Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Now You EDC It, Now You Don't

Professor Tom Angotti has a thoughtful analysis of the role of EDC in city planning, as well as in overall economic development in NYC-and raises some interesting points on transparency and the public interest: "In the last eight years the EDC has sponsored over 500 projects, including some of the largest new developments in the five boroughs and citywide. With this portfolio, EDC probably has more to do with planning the city -- where, how and when new development happens -- than all the city agencies that are entrusted with doing so. Despite that, the agency receives little scrutiny or even attention."

And EDC likes it that way because it allows it to move ahead unencumbered by any system of checks and balances-until a project has reached such critical mass that its inevitability can't be challenged-Kingsbridge was an exception to this rule: "Perhaps it was only in the final stages of the recent and failed Kingsbridge Armory Project in the Bronx, which would have handed over the vacant property to the Related Corp. for development of a mall, that EDC's role as intermediary between developers and the mayor's office emerged clearly into the sunshine. EDC had spent years brokering the deal only to find that the community/labor coalition it had engaged would not back down on the issue of a living wage for workers at the proposed mall."

In carving out this unassailed niche, and the power that goes with it, EDC manages to operate below the radar in the interstices of government (and in ways that avoid scrutiny) without actually being a government agency: "What is this city entity that is sometimes called quasi-governmental, a city agency or an arm of the mayor's office? Despite its name it is not a private corporation or financial institution, nor is it an independent public authority like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or the Port Authority, entities Robert Moses helped invent to protect decision-makers from public oversight. EDC is a non-profit that is wholly owned and financed by the city. The mayor appoints its board of directors, and most of its budget of over three quarters of a billion dollars comes from the city."

Three quarters of a billion dollars!-and little or no scrutiny; a structure intended to operate in Robert Moses fashion to get things done. But for whom? And that gets us to the corporation's raison d'ĂȘtre: "EDC's stated mission is "fostering economic growth." It does this by responding to private-sector proposals and helps to pave the way for their success. With New York advertising itself as the "Real Estate Capital of the World," major real estate deals including malls, condos and business centers, get special attention from EDC. Since an uncontested doctrine links the city’s economic health to its ability to keep the cement mixers going, growth is usually assumed to be good."

So in essence, EDC is a real estate deal-driven entity that assumes that what's good for big real estate is good for the city-no questions asked. It is the city's central planner that does no real planning: "Despite having one foot squarely in the private sector, EDC is considered the "lead agency" on just about every major development proposal. Even though it's not a city agency, it has become, in effect, the city’s most significant entity for land use planning...Because of the corporation's unique commitment to "public-private partnerships," its plans tend to support those of private developers whereas the presumption is that city agencies should operate in the public interest. For example, EDC issued a Request for Expressions of Interest for the Willets Point project in Queens. The responses, submitted by private developers, shaped the physical plan and zoning that were finalized by city agencies and approved by City Council."

So EDC "vision" is one that isn't really an internalized world view; but is simply a refection of private sector interests-which in turn is internalized and refracted into a public interest veneer. The way in which the corporation is a revolving door into the real estate sector underscores this interest co-optation process: "Below the executives is a legion of mostly young professionals who enter and exit through EDC's revolving doors as they learn the ropes and discover that the real power and money is with the companies with whom the agency is supposed be a partner."

But, as Angotti lays out, this real estate-EDC symbiosis eschews any real urban planning: "While the New York City Planning Department boasts of having done more than 100 rezonings since 2002, these only change regulations, while EDC actually negotiates the deals with major developers that determine what gets built. EDC's planning is always limited to the individual project and does not necessarily extend to neighborhoods or the city as a whole. But neighborhood-level and citywide planning rarely occurs in this city. Unlike other major U.S. cities, New York has never had a comprehensive master plan except for a 1969 draft that never even received a hearing at the City Planning Commission."

Everything that EDC does, it does on a project by project basis, which tends to minimize what potentially are negative-and cumulative-community impacts; as we have seen in both the Willets Point and Flushing Commons developments. Underscoring the manner in which the EDC entity is a refraction of private sector interests is the corporation's business model: "Though entirely under the mayor's control, EDC is set up to work more like a private corporation than a city agency. The mayor appoints its directors without having to worry about incidentals such as unions and civil service regulations. EDC boasts that it promotes "public service with a private sector culture," and has an "operational flexibility" that leaves it free from many of the agency rules and procedures that often hold back innovation and change."

EDC then radiates its real estate clientts' interests-something that can be seen clearly by its reliance on consultants-no competitive bidding, please-that themselves are reflections of those same private interests: "One of EDC's most impressive powers is its ability to contract out studies and planning without having to go through competitive bidding or rely on the city's experienced professional staff." This jaundiced reality is highlighted by a consultant culture that avoids any real evaluation of collateral damages-reflecting the developer press release world view of collateral benefits all the time.

As a result, we have a de-facto planning process that not only doesn't plan, but when it embarks on promoting development through its parasitical city agency marionettes, it does so in a thoroughly dishonest Master of the House manner-rooking the guests, and cooking the books. Since it totally dominates the data collection process, it can simply overwhelm the opposition-whether in the city council or in the community.

But by doing so, great damage is done to the democratic planning process-and communities are effectively red lined out of any control over their neighborhoods. Efficiency and narrow private interests flood the planning process at the expense of a different and less selfish public interest. It is high time that the corporation had its sails trimmed-after all, making sure that the trains run on time for the priviledged few shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of urban planning.