Friday, November 30, 2007
One of our biggest concerns is the apparent lack of concern at the council about the costs and obligations that are being foisted on local stores. The record-keeping responsibilities-the idea that store owners can easily manage to weigh and record the weights of the bags they collect-are impractical and, because of the city enforcement mechanisms, potentially costly as well.
And the idea that somehow all of this is good for the stores, that plastic bag recycling will become a "profit center," as someone from the Plastic Bag Alliance alleged, is too ludicrous to give any credence to. As Mitch Klein of Krasdale Foods pointed out at the hearing yesterday, this is going to cost independent supermarkets plenty-and there's nothing in the bill that gives the stores any relief, while the plastic bag manufacturers really have no fiscal exposure in all of this.
This factor was brought out in this morning's S.I. Advance story, where the paper indicated that one of the lobbyists that represents supplier interests is Councilman McMahon'e brother Tom: "The American Chemistry Council, a trade association, testified yesterday in favor of the bill. The council employs the Albany lobbying firm of Brown McMahon & Weinraub LLC, of which McMahon's brother, Thomas, is a principal. The lobbying firm has earned $18,000 this year for its efforts."
The councilman, for his part, said that there was really no conflict here: "The councilman said there is no conflict of interest because he favored the legislation before he knew of the involvement of his brother, who was not present yesterday. He also said he would publicly disclose the relationship prior to taking a vote, for which a date is not yet set."
The point, however, is that the bill doesn't place nearly enough obligations on the deep-pocketed bag manufacturers ant the chemical resin suppliers-the local stores who employ tens of thousands of folks and contribute millions to the local economy are literally left holding the bag. If that's true, and we believe it is, than the conflict becomes manifest.
This legislation needs a lot of work in order to make it both equitable and workable; and we hope that the Speaker will realize this and take an active role in insuring that the interests of store owners and their employees are looked after.
This is all so expected. As soon as we found out that Jesse James Masyr was "hired" to represent the LDC in its negotiations for a Community Benefits Agreement we knew that a sell-out was likely on the way. The last time that Jesse did the CBA tango was over at the Bronx Terminal Market where, working for the developer Related, he helped BP Carrion to craft an agreement that his mentors found acceptable-so much so that they heaped considerable gratitude on the leader of the borough. One knowledgeable observer called this a "subversion of the land use process"-and the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.The only thing a genuine community hires Masyr for is to draw up its last will and testament.
And the fact that, as we've commented before, Masyr has an agreement with the LDC to work "pro bono," except for the proviso that he can be compensated at a later date by a third party. We know that it ain't Tom DeMott that's gonna cut old Jesse a big check. It's time to reprise "The Sting," with Masyr in the Paul Newman role. Metro's headline today says it all: "Columbia plan ‘rigged’?
All of which underscores the hilarity of Masyr's comments to the Observer: "“This has not been a behind the scenes process,” Mr. Masyr said. “We are probably a bit too transparent to really be able to negotiate. When it becomes apparent that not everybody was pulling in the same direction, we have a problem.”
And while you are negotiating this kind of CBA you don't need folks who want to aggressively advocate on behalf of local residents and businesses: "Our mission is clear, our vision is clear. We are going to negotiate a community benefits agreement,” the lawyer, Jesse Masyr, said. “I think that you could make the argument that two out of the three members never really intended to fulfill the mission of the LDC.”
Unlike, for instance, Susan Russell, gal Friday to Councilman Bob Jackson, someone whose only raison d'etre in life is to make sure that the community gets every last benefit from the rapacious university developer. Au Contraire you say? We must have the wrong Susan Russell; this Russell is the Terrier to the Stringer Spaniel-and she's carrying Masyr's water in a blue and white bucket. As she told the Spectator: “It’s not like people are trying to exclude others, but there has to be a certain level of practicality there,” she said. “Everyone on that board is absolutely dedicated to this community, and I can say that without hesitation.”
Say what? Sounds quite Orwellian to us-on the order of "all the pigs are equal, but some pigs are more equal than others." Which is all the more reason why this land use process needs the dose of disinfectant that labor is threatening to bring to it. Enough with the faux CBAs and the legerdemain practiced by those to whom justice means, just us.
Crain's writes the following on the CBA trail:
"Three people who oppose Columbia University’s Manhattanville expansion resigned
Wednesday from the West Harlem Local Development Corp., the organization that is negotiating
a package of community benefits to compensate for lost businesses and residences.
A school source says the resignations herald a pending agreement on the
package and that the three left so that they would not be party to the terms. But one of those who resigned, business owner Nick Sprayregen, says he did so to inform the public that the parties are nowhere near an accord—which as an LDC member he could
not do because he was under a gag agreement. Only Wednesday did the LDC begin
talking with its lawyer about enforcement mechanisms in case Columbia doesn’t keep
its promises, he says."
Clearly, there will be an agreement negotiated that reflects the interests of CU more than it does any genuine grass roots sentiment. All of which was part of the hand writing on the wall when Jesse James came to West Harlem.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
This new initiative could very well change the entire land use review process, and create a major challenge to the way in which development decisions are made. As Gonzales says: "Ever since the heyday of master builder Robert Moses, the city's labor unions have routinely backed the real estate industry's big development projects as a source of construction jobs. Now, organized labor and the real estate industry could be on a collision course."
And it should be clear to everyone that labor is the one player in the city's political process that has the ability to alter the way business is done. This is not only a major step, it is a welcome one as well. It can pave the way for the ending of sweetheart deals and phony community benefits agreements that leave small businesses and neighborhoods out in the cold.
