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 I

This three-part article, which is principally about the new Brooklyn Bridge Park currently under development, wends a long, more serpentine path through the politics of New York City development than perhaps any other we have written. As you would expect, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's appearance is much more than a cameo. We don’t offer him praise.

Inevitably the metaphor of looking a gift horse in the mouth comes to mind when we contemplate the spectacular change to the city’s waterfront that will one day be Brooklyn Bridge Park. Whatever our government agencies ultimately do, the park will provide desirable benefits that will be extremely hard to complain about. But not conscientiously examining “gifts” that government officials deliver just doesn’t work in the political environment of New York. Besides Brooklyn Bridge Park is not truly a gift; it is something that community activists worked for years to obtain. Our elected representatives are, after all, supposed to be working for us. It is their job to properly administer our available public resources. Whether they are doing so requires a conscientious examination. We hope you will find that conscientious examination takes us on an interesting and worthwhile trip.

Now, let our wending look at the politics of development begin.

The Shuffling of Dates for the Opening of Brooklyn Bridge Park

On March 22, an initial part of Brooklyn Bridge Park opened, the Pier One portion in the north near Fulton Ferry. An actual opening is imbued with a faintly amazing aspect given that dates announced for opening the park have been shuffled around by innumerable postponements. The shuffling has occurred in truly big picture terms and it also occurred recently on a more micro level.

In big picture terms; the park, which involved decades of planning (funding for which was approved in 2000) was originally supposed to start construction in 2003/2004 and be fully open and complete in 2011 (an eight year construction period). By the end of 2004 the public was being told 2008 would be shovel-in-the-ground year and that the construction would take three or four years to complete (i.e. completion would be pushed out one more year to 2012). Such big picture delay is something that press coverage of the opening necessarily alluded to.

The rest of the media did not, however point out the shuffling of the opening date that has been transpiring recently on a more micro level, but we did. In late August, just around back-to-school time, the public was told that two sections of the park would open just four months later in December. (We were quite skeptical.) Then, in November, with three of those four months elapsed, the public was told that it would still be waiting another four months for an opening of just one section of park rather than the two promised in August.

Let us restate this in terms of what prompted our own skepticism: At the tail end of the two four year terms served by the Bloomberg administration, just as Bloomberg was running for an unprecedented third term by having overturned the city charter to repel term limits, it was being announced that part of a project funded and approved even before Bloomberg took office, the whole of which was supposed to have been largely completed within those two terms, was finally, finally being started! Not only that; the public was being told that it was going to be opened just a mere days after the election.

What do you think happened? A scant 22 days after Bloomberg squeaked by (spending more than a hundred million dollars) to win re-election, it was revealed that the schedule of a four month countdown to completion announced before the election was, as we initially hypothesized, quite fanciful.

The first section didn’t take four months to open; it took seven. The second section, rather than taking four months, has now taken about nine. There was a rumor that the second section might open this past Mother’s Day, but that date came and went.

Quite the Opposite of “Hurry Up and Wait”
(Above, the Brooklyn Bridge still closed in March, long after its promised December opening.)
Don’t think that the extra last-minute postponement of several more months was because construction of the park was going slowly: Once it finally got started construction was being raced along. And it was not as if the opening of the park was being delayed so that, as was done with similar portions of the similar Hudson River Park, attention could be given to finishing details: The section of the park that was opened was opened as soon as minimally feasible. Stories in the Brooklyn Paper highlighted how the park opened before its bathrooms were available, the public wasn’t allowed to use its lawns (for many weeks), and the New York Times’ architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, began his review of the park as follows:
The mayor’s office was in such a rush to showcase the completion of the first phase of its new Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn that it opened it too soon. Construction crews are still installing handrails. Walkways remain unpaved. Only a few early buds are showing on the freshly planted trees.
(See: Architecture Review/Brooklyn Bridge Park, The Greening of the Waterfront, By Nicolai Ouroussoff, April 1, 2010. For the stories about the absence of bathrooms see: Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 1 — A user’s guide, by Andy Campbell, The Brooklyn Paper; Still no restrooms at Brooklyn Bridge Park, (04/03/10) Brooklyn; and What a relief! Toilets will be installed in Brooklyn Bridge Park soon, By Andy Campbell, Courier-Life, April 1, 2010.)

