Monday, May 24, 2010

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth? An Examination of Brooklyn Bridge Park in Terms of the Politics of Development, Part II

This is Part II of “Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth? An Examination of Brooklyn Bridge Park in Terms of the Politics of Development.” Click here for Part I.

Leaving off in Part I we had been looking at what the politics of Brooklyn Bridge Park’s development told us about Mayor Bloomberg’s planned run for president and we had just gotten to his hiring of Howard Wolfson who assisted Hillary Clinton in her own campaign for the White House.

Now to continue where we left off. . . .

The Advantage of “Nonpartisan Elections” for Bloomberg Partisans

Wolfson is now working on sounding the public out on another change in city politics that is likely to increase Bloomberg’s power and enhance his shot at the presidency. Ironically, it is an attempt to jiu jitsu the public’s antagonism to Bloomberg’s term limits-overturning power grab into even more Bloombergian power. Having overturned term limits to specially (and at the last minute) afford Bloomberg his third term as mayor it is now considered a priority by one and by all (Bloomberg included) to rewrite New York’s City Charter so as to once again proscribe such mayoral third terms. Bloomberg (with Wolfson on the case) is seeking to piggy-back onto the no-third-term provision (which the public likes), another change to the City Charter (that the public doesn’t like but Bloomberg covets): “Non-partisan elections” or the elimination of the role of political parties in elections. (See: Renewed Fight Looms Over Ending Role of Political Parties in Elections, By Michael Barbaro, May 13, 2010 and Election Reform Among Charter Revision Agenda, by Bob Hennelly, May 17, 2010.)

Bloomberg tried and failed to establish such “a nonpartisan election system” in 2003 and according to the New York Times “Voters back then rejected it by a wide margin, delivering Mr. Bloomberg a stinging defeat.”

The system would replace party primaries with a system that allows voters in any party to vote for candidates from any party. Seeking this change at this time could help Bloomberg toward the presidency by promoting a meme to the effect that party affiliations are an undesirable part of elections, something that would be good for Bloomberg running as a third party independent (or if not that to explain his frequent party switches in the past). It could also make for a new and confusing ballot that forces New York City voters to reorient themselves when they vote in the 2012 elections. New York City is home to a substantial portion of the state’s voters and Bloomberg, already with favorite son status, might thereby hope to take even more votes in NYC together with votes he could get from the more Republican upstate voters he probably expects to sell himself to. Could he win an election? Or just affect and broker one?

A Boon for a Wealthy Bloomberg in Wolfson's Good Governance Clothing?

Notwithstanding this idea’s previous defeat, Bloomberg has lined up degrees of support for the change including from Citizens Union. Below, including quotes from Dick Dadey is from the Times:
Citizens Union, a government watchdog that also opposed nonpartisan elections in 2003, said that it, too, would reconsider the measure, especially after the historically low voter turnout for the 2009 citywide election.

“We are concerned about the decline in voter participation,” said Dick Dadey, the executive director of the group. “Given our interest in election reform broadly, we want to revisit the issue of nonpartisan elections as a possible solution to that.”
Others, including the Working Families Party, the N.A.A.C.P. and Common Cause New York in a letter to the Charter Revision Commission which was obtained and quoted by the Times said that Bloomberg’s move “strikes us as highly cynical” and would “overwhelm considered debate on other important issues.” Opponents are also noting that Bloomberg’s move favors the rich (and perhaps Bloomberg’s anointed successor?). The Times quoted Bill de Blasio as follows:
Eliminating parties in elections would “be an open invitation for self-funded candidates, who do not go through primaries and dominate elections based on money,” . . . Mr. Bloomberg’s track record of spending tens of millions to win elections shows that “this is a clear and present danger.”
Dan Cantor, with the Working Families Party (which has a very vested interest in continuing party line voting), is quoted by WNYC’s coverage as saying that:
party affiliation helps voters get a sense of what a candidate stands for. And he says without parties the electoral process is skewed to the privileged.

