Friday, July 31, 2009

Ratner: The Little Boy Trying To Get Too Many Cookies Out of The Cookie Jar and Getting None



(Above, Bruce Ratner looking all too cute- We have to talk to our artist- as the little boy trying to get too many cookies out of the cookie jar and thereby getting none.)

(Updated as of August 31, 2009.)

Yesterday (July 30, 2009) we testified again at ESDC Atlantic Yards hearings where we spoke in terms of the greedy little boy who can get no cookies out of the cookie jar because he wants to get too many. Video of our testimony is available at: Friday, July 31, 2009,
Sparse turnout on Day 2 of hearing on “Ghost Project Plan”; Jeffries, Kruger testify; open mike night for BUILD, unions.
We have frequently utilized this metaphor before and will have more on it later with a fuller account of our testimony. Meanwhile, please refer also to our testimony from the previous day which, though we were cut off at the end, is available in full and with links in our prior post of that day’s hearing. (See: Wednesday, July 29, 2009, First Day of ESDC Hearings on New Sight-Unseen Version of Atlantic Yards: Some Noticing New York’s Testimony and Questions Asked.)

Please note that we have been substantially updating that July 29, 2009 post’s account of the first day of the hearing and will be doing so further. So if you if you haven’t yet read the latest additions about Kathy Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, and our conversation with Bertha Lewis about the affordable housing units that ACORN did NOT negotiate for, you may want to read through to the latest additions at the end of that July 29 post to find the updates.

Here is a list (from which we read) of the very sweet “cookies” Mr. Ratner has been trying to get out of the public cookie jar when we delivered our testimony. As you can see from the video posted in the Atlantic Yards Report account, with only three minutes to testify we were only able to get to number 11 on the list.- The list goes to 24 but can easily be added to (contribute more in the comments section if you wish).
1. The right to 22 acres without a competitive bid.

2. An exclusive monopoly by a single developer over the ownership and development of more than 30 contiguous acres of central Brooklyn.

3. Eminent domain abuse and windfall profit from that abuse.

4. Extreme unprecedented density.

5. A lower capacity railyard for the MTA and Long Island Rail Road that will not allow for needed flexibility or provide future expansion and growth.

6. Seizure of public streets, sidewalks and avenues.

7. Sidestepping proper process and ULURP.

8. Override of local zoning.

9. Bait-and-switch promotion with value engineering to save the developer money without benefitting the public.

10. Outrageously bad design and superblocking.

11. No real commitment to provide affordable housing. As we discussed with Betha Lewis of ACORN the first day of the ESDC hearings at which we were giving our testimony, anyone who earns an annual income from $38,407 to $46,086 (HUD family of four standard) is not going to be provided with affordable housing. Coming into the hearing we asked some of the demonstrators demonstrating in favor of the project whether they had incomes in that range. They said their incomes were lower, in which case ACORN did not negotiate to have any affordable units included in the project for them because the lower income units would be provided by the federal tax code in any event. Then skipping over the units ($38,407 to $46,086) that are not being provided, one finds that one is dealing with units that are renting for $3,000 a month, $2,300 a month, $1,500 a month: Units that the market would be providing anyway. In other words, ACORN basically negotiated that Forest City Ratner would provide absolutely nothing in terms of affordable housing.

(Above chart shows the minor portion of units in Atlantic Yards referred to as "affordable." Click to enlarge.)

12. A special exemption from the Section 421-a Real Property tax law so that the developer can escape paying real estate taxes without providing to the public the same level of affordable housing that other developers would have to provide to get benefits under that law.

13. $2-$3 Billion in no-bid taxpayer subsidies.

14. A special tax loophole to finance private arena which loophole was unconscionably shilled for in Washington by the city and state officials.

15. Preferential treatment for a developer despite risk to the public associated with the developer’s extreme financial weakness.

16. Sight-unseen approval of the project by the ESDC board without first letting the public know what the project will be.

17. The developer has been allowed to have a five year period go by during which it has not had to produce a design for an arena it actually intends to build. And all that time the project is allowed to continue despite there being no approval in place for an arena actually intended to be built. This entire five year period has gone by without the public agencies actually having any concrete or written deal with the developer.

18. City manipulation of real property tax assessments creating the risk and substantial likelihood that tax ex-exempt bonds issued to fund the arena could be declared taxable.

19. Three decades for the developer to complete the project (while creating blight and parking lots in the meantime).

20. Proceeding without a real, true and accurate cost benefit analysis or even a reasonable pretense of one.

21. Proceeding only with a portion of the project which the city Independent Budget Office projects will be a net loss for the city when the are no plans with respect to proceeding with the rest of the project.

22. Destruction of historic and worthwhile buildings in order to twist the public’s arm for support for “something” to be built and in order for the developer to amass extra windfalls of density.

23. Garishly oppressive design in the middle of brownstone neighborhoods as epitomized by giving the developer permission to have a fifteen-story illuminated and animated billboard towering over neighboring streets and buildings.

24. Giving the developer the right to privately collect all the proceeds from the right to name public places: The developer will receive $20 million a year for 20 years ($400 million in all) for the right to name what is supposedly a publicly owned arena after Britain’s Barclays bank. In addition, piling it on, the news recently came out that the developer will now also be given another asset that ought to be similarly valued, the right to name two city subway stations (and to have the NYC subway map redesigned) to feature name of that British bank in the station names, yet the developer will only have to pay 1% to the public/MTA of the annual $20 million amount it is getting from the bank for naming rights.

The fable about the little boy and the cookie jar is premised on the idea that it would be acceptable if the little boy got one or two cookies out of the cookie jar and that it is really only the inordinate quantity that the greedy little boy wants to get that is the problem. In our retelling of this story as a fable about Ratner’s outsized greed it should be noted that it would be inappropriate for Ratner to get even one of the above listed “sweet deals” out of the public cookie jar. Not even one of them taken singly is fair to the public or the kind of thing that ought to be allowed. Even so, our politicians do not protect us adequately and are often apt to let all sorts of favoritism pass. We have too often seen that kind of indefensible tolerance of things adverse to the public interest before.

If Ratner had pursued only a few of his outrageous requests he would probably have a project unstoppably in hand by now and likely underway a while ago. Instead, he has thwarted himself and this is as it ought to be. This mega-project should be allowed to die and it should be remembered that it died because of Ratner’s outsized little-boy greed.

(This post was updated as of August 31, 2009.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

First Day of ESDC Hearings on New Sight-Unseen Version of Atlantic Yards: Some Noticing New York’s Testimony and Questions Asked

(Press conference and rally protesting Atlantic Yards outside ESDC hearing. Obviously many elected officials, candidates and campaign signs in evidence.)

We were at the first day of the Empire State Development Corporation hearings today on the new version of Atlantic Yards which is proposed to be approved sight-unseen by the public and the ESDC board. We testified and took the opportunity to ask questions of those who were there. There were also press conferences that went on, the most important being the really big one protesting the project before the hearing which was well attended by elected officials and candidates.

In this post we will first provide you with our testimony and then we will tell you the about some of the questions we asked of other attendees. Answered or not, we got some interesting insights.

Noticing New York’s Testimony

Here is our Noticing New York testimony which we read almost entirely to the end of before our three minutes for oral testimony concluded. We handed in a written copy with attachments. It is probably best read on the web though to take advantage of the hyperlinks.

* * * * *

July 29, 2009

Empire State Development Corporation
Attention: Steve Matlin, Senior Counsel
633 Third Avenue, 37th Floor
New York, NY 10017

Re: Public Comment for Atlantic Yards MGPP- Today’s Public Hearing

Dear ESDC:

This comment is being offered in the name of Noticing New York, an independent entity dedicated to the proposition that developing New York and appreciating New York go hand in hand.

I offer this testimony as an attorney experienced in real estate, as an urban planner and as former senior government official who worked for more than a quarter of a century in the areas of public finance and development for the state finance authorities.
1. There is good development and there is bad development.

