Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1420 Tue, 12 Dec 2017 02:27:34 +0000 en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 'Open Budget,' Economic Development Transparency Bills Become Law http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7346:open-budget-economic-development-transparency-bills-become-law http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7346:open-budget-economic-development-transparency-bills-become-law de Blasio public hearing City Council bills

De Blasio at a public hearing (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Four government transparency bills that were passed by the City Council on October 31 aged into law on Friday, having gone 30 days without any action in favor or against them by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The bills all relate to increased disclosure by the administration of billions in city government spending and have been praised by good government advocates.

Among the bills was one that requires the administration to publish annual budget documents in a user-friendly, machine-readable format to the city’s online Open Data Portal, allowing the public easier access to information that is currently listed in thousands of line items in the $86 billion city budget. The bill’s lead sponsor was Council Member Ben Kallos.

The three other bills -- with lead sponsors Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Dan Garodnick, and Corey Johnson -- formed a package aimed at improving transparency at the Economic Development Corporation, a city-run entity that manages and promotes the administration’s job-creation and business-development initiatives. The bills allow the City Council added oversight of EDC, which provides many millions of dollars in financial benefits to projects and businesses each year and also handles the sale and lease of city-owned land. They mandate that EDC provide fiscal impact statements and job creation estimates for projects receiving financial assistance; require EDC to detail their efforts to clawback funds from those agreements that fail to meet their goals; and allow the City Council time to review and comment on proposed economic development agreements.

“These new City laws will make it much easier to understand both the big picture of how the City is spending money and the specifics of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidy deals the City makes with businesses,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good government group, in a statement Friday. “It will be much easier to see if the taxpayer is getting a good deal. These new laws are a blueprint for what the state should do.”

The City Charter provides that if the mayor takes no action on a bill after it is approved by the City Council, within 30 days, it automatically becomes law. In fact, it’s “pretty common” for bills to age into law without the mayor’s signature, said mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein, in an email on Friday. She added that if the mayor signed every bill, “we’d be doing bill signings like every day.”  

Goldstein noted that out of the 25 bills passed by the Council on October 31, all but one aged into law. The only one the mayor signed was Council Member Rafael Espinal’s bill to repeal the city’s antiquated Cabaret Law, which used to require establishments to obtain licences from the city to allow dancing. De Blasio signed the bill on November 27 at Elsewhere, a popular nightclub in Brooklyn.

Often, the mayor holds bill-signing ceremonies at City Hall, affixing his signature to numerous bills at a time. At one such ceremony on October 16, for instance, de Blasio signed a dozen bills into law. “It’s really just a timing thing,” Goldstein said in a later email, estimating that perhaps close to 100 bills have similarly lapsed into law in de Blasio’s first term.

City Council spokesperson Robin Levine declined to comment for this article.

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
'Open Budget,' Economic Development Transparency Bills Become Law Fri, 01 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Where the Mayor Opposes Affordable Housing and Neighborhood Character http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7312:where-the-mayor-opposes-affordable-housing-and-neighborhood-character http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7312:where-the-mayor-opposes-affordable-housing-and-neighborhood-character union square tech hub rendering1

Union Square tech hub image rendering via EDC


Mayor de Blasio claims that creating and preserving affordable housing in our city is a top priority for his administration. But in Greenwich Village and the East Village, he has consistently blocked rezoning plans that would help create and preserve affordable housing where little exists, and opposed eliminating loopholes that aid developers, including his campaign fundraisers, in getting around existing affordable housing provisions.

For over three years, we have asked the mayor to change zoning rules for the University Place and Broadway corridors in our neighborhood, where intense development is rapidly accelerating. Current zoning only allows luxury condos, hotels, and office buildings to be built there. As a result, a 300-foot-tall luxury condo tower has just topped out on 12th Street, with no affordable housing (under our rezoning plan, that development could have included 29,000 square feet or more of affordable housing). A slew of office towers catering to high-end firms are going up or being planned in the area at a similar scale, along with other luxury condo projects; we can only expect more of the same under the existing zoning.

Our plan calls for switching to zoning of the type that exist in other neighborhoods which incentivizes the inclusion of affordable housing in new developments, or to make that inclusion mandatory. Our zoning plan would not fundamentally change the allowable overall size of new development, but would cap new building heights at about half that of these new out-of-scale towers, preserving neighborhood scale and character.

Next door, along 3rd and 4th Avenues, we are seeking to close a loophole in the zoning for these blocks that allows developers to sidestep the existing incentives for creating affordable housing by building purely commercial buildings. That loophole recently resulted in the demolition of five modest walk-up apartment buildings with scores of housing units, many of them rent-regulated, to make way for a 300-room hotel being built by David Lichtenstein (founder and CEO of the Lightstone Group), who raised funds for the mayor and was appointed by the mayor to the Economic Development Corporation. Our zoning plan would cut the size of commercial developments in this predominantly residential neighborhood, so new development would almost certainly be residential and subject to the affordable housing incentives. Here too, those incentives could be made mandatory.

The mayor’s response? A resounding “no.” In fact, until publicly confronted about this at a recent town hall, the mayor’s planning officials even refused to meet with us. The situation is made even more urgent by the plan by the mayor and his Economic Development Corporation to rezone a nearby site to create an enormous “tech hub.” Lacking the zoning protections we are calling for, this will only accelerate the rate of high-rise condo and commercial development in the nearby residential area, with no affordable housing (the proposed tech hub site had been earmarked for affordable housing years ago to boot).

The mayor has a policy of only allowing rezonings that mandate affordable housing, for which there are strong arguments. What lacks any justification is the mayor’s insistence that such rezonings also allow vast increases in the allowable size and amount of new market-rate housing. Because our proposed rezoning does not, the mayor opposes it. But his way not only undermines the entire purpose of including affordable housing, by also flooding the area with much more high-end housing than would otherwise be built, but destroys the scale and character of neighborhoods at the same time. This is why so many communities across the city have resisted the mayor’s rezoning plans, while putting forward their own, much more reasonable ones.

If the mayor has his way, this part of the Village and East Village will retain zoning that will only lead to a vast flood of out-of-scale condos, hotels, and upscale office towers, and miss opportunities to create or preserve affordable housing where it is sorely lacking.

Under our plan, supported by every local elected official and community group, new development would have strong incentives or requirements to include affordable housing, and would remain in scale with the neighborhood without unduly taking building rights away from the developers.

So, which side are you on, Mr. Mayor?

***
Andrew Berman is Executive Director of Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. On Twitter @GVSHP.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

]]>
Where the Mayor Opposes Affordable Housing and Neighborhood Character Thu, 09 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? 348 and 74 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7293:what-s-the-data-point-348-and-74 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7293:what-s-the-data-point-348-and-74 whats the data point


What's The Data Point? Episode 18 -- 348 and 74 [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

348 74 277

This week's data points are 348 and 74 as we bring you a two-part show, each featuring the author of a new CBC report out this week.