One of the major focuses in all of this is affordable housing. Here's what one labor person told Gonzales: "[Mayor] Bloomberg and [Deputy Mayor Daniel] Doctoroff are upzoning dozens of neighborhoods all over town," one top union leader said. "They're creating huge windfalls for developers, trading air rights all over the place that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, our union members can't even afford to live in this city anymore. This has to stop."
Which brings us to Columbia and Willets Point-both making news today. On the Columbia front, Lipsky client Nick Sprayregen will be joining two other members of the West Harlem LDC at City Hall, Tom DeMott and Luisa Henriquez, to announce their resignation from the board that was supposed to be set up to negotiate a CBA with the university. Their experience with this Potemkin Village underscores our earlier point about the nmew ULURP sham: CBAs that are in reality backroom political deals.
As the press release for the three members points out: "Three board members of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, a not-for-profit entity specifically created to negotiate a community benefits agreement with Columbia University in connection with its proposed expansion into West Harlem, will resign from the LDC citing back-door dealing and a rigged process. Tom DeMott, Nick Sprayregen and Luisa Henriquez who represent tenants in the area and businesses and residents facing forced removal within the footprint say that the block voting of most elected officials, a rigged land review process, and marginalization of the community have made it impossible for the LDC to function as intended and that it is now merely serving as a cover for behind-the scenes-negotiations."
The fact that the CU expansion has gone this far without a single local official saying word one about affordable housing-or any other word about anything-highlights the need for labor to step into a policy void. And the CLC has already initiated discussions with Sprayregen that would lead to a land swap with Columbia and the building of 1,000 units of housing.
As far as Willets Point goes, the City Council will be holding a hearing today on the potential redevelopment of the huge site-and if they stay on message here, the labor movement should resist any development of the area before a comprehensive benefit plan is devised. No pig-in-a-poke, and Doctoroff carte blanche, that will leave labor and the council outside looking in when this deal is finally done.
So what is labor looking to do here? "Among the reforms the labor leaders want are major changes to the city's zoning laws, greater transparency in development projects and stronger teeth in the city's land review procedures, known as ULURP. Exactly what we have been clamoring for over the past two decades."
And if the political elites are tone deaf? "If they can't reach agreement with City Hall and the City Council, the union chiefs say, they will launch a major public relations campaign, mobilize their members to attend City Council hearings and gear up to elect new candidates in the 2009 municipal elections who support the campaign." Let the games begin!
Newsday has an interesting Willets Point story today-and the central theme, also present in the Columbia expansion fight, is over the definition of what constitutes blight. As one business owner told the paper the city itself is at fault for any blight: "The Bloomberg administration cites blight and pollution as its primary concerns about the current properties. But Bono, one of 10 business owners who formed the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association to fight the redevelopment, maintains the land is not contaminated and that the city itself is to blame for the blight."
Yet, as is typical in cases like these, proponents of redevelopment cite activities or certain businesses that don't meet the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, as a reason to, well, throw the baby out with the bathwater. As our friend Evan Stavisky tells the paper: "...that while there are many legitimate businesses in Willets Point, the area has been "a haven for chop shops and questionable characters."
Wholesale removal, though, seems a bit extreme when it is reported that over 2,500 people are employed in the area, and that many of these folks are entry level workers who would find it difficult to get work elsewhere. We're curious to see how this all plays out in light of the new vision of labor.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Goldstein should really temper his enthusiasm, it tends to place too much emphasis on the import of all of this minor maneuvering. After all, a conflict at the planning commission, a body that faithfully discharges the mayor's will, has little impact on the resolution of any individual issue; it's not a venue where democracy is exercised.
And the fact that the state named Forest Taylor as an ombudsman is even less noteworthy. In the years that Taylor was supposedly Gifford Miller's chief of staff. we can't recall a more evanescent figure in out 25 years of lobbying the city council. An ombudsman is nothing more than an emotional release point for those with a particular beef; not, like Goldstein, for those who want the whole project to disappear.
The problem here lies with the development process rather than the behavior of planning commissioners. The selection of developers and of sites; the decisions about what should be built-all are more significant than the parsing of the review process. Over the past 25 years there's been only a few of us who have successfully, and consistently, stopped developments from happening.
Under the current administration, however, the scope of possible opposition has narrowed-a situation that is exacerbated by the relationship between current council leadership and the mayor. When you add to this the fact that a handful of developers-really two-have been treated as favored nations, you can see just how limited the whole scope of potential opposition has become.
So, in reference to the leaving of Dolly Williams we're reminded of the old proverb: "the law punishes the thief who steals the goose from off of the common; but lets the greater felon loose, who steals the commons from the goose."
And now they have done just that, with the same uninformed commentary by self-appointed guardians of the public health who no zero about fast food restaurants and, less understandably, apparently are ignorant of some basic health issues. Here's what one such expert told the hearing held yesterday: “It is a common-sense measure that poses no risk to anyone,” said Amy J. Schwartz, executive director of the Public Health Association of New York City.
Ms. Schwartz told the hearing panel that studies have shown people eating outside the home consume 15 percent fewer calories when they are given the calorie count of menu items."
That, my friends, is an absolute lie! It is, however, quite fair in the minds of the advocates to lie as long as it is deemed to be in a good cause. There are no peer-reviewed studies that indicate that folks are consuming less when their made aware of the calories they're eating. And the only study done in New York City was done by the DOH itself.
What did that study "find?" It found that consumers at Subway! supposedly consumed 50 less calories when the calorie counts were made available. 50-at a restaurant that markets its healthy alternative status (leaving aside the fact that the study was done by the very department seeking to impose the menu rules).
