Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1420 Mon, 08 Mar 2021 15:48:08 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Council Examines De Blasio Administration’s Efforts to Combat Unemployment https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10010-city-council-examines-de-blasio-administration-unemployment-small-businesses-covid https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10010-city-council-examines-de-blasio-administration-unemployment-small-businesses-covid 1 city council examines admin efforts

Council Member Paul Vallone (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council’s committees on economic development and small business met last week for an oversight hearing to assess how the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the city Department of Small Business Services (SBS), and the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development have adjusted their programming because of COVID-19 and discuss what they’re doing to promote equity across the five boroughs.

According to the New York State Department of Labor, unemployment rates have been especially high in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. The Bronx had the highest unemployment rate of all boroughs as of October, the most recent month for which the data is available. At 17.5%, the Bronx unemployment rate was higher than the citywide rate of 13.1% and the statewide rate of 9.2%. Council Member Mark Gjonaj, who represents parts of the Bronx and chairs the Council’s small business committee, said the borough needs more career development resources. 

“We’ve been at the top of what’s bad and the bottom of what’s good,” Gjonaj said at the hearing. “I don’t know how much more evidence we need that the borough of the Bronx needs and deserves more resources.”

Gjonaj, as well as people who offered testimony in the latter part of the hearing, expressed concern about the digital divide, but Small Business Services Commissioner Jonnel Doris insisted that his agency is reaching everyone who needs help. “We did a survey,” he said. “96% [of respondents] have reliable internet access.” He also pointed out that one does not need internet access to reach the SBS; the agency is also accessible by phone. Even so, Gjonaj expressed concern that even if people without internet access could access SBS resources, they might not be aware that those resources exist.

Gjonaj also asked Doris how SBS would prevent unemployment rates from going back up now that cases of COVID-19 are rising. “We have the infrastructure,” Doris explained, “because we’ve been through it, and we have those systems in place.” Doris said in his opening statement that SBS was able to shift all 18 of its Workforce1 Career Centers to an online format by March 23, and that it’s assisted more than 63,000 people since then.

“To date [since March] we have connected more than 7,500 New Yorkers with jobs with an average wage of $17.36,” he said. In June, SBS also launched a free, virtual home health aide training program in response to an increased demand for these services during the pandemic, Doris said. 

City Council Member Paul Vallone of Queens, chair of the Council’s economic development committee, asked Justin Kreamer, Senior Vice President at EDC, how the agency is making sure opportunities reach people in outer boroughs who need them most.

“Broadly speaking, we do have a five-borough strategy, so we always have an eye out for equity,” he said. “All projects that come in, we evaluate those on a case-by-case basis to make sure that they align with our values. If a project is based in one borough, our hopes is that the project itself would be something that would be accessible to residents in other boroughs as well.” His answer was not detailed, but he offered to “follow up” with the chair with more information, an offer he made several times throughout the hearing.

Kreamer also said EDC, which is a nonprofit local development corporation essentially run by the mayoral administration, supports job creation in all five boroughs by investing in fast-growing industries, like technology, cybersecurity, and the life sciences. EDC runs the LifeSci NYC paid internship program, which began in 2016 and employs local college students from low-income backgrounds, he noted. “Roughly 41% of all participants in the program have been CUNY students, over two-thirds have been nonwhite, 54% have been TAP or Pell Grant-eligible students, and 33% of the participants have been first-generation college students,” said Kreamer. 

He also mentioned a cybersecurity bootcamp, run between the city and the private organization Fullstack Academy, that began about a year ago. He said that there have been about 105 students in that program so far and about 90% of them have gotten jobs. He did not mention that it costs between $15,980 and $17,910 to participate in the 17-to-26-week-long program unless a student receives scholarships, according to the program’s website.

Amy Peterson, the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, expressed enthusiasm about state legislation, recently proposed by the de Blasio administration, to change the Citywide Renovation Project Labor Agreement so that city contractors are required to hire workers from zip codes where at least 15% of the population lives below the federal poverty level or in NYCHA housing, with the goal of making similar modifications to other PLAs in other industries. Under the proposal, 30% of hours worked under PLA projects must be logged by people from high-poverty communities, and city contractors must also hire apprentices and pre-apprentices, especially who live in disadvantaged communities and public housing.

“When you look at neighborhoods that have poverty over 15%, you look at the Bronx,” Peterson said. “We’re clearly focused on the communities with the highest level of poverty.” If the city gets federal stimulus money for infrastructure, she said, then new projects can occur under the new PLA.

While city officials who testified spoke to the desperate need for federal and state funding, the co-chairs of the hearing told them not to wait for it and to move ahead with projects even if the results are imperfect. “It’s not waiting, but it’s also being ready,” Peterson said. “The place we don’t want to be in is stimulus funding or state legislation and not being ready to use it immediately.”

But by launching a new, albeit incomplete, workforce data portal, Peterson’s agency and the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity have done what the co-chairs suggested and gone forward with the project. The goal of working.nyc.gov is to bring workforce development programs at different city agencies to one place. Currently, the website shows career development opportunities like skills training for NYCHA residents and high school equivalency exam preparation. Posting career development opportunities is just one function of the portal.

Another purpose of the workforce data portal will be to offer data visualizations about outcomes of workforce development programs offered by different city agencies. This data will include, but not be limited to, where people who participated in workforce development programs live, how much money they make, and how many of them have been able to find full-time and part-time jobs. This information will make it easier for people to assess the success of the programs. 

Peterson said that the mayor’s office has about half of the data it needs for this portal, but is still uploading data from the city’s Human Resources Administration, as well as from some small agencies. “The idea is that this will be made available to the public in 2021,” Peterson said, adding that the project was delayed because of the pandemic. 

Vallone encouraged Peterson to make the data public as soon as possible even though it’s incomplete so that it can be used to help navigate the current crisis. “I don’t think anyone would be upset even if it’s not completely 100% of the data at this point,” he said. (He then moved on and she did not respond.)

Other than Vallone and Gjonaj several City Council members from the two committees were present on the digital hearing, but few spoke at all or asked any questions of those testifying.

In the latter part of the hearing, leaders from smaller career development agencies and nonprofits in the city each spoke briefly, explaining what their organizations, which often get city funding, do and their shifts to online programming during the pandemic. They also expressed their need for government funding and explained the challenges faced by the communities their agencies serve, especially people of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.

Jose Ortiz, Jr., CEO of NYC Employment and Training Coalition, was among leaders briefly offering recommendations at the hearing. “We need to provide more resources for workforce development programming” in order to retrain people in the retail, hospitality, building maintenance, and transportation industries whose jobs are threatened by automation, he said. Ortiz also recommended improving broadband access and more support for small businesses.

“The human resources sector is in danger of budget cuts at all government levels,” he stressed, “and they won’t be able to do the increased work of aiding the economic recovery without resources.”

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by Lauren Hakimi, Gotham Gazette
   

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Examines De Blasio Administration’s Efforts to Combat Unemployment Fri, 18 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City-Solicited Recommendations Offer Strategies for More Inclusive Workforce https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9822-new-york-city-recommendations-offer-strategies-inclusive-tech-workforce-jobs-development https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9822-new-york-city-recommendations-offer-strategies-inclusive-tech-workforce-jobs-development mpo exp disc

Mayor de Blasio at Google in Manhattan (photo: Mayoral Photography Office)


A series of new reports commissioned by the de Blasio administration to examine ways to develop a more inclusive and robust workforce, particularly in New York City's growing tech sector, lays out both big opportunities and high barriers to achieve them.

