Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In Loco Parentis

City Room is reporting that the state senate is poised to pass a law criminalizing smoking in a car with children under the age of 14: "State lawmakers on Wednesday were on the verge of passing legislation that would make it illegal for occupants of a car to smoke if there are children on board younger than 14. New York would join a handful of states with similar laws.The law would carry a maximum fine of $100 fine for those who are caught, said Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat from Queens, who sponsored the bill."

While they're at it, why don't they eliminate the inconvenience of parenthood as well. Since when does the state need to act as a big brother for all of New York's children? Once it is seen as appropriate for the state to act in loco parentis on this issue, there is no limit to the number of issues-for the good of the children, of course-that would demand legal intrusion.

The state's role is to act as an educator and an information disseminator. Intruding on the relationship between parents and their children in this manner opens up a real can of worms-and cedes to the public power way too much authority-and this is from someone who lived for twenty years with a parent who not only smoked, but died of lung cancer at the age of 62!

Second hand smoke may have some dangerous consequences-although we have our doubts about the extent to which it is -see the 1998 WHO study that could find no correlation between second hand smoke and lung cancer. As the study found: "On March 8, 1998, the British newspaper The Telegraph reported "The world's leading health organization has withheld from publication a study which shows that not only might there be no link between passive smoking and lung cancer but that it could have even a protective effect."

And what about the children? "The press release doesn't mention the one statistically significant result from the study, that children raised by smokers were 22% less likely to get lung cancer."

So, in our view, to use the danger of second hand smoke as an excuse to usurp parental rights is, to us, way beyond the pale-and will, if left unfettered, lead to much more mischief in the future.

Wal-Mart's Verbal Contract

A funny thing happened to the labor deal that Wal-Mart supposedly agreed to in order to get approval for a second store in Chicago-apparently with the Walmonster it's a good idea to examine the fine print. DMI blog has the story: "It looked like at least a modest victory: in exchange for the right to build a second store in Chicago, Wal-Mart would pay all employees in the city at least $8.75 an hour (50 cents more than the state minimum) and would raise wages to at least $9.15 within the first year. While the wage level was still lacking (back in 2006, advocates called for a living wage of $10 an hour plus benefits) the agreement represented an unprecedented step. As the blog Chicagoist noted: “The labor movement in Chicago has done what nobody else in North America has been able to do: force Wal-Mart to negotiate a wage agreement on behalf of their employees with a labor union.”

With Wal-Mart, however, looks are deceiving: "By all appearances the door was open to make similar demands – and build on them – as a condition for opening Wal-Mart stores in other urban markets, including New York. Alas, no sooner had Chicago’s zoning committee approved the changes necessary for a second Wal-Mart store in the city than the company began insisting that the deal did not exist. Instead, Wal-Mart spokespeople made the dubious claim that the company’s wages were already “as good, if not better” than its Chicago competitors. The upshot? Chicago’s City Council would be wise to get all agreements in writing before granting final approval to the store this week. In the meantime, New Yorkers’ caution about embracing a similar deal with company appears well-founded."

So, just as we had advised Charles Barron to get every offer from the retail giant in writing, we caution the city council to make sure that all of its land use deals have a written exclusionary clause. If they don't, we get the dangerous situation that we are now facing in East NY. But as Crain's reports:, New York isn't buying the Chicago deal "Nation's top retailer said to agree to near-prevailing-wage minimums for new Chicago store, but labor leaders in Gotham scoff. “This is New York; this is not Chicago,” says head of retail workers' union here...New York labor officials were quick to cast aside any notion that the Chicago agreement meant Walmart was any closer to gaining a foothold in New York City. “This is New York; this is not Chicago,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “They've got a long way to go before they would be welcome here.”

Appelbaum apparently is prescient-as the DMI report highlights. But vigilance must be maintained: "Mr. Appelbaum and United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500 leaders say they'd be happy to sit down with Walmart officials to discuss their desire to open a store in New York. But it's clear that here in New York, the retailer would have to move beyond what it agreed to in Chicago if it wanted labor's imprimatur on a project."

Move beyond?-and constructing an agreement that isn't written in disappearing ink might be a good idea. But what should an agreement look like? Crain's tells us: "Union leaders say they wouldn't consider negotiating a specific wage amount, but would want any agreement pegged to the prevailing wage for grocery workers in the area. Full-time unionized supermarket workers here start at $12 an hour, plus benefits. And though local unions' opposition to Walmart has often been framed around issues of low wages, pay rates are not the only obstacle Walmart would have to surmount in talks with worker groups."

Crain's does, however, offer a potential game plan for the Walmonster: "As it did in Chicago, Walmart could try to drum up public support for such a move by partnering with religious leaders who are concerned about high unemployment in minority neighborhoods. It's also likely to follow its Chicago strategy of focusing on poor neighborhoods where there is a pent-up demand for jobs and supermarkets. New York City residents already spend $125 million a year at area Wal-Mart stores, according to the company."

That model makes Gateway 2 a good target-since East NY qualifies as a poor community where bargains are certainly welcome. As the reality of the Wal-Mart interests in the site becomes clearer, it will be up to the store's opponents to make the case to the community-and to the city as a whole-that there is a, "High Cost of Low Price."

Bloomberg's One Note Chorus

When the NY Times raised the question of the lack of diversity in the Bloomberg administration, it instigated something of a firestorm-over 200 comments were elicited to the article. Now it appears as if the city council may hold hearings on the subject. As the Times reports: “The New York City Council is considering holding oversight hearings into racial and gender diversity at the top levels of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, according to council members.”

And the paper goes on to cite the comments-pro and con-of a variety of notables; but with one glaring omission. Somehow, the Times could not track down the bashful Al Sharpton to say one word. Yes, the same Sharpton would regularly lead protests against the racial insensitivities of former mayor Rudy Giuliani, is apparently out of town attending a lockjaw convention. How unfortunate is that timing?

Gee, who knew that if Rudy only had billions of personal wealth to throw around-and a cohort of billionaire friends to call on-he could have gotten that annoying professional protester to take up an alternative avocation: “No knitting, no peace.” Wouldn’t it be great to get the price tag on the silence of the formerly reliable public scold?

But without Sharpton to provide public drama, we are left with the second stringers-elected officials who, although lacking in the ability to generate high public drama, nevertheless are concerned about the Wonder Bread quality of the cast of the eight year running Broadway play, “The Bloombergistas.” As the Times points out: “Councilwoman Deborah Rose, chairwoman of the civil rights committee, said that the article reminded her of a 2008 Village Voice article, which found Mr. Bloomberg’s record lacking in hiring minority contractors. As a result, “the mayor is called upon yet again,” she said, “to answer for his continuing poor record on minority hiring and contracting.” It was not clear when the hearings might take place. But Ms. Rose added: “Having recently brought in three out-of-town, white males as deputy mayors, the mayor has once again shown an indifference to living up to his own vows to bring diversity to his administration. In 2010, we must do more to ensure greater opportunities for all citizens.”

But, as we commented on yesterday, it is not only the color of the cast of characters, it is their world view that concerns us-or, to paraphrase Elmer E. Schattschneider, the Bloomberg choir sings with a distinctive upper class accent. And his development policies reflect that class bias.

But when it comes to all things Bloomberg we can always count on Ed Koch to not say a discouraging word: “But others were willing to give Mr. Bloomberg the benefit of the doubt. “It’s a constant struggle,” said former Mayor Edward I. Koch. “You say to yourself, as I know Bloomberg does, that the first thing I want to do, particularly in difficult times, is to get the best people who can do a good job, irrespective of whether they are green, white, Hispanic or Asian.”

Oh sure, you can just imagine Mike Bloomberg saying that-right before he conducts his periodic lineup of usual Wall Street suspects. In a city as large and diverse as NYC, isn’t it possible to find an economic development official who doesn’t have a trained incapacity that devolves from a purely financial background?

And the Times does manage to find a toady of color to give the mayor his blessing: “Kenneth J. Knuckles, a former commissioner in the Dinkins administration who is now chief executive officer of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, said that he believed that Mr. Bloomberg’s commitment to diversity was genuine. He also said that he was consulted regularly by top Bloomberg officials for candidate suggestions, especially minorities, but that recruitment was sometimes hard because government does not pay as well as the private sector, among other factors. “You have to look long and hard — it’s not as easy as one would think to find highly qualified minority candidates,” Mr. Knuckles said. “I think they want to do it, but obviously they haven’t gone far enough.”

Damn, it is hard, but when you get stuck, you can always find a good quality guy in, let’s say, Greenwich, And Knuckles, who when on the planning commission once asked us why we were never in favor of something-an expected question from an inveterate cheerleader like good old Knuckles under-is certainly right about the difficulty of getting quality minority appointees; that is if the search party is relying on Knuckles to help discover the talent.

