Friday, October 30, 2009

Pechefsky challenges 39th CD frontrunner Lander on AY, but differences are small; will Council hold the AY hearing Lander seeks?

David Pechefsky (right), the Green Party candidate for the 39th City Council District, may be a long-shot, but he's run a lively campaign, most notably challenging Democratic frontrunner Brad Lander (below, left) on the role of the Council and, secondarily, on Atlantic Yards.

Indeed, while Pechefsky critiques Lander for not having a plan to stop the project, neither does Pechefsky, though he contends that, should the City Council be able to block additional or approved-but-not-delivered funding, the project could be hampered.

Rather, Pechefsky's candidacy speaks more to reforming the City Council budget process (including member items), thus challenging a candidate like Lander who would represent a mostly progressive constituency but must also play nice with the power structure.

Indeed, both say Atlantic Yards should be scrapped (see position statements below) though Lander long took a more Brooklyn Speaks-ish position on AY, initially stating on his web site that "we should use the opportunity to either fix the flaws or reconsider the project."

Under pressure from primary rival Josh Skaller, Lander in May toughened his position. He also said he supports recent lawsuits against the project organized by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn and has financially supported DDDB. (Pechefsky participated in the recent DDDB walkathon; Lander had another commitment.)

City Council hearing?

Given that Lander likely will win, perhaps the bigger question is whether he can get the City Council's Economic Development Committee, which previously held hearings on Atlantic Yards, to hold an oversight hearing, as he seeks, on city spending regarding the project.

"It is reasonably likely that--working together with Letitia James (and any other council members who might be interested)--we would be able to arrange for a hearing," Lander told me, after acknowledging that the fate of the project might be resolved by the time new Council Members take office. "Circumstances have, as you know, shifted dramatically since City funds were first committed. City residents and taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent (or is planned to be spent, or if there aren't clear plans for how it will be spent), and I believe we will be able to have such a hearing."

That, of course, would have to get the blessing of the Speaker, likely Christine Quinn, who's an Atlantic Yards supporter. Pechefsky, who called the oversight hearing "a good idea," suggests Lander should use his vote for Speaker as leverage to ensure that that hearing happens, even though he acknowledges it may not be prudent to go public about their negotiation strategies.

Pechefsky's challenge

In an advertisement in the Courier-Life last week (right) and a press release, Pechefsky said the Council could have refused to vote for a budget that included $200 million for AY.

Actually, it was $100 million one year and $105 million in an other, with no opportunity to vote on specific elements of the budget.

The first $100 million was allocated to land purchases, while the rest was dedicated to infrastructure, with much but not all is in the process of being spent, though, given $7 million for the Sixth Avenue Bridge that no longer needs reconstruction, there's certainly room for oversight.

Pechefsky, who worked in three stints as an analyst for the Council, thinks the budget should be disaggregated, and Lander--who said he opposes any additional city funding for AY--agrees.

Not that there's a consensus in Council--or a push from good-government groups--to do so. Pechefsky goes further: "This is why Brad should make reform a priority. If you had a vote in committee on EDC's capital budget for example (even non-binding), you would have a chance to lobby your colleagues to support you. It might turn out that you could get a majority of the committee to side with you or even a significant minority and then the Speaker would have to respond."

"But as it stands, the question was never called," he said. "There was no real opportunity for the Council Members to show whether they supported Council Member James in her opposition to AY or not. Or whether they thought that the best way to use a $100 million in capital $ was to subsidize AY or not. "

Then again, Pechefsky's run into his own roadblocks. In the fall of 2006, he said, he looked at the real estate investment analysis for the project and found it dubious, given overoptimistic assumptions about rental rates and condo prices, but "it went up the foodchain, and the decision was not to go further." (He wasn't involved in the Atlantic Yards opposition until recently, Pechefsky said, because of his work at the Council.)

In the debate

In a recent televised debate moderated by Brooklyn Paper editor Gersh Kuntzman, Pechefsky praised Lander's achievements and resume but said anyone running as a Democrat represents the status quo, given the need to reform such things as the process for delivering member items.

There was very little discussion of AY, until the end, and no mention of the project in the Brooklyn Paper article.

Disagreeing with de Blasio

At about 60 minutes in, the candidates were allowed to ask each other questions, and Nardiello asked Lander what current Council Member Bill de Blasio did wrong.

While Lander said he'd agreed with de Blasio on several topics, he said, "I disagreed with him on development issues," citing Superfund for the Gowanus Canal and Atlantic Yards.

Moderator Gersh Kuntzman, pressed for time, tried shorthand: "He supported Atlantic Yards."

"And I did not," responded Lander, which, while true--he never supported it--doesn't capture the nuance. "Broadly, he has had too much of a pro-development approach."