The studies, recently published by the New York City Economic Development Corporation but conducted largely before the pandemic-spurred recession, were designed and conducted by nonprofits, many of which run workforce development programs. Their purpose is to help ensure that city residents, particularly in historically marginalized communities, have access to the range of tech jobs that have been growing rapidly in the city over the past decade. They paint a picture of a tech industry landscape that cuts across virtually all other sectors. The data show tech employment offers stability and economic mobility to those who can access it, but it is largely guarded by structural inequities that largely exclude women and Black and Latino people.

The reports -- titled "Exploring Paths to an Inclusive Workforce in NYC" -- also offer a patchwork blueprint for helping communities overcome those obstacles, often through partnerships with business and community stakeholders. The studies and their recommendations are now in the hands of the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), a city government-run nonprofit that is promising to use them to inform its workforce strategies, while acknowledging that the economic crisis has made funding for programs scarce.

"We've learned a lot of good things from the findings, obviously we firmed up some of the statistics on the diversity of the tech ecosystem in particular, that we had imperfect data on before," said Lindsay Greene, EDC's Chief Strategy Officer, in a phone interview.

Funding for workforce development "is almost always focused around delivering training to individuals, not on some of the systemic issues that the organizations grapple with," Greene said. "They don't typically get funding to do research on solutions and system-wide needs, that sort of long-term, strategic thinking."

"We hope we can continue doing it in the future and hopefully continue to make investments in workforce when the financial picture improves," she said.

The seven reports cover different areas of the tech workforce equation, focusing on specific challenges and solutions. Some are local case studies, examining opportunities in a particular NYCHA complex or training model, for instance. Others center on expanding opportunities for CUNY students or people with disabilities. EDC says it plans to use the findings to help ensure jobs created with projects like Google's expansion in Manhattan and Amazon's aborted bid to open a second headquarters in Long Island City are more inclusive of city residents of all backgrounds.

The research, much of which was completed before the pandemic and resulting economic recession set in, points to longstanding inequities that have only been exacerbated by the new crises.

"COVID-19 has highlighted the deep-rooted racial disparities and inequities in this country, affecting Black and Latinx populations disproportionately higher across cities, including New York City," states an introductory note in a report written by HR&A Advisors, Jobs for the Future, and LaGuardia Community College.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated the adoption of digital and remote work, and as a result demonstrated how crucial and urgent it is for today’s workforce to have tech skills and digital literacy," the note reads.

According to that report, New York City's "tech ecosystem" -- defined as the total tech and non-tech jobs in the tech industry plus the tech jobs in other sectors -- is second in size only to Silicon Valley's, employing 355,000 people in 2018, good for 7% of the city's workforce and roughly equal to the number employed by New York City government. Jobs in the tech ecosystem paid a median wage between $37 and $45 an hour in 2018, compared to between $21 and $30 for the overall city workforce.

Yet despite accounting for 13% of the city's job growth between 2009 and 2018, the ecosystem disproportionately excludes Black and Latino people and women. The gaps are especially stark among tech jobs within the tech industry: 17% are held by Black or Latino workers despite them being 37% of the city's overall workforce, according to the report. Women are employed in under a quarter of those jobs despite accounting for half the city workforce. The higher tech the job, the deeper the disparities.

The report identifies high educational barriers and an arbitrary culture of selectiveness -- informed by long-standing racial and gender prejudices -- as a main driver of the disparities. Employers in tech, especially for tech jobs within the tech industry, often screen by degree and further require work-based experience, even when the positions don't necessitate either. The dynamic creates a circular maze that can be almost impossible to penetrate without inside help, perpetuating segregation in the industry. The lack of representation is self-reinforcing, the study found, making it difficult to retain diverse talent in the sector's large white spaces.

The challenge means that the economic development from the expanding tech sector is only accessible to a certain class of already upwardly-mobile New Yorkers -- a group that is disproportionately white and male.

"Despite a large number of jobs in the tech ecosystem that do not require a bachelor’s degree, and higher-than-average pay among those jobs, tech ecosystem jobs are still more likely to be filled by workers with high educational attainment than NYC jobs overall, creating a barrier to entry for many New Yorkers seeking upward economic mobility," the report reads.

Greene said EDC is working with employers to adjust their stated requirements for jobs to match what they actually need.

Many of the reports highlight the need to have Black and Latino representation in the tech industry, not only to advance the goal of economic equality, but to ensure the more democratic development of a field that has become increasingly central to public and private life.

One of the models experts are exploring is bridge programming, which are sector-specific training and mentorship courses aimed at addressing a particular barrier, be it math skills, English proficiency, or license requirements. Unlike degree programs, bridge programs are tailored to a clients' needed skillset and often have an immersive element that exposes them to the vicissitudes of the field.

Jose Ortiz, Jr., executive director of New York City Employment and Training Coalition, which authored a report on bridge programs among the new set of studies procured by EDC, said partnerships with city government, businesses, and philanthropy were key to expanding the model.

"We need to link existing programs more effectively to the agencies that support them in the city," he said in a phone interview.

"We need to develop stable sources of funding that are not just government dollars being allocated but really thinking about innovative models for how the business community can support the workforce development community here in New York City," he said, "particularly when they are themselves benefiting from that talent."

In 2014, the de Blasio administration committed to invest $60 million in bridge programs on an annual basis by 2020. The money has never been fully allocated, according to advocates, and under the current fiscal crisis, that promise likely won't be fulfilled.

"When it comes to the city, sadly, we don't expect at this point given the current budget situation to see the type of investment that we've always advocated for," Ortiz said. "Given the current economic crunch, it is very difficult for us to see significant investment during this current administration."

"We continue to have conversations with our partners at the state level and our federally elected officials as well," he added. "But with regard to local government, we are looking to the future and thinking about how we can effectively get the future of New York City's leadership to invest more deeply in workforce, particularly during a time when more folks are in need of employment and businesses need talent more than they ever have."

New York City's unemployment rate hit 16% in August, 3.5 points higher than the state rate, and an enormous jump from under 4% at the same time last year, according to the latest figures available from the state Department of Labor. 

"If there is a federal stimulus package that prioritizes putting people back to work, let's talk about really having next generation workforce programing and putting money towards that," Greene of EDC told Gotham Gazette.

"A lot of our workforce work right now comes from federal funds that we leverage with additional city dollars but we can certainly do more going forward," she said.

The Mayor's Office did not provide comment for this article.

One of the new studies, conducted by Urbane Development in partnership with Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, looked at the "NYCHA to tech pipeline" with a focus on public housing residents in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The study recommended that to deal with obstacles to tech employment, the city and community partners should invest in public awareness campaigns among NYCHA residents, as well as mentorship programs that support them in navigating the constricted avenues to tech employment.

The resources of a region are key to accessing the tech workforce, a fact partially hidden by the online nature of some of the work, and in some ways exacerbated by the fact that most industries have moved to a work-from-home format.

"There is a direct correlation between the city's transit deserts and communities that are further away from public transportation and higher unemployment numbers and higher poverty numbers," Ortiz told Gotham Gazette. "There is a correlation between individuals that reside in public housing and the lack of opportunities."

With the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering many in-person services, the reports leave questions around what is "viable in the marketplace," according to Marjorie Parker, president of Jobs First NYC, a nonprofit that has been involved in bridge programming, but did not author a report in the series. "So many of these communities lack broadband access and folks that need to sign on to training don't have high speed internet," Parker said. "So how these translate into remote training and learning is something that we will have to discuss."