2. Good development begets and whets the appetite for more development. Bad development creates enemies and stagnation. Good development moves relatively fast, providing jobs in the here and now rather than in the hereafter (after many of those now looking for jobs will have moved on to other things). For instance, if the alternative UNITY plan had been adopted there would be a lot of people working right now and a lot of people housed and about to be housed.

3. Good development finds a quicker more ready acceptance by the community, works with its values and doesn’t needlessly destroy its landmarks and worthwhile buildings.

4. Good development doesn’t go out of its way to embrace monopolistic ownership and control of huge swaths of the city by a single developer abusing eminent domain.

5. Good development doesn’t clog the natural forces of the economy and displace better competing alternatives.

6. Atlantic Yards is NOT good development.

7. The Atlantic Yards plan and design (such as we have actually been allowed to know what it may now be) proclaims by its obvious inappropriateness that it is a sponge for subsidy and benefit for a single developer at the expense of the public: its overbearing density through zoning overrides, the seizure of public streets, sidewalks and avenues, the suspiciously irregular footprint taking extra land through eminent domain abuse.

8. Consider all the following that bespeak the “impermissible favoritism” of a blank check for a developer-initiated, developer-driven sight-unseen project

a. No identification at this time of the supposed benefit of the megadevelopment. Benefit will be determined on an “as-you-go” basis: The project will start with the arena which the city’s Independent Budget Office has determined to be a net loss for the public.

b. Approval of (and these public hearings for) a sight-unseen project where nothing is yet designed (after half a decade!), not even the arena, and where an architect has not even been selected for the rest of what is being approved. The only promise is that it will all be “value-engineered,” i.e. built cheaply so as to cost the developer as little as possible.

c. Refusal to identify the total amount of subsidy that the megadevelopment will be given. Since ESDC is withholding or says it doesn’t know the amount, we offer our own calculations that total public subsidy being diverted into the project will surely exceed $2 billion and may well approach $3 billion.

d. No credible enforcement of or holding the developer to specific terms. ESDC has fashioned contract remedies that don’t kick in for 25 years and this hearing is held specifically because ESDC has just recently rewritten the deal, tilting it hundreds of millions of extra dollars more in the developer’s favor without any quid pro quo.

e. A no-bid award of a megadevelopment to a single developer on what is essentially a long-term, low-cost option basis. The breaking up of the project into optional (and assignable) segments undermines the specious pretexts that have been given for favoring the blank check to this developer over the Battery Park City model of bidding out to multiple developers.
9. In the end, the lopsided unparametered monopoly that has been “negotiated” by ESDC (“negotiated” is hardly a credible verb in this context) affords the government no leverage to insist that Forest City Ratner provide any level of public benefit in exchange for all the public giveaways by virtue of the blank check it has been allowed to write for itself.

Sincerely,


Michael D. D. White

ATTACHMENTS

(A few Noticing New York articles on Atlantic Yards that also link to others.)

1. Tuesday, November 11, 2008, JANE JACOBS ATLANTIC YARDS REPORT CARD

2. Sunday, June 28, 2009, Naming a Problem: The MTA Gives Ratner the Right to Name Brooklyn Subway Stations “Barclays”

3. Thursday, July 23, 2009, The Hit and Miss of Last Night’s Public “Information” Meeting on Atlantic Yards

4. Monday, June 1, 2009, Negotiating With Your Contractor: The Atlantic Yards As Kitchen Renovation Metaphor


(Civil rights Attorney Norman Siegel at press conference explaining the absence of procedural due process protection against eminent domain abuse: You don't get a day in court to defend your property. Mr. Siegel, involved in opposing Atlantic Yards from the beginning, brought no campaign signs, suggesting that gathering in opposition ought to be nonpartisan. )

Attendance by Political Office Holders and Candidates

The hearing and the press conference and rally preceding it was well attended by political officer holders and candidates, including two candidates for mayor, Tony Avella and Billy T. (Billy Talen, better known as the Reverend Billy), the vast majority most of whom were speaking in opposition. The hearings are being held over two days but we didn’t see the other Billy T. candidate for mayor, Comptroller Bill Thompson, who has at least made some noise about changing the way City Hall puts the interest of connected real estate developers above the public. We’ll see how Thompson handles the opportunity of these hearings, including whether he shows up at the hearings tomorrow, which are likely to be less well attended.

Two others we will looking for tomorrow will be Bill deBlasio, City Councilman for the 39th, and a candidate for Public Advocate like long time opponent Norman Seigel who was there (see image above), and Steve Levin Vito Lopez’s chief of staff and a candidate in the 33rd Council District race to replace David Yassky. (Yassky recently spoke before the MTA opposing the same project revisions that the hearing was about.)

Bill de Blasio was in the news this week winning a fight to stay on the ballot despite a typo in the fillig of his petitions. We were looking for de Blasio, who called for "a moratorium on demolition until there is a written plan" that "confirms what will be built when and confirms affordability" and that he "can't support" an arena-only plan (before the project actually deteriorated to the extent that it now has) because it seems that we are going to have to count on the new public advocate as a critical line of defense against boondoggle mega-projects like Atlantic Yards. We are looking for candidates that will have their heart in the job.

We were looking for Steve Levin, first because he could be clearer about his position on Atlantic Yards and other development issues, though he expressed the following about his Atlantic Yards position (again, before the project actually deteriorated to the extent that it now has):
I have many serious concerns about the Ratner plan as it is currently proposed. I especially have concerns regarding the proposed density of the development and the resulting strain that this density will put on the area's infrastructure, e.g. traffic, public transportation, and public school capacity. In addition, I am against the use of eminent domain unless in the case of overriding public benefit resulting from that use*.
Second, when we ran into Mr. Levin Friday morning at Teresa’s on Montague Street (a favored location for “power breakfasts”) we asked him about his attending the hearing and he wasn’t clear that he would make it: He spoke about the number of doors he is needing to knock on these days. This notwithstanding, Mr. Levin spoke critically about the way the project had degenerated since his above statement, together with the new $100+ million package of giveaways with which the MTA recently sweetened the developer’s deal. (We are supposed to be following up with Mr. Levin to interview him more thoroughly on his positions, something he mentioned Friday morning that we might convert to an e-mail chore.) It looked as if nearly all of Mr. Levin's opposing candidates in the race for the 33rd were there for the press conference. We'll see if Mr. Levin shows up tomorrow.

Whapped Up Side of the Head: BAM!

One of the early testifiers in favor of the project was the heavily-hissed Alan H. Fishman, Chairman of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The reasons he said that BAM was supporting the megadevelopment sounded to our urban planner’s ears rather like an urban planning analysis of why Atlantic Yards might constitute a constructive overhaul of the Fort Greene and Prospect Heights neighborhoods in which Atlantic Yards is to be plopped. Frankly it didn’t sound like a good analysis to us and it reminded us of how the Brooklyn Museum went off track and betrayed the Brooklyn Community by “honoring” Bruce Ratner while he was trying to sell the city and sate on the idea of giving him more subsidies. It also seemed a dicey PR move for BAM to be taking a position that is likely to sincerely bother many of its informed and educated patrons. Isn’t this the kind of thing that people cancel subscriptions over?

We caught up with Mr. Fishman just outside of the door noting that it was the second time we had heard BAM giving public comment in support of the megadevelopment. Mr. Fishman said that it was the first time we had heard him deliver these comments (it was somebody else before). We noted what had been yelled out in the room as Mr. Fishman departed the lectern, that developer Bruce Ratner was on the board of BAM. Yes, said Mr. Fishman, Bruce even used to be chairman of the board some time ago.

We then asked Mr. Fishman how his attendance to present BAM’s position in favor of the project had been handled, who he had consulted with beforehand. It turned out that Mr. Fishman had discussions with Bruce Ratner about the development issues he had talked about in his testimony on behalf of BAM but that he had not discussed the position that BAM would be taking about redevelopment of the BAM neighborhoods with the BAM board. Mr. Fishman pointed out that he was also the Chairman of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership and chairman of the Brooklyn Navy Yard (Directors of the Yard are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg) and he said “also chairman of a lot of other things in Downtown Brooklyn.” In his testimony Mr. Fishman had mentioned his position as chairman of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership but said specifically that he was speaking to represent BAM in his remarks and to discuss BAM’s “relationship” with the project. In his remarks he said that BAM was calling upon all parties to endorse “this highly promising development plan.”

