Tuesday, March 01, 2011

EDC's Day of Reckoning

On Wednesday, the city is holding what we believe to be an illegal eminent domain hearing-which, if true, wouldn't surprise any one who has followed the Willets Point saga over the past few years. After all, when NYC government can begin the development process by illegally hiring a local development corporation to lobbying its behalf, then all the illegality that follows shouldn't be shocking. But it actually is.

Yesterday the NY Times focused in on Willets Point and underscored the extent to which the little guys are being hosed:

"Two years ago, as the mayor attended the Mets’ home opener at the new Citi Field, Adrien Nicolescue, an auto mechanic from Romania, joined a procession of honking garbage trucks to protest the city’s plans to condemn the nearby Willets Point area and build a $3 billion project of apartments, office buildings, stores, restaurants and a hotel. But as his comrades geared up for another showdown with the mayor at a public hearing on the project scheduled for Wednesday, Mr. Nicolescue decided to pack up and leave. “I am going home, back to Romania,” he said, standing on the same pothole-pocked corner of Willets Point where he has been drawing in customers for windshield repairs for 36 years. Willets Point, in Queens, is a 61-acre expanse of junkyards and auto-repair shops so squalid that local business owners compare it to Iraq. “I don’t want to leave,” Mr. Nicolescue said, “but I have nowhere to go. This may look like the third world, but it is my world.”

The Times continues: "But opponents of the Bloomberg plan counter that the project is speculative and environmentally unsound. They insist that the area, however bedraggled, has become an Ellis Island of sorts for a newly arriving underclass that depends on it to get by. They also complain bitterly that the city is shutting down thriving small businesses that have nowhere else to go."

But the efforts of Willets Point United have so far stymied EDC is its land grab-and the group will soon be arguing in court that a process that began with the illegal lobbying of Claire Shulman has now degenerated even further with the city's efforts to avoid complying with the original terms of the environmental review that was the basis for the city council's approval in 2008. Nothing is more exemplary of the corrupt nature of the process than the discriminatory manner that EDC has used against the smaller property owners-nothing more egregious than the treatment of Flushing Towing's Carlos Canal.

EDC's jaundiced outlook is given exposure by the Times: "City officials estimate that Willets Point is home to 255 businesses, which employ about 1,700 people, some in sheds made of tin or cinder blocks. Of 74 property owners, 28 have agreed to sell their land or relocate, city officials say; the city already owns 90 percent of the property where the first five-year phase of development would go."

Do the math. Less than half of the property owners have settled with the city, but that represents the largest percentagee of the property-which means that, since EDC has yet to negotiate with the others, the city has looked to buy off the big guys with sweetheart deals, and have the luxury to bully the little folks, who are treated as little more than bugs on the EDC microscope. How else to explain no negotiations in over two years with the majority of all of the property owners?

Think of it, though. There are 1700 workers at Willets Point that will soon have no place to go if this corrupt deal goes forward-and if you believe that the city will sincerely work to relocate these folks, just ask all of the Bronx Terminal market wholesalers who were treated with disdain by EDC, scattered to the four winds, as it made that property available to Related in a no bid conveyance. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

The illegality of the EDC condemnation effort will be subject to a vigorous legal challenge-but not one that rests exclusively on the eminent domain issue. How could it? There is no protection for property owners under NY law, so this challenge will be based on the EDC's violation of the environmental laws it promised to uphold, but didn't as soon as  the going got too tough. Here's where the fabled Mike Gerrard comes in.

rGerard will file suit on WPU's behalf on the following grounds-and in his own words:

            "1.  The City’s proposed actions violate binding pledges that the City previously made to the New York Supreme Court, on which the Court relied.

            2.  The City’s proposed actions amount to segmentation, which is impermissible under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) and City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR).

            3.  The City’s failure to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement violates SEQRA and CEQR.

            4.  The City’s proposed actions are a violation of federal law -- the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

            As a result of these numerous violations of law, my clients Willets Point  United and individual property owners who are members of WPU plan to institute legal action against the City in New York Supreme Court."

As Gerrard goes on to point out-referencing the misrepresentations of then Deputy Mayor Lieber to the court: "...the City represented to the court, in a sworn affidavit, that it would not take my clients’ property by eminent domain until the FHWA has approved the ramps.  Counsel to the City told the court at oral argument that the project cannot proceed unless the ramps are approved.  The court relied on these representations.  They are binding on the City."

So, in our view, this EDPL hearing is nothing but a sham-as EDC tries to salvage progress on the Willets Point development out of its ineptitude over failing to garner approval for the Van Wyck ramps. It is a fitting culmination-a cherry on the sundae-to an entire process characterized by abuse and illegality.

We'll give Willets Point United's Ralph St. John the last word-but EDC hasn't heard the last from WPU by any means: "Meanwhile, some small business owners are frustrated that their neighbors are getting lucrative deals from the city and they are not. Ralph St. John, whose company has built apartment buildings and parks for the city for nearly 20 years, said he had been offered nothing, and that his 18 employees would lose their jobs if he were forced to leave. City officials said that Mr. St. John’s land was not earmarked for development in the first phase, and that by the time the city was ready to make a deal with him, his land would probably have increased in value. But Mr. St. John, who is 77, does not want to live in limbo.

“If you want what I got, act like a man and come face me,” he said. “Don’t use eminent domain and steal from me.”