Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Where There's A Willets, There's a Way?

Today the City Planning Commission will vote, hold on to your hats folks, in favor of the Willets Point redevelopment project-institutionalizing the concept of the rubber stamp. In the NY post this morning, a strong advocate for the development, citing environmental reasons, makes her case: "The City Planning Commission will vote today on the Bloomberg administration's plan to transform the Willets Point peninsula. The proposals would turn what's probably the most polluted 60 acres in New York into a mixed-use development of housing, offices, retail space and parks, plus a hotel, school and perhaps a convention center. The plan has generated great controversy, but it fully merits the commission's OK."

No one we know would argue that the Iron Triangle isn't environmentally challenged. And we agree with Vitullo-Martin when she points out: "Kevin McCarty, director of environmental investigations for HDR Engineering & Architecture, has been studying the site. He says that businesses "are operating like it's still 1950 and you can paint cars in the street and dump whatever you want on the ground." Worse, he notes that even if businesses wanted to comply fully with current environmental regulations, they couldn't - because the infrastructure isn't there to contain and recycle the waste. "All this bad stuff goes right into the bay," he says."

Let's be very clear. The fact that the area's operating as if it were the 1950s, is only the result of the fact that the city's been treating Willets Point as if it were still the turn of the last century-having allowed the area to deteriorate by conscious neglect. So, in effect, we're at the point of blaming the businesses who have been systematically victimized by decades of neglect.

The argument, therefore, that the environmental hazard of Willets Point demands that the existing businesses must scram, is inequitable in the extreme-and Vitullo-Martin fails to even address the unfairness of the state's eminent domain laws that will leave the businesses with little legal redress. Here's how she sees it: "Seth Pinsky is the president of the city Economic Development Corp., which is overseeing the project. He says the EDC is trying hard to avoid eminent domain by analyzing what every owner has now and asking them what they need. It has settled with several owners and thinks it will be able to come to terms with most."

Frankly, Vitullo-Marin should be a little less sanguine about the official pronouncements of EDC. We saw how this agency gave the bum rush to businesses at the old Bronx Terminal Market. Why? Because they could; there was little of the political will we see on the Point operating in that most dysfunctional of political environments. In fact, the one real champion of the Bronx wholesalers was Hiram Monserrate of Queens-the very council member who's leading the opposition to the Willets Point eminent domain scheme.

So let's take EDC spin for what's it's worth-absolutely nothing, especially if the zoning is approved and the council's leverage is deeded over to the city and its repo agency. And what of all of the jobs lost? "Most of Willets' 260 or so companies are very small; together, they pay about a million dollars a year in taxes. But they also employ some 1,700 people - no minor matter in a city that has seen manufacturing jobs fall by two-thirds over the last half-century."

And most of the businesses that employ the bulk of these immigrant workers are renters, unable to even partially benefit from compensation reached through eminent domain negotiations. Which is why the City Council needs to say no to this development.

All of the discussions and negotiations at the Point needed to have been done before any ULURP process was commenced; and the designation of the developer and a project plan needed to be proffered at that time so that the council would have some idea about what it was actually voting on-besides the eviction of thousands of workers and hundreds of businesses. Once the council cedes this over to the city heaven help the folks at Willets Point; just ask the Terminal Market merchants.