Regionally-based development projects that fall under the rubric of revitalization can fail to bring job opportunities to local residents, as was the case with the reconstruction of Sunset Park's waterfront, the focus of another study delivered to EDC, by Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow and Perch Advisors.

"One of the things we've seen as we've invested in advanced manufacturing and built up our waterfront assets across the city is that there is a tremendous amount of residents nearby -- and those are huge employment centers," said Greene of EDC. "Often the demographics in those areas reflect some of the challenges of the city...folks don't have the education level that allow them to readily get into new jobs."

"So you have to not only do the outreach so that they are aware of the jobs but you need to be, on a dedicated basis,” she said, “working with local organizations to connect those folks to workforce training opportunities so that they can get to those jobs.”

Greene said the agency is still looking at ways to support bridge programing, despite little city funding. EDC is also working with employers to remove unnecessary qualification requirements that help reinforce workforce segregation.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City-Solicited Recommendations Offer Strategies for More Inclusive Workforce Tue, 13 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Plummeting Ridership But No Budget Cuts or Fare Increases for De Blasio's Ferry System https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9332-plummeting-ridership-no-budget-cuts-fare-increase-de-blasio-ferry-system https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9332-plummeting-ridership-no-budget-cuts-fare-increase-de-blasio-ferry-system covid 19 climate

Mayor de Blasio aboard the ferry (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


The coronavirus pandemic has led to plummeting ridership across the city’s various transit systems, posing an existential threat to the future of mass transit as the state and the city begin to cut costs and service. Among them, the New York City ferry, a signature initiative of Mayor Bill de Blasio, has seen far fewer commuters and a reduced schedule, but unlike a long list of other programs, the city does not plan to decrease its budget or scrap an expansion that is slated to take place this year and next year.

Since Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the “New York PAUSE” order on March 20, mandating that non-essential workers stay at home, the ferry has seen ridership fall by 90%, according to NYC Ferry data. From March 20-April 16, only 39,913 people rode the ferry, compared to 365,233 riders over the same time last year.

From March 23, the system began a reduced schedule, using its smallest boats, and its spring service has been cut by 37%.

Mayor de Blasio recently released his $89.3 billion executive budget, cutting proposed spending by $6 billion and tapping $4 billion in reserves to cover a shortfall in tax revenue caused by the coronavirus recession. The budget included billions in savings, including spending cuts and readjustments for lower-than-expected costs. Among those were cuts to bike lanes, lower spending on the Fair Fares program that provides half-priced MetroCards to low-income commuters. But the ferry system’s budget is not expected to change – it’s funded through the New York City Economic Development Corporation – and the fare is also expected to remain the same, according to EDC spokesperson Chris Singleton.

The rollout of NYC Ferry, as the city-run network is called, has not been without its controversies. When he launched it in May 2017, de Blasio touted it as a new mass transit alternative in a city where neglected subways and buses were struggling to efficiently transport millions of daily commuters.

But the ferry system, now with 21 stops, mostly on either side of the East River, has had a minimal impact, serving a relatively small slice of New Yorkers, and faced ongoing questions about its efficacy and financing. Despite being called a transit project, it was placed under the auspices of NYC EDC, adding to questions of whether it was meant as a vehicle to get people around or to drive up real estate prices and spur economic growth along the city’s waterfronts.

As the fiscal watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission noted in a report last year, the subsidy for each ferry ride was $10.73, ten times that of the New York City Transit system. It has since fallen to $9.34, and is projected to decrease with the two new routes adding about 2.5 million riders per year, according to EDC. The mayor has, however, struggled to justify those subsidies, particularly after data showed that only about 5.6 million people used the ferry in an entire year, when more than that number rode the subway every day (in the pre-coronavirus world). A majority of ferry commuters also tended to be white, upper-income New Yorkers rather than low-income commuters of color.

Ironically, New Yorkers from middle- and low-income communities of color are also less likely to be working from home during the pandemic and many make up the corps of essential workers keeping the city running via its subway and buses, hospitals, grocery stores, and more. Essential workers are also faced with often-overcrowded subways given that the state-run MTA has severely cut service amid plummeting ridership, a sickened workforce, and severe financial strain.

The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this article about the NYC Ferry system amid the coronavirus public health and fiscal crises. “New Yorkers have been doing their part to stop the spread of COVID-19 by staying home and practicing social distancing. These necessary steps by individuals across the city has led to a decrease in ridership on NYC Ferry,” said EDC’s Singleton. “As a result, NYC Ferry has been operating on a reduced schedule since Monday, March 23. NYC Ferry will continue to serve critical workers who must travel, but we ask that at this time people do not ride for recreation.”

At his daily coronavirus briefing on April 29, when asked by a reporter why NYC Ferry funding remained stable while significant cuts were made to the Staten Island Ferry, Mayor de Blasio said, "One there will be cuts to NYC Ferry and that will certainly be reflected in the next stage of the budget process. Two – obviously, it's never fun to talk about any cuts, but everything that has to be cut will be cut as we deal with more and more challenges."

NYC Ferry’s net operating costs were about $52.9 million in the 2019 fiscal year, up from $30 million in fiscal year 2017, and has since increased further, with added costs to come once new routes are launched.

Unlike other transit systems, NYC Ferry doesn’t rely on fares as a major part of its revenue. In the 2019 fiscal year, only 24% of its revenue came from fares, an increase of 2% from the year before, according to an analysis by Citizens Budget Commission. Each ride on the ferry costs $2.75, the same as a standard bus or subway fare, though it isn’t integrated with those systems. Despite the roughly $10 per ride subsidy to operate the system as it has been, de Blasio has insisted from the start on pegging the fare to that of the subway and bus, and said the city has been working on fare integration with the MTA, though several years in there has been no news on such a partnership.

The expansion of the program at a cost of $100 million in capital funds is also expected to drive those subsidies up. One route connecting to Staten Island is launching this year, and another to Coney Island will launch next year, while other routes will be extended and modified. The two new routes are meant to add 2.5 million riders each year, the EDC projects, and will cost about $25.5 million annually to operate. According to the CBC report, the subsidy on each ride on the Coney Island route is expected to be as high as $24.75.

Sean Campion, senior research associate at CBC, who authored the report, said the coronavirus offers an opportunity for the city to review how it funds and operates NYC Ferry and to find ways to make it financially sustainable. “This should give them some opportunity to review some of the sort of inherent inefficiencies in the program,” he said.

“It may no longer be possible, given everything else going on, to maintain the level of subsidy than with a better structure than it has,” he added.

The ferry is also heavily reliant on leisure ridership, Campion pointed out, and that may not recover quickly. “If people are more reluctant to ride public transit and take discretionary transit trips,” he said, “...if tourism doesn't come back, it could take longer for that to bounce back more so than the commuting patterns. If that happens, that will magnify the need for subsidy.”

In the new coronavirus reality, there’s a flip side to the ferry discussion, however. With the subways crowded, increasing the risk of exposure to the coronavirus, even critics of the ferry system may reluctantly embrace it.

“Given that the subways are not a great way of commuting while adhering to physical distance and guidelines, New Yorkers need all the alternatives they can get,” said Joe Cutrufo, communications director for Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group.

But Cutrufo remains critical of the already high subsidies, noting that the city hasn’t been as generous when it comes to the Citi Bike program. “Our bike-share system does not have a public subsidy and we've seen bicycle use as one of the very few ways that people can get around while maintaining those physical distancing guidelines,” he said. “So I think we need to take a fresh look at how the city subsidizes its transportation network.”

