Friday, April 30, 2010

Wal-Mart's Ill Windy City

The Chicago Sun Times is reporting on the efforts by Wal-Mart to open a second store in Chicago-and the battle is getting tense as Chicago pols are working hard to get another big box living wage bill passed; the first bill was vetoed by Mayor Daley. And it appears that the Walmonster might be getting off of its high horse: "Wal-Mart has agreed to hold an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with organized labor in a last-ditch attempt to break the stalemate that has stalled its planned Chicago expansion, City Hall sources said Wednesday. The world's largest retailer has repeatedly insisted that it would not negotiate wages and that it would only agree to pay a "living wage" if the mandate applied to all Chicago retailers."

Perhaps they are bending, but not everyone is convinced: "Wal-Mart is not likely to change that tune during the upcoming meeting with Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon, Secretary-Treasurer Jorge Ramirez and Ron Powell, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 881. But the company just might sign a "community benefits agreement" that guarantees that as many as five new Chicago stores would be 100 percent built by organized labor and that neighborhood residents would be hired to work in those stores."

Sure it will-but what about the retail work force? The other issues are really no brainers. And as far as the historic meeting is concerned-well, not so fast: "Ramirez said the meeting with Wal-Mart was originally scheduled for today, only to be called off. Wal-Mart has yet to reschedule. "It's one thing to say you're gonna do it. It's another to have a date," he said. Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said company officials "have not made any commitment to meet." Other sources insisted that a meeting would take place before Wednesday's zoning meeting, in part because Mayor Daley has demanded it."

THe UFCW's Ramirez remains quite skeptical-and points to the Wal-Mart class action suit as a sign that caution is necessary: "Ramirez noted that Wal-Mart has been bombarding the airwaves with commercials in recent days boasting about how well its employees are treated. "If they do all this great stuff, sit down and put it in writing. You haven't exactly lived up to the letter of the law in other places," Ramirez said. "They've got the largest class-action lawsuit in American history for systematically paying women less than they pay men for doing the exact same thing. The [alarm] bells should be going off at City Hall saying, 'We don't want to bring in predatory employers.' I don't hear a commercial saying that."

And all of this is taking place as the Chicago city council continues to debate a living wage bill for the city: "In 2004, a bitterly divided City Council gave Wal-Mart zoning approval to build its first Chicago store in Austin -- and handed the retailer a one-vote defeat in Chatham. The controversy gave birth to the big-box minimum-wage ordinance aborted by Daley's 2006 veto. Organized labor subsequently spent millions to elect a more union-friendly City Council. Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th) recently introduced a new version that would require Wal-Mart and other retailers with more than 50 employees that benefit "directly or indirectly" from city subsidies to pay a "living wage" of at least $11.03 an hour."

So the lesson here is that Wal-Mart, having reached its penetration limits in rural and suburban areas, is now dead set on getting into cities like Chicago and New York-and it will say anything in order to get a foothold. So, the rumored Gateway expansion site in Brooklyn needs to be taken very seriously-we know that Wal-Mart is doing just that.

Diogenes Can Finally Rest

The old Greek philosopher Diogenes was known for his eccentricity: "He became notorious for his provocative behavior and philosophical stunts such as carrying a lamp in the daytime, claiming to be looking for an honest man. Well, Diogenes can finally rest in his grave because we have found that honest man-the incorruptible Ben Haber of Queens.

Haber, in a letter written to the Flushing Times, Haber takes the paper to task for criticizing us, and the Willets Point businesses, for our opposition to the city's plan to abscond with the property of a whole bunch of small business folks. Haber is acutely aware of the legitimacy of the traffic issues in this development: "One will recall Borough President Helen Marshall thought it was a grand idea to build a New York Jets football stadium in the middle of Flushing Meadows Corona Park — a no-brainer if there ever was one and one that would have destroyed Flushing Meadows as a viable urban park. That Marshall has approved the city’s study of the Willets Point development’s traffic impact, as mentioned in TimesLedger Newspapers’ April 8-14 editorial “Delaying Tactics at Willets Point,” is another no-brainer and all the more reason to have the issue reviewed by a state and federal traffic study."

And Haber goes on to chastise the paper's criticism of our lobbying work-while remaining silent over the city funded lobbying done by Claire Shulman: "While TimesLedger seems unhappy Willets Point businesses have engaged Richard Lipsky to lobby on their behalf, it should be noted TimesLedger seems to have no problem with former Borough President Claire Shulman, who has been lobbying on behalf of the proposed development amid claims she has been doing so with city money."

But Haber comes back to the hot mess of a traffic situation in Queens and understands that the folks won't get an honest assessment unless the study is done by someone with no ties to the current administration at city hall: "Traffic on the Grand Central Parkway and Van Wyck Expressway is often backed up and worse when the New York Mets are in play and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is open. To add to that congestion, what would flow from the proposed development would make it even more impossible. Traffic on these highways is not an issue limited to the city and Willets Point businesses, but all city residents. Having an independent study by the state and federal governments, both of which have not been engaged by either the proponents or opposition, makes sense and TimesLedger should as a matter of public interest support it."

The TimesLedger should do exactly that-just to demonstrate a smidgen of independence-along with a slight pretense that it isn't in any one's political pocket. But, as they often say in lobbying, "a contract is a contract;" so we don't expect that the newspaper will have an attitude adjustment anytime soon.

Royal Mall Flush

The NY Daily News is reporting that there is yet another retail mall being planned for downtown Flushing-underscoring the compelling need for a moratorium on new permitted development, and an area-wide traffic study: "THE SITE OF a shuttered department store in downtown Flushing is undergoing a makeover after more than 10 years of vacancy. The former site of Caldor, a now-defunct chain of clothing stores, is being transformed into a three-story shopping center with a restaurant, supermarket and other shops, according to a manager for the project, which is currently under construction. Developers are shooting for a September grand opening for the center at 136-20 Roosevelt Ave. - to be dubbed the New World Mall."

More like otherworldly, if we look at the traffic impacts that will exacerbate the already gridlocked Flushing community. But the chair of the local planning board, one Gene Kelty-who we last knew as a fire marshal with a rather limited knowledge of planning issues-has his own bizarre wish: ""We don't want a flea market," said Community Board 7 Chairman Gene Kelty. "That doesn't complement the area."
He said Flushing residents would welcome a shopping center like Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst. "If you want a mall, put a mall in there with decent stores," Kelty said. Developers do not need to present their plans to the community board because it conforms to the existing zoning."

But what about the traffic impacts, Gene-and the cumulative damage that will be wrought should Flushing Commons ever get built? Kelty isn't totally unaware of the problem, even though there's an obvious disconnect between his support for unbridled development and the concomitant concern he expresses about downtown traffic: "The project is one of several new developments slated for the area, which locals say is already overcrowded and inundated with traffic. The area is the third-busiest pedestrian hub in the city after Manhattan's Broadway and 44th St., and Eighth Ave. between 33rd and 34th Sts., according to the city Transportation Department. "My concern is how it's going to affect traffic circulation," Kelty said. "Where are people going to pick their groceries up?"

Perhaps Kelty can join with the mayor and figure out how to shoehorn some bicycle lanes into Flushing-because it's hard to see how else the folks are going to navigate this hot mess. All of which underscores our call for the development moratorium-and as far as the mayor's sustainability vision, the continued promotion of Flushing Commons is a rather large fly in the mayoral green soup.

Just how bad is the Flushing Commons plan for downtown traffic? Well, let's put it this way, picking up the groceries will be the least of the problems residents will face. Our traffic engineer Brian Ketcham has the gory details. Read them and weep: "The Flushing Commons Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) itself reports that the project will gridlock Downtown traffic during much of the business day. Community Board 7 knows this but approved the project anyway. And, like Willets Point, Flushing Commons has low balled auto ownership, failed to provide sufficient residential parking and assumed very low usage of autos and very high transit utilization for all travel...

Congestion levels in and around Downtown Flushing will be even worse than has been reported by the developer. First, because auto trip generation and temporal distributions for the project are wrong; Correcting for these errors will add significantly to congestion levels. The DEIS also assumes 46% of residents will use transit (Willets Point assumes 55%). Queens’ residents currently use transit for just 23% of all travel for all purposes. Auto use by Flushing Commons' residents is therefore very likely much greater than what has been assumed. Correcting for this error will result in a near doubling of resident auto trips with a huge impact on congestion."

But the problems in Flushing and the spillover from projected traffic from the proposed Willets Point development are unavoidably interrelated-and the fraudulent EDC/city study on the proposed Van Wyck ramps makes understanding the situation nigh impossible-as Ketcham points out:

"The Flushing Commons EIS estimates project impacts at 30 intersections in and around Downtown Flushing. It assumes two-thirds of the Willets Point traffic impacts for No Build conditions by simply proportioning the trip assignments from the Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS). However, because the FGEIS assumes approximately half the Willets Point traffic would use the Van Wyck ramps, no correction is made for the change reported in the AMR, that just 16% of Willets Point traffic would use the ramps, leaving the rest, about 1,900 car and truck trips in the weekday PM peak hour, to find other routes to gain access to or egress from the Willets Point site. This is a 60% increase in local and nearby expressway traffic that was not accounted for in the AMR or in the EIS for Flushing Commons. Flushing Commons therefore only accounted for approximately a third of Willets Point traffic ultimately assigned to Downtown Flushing. The result of this oversight would add 200 more auto trips to Northern Blvd. and 100 more trips to Roosevelt Avenue in the PM peak hour further adding to the reported gridlocked conditions described in the DEIS."

