Saturday, April 30, 2011

At the Soapbox Gallery on Dean Street, some exhibits with Atlantic Yards reflections

The Soapbox Gallery, a window at 636 Dean Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues across from the interim surface parking lot planned to serve the Atlantic Yards arena, is hosting installations from 11 artists beginning today through June 23.

As indicated in the below press release, the installations April 3-May 7, May 15-May 21 (note that the description of Atlantic Yards is more than a tad incorrect), May 29-June 8 reflect on Atlantic Yards.

For the latter installation, as indicated in the second document, artist Elaine Angelopoulous seeks to borrow Atlantic Yards-related materials from neighborhood residents.Soapbox Press Release April-june Schedule-2

Flyer Layout With Text-1

The Brooklyn brand now extends to a store called "by Brooklyn"

The Brooklyn Paper points us to by Brooklyn, a new boutique focusing on Brooklyn-made products, just another stop on the road for the resilient and resurgent Brooklyn brand.

Will the "Brooklyn Nets" be seen as part of this brand, or, with every piece of the Barclays Center arena boasting a corporate logo, something alien?

Transit-oriented development? A developer (not Forest City Ratner) says parking minimums in dense districts near transit are unwise

Streetsblog has a very interesting interview with Alan Bell, co-founder of the Hudson Companies, about parking minimums (an issue under discussion in the PlaNYC revision):
Bell identified Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue as another design casualty of parking minimums, pointing to buildings like Boymelgreen Developers’ much-maligned Crest and Novo apartment buildings. The large buildings there were required to include parking, but subway lines under the street made putting it underground cost prohibitive. “[Boymelgreen] made the calculation that he’d rather sacrifice having retail on the ground floor in exchange for not putting the parking below ground, it was so expensive,” said Bell. The result is a series of buildings that are utterly indifferent to pedestrian life, presenting blank walls and parking to the sidewalk.

One solution Bell proposed is revising the zoning code so that parking minimums are eliminated in medium- or high-density districts near transit. Said Bell, “Historically, there’s no question, if I’m building near a subway stop, I’m going to attract a lot of people who don’t want a car or need a car. That’s proven in the marketplace.”

The Atlantic Yards angle

So why would Atlantic Yards have 2570 spaces intended for the project's residential component and an additional 1100 spaces for arenagoers?

(Those spaces are ultimately supposed to go underground, but the initial arena parking, as well as some of the residential parking, would remain indefinitely on surface lots.)

Because (take your pick):
  • high rollers going to arena suites want to drive
  • residents of luxury units want to drive too
  • Forest City Ratner didn't want to muck around with city policy
  • the city wasn't ready to change its policy
  • the state wasn't ready to override this aspect of city policy (unlike others)
  • nobody really thought through the notion of "transit-oriented development"

Friday, April 29, 2011

PlaNYC 2030, the questionable estimate of 1M more people, Morrone's history of erroneous NYC predictions, and the preservation movement

Will New York grow by a million people by 2030, the premise of Mayor Mike Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 sustainability effort? The latest statistics, growth of 2.1% over the past decade, suggest it's increasingly unlikely, though Bloomberg and others contest the numbers.

Still, the PlaNYC update should at least acknowledge the new numbers--but it hasn't, as Michael D. D. White points out in his Noticing New York blog:
Not only have the population projections not been changed in the plan... the old numbers remain firmly anchored in the plan.
A history of misplaced predictions

That got me thinking about the insightful keynote address given March 5 by historian, critic, and much-lauded guide Francis Morrone at the annual conference of the Historic Districts Council (HDC).

One theme of his address: over the past 40 years, the span of HDC's existence, many predictions have been way off. And though Morrone didn't mention PlaNYC, anyone listening would have another reason for skepticism.

Similarly, though Atlantic Yards is tangential to this discourse--the project has been justified, in part, because of the need to add density in light of population growth--we should be reminded (yet again) to take Atlantic Yards predictions with a grain of salt.

From the 1950s to the 1970s

Morrone reminded his audience that, in the 1950s, New York City was the pre-eminent world city by "every conceivable measurable criterion," including manufacturing, corporate headquarters, wholesale/retail sales, seaport activity, and cultural capital.

Predictions that the city would suffer a shortage of factory workers were way off. And, he noted:
New York City lost nearly a million people in the 1970s.

Today we are supposed to be planning for a city that will grow by more than a million by 2030. Yet 20 years before people started talking about "planned shrinkage," when New York had a preeminence among the cities of the world that no city in the history of the world had ever had, not a single expert, not one, predicted, or could have, the scale of the population loss. Something for us all to keep in mind when we hear expert projections.
Planned shrinkage

In 1976, the writer and housing expert Roger Starr promoted his theory of "planned shrinkage," in which the city would withdraw services to prepare for "doomsday," when the city went bankrupt.

And, during the 1977 World Series, broadcaster Howard Cosell famously told the TV audience, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning," the consequence--in Brooklyn, as well--of not only arson but also a fire department decimated by drastic cutbacks.

Morrone calls that de facto "planned shrinkage."

Gentrification, with crime

In the 1980s, "a paradoxical decade in New York," the Wall Street boom--and strategic investment by the mayor's office in both office districts and neighborhoods fueled gentrification in both Manhattan and the outer boroughs. Actually, crime continued to rise.

Observed Morrone:
Nothing amuses me more than when young commenters on the Brownstoner or Curbed blogs just presume that gentrification followed from the fall in crime. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pace of 1980s gentrification was torrid.
Misreading gentrification

City newcomers embraced urban life and, in doing so, fueled more wrong predictions, as Morrone recalled:
I remember that as these new residents began to buy up brownstones and co-ops in Park Slope, where I live, in the early 1980s, older residents of the neighborhood complained that the newcomers were all Double-Income-No-Kids, or DINK, families, and the neighborhood's traditional orientation toward families with children was disappearing. Once again, predictions proved preposterously false. The thing was, though, that neighborhoods like Park Slope--where by the early 1980s so much of the work of physical rehabilitation had already been carried out by the preceding generation of brownstone "pioneers"--emerged as the preferred bedroom communities for the workers--the "symbolic analysts" as Robert Reich called them--in the new economy. And that is where the preservation and--dare I say it--"rebranding" of the old neighborhoods seemed an integral part of the city's new economic direction.
The role of immigrants

He also pointed out that the city's revival since the 1970s depended significantly on "the third great immigrant wave," repopulating and reviving non-gentrified (at least then) neighborhoods like Jackson Heights in Queens and Sunset Park in Brooklyn,

A dismaying paradox remains today, as Morrone put it:
We have witnessed something of a return to the conditions of widespread substandard housing that prevailed in the city in the early 20th century. This time, though, for most affluent city residents, the problems of immigrant housing are even more off the radar than they were then.
And New York no longer provides sufficient housing options for the middle class:
This radical escalation of housing prices--outpacing the general inflation rate by many times--began in the 1980s, with a significant moderation between 1987 and 1992, only to begin anew and even exceed 1987 levels by the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. Remarkably, for all the talk of the housing bust since 2007 or 2008, the fall in property values has thus far not matched--in some places, such as Park Slope, not come close to matching--the previous fall.
That's a vexing question.

The Bloomberg impact


Morrone summarized the impact of the Bloomberg administration:
For all his power, he has not always had his way: New York failed to attract the Olympics, the mayor did not get congestion pricing, and so on. But his rezonings, his reorganization of the school system, and many of his other initiatives have been historic. Not least, he has continued the Giuliani administration's emphasis on livability issues, as the "rebranding"... of the city as the capital of finance and international business services continues. From the High Line to Brooklyn Bridge Park, from the painted malls of Broadway to the new bike lanes, to the scads of new luxury high-rise apartments, to the unprecedented activity in New York of the chicest of world architects, the New York of today--the present Great Recession notwithstanding--has become what the historian Fred Siegel dismissively calls "Luxury City."
(Here's the derivation of "luxury city.")

Preservation, decline, and development

Morrone pointed out that, even as poet Marianne Moore left Fort Greene in 1966, citing crime, people were moving into the neighborhood, and would launch efforts to preserve it, getting landmark designation.