Advocates like Cutrufo are hoping that when life in the city moves back toward ‘normal’ fear of the coronavirus doesn’t lead to an increase in cars on the road as people avoid public transit, which would further clog the city’s typically crowded streets.

“The way we see it, people are looking to alternatives and we want to make sure that we don't see driving increase,” Cutrufo said. “The ferry can be part of that solution.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been corrected to note that the overall per-ride ferry subsidy is expected to decrease, not increase. 

Note - this article has been updated with comments made by the mayor on April 29. 

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Plummeting Ridership But No Budget Cuts or Fare Increases for De Blasio's Ferry System Thu, 23 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Connecting Astoria and the Upper East Side: A No-Brainer for NYC Ferry https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8651-connecting-astoria-and-the-upper-east-side-a-no-brainer-for-nyc-ferry https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8651-connecting-astoria-and-the-upper-east-side-a-no-brainer-for-nyc-ferry ferry ship downt

(photo: @NYCferry)


Thanks to New York City’s investment in a brand-new citywide ferry network, waterfront communities are flourishing with shorter and smoother commutes and a wave of economic activity.

Serving close to 10 million riders since launching in May 2017, NYC Ferry has almost single-handedly opened the Astoria neighborhood to the rest of New York City, doubling the annual attendance at many of our attractions and cultural institutions like Socrates Sculpture Park and the Welling Court Mural Project, providing Queens residents with reliable and efficient ferry service across the City’s waterways.

One of the most attractive aspects of a ferry service, unlike other large transportation infrastructure projects, is its ability to be nimble. The routes can be adjusted to accommodate a changing workforce and development landscape. The more connections, the better, as access to transit options improves overall quality of life, which is why we hope the city will throw a ferry life line directly from Astoria to the Upper East Side.

A distance equivalent to three, short city blocks lies between the Astoria landing in Halletts Cove and the East 90th Street landing across the East River on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but currently no direct NYC Ferry connection exists. Both sides of the river have advocated for a ferry connection, which is an easy fix, as the infrastructure exists at both landings.

This has been brought to the attention of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which is not planning to consider new, additional routes until 2021. However, this isn’t a new route. It’s merely a new logical and necessary connection.

EDC should recognize that with a simple green light, millions of New Yorkers will have a less than five-minute connection between Astoria and the Upper East Side, saving in excess of a 45-minute headache-inducing, subway-plus-bus commute. The connection would reduce the number of cars sitting in traffic on local streets, as well as enable easy access to the heralded Second Avenue Subway, allowing businesses to prosper, and spur additional growth.

Connecting the two sides of the river would bring about cultural and employment benefits, including easier access to work opportunities, particularly at the East Side hospitals and educational institutions, and will enhance recreational opportunities for people throughout the boroughs. A connection to the Upper East Side would also be welcomed with fanfare from the locals of Roosevelt Island and the growing tech community at Cornell.

We urge the City to approve the connection so New Yorkers can hop on board and enjoy smooth sailing, short commutes, and maximize the benefits for our residents and communities. It only makes sense to bridge the boroughs, which will quicken travel time and lessen traffic, leading to a happier and healthier New York City.

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Tom Grech, President & Chief Executive Officer, Queens Chamber of Commerce. On Twitter @tomgrech.

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

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Connecting Astoria and the Upper East Side: A No-Brainer for NYC Ferry Mon, 08 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Examines De Blasio's 'New York Works,' Said to Have Produced 3,000 Jobs of 100,000 Goal https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8368-city-council-examines-de-blasio-s-new-york-works-said-to-have-produced-3-000-jobs-of-100-000-goal https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8368-city-council-examines-de-blasio-s-new-york-works-said-to-have-produced-3-000-jobs-of-100-000-goal Patchett EDC hearing

EDC President James Patchett (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan to create 100,000 “good-paying” jobs, with annual salaries of $50,000 or more, within 10 years, giving New Yorkers a pathway to the middle class. On Monday, City Council members held an oversight hearing on that plan, attempting to more fully gauge how the de Blasio administration is doing on its promise.

Bronx Council Member Ritchie Torres, chair of the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigation, co-led a tense Council hearing where the head of New York City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), James Patchett, was grilled about how many jobs had been created as part of de Blasio’s jobs plan and who has been getting them.

“Anyone who heard the mayor’s [2017] State of the City would believe there are actual jobs,” said Torres, “but anyone who believes that is operating under a false assumption.”

Patchett responded to Torres’s rapid-fire questioning about unclear jobs numbers with a consistent message: answering a simple question like “how many jobs have been created” is not so easy.

De Blasio declared good-paying jobs to be those that pay $50,000 or more, and said those in his plan would be in economic sectors that will be around for years to come. When de Blasio, Patchett, and then-Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen laid out the plan a few months after de Blasio announced the goal during his 2017 State of the City speech, they said that they would only count jobs spurred by some kind of city action.

On Monday, Patchett said jobs are only counted towards the mayor’s 100,000 goal if they are created as a direct result of the five-point strategy laid out in the jobs plan, known as “New York Works.”

The plan focuses on investing in city-owned property, providing tax incentives to small and large businesses, making infrastructure investments, using zoning tools, and directly investing in companies that can bring 21st century jobs to New York City.

About $1.3 billion in capital funding has been allocated to New York Works, with about $300 million already spent, Patchett said, on projects like the Steiner Studios at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the FutureWorks advanced manufacturing shop at Brooklyn Army Terminal.

But even with specific strategies and budget numbers, there still remains a fair amount of estimation in gauging the impact of the plan.

At one particularly tense point in Monday’s hearing, Patchett was asked about the 2018 New York Works progress report, where EDC reported the city had “laid the foundation for 19,000 good paying jobs.”

“Of the 19,000, how many are actually working today?” asked Torres.

“3,000,” replied Patchett.

“We make projections based on the best available data,” said Patchett, explaining that in some scenarios, when EDC completes a project under the New York Works plan, actual jobs are still yet to come.

The economic development agency tries its best to project how many jobs will be created based on the expertise of their in-house economists, detailed economic data, and, in some cases, specific contracts that have been signed.

A recent example can be found in the Staten Island Teleport Campus.

In 2018, EDC reported in the New York Works progress report that it had “closed a deal” to create office space on the Staten Island campus meant for medical tenants, a charter school, adult education programs, and a variety of social ventures. Though no businesses had formally moved in, the agency estimated 750 jobs would be created and counted that towards de Blasio’s goal.

In the same report, EDC also noted the city “opened 500,000 square feet of space” at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, creating 1,000 good-paying jobs towards the mayor’s 100,000 jobs goal. It is unclear whether these jobs have actually been created or are still a projection, according documents published by the Council.

Patchett also confirmed that if out-of-state residents were to get a good-paying job created under de Blasio’s jobs plan, it would count towards the mayor’s goal.

When de Blasio announced the New York Works jobs plan in June 2017, he said the good-paying jobs would be meant primarily for New Yorkers who wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have access to such opportunities.

“These are jobs that we intend to be open to New Yorkers of every background,” he said at the time, “we can’t address the affordability crisis if we don’t turn the city into a place where more and more good people get a good paying job.”

But for City Council members that represent the city’s lowest-income residents, there are persistent concerns whether these good-paying jobs end up accessible to people in their districts.