The fact is that there are no social science studies that give any degree of confidence about the efficacy of what the department of health is doing. There are some studies that do show that consumers, when they are informed about calorie counts, actually choose the higher calorie items. assuming a more tasty alternative in their choice.
So, once again, the city is performing a social experiment at the expense of local restaurant owners. No harm, Ms Schwartz? The loss of local business, and the potential loss of employment could be a serious harm to neighborhood economies; but the DOH is undeterred and hasn't bothered to do any cost/benefit analysis, so sure are they in their own rectitude.
Hopefully, the industry will also challenge this rule as successfully as it did for the first. Heaven protect us from a government imbued with a sense of its own benevolence.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Hooray for Karen, someone who understands the essence of a development partnership and can clearly see why CU's plan falls short. Also kudos need to go out to Commissioner Cantor who abstained from an approval because of the eminent domain issue: "But, while lauding the economic development that Columbia’s expansion promises to bring to upper Manhattan, Mr. Cantor objected to the state’s possible use of eminent domain to acquire some commercial properties that Columbia could not buy outright, on the grounds that less government was good government, and that, over the next 20 years, land owners would be stuck in limbo, unable to improve their parcels and yet unwilling to sell them off."
What's apparent is that the ED issue here is causing a certain degree of skittishness, and even New York's Burden expressed the wish that the use of this method wouldn't be necessary. As the Spectator pointed out: "Emphasizing her hope that eminent domain will not be necessary, Burden said, “Approval of the Columbia University plan would not be a vote in favor of eminent domain, and it is altogether possible that Columbia’s plan will be fully realized without eminent domain.”
Yes it certainly is possible, but we'll need to see a large dose of good faith and political will exercised before we're sanguine about averting a mega-battle over this contentious issue. Stay tuned, because these things will be front and center in the coming weeks.
Keep in mind that the EIS determined that up to 5,000 local residents were in danger of either direct or indirect displacement; yet nothing in the Commission's "modification" addresses this salient issue, or indicates how and where these folks are going to find affordable housing. Some planning!
Yet, it must be said, that CPC did as much as could be expected from an agency without any scope of independent action; and don't forget all of the wonderful landscaping that Commissioner Burden has included-not really comprehending the irony of providing landscaping for an area that will witness the displacement of people from their homes and businesses from their locations. You know, you may be forced out, but think of all the pretty trees that will take your place. There's a reason we call Amanda "New York's Burden."
At the same time, we were surprised by the fortitude of our old friend Karen Phillips, the one dissenting Commission voice. As the NY Daily News reports: "Only Commissioner Karen Phillips voted against the expansion, citing concerns that it could cause "economic, cultural and social damage" to the surrounding area." What Phillips went on to say was that the real contribution that CU's expansion will bring should not been done at the expense of the local community.
The local did come out and forcefully express their displeasure at the whole exercise in faux democracy. As the NY Post reports: "Dozens of Harlem residents shouted their opposition to the development during the meeting. One opponent, Tom DeMott, threw fistfuls of green paper he called "Bollinger Dollars," in reference to university President Lee Bollinger. Another, Nellie Bailey, called Columbia's expansion "a plan to dismantle and restructure Harlem. You are driving blacks, Latinos and working-class whites out of Harlem."
The Commission did, however, do one substantive change to the Columbia scheme. It knocked out the large academic buildings that CU had planned for the East Side of Broadway. Here's the Post's take: "Columbia's plan won the key approval only after the commission made several changes, including replacing two research buildings on Broadway with university housing and lowering the height of both buildings. "The commission has been particularly concerned that the proposed concentration of six academic research buildings fronting along Broadway would potentially diminish the ability to create a vibrant and active corridor," said Amanda Burden, director of city planning."
How interesting! That's exactly the area that has been proposed for the land swap between CU and property owner Nick Sprayregen-and CPC designates it for "university housing." A better idea is, of course, housing for locals and not just student transients-something that is central to the Sprayregen swap. We simply can't get over the Commission's callous disregard of the housing issue. Well, we guess that's what happens when you turn a planning agency over to New York's version of Lady Bird Johnson.
But, as the Spectator reports this morning, housing is in the picture-just not for local residents: "Columbia also announced on Monday that it would build nearly 1,000 housing units for employees, in an effort to offset the increased demand for housing that the expansion will generate. In addition, the University agreed to contribute $4 million to legal-aid services for Manhattanville tenants, including protection from unlawful harassment or eviction."
So, once again, Columbia looks to take care of its own, and the heck with any one else. All of which means that it will be up to the City Council to craft a better compromise, a road that has been paved by the Commission's passage of both the CU plan as well as the community board's 197-a plan. As the City Room blog pointed out yesterday: "The plan now goes to the City Council, which is expected to modify it before giving final approval."
What do you know! Just what we've been promoting with our Intro 133, a bill that would allow food stores and restaurants to use commercial food waste disposers.Isn't it interesting just how disconnected city policy making is. On the one hand, we have the effort to restrict the rat's food supply; while on the other, we have the concerted effort to not even allow a pilot program for waste disposers that would do more for eliminating the rat banquet than any other single measure. Go figure.
What Stern points out, is that the city could achieve considerable congestion relief without any congestion tax if it only enforced the law: "Because, Mr. Mayor, if you really want to reduce congestion, you should start by enforcing existing traffic and parking laws and dealing with major headaches that, by my lights, are the real reason congestion is intolerable."
