Saturday, September 18, 2010

Staten Island’s Cedar Grove: City Wants the Next Chapter of a 50-Year Eminent Domain Saga to Be Final Dismantling of a 100-Year Old Community

(Above, a picture of Cedar Grove from the Historic District Council’s site.)

The Village Voice has a new must read article about Staten Island’s small summer community of Cedar Grove (brought to our attention by the Historic Districts Council) that provides much food for thought. See: "Poor Man's Bermuda" in Staten Island? Not anymore, By Elizabeth Dwoskin Sep 15 2010. Though the story concerns itself with a community of just 41 families it manages in microcosm to provide perspective on a superabundance of important issues, far more than arise in a typical public development story: eminent domain, the unreliability of public officials and their vision, parks, privilege, municipal budgeting, and finally historic preservation. (For ease of reference we shall be enumerating them when we get further into the discussion below.)

(Above, the Cedar Grove colony houses and beach and just above some of the New Dorp beach. Click any image in this article to enlarge.)

The Historic Districts Council is involved championing the cause of the 41 families who are trying not to be evicted from this summer bungalow colony by calling attention to the fact the New York State Historic Preservation Office has determined that the Cedar Grove Beach Club is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district and is concurrently raising some other very persuasive arguments. Does it make sense for the eviction to be occurring now? As the Historic District Council phrases it: the community residents “had their property taken from them by the city 50 years ago for one scheme that was never built, should not lose their family’s bungalows for another city project that will likely never be built.”

At first blush it might seem like a simple story pretty much the way City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe wants to tell it: That this private community (and club) is on public park land and its residents have been able to be there only because the Parks Department has let them occupy their premises at an exceedingly low rent. Ahem: It ain’t that simple.

The now singularly historic community (it was established slightly over a hundred years ago as a beach campground around 1907 with the existing bungalows were according to HDC “largely built between 1920 and 1940") has always been essentially a private one (though the beach is public) for all its hundred plus years. The picture became more complex when Robert Moses took the land through eminent domain in 1958. Ostensibly, he was taking the private land to create a public park, “a second Jones Beach” according to the Voice article. In actuality, his intention was to build a four-lane highway (what we euphemistically were in the habit of calling “parkways” in that era) along the length of Staten Island’s extensive southeastern shore from the site of the Verrazano Bridge (construction of which began August 13, 1959) all the way down to New Jersey over the Outerbridge Crossing near Staten Island’s southernmost tip; his proposed “Shore Front Drive.”

(Above, Village Voice rendering showing where Moses’ highway was to go along the Staten Island in relation to Cedar Grove and the rest fo the shoreline. Below, where Cedar Grove lies on the entirety of the Staten island Shoreline. Click to enlarge.)

Dealt with in terms of its unveiled actual goals Moses’ highway project ultimately failed when it was defeated in the early 1970s. The federal government opposed it and Mayor Lindsay relieved Moses of his position as the city's arterial coordinator. The original ostensible goal of using the land taken to create a “second Jones Beach” was also abandoned. The Cedar Grove community managed to survive because when the highway wasn’t built the city leased back the land to the property owners from whom they took it in an arrangement that while it could have been more short-lived has now lasted a full 50 years, one half century. The survival of the community and perhaps the initiation of this lease arrangement probably had something to with the fact that the community fought the condemnation in court from 1962 to 1964.

Quite pointedly, the Cedar Grove community has brought attention to the fact that while they have maintained and improved their beach beautifully, the adjacent beach immediately to the north is an unmaintained trash-strewn wasteland. This city-owned shoreline to the north is associated with the New Dorp community where the city demolished other beach cottages that were similarly lining the shoreline before their seizure by eminent domain.

Here is some of what we find ourselves thinking about reviewing this story:
1. That when the city pursued eminent domain against this property the public was furnished with ostensible goals for the seizure of the land rather than revealing the goals public officials were truly pursuing.

2. That the resort to employing pretext prevented the kind of public debate and consideration of the plans that might have led to more valuable outcomes.

3. That when public officials’ true purposes were unveiled the project failed for lack of a practical fully worked out plan for its funding and lack of public support.