Brooklyn Democrat Inez Barron, who represents the 42nd Council District where more than 30% of residents are under the poverty line according to census data, wanted to know why most of the $1.3 billion allocated to New York Works is for building and development projects rather than programs that could help train residents to actually qualify for the good-paying jobs de Blasio’s plan sets out to create.

Patchett mentioned that workforce development strategy is outside the purview of EDC, but he reassured the Council member that the agency works closely with higher education institutions such as LaGuardia Community College and other CUNY schools, along with the New York City Department of Education to inform them of what they think the skills of the future are that educational institutions should be aware of when creating training programs.

Monday’s hearing was also co-led by Queens Council Member Paul Vallone, chair of the Council’s Committee on Economic Development. Vallone left the hearing unimpressed.

“We just had a hearing on the progress of a jobs plan that revealed that there is no conclusive data on the jobs created by that plan,” Vallone said in a statement. “How can we rely on projections and job pathways when there is no tracking to ensure that they actually materialize into real jobs for New Yorkers?”

Near the end of the hearing, tensions between Torres and Patchett simmered down a bit, with Patchett offering a solution to Torres’ contention around confusing jobs numbers.

“I will try to provide not just projections,” Patchett said, “but an estimate as to actual jobs created based on the best data available.”

Torres responded with the crux of his complaint: “If my constituents ask me how many jobs are created by that plan, I want to be able to answer that question.”

***
by Pranshu Verma for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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City Council Examines De Blasio's 'New York Works,' Said to Have Produced 3,000 Jobs of 100,000 Goal Mon, 18 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
In Amazon Debate, Atlantic Yards Lessons Beyond Those Aired at First City Council Hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8229-amazon-debate-atlantic-yards-lessons-city-council-queens https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8229-amazon-debate-atlantic-yards-lessons-city-council-queens barclays center ground

An Atlantic Yards groundbreaking (photo: Spencer T Tucker)


More public participation might help. So might ULURP. But rigorous skepticism is more important.

It was fascinating, having watched in 2004 and 2005 two New York City Council subcommittee hearings on the announced Brooklyn Atlantic Yards project, to see the Council's Committee on Ecomomic Development, with the Speaker prominent, on December 12 take a distinctly adversarial stance toward the proposed Amazon campus in Queens.

Back then, not only were the Governor and Mayor gung-ho for “jobs, housing, and hoops,” many Council members, despite their questions, were essentially enthusiastic. Meanwhile, the developer and supporters got significant time from the hearings’ start, relegating opponents to later slots.

And it was curious to hear both proponents and opponents of the Amazon deal rather tritely invoke lessons from Atlantic Yards (now called Pacific Park), suggesting the need for either broader public participation or the importance of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which gives the Council the final say (rather than using the state General Project Plan, which puts the Governor in charge).

Don’t get me wrong: neither broader participation nor ULURP are necessarily bad things. But they’re hardly saviors when big money and powerful players are at work, and when projects unfold over time and multiple economic cycles.

For example, promises made in Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), or even in state approval documents, as we’ve learned, can be followed by contracts that offer crucial slack. For example, the fine print allowed Atlantic Yards, estimated to take ten years, a 25-year buildout.

So, while these massive development projects differ significantly, the Atlantic Yards experience makes clear that, as the Amazon deal unfolds, more muscular, and consistent, skepticism and oversight is needed. We’ll see how much surfaces at the next hearing, held by the City Council's Committee on Finance, scheduled for January 30.

Circumventing ULURP?
In December, at about an hour into the first of several promised Council hearings on the Amazon deal, Council Speaker Corey Johnson confronted James Patchett, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, about a line he’d truncated—for faster delivery—from his prepared statement: “this is by no means an attempt to deliberately circumvent the ULURP process.”

“Former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff was asked, when he left city government” about the avoidance of ULURP for Atlantic Yards, recounted Johnson. “If I had to do it over again,” Johnson said, paraphrasing Doctoroff, “I would bring Atlantic Yards through ULURP…because it's the right process to get community buy-in, and the public review is worthwhile.”

“Now, I don't agree with Dan Doctoroff on everything, but I thought that was an interesting comment,” Johnson continued, pressing Patchett on “why it was important…to facilitate the subverting” of ULURP.

Patchett replied that the “UDC Act”—referring to the Urban Development Corporation, the state authority that can override local land use—“is available to do more comprehensive planning,”  and is “more powerful” than ULURP for certain projects. Certain things, he said, can’t happen with ULURP, like having the state hold title to project land. Hmm—similar tactics were used with Atlantic Yards, but Doctoroff, in retrospect, would’ve used ULURP.

So when Patchett said the city’s primary focus was getting the promised 25,000 jobs, it sounded like the end justifies the means. “More powerful” also translates as “certain passage by appointees who answer to the governor.” With Atlantic Yards, that meant not only initial passage of the project, but steady agreement regarding revisions of the timetable and thus promised public benefits.

Empire State Development, the successor to the UDC, has, in my observation, steadily affirmed the governor’s (and developer’s) will regarding Atlantic Yards. Only at state legislative oversight hearings have ESD officials faced hard questions. That key state authority, we should remember, avoided the first City Council hearing on Amazon, just as it sidestepped those Atlantic Yards hearings held by the Council.

Community buy-in?
“We certainly did take lessons from Atlantic Yards,” Patchett continued, citing “the importance of community input, the importance of genuinely involving people in the way the project ultimately looks. That's why we set up the Community Advisory Committee.”

Pre-empting the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) announcement, state Senator Michael Gianaris and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer announced on November 21 that they would boycott such a body, calling it “a thinly veiled attempt to present the Amazon development as a fait accompli.” That’s hard to doubt, though it is possible that the CAC -- supposed to advise on issues like workforce development -- could have some impact.

The CAC has 45 members (though one’s already resigned), appointed in consultation with local elected officials and stakeholders, and is supposed to meet quarterly; its three subcommittees -- including one that will advise on local infrastructure spending -- are supposed to meet monthly. Town halls should be held two weeks after each quarterly meeting, reported Christine Chung of The City. That could add some sunlight.

Given the very low bar, this has more legitimacy than the Atlantic Yards CAC, which was not set up until some 28 months after the project was announced and barely met. When Atlantic Yards opponents, in a lawsuit challenging the project’s environmental review, called the CAC illegitimate, a judge disagreed, saying the law is so slack it’s even legit to establish such a committee after a project is approved.

A somewhat transparent CAC also seems better than the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a private contract that purported to guarantee such things as job-training and affordable housing, but had crucial loopholes; for one thing, the developer never hired the required Independent Compliance Monitor.

The CBA was used as a political wedge. The developer gained support from groups -- some with track records, others astroturf -- led in large part by black leaders in Central Brooklyn, who had legitimate grievances about past developments and could help a large corporation to argue that middle- and upper-class opponents living closer to the project site, largely white, were selfish NIMBYs.

So it’s surprising that Amazon has not already organized some Queens stakeholders to vouch for the company’s intentions to lift up some of the borough’s struggling precincts. After all, Amazon has already taken a page from the big-developer playbook, buying ads in the tabloids (and mailing several flyers to New Yorkers) repeating, for example, the dubious claim that the project would bring $27 billion in new tax revenues.

Keep in mind that even seemingly robust public consultation may only go so far when the state’s in charge. In 2014, a volunteer body, the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), was set up to advise ESD, as part of a 2014 settlement to avert a potential lawsuit on fair housing issues. However, it’s mostly toothless.

