Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fire Deaths on the Rise

The Daily News is reporting that deaths from fires have spiked in the last year. The spike, however, comes after a year that recorded the lowest fatality level since 1919. The important point to emphasize here is that fire safety, much like national security, is the preparedness against the unexpected. Just when it appears that you might be able to get away with a little less manpower something catastrophic occurs.

That is why we have disagreed with the mayor's firehouse closures and why we think that the City Council needs to be particularly vigilant in the coming year if the mayor revisits the issue of fire house closures. As we have argued elsewhere the city needs to commission a full siting study to determine the extent to which current house locations may be anachronistic and whether other neighborhoods may need additional fire protection resources.

Whines and Laments (con't)

As we said yesterday, the complaints made by former candidate Ferrer and his erstwhile friend and advisor Roberto Ramirez about the "unfairness" of the media, sans any mea culpas, only open them up to the accusation of sour grapes. Today in the Daily News Michael Goodwin obliges them by saying that Freddy's complaints "proved beyond doubt that he is not fit to be mayor."

This is unduly harsh but, given Goodwin's previous observations about Ferrer and his lionization of the mayor, quite unsurprising. What both Freddy and Goodwin leave out of course is that the major unfairness lies in monetary disparities. The fact that this 800 pound gorilla remains unacknowledged by Goodwin says a great deal about his own "fitness."

As we all know, incumbency confers an automatic home court advantage and for a challenger to overcome it he or she must have substantial resources. People need a rationale to change horses and inertia, in other words, the devil I know, is a powerful force in politics. Without any major mishaps the general public will be reluctant to shift.

That being said, spending $75 million for a saturation bombing ad campaign can create an even greater degree of reluctance to change and can even transform a charismatically challenged and hard-to-warm-up-to official into someone of almost Olympian stature.

What else explains the fact that in his three years Bloomberg never was able to break the 50% approval mark yet soared into the high 60s after his expensive re-introduction to the voters? Add to this unrelenting media barrage the inability of the cash-strapped challenger to go after the incumbent's negatives which, after the stadium fiasco, were ripe for the underscoring.

Not only was Freddy cash poor he was facing someone who, if he could spend $75 million on cotton candy ads, could spend another $20 million or so in negative retaliation ads. It is at this point that there is a legitimate complaint to be made about the media's role in the campaign. It appears to us that it should have gone all out, in the interest of the public, to try to level the playing field, to get behind the Bloomberg sea shells and balloons in an attempt to balance the one-sided narrative saturating the airwaves.

Certainly Michael Goodwin never even attempted this, which was his right as a columnist. His paper, however, could have done a better job at a more aggressive deconstruction of the mayor's good news miasma. It not only didn't do this but it seemed to us to skew in the opposite direction. Its reviews of the mayor's first term were unfailingly flattering and we don't remember any hard-hitting exposes of anything that the mayor did.

In fact, when Bill Egbert had spent months on the questionable BTM deal the News' editors truncated the story and ghettoized it out of the main section and into relative harmlessness. In addition, the editors saluted the "highly competent" Dan Doctoroff (the BTM deal's midwife) in the paper's canonization of the mayor's second term.

All of which gets lost when Ferrer and Ramirez start to whine about the unfairness of the media. They're simply the wrong messengers and distract from the legitimate focus on the press' failure to forcefully perform as a necessary democratic corrective in the past campaign.

Who's to Blame?

In a follow-up to yesterday's post on Freddy's lament about who's to blame for his mayoral loss, it is important to take a look at some of his complaints. The reality, however, is that when you get blown out there is a great deal of blame to go around. It's unlikely that any single factor can be used to explain the defeat.

Let's take a look at the issue of a biased news media. No one has been more critical of the press than we have. Our point has been that, given the mayor's obscene spending, it was incumbent on the press to go after some of his canned messages with an even greater degree of tenacity than it might normally have done under different circumstances.

This it certainly didn't do. In fact, we'd agree with Ferrer/Ramirez that Freddy's mistakes were examined with a greater degree of aggression than Bloomberg's. It is however true that the skillful nature of the mayor's packaged and staged campaign obviated any real gothcha bloopers on the order of the Diallo fiasco.

Media does tend to focus on gaffes and what this campaign needed was a level of analysis that the local press is not likely to do. Our argument has been that the mayor was creating an abnormal situation that demanded more from the media than it was willing or perhaps capable of doing. It needed to aggressively deconstruct the canned messages (the recent news about job losses in October might have been available if someone other than Jennifer Steinhauer had been digging around in this area).

That being said it is also true that Freddy was as lackluster a candidate you could find this side of David Dinkins. There was no underlying élan and, making matters worse, no strong policy message either. This was not the kind of adversary needed to go after the charisma-challenged Bloomberg. What this meant was that the campaign and the candidate did little to set the media wolves going. They might have been reluctant warriors but Freddy's somnambulance allowed them to lay back on the mayor.

Which brings us to the whole Atlantic Yards issue. As we have said before, Freddy had a much better case with the sweetheart deal at the Bronx Terminal Market than with the FCRC/Nets project. The BTM was a project that had this administration's fingerprints all over it and Freddy had lockjaw, afraid to ruffle the feathers of some of his supporters.

He could have made the break with the Bronx machine on this, a declaration of independence that would have at the same time exposed the myth that the mayor was not beholden to the special interests. In the end Freddy was ironically more beholden than the mayor. Sadly, as the brief foray that Anthony Weiner made on the BTM issue demonstrated, the NY Times was ready to follow up on its strong expose of the deal if only they had a willing dance partner.

All of this is of course an exercise in finger pointing that we believe is ultimately futile. The bottom line for us is, "It's all about the Benjamin’s." Given the mayor's record expenditures it's unlikely that Freddy could have won, even with a flawless campaign. Interestingly, this is the one thing that Freddy doesn't emphasize in yesterday's article, and it is the one righteous foundation for him to be complaining from.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Freddy's Lament

In a story in today's Times Freddy Ferrer discusses all of the factors that led to his twenty point defeat. Absent are any mea culpas. Now we agree with a number of points he makes but think that the timing of his remarks will only lead to the conclusion that his analysis is pure sour grapes. As for Roberto, his finger-pointing should be done in front of a mirror.

Yankee $tadium: The New Park and Ride

In today's Crain's Insider Anne Michaud reports that there is growing community opposition to the Yankee Stadium redevelopment plan. The folks at Save Our Parks have collected over 4,000 signatures from neighborhood people who are upset with the proposed elimination of 22 acres of parkland and their replacement with greenspace over garages.

Helen Diane Foster, one of the local councilmembers who has been the most forthright opposing not only the uninviting land-swap but also the disenfranchisement of the local community by the Yankees. Though some criticize the Atlantic Yards CBA for not involving enough of the impacted area and for "buying" the support of certain groups those in the Southwest Bronx would welcome such attention from the Yankees.

Top be fair, however, it was the Save Our Parks group that explicitly ridiculed any CBA for the Yankees project, saying that you can't have a community benefits agreement if a development has no community benefit. It remains to be seen whether the parkland issue can be fairly resolved without legal challenge.

What is clear is that the Yankee Stadium deal and the BTM development will, in combination, have a far-reaching impact on the local communities but the level of oversight has been, charitably, less than adequate.

A Philadelphia Story

As we’ve briefly discussed in other posts, the City of Philadelphia requires all commercial establishments with dumpsters to also install food waste disposers. Because Philadelphia’s sewer infrastructure is similar to New York’s – it too is very old, relies on waste water treatment plants has combined sewer system – we were especially interested to learn both the impetus for grinder mandate and its impacts. To obtain this information we talked to both Debra McCarty, the Philadelphia Water Department’s Deputy Commissioner of Operations and Tom Healy, the Department’s Industrial/Commercial Waste chief.

Before discussing the impacts, it is important to relate the genesis of Philly’s disposer decision. According to Mr. Healy, a native New Yorker who has been with his unit since the late 1960s, the Streets Department (which handles both water and sanitation services) became increasingly concerned with the public health threat of putrescible food waste being thrown into dumpsters. Not only did the juices from the rotting fruits and vegetables leak onto the street but rodents and other vermin were attracted to the refuse. As Healy mentioned to us in a phone interview:
There was an obvious public health benefit to the program so we [the Water Department] saw no reason to object.
Therefore, in the mid 1990s, Philadelphia passed the aforementioned law to remedy a public health menace and, based to our conversations, the legislation has been successful to that effect. But the question of impacts still remains. Remember, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYC DEP), along with a number of environmental groups, concede that there are some benefits but still largely oppose commercial grinders because, they say, the negative environmental impacts outweigh any benefits. Again, let’s look to Philadelphia for guidance.

When asked about the possible negative effects of grinders, Deputy Commissioner McCarty responded that her department has witnessed no such consequences. In fact, according to McCarty water use has not increased noticeably, increased nitrogen loads are not a problem, sewer pipes have not been adversely affected and the waste water treatment plants are still operating efficiently, removing 95% - 98% of suspended solids. As for the question of whether grinders will lead to increased sewer overflows (CSO), the Commissioner said that CSOs are a problem for a system like Philadelphia’s (and therefore New York’s) but that grinders have very little bearing on the issue.

Both McCarty and Healy also mentioned the benefits of the grinder mandate in terms of recycling. After the waste is shipped via the water stream and processed at a treatment plant it is turned into a recyclable biosolid. Philadelphia uses/sells this end product for composting, soil enrichment, mine reclamation and a variety of other uses. Healy specifically pointed out that that a higher percentage of organic material in the waste stream results in a better quality, more valuable biosolid.

Almost as interesting as the benefits (and lack of negative impacts) of disposers is the fact that no one from the NYC DEP has bothered to contact Philadelphia about its experiences. Despite the fact that Philly has a similar sewer system, the DEP has not reached out to either Healy or McCarty. It seems the agency is so steadfastly opposed to the use of commercial grinders that it isn’t going to let facts or real world data from other cities interfere with its predetermined conclusions.

It also appears that so-called environmentalists, such as the NRDC’s Eric Goldstein, are basing their strident resistance to a commercial disposer pilot program on less than sturdy grounds. The Philadelphia example demonstrates that many of the environmental concerns are unfounded (as the DEP also demonstrated in its report on residential disposers), and that, at the very least, the impacts of commercial grinders should be tested in NYC. If the NRDC and other such groups are so confident about their dire predictions then why are they opposing a pilot that would test them? Is it, perhaps, that these apocalyptic assertions are based on flimsy or non-existent evidence? Is it, perhaps, that in the end the pilot will show that commercial grinders will not only have a de minimis impact on the sewers but will also greatly benefit the city in terms of public health and cost efficiency?

Philadelphia’s Deputy Commissioner McCarty sums up it best. After mentioning to her the objections to grinders among certain NYC environmental groups she responded:
I consider myself an environmentalist and in my opinion – I have a PhD in environmental engineering and have been working in this field for over 20 years – it is environmentally more responsible to send our waste through the sewer than to a landfill.
Hopefully, all relevant New York City elected officals and agencies will realize this as well and allow for the expeditious passage of the commercial grinder pilot program, Intro 742.

NRDC in NYC: (N)ot (R)eally (D)evoted to (C)onservation

Since the legalization of residential garbage disposers, NYC has been able to divert thousands of tons of garbage from exporting and landfilling. This in spite of the fact that the NRDC's Mark Izeman labeled the use of disposers as "a costly solution to a non-existent problem." One wonders what environment he's talking about. Since when did the exporting and landfilling of the city's solid waste become a "non-existent problem"? And as for the expense it is darn sure more expensive to continue with this methodology today that it was back in 1997 when Izeman first made his comment.

What's even more inexplicable is that NRDC's chief scientist, Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, has publicly endorsed the use of disposers saying that organic garbage produces microorganisms that act on other materials in a landfill so that they also release air emissions, some of them carcinogenic. He noted, "Basically you do not want wet organic garbage in a landfill...Landfills should be kept dry"(Science Times, 9-07-2004).

So Izeman (and Eric Goldstein), what's up with your continued intransigence? We know that in the most perfect world everyone would have their little compost bin and your friendly neighborhood composter would come around on his/her bicycle to collect from the entire village. In NYC, however, this idyllic situation simply doesn't exist and the use of disposers is the best real world and environmentally sound solution.

Update: We stumbled upon the transcript from the first Speaker's debate where Joel Rivera, sponsor of the pilot program Intro, makes a good, succint case for grinders:
Third, I actually have a bill called the grinders bill, which would in effect take away 40 percent of the organic waste going into our landfills. It’s in effect in other major municipalities, it would be a tremendous plus for our city, and I think we should implement it as soon as possible. I would urge the other members of the city council to join me and to pass this very important bill.

Garbage Grinders: Deja Vu All Over Again

The current debate over the installation of commercial garbage disposers is eerily reminiscent of the debate that took place in the mid-90's over the legalization of residential disposers. Then, like now, there was some reluctance on the part of the city's DEP and some vociferous opposition from the folks over at the National Resources Defense Council. The resistance resulted in the city conducting a pilot program that demonstrated incontrovertibly that disposers would not have any negative impact on the sewer and waste water infrastructure.

At the time there was also a great deal of editorial questioning about the city's sluggishness in regards to an appliance that was, in the words of the NY Times, "common everywhere else." In fact, as the paper pointed out at the time, New York "remains the only major city to ban the use of the kitchen garbage grinder..."(6-22-92).

In 1995 the City Council held hearings on the legalization of the disposers and opponents, just as in today's debate, stated that "all the ground up food would overwhelm the city's sewer system, causing backups and flooding (NY Times, 5-95). In response the DEP suggested that the Council should slow down and commission a pilot program. The DEP's chief engineer Nicholas Ilijic, during questioning at the council hearing, said that the city’s sewage treatment plants "were up to the job of handling food waste." He did recommend a pilot program.

The Department of Sanitation was especially enthusiastic. According to the Times story disposers "received a cheery approval" from the agency because of the amount of landfill avoidance that could be achieved through their use. DEP Commissioner Marilyn Gelber chimed in with "...the administration's position is that the use of food waste disposals could benefit New York City” (NY Times, 8-30-95).

Editorial Support

The issue of the efficacy of a pilot program was endorsed on two occasions by the New York Times. On September 18,1995 ("A Grinding Debate") and on July 9,1997 (“Let’s Dare to Dispose”), when the paper chided then Speaker Peter Vallone for being overly cautious, the Times pointed out that disposers made sense (and a pilot made even more so) from the standpoint of landfill avoidance, a position that has more urgency and is even more compelling today.

That is why the use of commercial disposers has now been endorsed editorially by both The New York Sun ("A Better Way to Deal With Garbage") and Crain's New York Business ("Why small firms feel trashed") As Crain's points out, "Prohibitions on commercial garbage disposals are anachronistic. The DEP's warnings seem exaggerated" (10-13-2003). This is even more so since we have gone from full legalization of commercial disposers to a pilot program.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Slam Dunk not Jump Ball

In yesterday’s Daily News, Michael O’Keefe examines the effort by FCRC to galvanize grassroots support for AY within Brooklyn’s amateur athletic community. The article does a good job of highlighting the depth of support that does exist for the project in the borough’s sports section. O’Keefe cites the Alliance’s Richard Lipsky, who is working on behalf of the developer,
One of the things that strikes me the most is the inherent, unstimulated enthusiasm for the project in Brooklyn.
What is curious, however, is the complaints of critics who claim that “Brooklyn’s hoops community better get something on paper before it’s too late.” It seems that Bruce Ratner can’t win either way. When goes out and invests in a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) he gets accused of buying off the community. On the other hand, when he reaches out to the amateur athletic community in an attempt at development a common agenda (without writing a six figure check) he gets accused of giving “needy” people false hopes.

All of this is captured in the article by our favorite sour grapes spokesman Vernon Jones (Jones had his own hand out but was rebuffed early on) who opines,
Why would Ratner care about the community after this is built?" he asks. "When this is done, Richard Lipsky will move on to his next job. Who will be accountable?
Jones’ comments are way off base. First, the FCRC has a long record of community involvement and Atlantic yards will be a development that will continue in this tradition. Second, the Nets will be coming to Brooklyn and anyone who understands sports marketing knows that for a franchise to be successful it needs to develop an attachment, a fan base in its marketing area. This leads, potentially, to a mutually beneficial partnership between the Brooklyn Nets and the borough where the team will play.

What makes the Nets situation unique, however, is the existing depth of support for the sport of basketball and the commitment of FCRC to youth development. The goal here is to have the team act as a catalyst for the use of sports as a means to an end – academic achievement, career advancement good citizenship – rather than simply and end in itself.

Unaccountable Development

While we're on the subject of accountable development it is useful to contrast the Atlantic Yards project with what's going on in the Bronx. Unlike FCRC's effort the two Bronx developments that are now going through ULURP – Gateway Mall and the Yankee Stadium redevelopment – are moving forward with scant regard for any community concern.

In particular, while Bruce Ratner is being accused of purchasing community support, Related and the Yankees are shopping in an alternative venue: politicians. The community has simply been seen as an afterthought and it has been left to the BP and various councilmembers to "engage" the impacted neighborhoods.

All of this is underscored by the uproar that has been created by the plan to alienate Mullaly and McCombs Dam parks. At the meeting of Community Board #4 (which voted 16-8 against the plan) there was only one person out of 36 who testified in favor of the Yankees' scheme to steal neighborhood green space.

What is being missed in all this controversy, however, is the fact that the Yankee and the Bronx Terminal Market projects are being evaluated separately. What this means, aside from the typical self-serving nature of much of what passes for environmental analysis, is that the cumulative impact of the two largest developments in the history of the Bronx is not being properly studied.

This is crucial precisely because of the fact that the impacted neighborhoods are part of what is known as "asthma alley." It is hard to credit elected officials for the seriousness of their concern about this situation when they remain quiescent when it comes to the influx of hundreds of thousands of additional car and truck trips through the community every week.

It seems that Councilmember Helen Foster and Assemblyman Michael Benjamin are the only local electeds without a case of lockjaw when it comes to what is going down here. In yesterday's Daily News piece, Foster said that George Steinbrenner ought to be ashamed, "This is the richest team in baseball taking parks from one of the poorest communities in the country...The Yankees are not perceived as friends of this community." It does appear that the Yankees, and Related as well, are undeterred by such criticism, since they feel that they have all the friends they're ever going to need.

Atlantic Yards, Eminent Domain and Accountable Development

Last Friday Errol Louis had a thoughtful piece on eminent domain that questioned the legislative effort, now wending its way through Congress, that would restrict the use of condemnation to only the narrowest interpretation of what constitutes “public use.”

Louis’ approach is that Eminent Domain can be a constructive way to resurrect areas that are seen as blighted. From this perspective he sees Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project as a proper use of condemnation because,
nearly 26,000 people – 27% of the overall population [in CB#8] - receive welfare, food stamps or some other form of public assistance.
Given the extent of the blight, Louis argues that the overall public good shouldn’t be stymied by a “handful of people.” And, as far as Atlantic yards goes, we agree with this position. We also see the effort of Forest City to engage a broad section of the community as a positive step towards the creation of a city-wide standard for accountable development.

We do, however, disagree with Errol’s apparent position that the current eminent domain law is fine as it stands. Not all developments, indeed, not all developers are the same. In the case of Atlantic Yards we may see a good example of the legal maxim: “good cases make bad law.” Existing condemnation law in New York needs to be changed, with greater procurement for property owners and tenants. In addition, we would argue strenuously that any proposed use of eminent domain be accompanied by the implementation of an accountable development methodology that insures transparency and the greatest return for public investments in a project.

Miram and BJ's

Rumor has it that the Miram Group, fresh from its inspired campaign work with the Ferrer campaign, has been signed up to promote BJ's in the Bronx. We remember a time when Roberto Ramirez wouldn't have come anywhere near this kind of a project (yes, we must be getting old). At least he gets to join forces with his former chief-of-staff, Jamie Van Bremer, who is spearheading the lobbying effort for YNY.

I guess we should take this all as a supreme compliment. All of these heavy weights are definitely necessary since each of the Speaker candidates has said that the business tactics and practices of a company should be an important consideration in any ULURP application. Nothing these folks can do, however, will make BJ's a more responsible employer.

Update: We received a call from Paul Brickman, BJ's head of real estate development in the New York Metro area, who denied contracting with Miram (a smart move, if true).

Yankees Stay Home

The uproar over the Yankee Stadium redevelopment plan continues. The folks at Save Our Parks are dutifully chronically what appears to be the misadventures of the Bronx BP. Adolfo it seems didn't wait even a day to pour cold water on the anti-development vote at CB#4 (16-8). Unswayed by negative community sentiment, he told the NY Post that the Yankee Stadium project would be "the single largest investment in the Bronx in probably more than a hundred years..."

Still we can't help but wonder at the lack of sensitivity to neighborhood folks who are fighting to protect their precious green space. In addition, the discrepancies between the BP's plan and the one that was unveiled last week by the NYC Parks Department should at least be a cause for discretion from the Bronx's highest elected official. It certainly is not a good signal to all of those Queens people who fired salvos at the plan to bring the Jets to Flushing Meadow.

The protection of parkland is not simply a parochial issue. Moreover, the "development at any and all cost" perspective is going to become a hot-button political issue in the next few years, with accountable development legislative initiatives moving to center stage. Carrion cannot advance his own political interests by being seen as totally under the thrall of the development community.

Food Waste Disposer Opposition: Anti-business and Antideluvian

In an item in this week's Crain's Insider Eric Goldstein, of the National Resources Defense Council, announces that he is going to go all out to prevent the passage of a pilot program for the installation of commercial food waste disposers. This is the same forward-thinking fellow who stood staunchly against the pilot program proposed for the residential use of disposers in the mid-90s, an opposition that proved to be utterly without merit as the study pursuant to the experiment demonstrated.

Having been shown to be needlessly and erroneously alarmist in the first instance has not daunted the ideologically rigid Mr. Goldstein. Eric is rapidly becoming one of usual suspects when it comes to standing in the way of developing cost-effective and environmentally sound ways to dispose of NYC's waste.

This predictable obscurantism doesn't worry us. What does concern us is that so much of the opposition to disposer use remains implacably (and virulently) anti-business. On numerous occasions we have been asked, "Why should the city pay for the disposal of the private sector's trash?" This is of course one of those short-sighted and jaundiced outlooks that can only see private enterprise as a public benefit when it comes to raising revenue for government.

When taxes are to be raised, the private sector becomes the public trough. But if God forbid these same taxpaying businesses petition their government for some redress then the hue and cry from the anti-business crowd threatens to drown out anyone who dares to defend the interests of the private sector.

Now it just so happens that the private sector in question when it comes to food waste disposers in NYC is overwhelmingly minority-owned supermarkets, green grocers and restaurants, part of the 186,000 Mom-and-Pop firms that drive the city's economy. When it comes to these hard-working immigrant entrepreneurs the Eric Goldsteins of the world simply say, "Drop Dead, your health and welfare is of no concern to us."

Elitism and the Environment

What the NRDC folks fail to realize is that the environment is a lot more than the fate of the algae in the Jamaica Bay (the unproven claim that nitrogen from food waste will threaten that ecosystem). The environment also encompasses neighborhood public health. It is the poor communities of color that are threatened by the rat epidemic and asthma that are exacerbated by rodent and insect droppings (stimulated by stored putrescible waste).

This is why the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has implemented a garbage disposer pilot program of its own in two city housing projects. This is also why the Department of Sanitation has initiated "Operation Dumpster," a program that prohibits the outdoor storage of garbage because of its threat to public health and why the city of Philadelphia mandates the use of commercial food waste disposers for any business applying for a dumpster permit.

Therefore it is no accident that the strongest support for Intro 742 comes from the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the City Council. These legislators are aware of the menace posed by stored food waste in their communities. The insensitivity of Mr. Goldstein on this issue is truly monumental. We find it hard to believe that the NRDC wants to put itself in this position (especially since its chief scientist, Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, has been fairly positive about the use of disposers).

Mama Mia is Survey Shallow

In response to the Crain's article on Wal-Mart's receeding hopes on Staten Island, the company's intrepid spokesperson Mia Masten replies in a letter that in spite of the thrust of the Crain's story, Staten Islanders feel that "Wal-Mart is one of their favorite shopping destinations." This, as we have constantly mentioned, is a non sequitor.

The issue, as our forum in Totttenville demonstrated, is the store's location in the community and, as Richard Lipsky commented in the SI Advance the store's overall appeal may make it even less palatable for the host community. It is always about the site, especially when it comes to communities like Tottenville.

It is also true that the various Tottenvilles in NYC are relatively immune to the blandishments of the bogus CBA's that are the favorite tactic of the booty capitalists in some of the city' poorer neighborhoods. As an astute community activist once remarked to us, "If there's no community benefit what's the point of a community benefit agreement?"

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Gotham Grocery Shoppimg

Our friends at the Gotham Gazette have just posted an article by Gail Robinson about the paucity of grocery stores in NYC's poorer neighborhoods and the relative lack of healthy food options at those stores that are there. A number of misconceptions in the piece deserve to be addressed.

In particular the Gazette story makes the claim that "some poor neighborhoods lack even a simple medium sized grocery store." This is simply not true. In every city neighborhood you will find medium sized C-Towns, Pioneers, Bravos or Associateds. In fact just check out the EIS that was done on behalf of the developer of the proposed South Bronx Gateway Mall. Scores of stores are listed in the three mile trade area (or consult our own impact analysis for the East Bronx BJ's).

This is true all over the city. One of the more interesting observations on this issue came from our discussions with Kathy Wylde who now heads the NYC Partnership but who had previously headed up the Partnership's housing and neighborhood business development section. Wylde told us that what surprised her was that in every neighborhood that the Partnership looked to encourage greater retail growth to accompany their new housing she found a renovated supermarket.

The reality is that today's independent supermarkets represent a success story that is still largely unacknowledged. There are over 4oo of these markets that are owned and operated by an enterprising group of Dominican immigrants who, in partnership with wholesalers like Krasdale and White Rose, took over and renovated the store units that were abandoned by national chains fleeing the city in the wake of the urban disorders of the 1970s.

The lionization of LISC and its Retail Initiative, an effort that begat the East Harlem Pathmark, misses the way in which these folks completely overlooked the existing supermarkets in the area. In fact the former head of LISC told us when we met with the organization that he hadn't even realized that those stores were there. There is a residue of this lack of recognition in the Robinson story.

Then there is the issue of price. If you refer to our megastore section on the website you will find that the proponents of the Guiliani rezoning plan also forwarded the "poor pay more for less" argument. We thoroughly deconstructed this urban myth by demonstrating that on the contrary it was the rich, on the East and West Sides of Manhattan, who paid more. Not only that, we showed that the independent markets were often underselling the chains, and this was confirmed by the city's HRA's "Diets and Dollars" newsletter.

It is also important to address the issue of health. Focusing on bodegas isn't a fair way to understand the problem. The bodega is a small store with only limited selling space. In addition, it is a convenience store that needs to sell high margin items in order to survive. It is also enmeshed in a neighborhood's consumer demands. It is unrealistic to expect the bodeguero to be a health trend-setter.

The demand for the full range of healthy food products that you see in the more middle-class areas is reflected in the store offerings in those neighborhoods. If the various health organizations and activists, working with neighborhood stores, are able to reeducate low-income consumers then you will see a rapid change in the store inventory in those areas. It is simply supply and demand and not any sinister plot to create poor obese children (similar to the accusations that beer companies were marketing the heavier alcohol content malt liquor to Black and Latino neighborhoods).

A full study of the NYC food industry is long overdue. Such a study needs to focus on historical trends, income and store distribution, range of goods offered, as well as price differentials that may or may not exist. The worthwhile effort to encourage healthier eating patterns should be a collaborative effort and shouldn't rest on the erroneous demonization of hard-working, risk-taking immigrant entrepreneurs.

John Stossel, "Give Us a Break!"

We just came across a piece defending Wal-Mart that was done by ABC's resident iconoclast John Stossel. Our only response is that John is out of his depth when it comes to social commentary and in trying to get a handle on the Wal-Mart situation he needs to have a better understanding of the economic and social implications of the Walmonster phenomenon.

Our own particular grievance is that Stossel sees an unbridled capitalism as an unquestioned good, even going so far as to give props to John D. Rockerfeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt who, he believes, were unfairly criticized "as evil." Our only reply: "Give me a break!" In defending the robber barons Stossel comments that those who condemned them were rarely "consumers."

This only demonstrates the absurdity of trying to transpose a conversation from one century to another. Consumers weren't in the midst of the complaints against the robber barons but, just as with the case with Wal-Mart, workers certainly were. It also makes little sense to compare the period of aggressive capitalist expansion with the current era of the system's maturation. What might have been necessary 150 years ago doesn't have to be an inflexible feature of the current capitalist model.

Of course Stossel also overlooks the fact that, in response to the early phase of monopoly capitalism, government developed certain policy responses designed to ameliorate the system's rough edges. Anti-trust laws, workman's compensation, social security etc…, were implemented precisely because a totally unfettered capitalism posed dangers that simply weren't acceptable then and certainly are not so today.

Stossel goes on to caricature all of Wal-Mart's opponents as simply envious of wealth: "Wal-Mart's critics act as if economic competition were a zero-sum game-if one person gets richer someone else must get poorer." This is quite simply a straw man. The Alliance is certainly not anti-capitalist.

We believe, however, in a system of competition that allows for a level playing field. A level playing field means that one competitor is not allowed to use the free enterprise system to effectively eliminate competition. If left to its own devices this is precisely what Wal-Mart will gleefully do.

As for Stossel's comments on the Wal-Mart workforce, well he really needs to get better and less biased information. Using the Cato Institute as his guide he says that none of the Wal-Mart workers were "drafted." He continues: "That means that if they're working there, presumably, that was the best job they could get." Undoubtedly!

What the Stossel/Cato argument leaves out is the fact that Walmartization of the retail sector displaces tens of thousands of jobs that did provide the salaries and benefits that the world's largest retailer chooses not to make available to its "associates." Left out as well was the fact that since Wal-Mart has made its foray into groceries in the past decade over 13,000 supermarkets were disappeared, putting an entirely different spin on the "best job they could get" argument.

Maybe if Stossel starts to re-evaluate his position on Wal-Mart, using sources that aren't so ideologically restricted, we will be able to turn on "20/20" in the near future and watch as the show's anchor confronts the Bentonville behemoth with one of his patented-"Give Me a Break"- putdowns. Open your eyes John you're too good for this kind of knee-jerk analysis.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Crain's Casts Doubt on S.I. Wal-Mart

In the continuing reaction to the successful community forum in Tottenville last week, Crain's New York Business is reporting about Wal-Mart's "receding" ($) hopes for its Richmond Valley location. This definitely makes us feel good but we've learned over the years to listen more closely to the Yogi Berra observation ("It's never over till it's over") than to newspaper accounts of events, no matter how encouraging they might be.

Our experience has been that well-heeled retailers and developers are not easily discouraged and are at their most dangerous right at the moment you think that they're on the run. These situations are fluid and the one in Staten Island is no exception.

Our sources are telling us that while Councilman Lanza may be opposed to the current prospective location he would not be loath to come up with what he would feel to be a better site in his district for a store that he has praised. Vigilance and community-Alliance cooperation is the key thing to maintain at this juncture.

One aspect of the Crain's story that deserves mention is the survey that demonstrated what we had alleged all along: "...Wal-Mart was not residents' main reason for going to New Jersey to shop. Rather they went to patronize higher-end stores, buy cheaper gas and save on the sales tax." The so-called sales slippage argument is definitely more slippery than big box opponents make it out to be.

Where Oh Where Did My Parkland Go?

The machinations around the Yankee Stadium development may have ramifications for the BTM merchants. In Saturday's Post story it was reported that the Park's Department was planning to tear down the current stadium and replace it with the lost park land eliminated for the new Yankee Stadium. As a spokesman said, "That space is big enough for three ballfields..."

What this all means is unclear since a swath of land that is part of the current BTM footprint is also being set aside as a replacement for the parkland being lost to the Yankees. If so, then it might be possible to keep the merchants on the existing site. It might also allow for the promulgation of the vision that Chelsea Markets founder Irwin Cohen has for an International Wholesale-Retail Market that would feature some of the exotic fare that is currently sold at the BTM.

That being said, the current ULURP application for the Gateway/BTM project does include the aforementioned parkland. Does this mean that EDC, the lead agency on Gateway, doesn't know what Parks is up to?

The issue of the landmark status of Yankee Stadium also needs to be clarified. In the same Post piece, the Landmarks Commission is quoted as saying that Yankee Stadium is of "'no architectural significance.'" Still to be heard from, however, is the community. According to the Bronx Voices for Equal Inclusion’s Greg Bell, the overwhelming local sentiment is to renovate the existing ballpark, keeping it at its current location.

Yankees Go (Stay) Home

In a raucous community meeting last week in the Bronx, over 275 community residents came out to a forum at the Bronx HS of Law, Government and Justice. The outpouring of concern was over the Yankee Stadium redevelopment plan that would, among other things, eliminate most of McCombs Dam and Mullaly Parks. In essence, to accommodate the new stadium current neighborhood green space would be eliminated and replaced with smaller, divided parcels farther away (some even on top of parking garages).

What the meeting demonstrated was that there is a wide gap between the elected officials and the impacted neighborhood. Both BP Carrion and Yankee president Randy Levine were jeered by the assemblage and it was suggested to the Yankee president that he build his new stadium in Central Park (or in his own neighborhood).

The actions of elected officials confirm our sense that the Southwest Bronx community is severely disenfranchised. Now this phenomenon is not always the exclusive fault of an area's elected officials. It is often the case that endemic apathy and disillusionment in a locality gives the representatives carte blanche to make decisions without concern for the repercussions. It is also why an area's community board cannot always be confused with the real wishes of a neighborhood.

The Bronx is famous for this but we saw the same thing in Southeast Queens. There hundreds of homeowners were ignored as the area's electeds rushed to make side-deals with the Port Authority in exchange for supporting an Air Train project that went right through the community. Years of getting away with not having to consult with citizens becomes habitual and decisions are made unilaterally.

This is precisely what happened when all of the Bronx elected officials quietly agreed to sponsor legislation to alienate the Yankee Stadium parkland. In a parallel example, Queens electeds knew first contact their community and therefore floated the Jets to Flushing Meadows plan as a trial balloon. When the surrounding residents became outraged, the plan quickly lost steam. The Bronx neighborhoods around Yankee Stadium weren't as fortunate.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Talented and Gifted--NOT

The NY Post has an interesting editorial on the Department of Education’s plan for re-making the Talented and Gifted (T&G) programs in the city's schools. The editorial worries that the new plan (the old one was shot down by middle-class parents) will mean that standards will be watered down because of a concern for greater diversity.

Here is another example of an issue that demonstrates how the "not beholden to the special interests" argument is often simply nonsensical. So the mayor is supposedly not beholden. How does he decide what kind of T&G program is "best for New Yorkers?" There is simply no necessary connection between "not beholden" and the optimum policy decision.

Eminent Domain Redux

The Times has an interesting article this morning about the New London eminent domain case. It appears that the project that lead to the controversy has been stalled by a number of unforeseen problems, some that are no doubt due to the delay caused by the legal challenge brought by Kelo.

The Times also discusses some of the legislative backlash caused by the case, including the federal legislation that has been sent to the Senate. In a related Op-Ed piece in the Daily News, Dean William Treanor of the Fordham Law School worries about this legislative effort which he describes as a "blunderbuss" that would deprive officials of "an invaluable urban planning tool..."

Treanor does feel, however, that ED needs to be done with great care. He points to the Robert Moses-instigated urban renewal of the Lincoln Square area as an example of a wonderful planning effort that, at the same time, "involved real costs."

This is the point that we have been making. As Treanor admits, "Some urban renewal projects do more harm than good." The key is openness, transparency and accountable development because "the psychological loss of a home [or a business] is not compensated."

Lo and Beholden

Jim Rutenberg, who increasingly impresses us more and more with the kind of thoughtful reporting that the Times needs, has a very good piece on Sunday dealing with the mayor's second term. The story points out something that we hadn't dealt with in our numerous discussions of the mayor, special interests and the Public Good. It focuses on the need to be able to develop coalitions of interest if you want to achieve certain policy objectives.

This underscores just how shallow the entire "not beholden to special interest" sanctification of the mayor really is. In our earlier discussion of this kind of analysis, we pointed out that being divorced from special interests didn’t mean that the elected official was better situated to enact policy that was in the public interest. The issue here was: What criteria does a Mike Bloomberg, or any wealthy self-financed candidate, use to make decisions? (The "I only do what's best for the people" explanation simply begs the question).

What makes the Rutenberg piece so interesting is that it does focus on the decision-making process. The money quote here is,
"But associates said there was a downside to being free of the indignity of begging for money. It can be isolating...'What fundraising does is establish communication among powerful political interests,' said Kevin Sheekey, the mayor's campaign manager and longtime political strategist. 'We have to find new ways to establish contact with powerful political interests.'"
In other words, you can't make policy in a vacuum. You need to be able to form coalitions of interests in order to achieve difficult policy objectives. This means, however, that interests per se are not bad and the whole glorification of the mayor in this regard was superficial, if not wholly inane.

The one aspect of this discussion by Rutenberg that we would disagree with is the analysis that says that Mayor Mike was able to achieve the school takeover without having to engage in any special interest "horse trading." While this is true on the surface it tends to underplay the extent to which the entire initiative was essentially accomplished by the mayor's predecessor. It underplays the extent to which policy is always about managing the interplay of interests, which explains the mayor's failure to get anything helpful out of Albany (remember the farcical wooing of Shelly Silver on the Stadium issue?).

That being said, the mayor’s second term policy goals will necessitate not only coalition-building but also crisis management. Since Mike purchased such good will among a diverse set of groups he will now have to deal with deficits in a way that mitigates the pain to all of his newfound friends. And it is a lot easier, as Murray Edelman has pointed out, to dole out symbolic rewards to the many than it is to manage the more finite, tangible political benefits. A whole bunch of folks are likely feel let down and very disappointed.

Our Old Friend Jenny is Back and Guess what She Has Discovered

In what is really an eye-opening story in Saturday's NY Times, our old friend Jennifer Steinhauer has discovered a startling trend in the city's economy. It seems that the city lost 11,000 private sector jobs in October, "the greatest month-to-month job loss since 2003 (What happened to the Bloomberg "five borough economic development plan" that we were forced to hear about ad nauseam throughout the mayor's campaign ad blitz?).

We say startling because for those of us who have followed Steinhauer’s work we have never noticed this degree of doom and gloom (in fact some of her reporting could make rose-colored glasses look like pessimism). Now it certainly isn't clear when this particular gloomy trend was first noticed but, to borrow that great Watergate phrase, "What did she know and when did she know it?"

Now we know that we're using JS as our favorite whipping girl but we can't quite help ourselves because all throughout the Bloomberg barrage we were gnashing our teeth (and rolling our terrible eyes...) just waiting for the Times to do some hard-hitting deconstruction of the mayor's self-serving canned messages. That was something that Steinhauer never did, either at Room 9 or when she shifted over to the economy beat.

Her revelatory article, then, gives us a satisfying sense of expectation for the moment when the mayor is forced to come to grips with a $4.5 billion deficit in the middle of an economic downturn. Will the Times and the other media acolytes continue to sneer at the "conservative" critique of the Bloomberg tax, spend and regulate program? What will happen when the mayor is forced to balance next year’s budget? Will he really try to do "more with less?” And how will he accomplish that?

Our guess is that the anticipated canonization of Mayor Mike is going to have to be put on hold. The sound you're going to be hearing is that of the plunger as the Q-Ratings start to get flushed down the toilet and as the "I only do what's best for New Yorkers" mayor is exposed to be a less than the sterling crisis manger, an image reinforced by expensively purchased campaign advertisements and lapped up by the New York public and press. Again, it’s good to remember Coach Carnesecca’s aphorism: "peacock today, feather-duster tomorrow."

Garbage Grinders Gain Momentum

As more and more councilmembers begin to understand the importance of food waste disposers – in terms of both solid waste and public health policy – support for a commercial disposal pilot program (Intro 742) increases. At last count, 32 members had either signed or had verbally agreed to sign-on to sponsor the bill and we are confident that quite a few more will soon join their colleagues.

Friday's Crain's Insider reports that, in recognition of the public health benefits of disposers, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has embarked on a pilot program to install 18,000 disposers in city-owned apartments. Of even greater interest is the fact that the NYCHA installations are being bought and paid for by the Integrative Pest Management Division of the NYC Department of Health. It appears, then, that the city is operating at cross-purposes with itself.

In addition, the Alliance's Matt Lipsky has discovered that the city of Philadelphia, a municipality that mandatesthe use of food waste disposers for any commercial establishment that applies for a garbage dumpster permit, has had almost no negative experiences with the impact of disposers on that city's waste water and sewer infrastructure (yet as far as we've been able to tell NYC DEP has not bothered to examine the Philly experience in the context of their own strenuous opposition to disposer legalization in New York).

All this means is that there should be no one who opposes a pilot program in NYC. Those who do seem to be almost afraid of actually being shown up as plain wrong once their assumptions are put to a real world test.

Scurvy Survey

It is now becoming quite a fashionable pattern for developers, responding to the opposition to their questionable real estate ventures, to hire public opinion firms to "gauge" the desirability of projects they’re about to undertake. The latest in this genre of push polls is the one commissioned by Related for the proposed Gateway Mall.

As the Crain's Insider reported on Friday, Bronx residents support the construction of the mall by a whopping 61%-15%. This poll surveyed 400 registered voters and is eerily reminiscent of the various-Wal-Mart sponsored surveys that are designed to demonstrate the deep support that the store has in NYC.

What's fascinating here –we don't have the actual poll so we are force to extrapolate from the Crain's story – is the kinds of questions that were asked. Our favorite one: "Do you believe that the Bronx deserves the same kind of projects that other boroughs have enjoyed? (84% agree –Does this mean that 16% of those polled actually disagreed with this question?).

Also of interest was the "finding" (keep in mind we have no idea about the geographic spread of this survey instrument) that 76% of the respondents reported that they shop regularly outside of the borough. This contradicts the report about the Related survey in the Observer that found that only 7% of the people in the immediate neighborhoods surrounding the mall, went outside of the Bronx to shop.

What does this mean? It is quite likely that many Bronxites, but not those in the immediate vicinity of Gateway, do leave the city to shop. Will these intrepid travelers now stay and shop in a South Bronx mall that is going to be difficult to access because of the traffic congestion that the developer’s consultants have conveniently underestimated? Or will they, as residents of Staten Island have told us, continue to leave the city for a whole host of reasons?

Of course, the most interesting questions are those that weren't even asked. We just happen to have a few:

1) Do you believe that it is right to evict small businesses (who have operated in the area for years) without a viable relocation plan and without adequate compensation?

2) Do you think that it is fair to take city-owned land and turn it over to a good friend of the deputy mayor without the benefit of a public bidding process?

3) Do you approve of subsidizing a multi-billion dollar real estate company (yes the same one whose owner is the deputy mayor's former business partner) to build big box stores that are reportedly itching to break into the NYC market?

4) Do you believe that elected officials outside of the Bronx (like the leadership of the City Council) should exercise an oversight over a development that is utilizing tens of millions of dollars of tax payer subsidies? (Especially if it is determined that the developer in question, while never entering into any talks with local community leaders, has contributed thousands of dollars to said elected officials);

5) Do you believe that a development that hires traffic consultants who "find" that adding hundreds of thousands more car trips to the Deegan will not cause any traffic problems for Bronx motorists should be approved without any independent evaluation of the project's impact?
So it appears that the Related’s exercise in gauging public opinion is a contrived case of self-serving disinformation. Undoubtedly, this purported survey will now be parroted by spokespeople and assorted clingers-on, giving renewed meaning to the old expression: "one lies and the other swears to it."

Lanza Opposition to Wal-Mart Noted

In Saturday's NY Post Carl Campanile reports on the significance of Councilman Andrew Lanza’s opposition to the proposed Wal-Mart on the South Shore of Staten Island. In his story he relates that there is a "buzz saw" of opposition to the store from elected officials and community leaders because of the severe traffic congestion that already exists in the neighborhoods that surround the site.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Cigarettes Kill!

The Times reported yesterday that Angel Jimenez was gunned down in his Bronx apartment. It appears that he was engaged in a small black market business selling cigarettes that he purchased from an online (non-taxed) Indian website.

The death of Jimenez wasn't the first time that buttlegging has ended tragically. In the winter of 2003 two men were killed as a result of a street turf battle in Brooklyn over the sale of smuggled smokes. All of this comes from the 2002 passage of the Bloomberg "bodega" tax that raised the levy from .08/pack to $1.50/pack (an 1800% hike). This created such a wide price disparity that buttlegging has become epidemic.

The only elected official who is doing anything about a situation that is costing NYC's bodegas, delis, green grocers and newsstands $250 million a year is Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer has been cracking down on internet sales by going after the common carriers that ship the smokes. This leaves, however, the smugglers in place to continue with their street sales, a common practice in low-income neighborhoods.

The mayor and the police commissioner seem to be oblivious to the problem even though it has been shown that cigarette smuggling has become one of the more common methods terrorists are using to raise revenue. When the law was originally passed, Jose Fernandez of the Bodega Association complained that it would badly damage his stores. The mayor's famous response was, "It's a minor economic issue."

We wonder if the recently released job loss figures have any measure of employment losses in the city's retail sector. Our guess is that the administration's tax and regulatory policies have led to a depressing of neighborhood commerce all over New York City.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Wal-Mart and Illegal Immigrants

More bad news for the world’s largest retailer:

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Federal immigration agents arrested more than 100 workers at a construction site for a new Wal-Mart distribution center, authorities said.

The workers were detained Thursday on suspected immigration violations and were being taken to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers for processing, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Marc Raimondi said.

Speaker Race and Wal-Mart

As Jill Gardiner is reporting in today's NY Sun, ever single candidate for City Council Speaker said firmly that the business practices of a company like Wal-Mart should be a factor in the Council's land-use decision-making process. While we agree hardily with this position, it is useful to point out that it doesn’t jibe with the city's current CEQR guidelines.

Which is exactly why the newly constituted council should immediately begin changing the scope of the ULURP process to include a greater examination of a project's economic and social impacts. This would mean that the concept of accountable development , put forth nicely in legislation by Assemblyman Richard, Brodsky) needs to be incorporated into ULURP.

In addition, there needs to be a strong insistence that the Department of City Planning (DCP) actually plan. In other words, the practice of viewing projects discretely, without any reference to what is being constructed or planned for in contiguous areas, needs to end and be replaced by a more global planning approach to an entire sub-region.

As we have harped on, a reformed planning process should also prevent the review of project impacts from being conducted by developer-hired consultants. Doesn't the spectacle of dueling mental health experts at a criminal trial expose the ludicrousness of relying on paid testimony? This is especially true in ULURP since the DCP doesn't really do any meaningful substantive review and projects tend to move forward because of political considerations alone.

The Meaning of Tottenville

The community forum that was held in a driving rain on Wednesday in Tottenville on Staten Island is not the best harbinger for the prospects for Wal-Mart in NYC. The CYO hall was packed with over a hundred community residents and it is likely that the attendance would have been doubled if the weather wasn't so bad.

The Tottenville gathering does demonstrate a number of important points. In the first place Wal-Mart will have the most difficult time in middle class and working class homeowner communities. The Alliance's success over the years has been in these particular communities, neighborhoods concerned with quality of life issues such as traffic, crime, fire safety, tranquility, as well as the importance of neighborhood shopping.

Check out the record. We were first successful in Zarega-Morris Park in the early eighties at preventing the building of a large shopping center on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx (which later became a successful HIP Center). In Morris Park again a proposal to build a 60,000 sq. ft. supermarket on Bronxdale Avenue was defeated. Later shopping centers went down to defeat in Forest Hills, Canarsie, Astoria and Mill Basin.

The supreme example in this genre, however, was the defeat of the 500,000 sq. ft. Brooklyn Junction Mall in Bay Ridge, a project that propelled mall opponent, Conservative Republican Marty Golden, to his first elective office. Even when we lost a shopping center battle in Laurelton, Queens, it was only because the largely African-American homeowner community (and its councilmember and community board) were ignored and disrespected by City Council leadership.

The defeat in Laurelton does not mean that other communities can't successfully prevent the proliferation of box stores and suburban-style shopping centers. After all the Chelsea and Clinton neighborhoods said NO to Related's attempt to put two Costco's on the West Side (without any parking facilities) and Throggs Neck-Soundview did help to defeat a BJ's just this year. These types of neighborhoods present formidable barriers and because of these impediments are not susceptible to the blandishments of ersatz community benefits agreements.

From our varied experiences, we realize that Wal-Mart still presents a major challenge. Wal-Mart is going to find a community like Red Hook in Brooklyn – IKEA is set to build a huge store here – where the desperate need for jobs, aided and abetted by an ambitious booty capitalist or two, will make the siting of a Walmonster attractive. Just as clearly, Tottenville won't be such a site.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

BJ’s in the Bronx

Yesterday we, along with members of the RWDSU and UFCW unions, had a City Hall rally protesting the expansion of BJ’s into the Bronx. The two sites that the company is actively exploring are on Brush Avenue (where the application was already defeated in the Council) and in the redeveloped Bronx Terminal Market. The reason that BJ’s creates such antagonism is that, like Wal-Mart, the company is virulently anti-union – it arrested two female union organizers in its East NY store on trumped up shoplifting charges and illegally fired another union organizer in its Middle Village location – and threatens a number of the Bronx’s mostly minority owned independent supermarkets.

In his story today, the Daily News’s Bill Egbert highlights that James Vacca, the Councilman-elect in whose district Brush Avenue lies, has a number of concerns about the BJ’s application including traffic and the affect on small business:
"We have trouble retaining supermarkets in our area," said Vacca, "and the owner of one of our last two said if BJ's moves in, he's out of business."
This negative impact, one that went unaddressed in BJ’s application, is something that we analyze in our own economic impact analysis. Our basic conclusion is that BJ’s, as the largest food store ever built in the Bronx, would result in the closing of at least 4-5 area supermarkets, stores vital to the vitality of neighborhood shopping strips.

The other interesting aspect of Egbert’s piece is the fact that BJ’s is trying to weasel its way into the Bronx with the help of a so-called community benefits agreement (CBA). According to the News:

The chain recently resubmitted its application to the City Planning Commission and is hoping a community benefits agreement being hammered out by the borough's City Council delegation will stave off opposition this time around.

"We are currently in discussions with Bronx Council members about BJ's commitments on issues ranging from traffic improvements and wages to local hiring initiatives," said BJ's spokeswoman Amy Russ.

BJ's already has the support of Council Majority Leader Joel Rivera (D-Tremont) and the Bronx delegation's leader, Maria Baez (D-Morris Heights).
So not only is BJ’s negotiating a community benefits agreement without any community/labor/business representation but is doing so with councilmembers who don’t even represent the district! Does it make any sense for Maria Baez to be creating an agreement for the residents of Throggs Neck? And, as UFCW Local 1500 Lead Organizer Pat Purcell said at yesterday’s press conference, the actual terms of the document leave a lot to be desired; for example, the promise to address traffic impacts 1 year after the project opens. He also pointed out that it would be a shame if this fraudulent document crafted in a fraudulent process became a precedent for other employers wanting to enter/expand in the city.

Bronx 12 also coveredthe event and there’s a story in today’s Hoy (not online).

Related and Gateway: Can't We Just Change the Subject?

Can a company actually be thin-skinned? It appears that the Related Retail Corporation just might be. In a written response to Matthew Schuerman's article last week in the New York Observer the company objects to the negative characterization (from the Alliance's Richard Lipsky) of the Gateway Mall project.

What's interesting here is that Related's first bone of contention is Schuerman's speculation that the mall may have Wal-Mart as one of its tenants:
...the Related Retail Corporation has stated that there are absolutely no current plans for a Wal-Mart in the Gateway Center.
Notice the phrasing--"current plans."

The fact remains, as we have repeated constantly, that once the re-zoning of the property has been completed there are no impediments to the inclusion of any tenant, including Wal-Mart. The circumlocution of "no current plans" is, as Justice Holmes said of loyalty oaths, "Proof of loyalty to nothing but self-interest."

It is no wonder that Glenn Goldstein, Related's VP, wants to change the subject. As he says in his letter, "But the discussion here should not be about one tenant another." Well said Glenn. Related can't wait to get away from any discussion of its tenants and has purposefully avoided any revelations in this regard for the past year and a half. Any tenant disavowal by the company can be simply dismissed as self-serving.

On another front, Related makes an interesting point about the customers who will be able to avail themselves of the wonderful shopping opportunities at Gateway. Goldstein again:
Why shouldn't residents of the Bronx-who have the lowest car ownership of all the boroughs-have the same access to a retail center that offers substantial mass-transit options?
What's this? Is this the same Related whose consultants said in the EIS that a BJ's doing $60 million a year in food business wouldn't impact any local supermarkets because the low car ownership would keep neighborhood residents shopping close to home? Just another example of how the entire ULURP process is hot-wired with rigged "analysis" (and that goes double for the community board mandate).

Which brings us to the "overwhelming" community support for Gateway. Goldstein says that the project has 5-1 favorable rating. Can we ask who did this particular push poll? What were the questions asked? Who was asked? Would anyone print a self-serving poll done by a developer without taking it with an entire ocean of salt? This is the same company that never once met with any community reps but relied on the old greased poll method of political influence to get ahead.

Suffice it to say, no matter how much “support” the project has, the BJ's / Wal-Mart question will dog the application as it heads to the City Council next month.

Lanza Says No to Wal-Mart!

In a meeting last night, organized jointly by the Alliance, June Delaney of the Tottenville Civic Association, Dennis Dell’Angelo of the Pleasant Plains Civic and the inimitable Dee Vandenberg of the Staten Island Taxpayers Association, over 100 community residents, PTA representatives and small business owners came together because of the concern on the South Shore about the potential impact of a proposed Wal-Mart on Richmond Valley Road. The conclusion: No Wal-Mart, No Way.

The biggest news, however, was made by Councilman Andrew Lanza who, through his aide in attendance at the meeting, unequivocally came out against the siting of the Walmonster at this South Shore location. This is a major victory for the coalition that the Alliance has been working with for the past six months. It confirms what we have been saying all along: it's not necessarily about the store but more often than not it comes down to the location.

And special kudos to Andrew Lanza, certainly no reflexive opponent of Wal-Mart. Lanza realized that with the traffic nightmare that exists all over the Island, especially in his own council district, adding the tens of thousands of additional vehicular trips that Wal-Mart would certainly generate made absolutely no sense.

The general sentiment of the assembled groups was reinforced by a detailed professional traffic presentation given by Brian Ketcham. Brian analyzed not only the potential gridlock that the Wal-Mart site would create but also the nightmare scenario caused by adding Wal-Mart induced traffic to the additional car trips that will be forthcoming once the huge Bricktown Shopping Center is built less than a mile from the Wal-Mart location. In addition, as community leaders pointed out, even more retail development is being "planned" on the already heavily congested Page Avenue.

Some of the most poignant testimony came from David Rosenzweig, president of the Fire Dispatcher's Benevolent Association. Rosenzweig, a 37 year veteran of the FDNY is the man in charge of dispatching all of the emergency vehicles on Staten Island. David chillingly described the difficulties that would be created for emergency vehicle access if all of this additional traffic was added to the South Shore (A fire doubles in intensity every minute that suppression equipment is delayed in response).

All of this exactly what the Alliance envisioned when it began its organizing efforts (and outlined in the conservative case against Wal-Mart). Tottenville and the rest of the South Shore is no different than Zarega in the Bronx, Mill Basin in Brooklyn or Astoria in Queens, neighborhoods that resisted mega-development because of concerns with traffic and the quality of community life.

As we told Steve Greenhouse of the NY Times before he went out to investigate the prospects for Wal-Mart on Staten Island, it's not about the store but it is very much (as the real estate cliche says) about the location. All of which makes the prospects for a South Shore Wal-Mart an extremely uphill climb. If the most stalwart pro-business councilmember has his reservations think of how this site fight is going to fare in the pro-labor City Council.

Without the overwhelming support of the local community and its representatives this doesn't appear to be a fight that Wal-Mart can win. Certainly the company hasn't done much to help its cause. When company spokesperson Mia Masten describes a broad-based coalition of community opponents as "narrow special interests" it does little to engender goodwill on Staten Island. This fight is not over, but round one definitely goes to the community.

Update: The Staten Island Advance has a great story about last night's meeting, emphasizing that the purpose of the forum was not to bash Wal-Mart but to discuss pressing community impacts (traffic being the key). Interesting was the much more measured statement of Wal-Mart flak Mia Masten who said that Wal-Mart, "would have to conduct a traffic analysis and work with the [city] Department of Transportation regarding mitigation measures as part of the approval process." Hmmm, this is a lot different than her prior statement demonizing community residents as special interests bent on destroying consumer choice. Also, the Advance publishes this related story on the State DOT's planned 9-month study of the South Shore's traffic woes.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Read His Lips

It appears that the mayor, much like he did in 2002, is already backing away from his pledge to "do more with less" in favor of possible new taxes. As his press spokesman Jordan Barowitz says in today's NY Sun, "He never said 'I swear I won't raise taxes in the second term'...He never said that." Here we go again.

The mayor's first target of course is the commuter tax which, because it targets folks outside of the city, is generally popular. What the fans of this tax fail to realize is that the firms all of these commuters work for are already heavily taxed and this additional levy increases the burden on the companies and decreases their profitability.

The real issue, however, is that the commuter tax only goes so far to reducing a projected $4 billion deficit. What the mayor will do next is the intriguing question and the statements of his press aide should be seen as an ominous signal to city taxpayers.

If Bloomberg attempts to repeat the scenario of 2002 it will be very interesting to see the nature of the public reaction. We seriously doubt that we'll be seeing any Teflon Mike headlines if a new round of tax increases are proposed and then enacted.


The Sun's editorial, which we saw after writing this post, makes an even stronger point. The mayor appears to be saying that his no tax pledge only applies to spending for any new programs. Now that's really funny because we followed the entire tax issue pretty closely and we never remember any such nuanced parsing of the mayor's pledge.

Bloomberg is simply reverting to type. This "fearlessness" on the tax issue is precisely what has endeared him to the editorial page of the NY Times. It could also lead him to a very Bush-like undoing (both senior and junior in this case).

Media Moguls Stick Together

Kudos to Wayne Barrett for his "Bloombucks Bonuses" to the publishers of the Times, News, Post and Observer. He makes a compelling case that the press titans were in the tank for their billionaire brother. In particular, Barrett underscores what we have said all along: the coverage of the campaign (the Daily News' burying of the Apollo debate that the mayor skipped is one of the more egregious examples) aided and abetted the Bloomberg ad blitz by highlighting Freddy's perceived gaffs and underplaying all of the mayor's.

Barrett's citing of the Fulani coverage is a case in point. Can anyone imagine what the four papers in question would have done if Ferrer had embraced this anti-Semitic whacko? Yet the papers did think that the blog autobiography fiasco of Ferrer's was big news despite the fact that Fulani remarked Jews are "mass murderers of people of color."

In addition, the almost amnesiac treatment of the Bloomberg flip flop on taxes has to be considered a whitewash, particularly by the Post that had been skewering the mayor on the tax front (and resumed doing so immediately after the Bloomberg victory).

And what happened to those great Bloomberg ticket blitz stories that the News had front-paged for days in 2003? (More amnesia we think). The Times gets a booby prize in this context for disregarding its own signature campaign finance issue to endorse the mayor and extol his potential "greatness." (only to ungraciously upbraid him on the morning of his victory for spending all of the money he did- a kind of morning after lover's regret that ends up with an accusation that the relations weren't consensual).

All of which underscores what we have been saying about the role of the media when a multi-billionaire is spending money to close off debate: greater vigilance is an absolutely necessary component of insuring even a modicum of fairness in the electoral process. In this regard the NY press gets a failing grade (and this was a take-home test).

Traffic Crisis on Staten Island

The same day that the Staten Island Advance previewed today’s Wal-Mart community forum, it featured a front page story highlighting the overall traffic crisis in the borough. Considering that a major focus of our forum will be on Wal-Mart’s potential traffic impacts on the South Shore, this article couldn’t have come at a better time.

Highlighting the calls by Councilman Lanza and Representative Fossella for an Staten Island traffic task force, the piece makes clear that the borough’s transportation system is insufficient and that, specifically, the road infrastructure needs a major overhaul. Said Councilman Lanza:
I think the problem is so large and so complex that we need to take a global approach to it, as opposed to just putting in a traffic light here and turning lanes there. We're beyond that.
Lanza’s comment is interesting because those temporary solutions that he scoffs at are exactly what Wal-Mart does to supposedly mitigate its stores’ traffic impacts. The councilman then adds that vehicular congestion is:
"… just about the biggest threat to Staten Island," with time spent sitting in traffic eating into residents' quality of life.
Rep. Fossellla agrees with this sentiment, believing the traffic issue so problematic as to need a “Marshall Plan:”

Fossella said the traffic problem here warrants a "Marshall Plan" -- like the post-World War II influx of aid to Europe -- for today's Staten Island, insofar as it "has to be cohesive, inter-agency and with the full weight and authority from the mayor."
The last graph of the article is also very apropos to tonight’s event:

Streets such as Forest Avenue, Victory Boulevard, Richmond Hill, Forest Hill, Richmond, Amboy and Arthur Kill roads all are saturated daily, with few prospects for improvement.
Arthur Kill and Amboy roads lead into the proposed Wal-Mart site and other streets like Page Ave are also unequipped to handle massive traffic increases. We hope that Wal-Mart spokeswomen, before they label all Wal-Mart opposition unrepresentative “special interests,” realize that for many in Tottenville, Richmond Valley and beyond the issue isn’t about “limiting consumer choice” but stopping overdevelopment, preventing even more traffic congestion and maintaining quality of life.

Parking Up the Wrong Tree

There is still more controversy in the Southwest Bronx. In today's Daily News, Bill Egbert reports on the community concerns about the Yankee Stadium redevelopment plan. In particular the neighborhood residents are upset with the loss of McCombs Dam and Mullaly Parks, land lost as the new stadium is relocated to the north of its current site.

In this case what is interesting is the public role being taken by Bronx BP Adolfo Carrion. Carrion is expressing concern that the Yankees pay attention to the needs of the impacted community, saying that plans for a new Yankee Stadium "cannot move forward without the community's involvement."

This is certainly a stronger position than Adolfo has taken on the Bronx Terminal Market but it doesn't answer the question of what the BP means by his apparent line in the sand. The key issue here is what is meant by the term "community involvement." The community in question has some base-line objections to the entire plan, particularly the taking of park land. As Greg Bell of the BVEI says about the proposed swap, "It's not a fair exchange."

Bell's group would rather see the stadium relocated to the south on or near the proposed site for the new Gateway Mall. We'll be interested to see just how Solomonesque Adolfo can be to resolve this issue. The bottom line, however, is that "community involvement" is not a particular high standard to meet and more substantive compromises will be needed to truly mollify the neighborhoods.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

South Shore Community forum on Wal-Mart

The Staten Island Advance reports on tomorrow’s (Wednesday's) Wal-Mart themed-forum that we are helping to sponsor for concerned South Shore residents. The meeting, which will take place at 7:30 p.m. at the CYO Center in Mt. Loretta, will focus on concerns about the proposed store’s impact on Tottenville and surrounding communities. Brian Ketcham, who has conducted a preliminary traffic analysis for the Alliance, will give a presentation on how Wal-Mart will dramatically increase traffic in an area not equipped for it.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mia Masten responds to the forum with the expected boilerplate:

The reality is that additional choice brings economic benefits to Staten Island and its residents. Wal-Mart stores are good for individuals and for communities," countered Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mia Masten. "It's unfortunate that a small minority of special-interest groups wants to maintain the status quo by fighting to limit consumer options.
Ms. Masten do you honestly think that the Tottenville Civic Association, the Richmond Valley Civic Association, representatives of various PTAs, and other concerned residents to be “special-interests groups” maintaining “the status quo by fighting to limit consumer options?” I am sure these people who live in and around Tottenville will be pleased to hear your characterization of their effort to stop overdevelopment, limit traffic congestion and preserve their quality of life.

We urge everyone who lives in around the proposed Wal-Mart and is concerned about the development’s potential impacts to join us at tomorrow's community meeting.

Fishy Situation

In today’s NY Times, Andrew Jacobs reports on the Fulton Fish Market’s first day in its new, technologically-advanced site in the Bronx. Jacobs talks to a wholesaler who sums up the collective feeling about the new facility:

It feels good to work like human beings," Phil Almelaris, 44, a fish dealer said, standing amid stalls that had the scrubbed feel of a suburban mall. "Over there, we were a little like animals.
Though some understandably felt nostalgic for their old home, many of the market’s 600 employees were awed by the 400,000 sq. ft. of new space, complete with climate control, electric-powered fork-lifts, more efficient loading/unloading devices and a system of hoses and drains for the deicing and de-gutting fish.

Even Mayor Bloomberg was impressed with the city-financed, $85 million wholesale space:
If you like crowded streets and unsanitary and dangerous conditions, you'll miss the old facility," he said. "Things change, the world changes, and we've got to keep up.
Again, we are pleased to see the city assisting wholesale merchants move out of shabby facilities and into brand new, state-of-the-art warehouse space. But we are still puzzled why the Bronx Terminal Market merchants, who, too, toil in unsatisfactory, dangerous conditions (on city-owned land) are not being afforded the same consideration as their fish-vending counterparts. In other words, how does the mayor justify that the Fulton Fish Market gets a brand new facility paid for by the city while all the BTM merchants get are eviction notices and moving money?

Mayoral Polling and the Dangers of Great Wealth

The story in today's NY Times on the unprecedented ability of the mayor to poll New Yorkers (which should be juxtaposed to the NY Post story on the Ferrer campaign's debt) points out something that everyone should be aware of: the mayor's wealth gave him the ability to plumb the depths of public opinion in such a way that it could effectively sub-divide the electorate and speak directly to their perceived concerns.

Of course this meant commercials and mailings done exclusively for different groups, a strategy that used to receive opprobrium when it was geared to various ethnic populations. This tactic, laden with cynicism, was often criticized because it was designed to tell people what they want to hear. The pitches, however, are devoid of policy content and therefore don't suggest direct remedies for the concerns that have been uncovered by the in-depth surveying. They are instead designed to generate effective symbols that create the impression that the mayor understands and empathizes with their plight.

What this indicates is that an ultra-rich candidate, divorced from the dreaded special interests, is able to use bucketloads of money to create a campaign miasma of good feeling that will generate attachment at the same time that it is freeing the candidate from any direct campaign policy promise that the electorate can hold him to.

Nothing illustrates this better than Kevin Sheekey's comment in Jim Rutenberg's Times story, "Mr. Sheekey said it was unlikely that Mr. Bloomberg would rely on the data his campaign compiled to govern during the next four years." Just so!

Finding out the concerns of voters was only done to create symbolic vehicles to manipulate them. It had nothing to do with trying to discern the electorate’s needs in order to devise good public policy. This is as dangerous as any electoral scenario where feared special interests exert excessive influence.

Essentially, we are back to the question: On what basis does Mayor Mike base his decisions? If it is on what's good for the people, where is he getting the knowledge, if not from his Orwellian polling operation?'

Slip-Sliding Away

As today's NY Post editorial points out, the mayor, already reneging on his promise not to raise taxes but to do "more with less," has called for the reinstating of the commuter tax. The paper's larger point, however, is that the $500 million or so that this tax will bring in accounts for barely 1/9 of the projected $4.5 billion deficit.

The Mayor, as we've pointed out, has a propensity to view taxes as benign necessities and not the job-killing levies that most of the small businesses in the neighborhoods of this city know them to be. It's only going to get worse.

Waste Redux

As a sequel to our post yesterday on the need for the City Council to do a better job at devising a sound waste disposal alternative to the mayor's feeble Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP), we take another look at the City Council's alternative proposal that was hurried into print just as the Speaker was being ambushed by the Bloomberg's fair siting push. This plan, "Council's Proposed Modifications to the SWMP" was, quite frankly, similar to the administration's proposal in its lack of imagination.

What is depressingly similar is the way in which both plans rely heavily on "education," a foundation that we believe is evidence of the paucity of any real waste reduction efforts. The Council proposal, however, goes a step further in its advocacy of an increased recycling bureaucracy, a new agency whose tentacles that would be institutionalized community board by community board.

In fact the Council plan is reminiscent of the Recycle First methodology first proposed over a decade ago. This group, a consortium of environmental organizations, had actually advocated a recycling coordinator---on each block! While the Council doesn't go quite that far it manages to incorporate the basic ideological premises of the Recycle Firsters.

In addition, the Council calls for the passage of the expanded Bottle Bill legislation that is literally bottled up in the State Senate. It does so without any reasonable analysis of how this bottle bill expansion will mesh with the municipal recycling efforts (or how it will impact local stores, as if anyone cared).

The most egregious part of the report is the section on commercial waste. There is a brief discussion of the problems of the 59th Street transfer station but the only thing said about commercial waste is the promise that the Council will put forward a mandatory commercial recycling law! This is said in spite of the fact that the Council had already introduced a proposal to legalize commercial food waste disposers, a proposal that would lead to a 90% recycling rate in food stores if implemented. No discussion of disposers is found anywhere in the report or the subsequent document submitted by the consultant retained by the Council (very strange indeed).

As for the report submitted by Ecodata Inc., suffice it to say that it should have come with a money back guarantee. We don't think that anyone was even aware that the Council had hired a consultant and, after reading this, we now know why. The report also explains why the legislature looked so unprepared when asked to confront the mayor's own feeble effort at a SWMP.

Going forward it is now crystal clear that if the City Council is to function effectively as a legislative body it needs to hire a professional staff in technical areas such as solid waste disposal. These staff experts are needed on an ongoing basis for the Council not only to act as an effective check on the mayor but also to give the council the ability to draft cogent legislation.