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The Shiffman solution: a timeout for megadevelopment projects

A recently broadcast CUNY Forum TV program, Megadevelopment in New York City, featured some lively discussion about major projects like Atlantic Yards and Columbia University's expansion in Manhattanville.

Notably, pointing to the advent of a new governor, longtime community planner Ron Shiffman called for a timeout on megaprojects like Atlantic Yards so they don't get snagged in an eminent domain battle but rather emerge from a truly public process.

"New York City is expanding in population," acknowledged Shiffman, who formerly headed the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED) and now teaches at Pratt. "We’re going to need higher density development. But we should do it in a way that we don’t overwhelm the local physical social and economic infrastructure. The only way to do it well is by engaging the people who live in the area, as well as citywide interests."

State control

Council Member Melinda Katz of Queens, who chairs the Land Use Committee, acknowledged that it was "frustrating" that several major projects, including Battery Park City and Ground Zero, are "outside of our scope" because they're managed by the state. "We do hope that the state does it well."

Shiffman, a former member of the City Planning Commission, pointed out that the plan in place for Battery Park City (BPC) was the third plan, as two previous versions were rejected after public discourse.

He cited an enormous development--more than 300 acres--in Hamburg, Germany that has tried to draw on the example of BPC and other projects. "The first thing they did was engage the public in a discussion about the principles of what they want developed," he said. After that, the plan would go to the city council, go through a competition, then back to the council before the site would be subdivided and put up for bid.

Comparison to AY

Shiffman constrasted Hamburg's effort with two projects at home. “What we’re seeing at Atlantic Yards, and at Columbia today, is the public facilitating a private development without any prediscussion as to what would benefit the public as a whole, what social infrastructure, environmental infrastructure, and economic infrastructure we should be turning over to the city," said Shiffman, who has joined the advisory board of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. "It’s basically how to facilitate the goals of the private developer.”

Affordable housing

Host Bob Liff, senior VP of George Arzt Communications and a former journalist, pointed out how the Bloomberg administration now relies on market forces rather than city projects to jump-start affordable housing.

Katz called it "a balancing act." Depending on the financials, the housing could be affordable for people making 125% of the Area Median Income (AMI) or 60% of AMI. "You have to give incentives [to builders]," said Katz, who allowed that "anybody working for minimum wage" should be able to afford to live in the city.

(The minimum wage in New York is $6.75, which means $14,040 annually at 40 hours/week. That's only 20% of AMI.)

Shiffman pointed out that London and Munich have made affordable housing mandatory. If New York did so, it could produce "the subsidies for this city to truly grow in an equitable way."

Katz noted that, as the city does rezonings, "Everything becomes a precedent," so there's pressure to lower the eligible AMI and increase the percentage of affordable housing.

Shiffman praised the council and the mayor for requiring that affordable housing be permanent. "It’s not what we did stupidly when I was younger and thought that 30 years would never come," he said. "All of sudden, those subsidies expire. We can’t do that any longer. I think, in their wisdom, that’s what they did. They still haven’t made it mandatory, it’s just a goal.”

Note that the Atlantic Yards affordable housing would last 30 years.

Eminent domain

The panelists tackled the issue of eminent domain. Negotiation, said Katz is the best way. James Gill, Chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, commented, "Eminent domain seems to be getting a little out of hand. To me, it’s something you go to as a last resort."

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, Chairman of Community Board 9 in Manhattan, where Columbia plans to expand, was emphatic. "Eminent domain, when you take private property to give it to a private developer, is nothing but thievery," he said. "If the government takes a piece of property to build a hospital or to build a school, that is the proper use of eminent domain."

Katz observed, "There’s going to be more and more court cases. No one wants be the test case."

