Friday, December 30, 2005

Council Agenda (cont'd)

There is one major issue that impacts neighborhood retailers all over the city-the proliferation of street vendors that directly compete with store owners on the city's myriad commercial strips. These vendors not only take away business from heavily taxed and regulated stores, they also clog the streets in such a way that pedestrian safety is compromised.

In spite of these threats there has been little political will expended on behalf of store owners. Part of the reason for this is the degree of sympathy a number of elected officials have expressed for the hard-working immigrants who comprise a great proportion of the vendor work force. We feel that this sympathy, while not misplaced, overlooks the fact that neighborhood store owners are also predominately immigrants as well.

In any event, the store owners, as a major economic engine in NYC, deserve to be protected and, while the Council has been good on some of the regulatory issues facing this sector, it has been less aggressive in reining in peddler proliferation.

Fruit Peddlers Most Annoying

In this regard we need to especially single out one class of street vendor: the fruit and vegetable merchants who set up shop (literally) directly in front of food stores of all kinds. As we have written, the Council has already expressed a great deal of interest in this issue and we can expect a good deal of Council attention in the coming year to a problem that plagues store owners all over the city.

Garbage Grinders

Of course we'd be remiss if we didn't include the issue of commercial waste disposer in our discussion of a Council agenda for neighborhood businessman 2006. The clock ran out on our pilot program legislation at the end of 2005, but we're confident that the Council will act on legislation that had garnered the support of roughly 2/3 of its members.

The grinder issue, however, is not a parochial one that only snoring local food stores. It strikes to the heart of the larger policy concern over the disposal of all of the city's solid waste. We have hammered away on this ad museum but it will now be incumbent on the newly constituted Council to look at the city's SWAMP and provide the kind of policy insight that is demonstrably lacking on the mayor's side of City Hall.

NYC can no longer be held hostage to what we have labeled a "pump-and-dump" disposal policy of truism' and landfill'. It is both short-sighted and expensive. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic lack of vision at the relevant city agencies is met and compounded by the ideological blinders worn by the city's environmental advocates.

Unrealistic recycling visions and the romantic view of composites in the city combine with bureaucratic stupidity to put New Yorkers in a solid waste straight jacket. We're counting on the new Council leadership to set a saner course for the city.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Council Agenda

In our continuing look at the development and small business issues we feel that the City Council should tackle in the coming year we'd be remiss if we didn't highlight the need for the city's legislature to examine how EDC, the city's quasi-public development agency operates. The two key areas of focus are on policy expertise and favoritism, with the understanding that these are often overlapping.

In the past we have watched as EDC has been a facilitator of the interests of favored developers in the city. In this scenario, the developer proposes and EDC disposes. It would be interesting to a longitudinal study of the circulation of EDC staff into the private sector. Our bet would be that there has been a healthy cross-pollination that, over time, reinforces the agency's role as an enabler of the city's real estate power elite.

Than there is the issue of favoritism, an issue graphically highlighted by the Doctoroff/Steve Ross love affair. It would be in the public interest for the Council, after it has cashiered the tainted BTM deal, to drag in all of the co-conspirators with subpoenas for a full hearing on the fiasco.

Now we know that the Alliance has been obssessive on this and, as a result, perhaps can be seen as a might less than objective on this whole matter. That is why we were fascinated to find a scathing commentary by Henry Stern on the BTM. Stern, who we have frequently disagreed with, gives just the right good government perspective on the tarnished BTM situation.

Stern, who has the benefit of historical perspective, goes back to the scandalous deal that was originally struck on the Terminal Market and wonders if the city has gotten the best deal possible on the Market. His key point, although he is loathe to accuse folks of chicannery, is that it is likely, as it was clearly demonstrated on the West Side, that the city (and the tax payers of course) is always better off in a competitive bidding situation.

This is especially true since the principals involved are personally close. The Stern money quote: "The assertion that Doctoroff recused himself entirely from the transaction is also difficult for thinking people to swallow whole, considering the multiple contacts and protracted negotiations between the parties. If Doctoroff had nothing to do with it, who, then, was responsible for working out the agreement? Let Mr. X come forward and explain the deal to the public."

Which is precisely what a renewed Council, concerned with its oversight role, should do immediately after it gets re-organized. The path is clear: Reject the land use application, return the market property to the city and commence a proper bidding process. This would be not only the appropriate opening salvo in the battle for accountable development, it would also be the first step in the development of a truly first rate legislative body that can effectively rein in mayoral excess.

Where's Mikey?

Now that the transit strike has all been settled, with the rank-and-file expected ratification of the negotiated contract the last hurdle, there are press reports and grumbling all over today's editorial pages that the union put one over on the MTA as well as on the public. If this is the case, where does all of the lionization of the mayor stand?

This is precisely the point that is made by Adam Brodsky in his Op-Ed column in the Post today. All of the mayor's "selfish" striker and "thuggish" union leader rhetoric amounted to little more than hot air. We've made this point ourselves before, with specific reference to the failure of the mayor to tackle the governor and MTA governance.

Brodsky focuses on a failure of a diferent sort: the failure of both the mayor and the governor to even threaten to do what President Reagen did in the PATCO strike in the '80s-simply fire the workers. In Adam's view this eviscerates the entire Taylor Law and, as a result, makes the TWU the big winners.

On a more substantive level this is precisely what Steve Greenhouse is reporting in today's Times. Greenhouse underscores that TWU president Roger ( of "Throw Roger from the Train" fame) has emerged from the strike "in a far better position than seemed likely just a few days ago."

This perspective is dramatized by the comment of union critic Steve Malanga, "'For them, you could say this is a great deal." Which is precisely why the Daily News and the Post are sputtering editorially in today's papers. We're still waiting for these opiners to begin to focus on governance and political leadership.

One person who we know will do this is AG candidate Richard Brodsky, a frequent and thoughtful critic of the MTA. The political capital is there since, as last week's NY1 poll found, there is wide public suspicion of how the agency is financed and governed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

City Council Agenda

While all the buzz about a new Speaker continues to fascinate the city's political insiders and junkies the Alliance remains more concerned about the kind of leadership and legislative direction that will characterize the reconstituted Council in the coming year. Both of the leading speaker candidates are politically experienced and policy savvy and that bodes well for the city's system of checks and balances.

The Alliance's major focus, of course, is on the health and well-being of the city's small business community. In this context, it is important for the Council to pay attention to regulatory reform since, under the current mayor, a greater emphasis has been placed on revenue collection than on the due process rights of neighborhood entrepreneurs.

In the past year the Council has taken some positive steps in this direction, especially in its efforts to reign in the city's Number One kangaroo court-ECB. We need for the city to reduce the regulatory burden on these retailers so they can expand their businesses and hire more people. The small business community is a 186,000 strong economic engine that is no "luxury item" or worse, a piñata to be beaten forcefully whenever the city faces fiscal uncertainty.

In keeping with this theme, the Council needs to pick up where it left on the effort to introduce garbage grinders into the city's commercial sector. This device would reduce disposal costs dramatically while at the same time elevating public health in all of the city's neighborhoods.

Another key issue for all retailers is economic development. As we have been constantly talking about the Council needs to develop an accountable development policy that includes a number of methodologies for strengthening the city's land use review process. Undoubtedly a new approach to the whole issue of eminent domain needs to be developed as well.

This brings us back to a proposal we had floated almost a year ago-a comprehensive study on the impact of the proliferation of box stores in NYC. We are constantly hearing about all of the supposed benefits of these retailers but, as our friend Professor Muzzio points out, none of the current studies are "dispositive." No new box store applications should be entertained before this crucial data is gathered.

We'll have more on the Council agenda ideas tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"Mad Mike"

In this week's Village Voice Wayne Barrett analyzes the mayor's response to the transit strike and finds his stridency off-key. WB, who spent a good part of the first Bloomberg term at least mildly impressed with Mike's low-key approach ("If the first four years of Mediating Mike were any indicator, he was the perfect guy to guide us through this transit tumult"), now sees the mayor's Kochian transformation as jarring.

Wayne's take is that, "We don't need a mayor to be mad for us...We need a mayor to be practical, conciliatory, and competent." Well, maybe yes and maybe no. The mayor, as a symbolic leader, does have an important quasi-heroic role to play when the stage is properly set. At the same time, it is hard for a leader to radically alter his persona, something that the mayor tried to do during the strike, with what we'd say are decidedly mixed results.