A few now-departed AY CDC members have raised questions about the project, while most -- the board is controlled by the governor -- are there to nod yes. Though the AY CDC is supposed to meet quarterly, last year it held its second meeting -- essentially to support an ESD contract renewal -- with just one day’s notice on March 30, and hasn't met since.

How good is ULURP?
Though ULURP offers more public input, and New York City legitimacy, than the state process, it typically leads to tweaks, not significant changes. Doctoroff has said the Bloomberg administration at the time doubted its rezoning prowess, so it pursued the expedient route around the City Council. “With twenty-twenty hindsight,” he wrote in his 2017 memoir, “I am positive we could have placated our opponents in negotiations and gotten the process through ULURP.”

Well, not quite; some people adamantly opposed the arena (now Barclays Center), or the project’s density. But ULURP would at least have put the debate in the public sphere, and empowered the local Council member, then Letitia James.

It should be noted that the two Council committee hearings regarding Atlantic Yards came under the leadership of then-Speaker Gifford Miller. After the project was approved, while the Speaker was Christine Quinn, known for her closeness to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Council wouldn't green-light future oversight hearings requested by James and colleague Brad Lander.

Today, compared to the Atlantic Yards history, the Council Speaker is less beholden to the mayor; the economic impacts of the 9/11 attacks are more distant; we don’t have the distraction (and lure) of professional sports; and we’ve seen the explosion of gentrification near the waterfront. Moreover, Amazon is a lightning-rod company, to say the least.

(Still, it would be interesting to see whether an office project at the Long Island City waterfront without subsidies -- or Amazon -- would generate such pushback. After all, the Amazon site was once to encompass two huge mostly residential rezonings -- Anable Basin, Long Island City Innovation Center -- arguably adding more neighborhood burdens.)

Yet, Johnson surely knows that ULURP is its own political game. Consider the Council’s recent approval of a giant two-tower project, 80 Flatbush, at a site that bridges Downtown Brooklyn and low-rise streets. After the project’s developer sought to nearly triple the allowable density, Council Member Steve Levin expressed concern, while the local community board was staunch in its opposition.

Eventually the project was approved with only modest reductions, and Johnson, according to Levin, was very much in the loop. While the public learned a lot about the expected benefits -- affordable housing, a replacement school, a new school -- ULURP never ventilated a key question: the value of the additional square footage the developer gained via an upzoning.

Regarding Amazon and ULURP, not everyone sees a silver bullet. As urban planner Sylvia Morse tweeted, “The people are shouting NO AMAZON, not ‘we want 7 months of procedural theater, during which speculators will drive up housing prices in LIC, followed by a bad deal getting rammed through anyway after council members get to pretend they tried.’”

A better planning process
Last September, Council Member Lander offered some cogent criticism before the Council-spurred 2019 Charter Revision Commission, suggesting that, with challenges like affordability, sustainability, and aging infrastructure, “our highly reactive ULURP process just is not getting the job done."

"Each application is brought either by a private developer or by the administration,” Lander said, “and it's not judged against a broad set of goals we've collectively agreed to, for sustainability or affordability or how to share and distribute the challenges and benefits of growth.”

He suggested "a comprehensive and proactive planning process.” What might that mean regarding Amazon? Perhaps the city and state should’ve set some goals for transit and other infrastructure for Long Island City beforehand, beyond the modest $180 million announced by the city on October 30. Remember, the two percolating rezonings were not being judged in that proactive way. (See criticism from the Municipal Art Society.)

A broader effort at planning might have put the city and state “incentives” (subsidies) in context. Sure, we’re not necessarily shoveling cash, outside a state construction grant that could be worth $505 million, as a special favor to Amazon, given that most of the subsidies are as-of-right and performance-based.

But some dialogue and data might clarify, as critics have argued, whether such subsidies are wise and deserve to be perpetuated. After all, Amazon admitted that the prime, not sole, driver was the talent pool.

Stronger analysis
There are also other murky parts of the deal, such as a seemingly low fee for public land and generous lease terms, as I wrote last month for Gotham Gazette. It was interesting to see Speaker Johnson scorn the state projections that saying Amazon would be a financial boon for the city and state, and argue for an independent study.

New York has a vehicle for such analysis; it’s called the city’s Independent Budget Office and, when called in 2005 and 2009, IBO raised serious skepticism about Atlantic Yards (and should probably do an update). With that project, however, government officials and many in the press embraced a study paid for by the developer, which was wrong from the start and which is now clearly way off (in part because the project wasn’t built in ten years).

Another analysis is needed, too. At one point during the Amazon hearing, Council Member Francisco Moya requested an independent study to report on such things as the project’s economic, infrastructure, and housing impact. The NYC EDC’s Patchett, nonplused, responded that, of course, the state process requires a study.

But that’s not a truly independent study. In projects like Atlantic Yards, such environmental reviews, however sufficient to pass legal scrutiny, serve the interests of the project’s sponsors and the agency boosting it.

The Council could fund a such an independent study. Sure, this doesn’t address the question of Amazon-the-company, with business practices that, to some, disqualify it. But, at the very least, if the chief executives of New York City and State are going to offer pre-cooked ambitious plans, the obligation of the legislative branches should be continued oversight.

***
Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the watchdog blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report. On Twitter @AYReport.

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

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In Amazon Debate, Atlantic Yards Lessons Beyond Those Aired at First City Council Hearing Sun, 27 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
The Fuzzy Fine Print of Amazon’s Queens Real Estate Deal https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8132-the-fuzzy-fine-print-of-amazon-s-queens-real-estate-deal https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8132-the-fuzzy-fine-print-of-amazon-s-queens-real-estate-deal lic via edc

(image via NYC EDC)


The first of several New York City Council public oversight hearings on the deal to bring an Amazon campus to Long Island City will be held Wednesday at City Hall. Titled by the Council as “Exposing the Closed-Door Process,” the questions should concern not just the big-picture issues but also some fine print regarding the company’s acquisition of city-owned real estate.

Of course, the estimated $3 billion in tax breaks and subsidies in the deal made among Amazon, the state, and the city deserve scrutiny, though, except for a state capital grant that could reach $505 million, those questions -- as Gotham Gazette previously reported -- mostly concern revising existing policy.

For example, the Citizens Budget Commission warns that "offering Amazon benefits that go well above the current cap and expiration date" of the Excelsior Jobs Program -- up to $1.2 billion in state tax credits -- "sets a concerning precedent.”

National subsidy watchdog Good Jobs First points out that the city's decision to have Amazon contribute PILOTs, or payments in lieu of taxes, into a local infrastructure fund, would "further enhanc[e] Amazon’s property value," a benefit worth quantifying.

But Council members also should look at two maddeningly complicated passages in the non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Amazon signed with Empire State Development (ESD), Gov. Andrew Cuomo's economic development authority, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), Mayor Bill de Blasio’s economic development entity.

They rather cryptically describe some contemplated transactions that deserve far more sunlight, both now and if/when they move toward fruition.

First, look at the proposed map (below), which shows two private development sites, two public development sites, and one city-owned building, known as DOE (Department of Education) Premises.

image1

Let's put aside the private development sites, which are owned by a company called Plaxall, and were intended to be part of a large project called Anable Basin.

Instead, let's focus on the two public development sites, which were previously part of a planned project called the Long Island City Innovation Center, involving developer TF Cornerstone and other partners. (The DOE site was not to be part of that project.)