And speaking of lockjaw, how about the following shuck and duck? “One person who knows a lot about diversity, but wasn’t talking on Tuesday, was City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn. Ms. Quinn presides over a legislative body that is more than 50 percent minority, and she has been full-throated in celebrating the Council’s diversity. But she declined to comment on whether she felt Mr. Bloomberg, a close ally, had failed in his diversity efforts. “I think individual elected officials have to speak to their own hiring status and hiring practices,” she said. “So I don’t really have any comment on that.”

Second fiddle’s a hard part , you know, when they don’t even give you a bow. But back to our main point-and we recall Greg David’s comments on the choice of Robert Steel to replace Lieber as deputy mayor of economic development: “There's already some skepticism about the appointment, namely because Steel's experience is so deeply rooted in finance and Wall Street."It's a very ironic choice for Michael Bloomberg, who has staked the next term on doing things differently in economic development. Innovating and growing new businesses and diversifying the economy," said Greg David of CUNY/Crain's New York Business.”

Sure he is Greg, but it’s hard when your concept of diversity is going to a former partner at Lehman Brothers instead of someone from Goldman Sachs. But, by all means, the council should hold its hearings. Just make sure that when it does, the scope of the inquiry has a bit more breadth than simply the color of the appointees-and goes to the color of money nature of the Bloomberg Weltanschauung.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hey Mike, "That's Very White of You"

The NY Times has a fascinating look at the absence of diversity in the Bloomberg administration: "Since winning a third term in November, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has announced a parade of major appointments: bringing aboard three new deputy mayors and six commissioners and trumpeting most of those arrivals in the Blue Room at City Hall. All nine are white. All but one is a man.Those selections are hardly anomalous. Despite a pledge he made when he took office to make diversity a hallmark of his administration, Mr. Bloomberg has consistently surrounded himself with a predominantly white and male coterie of key policy makers, according to an analysis of personnel data by The New York Times."

What a shock! But where is the outrage here? Calling Rev Al-oh, we forgot, Sharpton is too busy cashing in his Bloombucks to lead any protest-another bought off New Yorker who has been silenced by the mayor's money. But the diversity issue actually masks-even while it underscores-the larger problem endemic to the Bloombergistas: the way in which the decision making process reflects the class biases-and callous personality-of Mike Bloomberg.

So, as we have outlined earlier, Mike inveighs against a living wage as he lavishly subsidizes his rich friends. Or, how he postures for the global warming crowd while, at the same time, promoting the proliferation of auto dependent malls that choke middle class Queens neighborhoods with polluting traffic. Or, how he taxes and regulates small businesses to a farethewell-making NYC one of the most expensive places in the world to do business-while at the same time fighting vigorously against legislation that would protect neighborhood retailers against landlord exploitation.

And then there's his defense of his Wall Street cohort. The same man who whacked bodegas with the largest tax increase in NYC history-and 1800% increase in the cigarette tax in 2002-will. and the only time he will, scream bloody murder if anyone proposes a levy on some financial transaction. But his reaction to the pleas of the bodegas highlights the mayor's mindset. Reminded that the bodega tax had cost the small stores over 60% of their cigarette income, the mayor remarked, "That's a minor economic issue."

And so it goes with the high rolling and callous mayor-a man whose policies reflect his class interests, and whose personality-as his reaction to the Central Park tree limb tragedy dramatizes-reminds us of our old history professor who, when asked about the midterm, responded, "It's a question of mind over matter. I don't mind, and you don't matter."

A Good Wager for New York City

If the best revenge is living well, than for those New Yorkers who voted in vain against the mayor’s third term, getting even is getting harder-as this City Room report on the expense of living in NYC makes clear: “For New York City families, increases in the cost of living have far outpaced wages, according to a report to be released Tuesday by a national organization working to advance economic equality for women and their families. The report, known as the Self-Sufficiency Standard for New York City, which is released every five years by the Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement, compares the amount of money a family needs to make ends meet with the federal poverty level, commonly used to determine whether families receive subsidized housing, food stamps and other supports.”

So, how’s that five borough economic plan of Bloomberg’s working out? The mayor has now had eight and a half years in office, and the lives of many New Yorkers-perhaps a majority-are more untenable than when he first talked about his economic development plans in 2001. The reality is that the Bloomberg model-mega retail developments with poverty wages-has been the worst prescription for economic growth-as the self sufficiency report indicates: “The problem, the report’s authors say, is that only one out of the 10 most common jobs in the city (registered nursing) provide Brooklyn families with adequate income, leaving many to scrape by. “There is a very high level of frustration,” said Merble Reagon, executive director of the Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement, of the women she counsels, many of whom have hourly jobs that do not have benefits and leave them regularly sacrificing one basic need for another.”

The Bloomberg response? More of the same kind of jobs-and a vicious resistance to the push for a city wide living wage for developments that are tax subsidized by the city. The living wage issue was point-counterpointed in Sunday’s NY Daily News-with Diana Furchtgott-Roth taking the Bloomberg position: “Many Americans are intent on saving money, making every penny count. But in New York City, which faces a predicted operating deficit of $2.8 billion this fiscal year, wasting taxpayer money remains the local sport. New York City is currently considering legislation that will mandate a "living wage" for jobs connected to any new development projects that benefit from city subsidies.”

Wow! DFR believes that, “wasting the tax payer’s money” is a local sport but has nothing to say about the huge corporate welfare giveaways that the Bloombergistas have made into, if not local sport, at least a local art form. And she is mute-struck so, it seems, by the way in which these real estate subsidies have disadvantaged local entrepreneurs in favor of the mayor’s favored cohort of developer billionaires. Gee, we can’t remember DFR saying boo about the complete giveaway of the Bronx Terminal Market-displacing 20 mostly minority distributors-to Steve Ross of Related.

In fact, Bloomberg is so close to these high rollers that he even took time from his hectic golf schedule to advocate for one of Related’s executives before a local co-op board. Yet the aggrandizement of these real estate tycoons is OK with Diana, but the provision of a living wage for a hard pressed citizenry is mocked by this toady to the wealthy.

And she has nothing to say about the Citizens Budget Commission report that found little in the way of justification for the Bloomberg real estate aggrandizement-as we have pointed out before: "But with the city, it's significant that for the largest projects-Coney Island and Willets Point-much of the money currently budgeted is for acquisitions, buying up property that the city doesn't even own. Given that the money goes into the pockets of a few landlords and businesses, it's not stimulating much immediate economic activity. Instead, the city is relying on the hope that the projects will be carried out, eventually."

And, as John Petro argues over at DMI, all that's missing from her analysis is any supporting documentation: "Take Furchtgott-Roth’s piece. The living wage bill will, according to the author: stall development, cause businesses to flee the city, waste taxpayer money, and increase unemployment. Notably absent was any evidence to support these claims."

But Furchtgott-Roth is not without a good sense of humor-or perhaps unintended irony is her m├ętier. Listen to her description of the city’s bidding process: “It makes no sense for the government to award contracts to the high bidder, not the low one. That upside-down logic smacks of waste and corruption. And it means that we'd be taking money out of the pockets of strapped taxpayers, many of whom earn less than the "living wage," so that a select group of unionized workers can make more.”

How about awarding contracts to the no-bidder?-as was the case with Related at the BTM and at the Gateway expansion. Doesn’t that, “smack of corruption,” to our own Princess Di? Or, even better, when Related failed to live up to its bid terms in 2002 at Bradhurst Avenue in Harlem-with a minority competing bidder in the wings-the Bloombergistas (and Deputy Dan Doctoroff in the lead) simply awarded the company an extra subsidy to cover for its failure to comply with the original terms.

This has been the Bloomberg economic development record-and when the projects have been lavishly subsidized, they have been a direct threat to neighborhood businesses like Morton Williams Supermarkets who have never been connected enough to get a dime in public money. It makes you wonder what world Furchtgott-Roth lives in. For her, and the mayor’s amen chorus, subsidizing the very wealthy to provide a poverty wage for workers is sound economics.

But not so much for Robert Pollin, who rebuts DFR in the Daily News counterpoint: “It's hard to take issue with the basic objective behind living wage proposals, which is to ensure that all workers are paid enough to support themselves and their families at a minimally decent standard. The argument for the current New York proposal seems stronger still: In those cases when some businesses get an economic advantage courtesy of the taxpayers, they should especially uphold the community's basic standards of fairness.”

And Pollin goes on to demonstrate that the living wage provision, in spite of its demonization by DFR, doesn’t hurt the developers: “But the facts simply don't support the contention. Businesses subject to living-wage laws have not produced fewer job opportunities for low-wage workers. Research on the Boston measure - a law far broader than what's being considered in New York - found no significant difference in overall hiring levels among firms which were required to follow the living wage law compared to unaffected businesses. The patterns are similar for San Francisco, Los Angeles and Santa Fe.”

