Thursday, December 4, 2008

Will It Come? What the Bloomberg Administration Wills at Willets Point (Part IV)

(Continued from Part III)

Where the City Council Once Stood on the Bloomberg Administration’s Plan

On April 21, 2008, a majority of the New York City Council's members, 29 out of 51 City Council members not including Bloomberg’s ally, Speaker Quinn, expressed their "adamant opposition" to the proposed Willets Point redevelopment in writing to Robert Lieber, New York City Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. The opposition was led by City Councilman for the area, Hiram Monserrat. (Council Declares Willets Point Plan DOA, April 21, 2008.)

In August, even more City Council members (32 eventually) signed a letter strengthened by its statement of a principled stand against the use of eminent domain in the area:

A day before a City Planning Commission hearing on the Bloomberg administration’s plan to remake Willets Point, a majority of City Council members sent a sharply-worded letter to the planning commissioner opposing the project.

In the letter to Commissioner Amanda Burden, 30 council members say they are in “absolute opposition” to the current proposal to redevelop Willets Point, citing concerns over eminent domain, affordable housing, displaced workers and traffic.

“Unfortunately, this is a product of a flawed process that has continuously ignored the requests of the community in pursuit of a top-down planning process that sets a dangerous precedent for large-scale development projects citywide,” the council members wrote in the letter.

The signature drive was organized by the affordable housing group NY Acorn and is the second time in the last four months it has organized a majority of council members to write to a city official opposing Willets Point. Twenty-nine council members sent a similar letter to Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber in April.

This time, the council members say they will not support the plan unless eminent domain is taken off the table in negotiations with landowners; half of the 5,500 housing units are guaranteed to be affordable; a comprehensive relocation and compensation plan for small business owners and employees is put in place; and a community benefits agreement that includes traffic mitigation is implemented.
(See:, City Council members blast Willets Pt. plan, by Daniel Massey, Crain's NY Business, August 12, 2008.)

No Land Grab’s Prescience on ACORN

In passing along an extract of the Crain’s article above, No Land Grab presciently commented as follows:
. . .we have to admit we're curious about ACORN's role. Sure, their interest in the affordable housing makes sense, but based on their track record with Atlantic Yards, we have a hard time believing that they give a hoot about the use of eminent domain. Left to ACORN, that would surely be a bargaining chip happily traded for a richer mix of affordable units.
(See: No Land Grab, August 12, 2008)

Come this November the City Council voted to support a city administration plan that will use eminent domain. As No Land Grab predicted ACORN swung over to support the plan. Though the plan calls for eminent domain actually to be used, it is important to remember that the threat of eminent domain, which is very little different, has been already used by the city in negotiating deals it has reached to oust owners thus far.

Principle for Principle’s Sake or for the Sake of Haggling

There is a value to adhering to principle for principle's sake. Principles should only give ground to competing principles. Otherwise the abandonment of principle tends to leave things confused. It is often illustrated with a famous little anecdote supposed to have involved remarks variously ascribed to the wit of George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill or W. C. Fields. Whomever it was, the wit is supposed to have asked his female dinner companion if, for a million pound/dollars, she would sleep with him. The woman indicates her willingness to assent to the proposition. “For five pounds/dollars?” he follows up. “What do you take me for?”replies the woman aghast. The wit responds, “We have established what you are, madam. We are now merely haggling over the price.”

When the City Council opposed the use of eminent domain at Willets Point they did so enunciating a principle. The City Council did not set this principle aside because it succumbed in the face of another principle, they set it aside because in the end they were apparently only haggling over a price as we shall discuss.

The Value of Opposing Eminent Domain Abuse on Principle: Adam Smith’s Guiding Invisible hand vs. the City’s Hidden Hand of Developer Relationships

There are reasons to vigorously oppose eminent domain abuse based on principle. It ensures equity and justice. By promoting just compensation neutrally negotiated in the market place, it assures that Adam Smith’s invisible hand will help guide things. Using eminent domain in New York, especially with this city administration, removes matters from the impartial guidance of that invisible hand. The hands into which matters are delivered are those of government that work unseen in another sense because a lack of transparency obscures what they do. Aside from fictional negotiating positions, there is the promotion of agenda which have to be questioned due to problematically close relations the administration has with big developers. (See: Wednesday, October 22, 2008, Are the Atlantic Yards Land Grab and City Official Fraud Being Used to Finance Bloomberg’s Bid for Billionaire Term Limit Exceptionalism?)

