Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ratner Must Pay Up: And So Will NYC for Willets Point United

As Develop Don’t Destroy is reporting:
“A judge today ruled that the Empire State Development Corporation ("ESDC") is liable for legal fees incurred by community groups that sued successfully to compel a supplemental environmental impact study (SEIS) for the second phase of Forest City's controversial Atlantic Yards project.  She referred the parties to a referee to determine the amount of the award, which under an agreement with ESDC, Forest City Ratner will then have to pay.”
Good for them! Just another example of how Big Real Estate cheats their asses off and expects the politicians and the courts to turn the other way:
"Justice Friedman's ruling today is another reminder of the sordid 10-year history of the Atlantic Yards project, which to this day has largely failed to deliver on the promises that were used to sell it to the people of New York," said Candace Carponter, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's legal director.  "We're gratified by today's decision, but the fact remains that, as Justice Friedman suggests, had the ESDC and Forest City Ratner not knowingly misrepresented the facts to the court, the entire Atlantic Yards project, including the heavily subsidized Barclays Center, would never have gotten off the drawing board."
Too often, these kinds of vindications come posthumously-and what should be seen as criminal or civil liability ends up being simply throwing coins at beggars. Willets Point United is facing the same situation-with the criminal activity being exposed and little or no consequences for the perps. But when the city pulled its eminent domain proceeding-fearing the exposure of massive corruption-they opened the tax payers to being on the hook for all of the WPU legal fees. As the Daily News reported:
“A group of Willets Point property owners want the city to pay their hefty legal fees after pulling plans last week to take over their land through eminent domain proceedings. The city halted its controversial approach because it was instead nearing a deal with a developer to overhaul the industrial cluster of auto body shops and scrap yards next to Citi Field.”
Show us the money-the city must be made responsible for putting the property owners through a living hell. All for nothing, as the News points out:

"Michael Rikon, an attorney representing about two-dozen WilletsPoint business owners, said he will file a petition for the city to repay his clients’ legal fees. Willets Point United members have shelled out more than $300,000 in legal fees since 2008, he said. That number is on top of the money group members paid to attorney Michael Gerrard, who represented them in their fight against new exit ramps on the VanWyck Expressway. Rikon said his clients are entitled to the money under section 702 of New York State eminent domain law."
The $300,000 is really chump change when seen in the context of a $400 million boondoggle-and still escalating fraud-but it is symbolic of the disregard of the plutocrats for the fate of the peons. The City Council has now been given the opportunity to give this bait and switch the bum’s rush, but given the total lack of character of the leadership-and their obeisance to Big Real Estate (not to mention the complete lack of competency of the local council member)-this is as unlikely as the sun setting in the East. It will be up to the new mayor to take a look at all of the unethical and criminal behavior involved in this mayoral grift-and decide if there really will be a new day for New Yorkers.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Crony Capitalism as Economic Development

Ben Haber, the Socrates of Queens County, has penned a prescient letter to the Ledger calling on the City Council to vote the current Willets Point project down. As Haber points out, the bait and switch has yielded a huge mall that will feather the nest of the mayor’s rich friends while causing heartache to the residents of Corona, Jackson Heights and Flushing:
“The amendment that seeks to build a parking lot at Willets Point is a ploy to sneak through the back door a transfer of the Citi Field parking lots to allow construction on the vacated lots a 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall. This is without a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure and replacing parkland, since Citi Field is on land that is part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Affordable housing will not be built until 2015, if ever.” 
Now we think that Ben means 2025, because there will be no housing without the Van Wyck ramps that will be built on the 12th of Never. But Haber gets to the root of the sham when he ridicules the idea that the billionaire owners, and mayoral BFFs, of Related and Sterling Equities couldn’t afford to develop the rest of Willets Point with the affordable housing and the other goodies unless they got to build their mall:
“At the top of the list of deceptions that have accompanied the application is the claim for requiring a prioritized Citi Field shopping mall as a financial engine to generate enough funds with which to construct the original Willets Point plan, suggesting that without it the original plan cannot be accomplished.  
Ignoring its speculation, it is untrue and a ploy to have the mall, which is what the application is all about. Related Cos. are the developers of the $20 billion development underway over the Hudson Yards in Manhattan. The claim that these multibillion-dollar companies — which are being given the Willets Point land the city has acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars and more in the future for $1 and a subsidy of $99 million — do not have the financial wherewithal to build Willets Point without a huge shopping mall is an in insult unworthy of belief and a reason to reject the application.”
Haber goes on to question whether the city council represents the people-a rather droll inquiry that has an unfortunate answer:
“The original Willets Point plan approved by the Council in 2008 is one thing. A deceptive huge shopping mall is something different and unacceptable. It remains to be seen if the word from the Council is that its constituents are not just billionaire real estate moguls but the little people, the poor, the middle class and small businesses, which are the backbone of an urban society and reject the application.”
We know where the formerly Mighty Quinn stands, but what about the supposed progressives on the city council? And what about the Public Advocate? When it comes to real estate it seems that the pols represent the 1%-unless we see a radical departure from the Permanent Government script.

Monday, September 23, 2013

What’s a New Mayor to Do? Bill de Blasio and Willets Point

We have been speculating about what a Mayor de Blasio might do with the development of Willets Point when/if he gets into office in January-arguing that he is under no obligation to rubber stamp a skewed Mike Bloomberg vision.

We have been buoyed by his statements concerning thecorporate welfare give away to Fresh Direct: “Fresh Direct would never have gotten more than $100 million in government subsidies to stay in New York City if he ran City Hall, Bill de Blasio said Thursday. The Democratic mayoral nominee said his administration would remove subsidies from large companies such as Fresh Direct and “give them to smaller companies.” This is a sign that de Blasio sees economic development in a radically different light. 

But if a Mayor de Blasio would balk at throwing $100 million tax payer dollars at a crony of his predecessor, than how about $400 million for two cronies? That’s the subject of our Op-ed in yesterday’s NY Daily News:
In the first place, the development at Willets Point was intended to be one of Mayor Bloomberg’s signature legacy projects – the “first green neighborhood,” and all that palaver. Instead, owing to the good work of the team assembled by Willets Point United, the original mega-deal was derailed and the current Rosemary’s Baby was given birth. Instead, of all the essential public benefits that were originally negotiated — affordable housing, a living wage and traffic relieving ramps — we have been given the city’s largest retail mall built on parkland. The property taken under the threat of eminent domain is now earmarked for a parking lot.” 
Any original whiff of public good has been aerosoled out by this stinky new sweetheart deal
Make no mistake about it. When the original Willets Point deal was proposed by the city, there were over 30 council members who had signed a letter opposing the project — and one of the strongest bases for that opposition was the city’s threat to use condemnation to take away property that had, in many cases, been in families for decades.
This opposition was only overridden when the Central Labor Council negotiated a “historic” living wage provision — and the council negotiated a deal for 2000 units of affordable housing. This was the linchpin of the compromise that enabled the council to overcome their strong objection to the use of eminent domain.
And then there’s the corporate welfare to dramatize just how far from the public interest this gift to the Wilpons and Steve Ross really is:
All of these promises have been tossed aside in the city’s current Willets Point proposal — along with the sworn assurances from Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber that the city would be compensated for the $200 million it paid for the property purchased under the threat of condemnation. Instead, the city is gifting the property to the developers for $1!
Only in Mike Bloomberg’s NYC, could gifting be so easily turned into grifting-and as far as gifts are concerned, this is one that keeps on giving for all of the critics of the mayor’s penchant to bend the rules when it concerns him and his friends:
Making a bad deal that much worse is the fact that it has now been revealed by the Attorney General of the State of New York that the original compromise that led to the city council’s approval of the development in 2008 was advanced by an illegal lobbying scheme devised by the Economic Development Corp. and a local development group made up of real estate interests. The entire land use process was tainted by illegality.”
Bill de Blasio has made a purposeful effort to let the city know that he will not be doing any gratuitous giveaways to the 1%; and Willets Point affords him the opportunity to make a real forceful demonstration of how different he will be:
So, Mayor de Blasio, send a signal to the city that there is a new sheriff in town and things are going to be done differently. We are not going to unceremoniously shunt aside hardworking small businesses to aggrandize the interests of the 1%. Say No to Willets West and set the tone for a different kind of politics.”
But Willets Point United has not been alone in this fight-and the NYC Parks Advocates and the Queens Civic Congress have been outraged by yet another aspect of the bad deal at Willets Point-the use and abuse of parkland. Bob Harris makes this point in the Times Ledger:
The Council is holding hearings on the proposed Willets Point West Mall, which would use the parking lot adjacent to Citi Field. This land was originally parkland, but was leased to the New York Mets’ owners to be used as a parking lot for baseball fans. Now the Mets owners want to build this large mall for private economic development. If this parkland was not needed by the baseball team, then it should have been repurposed and used by the community people who come here to play and relax.
Fighting this “giveaway” was the Queens Civic Congress, the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Conservancy, the Fairness Coalition of Queens, Save Flushing Meadows Corona Park, New York City Parks Advocates and other groups.”
Harris also points out that the mall will have a great deal of collateral damage for small business in Queens-something that the merchants of Jackson Heights and Corona are very much aware of: “The Queens Civic Council, an umbrella organization of about 100 civic associations in Queens, testified that if this mall is built, it will harm many small mom-and-pop stores in surrounding communities as well as struggling malls in other parts of Queens.”

