Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Getting Bloomberg Out of The Way to Honor Moynihan

The New York Times produced an editorial on Friday praising the possibility of progress on the Moynihan Station which involves converting “the elegant old Farley Post Office” into train station space so that commuters will no longer have to “endure New York’s gloomy Pennsylvania Station.” (See: Moynihan Station, Maybe, September 18, 2009.)

Moynihan and Other Announcements About What Might be Moving Forward

The idea that the proposed Moynihan Station might finally begin to move forward is just one of many “good news” announcements we are going to be hearing about respecting New York City development now that the Bloomberg is revving up to come down the election home stretch. This weekend we heard about the plans for a colossal new shark exhibit at Coney Island Aquarium and last week we also heard about plans for development of the Homeport development in Stapleton, Staten Island near the ferry at St.George. The public is being further titillated by the projection that spurs having been kicked so that the first phase of the long-delayed Brooklyn Bridge Park will be open by December, just two months after the mayoralty election. Really?

Noticing New York is betting that one piece of “good news” that won’t be trotted out is that redevelopment of the Ground Zero World Trade Center site is proceeding faster than planned. The slow pace of activity there was recently lambasted as a national embarrassment in discussions on Real Time With Bill Maher. The Bloomberg administration is unlikely to want to remind the public how Bloomberg has handled Ground Zero which was one Bloomberg’s most clear-cut opportunities to prove his development credentials immediately after he was elected to his first term.

The Moynihan “Maybe”

Expressed even in its title, (“. . . Maybe?”), Friday’s Times Moynihan Station editorial expresses skepticism about whether the Moynihan Station project will really happen. It was first agreed to in principle by Amtrak over 20 years ago and was another clear-cut development opportunity for Bloomberg when he first came into office almost 8 years ago. The Times suggests that if it finally really does move forward it will be because the “focus” “of the entire development” has been adjusted so that “Instead of an elaborate mix of shopping, housing, sports arena and, oh, yes, a railroad station, the new plan is primarily a transportation project.”

Bloomberg Administration Misfocus

The Times editorial places the blame for the what has previously been a delaying misfocus onto the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Governor Paterson. It fails to mention that a huge amount of the distraction from what would have been a proper focus came from the Bloomberg administration.

Noticing New York has written before about this lack of focus (Monday, February 23, 2009, Un-funny Valentines Arriving Late: Your Community Interests at Heart- See # 17). Some of what we wrote (click on the link for more):
As of the spring of 2003, with things sufficiently settled after 9/11, the project was supposed to have been completed by 2008. It hasn’t even been begun. Why? Our public officials put the public project in the hands of private developers to diddle with. . . .

* * * *

. . . So what happened when the public train station was turned over for developers to take the lead? For the developers it became all about making profit on adjacent properties. Things went so far afield as for the developers to focus on whether they could acquire and tear down Macy’s, “the world’s largest store” in order to build huger and huger buildings in the vicinity! No wonder the possibility of proceeding in 2003 with any ghost of the 2008 “completion date” came and went. If you are not building a new train station but negotiating to buy and redesign a whole neighborhood with the goal of putting private developer profit in your pocket, you are talking a whole different time frame and the lead winds up being taken by entities whose eye is on a different ball.
Trust us. These expansively wild dreams were not being entertained without the support of the Bloomberg administration. Clearly indicative of this is the fact that when Daniel Doctoroff, Bloomberg’s former deputy mayor for development, left the mayor’s administration to go to work for the mayor’s Bloomberg, LP, Doctoroff made a special trip to the city’s Conflict of Interest Board where he was (we say inappropriately) given the right to continue working on Moynihan Station while no longer technically a government official. (See: Doctoroff Wants to Stay Involved with Hudson Yards, Moynihan, by Matthew Schuerman, December 6, 2007) For more on some of Doctoroff’s and the administration’s other conflicts see: Tuesday, February 3, 2009, The Good News IS the Bad News: Thanks A lot for Mayor Bloomberg’s “Charity” (Part II).

We think the Times was negligent in not pointing out Bloomberg’s responsibility for these delays in their editorial even though they were on target by aligning with Noticing new York in pointing out the Bloomberg-induced lack of focus is the culprit for the delays. The Times surely ought to have figured out the problem by now: They previously ran an editorial (Miracle on 32nd Street, December 28, 2007) that objected to dragging the destruction of Macy’s into the Moynihan Station planning:
At this point, this move seems like another complication for a project that is already about as complex as public works can get. For one thing, the old Macy’s building has national landmark status and needs to be protected. Also, moving Macy’s to 32nd Street raises new questions about whether that part of the Moynihan complex would become more shopping mall than railroad station.
Honoring Moynihan
(Image above from Muncipal Art Society 2007-2008 Annual Report: Voice for the Future of Our City.)