So the taking of this position by BAM was handled at the executive level without board authorization we asked? Yes, Mr. Fishman told us.

Mr. Fishman turned things around by asking us a question. He wanted to know, “setting process aside” whether we thought that the megadevelopment was a bad a project “from a community point of view, from a neighborhood point of view from an urban planning point of view”

It is an interesting impulse to want to set process aside, we told Mr. Fishman, precisely because it is the setting aside of process that has given Atlantic Yards its shape.- We hadn’t yet testified but this was one of the things we had already written into the testimony we had prepared.- Because Atlantic Yards is a developer-initiated, developer-driven project its whole design reflects the fact that it is designed and tailored to soak up subsidy and benefit for the developer by diverting public resources. Mr. Fishman suggested that was a separate issue. We said that to us the project clearly looks like something designed to benefit a developer and not the public. Mr. Fishman said that might be true. In other words, we told Mr. Fishman that the project is not only a very bad project but how bad it is cannot be separated from the way in which process was set aside. (One lesson that Atlantic Yards certainly raises starkly is that when one sets process and procedure aside, you had better get a good result rather than striking out on both counts. Obviously, Atlantic Yards is especially problematic because of its simultaneous failure.) Mr. Fishman said he disagreed with us that the project was a bad project.

We suggested to Mr. Fishman that in his BAM capacity he needed to be speaking from the standpoint of a 501(c)(3) community betterment point of view and that he should be expressing what wold be good for the community from the community’s standpoint and not from the developer’s standpoint.

We asked Mr. Fishman what kind of thinking was there on the part of the BAM board about the Atlantic Yards project. We asked whether there was disagreement or division and whether everyone was in agreement with him. He said he had “no idea.” We asked him if he thought it would have been appropriate to find out the thinking of the board before coming out to make his statement. We pointed out that a lot of people viewed the project as destructive to the community and to Brooklyn. When I asked Mr. Fishman if he would still have delivered his statement if most of the BAM board was opposed to the project. Mr. Fishman responded, “I’m done. We’re not talking anymore.”

A Few More Politicians

We were out of the main hall talking with Mr. Fishman when Borough President Marty Markowitz, who never met an Atlantic Yards developer-request or public-shortchanging he didn’t endorse, spoke to predictably mixed reactions. His spiel was standard Marty AY stuff: “Since the very first Atlantic Yards conversation took place my opinion has not changed. I still believe that this is a project that will benefit . . . etc.” Markowitz has not faltered no matter how much the project has changed and no matter how much more in giveaways have been piled on. No matter. Nothing has ever caused Mr. Markowitz to have even the slightest criticism of the project from whose developer he takes substantial money. The only possible slacking we might note is that Markowtiz did not send out a laudatory Atlantic Yards press release yesterday although Markowitz did send out a laudatory press release yesterday when the City Council voted to approve an incompetent or insincere rezoning plan that will terminate Coney Island’s history as an amusement area.

Besides Markowitz, Assemblyman Alan Maisel was the first (and only?) elected official to give testimony in favor of the project at the hearing. Maisel represents the 59th Assembly District in lower Brooklyn where Jamaica Bay almost becomes Queens. His district, bordering the Rockaways, contains New York’s first airfield, Floyd Bennett Field, Marine Park, Mill Basin, Mill Island, Paedergat Basin, Bergen Beach and Georgetown. It surprises us that any politician these days give such testimony. The project was bad and highly controversial before and now it is so much worse. We spoke to Mr. Maisel after his remarks to ask him if he could identify a project that he would consider a boondoggle. At this point we were interrupted by a project opponent telling Mr. Maisel that he was "fraud." Mr. Maisel responded by telling the opponent “You’re a fraud too” and then for some reason “And you know me very well.”

We returned to our question for the Assemblyman: “Just as a reference point, can you identify any single project, a single project that you would consider a boondoggle.” Mr. Maisel responded that he didn’t really want to talk to us. “One project, one project,” we said, “if this isn’t a boondoggle what is a boondoggle?” At this point Mr. Maisel asked that we reidentify ourselves. We did and when then Mr. Maisel said “I don’t really care.”

We left off, saying to Mr. Maisel, “So you are a public official and you can’t identify any boondoggles, any misspending of public money?” The assemblyman excused himself to exit the hall and then several minutes later quietly came back in the other door to sit at the back. We wonder, do Mr. Maisel’s constituents know how many billions in taxpayers dollars are being spent on a no-bid basis to enrich developer Bruce Ratner?

The Boondoggle Question Repeated

We were sitting with one of our former colleagues from the state finance agencies (who also testified against the project) when she pointed out that Kathy Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, was present sitting near the front. Open-mindedly our colleague entertained the idea that Kathy might be testifying against the project as we both were. Everyone at my former agencies tended to be pretty aware of Kathy and we certainly all knew she was far and away bright enough to know what’s what and have good judgment. We explained to our colleague that Kathy had already testified in favor of the project at two other hearings we had attended. We mentioned the piece Norman Oder had written about Kathy’s testimony before the MTA Finance Committee and mine following, that dealt with the way the Partnership’s support for the project was “evolving” to support the project even as it degenerated. (See: Tuesday, June 30, 2009, The Partnership for New York City's evolving (and misleading) support for Atlantic Yards.) Mr. Oder's piece has video of the testimony we both gave. We also mentioned that Ms Wylde was in favor of eminent domain (“eminent domain abuse” we corrected ourselves- We all are in favor of eminent domain.) and the article we had written about this: Monday, July 6, 2009, Wylde Ideas, Making For a Wrong Partnership. We commented that we didn’t think that support for these bad ideas had been Rockefeller’s aspiration when the Partnership was set up.

Ms. Wylde got up heading to the back of the room and so did we so we could talk to her. Something was up. It turned out to be a press conference by the project supporters driven inside by the rain. Before the press conference Ms. Wylde needed to confer privately with Senator Marty Golden.

We asked Ms. Wylde whether she was there to testify or would be submitting something in writing. She said she wold be testifying personally. That did not come to pass. Later on we were there when Ms. Wylde’s name was called by the hearing officer but Ms. Wylde had departed.

Ms. Wylde had apparently read our last article about her testimony following up on Norman Oder’s about it. She said that she didn’t remember our working on the very much lower density project on the other side of Atlantic Avenue across from the Atlantic Yards site. It is true that we worked mostly in a supervisory capacity without calling attention to ourselves. (We had also worked on the site long before while at the NYC Housing Development Corporation.- A lot of people worked on the site over a lot of years.)

We asked Ms. Wylde about information that had not been made available by Forest City Ratner or ESDC at the informational meeting that previous week: “Do you know how much subsidy is going into the project?” She seemed to regard us askance. “I know as much about the project as you do,” she said. “No, seriously,” we said, “Do you know how much public subsidy is going into the project?” Ms. Wylde repeated herself, “I know as much about the project as you do."

We, in fact, knew that we would be addressing the amount of subsidy going into the project in our testimony. While it involves calculation of a somewhat shifting amount, because we had spent some time focusing on the numbers, we knew that it would be a minimum of between $2 and t$3 billion. We also knew that we had done some calculations how many additional hundreds of millions of dollars the new  most recent MTA giveaways tallied up to and that we had spent some time looking at what a proper value would be for the MTA’s sale of the right to name two of its subway stations and the MTA's giving up of it's ability to autonomously design the New York City subway map without interference from Forest City Ratner. (See: Sunday, June 28, 2009, Naming a Problem: The MTA Gives Ratner the Right to Name Brooklyn Subway Stations “Barclays”)

There were various people standing around as the press conference assembled. We got to meet and talk with Eric A.Ulrich, who is actually is the youngest serving Member of the City Council and is running for re-election as a Republican in his Queens 32nd Council District. Mr. Ulrich’s Queens City Council District is pretty much right next to Alan Maisel’s Brooklyn Assembly District, again being on Jamaica Bay and including such neighborhoods as Howard Beach (He has an “active membership in the Knights of Columbus, Kiwanis Club of Howard Beach.”)