But de Blasio has not been pro-development because, like Mayor Mike Bloomberg, he thinks like a developer (to quote his biographer, Joyce Purnick). Rather, de Blasio has been pro-development because his supporters in unions and the affordable housing community, like ACORN, have been pro-development.

Lander, endorsed by the Working Families Party, has some of the same supporters. (Then again, the WFP also endorsed anti-AY Council Member Letitia James.) So he likely will feel some pressure if he maintains his stated agenda on Atlantic Yards.

Pechefsky on AY

From Pechefsky's web site: What is your position on Atlantic Yards?
The project proposed by Forest City Ratner should never have been supported by the City and State to begin with. In general, public subsidies for sports stadiums are a bad idea and this is just one of the issues in this case. When I was working at the City Council, I looked at the numbers on the affordable housing component of the project and they didn't add up then, in 2006. Even with just a cooling down of the real estae market let alone the kind of downturn we are experiencing, based on the information I had it looked like the affordable housing was unlikely to get built without additional and wasteful public subsidies. The fact that a rigorous real estate investment analysis was never done, or least not made public, is part of the problem.

When the City Council is faced with projects of the Atlantic Yards type it needs to push for the Mayor to truly justify the project on a cost-benefit basis and to substantiate the projects viability. The Council also needs to have independent analytical capability to question the Mayor's numbers.

The Council could have stood up to the Mayor and made it clear that it would vote against a City Capital Budget including funding for Atlantic Yards unless a substantially different approach to the planning and implementation of development in the area was taken. That it did not speaks to the need to reform the Council's budget process.

But putting that aside, what do we do with Atantic Yards now? In short, I think we need to start over. The government deals with Ratner should be cancelled and city government needs to show leadership in supporiting a community planning process that is as inclusive as possible.

I put this entry under "Neighborhood Life" because the City's land use and economic development policy must not be made without consideration for the existing character of neighborhoods. Questions about what makes a neighborhood and who speaks for a neighborhood are complicated, but they are ones that policy makers must grapple with and money should not be allowed to do all the talking.
Pechefsky elsewhere on his web site states:
On the capital side, was it better to put money in the capital budget for Atlantic Yards ($200 million) or Yankee Stadium ($150 million) than for MTA capital projects? There remains no clear plan in place to meet the MTA’s projected capital needs. In its 2008 -2013 capital plan the cost of station rehabilitations was budgeted at an average cost of around $30 million per station; so, by way of comparison, the AY and Yankee Stadium subsidies could have gone to rehab about 10 – 12 stations. The benefits of the projects in the Mayor’s capital budget should be evaluated in comparison to the benefits of public transportation projects.
Lander on AY

Lander places his AY comments under the rubric "Preserving Livable Neighborhoods: Atlantic Yards":
Brad was one of the earliest critics of the proposed Atlantic Yards development. In 2005 he co-authored one of the first planning analyses of the project, criticizing its massive scale, its poor urban design that creates a barrier between neighborhoods and privatizes the open space, its wanton overreliance of subsidies, its failure to plan for traffic and transportation impacts, and its skirting of the City's land use review process.

In 2007, Brad helped to find and close an additional $100 million loophole that Forest City Ratner was seeking through changes to the City’s 421-a property tax program.

Now, the timeline is delayed and the project's future is uncertain. It is unclear whether the project will include the promised affordable housing or the office space (which is the main generator of tax revenue). We still do not have a genuine public assessment of the subsidies, costs, and benefits of the project. The NYC Independent Budget Office has suggested that changes in the project may make it a money-loser for the taxpayers, and has raised questions about whether the land value of the site is being manipulated to generate phantom taxes that Forest City Ratner can use to pay their debts.

That is why it is time to go back to the drawing-board. The Empire State Development Corporation, the MTA, the City, and the State should cancel their deals with Forest City Ratner for non-compliance. The site is appropriate for significant development with mixed-income affordable housing, commercial and retail space, and good union jobs. But we must get there by respecting and building on the strengths of the surrounding communities ... not by locking them out of the process and ignoring their concerns.
Debate discussion

During the Brooklyn Paper debate, at about 47:25, Pechefsky talked about land use policy as part of a discussion of economic policy: "You look at the Atlantic Yards site, and there's one model there that's being pushed, in terms of towers and office space and chain stores, and then there's an alternative model, which would be smaller scale, mixed use, allows for some manufacturing. So certainly on land use the council also has a role to play, in promoting good jobs."

Lander said that all three candidates (including Republican Joe Nardiello) agreed that the city should do more to strengthen and preserve manufacturing: "[W]e've rezoned too much potential manufacturing space to allow condo development."

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