Thursday, December 31, 2009

Breaking Bricks on the Armory

It's always good when your work is recognized-so we give our own "right back at you" to the NY Post's Lois Weiss who bestowed the honored "Lead Brick Award" (and at the same time put lead in our pencil) to the City Council for the defeat of the Armory development project: "Lead Brick to the City Council for requiring living wages for all employees at all stores at the Kingsbridge Armory, apparently due to concerns that the Bronx mall would compete against faraway Fordham Road merchants. As a result, Related Companies dropped the project entirely, paving the way for no wages being paid for no new jobs."

Now isn't is truly amazing how this one little project can become such a Rorschach Test for so many different people? It's the gift that keeps on giving for critics of all different stripes-with some excoriating the entire idea of living wages; and others bemoaning the loss of jobs when unemployment in the Bronx is so high.

But Weiss is the first to bring up the issue of the project's potential impact on the merchants of Fordham Road-and only does so in order to ridicule the notion since these retailers, at least on her GPS, are "faraway." How silly is that?

Fordham Road is only three blocks south of the Armory which prompts us to question Weiss' mapping skills. And, as far as we know, regional malls like the one planned at Kingsbridge have a trade radius that extends a tad further than a few blocks in all directions. But Weiss has also conflated a number of issues in her brief laudatory remarks; and we're not quite sure how the living wage demand and the local retail impact concern get treated as two integral parts of the opposition's equation.

In fact, the only place where the retail impact of the mall on Fordham Road was mentioned was here at the Alliance web site. And while we believe strongly in self-flattery, we aren't delusional enough to think that the city council under the capable stewardship of Captain Quinn were reading from the Alliance script when they decided to hit Related with the brick.

And while we're on the subject of Related, shouldn't the Weiss award have been more properly bestowed on it? After all, when you are the first developer in the past eight years to lose a city council land use application fight, isn't some recognition deserved? All of which raises the suspicion in our mind that this was one fight where the developer took a dive. We suspect that there were few tears in the Ross/Masyr households when the council did the dirty deed. If the Armory was an old dog, Ross himself might have taken out the shotgun.

So, while we love (even backhanded) compliments for our work-and that of our faithful public servants who are only there to do (we only hope) our bidding-we would appreciate that those who would look to honor our efforts would take the time to examine with a bit more care what actually happened in the award winning event.

Alas, that may be too much to expect, so we will have to wax eloquently on our own, and award the city council, KARA, the RWDSU and the entire Sloan family with the our own new award-The Alliance Detonator; a trophy given to those who best exemplify the spirit of creative destruction. In the future, the award will be given to anyone who acts to protect the interests of small businesses, working people and communities anywhere in NYC.

Happy New Year Everyone!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Taxing Credulity

Just when most Americans-or at least the "working families" who toil away on behalf of the government-are getting fed up feeding the pig, along comes Professor Matthew Dallek in this morning's NY Daily News to instruct us that we need to get over our aversion to being taxed: "Americans have not always hated taxes. The marginal tax rate was approximately 90% for the wealthiest Americans during World War II, but 85% to 90% of the public still described their tax rate as fair. In the mid-20th century, new payroll taxes were enacted to help pay for Social Security andMedicare, while federal taxes helped fund the Interstate Highway System, strengthened research and education at America's premier public universities and built the world's most powerful military."

It's as if Dallek hasn't been awake and aware for the past decade as NY City and NY State have borrowed us into an unsustainable debt-as Nicole Gelinas points out in the NY Post this morning. Or as more and more middle class Americans and small business owners have been forced to fork over more and more of their income in order to maintain-not vital services or infrastructure improvement-but a bloated state bureaucracy.

As Gelinas tells us: "It would be one thing if the debt had paid for what it should have: gleaming infrastructure to support productivity and growth. Do you see much of that? This week, New York state had to blow up an 80-year-old bridge to Vermont before it fell down. Its destruction and an 18-month replacement project were unplanned. Albany, responsible for maintenance, had scheduled an inspection for next year. But a state worker fortuitously discovered catastrophic cracks."

It's as if Dallek hasn't even noticed that we're in the middle of an economic recession-an economic downturn that will most certainly be exacerbated if we start to try to tax our way out of it. Yet, that's what it appears the federal government-and NY State as well-are trying to do. As the Tax Foundation points out: "Paterson/Silver Budget Will Make New York’s Taxes Worst in Country."

And still New York bridges are falling down. Gelinas again: "The nearly 60-year-old Tappan Zee Bridge is awaiting a $16 billion replacement, too. Let's hope we don't have to take down the existing bridge before we get around to building the new one."

Did Dallek miss the tea parties this summer? As Randy Bachman once sang: "You ain't seen nothing yet!" The country is already running an even more calamitous national debt than the localities and we have a majority party doubling down on this bad bet-looking to create a federal health oversight bureaucracy that is so tax dependent that (even the NY Times' Bob Herbert can see it clearly) it will stifle both economic growth and personal liberty.

So when Dallek says we must overcome our "allergy" to taxes, he uses a poor medical analogy-since if were only an allergy than it would be a rather simple problem to address. But it's much more than that-it has become a justifiably pathological aversion whose etiology can be found in the, "government can solve all of our problems philosophy" that, if it isn't stopped, will suffocate the entrepreneurial spirit that Dallek has little to say about.

Instead, he prefers to live in an economic bubble that is insulated from the reality of most working Americans who desperately want political leaders who will rein in the high cost of government-and the boondoggle bureaucracies that fail to get even a passing mention in Dallek's ode to high tax heaven.

But at least he's honest, if misguided: "Taxes are no magic solution to all that ails America. But if the United States is going to eliminate record red ink, expand health care coverage to millions, rebuild aging airports and roads, fight in Afghanistan and invest in scientific and medical research, then we must all be willing to pay more.The status quo, comforting though it may seem to some, is a road map to an economically feebler America."

