Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/230 Wed, 17 Jul 2019 17:21:01 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) For Ruben Diaz Jr., a Booming Bronx and Plan to Run on Development https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8565-for-ruben-diaz-jr-a-booming-bronx-and-plan-to-run-on-development https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8565-for-ruben-diaz-jr-a-booming-bronx-and-plan-to-run-on-development Ruben Dia Jr.

Ruben Diaz Jr. (photo: Diaz Jr.'s office)


Development in the Bronx has defined Ruben Diaz Jr.’s borough presidency, now in its tenth year and coinciding with record economic expansion across the city and country coming out of the Great Recession. And Diaz Jr. has defined his borough presidency –– and plans to build his upcoming run for Mayor –– around economic and housing development.

The Bronx has seen $18.96 billion poured into development since 2009, the majority of which has gone to residential units, according to the borough president’s most recent development report. Diaz Jr. releases an annual report on commercial and housing development in the Bronx and holds a celebratory event to tout the investment.

During his 2019 state of the borough address, Diaz Jr. recalled his first address in 2010. “That day, I laid out the beginnings of a conceptual master plan for our borough,” which included “encouraging new developments of all types,” he said. “Our work over the past decade in the Bronx has had a powerful impact,” Diaz Jr. declared before praising low unemployment rates.

Since the start of his tenure as the Bronx’s top figurehead, Diaz Jr. has espoused a vision of growth in the borough driven by community-centric development, where housing and employment opportunities flourish for Bronxites across the economic spectrum, and displacement is avoided. In short, all the good of gentrification without the bad.

It’s a vision of relatively rapid improvement for the borough with the highest, but decreasing, poverty and crime rates that creates opportunity for struggling Bronxites and attracts new people to the Bronx to set up or work at new businesses and obtain reasonably-priced housing and reasonable commutes to Manhattan.

As Diaz Jr. begins his campaign for mayor ahead of the June 2021 Democratic primary that is likely to all-but-decide the city’s next chief executive, assessing how well he has executed his vision and his overall legacy is challenging, in part because the position of borough president is largely ceremonial and coordinative.

Helping to usher in development is one concrete way in which the job of borough president can be performed, though, and given how Diaz Jr. heralds his tenure on the subject and plans to center it in his mayoral run, it is an essential area to dissect.

The reality of Diaz Jr.’s tenure when it comes to development is of course complicated, and reality is a bit murkier than the borough president presents in his public comments.

While development has proliferated in the Bronx, with dozens of land use rule-changes approved since 2009 to help developers build more and bigger, unemployment is still higher than the rest of the city, homeownership rates are still low, and some Bronxites have been displaced. And the true impacts of some development and land use decisions won’t be felt for years more to come.

Diaz Jr., consistently burnishing a reputation as a pro-growth leader of the city’s poorest borough, has staunchly denied that significant displacement has occurred and has fired back at critics who say otherwise.

In 2015, a professed resident of the south Bronx called into WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show –– which was hosting Diaz Jr. and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to discuss gentrification and de Blasio’s then-new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan –– to implore Diaz Jr. to “wake up” in the face of what the caller deemed “out of touch” leadership in which “people are being pushed out daily.”

The borough president shot back. “No one can prove to me that we forced one community out to bring another one in,” he said. “If you look at all of the 17,000 units of housing that I’ve been a part of in the last six years, the overwhelming majority of that have been for low-income. Unfortunately, there's folks like yourself and others who have your own agenda and you're not in reality. You're not really paying attention to all the good things that we're doing.”

Diaz Jr. told the caller about a land use hearing he held with the community that he “didn’t have to have,” a common refrain from the borough president when he exceeds the technical duties of his office (which has limited powers but does influence land use matters), during which he listened to “more than 50 testimonies” and voted with the community against the early iteration of the mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program.

MIH requires certain amounts and levels of income-targeted “affordable housing” within larger projects when developers receive city permission to build bigger than previous land use rules would allow (otherwise known as an upzoning). Questions have long abound as to whether the city’s income targets for “affordable housing” are really appropriately low enough to match New Yorkers in most need.

The borough president went on to say that the unemployment rate was cut by half during his tenure, that his administration “has done three developments for military veterans” –– a specific concern from the caller, a veteran who said he’s not receiving proper help –– and that he created jobs.

Diaz Jr. was largely correct in his assessment of the Bronx’s economic growth -- housing and jobs have expanded greatly over the last ten years in a borough that had immense opportunity for investors, especially as crime has also dropped significantly in recent decades and the city’s population has steadily climbed. The Bronx also offers a great deal of parkland and key long-standing attractions like the Bronx Zoo and Yankee Stadium.

“The Bronx is booming, so Ruben can certainly beat his chest with that,” said Bob Kappstatter, a political and media consultant, and longtime former Bronx bureau chief for the New York Daily News.

But the question of whom deserves credit for these benchmarks is complicated.

Unemployment has fallen drastically and job creation has surged in the Bronx over Diaz Jr.’s borough presidency; but he assumed the position in 2009 just after the economic crash and carried out his limited duties during a time of historic national and citywide growth. Developers and investors clearly began to see the Bronx as a more desirable place to do business, and it likely helped to have a borough president who rolled out a welcome mat.

Diaz Jr. has helped build housing for veterans and other Bronxites with special needs, but he’s also backed luxury developments that have priced locals out, rent burden rates continue to soar, and the tenant eviction rate in the Bronx is dramatically higher than anywhere else in the city.