The reason that portions of the park couldn’t open sooner was that construction of the park didn’t get underway until the mayoral election season. Construction didn’t really get started until September 2009. That needn’t have been the case. Instead of waiting until Fall 2009, construction could have started at least as soon as Spring 2007, at least two and a half years earlier. At least that is what I was told by those in charge back in March of that earlier year. I don’t think this is a secret: I was interviewing for the position of President of the Brooklyn Bridge Park corporation, the position with the ESDC subsidiary now held by Regina Myer. I presume all the other interviewees were told the same thing I was.

Why then didn’t construction start in Spring of 2007 or as once envisioned in 2003/2004? Why didn’t construction of a park already planned on the drawing boards before Bloomberg took office get underway more towards the beginning of the eight years Bloomberg’s first two terms rather during the very last slip of it? Why during all these Bloomberg years was the opening date for the park continually receding like that proverbial carrot-on-a-stick-affixed-to-a-donkey’s-back-lure? The answer to that probably intertwines significantly with something else that recent coverage of the opening noted: the lack of certainty respecting funding of the park’s completion and how its maintenance will be funded. (See: March 25, 2010, Brooklyn Bridge Park is open, but it still has a long way to go, By Andy Campbell, The Brooklyn Paper and March 22, 2010, Brooklyn Bridge Park Opens, Slightly, By Andy Newman)

Delay of a Park Coming From a Preoccupation With For-Profit Development

The reason the question of how the park will be paid for is so confused, bizarrely confused at this point, is because there have been steadfast efforts in which the Bloomberg administration has played an important role to keep the park and its construction and maintenance tied to having developers build housing on what might otherwise be parkland. More specifically, during these years of inactivity there has been an effort to hew to a particularly awkward formulation: a “mandate that the $16-million annual maintenance budget be self-sustaining, and Bloomberg supports the earlier state plan for private housing and other commercial operations in the park’s boundaries to fund it.”

The equation has been mostly summed up as a directive that exactly enough housing should be developed on acreage subtracted from the park to make perfectly revenue neutral (seemingly on a dollar-for-dollar equation basis) everything that is planned to be contained within the particular set of acres designated for this purpose. As reported in the Brooklyn Paper Bloomberg hearkened back to this notion at the park’s opening ceremony:
“The new ‘normal’ is that we don’t have money like we used to — we have to do more with less,” Bloomberg said on Monday. “The city has to find ways to fund this, and housing is one model.”
An Abnormal Formula That Doesn’t Prove Out

Despite Bloomberg’s effort to couch the notion as somehow being “new” the troublesome idea of having housing in the park to pay for it was actually concretized by plans featuring the housing released in 2004/2005, three years into his first term as mayor. (See: Selling Brooklyn Bridge Park, February 13, 2005.) Also, despite Bloomberg’s reference to “normal,” it has never been normal to expect parks to “pay for themselves,” at least not to expect that they pay for themselves within the tightly circumscribed boundaries of what one is artificially defining as a “park.”

In urban planning there are always legitimate questions about how much parkland communities should have and communities do need to think in terms of how much park they can pay for and afford. But, by definition, any truly successful park has what is referred to as exogenous or external benefit. The benefit of parks cannot be defined by what can be monetized within their own circumscribed borders. In fact it is quite the reverse, if a park is doing the job, pe se, expected of it, providing substantial external benefits then, by definition, it strikes the balance in the wrong place to insist that the park to pay for itself. If Nicolai Ouroussoff is correct in assessing that the positive effect the park “will have on New York is immeasurable” and if he isn’t off-base when he equates Brooklyn Bridge Park with Frederick Law Olmsted’s (and Calvert Vaux’s) Central Park, then the park can be expected to have substantial external benefits far beyond its borders that render Bloomberg’s concept that it should entirely pay itself absurdly quaint.

