Friday, February 29, 2008

Scapegoating Lobbyists

In today's NY Daily News, Charles Krauthammer writes a column in defense of lobbying, and he makes a number of important points at a time when lobbyists are considered somewhere below child molesters on the human equation scale: "Everyone knows the First Amendment protects freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly. How many remember that, in addition, the First Amendment protects a fifth freedom - to lobby? Of course it doesn't use the word lobby. It calls it the right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Lobbyists are people hired to do that for you, so that you can actually stay home with the kids and remain gainfully employed rather than spend your life in the corridors of Washington."

This is important precisely because of the expansion of government power on all levels-an expansion that, in our view, is often far from benign. As we touched on yesterday, the attack by Speaker Quinn's spokesperson on the lobbying opposition to the green carts legislation is a case in point. Government, with little care or precision, forwarded legislation that was as unfair as it was supposedly well-meaning-a routine tendency when we examine so much of what emanates from the halls of power.

So, in defense of neighborhood store owners, a lobbying effort was mounted to highlight the deficiencies of Intro 665-and the deficiencies were both manifest and numerous, a fact that many council members recognized. This is exactly what a good lobbyist does in petitioning the government for a redress of grievances, As Krauthammer points out: "Good lobbying, on the other hand, requires no such larger contextual explanation. It is a cherished First Amendment right - necessary, like the others, to protect a free people against overbearing and potentially tyrannical government."

Only those who believe that George Bush, Eliot Spitzer, Mike Bloomberg and Christine Quinn are infused with infallibility would believe that all manner of folks don't need to be protected from the tentacle reaches of modern behemoth government. And it is generally the most well-meaning legislation that can prove to be the most dangerous; particularly when elected officials are claiming to be speaking on behalf of the voiceless and powerless.

Which gets us to the NY Times hit piece on Senator McCain. Leaving the salaciousness of the supposed affair aside, the article was designed to smear with guilt by association-McCain and the lobbyists-yikes: "But it is also an example of how the demagoguery about lobbying has so penetrated the popular consciousness that the mere mention of it next to a prominent senator is thought to be enough to sustain an otherwise vaporous hit piece."

Maybe we should take Krauthammer's advice and change the lobbying moniker to "Redress Petitioners." Until then, however, we're left with the Herculean task of cleansing the lobbying image-something we're happy to do as we slog through the law-making sausage factory.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cart Honor Role

From yesterday's Daily Politics blog here are the nine council members who resisted the pressure and voted in favor of neighborhood stores and neighborhood quality of life:
"The measure increasing the number of fruit-and-vegetable permits by 1,000 in 34 precincts (down from the originally proposed 43) passed the Council 37-9, with the following lawmakers voting in the negative: Avella, Gallagher, Garodnick, Gennaro, Katz, Liu, Martinez, Monserrate, Vacca."


Times Cart Focus: Right on the Money

In this morning's NY Times the paper, in writing on the city council passage of Intro 665, rightly focuses on the bill's potential impact on neighbor hood stores with the headline blaring: "Council Vote for Good Health May Weaken Business at Groceries in Poor Neighborhoods." The Times goes on to describe how the changes in the bill reducing its possible harm to local economies emerged because of, "...intense lobbying from independent supermarkets, bodegas and greengrocers who said the bill would steal their customers without increasing demand for fresh produce."

The key point raised here, and the one that bill supporter Oliver Koppell underscored, is how the targeting of certain neighborhoods was done without examining the extent to which shopping areas in these communities where creating availability of fresh produce for neighborhood residents: "Mr. Koppell, one of the bill’s original sponsors, expressed the concerns of many council members when they learned that neighborhoods were targeted based on consumption rather than supply. Put simply, neighborhoods where more than 15 percent of residents said they had not eaten fruits or vegetables in the last 24 hours made the list, regardless of how many area stores offered fresh produce."

This was the key selling point that the opposition was able to raise that undermined the initial knee-jerk feel good support that the bill originally generated: "The measure had the backing of antihunger and child-advocacy groups, and when it was introduced it appeared to have strong support on the Council. But support began to waver amid heavy lobbying from the retail food industry, leading to a flurry of late changes and compromises."

This key flaw is described clearly by Sung Soo Kim who heads the Korean-American Small Business Service Center: “It’s the execution that’s wrong,” he said. He and other industry advocates said the city should identify neighborhoods where fresh fruits and vegetables were not available before deciding where to place vendors."

So the challenge now is to do the hard work of analyzing the neighborhood retail environment, something that Commissioner Frieden admits is harder to do: "Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner, said that consumption data was used because it was reliable and available. Compiling reliable data on retailers that sell a proper variety of quality fruits and vegetables, at affordable prices, was much more complex, he said."

Much more complex? Perhaps so, but in any public policy measure the aim should be to craft legislation that properly correlates with its stated aims. By eschewing the hard work here, the city literally put the carts before the horse.

Which brings us to the lobbying issue raised by Quinn spokesman Jamie McShane in the Daily Politics blog yesterday: "...the special interests don't go that hard against you if you're not doing the right thing. Today we stood up for New Yorkers who are often forgotten and can't afford to hire a lobbyist to represent them." This is pure spin.

The fat of the matter here is that small stores impacted by Intro 665 are not some high powered, well-financed lobby, and the bill was drafted without their input and with no regard for their well-being. McShane-and the speaker- should realize that these stores contribute immensely to the city's economy and provide a significant bootstrap to new immigrants. To try to paint their opposition here as a frontal assault of the deadly "special interests" does the city council no favor as we go forward in trying to develop a good food policy.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Doing Cart Wheels

As of this posting the full council has yet to vote on Intro 665, but the Consumer Affairs Committee did narrowly pass the measure by a three to two vote earlier in the day-which is remarkable considering the legislation is being pushed by both the mayor and the speaker. The contretemps is indicative of the bill's flaws, as well as the failure of both sides of city hall to involve the impacted retailers in the crafting of the legislation.

The statements by the committee members explaining their votes was elucidating. John Liu in particular was trenchant in his dissection of the flaws in the legislation; dramatically questioning the rationale that increasing the supply of fresh produce would, at the same time, increase demand. He also questioned the setting up of the supermarket commission only after the carts were placed out onto the streets, and wondered why the administration wouldn't do a small pilot program to first test the efficacy of the concept.

Likewise, Councilman Gennaro worried about the impact that the peddler proliferation would have on the Korean green grocers-a worry that was echoed by Oliver Koppell who nevertheless voted in favor. Gennaro said-underscoring a point that we had previously advanced-that the city should map the produce outlets first before setting up targeted peddler areas.. He said that the bill's fallacy was that it based the peddler areas on consumption figures and not on the availability of retail outlets.

Koppell, even though he expressed a real concern for the viability of the green grocers, voted in favor of the measure when the speaker got his precinct area eliminated from the scope of the bill. f this hadn't been done, than the speaker would have been on the short end of the 3-2 vote.

The revised bill, aside from the reduction in vendors and in the number of precincts, also contains a provision for a review panel. The composition of the panel, and the methodology it uses to evaluate the plan, will go along way to determine the reliability of its conclusions. Under the bill's language, the panel will examine, "the consumption of fruits and vegetables, disaggregated by neighborhood." The sheer volume of peddler business, however, will fail to tell us if new demand has been created and met-since there is no provision here to examine the sales of contiguous produce retailers in an effort to see if the peddlers have cannibalized existing sales of fruits and vegetables. This measurement needs to be an integral part of any equitable evaluation process.

Finally, as we said this morning, the establishment of the supermarket commission-if it acts aggressively to devise a real policy of retention and promotion-is a good step forward; and the creation of "a new position a at the City's Economic Development Corporation that will work with the retail food industry to enable them to better serve our neighborhoods" (the speaker's memo), is exactly what we said this morning about changing the locus of policy making away from DOH.

And it goes without saying that the speaker's proposal to "expand the City's healthy Bodega initiative in ways that will help bodegas and green grocers sell fruits and vegetables in our communities," is exactly what we have been urging (here, here, here, and here )all along-the creation of a collaborative public private partnership that eschews the punitive regulatory mindset.