Overall, Diaz Jr. has supported diverse development projects, from high-end housing to NYCHA infill and 100% “affordable” buildings, using what he calls a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to achieve his goal of a mixed-income borough. It’s an approach that has largely been in line with both mayors, Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, who have held office during his tenure as borough president, and whom he hopes to succeed come January 1, 2022 on a campaign platform that will center on his record of bringing development to the Bronx.

An Especially Strong Borough President
The primary responsibilities of borough presidents are providing guidance on land-use matters, appointing community board members, and serving as an ambassador for the borough. While borough presidents have few binding powers, they can show significant strength with the right allies to push their agenda forward.

“Borough presidents are cheerleaders,” said Kappstatter, “and he’s done a pretty good job.”

Diaz Jr. has amassed significant power in the Bronx as part of a small group of officials leading the county’s Democratic Party apparatus, most notably state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who led the county party until his 2015 ascension to the powerful speakership, and current county party chair Marcos Crespo, who serves in the Assembly. The Bronx Democrats are intensely focused on electing Diaz Jr. mayor in the 2021 election. Crespo, Heastie, and Diaz Jr. closely run Democratic politics in the borough as tightly as possible.

The borough president also has an important close relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo, now a third-term Democrat, and many members of the state Assembly (where he served from 1997 through 2009), state Senate, and City Council, where his controversial father, Ruben Diaz Sr. now serves. With Cuomo, Diaz Jr. appeared to be developing an especially close bond, with the governor regularly hosting events in the Bronx where he and the borough president would heap praise on each other. That pattern has slowed recently.

Meanwhile, Diaz Jr. often finds himself having to distance himself from his father’s remarks and positions, especially on LGBT and women’s rights issues.

Diaz Jr. worked well with former Mayor Bloomberg, with whom he shared a more aggressive vision of development, but has clashed with Mayor de Blasio on several fronts, including the specific terms of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, wherein Diaz Jr. wanted more flexibility for borough presidents and local officials to negotiate with developers and foster mixed-income housing, and the fate of the Kingsbridge Armory.

The Bronx Democratic Party is an insular but powerful group that works to elect Democrats to every position possible, a highly-achievable goal in the Bronx where Democrats far outnumber Republicans, and supports candidates who will work to elevate each other’s political power. Crespo, who interned for Diaz Jr. in 2003, has led the party since 2015, when Heastie rose to the Assembly speakership and became one of the three most powerful people in state government, along with the leader of the state Senate and the Governor.

During his early political career and time in the Assembly, Diaz Jr. and Heastie became quite close. In 2008, Diaz Jr. was integral to elevating Heastie’s career; as part of the “rainbow rebels,” a small group of black and Hispanic lawmakers, he successfully pushed for Heastie to oust Jose Rivera, a formerly influential Assembly member, as head of the Bronx Democratic Party.

Heastie has been instrumental in constructing new schools and after-school centers in the Bronx, among other spoils that come with heights of political power. And since rising to the Assembly speakership, Heastie holds significant power in setting the state’s legislative and budgetary agenda.

With difficult, expensive projects in the works, like new MetroNorth stations and the planned Kingsbridge National Ice Center, which has stagnated over the years due to a lack of funding, Heastie is a vital ally for Diaz Jr. As is Cuomo, though Cuomo and Heastie have been on colder terms over the past year, which could impact Cuomo’s potential support for Diaz Jr.’s mayoral bid. The 2021 Democratic primary for mayor is expected to be a crowded and highly competitive affair; a race that is already in motion and is expected to kick into another gear in 2020.

Diaz Jr. also works closely with Rafael Salamanca, whom he appointed to a Bronx community board and went on to win a seat in the City Council in a 2016 special election. Salamanca now serves as the chair of the powerful City Council Land Use Committee, the result of a deal reached to help elevate Corey Johnson to the speakership of the City Council. Since that deal, Johnson has emerged as a more powerful political force than some imagined, and is now a likely mayoral candidate in 2021, competing against Diaz Jr. and other likely candidates such as Comptroller Scott Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and whomever else may throw their hats into the ring.

These relationships enable Diaz Jr. to advance his agenda (and build his brand) through New York’s complex governmental processes and bureaucracies, from the start of the city land use process at the community board level all the way through the City Council, with support at the highest levels of state governance. Diaz Jr. will have whatever weight the Bronx Democratic Party can bring to bear for his mayoral run, and the machine’s often close relationship to its Queens counterpart could also be helpful (Heastie and Diaz Jr. both recently endorsed Queens Borough President Melinda Katz in her Queens Democratic Party-backed run for District Attorney.)

Unsurprisingly, Diaz Jr. has another layer of support from the real estate industry, as evidenced by his approach to development and campaign donations he has received.

A Gotham Gazette analysis of Diaz Jr.’s filings with the city’s Campaign Finance Board shows that 38% of contributions of $1,000 or more to his three borough president campaigns came from individuals in the real estate industry, including developers, realtors, architects, and construction firms.

“Campaign finance considerations have no influence on the work of the borough president and his office,” Diaz Jr.’s office told Gotham Gazette in a statement.

In recent months, Diaz Jr. has spent substantial time courting developers and investors, in addition to meetings with close allies, according to considerably redacted copies of his daily schedule from February through April of this year, attained by Gotham Gazette through the Freedom of Information law. The schedules show the borough president’s appointments and their locations, but appear to repeatedly black out the topics of the specific meetings, whether with developers or former Bronx Borough President and mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer, or others.