We asked Mr. Ulrich the same question we’d asked Assemblyman Alan Maisel: What did he think was the biggest boondoggle project in the city. He looked quizzical and asked about why were asking the question. We explained that it seemed to be an essential question to ask politicians because wasn’t it the job of politicians to recognize the misspending of public money? That seemed to make sense to him so we asked again. He thought for a moment, smiled and said “Certainly not this one.” “So you have a candidate for a project that is a bigger boondoggle?” we asked. “As a point of reference, what is it and what makes it a bigger boondoggle?” Mr. Ulrich didn’t have a project to name.

We asked Mr. Ulrich whether he knew how much subsidy was going into the Atlantic Yards project. Kathy Wylde was standing right beside us in the crowded room and uncomfortable with our asking the question we had just asked her, wincing a little. Though we asked more than once Mr. Ulrich had no answer and apparently did not know how much public money was being plowed into Atlantic Yards. Earlier we wondered whether Mr. Maisel’s constituents know how many billions in taxpayers dollars are being spent on a no-bid basis to enrich developer Bruce Ratner so to be fair we must also wonder whether Mr. Ulrich’s constituents happen to know this.

While we are in the process of such wondering, we should wonder about the constituents of Marty Golden. Golden’s Senate District overlaps a bit with Mr. Maisel’s, also including Marine Park on Jamaica Bay but it sweeps more east over to Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst.

Mostly we didn’t see elected representatives from around the project assembling for this press conference except for Delia Hunley-Adossa, the challenger to quintessential Atlantic Yards opponent council member Tish James from the 38th Council District. Delia Hunley-Adossa’s campaign is apparently funded by Forest City Ratner by way of not for profits set up to support Ratner. (See: Friday, March 27, 2009, Behind Hunley-Adossa's campaign, treasurer Nimmons heads another dubious nonprofit, with Ratner funding.) By contrast, at the rally and press conference in opposition to the megadevelopment the candidates and politicians from the area around the project, the 33rd, 39th and 38th Council Districts were copiously present.

Later on that afternoon we were able to ask Ms. Hunley-Adossa if she knew how much public subsidy was supposed to be spent on Atlantis Yards. We could evoke no response from her whatsoever nor from any of the people who were making themselves available for photo ops at the time. She was, however, very good at smiling for pictures at the same time she did not respond to the repeated asking of the question.

We did see John Heyer, candidate for the 39th Council District (de Blasio’s seat), floating around the room with the rest of the people who had come in out of the rain. Mr. Heyer previously described his qualms about the project to us in great detail. His qualms included objections to the public taxpayer funding of the arena, the project’s density and poor design, and the way in which the MTA was mismanaged and not serving the public in getting less than full value of the railyards from Ratner. This was before the project degenerated and the MTA piled on hundreds of millions more in Ratner giveaways. A week prior to this we chatted with Mr. Heyer at the informational meeting on Atlantic Yards where he expressed disgust at these new additional MTA giveaways.

Mr. Heyer has more than one capacity in which he attends events these days: He is not just a candidate. He is also an assistant to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

We didn’t find out exactly what Mr. Heyer might be doing next in the room. At that point, before the press conference began, we had to go back into the hearing room. We were told that our name had just been called for us to give testimony.

Chatting With Bertha Lewis About the Affordable Housing Which the Ratner/ACORN Agreement Doesn’t Provide

During the break between the two hearing sessions we had a chance to meet Bertha Lewis for the very first time and that meant we got to put a question to her we had been dying to ask.

We asked Ms. Lewis why the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) that was then incorporated into the CAB (Community Benefits Agreement) she had agreed to with Forest City Ratner said that families who had a specified band of household incomes right in the middle would not be getting affordable housing. We had also asked this question at the previous week’s informational meeting where Forest City Ratner sidestepped providing an answer. (See: Thursday, July 23, 2009, The Hit and Miss of Last Night’s Public “Information” Meeting on Atlantic Yards.)

Ms. Lewis seemed surprised that she was being asked this question (though it seems extremely obvious why it should be asked) and she indicated that she somehow didn’t understand the question that was being asked. We can be extremely patient and explained it to her. You have an agreement with Forest City Ratner, an MOU incorporated into the CBA. (She understood this.) It provides and specifies what affordable housing will be provided. (Ms. Lewis understood this too.) And it does so by setting forth in stratified bands, the various incomes of the families to whom that affordable housing will be provided. (Yes to this too.) And right in the middle there is a specified band of incomes of people, families who will not be having any of that the affordable housing provided to them. (Right now that band is families with incomes from $38,407.00 or 50% of AMI to $46,087 or 60% of AMI.) Ms. Lewis acknowledged understanding this AMI stuff.

The missing (not provided for) band is right above the incomes for which the tax code would require that units be provided. We said this to Ms. Lewis.

(What we did not say to Ms. Lewis involves background the reader will want to take into account in assessing the rest of Ms. Lewis’s response. Right above the missing band are units that are close to at a level at which the market might provide units. Rents for those units would be $2,880, $2,304 or $1,536 per month and the units could be exceptionally small in size- See our previous post.)

Our exchange with Ms. Lewis then proceeded as follows:
BL: I think you are just wrong- Here’s the deal. I don’t know how many affordable housing units that you’ve built, I don’t know if you’ve had to do affordable housing but that’s what we do.* And here’s what we did: Everybody whether from low to moderate to middle, everybody across the board shares in this. So I don’t know what your point is, I really don’t.

(* Our MDDW resume actually tallies this experience in dollar, not unit count terms “Facilitated and participated in the issuance of over $36 billion dollars in bonds and over $390 million in State appropriated subsidy between 1993 and the end of 2006.” Though not all of that is affordable housing, the housing probably constitutes many multiples of what Ms. Lewis is conceiving of. In addition, we did many additional units from 1981 to 1993.)
NNY: “So there isn’t a missing. .”

BL: “I prevented a project from being totally luxury. So let me ask you, since you are looking at New York, I want you to tell me every other project that’s being built down here- you tell me about their bands, and then we can talk. OK?

NNY: . . “You negotiated units that were required by the tax code. . .”

BL: What did you negotiate? Don’t tell me what’s required by the tax code. I build. I am a developer.”

NNY: “I believe that if you look at the missing band of units, because I used to negotiate. . ”

BL: “Don’t tell me about a missing band of units. Here’s what I want you to do, how many missing bands are in Oro?* Do you know? Do you care? No!”
(* A 303 unit condominium at Gold and Johnson Streets, about three blocks away from where we were standing. The condominium units in Atlantic Yards are similarly not negotiated by ACORN to be affordable. It is very difficult to finance condominiums with the tax exempt bonds Ratner wants, which is why condominiums are usually market rate unless other subsidies are involved.)
NNY: “So are you denying that there is a strata that is not provided for?”

BL: No, I’m not. I’m providing for everyone, low, middle, and moderate.
Ms. Lewis did not convincingly acknowledge or refute that she knew that there was a missing band not provided for in her agreement with the developer. Instead, she first told us first that we did not know what we were talking about and she then accused us of having a point that we wanted to make and said that we did not care if we lied or obstructed or what we did.

But the deal that Ms. Lewis and ACORN negotiated is the deal they negotiated. (For more on what Ms. Lewis and ACORN negotiated see our previous post and the links therein.)

(Above chart shows the minor portion of units in Atlantic Yards referred to as "affordable." Click to enlarge.)

We would have continued our conversation with Ms. Lewis further and she seemed energized enough to want to do so, except handlers (looking out for her welfare?) stepped in, interposing their bodies and telling us that the conversation was not to continue. One of them even suggested that we were harassing Ms. Lewis.

An Emissary Lauding Ratner From the MetroTech BID (Business Improvement District)

Late in the evening a young man showed up to testify in favor of the project who might not have been there except for his connection to the Metrotech BID. . .

More coming. . .

