats and repair mufflers.
Tenants said they fear the money is being offered in lieu of such a plan.”
And they are right, because EDC has retained (with no bidding of course) the Cornerstone Group to aid in the relocation effort:
The city appointed Cornerstone Group, a real-estate firm, to help with individual and group relocation. The company has shown tenants about 140 sites suitable for one or multiple businesses.
But some tenants complained that those sites have been unsuitable. Many said their current rent is less than $1,500 a month, but rents for typical industrial sites are several times that.
"A $1,250, $1,300 rent—what would it help? Nobody wants to give us a $1,300 place," said Vijay Kumar, the 38-year-old owner E.T. Tires.”
As Yogi Berra might have said, this is déjà vu all over again. Cornerstone was assigned the task of relocating the wholesalers in the Bronx Terminal Market-and in the seven years since the eviction of the businesses very few remain in operation. Why? Because their success was predicated on their synergy-their ability to piggyback on each others’ customer traffic. Left alone, they went under. 

And history is repeating itself-the Willets Pointers should be aware of the tactic to get rid of their nuisance presence:
To get the full amount, they would need to leave in four months, which they said doesn't give them time to find a site that could accommodate dozens of businesses, much like a large relocation of the Fulton Fish Market.
"In order to actually avail themselves of the funds they need to give up where they are currently operating and move to some fictitious place that does not exist," said Ted De Barbieri, an attorney at the Urban Justice Center who represents 55 businesses that want to relocate together.
Tenants said remaining together is essential to their continued survival because it will help ensure customers continue to frequent the group of businesses, which have become famous for offering below-market-price car repairs to customers that they say come from Queens, Long Island, upstate New York and even Pennsylvania.”
Let’s keep in mind that the city is giving away to the mayor’s cronies (Related and Sterling Equities) the land it had purchased for $200 million! That’s not all. The city is also ponying up an additional $99 million for “remediation”-all of this money was supposed to be put up by the eventual developer when the city council approved this development in 2008. So, once again, Related (and Sterling) get the goldmine, and small minority businesses get the shaft.

Put simply, the relocation is a fiction designed to remove the “eyesore” while pretending otherwise. Even the money is questionable-with CM Julissa Ferreras claiming credit for funds obtained five years ago by her former boss Hiram Monseratte:
City Council Member Julissa Ferreras, who represents the area and is credited for helping to find the $3.5 million for relocation, has been a vocal advocate for group relocation. A spokeswoman said she remains committed to finding a site for tenants to move in large groups.
"I have always advocated for the EDC to relocate the Willets Point businesses as a group," Ms. Ferreras said. "There are ongoing negotiations to make sure that these businesses are given a fair deal by the EDC and any potential developers."
What does this actually mean? Will CM Ferreras urge her colleagues on the city council to vote down the project-one where affordable housing is a player to be named later? If Julissa really wants to take credit here she needs to show some real backbone and insist that this sham development be laid over for the next mayor and City Council Speaker to decide. Will she?

The plight of the tenant businesses-and at one point there were over 200 such firms and over 2,000 workers at the Iron Triangle-is just one glaring example of the mess that the Bloomberg administration has created at Willets Point.

The use of condemnation, illegal lobbying, fraud about the nature of the deal-the laundry list of deception is a long one. And now, the icing on the cake: the Cornerstone Group brought in- like Kabuki theater-to pretend to help the existing auto businesses when its actual goal is to make these struggling immigrants simply disappear.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pratt Center’s Joan Byron Nails Willets Point Development Defects

Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development testified last year about the glaring defects of the city’s newly reconfigured re-development of Willets Point. Her comments should be heeded by a city council that was snookered by the EDC when it approved the deal in 2008.

As Byron pointed out, the city is looking at developing Flushing Meadows Park in a way that makes little planning sense and, by the way, will destroy the park for any recreational use by the nearby communities:
We join with community representatives in calling for a full new Environmental Impact Study that will allow a comprehensive approach to this and other transformative projects now proposed within Flushing Meadows Corona Park. 
These projects represent both a threat and an opportunity for the communities of northern Queens, and for the City as a whole. Neither the threat nor the opportunity can be understood without a new, comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement that takes into account the City’s current understanding of economic and environmental reality – including the costs and challenges of remediating sites within the established Willets Point Special District, and the degree to which these conditions make it unrealistic to develop the project as proposed in the original EIS, and defers the construction of the promised housing units until at least 2028.”
Ah yes, the housing that was promised-a promise that all of a sudden has become uneconomical today when it apparently wasn’t in the midst of the economic catastrophe in 2008:
The development of that housing, along with the schools, retail space, etc. that would create “a lively, mixed use district” – was presented in 2008 as a public benefit that justified the taking of private property, the disposition of public land, and enormous public investment in property acquisition, remediation, and infrastructure.
The City agencies who administer our laws, programs and regulations, the legislators who represent us, and above all, the people who live and work in the impacted communities, and the taxpayers of New York City, all deserve a full and up-to-date set of facts in which to ground our thinking about the development not only of the proposed “Willets West” addition to the district, but about the full set of projects being proposed within and around the borough’s flagship park.”
Or, in other words, the people of New York deserve the truth-something that the ethically challenged EDC is seemingly incapable of providing.  And Byron makes a strong case that the mall can’t be built without alienating the land as parkland:
We do not accept the premise that a mall falls within the definition of “edification” or other activities permitted on this site without new alienation legislation. Even if that were the case, a decision about the future of a major site, in the heart of an area undergoing profound change, and facing serious shortages of open space, housing, schools, and community facilities, should not be made solely on the basis of administrative expediency. If this site is to be put into play, ALL potential uses, including housing, should be considered.”
Well, yes they should-but they won’t under this mayor and what passes for oversight under the present city council. That means that it is imperative for those council members to realize that they have an opportunity to act independently, and in the public interest, by sending Willets West back to a more intelligent drawing board.

Remember, the mayor called Willets Point the city’s first green neighborhood-and instead we have a mall that makes little public policy sense: “Less than a mile away another large mall, Sky View opened in 2010 and remains only partially leased up.”

The mall’s traffic generation would further mock the city’s efforts at sustainability-as Byron strongly demonstrates:
A mall of this size generates thousands of car trips per day – tens of thousands on peak shopping weekends. And peak traffic to this mall would inevitably coincide with peak days for other destinations, including game days at CitiField and at the proposed soccer stadium, if it is built.
Though the Number 7 train is accessible, the 7 will continue to operate at unacceptable levels of crowding, even if new technologies allow for more frequent service. Mall shopping trips differ drastically from trips to traditional retail streets, and skew heavily toward driving. The proposed project contravenes the laudable goals of PlaNYC 2030, and the good work of the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, to reduce car trips and the concomitant greenhouse gas emissions.”
Can we imagine a lesser public interest than a mall and a parking lot? And a mall and a parking lot combined with a gift of $200 million and an additional $99 million in subsidies-partly and allegedly for remediation. Willets West is a catastrophe built on a scandal-and the city council should afford it the euthanasia it deserves.