Saturday, October 4, 2008

“Sitt”ing Not So Pretty

We didn’t have to read Charles V. Bagli’s article Failed Deals Replace Boom in New York Real Estate, September 30, 2008 to know a number of things to be true in our new economic environment.

Ambitious and Large-scale to Take Longer

The article starts out: “After seven years of nonstop construction, skyrocketing rents and sales prices . . . the credit crisis and the turmoil on Wall Street are bringing New York’s real estate boom to an end.” About midway through, the article advises:

“ . . . some of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s most ambitious large-scale projects — the West Side railyards, Pennsylvania Station, ground zero, Coney Island and Willets Point — are going to take longer than expected to start and to complete, real estate experts say.”

That means that we are going to be waiting a lot longer for the benefits envisioned by these projects. In the case of the West Side railyards, Pennsylvania Station, and the redevelopment of ground zero it is simply a case of waiting longer for the materialization of benefits we do not now have. The benefits we are waiting for with respect to those particular projects are pretty unarguable and we are not forgoing anything we could have had in the meantime.

Waiting for the “Next Act”

Coney Island stands out as a different case. The land-rezoning speculator Joe Sitt, of Thor Equities, has already evicted Astroland from its Coney Island amusement-park-zoned land. Astroland closed for good two weeks ago. Even if the city soon grants Sitt the zoning changes he is trying to manipulate into existence, our city will certainly be waiting a substantial while before what has been touted as “Coney’s Next Act*” materializes. In the meantime we will have given up what we had. It is not just the eviction of Astroland; other amusement area acreage was similarly vacated and was already being held unnecessarily vacant.

(*“Coney’s Next Act” is terminology being used by the Coney Island Development Corporation, which is promoting misleading developer-generated visions of Coney Island with a pernicious peppiness that would give Sarah Palin a run for her money. For instance, it promulgates images of improbable high-rising squozed-in loop-de-loop roller coasters which are not funded or otherwise committed to.)

Wherefore Art Thou, Astroland?

The loss of these amusement areas hit home with me on a beautiful evening a very short while ago. A group of about fifteen foreign tourists was avidly studying the Brooklyn map that is tucked under the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge. It seemed as if they were going to need help so I waited a moment. They approached me. “Can you tell us how to get to Coney Island?” they asked. I began to explain. One woman, her finger planted firmly in a Fodor’s or some equivalent guide said with great definiteness and a gleam in her eye, “This is where we want to go, Astroland. How long do they stay open? Till twelve?” I hardly had the heart to tell them that Astroland had been evicted by its landlord and is not expected to reopen. It fell to me to tell them that they had probably just missed their last chance to visit the historic Coney Island. . . . “Unless something is done,” I tried to add hopefully.

Why Gone?

If we are going to have to wait a long while before the land vacated by Astroland and the other amusements are replaced with anything else, it calls starkly into question the strategy of the city in transforming this area of amusement fare into something else. It also directly undermines the arguments that are being made that the rezoning that ends the era of amusement must be effected posthaste, specifically and urgently before Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s second term expires. But wait! Will he still be limited to two terms AND what is the proper response when someone tries to force you to make a big decisions posthaste?

With the rezoning into which Sitt is trying to manipulate the city, we are slouching toward a very questionable redevelopment plan. (See Noticing New York’s testimony on the subject.) Speaking truthfully, it probably means the unjustified end to the fabled amusement area which could have been effectively redeveloped with amusement uses. In the meantime, there is no reason why a working amusement area can’t be kept until refurbished. With other sectors of our economy fading, don’t we want to be able to tell our visiting tourists that they can go to famous Coney Island to find an open Astroland?

One Trick Coney

The amusements at Coney Island are being closed as part of a tactical ploy by Joe Sitt in pursuit of the rezoning he wants. Feeding Sitt’s appetite for such a ploy is that the city is not enforcing (and Sitt does not expect the city to enforce) the zoning that requires those areas to be utilized, as they historically were, for amusement. The city’s feckless enforcement is attributable to the city’s having bought into the developer’s notion that the future value of this land is in uses other than amusement. Everyone needs to understand, however, that even if the land has arguably more value for Sitt if it is rezoned, the land has less value to all the rest of the city populace if that happens. It would be as if a developer owned and wanted to build over a conventional park. That this is supposed to be an amusement park rather than a conventional park makes slight difference in its value to the rest of the city.

By not using the land in accordance with its zoning and holding land vacant, the land-rezoning speculator consciously visits blight upon the community. He temporarily foregoes revenue but it is a game of chicken he plays with the city. So long as the city finally rezones, he wins. When the city lets him shut down the amusements while awaiting the rezoning, the city tolerates the blight. It needn’t be that way. If Sitt, in his game of chicken, wants to tactically blight the community via underutilization and vacancy of his land, the city has a blunter tool than zoning at its command. It can fight back by using eminent domain to take Sitt’s land.