"What it really does is increases the advantage that people with high name recognition and high personal wealth, it increases the advantages they already have" said Cantor.
A Few Noticing New York Asides on Charter Change

A few quick Noticing New York thoughts on City Charter change:
1. Like the current federal system which term limits the president but not the members of the federal Congress, only the mayor should be term limited. Among other things this would help address the imbalance of power between the mayor and the City Council.
2. The undesirable advantage that City Council members incumbents have in elections should be addressed not with term limits, but with what is known sometimes as “instant runoff elections” and sometimes as “alternative voting.” Such a change will generate and assist challengers making all of their voices more important and will make it easier to depose incumbents. If such a system had been in place in the last election it is likely Christine Quinn would have lost her City Council seat. The system can be implemented while retaining party primaries and would be cheaper than the charter proposal Bloomberg is proposing which unnecessarily involves multiple elections just for the purpose of runoffs.
Back to Developments of the Real Estate Variety

It’s time to get back to the subject of real estate development if only to start off by noting how close it is to the city politics we’ve just been discussing. The City Hall article on the city takeover of Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island quotes former City Councilman Ken Fisher, currently a land use attorney and chair of the bar association's land use committee, (who often represents developers), and who also chair of the Governors Island Alliance Board of Directors. He predicts that the transfers to the city will make privatized development more likely because of the closeness of the City Hall politics to real estate development.
Fisher said that city government tends to be closer to the real estate industry than the state, leading to development plans that many find irresponsible and out of character with the surrounding area. On Governors Island, this could prove to be controversial, according to Fisher.

“The pressure for overdevelopment or for privatizing parts of the island could prove inexorable over time,” Fisher said.
(above, in a Bing Maps image, the empire transferred to Bloomberg, the 172 acre Governors Island plus the "85 acre" 1.3 mile Brooklyn Bridge Park which extends from just north of the Manhattan Bridge all the way south to Atlantic Avenue. Nominally at least 257 acres in all.)

“Expansionist Mayor” & “Ambitious” Redevelopment

The agreement whereby the federal government transferred Governors Island to the city and the state prohibits the development of housing or a casino on the island, but besides the park land that will be created on the island the Times points out that Bloomberg as an “expansionist mayor” will have charge over what it refers to as the “ambitious redevelopment” of its 172 acres of waterfront real estate that would involve the following kinds of development deals: "a high school, some commercial development and potentially a satellite campus for New York University.” That couldn’t hurt during a presidential campaign though there are those who are already questioning Bloomberg’s priorities if other city functions get neglected. (See: Wednesday, April 14, 2010, Governor's Island: With Whose Money?)

The Lauding of an Expansionist Mayor Headed for a Presidential Campaign

The laudatory press coverage of Bloomberg’s takeover of Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governor’s island already sounds like a political campaign. The transfers have been used to make the assertion that Bloomberg’s city is “better managed” because the city currently has more money than the state and is willing to ante up funds to take these areas over. Even if they are quoting experts, reporters may be out on a limb to infer too much from the relative financial condition of New York City (home of the bailed-out Wall Street) and the state.- - For better or worse the city is likely doing better than the state because of its closer (ever-closer) ties to Wall Street. It is reported that since 1972 the percentage of all city wages paid in New York paid to the financial sector has gone from one-eighth to now exceed one third (by an appreciable amount particularly when hedge fund earnings are added in). So the way that the federal TARP program recently targeted benefit to the financial sector helped the city. - - Here though is some similar reporting on this from the New York Times and NPR’s Marketplace, respectively attributing the city’s superior financial condition to better management than the state (emphasis supplied):
Raymond Horton, a professor at Columbia Business School who ran a commission that studied New York City’s finances during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, said that by taking over properties like Governors Island, Mr. Bloomberg achieved a milestone that had eluded many of his predecessors.

“What tips the balance here is the state’s fiscal crisis,” Mr. Horton said. “The state is in a dire situation. The city is much better managed at this moment. That makes possible something that was not when the two governments’ finances were in similar condition.”
(See: New York City Takes Over Governors Island, By A. G. Sulzberger and Michael Barbaro, April 11, 2010.)
Carol Kellerman is president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a non-profit watchdog group. She says the city can afford to take on the state's responsibilities because it's saved and scrimped carefully.

CAROL KELLERMAN: Part of the reason we're doing relatively well is because the mayor has ordered periodically reductions across the board in all city agencies. And he's asked his commissioners to make cuts.
(Marketplace: Monday, April 12, 2010, NYC spending makes some nervous.)

New York Times Cozies Up To Bloomberg With Praise

Even the New York Times editorial page sounds as if it is jumping on board to endorse positive-sounding Bloomberg campaign themes:
Unable to carry its share of the costs, the New York State government has ceded responsibility for revitalizing Governors Island to New York City — which is exactly where the responsibility belongs.