The problem with "Mad Mike" was that this was a guise that Bloomberg, given his low-key and uncharismatic persona, had never really attempted. It wasn't a cloak that he wore well and the tabloid lionization rang false to our ears. The tabloids' anti-labor harangues should have stayed within those provinces and not been imported to the City Hall stage.

But it wasn't only the attempt to graft a persona that didn't quite fit the man that made the "Mad Mike" moniker so silly. It was also the fact that the strike narrative, and the mayor's role in it, didn't lend itself to Mike's bellowing at the TWU.

If there was villainy in this plot it was not the sole province of the transit workers. Yet the MTA was given a free pass and Bloomberg missed the opportunity to do some "a plague on both your houses" bellowing. This was after all a bottom line governance issue and the mayor, who had silently stood by as Governor Pataki worked his "magic" at Ground Zero, needed to rail against a transit system (and governor) that the city, ludicrously, has almost no control over.

Not only that, there has been ample evidence, as New York State Comptroller Hevesi has underscored, that the MTA is an agency that is out of control and has long ago outlived its usefulness. All of which was left off stage by the mayor's silly impression of Edward G. Robinson as "Little Caesar."

Middle Class Exodus? = Trouble in Ed Paradise

In a fascinating in-depth article that represents what the NY Times does best, Susan Saulany examines "signs of anxiety" in the city's middle class because of the changes brought about by the mayoral takeover of the school system. The thrust of the article is that middle class parents (read: mostly white) are concerned that the emphasis on equity will compromise the pursuit of excellence, and in the process shortchange their kids.

In particular the worries focus on changes in the way T&G classes are selected, increases in class size, and the mania with standardized test scores (a necessity to gauge the progress of some the city's historically underperforming schools). As one parent says, "My concern is that the mayor is driving families out...It's very frustrating."

We have commented on some of this in the past and Andrew Wolfe at the Sun has been articulate on the subject for years. You ignore the middle class at your peril because if you do you will, just like District Three in Manhattan did for years, drive these folks out of the system (always in the name of fairness).

That's why Dr. Joe Vitteritti's comments are wrongheaded: "Nobody gets shortchanged the way the poor do." According to our former classmate at the Graduate Center the poor are the ones "who have no options." Yet it is essential for the system to insure that middle class parents continue to have a strong stake in the city's public education system, for a whole host of reasons that we can't fully get into here. The end quote on this has to come from outgoing Council member Eva Moskowitz, "If we become a school system for the exclusively poor, we arte going to be in big trouble."

Council "Frenzy"

In today's NY Post columnist and former council member Charles Millard (whose father, as former president of New York Coca Cola, will always be dear to us Diet Coke fiends) takes a look at the race to become the Council's next Speaker. Millard's biggest concern is that both of the leading contenders will steer the legislative body in a direction that is "liberal in the extreme."

Yikes! We just re-elected a mayor who, in two electoral forays spent over $150 million to become the city's chief executive, and Choo Choo Charlie is blowing his whistle about the dangers of extreme liberalism in the Council? His fears are misdirected and misplaced.

The real concern is whether the next Speaker has the skill to build up the strength of the City Council so that it can act as a counterbalance to a mayor who, by Charter, holds most of the governing cards. What this means to us is that the Council needs a strong reorganizing hand in order to upgrade its legislative as well as investigative capabilities.

In particular, given the mayor's penchant for mega-development, the Council needs to cultivate a clear legislative blueprint and mandate for accountable development. This is particularly true since the mayor has strongly defended the use of eminent domain and there are a number of places around the city where ED, if it is to be used, needs to be carefully scrutinized in order to determine its relationship to the public good.

In addition, as we have already seen, communities all over the city are complaining about the impact of overdevelopment. A key aspect of this complaint is the way in which much of this development is purely developer-driven and is not accompanied by any degree of careful planning. This underscores are suggestion that the entire ULURP process needs to be overhauled.

These are issues that transcend any ideological pigeonholing. They strike right at the heart of democratic governance and are particularly resonant in a city ruled by a billionaire who sees himself as "above politics." The neighborhoods of this city need the City Council as a strong check on mayoral power and we're extremely optimistic that the next Speaker will provide this counterweight.

Save Our Market, Save Our Park, Save Our Community

We met yesterday with the Save Our Parks coalition and came away with the indelible impression that the folks worried about losing their parks and the BTM merchants are really conjoined twins. The Gateway Mall project and the Yankee Stadium development are both characterized by a total lack of community input, concomitant accountable development and the abdication of responsibility by elected officials who should be fronting for the interests of the impacted neighborhoods but seem more interested in representing the developers.

What is also clear is that these two mega-projects need to be analyzed together since their contiguity and reliance on shared parking facilities will have an unwanted synergy with decidedly negative impact. This is especially true if we examine the elimination of 19 acres of parkland along with the huge increase of vehicular and truck traffic that accompanies any suburban-style mall.

All of this, of course, in an area that has been called "asthma alley." What this means is that the same elected officials who stridently and righteously came out against Gifford Miller's solid waste plan are supporting a pair of proposals that will seriously exacerbate the air quality of the South Bronx community.

What's missing from the parks perspective is the weighing in on the issue from the kinds of "Friends of the Parks" groups that come out when parkland is threatened in the more chic areas of the city. Also missing, although we plan to try to rectify the situation, are the environmental groups such as NRDC (fighting the valiant fight against watershed-threatening casinos in the Catskills) and the Environmental Justice Alliance (a group that needs to transcend the waste transfer issue). Can you imagine taking away 19 acres of parkland in any other part of the city?

Groups to Come Together

Given the confluence of interest between the BTM merchants and Save Our Parks it should be no surprise to find the beginning of the development of a common front. This is particularly true since the two controversial developments seem to have a protean quality that shifts with the political winds. No one really knows just where the "replacement" parkland will be sited and no one's really sure just how much square footage will eventually be ceded to the Related Companies when the dust settles.

We are hoping that Save Our Parks will join with the merchants, labor, business and community groups at a rally later this month to demand the preservation of valuable Bronx resources. We plan to appeal to a larger audience, one that transcends the machinations of certain elected officials who wouldn't know community well-being if it bit them on the you know what.

Bob Herbert and the Culture of Poverty Redux


In yesterday's NY Times$ Bob Herbert surprised us by talking about the problems of black America without pointing a finger at the failures of government and the larger American society. Here's the money quote: "I've spent years writing about unfairness and appalling injustices. Society is unfair and racism is still a rampant evil. But much of the suffering in black America could be alleviated by changes in behavior."

Wow! This is certainly a refreshing turn for Herbert. It's refreshing because it acknowledges something that Charles Silberman pointed out over thirty years ago: There is both a black problem as well as a white problem and to alleviate the problems attendant to race in this country we need to address both issues in both communities.

It is the same point that has been made by Oscar Lewis and the culture of poverty school. This perspective doesn't deny that a history of oppression is the root cause of much of what we find appalling in the inner cities. It does, however, insist that this history has itself created an internalized oppression that needs to be eradicated, and if it isn't all of the changes in law will not alter the basic conditions that hold people back.

Herbert underscores this by saying, "Addressing issues of values and behavior within the black community should not in any way imply a lessening of the pressure on the broader society...It should be seen as an essential counterpoint to that pressure." Bob Herbert meet John McWhorter!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Planning as an Oxymoron on Staten Island: the Implication for Wal-Mart

Two weeks ago in his SI Advance political column Tom Wrobleski made an important point, one that we have been emphasizing in our own discussions with South Shore residents: the South and West Shores of Staten Island are being overrun with developments that have not been adequately planned for.

Wrobleski focuses on the new Bricktown Center but widens the scope of his inquiry to include the irrational nature of planning in this city and how developers are allowed to use tunnel vision to discretely gauge project impacts, with little focus or concern for what's going on in areas contiguous to their own development (see especially the Gateway Mall and Yankee Stadium).

What he finds is that the Bricktown project generated very little concern about traffic and most of the opposition noise was generated because of the use of this vast public space. Wrobleski's money quote: "And, still, nobody said anything about traffic, despite the fact that congestion on the Island's clogged, overstressed, outdated, Colonial-era road system was already Problem 1-A in the borough, second only to overdevelopment, to which it is closely linked."