(This article is being posted and updated in segments as written.- More to follow here.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Hit and Miss of Last Night’s Public “Information” Meeting on Atlantic Yards

(FCR's Gilmartin)

Comparing notes after last night’s information meeting on Atlantic Yards, the consensus seemed to be that there wasn’t that much about it that was that surprising. Forest City Ratner in the person of Executive VP MaryAnne Gilmartin and representatives of the Empire State Development Corporation essentially answered the questions they wanted to answer they way they wanted to answer them and evaded the questions they didn’t want to answer. Nonetheless, as Atlantic Yards Report notes in an excellent, detailed account still being updated the session did surface answers/non-answers that were “telling.” (See: Thursday, July 23, 2009, ESDC, FCR face, answer, evade tough questions (subsidies, cost-benefit analysis, etc.); meeting marred by heckling and chaos.)

Surprise at Questions Ending?

There was, however, one thing that did initially seem surprising to us: The written questions submitted by those in attendance ran out about ten minutes before the meeting was officially scheduled to conclude. That was surprising to us until we thought more about the fact that some of our own Noticing New York questions that were submitted were not, in fact, presented. Other questions we submitted that were asked flashed by time-wise because they were not answered at all. In theory, questions we submitted might have been passed over if they duplicated other answered or evaded questions that were asked, but that was not the case. At least we will get to note them here.

(The procedure was that the audience was to submit questions in writing. The questions were then pre-read and sorted by the community board and questions to be presented were handed up to read aloud by moderator Craig Hammerman, the CB 6 District Manager. Additional questions could be submitted at any point until the very end of the meeting. There was, in fact, encouragement to submit more questions rather than object aloud or heckle when FCR or ESDC dodged or evaded answering.)

Generating Questions About an Undesigned Project Sill Sight-Unseen after “Half a Decade”

For the week preceding the hearing we found ourselves unenthusiastic about generating questions to submit at the meeting. It seems like shadow boxing since we are not being told exactly what the project now is. The timing on the release of information is all from the standpoint of accommodating the developer at the expense of the public. Although Ms. Gilmartin made a point that “It is approaching half a decade since Forest City embarked on the Atlantic Yards project” the crowd was being told that because Forest City Ratner is in the middle of designing the arena (the only fraction of the megadevelopment it currently plans to build, or maybe even design, near term) that the public won’t even be able to see images or know what is proposed until after next week’s public hearing on the project. Such images an information will not even be released until after the ESDC board approves the project on this sight-unseen basis.

Atlantic Yards Report Tells of Some of Our Questions

We managed to rev up our enthusiasm and did show up with questions. Then we generated more before the evening was out.

The latest version of the updating Atlantic Yards Report account of the meeting includes two of the questions we asked. Here is one that received a non-response, except to the extent that it hints at an acknowledgment that the state’s override of local laws will cause the megadevelopment to exceed the density New York City zoning would legally permit:

What’s the FAR?

Subtracting out the streets and the area devoted to green space, what’s the calculated Floor Area Ratio (FAR) and how does that compare to what would normally be legal for residential development?

ESDC said they couldn’t provide a specific number. Shatz said, “As was mentioned before, this project did benefit from a zoning override. Although we did create design guidelines with input from City Planning, people have to understand that this project was not subject to New York City zoning.”
Here is the final question of the evening, also ours, that got an answer we do not believe is correct:

Final question

Will the project go back to the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), the three-men-in-a-room who must review state capital projects?

Matlin said no further approval is needed, given that the PACB approved the project, and the financing, in 2006."
We do not believe that the answer is correct because the mega-project and its financing have changed dramatically from what received PACB approval in 2006, tilting ever more strongly towards a very substantial likelihood that the financing will fail and an increasing need for it to be propped up with more subsidy just as it in fact was by the most recent actions of ESDC and the MTA. To say that the PACB does not need to approve substantial revisions of projects careening off toward failure is to deny the PACB its purpose and veer away from past precedent. To suggest that there is an effort underway to have the PACB not approve the substantial rewrite of the project’s financing that has occurred since 2006 says something about the fear that politicians have of taking responsibility for this project. Politicians would rather set precedent in giving up this control and gate-keeping function than take responsibility for the project? Really now!

ESDC’s Pattern of Relieving Forest City Ratner of Obligations

Questions were asked about what remedies would be available to ESDC if Forest City Ratner didn’t complete the megadevelopment. The answers ought to have generated surreal malaise given that significant remedies can’t be pursued in the near term and, most important, ESDC’s right to do anything about noncompletion of the project doesn’t kick in until twenty-five years down the line. Our follow-up written question, one we thought was important, did not get asked:

What assurance is there that ESDC will enforce its remedies against Forest City Ratner to complete the project and comply with the project plan given that whenever Forest City Ratner has requested ESDC has acquiesced and been willing been willing to eliminate and/or reduce those Forest City Ratner obligations from which Forest City Ratner has wished to be relieved?
In this regard, having remedies that can only be enforced starting twenty-five years from now is representative of ESDC’s reluctance to saddle FCR with actual responsibilities. It is similar to the MTA saying that it will not immediately collect from Forest City Ratner the $80 million which FCR will theoretically, one day pay the MTA for its property. With the MTA at each opportunity rejiggering to give FCR a better deal (with less exacting obligations), why should anyone believe that the MTA when next asked won’t effectively excuse entirely payment of the $80 million it has deferred?

These questions of what FCR will ultimately be held to over time, in twenty-five years or whatever, are crucially important. One thing that was acknowledged by ESDC last night is that the Atlantic Yards project is not being built on a we-get-benefit-as-we-go basis. When asked about the New York City Independent Budget Office report that says the arena would be a net money-loser for the city, ESDC Senior Counsel, Steve Matlin said:

“We do our own analysis. We basically do an analysis of the entire project. We don’t do a separate analysis just of the arena component. What we bargained for was the entire project. We bargained for the benefits generated from the entire project.”
In other words, the city won’t get benefit from what is built first so later on, without the kind of adequate enforcement from ESDC (which is definitely not assured), the city in not likely ever to get benefit, even by ESDC’s calculations. As No Land Grab snipes, ESDC only does a benefits-only analysis with no analysis of costs.

“Impermissible Favoritism” for Forest City Ratner

Another question we submitted more than once was not asked. Our later submissions updated our original version of the question so that it would serve as appropriate follow-up to the extent that some components of our question were either asked or by happenstance answered. Our question concerned the apparent “impermissible favoritism” of exclusively awarding Forest City Ratner the whole megadevelopment without a competitive bid. We tried to structure our question with its own embedded follow-ups:

What can you tell us about why Forest City Ratner as opposed to some other developer (for instance, a more credit worthy one or one that would pay the MTA more) should be the developer for the entire site? - In light of what you are willing to tell us in this respect to what extent are you willing to preclude the possibility or offer assurance that FRC will never assign any or all of the site to another developer at another time? - Given your answer to the forgoing why does it make sense that FCR is getting a long-term, low-cost option to develop the entire site with no corresponding obligation to go forward with that development?
It should be noted that MTA’s and ESDC’s recent restructuring of the Forest City Ratner deal breaking the project into separate chucks or parcels, which FRC more clearly has freedom to proceed with or not, negates the idea that the megadevelopment must somehow be considered a one-developer deal.

We restructured and resubmitted our question when ESDC Senior Counsel, Steve Matlin effectively answered part of our question after someone else asked, “Why Forest City Ratner and not another developer?” Mr. Matlin said there were two answers: 1.) Forest City Ratner had a contract with the Nets (pertinent to only a small portion of the project), and 2.) Forest City Ratner already had control over much of the site when it proposed the project.