* * *

The project adds one more piece to Mayor Bloomberg’s grand plan to connect the city and its residents to its once-industrial waterfront. Mr. Bloomberg inherited several promising projects, including the Hudson River Park, but during his tenure both Brooklyn Bridge Park and a bicycle path around Manhattan have begun to take shape. The revival of Coney Island is on track as well.

If Mr. Bloomberg can move these projects to a conclusion, he will have helped create a vastly more livable New York City.
(See: Editorial: Mayor Bloomberg’s Island, Published: April 12, 2010.)

Bloomberg’s Coney?

“The revival of Coney Island is on track as well”
? We have some other ideas. (See: 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!, Thursday, July 9, 2009, New Video: “Don’t Kill Coney” - A Message From Coney Island’s Mayor!)

In fact, in saying that Coney Island is “on track” it doesn’t even appear that the Times editorial page editors have been reading their own prior editorials on the subject. Even though we criticized the previous Times editorial stance on Coney Island for too much credulity it nevertheless expressed reservations about the city plan it now seems to be lauding. (See: Tuesday, July 14, 2009, City’s Coney Island Plan: Our Skepticism of Times Editorial Credulity.)

That last Times editorial said:
We like the Municipal Art Society’s idea of doubling the size of the amusement area [i.e. doubling it over the postage-stamp size the city is reducing it to] 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.
The city’s “on track” “revival” for Coney Island rejected these sensible recommendations although there are some rumors that the city may soon (out of necessity?) be accepting certain recommendations from the local community that it categorically rejected when it pushed its plan through. So there my be hope on some aspects of the “on track” plan but only if the city changes course.

Praise and Scorn: Bloomberg as a New Arrival on the Scene

We have been laying a lot at the feet of the Bloomberg administration and this is not entirely fair. As the Times editorial noted Bloomberg didn’t arrive until the middle of the movie for a lot of the development we are talking about. As the Times put it: “Mr. Bloomberg inherited several promising projects.”

Even so, this is not the way the rhetorical spin runs. If we have been quick to blame Bloomberg, others have been quick to give him credit. So even though Bloomberg only just took full responsibility for the Brooklyn Bridge Park (including the portion that just opened) much of what is in the works is arguably the result of the shared city-state responsibilities that just ended and began long before Bloomberg was in office. Nevertheless, Nicolai Ouroussoff’s Times review clearly directs its praise Bloomberg’s way:
It is a key and very promising early step in a larger project that includes the greening of the East River waterfront in Manhattan and a park for Governors Island, and which may well turn out to be Michael R. Bloomberg’s most important legacy as mayor of New York.
In a similar vein, although the state has participated significantly in the visioning of Governors Island’s future the Times article on the city takeover asserts:
The acquisition of Governors Island would be a major contribution to the physical legacy of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, which has made the development of public parks a priority.
Pre-Bloombergian Development Ideas Hearkening Back to the Mid-1980s and Early `90s

To be fair, although we question the Bloomberg focus on putting housing in Brooklyn Bridge Park, supposedly to pay for it, the idea of putting housing on the Port Authority land that was previously being used for ports preceded Bloomberg by decades. Originally, going back to the mid-1980s and early `90s, before the Port Authority agreed to give the land over for park use the authority said that it wanted to sell the land for housing development because the Port Authority would be paid more for it that way.

Even when the Port Authority eventually agreed that the “best use” of the land was for park land and consented to give it up for the Brooklyn Bridge Park (in the penultimate pre-Bloomberg year of 2000) there was mention that the plans might still include some private housing as well. From the Times reporting of the time:
The Port Authority, which owns most of the 80 acres of property along the waterfront, had considered putting high-rise housing or parking lots on the land, which had once been the site of bustling piers. But yesterday, Robert E. Boyle, the Port Authority's executive director, said that while the piers along the waterfront still represented important areas of commerce, the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park was a better use for this property.

* * * *

Ms. Witty [Joanne Witty, Brooklyn Heights resident and president at the time of the two-year-old Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation] said final plans might also include some private housing, a concept that in the past has caused some local residents to worry about creating an undue sense of proprietorship among those who might move in. She added that she hoped the housing would bring year-round foot traffic to the park.

The development corporation will present final plans to the Port Authority in September, with park construction to begin in 2004.
(See: Port Authority Agrees to Let Piers Be Used for Brooklyn Bridge Park, February 11, 2000.)

A Compromise Between Constituencies?