So we urge the next mayor of the great City of New York to send the right signal to all of the beleaguered small businesses, parks advocates, and threatened property owners-and to the real estate barons who have been feasting in Mike Bloomberg’s New York. As another Brooklynite might put it: Do the Right Thing!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Fresh approach to Fresh Direct

The all but assumed elevation of Bill de Blasio has been given a distinct flavor for opponents of the corporate welfare deal orchestrated by Mike Bloomberg for his friends the Ackermans at Fresh Direct. De Blaio has no love for this kind of cronyism:
“Fresh Direct would never have gotten more than $100 million in government subsidies to stay in New York City if he ran City Hall, Bill de Blasio said Thursday. The Democratic mayoral nominee said his administration would remove subsidies from large companies such as Fresh Direct and “give them to smaller companies.”
But is it too late to stop this obscene give away? No one is sure-not even the opponents of the subsidy:
“It would be difficult — if not impossible — for de Blasio to rewind the clock on contracts signed and sealed by the Bloomberg Administration. But de Blasio could try to undo deals still in the pipeline after 2014 if he becomes mayor. Fresh Direct is receiving $89 million from the city and $38 million in other government funding to build a 500,000-square-foot warehouse in the South Bronx that is scheduled to open in 2016.”
The NY Daily News is skeptical:
“It’s highly unlikely that a Mayor de Blasio would be able to kill the deal. Contracts have been signed, and the company’s new facility, in the South Bronx, is slated to open in 2016. A Fresh Direct spokesman defended the deal, saying it would “create 1,000 new jobs in the nation’s poorest congressional district.” 
The job creation is pure smoke and mirrors because, as is the case with all of these boondoggles, there’s never any cost analysis done-and subsidizing a delivery business will take away revenue from neighborhood markets. There is also the fact that there is a state subsidy as well-and a Mayor de Blasio could negotiate this away if he wants to play a little hard ball with the governor.

But all of this, of course, raises questions about whither the Willets Point deal under a new mayor. Will de Blasio be comfortable giving away $200 million worth of property for a mall with low wage retail workers not protected by a living wage agreement? That’s an interesting questions that awaits an answer from the working class warrior headed to Gracie Mansion.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Will Bill de Blasio Really Fight NYC’s Permanent Government?

For those of you who got carried away with all of the hope and change rhetoric in 2008-only to be gob smacked by the continuation of the anti-terror policies of George Bush-please be on your toes for the expected mayoral reign of Bill de Blasio, another elected official who we believe understands Machiavelli’s dictum that it’s better to appear good than to be good. All of de Blasio’s populist campaigning may only be part of a bait and switch that, at least when it comes to real estate, will simply be a continuation of the three terms of Mike Bloomberg. As Crain’s reports:
“It wasn't just the Afro that put Bill de Blasio over the top. The impressive hair of his son, Dante, featured in the Democratic primary's most memorable campaign commercial, was certainly a factor. But campaign cash from deep-pocketed industries that have nurtured Mr. de Blasio's rise in politics over the years ultimately helped the public advocate emerge as the favorite to become mayor.
But it isn’t only the cash that should make us leery. Daniel Goldstein is someone who should know:
“Critics say that despite his anti-Bloomberg campaign theme, Mr. de Blasio represents continuity with the mayor's pro-development agenda. "He was the same as Bloomberg, at least while he was in the City Council," said Daniel Goldstein, a community activist who battled Atlantic Yards for a decade.
On that project, Mr. de Blasio helped hammer out a community-benefits agreement with Forest City Ratner calling for union construction jobs and 2,000 units of affordable housing, none of which has been built. Forest City Executive Vice President Robert Sanna later gathered more than $13,000 in donations 
That is why we have seen the fate of Willets Point as a harbinger of understanding who is the real de Blasio:
“True, the public advocate has spoken harshly about real estate during the campaign. In July, he said, "Last time I checked, it wasn't the real estate industry's town and we were just living in it." And at his victory party after the Sept. 10 primary, Mr. de Blasio decried "luxury condos" replacing "community hospitals." He has pledged to require developers to include affordable housing in their projects.
But he has raised almost $300,000 from the industry—about 9% of his total—and his history reflects a more conciliatory approach to it. He bucked local opposition in Brooklyn to support the Atlantic Yards project, a Toll Brothers luxury-apartment plan along the Gowanus Canal and high-end condos in Brooklyn Bridge Park.”

What has been wrong with Mike Bloomberg’s development policies has been the promotion of tax subsidized crony capitalism-is there anyone who sees the good policy sense in the tax subsidized move of Fresh Direct from Queens to the Bronx? As we pointed this July:
For Mike Bloomberg it never gets old to reward his friends and billionaire cronies-and the award of huge subsidies to FreshDirect is just the 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]
The same pattern is being repeated at Willets Point-with $200 million worth of property simply gifted to Related/Sterling Equities, in spite of the testimony given by Deputy Mayor Lieber to the contrary in 2008. So a kind of gauntlet is being laid down for de Blasio. The fate of the Iron Triangle’s corrupt new deal-absent the important affordable housing that the Public Advocate voted for in the council-hangs in the balance.

If de Blasio speaks out and lets the council know that he opposes this obscene corporate welfare deal, then we will be alerted to the possibility of real change from the last 12 years. On the contrary, if he remains silent, de Blasio will be loudly proclaiming the wisdom of the old French philosophy:

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Friday, September 13, 2013

A "Rare" opportunity

Crain’s has been erroneously reporting on the land use process in the run-up to the city council’s vote on the reconfigured Willets Point development. The online version of the magazine is telling its readers that there will be a first hearing on the city’s plan this Monday:
“The ambitious plan to put up a mega-mall next to Citi Field in Willets Point, Queens, will face its first hearing before the City Council on Monday. The session, under the auspices of the council's subcommittee on zoning and franchises which is chaired by Queens Councilman Mark Weprin, will be the first test of the council's willingness to approve the controversial project. Mr. Weprin has himself, publicly supported the project.” 
The reality is that the subcommittee had its first and only hearing September the 3rd. At this hearing, WPU was prohibited from presenting its Power Point critique of the city’s plan-and speakers were restricted from testifying for more than 2 minutes; while the developers were given all the time in the world to misinform the council members about the plan’s benefits. The fairness of restricting property owners who will be displaced and favoring the developers doing the eminent domain-inspired displacement, says all that needs to be said about the fairness of the process.