Mr. Matlin’s response about FCR’s ostensible control over the site generated outcry in the audience (we clearly heard the voice of Candace Carponter, legal chair for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn) that it was inaccurate. We therefore resubmitted the question modified to ask for the challenged accuracy of the site control statements to be addressed. When the meeting was over we had a chat with Henry Weinstein, an Atlantic Yards footprint developer Forest City Ratner wants to displace. As he talked about the lawsuits he’s he has won against Forest City Ratner we were reminded us about of some of the games that ESDC and FRC have played along to the way to misrepresent Ratner’s control of the site. For Mr. Weinstein things began with illegal actions Forest City Ratner took 3/31/05, long after the December 2003 announcement of Ratner would be developer. (See: May 14, 2009, Weinstein Legal Victory Shows Ratner and Boymelgreen Acted in Bad Faith and Friday, May 08, 2009, Snag in AY? Appeals court upholds decision that said Boymelgreen improperly assigned lease of footprint building to Ratner.)

We also modified our resubmitted question to acknowledge that ESDC had already said that evening that FCR can assign away the project to other developers.

No Affordable Housing for Those Who Most Obviously Need It?

There was a fair amount of discussion about what the rents for the so-called “affordable housing” in the project would be. Atlantic Yards Report has a comprehensive summary about FRC’s Gilmartin’s failure to respond to the question that includes the following:

She didn’t offer any monthly rents. A 950 sf three-bedroom apartment at $30/sf would be $2375 a month--and a rather small three-bedroom apartment at that. Keep in mind that a not insignificant slice of the affordable housing would appear to track or exceed the market.

Later, when the question came back up, she said that a rent of $12/sf on a thousand-foot apartment would be $12,000 a year, or $1000 a month. However, it's possible that no affordable units would be that large.

For more information on exactly how small affordable units would be, perhaps 575 square feet, not 1000, see: Saturday, July 15, 2006, AY snug or stingy? 575 sf for 1BR, 775 sf for 2BR.

We submitted a significant question in this regard which after several submissions was finally read but not answered:
Why did FCR and ACORN negotiate a Community Benefit Agreement/Memorandum of Understanding that has an income band right in the middle where families most significantly in need would not be provided with any affordable housing? That band (families with incomes from $38,407.00 or 50% of AMI to $46,087 or 60% of AMI) is right above the income bands that the federal tax code will require will be in the project and right below the units that will be provided to higher-income, less-needy families at the rents that appear to track the market.
Rather than say why this had been “negotiated” with ACORN, Ms. Gilmartin simply said that what was in the ACORN agreement would be adhered to. As Ms. Gilmartin did not answer the question we will provide the obvious answer. The concocted income bands minimize Forest City Ratner’s obligation to give any real public benefit. Since the bands below are required by the tax code anyway, they cost FCR nothing economically. To the extent that 575 square feet units at rents in the $1,535 to $2,880 monthly rent range track the market, there is also no economic concession to public benefit on Forest City Ratner’s part.

(Above chart shows the minor portion of units in Atlantic Yards referred to as "affordable." Click to enlarge.)

To see the chart and analysis we provided previously when writing about this see Friday, April 10, 2009 As AMI climbs, a significant slice of Atlantic Yards "affordable housing" seems to track market and Thursday, April 2, 2009 Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #14: Project Creates Population Diversity? NO

To read more about how ACORN essentially shilled for FCR by negotiating no real public benefit, see: July 24, 2008,
Falling Acorn! How Far from the Tree? and Saturday, June 28, 2008, Selling out the Community for Beans (A Giant Wrong).)

Our chart has rent figures in it.

Greene When It Comes To Numbers?

Another question we submitted more than once was never asked:

Why did Forest City Ratner hire Darryl E. Greene to be responsible for tracking minority hiring and minority business enterprise numbers, when a little bit of research or Googling shows that Greene’s trouble with mangling numbers led to criminal charges to which he eventually pled guilty?

(See: New York Times, “Lawyer Is Accused of Bilking City Agencies” Published: December 5, 1997 and City of New York Department of Investigation Press Release “Government Contract Attorney-consultant Pleads Guilty in $500,000 Theft of Public Monies”.)

This may be an unpleasant question to ask but one has to think about whose side Mr. Greene is on when it involves his taking home a check. Mr. Greene’s relationship to Ratner apparently goes back to at least 2004. Unpleasant or not, we think that Forest City Ratner should have been given an opportunity to address this.

Those then are questions we came up with. Once again, for a very full account of what happened go to the Atlantic Yards Report, being updated. While not all our question got asked or answered, we must note that the community board leaders had such a difficult job to do last night that it would be hard to fault any of them. One member in particular, Richard Bashner, chairman of CB 6, persisted with calm presence of mind to ask astute follow-up questions and bring far greater order to the proceedings than one would have anticipated given the willful disruptions (mostly by project supporters- click on video below) and the unfortunately provocative irritation of the perfunctorily rote evasions coming from Forest City Ratner ESDC.

video

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Jane Jacobs Way for Coney Island

We have been writing a lot about Coney Island recently. Because of a proposed city rezoning plan, Coney’s fate hangs in the balance. (Your City Council members need to be contacted.) And we have also been keeping up with our Jane Jacobs Report Card Atlantic Yards posts. Monday morning Coney Island and Jane Jacobs came together in an event in which we participated.

“Jane Jacobs Way”

The city picked Monday to dedicate and rename a portion of Hudson Street where she lived “Jane Jacobs Way.” This produced the odd spectacle of politicians, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn praising community activists and protestors who fight what used to be thought of as Robert Moses-style development, development that is oblivious to communities, their input and their wisdom about their own neighborhoods. These days that style of development is more apt to be thought of as Bloombergian. The event also produced protesters, mainly “an army Janes,” protesters who were dressed up as Jane Jacobs and asking that the city plan for Coney Island be fixed. We were one of that group; we wore Jane Jacobs glasses but not a wig.

Jane Jacobs and Coney
Two YouTube videos of the event are available. Save Coney Island masterminded the army of Janes and their video is available at their site: Save Coney Island Activists Rally Support at Jane Jacobs Ceremony. In addition, earlier in the day Save Coney Island released a statement from Jane Jacobs’s son, Ned Jacobs, critical of the city plan, saying in part.
While I cannot speak on behalf of my mother, the late Jane Jacobs, or predict what she would think about particular proposals today, in my view, this rezoning plan for Coney Island does not appear to reflect the urban values and planning principles she espoused. These include sensitivity and integration with the scale, character and performance of existing neighborhoods and their established uses; the need to retain aged but serviceable buildings for the sake of economic diversity and continuity, as well as for their history and charm; the benefits of planning and redevelopment based on organic, iterative change, and the inherent dangers of top-down urban renewal-type schemes, propelled by “cataclysmic money.”
(See: As N.Y. Honors Jane Jacobs, Her Son Is ‘Appalled’ at Coney Island Rezoning Plan.)

Jacobs Speaks About Bloombergian Development Directly to Bloomberg

Jane Jacobs is not around to speak on her own behalf anymore, but she has spoken often about New York. The last occasion we are aware of before her death in April of 2006 was when she wrote an April 15, 2005 letter to Mayor Bloomberg recommending the community plan alternative to the city’s proposed Williamsburg rezoning. Introducing herself as “a student of cities, interested in learning why some cities persist in prospering while others persistently decline” Ms. Jacobs wrote:
Let's think first about revitalization successes; they are great and good teachers. They don't result from gigantic plans and show-off projects, in New York or in other cities either. They build up gradually and authentically from diverse human communities; successful city revitalization builds itself on these community foundations, as the community-devised plan 197a does.
(See: Letter to Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council, by Jane Jacobs.)

That is obviously consistent with what her son Ned wrote and could easily apply directly to Coney or to many other large Bloombergian meg-endeavors like Atlantic Yards, Willets Point or the Columbia University’s expansion taking over West Harlem.

The same is true in what Ms. Jacobs writes at the letter’s end:
I will make two predictions with utter confidence. 1. If you follow the community's plan you will harvest a success. 2. If you follow the proposal before you today, you will maybe enrich a few heedless and ignorant developers, but at the cost of an ugly and intractable mistake. Even the presumed beneficiaries of this misuse of governmental powers, the developers and financiers of luxury towers, may not benefit; misused environments are not good long-term economic bets.