And, of course, the Flushing Commons EIS assumes one way traffic on Main Street and Union Street, something that is now shelved-necessitating in our view the moratorium and global traffic study that we have already called for. Last night we made this and other points to the Juniper Civic Association-and even though the Maspeth neighborhood is far removed from Willets Point/Flushing, the members of Juniper totally understood the larger point on over development and traffic-as well as the role that the double talking mayor plays in all of this. We are slowly but steadily approaching critical mass on all of this and Flushing Commons and the Willets Point ramps are directly in our cross hairs.

Wal-Mart at Gateway: Traffic Nightmare in the Making

The rumored inclusion of a Wal-Mart (Super Wal-Mart?) at the Gateway Mall off of the Shore Parkway in East New York will exacerbate a traffic nightmare on the already gridlocked parkway. The mall and Wal-Mart-have been loudly cheered by the mayor who is seemingly confused about how this retail complex, and the scores of other similar ones throughout the city, totally contradict his planned vison for an environmentally better city in the year 2030.

Traffic engineer Brian Ketcham, using his own time and money, had analyzed the proposed Gateway expansion in 2009-a concern that many of us should have also evidenced given the possible sneak inclusion of the Walmonster in the expanded  mall. As Ketcham's analysis pointed out: "The analysis of the project’s impact along Shore Parkway is totally implausible. The fundamental flaw is the low balled trip generation rates used in this analysis. While I understand that AKRF undertook limited surveys of vehicles entering and leaving the parking lot in November 2006, their data are not reported in the DEIS for public review. What is reported is wrong. The resulting trip generation factors are not credible. They are about half what the Institute of Transportation Engineers reports for ordinary shopping centers nationwide."

That factual error is compounded when we understand the greater traffic impacts of big box stores: "Because big box stores draw from a much larger market area than neighborhood shopping centers, they are notorious for generating far more trips. Thus, the trip numbers used in the Gateway Center traffic/parking analysis and the consequent impact should be more than twice as high as reported is the DEIS." And when we further understand that Wal-Mart has an even greater reach-and can pull customers from as far as twenty five miles away-the Numbers that Related's consultant generated lack all credibility.

And then we get to the incredibly idyllic description of the Shore Parkway-something that anyone who travels the road will know right away is just plain wrong-an intentional obfuscation of reality: "The draft EIS reports that the project will increase traffic along Shore Parkway from 14% to 18%. Anyone who travels the Shore Parkway daily knows that the Parkway is at capacity for much of the day, sometimes moving at 5 to 10 MPH. Yet the traffic analysis assumes peak hour speeds of nearly 55 MPH (the posted maximum) for most time periods on most sectors of the Parkway. Apparently, the preparers of the draft EIS assessed only “ideal” Parkway operations, i.e., conditions with low traffic volumes. Nowhere does the draft EIS provide measured travel speeds along Shore Parkway to calibrate the model based on actual observations. Thus, the analysis of the impacts of the project on Shore Parkway is wrong and the draft EIS is invalid. The fact that the DEIS reports only half the potential trip generation from new big box retail forces me to conclude that the entire traffic analysis is invalid."

The inaccuracies of this EIS, when seen alongside of the even greater Wal-Mart impacts, underscore just how egregious the consultant' deceptions are in the great majority of these mall development proposals. The end result, is a total mockery of the Bloomberg PlaNYC 2030-as environmentalist Ketcham underscored in his letter to the mayor praising his "Broadway Goes Green" initiative: "Congratulations on your program to launch “Broadway Goes Green” (November 26, 2008 My Another step in the right direction. However, “Broadway Goes Green” would have to be 10,000 times as effective as I estimate it will be to offset the impacts of your support for Big Box Stores. Your efforts to rezone much of New York City to accommodate these remotely located totally auto-dependent retail giants have lead to hundreds of Big Box Stores in New York City, adding more than 6% to the CO2 emissions from transportation sources. Do the math: Big Box Stores that have been built or approved will generate 1.5 billion additional vehicle miles of travel every year. That translates into approximately 750,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually. But the problem is not just the addition to global warming emissions. The addition of 1.5 billion miles of travel annually will add to congestion, increased traffic accidents and environmental damages totaling $2.3 billion every year."

It is now the right time to call out the mayor on his two faced sustainability policy-and the best way of doing that is for the state legislature-along with the city council-to hold joint traffic and environmental impact hearings on PLaNYC 2030; with the Gateway Mall acting as the star witness to the mayor's blatant hypocrisy. The naked emperor needs to be called out, and a moratorium on much new development should be called so that a full analysis of the environmental damage that the Bloomberg development policy is having on the city can be fully understood by all New Yorkers.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Community Benefits and Land Use

The NY Times takes an in-depth look at the Bar Association report on the relationship of community benefits agreements and the NYC land use review process-and begins, of course, with the defeat of the Kingsbridge Armory plan: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg suffered an embarrassment last December when the City Council rejected a major developer’s plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars transforming an unused armory in the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough, into a shopping mall. The Kingsbridge Armory project collapsed — and the Bronx lost the prospect of hundreds of jobs — after the developer, the Related Companies, declined to require its tenants to pay a so-called living wage of at least $10 an hour and benefits. The wage minimum was one of several concessions sought by a coalition of 19 community, religious and labor organizations in exchange for supporting the project — to be formalized in a pact known as a community benefits agreement, or C.B.A."

But clearly, as we have commented on here and here, the process of crafting a community benefits agreement within the scope and time frame of the city's land use review is fraught with complications: "Now, in a report that is likely to have considerable influence on policy makers, the New York City Bar Association has urged the city to stop allowing community benefits agreements to be part of the zoning approval process. The report warns, among other things, that the agreements could create an opportunity for corruption."

Of course, corruption is always possible at any point in the economic development process-when the aforementioned Related Companies got a no bid contract for the Bronx Terminal Market the taint that was evident wasn't simply a typical Bronx odor; as former Deputy Mayor Doctoroff clearly rigged the entry of Related into the deal. So, in our view, the fact that the involvement of communities in the policy making could become corrupt is not a per se reason for knocking out CBAs.

In this opinion we are joined by our erstwhile jousting partner Jesse Masyr: "But the Related Companies’ lawyer Jesse Masyr said the agreements were ingrained in the land-use process and were not likely to be eliminated. “I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that this genie goes quietly back in the bottle,” he said. “A better approach would be to have rules and policies as to what are the appropriate ways to handle this.”

And a better approach would be to find a way to disengage the economic decision making from ULURP itself-giving the city council a legitimate oversight over the business of the development and not just the land use component. If this were to happen, community benefits could be seen as a companion process to the overall development plan. But then again, as we have said before, community benefits for a development that does more harm than good-and involves subsidies for retailers competing with established store owners-simply cannot be offset by any CBA deal.

Still, the review process is flawed; and the city's resistance to CBAs along with its defense of the current process underscores just why reform is needed. Here's EDC attempt at a form of rather subtle humor: "The city has not responded formally to the report. But in an e-mail message, Janel Patterson, spokeswoman for its Economic Development Corporation, endorsed the principal recommendation, saying: “The city should not be a party to community benefits agreements. The city works with the developer and the community board, as the recognized and appropriate community representative, through the public review process (Ulurp) to ensure that a project delivers benefits for the community directly related to the project.”

But,as Comptroller Liu has pointed out, the tax benefits negotiated with the developer by EDC are often quite extravagant-and the purported concomitant, "benefits for the community," are not only questionable, but fail to consider the project's collateral damages-both environmental and from the standpoint of local business.

Such was the case with the flawed Armory plan, as we pointed out loudly and often: "The reality is that the tax subsidized malling will cannibalize existing neighborhood stores that are on life supports as it is-reducing employment and destroying the dreams of countless numbers of struggling entrepreneurs. But why should Mike Bloomberg care about these folks, none of whom will ever be caught hobnobbing with the mayor at one of the city's private clubs that he frequents? And given the callous disregard shown for small retailers, the mayor's referencing of the recession is particularly bad form: "Given the continued negative economic impacts of the national recession, including high unemployment and a scaling back of job creating development, the Kingsbridge Armory plan came at a particularly important moment...Disapproval of the plan serves as a particularly untimely setback to the fulfillment of these goals."

