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 III

(Interactive map, courtesy of NYC showing Pier One development and "future [private] development sites".)

This is Part III 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. Click here for Part II.

Leaving off in Part II we had been looking at how the documents transferring control over Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island to Bloomberg were formulated with abstruse and rather tortured provisions to give Bloomberg the absolute control he wants to put development in Brooklyn Bridge Park, a subject we will now say more about.

Now to continue where we left off. . . .

“Bloomberg Control” vs. “City Control”

One thing that wasn’t widely noted when control over Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island was transferred was that control was not transferred to the city. It was transferred, instead, to Bloomberg. In fact, this may not have been noted at all. Transfer to the city would have entailed all the usual and inherent checks and balances of the City Charter with things like ULURP (The Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) applying. Instead, effecting the transfer using the myriad authorities and specially created corporations involved puts control under Bloomberg as mayor with the kind of lopsidedness we have been describing. You don’t usually see this kind of absence of checks and balances in government. It is a degree of lopsidedness you would also not want to see in conventional corporations either.

BBPOE Not an ESDC Subsidiary. . .

The March 8, 2010 term sheet that describes the control that the mayor will have over the BBPOE says in paragraph 5 that “BBPOE will not be an ESDC subsidiary.” Making the BPOE “an ESDC subsidiary” would mean that Bloomberg would have unfettered, unchecked power to exercise all of ESDC’s truly astounding powers which include (as seen with projects like Atlantic Yards) eminent domain and the ability to override zoning as well as the process for changing zoning. The housing towers in the Brooklyn Bridge Park could be as tall as Bloomberg personally decides they should be. The fact that BBPOE is not a subsidiary doesn't mean we are home free: read on for the bad news.

. . . But Bloomberg Gets More Control Over BBPDC Which Is a ESDC Subsidiary

While the March 8, 2010 term sheet says that “BBPOE will not be an ESDC subsidiary” it does something else nearly as bad: It restructures the governance of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, which is an ESDC subsidiary, to put Bloomberg in control of that specially empowered entity. Paragraph 4 says: “there will be 12 Directors on the Board . . . 6 appointed on recommendation of the Mayor, at least 3 of whom shall serve ex officio).” Previously, BBPDC was governed by an 11 member board of directors, six appointed by the governor and five appointed by the mayor. Furthermore, paragraph 4 gives what is tantamount to exclusive control over its budget in Bloomberg’s hands:
Approval of the BBPDC budget will require a majority vote of the entire Board, including the affirmative vote of at least 3 Mayoral ex officio directors.
This, plus the absolute control of BBPOE, amounts to total practical control by Bloomberg. If you doubt it, consider then that the President of the BBPOE and the BBPDC are likely to always be the same person, at this point, Regina Myer.

(Below, the term sheet transferring control of Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island to the mayor.)
10041801Brr=OoklynBridgeParkBBP CC Term Sheet

(Below: Regina Myer, on right visiting Pier One of the park during its construction, talking with Purnima Kapur, the Director of City Planning's Brooklyn Office, who is probably better known to Noticing New York readers for her involvement with the downsizing of the Coney Island amusement area.)

Bloomberg Out of Control? The Comptroller Provides $125 Million Hint

Do things seem just a little outrageously absurd here? Does it sound as if Bloomberg has control over everything while the public has no control over him? What might happen if Bloomberg and his development officials are a allowed to go off and run their own development show? One hint comes from a report released by the city’s new comptroller, John C. Liu , the New York City comptroller. The lead in the Times story summarized it pretty well:
The agency responsible for economic development under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has failed to turn over to the city more than $125 million in payments, taxes and fees, according to an audit conducted by the city comptroller to be released on Wednesday.
(See: Agency Owes Millions to City, an Audit Finds, by David W. Chen and Michael Barbaro, April 27, 2010.)

The Times story included these observations by Mr. Liu:
In examining one of New York’s most powerful agencies, which is involved in projects in places like Coney Island in Brooklyn and Willets Point in Queens, Mr. Liu said he found a lack of transparency and loose internal controls. “It has become a powerhouse agency, but we have very little understanding of what comes in and out of it,” he said. “You cannot see anything that is going on.”
Promoting Transparency for the Slosh of Funds

The thinking is sometimes offered that lots of money sloshing around under a single politician’s control with no transparency is a thing to be avoided. That is the commendable kind of thinking that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is trying to take credit for with an initiative she announced at the end of April when she said she was creating a new database to help the public follow discretionary funds (sometimes known as “earmarks”) that individual City Council Members get to hand out. (See: WNYC News: Publicizing the City Council Pork, by WNYC Newsroom, April 30, 2010.)