Not mentioned by either side of the living wage debate in the News is the manner in which these subsidized projects harm existing local business-or how local business circulates money to a much greater extent and benefit than any of these low wage national chains-a reality that Stacy Mitchell has well documented. So, in our view, if the tax payer money can aggrandize the profits of Steve Ross-a process that we have labeled as, "patrcianage"-it can damn well benefit the retail workers beyond a subsistence wage. It’s the only way that one could possibly justify the subsidy exercise in the first place.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Gullible's Travels

Adam Lisberg, continuing his incisive reporting on the electoral excesses of Team Bloomberg, had this interesting insight into the cavalier relationship between the mayor's minions and, well, the truth: "New York wakes up this morning with two fewer subway lines, 36 fewer bus routes, longer waits and more crowded rides all across town. Perhaps you can use the extra time on your commute to think about how Mayor Bloomberg promised you free crosstown buses last summer. It was the splashiest part of his 34-point transit plan: He said most riders on the M50 and other crosstown routes use free transfers off another bus or subway, so charging them was a waste of time. "The lost revenue is trivial," he said. "We've done the survey."

The reality? Team Bloomberg was blowing expensive smoke-and with so much money to burn, the first campaign fire casualty was the truth: "The mayor promised more: The F train would start running express on unused tracks again. Three closed LIRR stations in Queens would reopen. Staten Island would get a train line on the North Shore. A year later, none of that has come true. The MTA doesn't have enough money to keep all its trains and buses running, much less expand them or let people ride them for free. One insider says Bloomberg's city staff never thought free buses could work, even as the campaign staff ran with it. "That was the laugher," he said. "He had to know it was a joke. Nice campaign fodder, though."

And the joke is, of course on us-the "small people" that the BP chairman spoke so caringly of.. And given the patronizing comments from the Bloombergistas, all we can say is: Carl-Henric Svanberg and Mike Bloomberg-perfect together.
But anyone who had any knowledge of the transit situation knew that the Bloomberg proposals were fantasies-but where was the blow back? When someone is so clearly advantaged in resources, the only check on this kind of lying excess is the media-and particularly the editorial boards that have that snarky ability to frame an issue. But the Ed Boards were in the tank with their class president-and busy fulminating against the lesser lights of electoral skulduggery; so Bloomberg got the Pasedena.

But as bad as the MTA lie was, it doesn't begin to compare with the Bloomberg, "Five Borough Economic Development Plan.," a policy initiative that can only be described as a crushing blow to every small neighborhood business. Here was a recycled screenplay from the mayor's first run-one that was fraudulent even then. But there was no media taste testing to warn voters about this rancid use of the mayor's millions to garner an unearned third term. The lie here might not have been quite Goebbels's like-but Big it was; and the collusion of his media pals will forever be a stain on the history of NYC politics.

Hitting the Wal in East New York

The NY Post and Wal-Mart-perfect together. In its ongoing effort to promote the retail giant, the Post ventures into The East New York site that may hose the Walmonster and finds-what else?-almost unanimous support for the store: “Walking through the area, The Post was hard pressed to find any resident who didn’t want a Wal-Mart, either because of the jobs it would provide or the low-priced goods it would sell.

But those nasty politicians are standing in the way of the utopian Wal-Mart future: “But politicians — including Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilman Charles Barron, who staged a protest with unions last week at City Hall — seem intent on “saving” those New Yorkers from Wal-Mart anyway. “We don’t want companies that have led the nation in lawsuits being brought against them by workers,” Quinn explained. “We don’t want companies that have the largest class-action in history brought against them. We don’t want companies where women are, over and over, paid less than men and not promoted.”

And the Post goes on to compare the fight over Wal-Mart to the battle over the Kingsbridge Armory: “The fight is similar to that surrounding The Bronx’s Kingsbridge Armory, which was being developed as a shopping mall until the City Council voted down the Related project because retailers refused to pay a “living wage” of $10 an hour with benefits. The Armory is an empty shell now, with no shops, no activity — and no jobs of any kind.”

Of course, the Post doesn’t bother to go up to the Kingsbridge Heights neighborhood-over to Fordham and Kingsbridge Roads where there are still vibrant neighborhood shopping strips, employing thousands of New Yorkers, struggling to survive in this recession. The Post isn’t much for understanding zero-sum games in the city’s neighborhoods-but then again its support for Third Term Mike would have already made that clear.

The paper does, however, assume-falsely, we believe-that there is no way to stop the Walmonster from encroaching on one of the city’s poorest neighborhood; and even Speaker Quinn appears to be grasping at straws when speaking from a shaky bully pulpit: “Since Related owns the property, it would seem to have the right to pick whatever tenant it wants. Bloomberg added that, “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.” Quinn, however, isn’t giving up. “We’re looking at all of the council’s land-use and legislative powers to see what options we might have to prevent Wal-Mart from coming to New York City,” she said. “We’ll continue to work with the labor unions to see what support and help we can offer.”

But, as we have noted previously, a chunk of the land slated for the new development is state owned-and its conveyance just may be discretionary. If so, then the Post’s assumption that Related owns all the property isn’t true and a major battle could be just beginning.

And don’t you get a kick out of the supposedly pro-business mayor pontificating about how the city can’t dictate to businesses where they can locate? But it can, under his watch and at his discretion, force businesses to post signage it doesn’t agree with, and alter its menu boards so that the mayor can dictate his own health agenda. Guess it all depends on who the dictator is.

While we do sympathize with the folks who are out of work and need a job, most people don’t realize how the Walmonster creates an oasis in one spot, and desert everywhere else-as a recent study of the impact of a Wal-Mart store in Chicago dramatically points out. And we haven’t even begun to highlight the severe environmental damage the retail giant will cause along the Belt Parkway on the local streets in East New York.

But to point that out would be to hold the mayor to his sustainability standards-guidelines that are enshrined in his PlaNYC 20230. When it comes to mega retail development, however, sustainability standards give way to the Bloomberg double standard-as the developments at Willets Point and Flushing Commons underscore.

So, as the Albany session winds down, we expect that Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson-who represents the East NY community-will turn his attention to the Wal-Mart situation. If the needed state land becomes a sticking point, we believe that Sampson will become a key player in deciding the fate of Wal-Mart in Brooklyn. Stay tuned.

In the Domain Of Neither Left or Right

Last week’s disastrous-and craven-Court of Appeals decision overturning the Appellate Court ruling against Columbia U’s expansion, has been received derisively by both conservatives and liberals; although the anger against the larger issue is being stoked primarily from the conservative side of the political plate. That is epitomized by the manner in which SCOTUS divided on Kelo, with liberal judges siding with the condemners.

But as far as Columbia is concerned the ideological divide is more blurry-with the liberal Mayor Bloomberg riding the bulldozers; and the even more liberal Senator Bill Perkins manning the barricades against the city’s effort. So with this is mind, it is useful to point out that the Drum Major Institute-folks that we don’t normally see eye to eye with-has been staking out an opposing position in support of property owner Nick Sprayregen.

As Emi Wang writes on the DMI blog: “Case after case, courts have simply deferred to the judgments of government agencies, granting the ESDC free rein to determine what is blighted, and then acquiescing to those determinations. As the appellate court pointed out in 2009, both the ESDC and Columbia University used the same contractor to conduct the study of the area that led to its blighted designation, a designation that Justice James Catterson threw out the window. Furthermore, the courts have steadily expanded the definition of “public use,” allowing private developers to simply argue that their project has a purportedly superior utility than its current use. In questioning, even the ESDC’s own attorney admitted that Columbia’s justification for the use of eminent domain could also be applied in the future to the expansion of such elite entities as private schools.”

Jonathan Tobin, on the conservative Contentions website, makes common cause with DMI’s Wang: “While I have no quarrel with the university’s desire to expand the Morningside Heights campus, where I spent my undergraduate years north into Harlem, the idea that it can use its clout with the state to bludgeon those who will not sell to it is repulsive. Moreover, the court decision, which overruled a lower appeals court’s rejection of the use of eminent domain in this case, is especially troubling. Though most of the property owners in the West Harlem area desired by Columbia sold it, some did not. In response, Columbia prevailed upon the State of New York to condemn the recalcitrant owners’ property upon the doubtful premise that it was “blighted,” which mandated its demolition and replacement with more useful (at least to Columbia) projects, which might ultimately generate more tax revenue. The four active warehouses and two bustling gas stations that Columbia wished to flatten to make way for new buildings of its own do not fit that description of “blighted,” though there is no shortage of locations in New York City that do.”

Although it’s certainly not clear that the not for profit university will generate greater tax revenues to the city since Columbia pays no real estate taxes at all. And if the city was looking to generate real economic development in what could be seen as the largest underutilized parcel in Manhattan, all it had to do was re-zone the area to allow for more densely productive uses.

That zoning change, however, would have not only allowed the existing property owners to benefit from their longstanding investment in this West Harlem neighborhood; it would have also forced Columbia to pay for the then more valuable land. In fact, Sprayregen had already asked the City Planning Commission to re-zone his property so that he could develop it and provide greater value for both himself and the city. Not surprisingly, in the fact of the fix that was in, the CPC denied the Sprayregen application.