Now we have a national administration that is moving us right in the direction that Dallek feels it is necessary for us to go in-if we want to avoid "enfeeblement." Somehow, we believe that 2010 will be seen as a harsh rejoinder to Dallek's tax and spend epistle-and those elected officials who heed his counsel will be looking for work-perhaps at the Bipartisan Policy Center where he himself happily toils, blithely insulated from both economic and political reality.

Public Confidence in the Economy is High-In the Public Sector

Rasmussen has a fascinating poll on two different perspectives as to how the US economy is going: "Government employees are much more bullish about the economy than those who work in the private sector. That’s a big change from the beginning of the year when those on the public payroll were a bit more pessimistic than private sector worker."

As well it should-with the government Leviathan in the process of ripping its bodice in an unseemly display of out of control growth. But the short term prospects for the government sector masks the ominous trends that will, if left unchecked, leave both the public and private sectors in deep trouble: "The Obama administration estimates that federal spending will reach 28% of GDP in 2009, up from 19% a decade ago. It’s the largest share of the economy consumed by the federal government since the fighting stopped in World War II."

As Hot Air points out: "The Democratic agenda includes bailouts for states and rapid expansion of federal oversight in the energy and health-care sectors. What government worker wouldn’t be encouraged by that kind of job security? Small wonder Obama and his government employees keep talking about the “recovery.” They seem to be focused like a laser on adding more government jobs, and clueless about the private sector losses."

At some point the high tax driven expansionism chickens will come home to roost-and let's hope an awareness develops before it is too late; as it seems to be for the moribund California economic model (with NY State close behind): "The dire issues involving California's budget would prolong tough economic conditions in the state throughout the rest of the year, economists predicted on Tuesday. The economic prospects would remain slim in California despite modest improvements in the national economy, which has moved its condition from "intensive care" to "very sick," said economists at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA)."

We seem to be developing a political class whose approach to government has been gleaned from seminars held by the Working Families Party. If this continues, the only families that will be working are those who belong to the political class itself-a model that the old Soviet Union has already demonstrated to be unsustainable.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Will the Meeks Not Inherit the Earth?

The Miami Herald reported yesterday (via Liz) that our old pal Congressman Greg Meeks might be in serious trouble for doing some extracurricular-and perhaps illegal-special pleading for the miscreant financier Allen Stanford: "A 2006 trip to Venezuela by Rep. Greg Meeks that was apparently orchestrated to help disgraced financier Allen Stanford could be big trouble for the Queens Democrat who, with an assist from the White House, has seen his profile rise in recent months.The Miami Herald reports Meeks was called on by Stanford to try to get President Hugo Chavez to intercede in a messy internal fight at a Venezuelan bank that was part of Stanford's worldwide banking network."

And this morning the NY Daily News reports that Meeks was barnstorming the Caribbean on this crook's dime: "Rep. Gregory Meeks has been a frequent flier to sun and sand with a little help from an unusual source - accused Ponzi schemer Allen Stanford. The Queens Democrat, sometimes accompanied by his wife, Simone-Marie, took six trips to sun-drenched locales from Antigua to St. Lucia, courtesy of a Stanford nonprofit called the Inter-American Economic Council, records show. Stanford, once listed by Forbes as one of the richest men in the world, was indicted in June, charged with fleecing investors in a $7 billion Ponzi scheme."

All of which doesn't surprise us a great deal about Meeks. A decade ago when we helped to organize over 500 homeowners in Meeks' Queens neighborhood against the building of the Air Train from Kennedy Airport, we met in the congressman's office to enlist his support for the effort. Meeks declined, famously informing his constituents that he simply couldn't expect to win re-election with only the contributions of his own constituents (the construction big Skanska was deeply involved in the air train project-as was the New York Building Congress).

But now the chickens are coming home to roost-and just what is in the water in Queens which has experienced an epidemic of political corruption-with two of the top county Dems going off to prison? As the News tells us: "Since 2007, Stanford and his employees have been regular contributors to Meeks' campaign, coughing up $12,100. After Stanford was charged, Meeks said he gave the money to charity.Records show Meeks has been a repeat guest of the nonprofit funded by Stanford, the Inter-American Economic Council. Barry Featherman, the group's president, did not return calls. Since 2003, the group has spent at least $22,347 on airfare, hotels and meals for Meeks and his wife to various locales, usually for "business round tables," records show. During a Jan. 11-15, 2006, trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica, Meeks and his wife stayed at the luxurious Ritz Carlton, running up $2,711 in lodging expenses, $5,365.46 on airfare, and $1,470 on meals. They flew in a Stanford jet."

This, we hope, will be fodder for our dear friends over at the Concerned Neighbors of Southeast Queens and its president Ruth Bryan-one of the leaders of the Air Train fight (The group is part of the Queens Civic Congress). Bryan, along with Ruth Duberry, are examples of true civic commitment, and they deserve a better representative than the jet setting Meeks. Perhaps the New Year will see them getting what they deserve.

Update

The NY Post also weighs in on the Meeks contretemps: "Queens Rep. Gregory Meeks allegedly agreed to intercede directly with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez on behalf of a now-indicted fat cat who helped bankroll several lavish Caribbean trips for the congressman, it was revealed yesterday. The allegations could raise major ethical headaches for Meeks, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, whose stock has been on the rise in local politics and who has been allied with the White House on key issues."

Meeks, who many saw as a White House intermediary in the attempt to get Governor Paterson to stand down in favor of AG Cuomo, is no stranger to suspect controversy-as we have been reminded by those in the know. He has been linked to Wal-Mart-and one of his key aides went to work for the Walmonster, but not before the congressman started to use the company as a political ATM.

As Working Life asks, while listing Meeks' $7500 contribution from Wal-Mart in 2008: "Why would any political leader, who represents him or herself to be a defender of the working person, want to be affiliated with such a company?" And indeed, in 2005 we caught a whiff of Meeks' dalliance with the possible siting of a Wal-Mart store in Southeast Queens.