Quinn was asserting her hope that by showing all the discretionary funding given to nonprofit groups together with the names of the council members making the respective appropriations (and having the groups certify in writing that there is no conflict of interest, such as a council staffer or family member working at the nonprofit) would help give “the public a sense of faith and confidence that their tax dollars are being used effectively by quality organizations.”

(Below: Christine Quinn at protested "Jane Jacobs Way" dedication event held just when Quinn was pushing the City Council to pass Bloomberg's plan to downsize Coney Island's amusement area, putting those park acres into private developer hands.)

Recalling the Quinn Slush Fund Scandal

The short non-bylined WNYC report which was obviously based primarily on the press release Quinn issued and other information provided for the occasion (thus giving Quinn what she wanted) mentioned that “These changes follow a string of cases where city council members and staff have been charged with misusing the discretionary funds” but it did not mention how Quinn herself was central to one of these scandals, intentionally circumventing transparency by creating names for fake charities, “squirreling away money so it could be handed out away from the public eye.” (See: The Times editorial: Ms. Quinn and the Potemkin Accounts, April 5, 2008.)

Speaking of the $17.4 million that was involved in the Quinn scandal that (since 2001) was “parked in dozens of accounts with names like Coalition for Informed Individuals and Firewood Senior Services — all of them as fake as acrylic fingernails” the Timed editorialized:
The device was apparently designed to allow the City Council speaker to hand out funds for pet projects throughout the year, getting around a requirement to allocate money at the start of the fiscal year. While it does not seem as if the public’s money was spent illegally, it does seem likely that political favors were bestowed without accountability.
Quinn Catching Up With de Blasio

WNYC did diverge from the Quinn press release script to note the thing that had probably spurred Quinn to her April 30th action in this regard: That “Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has launched a similar website, Open Government NYC, to make public the funding requests by council members” which he did with his own press release five weeks prior. (See: Public Advocate Wants to Shine a Light on Earmark Funds, by David W. Chen, February 24, 2010.)

Commenting on the need for the De Blasio database the Times said:
City officials have long used the funds, known as earmarks, to aid nonprofit groups on small projects in their districts without going through a formal competitive bidding process. But investigations have shown that some of the nonprofit groups were fictitious or employed the relatives of lawmakers.
The Times also observed that the “opaque process” has led to “a wide-ranging criminal inquiry by federal and city investigators.”

Quinn and de Blasio Database Race Seen in Mayoral Terms

The Times was quick to put the de Blasio/Quinn database race in terms of their common interest in being next to succeed Bloomberg as mayor. (See: With Debate on Openness, Mayor’s Race Starts Early, by Javier C. Hernandez, May 5, 2010.)

Good Governance vs. the Increasing Lopsidedness of Mayoral Power

You, like us, may find yourself perking up because the transparency reforms represented by these databases should be just the sort of thing to get good government groups salivating. Indeed, Speaker Quinn took the time before she put out her press release to round up for inclusion in it endorsements of the following good government heavy hitters: Dick Dadey of Citizens Union, speaking as its Executive Director; Gene Russianoff senior staff attorney speaking on behalf of New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG); and Common Cause’s NY Executive Director Susan Lerner, speaking on its behalf.

There is a problem though with endorsing such reform without qualification: It is a lopsided hamstringing of the City Council without corresponding restrictions on a powerful mayor. Objectionable as the City Council members' conduct may be, by giving council members access to a certain amount of political power it can balance out a disequilibrium in a city where the mayor is much too powerful in relation to the council and other politicians.

Bloomberg’s Quinn Isn’t Investigated?

Quinn is generally regarded as Bloomberg’s henchman (doing Bloomberg’s dirty work on term limits when the slush fund scandal derailed her own mayoral chances) so we cannot at this time help but notice that there were those who were dismayed by how unenergetic the mayor’s city department of investigation was (under the mayor’s control and “pushed under the carpet”) when, prior to last November’s election, it was investigating “how and why Quinn’s staffers parked nearly $5 million worth of public funds in nonexistent charities.” Both Quinn and the mayor wanted to continue in office in that election as speaker and mayor respectively. Quinn also used the fact of an open investigation as a reason not to answer questions about her own actions: “questions cannot be answered while official investigations remain open.”