Engendering Unnecessary Suspicions

Beyond its quaintness, Bloomberg’s idea has serious technical problems and has, furthermore, helped engender public suspicions that are not conducive to the smooth creation of the park. The most serious technical problem with the idea is that the real estate market is an ever shifting target, so the amount of housing development that will pay for the park one year (say in pre-economic crash 2007) is quite different from what will pay for the park perhaps only a year later, in 2008 after the ruckus caused by the troubles of Lehman and all the rest of Wall Street. Overlaying this incredible level of imprecision and uncertainty we have seen an absolute unwillingness of public officials to disclose to the public what is intended in the way of housing. So it is not surprising to find the Times reporting on the opening saying: “How it will ultimately be paid for remains a mystery” while the Brooklyn Papers writes “but with five piers to build out, an unclear path to funding their upkeep and the unsolved issue of private housing in the park’s boundaries, critics see a storm brewing.”

Suppose instead (as has been proposed) that the park should be paid for by the higher property taxes resulting from the escalating values in the surrounding greater community benefitting from the park. This is a more straightforward approach that isn’t fraught with those inherent problems because real property taxes are flexibly assessed over time, fluctuating 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. (As a matter of disclosure, I am perhaps arguing against my own self interest here in that we live close to the park and therefore probably therefore ought to have our taxes increased more than others living further away by virtue of such a reckoning.)

The reason that community suspicion has been engendered by the deal-with-the-devil premise that the housing should pay for the park results from the fact that the equation that maintenance cost equals housing awkwardly means that a more expensive- to-maintain-park translates into forcing more housing into the acreage. So if people in the community believe that politicians like Bloomberg have a bias and are looking for an excuse to hand out housing development deals to the real estate community, it then make sense to suspect that costs of maintaining the park are likely being artificially inflated. Such suspicions seem borne out when one reads that the maintenance plans for the 1.3 mile park were being set up to include:
. . . a 21-member private security force, with five armed officers; up to 133 staff members doing everything from hand-pruning cherry trees to teaching people how to kayak; and a fleet of 31 Toyota Priuses and dune buggies.
(See: B’klyn Bridge Park at Center of Parks Funding Debate, by Sarah Ryley, 03-05-2007.)

Nor does suspicion abate when one realizes that the per acre figures for the parks maintenance are calculated by including swaths of the watery Hudson, seemingly to make that per acre figure appear lower. (It is true that aside from the acre of water, the park also includes piers which are probably going to be expensive to maintain.)

Bias Apparent Anyway

But the public doesn’t need to scrutinize park budget maintenance figures in order to know that it should be worried about the Bloomberg administration’s predisposition to put the interests of real estate developers ahead of the public’s: One need look no further than the Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly given to Forest City Ratner to have incontrovertible proof positive. (See: Wednesday, November 25, 2009, Picturing What Could Have Been Said If Public Officials Accepted Public Comment at the Atlantic Yards Bond Approval Meeting and Friday, June 26, 2009, Deciphering Words of a (Campaigning) Bloomberg on Atlantic Yards: “Enough Already” Means, “Bruce, We Have Another $180 Million Plus To Give You!)

If one wants another quick example of how Bloomberg puts the wealthy and connected ahead of the rest of the community there is also the construction of the new Yankee Stadium. (See: Saturday, November 14, 2009, The Yankee’s Hoggish New Stadium Monopoly Taxes The Rest of Us.)

Looking at Development Within “Two Years”?

Observation would indicate that the expedient of an election was what it took for Brooklyn Bridge Park to get moving under the Bloomberg administration. With an election pending, the park’s commencement could finally be divorced from the development of housing. Nevertheless, the following from NY1's account of the park section opening makes it sound as if in the next two years the two will again be linked up, with the city administration focusing on wanting development of the housing in the next two years in exchange for the park actually being completed (emphasis supplied):
Parks officials say they are not entirely certain when the entire park will be complete.