As WPU’s Jerry Antonacci has written in a letter to the Queens Chronicle, “The Fix is in.”
“The circumstances of the hearing were also newsworthy. With minimal advance notice, it was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on the morning after Labor Day, when many people were away. Less than half of the committee members were present for the Willets Point portion of the hearing. Subcommittee Chairman Mark Weprin only allowed each speaker two minutes, and prohibited Willets Point United from showing its PowerPoint presentation — even though people would have ceded their time for it. In our opinion, all this demonstrates the Council’s contempt for public comment about the proposed development.”
Crain’s goes on to cite unmanned development “experts” who see the plan as a boon to the city:

“Economic development experts and many elected officials insist that the development represents a rare opportunity chance to breathe new life into a run-down area long populated by auto repair shops. The mall will be built by a partnership between the Related Cos. and the owner of the Mets, Sterling Equities.”

C’mon, Crain’s, can’t we get any real reporting on this project? Like an even cursory discussion of the bait and switch that has left tax payers holding the bag for a $200 million gift to Related/Sterling Equities-a gift that should be labeled, “Bloomberg’s Folly.”

Can’t we get any reporting on the fact that the city engaged in an illegal lobbying scheme that was exposed by the NYS AG? And this throwaway line about housing needs to be more fully examined: “Neighborhood advocates have also complained about revelations in recent months that the 2,500 units of housing slated as part of the project won't be constructed until years after the mall opens.”

The fact is that the housing-and the disappearing living wage promise-was the linchpin of the deal that was crafted in 2008; and nowhere in that deal was there any mention of a mall being built on parkland. Keep in mind, that the original plan was premised on the city’s use of condemnation and the promises made in 2008 were in recognition that there needed to be some genuine public benefits in the plan to justify the taking of private property.

If, however, the city had told the council that the plan was for a 1.4 million square foot mall and a parking lot, this would have gone down in flames-even with Speaker Quinn shilling for the mayor. This is a bad deal for the city-and we haven’t even discussed the dishonest city treatment of the hundreds of immigrant businesses owners who are being dispersed into the netherworld by a callous Bloomberg administration that claims a concern for immigrants in theory, only to treat them with disdain in practice.

So, indeed, this is a rare opportunity-but one where the city council gets a chance to tell the Bloomberg administration that we are not going to be played like suckers. We’re not going to allow you to use the tax payers’ dime to gift property-bogarted from little guys-to some of you undeserving rich friends.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

What Should a Mayor de Blasio do on Willets Point?

It is looking more and more apparent that Bill de Blasio will be NYC’s next mayor-although we should always be aware of the potential for the chaos of events to intercede. That being said, what should de Blasio do about the development of Willets Point? We have some very good suggestions.

In the first place, the development at Willets Point was intended to be one of Mayor Bloomberg’s signature legacy projects-the “first green neighborhood,” and all that palaver. Instead, owing to the good work of the team assembled by WPU, the original mega-deal was derailed and the current Rosemary’s Baby was given birth. Instead of affordable housing, a living wage and traffic relieving ramps, we have been give the city’s largest retail mall built on parkland. The property taken under the threat of eminent domain is now earmarked for a parking lot!

Put simply, Public Advocate de Blasio, this is not your deal. In fact, when you voted to approve the original deal in 2008 you were played by the Bloomberg administration. Since it isn’t your deal-and the bastardized deal that has replaced the original involves turning over $200 million worth of city owned property to friends of the mayor-you should let the city council know that a mayor de Blasio doesn’t approve of this kind of bait and switch corporate welfare. You should publicly argue that a new council leadership and a new mayor should be given the opportunity to craft a better deal for the city-one that better respects parkland and the rights of property owners and tenant businesses.

This was demonstrate real leadership-especially because we know that it is really tempting to allow the old guard to push this through so you can avoid the entanglements that the reconfigured deal certainly creates. But this would be, in our view, the coward’s way out-and you have demonstrated courage and a real energy for changing the way we do business in NYC.

Shelving a deal that was promoted by an illegal lobbying scheme-and fraudulent environmental studies- and that ends up with a mall replacing 2,000 units of affordable housing, should be an easy call for a change administration. The current Willets West proposal is a bad deal for the citizens of Queens and the tax payers of the entire city. If we are going to use the condemnation process, then the end result should be something that significantly advances the public interest-as this land give away certainly does not.

So, Mayor de Blasio, send a signal to the city that there is a new sheriff in town and things are going to be done different. We are not going to unceremoniously shunt aside hard working small businesses to aggrandize the interests of the 1%. Say No to Willets West and set the tone for a different kind of politics.

Bidding Adieu to Christine Quinn

As Malcolm said in Macbeth, so we can say about the departing Speaker Quinn: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.” Her departure is most welcome for those of us who have had the distinct displeasure to watch as she has devolved form a somewhat principled community activist into a blatant shill for the real estate industry-from the Bronx Terminal Market to Willets Point, she has never taken a stand for either small businesses or communities under siege from over-development.

Even when Quinn did take a stand in her career-joining opponents of Costco in Hell’s Kitchen and those fighting the Kingsbridge Armory development in the Bronx-she did so by being dragged, almost kicking and screaming, into the ranks of the opposition; compelled to do so be sheer political expediency. Her temperament and intellect were ill suited to any chief executive role, and the more the electorate got to know more about her, the greater the distaste she evinced.

Of course, her signature betrayal of the voters on term limits earned her the sobriquet, Quinnberg-and her actions through eight years simply enforced the perception that she was Bloomberg’s mini-me. It is fitting that the two of them leave office in tandem.

When it comes to the upcoming decision on Willets Point, no one should doubt that she is looking to bequeath one last gift to her patrons at Related-but that doesn’t mean that the other council members are obliged any more to follow her perverted priorities and ratify a deal that is a spit in the face of city council oversight. It is a moment when the council can recapture its independence from a mayor and a speaker that the voters have vehemently rejected. Let’s see if they are up to the task.