Come on, do the right thing. The community really does know best.
(Background: When we were at the City Council candidates debate in Williamsburg a number of weeks ago we noted that there was a great deal of apology in the air for the unfortunate ways that the plan was `unexpectedly’ turning out. New York magazine (July20-27 now on the stands) is also just now trying to sort out its own thoughts on some of this. See: The Billyburg Bust, by David Amsden, Jul 12, 2009: “A working-class neighborhood became a bohemian theme park, which in turn became a fantasyland for luxury-condo developers. Now, littered with half-built shells of a vanished boom, Williamsburg is looking like something else entirely: Miami.”)

The Odd Thing About Quinn and Jacobs
Here is the odd way that things stood on Monday morning. Christine Quinn was a central part of the ceremony dedicating “Jane Jacobs Way” in honor of Ms. Jacobs. There are probably few people paying attention to development in the city who believe that either Quinn or Bloomberg have a Jane Jacobian bone in their bodies. We ourselves were quoted in the NY Metro story about the event as follows:
“Jane Jacobs was about looking out and seeing what really works. The city’s plan is going to create a hole in the ground. Quinn and Bloomberg are the Robert Moses of today.”

(See: Celebrating Jacobs’ place in city, July the 13th, 2009, by Amy Zimmer.)

Besides the army of Jane look-alikes present in their attempt to rescue Coney Island, Suzannah B. Troy was also there to protest and quickly produced yet another video in an energetically heartfelt series of videos she has produced opposing “King Bloomberg” and Ms. Quinn, who assists him by passing administration-backed development proposals. Ms. Troy’s sentiments are clear from the title of her video: Protesting Christine Quinn at Jane Jacobs' street naming, Jane must be turning over in her grave!

Quinn Has the Power

Nevertheless, Quinn has the power right now of life or death for the Coney Island amusement area. Therefore Save Coney Island and the protesting Janes truly hope that it is possible to persuade Ms. Quinn to fix the city plan for Coney. Indeed, is Ms. Quinn is persuadable? She acknowledged as may be seen in the videos and as reported in the Metro that “phone calls are flooding City Hall urging the city to expand the area designated for amusements.” (To be viable the area for amusements needs to be expanded to a minimum of 27 acres as opposed to the 12 acres under the city plan.)

Ad Hominemism, Jacobs and Quinn

Jane Jacobs was not in favor of ad hominem attacks, but when it comes to city development issues we can't think of anyt where Quinn (or Bloomberg, from whom she is inseparable) has been on the right side. We also haven't seen that the inseparable pair are actually open to compromise as opposed to feigning that they are. Anyway, in terms of getting necessary messages across ad hominemism seems increasingly efficient when it comes to Quinn and Bloomberg. In this though we can’t speak for the Save Coney Island group, only for ourselves. We know the Save Coney Island people have their hopes about Ms. Quinn.

We have visited Quinn’s record on development before. (See: Monday, February 23, 2009, Un-funny Valentines Arriving Late: Your Community Interests at Heart.) A short list of the votes she has arm-twisted through that stand to affect the shape of urban fabric begins with the way she rushed Bloomberg’s term extension through the City Council. At his bill signing ceremony to overturn term limits Bloomberg indicated that he needed a third term in order to surmount the litigation stopping his projects. (Like the West Side Stadium? No, probably more like Atlantic Yards.)
At the Jane Jacobs dedication Doris Diether, a Jane Jacobs friend, told a story about how Ms. Jacobs had thwarted a maneuver by administration officials to rush through a vote so fast that no one would have any time to find out about it or react to the hastily unveiled public hearing. Ms. Jacobs reportedly delivered 200 citizens to testify at the hearing with only a weekend to do so. Times have changed but administration tactics haven’t: This kind of insider-manipulated rush was exactly the way that Quinn put through the major term limits law change for Bloomberg. (Ms. Diether was the one who was chosen to pull the cord to unveil the new street sign.)

Other Development Votes. .

The list of strong-armed votes continues with Quinn’s work on the previously mentioned Willets Point and Columbia University’s expansion into West Harlem. The City Council should also be withdrawing funds from the Atlantic Yards boongoggle but that is not likely to happen under Christine Quinn. (We once talked to her about it when she visited Brooklyn Heights.) Most recently, Quinn forced through the Dock Street project with a lopsided vote that totally disrespected David Yassky, the local City Council member for the DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights neighborhoods. She ignored not only the merits but also smoking gun e-mails that showed the Bloomberg administration and the School Construction Authority to be dishonestly collaborating in manipulations to put a school in the project for the sole purpose of promoting the project’s approval. We contacted Quinn’s office for her comment on those e-mails. They have still not been forthcoming. (See: Tuesday, June 9, 2009, Still No Comment from Speaker Quinn or Any Other of 18 City Council Members Who Put Dock Street Through Committee Last Week.)

. . . in Chelsea and Greenwich Village

Closer to her political home on Manhattan’s West Side, Ms. Quinn had been helpful in pushing through a sell-off of a portion of the Greenwich Village Historic District in order to subsidize a large new St. Vincent’s Hospital that also involves an exceptionally large new residential building being developed by the Rudin organization. Also, Chelsea Now says the community is complaining about the mounding up of extra density at “Himalayan” Hudson Yards. (See: Hudson Yards 'Himalayas' earn public ire at forum, Thursday, June 18, 2009, by Diane Vacca.) Not only is a great deal of extra density being put on that site but consider this for an example of how the Bloomberg administration wants to have its cake and eat it too: Notwithstanding the already extreme density of Hudson Yards, the Bloombergian Department of Housing, Preservation and Development is proposing to have the developer go off-site, outside the project footprint, to provide the assocaited affordable housing the community wants (at two off-site locations) but only if an additional zoning change is put through also up the density of the other sites as well.

Will Quinn Detect That People Are Getting Fed up and Change Course?

We have recently seen a great deal of the grass roots anger being directed toward Quinn. For instance, there is another YouTube labor-of-love video we came across recently done by Donny Moss that catalogues Quinn’s misdeeds and deceptions with particular focus on her betrayals with respect to the lesbian and gay community: Christine Quinn: Behind the Smile. We think that a lot of the anger being directed at Quinn now is earned by reason of her constant support for Bloomberg, particularly his Bloombergian style of development. Robert Moses, move over.

Will Quinn modify her behavior now that she is faced with a primary? She has two opponents for her 3rd district City Council seat: Maria Passannante-Derr and Yetta Kurland. We don’t know much about them yet, though if one of them is going to win it would be advisable for them not to engage in vote splitting.

Does Ms. Quinn feel vulnerable enough to start changing course? There is this primary and then, of course, she also wants to be mayor. Were it not for the term limits extension she would be running for mayor now, but the extension worked out well for her given the timing of her slush fund scandal.

The deadline for the City Council to fix the city plan is about to expire unless procedural maneuvers can briefly extend it. If the City Council under Quinn doesn’t act to fix that plan then Quinn’s Council ought to scrap the plan entirely.

Coney Island will provide an interesting test of whether Ms. Quinn will be changing course. Ms. Quinn clearly acknowledges that she heard the community’s request to fix the plan and knows the phone calls are flooding in. The question is whether she cares what the community wants if that’s not what the mayor wants.

(Above photo by Kevin Downs)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

City’s Coney Island Plan: Our Skepticism of Times Editorial Credulity

Monday’s New York Times editorial on the city’s plan for Coney Island has one absolutely brilliant paragraph in it:
We like the Municipal Art Society’s idea of doubling the size of the amusement area and removing hotels from the south side of Surf Avenue. This way, when visitors get off the subway, they will meet sunlight and open air, not a high-rise barricade.
(See: A Plan for Coney Island, July 12, 2009.)

That one paragraph ought to be sufficient to communicate that the city’s overall plan is itself none too brilliant.

Wheat Is the Fix, Chaff Is the City Plan

The extracted paragraph above describes the core components people say are needed to “fix” the city’s Coney Island plan. There are other aspects of this “fix” not mentioned in the Times paragraph, like protecting Coney Island's historic buildings.