"Shame on us all," cries Wrobleski. Because, according to him, "only now are we having a discussion about the traffic all this might cause, and we're only having the discussion because we've discovered that--Gasp!--MORE LARGE-SCALE OFFICE AND RETAIL DEVELOPMENT MIGHT TAKE PLACE..."(emphasis added).

This is, of course, not surprising news to the Alliance. Wrobleski's lament is all too sadly typical of what the city does or, alternately, allows developers to do in its name. He then goes on to point out another typical city response when the inevitable traffic nightmare is "uncovered."

When this happens the call goes out for hundreds of millions of dollars in public expenditures for road infrastructure improvements. In this regard, SI Borough President Jim Molinaro doesn't disappoint us, "Borough President Jim Molinaro, of course, was right to send up a flare about all this as he did the other week. He was right to call for a $100-million effort to widen roads, add off-ramps and fix highways in the area."

But was he? This is, after all, the same Molinaro who has supported NASCAR and Wal-Mart, and every other development to come down the SI pike, with little regard for the potential impacts these projects will generate. Even more ridiculous, however, is the BP's defense of his belated response to this traffic nightmare: "'In fairness,' Molinaro told us last week, 'you could always say you should have started the day before'...Molinaro said it's always difficult to get money for things like infrastructure improvements until development actually begins to occur and the cost of the improvements can be justified."

This is probably the most disingenuous statement we have ever heard from an elected official (and that says a lot). It is the same Molinaro, blindly worshipping at the alter of development, who failed to do the proper due diligence when Bricktown was first proposed. After all, as the Alliance's traffic consultant Brian Ketcham demonstrated, anyone without rose-colored glasses looking at the Bricktown project could have predicted the disaster Molinaro is trying to spend his way out of today. After all, who could look at the traffic study for that project, yes the one that "predicted" that 25% of the shoppers would actually travel across the Outerbridge from New Jersey, and not smell a rat.

And in typical fashion, the developer's consultants lie, and the tax payers are forced to pony-up in order to remedy the "unforeseen" traffic jams. It is just one more example of why this city must alter the way it does planning.

Wrobleski captures all of this pretty well: "In other words, Bricktown was looked at in isolation, so keen were supporters {viz., Molinaro} to see the project built...And yet here we go again: More development is coming. More traffic is coming, and not just to Bricktown...It all brings up an interesting point: Can you actually do "city planning" at all, or are we just doomed to reacting and trying to fix problems once they unavoidably occur?

Enter Wal-Mart

Wrobleski's piece inexplicably fails to mention the proverbial elephant in the room--the proposed Wal-Mart less than a mile from the Bricktown mega-project. What his story does do, however, is to make clear what the Alliance has been emphasizing all along: the construction of a Walmonster on Richmond Valley Road would be an unmitigatable traffic disaster.

Yet, in spite of all of the handwriting on the wall BP Molinaro continues to promote the world's largest retailer without either compunction or comprehension of the fact that allowing development to go forward without the proper infrastructure always will mean that these favored developers will be amply subsidized. Tax payers will be asked to underwrite the hundreds of millions of dollars of road improvements needed to get shoppers to the Profit Centers whose cash registers line the developers' pockets.

Firing Up the Diversity Battle

In yesterday's NY Daily News the paper reported on the ongoing fight over the paucity of black firefighters in the FDNY. This is a battle that has been waged for over twenty years and, in spite of the efforts of advocates, the Department remains only about 3% Black. What has changed in the current episode of a decades long struggle is the probe launched into the racial disparities by the Department of Justice.

Everyone on both sides of the fight – the FDNY and the Vulcan Society alike – agree that this under-representation needs to be remedied. As usual, however, disagreements abound over the right approach to altering the glaring imbalance. The Vulcans appear to sanction some kind of quota system since they don't feel that the Department's written test is a fair measure of an applicant's ability to fight fires. As the Society's lawyer remarks, "The department has never proven a relationship between the skills measured by the written test and the skills required to be a good firefighter."

Surely, this is something that can be reliably tested and defended by the Department. More problematic is the assertion of the test's detractors that, "the test is inherently biased, because black applicants come from poor performing city schools." Even if true this fact has absolutely nothing to do with whether the test is or is not unfair.

All this does not mean that the FDNY has done all that it can to diversify the department. Clearly it has fallen short. Recruitment and test preparation is the key, along with the money needed to do this job properly. The last thing that should be done, however, is to water down the measures (written or physical) used to select this elite force. This would be a recipe for disaster.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Mayor' Image

In today's NY Sun, Julia Levy is speculating about how the transit strike will effect the public perception of the mayor. In the piece she questions a number of analyst and finds the reaction is mixed. On the one hand our good friend Doug Muzzio feels that "the mayor will emerge from the crisis with more political capital." Norman Adler takes the opposite tack and feels that the mayor "might have lost points with the public with his explosive rhetoric."

And if there is a third hand it is represented by Columbia University's Steven Cohen who takes the plague on all your houses perspective, "All the decision makers, all the people in charge just look like they're incompetent." This is probably closer to how we feel and, as we have said, it is a point of view encapsulated in the Op-Ed done by the Siegals in today's Post.

The public perception, however, will really start to take hold in the aftermath of the strike and in the competing narratives that emerge. This is an opportunity for some of our ambitious mayoral wannabes. There is a righteous position on governance to be made and, so far, it appears that only Weiner has begun to stake it out.

The next mayoral candidates can certainly use Bloomberg's precedent with the dismantling of the old Board of Education as a springboard to demanding local control of NYC's transit system. All the Bloomberg blustering during the strike only underscored his impotence and the need for radical restructuring.

MTA Blame Game: Training Day for the Mayor?

The settling of the transit strike has set in motion the usual barrage of post-mortem analysis and the accompanying blame game. By far the best we have seen is the column written by Fred and Harry Siegel in today's NY Post. The Siegels rightly point to the totally dysfunctional nature of the MTA as an agency that is supposed to serve the public interest in the formation of transit policy.

The key observation is how the MTA functions as an inefficient and unaccountable "patronage dump" with hundreds of useless employees serving in public relations and human resources. The best phrase in the piece is the description of the Authority as a "politically insulated bureaucracy" that keeps two sets of books and doesn't have the basic ability to balance either of the sets.

The Siegels reserve some of their sharpest barbs for the governor and the mayor. They mock the governor's comment – as Pataki was set to fly off to New Hampshire on the eve of the strike, he remarked that he was going to leave the negotiating to the "professionals at the table" – by saying, "presumably instead of the amateur in the statehouse."

They don't let the mayor off the hook either and observe that Bloomberg kept a low profile until after the strike had already begun. This is, of course, quite true but it misses the mayor's key policy failing. Later in the piece the Siegels praise Anthony Weiner for calling on Albany to "restore the city's control over its own trains." This is precisely what the mayor should have been calling for and something, as we have pointed out, he has not done on a consistent basis: tackle the absurd governance issues in the making of transit policy.


Which brings us to the related issue of the mayor's accusations of "thuggery" against the TWU. Errol Loius takes strong issue with the characterization in today's NY Daily News. His point is that the mayor was being both ignorant and insensitive to the historic role that the transit union has played in lifting thousands of African-Americans into the middle class.

The same theme is played out in Jim Rutenberg's Times piece this morning. While we think that the failure to tackle the governance issue is the real essence of the lack of balance and thoughtfulness in the mayor's whole approach to the crisis, we believe that his use of racial innuendo will give these more crucial questions greater resonance. As one Bloomberg voter vehemently told the mayor at Junior's Restaurant, "'They're working people and they're not thugs."

All of which leads us, in the interest of balance, to reiterate that the TWU and Roger Toussaint deserve their share of blame for their failure to build the kind of public interest coalition that the Alliance had started for them four years ago. This failure allowed their enemies to unfairly claim the moral high ground.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Plainly Untenable

As we reported yesterday the City Council did come to an agreement with the Mayor's office on his noise bill, and passed it at the last Stated Meeting of the year, when the administration removed the "plainly audible" clause that would have given all of the city's bars and clubs "kick me" signs to wear. As Stephanie Gaskell writes in today's NY Post, "But bar owners said the term "plainly audible" was much too vague and feared it would allow cops to target them unfairly."The best comment came from bar owner Sandee Wright who owns the Whiskey Ward bar on the Lower East Side, "If we want to comply with the law, we have to know what the law is."