"Within two years you will see substantial completion, and the rest is we have to reach the agreements for the city to keep the funding going in,” said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. “We have to reach agreements on what kinds of income will be coming in, and we still have to find more capital dollars to finish it up."

City officials have said the best way to finance the park's long-term operation would be to get funding from high-end housing that could be built along its perimeter. However, that idea has stirred up opposition and the city says it's open to other suggestions.
(See: Officials Open Section Of Brooklyn Bridge Park, By: Roger Clark, 03/22/2010.)

However, the expectation that housing development will be a good source of money to fund the park in the next two years doesn’t look a good bet for the public. Jonathan Miller is the President and CEO of Miller Samuel, a major NYC appraisal firm, “expects prices [for New York City apartments] to continue to slide over the next couple of years” and that slide is from where current prices are which is about 25-30% off from their mid second quarter 2008 peak. (See, without being misled by the segment’s title, NPR’s Financial 411: Apartment Sales Double in Manhattan, by Lisa Chow April 05, 2010.) Whatever a developer pays for development rights in the park in this time frame is therefore likely to be a bargain price.

News That Bloomberg Acquires Control

One reason we are now likely to see increasing city administration rhetoric about the “necessity” for housing development is because the Bloomberg administration has just acquired control of Brooklyn Bridge Park. I have enjoyed joking that Bloomberg “bought” Brooklyn Bridge Park for $55 million. Bloomberg didn’t personally “buy” the park with his own money. He took over control by pledging to spend $55 million of the city’s money that quite arguably was always going to be spent on the park in any event. At the same time, in a parallel deal, the city is also taking over control of Governor’s Island.

Reportedly, one reason that the city is taking over both these projects is because they were not truly development projects or at least not job development related projects:
State officials justified the move to transfer control to the city by explaining that neither Brooklyn Bridge Park nor Governors Island quite fit into the state-run Empire State Development Corporation’s core mission of luring businesses to create jobs.
(See: Wednesday, March 31,2010, As City Takes Over Joint Projects, Concerns About Responsible Development: Brooklyn Bridge Park, Governors Island takeovers spark privatization questions, by Andrew J. Hawkins and also Thursday, April 01, 2010, ESDC leader jokes that he'd like to move Atlantic Yards "off our portfolio;" AKRF's tab tops $5 million; new owner's rep signed after conflict.)

(Below, Governors Island seen behind some of the acres that are becoming Brooklyn Bridge Park.)
Change in Real Estate Industry Influence?

The above City Hall article (the first link above) hits upon one of our own recurring themes in reporting on this:
But questions about the city’s closeness to the real estate industry could influence how these projects are funded in the future and fundamentally change how public space is used and maintained.
All things being equal we would wholeheartedly support the transfers of control of the park and the island (from the shared city/state control set up under the state ESDC agency) to the city in which case we would like to see things be run by the city’s parks department. City parks are better run than the state ones in the city and the state has annoying habits: closing state parks at sundown, overmanning them, having too many rules, and threatening to close them altogether to close budget gaps. But all things are not equal, and control of the Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governor’s Island are not being put under the control of the city’s parks department.

(Above Adrian Benepe at December 7, 2009 meeting where mayoral takeover of Brooklyn Bridge Park was proposed.)

Although City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe has been used to help put a parks department face on the city’s plans, when he was asked the more moderately difficult questions about the Brooklyn Bridge Park at a December 7, 2009 Brooklyn Bridge Park Town Hall Meeting hosted by state senator Daniel Squadron where the city takeover idea was fielded, Benepe kept referring the questions to more somber city development officials standing behind him, the same development officials responsible for city development plans at Coney Island and Willets Point. When “parks” are in the hands of "development officials" instead of parks professionals one has to have a concern about development bias. For instance, under the auspices of development officials charged with making the Coney Island amusement area a successful amusement park, more and more of that acreage was disappointingly and steadily turned over to additional development uses over the course of decades.