Not to be outdone, Meeks also has his hand in another potential gravy train owing to his deciding vote for NAFTA/Cafta. As Public Citizen pointed out: "With NY Jobs at Risk, and Dominican-American Constituents Opposing, Did Rep. Gregory Meeks Trade Deciding Vote for CAFTA-NAFTA Expansion in Exchange for Corporate Campaign Cash, Pork Barrel Funds or Other Empty Promises?"

And the organization went on to say: "Given the strong opposition to NAFTA expansion in his district, the known threat to New York jobs and the unwillingness of any businesses related to JFK airport to pledge that CAFTA would increase jobs there, many people were disgusted by his deciding vote for CAFTA and now wonder, for what could he have traded this important vote that could possibly make up for the damage NAFTA expansion will do?” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch."

Inquiring minds want to know-but clearly, we have an auctioneer of the highest order in one Greg Meeks. As he said to his own local voters in the meeting we cited above: he simply couldn't expect to win re-election with only the contributions of his own constituents.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Unhealthy for New York

It's good to see that the mayor, and Governor Paterson as well-is finally looking out for us-in going after the senatorial nonfeasance when it comes to protecting the economic interests of New York. As the NY Post reported last week: "Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Paterson warned that the health-care bill passed by the US Senate yesterday will badly shortchange New Yorkers and must be rewritten when negotiators hammer out a compromise with the House. Paterson said he was "deeply troubled" because the Senate bill would cost the state nearly $1 billion and could mean a 15 percent reduction in payments to hospitals, nursing homes and other health providers. He said that Medicaid has "dissed New York from the time it was founded," and the Senate terms made it worse. Bloomberg said of the Senate version's Medicaid terms, "It penalizes the states and cities that reach into their pockets and take care of the neediest."

And his ire was really directed at our newest senator, the chameleon Gillibrand: "Mayor Bloomberg laced into New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in a tense phone call this week over the Senate health-care bill, a source told The Post yesterday. “The mayor really gave Gillibrand a piece of his mind over the damage the bill will do the city,” said the source, who is close to the Bloomberg administration. “He wasn’t happy, and she didn’t have much to say other than to claim it wasn’t as bad as he was saying.” The call came just days before the Senate is expected to approve its health-care legislation this morning. Bloomberg and Gov. Paterson have both been railing about what they see as the bill’s destructive impact on New York, while New York Sens. Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer have been praising the plan."

But what did Mike Bloomberg expect? And, why has he waited so long to weigh in on this issue-after all, the House version of ObamaCare also has some pretty devastating impacts on the city-particularly its pantheon of taxes on the "wealthy?" Perhaps his reticence has had something to do with the recently concluded mayoral election-you know, the one where he tried to present himself as Obama's BFF?

In any event, our ire isn't directed at hizzoner, but at the epiphenomenon known as Gillibrand-someone for whom allegiance is ruled by expedience. Gone forever is the old Gilly, the congresswoman with moderate political views, and in her place is the Schumer Muñeca, a person so malleable she makes Gumby like stiff necked.

But our views on the larger issue of health care reform are no secret-and we believe, as does the WSJ, that the expansion of the government into this sector is a slippery slope that we should hope to avoid at all costs. Mark Steyn captures our own pessimism: "Looking at the millions of Americans it leaves uninsured, and the millions it leaves with worse treatment and reduced access, and the millions it makes pay significantly more for their current health care, one can only marvel at Harry Reid’s genius: government health care turns out to be all government and no health care. Adding up the zillions of new taxes and bureaucracies and regulations it imposes on the citizenry, one might almost think that was the only point of the exercise."

Still, with all of the various hold out senators hatching what looks to us like sweetheart deals for their states, you'd think that Schumer with all of his putative acumen could have done more to protect New York's interests-and pulled the strings so that both of our representative would be caroling with one voice. More Steyn: "That’s why Nebraska’s grotesque zombie senator Ben Nelson is the perfect poster boy for the new arrangements, and not just another so-called Blue Dog Democrat spayed into compliance by a massive cash injection. There is no reason on earth why Nebraska should be the only state in this Union to have every dime of its increased Medicare tab picked up by the 49 others."

Schumer's legendary schnorrer behavior, however, doesn't appear to be happening, and we believe the lethargy isn't an accident-at least not on Chuck's part. With Harry Reid an endangered species in 2010, Schumer is looking to take over the top spot, and special pleading and insider dealing isn't propitious for someone who's looking to move into a leadership role in the senate.

The end result, is that we may be facing an even worse fiscal mess because of the lack of forceful representation in Washington-unless, in the words of the NY Daily News, Charlie Rangle will, "be our champion." If not, the future doesn't look pretty: "Paterson has called the legislation a “disgrace,” claiming it will “devastate” state medical care and cost New York more than $1 billion a year in Medicaid funds. Hizzoner this week said the Senate legislation could force the closure of “hundreds” of health facilities."

Let's see how influential and effective our senators will be in the coming weeks. So far, not so much. We remain pessimistic.

Setting the Record Straight on Kingsbridge

We have grown both tired and irritated over the litany of false aspersions leveled at the successful opponents of the failed Kingsbridge Armory development. What has been noticeably absent from relentless barrage, is any historical perspective-and an honest recognition of the dishonest role played by the developer and the city's economic development officials.

To understand this a little better it is necessary to go back three years, to the time when-after much hard work by the community-EDC finally issued its RFP for the Armory. Here's how we described the, "Kingsbridge Armory Victory," at that time:

"For the past six years we have been working closely with the Northwest Bronx Concerned Community and Clergy Coalition on crafting a neighborhood friendly plan for the development of the Kingsbridge Armory. For a good part of this time NWBCCC was led by the indefatigable Mary Daily and she was succeeded by the very capable James Mumm. Now, finally, as the NY Daily News reports this morning, an RFP has been issued, and it looks like the community's voice has been heard."

Now take a hard look at what the city said it was looking for: "As the News points out, "The request addressed many of the concerns cited by community stakeholders, such as the need for schools and the impact on existing neighborhood businesses." When did you ever hear a statement like that coming from an EDC RFP? The RFP goes on to say that "Negative economic effects will be mitigated by ensuring the developer's proposed tenants 'endeavor to not duplicate or directly compete with existing retail."

