Thursday, October 01, 2009

Whither Willets?

The ultimate fate of what happens at Willets Point was not-despite what Mike Bloomberg likes to tell everyone-decided when the City Council approved the land use application last fall-with the illicit help of a Claire Shulman-led profitable not-for-profit. We say this because the undertaking at the Iron Triangle will be immensely costly, and no one has had the fortitude-least of all Bloomberg-to put a real number on the prospective development.

Honesty in politics isn't apparently always the best policy-and the mayor has been mouthing costly promises of late; hopes and dreams that are not accompanied, as they say in the accounting biz, with any fiscal back-up. Or, as in the case of his $50 million community college program, we get the cost but not the source of the money to cover it.

This all becomes relevant, four years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of New London in the now famous Kelo case, because the property that the court then ruled was ripe for condemnation, lies empty till this very moment-the victim, so it is claimed, of a stagnant economy. And this all preceded the real economic meltdown of last year.

So now we take a hard look at where the city stands with Willets Point, and what do we see? Well, not much since EDC, in charge of all the sleight-of-hand, isn't the most transparent agency around. For instance-and this is a question that elected officials and media alike should be asking-how many properties have been actually bought out? And by, "bought out," we mean where real money has changed hand.

This is key because any money that has been forwarded is in the form of non-refundable deposits; payments which are theirs to keep, even if the planned development doesn't go through! (Or if, for some reason, the city fails to take title to the property). A potential classic case of money for nothing.

This is a crucial issue because no one to our knowledge has been forthcoming to the public as to what the cost of acquisition for all of the 60 Willets acres will actually be. Keeping these costs opaque works to EDC's advantage because the real amount of money that the city will have to come up with is, we believe, staggering. The preliminary cost estimate of Willets Point United is close to $700 million!

And as property values rise, so could the ultimate price tag to the city-and to its tax payers, of course. And this acquisition cost is just the start. No one, as the Municipal Arts Society points out, has yet publicly price tagged the cost of remediating the property-also likely to be in the high hundreds of millions of dollars. So, even before a developer is designated, and the first shovel is put into the ground, the city could easily be out over a billion dollars.

But that's only if all of the hurdles are successfully navigated by EDC-and the traffic issue is one hurdle that, while consciously hidden by the city during ULURP, could easily comer back to bite it on the butt. The development at the Point can't proceed without the building of two Van Wyck off-ramps; and these ramps must pass approvals at both the state and federal levels. And we believe this is no slam dunk; but the irony here is that, if the ramps are built, they will themselves generate the kind of congestion that our carbon foootprint reducing mayor should be alarmed about-but isn't because of his serious edifice complex.

It's past time for real transparency about the Willets Point development-and honesty about the true costs of this pipe dream. The mayor, spending millions to convince enough New Yorkers that what they're seeing with their own eyes is somehow a product of hysterical blindness, is claiming that he is the champion of immigrants and small business-and doing so nightly on Spanish language television.

There are, however, over 200 small businesses and 2500 mostly immigrant workers at Willets Point who need to be forgiven for their skepticism in regards to the grandiose Bloomberg claims. When it comes to real workers and small business, the mayor comes, like the Grim Reaper, with a scythe to cut down their hopes and dreams. In Bloomberg's reality, only virtual immigrants and small businesses are thriving-in the real world, not so much.

So it's time for a thorough scrutiny of what's going on at Willets Point-from phony grass roots lobbying campaigns, to exhorbitant hidden fees. Laid bare, this entire enterprise looks more and more like a White Elephant-a monument to the skewed vision and overly large ambition of the city's richest man.