Tipping Politics of the Park

The politics with respect to Brooklyn Bridge Park have been tipping. Most understand that the election of state Senator Daniel Squadron, deposing long time senator (and former Senate minority leader) Senate Marty Connor reflects the Senate district’s preference not to have development in Brooklyn Bridge Park (as well as other related things like opposition to Atlantic Yards). With the 2010 fall election of a new, strong governor like Andrew Cuomo this tipping could have meant the demise of plans for development in the park if the city and state continued to share responsibility for it.

Bloomberg Watching: Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Presidential Race

One thing that the transfer of control of the park and island clarifies for Bloomberg watchers is what Bloomberg intends with respect to his plans for a second run for the White House: He probably is not thinking of running for New York State governor as a stepping stone. When Bloomberg started gearing up his political career in 1997 he wrote in his book released that year that he would be a great “mayor, governor, or president.” (See: Friday, October 2, 2009, No Real Debate About It: Press Remains Way Off Track in Presupposing Bloomberg’s “Charity”.) No one has every gone successfully from being mayor of New York City to being president but many have successfully gone from being Governor of New York to being president so it is was reasonable to assume Bloomberg was considering a short spell as a “great” governor as a stepping stone but the transfer of control away from the governor's office argues against this.

The other thing that ought to convince Bloomberg watchers that Bloomberg plans to head straight to Washington, bypassing Albany, is the way that he is restructuring his “charitable” giving. In Bloomberg’s book he explained that his (first listed) criteria for making “philanthropic” gifts was the way in which such gifts will be to his own benefit. His charitable “giving,” which commenced at the same time as his political pursuits, was put under his newly hired chief political tactician, Patti Harris (picture on left). Up till now, when Bloomberg was pursuing his three successive terms as mayor (including the term limits override that made the third one possible) Bloomberg doled out hundreds of millions of dollars to charity (well over a billion) and those charities had a New York City focus.

Now for the first time Bloomberg is shifting the focus of his giving. The New York Times ran a story about how Bloomberg is ending his charitable to New York City charities and redirecting it to national charities. Specifically, the Times, noting that dramatic change was setting off alarms in the “city’s arts and social services worlds,” wrote:
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, New York City’s richest man and biggest philanthropist, is quietly pulling the plug on an unusual program that has poured nearly $200 million of his fortune into nonprofit groups across the five boroughs, in a sign of major change under way in his charitable giving plans.

* * *

He is increasingly focusing on his charitable efforts at his family foundation, where he has expanded hiring and operations in recent months as he prepares to put greater emphasis on needs in the United States.
(See: Bloomberg Is Quietly Ending a Charitable Program, by Michael Barbaro, March 18, 2010.)

Not Mentioning Bloomberg’s National Political Ambitions

Interesting that while noting both the above and the following the Times coyly made no mention of Bloomberg’s national political ambitions (emphasis supplied):
The gifts reflect the often blurred roles Mr. Bloomberg plays in the city as mayor, tycoon and philanthropist. And while the donations earned him praise from grateful recipients, who regarded him as an enlightened billionaire, they also drew rebukes from elected leaders who argued that he bought political acquiescence with his checkbook.
As already noted, the former NYC oriented “charity” program was supervised by Patti Harris who, per the words of the above article, is described as “Mr. Bloomberg’s closest adviser . . now the first deputy mayor” and “was consulted about the gifts for the groups.” More recently, the Times ran another article about Mr. Bloomberg’s future plans focusing on the fact that Ms. Harris will still be supervising giving under the new program that focuses on national charities. (See: March 31, 2010, Top Bloomberg Aide to Lead Charity Board, by Michael Barbaro.)

This second article quotes many philanthropy experts and good government groups to question the conflicts of interest and impropriety of the “unusual arrangement” of making his “first deputy mayor” “both chairwoman and chief executive of the $1.75 billion charity” but was similarly coy about mentioning Bloomberg’s national political ambitions though the article refers to how the mayor’s new foundation “risks being viewed as an extension of the mayor’s political operation.” Two slightly different versions of the article appear on the Times web site. Only one of them mentions that “There is a heavy political cast to the foundation board Mr. Bloomberg announced.” Note: It could, but did not attach the qualifying adjective “national” after “heavy” and before “political cast.”