Because there have always been two constituencies, a local community that wants the entire area as park and a developer constituency that would have liked to see it all developed, intuition might tell you that a plan for the area to be part Brooklyn Bridge Park and part development might represent the expedient of a compromise rather than the carefully crafted scheme to finance the park that the arrangement has since been proclaimed. It is actually easier (or at least more logical and less convoluted) to defend the mix of park and housing on the basis of such a compromise.

A View With the Brooklyn Bridge

Development of the whole area would have threatened the view from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and its neighboring properties, thus antagonizing a political elite in the city with a respectable amount of power. In 1985, when the first plans for the area were just being unveiled, Brooklyn Heights resident Norman Mailer, whose own home looked out over the promenade at the harbor, commented presciently on developer avarice and the political brawn of the Heights community. Here from the Times:
Norman Mailer, one of the more prominent residents of Brooklyn Heights, said he had indeed ''gnawed over'' the disposal of the property along the piers, even asking Mayor Koch for details of what the city will be proposing.

''My guess is that the real-estate developers will do anything to raise the height restrictions for the property,'' the author said. ''Disposal of the site could be a political scam that would generate an enormous sense of outrage. But if they try to do something against the interest of the area, the opposition here will make the fight over Westway look like All Souls Night.''
(See: In Brooklyn Heights, a Spotlight on 87 Neglected Acres, by Richard D. Lyons, October 27, 1985.)

Though Mailer’s remarks express expectation that the protected view from the promenade would be threatened, that same article describes why the “view plane” protection in place would make building housing directly in front of the promenade difficult:
Complicating potential development, however, is the fact that most of the site is zoned to prohibit the construction of buildings above 60 feet, the height of the Esplanade.

In addition, the so-called view planes established by the zoning drop gradually to 30 feet at the ends of the piers, and to the waterline near the Manhattan side of the Buttermilk Channel.
A 1989 Development Plan (Respecting the Promenade’s View Plane)

Does this then seem to presage the compromise the Bloomberg administration now wants, where development will occur at locations both north and south of the promenade?

Four years later a full development plan was, in fact, brought forward, with developer Larry Silverstein (more recently of World Trade Center site fame) speaking about its respect for protection of the view plane in a Times article while seeming to also taunt that something more threateningly massive could have been planned:
A team of prominent Manhattan developers is poised to build housing, a hotel, shops and a marina on the East River piers at the foot of Brooklyn Heights, with the encouragement of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls most of the site.

The tentative arrangement between the Port Authority and the developers, Larry A. Silverstein and Arthur G. Cohen, would appear to foreclose the possibility of creating a riverfront park on the piers, as a coalition of local leaders, civic groups and elected officials had hoped to do.

* * *

A Port Authority executive handling the piers project, Hugh B. O'Neill, said in a letter to Mr. Manheim that the developers had ''come up with an attractive concept for developing the site that will balance the various public interests involved (the need for housing, the need for open space, continuation of maritime-related activity) in a financially feasible way.''

* * *

''If we could surround the boats in the marina with shops, restaurants, boutiques and, perhaps, a small hotel, it would give added quality,'' he said. ''Behind the shops, we might also include low-rise housing that would step itself down as you go out toward the water, which would preserve that view'' from the Brooklyn Heights promenade toward the skyline of lower Manhattan.

Most of that vista is protected by a zoning restriction called the scenic view plane, which greatly limits building heights on the piers and in adjacent areas. ''We could not in any way violate the view planes,'' Mr. Silverstein said.

''The result could be a mixed-use development of a size and density that's consistent with good planning and the needs of the community,'' Mr. Silverstein said. Port Authority officials said last year that 2,200 to 2,800 residential units might be built on the site, which then included Pier 6, but they dropped that approach in the face of community opposition.

Nothing 'Massive' Seen

Mr. Silverstein said it was ''impossible to tell'' now how many units there would be, although he added that ''to do anything massive, such as the Port Authority originally suggested, is totally out of the question.''
Note above how “the need for open space” gets a parenthetical mention together with “the need for housing” under the rubric of balancing “the various public interests involved.” Also mentioned is a third goal that has since gone by the wayside: “continuation of maritime-related activity.” (See: Port Authority Endorses Plan for Pier, by David W. Dunlap, December 4, 1989.)

(Above, Brooklyn Bridge Park getting some use May 16, 2010.)

