Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Commissioners of The New York City Planning Commission: From The Human-scale NYC Viewpoint of Lynn Ellsworth, They Are The Foxes Guarding City Planning Henhouse

 Top row left to right: Mariso Lago, Kenneth Knuckles, Joseph Douek, Alfred Cerullo, Richard Eaddy,
Middle row left to right: Allen Cappelli, Hope Knight, Anna Hayes Levin, Orlando Marín, Larisa Ortiz
Bottom row left to right: Michelle de la Uz, Rad Rampershad, David Burney, Carl Weisbrod

We've grown bleary eyed seeing it on the federal level since Donald Trump took his trip from NYC's real estate world and started appointing his cabinet and top government policy officials: It seems like there isn't a single such appointment made where the inherent conflicts-of-interest and the effective capture by private interests of federal public agencies doesn't seem the carefully crafted intention of the appointment, rather than a gawd-awful mistake, incompetence or general obtuseness about what is in the public interest.  (It was right from the beginning.)

Where might Mr. Trump have learned that such a cookie-jar approach to populating government could be accepted as routine and par for the course?  Maybe from the way that New York City "government" puts the real estate industry in charge of "governing" all things real estate.  probably the most egregious example is New York City's City Planning Commission Commissioners.  There are tons of other examples in this city (like the revolving door at the Landmarks Preservation Commission for those who then lobby).

Villager op-ed
Lynn Ellsworth of Human-scale NYC recently addressed the question just how totally the City Planning Commission is captured by industry interests with an op-ed in The Villager, back up with her research that provides  gallery portraits of the Commissioners and the allegiances to the real estate industry that laden them.  See: OPINION: Foxes guard City Planning henhouse, by Lynn Ellsworth, May 22, 2019.

Her opinion piece represents points Ms. Ellsworth made at a May 15, 2019 press conference recently on the steps of City Hall speaking about the current developer practice of grabbing the sky for luxury condo units by building "void" buildings launched upwards to new heights on stilts to be taller than the rest of the city. 

May 15, 2019 press conference
Ms. Ellsworth's gallery is also reminiscent of a similar round-up of suspect commissioners that Citizens Defending Libraries put together in 2015 when the Planning Commission was hellbent to approve the shrink-and-sink deal that would sell Brooklyn's second largest library in order to turn the site over to the developer of a luxury tower.  Full disclosure: As a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, I was involving in putting that round up together as well as requests that various commissioners recuse themselves, only a few of which did (there was an opinion of no conflict of interest).  See:  Report on Tuesday, September 22nd City Planning Commission Hearing On Proposed Sale and Shrinkage of Plus Testimony of Citizens Defending Libraries, and Open Letter To NYC Planning Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron Respecting Her Vote About Selling & Shrinking the Brooklyn Heights Library, Other Libraries The Revson Foundation, Center for an Urban Future, And More.

Alicia Boyd of MTOP (Movement to Protect the People) is another activist who, in concert with a coalition of others, has sought to ventilate these conflicts of interest that usually go unremarked upon.  That has included demonstrations and press conference outside of the Planning Commission.

Lynn Ellsworth with Citizens Defending Libraries outside City Hall, December 2015 protesting library sale.
Ms. Ellsworth's gallery and the research it represents is a beautiful piece of work and valuable to have at hand.  She indicates that it may be subject to some refinement with some future revisions, but it is too extraordinary a resource not to be look at now.

Does Noticing New York publish the work of others?: Seldom, but sometimes.  In this case, veteran Noticing New York readers will find themselves in very familiar territory.   Enjoy, and file away for future reference.  Oh, and as you read, you will see references to NYC library sales.

* * *    
The Fox Guards the Henhouse at the Department of City Planning
Part 1: Profiles in Complicity

Communities Cannot Get A Fair Hearing when the Regulatory Agency is Captured by the Industry it is Supposed to Regulate.

By Lynn Ellsworth, of Human-scale NYC, May 16, 2019
(Contact: lynnellsworth [at]
In 1976, sociologist Harvey Molotch wrote a famous essay describing an "Urban Growth Machine" consisting of a coalition of large property owners, developers, realtors, industry-dependent elites and politicians whose economic interests aligned to push for insatiable real estate development they dubbed "growth".  Many years later, Rutgers economist Jason Barr studied high-rise development in Manhattan and described a "Skyscraper Industrial Complex" of real estate developers, real estate advisors and financiers, construction unions, architects, construction and engineering firms whose economic self-interests aligned to demand never-ending and unregulated high-rise construction.  

These forces have crystalized in New York City in the most powerful special interest lobby New York has ever known, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) whose Board of Governors is dominated by an elite group of spectacularly wealthy oligarchic families, some of which have become feudal dynasties with thousands of tenants paying rent to them. It is a situation not seen since the medieval period. REBNY's financial and lobbying power is a matter of common knowledge.

This power is only a problem and a matter of public interest when the real estate industry comes to control the institutions that are supposed do the regulating for the public good. The Department of City Planning is a case in point. There, the Fox has come to guard the henhouse and communities can no longer get a fair hearing.*  The Commissions hearings have become a kind of Kangaroo Court for communities, for even the Commissioners at City Planning who aren't directly involved in real estate development are all clearly members of the "Skyscraper Industrial Complex".
(* Part 2 will discuss how to repair the situation in the City Charter.  This article will be subject to possible revisions- Please send typo alerts or any new facts to the attention of the author.)
To be specific, of the 13 members of the Commission who control the Department of City Planning:
-    One is a real estate investor, a donor to the Mayor and runs a $75 million "opportunity fund" for Brooklyn (Douek)
-    One is a former lobbyist for the real estate industry (Cappelli)
-    Five are real estate developers of various types, ranging from an employee of Bluestone to CEOs of Development Corporations to the head of the Fifth Avenue Committee (de la Uz, Knuckles, Eaddy, Knight, and Marín)
-    The current Chair's professional history is that of running the notorious corporate subsidy-granting Empire State Development Corporation, a real estate development entity for the state.  It has seriously abused eminent domain to the detriment of black and low-income communities. One academic notes that the Corporation acts as "Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor to give to the rich" (Lago)
-    Only one has a degree in urban planning, but alas, runs a consulting firm advising city agencies and developers how to "optimize" their retail tenant mix so that it fits the owner's "goals" (Ortiz).
-    At least two have serious conflicts of interest with the current rezoning project on the table at Gowanus (Bluestone and Fifth Avenue Committee).  At least one had a clear conflict of interest with the East Harlem rezoning (Knuckles).
-    Two are architects with high-rise projects under their belts (Burney and Rampershad).
-    One has long been a cheerleader for the Hudson Yards project and whose spouse is a partner at the  ‘Big Law' firm of David and Polk that advises the developers such as Extell who are involved in the Hudson Yards project as well as many other major real estate players in NY (Levin).
-    One is CEO of the real estate controlled BID, the Grand Central Partnership, whose board of directors reads like the Who's Who of the Board of Governors of the Real Estate Board of New York and who has pushed for multiple upzonings in Midtown(Cerullo)
Is it any wonder these Commissioners, the majority of which represent the real estate development community, mistake upzoning, real estate profit-making and high-rise projects for actual urban planning?  We call on the City Charter Commission to repair the situation (see Part 2 for details).

Profiles of the Real Estate Industrial Complex at DCP:  with citations.

