Monday, November 30, 2009

Willets Point: Empty Lots of Questions

In this morning's NY Daily News, we have the guest editorial on the lessons of both the Pfizer/Kelo aftermath, and the recent NY State court Atlantic Yards decision on Atlantic Yards. In our view, it would be a mistake for the city to see the AY decision as a green light for the permissive use of eminent domain: "Rather than running with their court-blessed authority to condemn and take property, Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Paterson should instead be looking to the Pfizer-Kelo mess. It offers a much more relevant real-world warning on the dangers of zealous use of the eminent domain authority. The New London fiasco serves as a cautionary tale, particularly in regards to the expansive and massively expensive project over at Willets Point, in Queens."

Now, we have always been cautious in our position on eminent domain-and have supported the Atlantic Yards development for a number of clearly stated reasons while, at the same time, representing Forest City Ratner, the project's developer. We believe that, in certain cases, it can be a legitimate tool for development. The case of Willets Point is not one of those times where ED makes either fiscal or public policy sense. It is too large, too costly, and way too speculative-particularly in these very scary economic times; as New London could tell you.

In addition, Willets Point has no developer and no plan-with its ultimate cost shrouded in mystery: "In order to successfully advance a 9 million-square-foot retail and housing development in that disparaged community, the city will have to - on spec - spend hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, to prepare the land. Just to buy all of the property owners out will cost, based on the Economic Development Corp.'s public disclosure of existing sales that have already been negotiated, close to $700 million. And this is all before the cost of providing necessary infrastructure to the area, including sidewalks and sewers, that the city has neglected to provide for well over 80 years."

What the city council did in the land use application for the Iron Triangle was to simply provide the city with carte blanche-and a blank check-to do whatever it wants; whenever it can scrounge up the upwards of $4 billion to fully clear and prepare the site for development. And Mayor Mike has never given the tax payers a full accounting of the costs: "The city is very good at touting the collateral benefits of many of its large retail development projects, but it is understandably reticent about highlighting what can be seen as the collateral damages. Given the Pfizer debacle, in which New London's big promises and massive investments went up in smoke, it is crucial that Bloomberg and his economic development team now give a full and detailed accounting of all the predevelopment costs that will have to be absorbed even before a developer is selected."

So, what the council did was to cede its authority over to the mayor on the issue of what will be built at Willets Point and who will build it. The whole idea behind the current land use law is to provide for city council oversight-but with development in this long neglected area some time in the distant future, there will be none exercised by the city's legislature on this massive project.

Scores of predevelopment promises were made that are so much nonsense given the fact that we have no idea who the mayor will even be when and if there comes a time to select a developer. The city council never even, as it should have, provided a methodology that would have allowed the development to receive final approval once all of the pieces were put in place. So any "plan" that is being chatted up now is simply a fairy tale.

NYC is going through the kind of economic downturn that should give it some pause when it comes to speculation-especially since so many of its economic development officials come from Wall Street where speculation is de rigueur-and can, at the same time, be seen as a significant underlying cause of the current economic meltdown we are facing. There is too much at stake over at Willets Point to have the tax payers rolling the dice.

When we look at the hundreds of businesses that are impacted at the Point, and the thousands of immigrant workers, we need to re-visit both the feasibility as well as the cost of this development-whatever the underlying legal issues are concerning the use of eminent domain. Jeff Benedict, the author of the definitive book on Kelo (Little Pink House), underscores why this revisiting needs to be done in light of Pfizer's taking a powder in New London: "In other words, the potential of a massive redevelopment scheme anchored by the arrival of Pfizer's facility justified evicting homeowners who stood in the way of progress. There's just one stubborn fact: It's been four years since the infamous Kelo ruling and the city hasn't gotten a thing built on the 90 acres it now controls. After all the shouting, the developer ran out of money and the city has zero prospective replacements. Barren weed fields are all that exist where homes once stood."

Willets Point offers an even greater-and exponentially more expensive-opportunity for failure. The local communities in the way of this development-and don't think that Willets Point can be done in isolation from its neighbors-have little idea how traffic will get in and out from the newly developed 9,00,000 square feet. As we point out in the Daily News: "In addition, it's estimated that the provision of adequate transportation into this peninsula - with an additional estimated 80,000 vehicle trips including 2,500 truck trips entering or leaving Willets Point every weekday - will run into the billions of dollars."

But those 80,000 cars simply don't have any adequate way of entering and living without totally disrupting existing traffic in and out of East Elmhurst, Corona, Flushing and College Point. These neighborhoods will function as door mats for any new development of this size-but just how the new traffic will be accommodated is also being treated as a municipal secret.

Ramps are being planned off the Van Wyck that may or may not-who knows?-alleviate all of these cars and trucks slated to plow through local roads. We say, who knows? because the city won't release its ramp reports and is seeking to get approvals from NYSDOT and the federal highway authority without any public review process.

So we are facing massive costs and uncertain infrastructure needs for a project that has no real definition aside from the beautiful renderings that demonstrate little more than the creativity of highly paid architects-and can be changed at the will of a future mayor. As we said this morning in the News-and we'll give ourselves the last word today: "With the prospect of tax hikes and service cuts hanging over the heads of New Yorkers, now is not the time for the kind of risky investment that cost our Connecticut cousins millions of dollars.The city needs to take a step back on Willets Point, fully examine the costs as well as the benefits, and ask the simple question: Can we afford this kind of publicly subsidized real estate speculation in the current economic climate? In the aftermath of New London, the answer should be a resounding "no."