The Price Placed on Principle Was Not High

When the haggling was all over, what was the price that the City Council, and ACORN associated with it, considered acceptable such that the opposition to eminent domain abuse should not prevail? Did an important principle and the Willets Point businesses get abandoned for a high or low price? The Willet Point redevelopment is a mixed-use development. Part of it will be residential. The idea that an extra 15% of the residential units that will be set aside for higher income families making less than 130 percent of the city’s median income does not seem as if the City Council and ACORN held out for a substantial price. We are looking at two thousand jobs lost in exchange for just a few apartments for a few above-average-income families. The apartments are perhaps not so different from units the market might have provided anyway. The skimpy sell-out is a reminder to beware should eminent domain ever be headed your way.

ACORN’s Eagerness to Broker Deals: a Poor Ally That Sells out the Community Too Fast

ACORN is supposed to be representing the interests of low-income working people. In theory they should care about the jobs of those currently working in Willets Point. We have noted in prior writing that ACORN does not seem to set a very high price on selling out the community interest. They seem more interested in being on the in when “deals” are brokered. The interest they have in being perceived as key to the brokering of deals causes them to opt in on deals which they should reject out of principle. (See: Saturday, June 28, 2008, Selling out the Community for Beans (A Giant Wrong) and Thursday, July 31, 2008, A Proper Relationship with the Host?) ACORN’s eagerness to be in on brokering deals may make it an unreliable ally; it is likely to be the first to break ranks to embrace questionable deals. (See: Friday, July 18, 2008, National ACORN's (episode of) scandal, and NY ACORN's dubious Brooklyn stadium deal (in 2000).)

Latest News On ACORN: Hidden Undisclosed Major Conflict of Interest

There is recent major news about why ACORN may be an unreliable defender of a community’s interest. It is possible for ACORN to have very significant conflicts of interest that go undisclosed. The story crops up in the context of Brooklyn’s proposed Atlantic Yards megadevelopment. In theory, ACORN, which signed a so-called Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), is supposed to be enforcing that agreement for the benefit of the community. In actuality, that isn’t possible because, as discussed in the articles last linked to above, ACORN didn’t properly represent the community and didn’t negotiate any true benefit for it. It now turns out that months ago ACORN further impaired its ability to act on behalf of the community by taking an undisclosed “grant and (low-interest) loan worth $1.5 million” from developer Forest City Ratner, the very same party against whom it is supposed to be enforcing the CBA for the community’s interest. For more on this major unfolding story see: With $1.5M grant/loan, FCR bails out national ACORN, parent of major CBA partner, Tuesday, December 02, 2008.

Hiram Monserrat: What Could He Have Been Thinking When He Sold Out?

The City Council vote followed the tradition of the Council voting in accordance with the vote of the City Councilman from the area in question. It was therefore key when Councilman Hiram Monserrat switched from opposition to support for the plan and its use of eminent domain. (It resulted in a 42-to-2 vote to approve the plan, with one abstention.) Monserrat led the switch-over based on the provision of the additional 15% units. The 15% additional units will probably be subsidized so it can be asserted that by negotiating for them Councilman Hiram Monserrat has brought extra subsidy into his district (and away from others). Still, had residential units been built instead over the parking lots next to the stadium or over the train yards, this additional benefit, such as it is, could have been directed there.

We should note that the commendable no votes against the plan were those of Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn).

Councilman Monserrat was in the minority of city council members who recently voted to oppose an extension of term limits for the Mayor and the City Council. That principled vote on term limits was a courageous one because it was clear that council members in the minority were expected to pay a price for their opposition. Bloomberg and Quinn were using strong-arm tactics to get the third term the Mayor was pursuing. Council members voting against were expecting to lose committee chairmanship appointments and funding for their area as a result. It is interesting to reflect whether Councilman Monserrat was expecting to recoup from the Mayor and Quinn what he sacrificed in his principled term limits vote via his subsequent, we would say, unprincipled vote in favor of the administration’s Willets Point plan. It is fascinating to wonder whether in this indirect way the term limits fight helped advance the Willets Point plan.