4. That you can never remind people often enough how ill conceived Robert Moses car-oriented mega-urban planning projects often were. This is especially important these days given how there has been a conscientious effort to rehabilitate Moses’ image so that the public maybe more willing to swallow the idea that other mag-planning projects like Atlantic Yards, the Columbia University expansion into West Harlem, Willets Point or Coney Island should be pursued despite the fact that all of these projects are predicated upon an initial decimation of neighborhoods that exist. Creation of a second Jones Beach on Staten Island is a valuable idea but yet another shoreline highway would have precluded proper use of the shoreline as a valuable asset. In the early 1990s, the southeastern shore of Staten Island, particularly Midland Beach just to the north of Cedar Grove, was an extremely popular vacation and resort area easily accessible to city residents. With pollution it became less pristine but the Clean Water act has since significantly cleaned up the Hudson and this area has extraordinary long-term potential.

5. Government far too often undercalculates how long eminent domain will lay waste to an area before government acts to replace the commerce, use and activity of the private sector thriving before property was taken by eminent domain.* The land in question at Cedar Grove and the New Dorp community to the north has been the subject of desuetude under the shadow of and as a result of eminent domain for 50 years except to the extent that the effect has been mitigated by renting the land back to the Cedar Grove beach club. If the Cedar Grove residents are finally evicted there is no guarantee that a proper and fulfilling economic use will finally be made of these properties, but we do know that the mitigating effect on this lack of use will thereupon end.

(* Similarly, thirty-five years passed before the city replaced a bungalow community it leveled 310 in Far Rockaway “in a fit of optimism” “not removing blight in the Rockaways but actually creating blight”. Watch the upcoming September 22 broadcast of the Bungalows of Rockaway on PBS.)

6. The private sector left alone to operate naturally and unimpeded by government often makes better use of resources than those governments that step in claiming they can be better stewards to manage such resources.

7. It turns out that for the fifty years that New York City never used the Cedar Grove community’s land for the public park purposes for which the city used eminent domain seize, the city government never thought of giving that land back. We like the comment Paul Jones offered on New York Times coverage. He wondered about whether this is right. Mr. Jones wrote:
Ironic that the property only belongs to the City because it was condemned – for a highway that was never built. Would not logic suggest that the property should have been given back? Or at least offered back?
In fact, there are supposed to be some applicable concepts about the use of eminent domain pertaining to this. We suggest that you read the City Room New York Time article and particularly direct your attention to the comments section. We are with the remark in comment #63 “Interesting article and even more interesting comments.” (See: August 11, 2010, For Beach Residents, a Summer Nearly a Century Long Winds Down, by Corey Kilgannon.)

8. Articulating a concept that others have picked up on elsewhere, the Village Voice coverage describes the low rent paid by the Cedar Grove residents as a “sweet deal”:
Cedar Grove Beach residents say they pay the city $134,000 a year to lease the property for the entire summer season. Divided among 41 families, that's less than $4,000 per family for the entire three months—a sweet deal. (They also pay the salary of a full-time custodian, José, whose family lives in a bungalow year-round.)
$4,000 for three beach bungalow summer months is certainly way below market. The low rent would certainly seem unfair unless one remembers that the community owners were probably way undercompensated when their land was first taken and that with pretextual taking and failure to make actual public use of the property there was significant unfairness associated with the taking in the first place. (We have covered the issue of such inadequate compensation in prior articles.) HDC’s post on the subject contains the observation of one resident that “the Beach Club now pays more in rent in a year than the City paid for the bungalows.”

Bill Dugan, a Cedar Grove resident quoted by the Times calculates the cost of renting at a higher amount than the Village Voice article author:
Mr. Dugan said the club paid the city about $140,000 a year, plus the cost of maintaining the property. It winds up costing $6,000 to rent a cottage, from the middle of May to October. But then there is the sweat equity. Residents say the property has been improved by decades of their labor and improvements. They hire a full-time caretaker, and each family volunteers for chores for the summer. It is their tractor that shores up the beach and sifts the sand, digs out the place after hurricanes and maintains its roads.*
(* We can’t vouch for the information but one comment, #45, at the New York Times sites says that residents paid $100,000 to reconstruct the bulkhead to the south of the beach.)

It should be noted that the beach the community has maintained is a public one to which the public has access even if there are issues about whether the public feels comfortable accessing what feels a bit like a private beach.

