Thursday, November 29, 2007

Labor's New Vision

There's a new land use dynamic on the way, and the leader of the new direction is the Central Labor Council. As the NY Daily News' Juan Gonzales points out this morning: "The city's major union leaders have secretly approved a new campaign to block future redevelopment projects in the city unless each includes tough new livable wage and affordable housing guarantees, the Daily News has learned."

This new initiative could very well change the entire land use review process, and create a major challenge to the way in which development decisions are made. As Gonzales says: "Ever since the heyday of master builder Robert Moses, the city's labor unions have routinely backed the real estate industry's big development projects as a source of construction jobs. Now, organized labor and the real estate industry could be on a collision course."

And it should be clear to everyone that labor is the one player in the city's political process that has the ability to alter the way business is done. This is not only a major step, it is a welcome one as well. It can pave the way for the ending of sweetheart deals and phony community benefits agreements that leave small businesses and neighborhoods out in the cold.

One of the major focuses in all of this is affordable housing. Here's what one labor person told Gonzales: "[Mayor] Bloomberg and [Deputy Mayor Daniel] Doctoroff are upzoning dozens of neighborhoods all over town," one top union leader said. "They're creating huge windfalls for developers, trading air rights all over the place that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, our union members can't even afford to live in this city anymore. This has to stop."

Which brings us to Columbia and Willets Point-both making news today. On the Columbia front, Lipsky client Nick Sprayregen will be joining two other members of the West Harlem LDC at City Hall, Tom DeMott and Luisa Henriquez, to announce their resignation from the board that was supposed to be set up to negotiate a CBA with the university. Their experience with this Potemkin Village underscores our earlier point about the nmew ULURP sham: CBAs that are in reality backroom political deals.

As the press release for the three members points out: "Three board members of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, a not-for-profit entity specifically created to negotiate a community benefits agreement with Columbia University in connection with its proposed expansion into West Harlem, will resign from the LDC citing back-door dealing and a rigged process. Tom DeMott, Nick Sprayregen and Luisa Henriquez who represent tenants in the area and businesses and residents facing forced removal within the footprint say that the block voting of most elected officials, a rigged land review process, and marginalization of the community have made it impossible for the LDC to function as intended and that it is now merely serving as a cover for behind-the scenes-negotiations."

The fact that the CU expansion has gone this far without a single local official saying word one about affordable housing-or any other word about anything-highlights the need for labor to step into a policy void. And the CLC has already initiated discussions with Sprayregen that would lead to a land swap with Columbia and the building of 1,000 units of housing.

As far as Willets Point goes, the City Council will be holding a hearing today on the potential redevelopment of the huge site-and if they stay on message here, the labor movement should resist any development of the area before a comprehensive benefit plan is devised. No pig-in-a-poke, and Doctoroff carte blanche, that will leave labor and the council outside looking in when this deal is finally done.

So what is labor looking to do here? "Among the reforms the labor leaders want are major changes to the city's zoning laws, greater transparency in development projects and stronger teeth in the city's land review procedures, known as ULURP. Exactly what we have been clamoring for over the past two decades."

And if the political elites are tone deaf? "If they can't reach agreement with City Hall and the City Council, the union chiefs say, they will launch a major public relations campaign, mobilize their members to attend City Council hearings and gear up to elect new candidates in the 2009 municipal elections who support the campaign." Let the games begin!


Newsday has an interesting Willets Point story today-and the central theme, also present in the Columbia expansion fight, is over the definition of what constitutes blight. As one business owner told the paper the city itself is at fault for any blight: "The Bloomberg administration cites blight and pollution as its primary concerns about the current properties. But Bono, one of 10 business owners who formed the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association to fight the redevelopment, maintains the land is not contaminated and that the city itself is to blame for the blight."

Yet, as is typical in cases like these, proponents of redevelopment cite activities or certain businesses that don't meet the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, as a reason to, well, throw the baby out with the bathwater. As our friend Evan Stavisky tells the paper: "...that while there are many legitimate businesses in Willets Point, the area has been "a haven for chop shops and questionable characters."

Wholesale removal, though, seems a bit extreme when it is reported that over 2,500 people are employed in the area, and that many of these folks are entry level workers who would find it difficult to get work elsewhere. We're curious to see how this all plays out in light of the new vision of labor.