Even then such efforts were misconstrued, as Morrone noted:
In the 1960s, as the preservation movement gained some momentum, Roger Starr, who served on the editorial board of the New York Times, wrote that in a city beset by such major problems as was New York, the preservation of old neighborhoods was at best quixotic, at worst dangerously irrelevant. Forty years later other commentators, such as the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, would argue that preservation had succeeded to the point where it threatened to erode the dynamism of a great world city. The preservationists got it coming, and they got it going.
In conclusion

Morrone concluded thusly, with a nod to his hosts:
One lesson to be drawn from our recent history is that predictions and projections, when they are made about something as complex as New York City, are more often wrong than right. One final example: The Times article on planned shrinkage from which I quoted specifically mentions Bushwick. Right now, on March 5, 2011, I guarantee that there is a senior at Oberlin, in his or her dorm, listening to Arcade Fire and dreaming of the day they can live in Bushwick.

But the most vital lesson is that we'd never have got here at all had not a hardy band of New Yorkers thought, in the city's bleakest moments, that the place was worth preserving.

ESDC announces extended working hours at the Vanderbilt Yard, beginning earlier, ending later, and adding Saturday work

The Empire State Development Corporation yesterday distributed a Supplemental Report to its bi-weekly Atlantic Yards Construction Update, announcing extended working hours at the site, beginning earlier and ending later, and also introducing Saturday work for at least three months:
The following section has been modified to include new information:

Long Island Rail Road/Vanderbilt Yard/ Carlton Avenue Bridge
New Information: commencing on May 2, 2011, yard construction hours will be: 6am – 4:30pm. In addition, beginning on Saturday May 7, 2011, construction work will take place on Saturdays during the hours of 7am – 5:30pm for a period of at least three months. Work will consist of the installation of SOE [support of excavation] piles along the south side of the jobsite within block 1120 & 1121; along “the bump” on Block 1120 (Lots 19, 28 and 35) and near the former gas station on Block 1121, lot 42.
The FEIS on work hours

Chapter 17, Construction Impacts, of the November 2006 Final Environmental Impact Statement, describes working hours:
HOURS OF WORK
It is anticipated that construction activities for the buildings and the arena would generally take place Monday through Friday with exceptions that are discussed separately below. In accordance with city laws and regulations, construction work would generally begin at 7 AM on weekdays, with some workers arriving to prepare work areas between 6 AM and 7 AM. Normally, work would end at 3:30 PM. It is anticipated that the workday would be extended for specific trades to complete some specific tasks beyond normal work hours. The work could include such tasks as completing the drilling of piles, finishing a concrete pour for a floor deck or completing the bolting of a steel frame erected that day. The extended workday would generally last until about 6 PM and would not include all construction workers on-site, but just those involved in the specific task. Extended workdays are expected to occur about 40 percent of the weekdays over the course of construction.

Over the course of construction, it is expected that evening and night work would be required. For example, certain of the transit improvements may involve street openings at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, and this would likely be allowed only during the late evening and night when traffic is at its lightest. In addition, some of the larger construction tasks within the Vanderbilt Yard and the arena may require continuous periods of time to complete. So as not to interfere with the LIRR train schedule, LIRR work would be scheduled to start after the Yard has been vacated to meet the evening rush hour and be completed before trains return from the morning rush hour.

Weekend work would be required at times over the course of construction. Again, the numbers of workers and pieces of equipment in operation would be limited to those needed to complete the particular task at hand. For extended weekday and weekend work, the level of activity would be reduced from the normal workday. The typical weekend workday would be on a Saturday from 7 AM with worker arrival and site preparation to 5 PM for site cleanup. It is expected that weekend work may be required on one weekend day for approximately 50 percent of the weekends over the course of construction and, in exceptional circumstances, two weekend days would be required.

When work is required outside of normal construction hours, the proper approvals would be obtained from the appropriate agencies. A noise control plan would be developed and implemented to minimize intrusive noise emanating into nearby areas and affecting sensitive receptors. The noise control plan would include such restrictions as the prohibition, where possible, against placing generators at the property line and engaging in unnecessary loud activities at night.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

FCR may raise $40M more from immigrant investors; document confirms that EB-5 loans can be used to pay off mortgages, says nothing about job creation

An Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) document reveals that developer Forest City Ratner, which already has signed up 498 immigrant investors to offer a $249 million low-interest loan, may seek another 80 investors for a $40 million loan.

The agreement (bottom) between the ESDC and a Forest City Ratner affiliate was acquired via a Freedom of Information Law request. Though it offers much detail on how the money might be spent--Forest City has wide latitude--it says nothing about the ostensible purpose of the funding under the federal government's EB-5 immigration program: job creation.

The issue of job creation must be addressed in documents submitted to a federal agency, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The investors park their money for perhaps five years, and can get green cards for themselves and their families, assuming the claims of job creation pass muster.

More savings to FCR

The document indicates (right) that the Brooklyn Arena Infrastructure and Transportation Improvement Fund, an affiliate of the New York City Regional Center (NYCRC), an investment pool authorized to solicit immigrant investors, may provide an additional loan up to $40 million.

The NYCRC has mainly recruited investors in China, source of the largest number of potential investors, but also sought 40 investors from South Korea for the what they called the Brooklyn Arena and Infrastructure Project.

I estimated that the initial loan could save FCR $191 million in interest; given a similar ratio of savings, the $40 million loan could save the developer another $30 million.

Where the money could go

While the project was pitched (as in the video from which the above and below screenshots were taken) to immigrant investors as an opportunity to invest in the Barclays Center, they won't own a piece of the building.

As indicated in the graphic at left, the loan proceeds could be used to reimburse Forest City Ratner for its costs on the Arena, the Subway Entrance, the public plaza, the upgrade railyard, demolition of project structures, utility work, the construction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge, the creation of arena parking, and preparation of development sites.

Essentially it's a piggy bank for whatever Forest City Ratner wants, including the final category, which I highlighted: paying off any liens and encumbrances, such as the existing land loan from Gramercy Warehouse Funding.

Does any of this create or retain jobs? That's what they may say on paper, but it seems clear that the developer is substituting lower-cost capital for higher-cost capital.

Take for example the Carlton Avenue Bridge; the developer is obligated to reconstruct it, whatever the source of the capital. So the use of immigrant investor funds for the bridge doesn't add jobs.

The Times on EB-5

As I wrote March 18, the New York Times skated over the EB-5 controversy in a brief mention, reporting:
[Forest City] also lined 498 Asian investors who enrolled in an obscure federal program that grants green cards in exchange for a $500,000 investment in a job-producing American project.

MaryAnne Gilmartin, executive vice president of Forest City Ratner, said that when it received final approval from the federal government, the $249 million would be used to pay down a land loan for the project and additional work on the railyard.
In his Noticing New York blog, Michael D. D. White takes off from the Times's mention of a statistic, that 585,000 Chinese have a net worth of at least $1.5 million:
The number, the subject and the calculation couldn’t help but remind us all of another number, “498" which is the number of Chinese that Forest City Ratner is soliciting to “invest” $538,000 in order get American government issued green cards that Forest City Ratner is being allowed to sell more or less exclusively for its own private benefit. After some time (five years), the Chinese are supposed to get back less money ($500,000) which, other than their green cards, constitutes the return on their investment provided the deal Forest City Ratner has structured for them doesn’t tank. This all has to do with something known as the federal EB5 program, a program Congress created supposedly to produce jobs in the U.S. but which Forest City Ratner is taking advantage of in a non-job producing way. Essentially, the Ratner firm is abusing the EB-5 program in a way that Congress is now letting it be abused: Ratner is selling United States green cards to rake in cheap capital without producing jobs.

...Fact is though, the Times has been passing up (virtually ignoring) the EB-5 abuse story and all its ramifications that among other things would necessarily lead them to reporting some unflattering things about Forest City Ratner, their business partner when it came to building the New York Times headquarters for which, like Ratner’s Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly, eminent domain was used.

As pointed out in an earlier Noticing New York post, the Times mangled its last report about the non-job-creating EB-5 programs use in connection with Atlantic Yards:
Perhaps what mightily facilitates the ease with which the EB-5 program is abused is that it is not known by any formal title, like the American Jobs Creation Act, leaving the New York Times to struggle as it refers to Ratner’s `enrollment’ of “498 Asian investors” in “an obscure federal program that grants [“sells” is a better word] green cards in exchange for a $500,000 investment in a job-producing American project,” thereby stumbling compliantly into having referred to `job-production’ which is, as discussed, actually nonexistent.
In other words, this Times story made it sound as if Ratner is using the program to create American jobs, which isn't a fair report of what is actually happening.
The document, and some gaps

Note that some areas of the document are blacked out. Under the Freedom of Information Law, documents may be redacted for several reasons, including trade secrets.