Mariso Lago, Chair of the DCP.  One of her claims to competence for serving as Chair is her experience as CEO of the Empire State Development Corporation. Part of the stated mission of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) is to support economies though "real estate development" across New York State.  The current Chair is Howard Zemsky, a real estate developer who owns the Larkin Development Group. ESDC mostly organizes public subsidies for big developer-run projects (such as the Amazon project.  It also issues public bonds to pay for them and awards contracts to developers.  Current NYC "signature" and "large-scale" projects include the redevelopment of Penn Station and of the Javits Convention Center.  ESDC specializes in creating interlocking boards of subsidiaries to carry out its work. It is famous for the abuse of eminent domain to impose its vision.  It used those powers for the disastrous Atlantic Yards Project that demolished a swathe of Brooklyn as well as the Columbia Manhattanville Project that destroyed an immense stretch of West Harlem for Columbia University's new glass-filled campus. One of ESDC's subsidiaries was also responsible for building luxury housing in Brooklyn Bridge Park - even when it become clear that housing was not needed to subsidize the park. One of the ESDC's subsidiaries still manages a portfolio of 20,200 housing units in New York City. ESDC bonds were used to build a network of 32 adult prisons to accommodate people arrested under the Rockefeller drug laws.*  "Good Jobs First" a national good government group, accuses the ESDC of "awarding lavish subsidies with little accountability."  An Institute for Justice report by Dr. Dick Carpenter found that ESDC's "eminent domain abuse disproportionately targets those who are less well off and less educated" and acts as "Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor to give to the rich."  The Brooklyn Bridge Park redevelopment was particularly ridden with conflicts of interests and scandal during Ms. Lago's tenure at the Empire State Development Corporation. The architect of one of the governor's biggest deals at the ESDC was found guilty of bid rigging. E.J. McMahon, Director of the watchdog group ‘Empire Center' has fretted over misplaced priorities at the ESDC with the comment: "What roads could you build, what bridges could you build with the money you are spending on factories [then handed over] for private corporations?" Gotham Gazette describes ECDC-supported entities as "scandal-plagued."  Ms. Lago has publicly supported a high-rise, glassy, Dubai-on-the-Hudson vision for New York City in a video interview with the real estate press , calling it a ‘win-win-win'.  She mentions that the only real strategy DCP has it to define areas to "take more density" and in the same interview she expresses to be one with REBNY's desire to do away with the State FAR cap on height and bulk.  She has no training in urban planning.
(*King, Ryan S.; Mauer, Marc; Huling, Tracy (February 2003). "Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Economics in Rural America" (PDF). The Sentencing Project. Archived from the original (pdf) on 2010-07-10.)
Kenneth Knuckles, Vice Chair of the Commission.  He has been on the Commission since 2002 and has no training in urban planning.  He was the longtime CEO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation (known as UMEZ) and only retired from there at the age of 70 in April of 2018.  UMEX is a real estate development organization that does a few other small business support activities under the heading of "economic development."  Substantial funding for UMEZ comes from New York City, meaning UMEZ has an internal incentive not to bite the City hand that feeds it.  Under Mr. Knuckles, UMEZ provided $87 million in loans to real estate development projects and was the key player setting up the controversial East River Plaza that benefited big developers (specifically, Ratner, Blumenfeld, and Canyon Capital Advisors).  That plaza is a vertical mall for big box stores and features a bizarre $64 million parking lot that as of 2012 was nearly empty, with less than 5% used of the spaces actually in use.  A senior accountant who worked at UMEZ wrote about his experience there on Glassdoor, saying "the only successes I saw while I was there were in funding large corporations to develop areas in Harlem." Mr. Knuckles is quoted in Crain's thus: "I would like to say we created the environment that was conducive to stores like Whole Foods [now owned by Amazon] coming to Harlem."  The role of Whole Foods in the "whitification" of Harlem was called out in 2016 in Michael Henry Adam's moving opinion column in the Times, "The End of Black Harlem" in which Adams wrote: "Whole Foods might as well be Fortnum and Mason…To us our Harlem is being remade, upgraded, and transformed, just for them, for wealthier white people."

Joseph Douek, Commissioner.  He is Chair and CEO of an investment and hedge fund called Viceroy Equities which is "betting big on Brooklyn with a $75 million Opportunity Zone fund".  Recall that opportunity zone investors will pay zero capital gains taxes if their real estate investments are held for ten years.  Opportunity zones are pure subsidies to real estate investors.   He has no training in urban planning.  Opportunity zones in Brooklyn overlap with proposed upzonings.

Alfred Cerullo, Commissioner is the President and CEO of the Grand Central Partnership, a big real estate Business Improvement District (BID). That BID drove the recent upzoning for the Vanderbilt Corridor and Midtown East, as both upzonings directly benefited members of the Partership. Of course, the Board of Directors of the Grand Central Partnership also reads like a who's who of the Real Estate Board of New York, with REBNY's CEO John Banks literally serving as the official secretary of the BID.  Cerullo is a Republican and former actor with a law degree, but no training in urban planning.  SL Green, a big real estate firm, owned 1 Vanderbilt and spearheaded the shocking upzoning for that area.

Richard Eaddy, Commissioner.  Mr. Eaddy's work prior to government service was with ET Partners, a real estate development and consulting firm.  He had previously been Chief Financial Officer of the real estate company "L & M Equity Participants" the precursor of L& M Development partners, a firm which brags on its website that it has "over $7 billion in development, construction, and investment".  He was also development manager at the real estate company Olympia and York.  His master's degree is in real estate development.  He has no training in urban planning.  It is safe to consider Mr. Eaddy to be a member of the real estate development community.

Allen Cappelli, Commissioner  A lawyer without training in urban planning who appears to be a professional board member, although according to the New York Times he was once a lobbyist for the real estate industry.  He is a former member of the board of the MTA where he served for 8 years overlapping with John Banks, current president of the Real Estate Board of New York (Cappelli was appointed to the MTA in 2008, while Banks was already on it while Banks continued to be on the MTA with Cappelli until 2015).  As a resident of Staten Island, Cappelli "was the only [MTA] member of the board to vote against increasing tolls and fares."  Note that the New York Times has called the MTA "one of the most unwieldy bureaucracies in the state" with an infamous amount of "bloat."  After leaving the MTA, De Blasio put him on the Civil Service Commission for three days a week of work at $412 a day.

Hope Knight, Commissioner is President and CEO of a private entity known as the "Greater Jamaica Development Corporation" whose mission is to "plan, promote, coordinate and advance responsible development" and is specifically responsible for glassy towers in the Jamaica neighborhood known as "The Crossing" and the "Hilton Garden Inn" and is now actively promoting to builders property lots containing 99,000 and 84,000 square feet respectively.  The Chair of the Board of the corporation is Peter Kulka, CEO of KJL Management Corporation, a real estate property management company in Queens." The Corporation's job of cheerleading new development includes the breathless phrase on their website "Jamaica makes new development happen!  $3.7 billion worth!" Ms. Knight's prior work had been on the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zones" from 2003-2015, (an entity described under the paragraph for Commissioner Knuckles.)  Ms. Knight does not have a degree in urban planning but instead an MBA from University of Chicago and considerable prior experience in banking with Morgan Stanley.

Anna Hayes Levin, Commissioner.  Her degree is in law, not urban planning. She served for many of the Empire State Development Corporations subsidiaries  such as those for the redevelopment of Hudson Yards and the Javits Center.  For example, she was  "alternative director" of the Hudson Yards Development Corporation. She had been chair of the Land Use Committee of CB4 during the tumultuous and controversial approvals for the Hudson Yards project between 2001 and 2009. At the time, she was also on the Javits Community Advisory Committee and on the Penn Station Community Advisory Committee, all ESDC projects.  Ms. Levin is married to a senior counsel and long-time partner at the law firm of Davis Polk, a firm which claims (in their words) to be ‘'at the center of the real estate marketplace." Their clients include major real estate players in NYC including SL Green, Slate, Naftali, Related, RXR, and Extell.  Their website specifically states that the firm advised Related on the Hudson Yards deal.

Orlando Marín, Commissioner.  He is currently employed by the Bluestone Organization, which is "a private developer" and which describes itself on its website as "a real estate development company."  Bluestone's website says it is developing projects with the ‘Fifth Avenue Committee" (a real estate development corporation whose Chair is also on the Commission).  Mr. Marin also once worked at the Empire State Development Corporation. He has a BA in architecture and a diploma in ‘Real Estate' as well as a Master's in public administration.  He lives in the Longwood area of the Bronx, an area that Crain's describes as a place where investors "clamor to rezone."  Bluestone's website describes its investments in areas where upzonings have been or are now on the agenda, including Bushwick, Jamaica, Gowanus, Crown Heights and Rockaway.  Some of these are in partnership with developers such as the Fifth Avenue Committee, Hudson Properties, and Jonathan Rose.

Larisa Ortiz, Commissioner.  Ms. Ortiz does have a degree in urban planning, but her principal job is working as a consultant (Larisa Ortiz Associates) to real estate developers and government agencies. She specializes in how to optimize their retail rents. Many of her clients are either large shopping center developers and New York City agencies and BIDs.  She markets herself as (from her website) a "commercial district advisor."  Her firm's mission includes to "develop market-based strategies for the redevelopment of urban places."  One of her clients is the New York City Economic Development Corporation where she advised them on the miserable "Fulton-Nassau Crossroads" program for retail in Lower Manhattan and the similarly controversial retail destruction of the Essex Street Market.

Michelle de la Uz is a Commissioner and Executive Director of the "Fifth Avenue Committee" which is unequivocally a real estate development firm, notwithstanding its status as a "community development corporation."  It's website claims real estate assets of over $100 million and has buildings in the works that will cost more than $400 million.  The committee does specialize in "affordable" housing, a term whose definition is obviously contested throughout the city and Uz does have a record of voting against rezonings that she thinks do not have deep enough levels of affordability, but she does not question the high rise or skyscraper character of De Blasio's policies. She does not have a degree in urban planning.  The Fifth Avenue Committee was instrumental in the demolition of the Brooklyn Public Library in Sunset Park. They received a no-bid contract to take on that particular development project.  The village of Sunset Park hotly contested the arrangement, pointing out that the Fifth Avenue Committee had given heavily to De Blasio's non-profit "Campaign For One New York."  Her organization in 2017 got $2.945 million in revenue from "government grants" and spends over $5 million for salaries, nearly all of its total revenue. Part of its revenue comes from $385,000 in rents from the buildings it owns. The Fifth Avenue Committee founded the "Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice" to advocate for certain groups during the planning for the Gowanus upzoning, a group that has pushed in favor of the rezoning.*  De la Uz wrote an op-ed in the Daily News in 2018 advocating for a spot rezoning for the community-contested project at 80 Flatbush Street in Brooklyn that favored a single developer, saying ‘we need to build bigger' and says resistance to developers is just "a regressive reality that must change" echoing the unproven fantasy REBNY p.r. line that not building skyscrapers might "impact job growth." She then fantasizes in the op-ed that the 80 Flatbush project was going to happen "without public subsidies" which indicates a weak grasp of reality.  Last, her organization partnered with another developer, Hudson Properties, to advocate for building a child care center next to the spot on the Gowanus canal that emits coal tar fumes that are so toxic that even the Environmental Protection Agency is concerned.
(* See the audit and 990 forms for Fifth Avenue Committee that Propublica has kindly made available.)
Rad Rampershad, Commissioner.  Mr. Rampershad is an architect, not an urban planner. He is resident of the low-rise, heavily down-zoned neighborhood of Richmond Hill, Queens, where Gary Barnett the CEO of Extell also lives.  He is a Senior Project Manager at the Gerald Caliendo architecture firm in Briarwood, Queens. His firm designed the glassy high rise "Four Points by Sheraton" in Long Island City and the similarly massive glass tower known as the "Z Hotel" in Hunters Point north of Long Island City. Architects like this are courtiers and dependents to the real estate industry.

