Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Reification of Development

In some circles, "development" has been elevated into an idolatry-to be praised without any real reflection as to its impact. In academic circles, this is known as reification-the act of representing an abstraction as a physical thing. In the arguments of the idolators-and the City Journal's Julia Vitullo-Martin certainly fits into this catagory-development is elevated without reflection; and we are left with the sterile devleopment vs. anti-development catagories that obfuscate more than the illuminate a particular issue.

Such is the case of Vitullo-Martin's post mortem narrative on the defeat of the Kingsbridge Armory development: "Does the defeat of the Bloomberg administration's plan to redevelop the long-vacant Kingsbridge Armory into a shopping mall signal that New York is returning to the bad old days of disinvestment, deteriorating buildings, joblessness and poverty? Certainly the rhetoric of the victors is a throwback to the destructive confrontations of the 1960s, when welfare came to be seen as an acceptable way of life, preferable to employment."

One could only make this argument under the weighty burden of preconceived and misguided opinions; and certainly the author is ignorant, not only of the history of the community's efforts to develop the Armory, but of the manner in which the Related Companies mocked the entire RFP process. Not only that-and this goes to the heart of the develop but destroy mentality of the pro-development mindset-there is but slight recognition, if any, of the potential harm (regardless of how many jobs are "created") that a particular project may have.

And so it goes with Vitullo-Martin, who conflates the promotion of higher paying jobs-using the tax payers' money-with the desire to perpetuate a welfare mentality; or even criminality: "The notion that any job is better than no job no longer applies," said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, sounding remarkably like officials from the administration of John Lindsay, who doubled New York's welfare rolls to an economically unsustainable 1.65 million people. What, after all, is the alternative to "no job" except for welfare? (There's crime, of course, but presumably no elected officials are proposing that.)"

But what's worse in her analysis here, is the failure to adequately evaluate the causes of the economic decline in the Bronx-a failure that actually leads her to sing the praises of the not to be missed former borough president: "It's particularly troubling that this destructive rhetoric is thriving in the Bronx, which has begun heading downhill economically. It has an official unemployment rate of 13.4%, up 4% from last year, and an unofficial unemployment rate of at least double that, since so many discouraged seekers have fallen out of the market altogether. Even before Diaz and the City Council killed the $350 million project with its 2,200 jobs, the Bronx had a higher dependency rate than any other borough - almost 60% of Bronx residents receive some form of government assistance."

Now, you'd think that eight years after our economic guru of a mayor took over the helm, someone who want to point a pinkie at the city's chief executive for the "heading downhill" economy that Vittulo-Martin wants to tie to the powerless BP. Steve Malanga, her colleague at the City Journal, does that magnificently-and traces the decline to the high tax and anti-small business policies of our three term mayor.

And Vitullo-Martin drags out the old canard of "understored" to misdirect us away from the assault on the city's neighborhood retailers under this mayor: "Take, for example, the opening of the River Plaza Shopping Center on 225th Street in 2004, the first major private development in the Bronx in 20 years. CarriĆ³n expedited the review and permit processes to move it along as efficiently as possible. Its developer points out that even with his shopping center fully occupied, the Bronx today remains "severely understored," with immense pent-up retail demand."

Well, that's shocking- a developer who believes that a community needs more of what he is selling. And as long as a developer is singing a pro-development tune, we can count on Vitullo-Martin to hum loudly along: "In other words, there's strong economic demand from Bronx residents for precisely the retail that Kingsbridge Armory would have brought."

There's also a strong demand for the retail goods that the stores on Fordham Road are selling; and these retailers are struggling because of the high tax policies of the Bloombergistas. And on top of those, the mayor's nutty transportation commissioner has eliminated all parking along the length of the shopping corridor. As the NY Daily News reported last year: "The city's new special bus service along Fordham Road is making roadkill out of some area businesses, community leaders charge. Two dozen merchants and community officials rallied at City Hall last Wednesday, saying revised parking rules to help the new Select Bus Service run smoothly are crippling businesses because nobody can park near them."

But as long as the trains, err buses, run on time who the hell cares about small business: "At Lola's Deli, 617 E. Fordham Road, business is down 40%, said Sher Ahmad, who helps manage the store. "A lot of people used to stop for a breakfast sandwich and coffee. But now it's dead," he said, pointing to the row of empty parking meters outside the store. "Nobody can park. We're losing a lot of business."

All of this goes right passed the scrupulous eyes of Vitullo-Martin in her cheer leading for our edifice complex driven mayor-and she obfuscates the opposition to the mall with a confused take on the ULURP process: "Up until now, ULURP had been one of New York's success stories in effective government reform. In order to give neighborhoods and their representatives a say in local land use decisions while being fair to development, the city charter in the 1980s set up a clear, stringent, standardized seven-month timetable to march major proposals through a predictable review. Every important party gets its say on land use. But the Armory opponents weren't objecting on land-use grounds - other than in a haphazard sort of way. Their primary drive was to coerce the developer into forcing future retail tenants to pay employees a "living wage..."

She, of course, has nothing to say about the opposition of the neighborhood merchants-that would take away from the purity of her diatribe. And it was the "socio-economic impact" sections of the environmental review that provided the basis for the righteous objections from the local store owners-along with the fact-unremarked in the editorial-that the developer, of sainted memory, had bitch-slapped the city RFP that had counseled looking for non competing retailers (i.e. no supermarket).

So, once again we must read a cookie cutter pro-development narrative superimposed on the reality of the fight over the Armory. This was just another example of how the mayor, whose economic development officials actually started off on the right foot, went for the small biusiness jugular-and found his own knife used against him. To blame the council and Diaz is to distort the reality of an administration that has just one economic development knife in its quiver-and will keep trying to use it no matter how many gun fights it finds itself in.