Indeed that's true, but why hasn't the city gone the enforcement route first? The reason, it appears to us, lies with the fact that a zero tolerance policy on double parking and No Standing zones would affect the city's elites. As Stern says; "First, No Standing laws are being abused left and right. Go ahead, drive down 50th or 52nd Sts. heading east between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. any weekday. What do you see? Rows of black cars and limos parked and double-parked all along the street, reducing traffic to a single lane. When cars try to make a turn onto the avenues, there is no room for other cars to pass as pedestrian density prevents vehicles from quickly going left or right. Where are the tow trucks?"
So instead we have a Tax First policy that unfairly targets the city's middle class, while the CEOs and the swells from the exclusive clubs are given a free ride to congest to their hearts content. In fact, it appears that the entire object of congestion taxing is to make midtown safe for the limos.
In this morning's Insider, the newsletter reports on one consultant's view that the mayor's complex monitoring system is just too complex and expensive-and it won't ease congestion for very long: "Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan gets a harsh dose of reality from a transportation technology company offering to build the system. Skymeter, a Toronto firm
that uses GPS to track and charge vehicles, says the E-ZPass-based system proposed by
the mayor would be too complex and “prohibitively expensive” to modify, and would not ease traffic for long. Chief Executive Bern Grush concludes that the proposal—which
grew from the mayor’s sustainability initiative—is “unsustainable.”
Which is exactly what we have been saying all along-and the reason why we've called for the forensic accounting on the entire scheme; from revenues to mitigation analysis. It simply won't withstand any independent review.
Monday, November 26, 2007
Of course, the use of eminent domain would rely on whether or not the land in question is "blighted," a definition that has in many cases been used quite expansively. As the Sun points out; "Critics of eminent domain say the state's condemnation of property — no matter how small — in a dynamic neighborhood for a private development would be a heavy-handed abuse of the state's power."
What makes this issue even more problematic is the fact that the Empire State Development Corporation, the agency charged with the blight determination, is using the same consultant-AKRF-as Columbia. A court has already ruled that this joint exercise is quite a conflict, one that raises questions about any determination that ESDC makes.
All of which makes the proposed land swap between the university and Nick that much more compelling. There's always the possibility that the ED issue gets entangled in the conflict question, and the whole process gets delayed by years. Here's the Sun's take on the swap: "One of the commercial landowners, Tuck-It-Away storage, has proposed a land swap with Columbia that would give the university control over the 400,000 square feet of property it wants from the company, a lobbyist for the storage company, Richard Lipsky, said. It is unclear whether Columbia is interested or whether the other storage company with land in the area, Hudson North American, or the two gas station owners would go along.
A spokeswoman for Columbia did not return a call for comment." It's time for that call CU.
What a radical notion! It's good to see that there are some journalists who understand that the Columbia ubber alles approach is inequitable, and will lead to the displacement of long time residents and businesses.Unless, of course, the expansion plan gets modified to better reflect community needs.
From what we hear, the community folks will be out in force down at CPC on Reade Street today at 1:00 PM. We've never seen the voice of the people fall on so many deaf ears; but the commissioners at the planning commission raise tone deafness to an art form-with New York's Burden leading the elitist charge. There was never a planning commissioner more suited to the reflexive use of the rubber stamp than Amanda; someone who elevates architecture way above the needs of real people.
Very interesting. The university would be wise to do so, since it will afford it the opportunity to generate considerable political good will. Right now, with the City Planning Commission on tap today-and a robust community protest expected to great its expected rubber stamp approval-Columbia is taking its lumps.
The most serious Achilles heal in the expansion proposal is the total lack of any housing in the 18 acre footprint of the development. Columbia has stressed that it wants to be involved in the building of affordable housing, but it doesn't appear that the university has seriously went out of its way to identify any actual locations to do it. The creation of a "Housing Trust Fund," without any identified build area, starts to take on the appearance of a sinister scam; one that belies any serious intention on the university's part to do any good for the locals facing displacement.
Therefore, the Sprayregen swap plan has the potential to be of all around utility: Nick gets to keep his property; the university gets rid of its strongest critic, someone who has the potential to delay its expansion; and the community gets around 1,000 units of housing. Oh, and the Bloomberg administration gets another notch on its five year plan for affordable housing-something that it needs since it is apparently falling short of its laudable goals.
Of course, all of this depends on the promulgation of a plan that is both economically and politically sound. The Spectator comments on the fact that Columbia and Sprayregen have yet to talk: "Yet Sprayregen still has not directly presented his proposed property trade to Columbia. He explained that the idea has been “out there” for a while and that the University’s lack of response “shows their utter belligerence and lack of desire to compromise.”
But Columbia spokesperson La-Verna Fountain emphasized that representatives have been in touch with Sprayregen and his family for years. She explained that Columbia has not responded to the property exchange proposal because it is against University policy to negotiate through the press."
It's really unclear whether Columbia is serious about negotiating with Sprayregen, but its public comments do indicate that there may be a decent opening to do so. The need for a well thought-out plan, however, must come first since Sprayregen's labor allies want to get a feel for the feasibility of the effort before climbing on board. This key aspect of the potential swap negotiation is now underway-and a solid outline of a building plan should be ready in a week or so.
Once this happens, serious multi-sided discussions-involving Sprayregen, labor, Columbia and key political decision makers-will take place as the ULURP clock moves into its final phase. In these kinds of things very little happens until the eleventh hour.