348 is the number of Local Development Corporations and Industrial Development Agencies in New York State. These corporations, created by local governments throughout the state, are intended to help spur economic development. But, are they effective? Riley Edwards, the principal author of "Opaque and Duplicative - Local Economic Development in New York State" discusses.

Then: 74 is the number of Business Improvement Districts in New York City. Are BIDs effective? Are they transparent? Tim Sullivan, author of CBC report "BIDS - Oversight, Organization and Transparency" discusses.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Carol Kellerman of CBC (@cbcny), and guests Riley Edwards and Tim Sullivan of CBC. Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
What's The [DATA] Point? 348 and 74 Thu, 02 Nov 2017 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Passes Bills Expanding Oversight of Economic Development Spending http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7284:city-council-to-pass-bills-expanding-oversight-of-economic-development-spending http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7284:city-council-to-pass-bills-expanding-oversight-of-economic-development-spending dmw7vyeuqaayxfq.jpg large

CM Garodnick speaks at a groundbreaking ceremony (photo via @DanGarodnick)


[editor's note: the bills discussed in this story have passed the Council since its publish; the headline has been tweaked to indicate that fact, but the story remains unchanged from its publish]

The New York City Council is set to pass a package of three bills that will expand its oversight of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, a city-affiliated non-profit that is instrumental in the city’s efforts to stimulate business and create jobs.

The EDC handles a wide array of projects and initiatives from infrastructure and real estate development to cultural projects and parks and public spaces. The organization’s work is at the center of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to create 100,000 jobs over ten years that pay $50,000 annually, and it recently led the process for the city’s bid to host the second headquarters of retail giant Amazon. Hundreds of projects receive financial assistance each year from the city through EDC in the form of tax benefits, loans, grants, and even energy benefits

But as of now, EDC is required to report little publicly about its operations and the benefits of its work to the city and New Yorkers. The City Council bills being passed this week, which are expected to be signed into law by the mayor, seek to increase those reporting requirements to add a layer of accountability and transparency to EDC’s work.

“We spend an extraordinary sum every year on economic development and the goals are laudable: creation of jobs, the expansion of affordable housing or even the refurbishing of important cultural or historical sites,” said City Council Member Daniel Garodnick, chair of the economic development committee and prime sponsor of one of the three bills in the package, in a phone interview. “But, unfortunately it’s not always clear whether these dollars achieve their intended objectives.”

Garodnick’s bill would require the EDC to provide fiscal impact statements for projects it sponsors, including estimates of the number of jobs being created. Another bill, sponsored by Council Member Corey Johnson, would require EDC to report on its efforts to recover funds from any third party that received financial assistance but failed to live up to an economic development agreement. The third bill, sponsored by Council Member Helen Rosenthal, would give the City Council an opportunity to comment on proposed economic development agreements by mandating that EDC provide project descriptions and budgets to the Council at least 30 days before the agreement is finalized.  

The three bills build on Garodnick’s efforts that he began in 2014 to improve oversight of EDC and how it utilizes taxpayer money. Last year, Garodnick and Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the Council’s finance chair, led a task force to examine the city’s economic development tax expenditures. The task force issued 10 recommendations including instituting regular reviews of tax expenditures and improved oversight. The three bills being passed on Wednesday were an outcome of those recommendations.

“Through these bills, EDC will provide comprehensive fiscal impact statements and enhanced compliance reports for projects that receive our financial assistance,” said Shavone Williams, an EDC spokesperson, in a statement. “We look forward to this collaboration with the City Council as part of our larger efforts to remain as transparent as possible to the communities we serve.”

Support from EDC indicates the mayor will sign into laws the bills, which have passed through Garodnick’s committee and will be voted on by the full City Council on Tuesday.

Garodnick did acknowledge that EDC has improved its processes and that it already provides some information annually on its projects as required under city and state law. EDC puts out an Annual Investments Projects Report, in three volumes, on projects that receive financial assistance and details of the sales and leases of city-land. The last report, issued January 30, notes that EDC provided some form of financial assistance to 554 projects in fiscal year 2016. The report included information on 46 sales of city-land that brought in $536.1 million and 89 leases of city-owned land with rents worth $126.1 million.

The 554 projects accounted for 5.9 percent of the total private employment in the city; about $36.1 billion in private investment; they cost the city about $138 million in fiscal year 2016 (totalling $1.8 billion over the life of the projects) and brought in $5.2 billion in tax revenue (estimated to grow to $50.3 billion over the life of the projects).

“I felt that more could be done to ensure that the public has a handle on how we are spending our money here and we want to give the public better access to this information,” said Garodnick, who is leaving the Council at the end of the year due to term limits. “We want to go further and be able to measure the upfront goals with the outcomes.”

Indeed, in the context of numerous neighborhood rezonings proposed by the de Blasio administration across the city, advocacy groups have consistently called for more rigorous scrutiny of promises made by the city and keeping developers accountable if they receive any benefits from the administration. This also applies to singular projects, including the prominent example of the Bedford Union Armory redevelopment, a process that was spearheaded by EDC. The project is on city land but proposes a long-term lease to a private developer, raising concerns among community advocates.

“There is a natural tension here between the need to activate economic development measures and local community perspectives,” Garodnick said, when Gotham Gazette ventured whether increased oversight was necessary in the aftermath of the Bloomberg years, when development went largely unchecked. “And part of this is ensuring that local needs are considered and that’s really what the Rosenthal bill is about. This is a very important agency that spends an extraordinary amount of money which does a lot of good work. We want to add these oversight measures to ensure the greatest transparency of taxpayer dollars.”

Garodnick also agreed that there’s a need to ensure that the mayor’s plan to invest in burgeoning economic sectors to directly create 100,000 jobs receives the appropriate scrutiny. “This would always be important but with the commitment that is being made to find ways to create economic opportunities, this is even more important,” he said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
City Council Passes Bills Expanding Oversight of Economic Development Spending Mon, 30 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Top City Electeds Skip Letter Wooing Amazon http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7266:top-city-electeds-skip-letter-wooing-amazon http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7266:top-city-electeds-skip-letter-wooing-amazon wtc orange amazon via edc

One World Trade Center lit up orange for Amazon (photo via NYC EDC)


New York is laying out the red carpet to entice online retail giant Amazon to locate its new corporate headquarters in the state. Governor Andrew Cuomo promised a slew of incentives to support four official proposals from different regions that were submitted to the company on Wednesday, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio lit up the city in orange at night as a fawning branding appeal.