Goals and Rhetoric Compared to Reality
Diaz Jr. has helped champion and spearhead development in the Bronx, with a stated goal of rendering the borough a destination that New Yorkers want to move to rather than leave. He has argued that doing so requires a diverse economy with residents of all income levels, while striking the right balance between development and community benefit.

In 2009, as Diaz Jr. delivered his inauguration speech to an adoring crowd in Lehman College in the aftermath of the economic crash, he told the people of the Bronx, “Perhaps the most important piece of our agenda is going to be economic development.”

Over the following 10 years, Diaz Jr. has sought to bear out his vision through mass development, creating job, housing, commercial, and recreational opportunities. But at the same time, he’s promised to keep the community at the core of his actions. In his view, he said in 2010, “When developers want to do business in our borough, they must do what is right for the entire Bronx and not just themselves.”

“We cannot accept that the minimum wage is the best salary a developer can offer while they take so heavily from taxpayers’ wallets,” Diaz Jr. continued. “If you want charity, you must be charitable. If you want a public benefit, your project must benefit the public.”

As he pushed for balanced development, Diaz Jr. criticized Mayor de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan, which mandates that developers allowed to build bigger than they otherwise would be able to set aside a certain portion of new housing at “affordable” rents.

Diaz Jr. pushed the City Council to vote against an early version of the plan in 2015, as did many other city officials and community board members. Though, he had a more complicated argument than most critics, who largely said that the MIH plan did not go far enough to mandate deeply affordable housing: Diaz Jr. wanted more options for local officials to use to negotiate with developers, both in terms of lower- and higher-income regulations. He issued a statement at the time that read, “the proposal as it stands would not fully realize the goal of truly mixed-income communities.”

After pushback from a broad cohort of city officials and others, de Blasio offered a new MIH plan in 2016 with a broader variety of thresholds for affordable housing “bands” that could be selected during a rezoning. “While the housing deal does not go as far to assist the low income community as many of us had hoped,” Diaz Jr. wrote in a statement at the time, “it is an encouraging step in the right direction.”

Two years later, Diaz Jr. praised the construction of Martin Luther King Plaza in Mott Haven, which contains 166 affordable units, 67 of which are permanently affordable. Forty-six of the permanently affordable units were “made possible through MIH,” a 2018 statement from Diaz Jr. reads. Many Bronx developments are taking place under new MIH terms, whether through a neighborhood rezoning or specific plot upzonings that trigger MIH.

Monxo López, adjunct professor of Latino studies and politics at Hunter College and co-founder of activist group South Bronx Unite, said that the borough has undergone a sudden change after the decades of systemic disinvestment, blazing fires, and the dereliction of housing.

Now, he said, “we see an over-interest in exploiting our land, the value of our land, a land that is valuable and has become valuable because of the real existing efforts to make this place––meaning Mott Haven and the South Bronx, and the Bronx in general––a livable place.”

Meanwhile, Diaz Jr. has remained rhetorically committed to community-centric development, which he championed in his 2014 state of the borough address. He pointed to the Kingsbridge Armory as the paragon of his vision for the Bronx: the former military structure is set to be developed into an ice rink, after long discussions with community members to ensure protections of local jobs and housing. The project has been severely stalled.

“We have set a new standard for responsible development. That, ladies and gentlemen, is planning with a purpose. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Diaz doctrine.”

The reality in the Bronx has been complicated.

While development has superficially improved the Bronx, replacing burnt out or vacant lots with new buildings, the community of people who already lived in the borough, especially its most downtrodden and poor areas, is not always the recipient of growth.

“It’s like both things are going on at once,” said Elliott Liu, an activist in the Bronx and graduate student in anthropology. “You have all sorts of new buildings going up...but at least a handful of people get evicted.”

A 2019 report from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) showed rampant threats to affordable housing in the Bronx.

Mott Haven and Kingsbridge are home to some of the highest rates of housing price change in the city. And of the 10 neighborhoods with the highest number of evictions executed by court-ordered marshals in 2018, seven were in the Bronx. The report also ranks six Bronx neighborhoods in the top 11 neighborhoods citywide undergoing serious threats to affordable housing.

“Homelessness is still a big issue, and where is homelessness coming from? Gentrification and rising rents,” said Kappstatter. But, he added, “you can’t blame Ruben on this one, this is a citywide issue.”

Massive economic growth characterized the economy over the past ten years, especially in New York City, and the effects spread to the Bronx. According to a state comptroller report, since 2010, the number of businesses in the Bronx has grown by 17%, reaching nearly 18,000, and the population of the Bronx has been the fastest growing county in the state, largely driven by immigration.

In 2017, unemployment in the Bronx reached its lowest point since 1990 at 6.2%, according to the state comptroller report––but that still leaves Bronx County behind, with the seventh highest unemployment rate in the state and higher than the citywide rate of 4.5%.

After a difficult history of a decreasing population and divestment from housing, the Bronx had 498,500 occupied housing units in 2016, according to the state comptroller report. That number has remained fairly steady since Diaz Jr.’s earliest years in office; in 2010, the Bronx housed 472,464 occupied units, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Other housing metrics show a bleaker picture of the borough over the past ten years: 60% of Bronx households put at least 30% of their income toward rent, “higher than in any other borough and six percentage points higher than the citywide share,” according to the state comptroller report. The number of households who used half their income for rent grew by 19% between 2007 and 2016.

