Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Self-Congratulation “Befalls” a Man Who Would Know No Limits

This is to assess what deserves congratulation and who should be handing out the congratulations that are given. We also use this opportunity to examine the largess of New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

New York City Waterfalls Art Project; Update on Environmental Damage

We previously wrote that Olafur Eliasson’s “New York City Waterfalls”art project, with its attendant environmental damage, was not an unqualified success: Wednesday, September 3, 2008, “Yeah, sure. Bad for the glass.” (Inartful Clues to New York City Government?).

The art project’s salt-waterfalls were shut off this week but this week’s Brooklyn Paper bore more news about the level of environmental damage their salt-spewing has done (A salt of the earth! By Sarah Portlock). The level of salt in the spewed-upon surrounding soil is amazingly high. The salt level in the soil by the River Café where the above picture of denuded trees was taken Labor Day week is 10 times normal.

Salt levels were also disturbingly high in soil of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade gardens where, as of the beginning of September, there was significant damage to trees for two full blocks extending between Pierrepont and Remsen Streets. Though attenuating over distance, it is clear that the spay went even farther, detectably affecting the honey locust trees as far away as Clark Street, yet another exceptionally long additional block away. In theory, the waterfalls were to be turned off to avoid damage when winds were unusually high but just weeks ago it was “raining” on Hicks Street from a bight clear blue sky as wind-carried spay traveled two blocks inland from the falls. (For pictures of the Promenade trees denuded in August see the previous post.)

A Self-Congratulatory Award for the Waterfalls Project

Here is another recent update about the falls, which was also mentioned in the Brooklyn Paper article, that is exceptionally telling. On September 26th, well after the problematic effects of the salt spray provoked alarm, Mayor Bloomberg awarded the city’s Doris C. Freedman Award to The New York City Waterfalls for its contribution “to the public environment.” The Mayor’s award to the art project is more remarkable if you take into account the under-reported fact that the Mayor’s own media company, Bloomberg, LP, paid for a substantial portion of the Waterfalls art project with a tax-deductible donation. The Waterfalls cost $15.5 million. Of this, $13.5 million was sponsored by “private” donations. Heading a short list, Bloomberg, LP is set forth as a project “lead supporter.” Rather self-congratulatory?

To be fair, before we have at it, it should be admitted that the environment that is supposed to be improved when the Doris C. Freedman Award is given is not specifically the “environment” one is talking about when one talks about the environmental assessment that the city botched when considering the Waterfalls project. Rather, when the award is awarded we are speaking in terms of “greatly enriching the public environment” in a sense that has extended to public art and performance in past instances. The award has in the past been presented to urban life, design and architecture improvers like William H. (Holly) Whyte, to the Greenmarket Farmers Market network and its founders, Barry Benepe and Robert Lewis, to Margot Gayle, and to Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts and its founder, Halina Rosenthal. The award has also been given to those presenting art in public environments, like Dancing in the Streets and Battery Park City Authority for its public art program in Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park.

Mayor Bloomberg’s award to this Bloomberg-funded art project was probably meant to acknowledge the Waterfalls project he sponsored as being in the same league as the Christo and Jeanne-Claude creation of The Gates Central Park project that received the award in 2005. (It has frequently been commented that the Waterfalls were not as impressive as the Gates.)

A Self-Referential Loop; Bloomberg With Many Hats

All the same, whatever the nature of the award, doesn’t it all seem incredibly self-referential?

How self-referential? Consider:

The Mayor’s media company funded the project (tax-deducibly). The Mayor’s Parks Department and other agencies then considered whether to “approve” the project. As Shane McAdams writes in the Brooklyn Rail, the fact that the project “had received the blessing of Michael Bloomberg (as well as a generous helping of his own cash). . .certainly helped grease the bureaucratic gears, making it easier to secure building permits and expedite what would otherwise have been a Byzantine logistical process.” Of course, we must remember the botched environmental assessment for which Bloomberg’s city is responsible. The project was announced with a press release by Bloomberg as Mayor wherein he promises “the Waterfalls will have little impact on the environment.” The worth of the Waterfalls was then publicly assessed at $55 million by the head of the Mayor’s Economic Development Corporation. (Calculating the Worth of East River ‘Waterfalls’, By Ken Belson, June 28, 2008) The project was reported upon as a news event by the Mayor’s media company (New York's East River to Host Artist Eliasson's `Waterfalls’ , By Henry Goldman) which in good reportorial form discloses that “The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. The company is one of several private sponsors of the project.” The project was next reviewed as “art” by the Mayor’s media company. (Eliasson's Waterfalls Make Instant Monuments for N.Y. Harbor, Review by Carly Berwick) In both good and not-so-good form that article concludes with the warning that Ms. Berwick “is an art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own” but this article does not mention that the art is funded by Bloomberg itself. Next, after doing unexpected environmental damage the project is given a city award by the Mayor himself.

