Friday, July 18, 2008

"Cooked Process"

An article in today's NY Daily News contains an apt quote from State Senator Bill Perkins. Referring to the fact that the state used Columbia's own consultant, AKRF, to determine that the land that the university wants the state to condemn is blighted, Perkins said the following: "This was a cooked process," he said."

And, of course, it is just that. But we shouldn't be so shocked by this, since it is something that animates all of the ULURP applications that the city entertains. The developer chooses an environmental consultant who then "finds" just what the developer would wish found. A nice cozy, and not very transparent arrangement that creates a sham review process, since few lawmakers have either the skill or the time to fully evaluate the findings that are put before them.

We're reminded of a time long ago-and not much has changed since-when the developer of a Pathmark supermarket on the Lower East Side submitted a required traffic and parking analysis; an analysis that was subsequently vetted by the city planners and given the green light. When we did our own review, however, we found that the study was a complete replication of one that had been done for a Pathmark store in Gowanus. No one had even bothered to look!

The larger point here is that the entire ULURP process has to be changed, and the consultants need to be hired by an independent review agency; after all, how could a minimizing traffic study for the Gateway Mall be accepted on asthma alley in the Bronx? The fact that AKRF describes itself as one of the, "top firms in its field," is, in this context, more of an indictment than an approbation.

So it's not really the fact that AKRF has a blatant conflict that is disturbing in the ESDC case. Rather, it is the fact that the entire process is thoroughly imbued with conflicts and had AKRF not been Columbia's hired lap dog, it still would have come up with the same well-paid for advice on blight-it's what they're in the business of doing, and damn the public interest. Independent environmental analysis is almost impossible to come by since firms that want to be successful understand just where their bread will be buttered.

Extra Benefits

One other point from yesterday's NY Daily News: "Columbia University will pump an additional $21 million into neighborhood services as it pushes to get its controversial $7 billion expansion plan approved, the Daily News has learned. The school will also offer 40 undergraduate scholarships a year to students near its west Harlem campus, as well as two free classes a year for 50 area seniors, said Avi Schick, downstate president of the Empire State Development Corporation. "We went back and we said, how do we really integrate Columbia and the community?" Schick said. "When we vote to approve the plan, these are included."

That's not even a close shave from Shick. These extras are simply window dressing, and as we've said before the Columbia plan, unlike those of Harvard and Yale, walls itself off from the community; something that a few schollies will not change one iota. What would, "integrate Columbia and the community," is a housing plan that would address residential displacement. After all, when CU is finished expanding, the "community" won't even be there for the supposed integration.