New Bloomberg Board

The Bloomberg foundation’s board’s nineteen members reportedly include:
1. Patricia Harris, First Deputy Mayor of New York City (as noted)
2. Emma Bloomberg, a Bloomberg daughter
3. Georgina Bloomberg, a Bloomberg daughter
4. Henry M. Paulson Jr., the former treasury secretary under George W. Bush
5. Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor of Florida, and George W. Bush’s brother
6. Manny Diaz, the Cubin-American Democratic mayor of Miami, Florida
7. Cory A. Booker, the black Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey;
8. Maya Lin, the Asian-American architect whose best-known work is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
9. David L. Boren, a Democrat and former Governor, United States senator for Oklahoma and the president of the University of Oklahoma (He was the longest serving Chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence);
10. Kenneth I. Chenault, the chief executive of American Express since 2001 and the third African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company
11. Sam Nunn, former Democratic senator from Georgia with national defense credential and who was twice thought to be under consideration as a presidential running mate.
Ain’t Nutt’n New

Though the Times article contains all sorts of howling about the conflicts involved when Bloomberg’s charities under Patti Harris mix inappropriately with politics and while it asks whether Ms. Harris can or will get a ruling from the city Conflicts of Interest Board it seems these admonitions arrive a little late on the scene. Also from the article:
“Patti manages the mayor’s personal philanthropy in her personal time and has for years,” he [A spokesman for the mayor, Jason Post,] said. “Nothing in today’s announcement changes that.”

* * *

The Bloomberg administration notified the conflicts board of Ms. Harris’s promotion to chairwoman of the board in recent days, and Mr. Post said the administration believed the original permission still applied. * * * “This has been a persistent problem with the Bloomberg administration,” said Susan Lerner the head of Common Cause NY, a good government group. “There does not seem to be a truly effective barrier between the work which people who are on the public payroll do for the city and what they do for the mayor’s business or his personal interest.”
Trustworthiness Investments?

One of the most recent reports of pertinence about Bloomberg’s investment of his fortune and all the investments from which he is handing out moneys to charities is that “Steven L. Rattner, the financier under increasing scrutiny in a state and federal kickbacks investigation, is playing a key role in creating a new investment firm that will manage” these funds. (See: Bloomberg Said to Rely on Financier Under Fire, By Michael Barbaro, April 20, 2010.)

According to the Times:
Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo has accused Mr. Rattner of paying kickbacks to an aide to former State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi in exchange for the aide’s help in landing a state investment contract for Quadrangle, the private equity firm that Mr. Rattner founded and ran for years.
During the last mayoral election Bloomberg accused his opponent, City Comptroller Bill Thompson, of the same kind of pay-to-play pension fund kickbacks that Steven Rattner is accused of being involved in. (See: Sunday, November 1, 2009, Bloomberg vs. Thomson (54% to 29%?): It’s Not What You Think. (For Instance the “P” is Missing and What Might “P” Stand For?).) When we wrote about it we noted that:
Thompson has defended against the charge, saying that Bloomberg is accountable for pension funds investments since the mayor appoints the majority and of board members and the chairman of the pension boards that vote on the investments. The Times offers the judgment that the buck ought to stop with Thompson under the city charter. That question is worthy of further examination but we think the more important question is whether Bloomberg has been engaged in what is in all possibility a much more massive kind of “pay to play.”
Thompson’s defense meant that he and the mayor were pointing fingers at each other, each saying that the other either 1.) had the responsibility (all of the “buck”), or 2.) was at least supposed to be acting as a check against their own abuse.