New York City’s own bid -- which included four possible business districts -- was backed by about 70 elected officials that represent the city, including members of Congress, state Senators and Assembly members, City Council members, borough presidents, and Public Advocate Letitia James. But at least four notable elected officials were conspicuously absent from the letter of support sent by the mayor’s office to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, of the Bronx, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and City Council Members Corey Johnson and Donovan Richards, both contenders to become the next Speaker of the City Council, did not sign on to the letter.

“No city embodies the American traditions of innovation and creativity quite like New York City,” the letter reads. “It has transformed from a Dutch settlement, to the nation’s first capital, to a booming industrial center. It became a port of hope for millions of immigrants looking for a better life, and a model for urban revitalization. From Broadway, the Bronx Zoo and the Brooklyn Bridge, to Citi Field and the shores of Staten Island, New York City is a place where history is made every day. Our tradition of reinvention matches yours, and we invite you to join us in writing our next chapters together.”

A spokesperson for Stringer declined to comment. Multiple messages and emails sent to spokespeople for Heastie were not returned.

“We’re excited about the prospect of new businesses coming to New York City,” said Jordan Gibbons, a spokesperson for Council Member Richards, “but before we support the plan, we need more information about job standards and impact on local businesses.”

Council Member Johnson wrote in a text that he “didn’t sign on to [the] letter because I have concerns about Amazon’s labor record but also recognize 50K jobs would be good for the city.”  

As Johnson noted, Amazon’s second headquarters is expected to create 50,000 jobs and bring in roughly $5 billion in investment. One of the proposed areas for Amazon’s headquarters, Midtown West, falls in Johnson’s Manhattan district. City Council members representing other proposed sites for the headquarters signed on to the letter.

Amazon’s announcement and request for proposals triggered a mad dash by dozens of cities across the country to lure the multi-billion-dollar company. To bolster their bids, some cities and states have promised enormous tax breaks while others have pledged infrastructure investments around a potential Amazon campus. Most have hedged their bets on being able to provide the optimum balance of tech talent, affordable and ample real estate, and an appealing quality of life. One municipality in Georgia even went so far as to propose creating an entirely new city named for the online retailer.

Short of naming a new business district after Amazon, New York City’s pitch includes all those aspects. Culled from more than two dozen proposals from across the five boroughs, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, in collaboration with the Empire State Development Corporation, decided on four city areas that met Amazon’s criteria -- Midtown West, Long Island City, Lower Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Tech Triangle. The city is banking on many factors, including its pool of 2.3 million residents who hold a bachelor’s degree and above -- a number higher than the combined comparable workforce of Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

The city has 296,000 workers in the tech industry and is growing rapidly in sectors of the economy where Amazon is diversifying, including media, advertising, fashion, and manufacturing.

And the city is already an attractive destination for Amazon, which has a distribution and fulfillment center, corporate offices and retail space in the city with plans to expand in Manhattan. Amazon’s website says it has 1,000 employees in New York, plus seasonal additions around the winter holidays.

An EDC spokesperson said the city cast a wide net seeking support for the proposal. “Considering how hard it is to get New Yorkers to agree on anything, the fact that we got so many signatures in such a short time was pretty impressive and overwhelming,” the spokesperson said, expressing optimism that New York would outmatch other cities with its bid.

Asked at an unrelated Thursday news conference about his pursuit of Amazon when he has been opposed to Walmart opening in the city, de Blasio called it “apples and oranges.” “Amazon, there are some issues that need to be addressed with labor, there’s no two ways about it. But, at the same time, this is a company talking about potentially fundamentally changing the economy in New York City. Adding 50,000 jobs is a game-changer. And it’s something we need and we need more high-quality jobs for the people of New York City. So we can work on those labor issues and I’m happy to work on those labor issues, but no, I’m convinced that Amazon will be a net gain for New York City, unquestionably.”

Responding to Johnson’s concerns, the EDC spokesperson said that Amazon’s presence in New York would afford the city an opportunity to engage directly with the firm and “work with them to advance our shared values.” Pointing out that it was premature to evaluate a deal that hasn’t yet been approved, the spokesperson said the city would be able to negotiate down the line to add guarantees to ensure the number of jobs created, salary levels and that jobs go to New Yorkers. “It’s pretty clear to us that they want to build the headquarters with the community, not in the community,” the spokesperson said.

“It’s puzzling, I don’t know why you’d want to turn down a shot at 50,000 good-paying jobs,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, when asked why leaders like Stringer, Heastie, and Johnson would not sign on. He conceded that concerns about corporate subsidies are valid, but that the Amazon opportunity is too good to pass up. “It’s a big win for New York City if we can get it.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Top City Electeds Skip Letter Wooing Amazon Thu, 19 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Can Redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory Be Saved? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7232:can-redevelopment-of-the-bedford-union-armory-be-saved http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7232:can-redevelopment-of-the-bedford-union-armory-be-saved bedford armory rendering

Rendering of the Bedford Union Armory via BFC Partners


A land use proposal to redevelop the 138,000-square-foot, publicly-owned Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights to create a mix of different types of housing and a state-of-the-art recreation center has seen successive setbacks in recent months. As proposed, the project has been rejected by community advocates, the local community board, the local City Council member, Laurie Cumbo, and the borough president, Eric Adams, all of whom believe the project should include more affordable housing.

The de Blasio administration, in response, has vowed to work with local elected officials and the city-selected developer behind the project to make it acceptable, especially to Cumbo, who will have the final say in a few short weeks.

But, with any land use redevelopment, the administration must balance the resources at its disposal to achieve maximum effect, and in this case, making the project more palatable to community members calling it a harbinger of gentrification would likely mean making it less profitable for the developer and more costly for the city. As the clock ticks on negotiations and a series of essential decisions dictated by the city’s land use review process, it is unclear what steps the de Blasio administration might take to make a deal happen, advance a key project, and avoid a potentially significant political defeat.

BFC Partners is the developer selected through a competitive bidding process run by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. The initial request for proposals (RFP) was put out in October 2013, prior to Mayor Bill de Blasio taking office, and the project was awarded to BFC in December 2015. Over the next year, the project became a source of significant controversy and become a burning issue in this year’s District 35 City Council race, where Cumbo was running for reelection. It has also become a symbol of the de Blasio administration’s strategy for creating affordable housing across the city and a sore spot and political vulnerability for the mayor, a fellow Democrat who did not endorse Cumbo but sent behind-the-scenes support for her campaign.

The redevelopment proposal envisions converting the armory -- which spans an entire city block and sits defunct -- into an affordable recreation center, 330 rental housing units at various levels of affordability, and 56 condominiums to be sold.

Of the 330 rental units, 164 would be market rate while the rest would be “affordable” for low-income and middle-income families, whereby rents are capped so that tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income to the landlord. Affordability is calculated according to the 2016 Area Median Income (AMI) of $81,600 for a family of three. The rental units would include 18 units at 40 percent AMI; 49 units at 50 percent AMI; and 99 units at 110 percent AMI, providing rent regulated apartments to households of various income levels.

