Monday, February 14, 2011

Willets Point and EDC Dishonesty: The Compelling Need for Legislative Oversight

We have been commenting on the actions by EDC regarding development of Willets Point-and the two key issues revolve around the need to gain approval of ramps off of the Van Wyck prior to any development; and the promise to the city council (one contained in the FGEIS) that there would be no condemnation action until the ramps had been approved. This latter point was because of the city council's concern that a premature condemnation action would create a, "New London situation," whereby the properties in question would have been condemned but lay fallow because the development couldn't proceed.

What follows is a summary of the key oversight issues:
(1) EDC has decided that it can develop Willets Point without the ramps that it has always said are essential to the project;
(2) The agency spent millions of dollars devising a ramp report for NYS DOT so that an expeditious approval could be garnered to build theses ramps;
(3) When Willets Point United challenged the efficacy and veracity of the EDC consultants on the ramps, the DOT forced them back to the drawing board for a revised ramp report;
(4) That was over 15 months ago, and as the NY Times has reported diligently, the revised report was not received by the DOT with open arms-particularly after WPU's Brian Ketcham had so thoroughly discredited it;
(5) In October, it was made clear to us by DOT that a revised ramp report and environmental assessment would be available and subject to a hearing process in the near term. EDC stonewalled showing the documents to WPU;
(6) Three months passed with no news until last week when EDC went to the WSJ to announce that it was going to commence building Phase I of the Willets Point development without the ramps-that were deemed unnecessary for this initial phase;
(7) No aspect of the original development plan, or the concomitant EIS, envisioned doing any development without ramps off of the Van Wyck;
(8) In testimony before the city council and in a court affidavit, Deputy Mayor Lieber said that there would be no acquisition of property via eminent domain until ramps are approved;
(9) EDC has scheduled an EDPL hearing (eminent domain) for March the 2nd;
(10) There is no developer or any concrete development plan for Willets Point and the city has drastically cut back its capital spending-yet the Bloomberg administration will need to spend billions of dollars to buy out existing businesses and insure infrastructure and remediation for Willets Point. This is reminiscent of what happened in New London after Suzette Kelo house was taken-the land there lies fallow and the city is out around $100 million.
The original Times coverage of Willets Point-post city council approval-was Ray Rivera's stories about how the city paid Claire Shulman's not for profit $500,000  to lobby for the project-an  almost prima facie violation of the law that proscribes lobbying for this kind of entity. Rivera followed up with the news that then AG Cuomo had launched an investigation of this ostensibly illegal lobbying. No conclusion to the investigation has been reached and, as we all know, Cuomo has moved on. But in our view this was an early indication that EDC was not going to scrupulously adhere to either law or ethics in its desire to promote a development of Willets Point.
Fernanda Santos followed up by exposing the rough give and take between EDC and state DOT-and a subsequent email revealed that NYC transportation commissioner Sadik-Khan apparently was threatening DOT because of the agency's alleged foot dragging. The following email is from Region 1 director Eng to then commissioner Gee: "JSK noted that she will be sending me a letter holding me personally responsible for holding the Willets Pt project hostage. I'm okay with that as we need to ensure that we have thoroughly reviewed the issues and that they are resolved satisfactorily. I told her that we need to have our staff meet (sometime next week) including NYMTC and go over the concerns raised by the city and bring them to a resolution."
Now, however, all of this time and effort on the ramps is being discarded in order to go to a Phase I that has never been vetted by anyone at the city council or DOT. But why has EDC radically shifted gears? In our view, it is because WPU has stymied it on the ramps and the agency needs not only to make an end run of the ramp process, but regain momentum lost by our derailing of the ramp approvals.
In addition, there are some serious questions over whether EDC can legally precede in this way without first obtaining ramp approvals. As WPU's legal counsel stated in a letter to the agency, the city has maintained that it would not proceed with condemnation before the ramps were approved-and the city council relied on this representation in the FEIS as a precondition of its approval.
The representation contained within the FGEIS, that eminent domain would not be used until after ramps are approved, was relied upon by Council members when evaluating the key PUBLIC POLICY QUESTION of when eminent domain is justified. Recall the great controversy during ULURP surrounding the use of eminent domain for this project, and the repeated expressions by Council members of concern regarding eminent domain for economic development purposes. Council members sought assurances that condemnation in Willets Point would not result in the same sort of vacant lots that now exist in New London, post-Kelo.
The representation within the FGEIS, that eminent domain would not be used until state and federal ramp approvals are obtained (thereby making it permissible to actually implement the development described within the FGEIS) made it more likely that New London-type vacancies would not result from condemnation in Willets Point.
Now all of this is forgotten as EDC-with the city flat broke-desperately looks for a way to salvage this white elephant of a project. This is a scandal, and a reckless development agency that began with illegally paying a not for profit to lobby itself, now looks to disregard all of its prior assurances and representations to the city council and the court in order to promote a project it simply doesn’t have the money to pay for.