Better Check That Balance

Bloomberg and Thompson were supposed to be a check and balance for each other? What came out after the election was that Bloomberg and Thompson were far cozier than almost anyone knew: “The mayor has directed or triggered between $43 million and $51 million in public and personal subsidies into a museum project led by Thompson's current wife and longtime companion, Elsie McCabe-Thompson, dumping $2 million of additional city funding into it as late as September 30, in the middle of the mayoral campaign.” (See: Bloomberg and Thompson: The (Really) Odd Couple, Now it can be told: The surprising ties between the billionaire mayor and the poor slob who ran against him, by Wayne Barrett, January 05, 2010.) So much for the idea that the two men were a check and balance against each other.

Is Offshore Off Base?

Another thing to consider respecting the mayor’s investments (beyond how they are used for political purposes and managed by the suspect Mr. Rattner) is that they are in the Cayman Islands. The mayor was just confronted about this in an interesting story on WNYC that made the mayor’s 2008 tax returns available. (See: The Mayor's Money: Bloomberg Pressed on Offshore Investments, Saturday- April 24, 2010.)

In the middle of statements challenging Obama about his proposals for financial reform Bloomberg was confronted (after having himself at least supported the notion of reform for more transparency at financial institutions) and had, instead, to answer the question of how the ideal of transparency comported with Bloomberg’s investment of his personal funds in the Caymen Islands. Bloomberg had just claimed: “For me, transparency is not just something I support, I have lived it.”

Here at some length is part of the excellent WNYC story:

But when it was time for reporters' questions, the topic turned to the transparency of the mayor's charitable foundation, which invests hundreds of millions of dollars in legal but controversial off-shore tax havens, like the Cayman Islands. Sara Kugler of The Associated Press asked Bloomberg if that contradicts his call to keep the financial sector within the United States to employ people and pay taxes.

"Doesn't it kind of go against this message you’re arguing here for you to allow your investments to be made in off shore --"

"--I don’t have anything to say about my investments," the mayor said.

"You signed those tax forms, so you had to…," Kugler continued.

"I did not sign those tax forms," Bloomnberg said.

"Well, that’s your signature on it," Kugler pressed.

"If they're tax forms that I signed, I signed," the mayor said. "But I don’t have any control over where my investments go. And incidentally, as far as I know the investments that my money managers make are perfectly legal. There’re fully disclosed and they’re appropriate to maximize the assets which I’m giving away to charities."
(Below from WNYC article, Bloomberg tax returns under discussion.)

Bloomberg Family Foundation 2008 tax return

Incineration of Bloomberg’s Firewall Defense

Bloomberg’s assertion that he doesn’t have any control over how others (such as Mr. Rattner) invest his money is premised on the notion that Bloomberg observes the niceties, the “firewall” protections of a blind trust such that he doesn’t actually know or exchange information about, or direct how his money is invested. It’s a fine notion except for the fact that Bloomberg has reportedly ignored the required observance of such required firewalls. Although the mayor promised the city conflicts of interest board to limit his involvement with his company and insisted that he was doing so (he gets to self-police on this) it turned out that he was talking regularly to senior officials at his company “about topics ranging from new data terminal sales to expansion into new markets and the general financial performance of the company. He even recruited the company’s spokeswoman.” (See: Tuesday, February 3, 2009, The Good News IS the Bad News: Thanks A lot for Mayor Bloomberg’s “Charity” (Part II).)

Bemused By Bloomberg in Bermuda?

(The Bermuda home in Noticing New York's photo above is NOT actually Bloomberg's but is a pretty good stand-in for it. NNY didn't manage to shoot its own photo for display here. For comparison, click here to see the Richard Perry photo for the Times. FYI: In the small world of wealthy power players, Silvio Berlusconi, the current Prime Minister of Italy who is similarly a simultaneous media mogul, politician and entrepreneur is Michael Bloomberg's neighbor in Bermuda. For side-by-side photos of the homes and more commentary on this click here. Ross Perot, independent candidate for President is also a neighbor.)