AMI apartments Bedford Union Armory

Of the condos, 44 would be sold at market rate and 12 at 120 percent AMI. BFC Partners would receive a 99-year ground lease on a majority of the site, recouping its costs through sales of the condos, rents on the apartments, fees from the recreation center, and a developer fee from the city.

De Blasio has pitched the project as a much-needed community facility, similar to the Park Slope Armory recreation center, which can be kept affordable in the long-term under the current structure of the plan, with the benefit of creating affordable housing. As it stands, the project does not include any housing subsidies that the administration has used in the past to create more affordability in land use redevelopments. At a September 14 news conference, de Blasio indicated openness to adding more subsidies, though he was noncommittal as to what the city might do to sweeten the deal.

“[W]e want that to be the best possible project for the community, we're going to look at every way to improve it,” he told reporters, noting that the current plan allows for the recreation center to be affordable on an ongoing basis. “That's what we need to come out of this in the end. But we’re going to work with the Council member to see if there is a way to improve the project that would win her support and be more comfortable for the community.”

Cumbo, the Council member de Blasio referred to, recently won the primary for her reelection effort against an opponent who put the Bedford Union Armory at the core of the campaign, accusing Cumbo of being too close to real estate developers and ineffective at stemming the gentrification and displacement sweeping the changing district. Cumbo faced criticism for dithering about the project for months only to oppose it earlier this year, but came to draw a line in the sand on the project. Without her approval, the project is dead on arrival at the City Council, which traditionally votes with the local member on land use applications and will have 50 days to evaluate the deal once it is referred by the City Planning Commission, perhaps with adjustments, unless it is taken completely off the table by then.

Cumbo was not made available to comment for this article. Her spokesperson, Kristia Beaubrun, referred Gotham Gazette to the Council member’s statement in May when she came out against the proposal.

"Since the very beginning our message has been clear: We will not allow public land to be used for the purpose of luxury condominiums,” she said, calling on the mayor to “go back to the drawing board and produce a plan that meets the needs of my Brooklyn neighbors.”

Last month, Borough President Adams, as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) required of all such proposals, rejected the project and recommended that the city increase the number of deeply affordable units and also provide more upper-tier affordable housing units to offset the costs of running the recreation center.

Adams also called for more permanent affordability -- currently, 30 percent of the units are permanently affordable -- and for 20 percent of the rental apartments to be allotted to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s “Our Space Initiative” for housing homeless families. “This is our opportunity to get this right,” he said. “This process has gone through years of debate, emotions, and public scrutiny, both for and against the development. We must ultimately come together and find the right balance that is the ideal solution for the future of Crown Heights, and for the optimal reuse of the Bedford Union Armory as a public resource.”

The proposal is currently before the City Planning Commission, which will hold a public review session on Wednesday before voting on the project later this month. The CPC can either approve the project, with or without changes, and send it to the City Council for further review, or it can reject it, although that would be shocking and especially rare.

“It’s hard for me to imagine tweaks at this stage that would address the concerns being raised,” said Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Goldstein, who is not involved in the community efforts around the armory, said the administration isn’t taking full advantage of the city’s ownership of the land, which allows it to demand more benefits than it could if the project were on a privately-owned site. “There are broader concerns about wanting lasting community control,” she said.

Goldstein hits at the heart of the opposition to the project by community activists. The Our Armory Coalition, a group that includes the Crown Heights Tenant Union, New York Communities for Change, Picture the Homeless, The Black Institute, The Legal Aid Society, and others, have called for a community land trust to develop the project, rather than a private firm. That would allow community voices to drive decisions on the property in the community interest, rather than effectively giving a for-profit developer a century-long hold over public property.

“The RFP process for the Bedford Armory has been flawed and corrupt from the very start,” said the coalition, in a statement last month, calling for the project to be scrapped entirely and for the city to issue a new request for proposals. “Elected officials including Cumbo are [sic] failed to address the fact that BFC is a for profit developer, making money off our public land while not providing real affordability to the community. And that’s unacceptable.”

“I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t be explored,” said ANHD’s Goldstein of a community land trust, also insisting that it isn’t the only option available. “There are other ways to build in the idea that public land is a public resource that should remain public. I think there’s a flaw in the calculus the city is using.”

She acknowledged that deeper affordability would require more city subsidies and that BFC’s application may have been the most attractive proposal. But, she said, “It’s shortsighted to do what’s cheaper in the short term. What you lose in the long term is permanent affordability. It’s hard to start from where they are and make it more affordable.”

One housing expert said the city is trying to save as much money as possible, and any subsidies applied to the Bedford Union Armory would mean not being able to use them in other neighborhoods. “The city likes to think of itself as a negotiator on the community side but they’re really not, they’re really just a broker,” said the expert said, who requested anonymity to speak more freely and pointed out that the hurdles to the Bedford Armory project stem from the city’s “deal-by-deal approach” to development, which allows community advocates to pressure the administration with an all-or-nothing opposition rather than pushing for compromise.

That’s the case with the Our Armory coalition. Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change and a strident critic of the administration on its housing policies, is adamant that the only way the project could be acceptable to his group is if there are no luxury condos or market-rate rental units. “They could force the developer off the project and make it 100 percent affordable since it’s on public land,” he said. “Using public land to build luxury housing is a travesty.”

Although issuing a new RFP for the project, and triggering another round of ULURP, could potentially take years, Westin said it would be worth it. “It’s better than a gentrification project that would displace the community.”

Westin also pushed back against the argument that the condos are being used to cross-subsidize the recreation center. A BFC spokesperson earlier told Gotham Gazette that the firm will make a net profit of less than $800,000 from the sale of the condos and that those funds would be put back into the recreation center. The spokesperson also said that the annual cash-flow from all the rental units, which are expensive to operate and maintain, would be around $800,000. Citing Borough President Adams’ recommendations, the spokesperson pointed out that removing the revenue-generating component of the project would require other funds to fill the gap, while noting that the original RFP for the project specified that the developer should not request any housing subsidies from the city.

“This cross-subsidization frame is what luxury developers use to justify luxury development,” Westin said. Instead, he said the city could designate the armory as a land bank and set restrictions on the land, which could then be developed by a nonprofit developer. “It’s completely feasible to do this project 100 percent affordable,” he said.