So, it was in the context of a flawed development plan that the Kingsbridge CBA-along with its living wage-gained traction. This fight underscores just how much the underlying economic impacts animate the land use debate; and why we need to pay more attention to this oversight. But EDC needs to be reined in, and a more thorough and independent review process-one that examines collateral damages-needs to be added to the city council's responsibilities. It is within these added parameters that community benefits should be positioned for discussion.

But the Bar is right on about one point-the current chaos and uncertainty needs to be addressed: "Vicki L. Been, a professor of land-use law at the New York University School of Law, and the prime author of the bar association report, agreed that community benefits agreements were inevitable, but she said the government did not have to participate. “I agree that developers will do everything they possibly can not to have the uncertainty and unpredictability of community opposition,” she said. “What can be stopped is the government’s role in that, to the extent that developers felt like they were being told, ‘You had better reach a C.B.A. before you come to the City Council."  Another of the report’s authors, Ross F. Moskowitz, a land-use lawyer at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, said the city needed to address this problem to let developers know in advance what they would be expected to provide and to prevent the failure of another major project. “Hopefully, what will come out of this debate is a process that will provide standards and certainty,” he said."

But the standards that do emerge-and the charter revision discussions should address this as well-need to go beyond the issue of community benefits to encompass economic benefits and damages; as well as the corrupted use of house slave consultants who will tell the city or a developer anything they want to hear.

Bloomberg the Bracero

In yesterday's NY Daily News, Mayor Bloomberg-clearly no border collie-inveighed against the Arizona immigration law; and managed to mangle what the law actually says: "A new Arizona law requiring local police officers to stop anyone they might reasonably suspect of being here illegally may produce unintended consequences that could hurt not only Arizona, but all of America."

But wait, that's not what the law says-as Byron York points out: "The chattering class is aghast at Arizona's new immigration law. "Harkens back to apartheid," says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Cynthia Tucker. "Shameful," says the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne. "Terrible…an invitation to abuse," says the New York Times' David Brooks.For his part, President Obama calls the law "misguided" and says it "threaten[s] to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans." Obama has ordered the Justice Department to "closely monitor the situation and examine the civil rights and other implications of this legislation." Has anyone actually read the law? Contrary to the talk, it is a reasonable, limited, carefully-crafted measure designed to help law enforcement deal with a serious problem in Arizona. Its authors anticipated criticism and went to great lengths to make sure it is constitutional and will hold up in court. It is the criticism of the law that is over the top, not the law itself."

And what does the mayor feel is so dangerous in a measure that is supported by around 70% of the American people? Here's his concern: "Already, stories are appearing about foreign travelers crossing Arizona off their vacation lists. Who wants to visit the Grand Canyon if you could end up getting hassled by the police - or arrested - if you leave your passport at the hotel? Foreign business leaders may also think twice about visiting or investing in Arizona."

Well at least the mayor left out all of the Nazi references that have burnt up the INTERNET over the last few days. The fact is that the folks are getting tired of a situation that is bankrupting border states that are forced to cope with hundreds of thousands of illegals-or undocumented workers. And no one will be stopped for just hanging out-as the law clearly states. But even more significantly, it needs to be pointed out that the newly enacted health care law mandates that everyone needs to prove their citizenship in order to be able to receive health care-shades of Adolf Hitler!

But just when we thought that Bloomberg was being fairly reasonable, Daily Politics reports the following from the normally unflappable mayor: "This country is committing national suicide. We just passed a health care bill to give coverage to millions of people, tens of millions of people and we don’t have doctors and we’re not allowing people who want to come here and be doctors to come here. This is just craziness. People are developing new drugs in India, rather than here. They’re going to win the next Nobel prize in China or in Europe, not here..."

So, that's what's happening in Arizona, a xenophobic attack on immigrant doctors. Who knew? Shows what happens when the mayor speaks off the cuff. The mayor's confused stance id underscored by the mixed message in yesterday's Op-Ed: "Basic free market economics tells us we need more legal immigrants - immigrants who will start new businesses and help build the foundation for future economic growth. Laws that have the potential to hassle them could prove devastating to our economy. From a practical point of view, police officers have no rational way of knowing in advance who is a citizen, or a tourist, or a business traveler, or a legal permanent resident, or a foreign student, or a temporary worker - and who is not. And this could lead immigrants who own businesses to pack up and leave and take their companies' jobs with them."

In the first segment quoted above, Bloomberg is on solid ground-and no one in Arizona who supports the legal crackdown would argue with him on this point. But then-looking to appeal to all sides of the debate, Bloomberg goes off in a flight of fancy that has the characteristic of a psychotic break. Let me repeat. No one will be stopped arbitrarily-unless it is in violation of the stated premises of the law. And to assume otherwise is to impugn the professionalism of the police in Arizona.

As York points out: "Critics have focused on the term "reasonable suspicion" to suggest that the law would give police the power to pick anyone out of a crowd for any reason and force them to prove they are in the U.S. legally. Some foresee mass civil rights violations targeting Hispanics. What fewer people have noticed is the phrase "lawful contact," which defines what must be going on before police even think about checking immigration status. "That means the officer is already engaged in some detention of an individual because he's violated some other law," says Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri Kansas City Law School professor who helped draft the measure. "The most likely context where this law would come into play is a traffic stop."

Now all of us are forced to show legal identification numerous times in our everyday lives-try getting in to 250 Broadway to see a council member without your driver's license. It is certainly inconvenient, but nevertheless necessary in an age of terrorism. So why all of the hyperventilation? As York reminds us: "Is having to produce a driver's license too burdensome? These days, natural-born U.S. citizens, and everybody else, too, are required to show a driver's license to get on an airplane, to check into a hotel, even to purchase some over-the-counter allergy medicines. If it's a burden, it's a burden on everyone. Still, critics worry the law would force some people to carry their papers, just like in an old movie. The fact is, since the 1940s, federal law has required non-citizens in this country to carry, on their person, the documentation proving they are here legally -- green card, work visa, etc. That hasn't changed."

But what has changed is the utter lack of enforcement of our existing immigration laws-the underlying rationale for the Arizona measure. So it appears that as far as Mike Bloomberg is concerned he is simply a Pander Bear. And the demonstrating opponents of the law who threw bottles at police, well, they did more in one weekend to erode civility than a whole year of Tea Parties. Talk about language having consequences. We can't wait for Bill Clinton to weigh in on this incivility-and the dangers it portends.

We have a serious immigration problem in this country-but it will not be properly addressed through hyperbolic visions of a fascist future. Every country has the right to control its borders. It appears, however, that there are many opponents of the Arizona law who believe no such thing. They should learn from the poll bounce that Governor Brewer received from her signing of the new law. People are not only fed up with porous borders; but they've had it up to here with phony attacks that demonize other Americans for racist motives that are not in evidence. Bloomberg's editorial, by utilizing over wrought language, aids and abets this despicable trend.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In Liu of Integrity

Comptroller Liu has only been in office for a few short months, but already he is demonstrating some real promise. As the NY Times reports today, Liu is shining the sunlight spotlight on the quasi-governmental and, in our view, extra legal actions of the city's Economic Development Corporation: "The agency responsible for economic development under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has failed to turn over to the city more than $125 million in payments, taxes and fees, according to an audit conducted by the city comptroller to be released on Wednesday."

Now the question is, just what else will Liu find if he really turns over the EDC rock? But for its part, EDC is on firm legal grounds. How do we know? Well, because the city's own lawyers say so: "In a detailed two-page rebuttal, the development agency defended its practice of keeping certain money, citing a supportive opinion from the city’s Law Department. The rebuttal belittled the comptroller’s findings, noting that the audit had found a “tiny fraction” of imprecise accounting by the corporation by amounts like 0.2 percent, 0.03 percent and 0.34 percent."

Can anyone say second opinion? But seriously, what this all indicates to us is that the activities of this secretive and arms length-supposedly not for profit-entity need better oversight. And the next item that should be on the comptroller's agenda is the illegal funding of illegal lobbying that is purportedly under investigation by the attorney general's office-you know, the actions of the renowned Professor Claire Shulman, the mistress of misdirection.

If sequestering funds is a violation of city law, than how does the use of public money for lobbying done by an organization that is proscribed by NY State law from engaging in political activity sit with Mr. Liu? We plan to meet with him to hopefully find out-because according to a NY Times report from last year, Shulman's group is not the only one being improperly used. And given the fact that Andrew Cuomo seems to have his hands full with the machinations of all things Espada, the interjection of the comptroller into this matter is certainly both appropriate as well as timely.

And the actions of EDC in letting a-reportedly 11 million dollar-contract to the environmental firm URS should also be on the Liu agenda. URS issued a fraudulent report on proposed Van Wyck ramps-it was discarded by NYSDOT, yet the URS people are still gainfully employed revising the ramp report in the EDC's creative writing seminar. How these consultants are chosen-and the quality and honesty of their work product should be addresses in audits as well.

The plain fact here-something that EDC's Lombino would acknowledge before going over to the dark side-is that EDC operates with too little scrutiny and accountability. If Lui's auditing can alter this situation, the public interest will be advanced.