Brooklyn’s Need for Park Space Promoted

As for the debate about the park and the need for open space, the Times had, just five months before that full development plan, written about how badly Brooklyn needed the land for park space and how appropriate such a use would be:
Brooklyn's 2.3 million inhabitants, like Manhattanites, are starving for open space. With only 1.87 acres of greensward for every 1,000 residents, Brooklynites have much less space for active and passive recreation than New Yorkers in the Bronx (5.65 acres per 1,000), Queens (3.64 acres) and Staten Island (16.77 acres). Equally important, the four huge piers -- much like Battery Park and Governors Island -- offer a panoramic view of the harbor and a window on the city's Revolutionary and Civil War history.
(See: Brooklyn's Underused Waterfront, July 5, 1998.)

Spieling for Compatible Commercial Uses

The above short article also previews and provides one of the first versions of the spiel about how commercial uses (in this cases referred to as “compatible uses”) should pay for the park’s maintenance costs:
Over the years, officials in City Hall and Albany have conducted many studies and drawn up contracts for shifting ownership of the site from the Port Authority to private builders. Nothing much happened. Now, however, there seems to be a shared vision among Brooklyn's neighborhoods and politicians. A new local development entity under the aegis of Borough President Howard Golden is set to draft a plan using $1 million in state money appropriated by Brooklyn's state legislators. That plan should enable the Port Authority to solicit developers' proposals for commercial uses that would be compatible with a park but able to cover its annual maintenance costs. A similar financing scheme is contemplated for the Hudson River Park.
Pull-Back From Development Plan (Two Steps Back, One Forward?)

By April of 1992, two and a half years after the announcement of the December 1989 development plans, the Port Authority was pulling back from “its plan to sell a strip of prime Brooklyn waterfront to developers.” (See: Port Authority Pulls Back From Sale of Waterfront, by Mary B. W. Tabor, April 8, 1992.) Containing the elements of a dance, this article also indicated the willingness of some members of the community to compromise:
Though many residents had initially said they wanted the entire site preserved as parkland, they modified their stance in recent years, saying some small restaurants or boutiques -- or even a hotel -- would be acceptable. The Port Authority had initially said that it wanted the space used for a profitable commercial venture, like office space.
Mario Cuomo’s 1994 State of the State Message: Mixed Uses

Less than two years later, 1994 started off with Governor Mario Cuomo saying in his State of the State message that the State Urban Development Corporation (now doing business as the “Empire State Development Corporation,” or “ESDC”) would take the property over as a “mixed-use development,” apparently responding because: “Local officials and residents protested bitterly, saying that such buildings would obscure their views of lower Manhattan and New York Harbor":
Spurred by economic pressures in 1992, the Port Authority was prepared to sell the dilapidated piers to private developers because the concrete slabs with hulking warehouses had become too costly to maintain. Port Authority officials wanted to devote the land to a profit-making commercial venture, like office buildings.

Local officials and residents protested bitterly, saying that such buildings would obscure their views of lower Manhattan and New York Harbor. The state Urban Development Corporation, intervening on behalf of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, halted the sale and asked the community to draw up guidelines for development.

Mr. Cuomo announced the agreement during his State of the State message on Jan. 5, saying: "The U.D.C. will take the lead in implementing a plan developed by the city and Brooklyn Borough President Golden's office and long supported by Assemblywoman Eileen Dugan to create a mixed-use development on the Brooklyn waterfront, at Piers 1 through 5."
(See: Neighborhood Report: Brooklyn Heights; Keeping a Vista in the View, by Lynette Holloway, January 30, 1994.)

The assessments offered by this article are nuanced. It says that a “significant step” has been taken “toward preserving the neighborhood's treasured visual link to lower Manhattan” and that the understanding “would discourage high-rise development of five piers along 64 acres of prime waterfront,” but it also says “that Brooklyn Heights residents are still concerned about how much say they will have in preventing major commercial development” “because the agreement is on guidelines, [13 stated principles] rather than on a specific plan.” That specific plan was still years away.

Nevertheless, Anthony Manheim, co-chairman of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition, expressed hope “that the focus will be more on parkland.”

Tugged Away From the Idea of Development (A Shift From the Originally Important View)

The tug-of-war between development and park did not then begin with Bloomberg, nor did the formulations about having commercial development mixed into the park to pay for it. Overall the community over time seems to have pulled the tug-of-war rope in its direction. Bloomberg is with those at the other end of the rope who have not yet been tugged over the ideological line.

