Friday, March 04, 2011

Deceit Suits EDC

We are now coming close to the moment of truth for EDC, the city's rogue development agency-as WPU's lawsuit is getting ready to challenge its illegal bait and switch tactics. The NY Daily News along with the Flushing Times) lays out the imminent legal battle: "The stage has been set for a legal battle between Willets Point property and business owners versus the city. Willets Point United is preparing to file two lawsuits against the city, attorneys for the group said. One challenges its use of eminent domain to wipe the slate clean for developers in the gritty industrial zone and another claims the city skipped key regulatory steps to fast-track the project."

What the suits will dramatize  is the city's disregard for regulatory procedures and the basic tenets of the environmental quality review act-not to mention the lobbying and not for profit laws that started this whole process with an illegal foundation: "Noted environmental attorney Michael Gerrard, who is also representing Willets Point United, said the redevelopment cannot start until the ramps off the Van Wyck Expressway are built. But McKnight said the ramps are not needed until the first phase of the development is completed. After Gerrard read his statement, he looked to McKnight and said, "We will see you in court," prompting cheers from dozens in the audience."

EDC's assertions about the non essential nature of the ramps will be at the heart of the challenge-and all of the agency's technical memoranda that have been set forth to justify its position on this crucial variable lack one important feature: any supporting data. To our view, that's not especially surprising-this is one agency that should stay away from data generation, if its initial faulty traffic submissions to the state DOT are any indication.

And the team of Gerrard and Brian Ketcham will attack the illegal segmentation that is at the core of EDC's bait and switch: "All of their documentation shows it's a single project for which the ramps are needed," Gerrard told the Daily News after his testimony." But the EDC switcheroo should concern all of the stakeholders who were gathered together back in 2008 to support the project. If we remember back, we saw how numerous labor unions came to city hall to endorse the Willets Point project-citing concessions that, if the current EDC behavior is a guide, don't amount to a hill of beans. Our advice to some of our friends: Don't try to cash any Bloomberg promissory notes.

This chapter in the Willets Point saga was captured by the Daily News' Juan Gonzales: "Some of New York's biggest union leaders lined up on the steps of City Hall Thursday to cheer Mayor Bloomberg's new mega development plan - the $3 billion Willets Point project in Queens. One after another, they gave glowing praise to one more giveaway to real estate developers - one that had been opposed by a majority of the City Council. The labor leaders touted the "historic" concessions on future jobs at Willets Point they claim to have secured from City Hall in return for backing the project."

The essence of a verbal contract, it seems to us. But what is really striking in the Gonzales piece is the accompanying photo of  none other than Claire Shulman-something that will also become an important aspect of the WPU challenge: "We're going to show how unfair this whole process has been," said Michael Rikon, one of the lawyers representing the group. Rikon said his firm completed a 62-page report yesterday detailing numerous problems with the redevelopment push at Willets Point, a 61-acre area known as the Iron Triangle currently filled with auto repair shops...Rikon's report includes what he called "an illegal lobbying effort by the mayor to use funds to sway the City Council into voting for the Willets Point project." Rikon was referring to the city's funding of a group headed by former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman to lobby lawmakers. In July 2009, Shulman's group was fined a record $59,090 because Shulman forgot to register as a lobbyist."

If we go back to that period we find that opposition to the development was beginning to really coalesce-and it was Shulman's illegal lobbying effort that brought the labor muscle into the equation; a factor that became the linchpin of the political turn around that eventually saw the project win the support of the council. Without labor, and the role that Shulman played in galvanizing its support, WPU would likely not be in the position it finds itself today-in fact, it is quite possible that the group wouldn't even exist if the project failed to gain council approval.

WPU's Rikon will also focus on EDC's invidious treatment of the property owners-as the Queens Tribune reports: "...Rikon plans to argue against the EDC's handling of property buy-outs. The process, which Rikon said should be numerically equitable in terms of price per square foot, has been stilted in favor of larger property owners - ones Rikon claims the City targeted in order to quickly reach its greater-than-50-percent target of ownership."

So, if this is an end game, the end ain't coming anytime soon. And the more that WPU uncovers-through FOIL and discovery-the more all of the city will be treated to the underhanded manner in which this rogue EDC element operates. Not everyone gets a second act in life, but in this case the property owners at Willets Point will be the exception. We feel strongly that this will not end well for the powers that be-and the mayor's legacy, whatever that is, will be forever tarnished by what has transpired during this entire process.