Parallel History of Bloomberg’s Own Slush Fund Use

Aside and apart from $125 million tucked away at the mayor’s development agency that was unveiled by Comptroller Lui's April 28, 2010 press release announcement of his audit report just two days before Quinn’s own press release about reform, and aside from the slosh of Bloomberg’s billion dollars in “charitable contributions,” it was reported back in 2008, when the “federal probe” into the City Council slush fund was beginning, that Bloomberg was using another secret slush of his own for political purposes. (See: Et Tu, Bloomy? Mike Bares Own Slush Fund, by David Seifman and Tom Topousis, May 14, 2008.) According to the Post’s story:
. . . he kept his own secret taxpayer-funded cash stash - and used it to reward favored lawmakers.

The mayor's $4.5 million slush fund had never before been made public - and some council members said they weren't even aware of it.

After being doled out to selected lawmakers, the money was passed along to dozens of nonprofit groups supported by legislators - including at least one with a checkered history.
An Offshore Ungovernable Island?

With the extremity of the lack of control over Bloomberg being what it is, one can readily imagine that things could get even more cartoonish and that our offshore mayor who spends so much time in Bermuda and socks away his personal investments in the off-shore Cayman Islands might start moving his unaccounted-for development agency funds just off-shore (from the Brooklyn Bridge Park) to where they can be hidden in a personally and exclusively controlled (ESDC subsidiary) operation on Governors Island. Perhaps Steven L. Rattner will again be handed investment control notwithstanding the accusations about his kickbacks.

Before you think that’s too ludicrously over-the-top consider this piece of advice from the New York Post:
Three years ago, the mayor said his own philanthropic foundation was considering Governors Island to house a public health institute for scholars worldwide to study and exchange theories.
(See: City taking control of Brooklyn Bridge Park, Governor's Island to follow, by Rich Calder, March 11, 2010.)

The Weak Governor

Before we too quickly dismiss the extraordinary cartoonishness of it all we should probably remind ourselves that Bloomberg is the city’s wealthiest man (which is itself unprecedented) and is procuring unprecedented additional powers with few people asking questions or holding him accountable. Some of these accreting powers (as in the case of the Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island transfers) are being handed to Bloomberg by an extremely weak and distracted governor whom Bloomberg himself helped to weaken. The cycle, shall we say, is growing vicious.

A Permanent Configuration to Make Noise About?

The politics of New York are going to be permanently written into the city’s fabric. We see that with the streets, avenues sidewalks, historic buildings and neighborhood resources that will disappear as Atlantic Yards proceeds and we will see it too with the decisions that are to be made with respect to Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island: what will be privately developed and what will be green public realm space for the surrounding community. We have already explained why Bloomberg’s principal theme with respect to the park (that development should pay for it) makes no sense. But what does make sense in terms of what should be park and what should be private development?

Does it make sense to locate housing development on some of the big broad swaths of land that won’t be seen from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade? Here is something that has gone largely unnoted: The first Pier 1 section of the Brooklyn Bridge Park that was opened in March contains what will be much of the quietest part of park. Much of the park will be unfortunately noisy. We have been adding a great deal of new parkland acres to the city that are exposed to a huge amount of highway noise. Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hudson River Park are adding many of these acres.

The map below that appeared in the Brooklyn Paper shows the area of the park that was recently opened and we have added to it an “X” that shows the spot in the park that, according to its designers, will be the quietest. As you see, what has been opened surrounds that spot. In a sense the public has being given a false preview if they think that this is what the rest of the park will be like in terms of quiet and tranquility.

There will be other quiet parts of the park: There will be some quiet at the south end where BQE separates from the park and, just like Hudson River Park, there will be increasing quiet as one walks increasingly far out on the piers themselves, distancing oneself from the traffic. Still, the same decision that locates the green of the park where it will preserve and enhance the view from the promenade will create noisy park acres. What will be best for Brooklyn Heights Promenade will not create an optimal park experience for those actually in the park. I went on a preview tour of the park with one of its designers who had to give up addressing our group as we approached the BQE. He became hoarse and could no longer throw his voice over the din.
(A very long stretch of the park alongside the BQE, see above, will be exposed its the noise.)
(The hard concrete back walls and ceiling of the BQE lanes are shaped somewhat like a bandshell perfectly designed to radiate noise out into the park.)
(Our park-designer guide grew hoarse and had to give up trying to speak to us over the highway din.)