And then there’s the issue of affordable housing-supposedly a signature issue for the Bloombergistas. But, like all such signatures in this administration, it is simply a forgery. With a large swath of underutilized land ripe for development neither the city nor the local council member thought that it should be incumbent on Columbia to-in exchange for the city’s provision of a gun to the heads of local property owners-provide a commensurate amount of affordable housing for West Harlem residents.

For its part, Columbia, knowing full well that Bloomberg had its back, simply refused to discuss the idea of a property swap with Sprayregen that would have enabled Nick to build around 2,000 units of housing across Broadway. So this, “civic project,” is all by Columbia and for Columbia-and while we think that it is in the city’s interest for the university to expand, that interest is not so compelling that it overrides the constitutional rights of Sprayregen and the Singhs (gas station owners in the bulldozers’ path).

What the Court of Appeals has done is to underscore what we had suspected all along-New York law affords absolutely zero protection for property rights. This is the challenge ahead, and the state needs its own Castle Coalition that will create the groundswell for that legal change. If that doesn’t happen, the people of Willets Point United will not be the only ones under the gun-it will be everyone who owns a home or a business in the state (except for the privileged class of billionaires that the mayor fronts for with such zeal).

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sweetening the Pot

The WSJ is reporting that a study commissioned by the non partisan NYC DOH has determined that a soda tax would help reduce diabetes in the city: "New Yorkers seem to oppose Gov. Paterson’s proposed penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. But over the next decade, the tax could curb soda consumption and prevent tens of thousands of cases of adult obesity and Type 2 diabetes, a change that would save state residents an estimated $2.1 billion in related medical expenditures, according to a new study commissioned by the New York City Health Department."

The Columbia researcher who conducted the study stated that the tax would dramatically reduce consumption: "The findings: a soda tax would reduce consumption of sugary beverages by 15% to 20%. It would also prevent an estimated 37,000 or more cases of Type 2 diabetes and an estimated 145,000 or more cases of adult obesity over the next decade."

But, at the same time, the governor sees the tax as a big money maker for the state-believing that consumption would not be reduced all that dramatically it seems: "The Paterson administration estimates that the measure would raise $815 million a year." And researcher Wang sweetly agrees; and both she and Paterson enjoy speaking out of both sides of their mouth: "These tax revenues could potentially be used to generate even more health benefits for New York residents by funding programs to promote healthy eating and active lifestyles for adults and children,” said Wang."

Now we haven't examined Dr. Wang's methodology, but the schools of public health have generally been transformed into liberal advocacy arms-with the former core mission of public health reduced to creating strident platforms for scolds who want to tell peop;le-for their own good, of course-how they should be living their lives.

A Blight on Your Land

The more we examine the Court of Appeals’ hatchet job on New York State property owners, the more we see clearly that, not only does the eminent domain law need to be changed, but the entire higher court is in need of fumigation. The NY Times has more this morning on the debacle: “In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that prohibited the state from using eminent domain to take property in the 17-acre expansion zone west of Broadway, known as Manhattanville, without the owners’ consent. The ruling held that the courts must give deference to the state’s determination that the area was “blighted” and that condemnation on behalf of a university served a public purpose, two ways that the project could qualify for eminent domain under state law.”

Deference? This goes way beyond deference-with NY's highest court abdicating its judicial responsibility in order to become the court stenographer for the ESDC. As the Contentions blog points out: “But in making this point, Judge Ciparick revealed that what is on display in this decision is not the application of a coherent legal principle but rather merely the justification of an act of judicial tyranny. In this way, New York has ratified a procedure by which the powerful, be they the real-estate developers who own the NBA Nets or the trustees of one of America’s most prestigious universities, can simply force small property owners out of their businesses and homes for the sake of the convenience of the wealthy and of those who are better connected to power brokers. This means that the state has the power to label any property as “blighted” in order to create a legal fiction device that allows powerful interests to acquire it without the consent of its owners. This is state-sponsored theft by any definition and the fact that it is practiced on behalf of a “nonprofit university,” as well as an NBA team, does not make it any less odious.”

When others have stated that blight is in the eye of the beholder, we have more accurately pointed out that, might makes blight-and the Court of Appeals, by overturning the Appellate Court’s decision, ratifies this dubious position. As we had said earlier when that first decision was rendered: “And the court went on to say: "The state agency in charge of eminent domain and the school even "predetermined the unconstitutional outcome" by cooking up findings that the neighborhood was "blighted" and that the school's $6 billion expansion plan, therefore, served a "civic use."

This overturning of a principled legal defense against official misconduct and collusion means that no one’s property is safe-and we have a high court that has no sense of its own judicial responsibilities. The Institute for Justice underscores this in their press release on this judicial travesty: “In today’s ruling, Kaur v. New York State Urban Development Corporation, Judge Carmen Ciparick wrote that the lower court should not have looked so closely at the agency’s blight findings, which should be “entitled to deference by the judiciary.” “In other words, the court is saying that judges shouldn’t judge,” said IJ President and General Counsel Chip Mellor… “No one taking a fair look at the state’s finding of ‘blight’—which is based on a report that was commissioned years after Columbia decided it wanted these properties—could think it is anything but a pretext for handing over these properties to another private owner,” explained Robert McNamara, an Institute for Justice staff attorney. “This isn’t judicial ‘deference.’ It’s judicial blindness.”

As leading eminent domain attorney Mike Rikon told the Times, this ruling doesn’t bode well for opponents of the permissive taking of private property: “Still, the decision was not unexpected, said Michael Rikon, a lawyer who specializes in condemnation law and real estate litigation. “It is virtually impossible to stop a condemnation in New York because of the courts’ deference to agencies’ determination,” Mr. Rikon said. “Even though the courts say they won’t be a rubber stamp, that’s in essence what they’ve become.”

But Nick Sprayregen isn’t giving up-and plans to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court: “Mr. Sprayregen, the owner of the four warehouses who had refused to sell to Columbia, said he intended to carry on the battle. “If not overturned, the ruling now will allow any private school to be the beneficiary of eminent domain to take their neighbor’s property,” he said. “Further, it telegraphs to every large developer that they merely need to purchase a majority of land in an area and then intentionally allow their property to worsen in physical condition, which could then trigger a blight designation which would allow them to forcibly take adjacent property.”

But ultimately, it is NY State law that needs to be fundamentally changed-a move that has been spearheaded in the state senate by Bill Perkins; and in the assembly by Richard Brodsky. We’ll give the Institute for Justice the last word: ““New York remains one of only seven states that has failed to provide any legislative reform of eminent domain, and it is the only state whose highest court has allowed private property to be taken for private use since the Kelo decision,” explained Christina Walsh, IJ’s director of activism and coalitions. “Every state high court to hear an eminent domain case since Kelo has applied greater judicial scrutiny—every state, that is, except New York. The New York Court of Appeals is the only state high court that gives complete and abject deference to the actions of condemning agencies, no matter how suspicious.”

“Today’s decision confirms what we already knew: Judicial review of eminent domain in New York is fundamentally broken,” concluded McNamara. “Unless the Legislature takes meaningful steps to protect property rights, New York property owners will find themselves out in the cold—in some cases all too literally.”

What a Difference a Ramp Makes

Earlier in the week we speculated about the effort by Queens BP Helen Marshall to prevent EDC from closing two ramps off of the Van Wyck Expressway: "What a difference a ramp makes-at least when it comes to Helen Marshal's feelings about a different set of ramps off of the Van Wyck Expressway. Remember that Marshal has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for the proposed Van Wyck ramps that would supposedly facilitate the Willets Point development-although we believe it will do no such thing.

But when it comes to a pair of off ramps in Jamaica, the Queens BP weighs in against-claiming that it would have a negative impact, particularly in the ability to access Jamaica Hospital: "A plan to speed traffic to JFK Airport by closing down two exit ramps on the Van Wyck Expressway is facing tough opposition from Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and three community boards. Under the proposal, crafted by the city's Economic Development Corp. and Department of Transportation, the Jamaica Ave. off-ramp on the northbound side would be closed along with the Liberty Ave. off-ramp on the southbound side."

Well, we were at a meeting last night of the College Point Civic and Tax Payers Association, and a question from a woman at the meeting about the propriety of EDC's involvement in this ramp closure got us to thinking. In our earlier post we kind of jocularly wondered whether EDC was looking for ways to relieve Van Wyck congestion because they knew that their Willets Point ramps proposal will seriously clog this key arterial. The more we think about this, however, the more our paranoia feels like there is really someone out to get us.
As our College Point questioner pointed out, shouldn't it be DOT that is involved in this kind of traffic planning? And why does EDC-in reality a non governmental agency-have a role in any of this? We believe that the Jamaica ramps need to be an added agenda item when the state senate holds hearings on the Willets Point ramps. And Helen Marshall-along with NYSDOT-would make an extremely attractive witness.