What are we to make, though, of the public comments of one Reggie Williams, central casting's answer to Al Sharpton. Williams has been recruited to be the community face for Columbia's expansion, and has taken on the role of Sprayregen-baiter. As he told the Spectator: "Reverend Reggie Williams of the Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville, a pro-expansion group organized by lobbyists for Columbia, called Sprayregen’s proposed land trade an “eleventh hour swap,” and cited it as evidence that Sprayregen is trying to circumvent the development process."
Well, what to make of this nonsense? Sprayregen's trying to "circumvent" a process that has, as one of its essential features, the taking of the property that his family has owned for over three decades. Shame on Nick! Williams is acting here as Columbia's Repo man; except for the fact that the property in question doesn't belong to Columbia.
Williams goes on to question whether Sprayregen is representing the community's interests; while never questioning the extent to which the university's expansion effort is thinly disguised self-aggrandisement. Of course, in trying to save his property Nick is acting in his own economic interest-just as Columbia's doing.
The only question here is how can the CU plan better reflect the over all good of the greatest number of West Harlem residents. What Sprayregen is proposing is an opportunity for the university to complement its expansion effort with an additional aspect that addresses a crucial community need. If it does, and we believe so, than the negotiations should begin as soon as the Sprayregen plan is ready for a full unveiling.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
In this morning's Crain's Insider the newsletter discusses the K&K alternative to the mayor's plan: "Transportation consultant Brian Ketcham has been floating a modified version of congestion pricing that would move the boundary south to 60th Street from 86th Street and toll the East River bridges. Ketcham and fellow consultant Carolyn Konheim have been arguing for East Rivertolls for years without success. Insiders say the idea could catch on if congestion pricing proponents believe their plan is in trouble; this week’s Quinnipiac Poll shows
a decline in public support."
While the K&K plan does have a greater degree of efficacy from a management perspective, it does little to address the major objections of opponents of the congestion tax-that it's an unfair burden on the citry's already over-taxed middle class. And it certainly doesn't address the MTA governance issue.
All a call to toll the bridges will do, is to really galvanize the intensity of outer borough opposition to the tax; and will harden assembly opposition at the same time. Keep in mind that it's the three legislative bodies that will make the final call on this, no matter what the handmaidens on the commission decide to do.
Getting into the team spirit at the News, Mike Lupica, the paper's sports guru turned political savant, also weighs in in his predictably hyperbolic style and lauds the governor for finally standing up for the little guy: "Sometimes everything isn't measured in hundreds of millions for a ballplayer, just the fare for the bus or for the subway. Gov. Spitzer did everything he could to keep those fares right where they are Tuesday...Spitzer stood and spoke up for all those who take those two-dollar rides and need those rides to get them to school and back, to their jobs and back, even to their dreams, who sometimes can't afford a weekly MetroCard or a monthly card."
Lupica's really wearing thin in the front of the paper, and whoever thought it would be a good idea to bring the bantam battler up in weight class should probably begin to re-think the decision. After all, to dramatize the desperate measure of a pol in the midst of a free-fall as the act of a Churchill at the brink of a world war is an indication of a scribe with little historical or political gravitas.
And to top it off Little Mike goes to Mark Green for reinforcing commentary! Green tells us the following: "Eighty percent of New Yorkers wake up worrying about subways or schools or both," Green said. "If this shows anything, it shows that Eliot is beginning to focus on bread-and-butter issues where he can deliver results that matter." Really?
To us, it only shows that the governor, desperately in need of a win, did the easiest thing he could possibly do: pander to what the folks want; a decision that may come back to haunt him unless a serious effort is made to totally revamp the entire transit governance system. As Nicole Gelinas points out, in quit a different take on all of this over at the NY Post, the light at the end of this tunnel is an oncoming train: "Short term, this "good news" may not be as good as it seems. Longer term, the MTA's finances are still a mess, and yesterday's deal likely makes its future problems a little bit bigger - so a future fare hike will be bigger, too."
The MTA's fiscal house is in tatters, and the deteriorating situation demands that the entire system be addressed in a comprehensive way. There is, after all, nothing sacrosanct about the public authority that has been set up to run the region's mass transit apparatus; and was originally designed to insulate elected officials from accountability. It may, after all, have finally outlived its usefulness.
So instead of continuing to call for a congestion tax, the NY Daily News should be calling for a summit meeting to radically reform the dysfunctional transit governing authority. Here's the paper unwise take on the confluence of the fare hike and the congestion tax: "One interesting finding of a Quinnipiac University poll was that most New Yorkers would support congestion pricing to halt a transit fare hike. That's good; congestion pricing is designed to hold fares down. No, Mayor Bloomberg's plan to charge drivers $8 for entering Manhattan (minus tolls) will play no role in holding the line on fares right now. And no, congestion-pricing money would not subsidize subway and bus operations. But the cash would be used to expand transit with projects like the Second Ave. subway and to maintain the system in good repair."
So let's get this straight. The agency that can't be trusted with operating the current system efficiently should be given a congestion tax blank check. What the News conveniently leaves out, is the fact that the Q-Poll found that although New Yorkers might support a congestion tax to keep the fare down, they had little confidence that the money would really go for that purpose. As Mickey Carroll has said: "Big problem: New Yorkers don't trust the MTA. Two thirds doubt that, whatever is promised, the money really will keep transit fares from rising. More than half want an MTA guarantee to hold fares down for a specific length of time."
The people apparently have more sagacity than the editorialists on this issue. The whole system's a mess, one that won't get better, and will only get worse, by throwing more money at it.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Apparently, the ire at the transit agency is spilling over into an overall skepticism about any plan that taxes the folks and earmarks the funds for an MTA that has lost the trust of New Yorkers. As the NY Daily News points out: "Congestion pricing support fell even if the money it raised would help forestall MTA fare hikes, the poll found." That's because, as the Q-Poll's Mickey Carroll said, "Big problem: New Yorkers don't trust the MTA. Two thirds doubt that, whatever is promised, the money really will keep transit fares from rising. More than half want an MTA guarantee to hold fares down for a specific length of time."