Our response was almost euphoric-and we hailed the recognition about the need to avoid hurting local business, particularly the MortonWilliams Supermarket directly across the street: "It has been made clear all along by all members of the community coalition that a food selling box store was simply unacceptable. Much of this sentiment emerged because of the community's respect for Morty Sloan and his MortonWilliams Supermarket. The Sloans' store was the first real supermarket built in the Bronx and Morty hires all of the employees for his other markets (many of which are in Manhattan) from this Kingsbridge Heights neighborhood."

Of course, we tempered our enthusiasm knowing that a developer had yet to be selected: "This is a pathbreaking event in the city's development history but we would caution everyone who has a stake in the development to not take any long vacations, confident that the potential problems surrounding the Armory have all disappeared. The key word in the above quote is "endeavor."It is now up to all of us who have worked to protect the existing retail base to remain vigilant so that "endeavor" has the appropriate teeth. One developer has already pitched the Task Force but all bids will have to be reviewed by EDC and than go through the ULURP process."

But let's step back for a second, and focus on the other RFP item mentioned-"the need for schools." Now we know that this was probably the number one objective of the community coalition-along with the need for recreational space. Yet, all of this disappeared when Related, the eventual successful bidder, unveiled its "Shops at the Armory" vision.

For a more comprehensive historical overview, go to Jordan Moss' Bronx News Network piece-and you'll see how important the educational mission for the Armory was to the community: "In 1998, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, a main force behind the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA),began organizing residents and translating community ideas into architectural blueprints, with the assistance of Joan Byron and the Pratt Center. The plans included 2,400 school seats, a movie theatre, a green market, restaurants and a sports complex."

Funny, we missed all of these ideas in the final Related cookie-cutter mall design; but the larger point here is that, while the city rejected the community's comprehensive educational and recreational vision for the Armory, its RFP at least attempted to do justice to the desires expressed by the Northwest Bronx coalition. Related, with all of its usual arrogance, simply went in another direction-and frog-marched EDC along with it.

As BNN points out: "Unfortunately, little is recognizable in Related's plan from those original blueprints the Coalition hammered out with Pratt and later iterations from KARA. Related is not calling the project Shops at the Armory for nothing. It’s a shopping mall pure and simple."

Now the obvious point here is that Related is an excellent real estate developer-when it doesn't have to engage a local community in any kind of real dialogue. Its selection to develop the Armory, therefore, was a colossal mistake; since it would require the designee to work closely with the community, and try to develop the project in tune with its wishes. Related's subsequent sleight-of-hand was-as we told KARA's Ava Farkas at the time-to be expected.

But all of this bait and switch dishonesty is elided by a myopic and biased media more interested in demonizing Bronx officials and the heroic efforts of the RWDSU than in reporting the truth about Related's arrogant tactics. And Moss, who has been on this issue longer than probably anyone else, makes this salient point about why living wage had been elevated into such an iconic like demand by the community: "So, that’s why the living wage demanded by KARA is so important. If the project, say, included three schools and funding for a community center, maybe budging on the living wage would make sense. But it doesn’t include those things or anything else the community badly needs."

Which is a corollary to the point that we had made-but in reference to the impact that the mall would have on the surrounding neighborhood retail shopping strips. As we pointed out: "In the case of this development, tens of millions of tax dollars are being used to subsidize the project-one that, when finished, will likely siphon millions of dollars away from the small businesses at nearby Kingsbridge and Fordham Roads; retailers that have been devastated by the current recession as well as the economic policies that the NY Post writes about so movingly. For these entrepreneurs, the proposed mall is like a bus ticket out of town."

And the euphoria of the local merchants at the demise of the project, underscores our point. As the Norwood News reports: "Many area merchants celebrated the City Council’s vote. These merchants feared a mall in the Armory would bring competition from big-box stores and cause unappealing traffic congestion."

And, as we went on to say: "In our view, the building of box stores in the Armory-of whatever stripe-creates an undue pressure on neighborhood commerce. If the developer can't agree on providing a living wage, than the development simply isn't worth doing-especially when small retailers are reeling. So, in some sense, the die is being cast here, and the fate of the Armory, while still up in the air, is becoming precarious because the city chose a developer that hasn't been accustomed to compromise."

So it was Related-and its lapdogs at EDC-that provoked this unnecessary fight and made the final confrontation inevitable; something that has been lost in all of the sour grapes back biting from the trades, the mayor, and their obsequious scriveners in the media. If the city is going to do planning in cooperation with the local impacted community it needs to do so in good faith-something that wasn't done in the three card monte game run by Related on the Armory.

So, if anyone should be demonized here, it is the haughty developer who believed-and got the city to agree-that it really didn't matter that the development plan for the Armory did violence to all of the community's hard work on developing the site. Even on the supermarket exclusion-something that there was unanimity on in the Bronx delegation-the developer wouldn't budge; believing that it could bogart everyone in its ULURP path.

In the process, however, it unleashed the dogs of war-and was deservedly buried in the avalanche of outrage from an ignored and disparaged community. if we are going to issue blame tickets on this, let's issue them to those whose behavior merits the opprobrium; and not to those like Stuart Appelbaum, Jeff Eichler, Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter and Ava Farkas-folks who stood up for principle and for the rights of a community to have a meaningful say in its own destiny.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Reification of Development

In some circles, "development" has been elevated into an idolatry-to be praised without any real reflection as to its impact. In academic circles, this is known as reification-the act of representing an abstraction as a physical thing. In the arguments of the idolators-and the City Journal's Julia Vitullo-Martin certainly fits into this catagory-development is elevated without reflection; and we are left with the sterile devleopment vs. anti-development catagories that obfuscate more than the illuminate a particular issue.