So some interesting information in the document may not see the light of day.

BAITIF Eb-5 Loan

Another arena-related bar coming to Pacific Street, between Players and residences

As a commenter pointed out on Park Slope Patch, another bar, Machavelle, is destined for 602 Pacific Street, what appears to be a residential building (with, apparently, mixed-use zoning) next to the furniture store that would be the home of Players, a gastropub and sports bar, which generated much concern at a Community Board 6 committee meeting Monday night.

A liquor license application for Machavelle was filed April 12, so the plans have apparently not yet been before the Community Board.

A brief YouTube video, below, is described as "New Bar Design in downtown Brooklyn across from the new Nets stadium."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

For Construction Safety Week, Department of Buildings leads visit to Atlantic Yards arena site; videos show perspective on construction

Yesterday, as part of Construction Safety Week and the "Experience is Not Enough" campaign, the city Department of Buildings (DOB) offered a tour to the press of the Barclays Center site, aiming to remind workers and others about safe construction practices throughout the city.

The arena site was chosen not because it's been the site of major problems but rather an a site where there's been good communication between workers/managers and the DOB.

Here a reports from NY1, CBS radio, the Architect's Newspaper, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which is by far the most detailed, pointing, for example, to three phases: excavation, foundation work and erection of steel.

I shot a few videos. Below, Deputy Commissioner Eugene Corcoran of the Department of Buildings speaks to the press. (Yes, the audio is obscured because of the significant noise of the site and my imperfect equipment.)



Below, a series of segments showing views of the site and an interview with the DOB's Eyal Amos, who describes the department's work at the site, and said there was good communication and no major violations.

Before press tour of arena site, community concerns about oversight, responsiveness, District Cabinet schedule

Before the press tour yesterday of the Atlantic Yards arena site held by the Department of Buildings (DOB), Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association distributed a sheet reminding reporters about the need for effective oversight of the project, such as a governance entity, common with other large projects.

He was not targeting the DOB but rather the Empire State Development Corporation, which has overall responsibility for the project.

Krashes is filmed talking with Erin Durkin of the New York Daily News and Kristen Brown of Park Slope Patch; he cited a problem with significant dust from a drill at the railyard site.

Despite sending videos to the ESDC, he said it took several weeks for the problem to be taken seriously.

Also, the quarterly Atlantic Yards District Cabinet meeting, which was supposed to be moved to a bi-monthly schedule, was instead kept at a quarterly schedule, set for May 5, he said, but that meeting has been cancelled.

(The first set of frames is rotated 90 degrees.)

Two walks near the Atlantic Yards site: Sixth Avenue (below Flatbush Avenue) and Flatbush; Dean Street and Sixth Avenue

Yesterday, to document the street scenes near the Atlantic Yards arena site, I filmed two walks. Both show the intersection of residential, retail, and construction.

(Yes, the handheld camera is unsteady.)

The first begins on Sixth Avenue in the north part of Park Slope, continues to Flatbush, then goes northwest to Pacific Street, across the street from the construction site.



The second begins at the northeast corner of Dean Street and Flatbush Avenue, just opposite the construction entrance, continues to Sixth Avenue in Prospect Heights, then goes one block south to Bergen Street.

Some ambiguous words from new HPD head, City Council housing chair on Atlantic Yards affordable housing

In Point/Counterpoint: Mathew Wambua & Erik Martin Dilan, published 4/25/11, City Hall News asked new Housing, Preservation and Development Commissioner Matthew Wambua and City Council Housing Committee Chair Erik Martin Dilan to discuss various housing issues.

One was Atlantic Yards; here are their somewhat ambiguous comments, in response to the unstated but implied question that Forest City Ratner was scaling back its promises:
Wambua: Atlantic Yards, I had not heard they were scaling back [affordable housing], to tell the truth. I’d heard that they were thinking about a new kind of development, which would be a modular multistory, I think 35-story modular development. But I wasn’t necessarily under the impression they were doing anything less than what they’d anticipated doing so much as different from what they’d anticipated doing.

For our product—the product we develop—for middle-income and lower-income housing, there’s huge significant unaccommodated demand, and so there’s cyclicality to the stuff that we do. In good times, people need us because rents are getting too high. In bad times, people need us even more because they have less income. So that unaccommodated demand isn’t necessarily being changed, depending on where you are in the cycle. So we’ll continue, as we always have, to do gangbuster business.

Dilan: I honestly hope they keep the commitment to build affordable housing. I understand that financing can be challenging at this point. So, for major projects like Atlantic Yards, I think we have to just to hold them to the commitment that they made to that community, and to Brooklyn, as well.
The unanswered question is whether Forest City Ratner will fulfill its commitment without getting additional subsidies from the city.

Wambua's predecessor denied Forest City Ratner such subsidies; I suspect that the request will recur, so we'll see whether Mayor Mike Bloomberg goes to bat for a favored project.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A gastropub and sports bar coming to Pacific & Flatbush: another incursion on residents or the best alternative near the arena? CB calls for caution

Residents of northwest Park Slope, already wary of seemingly under-the-radar efforts to install new arena-related bars near the under-construction Barclays Center, had some harsh words last night for entrepreneurs aiming to put Players Gastro Pub and Sportsbar, plus a pizza/falafel quick serve combo, in a building on Pacific Street at Flatbush Avenue now home to a furniture store.

(Above left, photo from Google Maps; note that the building at left has been demolished and is the site of arena construction. The view is looking south along Flatbush.)

“We do not need a bar on Pacific Street,” commented resident Syble Henderson, who helped found the Brooklyn Bear’s community garden at the northwest corner of Pacific and Flatbush, speaking at at a Community Board 6 subcommittee meeting concerning permits and licenses.

“Historically that block has been impacted with all kinds of anti-social activities,” Henderson said at the meeting held at the 78th Precinct at Bergen Street and Sixth Avenue, referring to drugs and prostitution residents fought 30 years ago. “We have fought long and hard to bring stability to that block... This is an attraction for all kinds of misuse.”

About 15 other residents nearby joined Henderson in her sentiments, while no resident spoke in favor of the plans, and the committee agreed to postpone any recommendation to the State Liquor Authority until its meeting next month and further discussion about the new facilities’ operating plans and procedures. (The Community Board’s vote is advisory, but can push parties to negotiate.)

One issue, reminiscent of the recent tensions over the Prime 6 bar/restaurant planned at Flatbush and Sixth Avenue, was how much notice residents got. Signs were posted on Thursday in the 500-foot radius of the planned new facilities, but several residents said they never saw them.

(Above right, looking west along Pacific Street, where the commercial building borders residences, and is across the street from the Brooklyn Bear's garden.)

NIMBY, inevitable, or best alternative?

While the sentiments might be portrayed as NIMBY, it might be more accurate to call them the tensions arising from putting an arena so close to a residential neighborhood. 
(The state is overriding city zoning that requires a 200-foot barrier between sports facilities and residents.)

For their part, the entrepreneurs insisted that their plan was the best alternative for a newly-coveted spot and that their landlord, Henry Weinstein--a mainstay of the North Flatbush Business Improvement District (BID) and, while an owner of land in the Atlantic Yards footprint, a prominent opponent of the arena plan--recognized that.

Players would operate 11 am to 4 am daily, occupying 3500 square feet, with seating for 150 and two bars, one with 15 seats, the other with six seats.

Weinstein, according to Michael Pappalardo, one of the partners in the new venture, said he was getting regular calls from nightclub operators who wanted to rent the space. (Here's the ad, mentioning the building is across the street from the arena site.) “It was [partner] Scott [Alling] who educated him.”

“Nightclubs have a lifespan and they typically go through cycles,” Alling told the audience. “We thought that would just deteriorate it.” Given the large space available, the partners would only take the front, and aim to mostly food and beverage, operating as a gastropub. “Of course, in that that five to seven [pm] span” before the arena’s open, “we want to do a lot of business.”

“We want to run this as a sports bar when the stadium is having a sporting event,” he said at another point. “When it's having a rock’n’roll night, we plan on running it as an indie rock venue, live music before, and after.”

Regina Cahill of the North Flatbush BID said that Weinstein wanted to follow the policies and guidelines of the BID and the Community Board. She recommended that some stipulations about the business operations be reached after meetings with the community.