Willets Point Community Riled by Monserrat

The resident business owners of Willets Point were riled enough by Montserrat’s vote abandoning principle so that they painted over his name on the campaign bus. (Mayor, Monserrate Reach Agreement Over Willets Point, by: NY1 News, 11/13/2008)

The Wilets Point owners may have felt entitled to support since they did repair work on the bus in expectation that there would be coordination involving the use of the vehicle for activist opposition purposes. One of them was arrested in connection with the incident afterward. (See: Olaya held by police after removing Monserrate’s name from truck, by Stephen Stirling, November 24, 2008)

Political Kabuki Dance “Forgetting” After Doing the Mayor’s Bidding

Ironically, right after the Wednesday 11/13 Willets Point vote giving the Bloomberg administration exactly what it wanted, Christine Quinn and the City Council made a big show of standing up to the mayor on some budget-cutting matters with a Thursday 11/14 press conference. It had New York Times writing about Speaker Quinn’s “harsh language that she seldom uses about Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg” and wondering at the outset of the article:

The unusually sharp criticism of the mayor by Ms. Quinn drew attention at City Hall. And it left some members of the Council and other city officials wondering: Was Ms. Quinn simply speaking out about issues she feels strongly about? Or was she trying to shore up her support among council members in the aftermath of the bitter term limits battle?

(See: Quinn Vehemently Denounces Bloomberg’s Plans, by David W. Chen and Fernanda Santos, November 14, 2008.)

For Noticing New York’s own musings about the Christine Quinn’s choreographing of political Kabuki dance to induce forgetfulness about the way she has been joined at the hip with the mayor and pushed the mayor’s desired term limit package, see the “Political Kabuki Dance to Induce Forgetting” headed section in Remembering; Not Forgetting in Chinatown, Tuesday, November 4, 2008.

Knowing What Really May Be Right

A new 75-acre neighborhood, 80% the size of Battery Park City, is an overwhelming undertaking. To assess the merit of what is proposed involves absorbing a huge amount of information. It would be presumptuous to say that Noticing New York is exactly right about all the conclusions we are tending toward here.

Cues From the Community - Communities?

Normally we would defer heavily to the community. There has reportedly been some community involvement in preparing the Willets Point redevelopment plan. We have not spent much time assessing the quality of that community input, but it seems to have come primarily from the residents of Downtown Flushing who recognize that the Willets Point is isolated from it as a separate neighborhood. The community input which is being acted upon is not coming from the businesses of Willets Point as represented by the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association.

For description about the “community involvement” that is being recognized by the city you can go to The results of what community involvement there has been is, according to the city EDC documents, the work of the “Downtown Flushing Task Force . . .comprised of various city and state technical agencies, Flushing developers and business owners, Queens Community Board #7, and local elected officials” and community outreach the highlight of which was “was a two-day public workshop, held on February 20-21, 2003." That produced a report that said that devolvement goals with respect to Willets Point included improving the visual experience of Willets Point:

Achieving the redevelopment goals for the Flushing River waterfront and Downtown Flushing requires improving the visual experience of Willets Point, . . .

Yes, it also included other standard catch phrases like upgrading “environmental quality” and expanding its role “as an economic driver in the area” but Downtown Flushing’s desire to improve the “visual experience” of a separate neighborhood their view of which is mostly obscured by the elevated highways has to make one think. Should we suspect that there is a certain amount of NIMBYism, given that we are dealing with scrap metal and car part recycling “junkyard” businesses?