The project does have its supporters. Geoffrey Davis, a Democratic district leader from Crown Heights, emphasized that the recreation center was a necessity for the community. “Our seniors, our young people, our community will have a place to go to,” he said in a phone interview. “I say, continue to negotiate, work it out. Do not leave the table. If you say kill the deal and walk away, we’re talking about another 30 years.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Can Redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory Be Saved? Tue, 03 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Where’s the Mayor’s Jobs Plan? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6962:where-s-the-mayor-s-jobs-plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6962:where-s-the-mayor-s-jobs-plan de blasio jobs tour

Mayor de Blasio in the Bronx (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Kicking off his week in the Bronx, Mayor Bill de Blasio said May 22 that his administration’s efforts to fight inequality are working and that while unemployment has dropped significantly in the borough, there is more work to be done. “The Bronx has borne the brunt of that inequality crisis in many ways,” the mayor said, but what his administration is doing is “disproportionately benefiting the Bronx.”

The mayor told those sitting with him -- senior administration officials and Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. -- and any others paying attention that his administration is focused on “maximizing economic opportunity.” “[N]ot just any jobs,” the mayor said, “but in fact an increasing focus on good paying jobs, which is what I devoted the State of the City to.”

De Blasio was referring to his February 13 speech, during which he announced that the city would invest in creating 100,000 permanent private sector jobs that pay more than $50,000 a year. It would be a ten-year plan, the mayor said, and while de Blasio offered a few examples of the economic sectors that would see some of that job growth -- tech, life sciences, renewable energy, manufacturing -- his announcement included few details. Soon after his State of the City, de Blasio explained that his administration would be releasing a detailed policy book, as it had done in 2014 with his 200,000-unit ten-year affordable housing plan and a few other major initiatives, to show where the jobs would come from and how.

On and off for several weeks, the mayor defended setting the 100,000 goal without a roadmap to get there, saying that it was the target city experts could ambitiously but reasonably forecast and that the specifics would follow. He also found himself defending it as ambitious enough -- critics pointed out that the city has been adding jobs at a much more rapid pace over the last ten years, but the mayor explained that job growth was already slowing and that he is focused on the wage threshold.

De Blasio has been asked about the plan, and when the public would see the details, at press conferences and his top aides were asked about it at multiple City Council budget hearings. At a late April news conference, Gotham Gazette asked when the jobs plan could be expected, whether it was imminent. “Not imminent in the sense of the next few weeks,” de Blasio said. “But, at some point this year I'll give you a better read on when."

At a May 9 City Council budget hearing, the head of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, James Patchett, told Council members that de Blasio administration officials are working diligently on the plan.

City Council Member Dan Garodnick, chair of the economic development committee, said, "We continue to have little clarity on the sources of jobs in the mayor's jobs plan.” Patchett said, “We can expect to have a plan very shortly,” but would not give an exact deadline, instead saying, “Certainly, I would love to have it come by the end of the summer. Hopefully sooner.”

As Garodnick pressed for details and whether the 100,000 goal is the right one, Patchett said, “I think you’re right to ask for the plan, I think when you see it you’ll be able to better judge that. Broadly speaking, the 100,000 jobs target is focused on the specific ways the city is encouraging job growth, as opposed to more broadly in the economy.” Almost 300,000 jobs were created over the last three years, he added, but what the de Blasio administration is focused on is jobs created through city intervention and at the “good paying” threshold of $50,000 per year.

According to City Hall, top de Blasio officials under Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who oversees housing and economic development, continue to meet weekly and a detailed jobs plan is indeed expected sometime this summer. Glen’s portfolio includes the Economic Development Corporation; Small Business Services, which runs workforce development programming; the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment; and other agencies that will be integral to the jobs plan.

“Senior leadership from across the administration has met weekly on the jobs plan for months now, and our work is in an advanced stage,” said Melissa Grace, a de Blasio spokesperson, in a statement. “This is a major undertaking that will improve the earning power and professional opportunities of thousands of New Yorkers. From Vision Zero to ThriveNYC to Housing New York, we’ve consistently delivered on these big multi-agency initiatives because we take the time to do them right.”

The de Blasio administration has already released pieces of the plan, including an investment in the life sciences sector; manufacturing, garment, and fashion jobs in Brooklyn through enhanced use of both the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Brooklyn Army Terminal; and a new technology hub in Union Square. As those pieces and others have indicated, the plan will include both industry-specific initiatives and place-based efforts, leveraging city-owned land.

Another example was announced Tuesday, with the Economic Development Corporation releasing “the next phase of the Futureworks NYC advanced manufacturing initiative.” It will create more than 2,000 jobs over five years, the EDC announcement says, through “a series of partner networks and programs to increase access to advanced manufacturing technology, support startups, and help traditional manufacturing companies implement new technologies to help them remain competitive.”

De Blasio has repeatedly stressed that his government is investing and intervening in order to help New Yorkers find good-paying jobs, part of the mayor’s fight against inequality, attempt to make the city more affordable, and efforts to lift hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers out of poverty. While de Blasio has celebrated that unemployment in the city is hovering around an impressively low 4%, there are not necessarily enough middle-income private-sector jobs. The mayor argues that the city must take action to spur important types of job growth that will benefit New Yorkers.

But, as with many headline-grabbing announcements by de Blasio, the key will be planning, execution, return on city investment, and proper metrics for evaluating the program’s efficacy. It’s still not clear exactly how the 100,000 number was pegged.

When Gotham Gazette asked the mayor at a February news conference, he said, “The 100,000 plan emerged from looking at the strands that were already starting to move and asking how far we could take them, and what was a fair numerical stretch-goal to reach for. And that’s very consistent with how we did the affordable housing plan, how we did the pre-K plan – you name it. You know the question on the table is always what’s in motion, where can we take it, and then push it to its farthest extent. And I thought it was an important thing to focus on and really give people a sense of where we were going and what we could achieve.”

Pushed on whether the 100,000 number over 10 years is really a big goal, de Blasio said that critics are not really looking at the last 10 years fairly, noting that the economic crisis that began nearly 10 years ago made the subsequent job growth numbers unsustainable for many years.

“[W]e had huge job loss, and then we had impressive rebounding," de Blasio said. "We’ve gotten a little comfortable because we had such extraordinary success over the last couple of years. The first two years alone that I was in office was about 250,000 jobs. The difference now is the keep generating an intensive pace of job creation, but to focus more on the high-paying jobs. That’s going to take government stimulative effect, if you will. That’s going to take us doing smart, strategic things to keep growth high.”

EDC’s Patchett at the May 9 City Council budget hearing said the plan won’t “identify every sub-initiative of like 17 jobs here and 14 jobs there, because it’s over the next 10 years and...we need to be aware of the fact that the plan will change and the economy will change over time. But we are going to go sector by sector and talk about specific job targets and a series of specific initiatives that we can announce right away that will make up a significant portion of those jobs.”

“OK, we’ll look forward to seeing that,” Council Member Garodnick responded.