We note that at the Monday, April 26, 2010 hearing on the park local politicians were uniformly wary about putting housing in the park. (See: Tuesday, April 27, 2010, The Absurd Formula to Finance the Brooklyn Bridge Park Chosen By Those in Charge: Noticing New York’s Testimony at Last Night’s Hearing.) In 1993 the community concerns of the day were expressed somewhat less broadly and more in terms of the preservation of view that most preoccupies the wealthiest living on the Promenade:
. . . to prevent high-rise development of the piers, which they say would block their spectacular views of lower Manhattan and New York Harbor. They envision a sprawling park with a restaurant and hotel, a plan developed by a community group called the Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition.
(See: Neighborhood Report: Brooklyn Heights; Piers Change Hands, Creating Unlikely Bedfellows, by Lynette Holloway, September 26, 1993.)

Compare the shift in this coverage twelve years later:
But it is the residential element that has galvanized opposition among many Brooklynites. Although a few civic groups have come out in favor of the plan, opponents say the housing element was pushed through largely in secret. Some have accused the park's planners of catering to developers, particularly at 360 Furman Street, a privately owned warehouse near the northern edge of the park.
(See: Agency Adopts Park Plan for Brooklyn Waterfront, by Robert F. Worth, July 27, 2005.)

V is for Veto: Two Local Politicians Have a Card to Play

As was widely noted in the news reports by City Hall and others, the transfer of control of Brooklyn Bridge Park to Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t give Bloomberg the ability to build the housing in the park his administration wants to. It is subject to what has been colloquiallized as a “veto” on the part of State Sen. Daniel Squadron and Assembly Member Joan Millman:
The deal over Brooklyn Bridge Park does not give Bloomberg unfettered control. The original plan to build luxury condos to help raise the money to offset the estimated $16 million in annual maintenance costs for the park, for example, would have to first be approved by two state lawmakers, State Sen. Daniel Squadron and Assembly Member Joan Millman, both of whom oppose housing and favor alternate funding streams.
While the widely reported “veto” power sounds great it comes by virtue of a Memorandum of Understanding document that was drafted by the mayor's staff that is intentionally abstruse and was obviously written to confuse the issues it addresses while conferring as much power on the mayor as possible. Among other things this document, written in hyper-legalistic language, concludes with the obliquely contradictory: “This MOU is not a binding agreement, and merely sets forth the understandings of the parties hereto.” (Paragraph 20 under “Park Development.”) See below:
10041301moubrklnbparkbbp - Mou 3 8 Final

The so-called veto provisions are in paragraphs 2 and 5 under “Park Development” reading respectively in parallel fashion:
2. No earlier than July 1, 2011, BBPOE may seek board approval to build a residential development on the development parcel at the John Street site, as described in the Brooklyn Bridge Park Civic and Land Use Improvement Project Modified General Project Plan (“GPP”) adopted by BBPDC on December 18, 2006 (“John Street Site”). Board approval of such action will be by majority vote, which majority must include the affirmative votes of the State Senator’s representative director and the State Assembly Member’s representative director.
5. No earlier than July 1, 2013, BBPOE may seek board approval to build one or more residential developments on the development parcels on the uplands at Pier 6 (“Pier 6 Site”), as described in the GPP. Board approval of such action will be by majority vote, which majority must include the affirmative vote of the State Senator’s representative director and the State Assembly Member’s representative director.
Immediately ensuing paragraphs confirm that this means that without the above specified affirmative votes (i.e. if “vetoed”) the housing can’t then be built. Who is the “BBPOE”? That’s almost surely more than you really want to know. But we will tell you so as to begin to inform about the gauntlet of mayoral control that decisions about park development will be put through.

Bloomberg’s Control Over the BBPOE

According to the MOU “BBPOE” is: “a to-be-formed entity, which shall be referred to as Brooklyn Bridge Park Operating Entity.” It all fits into a tangle where the “BBPOE” is essentially an interposed operational substitute for the “Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation” (BBPDC), a subsidiary created by the “New York State Urban Development Corporation d/b/a The Empire State Development Corporation.” The important thing to know is that BBPOE will be running the development show at Brooklyn Bridge Park (as its “designated developer”) and that Mayor Bloomberg will be running BBPOE.

Bloomberg’s BBPOE will have 17 board members, of which the mayor will appoint 9. Any action taken by the board will require that at least 9 board members vote (“a majority vote of the entire Board”) and it won’t be enough for the 8 member minority of non-mayoral appointees on the board to act together to swing over one of the mayoral appointees to gain a majority on any particular matter because every vote will require the “the affirmative vote of at least 3 Mayoral ex officio directors.” Not only would those opposing Bloomberg have to swing over “three” out of the nine of Bloomberg’s appointed board members but all of those three will have to be “ex officio” board members meaning that they will have to be city employees holding their office at will, accountable to and under the direction of Bloomberg. Those employed officials can be immediately fired if Bloomberg so directs. Why the window dressing about other board members? Why not just say that board will do whatever Bloomberg says?