David Burney, Commissioner.  Mr. Burney does have a degree in urban planning and is director of the Urban Placemaking and Management program at Pratt Institute School of Architecture, all of which definitely makes him not a real estate developer and not a deep part part of the "Growth Machine."  He was Director of Design and Capital Improvement for NYCHA for 13 years under Bloomberg, a worrisome aspect of his professional life:  as we all know there has not been adequate capital improvement in NYCHA for many, many years during the Bloomberg era. Mr. Burney was also one of the architects who did the massively over-scaled 29-storied Zeckendorf Towers in the Grammercy neighborhood while he was at the firm of Davis, Brody, & Associates.

Carl Weisbrod, former Chair of the Commission.  He is a senior advisor at HRA, a consulting firm that advises real estate developers and government agencies on big redevelopment schemes. The Real Deal credits Weisbrod for turning Times Square into the tourist zoo that it has become while he was in a "series of government positions."   He was for example president of the Economic Development Corporation for some of that period during which time he used "eminent domain aggressively to help the city take-over much of the land in the 42nd Street area."  While at HRA he led the rezoning of Hudson Square on behalf of his client the real estate division of Trinity Church.  That rezoning is resulting in the subsequent demolition of many a historic property in that area. He is a lawyer, but has no degree in urban planning.  He was for many years head of the Alliance for Downtown, a big real estate BID (developer Bill Rudin was one of the founders) that dominates much of the politics of Lower Manhattan.  As head of City Planning, he pushed through De Blasio's upzonings, over the opposition of  90% of the community boards in the city.  In that position, he also green-lighted the massive Extell tower in the Two Bridges area of Manhattan, claiming that the developer's requests amounted to a "minor modification" of the permit he granted, thus Carl Weisbrod, former Chair of the Commission.  He is a senior advisor at HRA, a consulting firm that advises real estate developers and government agencies on big redevelopment schemes. The Real Deal credits Weisbrod for turning Times Square into the tourist zoo that it has become while he was in a "series of government positions."  He was for example president of the Economic Development Corporation for some of that period during which time he used "eminent domain aggressively to help the city take-over much of the land in the 42nd Street area."  While at HRA he led the rezoning of Hudson Square on behalf of his client the real estate division of Trinity Church.  That rezoning is resulting in the subsequent demolition of many a historic property in that area. He is a lawyer, but has no degree in urban planning.  He was for many years head of the Alliance for Downtown, a big real estate BID (developer Bill Rudin was one of the founders) that dominates much of the politics of Lower Manhattan.  As head of City Planning, he pushed through De Blasio's upzonings, over the opposition of  90% of the community boards in the city.  In that position, he also green-lighted the massive Extell tower in the Two Bridges area of Manhattan, claiming that the developer's requests amounted to a "minor modification" of the permit he granted, thus allowing the developer to avoid going through ULURP. The Manhattan Borough President has sued the city over Weisbrod's decision.  Weisbrod has since become Chair of the Trust for Governor's Island which is overseeing a major plan to allow developers to have their way with the island. Cityland describes Weisbrod at the time of his appointment as having a "continuity of a pro-growth outlook" (with "growth" referring to real estate development.)  When he was appointed to City Planning, Cityland also noted that "his commitments to curtail the limbo of the pre-certification process, loosen the shrink-wrapping nature of some building envelope controls….. will be welcome news for developers."  Cityland concluded with obvious satisfaction that he would get those things done for the developer community.

Part 2:  What is to Be Done?

The Fox Guarding the Henhouse situation can be fixed with tighter conflict of interest rules in the City Charter. 

To be continued…

Monday, April 1, 2019

Un-Change That You Can Believe In?: Is The Brooklyn Heights Association Going To Endorse Greater Density In The Neighborhood As A Way For Its Neighborhood To Regain Historic Character? (It’s Being Discussed.)

The corner of Montague and Henry Streets: On left, the current problematic vista; On right, the view as some Brooklyn Heights Association trustees may hope that it will be approved, restoring the neighborhood's historic flavor. (Click to enlarge for better consideration)  Note: The rendering of this proposal triples the office real estate brokerage space of Brown Harris Stevens, a not unlikely result of the addition of this much real estate to the neighborhood.
Nothing is official or publicly disclosed yet, but rumors are out that there is dissension and disagreement at the Brooklyn Heights Association as a result of an idea proposed by an emergent faction of the board that is raising hackles with the others.  It all stems from the fact that there is a sense that the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, the first neighborhood in New York City to be designated an historic district, has fast been losing its historic character.  - Oh for history’s sake!

How can Brooklyn Heights regain, restore and reestablish the historic flavor and character that has made it so deliciously revered as one of the city’s most special areas to stroll through and that invariably attracts and is recommended to tourists and to visitors coming from everywhere?
Brooklyn Heights historic area boundaries.
The reason the question has presented itself in a nagging way that is far from easy to sidestep is because of the visual intrusions of the tall glass towers shrieking modernity that have recently been built ringing the perimeter of what is officially the protected historic part of the neighborhood.  The protected part of the neighborhood is actually smaller than many presume, ending, for example on Montague Street at the boundary of Clinton Street. The poster child for such “back to the impending future” intrusions is the super-tall luxury condominium tower, replacing what was once Brooklyn's second most important library at the corner of Tillary and Clinton where they intersect at Cadman Plaza West.

That tower, developed by David Kramer and his Hudson Companies, was endorsed and promoted by the Brooklyn Heights Association.  Destruction of the public library to create the tower also created a financial windfall for the neighborhood’s elite Saint Ann’s School, which was, no doubt, influential in the politics that sent the tower soaring up to dominate the skies of the historic neighborhood from all sorts of vantages.  It is possible that when the BHA endorsed the luxury tower they never realized just how visually dominant it would be in so much of the neighborhood.

But now, according to the rumors, one emerging faction of the Heights Association is pointing out that, while the tower is seen looming from many of the key streets and intersections of Brooklyn Heights, there are places where it can’t be seen because view of it is still blocked by the older historic buildings making up the fabric of the neighborhood since it was officially designated historic by the Landmarks Commission on November 23, 1965.  The same faction of the BHA (basically the core group that lobbied to sell the library) are pointing out that the visual intrusions of the tower are not always that bad, and are they are saying that there is, in this observation, the seeds of a solution to make the unsightly tower less “sightly” . . . Or, if you will, make the tower less Brooklyn Heights Historic District “sitely.”

Other candidates for “historical enlargement”: At left, the creamy white Supreme Court Appellate Division building on Pierrepont and Monroe Streets; and, at right, a series of townhouses on Monroe Street that no longer feel cloistered away from the bustle of the moderns age. ( The Supreme Court building attracted film crews for many an episode “Law and Order.”  If the success of “Law and Order” can result in six spin-off series, which it did, why can’t recognition of the attractiveness of the Supreme Court building equally justify addition of another half dozen similarly beautiful floors?  The demand will be to fill those extra floors with condos, not more justice manufacturing.)
The answer being proposed is to bring greater density to the Brooklyn Heights and allow the truly historic buildings of Brooklyn Heights to express their historic influence more fully by building extra floors matching and multiplying the same historic flavor those buildings contribute to the neighborhood now.  If those buildings rise up enough extra floors they can blot out the visibility of Kramer's One Clinton luxury condo tower and perhaps also diminish the conspicuousness of the other glass-glazed luxury hulks that have bounded up into the skies elsewhere on the neighborhood’s periphery.

With nobody currently on the board of the BHA officially talking, the internal politics and arguments being exchanged are, as yet a little unclear.  However, Hank (Henry) Gutman, a former BHA board member and currently on the board of the Brooklyn Bridge Park corporation and on the board of the Brooklyn Public Library that sold the Business, Career and Education federal depository library to create Kramer's luxury tower, seems to have an inside line on the development oriented thinking that is behind the proposal.  Gutman says “allowing the extra density unlocks the real estate value historic neighborhood designations invariable trap unused in their neighborhoods, and that unlocking of value will serve as an engine for quick restorative development that will assist the Heights neighborhood to regain its historic flavor.”