Now that the green carts are on the way it's incumbent on the city to live up to its promises-and not simply talk the talk. The willingness of this administration to act proactively to nurture and grow neighborhood business is no certainty-given its track record. We're willing to suspend our disbelief at least for a short while since we know that the sincerity of people like Ben Thomasses is unquestioned. The jury is out, however, on other decision makers down at city hall.

Council Go Carts

At today's stated City Council meeting it appears more than likely that Intro 665 will be passed in its amended form. The passage comes after council leadership was forced to significantly reduce the number of vendors as well as delimit the areas in which they will be allowed to operate. In addition, at least two vocal opponents of the bill found their police precincts exempted in exchange for their support for the green carts measure.

It is also apparent that the establishment of a review panel to evaluate the efficacy of the vendor initiative comes about as a result of the level of initial opposition that was raised: but its imperative that the panel be of a diverse make-up-with industry and labor participating in order to insure that a fair review is conducted. The Department of health, with no knowledge or concern for the food retailers, shouldn't be allowed to essentially mark its own exam.

Which brings us to the key issue of providing access to healthy foods-and the flawed manner in which the city has approached addressing it. The policy perspective must begin with the food wholesalers and their customers at the retail level-the supermarkets, green grocers and bodegas. With this in mind, it is essential that the locus of policy making be shifted from the DOH to the office of the food policy coordinator and EDC,

Improving access means improving the viability of the industry to deliver the goods in a cost-effective manner. It means examining those variables that increase the cost of doing business and looking for ways to overcome them through direct government policy changes. Primary here are the city's tax, regulatory and land use policies.

In this regard, it is important that the city create the kind of food policy task force that brings together the right kinds of expertise so that the resultant policy changes can be as effective as possible. On the small store level, the involvement of Jetro Cash-and-Carry is essential since the wholesaler supplies, and has intimate knowledge of the business challenges of all of the city's 13,000 bodegas-as well as of the vast majority of the independent restaurants that they supply from their Restaurant depot outlets. Jetro has already, unbeknownst to city policy makers, embarked on an ambitious program to entice bodegas to start shifting their business into healthier product lines.

It is also imperative that the city involve the independent supermarket owners who operate the Key Foods, C-Towns, Foodtowns Pioneers and Associated supermarkets. These are the neighborhood markets that are directly linked to those communities that have been targeted as underserved-markets that are being driven out by high rents and city tax and regulatory policies.

Finally, the city government needs to coordinate all of its housing and development efforts with an eye towards retaining and promoting supermarkets and other food stores; as part of a recognition that this is part of nurturing an essential city health service. This would mean that the effort to close the Moore Street Marqueta in Williamsburg would not go forward once it is recognized that the market is a major source of fresh produce for that underserved community.

So Intro 665 is a blip in the radar if the city actually begins to move aggressively forward on the development of a food policy initiative. The caveat here? Well, in the sixties when all of the civil disorders were cropping up it became commonplace for government to set up a commission. So common was this practice, and so ineffective, that one policy analyst actually wrote an article titled: "Let Them Eat Commissions." We need to avoid this trap and do much better.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Holy Batman Gotham!

The Gothamist has joined the know-nothing chorus in support of flooding the streets of the city with produce peddlers. The website begins with a quote from Intro 665 opponent John Liu: "The theory behind this bill is if you increase the supply, the demand will increase, and that's likely a faulty premise," Council Member John Liu of Queens said in an interview yesterday. "If there was demand, it's doubtful that the stores would simply refuse to address it." He called the legislation "wishful thinking," and warned it would eat into existing grocers' profits without providing its intended health benefits."

To which the Gothamist responds: "Actually, basic economics holds that increasing the supply of a product--even if demand is totally static--will increase the overall consumption of that product at a lower price. Who benefits from that growth in consumption and to what degree will depend on the price-sensitivity of consumers."

Such astute analysis! No discussion of what happens when outlets with considerable more overhead are forced to lower their costs to compete with street vendors. No discussion of the price elasticity of fresh produce. In fact, in Manhattan where peddlers have metastasized scores of green grocers were forced out of business. This, not increased consumption, is the more likely result of peddler proliferation.

Update

In today's Metro this point on the effects of unfair competition is brought home by Sung Soo Kim: "Sung Soo Kim of the Small Business Congress, said that small grocers have seen their profit margins shrink from 25 percent down to 3 percent. “This is a crushing threat to their survival,” Kim said. He called for a moratorium on the vote, which is scheduled to go before the Consumer Affairs Committee tomorrow."

Ill-Gotten Fruits

In this morning's NY Daily News we learn exactly why it makes no sense to get all of your information from government sources. In an editorial supporting the green carts legislation, the paper relies exclusively on official government data to proclaim: "Across the city, there are neighborhoods where it is difficult - or virtually impossible - to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Of good quality, too. Which is why the City Council is to vote tomorrow on an innovative plan to put produce in those areas."

But that's just the point that the News refuses to take an honest look at, so enamored as it is with spouting the official government line. The neighborhoods where access is limited are few and far between-and Intro 665 fails to distinguish the few "food deserts" from the vibrant shopping strips that the peddlers are certain to gravitate towards in search of the business traffic that's heading to the local supermarket and green grocer.

The sad fact is that the city failed to due the mapping that would have precisely targeted where peddlers could rationally be expected to provide access to produce where it was difficult to find it. Instead we get the old reliable "government survey:" "A Health Department study found that in poorer neighborhoods - like Bed-Stuy, Bushwick and Harlem - most of the food stores are bodegas that don't sell fresh fruit and veggies. As little as 20% to 40% of the bodegas in those three neighborhoods sold apples, oranges and bananas, and only 2% to 6% sold leafy green vegetables."

Put simply, this is pure bull crap; with independent supermarkets prevalent in all of the neighborhoods in question it's invidious, to say the least, to focus on bodegas that the department itself has found are trying to provide some produce as well. The News editorial board should try to get out more often into our city neighborhoods. And so should our health commissioner who didn't realize that the city had over 2,000 green grocers selling fresh produce in many of the communities that are targeted by the green cart bill; but if the editorialists did, they would have actual data of their own to make some reasoned judgments.

Which brings us to this editorial whopper: "To placate the opposition, Bloomberg and Quinn cut the number of permits from 1,500 to 1,000. They promise to strictly enforce compliance to make sure vendors don't steal customers by parking outside grocery shops." This last assertion is blatantly false and the News would have known better if it had simply paid attention and asked us; rather than listen with a perfunctory ear to our explanation yesterday.

The fact is that there will be no barriers in place to prevent the peddlers from operating directly in front of the produce outlets; the city's lawyers have gone to great lengths to demonstrate that the law forbids this-a fact that we have disputed. Why the News would dissemble here is hard to explain; although it's likely simple misinformation at work for a hastily written government press release.

Compounding the mistake about cart placement, the News concludes with the following: "Which shouldn't be a problem anyway, since the permits are for areas where few grocers sell produce." We can't wait for the News' expose after carts are sent out. The one sure thing here is that peddlers will stay close to shopping areas where the produce is being sold, and any "roaring success" that results will be business that is taken from the tax paying small businesses that the Daily News has never defended in the twenty five years we've been representing their interests.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Dueling Demos

As the NY Sun reports this morning, there will be dueling demonstrations today at City Hall over the fate of Intro 665, the green carts legislation. As the Sun points out: "The mayor and City Council speaker's plan to bring 1,000 new fruit cart vendors to poor neighborhoods is drawing glowing praise from health advocates and bitter criticism from supermarket owners and grocers. The two camps will hold dueling demonstrations on the steps of City Hall today, aiming to influence a council committee's vote on the bill scheduled for Wednesday."

With the vote in the Consumer Affairs Committee up for grabs, the council leadership is going through hoops in an attempt to insure that it has the three necessary votes to discharge the revised bill out of committee. In both the original and revised bill the targeted areas for the carts were delineated by police precinct. Now, according to reports, council districts are being used in an additional revision as a way to entice council members to support the bill by exempting their districts-insuring the political health of the legislation at the expense of the sponsors' public health allegations.

As said in the previous post, we think that the current controversy can be useful if it leads to the creation of a collaborative effort to address the creation of better access to healthy foods. The current Intro, by failing to carefully consider local economic impacts, has led to unnecessary conflict and confusion: "The legislation faces a backlash from businesses and council members who say the carts represent unfair competition."