Apparently the Bloomberg administration agreed to the extent that it was willing to delete the nettlesome provision in the proposed code. According to today's NY Times Commissioner Emily Lloyd, "said the administration had dropped the proposal after the nightlife industry protested that the standard was too subjective. The administration also agreed to define what constituted ubreasonable noise under the current standard."

This was, as we have said, the basis of the outpouring of opposition to the mayoral proposal and its removal, along with some of the fine provisions, is a big victory for a much-maligned but vital small business sector in this city. Once again, major props to NYNA president David Rabin and its general counsel Rob Bookman who skillfully made the industry's case and mobilized enough Council opposition to force yesterday's compromise.

Retailers Struck Hard by Strike

The business folks hit first and hardest by the transit strike are the Manhattan retailers, especially those in the borough's downtown areas. In today's papers the plight of these small store owners is vividly detailed. As the mayor pointed out, "Retail, especially in lower Manhattan, has been hit the hardest. Hundreds of stores haven't been able to open and some that did have had practically no business."

It's certainly nice to see the mayor emerge, even at this late date, as a defender of the neighborhood retailer. We certainly would like to see him do it at a time that is a little less self-serving. As we have said time and again the Bloomberg administration has been distinctly anti-small business and the mayor has never placed the interests of the littlest entrepreneurs on the policy front burner.

Also hard hit by the strike are those food businesses that are located adjacent to train and bus stops. Without their daily ridership these stores will be sunk. As the Post reports, "Businesses that thrive off of transit-related traffic were particularly hurt. 'Business is dead here. There are eight bus lines and six trains servicing this stop and we get a lot of business. Today, no one is stopping here," said the owner of a deli near Queensborough Plaza."

Inside the TWU

Four years ago we had the pleasure to do some of the best grass roots organizing the Alliance has ever done on behalf of Local 100's efforts to keep subway token booths open. In the spring and summer of 2001 we worked to set up one of the largest coalitions that this city has seen. When we had finished there were more than 110 separate community, civic and good government groups in our Keep the Token Booths Open Coalition.

As part of this organizing drive we held rallies and press conferences all over the city. All of the candidates for mayor and the other city wide offices joined with us. There were over 85 separate print media stories and scores of TV and radio reports as well. This massive public pressure, when combined with the legal work done by State Senator Eric Schneiderman, successfully stopped the MTA from closing the booths.

At the end of the drive we sat down with Roger Toussaint to discuss ways that we could continue to move forward together. To our total surprise Roger, without once either praising us or thanking us for the work that had been done, suggested that our original retainer should be cut in half! His rationale was that our scope of work had been for lobbying and public relations and the work we had done, in his view, was only for public relations.

How mistaken he was. Roger completely failed to understand that the coalition-building effort was an integral part of a budding grass roots campaign that, if used properly, could turn the TWU into a political powerhouse that could be seen as representing not only the workers but the riders as well. In other words, a coalition of riders and workers with a common agenda and a common enemy: the MTA.

This coalition could have begun to attack the governance issues that make the MTA such an unaccountable quasi-public agency. It could also have begun to build the kind of movement that would bring this Authority under the control of the citizens of the City of New York, insuring fiscal transparency and service accountability.

The Alliance was poised to do this. The Coalition was ripe for expansion but Toussaint was not capable of grasping the concept and mobilizing the union's forces in the right direction. All of which is sad because Roger is without a doubt a tough labor leader but his toughness needed to be properly harnessed. Instead we parted ways and a golden opportunity was lost.

What we were also privy to was Toussaint's darker side. He seemed to always be angry and his moods were unfortunately infectious. People were scared to say anything that would set him off. There never seemed to be a light moment and, as we have noted, he was famous for never thanking or complimenting the people who worked for. Needless to say this all generated a good amount of paranoia, against the outside world but inside the Local as well.

It will be interesting to see how the current crisis impacts this potentially volatile internal situation. In yesterday'sNY Times Sewell Chan gives us a glimpse into the internal workings of Local 100 and some of what we pointed out is alluded to in the story. The dissension that the story evinces could easily continue to grow as the consequences of the strike, along with all of the concomitant tensions, begin to sink in. As all of this mushrooms we wonder how long Toussaint’s “us vs. them” mentality will continue to serve its function.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Lowering the Noise

Late last night we heard from New York Night Life Association (NYLA) counsel Rob Bookman that the night club industry might be close to a deal with the city on its proposed new noise code. In exchange for the industry's removal of its opposition, the city had agreed to excise the noxious "plainly audible" provision that would have put club owners at the mercy of the subjective judgment of a responding police officer.

If this agreement does come to pass all the props need to go to Councilman Jim Gennaro, someone who has come in for considerable criticism from these quarters. Gennaro's flexibility, along with the spirited opposition mobilized by Bookman, Dave Rabin and the rest of the club owners, has made a deal possible. And even though the new code is seriously flawed it could have been plainly worse if not for the NYNA ground game.

Greg David Sparks Eminent Domain Debate

In this week's edition of Crain's New York Business there was a spirited reaction to Greg David's opposition to eminent domain for anything but a clear "public use." Typically the NYC Partnership, the voice of New York's business community, came out strongly for the use of ED as an "important tool" for urban revitalization.

Kathy Wylde, the Partnership's CEO, made the case that if not for ED a city like New York would not have been able to eliminate the blight that had set in following the disorders of the 1970s: "Over many years, the power of condemnation has provided a means to eliminate blighting and assemble sites for development of affordable housing, job-generating commercial activity and other community development projects."

Kathy certainly has a point although anyone who has even skimmed the Power Broker or Jack Newfield's City for Sale understands that the history of public taking is not all wine and roses. And in a city that has as its power elite the scions of the real estate community (most of whom are represented by the Partnership itself) there is always the danger that the taking in question will be a smokescreen for the kind of sweatheart deal that we have been criticizing at the BTM.

The eminent domain argument, despite the absolutist position taken by Norman Siegel in his response to David, is nuanced and therefore legislation needs to be crafted with considerable care. We did get a chuckle, though, from one of Siegel’s sentences, "The taking of private property by the government and effectively transferring it to another private owner is antithetical to the principles and values of America."

The mirth, of course, did not devolve from the sentence's content but rather from the incongruence that it came from Mr. Siegel. It is not everyday that you can find Siegel, George Will and Justice Scalia all on the same legal page. This is what makes the whole ED debate so compelling.

MTA-TWU:The Challenge to the Mayor

The first day of the transit strike had its predictable impact on the city's economy. Hardest hit were the retailers who depend so much on holiday sales to bolster their yearly bottom line. The smallest shopkeepers in Lower Manhattan were probably hurt most of all. As the Times reported a Starbucks in that area was closed after 9 AM even though a sign said that the store opens at 6:00.

In all of the chaos we weren't surprised to see that the Daily News' Juan Gonzales found that the TWU and its leadership were acting brilliantly. We'll see just how brilliant if the City and State, along with the courts, start to whack them big time with fines and jail time. Which brings is to the mayor.

This is as big a threat to the city's well-being as anything short of another terrorist attack. If the strike continues, simple jawboning ("This is an illegal strike that can't be tolerated") will not be nearly enough. Tough talk needs to be followed by some tough action, and hiding behind the governor's skirt, the Taylor Law, and the governance issue surrounding public authorities, will leave New Yorkers in a foul mood. When and if this happens the city's chief executive is a likely scapegoat for public frustration.

What the mayor needs to do in this situation (since we don't believe he'll have the nerve to call for the PATCOing of the strikers) is to demand that the legislature and the governor convene a special legislative session for the sole purpose of altering the MTA's basic governing structure. Put simply, as Henry Stern does on today's OP-ED page of the NY Times, the City of New York must be put in charge of its own transit system.

The same arguments that were made about the old Board of Education can be made about the MTA, with even greater justification. At least the Board owed its power to the city's own elected officials. The MTA, on the other hand, is unaccountable to the city's leaders and because it is a public authority is often unaccountable to anyone (at the same time that elected officials are often able to hide behind the MTA's governing structure to escape their own accountability).