Mitigating the Expected Noise

Some of the noise is supposed to be addressed by a newly constructed berm, a hill constructed at some expense near the expressway that will also isolate Furman Street that runs along the park under the expressway. We are not convinced that the sound-abating job the berm will do will be sufficient. The BQE is due for reconstruction and we can readily imagine that when its reconstruction is being planned there will be clamor over the traffic’s din for additional expenditures to address and reduce the noise it is producing.

By contrast, the acres on which private housing is planned to be constructed alongside the newly opened Pier 1 would, if kept park, be some of the quietest acres of the park without any additional expenditures to make them so. (See the area of demolition in the picture below.)
A Rare Opportunity?

There are few spaces being created in New York where such an experience of quiet can be had; The Battery Park City Promenade, in contradistinction to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, is one of them, a place where you might even hear water lapping the shore. If these tranquil spots are so rare in our city, does it make sense to be sacrificing such prime and delectable acres for private development in the division between what acres will be development and what acres will be park? And if potential park acres are not actually precious and valuable to the general public then why are so many acres that will be noisy being preserved directly in front of the promenade except to pay heed to the priorities of influential Brooklyn Heights?

When Communities Negotiate

These are not easy balances to strike, so the questions must be carefully asked. Ideally politics and the influence of the real estate industry must be kept out of the equation. We thought about the Brooklyn Bridge Park the other evening while attending the City Bar Association meeting on “Community Benefits Agreements.” Our takeaway from the evening is that Community Benefits Agreements are bad. One reason talked about relating to why CBAs can be bad is that self-interested local or individual communities with power may have the ability in their negotiations to skew benefit in their favor as opposed to what would best serve the general public. While Brooklyn Bridge Park is not an example of a CBA, might not that principle still apply? Is it possible that decisions with respect to the park design have been made catering too much to the residents of Brooklyn Heights?

Entrances to Access Brooklyn Bridge Park

Residents of Brooklyn Heights have expressed reluctance about the park being accessed through its neighborhood streets. Brooklyn Heights was once intimately connected with the waterfront where, before advent of the Brooklyn Bridge, people flocked to take ferries. Montague Street’s huge ferry terminal was replaced by another much bigger one in just a few years as the traffic grew. Things changed when ferries were replaced by bridge traffic and subway tunnels but a bigger separation came when Robert Moses put in the BQE which runs under the promenade. Moses wasn’t able to put the BQE through the middle of Brooklyn Heights where he originally wanted it. That story of a rare Moses defeat is worth telling but not here and now.

(Looking down Montague Street- before the Promenade- the 1884 ferry to Wall Street above from Brian Merlis' and sixteen years later from Brian Merlis and Lee Rosenweig's Brooklyn Heights & Downtown, Vol. 1 1860-1922.)

The creation of the BQE turned Brooklyn Heights into a cul-du-sac neighborhood, a feature the community largely appreciates even though Jane Jacobs expected that the results of cul-du-sacs would generally be undesirable. The promenade may be the reason this rule is excepted here. The neighborhood is unusually quiet and naturally private because of the lack of through streets. The promenade, though, is a destination and it pulls in visitors from all over the city, particularly in the evening and often at night. The promenade simultaneously celebrates the city harbor and separates the neighborhood from it.
(Above, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.)

Some Brooklyn Heights residents are resistant to creating entrances to the park by allowing new connections that would break through the barrier of the promenade* because they fear it would bring in a lot more pedestrian through traffic. Not having created new connections for entrances means that a very long stretch of park will be substantially less accessible than parks typically are.

(* A potential future Montague Street connection has been discussed. Because of expense it is probably be years away. Montague Street is one of the Heights’ main, centrally located commercial streets. We have a Noticing New York Proposal in this regard for a “Seth Low Plaza” design that could afford access at this spot. Seth Low, a good government reformer, was mayor of Brooklyn, the first mayor of New York after Brooklyn was consolidated with the city and the president of Columbia University. His former home sits on the promenade at the foot of Montague Street. Explication of our proposal will have to await a subsequent post. See picture of Seth Low's house below.)

It cannot go unobserved that absent the creation of new entrances accessing the park through the barrier of the promenade, many of the potential acres of park that could be the most accessible are acres where private development is now planned. Once again, we must ask the question, does this make sense?