Gutman said that, if the Heights Association proposes this solution, he strongly believes the de Blasio administration will accede and work with the BHA to implement it.  Among other things, says Gutman:
This is consistent with other goals of the city.  The city needs to grow and become more dense.  It’s a city policy to add density along subway lines and at the transit hubs where those lines converge.  Right now Brooklyn Heights, sitting atop the convergence of a huge proportion of the city’s subway lines, is hogging our subway lines without giving any density back.  It’s time for the neighborhood to give back! 
Gutman is hopeful about the future of similar proposals in the future: “If implemented successfully in Brooklyn Heights, I am sure it’s the kind of thing that can be programmatically replicated in other neighborhoods throughout the city,” says Gutman.

Another thing to think about says Gutman is how this would address what he considers the almost inherently elitist nature of historic neighborhoods.  “Nobody is making historic neighborhoods anymore,” says Gutman, “yet, given the crap people are building these days [Gutman wouldn’t comment on Kramer’s work], everybody wants to live in them.   Given the automatic scarcity that results, the neighborhoods become enclaves for the wealthy who outbid everyone else.” . .

. . . “This is the solution,” says Gutman, “now, by adding greater density, we will be building more historic places where people can live.”  . . . . And, says Gutman, it sort of goes along with something else he has always liked to say, which isif you know how to create history, you'll be a winner when it's all said and done.

Is this a proposal that the Brooklyn Heights Association will be promoting?  As far as anyone knows, it’s only being discussed at this point, but what may the clincher for endorsement by the BHA is another related proposal that would be combined with it . . .

. . .  The extra density to hide modern towers proposal would create multiple extra tall buildings of a historic character throughout the Heights neighborhood.  They would all have additional steel columns to ensure support for the extra floors, and could perhaps also have more.  There is a feeling that, if done right, the new taller-than-average historic character towers scattered throughout the neighborhood could also become the supports upon which to rest a new, but temporary overhead bypass for the BQE to allow the repairs to the BQE's existing structure without tearing down the promenade.  That would substitute for the Department of Transportation’s (hard to believe) plan for repair and modification of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade that involves six years during which a six-lane highway would run along the Heights in place of the promenade.
A red line tracks how a BQE bypass over taller "extra historical" buildings could cut through the historic district to save the promenade from the DOT plan.  Once upon a time, Robert Moses wanted to run the BQE through the middle of Brooklyn Heights which would have involved tearing down much of historic Brooklyn Heights.  In contradistinction, this plan, with a similar BQE route, builds up and creates more of the historic district.
The BHA has said it very much opposes the reviled DOT plan.  Gutman thinks the historic towers supporting a bypass would be a much better plan.  And City Councilman Steve Levin, who usually keeps his constituents guessing about his actually stance on development issues until the very last minute (and who says he opposes the DOT promenade plan) has, in this case, already said, it's “exactly the plan to replace the DOT plan” that he has been “on the look out for.”

I wanted to get this article out as soon as possible to let New Yorkers know what is being considered as soon as possible, but this publication may be a little premature.  Gutman thinks the BHA factions are about to resolve their differences and says he thinks the BHA may come out to announce a more definitive proposal, as soon as today, April 1st.
Example of how "extra historical" buildings could support BQE bypass.

Monday, December 24, 2018

This Year’s Annual Seasonal Reflection: It Rhymes (But Not With "Reason" or "Season")

From our Thursday, December 24, 2009, A Christmas Eve Story of Alternative Realities: The Fight Not To Go To Pottersville (Or Ratnerville),
It seems almost as if we are back again where we started.  That's not because history repeats itself, but because history, as they say, rhymes. 

Every year since 2009 Noticing New York has engaged in the tradition of a seasonal reflection post as we reach the cusp of the new year.

When I first started, we took the example in "Its' a Wonderful Life," of what could happen if one greedy man, the banker in that story, Henry Potter, took over and owned everything in the town of Bedford Falls.  That was to compare how everything in Brooklyn was being handed over to Forest City Ratner in Brooklyn (hence the visual above).  It was only a small town in that fictional story.  And it was only the Borough of Brooklyn in our comparison. . .

. . . Now, similarly, with much of the mechanisms repeating, Amazon is set to take over a swath of Queens.  See: Amazon Headquarters Lands In Long Island City: What Happens When Our Elected Officials Hand The Task of Governing Over To A Private Sector Corporation, Monday, December 23, 2018.

But that story has broader swath.  Amazon is taking over everything, and it is doing so nationally.  It probably is never more evident than during this season when the packages pile in to everybody's lobby.  But if you read the article linked to above, there are free speech and preservation of public discourse concerns that accompany that Amazon takeover.
Sermon about Amazon at First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Brooklyn
A recent sermon at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Brooklyn by Minister Ana Levy-Lyons was about what it means for Amazon to be taking over.  Last night we watched "A Christmas Carol" again, the definitive classic version with Alistair Sim.  "A Christmas Carol" is among the several classic seasonal tales I've written about this time of year in these reflections.  They are all thematically related, like the Grinch tale.  Reverend Levy-Lyons' sermon echoed the lessons that we heard all over again as the spirits teach Scrooge in their visitations; the lessons that human beings and the value of life is rich and multi-dimensional, and that we are not fully human if we allow ourselves to be a hammered down to the thinness that, in the Amazon, world defines us as merely consumers looking for bargains at the cheapest possible price.  Its confusing: The pre-transformation Scrooge was abstemious. . .  And what are we supposed to be doing when confronted by Amazon?:  Meditate on this and it might become clear– It has to do with our connection to other people, our connection to the general community and its welfare.        
Corner of Monroe and Pierrepont- The luxury tower replacing the library, no about two-third complete, is rising up as seen behind the First Unitarian Universalist Church.

What else is going on this season?   The luxury tower that is replacing the Business, Career and Education Brooklyn Heights Library, the central destination federal depository library in downtown Brooklyn is going up now.  At two-thirds complete it is getting to be evident how readily it will be seen from many parts of the neighborhood, like, for instance, it is now visible from the corner or Monroe and Pierrepont streets.  Monroe Street was a focal point from which the push to sell the library emanated.  Meanwhile, we held community meetings at each end of Monroe to prevent that sell off.

View from DUMBO waterfront of the luxury condo replacing the library, now tall enough to be seen above the nearby elevated roadway.
As of this of this solstice, the semi-complete building was also casting long shadows onto Cadman Plaza Park.  See: In This Winter Solstice Season, Long Shadows Being Cast By The Not-Yet-Complete Luxury Tower Replacing Brooklyn Central Destination Library

Just weeks ago we lost a library defender who fought along side us to prevent the destruction of that library, Justine Swartz, also known as Ambrosia.  See: A Beloved Library Defender Is Gone, But Not Forgotten: Justine Swartz, Our Ambrosia.

Christmas Day 2015, we ran into Ambrosia (in the seat of honor) on Montague Street.
Another concern that is very present this year is an accelerating censorship and control of information.  I had a chance to start writing about it here in October:  On The Media Interview With Dean Starkman: The Difference Between "Access Reporting" and "Accountability Reporting" Explains How Very Important Things DON'T Get Reported- Plus Consider The Censorship Crisis, October 4, 2018.

But, I have not been writing fast enough to keep up to write yet about Facebook's more recent censorship binge done coordinating with Twitter.  So much censorship like that and suppression of information in our society suppresses the things that are anti-war, critical of the military and that might lead us in the direction of greater world peace. . .  It's something to think about especially in this season when we sign cards to each other about "peace on earth."

Since censorship is about control of information there is one part of this story that is huge in a meta-way, and that is how the Facebook censorship binge, abetted by the actions of other social media giants, has, itself, gone largely unreported or misrepresented, especially in terms of the censoring of anti-war and anti-authoritarian sources of information (including police violence accountability sites).

That brings us around again to the subject of Amazon and the frightening thought that Amazon, with its origins in and ongoing ties to the military and CIA, now sells about half of all the books in this country, plus it is taking over as a key supplier of all the old and classic films we once rented from video stores.  It's also scary how much Amazon, busily collecting data, knows about each of us, plus scary how little we, conversely, know about Amazon.

Here are links to the prior Noticing New York ventures into seasonal reflection where you can read:
•    Thursday, December 24, 2009, A Christmas Eve Story of Alternative Realities: The Fight Not To Go To Pottersville (Or Ratnerville),

•    Friday, December 24, 2010, Revisiting a Classic Seasonal Tale: Ratnerville,

•    Saturday, December 24, 2011, Traditional Christmas Eve Revisit of a Classic Seasonal Tale: Ratnerville, the Real Life Incarnation of the Abhorred Pottersville,

•    Monday, December 24, 2012, While I Tell of Yuletide Treasure,

•    Tuesday, December 24, 2013, A Seasonal Reflection: Assessing Aspirations Toward Alternate Realities- 'Tis A Tale of Two Alternate Cities?.,

Wednesday, December 24, 2014, Seasonal Reflections: No Matter How Fortunate or Not, We Are All Equal, Sharing a Common Journey

•    Thursday, December 24, 2015, Seasonal Reflection: Mayor de Blasio, His Heart Squeezed Grinch-Small, Starts Gifting Stolen Libraries To Developers For The Holidays
•    Saturday, December 24, 2016, Noticing New York's Annual Seasonal Reflection
•    Sunday, December 24, 2017, This Year’s Seasonal Reflection: Yes We Are Now Living In Ratnerville, Locally and Nationally, And Yet We Hope And Work Towards Something Different

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Amazon Headquarters Lands In Long Island City: What Happens When Our Elected Officials Hand The Task of Governing Over To A Private Sector Corporation

I remember the young and tender age I was when I was horrified to have explained to me the concept of “the company store,” the store in the company-owned town, which was the only place to buy things, where those things were priced at a price you couldn’t really quite afford so you were perpetually in debt to the company, which was the only employer in town, that didn’t pay very much so that you could never earn enough to leave town. . .   Peonage!  My mind boggled at the concept— to be so unfree, cut off from any choice!   Could such inconceivable traps have ever existed?