Bronx County has the second lowest rate of homeownership in the country, though Manhattan and Brooklyn follow closely behind, according to a 2016 study from New York University’s Furman Center and Citi. The most recent available federal data on homeownership shows a rebound in the Bronx’s homeownership rate starting in 2016 after a steady decline in 2009, following the recession that included the home foreclosure crisis.

Eviction numbers in the Bronx further challenge the notion that development will lead to affordable housing for all: 6,858 tenants were evicted in the Bronx in 2018––more than any other borough, while it has the fourth-highest population, according to City Council eviction data. The eviction rate in the Bronx is one eviction per 79 units. The next highest rate is one eviction per 180 units, in Brooklyn, and Manhattan has the lowest eviction rate at one per 345 units.

“For the past decade,” said Diaz Jr.’s spokesperson, John DeSio, in a brief written statement to Gotham Gazette, “the borough president has worked assiduously to build affordable housing and fight displacement, create new jobs, protect NYCHA residents, improve health and educational outcomes, and continue to make the Bronx an even greater place to live, work and raise a family.”

Though Diaz Jr. has promoted commercial development, job growth has not necessarily followed.

Many other commercial development projects that Diaz Jr. has favored have been concentrated in Mott Haven. But the unemployment rate in the neighborhood is at 16%, according to a 2015 study from the Health Department. And Co-Op City, the neighborhood home to the Mall at Bay Plaza––a development project Diaz Jr. praised as a major success––has seen some of the lowest job growth in the borough, according to the state comptroller report.

Diaz Jr. once fully welcomed the Trump Links project in the Bronx’s Throggs Neck neighborhood, but he has since walked his enthusiasm back. In his 2014 state of the borough speech, Diaz Jr. hailed the golf course as a harbinger of job creation and prosperity. “Donald Trump understands the power of his brand, and we are now partners. That is the ‘New Bronx.’”

The golf course opened in April 2015 and Diaz Jr. was one of the first golfers to play on the course, according to DNAInfo. But when Trump announced his presidential campaign that June using racist rhetoric, Diaz Jr. decided to boycott the course. He had already been vexed by Trump’s marketing of the golf course as located in “Ferry Point,” according to DNAInfo. He argued the advertising obscured the golf course’s connection to the borough as it is not the name of any of the Bronx’s neighborhoods. Business at the golf course slumped since Trump assumed the presidency, according to the Washington Post. Diaz Jr. has repeatedly condemned Trump on a slew of the president’s statements and policies.

“Our work over the past decade has borne real fruit,” Diaz Jr.’s spokesperson wrote. “We are shedding the stigma that has dogged this borough for so long, and we are building a brighter future for everyone.”

Several examples show Diaz Jr.’s approach to major projects that will in part determine his legacy as borough president and the future of affordability and opportunity in the Bronx.

La Central and Mixed-Rate Development
Mixed-income development is at the crux of Diaz Jr.’s plan for the Bronx, and perhaps, if he ascends to the mayor’s office as he hopes, for the city at large. Diaz Jr. has touted his case-by-case approach to development with resources allotted as necessary.

La Central, if all goes according to plan during its construction, will test this approach. The project embodies the tensions at the heart of the development debate in the Bronx: it will reserve housing for the borough’s most vulnerable citizens, coupled with glossy amenities like a recording studio.

Leaders across the state praised the five-building La Central development, designed to function as a community space as much as a housing complex. The buildings in the Melrose neighborhood are slotted to fill a formerly vacant lot with more than 800 units of sub-market rate (“affordable”) housing.

Land use documents show that La Central plans to bring 832 “affordable” housing units to the borough –– defined as scaled for Bronxites who earn 30-130% of the area median income –– including 160 units reserved specifically for homeless veterans and Bronxites with HIV/AIDS. The complex will also host community spaces including a YMCA, daycare services, a 25-story Astronomy Tower, farm space, a skate park, and a recording studio. Locals have sought to reserve half the units for residents of Melrose and the nearby Mott Haven and Port Morris neighborhoods, in addition to efforts to hire locally.

The buildings are also situated near the shared 2 and 5 train station, a Metro-North stop, and several bus stops, in the vein of increasingly popular Transit-Oriented Development, which seeks to create more housing near transit hubs and decrease reliance on cars globally.

“La Central is an exemplar proposal that will fill a gaping void that has plagued The Hub for decades,” Diaz Jr. said at the time. The project earned the unanimous approval of the City Council after it was pledged to reserve a number of apartments at rental rate of $640 per month and the use of union labor for construction.

Breaking Ground, Hudson Companies, BRP Companies and ELH-TKC are each developing parts of La Central, with $100 million of funding from Wells Fargo.

“I want to note the level of outreach the development team has given to my office,” Diaz Jr. wrote in his non-binding approval of the project in June of 2016, complimenting the regular conference calls that he said developers set up and their willingness to change the buildings’ design to better fit with the Bronx’s “warmer color” aesthetic. “I welcome this diverse, truly mixed-use, transit oriented development. I am proud to have contributed $1.5 million toward its development.”

The project has hit some logistical snags along the way.

The Department of Buildings recently placed a stop work order on one of La Central’s buildings after a loose piece of equipment injured a construction worker’s neck and landed him in the hospital. The building received a more minor stop work order late last year after contractors failed to properly update the Department of Buildings, though it was later rescinded.