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Where’s the Mayor’s Jobs Plan? Tue, 30 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
A Closer Look at BQX Funding Plans http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6325:a-closer-look-at-bqx-funding-plans http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6325:a-closer-look-at-bqx-funding-plans bqx presser bdb

photo via nyc.gov


In his State of the City address on February 4, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a major new transportation project: a “state-of-the-art” streetcar that will run the waterfront on a 16-mile route between Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Astoria in Queens. This Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or the BQX, has drawn a somewhat mixed response. The de Blasio administration quickly publicized support from a variety of business and civic leaders, elected officials, and several transportation advocates. Some transportation experts and residents of the neighborhoods where the BQX will run remain skeptical.

De Blasio hailed it as another key step in fighting inequality by offering more mass transportation to underserved New Yorkers, especially those in the public housing complexes near the route. It would also be a project the city would control itself, unlike the MTA, a state agency that runs the trains and buses. One immediate question, of course, was ‘who’s going to pay for it?’

On February 16, the administration offered up more details in a media release that included the line “Self-financed streetcar line would generate 28,000 jobs and over $25 billion in wages and economic activity for New Yorkers.” A key phrase being “self-financed.”

The project is estimated to cost about $2.5 billion, which the city will raise through a method of value capture and creation unlike the usual procedure of financing capital projects. Instead of selling municipal bonds to borrow money and paying those off from city revenues, as is done for capital funds, the city will create a non-profit entity -- likely a Local Development Corporation (LDC) -- which will then issue tax-exempt bonds to raise funds. This debt will be paid by “capturing” the increases in property taxes of existing real estate and new developments along the streetcar corridor. In effect, the plan is that BQX will pay for itself with the revenue it creates.

Although LDCs are non-profit entities that are usually set up by private individuals and businesses interested in developing their communities, the city can also set up LDCs like the Hudson Yards Infrastructure Corporation (HYIC) and give them bond-issuing authority to raise funds.

Private LDCs often receive support from the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), a city-run nonprofit organization that promotes businesses and economic growth. For instance, the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center LDC has received more than $4.4 million since 2014 from the City Council and the Brooklyn Borough President through EDC to convert an auto parts warehouse into a multi-tenant manufacturing center.

The city is nowhere near setting up the nonprofit -- officials are currently courting public opinion and further assessing the BQX proposal -- but a similar structure was used under Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the redevelopment of Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side. HYIC was set up in 2005 to raise funds by issuing $3 billion in bonds for projects including the extension of the 7-train subway line and building green spaces from West 30th to 42nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. This is an analogous example of how the BQX will be funded and built.

“As imagined, there would be no new taxes,” said an official from EDC. “This project will make it so that value of properties will go up so property taxes will go up nominally. Property taxes sliced off the top would be funnelled towards debt service.” In other words, increased property tax revenue is used to pay back the bonds.

The EDC official added that there will be revenue through property taxes on new development along the corridor.

Two key mechanisms of value capture are tax increment financing (TIF), which seems to be planned for BQX, and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT). TIF is formulaic while PILOT is discounted payments negotiated with developers instead of regular property taxes. The administration has not clarified yet whether they will use both tools.

In the case of Hudson Yards, HYIC garners revenue chiefly through PILOT, Tax Equivalency Payments (TEP), which are property taxes collected by the city from new development in the area, and District Improvement Bonuses paid by private developers for the right to build additional density, among other sources.

City officials have not yet provided a detailed funding plan or fully explained why they are choosing value capture, which may have advantages in that it doesn’t add to existing capital debt, but also risks leading to higher costs that take longer to pay off. This was apparent in the years after the Hudson Yards project began. By 2014, the city had paid about $439 million to service HYIC debt owing to shortfalls in projected revenue. That’s added onto the millions in cost overruns that the city also had to bear. The city had signed an Interest Support Agreement to service HYIC debt in the case of revenue shortfall.

“There can be risks,” said George Sweeting, deputy director of the Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan publicly-funded budget watchdog. Sweeting pointed out the disconnect between when the investment is made and when the city can start capturing value and making payments, since development doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why, in the case of Hudson Yards, the city agreed to pay off part of the debt directly from its general fund in the form of interest support payments and HYIC raised additional revenue by selling developers the right to create additional density.

“It depends on how fast you think development will occur,” Sweeting said. “Some of where the [streetcar] is going has significant development already,” he added, noting that land along the waterfront has already become more valuable in recent years. “You might not be able to attribute [further growth] to the BQX.”

With the traditional model of capital funding, Sweeting said, the city can “cross-subsidize” using other resources to pay off debt. That’s not necessarily the case with a dedicated value-capture scheme. “It can take longer to pay back,” he said.

Bridget Fisher, associate director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School, highlighted many of the risks in value capture funding in a report from July. Looking at the Hudson Yards redevelopment project, she sought to dispel the “myths” of self-financing.

“Like Hudson Yards, describing these projects as self-financing is a rhetorical tool that can be misleading,” Fisher told Gotham Gazette. “There’s nothing magical about value capture. It’s still debt and it’s still expensive. It’s a decision to go outside the municipal bond market that adds cost, but the city’s still on the hook for the cost.”

These bonds, issued by a nonprofit rather than the city directly, are also in a “legal limbo,” she said, since they’re not backed by the city but by an entity created by it. Adding to that, bond buyers receive higher interest rates because the bonds are not directly backed by the city, but still have the security of knowing the city will pay them back. “It does pay for itself,” Fisher said, “but all capital projects pay for themselves. They’re paid for with debt and debt is paid back with profits.”

“The question to me is, why choose a route that’s more expensive when you have the capacity to do it through the normal city capital budget, which also has democratic checks and balances?” Fisher added.

There is an advantage to the mechanism, depending on your budgeting perspective. The city has a constitutionally mandated debt limit and value capture funding does not add to it. “It preserves the general obligation debt capacity for other important projects,” Sweeting said.

According to a report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, the city’s debt limit in fiscal 2016 was $85.18 billion. As of July 1, 2015 (start of the 2016 fiscal year), the city’s outstanding debt counted towards the debt limit was $57.43 billion, leaving $27.76 billion in debt-incurring power for the city. For fiscal 2017, the city’s debt is about $72 billion, owing to capital plan additions in this year’s budget.

“The only pro,” said Fisher, “is that in an environment hypersensitive to spending, local officials can provide growth opportunities and still maintain a rhetoric of fiscal discipline.”

“There is no absolute right or wrong,” said IBO’s Sweeting. “There are a lot of considerations to take into account -- how much new development there will be, the time between when you make investments and development will occur, and how you structure the value capture.”  

For the City Council members whose districts will be served by the BQX, funding is just one of the many concerns about the project. Council Member Carlos Menchaca represents Sunset Park, at one end of the line, and Council Member Costa Constantinides represents the other end, Astoria.

