Friday, July 24, 2009

A Condemnation of a Massive Government Failure

Can you believe all of the endless negotiations between the Port Authority and Larry Silverstein over the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site? The site, which by all means should be considered sacred ground-and a place for a national memorial to remember those who lost their lives to the worst attack on American soil-has been allowed to lay fallow for eight years. This, in spite of the fact that Silverstein had barely gotten title to the property before the Towers were attacked.

Now, however, after all this time, everyone is bending over backwards to placate Silverstein. As the NY Daily News reports: "The Port Authority for the first time on Friday spelled out a scenario in which it could strip Larry Silverstein of the three iconic skyscrapers he plans to build at Ground Zero. Agency brass say that within the next two months, they'll turn over "construction-ready land" to the developer - and stop paying him $300,000-a-day in late fees they've paid for more than a year."

Now we don't believe that the developer is the only blameworthy participant in this dance of delay-how could Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg, for instance, allow the situation to deteriorate with no action on this iconic property? And, having failed to act, paying off Silverstein to the tune of millions of dollars? Here's a great example of the Bloomberg leadership expertise in action; simply unable to devise a solution to what should have been the biggest development priority for a new mayor.

Instead, Bloomberg went off to build a football stadium; deeded over the Bronx Terminal Market to a close friend; smoothed the way for the eminent domaining of West Harlem on behalf of Columbia; and, most egregiously of all, developed a plan to take the property of hundreds of small business owners in Willets Point. All the while Ground Zero remains a pit-a monument to the mayor's failure.

And the NY Post's Steve Cuozzo has been a beacon on the Ground Zero fiasco-and the recent flap over drunken construction workers, well, drove him to drink: "Just thinking about Ground Zero can drive you to drink. Look at the 16-acre site without even one completed project almost eight years after 9/11, and you want to slip into the Millenium Hotel's third-floor bar overlooking the pit and down a Slurry Wallbanger -- oops, Harvey Wallbanger -- to numb your brain. But it's not an option for construction workers. The hardhats' lunchtime boozing, observed and photographed by The Post, reflects the lack of accountability that plagues the whole downtown rebuilding effort. This outrage is much worse than when this newspaper found hundreds of pages of "confidential" rebuilding documents, including Freedom Tower architectural drawings, dumped in garbage cans last year. The Port Authority had trouble explaining that. But when it comes to construction workers getting smashed on their lunch hours, there must be no failure to identify and punish the guilty."

So while the Port Authority has been totally negligent-and the political will non existent-the ground remains undeveloped. But let's pose a question that no one is asking. Why hasn't the city and state coordinated an eminent domain proceeding to condemn the Port's property rights-and Silverstein's lease along with it? In Willets Point, so the argument goes, we can't allow this eyesore to be perpetuated-notwithstanding the fact that the so-called eyesore is economically productive for thousands of families.

Ground Zero, on the other hand, in spite of being the spot where a national memorial should have been up and running years ago, stands empty. In our understanding of the eminent domain laws, there are two rationales for taking property-one if the area is blighted; and second, if the land is going to be used for a "civic project."

So while the city and state moves with alacrity to take Nick Sprayregen's West Harlem
warehouses, and the Korean dry cleaners over on Second Avenue and 126th Street-not to mention the 250 Willets Point firms-they sit with the proverbial thumbs up their sphincters when it comes to the PA and Siverstein. Can anyone say, double standard?

And what has Bloomberg done to get the ball rolling? According to Cuozzo, he has thrown himself right in the middle: "But it's worth Bloomberg's trying. This is the mayor who took control of the city's public-education system despite howls from unions and their political stooges that he couldn't do it, just as Rudy Giuliani curbed crime against resistance from everywhere; to courageously establish a new agenda and see it through is called leadership. And if it takes a great leap of courage on the mayor's part to adjust the PA's Ground Zero agenda, so be it. Political courage has been sorely lacking at Ground Zero..."

And Speaker Silver recently called the inaction, "an embarrassment." Yet, the idea of simple condemnation is outside the scope of discussion-an example of what the political scientists Bachrach and Baratz called, "non-decisions," subjects that were so outside the world view of the decision makers that they never even make it to the negotiating table.

The failure to act forcefully at Ground Zero is, then, just another example of how eminent domain is used almost exclusively in reverse Robin Hood fashion-giving to the rich, and taking from the less wealthy. One thing we know for certain, as the governor lunches with the developer, and the mayor huddles with the speaker, is that the idea of simply condemning the site and opening up the development rights to someone with a true civic vision is not on the lunch menu. Apparently, it's too rich for their blood.