Let us return a moment to Friday’s editorial about how plans for Moynihan Station should finally proceed. It ends with the suggestion that one reason the Station should finally move forward is that when it does Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan can finally be appropriately honored:
Then, that station can finally be named for the man who championed the whole idea: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
We will have more comment on that at the end of this post. First, let’s look at some of the “good news” projects that the Bloomberg administration is trotting out for press events because it says something about the way the Bloomberg administration does or does not move things forward.

The Coney Island Aquarium’s New Shark Tank

You can read about the new aquarium in a number of places, the Brooklyn Paper and the New York Times among them (September 18, 2009, New Aquarium revitalization plan finally has some real teeth, By Ben Muessig, for The Brooklyn Paper, and Aquarium to Renovate With Giant Shark Tanks, By Charles V. Bagli, September 16, 2009

From the Brooklyn Paper:
“With the city’s plan to revitalize the amusement district, Coney Island is poised for exciting growth and the New York Aquarium is an important part of that vision,” said Bloomberg. . .
New investment in the aquarium is probably long overdue and the shark tank has been focused upon before. New York’s current 90,000-gallon tank shark tank is far and away outclassed by the 400,000 gallon walkthrough Wild Reef habitat in Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium where sharks swim above you and on all sides. The Chicago exhibit opened in 2003. The new plan for our city’s aquarium, according to the Times, is for “two glass-walled tanks with a total capacity of 600,000 gallons.”

The Times Bagli article points out that the new plans were announced despite the fact that the city is currently tangled in negotiations regarding neighboring Coney Island land with developer Joe Sitt:
Still, the city remains at odds with Joseph J. Sitt, a developer who owns 10 acres and once had his own redevelopment plan for the area.
But Bloomberg says of the timing of his announcement:
. . . the timing “couldn’t be better” for the project, because the City Council had approved the city’s plan to redevelop the seafront district, once known as the world’s largest playground.
Indeed, Bloomberg no doubt hopes that his announcement will serve to distract attention from the fact that his administration just forced through a plan that is assuredly calculated to destroy the adjoining Coney Island amusement area. See: Wednesday, July 1, 2009,
Noticing New York’s Testimony at Today's City Council Hearing on Coney Island, Tuesday, July 14, 2009, City’s Coney Island Plan: Our Skepticism of Times Editorial Credulity, Wednesday, July 15, 2009, The Jane Jacobs Way for Coney Island, Friday, July 10, 2009, This is the Coney Island the Bloomberg Administration Doesn’t Want the City to Have!.

In terms of saving Coney Island it would have been good if the Bloomberg administration had been moving on investing in the aquarium long before this third-term election cycle.

Indeed, from the Times:
The wildlife society has long wanted to revamp the 52-year-old aquarium in Coney Island, which attracts about 750,000 visitors a year. But the city rejected one plan last year because it provided for new exhibits but failed to transform the building’s exterior and create a more engaging link to the Boardwalk and Surf Avenue.
And from the Brooklyn Paper:
It’s certainly not the first time someone has made that promise. Indeed, the latest renovation plans come almost three years after the city proposed, and then scrapped, a much ballyhooed aquarium rehab that called for an entirely new look.
Announcement of Homeport Development on Staten Island

Here from a periodical that picked up the Bloomberg press release on the proposed Homeport Development on Staten Island not that far from where the ferry lands at St. George:
In the continuing effort to revive the local economy and spruce up local neighborhoods, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced on Wednesday that the city has secured a commitment from the Ironstate Development Company to invest $150 million to revitalize the underutilized Homeport site in Stapleton, Staten Island.
(See: Staten Island Waterfront Gets $150 Million Revamp By Julia Kantor, Epoch Times Staff Sep 16, 2009.)

Putting this in perspective we go back to an article from the Real Deal published only last July (Will development of former Staten Island Navy Homeport finally move forward?, July 16, 2009, By Lynne Miller.)

It is:
. . . a project that's been discussed by local business leaders and city officials for years, but has seen little action.
Local observers on Staten Island expressed skepticism about the likelihood of any project moving forward at the waterfront in the current economic climate.
And we find out that the last time it was discussed by Bloomberg was approximately four years ago when he was last running for mayor in 2005:
In his 2005 state of the city address, Bloomberg compared the Homeport to Mark Twain's description of the weather: "Everybody talks about it … but nobody does anything about it."
In last week’s Crain’s we find this:
“This is a viable plan in a very difficult market,” said Seth Pinksy, president of the city's Economic Development Corp., in a statement.
(September 16, 2009, At last: City unveils big S.I. waterfront project. Crows borough president: “This is the biggest one-time development in the history of Staten Island.”)

Let’s see what happens after the election.

Sudden Activity at Brooklyn Bridge Park
(With about nine more weeks to go before its announced completion date, this is what Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Phase I looks like today.)