The “u-rena” and its impacts

Jon Crow, another mainstay of the garden and an Atlantic Yards opponent, pointed to the likelihood of disorderly arena attendees “urinating on our neighborhood. That's why this is shocking and frightening--you realize the neighborhood doesn't want the u-rena.”

“I understand you don't want it,” responded Terry Flynn, Jr., the partners’ lawyer. “The reality of situation, people are going to open businesses, because of the opportunity to make money, and also can serve your community. What we intend on doing is both.”

“This is no different from Madison Square Garden, and people coming out of Madison Square Garden going to dinner before or after the arena,” he said. “Your concerns--we intend on making sure it's operating properly.”

The difference, unmentioned, is that MSG does not encroach on a residential neighborhood.

Applicants’ background

The applicants, Flynn said, have experience in food service, including Social Eatz in Midtown.

Does the latter have a liquor license, asked Pacific Street resident Jim Vogel.

It has just been received, Alling said.

Pappalardo said the partners have an event space in the Jane Hotel, called Salon, with liquor.
The license application questionnaire regarding other businesses operated by any of the partners mentioned a third establishment, Arena, at 135 West 41st Street in Manhattan, a multi-level event space.

One resident read a list of headlines, gathered from a Google search, recounting violent incidents at sports bars around the country.

“Look, I don't think because there's a sports bar there's going to be violence,” Flynn said. The space would be oriented to families, whether from the community or going to an event or game.

What are your ties to the Brooklyn community, asked another resident.

It’s their first business in Brooklyn, but Alling said he lives in Bushwick and helped build a coffee shop there.

More details

The gastropub/sports bar, according to Alling, will have “a pretty substantial safe area in the front, eight feet deep, double doored.”

The pizzeria, called B.A. Pizza, and the falafel joint, Mamoun’s (presumably licensed from the establishment in Manhattan), will be limited to 24 seats, with a beer and wine license.

Flynn called it “quick in, quick out,” not a restaurant where people would linger.

Pending legislation

Paul Nelson, Assemblywoman Joan Millman’s chief of staff, also discussed a proposed bill that would require a permit to serve alcohol in a rear yard or rooftop, and would require those spaces to be vacated by 11 pm on Sunday through Thursday and midnight on Friday and Saturday, unless the Community Board approved an extended closing time.

The bill has been endorsed by civic groups including the Park Slope Civic Council and the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council. The Community Board committee was enthusiastic.

Democrat Millman is still waiting for a cosponsor in the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans. Nelson said he didn’t think it would pass this year, “but I'm pleased it has already been used as a model in one case,” that of Prime 6.

Cahill commented that police officials have expressed support, since it gives clear guidelines regarding noise.

Reflections on Prime 6 and race

Criticism of Prime 6 has been portrayed as not only NIMBY but also racist, because of a pseudonymous, quite possibly fake, petition calling for indie rock rather than hip-hop.

Last night, the critics of the new bar were a rainbow coalition.

Another chance to see the documentary on Freddy's Bar and Backroom

Vicente Rodriguez Ortega's documentary Freddy's debuted last year (review), and it will be shown tomorrow, April 27, at indieScreen, 85 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, as part of the Brooklyn Film Festival.

The blurb:
Freddy's Bar & Backroom was a thriving cultural hub situated in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Open since prohibition, the bar featured a unique and colorful history. It was destroyed in 2010 to make way for the Atlantic Yards development project. This charming documentary had its World Premiere at the 2010 Brooklyn Film Festival, and captures the diverse set of characters in Freddy's community - the bartenders, the regulars, the artists and the musicians. Freddy's recently reopened in Park Slope, Brooklyn, but this film provides a window into an era of Brooklyn's history that has been permanently demolished.
Tickets.

Mockup of weathered steel façade panels for arena delayed two months, should be delivered in mid-May

Remember how Forest City Ratner VP for Construction Bob Sanna said that arena subcontractors were behind on producing the pre-weathered steel for the Barclays Center exterior?

Well, another aspect of that project seems to be behind. According to the latest ATLANTIC YARDS CONSTRUCTION UPDATE, Weeks of April 25, 2011 through May 8, 2011, produced by Forest City Ratner and distributed by the Empire State Development Corporation:
The excavation and concrete footing placement for a long term but temporary visual mockup of the weathered steel façade panels has been completed at 752 Pacific Street. The mockup panel delivery and placement of the footing was originally expected to be completed during the reporting periods covering March 7th through March 25th, however the delivery has been revised to mid-May.

Monday, April 25, 2011

On Tuesday, a Construction Safety Week visit to the Atlantic Yards site

From the Department of Buildings:
Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri today announced the launch of the 7th Annual Construction Safety Week, a week-long series of events aimed at raising awareness about safe construction practices throughout the City. To kickoff this year’s events, the Department hosted a four-hour safety conference – Build Safe / Live Safe: An Inside Look at the Latest Construction Trends in New York City – at New York University in Manhattan today with more than 250 construction industry professionals to discuss new ways to improve construction operations, as well as specific trends identified in recent construction-related accidents. The Department also launched a new safety campaign, entitled “Experience Is Not Enough,” to encourage all construction workers to use proper fall protection, such as guardrails, harnesses and nets, while working on a job site.
Tomorrow is an Atlantic Yards visit:
On Tuesday, Department inspectors will visit the Atlantic Yards construction site in downtown Brooklyn, one of the largest ongoing construction projects in the City, and distribute posters, banners and bracelets to workers as part of the new safety campaign. Since 2008, 16 workers have lost their lives due to a lack of proper fall protection, including two fatal accidents earlier this year. In February, two workers, ages 49 and 51, were killed when they fell about 65 feet while installing a steel beam at a job site on West 83rd St. in Manhattan. Inspectors determined safety harnesses were on site at the time of the accident, but they were not being used.
Note that, despite the somewhat awkward phrasing, no workers have lost their lives at the Atlantic Yards site.

Media Advisory: 10 a.m. event

Below, the Media Advisory sent today to the press (which I received secondhand). The event is a media event--open to the press, not the public:
On Tuesday, April 26, 2011, the Department of Buildings will lead a behind-the-scenes walk-through of the Atlantic Yards construction site in Downtown Brooklyn at 10:00 a.m. The Department will highlight safety measures at this location, distribute educational materials and discuss safety precautions for similar work throughout the City.

The new “Experience is not Enough” vehicle – which is part of a citywide safety campaign to encourage construction workers to use proper fall protection – will be stationed at the site, and officials will be distributing posters, banners and bracelets to stress the importance of taking safety precautions during construction operations.

This construction site visit is part of the 7th Annual Construction Safety Week, a week-long series of events aimed at raising awareness about safe construction practices throughout the City.
Construction Safety Week Media Advisory - Atlantic Yards

Kunpeng, consultancy promoting AY to immigrant investors in China, among firms willing to deceive regulators, according to newspaper investigation

There's new evidence that consultants helping Chinese millionaires immigrate, as in the program involving the "Brooklyn Arena and Infrastructure Project," are skating toward fraud.

In this case, the evidence does not involve the EB-5 program, in which investors park $500,000 for a purportedly job-creating project in exchange for green cards for themselves and their family, but rather a similar Canadian program.

Kunpeng International, a consultant prominent in promoting the Brooklyn project as an associate of the New York City Regional Center (NYCRC), an investment pool working with Forest City Ratner, has been identified as one willing to deceive Canadian regulators.

(Kunpeng's head is at right in the photo with the Empire State Development Corporation's Peter Davidson, who provided a certificate during a roadshow in China last October. That proclamation, as I wrote, elides the difference between the Brooklyn Arena and Infrastructure Project before the potential investors--purportedly the arena, infrastructure, and railyard--and the Atlantic Yards project as a whole, which would produce many more jobs and potential benefits.)

Helping a fictitious applicant

In a 4/22/11 article headlined How China’s ‘crooked consultants’ help the rich enter Canada, the Globe and Mail reports that a fictitious potential immigrant created for the purposes of the article--who has the required minimum $1.6 million CAD in assets but not the required documentation providing the wealth is legitimate--was offered help in sugarcoating his past by 18 of the 22 China-based immigration consultants approached.