An $850,000 lease
The agreement contains a major parenthetical: Empire State Development will lease the public development sites "for a total agreed base rent payment, exclusive of PILOT, of $850,000 per annum (such price being consistent with the competitively procured terms of NYCEDC's prior agreement with the Company's development partner and reflective of the costs to be assumed by the Company that include but are not limited to City agency relocations... and the Specific Infrastructure and Community Commitments...)"

That’s a lot to unpack.

First, $850,000 won't buy much in New York's rental market: that sum is the same asked of a child care center in the Upper West Side (in a former Duane Reade) or that which drove a bookstore out of SoHo. (I earlier mentioned this issue in an essay for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.)

And if that $850,000 reflects "the costs to be assumed by the Company that include but are not limited to City agency relocations," how are those presumably considerable costs calculated?

If those costs are absorbed in the first years of the Amazon lease, wouldn't the deal get better for them over time?

How exactly was that sum "consistent with the competitively procured terms" of the prior agreement? Why should that prior agreement apply to the Amazon project, given the latter’s scope and the suite of subsidies?

image3

Also, unlike other tenants in Long Island City, Amazon will not be at the mercy of a landlord aiming to raise rent after an initial lease period. The rent, according to the document, "will escalate in accordance with an agreed upon schedule based on the Consumer Price Index" or CPI.

Note that, while that verbiage suggests that the rent increases will correlate with the CPI, that doesn't mean direct correlation. In other words, an "agreed upon schedule" could be a percentage of the CPI. That's worth asking about. And, of course, this non-binding document only presages future negotiations.

The DOE building
Now consider the DOE Premises, a hulking former city warehouse -- approximately 672,000 square feet -- on Vernon Boulevard. According to the city/state memo, Amazon's initial base rent shall not exceed "the value of $500 per built gross square foot multiplied by 6.25%."

Why make that calculation so convoluted? It's hard to believe that was not presented as a way of obscuring the math that leads to $31.25 per square foot.

image2

Note that the base rent "shall equal the fair market rental value as determined by an Appraisal," but...the parties have already stipulated a ceiling of $31.25. That seems like a sweet deal.

How would that appraisal work? It might not happen until 90 days before the lease closes, but it will take "into account sales of, and income generated at, comparable commercial use properties exclusively for the period prior to the date of the MOU," as well as capital investments made by New York City.

Though an appraisal seems meaningless, the comps could use more attention. Consider the Falchi Building, a former factory building recently spiffed up in another section of Long Island City, below Sunnyside Yard. In 2016, the Commercial Observer reported asking rents "in the $40s" and also $55 per square foot.

Of course, asking rent is not contract rent, and these relatively small deals don't compare to leasing a full building. Still, it's hardly clear that $31.25 is the market rent in the area. Nor do we know how to value the "capital investments" factor cited in the MOU. (Update: However, according to the city's just-released response to Amazon's RFP, that site was presented as having a net illustrative rent between $24 and $49.)

image4

Note that the base rent will increase by the lesser of either 3% or the area CPI. Is such a cap on inflation standard operating procedure? 

Maybe city and state officials often come to such seemingly generous agreements. (If so, maybe reconsider those practices, too.) Or perhaps they can defend them as tougher than they seem. But the fuzzy fine print should provoke reason for skepticism—and some hard questions from our elected officials.

***
Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the watchdog blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report. On Twitter @AYReport.

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

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The Fuzzy Fine Print of Amazon’s Queens Real Estate Deal Mon, 10 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Union Square Hub, with 600 Projected Tech Jobs, Appears on Smooth Path to Reality https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7471-union-square-hub-with-600-projected-tech-jobs-appears-on-smooth-path-to-reality https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7471-union-square-hub-with-600-projected-tech-jobs-appears-on-smooth-path-to-reality union square tech hub

Union Square tech hub rendering via the mayor's office


This past week, two Manhattan Community Board 3 committees voted to approve the city's application for the proposed Union Square Training Center, also known as the Union Square tech hub, which the de Blasio administration says will create 800 construction jobs and then 600 permanent jobs in the growing technology sector. The land use and economic development committees of CB3 opted not to condition their vote in favor of the proposal on rezoning several blocks south of the proposed project as the board had considered and some preservationists and long-time community members are fighting for.

The non-binding community board vote to approve the project came on the heels of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) setting in motion the public review process, known as the Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure (ULURP), on January 29 by officially obtaining permission to move forward with the initial project design and chosen developer, RAL Companies & Affiliates LLC. The clock will continue to tick on the roughly seven-month timeline that requires approval by the City Planning Commission and the City Council before any demolition or construction can take place in Union Square.

The tech hub would serve as a state-of-the-art multi-purpose facility, with floors allocated to technology training and startup offices, as well as retail space, located on 14th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. The building, which sits on valuable city-owned land, is currently a P.C. Richard & Son. Community board approval, and without conditions, indicates that the project is almost certain to become a reality, though there are indeed still points of contention that will be negotiated over the coming months among local stakeholders, the de Blasio administration, and elected officials, especially City Council Member Carlina Rivera, who represents the area, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

According to EDC, the 240,000-square-foot, 21-floor facility would allocate six floors to Civic Hall -- three for digital skills training center, three for the company’s own operations as a center for tech innovation  -- five for “flexible” office space, eight for larger office space, and the ground floor for retail and market space, 25 percent of which would be reserved for first-time entrepreneurs and new local businesses. EDC projects construction would cost $250 million and last 18 months, after which the building would be the third-tallest on the block, behind Zeckendorf Towers and the Consolidated Edison Building, and open for business sometime in the middle of 2020.

The project is a component to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “New York Works” plan, a decade-long initiative to create 100,000 jobs, 30,000 of them coming from the technology sector, that pay salaries north of $50,000 annually. Currently, technology is the fastest-growing sector in New York City’s economy. Increasing jobs in the field has been a point of emphasis for de Blasio, continuing the Bloomberg administration’s prioritization of creating tech jobs in New York, as evidenced by his heading the effort to bring the Cornell Technion campus to Roosevelt Island. The city also says the project will serve those that might otherwise not have access to jobs in the technology sector.

“This new hub will be the front-door for tech in New York City,” de Blasio said in a February 2017 press release announcing an outline of the project. “People searching for jobs, training or the resources to start a company will have a place to come to connect and get support. No other city in the nation has anything like it.”

“One of the biggest priorities for the de Blasio administration when it comes to the the economy is really ensuring that there is access to tech jobs [and] that they are accessible to New Yorkers of all neighborhoods and backgrounds,” said Anthony Hogrebe, EDC senior vice president of Public Affairs, echoing de Blasio’s pitch for the tech hub, on a call with Gotham Gazette. “One of the biggest ways you do that is improving workforce development, and by helping folks get the skills they need to qualify for those jobs.”

Hogrebe said the tech hub would “ensure tech jobs really are for all New Yorkers,” not solely for “those who have advanced degrees in computer science.”

He emphasized the centrality of the space allocated to teaching technological skills. “The cornerstone of this project is the digital skills training center. This is a place where some of the top organizations from all over the city will train New Yorkers on how to do the jobs that are in demand and give New Yorkers the skills they need,” said Hogrebe.

Most elected leaders, advocates and residents of the community are in favor of the proposal; they see it as a way to bring to the area jobs and educational opportunities that prepare people for job-rich fields. But some are pushing to include a concession in the deal: rezoning several blocks south of the hub in order to limit development.