Wal-Mart Update

Crain's Insider (subs.) has more on the Wal-Mart in Brooklyn saga: "News that Walmart is considering the Related Cos.-owned Gateway II shopping center reprises the battle between the developer and a retail workers union over the Kingsbridge Armory last year.
Related would relish a little payback to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which got the City Council to kill Related's Kingsbridge mall over concerns about wages. Walmart wouldn't need council approval to open at Gateway II, so Related could exact revenge without giving members a chance to comment in any significant manner."

The Insider seems to believe that Related is invulnerable on this move, but consider the following from the Observer about the company's mega-deal on the Far West Side: "The infrastructure costs are tremendous (up to $1 billion for a platform over each of the two sections of the rail yards), and it's far from a foregone conclusion that big tenants will once again be willing to relocate far from midtown Manhattan. After all, there's now a lot of government-backed new vacant office space set to rise in Lower Manhattan, and Related wants a large office, retail, and hotel tenant committed before it starts on the platform. Even if the triggers aren't hit, the M.T.A. can also call in the deal whenever it wants, giving Related 90 days to close and start its rent payments. Of course, if Related decided to bail on the project at that point, the M.T.A. would have to start over, opening up bidding for another developer.

Related is a politically connected developer operating in a political environment-and we haven't even mentioned that the company has thrown in its hat over at Willets Point. And while we're talking about that project, shouldn't we point out that the city council also rezoned that land with no assurances about which tenants will eventually locate at the proposed 1.2 million square foot mall slated for the development's footprint? The council has to exercise better oversight-and giving the city a blank check on a development before a developer or a project plan has been put forth, is simply bad policy.

But for its part, Crain's feels that the council's actions on the Kingsbridge Armory has attenuated its normal leverage over development: "But the issue is less about revenge than about logic. To stay on good terms with organized labor, developers have refrained from bringing Walmart to the city even when council approval was not required. The goodwill came in handy when they brought other projects to the council. But Kingsbridge was one of those other projects. By rejecting it, the council—paradoxically—lost some leverage. Developers, having gotten the message the council won't stomach retail projects without “living wage” guarantees, now seem to have nothing to lose by courting Walmart."

This, in our view, is simply silly. The living wage fight at the Armory is likely to lead to a city wide bill that creates wage standards. But even if it doesn't, the council's sway over development projects is still alive and well-and you beard the lion at your own risk. And taking on Wal-Mart as a tenant is a serious beard pull for any developer. We'll give Stu Appelbaum the last word on this: "Labor's dislike of Walmart is visceral. RWDSU promised a fight in an open letter yesterday from President Stu Appelbaum. “Yo Walmart: Fuhgeddaboudit!” he wrote. “New York City does not want you here.”

Peddling Success?

The NY Daily News-in its Brooklyn section-did an interesting story yesterday on the city's green cart experiment-and according to the paper the results are decidedly mixed. As we have pointed out, this underscores similar results from other parts of the city, and underscores the need for a more official and comprehensive review-something that was supposed to be part of the enabling legislation.

As the News reports: "On a recent day in Bushwick, customers swarmed over Amerfi Paulino's new fruit and vegetable carts, weighing yuca and squeezing avocados. "Most of them are regular customers," said Paulino, 26. "I'm doing business. People like it, so I feel good."But a few miles away, off Fulton St. in Bedford-Stuyvesant, two produce vendors stood on the corner lamenting their lack of business. "You came half an hour ago," Mohammed Firoz, 31, told a reporter. "I haven't sold one penny." The vendors represent two sides of the city's much-hyped Green Cart program, which since 2008 has dispatched 84 fruit and vegetable carts to low-income Brooklyn neighborhoods the city dubs "food deserts," where officials say fresh produce is hard to find. The city touts it as a big success, but Brooklyn News found more of a mixed bag for vendors, with some thriving while others are struggling."

Like in all real estate issues, it all come down to location, location, location-and an in depth analysis will show that, where at cart is successful, there is usually good foot traffic as well as the existence of food stores already selling produce: "Richard Lipsky, a supermarket lobbyist, said where Green Carts are succeeding, it's by "cannibalizing the existing stores. "The health of the neighborhood economy is equally important as the health of the individuals in the neighborhood," he said."

The response of some of the peddling customers is instructive: "But shoppers said they prefer Paulino's cart because it's more convenient, cheaper and fresher than local stores. "The vegetables are fresh - look at that zucchini!" said Maria Gonzalez, 68, who lives on the block. "To go to the supermarket, I would have to walk six or seven or eight blocks.... In the supermarket, it's expensive, and sometimes not too fresh." The key word here is expensive-and local stores, already struggling from the recession, along with excess regulations and sky high taxes and fees, will never be able to compete on price with a no overhead vendor. Abd, of course, the vendor on the street becomes a catch twenty two situation: as the business gets diverted, the store owners produce sits longer and becomes less fresh.

In a city that is promoting supermarkets in so called underserved areas, the cart policy-particularly where the carts succeed-is counterproductive. But, of course, success is not so prevalent: "t all vendors have it so easy. Firoz said he doesn't buy the city's argument that produce was hard to find before - in fact, he has trouble competing with local stores with bigger selections. "There are too many supermarkets," he said, adding he sells $100 to $150 of produce a day and pockets just $50. "I don't make money." Firoz and Mohammed Shahjahan, 47, who has his own fruit stand nearby, said they would wait to see if business improves this summer. "It's no good," Shahjahan said. "I'll try one more year."

Let's not forget, that the city wanted to put 1500 green carts on the streets when this legislation was first proposed-and now Brooklyn has 84 vendors plying their wares in the borough-a paltry number for sure. That doesn't impede the propaganda: "City food policy coordinator Ben Thomases said the program - which the city hopes will grow to 350 vendors in Brooklyn and 1,000 citywide - is already "really transforming the food retail environment. People in low-income communities do want to buy fresh fruits and vegetables," he said. "Having that place you can go that's right on your way home from the subway makes a huge difference."

We'll let one hot dog vendor wannabe set the record straight: "Meanwhile, Carlos Chuenco, 57, another Bushwick vendor - who is on the city's long waiting list to sell hot dogs and other street food - said he is making ends meet, though he's sure he'd make more peddling junk. "There are days we sell a lot, and there are days we don't," he said. "I agree with having more fruit and vegetable vendors, because it promotes health. [But] it's not a business that makes a lot of money."

Except in those good shopping strip locations that have ample food store options for folks looking to buy fruits and veggies. In those spots the cannibals will feast on the profits of the struggling store owners-another nail in the coffin of the city's supermarket business that has seen over 300 markets disappear over the past decade. Let's get a proper review and evaluation of this questionable policy; one that is built more on ideological presumptions than on fair economic and sound public policy principles.

Bloomberg to Wal-Mart's Rescue

As Daily Politics is reporting Mike Bloomberg-the ultimate front runner and fortune five hundred toady-has reiterated his strong support for Wal-Mart in NYC-but his erstwhile partner is going her separate ways on this hot button issue: "After visiting a laundry in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to cooperatively tout new procedures for helping small businesses, Mayor Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn went their separate ways on the hot-potato issue of Wal-Mart possibly opening its first store in the city by locating at the Gateway Center in East New York..."

Bloomberg's statement is quite droll: "This city does not have the legal right to prevent any business that can come here that complies with our laws. And if Wal-Mart wants to go into a place as of right they have a right to do that. I’ve always thought that the more competition the better. People that live in this city are going outside the city to shop at Wal-Marts. So if they’re going to shop at Wal-Marts… they might as well have the jobs here and the tax revenues here. But the city does not have the right to say to one business, ’You can’t come here.’ And we’re not going to do that.”

Memo to the mayor: Everyone leaves this city to shop-and Wal-Mart isn't the only retailer that benefits from the insane cost of doing business in NYC. And, before the mayor touts jobs and tax revenues that supposedly would accrue from having Wal-Mart within the city limits, he should take a look at the study done for the Chicago Wal-Mart.

As we have already pointed out: "...the impact of the urban Walmonster in Chicago has already been evaluated-and the results aren't good for the local retailers. As we said last week: "And the Post's view that somehow Wal-Mart would be the white knight for the city's poor? Only if obliterating small neighborhood-minority owned-business is how you envision Sir Galahad. And a study about the new Chicago Wal-Mart dramatizes the way in which the Walmonster will truly create the urban desert (

What does the study tell us about the mega store's impact? Here it is: "The opening of a Wal-Mart on the West Side of Chicago in 2006 led to the closure of about one-quarter of the businesses within a four-mile radius, according to this study by researchers at Loyola University. They tracked 306 businesses, checking their status before Wal-Mart opened and one and two years after it opened. More than half were also surveyed by phone about employees, work hours, and wages. By the second year, 82 of the businesses had closed. Businesses within close proximity of Wal-Mart had a 40 percent chance of closing."