Health advocates for the measure haven't helped in this regard by failing to accurately depict the concerns over cart placement: "Ms. March-Joly described grocers' fears of being undercut by fruit carts as unfounded. "We're targeting areas where supermarkets are virtually nonexistent and the stores that do exist are not selling produce," she said. "In no way would a cart compete with a grocery store."

In the first place, the targeted areas have plenty of both supermarkets as well as green grocers. Secondly, carts placed directly in front of stores do take away business-as we've seen in Manhattan where carts are doing just that. The danger to green grocers who only sell produce is even greater.

The silver lining in all of this is, hopefully, that the city will realize that it's important to enlist the stores in devising a business and health friendly food policy. As we've said before, the health of the city's neighborhood economies is as important as all of the public health initiatives that the DOH comes up with.

Pointed Questions

Eliot Brown raises some serious concerns about the lobbying effort being run by EDC in its attempt to remove the hundreds of businesses currently occupying the space that the agency wants to thoroughly makeover: "Former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman has been pushing hard for the city-led plan to redevelop Willets Point, leading an advocacy group, the Flushing, Willets Point, Corona Local Development Corporation (which is funded in part by the city), and pushing elected officials and community leaders to support the multi-billion-dollar redo of the 61-acre manufacturing and auto-repair district by Shea Stadium. (Lots more on the Willets Point development effort here.) So should Ms. Shulman, who is president of the LDC, be registered as a lobbyist?"

The answer to that question will be up to city and state regulators, but at least one good government person thinks that she should: "Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, said Ms. Shulman should be registered. “If she herself is spending time supervising the lobbying activity or doing the lobbying activity, and crossing that threshold, then she would need to be registered,” Mr. Dadey said."

The role that Shulman is playing here is made somewhat more murky by the Brown report that EDC is matching money that Claire raises dollar for dollar. Really? Doesn't this amount to a contingency fee, a fee that is illegal under the laws of the state? Is it ethical for a city agency to be pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into a lobbying effort to displace small business owners?

This is even more so when we put the situation into the context of the mayor's excoriation of "special interests." The redevelopment of Willets Point will aggrandize one of the big real estate companies in the city-once that designation is made. What we have in this equation is the city spending a great deal of money on behalf of the real estate community. Now we know what Juan Gonzales meant when he said: "Our mayor claims he is a leader who can't be bought. Of course not-he's the one doing the buying."

Korean Cart Attack

In yesterday's NY Times City Section, the paper focuses on the growing Korean opposition to Intro 665-the Green Carts bill. The bill has thrown city hall into a larger turmoil than anyone could have predicted, owing to the haste and lack of due diligence that went into the crafting of the bill, and the failure of the sponsors to even consult or consider the impact that the measure would have on local stores. As we said in the paper: "Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for small retailers, said the proposal, known as the Green Carts bill, would “cannibalize existing business.”

As this is being written, As Kirstin Danis highlights in yesterday's NY Daily News, the bill is undergoing a considerable makeover; a revision process that reflects concerns that were brought up by our lobbying effort, and the need to win over recalcitrant council members who had balked at the bill's original provisions. As Danis points out: "Not everyone likes to eat vegetables, but the City Council doesn't even want to vote for them.Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the city Health Department are working furiously to salvage a proposal that seemed like a slam-dunk when it was announced by Mayor Bloomberg and Quinn in December: putting street vendors in poor neighborhoods to sell fruits and vegetables."

In all likelihood, the revised bill will be brought to a vote this Wednesday, but the process has been unnecessarily arduous because greater care wasn't given to examining the merits as well as the impact of the legislation: "Privately, Council members complain the city didn't do its homework. Advocates assumed people don't eat vegetables because they can't get them. While that may be broadly true, the lack of block-by-block specifics gave Council members little ammo against a food industry that claims vendors will set up right outside established markets."

And while we are pleased with the concerned response of many council members we're kinda bemused by Danis' observation on the power of the "grocery lobby:" "The grocery lobby went nuts, and term-limited Council members got nervous about angering a richly financed opposition just as so many of them are angling for new jobs." This is quite an overstatement in our view. The reality is that the bill was poorly thought out, which made the case against it fairly easy to make.

What the controversy underscores, however, is the need to have a much greater degree of industry and labor collaboration before legislation is drafted that impacts the viability of neighborhood stores. The city appears ready to embrace this idea in the form of a supermarket commission that has been promoted even prior to this green cart fight by Ben Thomasses, the city's food policy coordinator.

The commission or task force, we're not sure what the final nomenclature will be, needs to be inclusive as well as diverse; and should be made to include all neighborhood food retailers not only supermarkets-particularly the Korean green grocers who have been so offended by the substance and process involved in the promotion of Intro 665.

Some of this is reflected in the Times piece: “This bill is totally unnecessary,” Sung Soo Kim, president of the Korean-American Small Business Service Center of New York, told a half-dozen reporters for Korean-American news outlets at a news conference on Thursday. He added: “There is plenty of access to produce. Why should we worry about access?”

This belief is central to the disagreement over the issue of access to fresh produce. Here's the health commissioner's view: "According to Dr. Thomas Frieden, the city health commissioner, the city is trying to encourage store owners to sell more produce, but many merchants have found that alcohol and cigarettes have higher profit margins. Noting that there were “very few greengrocers at all” in the proposed police precincts, Dr. Frieden said, “The carts might actually have a salutary effect on competition in these areas.”

Besides the fact that Frieden conflates green grocers with bodegas, his comments elide the fact that the areas that are designated in the bill are expansive-with neighborhoods that have a full complement of stores and those that don't. The Korean rejoinder is instructive: "Kangchul Park, director of the Korean Produce Association, acknowledged that few Korean grocers were in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, two areas that would be affected by the legislation. But he predicted that licensed vendors would stray into forbidden areas with a higher demand for fruit. “Eventually,” Mr. Park said, “they’ll find out the reason why there are no grocery stores where they are. And sooner or later, they’ll be tempted to move to where there are other grocery stores.”

The reality is that in the past three decades the 2,000 plus green grocers the arose in the city revolutionized the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods that had never seen them. If there are neighborhoods where they have yet to venture, than the odds are that those are areas where demand doesn't exist-and if Intro 665 had simply targeted these "food deserts" by the use of census track data rather than use police precincts as demarcation points, much of the uproar might well have been avoided. Danis observation is right on point:
"Advocates assumed people don't eat vegetables because they can't get them. While that may be broadly true, the lack of block-by-block specifics gave Council members little ammo against a food industry that claims vendors will set up right outside established markets."

As it stands now, we believe that the Danis point is the likelihood and that Mr. Park is probably correct. The desert neighborhoods in the designated access areas will likely be by-passed in favor of peddler saturation of shopping strips where the stores that sell produce already are located; an eventuality that would defeat the intent of the legislation.

The lesson is clear: city government needs to move quickly to create a climate of collaboration with all local business on the issue of access to healthy food. The locus of policy making needs to shift away from the department of health-an agency that appears to operate, not only with a callous disregard for the well-being of food retailers, but in an information vacuum as well when it comes to the importance of the local economies of the city's neighborhoods.

If we are going to have a successful food policy going forward, then the policy making process must begin with the input of those retailers, food wholesalers and the men and women who work in these outlets. Any other method is truly self-defeating, and literally puts the carts before the horse.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Man Plans, and James Dolan Laughs

We've gotten a kick out of all of the huffing and puffing coming out of the city council concerning the tax abatements being received by MSG and Cablevision. All the posturing and threats come down to this-absolutely nothing. Why? Because James Dolan and company are sitting in the development catbird seat. Eliot Brown puts this into perspective at the Observer: "If the Garden did pull out of the project, it would invite a return to late 2006, when the Pataki administration wanted to push through an expansion of the train station into the Farley building, leaving the existing Penn Station as is. Such a move would be a major disappointment to city, state and elected officials and to the developers, the Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust, who have devoted countless hours and tens of millions of dollars into the plan thus far—a plan that would create, both directly and indirectlly, billions of dollars of surrounding new development."