Eminent Sense: Sharp vs. Dull Tools

The city has been willing to pursue eminent domain in some highly inappropriate and abusing ways. By contrast, its use in this situation to create a public park and to counter the effects of intentional blight and the unwillingness to comply with the zoning would be quite defensible. Attending a Municipal Art Society panel discussion about Coney Island, “Coney Island at the Crossroads,” I got into a conversation with city development officials and was told that the city did not want to threaten eminent domain. I was told the city prefers “friendly negotiations” with the developer. (See: Friday, September 19, 2008, the “Wednesday Evening” section of Contrivance in the service of creating blight, real blight- Listen again- REAL blight)

Rather than avail itself of the blunt tool of eminent domain to assure that there will be the desired amusement park use, the city is proposing to do something that sounds rather preposterous to me: The city is proposing to take the same tool of zoning that it can’t (or doesn’t choose to) make work and sharpen it. Since the city can’t get Sitt to comply with the zoning to provide the amusement fare for which the area is currently zoned, the city is working on “rewriting” the zoning requirements to provide with greater specificity exactly what the city wants in the way of amusement fare. Truly though, the more significant change is actually that the `sharpened’ zoning would apply to a significantly reduced area, only 9 acres. (We have suggested that the Coney Island plan not be used in Coney Island at all: Sunday, September 28, 2008 Shorely We Jest: Needed Amusement Musing)

Right and Wrong Track Situations

When the city gets off on the wrong track we get blight. When the city itself takes us off on the wrong track with ambitious and large-scale plans, like the Coney Island redevelopment, we get blight that we should not have to live with. Where we are dependent on the consummation of these ambitious and large-scale plans for restorations to abate the blight, we are going to be living with those situations much longer. That is what the Times article, noted at the beginning of this piece, must lead all of us, perhaps begrudgingly, to conclude.

In the case of the West Side railyards, referred to now as “Hudson Yards,” we are not correcting a mistake made on the part of government. The ambitious and large-scale plan will bring about a benefit and create a new section of the city that has never before existed as an integrated part of the city fabric. In the case of the Moynihan Station, the new Pennsylvania Station, we are belatedly correcting, as best we can, the terrible mistake that was made when the original Pennsylvania Station was torn down. In the case of the redevelopment of the former World Trade Center ground zero site, the essential need to rebuild on such a large scale was forced upon us by the Bin Laden terrorist acts.

We are having to acknowledging a scarcity of resources to fulfill grand-scale plans. Ideally, this then should be a time to direct resources only to real needs, and if we must endure less than optimal situations for prolonged periods, we should not find ourselves living with blight of our own making.

Other Blighters

Willets Point, the last large-scale ambitious project mentioned in the Times list that is going to take longer to start and to complete than expected, is an example of blight of our own making. The city has long been accused of withholding services from the area. That is because it doesn’t regard the area as a success while it is occupied by the kind of businesses that are succeeding there. It should be self-evident that withholding services doesn’t create a successful neighborhood; it confronts the area with greater problems to overcome. Withholding services is desirable from the standpoint of a city that wants to pave the way for its exercise of eminent domain as the city seeks to take the Willets Point triangle through eminent domain. I suggested above that eminent domain could be appropriate to deal with the blight created by Joe Sitt at Coney Island. It is a valid suggestion, but people need to recognize that most of the time the threat of eminent domain for the purpose of forcing private-to-private property owner transfers creates, rather than eliminates, blight.

Not mentioned in the Times list of large-scale ambitious projects that are surely going to take longer to start and to complete than expected is the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment. This unnecessarily huge project already assails the community with an inordinately protracted development schedule. The schedule will be more protracted still. Unless the megadevelopment is replaced by something more appropriately designed and scaled, decades of blight will befall the adjoining communities. Again, as with nearly all eminent domain-abusing projects, it is an example of blight of our own making.

If the Atlantic Yards project had never been undertaken, the newly renovated and expensive co-ops and condominiums within its speculative footprint would be fully and productively occupied just like the adjacent Newswalk development. In contrast to the lumbering Atlantic Yards besetting the community during these many recent boom years, without Atlantic Yards the example of these successful cooperatives and condominiums developments would have been followed by other developments. Propelled by the boom of these past years the elegant white terra cotta Ward Bakery building, also within the speculative footprint, would no doubt have been landmarked: The building would be well on it way to exciting the community with creative adaptative reuse.

Directing Resources: Sitting Pretty

We cannot, and should not, put our resources into perpetuating blight. As we sit waiting for new development, we will by no means be “sitting pretty” if we are living for decades with the blighting efforts of Joe Sitt and Forest City Ratner. The answer is to redirect resources from the ill-advised notion of doing the Sitt and Ratner projects and put them into what are, by contrast, important, worthy and defensible projects like Moynihan Station and redevelopment of the World Trade Center site.

Governor David Paterson is looking for another $2 billion in new cuts to the state’s current budget due to the deepening financial crisis. (New York Times, Paterson Seeks $2 Billion in Budget Cuts, by Danny Hakim and Jeremy W. Peters, October 3, 2008) The great sense it would make to cut Atlantic Yards out of the budget may not result in a one-for-one dollar reduction to the state budget (because the benefit will also acrue in the form of city and state budget reductions), but Atlantic Yards, in and of itself, represents over $2 billion in misdirected public resources (See: Your 'Net' Loss $2B in Taxes to Ratner, by Rich Calder, April 14, 2008).

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