Thursday, June 03, 2010

He Won't Do Their Bidding

More and more it’s apparent that the decision by Chairman Jim Gerson (our client in the Flushing Commons matter), and executive director Mabel Law to resign from the Flushing BID was exactly the right move-as the politicization of the BID begins to surface as more information comes out. The NY Daily News has the story: “Caught in the middle of an acrimonious debate over a sprawling development set for downtown Flushing, two of the local Business Improvement District's top officials have jumped ship. Chairman Jim Gerson quit Thursday, two weeks after Executive Director Mabel Law announced she would step down. Both have held their posts since 2003.”

Now we have the luxury of a longstanding acquaintance with the emergence of these business improvement districts-and their negative impact on the self interest of neighborhood retailers. Put simply, the city’s central funding role emasculates the businesses from any advocacy on their own behalf. And if they do attempt to involve themselves in the political process-as the Fifth Avenue BID in Sunset Park tried to do when IKEA was first proposed in Red Hook-they are shot down by the city's small business services department, the agency that controls the BID purse strings.

We have pointed this phenomenon out before-but it bears repeating: "In many cases, when the mayor or Rob Walsh, the city's small business commissioner, want to trumpet neighborhood business success, they point to the creation of yet another Business Improvement District (BID). These BIDS, however, as the NY Post highlights today, are actually symptomatic-not of success-but of the way that the city surreptitiously increases local taxes by other means: "BIDs are, in effect, mini-municipalities with the power to levy taxes and provide services within their geographic limits. Back in the bad old (that is, pre-Giuliani) days -- when the city could neither clean the streets nor keep them safe -- BIDs were a novel way to finance vital municipal functions without siphoning tax dollars from bloated social-service programs or a spectacularly dysfunctional school system. Business owners within the BID got no break on their regular taxes and levies, of course -- the BID takeaways were, and remain, in addition to everything else."

As a result, BIDs become handmaidens of the landlords and the city-with the rather sterling exception of property owner Gerson who felt that his job was to protect the interests of the 400 small businesses in Flushing: "I honestly think that the project could destroy the community," Gerson said.”

But a truly independent study of the economic impact of Flushing Commons is never going to be berthed by the very folks who are now supporting all of its rather questionable assumptions: “I think I'm better off outside the BID at this point," Gerson said yesterday. He has been a vocal opponent of Flushing Commons - a 5-acre complex of condos and stores to be built on the site of a municipal parking lot on Union St. Gerson's resignation came moments after the BID voted down a proposal to commission an economic impact study of the project. The city has allocated $2 million to a business assistance program, but the study would have determined how much each of the area's hundreds of small businesses would need to withstand construction, Gerson said.”

But, as we have pointed out, the $2 million figure-and no one has ever said that these are real dollar outlays to businesses that will lose their lifeblood parking for at least three years is nowhere near able to compensate for the potential losses; hence the need to study in order to understand what the potential collateral damages of the development might be. Such an analysis would allow the city council to better determine whether the displacement issue is accurately evaluated by the developer’s consultant.

But Koo-who has so far refused to meet with the Flushing opposition, or return phone calls-is quite active throwing around nickels like manhole covers: “Councilman Peter Koo has also secured between $100,000 and $300,000 in additional funding for a supplemental assistance program, said spokesman James McClelland.”

But without any accurate understanding of the projects potential negative impacts, all of this bluster is simply worthless palaver. It’s kind of like the $400,000 assistance program for neighborhood retailers that the city council “negotiated” when a Pathmark Supermarket was approved for Laurelton against the local member’s wishes. The store was projected to gross $1,000,000/week!-and the fund was for a period of twenty years. Yet, until recently that money hadn’t all been collected and Merrick Boulevard is in sad shape.

Flushing Commons-particularly its 520,000 sq. ft. of commercial/retail space-has too many unanswered questions to go forward as it is. With immigrant store owners facing a kind of ethnic cleansing all over the city, as mega project after mega project is approved-often with considerable subsidy from the tax payers-it is time to say stop.

Reforming the regulatory process is a good thing, and is a welcome policy initiative for the little guys in the city’s 200 neighborhood shopping strips. But it will all be for naught if the mayor’s edifice complex isn’t reined in. Putting the brakes on Flushing Commons-or at least radically modifying its composition-would be a good first step in the right direction.