So, look before you leap Mike-and lower the cost of doing business in this town so that the suburban exodus doesn't turn into a flood. Because, if the disparities between shopping in the city and outside aren't addressed-or, better, redressed-than the building of a city Wal-Mart will do one sure thing; it will cannibalize existing stores and harm the most vulnerable local small businesses.

Ironically, as we cited above, the mayor and the speaker were at the Navy Yard today to promote the city's program for helping small business. But the mayor's development program-building tax subsidized and auto dependent malls all over the city-has been a knife in the heart of neighborhood retailers; creating the kind of unlevel playing field that makes a mockery of Bloomberg's competition rhetoric.

To her credit, Speaker Quinn demurs: "Well, the mayor and I have a slightly different opinion on Wal-Mart,“ she said. ”I obviously want as many new jobs and businesses in New York City as we possibly can, but I think it’s important to be supportive and soliciting business that are of a particular standard, and I don’t think that Wal-Mart meets that standard. That’s a long-held position."

So, let the games begin-and while we're at it, let's use this fight as an opportunity to expose the Bloomberg phony sustainable development program. If anything is unsustainable, it's Wal-Mart in NYC.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cost of Willets Point: Priceless?

In a follow up to her main edition story on Willets Point, reporter Fernanda Santos looks at the prices garnered by those property owners who have already sold to the city-and the situation is quite murky indeed. Some owners seemed to have scored big time, while others-perhaps less connected?-didn't do as well. But the larger lesson here is that the city is trying to keep all of this underwraps in order to do two things; (1) Low ball as many landholders as possible; and (2) Keep the over all cost of all of the acquisitions secret so that NY's tax payers don't go into sticker shock.

As City Room points out: "Whenever the city pursues a development project that involves buying land from private parties, it usually keeps details of the negotiations with property owners under wraps. Sale prices are rarely disclosed to avoid influencing other owners into asking more for their property."

So the numbers range all over the place-with EDC scrambling to try to correct a record it did all it could to keep secret:; all of which demands a full and open investigation of the entire process "After reviewing our post, David Lombino, spokesman for the Economic Development Corporation, called to set the record straight. He explained that the $3.54 million price tag for the parcel at 126-27 36th Avenue was in fact the price paid for all three adjoining parcels owned by the family trust, which altogether amount to roughly 22,000 square feet, bringing the price per square foot down to $161...Mr. Lombino still declined to disclose how much the city paid per square foot of land — or building — it has acquired in Willets Point."

If in fact the state senate and the city council are going to do hearings on Willets Point-as well they should-than the issue of cost of acquisition, and the overall price to the taxpayers, needs to be fully examined. This is, of course, in addition to the question of the integrity of the traffic evaluation on the proposed Van Wyck ramps.

In our table napkin calculations, there is a possibility that the acquisition cost could range as high as $2 billion-and, as more of the sweetheart deals are disclosed, the greater will be the prices negotiated by any holdouts-assuming that this project doesn't simply experience euthanasia before than. Here's what City Room found: "The highest price paid per square foot was $885 – a 4,000-square-foot piece of land at 126-27 36th Avenue, sold for $3.54 million. It was the same amount paid for two adjacent – and larger – properties owned by the same family trust."

The total square footage for the 62 acre site is 2,604,000. And if an average price for square foot ranges from 400-800 dollars than, well, you do the math. (A range from 1 billion to 2 billion dollars) And the mavens who first opposed the city, but than fairly quickly settled did quite well: "One interesting thing: some of the land owners who originally opposed the project and later reached deals with the city sold their land for significant amounts. One of them, whose parcel is at the corner of 126th Street and Northern Boulevard, got $18.15 million, or $750 per square foot. Another, who owns an oddly shaped lot on Willets Point Boulevard, near Roosevelt Avenue, got $27.5 million, or almost $500 a square foot."

One other thing we'd like to bring up. The City Room blog post did receive a comment from one seemingly knowledgeable observer of how land values are determined-but the observations he makes underscores what we like to call crackpot realism: "It’s erroneous to say that no lot is worth more than another — not the least of all because a fundamental principal of real property law is that all real estate is unique. Within the targeted purchase area, the value of the remaining unsold properties will tend to rise somewhat over time as the City acquires more and more of what it is seeking. At the same time — while a total holdout strategy might then seem to be the wisest course for a seller to take — the ultimate possibility of a taking by eminent domain acts as a counter-balance on the selling price. This is because any price set by ED will ultimately be based on the prices at which surrounding parcels are sold for (i.e. a comparable sales approach). So every time the City acquires a parcel voluntarily — it is establishing and confirming the general market price for surrounding property. In a sense – the system is self-correcting."

All very logical, no? But what's missing is the irrationality that this logic is subsumed under. When the city has a gun to your head, this is no longer a normal real estate transaction; or a self correcting system-and our commenter takes this power of condemnation as part of a normal natural order of things. But, as DDD's Danie Goldstein demonstrated, sometimes the gun can switch hands; with the holdouts wielding the weapon against a clock watching city or developer.

But the smugness of the commenter elides all of this in his effort to patronize the reporter with his rather limited erudition-and exposes his ideological pretensions for all to see: "Overall, the valuation of real property is much more complex than your rather simple price/sq.ft. analysis showed. Now — let’s abandon rational property valuation analysis here and turn the blog over to the ranters against eminent domain, generally, and Mayor Bloomberg, particularly. I’m sure they’re just chomping at the bit to start blasting away…."

"Honest John's" comments that follow are more to the point; and expose what has happened so far at Willets Point: "Good article but only half done Ms Santos. What is important is WHO got those deals. Look at the ownership records and then check lists of political donors to local politicians. I'm sure the results would be quite fascinating."

But we digress. This entire process-from illegal lobbying, fraudulent traffic studies, to secretive land purchase negotiations-has been corrupt and tainted by a total lack of transparency. It's high time for the disinfecting sunlight to be utilized on the Willets Point debacle, and we encourage our legislative bodies to do just that.

Bloomberg's Emergency Service

A pleading Greg David opined in Crain's yesterday that Mayor Mike Bloomberg needs to step up and rescue Wal-Mart should, as we have commented already, a concerted effort is launched to defeat the Walmonster: "The history goes like this: When the issue of Walmart's interest in New York first arose early in his tenure as mayor, Michael Bloomberg said he didn't think it was a good idea for the city to choose which retailers could operate here. Then he went silent and his administration stood by while developers were forced to promise not to lease space to Walmart to win City Council approval of their projects."

But, according to David, Bloomberg just has to find his voice on this issue: "Now, as outlined in Crain's, Walmart is eying an "as of right" opening at Gateway Center. That won't diminish the opposition from the unions and their allies, because they know the Walmart store will be a huge success with people needing jobs, which are far better than most people think, and with consumers hungry for the value it provides. Walmart can't make that case alone. The mayor will have to use his bully pulpit to give credibility to the pro-Walmart case, as he did last October."

Yes, the bully and his pulpit-and maybe while he's making the case for a traffic nightmare on the Belt Parkway and in East New York, he can wax eloquently about all he's doing to insure that, by 2030, NYC resembles an urban version of Green Acres. Put simply, Wal-Mart and sustainable development are a contradiction in terms. The Walmonster will subsume area small businesses and further erode the quality of life all over South Brooklyn.

But by all means we look forward to the mayor, as eloquent as he is, making the case why Wal-Mart and Gateway are perfect together. Something which we believe makes as much sense as one of the giant retailer's store sites being built in close proximity to the Bloomberg manse in Bermuda.

Gunsmoking on Willets Point Ramps

The NY Times has an in-depth look at the possibility that the Willets Point development-assumed to be a done deal almost two years ago-might founder on the issue of two ramps off of the Van Wyck Expressway: "It is one of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s signature projects — the sweeping transformation of Willets Point, a slice of Queens that has long been among the city’s most neglected pieces of real estate. And a little over a year ago, it seemed like a done deal...But a convergence of a Park Avenue lawyer known for toppling big projects, a sawdust maker bent on keeping the family business where it has been for decades, and a pair of highway ramps that exist only on paper threatens to doom Mr. Bloomberg’s grand vision."

Who could have imagined-but as we've been saying, the city's lack of probity in providing the state and federal governments with accurate traffic data, may indeed be the death knell of this boondoggle: "The ramps, which would connect Willets Point to the Van Wyck Expressway, seemed like a minor detail at first and never came up during the noisy public hearings before the Council’s vote. But, as it turns out, they are critical to the project’s survival. “It’s our smoking gun,” said Michael B. Gerrard, a lawyer who helped lead the monumental battle to defeat Westway, a proposed underground highway along Manhattan’s West Side that opponents said would have imperiled the striped bass population of the lower Hudson River. Mr. Gerrard, a senior counsel at Arnold & Porter, is now banking on the ramps to kill Willets Point. He has mounted a legal challenge against the project on behalf of a group of small landowners in the area who joined forces and pooled their money to fight City Hall."