It is hard to resist mentioning that while Bloomberg’s investments are offshore, Bloomberg, himself is also something of an offshore mayor. While the Village Voice has reported cribbing from Joyce Purnick's Bloomberg book that Bloomberg departs the city leaving from City Hall "almost every" Friday morning "spring and fall" "at 11:05, the latest" to travel to his home in Bermuda, the Times hedges a bit and says only that the early Friday departure is set up as Bloomberg’s default schedule and that Bloomberg may only actually leave for his extended Bermuda weekends every other week. As for actually knowing whether it is either the Times or the Voice that is more correct, it is difficult to say because as the Times reports: "He steadfastly refuses to say when he is on the island, and to blindfold prying eyes, he has blocked aviation Web sites from making public the movements of his private planes." (See: New York’s Mayor, but Bermuda Shares Custody, By Michael Barbaro, April 25, 2010.) That’s New York’s steadfastly "transparent" offshore mayor.

Enviously Green

The WNYC Bob Hennelly story above is enjoyable for the way that it deftly flips a specially convened press conference where Bloomberg was using an Earth Day award being presented to him for being "America's greenest mayor" (as an opportunity to take on Obama on the subject of financial reform) so as to turn it instead into a story about Bloomberg’s offshore lack of transparency. It would also have been possible to upend Bloomberg's press confernce by directly questioning Bloomberg’s "green" award. We suggest an important stop along the way in the consideration of who really deserves credit for being green would be to acquaint yourself with the work of Johann Hari about how big business had co-opted the environmental movement to "greenwash" that which should not be getting credit. (See: In the Nation: The Wrong Kind of Green By Johann Hari, March 4, 2010 and an interview on The Leonard Lopate Show, The Wrong Kind of Green, Friday, April 02, 2010.)

For our own particular take on just how green Bloomberg himself really ISN'T, see: Monday, November 2, 2009, On Your Way Vote, We Quizzically Ask: How "Green" Is Our Bloomberg?

A Little More Background on Bloomberg’s Presidential Aspirations

For a little more background on Bloomberg’s presidential aspirations (if you want to go beyond just paying attention to Bloomberg’s ever more frequent references to terrorism and other issues that he thinks might be part of his national campaign) you might want to look at the following articles: Former aides watch and wait for Bloomberg's 'Next Big Thing' to be a presidential campaign, by Adam Lisberg, April 11th 2010 and Bloomberg in '12? Minnesota Independence Party wants Mike to seriously consider running for prez, by Elizabeth Benjamin, Daily News Staff Writers, February 22nd 2010.)

It is also worthwhile to observe that Howard Wolfson, who was Hillary Clinton’s media strategist for her presidential campaign and U.S. Senate runs, is now working for Bloomberg at City Hall and is being elevated with the departure of Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey (he went straight to Bloomberg L.P.). As the Huffington Post and New York Times respectively observe:
HP: Wolfson's connections to national politics are likely to revive questions about whether Bloomberg may still have White House aspirations.

* * * *

NYT: The appointment of a presidential-level strategist is likely to renew speculation about whether Mr. Bloomberg, a billionaire, still harbors national political ambition. He flirted with a presidential run in 2008, but decided it was not viable. A person close to the mayor said Mr. Wolfson would play “a key role in developing policies and lead in selling them.” He is likely to focus on promoting national issues like gun control* and immigration reform, a priority for Mr. Bloomberg.
(See: Howard Wolfson Joining Bloomberg Administration, by Sara Kugler. 01/26/10 12 and
Bloomberg to Hire Ex-Clinton Strategist, By Michael Barbaro and Raymond Hernandez, January 25, 2010.)

(* Indeed, Bloomberg just issued a new policy on gun control likely to be more nationally palatable: Bloomberg Plan Would Simplify Gun-Permits, by Al Baker, May 14, 2010.)

This is the end of Part I of this piece. To read more about Brooklyn Bridge Park and the city politics that interplay with development (beginning with Mr. Wolfson’s involvement with Bloomberg-styled “nonpartisan elections”) click here to proceed to Part II.

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