Chronicaling Flushing Coalition

The Queens Chronicle reports on the neighborhood press conference that our Flushing Coalition had on the sidewalk in front of Muni Lot1 the other week: "On the congested corner of Union Street and 39th Avenue, just outside Municipal Parking Lot 1, the Flushing Coalition for Responsible Development held a preliminary demonstration last Thursday for its future City Hall rally against the Flushing Commons development project."

And the focus was on former Flushing BID Chair Jim Gerson: "The coalition — established by former Flushing BID Chairman Jim Gerson about a month ago — aims to preserve the jobs and investments of local merchants and residents and prevent gridlock in downtown Flushing as developers build Flushing Commons, a 5.5-acre complex of more than 600 condominiums, retail space, a YMCA, a public green and 1,600 underground parking spaces...His coalition has, in its infancy, secured broad support from the Chinese, Korean and cross-cultural business communities, according to its founder."

And the importance of the parking issue is emphasized by someone named Robert Lipsky-one of our many alter egos: "That logic surmises that the Rockefeller Group and TDC Development and Construction Corp. joint venture “will be the death knell for the 900 small businesses in the community because... it will eliminate all of the parking that you see behind you.” So said coalition lobbyist Robert Lipsky, accounting for the proposed 1,600 spaces that both “big box retail” employees and condo residents would monopolize once the complex was built."

The challenge now is for the Coalition to make the case that the huge complex will crush the vibrancy of Flushing-gridlocking the area, and making it impossible for the neighborhood's 900+ retailers to survive without access and sufficient parking. Mike Bloomberg, that development expert and mega builder disagrees: "Mayor Mike Bloomberg thinks otherwise: the “transformation of an underutilized five-acre parking lot into a mixed-use urban center will establish a new center of activity for this vibrant community” and create 2,000 permanent jobs and 2,600 construction jobs, he said in a press release on Wednesday."

But then again he, like the developer TDC, believes that most of the 2,000 workers will all be travelling by virtual mass transit-certainly not the already overcrowded 7 Train. If not, where will all of these new employees park? Perhaps in the 1600 parking spaces that the new development will be recreating. You do the math.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Courting Disaster for Property Rights in NY

In a blistering reversal, the NY State Court of Appeals has overturned the Appellate Court decision that had knocked out the Columbia University expansion plan. As Liz Benjamin reports: “The state Court of Appeals upheld the Empire State Development Corp.’s use of eminent domain to help Columbia University with its $6.3 billion expansion project over 17 acres in Harlem. I spoke briefly with Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist who represents Tuck-It-Away President Nick Sprayregen, who brought the case challenging ESDC’s decision the area – including the site if his storage business – was blighted and therefore able to be seized under eminent domain.”

Although we don’t represent Sprayregen anymore, we see the court’s decision as a terrible precedent-and a foreboding message to lower courts all over the state that any municipal action on behalf of eminent domain is alright as long as the locality says it is. Because of this court precedent-and let’s be very clear here-no one’s property is safe anywhere in New York.

The Court of Appeals, in glossing over the impropriety of the collusion of the consultants in this case, also is opening a huge barn door to any sham blight study that localities can concoct-and is a compelling reason why the state’s eminent domain law is in desperate need of revision-particularly its sections on blight.

This necessity is further underscored by the manner in which the state’s highest court basically ceded all power in this regard to the decisions made by local development agencies-a deference that will mean that any legal challenge to any local taking will be an impossible hill to climb.

Because of this, it is our view that this court is a symptom and symbol of the rot that so many people are beginning to see as corroding the politics of the state. The fact that the chief judge of this court is a political hack with no real prior judicial experience dots the “I’s” and crosses the “T’s” of our point.

So, in spite of the fact that states all over this nation are recognizing the threat posed to the basic constitutional rights of all Americans by the imperious use of the takings clause, New York remains in a retrograde position when it comes to property rights. As the Institute of Justice points out: “Kelo brought massive public awareness to the issue of eminent domain for private gain. Although there was growing concern about eminent domain abuse and some awareness before Kelo, after the decision, nearly every reasonably well-informed person in the nation now knows about the issue—and, according to survey after survey, the vast majority of them overwhelmingly oppose eminent domain for private development. Polls consistently show that well over 80 percent of the public oppose Kelo.”

Action followed almost everywhere, but not in NY: “There are exceptions, of course. New York has remained steadfast in its determination to take private property for politically connected developers and to resist any attempt or demand by the public to limit this practice.”

And it is this permissive and dismissive attitude that needs to be reformed-and blight should be in the crosshairs of all the eminent domain opponents: “The second way the government can abuse eminent domain is to rely on bogus blight designations, whereby neighborhoods are declared blighted through vague and expansive definitions that permit the government to proclaim virtually any poorer or even middle class neighborhood blighted. Governments do this because based on a fifty-year old precedent, Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26 (1954), with a blight declaration comes the power of eminent domain.”

Blight is, of course, the linchpin of the Court of Appeals ruling-and it is instructive how other states’ high courts have pushed back against Kelo-while the supine and craven NY court renders a decision in the Tuck it Away that could have been Xeroxed right from the files of EDC and its lawyers.

As the Institute for Justice again points out: “One of the other reasons for this fundamental shift in eminent domain policy has been the response of state courts to Kelo. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to correctly interpret the U.S. Constitution, the state high courts began to fill that void. Three state supreme courts—Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota—explicitly rejected the Kelo decision. Ohio cities had frequently abused eminent domain and Oklahoma cities had occasionally abused the power, but we have heard of no new abuses in either state since their respective court decisions.”

But in New York we only have legal toadies who apparently have little regard for the basic constitutional rights of our citizens. And it will be up to the legislature-and we hope that this becomes a major campaign issue in the fall-to remedy the situation. If not, the old axiom that a person’s home is his or her castle will be rendered-at least in NY State-as nothing more than a quaint historic artifact; and a carte blanche green light to the municipal bulldozers.

Rubber Stamping Flushing Commons

The Flushing Commons project was passed along by a supine City Planning Commission yesterday, with Chair Amanda Burden, managing to keep a straight face in praise of the white elephant-and, at the same time, sounding as if she were part of a hostage video. Crain’s reports: “The concept for the Flushing Commons project emerged from a community visioning and planning process that was initiated early in the Bloomberg Administration, which noted the void in the center of Flushing created by the large municipal parking lot,” said City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden in a statement. “This proposal is a prime example of the Administration's commitment to create economic opportunities throughout the five boroughs, and it exemplifies sustainable, transit-oriented development that capitalizes on Flushing's exceptional subway, bus and commuter rail access.”

The municipal lot is a void? We think that the location of the empty space is closer to Burden’s cerebellum-and the idea that the linchpin of Flushing’s business community is considered a void by this planning chairperson underscores the extent to which the Bloomberg administration is, well, devoid of any clear sustainable planning instincts. And what’s up with all of her transit hub nonsense?

Someone needs to send in Delta Force to rescue Amanda from her captivity before she really begins to sound totally incoherent. The 7 Train is above capacity and downtown Flushing is at a standstill because of existing traffic gridlock-but all Burden sees is, “community visioning,” whatever that may be. With the Bloombergistas it almost certainly doesn’t mean the active collaboration of any actual community. Community visioning is so much more effective without that local encumbrance anyway.

But if you listen carefully to the party line-and employ hermeneutics to interpret the message-you get a deeper understanding of how anti-neighborhood and anti-small business this fatuous group of elitists really are. But let the Mayor speak for himself: “The transformation of an underutilized five-acre parking lot into a mixed-use urban center will establish a new center of activity for this vibrant community,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a statement. “

The lifeblood of Flushing is now considered underutilized-but by eliminating the parking for the existing 900 businesses (since the project itself will absorb those spaces) you will certainly transform Flushing. But, as we have pointed out, it will be a transformation that will make the former graveyard site at 39th Street a truly symbolic historic artifact.

That is why the Flushing Coalition for Responsible Development was at city hall yesterday to protest the planning commission’s rubber stamping-and how weird is it that the commission abjures any contact with its commissioners while the item is being deliberated? In essence, then, we have EDC (operating as a lobbying entity) and the mayor’s office, orchestrating the planning commission vote, while opponents are left to three minute testimony before a somnambulant group of handpicked lackeys. What are they afraid of-that a commissioner might develop an independent thought?

But NY1 captured the mood of the press conference (view the entire story)-and in particular the pleas of Ikwan Rim, a local jeweler, and SJ Jung of the Minkwon Center, who talked about the importance of parking for the neighborhood retailers. Crain’s underscores these concerns-and highlights our own involvement as well: “Opponents of the project argue that it will hurt small businesses in the neighborhood. To help block the project, small business owners have hired lobbyist Richard Lipsky to assist their efforts. In a sign of how deep the divisions run in the area, earlier this month, Jim Gerson quit as chairman of the Flushing Business Improvement District to protest some of his board members' support of the project.”