The Westchester-based construction company, Mountco Construction & Development, has been charged with a host of violations since the project broke ground, resulting in a total of $28,145.95 in fines for the two buildings slated for full affordability, compared to the other three mixed-rate buildings. Mountco could not be reached for comment.

The architect, FX Collaborative, has designed buildings across the world, from Dubai to Hudson Yards. It holds social responsibility as one of its foremost principles and wrote that their design for La Central “will provide a diversity of environments connected to the larger context.”

Residents harbor mixed feelings toward the project. “La Central is continuously called a ‘transformative’ development for the Bronx, but what does that mean for the local residents?” Ed García Conde, founder of welcome2thebronx.com, wrote. “Gentrification and displacement.”

Construction on La Central started in June 2017 and the first building is slated to open this summer.

Compass Residences and Luxury Development
This 1,279-unit market-rate development under the Third Avenue Bridge lies at the epicenter of gentrification in the South Bronx, alongside a coffee shop with $4 lattes, several restaurants, boutiques, and gyms.

The original developers, Somerset Partners and Chetrit Group, laid out their vision for the South Bronx’s future as “Williamsburg meets DUMBO.” Diaz Jr. nodded to the project in a 2015 speech citing the “complete metamorphosis of the Harlem River waterfront.” Last year, however, after a tumultuous three years of development, Somerset and Chetrit sold to Brookfield Property Group after Diaz Jr. courted Ric Clark, the company’s chairman, with a tour of the Bronx.

“From just south of the Third Avenue Bridge all the way to 149th Street,” Diaz Jr. said in 2015, “We found the opportunity for thousands of housing units of all kinds, new waterfront access, and park space.”

While residents hold varied feelings about gentrification, with some concerned about displacement and others who welcome new amenities, a near consensus emerged against the project’s original developers. The developers threw an infamous warehouse party with a “Bronx is Burning” theme that saw glamorous celebrities posing against fake bullet-ridden cars, harkening back to the Bronx’s difficult past, epitomized in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Somerset Partners notoriously sought to rebrand the South Bronx as the “Piano District” and plastered billboards in the area that promised “luxury waterfront living.” The billboard enraged locals and sparked the hashtag #WhatPianoDistrict among Bronxites who viewed the moniker as an erasure of the thriving community already in place. The group did not return repeated requests for comment.

Though Diaz Jr. himself disapproved of the “Bronx is Burning” theme and the “Piano District” moniker, they are emblematic of the types of mindsets that he has welcomed to the Bronx through his approach to pursuing development and a sense of the Bronx as a destination with at least some luxury experiences available.

Somerset and Chetrit sold the development to Brookfield Properties in 2018 for $165 million, the New York Post reported at the time. “Brookfield’s interest in the Bronx accelerated when Borough President Diaz invited Brookfield Properties’ Ric Clark on a tour of the borough,” said a spokesperson for the company. Brookfield Properties expects to reserve 30 percent of the units for sub-market rate housing, which would allow the company to claim a tax break.

The architecture firm, Hill West, partners with luxury developers, like the Trump Organization. Their history of community involvement includes contributions to major nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, the SkyScraper Museum, and the Queens Library Foundation. The two buildings are currently under redesign to “optimize the functionality of the site,” according to a spokesperson from Brookfield Properties.

The Department of Buildings issued a stop work order to the Lincoln Avenue property last August for permit issues after two similar complaints. The violations have not yet been resolved and may result in a fine of just over $2,000.

FreshDirect and Community, Labor Tensions
In February 2012, Diaz Jr. took on the relocation of FreshDirect, the online service that delivers groceries directly to customers’ doors, to the South Bronx from Long Island City in Queens as a major project of his first term as borough president. In the time between then and the opening of FreshDirect’s new Port Morris warehouse in July 2018, the project was marked with bitter controversy.

A bidding war between the Bronx and New Jersey broke out to lure FreshDirect in 2012. A site in Port Morris along the Harlem River waterfront ultimately won out with over $100 million in state and city tax incentives.

When Diaz Jr., alongside Governor Cuomo and then-Mayor Bloomberg, announced the project, it was slated to bring $112.6 million in investment to the Bronx in addition to at least 2,000 construction and 1,000 permanent jobs, including holdovers from the Queens facility, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

Once FreshDirect decided on the Port Morris site, activists sprung into action, denouncing the introduction of an extensive fleet of trucks into a neighborhood already suffering from poor air quality and the highest childhood asthma rate in New York City.

The conflict rose to the courts as activist group South Bronx Unite sued FreshDirect for violating environmental review laws. The state appellate court sided with FreshDirect. Diaz Jr. called the result a “victory not only for FreshDirect, but for the Bronx as a whole.”

FreshDirect exceeded its promise to bring 1,000 jobs, according to the company, which says it has hired 1,500 workers. The jobs now pay at least $15 per hour, in compliance with the state minimum wage.

But FreshDirect has a fraught history with employee unionization through the United Food and Commercial Workers, the group under which the company’s truck drivers are unionized and that has also sought to unionize the warehouse workers (in addition to other union groups). In 2014, 16 city and state officials signed a letter addressed to FreshDirect’s CEO, Jason Ackerman, encouraging the company to work with the union. Diaz Jr. did not sign the letter. In his office’s written statement to Gotham Gazette, his spokesperson neglected to address questions about this issue.