During her 2017 City Council campaign, then-candidate Carlina Rivera said she was open to the tech hub project as long as the city implemented protective zoning measures aimed at curbing commercial and residential development in the nearby areas. The de Blasio administration, on the other hand, has generally been less likely to favor down-zonings as it seeks to add housing density, with affordability provisions, across the city. It remains to be seen how hard Rivera will push for the restrictive measures, and it is telling that the community board did not insist on them despite some loud and organized voices who call them essential to the neighborhood’s future.

In order to build the tech hub as planned, the lot in between two New York University-owned buildings -- University Hall and Palladium -- needs to be rezoned for additional height allowances. The rezoning must be approved through the five-step, roughly seven-month ULURP process. After the de Blasio administration put forward its ideas, solicited bids for the project via a request for proposals (RFP), and chose a developer, last month’s certification was the first hoop the proposal was required to jump through and this past Wednesday’s community board hearing was the second.

Next, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and the Borough Board, which includes community board leaders and City Council members from across the borough, will review the proposal. While they may influence the project, the opinions of the local community board and borough board are both advisory.

However, the following steps, the City Planning Commission and the City Council, both have power to either approve or deny the tech hub project. In the coming months, the Council will hold committee hearings and subsequently vote on the matter -- the full Council approval of the project, in whatever exact form it is finalized, will likely occur around Labor Day. Usually, City Council members follow the lead of the member who represents the area home to a proposed rezoning, and there has been little to suggest this particular rezoning process will be a departure from the norm.

New City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who represents the area west of Union Square, said at a press conference on January 24 that he expects Rivera to helm negotiations with the de Blasio administration and trusts her judgement on the issue. “I defer to Council Member Rivera,” he said. “She has my full support and she knows that. She’s a pragmatic, thoughtful person who spent time on her local community board, who understands these issues, so I think she will handle this in a responsible, thoughtful way.”

Additionally, Johnson indicated that he was sympathetic to the idea of rezoning the blocks south of Union Square to limit development. “I know that area. It’s right on the border of our district,” he said. “To me, I think it makes sense, knowing that area, seeing developments going on there.”

At the Community Board 3 hearing on the matter, a slight majority of those who testified voiced support for the tech hub. They said it would bring jobs and educational opportunities to the area, though some in the pro-tech hub camp wanted confirmation from the EDC representatives in attendance that those from the local communities would reap the benefits of the new facility. Another faction, which skewed older, whiter, and included many long-time residents of the East and West Villages, expressed their concern the tech hub would spawn unwanted changes in the neighborhood if they didn’t fight for measures -- like more restrictive zoning on commercial development -- to thwart these shifts.

After the tech hub is erected, one theory goes, more residential and commercial development -- such as luxury and market-rate apartment buildings, chain stores, and hotels -- would change the community character, make the surrounding areas less affordable to small businesses and unrecognizable to long-time residents. Rezoning the area, in the skeptics’ telling, would preserve affordability by forestalling a potential wave of development adjacent to the tech hub.

Notably, many of the expressed qualms with the project sans an accompanying downzoning closely mirrored those voiced by Greenwich Village Society For Historic Preservation (GVHSP), a community nonprofit that typically opposes development. In a press release following the project’s ULURP certification and ahead of the community board hearing, GVPA executive director Andrew Berman, who made his case to the community board Wednesday night, argued that if the “surrounding predominantly residential neighborhood” is not protected, the tech hub would “accelerate the transformation of the area.”

Following over four hours of testimony and discussion, the community board committees voted 16 to 5 to approve the ULURP application without any condition.

After Wednesday’s vote, Rivera said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that she will work with the local community board, the mayor, and stakeholders to construct a “plan that satisfies and includes everyone.”

“This tech center has the potential to be a great space for the local residents who historically have not had access to the high-paying jobs of the tech industry, a field whose companies continue to grow in and around our neighborhoods,” Rivera continued.

Rivera said she will ensure the impending construction of the tech hub does not encourage excessive commercial development, which she said would adversely impact nearby residents and small businesses. “I will also continue to work towards the protections and rezoning which have broad community support that promote the development of housing and projects that are in line with our values and residential character,” she stated.    

Berman, for his part, expressed displeasure with the community board’s process and decision. “By the narrowest of votes in which several of our supporters who should have been allowed to vote but were not given the opportunity to do so, a strong resolution incorporating all of our concerns was defeated for a weaker one incorporating some but not all of our concerns,” said Berman in a statement to Patch. He vowed to “keep working” to advocate for policies that ensure the neighborhood “gets the protections it deserves and needs."

Needless to say, not all of those who participated in the hearing were disappointed with the outcome. Meghan Heintz of More New York, a group that advocates for policies that increase housing supply in the city, argued at the hearing that the tech hub was a boon to residents of nearby neighborhoods, and warned against the consequences of prohibitively restrictive zoning.

Heintz was pleased with the board’s decision to approve the ULURP application.

“Education and job training for the new economy is vital and should be accessible to people from all backgrounds and delaying it is the same as denying those benefits to New Yorkers. We staunchly oppose the exclusionary zoning proposal that NIMBYs from an adjacent neighborhood clumsily tried to tack onto the project,” she said Thursday in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

Heintz added, “If their proposal could really stand on its own merits, they wouldn't need to try to take a great project hostage to pass it.”

Along with the community advocates and stakeholders, New York University would also be impacted by the tech hub as the lot on which the new facility would be built is in between the two aforementioned NYU buildings. NYU spokesperson John Beckman said Wednesday that while the university has not had “direct involvement” in the project, the university supports “overall efforts to strengthen NYC's science, tech, and innovation economy” which includes the tech hub. “The Union Square Tech Hub is meant to advance NYC's tech economy, and that's an objective NYU supports,” he stated.

Asked to evaluate the idea to downzone areas surrounding the planned tech hub during a call Tuesday, Regional Plan Association director of community planning and design Moses Gates said that though fears of displacement are legitimate, downzoning would not advance the preservationists’ goals. Gates said the proposed rezoning would only be good news for those who “don’t want to see any change in the neighborhood.”

“I think a downzoning is not really in the community interest,” he said. “I don’t think it will release any kind of displacement pressures, which have been going on for decades at this point in the East Village.”

Instead, Gates said, the city should build more housing in the transit-rich area while ensuring that a sufficient amount of it is affordable under Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) guidelines, which require affordable housing in any area or project that is upzoned to add housing density. “We should also be looking to get some mixed-income housing in a very upper-income and increasingly exclusionary neighborhood,” he said.

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Union Square Hub, with 600 Projected Tech Jobs, Appears on Smooth Path to Reality Sun, 11 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
What’s The [Data] Point? $3.2 Billion, with James Patchett https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7417-what-s-the-data-point-3-2-billion-with-james-patchett https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7417-what-s-the-data-point-3-2-billion-with-james-patchett whats the data point


What's The Data Point? Episode 26 -- $3.2 Billion, with James Patchett [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

patchett and ben

James Patchett is the President and CEO of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the city's nonprofit arm dedicated to spurring job and industry growth, managing special projects, and implementing certain infrastructure projects. Patchett joined the podcast to discuss the City's development strategy, tax breaks, NYC Ferry, and the BQX streetcar project, and to respond to a new Citizens Budget Commission report evaluating the City's approach to economic development.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis), and guest James Patchett (@jbpatchett) of the Economic Development Corporation (@NYCEDC). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What’s The [Data] Point? $3.2 Billion, with James Patchett Fri, 12 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
'Open Budget,' Economic Development Transparency Bills Become Law https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7346-open-budget-economic-development-transparency-bills-become-law https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/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.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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'Open Budget,' Economic Development Transparency Bills Become Law Fri, 01 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000