Also attending the presser where two of the city’s leading advocates of a living wage-Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs NY, and Paul Sonn of National Employment Law Project (NELP). Both of them questioned the absence of a living wage in this subsidized development that is IDA eligible (kind of like a player to be named later). If Speaker Quinn can come to the steps of city hall to protest the low wage practices at Wal-Mart, then we wonder why she can’t look to be consistent on all development fronts. Poverty wages to replace mom and pop shops shouldn’t be part of any NYC economic development agenda.

The Coalition’s task is made more difficult because of the support for the project from the local council member Peter Koo. But Crain’s reports that Koo still may have some concerns that need to be addressed: “Mr. Koo has only expressed some concerns about parking and traffic; he has met with business owners to address their concerns and will have another meeting first week of July, said a spokesman. “Dialogue is open and we plan to help businesses during construction,” he said, adding that the city's Economic Development Corp. has set aside $2 million for small business assistance.”

But given the catastrophic potential impact of the project, a $2million set aside is really as effective as a roll of Charmin-and the pledge to, “work with the local merchants,” has the ring of, “work them over,” unless the real issues of parking and traffic are addressed. We’ll give ourselves the last word here by reprinting the Coalition’s alternative vision for the site:

WHAT MAKES SENSE: Alternatives to Unsustainable Development

1- Eliminate the retail/commercial portion of the project, which is the source of the gridlock.

2- Add back the previously agreed components of the project including the amount of parking and the cap on parking rates in order to save the small business community

3- Since the project will involve the conveyance of land at a below-market price and include other subsidies, require that the developer include a living wage in any of his leases.

4- Require a timetable with remedies to repossess the project in the event of default by the developer.

5- Alternatively: Require that the project be rebid after a thorough independent analysis of its effects and the needs of the community.

Quinn Goes Back to the Future on Wal-Mart

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn went back to the future yesterday when she emerged from office and led an anti-Wal-Mart rally on the steps of city hall. The rally, led by the RWDSU’s Stu Appelbaum and supported by the entire UFCW, was designed to send a clear message to the developer Related that it wouldn’t be a great career move to tenant its Gateway Mall expansion with the Walmonster: “Council Speaker Christine Quinn joined labor union activist and other opponents of Wal-Mart’s supposed efforts to break into the New York City market at a rally today on the steps of City Hall that sent the world’s biggest retailed this unambiguous New York message: “FUHGEDDABOUDIT!”

Yesterday was a real retro day as Quinn, who started off as a community activist who was a valued ally to those of us who were fighting box stores in her Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, channeled her old rabble rousing self. Daily Politics reports: “You know, it isn’t that we don’t want Wal-Mart,” Quinn said at the rally. ”It’s that we don’t want companies that have led the nation in law suits being brought against them by workers. We don’t want companies that have the largest class-action in history brought against them. We don’t want companies where women are, over and over, paid less than men and not promoted. You can be very clear that I don’t want that.”

And make no mistake about it, Brooklyn is in the eye of this storm: “Though Wal-Mart officials have denied that they are negotiating with Related Cos. to locate in it’s the Gateway Center in East New York, leaders of unions representing retail and food workers are keeping up their public and behind-the-scene pressure to prevent the non-union Wal-Mart chain from scoring a breakthrough in a city that still has significant union strength.”

The NY Post underscores the possible scenario: "While unions and New York officials lock arms to keep Wal-Mart from opening up a store in the Big Apple, the giant retailer might still have a golden opportunity to open its first city store. The opportunity rests with a Brooklyn development -- a commercial and residential project called Gateway II being built by real-estate giant Related Cos. near Jamaica Bay -- that has already won key zoning approvals from city officials, sources said. Those opposing Wal-Mart are trying to persuade Related and others to bring a smaller supermarket or other retailer to the site."

And, as we have pointed out before, the Brooklyn scenario is complicated by the fact that a chunk of the land slated for the mall’s expansion is owned, and must be conveyed, by the state. This is the pressure point that, although the expansion has already been approved by the city council (never buy a pig in a poke Charles Barron), gives the labor leaders-and the entire small business community some leverage over the situation. The state senate district where Wal-Mart is seeking to perhaps locate is represented by Senator John Sampson who is mulling over possible hearings on the retail giant.

And, as for Barron, he might be learning a bit about the value of oral contracts: "Councilman Charles Barron, whose Brooklyn district includes the Gateway II development site, said that during the approval process for the shopping center he extracted oral promises from Related executives that Wal-Mart wouldn't anchor the shopping center. "I had to accept Related's verbal commitment," Barron told The Post. "If they want to go against their word, they're going to have to deal with city officials in other projects who will see them as a company that cannot be trusted."

Still, Quinn was forceful yesterday-and underscored her labor-driven objections to the Wal-Mart incursion. As Daily Politics points out: “Wal-Mart’s corporate philosophy, Wal-Mart’s business plan is in fact a plan and a philosophy which runs counter to the core values of New York City, the core values of our workers, the core values of people who spend money to buy goods for their family. Now we in the Council feel very strongly that we need to get more retail establishments, particularly those that sell supermarket food good for people. That is why we are the first city in the country to pass a rezoning encouraging supermarkets to develop in the city of New York. But in that rezoning we were clear about the types of supermarket jobs we wanted and that we wanted them to be assets to the community and help build the community. That’s simply is not Wal-Mart. Now if Wal-Mart wants to usher in a new day we are happy to sit down with them and write a New York philosophy and a New York business plan. But until that happens they can call themselves whatever they want, they can have a new urban store that’s smaller, but until they change their ways they are Wal-Mart and they are not welcome in our five boroughs.”

Of course, the labor objections are the only reasons why the Walmonster is a bad idea for Brooklyn-and we have outlined the traffic, community quality of life, and small business rationale for opposing the mega-store. Still, it was nice to see Quinn channeling her earlier self-we hope she likes the old garb and keeps in on for more frequent anti mega development efforts in the future. Related has a lot to think about.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Iron and Steal

What a shock! The mayor has hired a new deputy for economic development and, in spite of the fact that a neighborhood baker was on the short list (just kidding); Mike Bloomberg grabbed another usual suspect. As the NY Times reports: “Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is expected to announce Tuesday that he has selected a former Wall Street banker as the next deputy mayor for economic development, according to administration and business officials. The banker, Robert Steel, worked at both Goldman Sachs and Wachovia and served as under secretary for domestic finance in the federal Treasury Department during the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008.”

In an unexpected development, the NYC Partnership’s Kathy Wylde went out on a limb to praise the choice: “It’s a terrific choice,” Ms. Wylde said. “He understands the challenges, particularly those facing the financial services industry. It’s somebody who can really make sure that we retain our stature in the world of global finance.”

Well, that’s all well and good, but what about the rest of the city-and the mayor’s expressed goal of diversification (kinda like the meadow muffins that Bloomberg serves in his PlaNYC 2030)? Bronx BP Diaz wonders the same thing. As NY1 reports: “Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who helped derail the administration's plans to develop the Kingsbridge Armory, wants to make sure Steel will turn his attention beyond Wall Street. "I hope that when he comes in he realizes that economic development means we need a plan of action for small businesses, to put everyday New Yorkers to work with decent salaries," Diaz Jr. said.”

Greg David also chimes in on this note: “There's already some skepticism about the appointment, namely because Steel's experience is so deeply rooted in finance and Wall Street."It's a very ironic choice for Michael Bloomberg, who has staked the next term on doing things differently in economic development. Innovating and growing new businesses and diversifying the economy," said Greg David of CUNY/Crain's New York Business.”

Irony it may be-but only if you actually take the mayor at his word; an adventure fraught with uncertainty. The fact remains that Mike Bloomberg has a single focus-one that devolves from what the sociologists call his, “mobilization of bias.” He has a certain perspective-after all, how many of us can say that our five best friends are all billionaires? And he has governed exclusively from that perspective; to the detriment of the city’s small businesses-whether at the Bronx Terminal Market, Willets Point, the Kingsbridge Armory or Flushing Commons.

So Mr. Steele comes in with absolutely no knowledge of NYC and with an additional handicap-his Goldman Sachs pedigree means that he has a trained incapacity for understanding the role of neighborhood small business in this city. Once again, the mayor who claims that his wealth insulates him from the lure of special interests demonstrates that he actually embodies them.

Smoking Dope

We have been really busy on a number of fronts so we haven’t had the time to speak our piece about the governor’s disgraceful performance on cigarettes and other tobacco products-raising the price by $16 a carton and stiffing the retailers and wholesalers out of a much needed raise. For the past decade and a half these two tiers of distribution have taken it on the chin from buttleggers out of the criminal enterprises run by Indians. Instead of recognizing the hardships that the state’s failure to enforce the law have created, the governor added insult to injury by rejecting the effort to raise the price allowance for the beleaguered two tiers.