So Mr. Mayor aspire to greatness! Use your bully pulpit to demand that you be given the authority to take the TWU and its members to the woodshed in the name of the Public Good. You might also, as the NY Sun suggests, call for the privatization and the dismantling of the "transit monopoly." Your characterizing of the TWU's actions as "thuggery" will not cut it and waiting for the courts to act is not the strong leadership that this critical situation demands. We might even take back some of the bad things we've been saying about you. Ya never know!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

CPC Fails to Leave an Impression

In the kind of planning boldness and ingenuity we all have come to expect from the NYC Planning Commission the body voted yesterday, unanimously without any revision, to approve the application of the Related Companies to turn the Bronx Terminal Market into a suburban mall. In spite of all the controversy over the nature of the deal and the questionable evictions of the market merchants the Planning Commission, with its usual politically-inspired blinders, rubber stamped the deal.

As the NY Sun reports today, one of New York's dollar-a-year bargains, Commission Chair Amanda Burden, told the paper, "It is very important for the city, after decades of disinvestment and abandonment the South Bronx is indeed resurging." With all to respect to Burden, someone not known to haunt the lower precincts of that déclassé borough, whatever resurging is being done in the South Bronx it is quite unrelated to the ethically challenged fiasco at the Terminal Market.

And in fact it is also likely that the mall itself will have a negative impact on the kind of economic renaissance that is organically occurring because of the activity of immigrant entrpreneurs in neighborhoods all over the Bronx. It should be noted here that the "disinvestment and abandonment" cited by Burden without appropriate irony is exactly what occurred at the BTM for the last thirty years-with the City of New York colluding as its midwife.

The CPC also stands accused here of nonfeasance for its refusal to actively involve itself in the question of the merchant relocation. As the CEQR manual clearly states, it is the responsibility of the city's planners (in the absence of any proactive stance from the EDC as the project's lead agency), to deal with the direct displacement of businesses in any development. Unlike the situation with the Fulton Fish Market, no one at City Planning or anyone for that matter in city government as a whole, has ever stepped up to deal with the preservation of these vital market wholesalers.

Now the entire battle goes to the City Council where the issues of merchant evictions, sweetheart deals and non-union box stores, will be fought out over the next 50-65 days. The entire controversy will be complicated by the truncated nature of the review period as well as the changing of the leadership at the Council. Clearly, however, a great deal of further acrimony is on the horizon.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Total Exposure

In all of our lengthy experience dealing with land-use issues we have never come across a more detailed exposure of the perfidy of an elected official than the one contained in a letter sent by Bronx Community Board #4 member Lukas Herbert to Bronx BP Adolfo Carrion. It is without a doubt a withering critique of the BP's effort to hot-wire the review process in the Yankee Stadium development project.

Herbert, who like Carrion is an urban planner, attacks the ULURP public hearing conducted at the BP's office on December 12th as an "embarrassment" not only to the office of the Borough President but to a community that clearly doesn't want this development. Herbert saves some of his best scorn for the orchestrated "circus-like sham" of chanting building trades workers who, because they lived outside the community, were bused in for the occasion.

The "We want Jobs" chants will always be a compelling issue but are clearly not germane to a ULURP application. As Herbert passionately observes, "Instead of packing the house with building trades should have provided more time to listen to the community..." All of which highlights what's wrong with how large projects like this are reviewed-and the inadequacy of a ULURP process that is putatively designed to review them. This is true even where there is an honest attempt to provide meaningful review, something that isn't remotely present in the case of Yankee Stadium.

The stage-managed BP hearing, conducted after Carrion was embarrassed by a 16-8 defeat at Board#4, stands in sharp contrast to the care and due diligence done by Mr. Herbert and his community board. Here's the money quote:

As a member of the Community Board, I spent countless hours reviewing the documents involved with the ULURP review that I was responsible for. I used my expertise as an urban planner to provide an analysis for the rest of the Board on the land use and other impacts of the project. I analyzed the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) and other documents before I reached a decision. When it came time to hold our hearing, we let everyone speak...I cannot speak for everyone on my Board but I can tell you that I based my decision to reject this project on a careful review of the impacts, and by carefully listening to the testimony of all the hardworking folks who came to our hearing.
Herbert's letter, which goes on at length about the issues of due process and fairness, land use and planning issues, parking and job creation, should embarrass everyone responsible for the BP's show trial. But then again maybe Yankee president Randy Levine is right and the only ones against this parkland theft are "professional protesters". Somehow we don't think so.

Creative Exodus

In an interesting story in yesterday's NY Times our old friend Jennifer Steinhauer writes about the exodus of creative workers from NYC. What the article points out is that the city needs to cultivate and nurture this cluster of industries or else they will begin to look elsewhere. This is the same general point that we have made before. In spite of what the mayor says, the city is not just a "luxury item" that you either can afford or can't.

There are two important points here: the first is that the general climate for doing business is a factor in the decisions of businesses to locate or relocate. Secondly, certain businesses need to be cultivated with programs that are specifically tailored to their needs. Failure on one front or the other, or worse on both, is going to lead to a loss of business in an area.

The Steinhauer story, and a similar one in today's NY Sun, is based on a study done by the Center for an Urban Future. The key variables that the study focuses on are the cost of housing and work space, as well as the cost of health care. What's interesting is that nowhere in the report is there any mention of commercial real estate taxes as an underlying cause of the spiraling costs. It would appear that while housing costs are rising the astronomical increases of the real estate tax in 2002 have also played an inflationary role, in spite of the mayor's defense of the increase.

What is now needed is for the City Council to hold economic development hearings that bring in some of the leading experts who have studied the city's specific business needs as well as those who are expert on the overall economic climate. What is badly needed is a city economic development policy that transcends the self-serving and misleading mayoral campaign rhetoric.

As a concomitant to this, it is high time for the City Council, and its incoming leadership, to beef up the legislative policy staff in this, as well as in a host of other areas. The policy work being done at city agencies is not of the highest quality and, given the level of academic resources available to us in NYC, it is inexcusable for the level of policy expertise to be as low as it is.

Court of Appeals to Rule on ED

In week's NY Sun Julia Levy discusses a case involving the city's use of eminent domain to build its "Third Water Tunnel" project. No one involved is disputing the fact that the tunnel is definitely a "valid public purpose," but lawyers for the property owner contend that the amount of land being taken is "excessive."

The precedent being argued is whether the city can take more property than is actually needed for the public use project. Edison Properties, the owner in question, got a major boost when the Real Estate Board of New York filed an amicus brief with the court. As Steve Spinola, the Board's president wrote, "The taking of property by the government is an extreme measure that deprives the owner of significant rights even if 'just' compensation is paid...It is clear that the government should always accomplish its purposes using the least restrictive means, i.e., by taking the smallest possible quantum or interest in the affected property..."

Spinola's weighing in is also significant for the more global issues that ED raises. It is always helpful to have some powerful real estate interests in any potential ED coalition. As he underscores in his brief: "If the city is permitted to take excessive interests in property without due process, as it is here, the rights of property owners will be seriously jeopardized..."

City Planning to Rubber Stamp Bronx Terminal Market Project

Today at 1:00 p.m. the City Planning Commission is set to approve the questionable Gateway Mall at the Bronx Terminal Market. We've already explained how the CPC is a politically-controlled body that does very little actual planning and honest evaluation. Despite the fact that developer-hired consultants presented some questionable traffic data and that the merchants have not yet been relocated, these appointees are prepared to move the Gateway application right along. What this means is that the City Council will, starting tomorrow, be able to review the application and have hearings. Since the Council basically has the ultimate say, we'll be doing all we can to underscore to them all the things we've been saying on this blog for the past several months.

Sam the Sham and Pharoah

In re the BTM and the flim flam being perpetrated in the name of the community's benefit: We just came from a meeting of the BVEI and the discussion about the so-called CBA task force was truly depressing. It seems that the process is being totally controlled by the Bronx BP and the community, in the fashion of the Potamkin Village in the old Soviet Union, is being used to create the illusion that this CBA has the genuine interests of the impacted neighborhoods at heart. Nothing could be further from the truth!

In fact, the two key points of community emphasis were-the preservation of the BTM merchats on the existing market site, and the exclusion of non-union box stores. As local resident Lillian Smith reported, these and other relevant community interests were excluded by one Mr. Ray Sallaberrios, Adolfo's point man on the CBA taskforce.