“As we get more thoroughly through the process, there’s a lot of questions that have to be answered in my mind both on financing and the actual route and how it’s going to affect the communities,” Constantinides told Gotham Gazette shortly before an unrelated hearing at City Hall.

He intends to be a strong voice throughout the process, he said, and wants to be part of the LDC when it is set up. So far, he believes the city is taking the right approach to community outreach and seeking input on the project - EDC held its first BQX visioning session in Astoria on Monday night. “That is a welcome change from when we used to have a mayoralty that would dictate to us how things were going and we’d have to respond,” Constantinides said.

The Council member sees the potential in value capture funding, but also the risks. “I just wouldn’t want to see residents that are further away from the site…One, two, three-family homeowners that live two blocks from where this would potentially be...to see them get crushed by some sort of increase in their taxes would just not be where I was at,” he said. For homeowners, additional property value can be a great thing, but if you do not intend to sell in the near term, making larger property tax payments based on new assessments can be challenging.

Menchaca reiterated these concerns. “I want to make sure that residents of affected neighborhoods like Sunset Park and Red Hook have a leading voice at the beginning of the process and in a way that determines the exact details and impact of the project,” he said in a statement. He emphasized that the BQX could provide relief to “transit deserts” like Red Hook and create better mass-transit for the growing manufacturing zone in Sunset Park. But he recognizes that it could also contribute to gentrification and displace existing residential and commercial tenants.

“We've all seen ‘it will pay of itself’ projects fail to live up to expectations or have unintended consequences,” he added. “The impact of BQX – including the financial impact – must be studied carefully in public with residents at the center of the conversation.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
A Closer Look at BQX Funding Plans Tue, 10 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
The City's Next Steps to Ensure Vibrant, Creative Communities http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6139:the-citys-next-steps-to-ensure-vibrant-creative-communities http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6139:the-citys-next-steps-to-ensure-vibrant-creative-communities nyc culture

photo via @NYCulture


Earlier this month, the city's Department of Cultural Affairs announced a promising new program aimed at strengthening cultural organizations in targeted neighborhoods. The initiative, known as Building Community Capacity, was introduced in conjunction with Mayor de Blasio's rezoning proposal in East New York, where the program will be launched.

The new initiative is consistent with several of the recommendations from Creative New York, the Center for an Urban Future's recent report on the city's arts economy. The report found that a number of small and mid-size arts organizations in low- and middle-income neighborhoods are financially strained. To address this issue, it encouraged the de Blasio administration to integrate the arts into its rezoning proposals, ensuring that existing artists and arts organizations are supported, preserved, and fortified.

In recent years, government support for New York City cultural organizations has declined significantly. Adjusted for inflation, programmatic and operating grants from the National Endowment for the Arts fell by 15 percent, from the New York State Council on the Arts by 37 percent, and from the city's Department of Cultural Affairs by 16 percent. As a result, cultural organizations have become increasingly dependent on private philanthropy. Many mid-size and small organizations have struggled with this adjustment. In 2012, for instance, we identified 14 "mid-sized" performing arts venues whose revenue did not cover expenses.

Small organizations are also under pressure, particularly those located outside of Manhattan and those serving communities of color. Among New York organizations that explicitly listed their constituents as non-white, earned revenue—primarily attendance fees—covered 32 percent of their expenses, compared to 55 percent for those with a general audience. Likewise, individual and board donations covered only 11 percent of expenses for these organizations, but a much higher 21 percent for those serving a general audience.

Given the extensive challenges facing small and midsized art organizations—particularly those in communities outside of Manhattan—it's encouraging to see the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) focus on fortifying these groups.

While the specifics of the DCLA program will be developed in partnership with local community members and organizations, Building Community Capacity has several worthwhile objectives. They include: helping organizations with board development and fundraising capacity, equipping arts leaders with essential management skills, activating underused spaces for cultural activities, and streamlining the permitting process.

To address these challenges and achieve these goals, DCLA and community-based cultural organizations should look to nonprofits and other city agencies for inspiration. To assist with board development and fundraising capacity, for instance, DCLA could replicate the Robin Hood Foundation's Board Placement Program. Robin Hood helps connect talented, committed and wealthy individuals with social service nonprofits throughout the city. The DCLA could provide a similar matchmaker role for small cultural nonprofits.

Likewise, to help arts administrators develop their management skills, DCLA should look to the New York City Economic Development Corporation's Fashion Fellows, a yearlong training and networking program for rising stars in fashion management. The DCLA could introduce a similar platform for administrators at cultural nonprofits in low-income neighborhoods.

As East New York artists and arts organizations search for affordable and underutilized performance and rehearsal facilities, they should partner with the Department of Education. Schools in East New York (District 19) contain 46 "primary" and "non-primary" dance rooms, 64 music rooms, 50 theater classrooms, and 61 auditoriums. After school hours, most are left unoccupied. Opening these facilities in the evenings and on weekends could provide stable, affordable space to hundreds of local artists, helping them remain in the neighborhoods where they live and work.

Finally, to streamline the permitting process and enliven vacant retail spaces in the target neighborhoods, DCLA should look to the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting (MOFTB) or the Street Activity Permit Office (SAPO) for assistance. The current permitting process is extremely cumbersome and expensive, requiring individual approval from several agencies, including the police and fire departments.

For film and street fairs, on the other hand, the MOFTB and SAPO have established a one-stop-shop, helping to simplify this bureaucratic tangle. Given their resources and expertise, the MOFTB or SAPO could assume permitting duties for all East New York performances and exhibitions, on a pilot-basis. If it runs smoothly, the city should consider delegating all performing and visual arts related permitting to one of these two agencies.

With the Building Community Capacity program, the de Blasio administration is redoubling its efforts to strengthen local organizations and improve access to the arts in all of the city's neighborhoods. From permitting to management training, board development to activating underused spaces, the Mayor's initiative can help build more vibrant, resilient and creative neighborhoods.

***
Adam Forman is a Senior Researcher at the Center for an Urban Future.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

]]>
The City's Next Steps to Ensure Vibrant, Creative Communities Wed, 03 Feb 2016 00:18:43 +0000
Cautious Optimism Ahead of Hearing on Citywide Ferry Plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5892:cautious-optimism-ahead-of-hearing-on-citywide-ferry-plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5892:cautious-optimism-ahead-of-hearing-on-citywide-ferry-plan ferry DOT

(images: NYC DOT/EDC)


Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposed expansion of the city's ferry system, announced in February, appears to be one of the least politically controversial initiatives of his term. Ahead of a City Council hearing on the topic scheduled for Monday, no Council member has publicly opposed the plan, while some have loudly praised it.

But this support comes despite concerns from transit advocates that ferries may not be the most cost-effective form of transportation for New Yorkers and that other investments in buses or bike lanes should not be overlooked. Meanwhile, others like Staten Island Borough President James Oddo want the system expanded further.