The city, of course, disagrees: "Steven C. Russo, a private environmental lawyer hired by the city to guide it through the ramps’ approval, said that the ramps would improve traffic flow because they would give drivers more ways to get on and off the Van Wyck." But the sheer volume of traffic-80,000 car trips a day-and the city's inconsistent evaluations is leading to a potential embarrassment that would dwarf the Kingsbridge debacle and the West Side Stadium fiasco.

As the Times points out: "Besides Mr. Gerrard, the project’s opponents also hired Brian Ketcham, a traffic engineer who filed the original lawsuit that scuttled Westway, and Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist who has helped defeat several high-profile Bloomberg initiatives, including the mayor’s congestion pricing plan and his proposal to convert the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx into a shopping mall. They have seized on a pair of traffic reports prepared by the city and the reports’ differing conclusions to make their case. One report, using calculations based on 2017 traffic projections, estimated that about half the vehicles traveling through Willets Point would use the proposed ramps to access the Van Wyck. The other report, using 2035 projections, estimated that about 15 percent of traffic through the development would use the ramps."

The city can't seem to keep its lies straight-and the Willets Point Davids have their slingshots ready: "But the 20 landowners represented by Mr. Gerrard are accusing the city in a motion filed in Manhattan Supreme Court of deliberately underestimating the volume of traffic the project would generate and playing down the difficulties in getting state and federal approval for the ramps. They want a judge to order the city to redo its environmental review. “We’re beyond, ‘Don’t take my land.’ We’re done crying,” said Jake Bono, 34, whose grandfather Jacob opened the family sawdust business, Bono’s Sawdust, on 126th Place in 1933. “We’re out there to prove the city is wrong.”

And the opposition has the city's lawyer sounding like Jackie Gleason's befuddled Ralph Kramden-with creative rewrites sure to be next up: "Mr. Russo said that the report finding a high number of cars using the ramps did not take into account that drivers might seek other ways in and out of Willets Point, while the other one did. “To expect two models that are built under different criteria and assumptions” to yield the same conclusions, Mr. Russo said, “is just wrong.”  The traffic reports are part of the city’s final application for the ramps, which has yet to be submitted to the federal and state agencies, Mr. Russo said, adding that “some of these numbers are going to change.” Huh?

But Russo misses the salient point her. It isn't that there were two different models that were used; it's that the ramp report simply disappeared more than half of the original traffic in the first report-talk about a bridge to nowhere! But the Times nails it: "Traffic volume will be a critical factor that federal and state officials will consider when they decide whether to approve the ramps." (emphasis added)

But the EDC's leading thesbian, spokesman Dave Lombino, is right there to set the record, well, maybe not so straight: "David Lombino, a spokesman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said that the opponents are “looking to create a false impression of uncertainty around a project that is going to clean up one of the most polluted sites in the five boroughs and generate thousands of jobs.”

Well, there is in fact a great deal of uncertainty-and if there is pollution at the Iron Triangle, it is a result of years of intentional neglect. And make no mistake about it, the folks fighting here have been in the area for decades-and our not recently arrived trust fund babies claiming a stake in a neighborhood that was never their home: "Along the way, some of Mr. Bono’s partners ultimately decided to reach deals with the city. So he has found new allies, knocking on doors and searching property records to find owners. He recruited people like Irene Prestigiacomo, 66, a former flight attendant who inherited her late husband’s auto sales business, and Janice Serrone, 51, whose husband was killed by one of his workers at his auto glass business. Ms. Prestigiacomo said that after her husband’s death in 1989, the airline she worked for filed for bankruptcy, so she had to take over the business while raising their daughter, Jennifer. She divided the building and rented individual spaces to auto repair shops and a deli, learning to negotiate leases and handle conflicts.
“Jennifer is graduating from law school in May, so I’ve accomplished my mission,” she said. “I want my tenants to have a chance to do the same right where they have been for years, where their clients can find them, where they’ve established themselves.”

But seriously Dave, if there's pollution on the Point, it's coming from the raw sewage being emitted from 110 William Street. And this battle is far from over-and will not be defeated by the city's attempt to whitewash its own studies. We'll give Mike Gerrard the last word: "As a veteran of many skirmishes over ambitious projects, Mr. Gerrard predicted that the back and forth over the ramps’ approval “could go on for years. My clients are prepared to fight this all the way,” he added. “The existence of their business, their livelihood, is at stake. It’s an all-or-nothing mission for them.”

Monday, April 26, 2010

And the Wal Came Tumbling...

Well, it looks as if the Walmonster-quite like Freddy Krueger-is a difficult resident evil to kill. As Crain's is reporting, the retail giant may be trying to sneak its way in to the already approved Gateway Mall expansion in Brooklyn: "The 630,000-square-foot Gateway II shopping center off Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn is among the sites Walmart is eying in a renewed push to build its first New York City store, sources familiar with the situation say. Union leaders, fearful of a potential Walmart deal at the Related Cos.-owned site near Spring Creek Towers, are planning a protest in the next 10 days, but so far both the Arkansas-based retail giant and the developer insist there is nothing to announce."

If the rumors are true, however, this could get to be a nasty fight-and not just for the retailer. When a similar rumor was floated for Rego Center-developed by Vornado-the developer heeded the intense pressure brought by the Alliance and the coalition of the RWDSU and the UFCW. Even thought this plan has been ULURPED, it is by no means a done deal-as the NY Daily News reports: "Opponents already are gearing up for a fight. "They'll have the battle of their lives," said City Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn). "Walmart exploits workers ... and we want no part of that." Supermarket lobbyist Richard Lipsky said the developer could face a lawsuit because environmental studies didn't consider the amount of traffic a store like Walmart would generate."

That doesn't stop the NYC Partnerships' Kathy Wylde from styling on behalf of one of her own, as Crain's points out: "If the theater of the land-use approval process is not available to opponents, I don't think there's another easy way to mount a campaign against them,” says Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, of which Walmart is a member."

And Crain's hypothesizes that the developer Related is not vulnerable to political pressure: "But earlier this year, Walmart officials told Crain's the retailer was restarting its search for a New York City location. Now that quest appears to be gaining momentum. Observers say the company has been on the lookout for an as-of-right site because gaining approval from the many City Council members dependent on union support would be extraordinarily difficult. Plus, Walmart would need a local developer that doesn't have major projects before the council that members might sacrifice in protest against Walmart. Related would seem to fit that bill, since its Hudson Yards project was approved and its Kingsbridge Armory plan was shot down by the council late last year."

But the opposition is really just getting started so the fact that Crain's and Wylde are sanguine doesn't mean all that much: "We don't like how they treat workers as it relates to salaries and benefits, and we're not going to have them in our community,” says City Councilman Charles Barron, D-Brooklyn. “They will have the fight of their lives.”

As we have already pointed out, the impact of the urban Walmoster in Chicago has already been evaluated-and the results aren't good for the local retailers. As we said last week: "And the Post's view that somehow Wal-Mart would be the white knight for the city's poor? Only if obliterating small neighborhood-minority owned-business is how you envision Sir Galahad. And a study about the new Chicago Wal-Mart dramatizes the way in which the Walmonster will truly create the urban desert (

What does the study tell us about the mega store's impact? Here it is: "The opening of a Wal-Mart on the West Side of Chicago in 2006 led to the closure of about one-quarter of the businesses within a four-mile radius, according to this study by researchers at Loyola University. They tracked 306 businesses, checking their status before Wal-Mart opened and one and two years after it opened. More than half were also surveyed by phone about employees, work hours, and wages. By the second year, 82 of the businesses had closed. Businesses within close proximity of Wal-Mart had a 40 percent chance of closing."

So let the battle begin-and all those who stand behind the small business killer beware. You all ain't seen nothing yet. Kingsbridge will seem like a scuffle of five year olds at Kindergarten.

Call For a Moratorium on Unsustainable Development

We have been pointing out to what extent the Mike Bloomberg development policies contradict his pretensions to be seen as a champion of sustainable-i.e. environment friendly-development. In examining the overall development picture in Queens, with the help of our traffic expert Brian Ketcham, we come to the inescapable conclusion that the city needs tp put a moratorium on all new development until a global traffic analysis can be done to determine whether the existing local and arterial roadways can accommodate all of the excess vehicular traffic.

Once the extent of the environmental challenge is properly understood, we would expect that all transit friendly environmental groups-including even those who have developed an untoward intimacy with Mayor Overdevelopment-to support the moratorium; as well as an independent traffic study of the cumulative impacts of both proposed as well as approved projects. What follows is Ketcham's indictment and prescription.

The Problem with More Development in North-Central Queens (Or, Can Queens Afford Out-of-Control Development in North-Central Queens)

Proponents for the Willets Point Development Plan find themselves in a bind: They need new ramps connecting with the Van Wyck Expressway to make their plan work. They have produced an Access Modification Report (AMR) required by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for approval of the ramps. The AMR offers an incredible vision for the area’s future: its authors would like us to believe that by the year 2035 traffic conditions in and around Willets Point will be “free flowing.”