This underscores what we've been saying-and Melinda Katz's testimony reinforces the point: the entire governance system needs to be overhauled before any new taxes are implemented for any transit project. Here's the relevant Katz passage: "THE MTA, IN CONTRADICTION TO ALL OF THEIR PUBLIC EXPRESSIONS ABOUT THE USE OF CONGESTION TAX REVENUES, IS PLANNING ON USING THESE DOLLARS FOR OPERATING EXPENSES. IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT WE HAVE A FULL ACCOUNTING OF HOW CONGESTION TAXES ARE MEANT TO BE SPENT, AND THE METHOD FOR UTILIZING THESE FUNDS SHOULD BE MEMORIALIZED IN A PUBLIC DOCUMENT."
All of which leaves us somewhat bemused by the reactions of a few of the congestion tax supporters, folks who could see the silver lining in the eye of a hurricane. As Newsday reports, "Some of congestion pricing's staunchest advocates chose to view the Quinnipiac poll as a positive, but incomplete, snapshot of the city's attitude toward the plan...'Today's poll demonstrates, yet again, that New Yorkers support congestion pricing when revenues are reinvested into the mass transit system," O'Laughlin said in a statement. 'Of course, New Yorkers want reasonable transit fares; we also want better bus service in all five boroughs, a full-length Second Avenue subway and other much-needed investments.'"
Who to believe? O'Laughlin, who represents something called the Campaign for New York's Future (and can we get an accounting from these astro turf groups?), wants us to think that the people are really on his side-all they apparently need is better worded questions. On the other hand, wily Gene Russianoff, a congestion tax supporter gets it.
As Gene told Newsday: "It doesn't make sense to deal with these financial issues piecemeal," said Gene Russianoff, a staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign and a member of the state congestion pricing commission that will recommend a plan to lawmakers in January. He supports the mayor's plan, but thinks some of the money should be used to subsidize fares."I think the public is ahead of the mayor, the governor and the MTA," he said. "They've earned their rocket science degree and figured out that these two political realities are related."
So we are apparently headed for, well, we think an Albany style train wreck, one that leaves the mayor with egg on his face. It appears that, once again, when confronted with having to deal with a complex political process, the mayor's coming up short on policy seychel. Congestion relief, we believe, will have to come from a different direction.
What the GG folks don't acknowledge, no matter what they may misconstrue about the new generation of food waste disposers, is the utter silliness of the composting option, and the advantages of going forward with disposers. It reminds us of the old saying about democracy: "it's the worst form of government, except for all the others." And the fact that the city's sewers are in bad shape is irrelevant-the upgrades need to be done with or without the introduction of waste disposers.
The main problem that the sewers face is attendant to the overflows that occur when there's a storm. The city needs more catch basins to prevent the harmful run-offs when it does rain hard. Once built, the catch basins will handle all of the overflow problems, and the food waste processing will be a literal non sequitor.
The key issue here, however, is the way in which the elimination of food waste could spur recycling. The elimination of putrescible contaminants-no easy task we agree-would pave the way for a single stream collection that would enable the source separation that was ultimately both feasible as well as profitable to the city.
Now we agree with Gail that the current use of residential disposers is de minimis. That situation devolves from the fact that the use is optional and no one pays for their garbage removal. If folks paid a disposal fee, you can bet that this would change pretty quickly. But the question is, not whether disposers are widely in use, but whether their use is advisable from a solid waste stand point.
And let's not forget that the biomass generated when food waste is ultimately processed at a waste water treatment facility, is a better end product then the compost that comes from the standard food waste processing methods; and as Dr. Ham has underscored, is much cheaper to boot.
The implementation of commercial food waste disposers, however-as was put forward in Intro 133-would have other useful public policy goals. We have outlined them here, here and here. But let's just say that if the city continues in its current direction we will all be held hostage to the cost of landfilling-both the fiscal as well as the environmental-for many years to come.
Monday, November 19, 2007
So we're guessing here that the proponents of the plan were dead wrong when they opined that the reason the folks were opposed was because they didn't understand all of the scheme's benefits-Not! It now turns out that the more the public found out about the plan, the more they have begun to detest it.
And one of the big reasons-no surprise to us-is that people don't trust the MTA. You see, most of the folks would support the tax if the money were used to keep the fare hike away. Not many of these folks, however, believe that even if the plan were passed that the money would be utilized for this purpose by the transit agency. "As Q's Mickey Carrol says: "Big problem: New Yorkers don't trust the MTA. Two thirds doubt that, whatever is promised, the money really will keep transit fares from rising. More than half want an MTA guarantee to hold fares down for a specific length of time."
So all of the elites and enviros are way off base on this, and once again the people are exhibiting a great deal more sense. It is now time to inter this bad experiment and figure out some better ways to deal with congestion.
The NY Times' City Room blog takes note of the Q Poll as well-with the following appropriate headline: Is Manhattan Turning Against Congestion Pricing? Apparently, even in Manhattan, familiarity's breeding contempt: "Manhattan voters, who supported congestion pricing by a margin of 54 percent to 36 percent in Quinnipiac’s last such poll, in August, are just about evenly split, with 46 percent supporting it and 47 percent opposed."