The Shiffman solution

Shiffman offered a solution. "The next governor… is going to have to govern when all of these projects will come to fruition. He will either be getting the acclaim for the success of it or have to reap the burden of the failure of these projects. The gubernatorial candidates should call for a timeout on these large scale development projects and find a way to facilitate a public process that enables them to go ahead after public review… and really carefully look at how eminent domain is used in the future, so it meets the Kelo requirement, that there be preplanning, not planning after the fact, such as Atlantic Yards, but preplanning, and that there be the dispersal of the property if it’s taken, solely for a public purpose, and not for one developer.”

His reading to the Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo eminent domain decision tracks that of some Atlantic Yards critics and opponents; while the court upheld the use of eminent domain in New London, CT, it did so only because it was preceded by an open planning process. (However, it's likely that an eminent domain lawsuit will be filed, if not resolved, before the next governor takes office.)

Liff played devil's advocate. After all, he said, such projects do produce public benefits via property taxes.

Shiffman didn't buy it. “That has to occur after a public discourse… and to make sure that the beneficiary is not a single developer," he said, suggesting that the process involving developer Forest City Ratner and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) violates "my reading of Kelo… It has to be used very surgically.”

Time for new boards

There's aother argument for Shiffman's solution. The new governor, almost assuredly Democratic nominee Eliot Spitzer, will want to replace board members appointed by outgoing Republican Gov. George Pataki, including those on the ESDC.

As the New York Observer reports in an article this week headlined Spitzer Readies Long Knives For Pataki’s Appointees:
It is not just Peter Kalikow, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whom Mr. Spitzer will call upon to step down, but the rank-and-file members of numerous boards that set policy, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Empire State Development Corporation and the Thruway Authority.
...Certainly, appointees like Mr. Kalikow won’t be inclined to make this any easier for Mr. Spitzer, who has angered Pataki loyalists with relentless, sometimes personal criticism of the Governor and the people who serve him. At an upstate appearance in September, for instance, the Democrat said that he would replace Charles Gargano, the chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, with someone “who knows where money needs to be spent, and not just hanging out in Manhattan, going to cocktail parties with celebrities.

Robert Moses redux?

A student questioner suggested that the use of eminent domain echoed that Robert Moses, in his mid-century effort to rebuild the city via various authorities, with little oversight. (CUNY Forum is a monthly town meeting that brings prominent New Yorkers together with faculty and students of the Edward T. Rogowsky Internship Program in Government and Public Affairs.)

Shiffman commented, "I think what’s happening is we’re slipping into a belief that if we have authorities we can overcome local regulatory devices. I think that’s a big, fundamental mistake. The importance of UDC [Urban Development Corporation] and the EDC [Economic Development Corporation] in the case of Battery Park City is to facilitate development once there’s common agreement on a set of goals. To override local goals and local desires and to use the power of eminent domain I think in the long run is going to come back and haunt development in the city."

The MTA & AY

A member of the audience asked why the Metropolitan Transportation Authority sold rights to the Vanderbilt Yard in Brooklyn for "a small fraction of appraised value."

Shiffman responded, "Because there really isn’t a planning process… We’re not only disposing of it at a below-market cost, we’re also not reaping the kind of public benefits we should be reaping"

Given that they are public land, the Vanderbilt Yard and the Sunnyside Yards in Queens demand "a common set of ideals and goals," Shiffman asserted. He added that the Atlantic Yards project, with the currently projected population, would actually lead to a decrease in the amount of open space per capita.

He offered an alternative path to affordable housing rather than the privately negotiated Community Benefits Agreement. "We have to make sure that it isn’t only the advocacy efforts of a group like ACORN that fight for inclusionary housing, but that the affordability be mandated upfront, if it’s public land," he said. "Then, after all of those are taken into consideration, when we can weigh the public benefit, then we can determine what the true price should be. If you break it up into small parcels, and allow it to be bid out…then you get a true public-private partnership, not the kind of development that we have today."

BPC examples

At one point, Gill suggested one solution to the city's shrinking space for development: more landfill adding to Battery Park City. "You could do whatever you wanted with that 50 acres," he said.