Such is the case of Vitullo-Martin's post mortem narrative on the defeat of the Kingsbridge Armory development: "Does the defeat of the Bloomberg administration's plan to redevelop the long-vacant Kingsbridge Armory into a shopping mall signal that New York is returning to the bad old days of disinvestment, deteriorating buildings, joblessness and poverty? Certainly the rhetoric of the victors is a throwback to the destructive confrontations of the 1960s, when welfare came to be seen as an acceptable way of life, preferable to employment."

One could only make this argument under the weighty burden of preconceived and misguided opinions; and certainly the author is ignorant, not only of the history of the community's efforts to develop the Armory, but of the manner in which the Related Companies mocked the entire RFP process. Not only that-and this goes to the heart of the develop but destroy mentality of the pro-development mindset-there is but slight recognition, if any, of the potential harm (regardless of how many jobs are "created") that a particular project may have.

And so it goes with Vitullo-Martin, who conflates the promotion of higher paying jobs-using the tax payers' money-with the desire to perpetuate a welfare mentality; or even criminality: "The notion that any job is better than no job no longer applies," said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, sounding remarkably like officials from the administration of John Lindsay, who doubled New York's welfare rolls to an economically unsustainable 1.65 million people. What, after all, is the alternative to "no job" except for welfare? (There's crime, of course, but presumably no elected officials are proposing that.)"

But what's worse in her analysis here, is the failure to adequately evaluate the causes of the economic decline in the Bronx-a failure that actually leads her to sing the praises of the not to be missed former borough president: "It's particularly troubling that this destructive rhetoric is thriving in the Bronx, which has begun heading downhill economically. It has an official unemployment rate of 13.4%, up 4% from last year, and an unofficial unemployment rate of at least double that, since so many discouraged seekers have fallen out of the market altogether. Even before Diaz and the City Council killed the $350 million project with its 2,200 jobs, the Bronx had a higher dependency rate than any other borough - almost 60% of Bronx residents receive some form of government assistance."

Now, you'd think that eight years after our economic guru of a mayor took over the helm, someone who want to point a pinkie at the city's chief executive for the "heading downhill" economy that Vittulo-Martin wants to tie to the powerless BP. Steve Malanga, her colleague at the City Journal, does that magnificently-and traces the decline to the high tax and anti-small business policies of our three term mayor.

And Vitullo-Martin drags out the old canard of "understored" to misdirect us away from the assault on the city's neighborhood retailers under this mayor: "Take, for example, the opening of the River Plaza Shopping Center on 225th Street in 2004, the first major private development in the Bronx in 20 years. Carrión expedited the review and permit processes to move it along as efficiently as possible. Its developer points out that even with his shopping center fully occupied, the Bronx today remains "severely understored," with immense pent-up retail demand."

Well, that's shocking- a developer who believes that a community needs more of what he is selling. And as long as a developer is singing a pro-development tune, we can count on Vitullo-Martin to hum loudly along: "In other words, there's strong economic demand from Bronx residents for precisely the retail that Kingsbridge Armory would have brought."

There's also a strong demand for the retail goods that the stores on Fordham Road are selling; and these retailers are struggling because of the high tax policies of the Bloombergistas. And on top of those, the mayor's nutty transportation commissioner has eliminated all parking along the length of the shopping corridor. As the NY Daily News reported last year: "The city's new special bus service along Fordham Road is making roadkill out of some area businesses, community leaders charge. Two dozen merchants and community officials rallied at City Hall last Wednesday, saying revised parking rules to help the new Select Bus Service run smoothly are crippling businesses because nobody can park near them."

But as long as the trains, err buses, run on time who the hell cares about small business: "At Lola's Deli, 617 E. Fordham Road, business is down 40%, said Sher Ahmad, who helps manage the store. "A lot of people used to stop for a breakfast sandwich and coffee. But now it's dead," he said, pointing to the row of empty parking meters outside the store. "Nobody can park. We're losing a lot of business."

All of this goes right passed the scrupulous eyes of Vitullo-Martin in her cheer leading for our edifice complex driven mayor-and she obfuscates the opposition to the mall with a confused take on the ULURP process: "Up until now, ULURP had been one of New York's success stories in effective government reform. In order to give neighborhoods and their representatives a say in local land use decisions while being fair to development, the city charter in the 1980s set up a clear, stringent, standardized seven-month timetable to march major proposals through a predictable review. Every important party gets its say on land use. But the Armory opponents weren't objecting on land-use grounds - other than in a haphazard sort of way. Their primary drive was to coerce the developer into forcing future retail tenants to pay employees a "living wage..."

She, of course, has nothing to say about the opposition of the neighborhood merchants-that would take away from the purity of her diatribe. And it was the "socio-economic impact" sections of the environmental review that provided the basis for the righteous objections from the local store owners-along with the fact-unremarked in the editorial-that the developer, of sainted memory, had bitch-slapped the city RFP that had counseled looking for non competing retailers (i.e. no supermarket).

So, once again we must read a cookie cutter pro-development narrative superimposed on the reality of the fight over the Armory. This was just another example of how the mayor, whose economic development officials actually started off on the right foot, went for the small biusiness jugular-and found his own knife used against him. To blame the council and Diaz is to distort the reality of an administration that has just one economic development knife in its quiver-and will keep trying to use it no matter how many gun fights it finds itself in.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Health Fascism on the Way

As National Review Online is reporting, the just passed health bill will include the ridiculous but ominous calorie posting regulation that has proven to be an unmitigated flop in New York City: "The relevant section is titled “Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items at Chain Restaurants,” and the gist is that restaurants and retailers that serve prepared foods will have to display on the menu a “nutrient content disclosure statement,” which will list the calories of each item and a “succinct statement concerning suggested daily caloric intake” designed “to enable the public to understand, in the context of a total daily diet, the significance of the caloric information that is provided on the menu.” The information must also be available in writing and there must be signage advising that it is available"

The cutting edge of this Nanny nonsense-ground zero, if you will, is in NYC. And, as a recently concluded NYU study of the city's calorie regs demonstrated, it hasn't worked out quite as Mayor Bloomberg and former Health Commissioner Tom Frieden (now, thankfully, exiled to the CDC) had envisioned.