What was missing, however, was any concession around the student's demands that the university recognize the community's issues with the Columbia expansion plan. As one CB9 board member told the paper: “This is the end of phase one of student activism to demand changes necessary to make them not only 21st century professionals but 21st century citizens,” Community Board Nine member Dr. Vicky Gholson said. “I was very disappointed that Columbia could not collectively come together and give the students demonstrative and tangible signs complying with demands in relation to the Columbia expansion.”
What it does indicate, as the editorial in Saturday's NY Post highlighted, is that the university will be held to a higher monetary threshold when it comes to the community benefits side of the expansion process: "Bollinger opted to give in on several of the kiddies' demands - including an appreciable expansion of Columbia's ethnic-studies endeavors and a beefed-up freshman brainwashing (that is, orientation) program for next fall. All silly stuff, but essentially harmless - and, again, Columbia can afford to indulge its children. Note, however, the one significant student demand Bollinger declined to honor: a promise to halt the university's planned $7 billion expansion into Harlem. That will go forward. Meanwhile, his willingness to drop such swag on a few dyspeptic kids certainly won't go unnoticed. Clearly, Columbia has cash to spare - so Bollinger shouldn't be surprised when some of the university's neighbors start getting antsy about their share."
Indeed! What's clear is that Columbia has adopted a rope-a-dope strategy with the CBA-and its community response stands in sharp contrast with other Ivy League university expansion efforts. This was underscored at a forum held last week. The discussion-appropriately titled in the NY Times, "When the Gown Devours the Town,"-brought out some interesting observations; and the comments from former UPenn president Judith Rodin were particularly illuminating.
Rodin underscored our point about the fact that the university has a great potential to help its surrounding neighborhoods, but often eschews this more enlightened role in pursuing its own self-interest: "Dr. Rodin argued that universities play a critical role in cities as engines of economic development and as major employers. Sadly, she added, “in the name of redevelopment,” universities have often contributed to “the destruction of the neighborhoods around them.”
Rodin went on to point out, and in the process unintentionally perhaps, her comments served to embarrass CU president Lee Bollinger: "Universities have “a lot of great potential” to be partners with cities, but too often are more like “the 4,000-pound gorillas, exercising their interests in a way that isn't always neighborhood-friendly.” Finally, Dr. Rodin suggested that universities should engage with their communities as part of their responsibility to train responsible citizens."
Ouch! Bollinger's response, however, bordered on the surreal: "There are many issues that we face. One of them is the so-called problem of gentrification. And the point that I will want to make in the discussion is that of all the institutions that can help deal with the problem of gentrification — however one wants to define that — universities are really critically important as a solution to that, and not really as a contributing cause."
Well, perhaps, universities per se aren't the cause of gentrification, but Columbia certainly is-at least if we look at the universities own EIS which predicts that three to five thousand current residents will be either directly or indirectly displaced. So we can say that Bollinger is being a bit disingenuous in his remarks.
He does go on to remark: “As long as we can do this kind of growth in the right ways, with the right interests of the neighborhood taken into account, it should be a great thing for everyone.” That is, as long as CU can walk the walk as well as Bollinger can talk the talk."
In today's NY Daily News, Sol Stern one of the most perceptive critics of the school system around (which means, among other things. that he's not out there angling for a grant) writes a scathing critique of the first five years of mayoral control of the city schools. The money quote: "Five years later, we have new, unimpeachable data on the schools that allows us to assess whether the mayor's promise to deliver a much bigger education bang for the taxpayers' buck has been fulfilled. The short answer: not by a long shot."
What Stern points out, is that the meager improvement in test results-and this is giving the DOE the benefit of the doubt-have come on the heels of a better than 50% increase in school spending: "The 2003 budget for the schools, Bloomberg's first, was $12.5 billion, including pension costs and debt service. About $1.2 billion of this total came from federal education funds, another $5.6 billion from the state, and $5.6 billion from direct city contributions. The current budget, including pension and debt service, stands at $19.7 billion. This represents an increase of $7 billion - more than 50% - in total education spending in five years."
Yikes! That's like Horton Hatches a Who. The gestation period here has brought forth something on the order of a still birth-an observation that is underscored in yesterday's Daily News editorial; even while the paper bent over backwards to be charitable concerning the results of the recent NAEP tests: "How did we do? We bombed reading, aced fourth-grade math and squeaked by on eighth-grade math. The results were the very definition of "needs improvement" and stand in marked contrast to the gains seen on state math and reading exams."
So what does this all mean? To us it means that the reform of the city's schools is no simple management legerdemain; there is simply too many intractable problems that relate more to the culture of poverty than to the manner in which school governance is handled. It should also be seen as a cautionary tale for those electoral wannabes who promise to raise the bar in a Panglossian way-it simply ain't that simple.
The final word here goes to the prescient Stern: "These results may surprise people who have heard so much from the Bloomberg administration about "historic" gains on the state's math and reading tests...The reality is that $7 billion in extra education spending has so far produced only pennies' worth of academic improvement in most grades. The sooner we all face up to that bottom line, the sooner we can start speaking honestly about how to remedy the situation."
In this morning's NY Times, there's a short story on an upsurge in teacher resignations. The following citation, along with DOE's response, illustrates some of what we are saying about spin versus reality at the ed agency:
"The numbers showed that “losing good teachers is the predominant staffing issue that the City Department of Education needs to address,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the union. Chris Cerf, a deputy chancellor at the Education Department, said in a statement that the numbers were inaccurate, and called the release of the figures a “media stunt.”