9. If the rent is currently too low, surely it could be raised. Even if there are valid arguments that low rents constitute an augmentation alleviating the inadequacy of the original compensation that was paid perhaps now, fifty years later, the time has come to raise the rents closer to market. And if the rents were raised it would change the equation and bring into even starker relief the question of why now should be the time for city to be destroying historic properties with value when it hasn’t even started to maintain immediately adjacent comparable property. We quote another comment (#62) in the Times article:
For example, doesn't seem strange that with the worst fiscal crisis in recent years currently in full swing, that the Parks Department would chose now as the time to evict these families? When the Parks Department does not have the funds to properly maintain properties they currently manage, where is the money coming from to destroy this historic village? With every local politician opposing the planned destruction why would Parks still move forward?

. . . Benepe even says in this article that they don't even have the requisite approval from necessary agencies to go forward with his supposed plan . . .
We note that in June of 2007 (before the 2008 economic downturn) the Regional Plan Association released a report, Balancing Public and Private Responsibilities on the Waterfront, questioning whether the city will be able to pay for the planned 55 miles of waterfront parks. The report issued weeks after Mayor Bloomberg announced his citywide green parks initiative estimated the operational cost of the waterfront parks at $100 million annually (almost one-third of the park department’s $355 million budget) at a time when the city itself had not yet estimated those costs. (See: Planned Parks May Cost City Too Much, Group Warns, by Timothy Williams, June 14, 2007.) As the Times mentions the report also got into something that intertwines with the next point we will discuss:
The report criticized some of the new arrangements, particularly financing formulas that may allow wealthier neighborhoods to have better maintained parks than poor areas, and parks where operations and maintenance have been left to developers.
10. The Times article commenter last quoted above segues into another issue: What’s being done with other Parks Departments property and whether it is being preferentially sold off elsewhere to the privileged or the well-connected. That raises some issues of class that deserve to be spotlighted, together with the question of who may be subject to some insider benefits. Robert Caro in is epic biography of Moses, The Power Broker, wrote about how Moses, particularly in his earliest days as an actual public official (just after his reformer days), acted symbolically as liberator of property that had been privatized by the wealthy. In this vein Moses’ Jones Beach was a publicly accessible in contrast to the beaches on Long Island had been gated and otherwise made inaccessible by the wealthy almost as far out as Smithtown. Similarly, Mayor Jimmy Walker’s expensively elite Tavern on the Green was remodeled into something more generally affordable by the rest of the public. That was way back then; the pendulum, it appears, can swing back.

One commenter (#63) alleges invidious treatment in a very analogous situation concerning a co-op at One Sutton Place South (with residents at various times such as Winston Churchill Guest and wife C. Z. Guest, Bill Blass, Sigourney Weaver; John Fairchild, George Gould, Amy Phipps, Janet Annenberg Hooker, Carl H. Tiedemann, Carolyne Roehm and Marietta Peabody Tree the patrician, activist, socialite and staple of gossip columns, who reportedly had affairs with Adlai E. Stevenson and John Huston). The co-op has been renting back for $1 a year property for its backyard garden that was taken by a 1939 eminent domain seizure. With that lease now expired the city and the Parks Department has an interest in using the property for a public promenade. In a lawsuit against the city the co-op charged that “the city has failed to take the proper steps required by the City Charter to develop the park.” Notwithstanding the commenter’s assertion of unfairness, our research indicates the dispute is not yet resolved and remains outstanding. However, the point that it is an analogous situation is quite well taken. (See: In Sutton Place's Backyard, Private Oasis on Public Land, by Charles V. Bagli, December 31, 2003, A Co-op on Sutton Place Sues to Keep Its Backyard, by Charles V. Bagli, June 19, 2007, A Park? Not With My Backyard, by Charles V. Bagli, January 9, 2005, The Penthouse Solution, by Josh Barbanel, January 16, 2009.)

Essbee, in comment #14, apparently sensing some hypocritical favoritism, expresses concern about privatization of the parks by the city’s elite:
So – the Parks Department wants to evict families, demolish 41 historic bungalows because suddenly they have an “issue” with a private group having a lease on a park? What about the Central Park Conservancy or the Prospect Park Alliance or the situation with Randall’s Island where a bunch of Upper East Side prep schools were going to have exclusive use of public facilities during prime hours?
We don’t know if the Central Park Conservancy or the Prospect Park Alliance should be subject to such flat-out suspicion, but we understand the point about favoring private prep schools with superior access.