Noticing New York has written before about the failure of Brooklyn Bridge Park to move forward. (Monday, February 23, 2009, Un-funny Valentines Arriving Late: Your Community Interests at Heart- See # 4). Our diagnosis was much like that of Moynihan Station: That complicating the park’s development by unnecessarily intertangling it with private development has stymied progress. The idea was that the park would be paid for by taking land that could be park (and that much of the public wants to be park), and sell it for development. Below is some of what we wrote (click on the link for more):
Even if one can question what the city can currently afford and whether all of the waterfront area now available for new use should become park, the precept that a city park should “pay for itself” has created confusion and uncertainly about design and management that compound exponentially with the vagaries of an erratic real estate market now on a downward trajectory. As a consequence, there are valid concerns about the unpredictable answers as to just what development may happen. There are equally valid accompanying concerns that the mystery development that finally materializes will be driven by factors other than what normally makes for good urban design and zoning.
Notably, much like the Times advises public officials to do in the case of Moynihan Station, the city is now suddenly moving Brooklyn Bridge Park forward (we’ll gauge how fast when December finally rolls in after the election) because it is setting the extraneous focus on development aside. We suspect that the focus has only been set aside for the time being. There are indications that the Bloomberg administration is going to return to it immediately after the election. The line that is likely to be used is that “We have gone as far as we can go with the park without additional funds from development. Should we stop here because you, the public, are opposed to development within the park? And, by the way, we have a little publicity blitz about how great the development will be.” We think we saw a test-marketed preview of the approach surface at a recent debate among the candidates running for David Yassky’s City Council seat. (Steve Levin won the democratic primary.)

Honoring Moynihan Revisited

Earlier on, we noted that Friday’s Times editorial about how plans for Moynihan Station should finally proceed ended with the Times’ suggestion that one reason Moynihan Station should finally move forward is that when it does Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan can finally be appropriately honored. We promised we would revisit this with an additional comment.

Senator Moynihan took principled positions about the proper division of roles between the private and the public sector. One thing he fought hard for on that score was NOT to have the public finance sports arenas and stadiums with tax-exempt bonds.

We’ve written about this too:
In 1986 Congress passed the Tax Reform Act of 1986 which took away tax exemption for private activity bonds that were used to finance stadium construction. According to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was instrumental in getting those 1986 provisions passed, the subsequent "Issuance of [tax-exempt bonds] contravenes the clear and expressed intent of Congress." (See: Is the sun setting on tax-exempt stadium financing? Janet Ward, Oct 1, 1996.) Moynihan introduced a new bill in 1996 to prevent the post-1986 financings that were occurring, knowing that Yankee and Mets stadium financing would be prevented by his corrective legislation. (See: Moynihan's Tax-Break Bill Could Foil Dreams of Fields, by Thomas J. Lueck, July 14, 1996)
(See: Monday, December 15, 2008, Stadium Finance: Mayor, Professing to Know Numbers, Should Know He Can’t Have It Both Ways (Unless He’s Keeping Two Sets of Books))

Much of the focus of Bloomberg officials has been on unwisely overriding the Moynihan prohibitions on such financing. The Bloomberg administration has sought to do so even when, for instance, an arena like the proposed Atlantic Yards Nets arena would be a $220 million net loss to the city. Bloomberg has sought to do so even when financing Yankee Stadium meant criminally falsifying city tax assessment records and risking the cost and ignominy of having city tax-exempt bonds declared taxable.

We think it is clear that proceeding with Moynihan Station would indeed honor Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. We think it would honor the senator for more reasons than the Times envisions. It would honor him by materializing his vision of the glorious train station, but we would also be honoring him by setting aside Bloomberg’s detrimental focus on trying to transform public projects into special gifts for private developers. We could honor Senator Moynihan greatly in many ways by casting Bloomberg and his ineffectual developer-oriented style to the wayside. Too bad the Times didn’t think to point out that one of things we could do immediately to honor Moynihan is NOT finance the Atlantic Yards arena.

Third Term’s Not The Charm

Finally, if the Bloomberg administration’s focus had been where it belonged for the past eight years perhaps we would be hearing more about what the administration had done in two terms rather than what it was going to do in its third.

Unfortunately, we are likely to see more of the Bloomberg administration’s errant focus in its third term. It is likely Bloomberg will be fighting for his old developer-focused development style with redoubled effort. Bloomberg when signing his term limit extension said as much. Of all the things he might have talked about at that moment, he said then that the reason he needed a third term was to overcome the public’s opposition to his developments. (Remember the West Side Stadium?) Perhaps a trifle incoherent and certainly inaccurately biased toward his own point of view, this is what he said:
I do think that if you take a look at the real world, of how long it takes to do things; we live in a litigious society, we live in a society where we have real democracy and lots of people have the ability to INPUT their views and approve or disapprove projects.
(Tuesday, November 4, 2008, Remembering; Not Forgetting in Chinatown.)

Some of Bloomberg’s developments may have been held up by litigation, but mostly they have been held up by his own misplaced focus, and if some have been litigated against, that too is largely the result of his own misfocus which has resulted in projects, often mega-projects, that are on top of everything else incredibly poorly designed.

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