A Really Bad Bid

The Daily News is reporting that CM Ferreras is looking to create (expand) a Business Improvement District in Jackson Heights/Corona-and the store owners, as they should be, are not enthralled with the idea:
An ambitious proposal to create one of the city’s largest business improvement districts in mostly immigrant Jackson Heights and Corona would hasten gentrification and spoil the area’s Mom and Pop character, business owners charge.
The 82nd St. Partnership currently encompasses eight blocks and 125 businesses — but the proposed Jackson Heights Corona BID would cover Roosevelt Ave. from 82nd St. to 114th St. and include roughly 1,000 businesses, said Partrship executive director Seth Taylor.”
These BIDs were the brainchild of former Bronx assemblyman John Dearie, and they were designed to augment the declining city services that were so emblematic of the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. What they do, however, is to tax the store owners for those services that the city itself should be supplying-a double taxation at a time when small stores are under siege. In addition, the merchants are afraid that the effort will eventually lead to their displacement through gentrification:
That potential expansion has some immigrant merchants concerned they will be priced out of the neighborhood and the area will lose its trademark character.
“They are going to standardize Roosevelt Ave.,” crowed Freddy Castiblanco, owner of Terraza 7, a bar and jazz club. “They want to clean Roosevelt Ave. of that diversity.”Castiblanco and other local Hispanic entrepreneurs formed the Roosevelt Avenue Community Alliance to block the BID plan.”
But this all goes back to the issue of rising rents and the city’s record high levels of store closings and bankruptcies:
The group rallied Sunday against the sweeping overhaul — which would require each shop owner to pay a fee for sanitation, security and other services once provided exclusively by the city with regular tax money. “The commercial rents are extremely high,” said Ruben Pena, a liquor store owner and community activist. “The community is going to get hurt. They are fighting to make ends meet.”
CM Ferreras is pushing this deal, but should be careful of alienating those store owners who look to their Hispanic leadership to protect their interests. Her “New Deal” for the area could, like urban renewal, help real estate interests while hurting the store owners who truly represent the immigrant American Dream:
The BID expansion is a component of Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras’ “New Deal” for Roosevelt Ave., which focused on cleaning up the corridor, which cuts through several Queens neighborhoods. Ferreras cites safety issues, poor lighting and cleanliness as the top complaints among residents.
“The current problems on Roosevelt Ave. hurt everyone,” Ferreras said in a statement. “This is why I believe a business improvement district is a solution to this problem.”
The problems may be real, but the solution offered may be worse than the disease if it leads to the loss of these immigrant businesses. We have just concluded an election where Speaker Quinn got thrashed because she forgot her roots. Ferreras should view that as a cautionary tale.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Willets Point and Living up to the Terms of the Deal

As we have been pointing out, the terms of the original agreement concerning the fate of Willets Point have been shredded by an administration whose word has no weight. One of the key provisions that has been discarded concerns the issue of living wage-an issue that CM Diana Reyna felt was crucial in the casting of her vote in favor of the project.

WPU has now written to Reyna to request that she vote against the newly configured development in order to signal that she won’t be played by dishonest negotiators from the Bloomberg administration. And we will be asking her-along with Public Advocate (and likely next mayor) Bill de Blasio-to stake out a firm position opposing the bait and switch at Willets Point. As we wrote to Reyna:
“When the proposed Willets Point development was first evaluated by the City Council during 2008, labor unions promoted the fact that they had negotiated "historic agreements" with the City administration, specifically to include a living wage provision in the RFP pertaining to the Willets Point development. The living wage provision would affect retail workers at the future development, and is distinct from and in addition to the prevailing wage provision that had also been negotiated, which pertains to construction and other workers.”
And we went on to point out:
“You then led the questioning of a panel of union officials concerning the "historic" project labor agreement. The key hearing excerpts below culminate in the unions guaranteeing you and other Council members that the agreed labor standards – including the required living wage provision – will be "included in the Request for Proposals" and "contractually binding". Moreover, the unions commit to providing a copy of the project labor agreement to the Council for the record…”
On the day of the hearing the president of the Central Labor Council stood on the steps of City Hall with other labor leaders and announced this “historic” agreement:

"Organized labor negotiated several months ago with the City of New York an agreement regarding this project, where prevailing wages were guaranteed in the RFP, living wages are guaranteed, there's issues in there for retail …" – Gary La Barbera, President, New York Central Labor Council

"What is significant about the way that Willets Point will be developed is the assurance that broad labor standards will be met by the chosen developer and contractors. It won't just be thousands of jobs; it will mean thousands of construction and permanent jobs that pay prevailing wages and living wages." –
Stuart Applebaum, President, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

"We are proud to be here today with our brothers and sisters from organized labor. And we're not just proud because we've negotiated an agreement on Willets that provides prevailing wage and living wage jobs. We're proud to be here because the Willets Point project should be a model for economic development going forward." – Kevin Doyle, Executive Vice President, Local 32BJ. “
What this means is that the “historic” agreement is, well, history-or rather relegated to the dustbin of history as just another devious example of how the current mayor is not a man of his word. As we wrote to Reyna-with a copy to de Blasio as well):
“Despite all of the above-quoted clear statements and testimony to the Council concerning the agreed living wage provision, in 2011 NYCEDC issued a Request for Proposals pertaining to Phase One of the proposed Willets Point development that completely omitted the required living wage provision. Consequently, developer firms responding to the RFP were never required to explain how their proposed tenanting plans would maximize the number of jobs that meet living wage criteria. Now we see the final result: The term "living wage" is nowhere to be found within the project contract dated August 1, 2012 between NYCEDC and the selected developers.”
Reyna is not alone in this-the entire city council was played and this indicates once again why negotiated “deals”-just like the phony community benefits agreements-need to be backed by legal sanctions if they are to have any meaning. But the city council-along with the likely new mayor who was also duped when he voted for the deal in 2008 as a member of the council-has been given a second chance.

The disappearance of living wage is only one reason why the deal should be defeated and left to the new administration to reconfigure it after the New Year. No affordable housing-another failed promise-but also illegal lobbying and crony capitalism and corporate welfare. Of all of the development deals put forward by the Bloomberg administration in 12 years this is by far the most dishonest-and the worst for the citizens of the city.

We urge CM Reyna and her colleagues to send a message to the mayor: Your time is up and we will no longer rubber stamp the dishonestly bad deals you have crafted to benefit your rich friends.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

NY League of Conservation Voters: It’s worse than what we said

We made a mistake in our original post - and the mistake actually exacerbates our critique of Marcia Bysytryn and LCV. In our original criticism below, we said that, “So, no one should be surprised that two of our city’s leading environmental groups - organizations who were duped into supporting the original Willets Point plan, have nothing to say about the new iteration - a mall built on parkland! Hard to believe this kind of dollars induced lockjaw.”

Not true, as it turns out because it now seems true that when you buy the League, you own it lock, stock, and barrel. We have been told that the League actually testified in favor of the mall and the parking lot to be built on parkland. But even if it didn’t, League president Marcia Bystryn penned an effusive, and misleading, Op-ed in support of the development in the spring:
The time has come to transform Willets Point from a toxic wasteland into an environmentally conscious, 21st century community.
In an area that is clamoring for open space and recreational opportunities, the cleanup and redevelopment of Willets Point means that the waterfront on Flushing Creek and Flushing Bay will finally become safe and accessible to the community.”
Bystryn said this by way of a critique of housing advocates who denied that there was widespread contamination-apparently avoiding their concerns that the promise of affordable housing has been shelved for, chorus please, a huge mall and a parking lot. There is no other certainty here other than that the Mets and partners will receive a windfall courtesy of the tax payers.

As for the contamination, shouldn’t we rely on science rather than the developer driven hyperbole that is being passed off as such? After all, we are giving Related/Sterling Equities upwards of $400 million without really knowing the levels of contamination at the Iron Triangle. If those levels are lower than asserted by EDC, than the idea of handing over property for nothing loses a bit of luster, doesn’t it?

Bystryn goes to great mendacious lengths in her shilling on behalf of her patron-and no one should take a single word she says seriously until she returns every single dime that the mayor has given her organization.  And she should publicly state how much she has been given by her generous benefactor. This is what is known in the bribery business as a quid pro quo.

What is truly disgusting, however, is her use of mayoral talking points to eviscerate any pretense that her organization has to speak on behalf of the environment. Her are the Orwellian comments:
This is also a great opportunity to redesign Willets Point in a smarter and more holistic manner. Willets Point is close to the No. 7 train, so people can leave their cars at home more often. And it’s near major highways, meaning that people can get in and out of the neighborhood quickly without further straining traffic in downtown Flushing. The development will also create approximately 12,000 construction jobs and 7,100 permanent jobs, as well as lead to a $3 billion private investment.”