Symbolizing how absolutely closed the system was, some companies even issued their own currencies, their own “money” or company “script” to pay workers’ salaries that they would have to spend at the company store.   Safely in the past?: Just a few years ago, a division of Walmart (Wal-Mart de Mexico or Walmex) was doing this with its Mexican workers paying workers with vouchers, in lieu of cash, redeemable at its outlets until the Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled this violated the Mexican constitution.
Imagine the way that a private corporation could once take over and become everything!

These days Amazon, famous for paying its workers low wages, has just become the second biggest U.S. Company as of September 2018.  We think of Amazon as having low prices, unlike the prices of the company store that were always too high, but it is becoming increasing hard to shop elsewhere and the real price we are ultimately paying may be an illusion as Amazon is allowed to run rampant as a predatory monopoly putting all other competition out of business.

Amazon’s inescapability will be brought home for New Yorkers in another, yet more intense way now that Amazon is landing a “headquarters” in Queens’ in Long Island City.  Flexing the musculature of its enormous bigness quite openly, we see Amazon being allowed to take over our city’s governance with New York state powers be turned over as well.  City and state officials are aiding and abetting Amazon in the process are letting Amazon do that.  That is thanks principally to Bill de Blasio as New York City's mayor and Andrew Cuomo as New York State's governor.

State and City Subsidizes For Amazon- A Popular Topic

The first thing you hear about Amazon’s plan to land a “headquarters” in Long Island City is that in exchange, to “lure” Amazon here, it will be getting an amazing glut of subsides including tax exemptions, from both the city and state plus the federal government as well.  How much?: It’s clear that the amounts can only be spoken of in terms of more than a billion+ dollars multiplied by what?  The estimates of the total subsidies (which we will have to come back to) range.  As they were calculated and negotiated in secret and have not been thoroughly or openly vetted by any economists, we should not make the mistake others may make of pretending that we truly know much about this deal so soon after its revelation.  There are even nondisclosure agreements about making much of this information public that apply to the future.

The most fitting quick observation about these massive subsidies is that other tech giants, Google, Facebook and Twitter, all have very sizable presences in New York City with none of them receiving such subsidies.

Amazon "Give Backs"?/Sizable Acreage

The next thing I heard (on the radio- perhaps a WNYC radio excited announcement of the deal?) was how Amazon was expected to be “give back,” or might “give back” in things in return. . . .  It’s said that Amazon with its development partners will “build a 600-seat public school, affordable space for manufacturers, arts groups and early-stage tech companies, and a 3.5-acre waterfront esplanade and park” while building “1.15 million square feet of office space” Anable Basin properties are part of the more than one million square feet of property Amazon is expected to take over.  (One million square feet is 22.9 acres, comparable to the Atlantic Yards site excluding the additional eight acres owned by developer Forest City Ratner before that Ratner mega-project was launched.  Last year, a plan to rezone 15-acres in the basin area was being spearheaded by a family-owned plastics factory (That company is Plaxall) that controlled 12.6 of those acres.  Amazon’s plan involves taking over the bulk of that land– but not all the family-own acres– plus obviously more elsewhere.)

New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman, who sometimes splits the baby trying to make happy both activists and the powers-that-be, made the embarrassing suggestion that rectification could be made with respect to Amazon’s arrival if Amazon invested in NYC’s “public libraries” and “local school programs.”  See: Michael Kimmelman’s Unfortunate Suggestion That Amazon Invest In NYC’s Public libraries (per Eric Klinenberg)- See: “Amazon’s HQ2 Will Benefit From New York City. But What Does New York Get?” -  Kimmelman balanced his essay's seeming enthusiasm for Amazon's arrival in this respect slightly: He contrapuntally glowered about the Amazon giant’s plunking down here and the “insularity” and libertarianism of the tech industry in general.

Do we really want “gifts” or “give-backs,” from giant mega-monopolies, so labeled in intentionally confusing narratives as we allow such entities to take over sections of the city supplanting government, and doing so in the name of `private/public partnerships'?  We’ve seen this before. For instance, when the MTA, sending its head Joe Lhota to a ribbon cutting was promoting a “$76 million Barclays Center subway station” as a `gift' from Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner. The notion gets pushed with the too-good-to-be-true con that “not a cent of it came from taxpayers’ pockets,” despite the fact that, all told, Forest City Ratner was walking away with overall project subsidies totaling $2 - $3 billion.

Last week there was a NYC Public Advocate Candidates Forum in Brooklyn Heights.  Sixteen self-proclaimed candidates for that city-wide elected office took part in panel discussion (and a few additional candidates who have thrown their hat into the ring weren't there).  Amazon was naturally discussed.  It was discomfiting to hear how many of those candidates thought that Amazon's arrival in Queens should simply be accepted as a given and that all that needed to be discussed was what Amazon would "give back," as if this was the way that government should work.  The candidates are too numerous to inventory their Amazon positions here, right now.

Rethinking So-called "Charity" As Wealth Concentrates In Those With Agendas

The unbelievable math, simply ignoring the facts to parade, as window-dressing these ersatz “gifts,” brings to mind conversations now being had advising us to reexamine and not be taken at face value the theoretical benefits of the so-called “giving” by the wealthiest in our nation.   Anand Giridharadas who has addressed the subject in a new book “Winners Take All- The Elite Charade of Changing the World” has questioned the ethos where “The winners of our age must be challenged to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm.”

More succinctly, Mr. Giridharadas has said that while “giving back” sounds nice, its not the same as “taking less.”

Furthermore, given the difficulty of “looking a gift horse in the mouth,” such private sector “gifts” are harder to criticize than what is provided by elected officials.  That sadly is the case even when such “gifts” reflect an agenda on the part of the wealthy donors and an effort to shape the world as they would like to see it shaped.  Take, for instance, this undemocratic result: how a school district can wind up with less funds for what the public wants funded when the (Bill and Melinda) Gates Foundation pays the school district on condition that it divert its available funds away from other expenditures that were the district's priorities; instead the funds go to a questionable pet project the foundation is promoting.  Or very similarly, consider the funds that get advanced to pay for schools to be converted into private charters?

Under those circumstances, do we want our public schools furnished as gifts from the private sector?  Isn't it preferable to have public services provided by our own elected governments whom we can ultimately hold to account?  (If we don't want our schools taken over by the private sector, what about our libraries?)  But what is, in fact, happening in this day and age is that we are more and more, in all sorts of ways, turning our governance over to private corporations like Amazon.

David Callahan whose new book is “The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age,” writes how, as government is starved and retreats while the influence of the superwealthy increases, the new `philanthropies’ have become “a much stronger power center,” that “in some areas, is set to surpass government in its ability to shape society’s agenda.” Callahan has also previously pointed out that this “growing say over central areas of civic life like education and public parks . . is often wielded against a backdrop of secrecy.”  As that shift in influence occurs, it is often with the superwealthy like Bezos, the world’s richest man, contributing to that starvation of government as, for example, he sidesteps payment of sales tax.

Not Playing Fair Amazon Takes More, Never Less

Let’s be clear, despite some similarities in the eyewash aspects of it, Amazon’s dealings with respect to coming to Long Island City were not an example of such `philanthropic’ equations: What transpired, with respect to Queens was supposedly in `negotiations,’ supposedly adversarial.  However, with it being mostly all in secret, it was apparently mostly about the government’s surrendering of governance decisions and the norms of government supremacy to give Amazon things it was demanding, things there is little reason to believe Amazon deserved or should have been given.

It can be readily argued that Amazon has never been about playing fair, that its extraordinary growth (while paying shareholders little) has been about benefitting from a tilted playing field, not paying sales taxes, taking advantage of its monopoly status to squelch competition.  It's resulted in a huge amount of value others have created in the economy being reshuffled to wind up in the Amazon/Jeff Bezos coffers.

It is not in Amazon’s nature to “take less.”  When Seattle passed a small tax on businesses making more than $20 million in gross revenue in order to address its homeless crisis (greatly acerbated by skyrocketing rents), Jeff Bezos and his Amazon, Seattle’s biggest employer and the second biggest company in the United States, used their political heft to crush the tax, getting it repealed.  That was the absurdity even though Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest man has been calculated to be making “roughly $191,000 per minute” while the median Amazon employee’s salary is just $28,000 and many of Amazon’s workers, impoverished by the low wages the monopoly pays, collect food stamps.