The real question here is, How do you have a community benefits agreement negotiated without the sovereign input of legitimate representatives of said community? (and where an elective official appears to be dictating the terms of the agreement). The answer is that you don't, and whatever emerges from this tainted process will be nothing but a sham CBA.

Friday, December 16, 2005

A Note on Composting

Many environmentalists, including those who oppose disposer usage, point to composting as a preferable alternative for handling food waste. However, after speaking with solid waste management experts the consensus is that while this method is useful to some degree it is not an optimal solution, especially for large urban areas.

As environmental engineers like Professor Carol Diggelman point out (Diggelman co-authored with Dr. Ham the previously mentioned disposer study), composting is an energy intensive process that requires a lot of open land and an untainted supply. Obviously New York City does not have sufficient open space so the result is that the food waste must be trucked great distances. As environmentalists know, but for some reason ignore in this case, this trucking emits considerable pollution and is costly. It is a bit mind-boggling that these advocates would want to maintain or even increase the number of waste pickups in NYC’s neighborhoods.

But what about once the food waste gets to the composting site? According to Diggelman, as well as the waste operations people in Philadelphia, once food waste is added to a compost heap it must be a) free of any contaminants and b) heavily contained. If there is anything but food waste added to the pile the end product is severely compromised and not very valuable. In fact, Dr. Ham said that for first world nations, composting as an all-encompassing solution has been a failure because the end product is usually not worth a whole lot.

The containment issue is also very important. Compost heaps are basically organic landfills and emit the same malodorous greenhouse gases. Once additonal food waste is added to the pile these side effects are exacerbated and therefore the piles must be sealed to prevent the release of fumes and the seeping of contaminants into the ground. Also, the conversion of methane and other emitted gasses to energy is much harder at compost facilities and Professors Diggelman and Ham have proven that this recycling process is much more efficient with food waste disposers.

However, composting does have its place, these experts say. After food waste is processed at a treatment plant and converted into sludge that material is then composted or used as soil enrichment. By putting the food waste down the drain, you eliminate many of the above-mentioned negative aspects of composting and the end product is actually of a much higher quality.

The general consensus is that composting – at least the way certain environmentalists see it – is not a solid waste solution and may actually make certain environmental problems worse (not to mention increase hauling costs). People need to be realistic and realize New York City has a garbage crisis, one that won’t be solved by utopian visions. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg said it best when asked about the viability of food waste composting:

I believe that in lower density areas of the City, food waste and yard waste composting should be encouraged on a voluntary basis. In the higher density areas, the threat of vermin and a lack of storage may make composting impractical. There are alternatives. The use of food waste disposal systems has now been legalized in the City. Improvements in design of these systems minimizes the impact upon our sewer system. As long as waste treatment facilities can assure that our harbor and bay waters are not endangered by use of garbage grinders, their use should be encouraged. Efforts by private charities such as City Harvest, in cooperation with area schools, institutions and restaurants, further minimizes waste and helps those in need by delivering excess food to distribution points for those who need it.

Setback on Solid Waste

Crain's Insider reported yesterday that the transfer station designated to receive the city's recyclables, the one in the Gansevoort district, has been knocked out because of court action brought by "Friends of Hudson River Park." In addition, community groups on the Upper East Side have brought suit against the 91st Street transfer station propose under the mayor's Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP). We believe that it's also quite possible that a suit will be brought against the 59th street station, in effect bringing New York City back to a solid waste square one.

Though the Administration believes they will win these legal challenges the reality is that the mayor's plan of "sharing the pain" by construction additional transfer stations is not going to work. And the other aspects of the SWMP – for example, increased recycling through education – are just plain silly. As we’ve emphasized before, our solid waste strategy needs to be focused on waste reduction and one of the most effective ways to achieve this is via food waste disposers. The mayor needs to wake up and realize this is the only way to solve NYC’s garbage crisis.

Wholesale Violations

The Alliance has been tracking the outrageous situation of fruit and vegetable peddlers opening up grandiose "stands" directly in front of the city's supermarkets and green grocers. What we had found was that these vendors were not being monitored for compliance with the various codes enacted to restrict their use. In fact, we determined that these vendors, unlike those food sellers that are providing lunchtime fare to the city's office workers, weren't really being regulated at all.

After a great deal of digging we found that the NYC DOH was charged with the oversight of these peddlers and we were able to obtain a copy of the regulations. A cursory perusal of the regs demonstrates clearly that the vendors are overstepping their legal boundaries and thus unfairly impinging on the rights of legitimate store owners.

The most egregious violations pertain to the location of the peddlers. In the first place the rules clearly state that no "mobile food unit" can be on a street unless there is at least a "twelve foot clear pedestrian path." We have taken pictures of dozens of these so-called units and in most cases the pedestrian path is considerably less. Ironically, this poses a greater threat to pedestrian safety than the original stoop stand operators, a target of Councilman John Liu's legislation.

In addition, the food carts are not supposed to "occupy more than ten linear feet" parallel to the curb. This is the most vexing violation since we have consistently observed carts that are over 20 feet long, thus allowing the vendor to offer the public almost the entire inventory that you find in a neighborhood fruit store. These carts are truly fruit emporiums.

There is a long list of other prohibitions on location that we're not going to detail at this time. Suffice it to say that these restrictions are also being ignored with impunity. We have begun discussions with the DOH on the relevant enforcement options, but we are also talking the City Council because the current unenforced regs are not strict enough.

A food vendor should not have the right to set up shop (literally) in front of store owners selling the same goods. The city places considerable burden on shopkeepers and, coupled with the standard overhead, places them at a competitive disadvantage with vendors who have none of the same obligations. They should not be allowed on the same block!

In addition, we believe that the intrepid entrepreneur image of these peddlers is a ruse. We have strong reason to believe that they are really employees of a few wholesalers which, if true, would mean that they are probably some of the most exploited workers in the city.

Under the current regs the city has the authority to determine who is supplying the vendors ("...distributors from whom such licensees received his food supply..."). This is something that we are asking the relevant agencies to do. If our suspicions are correct we think that blatant labor law violations are occurring and the whole mess needs to be stopped.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

For the Union

One reporter who has consistently gone against the anti-union side on the transit issue is the Daily News' Juan Gonzales. In today's paper he lays out the case for labor and attacks the mayor's blustering. Juan feels that Local 100 is possibly the strongest public employee union and as such needs to be made an example of.

Gonzales attacks the "absurdity" of the $25,000 per worker, per day fine threat. In the funniest take on the entire issue he quotes an anonymous laughing union official about the mayor's fine threat: "It's Pee-wee Herman making like Humphrey Bogart." This is only going to get more interesting as the day goes on.

MTA, Going Our Way?

Most of the press coverage of the pending transit strike has been redolent with anti-union bias. This does not mean that we are supporters of a labor stoppage should that unfortunate situation come to pass. It does mean, however, that there are issues about the nature of the MTA, its governance and lack of public accountability, that need to be discussed because they are important contributing factors to the current impasse.

Now in the interests of full disclosure it needs to be pointed out that the Alliance's Richard Lipsky worked for Local 100 and helped to establish the inordinately successful Keep the Token Booths Open Coalition in 2001. This group was eventually composed of over 110 civic and community groups. The Coalition's efforts were instrumental in the successful legal challenge mounted by Local 100 against the MTA's original move to close all of the subway token booths.

The current situation needs to be examined from the standpoint of the credibility of the MTA. That is why we were pleased to read Andrea Peyser's column in this morning's NY Post. Peyser, no knee-jerk union sympathizer, went down under and interviewed straphangers. She found that most were critical of the MTA brass and supportive of the workers, even though a strike would greatly inconvenience the folks she talked to.

The Peyser money quote: "It seems to me that the MTA has an awful lot of money that they are sitting on," said Rory Ryan, an engine-room supervisor for NBC...They screwed us with a fare hike two years ago. Then, six weeks later, turns out they're sitting on a half-billion-dollar surplus!"

The MTA, as a public authority (yes, the same kind of entity that Robert Moses used to such profound effect many years ago) is largely unaccountable to the people it is meant to serve. This is especially true when said authority is a creature of the State of New York yet it is presiding over policy issues that impact the City of New York.