But what’s even worse, is what we have described as the summer of love-a two month grace period where the tax will be implemented but there will be no enforcement action; effectively handing the Indians a bonus for their illegal activities that have victimized the legitimate NY businesses. Here’s NYACS’ Jim Calvin’s take on this shafting from Paterson. He titles the communication, “Screwed Again.”

“Despite our best efforts, the Legislature on Monday narrowly approved the huge increases in tobacco taxes that will be devastating to our industry. By a vote of 77-64 in the Assembly and 32-30 in the Senate, they approved Governor David Paterson's proposal to:

- Increase the state excise tax on cigarettes from $2.75 a pack to $4.35, effective July 1st.

- Increase the state excise tax on cigars and other tobacco products from 46% of wholesale value to 76%.

- Increase the state excise tax on snuff from 96 cents per ounce to $2.00 per ounce.

- Reclassify "little cigars" as cigarettes for tax purposes, making them taxable at $4.35 a pack.

The move will push pack prices well over $8 across New York State. In New York City, which has its own additional tax of $1.50, packs will cost as much as $11 or $12.

Right now, half the cigarettes consumed in New York are purchased without collection of any New York State tax, and these increases will likely push that to two-thirds as even more smokers flee tax-inflated prices at our stores and shift their purchases to Indian reservations, border states, the Internet, or the black market.”

But what really burns us is the argument that the governor’s people used to reject giving the bodegas a raise. Get this. They claimed that it would hurt the state’s revenue collection because the extra cost of cigarettes would impel people to buy their smokes elsewhere-totally ignoring the $16 a carton levy that the state is imposing. What chutzpah! We have the spectacle of an accidental chief executive, who has been promoted without merit to every job he has ever held, shafting the taxpaying small businesses of New York.

But it gets even better. It appears that the enforcement provision that is part of the “global settlement,” may be a mirage. As Calvin tells us: “The bill that passed Monday does outline a plan to start collecting taxes on Indian sales of cigarettes to non-Indians starting September 1, 2010, but implementation dates have come and gone before without any action whatsoever by the Tax Department, and there's no reason to expect this one will be any different. In New York, there's always a fixed date for a cigarette tax increase to take effect, but a "someday" timetable for enforcing tax collection equally.”

This charade hasn’t escaped the attention of the editorialists at the NY Post, who observed: “Gov. Paterson says that the $1.60-a-pack cigarette-tax hike he muscled through the Legislature yesterday will come with a crackdown on Indian-reservation tobacco smuggling, and the result will be an extra $440 million for Albany. Nonsense. Reservation retailers have been thumbing their noses at governors from Mario Cuomo to Paterson, building a multi-billion-dollar business in the process.”

And the paper goes on to point out: “Paterson couldn't well budget an extra $1.60-per-pack tax without at least promising to crack down on the trade. But nothing in the governor's history, or the new law, indicates that he's serious. From the start of his incumbency, Paterson has had the power to collect the tax, yet has instead pursued sham "negotiations" with the tribes -- which in the past have responded with violence to efforts to enforce the law.”

What the agreement that passed the other day says, is that the governor has unilateral authority to negotiate with the tribes, and could possibly totally alter any enforcement mechanism that isn’t to his liking-which leads the Post to its Bonnie and Clyde analogy: “Unsurprisingly, yesterday's language, passed as part of an emergency budget extender, authorizes Paterson to continue talks with the tribes -- and even to abrogate the tax unilaterally if a deal comes as part of a federal court settlement. Bonnie and Clyde should have been so lucky.”

So, unless we can depend on David Paterson to not behave fecklessly, we are looking at the potential for total anarchy-with projected revenues literally going up in smoke blown right out of an Indian peace pipe. We’ll give the Post the last word: “It's also unclear whether taxes as high as New York's are now -- $5.85 per pack, city and state -- even can be enforced. Not that Gov. Paterson or the cowards in the Legislature care about any of that. They get to budget $440 million in phantom revenue into their long-overdue budget, bringing it that much closer to "balance" without actually cutting spending -- the plan being to deal with the consequences after Election Day, probably with real tax hikes.”

Whistling Past the Flushing Graveyard

Is the Flushing Commons project, a development that is expected to get the planning commission’s rubber stamp of approval today, literally whistling past the graveyard? It appears so, at least according to a story in the current edition of the NY Daily News: “Human remains from a 19th-century Methodist graveyard may still be buried beneath a Flushing parking lot slated for a controversial development, a Daily News investigation has found. Research suggests 150 parishioners were interred between 1846 and 1857 at the proposed site of Flushing Commons, a housing and retail complex to be voted on today by the City Planning Commission.

We’re not sure if this archeological finding will be a real deal killer, but we do know that, if built, Flushing Commons will not be a destination that people will be dying to get to-that is, if they can get there at all given the kind of traffic (and lack of local parking) that the development will generate. That is why the community will be out in force at noon today at city hall in order to protest the unsustainable development-one that lacks affordable housing, and will drain the availability of public parking that is the lifeblood for the –at least for now-still vibrant 900 strong neighborhood small businesses.

The presser and rally today will be keynoted by former council member Tony Avella who is running for the state senate seat now held by Frank Padavan. Avella strongly believes that the Flushing Commons project will overwhelm an already overly dense downtown flushing. As he told us,”The project is way too large for the proposed location, and given that, and its history, the site may be a once and future graveyard for the Flushing community and the small businesses that make it such a unique destination for people all over the city.”

There are a number of crucial issues that go into making the current EDC-sponsored development untenable for Flushing. What follows is the Talking Points Memo for the Flushing Coalition for Responsible Development, the group that will lead the presser today and has been organized to fight the ill-conceived plan:

                                            Talking Point Memo on Flushing Commons Development

                                                       Considerations for City Council Members

1- Business Impact: Parking is the lifeblood of the entire small business community. The EIS provides no analysis whatsoever of the likely negative effect of the planned parking rate increases on area merchants.

Furthermore the EIS uses contradictory analyses when evaluating traffic impact and socioeconomic impact. When evaluating traffic impacts it says there will be only 36,000 sq ft of destination retail vs. 4 times as many sq ft when analyzing the effect on local merchants, the premise being that destination retail “doesn’t compete” with local merchants. (Citations to the EIS available)

2- Parking: A study has been performed showing that the planned parking for the project will be fully utilized by the uses planned specifically for the development. Therefore, there will be no parking available for clients of local professionals (doctors, lawyers, accounting firms, etc) or local merchants (available upon request). The City has stripped back parking to 1,600 spaces despite an agreement between Deputy Mayor Doctoroff and then CM John Liu (copy available upon request).

3- Parking Affordability: The Queens Borough President, CB 7 and the Liu-Doctoroff agreement all call for caps on parking rates. The current proposal eliminates all caps on parking after two years of operation. If voted as proposed the developer will control virtually all the parking north of Roosevelt Ave., the heart of the retail, commercial district and over 60% of all the parking in Flushing.

4- Community Opposition: Queens Civic Congress and many other local civic groups oppose the project as currently proposed (list of organizations available upon request.) There is, in fact, widespread community opposition to the Flushing Commons plan.

5- Traffic: While the EIS projects that there will be gridlock in many intersections in Flushing, traffic that will likely spill over into surrounding communities-it, at the same time, seriously underestimates the real traffic that the project will generate; and the nightmare environmental impacts that will follow. That is because the EIS doesn’t properly consider the effect of the several new and projected developments, including the Willets Point megaproject (full report available upon request); and uses outdated models for its baseline assumptions.

6- Affordable housing: The developer is providing no affordable housing. The site will contain 140 units supported by another developer.

7- Bait and Switch: The RFP contained numerous community benefits and the developer was selected on that basis. Many of those conditions, some very material to our community have now disappeared (analysis available).

8- Contingency Planning: Several groups, including the Flushing BID have asked that the final agreement with the developer contain a reasonable performance timetable and the City’s ability to repossess the property in the event of non-performance. Our community is deeply concerned about a project that is stalled for whatever reason at some point.

9- Size and Bulk: The project is far too dense and far too large for our community. It is both inappropriate and the source of much of the traffic and parking issues.

WHAT MAKES SENSE: Alternatives to Unsustainable Development

1- Eliminate the retail/commercial portion of the project, which is the source of the gridlock.

2- Add back the previously agreed components of the project including the amount of parking and the cap on parking rates in order to save the small business community

3- Since the project will involve the conveyance of land at a below-market price and include other subsidies, require that the developer include a living wage in any of his leases.

4- Require a timetable with remedies to repossess the project in the event of default by the developer.

5- Alternatively: Require that the project be rebid after a thorough independent analysis of its effects and the needs of the community

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

AG Targets Rancid E-Claire

The Wall Street Journal is reporting on the apparent delay in the now 11 month investigation into the illegal lobbying activity of the Claire Shulman-led local development corporation that lobbied illegally on behalf of development at Willets Point: “Queens property owners battling Mayor Michael Bloomberg's effort to redevelop the area near Citi Field are accusing Attorney General Andrew Cuomo of dragging his feet in a yearlong investigation into whether a city-funded corporation broke state law by lobbying for the plan… In a June 17 letter reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the Willets Point property owners demanded Mr. Cuomo, who is running for governor, respond to their allegation that the corporation, led by former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, conducted an extensive lobbying effort in violation of state law. Ms. Shulman denied any wrongdoing in an interview.”

