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Bloomberg may be pro-development, but it's much more than that: it's an idée fixe

Former New York Times columnist Joyce Purnick, the author of Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics (PublicAffairs, 2009), the first book-length biography of Michael R. Bloomberg, has been asked twice about Atlantic Yards and/or development, and her answer deserves scrutiny.

From the New York Times's CityRoom blog

Question: Why does Mayor Bloomberg continue to support Atlantic Yards when the supposed public benefits, especially the affordable housing will not be available until decades in the future, or never?

— Posted by SteveFtGreene


Answer: His argument: Economic development is good for the economy. It puts people to work, it generates tax revenues so the city can build more moderately priced housing and spend on other services. That is what he would say if you asked him. Others, and not only opponents of the Atlantic Yards project, don’t see it that way, to put it mildly.

Bloomberg's idée fixes

But Bloomberg's posture goes well beyond a basic philosophy; it entails (take your pick) loyalty to a certain developer class, unswerving support once he's announced it, and an unwillingness to do the math you'd think a billionaire businessman would feel comfortable doing.

When confronted with evidence from a New York City Independent Budget Office report that the Atlantic Yards arena would be a money-loser for the city, Bloomberg said, according to the Observer:
“I don’t know what the IBO studies would have shown back when they tried to establish the value of Central Park or Prospect Park or anything else,” he told reporters. “These are the kinds of projects you have to do because without that we don’t have a future, and we’re going to get this one done.”

In a January 2004 radio interview, he claimed erroneously that "any city monies of any meaningful size will be debt issues financed by the extra tax revenues that come from this."

As it happens, the IBO, whatever the limits of its report on AY, has done a far more thorough and honest job than the New York City Economic Development Corporation or Empire State Development Corporation, which have produced economic benefit studies that ignore or downplay subsidies and public costs.

On Brian Lehrer

The issue came up yesterday during an interview with Purnick on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show, at about 21:58.

JP: There is no question and, he would be the first to say it, that Mike Bloomberg is pro-development.

BL: And what you wrote in the book is that he sees development as a developer would see it, not as an urban planner would see it.

JP: Precisely. He is a businessman. He looks at the bottom line. I said to him: so much development, when do you say it's overdevelopment?... He wasn't too happy to answer... He said: Who do you think--how do you think we pay the teachers? Where do you think we get that money from? As he sees it, it's cause and effect. You hire more teachers, you want to improve the schools, you gotta pay for it. How are you going to pay for it? It's going to be taxation and it's going to be letting developers develop. That is how he sees it. And pay taxes.

Presumably Purnick's last sentence was a reference to increased taxes from development. Except projects like Atlantic Yards are so larded with tax breaks that a candid analysis calls the benefits into question.

Mayors and real estate

JP: Let me also say that... this is an evergreen in New York. I do not remember a mayor... who was not challenged on this issue.

BL: Or a development project that the neighbors liked.

JP: Exactly. Every mayor I could think of has been charged with being pro-developer... it's a forever question.

Fair enough--though surely the balance has shifted among mayors.

The issue's inevitable because real estate is to New York what oil is to Texas. Mayors in other cities can survive without being deemed pro-developer.

The curious thing is that Bloomberg, as a billionaire, was the first New York mayoral candidate who was not beholden to the real estate industry. A maverick billionaire might be aloof from the real estate industry. Not this one.

Comments

  1. It seems to me that an important distinction is being overlooked in this conversation (at least the one between Purnick and BL):

    It's one thing to be pro-development, in the sense of being in favor of doing away with overly restrictive zoning rules, etc., and it's another thing to be pro-development in the sense of being in favor of providing public subsidies for certain select private developments.

    The former is pro-marketplace (and is how NYC became a great city), and the latter is a corruption of the marketplace and is likely to be an eventual drag on the NYC economy (due to the political nature of the way such a process works).

    Jane Jacobs talks a lot about this kind of corruption in her book "Systems of Survival." As I read it, she is saying (very roughly summarized here)businessmen should stick to being businessmen (and should not try to unduly influence gov't functions) and politicians should stick to running the gov't (e.g., police, fire, schools, roads, etc.) and not get overly involved in private businesses. The best way for government to help the economy is doing a good job of government: good roads, good schools, etc.

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