Of the 22, 12 said that even a criminal record--jail time for stabbing someone in a fight--could be overcome:
If the relative were to persuade – bribe, if necessary – someone at his local police station to issue such a certificate, explained an agent at Kunpeng International, a Beijing-based firm, Canadian officials “can’t come to China to check the archives” in person.
John Ryan, chief executive officer of the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants, a former consultant in China, told the newspaper that business ethics in China are flexible:
“In Chinese culture, they feel that, in dealing with governments, they need an edge. They don’t really understand that, in our Canadian system, they can deal openly and honestly with the government and be dealt with fairly.”
Previous coverage

As described in a 12/10/10 installment in my Anatomy of a Shady Deal series, China presents a valuable, unique opportunity, given the confluence of basketball fever, plentiful new money, the desire to get children educated (and other opportunities) in the United States, a language barrier, limited watchdog reporting on this issue, little emphasis on transparency, variable amounts of business sophistication, and flexible business ethics.

The lead-in to a video, webcast by the Kunpeng consultancy, promotes the project with upbeat, gauzy images.



Pushing the envelope

As I reported 10/4/10, the NYCRC's Gregg Hayden, when faced with a question about why exactly green card-seeking Chinese investors were needed for a project that included deep-pocketed Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, simply evaded the question.

However, as I reported 10/7/10, Chinese investors reading the transcript were given an additional dose of candor, words not in Hayden's mouth but which elaborate on the logic and spirit of his statement:
The costs of using investment funds are relatively lower than the costs of bank loans. Although the NBA project funds are sufficient, business is business, and we are in pursuit of profit maximization.
(Emphasis added)

This blatant admission of the developer's true goals gives a lie to the official claim that the investment would create or save jobs, and provides more evidence that the plan violates the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of the EB-5 visa program.

The Q&A appeared on the blog (Google Translate version) of Hu Weihang, who heads Kunpeng. A statement like "business is business," while it may sound like a violation of the spirit of American immigration law, to a Chinese audience conveys that it's a serious project, according to the translator I consulted.

A law firm's proclamation

As I wrote 12/15/10, the Kunpeng firm even received a proclamation from the Ithaca, NY-based law firm Miller Mayer, which works for the NYCRC, its lawyers filing papers with federal authorities and accompanying the NYCRC on tour, and is recommended by the NYCRC to potential investors.

(Graphic from blog of Kunpeng's Hu Weihang.)

It states:
Miller Mayer, LLP
Of Ithaca, New York, United States of America
Proudly Recognizes

Kunpeng International

As a First-Order Agency in Support of Our Mission To Provide Chinese Investors with First-Order Legal Service. In furtherance of our mutual goals and desires, we honor your participation in these efforts.

Honor and Recognition Conferred This Day,
October 11, 2010 by Miller Mayer, LLP
Attorneys at Law
[signed by firm name partners]
It's not clear whether "First-Order Agency" and "First-Order Legal Service" have any formal definition. Presumably such phrases aim to impress in a country where ceremony is valued.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A blind spot toward the ESDC, and some questions of legal ethics regarding Atlantic Yards representations

Yesterday, wry New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote about "angry" new Republican governors in Wanna Buy a Turnpike?:
In Ohio and Wisconsin, angry new governors John Kasich and Scott Walker are taking economic development out of the hands of state bureaucrats and giving the job to new quasi-private entities that will be much more effective and efficient.

In Florida, where the Legislature did all that in the 1990s, the angry new governor Rick Scott has a bold plan to improve economic development by creating a State Department of Commerce that will be much more effective and efficient.

Really, just so there’s change and it doesn’t sound socialistic. “We don’t want to leave any money on the table,” said Kasich, who is planning to sell five prisons, the lottery and maybe do something with the turnpike. I’m from Ohio, and while I never did like the turnpike, I’ve always been a fan of history. I wonder if I could get a good deal on the Warren Harding homestead.
Collins might want to look in her own backyard, where the Empire State Development Corporation is a quasi-public (or, alternatively, quasi-private) entity that cuts through red tape in service to business, such as the New York Times Company (which benefited from eminent domain in building the Times Tower with Forest City Ratner) and Forest City Ratner, in its Atlantic Yards project.

Atlantic Yards and legal ethics

Yesterday, in Applying the Principles of Legal Ethics to New York Development: Lawyers Are Not Supposed to Represent Deceiving Clients, Noticing New York's Michael D. D. White pointed out that lawyers have an ethical duty to not only withdraw from representing a client who behaving dishonestly but to do so "noisily."

White, at a legal ethics seminar asked some hypothetical questions: does this apply to the lawyer representing the developer of a publicly financed real estate project, where, in essence, the public is the buyer.

The answer--given to a hypothetical, and with the caveat it wasn't actual legal advice--was yes.

White allows for a gray area, in which the Atlantic Yards hype might be dismissed as dubious assumptions and insufficiently backed up assertions, both of which are permissible.

He adds:
One area where it seems that misrepresentations of fact did occur is with respect to the misrepresentations to Justice Marcy Friedman about the legitimately expected timetable for the development of the mega-project was: With lawyer assistance it was represented to the justice that Forest City Ratner and ESDC officials expected to complete the project within ten years while withholding from her (and the plaintiff parties representing the public in opposing the project) documents between them providing for and clearly envisioning a multi-decade build-out.

Similarly, sale of the EB-5 investments to prospective Chinese “investors” has been rife with misrepresentation. Technically, the misrepresentations being made to the Chinese are being made to them as private parties on the other side of a business transaction (rather than just an unwitting public being subjected to a spiel) so a high standard should apply respecting any misrepresentations. On the other hand is there thinking that as the Chinese are not American citizens they should not be expected to benefit from the full protection of U.S. law?
The issue regarding the timetable was brought before Friedman in March, in a motion for sanctions against the lawyers representing the state and Forest City Ratner, though Friedman refused to hear oral argument.

The EB-5 misrepresentation seems like a stronger case. We'll have to see how that plays out.

Atlantic Terminal part of AY complex? Nah.

From NetsDaily:
Also, here's a little viewed video of the entry pavilion of the one piece of the Atlantic Yards complex that's complete, the Long Island Railroad/New York Subway terminal across the street (and around the corner) from the arena. The terminal is a one end of an underground concourse that links nine subway lines (used to be 10 but the "V" line has been discontinued), the LIRR and the Barclays Center Transit Connection in front of the arena. The Atlantic Terminal is going to become very familiar to Nets fans.
Actually, the Atlantic Terminal transit hub is not "one piece of the Atlantic Yards complex." Rather, a piece of the latter--an under-construction new passageway--connects to the terminal. (And the V line never went to Brooklyn.)

For more, see my 1/6/10 post, Atlantic Yards revisionism and the belated LIRR pavilion at Atlantic Terminal.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

PlaNYC update: an Atlantic Yards mention (for water mains!) and potential reconsideration of parking requirements

On April 21, Mayor Mike Bloomberg released an an update (massive PDF) on PlaNYC 2030, the sustainability initiative launched in 2007.

Notable is an oblique mention of Atlantic Yards, as well as a nod to a major omission in the original plan: consideration of reducing parking requirements in residential developments, especially those near transit.

Previously I called the policy PlaNYC 1950, and the City Planning Commission is reportedly already studying the reduction of parking minimums.

An Atlantic Yards mention

Notably, Atlantic Yards is not described as transit-oriented development, or as the right way to develop publicly-owned property. it does get a nod under the heading "Upgrade water main infrastructure":
Once water leaves our in-city-tunnels, it travels through 6,700 miles of water mains to reach our homes. These aging pipes require continual maintenance and occasional upgrades. We will build out and replace critical water supply infrastructure to support the growth of the Coney Island community and make thousands of housing units and offices possible at Atlantic Yards. We will replace distribution mains in Jamaica Estates in Queens and Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. We will also complete the trunk main network in the Rockaways in Queens. Our commitment to upgrading and maintaining our system will save ratepayers money by preventing costly water main breaks and help support economic development in every borough.
For now, that water main upgrade will mainly benefit the Barclays Center.

The parking issue

Streetsblog observes:
In the update itself, the biggest transportation-related addition is the inclusion of parking policy, which was all but left out of the original plan. Unlike congestion pricing, major parking policy reforms can be implemented by the city without needing a vote in Albany. While the update hints at the potential reforms, the new PlaNYC still contain few firm or ambitious commitments to use parking policy to tame traffic.

...It is a breakthrough, albeit a limited one, that PlaNYC now states that “requiring too much parking to be built in a dense city like New York can encourage driving, contribute to congestion, and unnecessarily raise the cost of new development.” Up until now, the Department of City Planning’s position has been that parking requirements do not significantly affect car-ownership rates, much less congestion.