Amazon's "Headquarters" Bidding War Fake Out

The huge subsidies that Amazon is to get coming to New York are because Amazon used its monopoly hugeness to announce that it was holding “an auction” amongst American cities to locate its “second” (“HQ2") headquarters.  That proved to be a giant fake-out: Amazon is not delivering its end of what it advertised; its so-called “second headquarters” will just be some, maybe not all, of its current growth and expansion at two locations, New York City and Crystal City, Virginia just outside of Washington, D. C. and only a “stone’s throw away from the Pentagon.”  (So recycling these hyped up baloney terms is NYC getting "H2Q/2" or maybe "H2Q3"?)

In other words, unconstrained by anything that was "bargained for," Amazon is simply following through on what it likely wanted to do anyway, have a major presence, and therefore influence, in the nation’s political capital and in its financial capital, the nation’s two major power centers.  Ask yourself why you think Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post; it's for the very same reason.  This division putting some of the Amazon offices in a separate location near the Pentagon will probably also help Amazon manage the flow of those of its workers needing security clearances to do the military work Amazon does for the Pentagon and CIA.

The deception of the “auction” was exquisitely characterized by New York State Assemblyman Ron Kim (also one of the announced candidates running for Public Advocate) who wrote an pre-announcement opinion piece opposing Amazon’s Long Island City arrival with law professor and sometimes political candidate Zephyr Teachout.  Ms. Teachout, an expert and activist with respect to corruption, has been an alert critic of the way that monopolies are taking over our economy together with the opposing American tradition that says they shouldn’t, because monopolies make slaves of us.  In 2015 she gave an address at Cooper Union: “The Monopoly Moment: The New Anti-Trust Paradox.”  Assemblyman Kim and Ms. Teachout wrote (in part):
 . .  this whole tournament has been a sham. There is no HQ2. Instead, Amazon is expected to announce a fairly routine expansion, adding new satellites in Queens and in Northern Virginia. The countless hours spent courting Amazon were undoubtedly valuable for Amazon: the company gained free media coverage and untold amounts of economic data from each bidding city. But it has been a terrible waste for those cities and states whose public servants labored to win a prize that would never materialize. Even for the biggest Amazon boosters, such casual dishonesty should be cause for consternation. It’s like getting a marriage offer along with a confession of infidelity.

    * * *

 If Amazon indeed locates a substantial part of its business in New York, serfdom is the style of “partnership” the city should expect. Despite the familiar promises, Amazon is not a good partner. Not for the cities it occupies, not for the merchants who depend on it, not for the workers it employs. The company does not seek partnership; it seeks control.
See: Opinion- New York Should Say No to Amazon- A city that thrives on the energy of its neighborhood merchants should not offer incentives and giveaways to an internet giant known for squashing small businesses, November 9, 2018.

Government's Surrender of Its Real Estate Tax Power

One of the fundamental government powers that will be surrendered in the Amazon deal is that Amazon will not pay real estate taxes.  Instead, the Amazon section of the city, carved out from the rest of the city will make payments in lieu of taxes pursuant to a “PILOT” agreement.  All the reasons this will be attractive to Amazon are reasons it will not be good for the public, that includes things like suspicions about the amounts paid, inability to challenge and rethink them going forward, and, like the increasing patchwork of other areas affected by such PILOTs (Brooklyn Bridge Park, parts of Atlantic yards/”Pacific Park”), being cut off from the vicissitudes of the city and communal obligations of all New Yorkers to address them.

Government's Surrender of Land Use and Zoning Powers

Another of the fundamentals of local governance surrendered to Amazon will be zoning and land use controls.  Density and how the land will be used will not be subject to the normal way such controls are supposed to be thought through and established with the normal City Council and community reviews.  Just one way this is showing up is that Jeff Bezos has been promised his Amazon site will come equipped with a helicopter landing pad.   Helicopter landing sites are a serious land use issue.   Helicopters are dangerous, which is why, after a 1977 accident, the helicopter pad atop the MetLife building, formerly the PanAm Building is no longer active.   Helicopters are also extremely noisy, not to mention, as anyone who has been around a landing site knows, their fuel has a pronounced unhealthy stink to it.

One Way Government Power Is Lost: Regulatory Capture

The surrendering of these governmental powers results from the involvement of the state’s Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC or ESD), a quasi-governmental, unaccountable public benefit corporation that is notorious for its being subject to “regulatory capture,” which is to say that rather than being careful to ensure that public benefits are achieved, the agency answers to its private developer clients (in the case it will be Amazon and its agent developers) to give them what they want.

Privatizing Government's Power of Eminent Domain (To Push out Competing Economic Life)

Another power that ESDC has is the power of eminent domain, the power to condemn and take property from other private landowners for “public use.”  In recent years, as with Atlantic Yards, that “public use” has meant giving land or property over to another more favored private developer.  In the case of Atlantic Yards it was used to acquire land to build a private arena (infamously named "Barclays").  That use of eminent domain may not have been actually necessary given that Forest City already owned other adjacent property.  Eminent domain was also used to a very large extent push out the competition of other developers building in the Atlantic Yards vicinity. . .  Oh, wait– pushing out the competition?– Exercising of that superpower of government sounds like a perfect match for our Amazonian outfit.

. . . Before government steps in to pick the winner, people should stop and think.  Such shoving aside of other economic life for the promises that a property owner/developer with the political heft theoretical offers when asking that these powers exercised on its behalf often doesn’t go very well at all.  When the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Kelo v. City of New London case validated such shenanigans in New London, Connecticut, a huge swath of land was cleared to be turned over to Pfizer.  The land, all other properties removed from it, wound up as an abandoned, empty grassy field.

Forest City Ratner, taking over with eminent domain the 22 acres that is formally considered Atlantic Yards project (distractingly renamed "Pacific Park" out of embarrassment and to side-step bad press), has probably slowed the development in the area where it supplanted its competitors.  Forest City Ratner (its heirs and assigns including the Chinese government) has kept few of the promises Forest City Ratner made in connection with everything it was given by government officials on a preferential, essentially no-bid basis.  That mega-project, once projected to be complete in 2013, is years, perhaps decades away from completion.  At one point the revised estimate of the then head of ESDC was that it could take perhaps 40 years in all to complete.  Meanwhile the developer has destroyed affordable housing it will never replace.
Because ESDC’s powers are so phenomenal, its procedures require that it only come in to exercise its powers in an area if there is a letter from the locality (in the case New York City) inviting it in to supersede local laws.  In this case that letter is probably being delivered by Mayor de Blasio.  However, perhaps to give de Blasio cover, there was another letter signed by a slew of local electeds, city council members, saying that they wanted Amazon to come to New York.  These city council members are now, en mass, disavowing what they previously signed.  Time will tell whether their display of this announced change of heart will evolve into effective action.

Supplanting Other Economic Life With Subsidies And Preferences (Falling Short of Eminent Domain)

Whether or not ESDC actually exercises its condemnation powers in any respect, the preferences and subsidies that are to be given Amazon will have an exiling effect pushing out others.   Maybe the Amazon plan will ultimately provide “600-seat public school, affordable space for manufacturers, arts groups and early-stage tech companies,” but at a Department of Education building at 44-36 Vernon Boulevard, approximately 1,000 staff will be kicked out of the area.  The cost for them to pull up stakes and rebuild is probably not being calculated.  Further, with the redirection of two sites intended for residential development to Amazon, those sites will not produce the approximately 1,500 units of affordable housing that was in the works.   So that lost housing must be considered as another cost.

All of the preferences and subsidies for Amazon will serve to push out, displace and deprive of opportunity other economic activity that would be looking to have a place in Long Island City’s relatively hot and active real estate market.  There is a flip side too: Those pushed-out competitor businesses will also be unhappily affected by diminished city services with Amazon-occupied properties subtracted from the tax base.

Our Government's Bet on Amazon Could Align New York With Amazon's Policies

When the government is incurring so many costs on behalf of Amazon, when it is putting so many eggs in the Amazon basket, it can affect long term alignments. . . . When I was at the state finance agencies we bonded out the state’s settlement income that resulted from successfully suing the tobacco companies, when New York State joined as plaintiff with other states around the union represented by their attorneys general.  What this meant was that the annual amounts that the tobacco companies had agreed to pay New York State as damages for dissemination of false and misleading information about cigarettes plus the consequent harm to the health of citizens and increased medical costs to the state were collected up front by the state through our issuance of billions of dollars in bonds, which were to be paid off over time from the payments the tobacco companies were obligated to make under the settlement.

Given the bonds were supporting the tobacco companies’ payments, I remember being personally worried that the state, wanting its bonds not to default, might acquire a vested interest in the continued financial health of the creditor tobacco companies through the issuance of the bonds.  I worried that the state might therefore want company cigarette sales to do well so the companies would always be able to make the payments unhampered by declining consumption.  But, for the very reason that the states had sued the tobacco companies, the state still needed to pursue health, safety and welfare goals; it still needed to continue to exercise its police powers to cut down on smoking and run tobacco consumption prevention programs.  In the case of our New York State bonds, that likely conflict of interest was forestalled through the purchase of bond insurance: If defaulting tobacco companies didn’t make their payments the bond insurer would have been left holding the bag after paying off the bond holders; it would be the state's problem.