Is Bystryn really serious? Does she not know that the 7 Line is already at overcrowding and that the mall-sans the Van Wyck ramps-will crush the daily commute with tens of thousands of car and truck trips a week? This will definitely not mean that, “people can get in and out of the neighborhood quickly without further straining traffic in downtown Flushing.”

Getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments apparently makes the idea of any real environmental due diligence a silly and quaint notion. The reality here is that the “holistic” planning that the League applauds is being done at the expense of actual property owners who don’t want the city to steal their land from under them. That it also is being done at the expense of the environment is something that a truly independent environmental organization would have little trouble recognizing.

Where are the League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Fund?

Five years ago, the League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Fund came out swinging on behalf of the city’s mega-plan to transform Willets Point into the New York’s “first green neighborhood.” In fact, Andrew Darrell, VP, Regional Director, Environmental Defense Fund and Marcia Bystryn, Executive Director, New York League of Conservation Voters both signed on to a letter of support for the Willets Point project that was circulated by "non-lobbyist" Claire Shulman and her bogus grass roots LDC. In part, the letter claimed, "This project offers perhaps the greatest return: the rehabilitation of a 60-acre brownfield which has been abused for decades into a sustainable 21st century LEED community."

As far as the NYLCV is concerned it is, as the Marxists say, no accident. In May 2010, the mayor was the League's keynote speaker-a reward for the group's supine response to the assault of the Bloomberg economic development team on the city's air quality-and we could find no public comment from League director Marcia Bystryn about the alarming DOH air quality study from the previous year.  

But the League has been played by Bloomberg for awhile, and it would be interesting for the press to track the money trail from the mayor's sources. This is still a, "not for nothing," city-and there are enough things that the Bloombergistas have done for an independent environmental group to criticize.

As for EDF, who was more outspoken than this group about the mayor’s congestion pricing tax? All of a sudden the group had a $500,000 budget to lobby and do ads for the plan. If anyone else but the mayor had done this, a criminal investigation would have been launched. Instead, the DAs and the US Attorneys cringe with fright when it comes to tackling the really rich and powerful.

So, no one should be surprised that two of our city’s leading environmental groups-organizations who were duped into supporting the original Willets Point plan, have nothing to say about the new iteration-a mall built on parkland! Hard to believe this kind of dollars induced lockjaw.

In response, we have Henry Euler’s testimony at last week’s city council hearing-where the august body spent roughly three minutes on the parks issue. Euler is vice president of the  Auburndale Improvement Association, a Queens civic with over 600 families. As Euler told the council:
Today you are considering the proposal dealing with the 1.4 million square foot mall to be constructed on the parking lot to the west of Citi Field.  This land is parkland and should be off limits to any private development. Parkland is sacrosanct.  It belongs to the people, not private developers. With the rate of intense development in Queens, we need all of the green space we can spare.
The asphalt on the unused part of the parking lot to the west of Citi Field should be removed and trees and other vegetation should be planted on the site in order to make it look more like a park once again.  There is no shortage of people living in close proximity to the park, or even further away, who could use that refurbished parkland.
Have you seen how many people use Flushing Meadows Corona Park?  It is staggering.  How could anyone think of usurping land for private gain when people living in overcrowded neighborhoods look to the park as their backyard and a source of relaxation, exercise and tranquility?  This park should be a New York City landmark, just as Central Park is in Manhattan and Prospect Park is in Brooklyn.  Queens is tired of being ignored!”
This should inspire public outrage and the leading mayoral candidates should be on this like the proverbial white on rice. Instead we get silence - aided and abetted by the kept menagerie of subsidized environmental groups - and we can add the Sierra Club that received a huge influx of funds from the mayor for its anti-coal campaign. 

We’ll give Euler the last word-although we believe that the real last words will be heard in court:

There are so many questions to consider in this case, and so many concerns.  We stand with the coalition known as Save Flushing Meadows Corona Park and our neighbors in western Flushing and Corona.  No mall in this location!  Just preserve the parkland and find additional funds to sustain and maintain our precious park. Thank you!”

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Park and Deride: City Council Confronted on Parkland Issue

One of the more powerful moments in last Tuesday’s hearing - no, it didn’t come from CM Ferreras’s desultory and confused questions designed to cover up her intentions to throw all of the opponents under the EDC bus - came when Geoffrey Croft testified about the parkland issue. His testimony seemed to capture the attention of Chairman Comrie-and underscores the importance of the letter WPU has sent to Council legal eagle Elizabeth Fine asking that she render a legal opinion on the assertion by Corporation Counsel that a Robert Moses-inspired 1961 memorandum obviates the need for the land in question to go through the alienation process. Here is Croft’s testimony:

Good Afternoon,

My name is Geoffrey Croft, president and founder of NYC Park Advocates.

It is truly a sad day when we are talking about a plan that seizes 48 acres of public parkland in Flushing Meadow-Corona Park to allow one of the country's largest developers to build the largest mall New York City. 

Sounds inconceivable right?  Just when you thought this administration couldn't get any lower here we are today. 

The 48 acres of public parkland was NEVER part of the original plan in anyway. In any way and it certainly was never approved by the City Council.  This is nothing but an end run around the law and City Council will be complicit when you/if you rubber stamp its approval.   

If the 48 acres of public park land they are attempting to seize for the project are no longer needed for parking than it should revert back to its original use. This is what our elected officials should be pushing for instead allowing our public spaces to be given away to politically connected developers. 

The City Council has a legal obligation to protect public parkland and that certainly includes not giving it away to private developers.   There are a number of legal issues surrounding the attempted disposition of this public land.  Last week we were signatures on a letter, along with Willets Point United, which was sent to City Council lawyers Elizabeth Fine and Gary Altman requesting a legal opinion from the Council on these issues, a copy of which I have provided today.  

The City Council has a legal obligation to do its due diligence on this important issue before any decisions are made. It's telling that less than three minutes have been spent talking about the parkland during this hearing.  

Let's be very clear:  The 1961 statute that the city and the applicants are so desperately trying to rely on in order to justify being allowed to develop the public parkland for non-park purposes does not permit a shopping mall, much less a 1.4 million square foot mall.    

Administrative Code 18-118 explicitly states that any monies gained from a temporary lease on the property must go back into the property. Back Into The Property not line the pockets of Related or Sterling Equity. 

To quote the law directly, the revenue must aid "in the financing of the construction and operation of such stadium, grounds, parking areas and facilities, and any additions, alterations or improvements thereto, or to the equipment thereof." 

Clearly this is not the case unless the applicant is representing that this is being done to off-set unfortunate investments made by the Wilpons.  Is that the plan?

Clearly the intention of the law was not to allow any project to make a permanent claim on the parkland or its facilities, because the revenue was supposed to fund the property.

The law simply does not authorize the Willets West project. It does not enable use of the parking lot or authorize retail stores - and certainly something that is primarily a shopping mall.

The bill does say trade and commerce, but that obviously refers to conventions, not stores. Obviously a shopping mall was never intended as the bill language states.

The park land we are talking about here today for this irresponsible project was never alienated as required under state law nor are they planning to nor are they planning to replace it if approved. 

By law PARKS ARE NOT allowed to be used for such non-park purposes. In fact State law -which our elected officials have taken an oath to uphold - prohibit such commercial development.

If ever there was a poster child for non-park purposes-building the city's largest mall would be it. 

This is public park land and it does NOT belong to Mayor Bloomberg or to Seth Pinsky, the Related Companies or the Wilpons - it belongs to the people of the city of New York. 