After difficult bargaining between FreshDirect and UFCW in 2014 to raise wages by roughly 20% over three years, from just over $10 per hour, Diaz Jr. said he was “very pleased” they could reach an agreement. Warehouse workers are still not unionized.

Though he shows no clear record of having gone to bat for FreshDirect workers in any meaningful way, the borough president has positioned himself as a champion of labor rights. In January 2018, following the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision, which ruled that public employees could opt out of paying dues, he said, “Our city and state must enact policies that prevent the erosion of rights that have been gained through union organizing and collective bargaining.”

NYCHA Infill
The Bronx is home to 44,292 NYCHA apartment units, according to the authority––the third-highest of the boroughs, after Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Diaz Jr. has frequently spoken out against poor conditions and mistreatment of NYCHA tenants, especially over heat and hot water outages during the winter of 2017 and into 2018.

The borough president has generally been in favor of NYCHA infill plans, or developing new privately-run buildings on NYCHA land to generate revenue for the cash strapped public housing authority through lease agreements. Though there are many forms it can take, infill is often opposed as a form of privatizing public assets and welcoming gentrification to low-income areas. Many infill proposals include a mix of affordable and market-rate housing given that market-rate units can raise more money for both developers and NYCHA.

In 2012, Diaz Jr. approved the construction of three buildings on NYCHA land: two affordable buildings with one reserved for seniors, and a third for more lavish townhouses. Diaz Jr. wrote in the ULURP application, “It is the eventual inclusion of this third phase [of townhouses] that makes this project all the more critical and reflective of my mixed-income community development policy.”

In 2018, Diaz Jr. resoundingly approved the ULURP application for a mixed-use building called Betances VI on NYCHA land with affordable housing, including 30 units for homeless and mentally-disabled Bronxites, and retail space.

“Betances VI represents a unique collaboration that will bring to the Mott Haven community of the Bronx affordable housing, new retail development, and perhaps most importantly of all, accommodations for some of our city’s most needy citizens,” he wrote.

Lemle and Wolff Companies developed both projects. The firm specializes in “construction and management of high-quality affordable housing,” according to its website. Five of the seven company’s principals have donated small amounts of money to one of Diaz Jr.’s borough presidency campaigns for a sum totaling $1,610, according to his campaign finances. That number jumps to $4,730 if including donations from the first principal Joseph Zitolo’s wife, Susan Zitolo. In 2015, The Daily News reported that the company owed $500,000 in backwages.

Community Board 1 disapproved the application, out of concern that Lemle and Wolff Companies would not be held accountable to providing adequate housing for the homeless, or play space for tenants’ children.

In response, Diaz Jr. said he understood the concerns, but that “affordable housing is vital, as too is giving people with a troubled past a chance to achieve success.”

At the same time, he’s spoken out strongly against developing over green space on NYCHA land. “That’s where children go out and play, that’s where seniors go out to sit and get fresh air,” he told The Observer in 2015.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center and Execution Difficulties
After years of contention between city and state officials over the decades-long vacancy of the Kingsbridge Armory, in 2012, a coalition including former Deutsche Bank executive Kevin Parker and a former New York Rangers star Mark Messier, proposed reconfiguring the empty former military structure into the world’s largest indoor ice rink: the Kingsbridge National Ice Center.

The Kingsbridge Armory has sat vacant since 1996 when it became city government property. The Related Companies won a bid to renovate the armory into a shopping mall with the support of then-Mayor Bloomberg. The 2009 proposal, however, resoundingly failed in the City Council with a vote of 45-1 (with some abstentions); the Council then overrode Bloomberg’s veto 48-1, over concerns surrounding traffic and wages for the potential mall workers. Diaz Jr. slammed the proposal, instead pushing for development legislation that mandated living wages for the future ice center’s employees.

A 2012 proposal revived renovation plans for the armory, leading to the Kingsbridge National Ice Center, envisioned by Diaz Jr. as launching the borough to further global prominence. During a 2014 speech, Diaz Jr. honored “the amazing new venture that will bring the world’s greatest ice sports complex ot our borough.”

Though the imposing structure has sat vacant for decades, neighboring residents did fear eventual displacement when the project neared approval. An agreement between the community and developer Kevin Parker, in part brokered by Diaz Jr and Council Member Fernando Cabrera, set in motion the final approval from the City Council in 2013.

According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the ice center will generate 890 construction jobs and 267 permanent jobs. Kingsbridge and the surrounding area has the highest unemployment rate in New York City. The Community Benefits Agreement stipulates living wages for all workers involved with the ice center, jobs for Bronxites, women and people of color, free access for local schools, a green action plan, and other clauses envisioned around the local community.

Despite the potential for community benefits, funding the ice center has posed a significant challenge. Issues related to funding also caused significant tension between Diaz Jr. and de Blasio, which came to a boil in 2016.

Previously slated to open in 2018, Parker and his partners are only now in final financing stages and, according to Crain’s New York Business, is projecting an opening in early 2022.

Diaz Jr. Eyes the Mayoralty
“If you’re a good politician,” Kappstatter, the political consultant, said on Diaz Jr.’s mayoral plans, “you’re running right now, not two years from now.”