As Charles Bagli also outlines today in the NY Times: "There is squabbling between developers, the Garden, government officials, community groups and preservationists over the designs and how much the public would benefit. And now negotiations have stalled, despite three years of planning and lobbying in Albany and Washington, the officials and executives said. Those people spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid inflaming state officials."

Que lastima! All of the big plans are dependent on the Garden agreeing to move across the street-talk about your short hairs; so any threats being leveled at the Dolanites are just a lot of hot air since he and his company are the linchpin of all of this development potential.

Which leaves us, if the premise of the story holds, feeling really bad about the possibility that the Bobbsey Twins of real estate-Related and Vornado-may have all of their dreams turn into nightmares; not to mention squandering around $50 million in pre-development spending. Vornado in particular here gets all of our false pity since it is the leading sponsor of Wal-Mart among local developers, and is trying to terminate an important Key Food supermarket in the Bronx.

If in fact all of the Moynihan planning goes back to square one, then we'll see if Vornado will be able to maintain its co-favored nation status in New York City, Certainly we're going to do all we can to insure that it doesn't; that is, unless it wakes up and starts doing the right thing on Bruckner Boulevard. Remember; the bigger they are....

Friday, February 22, 2008

Willets Pointless

In a post this week, the Observer's Eliot Brown goes into the machinations of EDC over the development of Willets Point. In what we see as unprecedented, the agency has set up its own lobbying arm-headed by former BP Claire Shulman. As Brown points out: "And to drum up support in the immediate area, the city has been giving funding to a Willets Point redevelopment advocacy group led by former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber confirmed, boosting an organization that has brought on a lobbying team of its own for the push. The city has approved up to $250,000 in matching funds for Ms. Shulman’s group."

Just what does the matching fund concept actually mean? Hopefully, Brown will be pursuing this since it is an action that appears to be fraught with complications-both legal and political. The small businesses of the Point have enough against them without the city funding lobbyists to put them out of business. The relationship between Shulman & EDC needs to be more transparent.

Which gets us to the pig-in-a-poke aspect of ULURPing this development before the developer or the deal has been crafted. We've raised this before, and the following comment from Peter Vallone Sr. is right on point: "Mr. Vallone, the former Council speaker who is lobbying on behalf of the business owners, said such an action would never have gone through the Council on his watch. “You could bet your bottom dollar that when I was speaker, we would never give away that land-use power without knowing that it’s something that’s good for the city and without knowing exactly what was going to be built in exchange,” Mr. Vallone said."

Which throws the ball rather indelicately right into Speaker Quinn's court. Will she uphold the council's perogatives? Or will she acceed to the mayor's whims as she has been doing rather frequently as of late? With the labor people and Acorn in their corner, Councilmen Monseratte, Avella and Liu might just be able to hold serve on this one.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Council a La Cart

The City Council, after great pressure from supermarket owners, green grocers and labor, has scaled back the original plan for Intro 665, the bill designed to push produce peddlers on certain neighborhoods of the city. As the NY Daily News reports this morning:"The city has scaled back its plan to put more fruit and vegetable vendors in poor neighborhoods after a high-pressure campaign by bodega and market owners nearly killed the idea."

And while we do still feel that the idea lacks any great merit we're aware that, with the support of the mayor and the speaker, it's extremely difficult to completely derail legislation-particularly when the industry and labor aren't fully mobililized and united. Therefore, the compromise in the works is a cautionary tale; imagine what could be achieved if all of these factors were brought into play?

As part of the compromise here, the city is setting up a supermarket task force to address the issue we've been commenting on-the disappearance of neighborhood supermarkets. That being said, it's incumbent now on the industry forces to make sure that the task force actually achieves the goal of developing and implementing a supermarket promotion and retention plan-a plan that in the best of all possible worlds should have proceeded any attempt to put peddlers on the street.

The revised plan doesn't address the inequity of allowing vendors to set up right in front of supermarkets, bodegas and green grocers. As the News points out: "The battle pitted health advocates against the food industry, which argued that vendors can set up right outside markets and undercut their prices." This hasn't changed, but it remains to be seen just how much business these carters will do-since the demand assumptions of supporters have yet to be demonstrated.

The city apparently realizes this since, as part of the bill, there will be a review committee set up: "The department will study the vendors next year to see if the plan worked, Frieden said." The review panel, however, needs to represent a cross-section of labor and business. If the DOH is the only reviewer, it will amount to little more than allowing the department to mark its own exam-and won't provide an equitable evaluation.

The bottom line here is that local business is on the back burner, and until proven otherwise, the health of the neighborhood economies is still a secondary priority of city government. That it is, is as much the fault of the industry as it is the fault of a city government that has yet to exhibit any great concern for small business.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Supermarket Gap

We've been writing for a while on the issue of access to healthy food and the threat of declining supermarkets in New York City; there is a great deal of truth in the observation that supermarkets are diasappearing in some neighborhoods of the city-there's also a good deal of mystification and ideological posturing.

Gail Robinson's article in the Gotham Gazette three years ago is representative: "While the city offers an amazing cornucopia of food – gourmet treats, heirloom produce, food prepared to every religious specification and ethnic taste – some poor neighborhoods lack even a simple medium-sized grocery store. This forces residents to contend with high prices and the unhealthy food. That, in turn, contributes to soaring rates of diabetes and obesity."

Some of this was on display in a Washington Post story yesterday. The problem with Robin Shulman's piece, and we spent some time discussing it with her a few months back, is that she avoids nuance, and uses the presumptions in the Gazette story as an inappropriate starting point: "Some poor neighborhoods in central Brooklyn or the Bronx that have lacked a good supermarket for decades have the lowest rates in the city of consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the highest rates of diabetes and obesity -- a trend that has been found in inner cities across the country."

Shulman begins with the loss of a Myrtyle Avenue Associated, torn down to build a mixed use complex. Until the new construction began the neighborhood had a convenient local gocery store-as many neighborhoods do. Myrtle Avenue, then, doesn't reflect the underlying advocate-driven premise that has characterized so much of the discussion of this issue.

Shulman, to her credit, recognizes this: "There had been an Associated Supermarket across Myrtle Avenue from her housing project, but it was recently demolished to make way for a condominium development." Myrtle Avenue is an example of the loss of supermarkets resulting from gentrification; this is separate and distinct from the "supermarket gap" issue for low income neighborhoods.

What's needed, and the city has began the task of addressing the issue, is for our elected officials to develop a data base of local stores-supermarkets and green grocers in particular. Secondly, even before any plan to subsidize the building of new stores is started up, a policy of retention needs to be formulated-since the loss of supermarkets is becoming severe.

On this issue the Wapo story is right on target: "Today there are one-third fewer supermarkets in New York's five boroughs than there were six years ago, said Lawrence Sarf, the president of F&D Reports, a retail consulting company." What we'll see here is that the loss is directly related to high rents and the influx of banks and drug store chains. On review, we believe that the data will now show that there are, for instance, more supermarkets in East Harlem than there are in a comparable area of the Upper East Side.

This does not mean, however, that there's no need for larger and more modern markets-in East Harlem and elsewhere in the city's low income neighborhoods. It does mean that we need to be more precise-and to recognize that the local Key Food or Associated owner has made an investment in the neighborhood when no one else would. These entrepreneurs should be given ample opportunity if the city is looking to expand supermarkets in these communities.

The Wapo story, however, can mislead because there is no distinction made between a local 10,000 sq. ft. Key Food and a 65,000 sq. ft. Shoprite. So we get: "Alicia Glen, the managing director of the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, brings investment capital to underserved neighborhoods to stimulate economic development, including grocery stores. She said it is difficult to convince national supermarket chains "that even though people's incomes may be low, they still shop." "I think you could characterize it as redlining," she said. "There's a real sense that there's certain places they won't go."

This provocative characterization obfuscates the fact that these are neighborhoods with narrow commercial strips, area that can't easily accomodate larger suburban supermarket models. Contrary to the redlining canard, these areas have been the beneficiaries of substantial investment by local entrpreneurs and food wholesalers. More, however needs to be done to insure that these stores are able to both survive and prosper.