Another commenter, Jamie (#24) zeros in incisively on Parks Commissioner Benepe’s disparate treatment respecting Brooklyn Bridge Park:
Adrian Benepe: “This is public land, it belongs to the public, and we want to return it to the public.”
Isn’t this the guy who insisted we needed private development of condos in Brooklyn Bridge Park? Let me see if I can understand this. Regular ordinary people cannot benefit from using public land, even if they have been doing so for 75 years. But rich elites can benefit from using public land? Adrian Benepe: “There aren’t any other parks in New York City with private residences on them, especially on prime waterfront.” He says this while at this very moment they are planning to put luxury housing in Brooklyn Bridge Park!
(See some of our own analysis on Benepe and the Brooklyn Bridge Park: Friday, April 30, 2010, Unveiled: Two New Towers In Prospect Park By Grand Army Plaza Entrance To Help Green The Area.)

Probably the "Poor Man's Bermuda" title of the Village Voice is intended to implicitly acknowledge the importance of the issue of class in this story. For those paying attention to governance of the city it immediately brings to mind that our city’s most iconic “Rich Man,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself, reportedly arranges his regular schedule to accommodate early morning departures every Friday so he can have long weekends in Bermuda. (For more of analysis of Bloomberg as our “offshore” mayor see: 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.)

The issue of class drove the heated passion of a great many of the comments to the Times story. We were, for instance, surprised to see the Cedar Grove resident referred to as “scoundrels” apparently because they had been privileged to have the poor man’s version of Bermuda. Obviously, not everyone was on the same page respecting who was specially privileged.

11. Adding to the above comments in a somewhat similar vein we’d like to ask this: If the City is so desperate for more recreational shoreline why is the city simultaneously just on the other side of Lower Hudson Bay drastically shrinking the public amusement areas of Coney Island once protected by zoning in order to deliver a vast amount of acreages into the hands of private developers for other uses unrelated to public outdoor seaside recreation? (See: Wednesday, July 1, 2009, Noticing New York’s Testimony at Today's City Council Hearing on Coney Island.)

12. Setting aside the possibility of subsequent inappropriate privatization, the creation of public parks is clearly a normally appropriate use of eminent domain. It entails both actual public ownership and actual public use, unlike the essentially private benefit schemes for which eminent domain has been recently commandeered, Atlantic Yards and the Columbia University expansion into Harlem being glaring examples. We can readily support eminent domain’s use for park purposes and to create access so the the public can make a continuous uninterrupted circuit around the city’s shorelines. But we still have to ask a couple of things first.
a. Why is the eviction of this community now appropriate? Commissioner Benepe likens this taking to the piecemeal opening of the Hudson River Park waterfront, but the Parks Department is surely doing itself a severe perceptual disservice by taking the community’s land before it has addressed the trash-strewn New Dorp beach for which the city is currently responsible. Clues to the city’s progress and overall intentions can be seen in annual evolutions (or lack thereof) of the city’s Department of Transportation bike map. In the 2004 edition the completed bike path along the Staten Island shore went as far south Sea View. In 2007 it went about another mile further south to the Gateway National Recreation Area. Since that time no other incremental progress has been made although the next link of the path was about to get to that infamous complained-about New Dorp beach. Thereafter the path is slated to go along the shore next to Cedar Grove. Interestingly, the change in maps after 2004 also shows that for some reason plans to connect that path to other bike paths northwestward (and ultimately the northwestern shore) are being dropped. Shouldn’t at least these minimal next steps of extending the bike path and cleaning up New Dorp beach be taken before the Cedar Grove residents are evicted?

(Above, excerpt from 2004 DOT bike map)

(Above, excerpt from 2007 DOT bike map)

(Above, excerpt from 2010 DOT bike map)

b. Can’t there be a solution that is consistent with preserving the history and assets these bungalows represent? Wouldn’t the city be more interesting by virtue of their preservation? It would tell a story and connect us all to our history, including reminding us how essential it is to remain skeptical of public officials. It is, after all, a short length of shoreline. The public would continue to have access and accessibility can be enhanced. We see no reason historic preservation need be incompatible with other plans, even the bike path. Public accessability however must be key. Preservation of landmarks is, after all, something that is supposed to be undertaken with the benefit to the public in mind.
13. In comment #29 to the Times story DY expresses concern about the oddness of how the city is proceeding and speculatively ponders: “Why would Parks want to destroy historic properties that sit on their land? There must be some other agenda here.”
Indeed, why is the city rushing on this right now? It would be a shame to rush and then find out that, just as was the case in 1958, there was “some other agenda.” The issues and options here are richly deserving of further discussion and further research. Wouldn’t at least one more season of debate be in order?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I was told the "P" in Parks isn't for people anymore, it's for POWER.