The five planned ferry routes, connecting 21 locations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, will be rolled out in two phases in 2017 and 2018, according to the city's Economic Development Corporation (EDC). A sixth route to Staten Island is "proposed" but not part of the two phases or included in cost estimates. De Blasio said in February that rides would cost $2.75—the same as a subway or bus swipe, though MetroCards won't be accepted for payment—and that the system would bring residents of far-flung waterfront neighborhoods "closer to the opportunities they need."

"Beyond connecting residents to jobs in Manhattan, our new citywide ferry system will spur the development of new commercial corridors throughout the outer boroughs," de Blasio said during his State of the City speech.

One reason why the ferry plan is uncontroversial may be its relatively small size: its estimated 4.6 million riders per year by 2018 is less than the subway's average daily weekday ridership of nearly 5.6 million in 2014 (with 1.75 billion subway rides for the year). The boats' estimated $55 million price tag and $10 to $20 million annual operating subsidies are also a fraction of the city's $78.5 billion budget for the 2016 fiscal year.

"Because it's cheap, politicians can say they're pro-transit," Nicole Gelinas, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute think tank, said. "I think the bigger danger is neglecting other transit."

Few Concerns
Council members interviewed by Gotham Gazette were all supportive of the plan, which they say will provide a convenient mode of transportation in neighborhoods poorly served by subways.

"We are in a city with an existing transportation infrastructure that is at capacity...So we need additional alternatives," Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens said. His district includes Long Island City, which has seen tremendous residential development in recent years and will be served by one of the new stops.

At Monday's Council hearing, Van Bramer said he wants to "get a timeline on just when we can expect the landings to be sited, and when we can start service."

Council Member Ben Kallos of Manhattan's Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island said making sure the three stations planned for his district are moving forward is a "high priority."

The few concerns expressed about the current plan are oriented around the locations of landings. Residents at a recent community meeting in Long Island City were divided over where the neighborhood's stop should be: at Center Boulevard, close to waterfront high-rises, or at 44th Drive, less pedestrian-friendly but also less disruptive for a nearby boathouse.

Council Member Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn said EDC should try to offer solutions to siting concerns as it implements the project. Menchaca represents the busy waterway neighborhood of Red Hook.

Ydanis Rodriguez, Council member for Washington Heights and Inwood and chair of the City Council transportation committee, said that he is looking forward to hearing more details about the plan from EDC—as well as promoting his own proposal for a ferry route along the west side of Manhattan.

"I believe ferries play an important role when it comes to identifying different modes of transportation," Rodriguez said in an interview with the Gotham Gazette. "I hope that in the near future, all the areas not included in the present plan will be included." Rodriguez will co-chair Monday's Council oversight hearing, dubbed "Evaluating the Plan for a Citywide Ferry System" on the Council website.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo is also aboard the ferry plan, even though the first two phases of the plan will not reach his island and a sixth route has only been proposed for Stapleton, near the Staten Island Ferry's St. George terminal. Oddo said he's working to see if some sort of public or private service can one day reach other parts of the island.

"To me, it [ferries] doesn't take a great deal of capital investment in our borough," he said. "It's the quickest avenue Staten Islanders have to getting some help to their commutes."

Traffic engineer and former traffic commissioner "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz said that some of the issues he wants discussed at the Council include more details on expected ferry ridership, operating costs and fares, and integration with other forms of transit.

"I think it would be a mistake not to have as robust a ferry system as possible...as well as improving transit, bus, and rail," Schwartz told Gotham Gazette.

Cost and Control
Gelinas, of the Manhattan Institute, says an important question Council members should ask is how heavily the city should subsidize the ferry routes—especially if Mayor de Blasio sticks to his promise that each ride will cost the same as a MetroCard swipe.

"It really has to come down to a cost-benefit analysis of how many New Yorkers will benefit at what cost," Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, said. "Ferries are a great option, but it's an option that should only be considered after rail and bus options have become untenable." White's group advocates for expanding bike lanes and mass transit projects like Select Bus Service, or express bus lines.

A 2011 EDC study showed a subsidy-per-trip of $5.95 for the fare-free Staten Island Ferry and $21.22 for a pilot Rockaway ferry service launched in 2008.

"Some subsidy is reasonable," Gelinas said. "It will also depend on how much development we get [along the waterfront]...The more people you have, the lower the subsidy."

Manhattan Council Member Dan Garodnick, who will also co-chair Monday's meeting, said that officials from EDC will have to answer questions about the status of the project, costs, community input, and integration with the rest of the city's transit system. He said he wants riders to be able to use MetroCards for boat fares—something EDC has ruled out, saying the 23-year-old card will be soon phased out.

"Many of us are extremely enthusiastic about growing our ferry system," Garodnick said. "At the same time, we want to understand its cost and long-term viability."

Other Council members were more optimistic about ferry finances.

"This is another piece to the puzzle," Kallos said. "Despite initially low projected ridership, when you are speaking about the infrastructure we're building, and the cost of it...This is providing a lot more service to four or five boroughs, and it's improving people's commutes."

EDC representatives are expected to testify Monday and say that the plans for the ferry system are on track. The agency is currently reviewing responses to a request for proposals for a ferry operator and plans to integrate the East River Ferry operator into the new larger ferry system. Officials point to the successes of the East River Ferry as they imagine expansion of ferry service.

Rodriguez said that ferries are also particularly effective when natural disasters hit—a route between Manhattan and the Rockaways was established within days after Hurricane Sandy knocked out subway service to the neighborhood in 2012. He and Kallos also pointed that the ferry system would be completely under the city's control—unlike the MTA, which is state-run.

"Investing in our waterfronts and our ferry system is a way for our city to have strong accountability and control over our infrastructure," Kallos said.

Gelinas and White said that there are ways for the city to invest in transit without relying on the state. The 7 train's new 34th Street-Hudson Yards station, for example, was funded primarily by city tax bonds.

proposed ferry network

Waves Ahead?
Schwartz said political opposition to ferries may emerge as waterfront dwellers start to complain about the noise and pollution boats generate. Residents of Battery Park City have long complained about ferry horns in the early morning hours—required by Coast Guard regulations.

Noise was one of several concerns expressed by Long Island City residents at a recent community meeting on the ferry plan. But even there, most speakers said they want even more ferries to more destinations, not fewer.

With the current plan, "you're only serving part of the community," resident Rebecca Olinger said. "I think it's foolish to put something in that serves such a small part of the neighborhood."

***
by Christian Zhang, Gotham Gazette
@ChristiZhang

]]>
Cautious Optimism Ahead of Hearing on Citywide Ferry Plan Fri, 18 Sep 2015 15:51:58 +0000