As Diaz Jr. prepares to launch his mayoral run, the question becomes how his development legacy will translate citywide. He pitched himself as mayor on WBAI’s Max & Murphy radio show in March on his ability to create jobs and build housing, citing the borough’s unemployment and development statistics under his tenure. “We’ve been doing that, not just having businesses do business in the Bronx, but doing business with the Bronx,” he said when asked to give a preview of what his mayoral campaign message will be.

He concluded: “As we speak of equity, that’s going to be the message here. That this is a city here, where we can provide a better future, not just for some for but all. And we can do this together. Wee can do this in a practical, pragmatic, progressive way.”

Diaz Jr. has staked his legacy on his approach to development and pursuing a mixed-income borough, a “New Bronx” with more amenities and opportunities, and the larger picture of increased development in the Bronx over the last decade. He’s clearly preparing to argue that he’s helped lift up the Bronx at minimal cost to its residents in terms of displacement or lack of affordability moving forward.

The Bronx certainly remains a mixed-income borough, both in terms of residents’ earnings and the housing available. The questions for Diaz Jr. include whether he is seen as too close to real estate interests and whether the development he has touted has indeed been good for Bronxites, and how it is perceived.

According to data from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, the borough is home to residents and housing across the economic spectrum in neighborhoods like Mott Haven and Hunts Point, where around 75% of the residential units are rented at market rate. In historically wealthier neighborhoods like Riverdale and Throggs Neck, those numbers jump to 88% and 97.6% respectively. But in lower income neighborhoods like Highbridge, market rate units account for 60.8% of housing.

Diaz Jr. has undoubtedly drawn close ties to the real estate industry, members of which are likely to continue to support him as his political profile grows. He has proven himself business-friendly, but sought the approval of unions, and he’s certainly had an eye on community development, job opportunity, and improving education.

Now with decades as an elected official and political player in the Bronx, he has close ties with many elected officials, club leaders, and others who may be ready to help him get elected citywide. Bringing home the Bronx in a mayoral run will be essential, and the borough is not known for its high voter turnout to begin with.

“Ruben’s eye is totally on the mayoral prize,” said Kappstatter.

“We hope that he goes back to those roots of listening to the community, trying to use his skills and intelligence to fight...for what is right for this borough,” said López, the professor and activist, as he said Diaz Jr. did with the Kingsbridge Armory.

“Will that happen? It’s totally up to him.”

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For Ruben Diaz Jr., a Booming Bronx and Plan to Run on Development Sun, 02 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Experts Point to Anxiety, Short-Sightedness and Political Climate in Amazon Deal Demise https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8525-experts-point-to-anxiety-short-sightedness-and-political-climate-in-amazon-deal-demise https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8525-experts-point-to-anxiety-short-sightedness-and-political-climate-in-amazon-deal-demise Amazon deal New York announcement

Announcing the Amazon deal that later fell apart (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Current and former city officials and veteran city planners met Monday night to discuss the interplay of politics and policy in the notorious demise of the plan to site an Amazon campus in Long Island City.

A central theme of the panel discussion, hosted by the Urban Land Institute in midtown Manhattan, was the balance the city must strike between articulating and acting on its long-term need for growth and the experiences of people immediately impacted by development.

How the dynamics of those relationships played out in the lifecycle of the Amazon deal was the source of regret and reflection amongst the panel participants, all of whom presented views in support of the tech giant’s migration to New York.

Entitled “Does Amazon Signal the End of a Pro-Growth Political Climate in NYC?,” the discussion occurred before an audience of many urbanists, developers, and architects; and featured James Patchett, president and CEO of the city’s Economic Development Corporation; Carl Weisbrod, former chair of the City Planning Commission; Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect who oversaw the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning in the early 2000s; and Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, who served as moderator.

The conversation had an air of familiarity -- the result, for the most part, of decades working at the center of New York City development efforts. While all four participants agreed that continued growth is a necessity and the Amazon campus was a lost opportunity, there were nuanced opinions on whether growth is inevitable in a city as big and diverse as New York, and what the political climate has to do with it.

As they agreed on the need for growth, the panelists also agreed populist opposition to economic development projects around the city has shown that the city needs to do a better job communicating the benefits of those projects to the city as a whole.

“We do have a process problem,” Chakrabarti said. “Process is important and I think that people needed to feel like things weren’t happening in some backroom deal.”

Shortly before Amazon announced its plan to move to Queens last November, Crain’s reported that the state intended to circumvent the city’s land use review process, which gives deference to local City Council members and incorporates a lengthy public process. Days later, Amazon announced it would come to New York, triggering a backlash to the project, expressed largely by a core of progressive politicians and advocates expressing a range of criticisms about Amazon as a company, as well as the deal and the process that led to it.

“I think it's less what we -- we meaning the city and state governments -- did wrong than the times that we are in, in New York,” said Weisbrod, who after decades mostly in city government is now a consultant. “And I do think we all know we're in a period, on one hand, of extraordinary success in New York, and at the same time that success has created a lot of anxiety among a lot of people.”

Patchett, who was intimately involved in wooing Amazon to the city, expanded on the idea of an emerging psychology of anxiety around growth as opposed to stagnation, remarking that the city is experiencing “a moment in time when we're having a lot of growth -- we're not in a recession. So it feels like what we have today, we don't need to be as worried about what we might have tomorrow.”