And the comments by Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs are good ones: "As we do new housing developments, we should think about how to structure space on the ground floor" and "make plans to incorporate street-level retail," said Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services." Anyone who goes up Third Avenue in East Harlem will see exacly what Gibbs is talking about-block after block of housing projects with no accompanying retail services.

The city needs to act now, before the loss turns into a stampede. The rising tide of rents won't lift all the retail boats. As supermarket exec John Catsimatidis told the Post: "Unless you come up with some solution for essential services, you're going to have neighborhoods change dramatically," said John Catsimatidis, chief executive of the Gristedes chain, which has recently closed outlets because of rent hikes. "Traditionally people went to their neighborhood stores to buy their needs," he said. "They won't be able to do that. It's not just grocery stores."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

E-Waste Recycling Doesn't Compute for Mayor Mike

As we'ver been commentating, the mayor is gearing up for a fight over the just passed City Council E-waste bill. As the NY Times City Room blog reported on Friday, the mayor feels it is unwarranted to ask manufacturers to be responsible for the failure of their customers to recycle. Bloomberg feels so strongly here that, much as he did with the Quinn-sponsored health care security bill, he is threatening to not enforce the law: “We will not enforce it,” he said. “And we don’t have to enforce it because it violates a whole bunch of federal laws on interstate commerce.”

The Times goes on to point out that the mayoral threat mimics the actions of the Bush administaration: "The threat evokes the much-debated use of so-called “signing statements” by the Bush administration. In a 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning series, Charlie Savage of The Boston Globe showed how the president has used hundreds of these statements to disobey laws passed by Congress on issues ranging from military rules and regulations to affirmative action."

The mayor's statements drew this response from Bill DeBlasio, the lead sponsor of the measure: “The Council is the legislative body of the city and under the charter it’s our job to pass legislation that will improve the lives of people in the city,” he said. Mr. DeBlasio added: “I have not heard any substantive disagreement on the on the need to create electronic recycling. I can tell you for a fact that they were not doing anything to create it and this legislation is the only reason the discussion began.”

What's strange with all of this is how the mayor zealously defends the rights and perogatives of electronics manufacturers, so much so that it would seem that he's got a dog in the hunt: "...The trouble with this law that the City Council passed is that you hold the manufacturers responsible for the public to recycle and the manufacturers can’t do that. They don’t sell directly to the public in many cases, they sell to wholesalers, and the wholesalers, you’re not holding them responsible, but also it’s the individual’s responsibility.”

Yes, it's a complex system of manufacturing, distribution and retailing; just like it is for beer and soda under the bottle bill, and as it will be for the store-mandated recycling of plastic bags-a bill that the mayor signed with no expressed compunction. So what's up with this line-in-the-sand intransigence, as gleefully highlighted in yesterday's NY Post editorial? ( "We will not enforce it. And we don't have to enforce it because it violates a whole bunch of federal laws on interstate commerce.")

Which, of course, is a matter of interpretation; as the Gotham Gazette reports, one environmental group sees this differently: "Kate Sinding, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said several other states, including New Jersey and Connecticut, have similar, producer responsible requirements, none of which have been found unconstitutional. Sinding said the council was prepared to do "whatever it takes" to ensure the legislation was implements, including taking up the issue in court."

All of these recycling activities are supposedly the "individual's responsibility," yet the mayor doesn't have any rachmones for the retailers who are made to bear the bulk of most of the burden in the plastic recycling. Why the differential concern? Someone in the press should examine this more closely.

The underlying premise of all of these recycling measures is that there's a social responsibility that all business must bear with their customers. To start to carp on the problems of the poor manufacturers, as if they bore no responsibility in these equations, is to beg the question of how to proportion responsibility; after all, the manufacturer makes the profits on the sale of items that the mayor admits causes problems for the environment: “Look, nobody’s more in favor of recycling, and the reason that we focus on electronic equipment is there’s a lot of very heavy metal chemicals in electronic components that if you just put in a garbage dump they don’t just go away with time the way paper would and some of the other things that get thrown away..."

So the mayor needs to set aside what begins to look like special pleading; and he needs, as the NY Daily News editorialized on Sunday and the NY Sun reports today, to bring the parties together so that the law can be better crafted to reflect his concerns. As the News says: "But there is much the two sides actually agree on in seeking a solution to the ever-increasing number of old computers, monitors, iPods, TV sets and other gear being dumped in the city." This must be done with the manufacturers at front and center in some capacity because they do bear responsibility for they ultimate disposal of their products.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Developing Problems

In an article in today's NY Daily News it appears that the proposed redevelopment of Willets Point has hit a significant snag with the loss of support from the local councilman, Hiram Monseratte. Making the situation worse, was that Monseratte was not alone in voicing his concerns: "Councilman Hiram Monserrate told Bloomberg deputies Thursday he is pulling his support for the massive Willets Point redevelopment in his district - just as the project's extensive review process is about to get underway. "We still have a lot of questions. I don't believe it would be prudent to go forward until those questions are answered," Monserrate said.
He was joined by Councilmen John Liu (D-Flushing) and Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who represent the neighboring districts."

The key bone of contention is the lack of any definitive plan around jobs and housing; as we've said before the Willets plan is little more than a pig-in-a-poke, one that-in typical Bloomberg fashion-leaves area small businesses high and dry: "Monserrate told Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber in a letter that he would support the project only if the city guarantees the creation of "livable wage" jobs and affordable housing. His resistance is the newest development in a campaign mounted in November by union leaders to stop Bloomberg's projects unless he includes the provisions."

All of which is good news for those of us who've advocated for a more equitable and robust city land use review process. The tawdriness of the Yankee Stadium, Bronx Terminal Market and Columbia University expansion deals only underscores this necessity of what the labor folks are trying to do. Which is made very clear today in Juan Gonzales' follow-up column on the Yankee Stadium fiasco.

The era of ad hoc ULURP deal making beget the stadium scandal: "Less than two years ago, Levine signed a much-publicized "community benefits agreement" with Bronx pols that was filled with grand promises about jobs for local residents and a new Yankees community foundation. The team made those promises to win City Council approval for huge public subsidies for the new stadium." Now no one can verify whether or not any of the promises have been kept.

The committee that was formed to get the deal consummated has never met: "Yankees spokeswoman Alice McGillion said Thursday the team had met its 25% goal and had done even better in contracting. No one has verified those claims. The agreement called for the creation of a "construction advisory committee" of community leaders to monitor compliance and to get monthly reports on how the Yankees were meeting their goals. That committee has never met, and the board of the new foundation did not even hold its first meeting until two months ago - only after reporters started asking about it."

What we need is a better land use process, one that shifts the emphasis away from purely environmental concerns to the more pressing issue of accountable development. This is especially compelling when we see the way in which the Bloombergistas make short shrift of community and small business concerns. Change is long over due.

Update: More to the Point

Azi's linking to the Times Ledger story on the Monseratte insurrection on the Point. The councilman's position is clearly laid out: "Monserrate, speaking at a rally alongside dozens of Willets Point workers outside the New York City Economic Development Corporation offices in Manhattan last Thursday, said his patience has worn thin for "the dog and pony shows" the city has put on regarding their planned redevelopment of Willets Point."

Monseratte, who had fought valiantly on behalf of minority businesses at the Bronx Terminal Market, is acutely aware of the proclivities-and lack of forthrightness-of EDC. He's not someone who's going to accept verbal assurances: "They have to come to the table with something that's real," Monserrate said. "They should not expect the City Council to approve a plan that has no real plan in it."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Our Disappearing Supermarkets

By now it has become clear that the city has a genuine public health concern with the foods that are/or are not available to folks in certain New York neighborhoods. The DOH menu labeling regulation is designed precisely in order to get the people in neighborhoods where fast food outlets proliferate to change their unhealthy eating patterns.

In similar fashion, the "green carts" legislation is designed to get fresh fruits and veggies to communities that supposedly lack access to these healthier food items. Underlying both of these public health initiatives is the belief that the city needs to take dramatic action in order to stem the tide of what it sees as an obesity epidemic, one that creates a wide range of health-related problems.