The design of the HealthCorps, jump-started with the support of City Councilman Joel Rivera, is to activate young people to become health advocates in their own neighborhoods-with a core belief that real change needs to come from the ground up, and not from the top down. Mandates and edicts from officialdom aren't effective; young people pushing their peers, families and communities can be so much more transformative.
Upcoming for the HealthCorps are two innovative outreach programs that will imvolve students, schools and communities. The first is the "Healthy Bodega" program that was started by the NYC DOH. HC will be working with the Department on increasing the access to low fat milk and fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods where obesity is most prevalent.
Initially, the program's focus has been to try to promote the inventorying of these products in the city's bodegas. Now, however, as of the first of the year, NYS WIC is providing eligible consumers with vouchers for all of these items so the health bodega focus is going to be on developing an educational partnership between the stores and communities in order to promote healthier eating. There is no incompatibility between healthy communities and a healthy economic climate in the neighborhood.
HealthCorps will also be working with the DOE on the development of a pilot program for a school classroom breakfast. As we have said before, classroom breakfast is important for educational achievement as well as health; and the city's participation rate needs to be radically improved. HC will not only be working in the schools, it will also be working with neighborhood health organizations to create grass roots support for the pilot effort.
The HealthCorps is just starting to generate a health awareness in the city's schools and communities. The key to future success will be grounded on the program's ability to inspire young people to change-while continuing to generate the support from key elected officials such as Joel Rivera. As the program expands, it is necessary for others to pick up on Rivera's enthusiasm and provide the resources neede to make the HC even more effective.
Friday, November 16, 2007
Harlem Hits Columbia Up for $100 M.-Plus
As the deadline for City Council action on Columbia University’s expansion comes closer, the local development corporation established to negotiate the all-important community benefits agreement has asked the school to donate an amount “well in excess of $100 million” toward creating more affordable housing in the neighborhood, according to an individual source familiar with the negotiations.
The affordable-housing fund is one of several outstanding issues, but may be the hardest to resolve before Dec. 19, when the Council breaks for the holidays. University spokeswoman La-Verna Fountain said Columbia would not comment on the negotiations.
The source said that the school, while it had not offered its own number, understood it had to contribute more, and in a more timely way, than the $20 million that Borough President Scott M. Stringer secured through an agreement in September.
All of which makes for some interesting negotiations as the City Council end game approaches. The key issue here, is that no matter how much CU puts into a fund there's a need to identify land that can be used for the building of the housing. Therefore, the swap proposal put forth by Nick Sprayregen becomes more germane-it's the only realistic option that identifies an actual spot for the housing to be built.
We come to this issue from a good deal of personal experience. Thrust into teaching over forty years ago, we entered the arena with a healthy skepticism of the bureaucracy at 110 Livingston Street-a building that symbolized the sclerotic nature of the system in the face of new challenges. What we found, however, was that the student population had changed and that the traditional approaches needed to change as well.
Which was why we initially supported the community control movement-the bureaucracy and central control needed to be dismantled and new innovative approaches needed to be tried. We taught classes on the street in opposition to the teacher's strike, and we marched in solidarity with the community's efforts to change the status quo.
What we learned, however, was that the problems that existed were not exclusively structural-the system wasn't the only culprit. A great deal of the challenge was generated by the breakdown of families and a rising drug epidemic. Which meant that any real change had to be two-fold: a community renewal was needed that addressed the underlying social dysfunction; and a systemic change was needed that adapted the educational environment to some of the new challenges.
Instead, what we got in school decentralization was a hybrid system that combined the worst aspects of both centralization and decentralization-and the ensuing three decades saw a continued deterioration of educational achievement. Enter the Bloomberg management gurus, folks who saw the educational system as a problem for management reform.
The problem, as Andrew Wolf and others have chronicled, is that the management experts lacked educational expertise, and the educational experts brought in were full of new age nonsense that was really potentially damaging to the kinds of kids in the educational system. Now, six years later, the chickens have come home to roost, and the attempt to stifle criticism is dangerous to the well-being of students, parents and teachers.
So what we get in the chancellor's response to the test results is, as the NY Daily News calls it, "spin city." As the News says: "Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said the scores from last spring were "good" overall, but critics called them a disappointment." More importantly, the gap between the results from the widely applauded state test results and the federal scores, indicate that the latter may have been watered down, and hence the results hold less meaning.
As Randi Weingarten told the Times: “When scores become so high stakes, then you have to really think about and ensure the reliability of these testing systems,” she said, adding that the federal scores “call into question the reliability of the New York State testing system." What this does is shed a harsh light on all of the pompous posturing of the DOE PR machine.
As one critic points out: "But a range of other educators said the results undercut the city’s reputation as a beacon of school improvement. Michael J. Petrilli, a researcher at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, said the city did not seem to be improving any more than the rest of the state. “That to me seems quite damning to the Bloomberg administration,” he said." This is especially true when Atlanta and Washington showed marked improvement on the national tests.
It also serves to underscore the legitimacy of the criticisms that have been levelled by Diane Ravitch and Andrew Wolf-in spite of all of the woofing done by toadies to shut the critics up. Ravitch's comments to the NY Post, then, need to be taking very seriously: "If New York state says that eighth-grade performance is up, and NAEP says that it's flat in New York for eighth grade, I would trust the NAEP numbers," said NYU professor and education historian Diane Ravitch."
It's high time that the educational reforms launched by the Bloomberg administration be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny. If sunlight is the best disinfectant than the smoke an mirrors coming out of Tweed needs to be counteracted quickly; and if Wolf is correct about the T&G programs in today's NY Sun, real damage is being done and a thorough review of what's being wrought from Chambers Street must begin immediately.