Parking requirements were also mentioned in the specific context of affordable housing, where forcing parking into new buildings increases housing prices and decreases supply. PlaNYC now commits to determining whether parking minimums add unnecessary costs to affordable housing development (they do), though it appears the study will be limited only to more densely populated neighborhoods with lower car-ownership rates.

From the update: housing

Where to grow? The update states:
Over the next few years, we will advance studies that identify potential opportunities for development across the city, including in Staten Island’s North Shore, where we are working with the community and studying transportation and other supporting improvements. In cooperation with the MTA, we will study the areas around Metro North stations in the Bronx to identify opportunities for both new development and transportation access improvements. We will also work with the MTA to study additional properties they own or lease that could be used to create housing or other enhancements for surrounding communities.
We will evaluate potential scenarios for the improvement of the Sheridan Corridor and Hunts Point area in the Bronx, as part of a study of possible changes to the highway network described in the Transportation chapter of our Plan. The outcome of this study will be based on a vision for the overall land use needs in the corridor.
We will also work with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), their tenants and surrounding communities, to determine if there are additional opportunities for development on the grounds of NYCHA properties.
We will continue to implement the Hudson Yards Plan, including taking ownership of the last portion of the High Line in Manhattan and completing the 7 train line, to continue to catalyze development in this district.
Also on tap are potential regulatory changes that would enable the addition of a legal apartment to one- and two- family homes and "options that could make smaller housing models possible"--presumably such things as single room occupancy apartments, albeit updated.

Affordable housing

The update states:
The City must proactively finance and facilitate the creation of new units, particularly affordable units, to ensure that we can meet our housing needs. That is why we are creating entirely new neighborhoods, such as Hunter’s Point South and Willets Point in Queens. We are also leveraging existing programs to finance and create new affordable housing developments throughout the city.
Finally, we are identifying existing government buildings and properties to adapt to housing. All together we will develop approximately 20,000 new affordable units by 2014 under the New Housing Marketplace Plan.
Develop new neighborhoods on underutilized sites
In a city as densely developed as New York, few large tracts of land present opportunities to build entire new residential neighborhoods. Where such opportunities exist, we will capitalize on them to create vibrant new neighborhoods with housing that meets the needs of households with a range of incomes.
We are investing more than $65 million in infrastructure—including roads, sewers and utilities—in Hunter’s Point South to create an entirely new neighborhood on the Queens waterfront.
...On Willets Point in Queens, we are also preparing for the construction of an entirely new neighborhood... We will complete similar developments in Arverne, Queens, and Gateway in East New York, Brooklyn, together creating 2,600 new units.
Did you notice what project is missing? It's not a city project, true, but Atlantic Yards is very tough to prognosticate these days.

Use of city land

The plans include construction on city land in the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Area in the South Bronx, as well as redevelopment of "lightly used portions of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) sites, including surface parking facilities."

Also, according to the plan, "Significant opportunities exist for housing to co-exist with current uses—from libraries to schools to parking lots."

The parking issue

Here's the verbiage about parking policy:
We will also explore whether current parking minimums for affordable housing are appropriate. In more densely populated areas where car ownership rates are low, particularly among low-income individuals, we will determine whether parking minimums may be unnecessarily adding to the cost of affordable housing. By lowering construction costs, we will be able to stretch our dollars further, creating more units in the developments we finance.
...Setting parking requirements involves balancing the demand for parking with the effects of car ownership and use. While traditional zoning requirements are intended to ensure parking supply meets household demand for car ownership, requiring too much parking to be built in a dense city like New York can encourage driving, contribute to congestion, and unnecessarily raise the cost of new development. As density and transit availability varies across the city, the parking balance must be struck for each neighborhood; there is no one-size-fits-all rule.
...We will complete a study of current parking trends in the Manhattan Core and explore modifications to parking regulations. We will also study areas outside the Manhattan Core to identify how we can revise parking regulations to better balance the needs of residents, businesses, workers, and visitors. When completed, these studies will guide future parking and curbside management policies for the City. As described in the Housing and Neighborhoods Chapter, we will also explore whether current parking minimums applicable to affordable housing are unnecessarily adding to the construction cost of some categories of housing, and explore amend- ing those requirements as appropriate.
Not far enough?

One expert quoted by Streetsblog wasn't satisfied. According to Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives:
"There are parking garages sitting half empty that the city forced developers to build. Each of those parking structures represent millions of dollars that developers could have been required to upgrade local transit stations, or improve the streetscape. It’s not enough to study off-street parking policy. The city must overhaul its broken off-street parking policy before a tidal wave of new car ownership eclipses the plan’s other gains."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Did elimination of pro hockey option at Barclays Center deceive bondholders?

Michael D.D. White, in his Noticing New York blog, thinks it might, citing "craftily negative" language in the offering statement:
OK, that language says that it has “NOT” been “assumed that the New York Islanders would relocate to the Barclays Center” but doesn’t it by any reasonable standard imply that, with luck, there is a legitimate possibility Islanders or another professional hockey team could decide to relocate to the arena?

...As such, if the bonds for the arena one day default, as they could, will bond holders be able to sue on the basis that this statement misleadingly misrepresented the arena’s potential uses and revenue sources and therefore its value? If not, the non-positive statement at least says something negative about Forest City Ratner’s business ethics in its willingness to convey misimpressions with craftily constructed non-promises.

Another victory for the "Atlantic Yards" meme, as MTA critic uses term to describe Vanderbilt Yard

From a GlobeSt.com article yesterday headlined MTA Looks to Unload Midtown Headquarters:
Gene Rusianoff, staff attorney for transit advocacy group the Straphangers Campaign, tells GlobeSt.com that he’s concerned that the MTA find the money it needs to fund its rebuilding program. “They need the dough,” Russianoff says. “They have a five-year rebuilding program and only funding for the first two years.” Russianoff’s main concern, he says, is that the organization not cheat itself on any property it sells. “We don’t think the MTA got a very good deal for the West Side Yards or the Atlantic Yards.”
(Emphasis added)

Russianoff was using shorthand, but, as I wrote 3/29/11, actually, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority property, 8.5 acres, is called the Vanderbilt Yard.

By contrast, Atlantic Yards is the brand for a 22-acre site that includes formerly public streets, formerly private property, and some private property that neither the state nor developer Forest City Ratner controls.

The late Robert Fitch and The Assassination of New York: the loss of manufacturing was not accidental

Robert Fitch, an independent, impecunious left intellectual, freelance academic, and author of the little-known but still influential The Assassination of New York (Verso 1993, paperback, 1996), died March 4 at 72.

That prompted tributes and reflections from Doug Henwood in The Nation and Josh Mason (and others, including Fitch family members) on his blog.

The book still has resonance for today, including the portrayal of a real estate strategy (build!) as a jobs strategy, the role of the City Planning Commission in validating the power structure, the distorting impact of tax incentives on new construction, the reasons why New York is un-democratic, and the difficulty in fighting real estate proposals more complicated than building a highway through a neighborhood.

Here's the blurb for the book, which was published--as was Robert Caro's The Power Broker, by the way--at a time when New York seemed to be down for the count:
In this indictment of those who have wrecked New York, Robert Fitch points to the financial and real-estate elites. Their goals, he argues, have been simple and monolithic: to increase the value of the land they own by extruding low-rent workers and factories, replacing them with high-rent professionals and office buildings. The planning establishment has been able of raise the value of real estate inside the city boundaries over twenty-fold. In doing so, Fitch suggests, it effectively closed New York’s deep-water port, eliminated its freight rail system, shuttered its factories and destroyed its capacity for incubating new business.

Now the real-estate values have collapsed. The city is left with 65,000,000 square feet of office space—enough to last, without any new building, to the middle of the twenty-first century. In pursuit of those who are responsible, Fitch arraigns the great and the bad of the city’s establishment: Roger Starr, architect of “planned shrinkage” (the withdrawal of fire, police and mass transit services from black and Latino neighborhoods); the Ford Foundation, which proposed converting vast tracts of the South Bronx into a vegetable garden; City Hall fixers like John Zucotti, Herb Sturz and James Felt, who cut the deals between government and real estate by working for both sides; and the Rockefeller family, whose involuntary investment in the Rockefeller Center became a gigantic “tar baby,” nearly swallowing up their entire fortune.
It's too bad Fitch wasn't able to do an update, since he got some things wrong, predicting a long oversupply of office space. Even someone sympathetic to his overall thesis, Ron Shiffman, who formerly headed the Pratt Center for Community Development, told me that Fitch misinterpreted some issues, such as Pratt's role in Brooklyn.