How the AMR authors come to this conclusion is anyone’s guess – unless somehow millions of commuters and truckers disappear over the next 25 years. Spend five minutes traveling by car through the Willets Point area today, circa 2010, and you will note that it is hardly free flowing. In fact, the area is gridlocked during peak commuter hours and on weekends. It’s notable that the Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS) for Willets Point envisions the same—but intensified—gridlocked conditions by 2017, when this project is expected to be completed. Recently, the description of traffic gridlock conditions has been underscored by the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for nearby Flushing Commons.

A detailed investigation by Willets Point United’s traffic engineer shows that both the FGEIS and the DEIS referenced above do not fully account for all new traffic that is anticipated by 2017. This independent investigation also reveals that the AMR failed entirely to account for this new development including trips generated by both Willets Point and Flushing Commons. In other words, the FGEIS and the DEIS together under-report the severity of traffic increases in coming years. Population in Queens is expected to increase by more than 12% over the next 25 years. The AMR fails to account for the expected growth in travel from population growth.

So how to square that circle? The Willets Point Development defenders either have to pretend those two reports don’t exist or they have to revise the AMR to conform to the FGEIS and the Flushing Commons DEIS. Better yet, they argue, new federally-funded ramps onto the Van Wyck Expressway could present the cure-all for the congestion problem.
Brian Ketcham, the traffic engineer hired by Willets Point United, found a number of troubling facts that suggest the Willets Point Development Plan is doomed to choke on congestion:

• New development in close proximity to Willets Point has not been accounted for in this or in other nearby projects like Flushing Commons and the College Point Police Academy.

• The consequence is that the traffic impacts in all three projects will be much worse than reported.

• The Local Development Corporation for Flushing is pursuing another major development east of the Flushing River between Roosevelt Avenue and Northern Blvd. to complement the Willets Point Development Plan. This project has not been included in any of the analyses completed for Willets Point or for Flushing Commons.

• Nearby expressways and local access roads are gridlocked during peak commuter hours today and will be worse in the future even without any of these massive projects.

• Plus, the proposed Van Wyck ramps simply do not work. There is insufficient capacity along the Van Wyck in peak commuter hours to accommodate most of the Willets Point traffic.

• The FHWA reports eight criteria for AMR approvals; the AMR in the Willets Point Development Plan fails five of these criteria. The ramps must be rejected.

• Unless Queens comes to terms about the limitations to growth for this area and proposed and potential development is not allowed to occur unhampered, it is certain to cause bankrupting economic and transportation distress for the area.
The big picture is this: So much new development in the Flushing/Willets Point area has been proposed, approved, or already completed – each generating much new traffic on a 24/7 basis -- that it is time New York City and State stop all new development while a transportation master plan (including for public transit) is completed to establish reasonable limits to development in Downtown Flushing and surrounding residential communities.


Given the preceeding analysis, it is clear to us that the Willets Point ramps need to be put on hold-as the NRDC has endorsed-until an independent consultant is hired. But even more so, the Flushing Commons development must also be halted in the interest of the quality of life of all Queens neighborhoods

Dispatch From The Bermuda Front

We learned on Friday that the city was contemplating closing a stretch of Union Square: "Almost all traffic would be banned from the block of Broadway north of Union Square, between 17th and 18th Streets, under a proposal under consideration by the city’s Transportation Department, the New York Times reported. Like in Times and Herald Squares, tables and chairs could be installed in Union Square and it would be open to pedestrians and bicycles. There would also be a pedestrian plaza on the north side of Union Square, replacing a lane of traffic.The proposal is expected to be presented on Monday to members of the local community board."

Presented as in a dictat-and once again the Bloombergistas, in the name of the environment, are proceeding on an environmental issue without the benefit of what should be a mandated environmental review. We wanted to ask the mayor about this lapse, but alas, Bloomberg was dodging a golf cart traffic jam down in Bermuda and was unavailable for comment:



No Public Events Scheduled

Contact: Mayor’s Press Office

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What's happening all over the city is that the mayor is acting unilaterally to impose his traffic vision on neighborhoods that are given any advise and consent role in the proposed changes. The NY Times has more on the grandiosity of the mayor's Sadik: "First the city repurposed Times Square, converting some of its streets to a pedestrian promenade. Similar plans are in store for 34th Street by the Empire State Building.Now Union Square could become the latest Manhattan landmark to gain a pedestrian plaza, the open-air concrete park that is quickly becoming the Bloomberg administration’s signature contribution to the streets of New York. Almost all traffic would be banned from the block of Broadway north of Union Square, between 17th and 18th Streets, under a proposal under consideration by the city’s Transportation Department."

What about the area's small businesses and the delivery trucks that service them? What about the overall traffic-and carbon emissions-impact of the plan? All of which would normally emerge from an actual traffic study and pursuant hearings. But the local outcry is certainly muted-and perhaps the anti-auto mentality of the folks quoted played a role in their sanguininity: "Business leaders and local politicians said they were mostly positive about the changes. “We look at it from the perspective of what it’s like to walk across that intersection right now — it’s pretty dangerous,” said Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership, a business group. “Something needs to be done.” But a few wondered how drivers would take to it. “We’re guardedly optimistic that the traffic flow won’t create huge problems, but it might initially,” said State Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, who represents the district."

But our visionary traffic commissioner intuits a better day to come: "Union Square is one of Manhattan’s great spaces, but the surrounding streets have always been a bit of a mystery,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, the transportation commissioner. “By simply reconfiguring the area, we can solve some of the traffic problems that have been an issue for decades.”

It is past time for the somnambulant legislature to act responsibly and conduct a proper oversight over all of this mishogas. But let's look at the silver lining in all of this-it's good for the greenmarket: "Ms. Sadik-Khan said the changes would emphasize safety and walking space in an area that attracts thousands of pedestrians to restaurants and the year-round Greenmarket...Marcel Van Ooyen, who directs the Greenmarket’s parent company, said he hoped the plan would be put in place by harvest season. “If it happens before the fall,” he said, “that would be great timing.”

Does anyone realize how much all of this will cost? Steve Cuozzo of the NY Post does-and he is outraged by Bloomberg's "pet" commissioner: "The minimum estimated cost of turning the throbbing block into another miserable "pedestrian mall": $30 million, according to the Times. How weird, inappropriate and out of touch is this? For starters, $30 million could buy a lot more cops. The average, starting cost of each new police officer is a relatively small, affordable $100,000 a year, including salary and benefits."

And Cuozzo also rails against the lack of public review for the scheme: "Unlike most cityscape alterations requiring a public review with teeth, the latest Mall Bloat is 100 percent guaranteed to sail through despite phony "public hearings." It won't undergo meaningful scrutiny by the City Council or any agency other than DOT itself -- even though it's required of innumerable proposed changes with far less impact than a wholesale gutting of Manhattan's historic energy pattern."

So limousine Bloomberg is out to protect the pedestrian nature of the Big Apple-and that's because? Meanwhile, as we have said ad nauseum, congestion continues to get worse and worse all over the overdeveloped borough of Queens. Can you say public policy schizophrenia? While the Sadik continues to experiment with shutting down Manhattan to car traffic, gridlock reigns at malled off Queens.

As the NY Daily News reported: "A maneuver by parking attendants at Queens Center Mall that diverts drivers into their garage on the busiest shopping days has locals up in arms. The setup, which often happens on weekends and holidays, blocks off through-traffic for motorists going eastbound on 57th Ave. Instead, a line of traffic cones funnels drivers into the parking garage - even if they have no desire to enter the mall."

Oh well, soon Queens Boulevard will be turned into a pedestrian mall and we won't have to hear any more sob stories about old ladies being run over attempting to cross the dangerous thoroughfare. Pedestrian malls and bike lanes, the end product of electing a dilettante environmental poseur as mayor. Only three and a half more years of this meddling and we can go back to the horrors of elected officials who may susceptible to being suborned-but who at least are somewhat beholden to the folks who elected them. Unlike Sir Michael.

An Education in Classlessness

Of all the people in the city of New York who should be reluctant to charge someone else with elitism, the city's richest man has to be on the top of the list. But irony has never been one of the mayor's strong suits, so there he was the other day with a verbal assault on Bill Perkins for, of all things, having the temerity of being a vocal critic of charters, despite having gone to the "tony" Collegiate School for his own high school education.

Here's the NY Post's (natch) account: "The Post's Dave Seifman forward some pretty choice quotes from Mayor Bloomberg going off on state Sen. Bill Perkins, a major opponent of charter schools, on his weekly WOR radio show this morning. Bloomberg jabs at the pol for attending "elite private schools" and says he's been "violently" against choice for parents."

Now's not the right time to interject a tired pot and kettle analogy, but it does take a certain amount of chutzpah to attack Perkins when the mayor probably hadn't set foot inside a public school-his kids went elsewhere obviously-until he was elected mayor. And the same goes for Chancellor Klein who, along with Bloomberg, brought absolutely zero knowledge of public education to the job when he was elevated to his supreme commander post. And this from a man who spends all of his weekends in Bermuda!

