Friday, February 18, 2011

Neither Hindsight nor Oversight is 20/20 at the City Council

We have been highlighting the compelling need for the city council to exercise-and regain-its oversight role over the development at Willets Point. Put simply, the legislature was snookered by EDC and the city when it abdicated its land use oversight role by approving a project that lacked any specificity-or, better yet, even a developer. The money quote comes from former land use committee chair, Melinda Katz: "Well, just so it's clear, my issue in the last hearing and this one is clearly that if we do the ULURP process first, it takes the New York City Council out of the process as we move forward. It historically is not done that way. Historically we do the RFP first, the developer is chosen, then you do the ULURP process..."
Having given the mayor carte blanche in 2008, there is little the council can now do to oversee what actually does get put into those 62 acres at the Iron Triangle-a Walmart, perhaps, or an unwanted developer like Related. Now, however, EDC has unwittingly provided the council with a way out of its self imposed dilemma. By going back on its pledge to hold off on any eminent domain use until the Van Wyck ramps were approved-and initiating a new development scheme not previously vetted by SEQR at the same time-EDC has opened the door to a city council revisit.
But opening the door apparently does not insure that the council will actually walk through it-and our efforts are foundering because of the reluctance of some council members to re-open the Willets Point can of worms. Which reminds us of Ibsen's great drama, "An Enemy of the People." For those unfamiliar, the plot revolves around a righteous local Doctor Stockman who discovers that the village spa-a tourist attraction and key economic stimulus for the town-is contaminated. He goes to the village leaders expecting that they will close the facility down, only to be greeted by hostility-and the good whistle blowing doctor is eventually run right out of town.
And so it goes with Willets Point United-and the irony here is that, while it is Willets Point that stands accused of contamination, it is the EDC and its environmental consultants who have contaminated the review process-breaking their word and proffering tainted data to the regulatory authorities. When the egregious breach of trust is brought before the council, some of the village elders became resentful-not wanting to expose the duplicity of those who came before it lacking in honesty and integrity.
Which brings us right to the nub of all this-a phony, "Phase I," along with disappearing Van Wyck ramps that appear as appetizing as mystery meat at the school cafeteria. The Flushing Times has the story:
"Lipsky and Avella said the move to initiate the eminent domain process violates statements by the city in court documents indicating that it would wait until after a pending state Department of Transportation review of ramps on the Van Wyck Expressway. Lipsky, who represents Willets Point property owners, and Avella contend the ramps must be built to handle the 80,000 extra car trips per day they say the project will create.

“They’ve worked long and hard to develop their businesses and they serve the greater Queens and New York City community. The city now wants to take their property,” Avella said at the protest last week. “[The EDC] made a commitment — because there’s an issue with the ramps the state DOT has not approved what the city is suggesting — that until that issue is resolved they would not proceed with eminent domain. Well, guess what? Once again the Economic Development Corp. has lied, has lied to these business owners, lied to the elected officials and lied to the people of this city.”
But it is not only the owners who have been lied to-and the council should be taking umbrage over this insulting end run. But it doesn't appear to. It should, not only to protect its own integrity and oversight role, but to stand up for the small businesses being threatened by EDC's tactics.
Just read Tom Angotti's seminal study of the area: "The Willets Point triangle is an active business district with 225 firms and an estimated, 1400-1,800 jobs." That a lot of small businesses-and they aren't theoretical straw men-they are real life folks who are threatened with extinction.
Put as simply as possible, the EDC claim that the ramps are unnecessary should be the red flag: "The EDC maintains that proceeding with the first phase of the project does not require building the ramps. The first phase of the project is expected to include 1.3 million square feet of development, including affordable housing, retail, a hotel, 2 acres of open space and necessary infrastructure improvements."
How much traffic will this generate, no one really knows? Inquiring minds want to know if the spa's contaminated. Here's hoping that the request for an inquiry doesn't end up with all of WPU's Dr. Stockmans being run out of town.