In his own words


Here's a 1996 interview with Fitch about Queens West, which, by the way, is finally getting started. Here's a post 9/11 essay, A Mistake in the First Place, by Fitch in Gotham Gazette, which echoes the themes of his book:
Again and again it is said that New York has become the "nerve center of global capitalism." Is this true? If so, how did we get there? Is downtown, and particularly the creation of the World Trade Center, a response in concrete and travertine to the city's increasing dependence on world trade?

The truth is, postwar downtown development has been hugely subsidized by the government, relying chiefly on state power and eminent domain in order to overcome market forces.

....Beside more publicly financed office towers to irrigate parched downtown portfolios, what was the ultimate point? It was clearly expressed by the city's 1969 plan which expressed the higher real estate consciousness: "In the long run, New York does not want to retain the low skill, low wage segment of its industrial mix. The displacement of manufacturing activity in the Central Business District is the complement to the expansion of office construction which results in more intensive land use, higher investment and more jobs than the manufacturing activities they replaced."

1969 marked the city's all-time jobs peak: 3.9 million. Between 1960 and the present, the city would lose nearly three quarters of a million manufacturing jobs. It would never gain enough relatively higher-end jobs to prevent New York City from leading in income inequality, urban poverty and the number of citizens without health insurance.
The tributes

In the Nation, Henwood wrote Remembering Robert Fitch:
On Don’s recommendation, I’d just read Bob’s fantastic essay “Planning New York,” in a now out-of-print anthology on the urban crisis of the 1970s. It was about the 1929 plan for New York City drawn up by the Regional Plan Association. It laid out the outline for an auto-centered metropolitan region, including the highway system that would later be attributed to Robert Moses.

...So many of the things that were attributed to anonymous global forces, like the deindustrialization of the city and its transformation into the prototype of the globally oriented post-industrial metropolis, were consciously guided by bankers, developers, and their hired hands. They used all the instruments of state power—subsidies, zoning laws, eminent domain—to get their way.

The landscape of the city—the propinquity of skyscrapers and slums, of the very rich and the very poor—reflected the kind of hollowed-out society that a FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate)-dominated economy created. Neighborhoods that once housed factories and their workers were either emptied out or gentrified. If you were employed in the FIRE sector, you could do very nicely. If you were employed in one of the elite service industries—advertising, consulting, and the like—that populated those skyscrapers, you could do pretty nicely. Not as nicely as a bond trader or a dealmaker, for sure—but a lot better than the messengers, busboys, and bootblacks that did the scut work for the service aristocracy.
The complication, which is worth a lot more discussion and debate, is that the rising tide for the elite did improve New York's bottom line, its neighborhoods, and, to an extent, its infrastructure, such as the MTA.

But has prosperity been fully shared? No.

Obscurity and the New York milieu


Henwood also offered some sobering observations about Fitch's lack of recognition and reward:
For all his truth-telling, Bob was ostracized not only by the progressive establishment in New York but also by academia, which found him not only too outspoken, but too polymath as well. Universities like well-behaved specialists, not rude questioners. Though his material situation improved somewhat in recent years, he lived most of his life on very little money. His major sources of income were freelance writing fees, small book advances, and the sweatshop wages enjoyed by adjunct faculty (which is what you call a temp worker with a PhD). As [Don] Guttenplan, the former Village Voice editor who introduced me to Bob, wrote just after his death: “[It’s a] scandal that they scrape the barrel to give these so-called genius grants to third-rate conventional fakers when Bob Fitch, a man who did his own thinking and his own research, and who came up with truly original insights about some pretty important topics—urban planning, organized labor, critical journalism—had to live like a luftmensch.”
Mason did note that Fitch was part of that "small group of unaffiliated intellectuals who exist only in New York," relying on left organizations, radical unions, and publications like the (old) Village Voice.

Blaming the powerful

Fitch's essential argument is that the city's de-industrialization--and conversion to FIRE [Finance Insurance Real Estate] and office buildings--did not happen as a result of inexorable societal forces like suburbanization. As he wrote in his book:
Those who took charge of planning the city--who decided where the subways and highways would run; who zoned its neighborhoods; and granted tax abatements and incentives to its real estate--they weren't indifferent as to whether office buildings displaced factories. They owned the land.

How could they be indifferent? There is a nearly 1000 percent spread between the rent received for factory space and the rent landlords get for class A office space. Simply by changing the land use, one's capital could increase in value many times.
So he finds roots in the Regional Plan Association's (RPA) Second Regional Plan, issued in 1968, and financed by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Ford Foundation. He also cites the cutting of personal income tax rates, the scrapping of a stock exchange tax, the cut in real estate taxes as having such roots.

Fitch was writing in 1993, a time when New York had a 13.4% unemployment rate, and was "without a private housing market," a situation which certainly changed, albeit not without tax incentives.

Calling for economic diversity, he observed that New York lost manufacturing jobs
before the onset of the global forces responsible for them were brought into play. It lost them in industries like garment and printing that were comparatively immune to decentralizing forces. In fact, they required Manhattan's peculiar industrial ecology to survive.
Until the 1950s, he wrote, New York was not "dangerously dependent on a single highly cyclical product: speculative office buildings (SOBs)."

Diversity and Jane Jacobs

The rich and diverse industrial culture, he suggested, supported significant public services, free tuition at CUNY, and robust parks and libraries. He noted that Jane Jacobs recognized that "the diversity of economic uses of the neighborhood, spread throughout the day, not sheer numbers... that was crucial to downtown's residential development."

Her enemy was David Rockefeller, who once said his family "has long been identified with controversial large projects" and quoted that Robert Moses line about how "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."

(Note that the Rockefeller Foundation, independent of the family, actually supported Jacobs's work, and awards the annual Jane Jacobs Medal, though Fitch noted that the foundation opposed John D. Rockefeller III's request for money for Lincoln Center urban renewal, but ultimately conceded.)

From the early 20th century


Some major pieces of downtown Manhattan--the World Trade Center, Battery Park City, South Street Seaport--were subsidized by government and overseen by unelected authorities, Fitch noted.

He wrote:
In 1929, no one had head of globalization, containerization or post-industrialization, the explanatory watchwords of present-day analysts. Yet the planners of the twenties pursued concrete objectives such as saving the downtown CBD, and removing manufacturing. These aims are identical to those of present-day elites, who claim that their goals are just conditioned responses to ineluctable modern forces.
He wrote:
Nowhere else has the whole structure of employment shifted from a 2:1 ratio of manufacturing to FIRE to a 1:2 ratio. Nowhere else did land values rise simultaneously with the industrial job loss, from $20 billion to $400 billion.
On Brooklyn

Fitch drilled back to the urban renewal that led to apartment complexes and offices around Downtown Brooklyn:
The implantation of office buildings in Downtown Brooklyn was no more market driven than the planning process which created Battery Park City and TriBeCa. It was also state-led, required massive subsidies, and the use of eminent domain, i.e., force. As [Mayor David] Dinkins' own Public Development Corporation (now the Economic Development Corporation) says, "Downtown Brooklyn stands as a stunning example of how commercial areas throughout the city can be reborn or expanded through planned development." (emphasis added)

...One scholar of the city's urban renewal program estimates that in the ten years after World War II, 250 industrial and commercial structures along with about 8200 jobs were bulldozed in the effort to create the Brooklyn Civic Center.

...The godfathers of the Brooklyn CBD faced two problems: land and capital. The land on which the new CBD was to be located was already occupied by factories, like the American Safety Razor Co., with 1500 workers--presently the site of Metrotech. Working-class residences permeated the area... Eventually, University Towers got developed by Donald Trump's dad, Fred. The Rockefeller-funded United Neighborhood Housing Foundation took a chunk; the Bowery financed and took a piece of the action at Concord Towers; Long Island University's Title I expansion alone knocked out 20 acres of factories. But it took two decades before the path for the SOB is really safe.
Real estate strategy, or jobs strategy?

Fitch observed:
Essentially, over the last three generations, the city has had a real estate strategy--expand the CBD/shrink manufacturing--which it has presented as a jobs strategy.
Think about that--Atlantic Yards was presented as a jobs strategy too, as in the construction of four speculative office buildings, housing 10,000 jobs. Most of that space was traded for housing, and temporary construction jobs.