The proposed giveaway of public park is being done simply to sweeten the deal for Related so they have a guaranteed revenue stream "up front" in order to help them off-set their investments in building the rest of the Willets Point.  

This is disgraceful.   This plan is about greed pure and simple. It is a nightmare for the residents of Queens in so many ways and for the city's taxpayers at large who are greatly subsidizing this project. 

The corporate welfare must end. 

Thank you

A mall to spur housing?

The Times Ledger - (and doesn’t Joe Anuta do a good reporting job on Willets Point?) - has a good story on Tuesday’s City Council hearing; and the report exposes the inanity of the developer’s rationale for the development. Here’s the description of the reason why the mall is precursor to all of the things originally promised for Willets Point:
The partnership contends this sequencing is essential to ensure the entire vision can be realized. They have repeatedly said the only way to develop Willets Point according to the 2008 plan was to create an economic engine to drive the project, namely the 1.4 million square foot retail and entertainment complex proposed for the west of Citi Field.
“We believe strongly that the project makes economic sense,” said Jesse Masyr, land-use counsel to the partnership.”
Now we have always admired Masyr’s ability to spin a yarn, but let’s deconstruct this particularly tall tale. In order to afford to build housing, there is a need to build the largest mall in NYC so as to create a destination that makes the housing affordable-and not affordable in the way the term is now understood:
Basically, the joint venture needs to have the mall and a proposed retail strip along 126th Street up and running to not only offset other costs of the project, but to create a destination to make the housing component more attractive.”
Crazy, no? Everyone wants to live in the neighborhood immediately contiguous to the city’s largest retail center? Even if you believe the traffic reports from consultants who have demonstrated a very thin regard for professional accuracy, this rationale is tough to accept. Can you imagine trying to and from work with tens of thousands of daily and weekly car and truck trips clogging the streets and access roads to you home?
WPU’s Jerry Antonacci has more credibility when he points out the likely scenario here:
But opponents have long contended that the city and developers only want the mall and do not want to build the housing, which includes 875 affordable units. The partnership would be required to pay a $35 million penalty for not building the housing, contracts show, but the city is also not contractually obligated to build the ramps. If the ramps never get built, then the joint venture is off the hook.
By obtaining this current permit, they will have made the parking lot legal, which would not have been permissible under the special zoning written in 2008. According to Iron Triangle property owners, this is all part of the plan.
“Mark my words: No housing is ever going to be built,” said Jerry Antonacci, a member of opposition group Willets Point United, who spoke in an informational video about the project and testified at City Hall Tuesday.”
All of which makes this the Wimpy deal we have described it as-with the developer’s gladly paying Tuesday (for housing years from now), for a mall (the Wimpy hamburger) they get today. And those two thousand units of affordable housing, what happened to them?

“But opponents have long contended that the city and developers only want the mall and do not want to build the housing, which includes 875 affordable units.” So not only do the developers get the land for free-in spite of the fact that the city promised the city council in 2008 that it would be reimbursed by the developer eventually selected-but they also get to put off the linchpin of the original approval to years from now when many of us will n longer be around.

The fact remains-and should be indisputable-an administration that has already lied to get this plan approved in 2008, and won’t be around in the middle of the next decade to be held accountable, should not be believed about any of the assertions it has made concerning the eventual end game at Willets Point. 

Land Use Policy: Whither Bill de Blasio?

We have been trying to ascertain just where Bill de Blasio actually stands on land use policy questions, and the WSJ does a good job at laying out some of the issues:
Bill de Blasio has risen to the top of the polls assailing the Bloomberg administration, but if elected he could pursue even more aggressive policies than his predecessor on a crucial issue: creating densely packed new residential towers through land-use decisions.
Mr. de Blasio, the city's public advocate, would push for mandatory affordable housing and fewer tax breaks for developers. But he wouldn't differ from Mr. Bloomberg on a fundamental premise that building significant amounts of new housing is a top way to spur economic growth and control housing costs.
How to read these tea leaves? Well, at first blush, the affordable housing and fewer tax breaks aspects of his policy makes some sense to us-but de Blasio must be aware of the pitfalls of this given the manner in which the Atlantic Yards promises have gone unmet, and the fact that he based his support of AY on the housing pledge.

That brings us, of course, to Willets Point, where the developers and EDC have baited and switched on the crucial pledge to build affordable housing-with an original 2,00 unit promise now reduced to 825 units, assuming that it ever gets built at all (A reasonable assumption in this dodgy deal.)
De Blasio has also said the following:
Mr. de Blasio said Friday he would differ from Mr. Bloomberg in taking "a more rigorous approach that focuses on community benefits like creating infrastructure like affordable housing, like local jobs, hiring for local residents. And I think we just need to do a lot better job at driving a hard bargain with the real-estate industry."
EDC really drove a hard bargain with Related/Sterling over at the Iron Triangle. Didn’t they? Must have been tough negotiating with these hard bargain drivers if all you got out of the transfer of $200 million worth of property is a zero cash payment, a mall, and affordable housing to be built later-much later, and with an out clause that says for a paltry $35 million the developers can buy their way out of any housing.
Given the incredibly flim-flam nature of the Willets Point deal-a deal that bears no resemblance to the one that de Blasio signed off on in 2008-isn’t it the right time for the putative next mayor to weigh-in on this travesty? It offers de Blasio a great opportunity to differentiate his policies from those of Mike Bloomberg.
But the WSJ reports that de Blasio’s position on land use means that he is “pro-development.” This is an interesting take, and omits almost every possible nuance-since how development is done lies at the heart of the concept:
Mr. de Blasio's pro-development policies have helped allay fears in the real-estate industry that perhaps the most liberal Democrat in the race would, as mayor, be a fearsome opponent on big developments.”
There is, however, one area that is a major cause for concern-and that is e Blasio’s view that the ULURP process needs to be truncated:
In a July economic policy speech, Mr. de Blasio said promoting significant new development while demanding high-paying jobs and affordable housing would create a more equal city, even if it alienates community groups—often pejoratively dubbed NIMBYs.
"We can't afford a process rife with delays, subject to knee-jerk NIMBYism and tangled in bureaucracy," Mr. de Blasio said.
Mr. de Blasio has said he would shorten the timeline for debate on developments before they enter the formal approval process and promote more neighborhood-wide rezonings, as opposed to forcing developers to seek approval for large new projects individually.
Mr. de Blasio, along with others, also supports so-called mandatory inclusionary zoning, requiring affordable units when areas are rezoned.”
This would be a serious mistake since it is precisely the period before a pproject is certified that is crucial to the information gathering and dissemination about a development. What de Blasio is suggesting, is the further  centralization of land use policy and the weakening of any potential opposition-since opponents rely on the period before certification to gain more knowledge about a project and organize against it if deemed inimical to a community’s interest.

If he means this, then de Blasio appears ready to adopt the mantle of corporate liberalism-and a repetition of cronyism seems like a likely scenario under his ULURP formulation. More power would accrue to the mayor and the community-derided as NIMBYists-would be skunked . To a great extent, then, the WSJ is right to see this as “pro-development,” but it is a development of the worst kind and offers little difference with the disastrous nature of the Bloomberg approach.

Process is important, and the efforts by Comptroller Liu to advocate reform of the ULURP process are much more democratic and would prevent the abuse of mayoral power that the de Blasio approach portends-and this includes any concept of communitybenefits as well.