When you come right down to it, the aspects constituting the necessary fix would be the best part of the city plan if it ever passes, may be even the only good part. Most of the Times editorial is marred by far too much credulity respecting the benefits the city plan might actually have. That plan could also be destructive. We believe it is more likely to leave a hole in the ground if, as we must skeptically suggest, the city plan is destined to succeed in far fewer ways than touted.

Times Credulity

Credulity on the part of the Times sounds like this:
This is the year the place [Coney] could get moving again, if the City Council approves an ambitious redevelopment proposal from the Bloomberg administration. It calls for revitalized year-round amusements, badly needed apartments and new retail and commercial development. Coney Island is not just a decrepit carnival — it’s a community starving for civic amenities, affordable housing and jobs, all of which could flourish amid the tacky splendor of a reborn seaside paradise.
“This Is the Year”?

First off, when the Times says “This is the year” that Coney “could get moving again” it seems oblivious to the fact that Coney’s resurgence, at least as envisioned by the city, is likely to take generations, which is what real estate processionals are saying. (See: Thursday, May 28, 2009, A Second, But Not Seconding, Opinion: A Stolerian Eyebrow Raised, Real Estate Professionals Say Coney Island Development Will Take “Generations”.) As for starting on that plan now or starting soon, we are in a recession where financing for these kinds of mega-ventures is likely to be especially hard to come by and a where one of the major and currently improbable aspects of the city plan, hotels, will be impossible to finance.

Is Affordable Housing Badly Needed in Coney Island?

More subsidized affordable housing is concentrated in Coney than almost any other neighborhood in the city. Seth Pinsky, the city’s Economic Development Corporation president, testified before the City Council the first of this month that 1/6th of all Coney residents are in NYCHA housing. Many more residents live in other forms of subsidized hosing. We wonder if the Times is forgetting this when they suggest that Coney badly needs apartments because the neighborhood is “starving for . . . . affordable housing.”

At the City Council hearing Mr. Pinsky bemoaned that the average commute of Coney residents was exceptionally long: 45 minutes. We suspect that more housing is likely the only thing (if anything) that the city is really thinking will be built at Coney in the relatively near term. But if the city adopts a plan that makes it a priority to build more housing at Coney, doesn’t that simply bloat the number of New Yorkers with these troubling long commutes?

Can the Housing in the City Plan Actually Be Built?

If the Times is going to praise goal of building housing as a component of the city plan, shouldn’t the Times have mentioned that the city’s hope to build such housing currently faces a serious roadblock? The city wants to build almost all of the housing it plans to build on land currently mapped as parkland. It was mapped as parkland to preserve it for amusement use but the city is not using it that way. The housing can’t be built unless the legislature in Albany “demaps” the land. That is unlikely to happen, at least in this legislative session. So much for the idea that “this is the year.”

Housing That Is Actually Needed

Noticing New York is in favor of building housing in Coney but the affordable housing we have suggested building there is what we have referred to as next-step-up affordable home ownership program housing (including the program’s accompanying rental units) which would be attractive to residents of Coney’s other subsidized housing who were doing well enough to move out (and up), thus freeing up the units they vacate for others. That next-step-up housing could be done as infill and would not necessitate the sacrifice of amusement and seaside acres. That sounds like several wins at the same time to us.

Destroying a Traditional Source of Jobs

The Times values the city plan because it describes the community as “starving for . . . . jobs.” But the city plan fails to take advantage of the amusement industry as the traditional sources of jobs in the community. Rather than capitalize on what the amusement industry could offer, the city prefers to besiege the entertainment community, maginalizing it in an ever-shrinking cloister until it is eliminated entirely through attrition. The few remaining landmarked rides that may remain will serve as little more than gravestones.

Strengths of the Amusement Industry: A Point of Agreement

We have pointed out that with the current climate of economic adversity it seems to be a strange time to attack and undermine Coney’s amusement industry that we have described as remarkably “resilient.” The Times seems to agree with us: It describes Coney’s amusement attractions as “indestructible”:
[Coney’s]. . not dead yet, of course: landmarked rides like the Cyclone rumble on, and a few funkily indestructible carny attractions survive, along with the boardwalk, the hot dogs and the sea and sky.
While the tone seems to suggest that these things come so easily they perhaps need not be valued, isn’t it the opposite? Aren’t these the strong essences around which Coney’s resurgence ought to be planned:
● Landmarking its is historic assets (which the city refuses to do)
● The indestructible, resilient, funky carny attractions
● The boardwalk (deemphasized and underutilized by the city plan)
● The hot dogs (the city plan would encourage the destruction of Nathan’s)
● The sea and sky (refer back to the opening paragraph we extracted at the beginning of this post and the quote from the Times about changing the plan so arriving visitors may “meet sunlight and open air, not a high-rise barricade.”)
The city undervalues the strengths of Coney on which it can build and the Times does not seem to have picked up on this.

Open-air Seasonality vs. Indoor “Amusements”

The Times praises the city plan for calling for “revitalized year-round amusements.” But Coney needs to be appreciated for its seasonality, for the “sea and sky,” “sunlight and open air.” The danger is that if this is not respected Coney could be transformed into synthetic interior mall game arcades that are not likely to attract visitors to Coney when they failed to attract visitors to Times Square. Even worse, the city’s idea of non-open air amusements is most likely purely a guise for banishing the resilient and indestructible open-air amusements and building tall buildings that blot out the “seaside paradise” that the Times suggests can be “reborn.”

We are in favor of extending the season at Coney and there can be some year-round attractions. That is one reason the Shore Theater should be preserved, a step the city has been unwilling to take. We say start with preservation of things of recognized value; don’t focus on destruction first.
Civic Amenities, New Retail and Commercial Development

Preserving and putting the Shore Theater to use would also be an obvious step toward providing the “civic amenities” for which the Times says the community is starving. We have written about the city’s suspect goal of “new retail and commercial development,” (aside from the fact that it will not be built soon) especially to the extent that the city portrays that its goal is to do so for lower-income families. (See: Saturday, May 16, 2009, City Is Rezoning So Coney Island’s Lower-Income Residents Will Have Place to Buy Back-to-School Shoes, Clothing and Stationery? Right. Sure Thing!)

Praise in the Ballpark?

There is more that we disagree with in the Times editorial. It says, “There’s a nice ballpark.” Not really. The ballpark is awkwardly placed. It is in the middle of what was supposed be amusement acreage, making it difficult to use the land on either side. Its long, monotonous blank walls are surrounded by seaside land that has been unnecessarily tuned into a bleak parking lot that should have been put somewhere else. And did the ballpark lead to the Thunderbolt roller coaster being torn down? The ballpark exemplifies just another of the city’s continuos efforts to keep subtracting from the amusement area.

Skeptical of Recchia Skepticism?

While it fails to be skeptical of the city plan itself, the Times is skeptical of City Council member Domenic Recchia’s skepticism of the city plan:

Much depends on Domenic Recchia Jr., Coney Island’s councilman, who has been skeptical of the city’s plan while stoutly defending the interests of landowners, like his friend Mr. Sitt.
Bringing Thor Equities’ Joe Sitt into the discussion always tends to confuse the picture. It is true that Mr. Sitt’s land speculation has been very destructive to Coney. It was also something that the city caused to come about. (See: Tuesday, June 30, 2009, Destroying Coney: By Planning to Shrink Coney City Plays Into Sitt’s Land Speculation Schemes.)

Mr Sitt could very quickly be out of the picture. All it would take is for the city and Sitt to agree on a price for the city to acquire Sitt’s land. That is something that is quite likely even if the city’s own actions have driven up the price of Mr. Sitt’s exit. Skepticism of the city plan will become all the more important upon Mr. Sitt’s departure. Unfortunately, that may be the time when find Mr. Recchia’s skepticism of the city plan fades away.

What we are very likely to get without appropriate skepticism on the part of the City Council and the public is a city plan that is not fixed, a city plan where visitors to Coney will, in fact, be met by “a high-rise barricade” and will NOT be greeted by “sunlight and open air.” We are likely to get a Coney without a viable open-air amusement area, a Coney that turns out to be more a hole in the ground than anything else. Because, without skepticism we will have gotten a plan that was worse than no plan at all.