As we pointed out in October: "So, as we warned New Yorkers when the silly idea of calorie posting was first proposed, there was no evidence that the concept would have the slightest effect on the behavior of fast food customers-and we have been proven correct. As the NY Times reports today, the whole experiment has been a colossal waste of time and money: "A study of New York City’s pioneering law on posting calories in restaurant chains suggests that when it comes to deciding what to order, people’s stomachs are more powerful than their brains...It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result. But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008."

Ah, the law of unintended consequences! But the failure of the city's regulation will, unfortunately, not deter in the least the Nanny brigades who have now-in stealth fashion-insinuated themselves into the current health care bills. Calorie posting is just one of the arrows in the oversight quiver, and the ultimate purpose is to control, through mandates and taxes what people eat and how they live.

And if ObamaCare does become law, this is just the first step in the development of a burgeoning health bureaucracy that will monitor and control the lifestyles of all Americans. Once everyone-through taxation and insurance mandates-is ultimately connected by this bureaucratic umbilical chord, the idea of bending the cost curve leads inevitably to enforcing what some administrative body of unelected officials deem to be healthier behaviors and choices.

As NRO goes on to explain: "It is not surprising that this regulation made it into the bills. Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) is a big supporter and, more broadly, the idea fits into the now-trendy notion among the Michael Pollan crowd that the focus on medicine and insurance is somewhat misplaced as the real focus should be on food and nutrition."

Otherwise known as "preventative medicine." But what this really means is that there's a Big Mac attack on the horizon: " Look ahead and suppose the very likely result: disclosure and education don’t produce the desired outcome. How long until the Feds will outright ban high-calorie foods?"

So, as bad as this overall health care reform is, the grafting on of the Nanny mandate bodes for an even more ominous future-one where panels of administrators will not only determine what procedures will be permitted to save your life; but will also be in charge of how you will be able to live in the time you might have left. And as this becomes entrenched, the area of personal liberty-already in danger of becoming an epiphenomenon-will be shrunk into microscopic dust.

Neighborhood Economics and Editorial Myopia

We are always amused by the editorial outrage when-once in a blue moon in this city-a large real estate project goes down to defeat. What is inescapable, is the fact that the city's editorialists couldn't give a tinker's damn about NYC's small neighborhood businesses. These retailers are reeling from the impact of the Great Recession-and store vacancies and foreclosures are at record high levels.

But they are also reeling from the impact of the Bloomberg economic and fiscal policies-policies that Steve Malanga has underscored in such exquisite details in the City Journal. When the editorial savants, with a faux sagacity, point out the high unemployment rates in the Bronx, they always fail to correlate these high rates to the city's chief executive who should own them-and would if the city's press had belled this bad cat as it should have.

Instead of scrutiny, however, we had a year of obsequious fawning-beginning with the cheer leading for overthrowing term limits; and ending with the NY Post's shameful shilling for school test numbers that could nave been concocted by Bernie Madoff. And nowhere was it said, or has it even been hinted during this classless outrage over the Armory, that the city's economic dire straits can be attributed to the big government, tax, regulate, and spend policies, of New York City's mayor.

And, in addition, in all of the high dudgeon over the temerity of the city council to act as an independent legislature, there has been no recognition that the Armory development-leaving aside the living wage issue-would have had a devastating impact on the neighboring commercial shopping strip on Fordham Road. Instead we get misdirection and calumny.

In yesterday's NY Post: "The City Council, overriding a mayoral veto, has finished off the proposed development at the Kingsbridge Armory in The Bronx -- effectively killing 2,200 new jobs in a borough with a 13 percent unemploymentrate. Bronx beep Ruben Diaz Jr. was ecstatic: "The notion that any job is better than no job no longer applies," he said. This proves that he is very good at killing jobs. But can he create them?

Wrong question. The city is hemorrhaging business-and local jobs-at the shuttered neighborhood stores all over the five boroughs. What is Mike Bloomberg going to do to stem this unprecedented loss of economic activity? A wrong answer, it would appear-the use of tax subsidies to build malls that will put these local shops further at risk.

Since 2002, Mike Bloomberg has given away the municipal store, increasing local taxes and creating an unsustainable debt while pursuing Olympic pipe dreams and mega-developments that exacerbate the conditions for sustaining vibrant economic activity. And then there's his new found commitment to the environment-expressed so eloquently in his pursuit of a congestion tax policy, one that would further hurt small distributors and the local stores that depend on them.

And here is the Daily News today on the Armory: "As the City Council voted Monday to kill the Kingsbridge Armory development, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. acknowledged that thousands of his constituents would have applied for jobs there.Yet he stuck to his position that it was better for the Bronx, which suffers the state's highest poverty and unemployment, to have no new jobs unless they met his wage standards. The Council bought into this destructive lunacy by a vote of 48 to 1."

"Destructive lunacy?" Not Diaz and the council, but a mayor running in 2001 on a no tax pledge who, no sooner does he take office, raises the city's real estate taxes through the roof-crippling the local stores who are forced to pay the rental pass through. Is it any wonder that NYC is at the bottom when it comes to rating business climates throughout the country?

So, when it comes to editorial standards, we are confronted by the fact that the two tabloids are bereft of them-unless double standards are counted. Instead of examining the long road to the Bronx's high levels of unemployment-a path that begins down at the doorstep to city hall-they are content to place blame on Ruben Diaz and the city council. As the News tells us: "Now the questions for Diaz, as well as for his 48 job-killing Council colleagues, are: Where are you going to find employment opportunities at the level of pay you desire? And how will you put the armory to productive use? They don't have a clue."

Cluelessness is, however, apparently as contagious as the swine flu-and maybe the issue of a living wage is more a symbolic expression of the outrage felt by many New Yorkers against the Bloomberg class-based economic follies that aggrandize a few at the expense of neighborhoods and the small businesses that support them.