Competing “Green” Alternatives to Green Park Acres

Impertinent or not, the pertinent questions must be asked before the politics of the situation are turned into the stone of urban design. Before concluding that the back and potentially quiet acres behind Pier 1 should be preserved as park without being subjected to private development another possibility that was in play ought to be recognized. These same acres have been the site of industrial warehouse buildings that are now being demolished. When Pier 1 first opened and the buildings were still mostly standing it was possible get a good appreciation for the case that had been made by the preservation-minded that these buildings of character should have been preserved and used to house whatever commercial development was to be allowed. (See the picture below.) Doing so would have been the “green” thing to do. Instead, some of the massive structural beams in the buildings, harvested from forests of the days of yore, were milled to become the bench planks of the park’s new benches and this more incidental recycling was, instead, touted as being in the spirit of “green.”
(Above, one of the old buildings of character being demolished as seen from the park's quietest spot. Below, benches made from the structural beams from the buildings being demolished.)
The structural beams of these older buildings now having been removed, the only choice is between park and shinier new private development.

A Few Mistakes Necessary to Note Before Concluding

Whatever development is the right balance, Bloomberg will be pressing for the development he wants and he will be holding completion of the rest of the park hostage for the development he wants. The absence of checks and balances on his power are a concern because people make mistakes and because power can be abused.

In the vein of people making mistakes we cannot conclude this article without noting that the opening of the first Pier 1 section of the park generated complaints. Its new children’s playground included new “metal orbs,” small steel domes for children to play on, perhaps conceived us a some sort of semi-slide. Not long after the park’s late March opening the early April temperatures shot up to an unseasonable 86 degrees and parents complained that the steel orbs were burning their children. According to the Brooklyn Paper, park workers posted warning signs:
The workers had posted signage earlier this week warning parents and caregivers of the dangerous play equipment: “Steel dome play structures can be hot,” the sign said. “Once the tree canopy fills in we expect the shade provided will alleviate this condition.”
Perhaps one day a leafing out of the trees may make some difference but it is going to take years before the young small new trees in the park grow large enough to provide an appreciable amount of shade.
Temperatures on the domes were measured at 128 degrees, which we note is not quite as hot as some saunas, but it was, no doubt, quite uncomfortable for youngsters. In addition to the scorching, one five-year-old, Kira Foley, broke her nose and lost a tooth while playing on the domes in those same opening days. The dangers of exotic new playground equipment designs! (See: BREAKING: Brooklyn Bridge Park’s big cover up!, By Andy Campbell,The Brooklyn Paper, April 7, 2010, Do over! Bridge Park planners admit playground goof, By Andy Campbell, The Brooklyn Paper, April 23, 2010, and Parents urge officials to remove 'dangerous' metal climbing domes in new Brooklyn Bridge Park, By Jeff Wilkins and Elizabeth Hays, Daily New Writers, Thursday, April 8th 2010.)

At the April Brooklyn Bridge Park hearing we heard that parents of the injured five-year-old who broke her nose were further aggrieved when Ms. Myer, the president of the park, didn’t return their phone calls, communicating instead that they should expect to be contacted by an insurance adjuster.

The Dome Scandal No Teapot Tempest

Noticing New York is not against innovation at playgrounds. Further, we sometimes get concerned that society is going overboard in striving to make playgrounds too insularly safe: So much of the standard equipment that those of us who growing up in the Fifties were familiar with has been banished; no more monkey bars, no more sea-saws, in 1995 I had to confront “safety concerns” when fighting to retain a playground sandbox. When we fell down as children in the 1950s it was on cement instead of today’s thick rubber pads. We are not exactly eager to view the haplessness of these design mistakes with too much Schadenfreude. We will even go so far as to note that there seems to be a much larger scale uncomplained-about version of these steel domes in Union Square Park. (See photo below.)

All that being said, the aspirationally innovative playground equipment does seem to reflect some design mistakes. Mistakes and the fact that people aren’t perfect must be acknowledged. Beyond this, there may be something else going one with respect to the community’s readiness to complain. It may be that there is a well-deserved lack of faith about the way the Bloomberg administration is bestowing the munificence of this undeniably spectacular park and perhaps there is more than a little discomfort with the way that Bloomberg has unapproachably arrogated to himself the right to make decisions that benefit the real estate development community over the rest of public while making silly arguments about parks having to support themselves.

We have now wended our way to the very end. The story we have told you here is this: There is a magnificent new park on its way, but this gift horse needs to be looked in the mouth. Failing such an examination politicians will deprive us by playing politics with its delivery. Of particular concern is a mayor, biased toward development, who has grown all too powerful and would like to grow even more so.

(Below: An image on the City's website showing Pier 6 at the south end illustrating how a new private development at left is supposed to be squeezed into the landscape. Below that, the same area under construction on October 4, 2009, before the squeezing in of any such new private development.)

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