He added, "Properties like Battery Park City belong to the public, not simply the people who live there… We go out of way to indicate that people are welcome to use our parks and our gardens… that’s the way it ought to be."

Where to go?

One student asked a basic but poignant question: "Where do all the residents go, after they’re priced out? Does the city have a plan?"

Katz handled it a bit uneasily. "We are trying to create as much affordable housing as we can," she said.

But the question remains: if rents continue rising in working-class districts, and the pool of affordable housing doesn't commensurately, where will people go? How will reform of the city's 421-a tax break play out?


  1. Regarding the Columbia University Development plans in Manhattanville, which encompasses the area of 125th ST to 133rd St, Broadway to the Hudson River, I see government working against the taxpayer, the ordinary citizen. I own a business property for 34 years and I'm a 100% WBE, NYC and NYS certified and Mr. Bollinger, Pres.of Columbia University, known for free speech and affirmative action support, wants to forcibly strip me of my property by the use of eminent domain. CU has purchased Manhattanville property for the past six years, boarded it up, kept it vacant, hung "fake" for rent signs and degraded the area around me for their handy purpose of stealing it away from the taxpayer. My building at 3229 Broadway is on the State and National register of historic buildings, CU has the first Masters program in historic preservation and they plan to bulldoze my property after they steal it by eminent domain for their private purposes, a business park for biotech, retail shopping, some academic use, restaurants, etc. They are corporate in every way but legally. The so called benevolent institution, Columbia University is not what they say they are. They misuse their power and influence at the expense of a minority community in West Harlem.

  2. Are privately negotiated Community Benefits Agreements (CBA) and private nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable
    corporations reasonable substitutes for a transparent, city and state chartered, community-based
    district authority on land management issues
    ? A community-centered authority of this kind is an effective counter
    balance to a big developer. It should have the capacity to deploy Shiffman’s solution, to “break
    it into reasonable parts” as well as others, if this kind of public/private balance existed on
    the field of play.

  3. Are privately negotiated Community Benefits Agreements (CBA) and private nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable
    corporations reasonable substitutes for a transparent, city and state chartered, community-based
    district authority on land management issues
    ? A community-centered authority of this kind is an effective counter
    balance to a big developer. It should have the capacity to deploy Shiffman’s solution, to “break
    it into reasonable parts”. Many solutions could be imagined if this kind of public/private balance existed on
    the field of play.

    Many of these structures exist now, they are responsive to election cycles and elected
    representatives who control board memberships, but none of them has a function that reaches as effectively
    and as fully
    into a community except one. It is the most democratic land management structure available to the resident’s
    of New York City, and if it is not reformed and strengthened, it will fail. The city’s planning
    are put in power by at least two mayors over time and this kind of representation practice reaches all
    the way through the department of city planning and
    most city agencies to the members of the community district boards who are appointed by there city council
    representatives and the Borough President.

    CBAs and private corporations charitable and otherwise are the wrong vehicles for brokering deals or
    distributing development proceeds. These issues are too important for “a private corporate” engagement.
    In the case of the Atlantic Yards and the CU expansion these private corporations seek the tools of
    the state (a public corporation) to take the land of one in order to benefit another. A community can
    sophisticated enough to understand and promote a fair mechanism for the distribution of development
    proceeds one closing at a time and one project at a time, it is also sophisticated enough to know that
    the greater
    wealth of one district should be shared in mutual interest with another.

    Shiffman’s point walks a fine line between the demands for an extensive public process and a process
    that is without a publicly accountable method for “showing the money”. I have been with
    developers who have suggested that working with the city can cost $1 million or more in the lost time
    value of money,
    but when they look at the product of a critical public process, they will admit to seeing this paper
    loss evaporated by dramatically improving the public trust. The public’s trust is the capital
    developers need most in a democratic society. The main question therefore becomes who
    are the brokers of this trust (freely given for the most part) in the Atlantic Yards and Columbia proposals?
    If these brokers betray people who simply demand effective inclusion,
    will they betray us all? This is the essential political point.


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