The above specifications for how BBPOE will be governed can be found in paragraph 5 of another document, a March 8, 2010 term sheet between ESDC and the city and state of New York, see below:

10041801Brr=OoklynBridgeParkBBP CC Term Sheet

If that doesn’t sound like enough control by the mayor, paragraph 5 goes on to say that the “BBPOE President” who “will be responsible for driving all project components forward, and for building a dedicated staff with the capacity to do so on a timely and professional basis” (see paragraph 4) will be approved by the board “based upon a nomination by the Mayor.” (The mayor’s control is so complete that the city can simply substitute another designee for BBPOE entirely, although the MOU says that somehow the same provisions ought to be interpreted to apply to this unspecified “designee.”)

The MOU’s Anomalous Check on Bloomberg’s Power

The “veto” provided for by the MOU is therefore an anomalous and virtually the only restraint upon the mayor. The MOU does also insert a requirement that the other board members can’t be entirely ignored. It prevents the mayor’s board members from forming a quorum to go off an do business on their own by specifying (in paragraph 15 of “Park Development) that “a quorum shall require three non-mayoral board representatives” which apart from the veto will entitle these three board members to be bystanders to the mayor’s acts and perhaps to “say something” when they “see something.”

A Suspicious Parameterizing of Alternatives

While the grant of the Squadron/Millman “veto” over the housing is not, per se, in any way conditional it has been interwoven with the concept that “Alternative Sources” to the housing can be made available to “finance the ongoing operations of the Park.” The responsibility of finding these “Alternative Sources” to present them to the mayoral-controlled BBPOE for adoption is given to a six-member subcommittee of the BBPOE board, three of whom will be appointed by the mayor. This Subcommittee on Alternatives to Housing (“SAH”) will work with an external consultant it will retain (the funding for which will be limited to $100,000) and will (here is a good thing) “hold at least two hearings” in Brooklyn to take comments from the public about the proposed alternatives.

Public input will be critical. Why? Because the MOU attempts to corral assessment of the competing alternatives into some invidious “parameters” for comparison which the public should embarrass the Bloomberg administration by showing up to laugh at.

The MOU seeks to invoke restrictive “Alternative Parameters” that “no source shall be deemed to be an Alternative Source” unless “such source is not, in any way, displacing revenue to which the City is otherwise entitled.” This is written so as to be binding on both the SAH committee and the external consultant writing the board recommendation. It says that a“majority vote” of the committee (meaning a vote from the mayor’s committee members) is required to conclude the parameter is being adhered to.

The Invidiousness of Comparison

The reason the comparison is invidious is because any revenue from the housing (which would be in the form of a “PILOT,” a payment in lieu of taxes agreement) would displace real estate tax revenue “to which the City is otherwise entitled.” (See: Friday, April 30, 2010, Unveiled: Two New Towers In Prospect Park By Grand Army Plaza Entrance To Help Green The Area. Below the associated visual for this article showing what it would look like if two towers were erected in Prospect Park to thereby "pay" for city expenses, perhaps that park's) Meanwhile, the prohibitory phrase is seemingly calculated to prevent the park from being paid for (as parks should be paid for and as State Senator Squadron has suggested Brooklyn Bridge Park would best be financed) by real estate taxes generated by the escalating real estate values of the properties in proximity to the park. While taxes on the properties in proximity of the new park would, in the abstract, be “revenue to which the City is otherwise entitled” the taxes from the increased value of that property generated by the park would not, as a practical matter exist except for the park’s creation. In fact, the more new park there is the more there should be an increase in those surrounding real estate values and the extra associated tax revenues.

(“The Gates of Prospect Park,” an image of two new towers "proposed" to be constructed in Prospect Park to help raise funds to cover city expenses, an image supplied by the friends of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund, to illustrate the implications of advocating that private developments, exempt from real estate taxes, should be constructed in parks to pay for city expenses.)