No Relief From Disaster; Funds from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation

Of course, there is other money in the project. $2 million in federal Community Development Block Grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was provided by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Half of the sixteen directors of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, so this money is once again traceable to the Mayor.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation was set up after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to plan the reconstruction of the lower Manhattan World Trade Center site and distribute federal funds aimed at rebuilding downtown Manhattan. The lack of progress at the World Trade Center site has been criticized and plans for its redevelopment have been cut back because of scarcity of funding. It could be asked exactly how helpful to LMDC’s reconstruction goals the decision to fund the Waterfalls was. Of course, the city has previously been known to go far afield in distributing resources the federal government had made available for downtown Manhattan’s recovery after the attack. “Liberty Bonds” specifically authorized by the federal government to aid in downtown Manhattan’s recovery were used as far uptown as Chelsea Piers to build the Frank Gehry “Dirty Iceberg” building opposite the piers (the IAC building).

According to LMDC’s website, LMDC gets “funds awarded under the HUD Disaster Recovery Initiative and for other program management purposes” and “HUD and the Disaster Recovery Grant Reporting System are collecting information regarding the use of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds awarded under the HUD Disaster Recovery Initiative and for other program management purposes.” Does HUD then need to be told that $2 million in federal Community Development Block Grants were used for the Waterfalls art project rather than something more directly related to “Disaster Recovery?”

Bloomberg Wants More Control

Bloomberg wants to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s functions to turned over to him and made a city function. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (Opinion: There Should Be No More Excuses At Ground Zero, September 10, 2008) he wrote:

We will ask Gov. Paterson to dismantle the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and hand over its development responsibilities to the city. Although the LMDC, a conduit for federal funds, must remain a legal entity, turning over its other functions to the city would eliminate one redundant layer of bureaucracy.
Knowing What Was “Privately Donated” by Bloomberg

How much of the $13.5 million privately donated money was actually donated by Bloomberg, LP? However large Bloomberg’s principal chunk is rumored to be, you don’t know how much it really is because it hasn’t been reported. Noticing New York has tried to find out. Noticing New York has inquired about the amount by contacting those who have, or should have, the information. The Mayor’s Office referred us to the Parks Department. The Parks Department declined comment, referring us to the Public Arts Fund. Bloomberg, LP also referred us to the Public Art Fund to whom Bloomberg gave the money, saying that Bloomberg, LP never discloses figures about how much money the Mayor’s media company is donating. The Public Art Fund did not supply the information either. They informed us that:

It is the policy of the Public Art Fund not to release details about donations raised from the private sector.

Donations in support of The New York City Waterfalls started at $100 and included the $2 million received from LMDC.

Influence of Donations

Because Bloomberg, LP giving is clearly an extension of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s influence, the Mayor’s heavy personal giving to so many of the city’s cultural institutions has been viewed as a problem. People have pointed out that giving quietly immunizes the Mayor from criticism. Institutions receiving the money are apt not to express criticism of the Mayor and each institution has associated with it huge numbers of New York’s most influential (and wealthy) citizens whose impulses to criticize the Mayor are probably also largely neutralized.

Loops: Strategic Use of Charities and Donations

Are the Mayor’s personal donations politically strategic? We may not have the information about the Mayor’s personal “munificence” to clearly assess the question, but an indicative pattern can be seen in the way that the Mayor has distributed public taxpayer money. The New York Post investigated and reported that the Bloomberg administration has handed out $2.7 million in city taxpayer cash to three nonprofit groups that Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz set up. (See: Sure Pays for Marty to Be Mike's Buddy, by Rich Calder, October 14, 2008.) These are groups Markowitz himself has improperly favored financially with taxpayer funds and which he uses in politically strategic ways. (Oh the circles upon self-referential circles we can find when these “charities” are involved!) Has Bloomberg exercised restraint from politically motivated strategy when it comes to his undisclosed personal largess that he hasn’t similarly exercised when he distributes taxpayer money? It would seem unlikely. Has Bloomberg personally donated to Markowitz’s charities?

More “Giving” In Store; Bloomberg Percentage to Go Up

One thing we know about Bloomberg’s giving is that with the advent of the new Wall Street fiscal crisis, Bloomberg while predicting that overall charitable support for New York arts groups and institutions will be going down, is advertising that he will be increasing his personal donations at this time. If predictions and advertised promises bear out, then you can expect Bloomberg’s proportional influence to go up.

