Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Noticing New York's critique of major projects, and the path not taken of site preparation (at Hudson Yards and AY)

If you want a one-stop critique of megadevelopments and major projects in New York City, go to Michael D.D. White's latest Noticing New York post, headlined UN-FUNNY VALENTINES ARRIVING LATE: YOUR COMMUNITY INTERESTS AT HEART.

There White takes on stadium projects, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Columbia University expansion, the Rudin/St. Vincent’s Real Estate Deal, and a whole lot more. Atlantic Yards, not surprisingly, is deemed "Poster Child For Everything Developmentally Bad."

Site preparation + stimulus

But probably the most resonant observation regarding AY comes in the segment White devotes to the Hudson Yards project, to be built on railyards that require some very expensive platforms. (The Vanderbilt Yard, less than 40% of the AY site, also would require a platform but not one as extensive.)

White observes:
If the government (as opposed to a private developer) was preparing the site it would not be necessary to postpone the site’s preparation at this time. Site preparation during the current economic downturn might even be cheaper. As it would be a public work, it would arguably be in the running for funding through federal stimulus, an important part of that being that the prepared parcels would later be bid out. But stimulus money cannot be given to a private developer already signed onto the deal because it would totally change the equation based upon which the developer bid to pay the public a low amount for the site. Used that way, the money would eliminate the risk developer assumed and constitute an award of enormous private benefit to the developer without bid.

The same would be true regarding Atlantic Yards, despite Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's push for federal stimulus money for the railyard.

Public investment

White observes:
Would the current change in the economy resulting in the devloper's default have made it possible at this point to switch over and have the government prepare the site, especially as time now seems to have borne out that this would have been the better way to proceed in the first place? Yes, the developer missing its payments presented precisely this valuable opportunity. BUT that is exactly what the administration elected NOT to do when, instead, it extended the developer’s rights to the 26 acres.

Extending the developer’s rights seems consistent with a city administration bias, as exprssed by the adminstration itself, to bequeath extended monopoly rights to individual large developers for large swaths of acreage that they will have on an “unfolding” basis “across many years” and “economic cycles” no matter the “various economic conditions” encountered along the way. Why does the Bloomberg administration do this? Is there benefit to this particular administration’s making single large, unstructured and inchoate bequests that apply for decades going out, thus sidestepping multiple opportunities for bids and checkpoints on accountability going forward into the future? By their very nature these arrangements limit participation in ownership of the city only to the very largest developers, and the arrangement works out only if the very large developers happen to remain solvent for longer than many people’s careers.


Loss of the public realm

White concludes
Strip things down to their core and you find that something is being sold. What is being sold is what belongs to public. Sometimes it is referred to as the “public realm.” That means such things as the right not to have our streets and avenues closed and sold off, the right to our historic neighborhoods, the right to good urban design, livable density and the right not to have our parks or amusement areas like Coney Island given away for development or speculative purchase. Real estate taxes should be paid by everyone, without special friends of the mayor being excused or allowed to intercept those moneys for their own private use and benefit. Subsidies which come out of the public’s general funds (once those taxes have been collected) should not be made special and piled on the mayor’s favorites.

Government’s function should be to protect the public interest, not to sell off the public’s assets. Government functions should not be privatized and handed out to developers whose interest is adverse to the public. Eminent domain should be the public’s special and rarely used tool for those special public improvement the public itself creates and owns. It shouldn’t be handed out for private use by developers to enrich themselves however they chose by accumulating and owning more of the city.


The next mayoral race?

White muses:
All of this provokes the thought: If all our communities have similar interests in common then, collectively, these communities are in the majority. As a potentially powerful majority with common concerns at heart, there is no reason for our communities to be losing the fights to the mayor that they are. Or does the reasoning run that we must put up with this perpetual selling off of the public realm because Bloomberg is, in other respects, such a good mayor? Would one argue, as some do, that Bloomberg is needed as a mayor because his financial acumen is critical to the city? But the answer to that is the reverse. Just as the mayor has been squandering public realm assets by selling them off to the big real estate developers throughout the city, Bloomberg has also conducted the city’s finances in a squandering city-fiscal-health-debilitating way.

However, on issues of development, Bloomberg's major challengers (so far), Rep. Anthony Weiner and Comptroller Bill Thompson, haven't launched a significant critique and likely won't do so; they're also dependent on the same forces.

Longshot candidate Tony Avella, perhaps, will be the only person to raise the critique.

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