Quite surely, one reason Amazon is moving here to the financial capital is to more closely align itself with the powers here.  But New York, as a policy matter, has to think about whether it will want to endorse Amazon’s monopoly practices.  It will also need to sort through its position on Amazon’s involvement and roots in the military, Amazon’s relationship with the CIA and the general ongoing implications respecting surveillance as the tech sector of the economy evolves.  It is worth remembering that once upon a time New York, a financial capital in the 1800s, was a northern city, but because of New York banks investing the cotton trade and plantations long after the legality of the slave trade itself was ended in the United States in 1807, New Yorkers were complicit in the perpetuation of slavery.
It’s easier to allege what you are that you are acting in a morally neutral way, that what you are doing is “just business,” if you don’t have sunk costs invested someone else's enterprise.  If your investment means that you have essentially become their partner, you will be quite reluctant to see their business succumb.

Does Alliance Between Government and Monopoly Produce Fascism?

Law professor Tim Wu, who ran for the Lieutenant Governor slot on the ticket with Zephyr Teachout when she was running for governor of New York State has his own anti-monopoly ideas.

He warns of a link between monopoly control and the rise of fascism and totalitarianism. 

Mr. Wu who has already written two excellent books, one “The Master Switch” helped earn him the title as “father of the concept of net neutrality.”  He has a new book out:  “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.”   He recently adapted his book into an op-ed for the New York Times Sunday Review section: Be Afraid of Economic ‘Bigness.’ Be Very Afraid.-
In the 1930s it contributed to the rise of fascism. Alarmingly, we are experimenting again with a monopolized economy.  November 10, 2018.

Explaining how control by monopolies contributed to the rise of fascism in the 1930s, particularly in Nazi Germany, Wu explains that “extreme economic concentration” creates economic conditions ripe for dictatorships when “democratic accountability” is avoided as loyal alliances are formed between those in power and large enterprises that then feel themselves to be above the law.  He points out how there is “there is a direct link between” such concentration “and the distortion of democratic process” given the escalating imbalance of power as huge corporations pursue their political goals.

In order to flat out reject it, Mr. Wu alludes to a line of thought, championed Robert Bork (of Saturday Night Massacre and rejected-supreme-court-nominee fame) and the “Chicago school” of law and economics.  Bork and the Chicago school argued to change antitrust law by saying that antitrust law should not concern itself with the political implications of concentrated economic power.  Wu concludes, rejecting that notion as false, saying:
We have forgotten that antitrust law had more than an economic goal, that it was meant fundamentally as a kind of constitutional safeguard, a check against the political dangers of unaccountable private power.

As the lawyer and consumer advocate Robert Pitofsky warned in 1979, we must not forget the economic origins of totalitarianism, that “massively concentrated economic power, or state intervention induced by that level of concentration, is incompatible with liberal, constitutional democracy.”
It is probably worthwhile to remember that one of the sometimes used definitions of "fascism" is an alignment that merges government and corporate power.

Will Alignment With Government Allow Amazon To Write The Rules of The Market Place?  

Earlier this year Stacy Mitchell, wrote a cover story for The Nation titled “Amazon Doesn’t Just Want to Dominate the Market—It Wants to Become the Market.– The company is a radically new kind of monopoly with ambitions that dwarf those of earlier empires.” February 15, 2018.

Speaking about Amazon on Democracy Now after the HQ2 deals were announced, Ms. Mitchell said that Amazon, increasingly the gatekeeper, was essentially “privatizing” what should be an open market where the rules that govern the buying and selling of goods are set by the public and open to view.  Instead, Amazon is making commerce its own private arena where Amazon, in control, “sets the terms of trade” and “basically creates the rules and regulations by which other companies and other participants are allowed to operate” rigging things to increasingly pick “the winners and losers,” and it using that “power to push others out of the marketplace and to gain more power for itself.”

She painted the picture saying, in part:
Amazon is so dominant in so many areas. It’s now capturing one out of every two dollars that Americans spend online. . .   it controls the underlying infrastructure for a lot of the internet—you know, over 40 percent of the world’s cloud computing capacity. It’s increasingly moving into shipping and package delivery. It’s taking on UPS and the Postal Service. It has the largest market share in home voice systems, through Alexa. And on and on it goes.

But I think, rather than think about Amazon as being dominant in any of these markets, the way to understand what this company is all about is that Amazon is about controlling the essential infrastructure that other companies need to use in order to reach the market. Its online platform, more than half of all product searches online now start at Amazon’s website. And what that means is that if you’re any company producing or retailing anything, increasingly, if you want to be able to reach consumers, you have to become a seller on Amazon’s platform. And what that means is that Amazon now controls your business. They have the ability to gather data on what you’re doing, to use that data to compete against you. They can levy a kind of tax on your trade. They can demote you in the search results. They can retaliate against you if you complain.
Remembering how Amazon is a giant information vacuum, sucking up tons of detailed information about its consumers and about the retailers selling to them through Amazon, allows you to understand the worries some have about how Amazon, with its "auction" ploy, managed to induce almost all the major cities in the country, all the economic centers, to collect, organize and supply to it vast amounts of confidential data about local economic activity.  Then think about Amazon's disposition to use information that only it is privy to tilt the playing field in its direction.  Now realize what an advantage the information Amazon now has in deploying its resources in terms of real estate investment and economic planning.

Amazon's Potential To Control Public Discourse

In her Nation cover story Mitchell noted that as it “inevitably transfers wealth to the few” the Amazon setup is also turning over to that lucky elite even the ability to regulate public discourse, plus much more, endowing them with:
the power over such crucial questions as which books and ideas get published and promoted, who may ply a trade and on what terms, and whether given communities will succeed or fail.
Her article points out that Amazon having aggressively sold books and other items below cost shutting down bookstores “in droves,” today “nearly half of all books, both print and digital, are sold by Amazon.”  Mitchell does not take next step of noting that, for a company with such significant CIA and military connections, that’s so dedicated to, and expert at, data collection and consumer profiling, the implications are enormous.

There is a lot to be thought about in this regard, including how Amazon chose to start its business with books, drove the industry and public toward digital books, and now also has extraordinary control other content, particularly the digitally supplied video and film, that is such an important part of the overall milieu for thought and discourse.

Robotic and Remote, Amazon Is Likely Civically Unhealthy and May Quash Innovation

On Democracy now Mitchell also said “our calculations suggest that we’re losing about two retail jobs for every one job created in an Amazon warehouse.”  The hemorrhaging of these jobs may be accompanied by a quashing of future innovation throughout the United States.  In her Nation article, Mitchell cites studies starting with work based on observations of paired cities by C. Wright Mills and economist Melville J. Ulmer that cities with locally owned businesses and local economic power are more economically robust and civically healthy, with a greater variety of jobs and residents more involved in community affairs, more investment in public infrastructure and better at problem solving.

But, probably more important. . .  Amazon’s total control and top-down robotic streamlining of everything it does, might be thought of as benefitting the public with a cost-saving efficiency that justifies all its aggressive usurpations, but near the end of her Nation article Mitchell reminds us that history tell us that “a surge of innovation and start-up activity” followed in the wake of the Federal antitrust actions against, AT&T, IBM, and Microsoft.  That's exactly the same point that Tim Wu made exploring this subject in “The Master Switch,” which also included his exploration of the creativity unleashed in the film industry when its vertical integration, and the related censorship affecting it, was broken up. Thereafter we saw the flourishing of “the new Hollywood era” (late 1960s to early 1980s) with more idiosyncratic, experimental films made with greater license that were more cerebral, edgier, more defiant, moodier, and more erotically explicit.

Jane Jacobs thought along similar lines when she explored where economic vitality and innovation flows from.   In her first, groundbreaking book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961), Jane Jacobs celebrated the dynamism, vitality and benefits of diversity in American cities.  She was rejecting the cookie cutter, centrally-produced, sterile monotony, albeit efficiency, of programs like Robert Moses’ exercises in “Urban Renewal.”  Jacobs, in her later books extended these concepts exploring granular examples of what brings vitality, dynamism, innovation and sustainability to national and city economies.

It’s too far afield to go deeply into all of Jacobs' ideas on the subject, but suffice it to say that, in Jacobs’ view, its not the efficiency of centralized planning that generates economic life and vitality; it’s quite the opposite— It’s the very messiness of a lack of centralized planning, and it’s a diverse environment where innovations are generated bottom-up, the result of serendipitous collisions of variety.  To add one more consideration: No doubt the multiplication of conscious observing human minds is certainly another essential part of the equation. . . That’s whatever stock you place in the future of A.I. ("Artificial Intelligence").

To Jacobs the economic monoculture of a car manufacturing city like Detroit, albeit however efficient as a passing phase, was a recipe for future economic stagnation.