In the discussion of these health/food issues all involved seem to agree on one thing: the existence of good modern supermarkets is a key ingredient in counteracting the unhealthy trends we've been discussing. And yet, the city is still sitting by and watching as these markets disappear. At the same time, in spite of some hoopla over a supermarket initiative, the current administration has yet to get moving on a policy that would incentivize the building of new markets in neighborhoods that have been targeted as lacking the access to healthier foods.

Instead, all of the attention has been given to introducing peddlers onto the streets of the underserved neighborhoods. In fact, in the press conference on the green carts legislation the supermarket policy initiative that was introduced coterminously was drowned out by the noise around peddling. This has to be reversed; attention needs to be given right away to reversing the trend that has seen supermarkets disappearing, not only from Manhattan, but from every neighborhood of the city-as banks and drug stores paying exhorbitant rents rapidly replace the markets.

Which brings us to an immediate crisis. In one of the city's targeted green carts precincts in the South Bronx, a Key Food supermarket that has been a neighborhood fixture on Bruckner Boulevard for three decades is threatened with extinction because of rising rents and landlord avarice. Here's a store that serves over 850,000 customers a year and sells over $2,300,000 worth of fresh produce-in a neighborhood that the city believes lacks access to fruits and vegetables.

Something needs to be done here-and this neighborhood is not alone. When we met with Councilman Comrie on the green carts legislation he told us that his community had lost four neighborhood supermarkets, stores that had been doing quite well but that couldn't compete with outlets paying hitherto unheard of rents. In Bay Ridge, another Key Food may be lost to the metastesizing drug store phenomenon.

Put simply, the city cannot continue to put the push cart before the supermarket horse. Immediate action is needed, and Bruckner Boulvevard is the right place to start. It's a public health crisis in the making.

E-Gad: Electronic Recycling!

Sometimes the marvelous inconsistency of the City Council really bemuses us. In the case of the just passed electronics recycling bill, the council crafted regulations that hold manufacturers responsible for the collection of the products they sell in the city. As the NY Times reports this morning: "Under New York’s proposed law, manufacturers would start collecting electronics for recycling in 2009. Starting in 2010, city residents could be fined $100 if they threw out a piece of electronic equipment. In 2012, manufacturers would have to collect enough discarded electronic equipment to equal 25 percent of the average weight of the goods they sold in the city during the previous three years."

Now that's pretty tough; but let's recall the plastic bag recycling bill that the council passed last year. As we said at the time: ""A lobbyist for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, a coalition of small businesses, Richard Lipsky, said yesterday that the bill remained flawed and misappropriates the penalties. "If, in fact, these bags are harmful to the environment, then the people who manufacture and sell them should have some obligation to pay for the recycling process," Mr. Lipsky said. "There is no such obligation in this bill."

What a stark difference in the current E-rececling bill. Here's the response from the mayor's office in the NY Post this morning: "Administration officials are opposed to the mandatory recycling targets. Mayoral spokesman John Gallagher said "it penalizes the wrong people - the manufacturers who can't control whether customers recycle or not."

Gallagher goes on to tell the NY Sun: ""It's unfortunate that the Council seems more interested in pandering to special interests and starting a legal battle instead of crafting real legislation that will address this important issue," a mayoral spokesman, John Gallagher, said yesterday in a statement. He said the legislation places an unfair financial burden on manufacturers that would cost the city jobs." Well, there's always a first for everything, and its good to see the mayor standing up for business-we'd just like to see any indication of support for the NYC retailers that the administration routinely ignores.

That being said, the current legislation is going to present some real challenges to electronics retailers and manufacturers: "For example, if Hewlett-Packard or Gateway sold an average of 1,000 tons of computers, monitors and other equipment over three years, it would be required to take back 250 tons of products a year for recycling. In 2015, the minimum amount collected for recycling would have to increase to 45 percent and would top out at 65 percent in 2018. Manufacturers would be fined $50,000 for each percentage point they fall below those standards."

But, as we found out from years working with beer and soda folks in developing compliance with the bottle law, the distribution and retailing networks are extremely complex; usually way beyond the understanding of the folks who write these laws. Which means that a great deal of thought is going to be needed in order for these electonics firms to become compliant with the law.

Here's the industry response to yesterday's council action: "Parker E. Brugge, environmental counsel to the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents 2,200 producers and retailers, said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of a manufacturer’s sales in the city. “Manufacturers typically sell to large distributors, and once they sell to them, they don’t know where those products end up,” Mr. Brugge said."

So the gauntlet has been laid down for the industry, and the methodologies of compliance are sure to be varied: "If the new measure becomes law, the city’s voluntary electronics collection and recycling programs would be replaced by a variety of programs designed and run by Sony, Dell and other electronics manufacturers. Those efforts could include curbside pickups, returns by mail and in stores, and neighborhood collections. Manufacturers could pick the type of recycling program they preferred, said Councilman Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn, who, with Councilman Michael E. McMahon of Staten Island, was a prime sponsor of the bill. The companies would have to take back enough pieces of equipment to meet mandatory tonnage standards or face fines."

Gentlemen, start your hard drives!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Education President?

In today's NY Sun there's an article on the controversy surrounding Dianne Ravitch's reignation from the board of the magazine Education Next. The mag had written a piece that urged Mayor Mike to run for president because of his educational achievements in New York, something that Ravitch finds hard to acknowledge: "She said she was also protesting inaccuracies in the story, which she said is "based on ideology, not evidence." Math scores have risen, she said, but only among fourth-graders. A respected national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, last year concluded that New York City eighth-graders had made no significant progress on math and English since Mr. Bloomberg took control of the schools."

That any one would advance the national ambitions of the mayor based on his educatiional reforms is simply inane. All of the management legerdemain hasn't really accomplished much; something that the author of the article points out: In an interview, the author of the main article, Peter Meyer, said he agrees with Ms. Ravitch that the city's education results during the Bloomberg administration have been minute. "It is pretty amazing that, six, seven years into this, we barely see a blip," he said."

As Chico Marx once said, as he used a sheet to cover the wife from a cuckolded husband; "Who're gonna believe, me or you own lyin' eyes?" All of this palaver over Bloomberg's educational reforms can't conceal the meager achievements that the Tweedle De-ers have accomplished.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ill-Suited

In today's NY Times there's more on the lobbyist protection lawsuit (actually the law stands to save us poor folks plenty of money every year). The Times piece, however, doesn't really delve into the inequity of the exemption of organized labor, save for a brief mention: "The suit also contends that the law is constitutionally untenable because it targets some entities doing business with the city, while leaving others, like labor unions and neighborhood organizations, unaffected. “The city is claiming the potential of undue influence by people who are doing business with the city and then they exempt two of the biggest categories of people doing business with the city,” Mr. Bopp said."

Speaker Quinn, in glossing over this elephant in the room exceptionalism, points to the law's potential to help minority candidates: "City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, who pushed the bill past skeptical Council members worried about their ability to raise money, said the law was designed specifically to help candidates who did not have connections to the city’s high-powered lobbyists and developers." And I have a bridge to sell you.

Apparently, however, the potential recipients of the speaker's and the mayor's noblesse remain unappreciative: "But Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, the Bronx Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, said that the law raised legitimate concerns. “There is a very strong sense from colleagues on the impact of campaign finance rules on candidates of color,” said Ms. Arroyo, who is not involved in the case. “It’s a program that’s meant to level the playing field, and it doesn’t seem to do that very well.” The caucus includes 25 of the 51 Council members."

The whole issue is, as we've said nothing but a red herring; it creates false bogeymen and proceeds to go after these strawmen with unnecesary vigor. The labor exemption seems to us, in spite of our affection for so many in the labor movement, to be the key weakness in the law, and we hope that it is legally discredited because of it. All the other stuff is less compelling.

The bottom line here is that mayor moneybags wants to create rules for others-as he is suggesting for global climate policy- that he doesn't believe should apply to himself. We should adopt restrictive campaign reforms about the same time that Mayor Mike reduces his carbon footprint.

Play and Dismay Challenge

As Liz first reported yesterday, a lawsuit's been filed against the city's dangerous "pay-to-play" law that restricts businesses and lobbyists from contributing to candidates at the same level as other citizens. As we've pointed out, here, here amd here, all of this is underlays a false and dangerous misconception of the role of money, lobbyists and "special interests" in politics.