This is precisely the kind of governing structure-Board of Education anyone?-that creates unnecessary barriers against true democratic accountability. As Peyser concludes, "A strike would spell disaster. I think the union should be stopped. But remember that this bed was made by the MTA brass, and the glutinous suits should be thrown out into the cold."

BJ's, Wal-Mart: Happy Together

A while back we learned that the Related Companies, the developers of the Bronx Terminal Market site, were looking to put a Target, Home Depot and BJ’s into their Gateway mall. We also speculated that since there are two more big box tenants left to be identified Wal-Mart was a very real possibility. Related reps have vigorously denied that Wal-Mart will be on site (no denial of the labor-unfriendly BJ’s though) but our point is that once the property is rezoned to commercial use there is nothing anyone can do to preclude the world’s largest and most infamous retailer.

One may say that if Target and BJ’s are already going to tenant Related’s Gateway Mall then a Wal-Mart there is impractical from a competition standpoint. Well we think this picture of the Harriman Mall’s entrance sign is worth a thousand words:

Noisome Bill and the Sounds of Silence

It now appears that the City Council, at the request of the Speaker's last will and testament, is poised to move Intro 397-A, the controversial noise code bill, at the final Stated Council meeting next week. This, while not surprising considering the anti-small business record of this Council, is nonetheless disappointing.

Put simply, this legislation is being forwarded with no proper oversight by the Council. The extent of its financial impact on the business community is frankly unknown, but the final bill could be in the hundred millions of dollars. Just the cost of retrofitting all of the air conditioners that will now be out-of-code is astronomical.

Then there are the ongoing costs to business from the "license to summons" nature of the standards being created by this law. The idea of a "plainly audible" noise criteria, to be enforced by the discretion of the cop on the beat, is blatantly arbitrary and capricious. In addition, the arbitrary standards will then be sent to the city's notorious ECB kangaroo courts where the initial violation affront will be exacerbated by a lack of due process.

And then there is the issue of Mr. Softee. While we certainly don't begrudge any business getting special dispensation that relieves them from a regulatory burden, we question whether the nickel-and-dime ice cream trucks deserve to be favored over night clubs and cabarets that generate over a billion dollars a year to the city's economy.

This is certainly a fitting culmination to the reign of the current speaker who began his service by enacting the largest tax increase in the city's history and imposing it-on bodegas and newsstands!-New York's smallest and most vulnerable retailers. For the life of us we can't remember anything significant that Gifford Miller has ever initiated that could be considered pro-business.

The litany of Bloomberg initiated anti-business measures-the commercial real estate tax, the bodega tax, the carting rate increases, the street furniture bill-have all been supported by this Council leadership. We can only hope that the incoming leadership will be fairer to neighborhood retailers and small entrepreneurs and more aware of their importance to the city's economy.

What this all means is that the Council should reject Intro 397-A as an ill-considered piece of legislation that is, in addition, special pleading (for one business) at its worst. There is no need to play follow the lame duck leader on this one.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Wal-Mart PR Wars

An interesting editorial in the NY Sun today on how the “Wal-Mart War” is now a sophisticated PR battle comparable to an intensely fought presidential campaign:

Wal-Mart's recent travails may be reverberating in the business world, but they're having just as big an impact on the political world. The Wal-Mart Wars, fought by two savvy sides armed with sophisticated arsenals of public relations weapons, offer a glimpse of how companies and their critics will duke it out for years to come. And politicians are taking note.
One thing to note is that Wal-Mart’s critics are having quite a large impact even with relatively limited resources. Lower cost grassroots methods are proving extremely effective and though Wal-Mart has saturated the airwaves this doesn’t necessarily translate into people viewing the company favorably.

Mr. Softee's Rules

In today's NY Times Winnie Hu is reporting on the noise code hearing scheduled for this morning and the main focus is on the pass that the amended bill gives to the Mr. Softee ice cream truck jingle: "The Bloomberg administration will allow the ice cream trucks to continue playing the sprightly ditty while trolling for customers. But under a compromise with the City Council, the jingle must be halted when the trucks are not moving."

This is a major victory for YNY, the lobbying firm that we have been critical of in the past. In essence, this YNY client was exempted from the major provisions of the new code while the multi-billion dollar night life industry remains very much under the gun.

The most disturbing feature, one that we have already pointed out in the previous post today, is the "plainly audible" provision that "would allow police officers and noise inspectors to use their own ears to judge excessive noise instead of relying on cumbersome meters to measure decibels." This is precisely the kind of subjectivity that scares the daylights out of the night life industry.

It also paves the way for the kind of regulatory excess that we have been complaining about with this administration for the past four years. Small neighborhood businesses are suffering both from this regulatory burden as well as the city's onerous tax policies. The new noise code promises to be more of the same.

Grinding Abroad

The more conversations we have with various garbage disposal experts the more we realize that the NYC Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) concerns are unfounded. Yesterday we chatted with Frank Bryant, a member of Insinkerator’s International Department and someone who is very familiar with the status of disposers world-wide.

According to Bryant, many countries in Europe had very tough restrictions vis-à-vis grinders due to worries about negative impacts on sewer systems, water usage and the environment. However, after various studies and reexaminations of previous statues many countries now not only allow for disposers but incentive their use.

In England, the cities of Herefordshire and Worcestershire grant rebates of over $150 US to citizens that install disposers. In Norway, where the devices were once illegal, the city of Bardu, in an effort to manage the biodegradable waste of the community, began subsidizing grinders in 1998. The Swedish city of Surahammar has installed 3000 grinders in its citizens’ homes and Kalmar, using the European Union-granted funds, has provided disposers in each of its apartments. Certain other cities in Sweden, like Linkoping and Eskilstuna, have even commissioned their own studies of disposers and have found that there is no negative impact on the sewer system or the environment.

Other once skeptical countries like the Netherlands have also reversed their stances on garbage disposals. In 1998, the Dutch Minister for the Environment recognized that disposers are environmentally friendly appliances and that they do not cause adverse technical problems for sewage systems. Disposals are now sold in that country.

Italy too, once opposed to grinders, has changed its tune. In 2002, the Italian federal government passed a law endorsing disposers as a solid waste management option, allowing them as long as the local municipality consented. The city of Gaglianico now grants a 30% reduction in the waste collection taxes to citizens that install food waste disposers and the city of Mogliano offers a 50% tax reduction. Capri, in the Naples Province, gives a $180 US rebate to those who use food waste disposers.

As garbage disposer expert Professor Ham pointed out, the international community, after examining certain misconceptions, is becoming more amenable to the devices. Like the DEP, these various European countries were once worried that their sewers would become overloaded and that their treatment plants would be overburdened. None of this has happened.

We concur that New York City is a unique place. However, we don’t feel that the city is so singular that evidence from around the U.S. and the world is inapplicable. The DEP needs to step out of its echo chamber and realize the now internationally-recognized truth about food waste disposers.

Silent Mike: Or Take out the Noise and Take Out the Funk

Today the City Council's Environmental Protection Committee will hold a hearing on the Mayor's radical revision of the city's noise code, something that hasn't been done for over thirty years. Unfortunately, there has been too little legislative oversight of this complex undertaking and we're afraid that the consequences from this revision will put a major, and costly, hurt on New York's restaurants and night life industry.

The Alliance will be joining the New York Nightlife Association and the New York Restaurant Association at today's hearing in an effort to put the brakes on Intro 397-A which, if nothing is done to slow it up, could actually be passed before the end of the year. This is in spite of the fact that no one really knows the full cost that the proposed changes will mandate if the Intro becomes law.

Make no mistake about it. This is another one of those measures that, while ostensibly designed to improve the city's quality of life, actually becomes a coercive regulation that the city uses to squeeze money from New York's small business community.

One of the bill's measures that really gets us is the highly subjective provision that makes it a violation if a club's music is "plainly audible." We're talking about the kind of standard that is quite simply an open invitation to abuse by police responding to a complaint (in the manner of I have to do something since someone complained).

The Alliance has seen a similar subjective standard on odor transformed into a license to persecute. In the Bronx, LSK Turkey factory was the subject of a vendetta by a local resident who just didn't want the properly zoned factory as his neighbor. Since the city's odor code has a zero-tolerance standard, any business that disturbs folks for any reason becomes vulnerable to the regulatory odor zealots. The same thing will happen with noise regulations if the proposed Intro becomes law.

