Tuesday, April 27, 2010

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.”