But what's even more egregious in our view is the mayor's failure to see with any clarity what the charter phenomenon says about his own educational effort-a point that we have already made before. Here's the Post again: "Bill Perkins is a guy who went to elite private schools, and he represents a district where most people can’t afford elite private schools, and charter schools are their opportunity to get their kids a great education," said Bloomberg. "I think the numbers are something - there’s 10,000 places this year - more places for charter schools, and there’s something like 50 or 60,000 applicants for the 10,000 places."

Now, after eight years of so-called reform-along with reams of flack touting miraculous advance-we have stampedes in poor neighborhoods to flee the public school system as fast as possible. The Post's Seifman continues to spotlight the mayor's views in a follow up story: "Bloomberg argued that charter schools promote competition, which is one reason public schools in the city are improving. "Competition is great for everybody, and it's one of those things we want to encourage, and Perkins has been violently against it, while the educators and the public and the parents want more of [it]," the mayor said."

If the Harlem clamor for choice is any indication, this kind of a competition can best be described in sports language as a blowout-and as an indictment of the failure of the overall Bloomberg effort. Diane Ravitch's hearing testimony sheds light on the true nature of this far from healthy competition: "Some charters are as idealistic as the original vision, but many others now see themselves as competition for public schools. They want to take over public school space and replace public schools. They revel in stories about beating public schools, not helping them."

But as far as Bloomberg's observation that the charter competition is in some way aiding public school improvement, where's the evidence of that? Which brings us back to the point that we made last week: "So there is obviously a perception of failure at the grass roots level. Whether this is a reality or not-and studies indicate that the charter exploits are exaggerated in the aggregate-doesn't matter. And the clamoring for, "choice," is an indictment of the current system that the media did so much to tout when it was all about mayoral control."

So what's missing from all of this trumped up outrage, is a concomitant genuine outrage at the three card monte game that the Bloombergistas have played-with Rupert and Morticia acting as the audience shills-with a gullible public. It is time to bring in the forensic accountants, and Perkins and his state senate crew should hold follow up hearings on testing fraud, unmerited teacher and administrator bonuses, and a profligate expansion of an educational bureaucracy that has failed to deliver real success even with an 80% increase in its allocation.

But that might not even be necessary if what they think is going to happen next spring actually does-new school tests that expose the naked emperor's false positives. As the NY Post reports: "Criticized for having steadily dumbed down standardized tests -- and trumpeted phantom gains -- the state Education Department says students in grades 3 to 8 taking required math and English exams starting tomorrow won't pass as easily this year. "Students are going to have to know more and do more to demonstrate proficiency on the exams," said John King, senior deputy state education commissioner."

And it will be more difficult to teach to the test: "A rising number of pupils have passed in recent years as cut scores dipped so low that some kids could randomly guess enough right answers to squeak by, experts found. State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Education Commissioner David Steiner "are committed to ending the annual debate about whether our state tests have become harder or easier," King told The Post. "Doing that will require us to ensure that our tests become both less predictable and more comprehensive in terms of the number of items they test."

But, once the test fraud is exposed will it finally become clear that, as far as NYC's master of the house is concerned, "there's not much there?" Here's the Post's observation: "The sliding standards weren't revealed when Mayor Bloomberg touted dramatic spikes in state scores as a triumph of his stewardship. But the lid was blown off when federal officials found reading and math scores for New York students had remained flat on a national benchmark exam since 2007, while their scores on the state tests skyrocketed over the same period."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, cited in Sol Stern's upcoming City Journal article, makes this telling point: “We have to stop lying to children,” education secretary Arne Duncan said recently at a meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA).“We have to look them in the eye and tell them the truth at every stage of their educational trajectory.”

If Mike Bloomberg really wants to advance the interests of NYC school kids, he can begin by laying off the glass house ad hominen attacks on Bill Perkins; and he can follow Duncan's advice by starting to tell the truth-to those with an actual stake in public education-about how all of his extra funding and top down control of the educational bureaucracy has yielded a truly lackluster result. Don't expect this anytime soon, because mea culpas are conspicuously absent in the Bloomberg personality profile.

Supporting Public Employees and Jobbing the Public

The DMI Blog waxes eloquent-we kid you not-about the national plight of public employees during the current recession: "Looking at the national economic statistics, you might be able to persuade yourself that the recession is over. But observing local communities – neighborhoods of foreclosed homes, school districts about to lose their teachers, and commercial strips where the bus route just got cut – reveals much more persistent economic pain, and the threat that, with public investment dwindling, things could once again take a turn for the worse."

First of all, with national unemployment running at close to 10%-with the real figure being much higher-only the self deluded would believe that the recession might be over. And, up until now, it has been the public sector that has fared much better in the downturn; and on most indices the public sector workers are doing a lot better than their counterparts in the private workforce: "By every labor market measure, the public sector has done quite well and even expanded during the recession compared to the private sector. This has prompted Michael Jahr of the Mackinac Center to wonder whether recent government policies could lead to a long-run hollowing out of the private sector, i.e. could we be in the early stages of the "Detroitification" of the country?"

But that's not how the drummers see things: "Yesterday, articles in the New York Times reported on the struggle of cities across the country to cope with plunging revenue for education and for transit networks. As many as 300,000 public school employees around the nation could lose their jobs to state funding cuts, according to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Charlotte, North Carolina plans to cut 600 of the district’s 9,400 teachers; Los Angeles may lay off 5,200 school employees. Few urban districts have been spared."

Now, can you suppose why cities are experiencing dwindling revenues? Could it have anything to do with an unsupportable tax and regulatory regime? And to cite the plight of California is a tad bit counterintuitive-as Steve Malanga's expose of the role that public sector employees have been playing in making the business climate untenable in the Golden State makes abundantly clear.

As Malanga points out: "The unions’ political triumphs have molded a California in which government workers thrive at the expense of a struggling private sector. The state’s public school teachers are the highest-paid in the nation. Its prison guards can easily earn six-figure salaries. State workers routinely retire at 55 with pensions higher than their base pay for most of their working life. Meanwhile, what was once the most prosperous state now suffers from an unemployment rate far steeper than the nation’s and a flood of firms and jobs escaping high taxes and stifling regulations. This toxic combination—high public-sector employee costs and sagging economic fortunes—has produced recurring budget crises in Sacramento and in virtually every municipality in the state."

But when you've willingly dug yourself into a policy hole-or perhaps driven into a cul du sac-the idea of reversing course simply is unthinkable-and so the clarion call for another stimulus bill, since the first one kept all of the overcompensated public school teachers in their sinecures: "Yet the fact that many cities are just now contemplating severe cuts is actually a victory for public policy. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act saved 284,000 education jobs, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and funded mass transit improvements and expansions nationwide. Policy worked: the problem is that the money ran out before the economic crisis ran its course. We need additional federal investment to meet the continuing need. As I’ve argued before, the Local Jobs for America Act is a strong alternative to a new normal of plummeting public investments. The bill would create or save a million jobs by providing local governments with direct funding to hire or retain teachers, firefighters, bus drivers, police officers, and other critical community workers."

Detroit city here we come. With a national debt in the trillions, and more tax hikes from the progressive elites inevitable-further crippling the possibility for the recovery of the real economic generator of work (the private sector)-DMI looks to pile on; seeing economic success in more tax driven public spending. The following information indicates that this discordant drum beat on behalf of the public work force has an obscene component to it: "According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, state and local government salaries are 34 percent higher than those for private sector jobs. Okay, that’s partly because government workers tend to have white-collar jobs. Benefits, 70 percent higher for these workers, are the real rub. And benefits for government retirees are the most flagrant. They’ve become a national scandal, a fiscal nightmare for states, cities, and towns, and an example of unfairness of the sort liberals routinely complain about but are mostly silent about just now."

Here's one anecdote that should curl your hair-even though it doesn't involve the hated Wall Street greed: "In Contra Costa, California, the final salary of one fire chief, 51, was $221,000. He was given an annual, guaranteed pension of $284,000. Another chief, 50, whose final salary was $185,000, got a pension of $241,000. Credit the Contra Costa Times with uncovering this." Or, see what new NJ governor Christie has found: "One retiree, 49, paid “a total of $124,000 towards his retirement pension and health benefits. What will we pay him? $3.3 million in pension payments and health benefits.” A retired teacher paid $62,000. She’ll get “$1.4 million in pension benefits and another $215,000 in health care benefit premiums over her lifetime.”

And one last note. When the DMI's Traub sees education as the, "cornerstone of America’s global economic competitiveness," she elides the fact that the overpaid teacher corps has delivered no such thing-and which is why we keep looking for new and even more expensive ways to figure out how not to leave another single child behind, Race to the Top, anyone?

The continual pump priming of the public sector can't end well for the continued productivity of the American economy The DMI prescription, is a prescription for disaster. Fortunately, the public is beginning to see this Leviathan nightmare pretty clearly.