The sometimes presumed efficiency of consolidation with top down and centralized control has its defenders.  It was one of the rationales resorted to by the gilded age robber barons of the nineteenth century to defend their aggregating empires.  Such a style of management known as “Weber-Taylor bureaucracy” or “Taylorism” was favored during the era of the Junker Aristocracy and in the Weimar Republic in Germany in the time that led into Hitler's era and was, as Ed D’Angelo (writing about libraries) noted, emulated by Vladimir Lenin who imported it to the Soviet Union.  It also, at that time, influenced the style of management in the United States, “Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller admired* the German model”
(* Some of the admiration flowed mutually: Hitler had a life-size, full-length portrait of Henry Ford on his office wall in Munich; the Germans awarded Ford and he accepted the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, in 1938, that nation's highest decoration for foreigners; and Ford subsidiaries busily manufactured armaments that the Nazis used against the U.S., trucks and planes.)
Does, such a consolidating, concentrated top down management approach help an economy and  civilization advance long term?  Did it help the Soviets catch up and advance into the modern era?  The Amazon created science fiction series "The Man in the High Castle," which speculatively posits a future that never happened, envisions that if Germany had won World War II to take over much of the United States, German efficiency would have led in short order to a range of technological advances . . .Humm: Maybe--  Or is Jane Jacobs right: Does such the kind of monoculture and lack of variety such as we are getting with Amazon's relentless march of takeovers lead, in the longer term, to stagnation?

Consumerism As The Trap

Why do we let Amazon get away with such bad behavior, especially if it is, in so many ways, so bad for our economic, civic and political health?   In an eloquent sermon at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Brooklyn, Reverend Ana Levy-Lyons, responding to the news of Amazon's arrival and dealing with a number of these issues, suggests that we are trapped by consumerism and the pay-off of what seem to be cheap purchases.

Reverend Levy-Lyons suggested that the way the Amazon world redefines us and appeals to us as just mere consumers flattens our dimensionality as human beings, so that we thus lack the “larger, fuller expressions of our selfhood,” winding up reduced to the part of us that just “takes from the world.”  Her verdict was that it results in a sort of  de-spiritualization and that, for example, as “consumers we want to buy books and music as cheaply as possible,” but as full-fledged “spiritual beings having a human experience on this earth . .  what we may really want is for writers and musicians to be able to make a living.”

The way out is not simple.  Economist John Maynard Keynes described a conundrum, the paradox of thrift, a sort of "prisoner's dilemma" proposition, that if everyone responded to a slow and uncertain economy by acting in their individual self interest to increase their rate of savings to be safe, then everybody would be hurt more as the economy was slowed down even further and made more uncertain as a result.  The Keynesian solution was governmental pump-priming, a sort of resort to collective action. . .

. . . When the question is what to do about Amazon, we may not realize it, but the solution is somewhat similar.  We might not quickly realize the similarity because, instead of thinking about prompting more spending overall, we are thinking about how to refrain from spending that goes to the big giant.  But the answer is again to view the situation in terms of what is best for everyone collectively, and, as Reverend Levy-Lyons suggests in her sermon, to act collectively to deal with it.  This may involve uniting into groups as Reverend Levy-Lyons gives the example of a collective of antiquarian book sellers that acted together in concert to protect one of their group when Amazon was victimizing them. . .

More likely, what is going to be more effective in terms of organizing collective action is for government to do its job in confronting Amazon as the monopoly it is and reining it in, in the ways it needs to be restrained.  That is why it is so unfortunate to see government instead aligning with Amazon and turning the powers of government over to Amazon.

Stalked Like Gazelles

Without collective action, separated from the rest of our herd, Amazon hunts us down like gazelles: Reverend Lev-Lyons began her sermon with a vivid description of how Amazon making “no effort to hide their tactics” during `negotiations' with companies about prices would stalk them “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle”: In fact, she pointed out that the Gazelle Project is “what Amazon called a new initiative to work out contracts with small publishers,” and that involved simply making those companies it was `negotiating' with disappear from its internet universe when it wanted to show them they had no negotiating power.  Disappearing from that universe now means companies can't survive.

It may be testament to Amazon’s ubiquity that there is more than one “gazelle” story to tell about Amazon.  In her cover story for The Nation, Stacy Mitchell told a story about the trauma that a sporting goods company, coincidentally (?) named Gazelle Sports, making running shoes, had in dealing with Amazon.  Once popular and highly rated, the company suffered a downturn as more of its shoppers ever more reflexively did more and more of their overall shopping at Amazon. Ultimately:
Gazelle Sports would join Amazon Marketplace, becoming a third-party seller on the digital giant’s platform. “If the customer is on Amazon, as a small business you have to say, ‘That is where I have to go,’” [The founder of the company] explains. “Otherwise, we are going to close our doors.”
Amazon Prime - Amazon Videos

We previously mentioned in passing, "The Man in the High Castle."  That's just one example of a made for internet streaming that is available to be watched free by Amazon Prime members.  Another that you'll hear a lot about is "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," that swept up a lot of Emmy Awards while also getting a couple of Golden Globes awards.  You can watch these series for free if you are an Amazon Prime member, which means that you have already pre-paid for Amazon accelerated shipping as an inducement to do all your shopping there.   

One thing that has so far gone unmentioned is that the Amazon Long Island City waterfront site would be just blocks, only a few minutes away, from Silvercup Studios, that's one of the city's very important film studios where, for example, HBO once filmed "The Sopranos."  Specifically, Amazon's offices would be just a fifteen minute walk to the existing studio facilities and perhaps just half that to the planned Silvercup Studios West expansion planned for the waterfront just below the 59th Street Queensborough Bridge.  With Amazon almost singlehandedly replacing all the video stores of the days of yore, being the only source for many films once obtainable there, and now expensively investing in its own video shows, films and content, this should not go unnoticed.

Amazon will have a headquarters in the political capital of the United States and here in the financial capital as well: Maybe Amazon will never need to open another headquarters (HQ4?) in Hollywood, as the entertainment capital of the country.

We Don't Really Know What's Coming

Norman Order, the city’s foremost expert on the Atlantic Yard mega-project and its dealings with ESDC and local elected officials, wrote an analysis based on that history cautioning how little we can be sure of what to expect based on what we know or is promised now: “Atlantic Yards within a few years changed significantly.”  See:  For Amazon HQ2 deal, Atlantic Yards serves as a warning, November 15, 2018 By Norman Oder.

Oder stresses the vagueness of the elusive subsidy calculations and the supposed benefit they generate, plus the lack of transparency that can be expected going forward, the probable lack of enforceablity along with a disinclination to enforce agreements: “If Atlantic Yards is a guide, ESD will be quite accommodating to Amazon, willing to revise agreements and evade transparency.”

What might be coming?  Be open to thinking big--  Previous to the announcement of Amazon’s interest, what is slated to become the Amazon site, land along the 1000 foot long artificially created shoreline inlet known as Anabel basin, was being covered more innocuously as another planned rezoning and real estate development. .  That might involve the tallest building outside of Manhattan, a 700 foot tower.

Calculations of How Hugh The Subsidies?: An Afterthought

Given all of the above, the question of Amazon huge subsidies and just how much they are should be an absurd afterthought.  The New York Times editorialized that Amazon shouldn’t be getting the subsidies calculating those subsidies at $1.5 billion.  See: Opinion-New York’s Amazon Deal Is a Bad Bargain- The city has what the company wants, talent. Why pay them $1.5 billion to come? By The Editorial Board, November 14, 2018.  Another Times article says $1.7 billion.

Good Jobs First,  the watchdog group on economic development incentives, calculates:
The taxpayer costs of these two deals is high, both in absolute terms and on a per-job basis, contrary to Amazon’s artful spin. Together, we believe they exceed $4.6 billion and the cost per job in New York is at least $112,000, not the $48,000 the company used in a selective and incomplete press release calculation. (11/14/18)
Good Jobs First calculates the subsidies of both the New York and Virginia deals as exceeding $4.6 billion and says that separately, just New York State’s award under the Excelsior program is projected at $1.525 to $1.7 billion.   Greg Leroy executive director of Good Jobs First discussed the subsidies along with others on Democracy Now on November 14. 2018 and at 7:30 AM was also on the air on WBAI’s Morning Show that same morning.

Peter Rugh writing in the Indypenent, like many others puts the total subsidies in the $3 billion range, $1.7 billion in subsidies from the state and another $1.3 billion from the city.  He observes that the “state legislature could put a cap on the governor’s Excelsior tax credit program but many in Albany are ready to roll out the Amazon welcome mat.”

On top of this there will probably be other subsidies piled, like perhaps Federal EB 5 program  for financing. One day perhaps we'll see.

Mr. Oder notes at the end of his article, that when Governor Andrew Cuomo was asked;
why the New York incentive package was worth twice as much per employee compared with the one in Virginia, where taxes are lower, Cuomo said he didn’t know how it was calculated. “There’s all sorts of ways to work these numbers,” he said.

That’s for sure. Ultimately, neither he nor de Blasio will be around to do that math, while future governors will have ESD at his or her disposal.
* * *

When, in my tender youth, I heard about the horrors of the trap of "the company store," its seemed almost like an impossible fiction from the past.  Now-a-days, it is remarkable what we seem to take pretty much in stride coming from Amazon . . .  even as, like things once were in those days or yore, Amazon is so all enveloping that it is everything.  Like in those days, it even seems to have become the government.  Meanwhile, "The Company Store"?  We seem to know that now as a clever marketing name that was adopted for a retail outlet .  . . .

. . . Not surprisingly, they too sell through Amazon.