Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Willets Point of Contention

Eliot Brown over at the Observer has an interesting piece on Willets Point-one that raises the question of what kind of plan the city has for the Iron Triangle. The costs of development are apparently escalating way beyond what the city has budgeted-and that's even before an expensive, and drawn out legal battle: "There’s a number of things that aren’t told in that number, particularly what the city is spending in terms of relocation costs. There’s been $424 million allocated for both acquisitions and off-site infrastructure, an amount that would seem to be too small to do everything the administration has discussed.:

Way too small-and it's past time for the city to give its beleaguered tax payers an accurate accounting: "The city has said the off-site infrastructure will cost about $150 million, for one. And then there are land costs, which are substantial. Here’s the most recent closed deal: $11,993,825 for a lot that is 57,000 square feet (on the less valuable northern end of the site), according to the real estate tracking firm PropertyShark. That comes out to $210 a square foot, which, if extrapolated across the full 45 or so acres that are privately held on the site, would come out to $412 million."

And we haven't even gotten to remediation-although the city claims that this tab will be picked up by a developer. But if the project is done in stages, this possibility could be compromised: "Going forward, the Bloomberg administration has taken a phased approach to the project, attempting to develop the southwest corner first, likely to be followed by two other phases...Still, the prospect of a phased development directly contradicts statements made by the city in the run-up to Council approval: officials insisted that everything had to be developed at once, lest the pollution in existing properties seep into the rest of the development (the city even had an environmental consultant emphasize this point). This was a major justification for the use of eminent domain."

All of which raises so many questions that you really have to wonder what EDC is thinking with its plans to expedite an early eminent domain hearing in the next couple of months: "The next major step in the Willets Point plan is the eminent domain process, which the city expects to begin with hearings in the next few months. As that process readies, the business owners—the bulk of them automotive repair—are trying to apply new pressure on a number of legal and political fronts."

Now the owners, and members of Willets Point United, are wondering just what happened to the mayor's, "win-win" scenario-and the sweetheart deals for a few early deciders could set an expansive precedent: "The city’s Economic Development Corporation, which runs the Willets Point project, contends it would be misleading to apply these early deals' costs outward for the whole project, as the city paid more to find early sellers, and different sites have different values. “We’ve paid a premium for early acquisitions,” David Lombino, an EDC spokesman, said."

But EDC has established an off set price here-and if the numbers are added up they probably would exceed $700 million. Where does the city expect to come up with this cash from-at a time when it is evicting the businesses and putting thousands of workers on the unemployment line?

It seems to us that the city can ill afford to knock these businesses out in the absence of a cogent relocation plan. As we told the Observer: "Mr. Lipsky said that the efforts of the businesses—which organized a cohesive opposition after the project was approved by the Council—are aimed at raising questions about the broader viability of the project, the unrealistic budget, fighting the use of eminent domain, and raising concerns about the business relocation plan. "There is no strategic plan in place that would pay for this,” he said. “There is no relocation plan that will enable these jobs to be safe.”

And with record levels of unemployment-particularly in the low income and immigrant communities-what does it say about Mike Bloomberg that he would proceed with use of eminent domain at this early juncture? Can the disparities between the two New Yorks be made any greater?

The city needs to come clean-about its change of plans; about its use of illegal lobbying tactics; about its lack of any relocation plan; and about the kind of money it will need-money it simply doesn't have to spare-in order to do all that it plans for these picked-upon 60 acres. And it needs to do so before it starts a process that could easily become the road to nowhere.