The mayor has used the level of noise complaints to the city's 311 system as a justification for the proposed noise statute. What he leaves out, however, is the fact that 56% of all the nose complaints were neighbors complaining about neighbors (65% in the Bronx). 11% of the complaints were about noise from vehicles and only 8% of the complaints were because of clubs and bars (some of which were undoubtedly because of patrons congregating outside the club and were not directly noise made by the business itself).

In typical fashion, though, the fine structures proposed by Intro 397-A are the following: $2,000-8,000 for a commercial businesses first offense; $150-$525 for noise from a vehicle and $50 dollars! for a neighbor. So the fine structure is the exact opposite of the number of complains received. Once again small businesses are the city's monetary piñatas.

Interestingly, the city's biggest noise culprit, the jackhammer-driven construction business, is given a pass by the new regs – an emphasis on collaborative noise reduction plans is being worked out – a sensitive approach that should also be extended to the multi-billion dollar night life industry.

Many of the regulations are complicated and net yet understood and a great deal more study is needed before anything is codified into law. In the more than a year since the first hearing no thought has been given to the complexity of the various changes.

The Council needs to slow the process and establish a "Noise Code Review Committee" made up of government, business, community and technical experts. There is too much at stake for this noisome code to be passed without proper due diligence.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Bloomberg Supports Garbage Disposers

From a 2001 League of Conservation Voters mayoral candidate questionnaire:

17. Will you support measures to increase food waste composting?

I believe that in lower density areas of the City, food waste and yard waste composting should be encouraged on a voluntary basis. In the higher density areas, the threat of vermin and a lack of storage may make composting impractical. There are alternatives. The use of food waste disposal systems has now been legalized in the City. Improvements in design of these systems minimizes the impact upon our sewer system. As long as waste treatment facilities can assure that our harbor and bay waters are not endangered by use of garbage grinders, their use should be encouraged. Efforts by private charities such as City Harvest, in cooperation with area schools, institutions and restaurants, further minimizes waste and helps those in need by delivering excess food to distribution points for those who need it.
We wonder whether Bloomberg still holds this very reasonable opinion or if he has been swayed by the exaggerations of his Department of Environmental Protection. Hopefully the mayor retains his measured optimism and will support of our commercial grinder pilot program (or at least will lessen the DEP’s intransigence to such a test.) It is also important to point out that Bloomberg quite rightfully sees the limitations of composting – a sacred cow for some environmentalists – in an urban setting.

Yankee Stadium Redevelopment Expected to Carrion

Last night Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion held his Borough President hearing on the new Yankee Stadium proposal (it is assumed he will vote in favor of the project). In an unfortunate replay of what happened with the Bronx Terminal Market hearings, carloads of paid boosters, otherwise known as construction workers, packed the hall, drowning out concerned community members. Yet Yankee President Randy Levine has the audacity to remark: “As the process goes forward, it will become more and more clear that the people who speak in opposition are professional protesters.”

Levine’s statement is not only hypocritical but dead wrong. Those opposing the plan to build on top of vital greenspace in a park-deficient area of the Bronx are community residents who will be most affected by the plan. However, just like with the Bronx Terminal, real planning and community impact concerns are blithely brushed aside as the developer and certain Bronx elected officials vigorously push the Yankee stadium project forward. For more on this check out the insightful and often updated Save Our Parks blog.

As we’ve mentioned before, what this poor planning does, besides directly harming small business and destroying parkland, is to burden the community clogged roads and diminished air quality. For a borough with the worst asthma rates in the nation, one would think that elected officials would be especially careful to make sure the two largest developments in the Bronx’s history (which are literally side-by-side) would be planned in conjunction and would do everything possible to encourage mass transportation. Instead we get bogus, developer-funded analyses that don’t even take into account the other project! This is exactly the problem the land use review process, one that is exacerbated when politicians are receiving generous contributions from the developers whose projects they're supposedly reviewing.

Bronx Terminal Market Deal a Bad Precedent

In today’s Gotham Gazette, Urban Planning Professor Tom Agnotti trenchantly criticizes the Bronx Terminal Market deal. He is particularly concerned by the guarantee that if Related does not get its approvals the city will buy back the land no questions asked. Agnotti believes that this deal sets a bad precedent in NYC where favored developers no longer have to take substantial risks and projects cannot be voted down as easily because then the city would be stuck with undeveloped land:

But aside from feeding the political money machine, here’s what the mayor’s $32 million money-back guarantee to Related does: everyone involved in ULURP is effectively on notice that the city has a financial stake and will lose out if the project is voted down. The city will be stuck with a piece of property they have no plans for and 23 angry site tenants.

The mayor is also sending a message that he can guarantee zoning changes before they go through the required land use review process. The various bodies involved in the ULURP process, not just the mayor, are jointly entrusted with the responsibility for making decisions about the future of the city. Imagine if a borough president or the City Council were to offer an insurance policy to their favored developers -– there would be an immediate outcry from City Hall.

Following the Related project, everyone who applies for a zoning change should have the right to demand an insurance policy from the city. Is the mayor, who once said corporations don’t need incentives for doing business in the city, now inventing a new one?
Not only does Agnotti critique our “above politics” mayor but he also points out that the City has, in effect, created the blight at the Terminal Market and now is re-victimizing the merchants by so callously evicting them. The professor sees this pattern elsewhere including Willets Point, “where the city is complicit in the blighting process and ignores the local businesses.”

Agnotti ends the piece mentioning how the planning for the Gateway Mall at the BTM has not sufficiently taken into account the controversial Yankee Stadium redevelopment plans. The new stadium, in addition to alienating community park land and replacing it with dispersed parcels (some conveniently on top of parking garages), is going to have 5000 more parking spaces. Combine this added vehicular burden with the hundreds of thousands of cars that the mall will generate and there is a potential for a traffic and asthma nightmare. Yet both the Yankees and Related are proceeding as if their projects are, for the most, part separate developments. Unfortunately, it is the residents of the South Bronx who are going to bear the burden of such poor planning for decades to come.

Council's Domain is Restrictive

In today's NY Sun Russell Berman reports on the City Council's looming support for legislation introduced in Albany that would "mandate a local review process before government could, by asserting a public interest, take control of private property." Tish James, the sponsor of the proposed resolution of support, says that she understands that eminent domain has its place, "There just needs to be some more checks and balances on the abuse of eminent domain, particularly in light of the Kelo decision."

This is not a radical position on its face. We'd like to see full hearings on all aspects of the ED issue and, to make the discussion even more germane, the discussion should be included to take in the adequacy of the current ULURP process. The cursory level of the current review procedures, when coupled with potentials for corruption, demand a better oversight process.

Emminent Domain Counterattack

In this week's Crain's, Anne Michaud is reporting ($) on the mounting of a counterattack against the legislation, sponsored by Congressman James Sensenbrenner, that would withhold all Federal economic aid money if a state or locality exercised eminent domain for the sole purpose of economic development. The legislation, which has already passed the House, has been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration.

Leading the charge locally against the measure is Real Estate Board president Steve Spinola who argues that the bill swings the balance too far in the other direction. REBNY and the NYC Partnership are building a coalition against the measure and are targeting Senators Schumer and Clinton.

As we have argued elsewhere, there is a need for ED legislation but we're not sure that a total ban is appropriate. Arguments pro and con can be found on the Gotham Gazette website and we look forward to a vigorous debate on the issue at the state and city levels. While we understand those who think the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of an almost total ban, it is important for these folks to be more sensitive to the seriousness of those who feel that ED has been used much too easily and callously.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Carrion on Yankee Stadium: Park and Hide?

In today's NY Sun, the paper is reporting that Bronx BP Adolfo Carrion is going to unveil his response to the community's criticism of the Yankee Stadium redevelopment plan. It's unclear just what this will mean since his original concept of replacing parkland with rooftop garage greenery was clearly deemed unacceptable.

What is instructive is that the BP at least feels that it is necessary to take the community's concerns seriously. Right after the Community Board vote he made some dismissive remarks and it now appears that he may be about to backtrack. It will also be interesting to see where the new substitute parkland will come from and whether or not this will have any significance for the Bronx Terminal Market merchants.