In more concrete terms, however, the current legislation being challenged also has the defect of exempting labor unions from its restrictions. As Daily Politics points out: "The class-action suit filed today in US District Court argues, as expected, that the strict $400 cap on lobbyist contributions to city candidates violates the constitutional rights to free speech and association of a class of individuals (registered lobbyists) while also failing to "reach all speech that a viewpoint-neutral law would touch" (ie: labor unions)."

This exemption exacerbates the over all mischieviousness in the original legislation-and effectively renders it just another piece of ideological partisanship. As we've pointed out, labor already wields tremendous political clout, and exempting it from the law's limits aggrandizes its power in a totally inequitable manner-while making the law itself more vulnerable to the legal challenge that it just got.

What we get the biggest kick out of in all of this is how the legislation benefits the Bloombergs of the world, folks who can invest their great wealth in the conflating of their own interests with that of the public interest. Certainly, the class-restricted world view of Bloomberg has been an absolute disaster for the city's small businesses; while, even as the mayor himself has noted, the real estate grandees have been well-fed in an environment where lobbyist influence has been muted by the mayor's wealth.

Here's the money quote from Daily Politics last Friday: "Bloomberg told WABC-AM's John Gambling that he doesn't believe any administration has been more "pro-development than we have," adding:"We have gotten an enormous amount of construction going in this city. We've rezoned a sixth of the city. We're record number of houses and office buildings and all of that sort of stuff. And in order to get permits or to get contracts you didn't have to give any money to the city, we did it strictly, or to any of the political candidates or the mayor, me. We did it strictly on the merits and that's the way it should be."

What he's saying is that, even without the special interests needing to hire hiring lobbyists, the special interests-in this case the foundational element of the city's permanent government (or Power Elite)-have been uniquley advantaged by this "above politics" mayor. Why's that the case?

The reason lies with the fact that the mayor isn't above special interests, but is in fact their embodiment. From the elite plutocratic perspective patricianage isn't unseemly, but simply the just reward of the better class. In this scenario, then, the elimination of special interests becomes the elimination of the reality of the rough and tumble of democratic politics-and the rise of the expert whose class vision only benefits the less fortunate in a limited noblesse oblige fashion. It is precisely why the Progressives at the turn of the century warred with the democratic impulses of the Populists-with challenges to things like the spoils system couched in "good government" language in order to disguise their anti-democratic and class biases.

Which is exactly why the mayor promotes non-ideological bipartisanship; it is a world where the ideal leader, freed from the tawdry poitical system, can enact laws that, in this view, reflect rectitude unencumbered by special pleading. In the case of the mayor, as we have seen for six years, what we actually get is the jaundiced world view of a narrow minded progressive autocrat; the person who traces his lineage back to Rousseau's observation that, "sometimes you have to force people to be free."

So let's look forward to the overturning of this rather nasty piece of legislative hypocrisy. All we need in this city is greater transparency, a better system of checks and balances to replace a supine City Council, and a vigorous press that actually questions the decisions of elites (rather than just regurgitating press releases). Save us from all of the faux saviors.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Perishable Market

In a fashion that's so often typical of city policy making, there's an effort a foot to terminate the Moore Street Market in Brooklyn and build housing. As the NY Times' David Gonzales reports this morning: "The stalls of this Brooklyn public market on the edge of Williamsburg explode with Caribbean colors and sounds, as local shoppers buy everything from yams and peppers to maracas and mystic potions.What they can’t buy is time. After winning a one-year reprieve from their landlord — the City of New York — the market’s 13 merchants may find themselves forced out by June if the city moves forward with a plan to demolish the building and replace it with housing."

Now we've commented on this before: "The Brooklyn market goes all the way back to the LaGuardia administration but the city says that it is losing around $270,000 a year for the past four years which has the local community board manager shaking his head: "'They said that the Marqueta was 100% occupied and flourishing', said Community Board District Manager Gerald Esposito. "'So what has happened between the end of 2006 and now to cause EDC to want to close the facility, is beyond me.'" But the contradiction here goes beyond the Bloombergistas normal hostility towards small and minority businesses.

What's ironic is that La Marqueta is predominately a market for fresh produce, and is being forced out while, at the same time, the city is promoting produce peddlers in "underserved" areas just like the one where Moore Street is located. Gonzales captures this: "Moore Street is one of four surviving public markets that were built during the Depression to get pushcarts off crowded and unsanitary streets. Now, the city appears to have come full circle, wanting to close Moore Street while it promotes a new generation of pushcarts that would take fresh vegetables to poor neighborhoods. The turn of events puzzled the merchants, who prided themselves on selling so many kinds of tropical fruits and roots that they put up posters detailing all the varieties."

If, in fact, the absence of fresh produce is such a critical public health issue than why is the city working at such cross purposes here? Wouldn't it make more sense to enlarge La Marqueta and incentivize its growth as a fresh fruit and vegetable mecca?

That's not in the city's plans, in spite of the efforts of State Senator Martin Dilan: "Matthew Trapasso, the policy director for State Senator Martin MalavĂ© Dilan, said his boss was not opposed to housing, but only wanted to make sure that the market was upgraded and the merchants allowed to return. “E.D.C. didn’t want to do that,” Mr. Trapasso recalled. “ ‘Fine,’ we said. ‘We are going to do whatever we can to make sure you don’t do anything. We’ll leave it as is and find the money to subsidize it.’ ”

It seems like such a waste; and is so indicative of the current narrowmindedness when it comes to local business. If its not something on a grand scale with billion dollar developers at the helm, it's simply beneath the contempt of the current grandees. Joan Bartolomeo of the Brooklyn EDC has the last word here: “But you can’t have houses without retail. This is a way to put into practice what we preach: preserve local business, provide local goods and keep the resources in the community.”

Who's On Third?

In an incisive column in yesterday's NY Daily News, Michael Goodwin deconstructs the Mike Bloomberg third party fantasy: "In the end, Bloomberg looks doomed to suffer the fate of all independent White House runs. The vast bulk of voters abandon them to back a major party candidate with a chance of winning."

The problem here is that the Bloombergistas don't have a firm grip on just who Mayor Mike really is: "The logic is political. Bloomberg, a former Democrat and a former Republican, fancies himself a center-right moderate who, like McCain, could appeal to independents as well as most of the Republican base. But seen through the national prism, Bloomberg's self-image would be shredded by his gun-control, pro-gay marriage, tax-and-spend, big-government record as mayor. He's not only liberal. He's far more liberal than Clinton or Obama. Think Ralph Nader - with money."

As we've said before-John Lindsay with more money. Now $500 million dollars goes a long way in politics, and the susceptibility of the voters to these kinds of ad blitz appeals is obvious, given the Bloomberg success with the NYC electorate. Still, NYC isn't the rest of the country and Goodwin is right when he portrays Bloomberg as to the left of even Hillary.

Which makes some of the speculation that Liz refered to last Friday seem rather off key. Hotline founder Doug Baily had these observations: "To the contrary, Bailey said, the problem is not McCain, a friend of the mayor's who appeals to the same pool of independent voters whose support Bloomberg would need if he runs. The real problem is Barack Obama, with whom the mayor shared a highly-public breakfast in Midtown last month, and who enjoys his own degree of crossover appeal." Nah, the problem is Bloomberg himself, a man with no mass appeal beyond his considerable checks appeal.

Bloomberg is an elitest progressive who believes that we need to save the people from themselves; and he's just the man to do it. This belief, and the health and welfare policies that have gone with it for the last few years, underscores Jonah Goldberg's depiction of the fascist underpinning of a strain of liberalism-going back to the eugenics movement of the Progressive Era.

So the clock is running, and we're actually rooting for Mike to enact his electoral version of the economic stimulus package. But then again we're chaos theorists, and we welcome the mayor's ability to seriously muck things up-and make a fool of himself in the process.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Post's ProFundity

The NY Post, picking up from our earlier rant (thanks for the link Liz), editorializes today about the mayor's hypocritical and misinformed attack on the fundraising being done by the city's real estate industry. The Post focuses a good deal of its attention on the fact that the campaign finance bill exempts labor: "The legislation - which ultimately passed - exempts unions.
How'd that happen? Well, City Council members live off union money. And union in-kind help.
It's one thing for them to curb businesses - but unions are special. As in special-interest.
And Mayor Mike went along with that. But now he's attacking real-estate firms for doing just what he lets unions do. Is there's something wrong with this picture? Uh, yes."