The Non-comfort of Other “Private” Donations; Forest City Ratner

Are we comforted that there were others contributing in addition to the $2 million from the Lower Manhattan Development and the direct lead sponsorship from Bloomberg LP? Probably not. Why should we be comforted when another company high on this list of principal contributors to the Waterfalls is Forest City Ratner Companies. Predicated on Bloomberg ’s stalwart assistance, Forest City Ratner Companies is demanding over $2 billion in misguided taxpayer-financed subsidies for their proposed Atlantic Yards megadevelopment in Brooklyn, with more than $1 billion alone just to subsidize a private franchise basketball arena.

The Non-comfort of Other “Private” Donations; the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City

The Public Art Fund’s list of private sponsors for the Waterfalls project consists of five categories. First on the list are “lead supporters”. Bloomberg. LP is one of the four lead supporters. Another is the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City. Ostensibly this fund is an independent private 501(c)(3), but if you want to know more about it you have to go to the New York City government website,, where you will find a message about the fund from none other than Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While technically a donation from the fund may qualify as a “private” donation, it makes you think about what “private” really means. It certainly appears that it was additional money that Bloomberg was able to deliver to the project by virtue of his public position as Mayor.

The Non-comfort of Other “Private” Donations; the Lauders

Next on this list are “major” supporters (of which Forest City Ratner Companies is one of seven). Together with the Ratner Companies on this list is the Leonard and Evelyn Lauder Foundation. Leonard Lauder is the brother of Ronald Lauder, who in a flagrant ploy only days ago negotiated a billionaires’ pact with Bloomberg: Lauder will support the repeal of term limits so that Bloomberg can run for a third term as Mayor and, in exchange, Bloomberg will appoint Lauder to the head of a charter revision commission so that Lauder, who does not believe in the repeal of term limits for anybody else, can reimpose term limits before any subsequent officeholder can take advantage of their repeal. (See: Ethics Complaint Filed Over Bloomberg-Lauder Pact, by Michael Barbaro, October 9, 2008 and Lauder and Bloomberg Strike a Deal, by Michael Barbaro AND Sewell Chan, October 8, 2008)

The Non-comfort of Other “Private” Donations; Real Estate and the Mets

There are 18 “generous” supporters, 64 “additional funds” supporters and 29 “assistance has been provided by” supporters. The list is predominated by other well-known real estate developers besides Forest City Ratner. It includes the “New York Mets Foundation, Inc.” The Mets are similar to Foret City Ratner in that they are involved in controversial tax-exempt financing for another sports venue, the new Mets stadium. Even when you get down to level of the smallest donors, influence is perceptible in that there are many companies that are obviously construction industry subcontractors.

“Self-referential” Becomes “Self-reverential”

I have used the term “self-referential” several times above but certainly when Bloomberg directs huge sums to the real estate and sports franchise industries and they, in turn, give that money back to a project the Mayor is taking the lead in sponsoring, the result becomes a mind-boggling self-referential loop. When Bloomberg, as Mayor, then awards the project he himself sponsored with a city award for merit, the “self-referential” becomes “self-reverential.”

Self-reverential Elimination of Term Limits

These self-referential loops were to have been broken by term limits, but taking the “self-reverential” one step further Bloomberg has proposed elimination of these limits. He has proposed their elimination in the middle of this ongoing 2009 mayoral election cycle and his focus is to eliminate them particularly as they would apply specifically to him. I noted above that with the advent of the new Wall Street fiscal crisis, Bloomberg is advertising that he will be increasing his charitable giving to New York art groups and intuitions, while predicting that overall charitable support for these institutions from other sources will be drying up. With a disconcerting simultaneity, Bloomberg has also used the advent of the fiscal crisis to argue that only he himself has the knowledge to address the crisis for the city and that he can properly assist the public only if he is exempted from term limits and granted a third term as mayor. How self-reverential can you get? Inaccurate too, I believe. Did Bloomberg offer one predictive statement about this crisis coming to pass? There were those who did. I know of no special acumen on the part of Bloomberg that would make him suitable to the role. It may be the reverse because, as a crisis-insider, he likely lacks perspective.

Third Term the Charm to Crack the Silence?

It has been suggested that Bloomberg’s flow of charitable donations silenced criticism from people and organizations. Those people and organizations expected him soon to be out of office because of term limits. Why should they have picked a fight when they didn’t have to? Why should they bite the hand that feeds them? When it comes to the Waterfalls, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

Let us hope that the equation whereby silence makes sense changes when those same people and organizations that have been silent perceive that Bloomberg might continue in office for four or more additional years. Let us hope we all realize the importance of bringing out into the open honest and forthright assessments about Bloomberg policies that don’t work. Let’s hope that we come forward with our own assessments, rather than leaving it to the Mayor to give himself awards and proclaim that only he is fit to be Mayor.

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