What we are left with, then, is a great deal of trepidation when it comes to the prospects of a Mayor de Blasio. We could have these fears greatly allayed if he would stand up and be fore square opposed to the Willets West deal. That would indicate that he would be a different kind of mayor, one that would be more attuned to the legitimate concerns of neighborhoods and small businesses.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Quinn, Willets Point and living wage

Quinn, Willets Point, and Living Wage
A desperate Christine Quinn is staggering around in search of a compelling idea. The latest involves the living wage:
“In a sign that the New York City mayoral primary has lurched to the left, during Tuesday evening's mayoral debate Council Speaker Christine Quinn said that as mayor she would apply a living-wage requirement at all future city-subsidized projects.  
It was a startling revelation, given that Ms. Quinn herself was the main impediment to such a sweeping living-wage law during her tenure as City Council speaker. She eventually negotiated a compromise bill that significantly narrowed the legislation, which had been championed by a retail-workers union that later endorsed her.”
Quinn went on to say:
"I helped lead the effort that got living wage and prevailing wage passed into law in this city and when I'm mayor I will expand living wage requirements to every dollar we spend in our Economic Development Corp...I think that's why I've been endorsed by the RWDSU union, the lead union behind living wage." 
"Let me be clear, when I'm mayor I will expand living wage to include all of EDC," she later added.”
So, does that mean that the deal she is going to negotiate with the city on Willets Point will include a living wage component that is currently absent after it was sh*tcanned by EDC? And what about the retail workers that the RWDSU were supposed to advocate for?
“It was not clear if Ms. Quinn would also require tenants at subsidized projects to pay a living wage; currently tenants are exempted, as Ms. Quinn insisted during negotiations on the bill. So while the developer of a project would have to pay its employees on the site the wage required by the law, a retailer renting space there would not. The retail-workers union nonetheless supported the compromise, which was seen by some as a foot in the door for the living-wage movement.”

We assume that much will depend whether or not the flailing speaker manages to sneak into a run-off. We think that a living wage for retail workers is a great idea-and a likely deal killer for the mayor. Wonder what Bill de Blasio has to say about this?

Melinda Katz to Play Kermit in New Movie

When it comes to politics satire has a rich vein of material to mine. Take Melinda Katz, a candidate for Queens Borough President who is burnishing her green credentials-and getting the support of the always honest and above board League of Conservation Voters:
“Queens borough president candidate Melinda Katz will announce her “Plan for a Green Queens” today, hoping to leverage the limited powers of the BP’s office to help improve environmental quality in Queens.

Katz’s plan, which helped win her the support of the New York City League of Conservation Voters, which will endorse her today, includes weatherizing government buildings with energy-efficient upgrades and using the borough president’s role in the uniform land use review process to increase park space. Katz also wants to expand Queens’ green footprint by encouraging recycling across the borough, as well as helping attract the green tech industry to create jobs.”

But, it ain’t easy being green-as old friend Kermit the Frog found out. Someone who was really interested in showing Queens residents that they were truly concerned with the environment would have by now-as her opponent Peter Vallone has-come out against the Willets Point development. After all, a huge traffic generating mall-and a parking lot-is a far cry from the “next green neighborhood” that the mayor ballyhooed five years ago. Yeah, the project that gained the support of the LCV-after the check cleared, we think.

Also, Katz has described herself as a libertarian. How could a self-described libertarian support the wholesale condemnation of property and its transfer to well-connected developers? And how could someone who wants to preserve and expand parkland not condemn the failure of the city to pursue alienation of the land (zoned for parks) where the Wilpons want to build their mall?

The reality is that Katz has the support of Joe Crowley and that’s green enough for her.

Willets Point as the “new” 42nd Street: EDC Village Has a New Idiot

The mayor keeps finding these guys, and we are hoping that whoever takes his place will start looking for people to head economic development who don’t appear that they just emerged from an extended stay at Creedmoor. The latest genius is Kyle Kimball, EDC’s new leader, who managed to mangle history by the following distortion of the historical record:
The revitalization of Willets Point — the industrial Queens neighborhood that is set to undergo an extensive renovation — could help transform the neighborhood like the project that helped reclaim 42nd Street two decades ago, the president of the Economic Development Corporation said Tuesday.
While the finished neighborhood will be “very different” from Times Square, the redevelopment is being approached the same way, Kyle Kimball, the EDC president said while speaking at a public hearing at City Hall.”
Unfortunately for the hapless Mr. Kimball, what happened at Times Square bears no relationship to what the city is planning to do to Willets Point-and we were there at the time, but don’t take our word, listen to what William Stern has to say. Who’s he? Well, only the guy who was in charge of the original eminent domain-centered plan for 42nd Street:
By popular lore, the revival of Times Square ranks among the most celebrated achievements of New York City in recent years.  In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, Times Square was sleazy, crime-ridden and so physically and economically blighted it represented a threat to public safety—but today it is nearly crime free.  It is filled with tourists, and world-class corporations dwell and prosper within its borders.  It is celebrated as a triumph of “urban planning,” “public-private partnership,” the wise use of the power of eminent domain, an example of the intelligent intervention of government into private real estate markets.
All of it is a myth.” 
Just like what is being planned for Willets Point-the Myth of Mike. But continue to listen to Stern set the record straight:
In 1983, when I went to work for Governor Mario Cuomo as chairman and chief executive of New York State’s Urban Development Corporation (UDC), I was convinced I knew how government planning could transform the Times Square I saw at that time to what it is today.  The truth is, however, almost none of the grandiose plans my colleagues and I created and aggressively spearheaded ever came to fruition.  Our extravagant plans actually retarded development.  The changes in Times Square occurred despitegovernment, not because of it.  Times Square succeeded for reasons that had little to do with our building and condemnation schemes and everything to do with government policy that allowed the market to do its work, the way development occurs every day nationwide.  By lowering taxes, enforcing the law, and getting out of the way instead of serving as real estate broker, the government incentivized investment and construction and encouraged the rebirth of Times Square to what it is today.
So, let’s not suffer from delusions being proffered by sleazy government bureaucrats with one eye and a leg out the door into the real estate industry-as did the late unlamented Seth Pinsky did just this year. As the Observer reported:
“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.”
But what the Observer article underscores is just how much the EDC has become a cat’s paw for 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…”
What Kimball is trying to do is pull the wool over the public’s eyes so the sheer level of unethical and criminal behavior by his quasi-public agency will remain unobserved. The fact tha EDC was forced by the NYS AG to completely restructure its corporate structure because of illegal lobbying was somehow unmentioned in his testimony-and no council member had the integrity to hold EDC to account for this.
Here’s what the state’s Urban Development Corporation under Stern had planned for the “deuce:”
Under my watch, the UDC gained approval to put in place one of the largest urban renewal projects nationwide, in the heart of midtown Manhattan no less.  Mayor Koch—who assumed office on the tail of a traumatic fiscal crisis—and Governor Cuomo enthusiastically supported it.  Although fierce, bitter rivals, both “saw political opportunity in the ragged morality of the notorious boulevard.  Each sensed the chance to create a higher national profile for himself as the moral savior of ‘the Deuce.’” 
And so the tumultuous collaboration began.
The 42nd Street Development Project would have made the emperors of Rome green with envy.  Its biggest component was to be Times Square Center:  four giant office towers, containing 4.1 million square feet of floor space in all, looming over Times Square’s southern border.  Offered a $240 million tax abatement, relatively unknown George Klein’s Park Tower Realty would develop the site.  
Upon being chosen, Klein had just completed only his third major building in New York City, raising many eyebrows as to why this newcomer would get this potentially (and enormously!) lucrative nod.”
Could it have been a little political insider trading? Heaven forbid-after all, Related and Sterling Equities got the Willets bid fair and square. Right? This couldn’t be part of a time honored NYC tradition of bid rigging?
Stern goes on the point out his growing disillusionment with the sleazy nature of the wielding of government condemnation power-and the self interested role of the NY Times (go figure!):
It was then that I began to see the negative implications of government-directed projects like this—the influence peddling, cronyism and corruption, especially when eminent domain is involved.  Using eminent domain for private development gives the private sector the opportunity to wield public power—which is more or less for sale—in order to benefit privately.  One of the more prominent yet untold players was The New York Times, a private company that was deeply involved in this public project.  As the newspaper of record in New York, they would naturally cover the project closely—but their involvement transcended journalistic scrutiny.”
What surprised me most was that nobody at the Times seemed to care that they were compromising their journalistic integrity by assuming the dual roles of political reporting and pure politicking when it came to 42nd Street.  Yes, the Square was named after the paper and the Times was the largest property owner in the project area, so it is understandable they were very interested in the government’s decisions.  Yet being interested and covering the story closely is different than assuming a decision-making role and assigning an editorial page executive to tell government officials what to do.”
Role of Eminent Domain