We know one thing. The question of what to do with the Armory is not necessarily the right question at all. The real question is whether the mayor's plan made any sense in the first place-given the tax subsidies and the impacts that the mall would have had on the local economic activity. Was this a good use of tax dollars? Not in our view, or that of the store owners in the line of fire of this tax subsidized behemoth.

The city is in bad economic shape after eight years of, yes, cluelessness. If the NY Post's Rupert Murdock and the NY Daily News' Mort Zuckerman want to exhibit a modicum of journalistic responsibility they should begin by starting off the New Year with a vow to hold their fellow billionaire classmate to as high a standard as they have reserved exclusively for some of the city's minor political miscreants.

The sad fact, though, is that they are incapable of this kind of brutal honesty for one of their own. The sins of the various "knuckleheads" that the News points out periodically, pale in comparison to the tone deaf and misguided actions of the mayor-and the defeat of the Kingsbridge Armory should be seen in this light. Not so much for what it says about actual public policy, but more for what it says about the fed up mood of a public that is tired of policies that give the goldmine to the few while shafting the many.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Divide and Conquer Challenge

The Village Voice's Tom Robbins does a good analysis of the Kingsbridge Armory defeat-and points to how a divide and conquer stategy is a danger for labor: "In the early days of the coalition that organized to win better-paying jobs at the new armory, all of the big unions were happily onboard. Gary LaBarbera, the ex-Teamster who heads the city's Building and Construction Trades Council, signed on to the goals of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. So did the building service workers of Local 32BJ, who are playing a steadily more influential role in city politics. But as the vote grew closer and Bloomberg refused to budge, the construction and building service unions peeled off from the coalition to cut their own deals with Related."

But, even without the trades and 32BJ, the KRA coalition and its political allies proved to be too formidable for the mayor and Related: "It's just our luck that the first time the City Council actually musters the courage to face down Mike Bloomberg, it's to kill a plan that—whatever its flaws—would have put hard-pressed New Yorkers back to work. Not that it wasn't a huge thrill watching it happen."

Indeed it was-and it also exposed the unseemly relationship between Related and the "above politics" mayor-something that Robbins is happy to point out: "It was a thrill, too, because Related's top people are personal friends of the richest New Yorker: Steve Ross is one of those who whispered in Bloomberg's ear last year, urging him to grab that third term. Ross was once a business partner of Dan Doctoroff, Bloomberg's old top deputy. Doctoroff is now back in the private sector running something called Bloomberg LP. When Related partner Jeff Blau recently needed references to help him land a lush pad in an exclusive Fifth Avenue co-op, the mayor wrote a nice letter and called people on the board on Blau's behalf (he was still rejected). Among the rich, this is called networking. It could also be called a conflict of interest, but the city board charged with examining such things is too busy scrutinizing school teachers and sanitation workers to notice."

And Robbins exposes the mayoral hypocrisy when it comes to an unbridled support for the fee market: "Even as his advisers told him that the Council would vote down the project without a wage deal, Bloomberg thundered against it, offended by the very notion. The Friday before the vote, the wealthiest New Yorker appeared on his regular radio show, hosted by his ever-agreeable pal, John Gambling. "It is not the city's business—it is not government's business—to tell companies that they should pay more," he sputtered. He brought himself up short when he realized he had just denounced the basis of all government wage legislation since the Great Depression. "There are federal minimum-wage laws," he quickly added, "and those are fine."

But, of course, there is no fee market when Related comes to feed at the public trough-and those businesses in the way can be excused if they don't quite see things the way that Mike Bloomberg does: "In fact, the marketplace being what it is, the minute that a gleaming-new, tax-subsidized food store opens at the armory, the longtime merchants across the street are likely to start going out of business. These are firms employing hundreds of local residents, many at union wages, with benefits—merchants who held on through the worst of the "Bronx Is Burning" years."

What made the entire campaign conclude with just the right level of euphoria was the spectacle of the city council acting, well, like an independent legislature: "The result, on December 14, was a City Council almost giddy at the prospect of finally defying the mayor. The same council that had largely rolled over for Bloomberg on some 200 previous zoning issues, the same council that cravenly conspired to let him overturn term limits last year, was aboil at the thrill of saying, at long last, "No." You could see it in the smiling, whispered asides as members popped up from their chairs and raced across the aisle to consult with friends and allies."

But whither labor on all of this? Robbins remains concerned: "This is how such coalitions often bust apart. At the end of the day, unions are responsible to their own members to make sure they have jobs, and the construction trades have never met a project they didn't like. The joke goes that they would build their own gallows if you let them do it union. As long as there is work to be had, there is nothing better: wages go to $50 an hour, along with deep benefits. On the other hand, for most of the residents in the north Bronx, such union cards are just a dream. Their career paths are more likely to deposit them in one of those part-time, minimum-wage jobs at one of those big stores that Related wanted to create than one pouring the cement used to build it."

In our view, the trades need to recognize that the other workers are in dire straits-and that it would be easier if all labor could coalesce in a common strategy. It will, however, not be easy to achieve, as race and class separate the factions: "It was the dream of Stu Appelbaum, the tough head of the retail workers union who helped lead the fight to win better wages at the armory, that the Kingsbridge battle might become a bridge to start healing that divide."

Coalition is still possible, but when the wealthy start to divide and conquer, it generally degenerates into a Three Stooges moment: "All for one, One for all-Every man for himself." Seriously, though, crafting a labor coalition in the middle of the worst recession in sixty years is daunting indeed. With all sectors of the work force really hurting, magnanimity-an essential ingredient in coalition building-is a scarce commodity.

Still, if common ground is to be reached, it must be based on the recognition of shared pain and shared gain. Where that location is on the policy map, however, is real hard to discern at this juncture.