Sense of What We Might Get

No doubt the idea of a pristine new neighborhood descending full blown from the sky presents a pretty picture just like in the renderings. Like Brasília, the place would come out of the mind of planners and by virtue of significant public expenditure and intervention. Though the new neighborhood would be 80% the size of Battery Park City, the renderings available are few, perhaps fewer than are sometimes done for a developer’s single new signature building. We have to note though that those drawings that have been rendered with any precision do a good job of making even surrounding elevated highways look like an attractive part of the environment. Will it be WYSIWYG, (“What you see is what you get”)? Also consider what one would hear and breath. Like ourselves, the Municipal Art Society worries that the experience of the highways with their associated noise pollution and emissions and will be a problem for residential residents.

Direction of Resources in Willets Point When the Future Comes

It is not justifiable comfort to say, if the Willets Point businesses are eventually removed from Willets Point, that we then would prefer to see public resources poured into the reconstruction of the Willets Point area rather than into a much more destructive project like Atlantic Yards. Atlantic Yards, is after all a project that will be massively destructive not only in its demolition phase but also in all its construction phases as well.

Our more serious concern is that rather than pouring resources into a Willets Point rebuilding, we will subside into limbo. Just because projects are approved or demolition begun does not mean that projects proceed. Not far away, another project involving the former Flushing Airport was undertaken and abandoned by the Bloomberg administration. This was 2004 so it was quite recent in terms of megadevelopment time scales (See: Abandonment of the plan to develop the old Flushing Airport; City Defers Development of Wholesale Center, by Winnie Hu and Colin Moynihan, October 17, 2004) Though demolition was begun, facts change, opposition and environmental concerns were weighed differently; the Bloomberg administration has now indefinitely postponed and has no other plans for the redevelopment of 26-acre site of the former Flushing Airport.

The Willets Point businesses are preparing to defend themselves legally, but it is quite possible they will only seek a better relocation deal. (See: Tenant businesses lawyer up, make game plan, by Stephen Stirling, November 19, 2008) With lack of support and weakened by the city’s divide-and-conquer tactics, it is possible the current community of businesses will largely cease to exist and that no redevelopment efforts will thereafter replace what is missing. It might be that we do not build on the existing parking lots because we love their prairie expanse more than environmentally recycling junkyards, and in the end, with the junkyards torn down, get an even greater expanse of parking lots.

False Steps; Eminent Domain

Whatever the merits of the project which we might find debatable, we are certain that it was a false step to abandon principled opposition to the use of the use eminent domain that is going to force these private-ownership to private-ownership transfers. When eminent domain is used people are desensitized to the actual economic trade-offs in decisions being made. One is left instead wading through, as stand-ins, the suspiciously boosterish figures of an administration that constantly errs on the side of promoting big-developer interests. Nothing sharpens the mind like the avoidance of eminent domain, sharpening focus on the realistic superiority of alternatives. Given the way things work, avoidance of eminent domain therefore winds up being abandoned as a principle not by hard-nosed realists but by fantasists.

In the case of Willets Point, opposition to eminent domain was abandoned by the City Council (and ACORN) with no countervailing principle in mind and for the very small price of a few residential units (15%) for some a families with higher-than-average incomes. At the same time the City Council and ACORN may not even get what they think they were bargaining for because they inadequately questioned the realism of the Bloomberg administration’s plans.

There is a similarly disconcerting fantastical aspect to the city’s embrace of single big-developer megadevelopment. The city abdicates public responsibility for vast acreage in the unrealistic hope that private developers will, over the course of decades, exercise monopolistic control to serve the public interest more reliably than an accountable government.

The Fruit of the Future

After seven years the Bloomberg administration has not yet been in office long enough for its most grandly conceived, huge-scale real estate megadeal mistakes to come to fruition. Some mistakes like the Jets Stadium on the West Side of Manhattan were intercepted early enough. There is a chance, of course, that Willets Point will overcome all the obvious challenges and turn out better than should reasonably be expected. If the project proceeds, we will certainly hope for the best. Nevertheless, wishing won’t ever make it so.

Willets Point could one day provide one more unpalatable taste of the multiple failures that the Bloomberg administration, if it continues in office, will be ushering in. We strongly suspect that we could find ourselves looking back, with after-the-fact regret, to bemoan the mistake of crushing of a community of jobs and scrap metal and car part businesses that had not outlived their usefulness . . . crushed before their time and before we really knew what would be worthwhile and viable replacements.

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