Here we get to the heart of Kimball’s misrepresentation. Yes, eminent domain was used-and abused-at 42nd Street, but it played no role in the revitalization:
In fact, about the only thing the plan accomplished was something it never needed to do in the first place—use eminent domain to take the property of private parties and give it to other private parties for the latter’s use.  From 1984 on, drawing on the UDC’s special condemnation powers, the redevelopment project began taking businesses in a purported attempt to cure “economic blight.”  
This condemnation binge kicked out businesses of all types and sizes.  To implement the project, the plan called for the demolition of 20 buildings and the displacement of 400 existing businesses, only a little more than 40 of which were adult bookstores or peep shows. In other words, although the sex businesses represented an economic drag on the area, our goal was to remove not only these establishments but all businesses that did not fit into the government’s master plan.”
While eminent domain may have made it easier two decades later to build (since the property was already condemned), the city lost far more than what it could ever gain from the lands’ new uses.  It destroyed legitimate local businesses that create the patchwork of unique attractions that bring tourists from across the country to any major city.  It delayed any resurgence of Times Square, as property owners and government officials remained in limbo and tax dollars were lost.  Our efforts ignored the root causes of the problems in Times Square, blinding us to any true cures and setting a dangerous precedent for future projects in New York City.  Property owners who were anticipating massive buy-outs as a result of the West Side’s upzoning were shocked when they learned this simply ushered in a plan that effectively wiped them out, with “fair” market value in place of negotiation.  
This unfair, unjust and unconstitutional treatment led to ten years of legal challenges.  What’s worse, none of the developers we condemned property for ever realized our collective vision.”
What a criminal farce. But here is Stern’s money quote about how the use of eminent domain invites corruption-and his words were prescient given the sleaziness surrounding the Willets Point development:
When government is given the power to take property from one private owner and give it to another, an inevitable and very ugly political process begins.  Instead of competing in a marketplace where outcomes are determined by who has the best innovative ideas, strong financing, creative marketing and capable management, developers compete for political influence.  In order to be anointed by government or protect their property from being taken, they hire anyone who has political influence or is remotely perceived to have influence:  law firms, public relations firms, lobbyists, political consultants, etc.  They attempt to cultivate the media, knowing that the media influences politicians.  The use of condemnation on 42nd Street provided a commercial opportunity of enormous proportions for political insiders. “
The Willets West deal is a corrupt example of corporate welfare and crony capitalism-demonstrating in ironic fashion how the development of the deuce mirrors that of Willets Point (although we don’t believe that irony is Kimball’s strong suit). Stern deserves the last word:

Looking back now at this giant redevelopment, I am glad the area has come back and that children can enjoy Times Squares as I did in my childhood.  But we do these children a disservice if we perpetuate the myth—the lie—that the Times Square of today resulted from the massive government failure my colleagues, the New York Times and I foisted upon the citizens of my city.  The lesson they should learn, indeed the lesson all of our civic leaders should learn, is that the right way for governments to pursue economic development is to fulfill their core responsibilities of protecting safety and freedom and allow the market to work as it did in creating the world’s most famous square in the world’s premier city.”

Monday, September 2, 2013

Willets Point: Wither Bill de Blasio?

Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio has positioned himself as the progressive alternative to Christine Quinn and the other aspirants for Gracie Mansion. But what exactly does this really mean? We know that de Blasio has little problem railing against such liberal shibboleths like Citizens United and, of course, stop and frisk-the issue that has catapulted de Blasio to front runner status one week prior to the pivotal primary. All very well and good, but in NYC the ultimate special interest is real estate-and de Blasio’s stand on the proclivity of the political class to hand the keys to city hall over to Related, Vornado and Forest City Ratner is, well, quite murky.

Dana Rubinstein has underscored some of this in Capital New York:

“In fact, de Blasio’s record as a councilman demonstrated a willingness to work with developers to spur economic development and tackle the city's affordable housing crisis, using an approach to land use that at times bore a strong resemblance to Bloomberg's own. For instance, de Blasio, like Bloomberg, was a staunch backer of the Atlantic Yards project, on the basis of the developer's promise to provide union construction jobs and more than 2,000 units of below-market housing.”

Gee, how did that work out Bill?

“Residents took issue with the project’s reliance on eminent domain, the developer’s evasion of the city’s onerous public review process, the development’s sheer scope (8.6 million square feet), and its implications for traffic, parking, schools, sewage. Some even worried about the shadows it would cast. After several members of Park Slope's Community Board 6 voted against the project, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and de Blasio “purgedthem.

“I support the project because I believe that we're at a crisis in New York City when it comes to affordable housing. ... And I think we're in a crisis when it comes to economic development and providing real jobs for the community,” said de Blasio at a hearing in 2006. “But I also want to stress as much as I believe this project will help move us forward in terms of economic development and especially affordable housing.”

I guess we will have to wait until 2035:

“In the meantime, the developer has yet to create nearly as many jobs as anticipated, has yet to appoint an independent compliance monitor as required by the agreement, and has also pushed back the completion of all 16 skyscrapers to 2035 and softened its affordable housing commitments.

“I think he was too quick to believe that there would be affordable housing that would be generated in that deal,” said Ronald Shiffman, a Pratt Institute planning professor, of de Blasio. (He is not, overall, a de Blasio critic — he told me he thought de Blasio would make an excellent mayor.)

Does all of this sound familiar? It should if you’ve been following the Willets Point debacle. Remember, we got the same promise for affordable housing in 2008 (and the same 2,000 unit promise) that Ratner had made to tamp down criticism of Atlantic Yards. In the end, the bait and switch worked for Forest City, and the arena was built with housing as the proverbial player to be named later.

So now we have the Willets Point development wending its way towards approval at the city council with Christine Quinn, the ultimate fixer and real estate darling, poised to take care of her friends in Queens and the good old boys at Related. This gives progressive Bill the opportunity to really distinguish himself from the Quinnberg administration.

What de Blasio needs to do is to let the world know that he will not rubber stamp a toxic deal that has been built on illegal lobbying and has failed to deliver on the promises that were the linchpin of the development’s approval in 2008. He needs to send a strong signal to his allies on the city council that they need to buck the speaker and let his administration-if elected, of course, handle the reconfiguration of a deal that is currently the epitome of crony capitalism and corporate welfare.

WPU, the NYC Parks Advocates, the affordable housing coalition, and the immigrant businesses awaiting eviction, stand ready to stand with de Blasio if and when he want to stand up for integrity in government, small business and against corrupt insider politics. We all await your call Bill.