Fire and Hope

The disastrous Bronx fire that consumed stores on 204th Street gutted the neighborhood's only supermarket-the Foodtown owned by our friends the Katz family. As Bronx News Network reports, however, the gutsy Katzes are planning to come back bigger and better than ever: "I just spoke to Dan Katz, whose family owns the newly renovated Foodtown on E. 204th St. that was just destroyed by yesterday's fire. The Katz's announced that they will rebuild an even larger store on the same site in 2010 and also provide groceries at Pricebusters, another store they own on E. 204th St. between Hull and Decatur avenue."

Good for Danny who, along with his brother Noah, run one of the best family owned grocery chains in the city-and beyond. The rebuild will not be easy or cheap, but the Katzes are committed to the neighborhood: "Everyone should know that we are committed to serving the residents and we will rebuild and even bigger and better store that what was there," said Noah Katz, Dan's brother, in a press release...Dan Katz told me that they have an agreement with the landlord to lease the two other properties claimed by the fire -- the American Diner and the dental office -- in order to expand their business."

So, in the aftermath of tragedy comes the hope of something better, reminding us at the same time, just how important local business is to the community. As one resident told the News: "The spate of fires on 204th St. has residents and business owners thinking the worst. "Two places in two months burned down. It's crazy," said Richard Vasquez. "This supermarket has been there a very long time and I can't believe it's down right now. The just redid it and now it's gone."

With all of the fires on 204th Street, the natural inclination is to suspect foul play: "It seemed like the whole block was burning down," said local Rey Marcano, 43, a bus driver. "I don't think it was accidental." And local council member Oliver Koppell told NY1 pretty much the same thing: "All of these fires started late at night when no one was around," said Bronx Councilman G. Oliver Koppell. "I mean, it just doesn't seem to me to be coincidental."

If so, there's an arsonist on the loose in the Bronx, bringing back unpleasant memories from the not so distant past. The potentially illegal nature of this tragedy behooves that the area elected officials and the Bronx BP act quickly to help the local merchants rebuild.

And, as the News points out, the city appears to be responding in the right way: "City officials said they are doing everything possible to help displaced workers and business owners rebuild from the ashes of the Norwood fires.The city Department of Small Business Services is holding a meeting Dec. 29 at 10:30 a.m. in Community Board 7 offices at 229A E. 204th St. SBS spokeswoman Laura Postiglione said the department has numerous tools, including grant money and loans, to get owners back in business. "We'll work to help the displaced workers get temporary employment if the business is not going to reopen or is temporarily closed," she said. "We're working...to get them back on their feet as soon as possible."

Which is good news for the Katz family who, much like the Sloans who own the MortonWilliams supermarket chain, are fixtures in the Bronx, and have dedicated generations to the borough's neighborhoods. We'll give the BNN the last word on this: "The Katz family, which owns 11 other Foodtown stores has operated the store on East 204th Street, first called MetFood, since Dan's grandfather, Paul, opened it in 1956. Their father, Sydney, joined Paul in 1962. Noah and Dan joined the company in the 1980s."

Parklandish

Can you believe that the Bloomberg administration acted arbitrarily and capricious-on yet another land use question? First there was the Columbia collusion where-to be fair-the state, in the form of ESDC, played the leading role; but the city was an unindicted co-conspirator. Now it is Randalls Island where the court has had to intervene to give equal protection to public school kids in the face of unabashed favoritism for private schoolers.

As City Room reports: "For the second time in two years, a justice in State Supreme Court has ruled that the Bloomberg administration had improperly struck a deal with 20 private schools to provide them with priority in using athletic fields on Randalls Island in exchange for $45 million." Well, you gotta gives the Bloombergistas some credit for tenacity, no?

Well, apparently the judge in the case wasn't as forbearing: "In the decision Tuesday, Justice Marilyn Shafer of State Supreme Court in Manhattan rejected the city’s revised deal with the private schools, saying it, too, was improper because it did not go through a public review. Justice Schafer excoriated the Bloomberg administration, saying its arguments were “audacious,” demonstrating “more daring than logic” She ordered the city to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees and costs."

Juan Gonzales at the Daily News, who has been right on top of this story also weighs in on the court's decision: "Until now, Bloomberg has allowed only the Franchise and Concession Review Committee, a body he controls, to vote on the deal. Shafer's decision, which echoes a ruling last year by Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich, means the mayor will have to put the Randalls Island contract before the Council...The judge not only ordered that the entire plan go through the normal land use review in the Council, but she also struck down the city's claim that no Environmental Impact Assessment is needed, a review that measures a project's effect on an area."

Ah, what a difference four years makes. Unlike in the BTM case, the courts seem more willing to challenge-and overturn-Bloomberg's audacity. And the city charter, in danger of being relegated to mayoral toilet paper, is being restored. As one East Harlem resident told Gonzales: ""I'm thrilled," said Marina Ortiz, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and the head of East Harlem Preservation Inc. "Now, the East Harlem community will have a better chance for more direct input in how these fields that are part of our neighborhood are used," Ortiz said."

You know, if this keeps up, we may have to take back our disappointment in the mayor's purchase of a third term-Bloomberg III may be the gift that keeps on giving. And our buddy Norm Siegel, just as he was in the Columbia court smacking- was right in the middle of this: “It’s a major win,” said Norman Siegel, a lawyer for opponents of the city’s plan. “The city shouldn’t give a priority to people merely because they can pay for the use of public land. That discriminates against those who can’t pay to use the public land. We’re not saying the private schools can’t use the fields, just that everyone should be treated equally when it comes to public land.”

And hats off to another old friend, Geoff Croft of the NYC Park Advocates organization, who led the way. Croft has been in the forefront of the lonely battle to insure that the Bronx parkland stolen to make way for the new Yankee Stadium is replaced in a timely fashion; and he was an ally on the BTM fight as well, so he really deserves the victory on this-and on the bill he has helped to pass to make sure that more local representation is mandated on park conservancies.

And, with a special holiday shout out to the mayor, Croft gets the last ho, ho, ho: “I hope this forever puts an end to the city’s pay-to-play schemes,” said Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates, a group dedicated to protecting city parklands. “These parks are supposed to be for the public, not just those who can afford to play on them.”