Fitch delivered a fundamental point in italics:
Urban planning is the coordination of land monopoly.
He offered a jaundiced account of the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), the formal name of the Empire State Development Corporation:
[Nelson Rockefeller] had claimed, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, that he had created UDC to memorialize the martyred civil rights leader. In fact, one reason for UDC's existence was Nelson's belief that, given an agency with powers of eminent domain and unlimited credit, blacks could be relocated from the city to the suburbs. UDC worked with the family-funded Suburban Action Institute to find suitable locations outside New York City for black residences, but mainly, UDC in the early days operated as a giant piggybank for developers.
There's a pungent footnote:
"The Hudson River Conservancy" is a subsidiary of the Urban Development Corporation--a state agency whose leadership suffers from a malady common among New York elites: the inability to distinguish between real estate development and economic development.
Fighting Jane Jacobs?

He wrote:
It was precisely to counter Jane Jacobs [sic] community organizing in Cobble Hill that Pratt Institute successfully appealed to the Rockefeller Brothers' Fund to finance a pro-urban renewal community movement in Central Brooklyn. Pratt assisted movements against factory expansion on the part of S&S Corrugated Box; for the de-industrializing of [the] Fulton Ferry area; and argued for the elimination of Brooklyn's Piers 1-6 as working piers.
That, Shiffman told me, was a very cramped reading of the record. Yes, Pratt did apply for Rockefeller funding to pursue urban renewal, but, in practice, Pratt aimed for compromise solutions that allowed and encouraged manufacturing without--as some plans proposed--encroaching on long-established residential communities.

And, despite the implications of Fitch's paragraph, the three cases cited in the second sentence involved Pratt responding not to the Rockefellers but to local community requests, according to Shiffman.

Moses's roots


Fitch detected Robert Moses's deep roots in the RPA's work in the 1920s:
[J]ust about every highway and bridge credited to Robert Moses was conceived and planned by the RPA. Moses simply poured the concrete on the dotted lines indicated in the plan.
And, he didn't blame only Moses for refusing to put mass transit on the Long Island Expressway; he located that resistance in the first generation RPA philosophy, believing mass transit would have congested population on Long Island and spoiled prime residential areas, and said Moses biographer Robert Caro ignored that. Fitch termed Moses "a perfect scapegoat."

He wrote:
The chief obstacle to RPA-style planning is the residual accountability that ties public officials to the public... Thus the passionate preference of the higher real estate interests for unelected commissions, appointive authorities, public development "partnerships." This is also why the RPA had as a principal aim the creation of a city planning commission that obviated legislative accountability.
He hammered home his criticism:
The master plan for New York that was the stated reason for creating the [City Planning] Commission has never materialized. its role is to validate and legalize the plans and initiatives conceived by the city's private real estate interests.
Note that the City Planning Commission today is significantly a Department of Rezoning, while the even less accountable New York City Economic Development Corporation steers planning.

Fitch offered further Moses revisionism:
There was the general feeling in the higher real estate circles (you'd never guess this from his biographers) that Moses was slowing urban renewal down. He took too long to get rid of people. He spent too much time, money and effort on housing low-income groups. And he was insensitive to the greater priority of the Mitchell-Lama (middle-income) housing program.
(Emphasis in original)

NYC undemocratic?

Why might New York be (as legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky argued) the country's most undemocratic city? Fitch catalogued seven reasons:
--an emasculated legislature
--over-centralized executive authority, re-enforced by the 1990 charter that abolished the Board of Estimate
--the difficulty in getting independent candidates on the ballot
--the comprehensive system of economic development authorities, coupled with weak Community Boards
--"The concentration of communications media ownership and the lack of separation between business interests and editorial focus"
--"The vast growth of foundation-dependent community organizations which muffle rather than amplify grass roots energies"
--the role of political contributions.

Most of those still obtain today, though public financing of candidates does give lesser-funded candidates a shot, especially for open seats. Also, I'd suggest, the role of labor and ACORN, via the Working Families Party, has created a new political force.

And community organizations may not be as foundation-dependent today, but they do make deals with developers and/or are dependent on charity from major donors like Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Missed predictions

Fitch wrote that it would take more than 50 years to absorb the inventory of office space--an estimate that, obviously, didn't prove true, thanks, in part, to the significant conversion of older office space in the Financial District to housing, as well as the city's uneven but significant recovery.

Indeed, Fitch scoffed at the idea that New York would become "the future World Capital," though, in the last decade, it has received an influx of foreign capital.

The book has a good number of small name or copy editing errors--"Olmstead" for "Olmsted"--which makes me wonder whether such sloppiness affects larger arguments.

Deja vu

Fitch pointed to a rush of construction, writing:
Yet on Friday, May 13, 1988, a little more than six months after the [Wall Street] crash, construction began simultaneously on eleven new office buildings and four new hotels... it was the last day to get the 20 percent bonuses given out by city planning's midtown plan. Development wasn't price-led. It was subsidy-led.
The same rush happened a few years ago after changes in the 421-A subsidized housing program, leading to stalled sites, especially in Williamsburg.

Predicting the Atlantic Yards debate?

Fitch sketched the complexity of land-use battles beyond the simplest ones:
When David Rockefeller tried to run the Lower Manhattan Expressway through Washington Square Park, you didn't have to have a degree in planning from MIT to know it was destructive. Jane Jacobs led the charge and miraculously sent the establishmentarians back to their Westchester redoubts. But land-use choices involving housing vs. jobs; the mix of income in a housing project; the question of which jobs are really viable in an urban setting; what's the best location for manufacturing--these issues don't lend themselves to such clear-cut resistance.
Indeed, that hints at the Atlantic Yards controversy. Developer Forest City Ratner, with allies, was able to argue for "jobs" and "housing," and enough people believed it.

The absent Democratic Party

Fitch pointed out in a footnote that none of the county Democratic parties in New York "bothers to write a platform or regularize its membership," remaining reliant on clubhouse organizations.

Today, a search for the Kings County Democratic Party comes up empty, though an insurgent group, New Kings Democrats, offers a platform with such seemingly common-sense planks as this:
Holding regular meetings – the County Committee currently only meets once every two years.
What to do?

Fitch closed the book with an astonishing chapter of analysis and prescriptions. Once, New York City had flexible production, economic diversity, ecologically compatible manufacturing, many exports, and housing production aimed at a variety of residents.

It came not without problems, such as discrimination, inequality, low wages, job insecurity, no economic democracy, and fiscal instability.

It also came with what Fitch called "urban mercantilism," in which New York and New Jersey compete to poach jobs and taxes from each others. (Hm--sounds like the argument for "netting the Nets.")

His solutions:
--reverse the tax code, which taxes manufacturing and exempts land speculators, and add a stock exchange tax (still a live idea, I'd add)
--municipalize city land, and then lease it, following the lead of (anti-communist) Hong Kong and Singapore.
--control the city's elite non-profits, requiring the organizations to pay some sort of taxes, as well as wage taxes on executives who earn more than the mayor
--create a city bank for jobs and community development
--make it as difficult to re-zone manufacturing land as to de-map parkland
--roll back subsidies for luxury development
--abolish the public development authorities, and privatize the World Trade Center (this was 1993)
--build a new port
--tax the FIRE sector to build housing
--commercial rent control
--reform the construction trades to ensure roles for minorities

His conclusion:
New York needs to re-industrialize to regain its capacity to respond to these aspirations. The challenge of New York is to play out for the twenty-first century--as it did in the nineteeth and the twentieth--the full meaning of diversity. That is not nostalgia; it's destiny.
In his call to preserve and bolster manufacturing, Fitch was hardly alone. Consider that in 1999 the Manufacturing Land Use and Zoning Initiative was launched by the Municipal Art Society in partnership with Pratt Institute for Community and Environmental Development.

A 2001 report, Making it in New York, offered recommendations on how to retain and revitalize the city’s manufacturing base, citing where and when it is appropriate to do so. Even as rezonings continue to swap manufacturing for residential land, the issue remains alive.

More from the book

Fitch described Battery Park City as "socialism for the rich," drawing in one year $126.3 million in tax abatements and delivering just $37 million in revenue for affordable housing.

The loss of 30,000 jobs in clearing land for the World Trade Center was nearly 1% of all jobs in the city, Fitch noted. And where did the New York Times put that news? Page 23.

Fitch termed the period from 1949 (the beginning of federal Title 1 funding) through the mid-1960s (Mayor John Lindsay's last term) "real estate stalinism." New York City, with 4% of the nation's population, represented 32% of all urban renewal construction.