Collecting on Increased Property Values, Especially in Brooklyn Heights

We observed earlier that the ball got rolling to defeat development on these acres when those with political brawn in Brooklyn Heights realized that views from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade (and the nearby properties owned by the wealthy) were in jeopardy. The potential effect of what is done with the former port use acres works both ways. Now instead of having their view impeded, the view from the promenade will nor be a landscaped view of trees, lawn, hills, tidal pools and flowers. In addition, those living in the area will have access to boating and recreation they didn’t have before. Rather than lose the value and aesthetics they feared, property owners in the area will be gaining a lot of value. In this regard we said the following when we testified at the April 26th hearing:
No matter what, there will an escalation of real estate values in Brooklyn, (close to the park and farther away) and in the city as a whole because of this park. Even if those escalating values are not tracked and specifically seized to pay for the park they will still accrue and flow into the city’s general fund. In essence, no matter what, they will still be paying for the park. The good thing about these increased taxes is that they will fluctuate appropriately with the economy. When the economy burgeons they will increase; when the economy falters they can, as necessary, be subject, like all other property, to increases in the general levy that comes from changes in the tax rate. If my fellow residents of Brooklyn Heights dwelling close to the park expect that they would somehow not pay more taxes when their property values go up then they unfairly (and we think incorrectly) expect to benefit in a freeloading fashion at other New Yorkers’ expense.
(See: Tuesday, April 27, 2010, The Absurd Formula to Finance the Brooklyn Bridge Park Chosen By Those in Charge: Noticing New York’s Testimony at Last Night’s Hearing.)

Why Intercepting Real Estates Taxes on New Development Doesn’t Make Sense

Conceivably, those who originally opposed development (all or partly) for the sake of their views (and who got an early seat at the table in negotiating outcomes here) may hope that in lieu of increased property taxes on their own property the city would instead intercept another source of income, but what we had to say to that at he hearing was this:
Conversely, whenever real estate is developed it ought to pay taxes and it is not a good idea, as proposed in this park development formula, either to segregate those taxes from general city revenues or to lock them into a special amount via a PILOT agreement. These negotiated bargains are likely to benefit the developers too much and for too long as political handouts.
Fungibility Spells Fallacy

(Above, city parks commissioner Adriane Benepe testifying at April 26th hearing on the park. )

We also pointed out:
Another underlying fallacy associated with nominally dedicating funds from one source to support a park is that those funds are fungible irrespective of “dedication,” a point city parks Commissioner Benepe essentially acknowledges when he goes on the Brian Lehrer show to say he is against dedicating park revenues to park support because he figures that whatever is locked in by dedication will just be taken back by the city reducing the budget on the back-end.
What Commissioner Benepe said when he explained on Brian Lehrer that dedicating park generated income for parks doesn’t make a difference because of its `fungibility’ was this:
. . . we could do that, but I’m afraid that at the other end the office of Management and Budget would say, OK. you keep the $90 million and we’ll take $90 million out of your budget. So either way it’s fungible money that’s paying for city services.
Commercial Uses in Parks Which Don’t Enhance the Park Experience Aren’t “Park”

Further, Benepe’s own Assistant Commissioner for Revenue and Marketing Betsy Smith explained department guidelines by virtue of which, simply stated, any potential housing development shouldn’t actually be considered part of the park at all. It should just be considered a compromise: so many acres of development on one side and so many acres of park on the other. And if the development isn’t park why should it be avoiding paying taxes into the city’s general coffers? According to Assistant Commissioner Smith the department’s goal when putting commercial uses in parks should be to enhance the public’s park experience:
As commissioner Benepe has said previously, really the driving force on what we want to do with businesses or concessions on parkland is to provide services to park users. And I think that sometimes people think of it as commercializing the parks, but that’s, of course, not what we are trying to do. We’re trying to animate the parks with golf course, and tennis courts and bike rentals, all the things that New Yorkers really love to use in their parks, and we use concessions as a way to get the expertise in the parks so that the public can have the best possible experience.
If there is a dividing line between the acres that will wind up being park and those that will wind up being developed then the real question is how much park should there be and how much development should there be; not what will pay for what because neither will be paying for the other.

Nevertheless Bloomberg has the idea that he wants to do development even if these acres have better potential use as a park and Bloomberg has control. MOU veto notwithstanding, who is going to stop Bloomberg?

* * *
This is the end of Part II of this piece. To read more about Brooklyn Bridge Park and the city politics that interplay with development (picking up with more about how Bloomberg’s taking over control of the Governors Island and Brooklyn Bridge Park eviscerates essential checks and balances on his political power) click here to proceed to Part III.

No comments: