Monday, December 26, 2005

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

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

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

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still, nobody said anything about traffic, despite the fact that congestion on the Island's clogged, overstressed, outdated, Colonial-era road system was already Problem 1-A in the borough, second only to overdevelopment, to which it is closely linked."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Wal-Mart

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

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