Huh? State law is pretty clear in our view-and by the sheer act of registering as a lobbyist, the Queens Eclaire convicted herself: “Ms. Shulman's corporation received hundreds of thousands of dollars in both public and private money to build support for Mr. Bloomberg's plan. State law prohibits local development corporations, such as the Ms. Shulman's, from attempting to "influence legislation by propaganda or otherwise.” “We did everything in good faith and we continue to believe that," Ms. Shulman said. "It's a good project," she added, referring to the mayor's plans for the area. Ms. Shulman admitted she and her group engaged in lobbying. "Did we go to speak to members of the City Council? Yes, we did," she said. "We hired lobbyists."

Case closed? Not according to Shulman’s attorney who has a rather unique view of the state prohibition: “Bob Bishop, an attorney for Ms. Shulman's corporation, said that he believes state law prohibits lobbying of the Legislature. Since Ms. Shulman lobbied the City Council, he said, "the activity is not illegal." "We are waiting for guidance from the attorney general," he said.”

Hah! What would we do without lawyers? The fact of the matter is that the state’s public integrity commission admits to no distinction between political lobbying at the state or local levels-and a lobbyist-or any group attempting to “influence legislation by propaganda or otherwise”-must register with the commission when lobbying on behalf of a local measure.

So Lawyer Bob is trying to be cute; and is looking to ignorance or confusion as an out for Claire’s illegal lobbying operation-one for which she was fined heavily: “Last year, the City Clerk imposed a $59,090 fine against the corporation because Ms. Shulman failed to register as a lobbyist. At the time, it was the largest fine issued by the City Clerk for lobbying activity.”

The reason for the delay may lie more with foot-dragging on the mayor’s part-a fact that the NY Times’ Jim Dwyer pointed out last year. The WSJ seems to confirm Dwyer’s suspicions: “The attorney general's office has complained about the speed with which the city has responded to requests for information. The final batch of requested documents from the city arrived at Mr. Cuomo's office last week, a person familiar with the probe said. And Mr. Cuomo's office still needs to interview additional witnesses, the person said.”

The city in our view, is only postponing the inevitable. And the AG should make a significant example of the illegal tactics of EDC. There’s no excuse for taking aim at the properties of hundreds of small local businesses-and the effort becomes even more unseemly when the city tries to use illegal subterfuge in the process. The Shulman LDC should be disbanded-along with its counterpart in Coney Island-and the AG should additionally lay down strict parameters for the parent EDC in order to prevent the illegal lobbying of this quasi-governmental small business killer.

The Lady and the Ramp

What a difference a ramp makes-at least when it comes to Helen Marshal's feelings about a different set of ramps off of the Van Wyck Expressway. Remember that Marshal has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for the proposed Van Wyck ramps that would supposedly facilitate the Willets Point development-although we believe it will do no such thing.

But when it comes to a pair of off ramps in Jamaica, the Queens BP weighs in against-claiming that it would have a negative impact, particularly in the ability to access Jamaica Hospital: "A plan to speed traffic to JFK Airport by closing down two exit ramps on the Van Wyck Expressway is facing tough opposition from Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and three community boards. Under the proposal, crafted by the city's Economic Development Corp. and Department of Transportation, the Jamaica Ave. off-ramp on the northbound side would be closed along with the Liberty Ave. off-ramp on the southbound side."

What's funny here is-aside from the fact that Marshall is running ramped-is that EDC has concerns about speeding up access to Kennedy when its Willets Point ramps will slow the access to a virtual crawl. But this is the typical talking out of both sides of their mouth pattern that the agency is becoming famous for-and we can't wait to see how its consultants are going to square the circle on their revamp of the original ramp report. But maybe they need to close the Jamaica ramps to make up for the clogging that's being promoted further upstream?

In any case, it is amusing to see the BP get all feisty on the agency that she has been waltzing so closely with-maybe she has a stake in Jamaica that she hasn't got in Willets Point. And our bud Lombino is exhibiting a rather charming concern for community sentiment: "We're listening to the community and listening to their concerns as we evaluate whether or not to move forward," said EDC spokesman David Lombino.

But what about the NYSDOT? We suppose that closing a ramp may not be in its purview. But we could be wrong. In the meantime, we'll just luxuriate in the acrimony-even if it is probably short lived.

Prisoners of Second Avenue

If you need a graphic depiction of the disdain that the Bloombergistas have for small business, no better illustration can be found in the editorial that Heather McDonald wrote for the NY Post about the plight of the 2nd Avenue retailers: “Construction of the Second Avenue Subway line is decimating shops on the Upper East Side -- but there's no sign that the MTA, the city or the state is willing to compensate the people who are being put out of business.”

Why the hell not? What’s the matter, are only the big guys important for Mike the Mogul? Apparently so: “Four years ago, Tae Shin put his life savings into opening a combined sandwich shop (ironically, a Subway) and nail salon at Second Avenue and E. 93rd Street. Within a year, the street outside his spiffy new establishment had become ground zero for the biggest city infrastructure endeavor in 50 years. The project threatens to end his career as an entrepreneur. As of March, the chaos outside his store had snuffed out 20 percent of the neighboring businesses and cost more than 150 people their jobs. "This feels like North Korea," says Shin, who came from South Korea 24 years ago. "I didn't know that in America, the government could kill you."

All of a sudden, the Bloomberg folks are getting all, “no special deals,” on us: “So far, no level of government has accepted responsibility for helping out these victims of a government-made catastrophe. The shop owners had suggested that they sell discounted Metrocards as a way to recapture customers. Not a chance, said the MTA. A sales-tax moratorium? Don't even think about it, various officials responded. In 2008, Gov. Paterson vetoed Assemblyman Jonathan Bing's bill to provide state matching grants for advertising assistance and business counseling. And Mayor Bloomberg has used his clout to block Assemblyman Micah Kellner's bill to give landlords in the construction area a property-tax abatement, which they'd be required to be pass on to their commercial tenants.”

As a result, the little folks are all in desperate straights: “Foot traffic, the lifeblood of New York retailers, is down 50 percent since construction began, estimates Joe Pecora, owner of Delizia Pizza at E. 92nd St. and head of the Second Avenue Business Alliance. Electricity, water and phone service are periodically cut off, sometimes without warning.”

Here we have a perfect example of the, “mind over matter,” attitude of the Bloombergistas when it comes to small business-they don’t mind, and the businesses don’t matter-from the Bronx Terminal Market, to the Kingsbridge Armory, to Willets Point, and finally to Flushing Commons; the disdain for small business is palpable on the mayor’s side of city hall.

McDonald captures this with some clarity: “The entrepreneurs' main problem is that they're not big, irresponsible or dependent enough to stake a claim on government attention. In 2003, the city and state gave Pfizer a $47 million package of tax abatements, caving in to the usual extortion about moving jobs out of the city. And New York spends billions each year on social services that no other city in America even attempts to provide. Officials argue that assisting businesses in the subway zone will set a dangerous precedent for future construction projects. But the length of this project and the intensity of the assault on the area set it far apart from ordinary road or building work. And if any similar conditions arise in the future, a precedent to help entrepreneurs survive a government taking of their livelihood is perfectly appropriate.”

But not in the rarefied circles that the class biased Mike the Mayor travels in-all that is missing is a Marie Antoinette-like statement to complete the haughty Bloomberg picture of disdain.

A Meaningless Million

We really loved the Adam Lisberg column on the Haggerty imbroglio-and the sense that the Bloombergistas were trying to convey that the entire thing was beneath the lofty Mike. After all, what's a measly million to the mayor? As Lisberg tells us: "People on Team Bloomberg insist the mayor was ripped off, and would rather not have it show up in court - especially with Bloomberg likely to be called to testify. They have grumbled for months that Vance is pursuing the case hard because he's a pal of legendary former DA Robert Morgenthau - who left office nursing grudges against the mayor."

Oh, really? Not because it might be discovered that Mike himself violated the campaign laws-as Wayne Barrett has cogently argued? But we really thought the following statement was a kick: "They have grumbled for months that Vance is pursuing the case hard because he's a pal of legendary former DA Robert Morgenthau - who left office nursing grudges against the mayor. "Cy Vance's buddy Morgenthau hates Bloomberg," said one person in the mayor's camp. "Does Vance think Bloomberg even cares about that money?"

In our view, he cares about the money as much as he cares about the election laws-they apply to others, not to someone who could toss a million away without even blinking. But in doing so, he may have committed a crime-even if the money went to a party's housekeeping account. But how was Mike to know? After all, he always has someone else do the housekeeping for him