Now we've made this point in the past: "Anyone who lobbies in the city knows full well that labor has a tremendous influence over the course of legislation. And as someone who represents both businesses and labor I have had this factor work to my favor at times, while at other moments it has been an obstacle.The fact remains that labor is an interest just like any other, and to place it in a sacrosanct position is to skew the legislative process; to the disadvantage of smaller, minority-owned businesses. The bill is flawed and should be either amended to include everyone, or it should be defeated."

So the mayor signs off on this travesty because, well, because it isn't about him and he's so above all of these minor details. But the Post makes the good point that if you prohibit this kind of fundraising, who'll be able to run? "What's his advice for pols who lack his vast wealth? Well, Mayor Mike said last summer: "I suggest that before anyone goes into [political] office, first go out and become a billionaire." He was joking, of course. But the comment was still telling. At the time, he and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn were pushing a bill to curb donations from folks with business before the city. His advice does seem to be the only option for candidates deprived of all the donations Hizzoner would ban."

And this from someone who simply stepped in and not only bought the office the first time, but reneged on his pledge not to repeat the travesty, by spending more for his re-election; a cool total of $122 million. As Errol Louis said at the time: "In an earlier age, the city's monied elites would have blanched as the open purchase of the city's highest office by a rich man. The disengagement of those elites from civic life...has opened the door for this purchase of public office to go unremarked and unlamented."

What this all means is that Mike Bloomberg, essentially a progressive autocrat, finds the vital interplay of democratic interests to be distasteful; particularly when more intelligent and well meaning elites are in a better position to provide enlightened leadership-embodied, of course, in his own less than humble self.

What gives his humbleness the better perspective, temperament and insight? Nothing less than the factor of his great wealth that, in his solipsistic view, inulates him from the ultimate evil of "being bought by the special interests." But, as Juan Gonzales pointed out a while ago: "Our mayor claims he is a leader who can't be bought. Of course not-he's the one doing the buying."

The response from the mayor is that he is only beholden to the people and not to the "special interests." This simply begs the question of how the will of the people is translated into policy that somehow reflects it (remember the nettlesome issues raised by Rousseau in his discussion of the "general will").The answer of course is that it is the mayor, and he alone, who will, unencumbered by unseemly obligations, decide where the public interest lies. Once again we refer everyone to Marx's observation about Plato's concept of the philosopher king: "Who will educate the educator?"

Friday, February 08, 2008

Calling the Kettle Black

In what amounts to the absolute height of both arrogance and hypocrisy Mayor Mike is excoriating the real estate industry-and all of those electeds that are soliciting support from that quarter. As the NY Times writes this morning: "In a rare public scolding of an industry that is friendly with his administration, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg criticized real estate companies on Thursday, saying it appears they are trying to buy influence in the 2009 mayoral campaign."

So, let's get this straight. The guy who essentially bought two elections now objects to others trying to gain influence on behalf of their businesses-and these others' total contribution amounts to no more than 20% of what the mayor spent on his own re-election. In Liz's Daily News blog it gets even better: "Bloomberg told WABC-AM's John Gambling that he doesn't believe any administration has been more "pro-development than we have," adding:
"We have gotten an enormous amount of construction going in this city. We've rezoned a sixth of the city. We're record number of houses and office buildings and all of that sort of stuff. And in order to get permits or to get contracts you didn't have to give any money to the city, we did it strictly, or to any of the political candidates or the mayor, me. We did it strictly on the merits and that's the way it should be."


Is this guy serious? Hasn't he followed the exploits of Deputy Dan and Steve Ross of Related? What emerges here is exactly what we've been saying all along: the "special interests" rap is little more than a red herring, especially when you have a mayor who, as he himself says, basically represents the governing class-or the permanent government, if you will-and doesn't need a nickel in tribute to slavishly promote its agenda.

And when the mayor's economic development agenda-led by the best and the brightest from the big investment houses-either ignores or destroys local small business Mike doesn't see the irony because, like Plato's philosopher king, he too far removed from our city's "cave dwellers." That anyone who spends $180 million to purchase an office can shamelessly critique "pay for play" is beyond us; and we're wondering when the press will take a serious look at this hypocrisy.

As we've said before, the mayor has been promoting a special interest for six years: his own self-aggrandizement. Unencumbered by "tawdry" (those that are not Mike himself) special interests he plows ahead, making decisions based upon his own father knows best class prism-which amounts to little else but an ideological prison.

Won't Wolf Down These Veggies

In today's NY Sun, the paper's Andrew Wolf looks critically at the mayor's green cart policy, and doesn't much like what he sees: "I maintain that if more customers in Harlem wanted to buy leafy vegetables, market forces personified by New York's very savvy bodega owners would be more than happy to fill their shelves with as much arugula as they can sell to meet this demand, just as they do on the Upper East Side. But selling produce is a high-risk proposition. If you invest in goods that will spoil in a matter of days, your investment is lost. A can of beans will keep for years. Even bags of potato chips have a shelf life of months. Bodega owners in Harlem and elsewhere simply are not ready to stock items that their experience tells them are not in demand, particularly ones that quickly spoil."

Wolf really nails the supply and demand issue here, and he understands that simply increasing the visible supply of produce won't really have the impact that the mayor envisions; but it will erode the business that the local stores who do supply fresh produce are providing the community: "Now even in these "underserved" neighborhoods, some bodegas stock greens, and there are some green grocers and supermarkets to be found as well. I suspect that these are located to meet demand, and that if we unleash hundreds of vendors on the streets, they will gravitate to these very same areas. It is not hard to see why these businesses, for the most part "mom and pop" operations, are concerned over this new competition. And it is hard to see how hundreds of vendors selling lettuce will increase demand."

So, as Wolf suggests, the mayor is simply projecting his own nutrition preferences on others, and Mayor Mike has very little if any concerns about the impact his experiment will have on the small business owner-in six years he never has.

Wolf then goes on to make the following suggestion: "Maybe the mayor should invest some of his own money into buying fruits and vegetables that he will offer to stores on a consignment basis. If the produce sells, the bodegas and the mayor share the profit. If it doesn't, it will be the mayor who will absorb the loss. I suspect that such an arrangement wouldn't last, and the mayor's foray into fresh produce would quickly come to an end."

Mayor Mike is both rich and powerful, but even with all of his resources he will not be able to repeal the laws of supply and demand; he will, however, be able to hurt the existing store owners who certainly deserve better nurturance and protection from a city that relies on them to keep our neighborhood economies vibrant.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Road to Mandelay

In today's NY Daily News, the paper's Errol Louis, building on our argument from the other day, editorializes about the self-centered delaying tactics of the Develop Don't Destroy folks. It now appears that the effort to use the courts to postpone the inevitable has some very real world consequences: "There's a real possibility that up to 100 construction and demolition workers could be laid off in the near future, thanks to the delaying tactics being employed by opponents of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn."

Enough already! It's high time that the DDDers, took their settlement monies, and went back to their lattes. The construction jobs and the future housing is too important to allow a small cohort of folks to drag the Atlantic Yards project into this legal morass.

And as far as the future home of the Brooklyn Nets is concerned, the responses that we got from some about our discussion of civic spirit engendered by a local sports team really exposed the underlying elitism of the opponents. "Bread and Circuses," they cried, echoing the tired neo-Marxist rant about how sports is the "opiate of the people."

The fact remains that the Brooklyn Nets willl become a borough treasure, and not only because of the euphoria that the team will hopefully generate. The Nets and FCRC will invest in the youth of Brooklyn-something that will be unveiled shortly with the launch of the Brooklyn Sports Alliance. The team will be a community partner with a myriad of sports and youth organizations, and the BSA will promote sports as an essential ingredient for a healthy and productive life.

So let's rally around the removal of the rear-guard actors. It is high time for our political leaders to get off of their duffs, "and political, civic, labor and business leaders need to stand up for Brooklyn jobs by urging state courts to resolve the junk lawsuits of the anti-development brigade with all deliberate speed."