“We have a youngish population who has experienced brutal housing prices and a congested subway system, who really have no memory or inkling of a time when this city was against the ropes,” added Chakrabarti, who helped lead post-9/11 economic recovery efforts, a bit later in the program. “And it's really hard to explain to people that that could and will happen again, probably at some point for some shock we don't know about sitting here today, and that those 25,000 jobs and the multiplier effects it would have had would help insulate us against that future shock.”

For Weisbrod, who has been a fixture in New York City urban development projects since the 1970s, this represents a “fundamental change” in the conversation. “We've always been a city that has, irrespective of political ideology, sort of implicitly if not explicitly recognized that we have to grow, not only for growth's sake, but because we are a city that provides more in the way of social benefits to our residents than any other city in the country.”

Because of the particularities of New York City -- it’s incorporation of five counties rather than being a part of a single one, its commitment to providing broad social services, and the lack of federal contributions to the tax base -- “we are increasingly dependent on our own ability to generate revenue,” Weisbrod added.

Another shift in the public dialogue, revealed by opposition to Amazon moving to a so-called outer borough, has to do with location.

“For 50 years at least...the city has had an economic development strategy of diversifying and dispersing jobs outside of the Manhattan core,” said Weisbrod. “And the irony is that this resistance to 25,000 jobs, however narrow-minded that resistance was, is the kind of resistance that took place because this was an effort to further the city's economic development policy, not simply in terms of tech, but also in terms of geography.”

Wylde challenged the panel to consider whether the problem had as much to do with the city’s approach to the deal -- especially its ability to engage with community stakeholders -- as the evening’s conversation suggested.

“Do we really think that this would have happened if it wasn't the biggest corporation, run by the richest man in the world, after the 2018 primary election?” she asked, with apparent reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over Joe Crowley in last year’s congressional primary, representing a Queens and Bronx district.

For Chakrabarti, it is a combination of the political moment’s hostility toward “big corporate” and local anxieties Weisbrod referred to. “It's really hard to extricate that because people were taking advantage of those anxieties in order to make their political point,” he said.

During a question-and-answer session, one audience member disagreed with the thrust of the conversation. The spectator told the panel, “I'm a little disturbed by the attitude that I hear from the EDC and also the Mayor that the primary problems involved in this were around communication, Amazon not being willing to work with the city, the national climate, and not really lending a lot of credence to people's opposition, that either for a large number of people this would negatively impact their lives or at very least they have very few mechanisms for pushing back at the way the city is transforming around them.”

According to Patchett, of the EDC, two-thirds of New Yorkers thought the Amazon deal would be good for the city, including more than 70 percent of Queens residents. “But that is not to undermine the very legitimate concerns that people had about this case” and about growth in general, he told the audience. “That's not just a feeling, that's a reality for a lot of people.”

But for the panel of city planners and economic development experts with pro-growth lenses, the look back at the Amazon deal was more of a post-mortem than an assessment of local concerns.

“I sort of have a sense like I’m at a memorial service here,” Weisbrod said at the outset.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

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Experts Point to Anxiety, Short-Sightedness and Political Climate in Amazon Deal Demise Tue, 14 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Policymakers Can’t Have It Both Ways If They Want to Save Jobs https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8493-policymakers-can-t-have-it-both-ways-if-they-want-to-save-jobs https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8493-policymakers-can-t-have-it-both-ways-if-they-want-to-save-jobs citycouncil gjonaj

(photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


The number of jobs in New York City reached an all-time high this year, bringing the unemployment rate to record lows. We are the envy of the nation. But there is one key sector where jobs are declining. For the first time in more than a decade, we are seeing job losses among restaurants and food service establishments.

In an attempt to halt some of these losses, City Council Members Brad Lander and Adrienne Adams introduced legislation to prohibit employers from firing fast food workers without just cause, meaning for any reason other than misconduct or failure to perform job duties. They cite surveys showing that many fast food workers who have been terminated or had their hours cut were given no explanation as to why.

While well-intentioned, this proposal misses the mark because it ignores the underlying causes.

It’s as if lawmakers are trying to have it both ways by, first, imposing costly new requirements on businesses and, then, preventing them from making the difficult but legitimate staffing changes necessary to comply.

Small business owners certainly do not want to eliminate jobs. There is no joy derived from laying off employees. But the reality is that local regulations have so fundamentally altered the way that businesses operate here that employers often have no choice but to eliminate some positions in order to stay afloat.

Consider just a few of the mandates recently imposed on local businesses.

New York’s minimum wage has increased every year since 2013, reaching $15 an hour for most businesses in the city this year. This has been difficult for some to absorb because government has implemented other costly mandates at the same time.

In May 2013, the New York City Council passed legislation requiring employers with 20 or more workers to provide at least five days of paid sick leave. The following year the law was expanded to capture small businesses with as few as five employees.

In 2016, New York State’s Paid Family Leave Act was adopted, requiring businesses of all sizes to accommodate up to 10 weeks of paid leave for employees to care for a new child, care for family members that are ill, or assist loved ones when a family member is deployed abroad on active military duty.

These are all incredibly important initiatives, but the truth is that someone has to pay for them.

When the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce surveyed our members last year, small businesses cited the high cost of doing business in New York as the thing most negatively affecting them. Yet instead of helping small businesses compete more effectively, policymakers have signaled that more costly mandates are on the way.

Mayor de Blasio wants to force businesses with five or more employees to provide each with two weeks of paid vacation. Most medium and large companies already offer generous paid time off benefits, so it is primarily small businesses that will bear the brunt.

Similarly, lawmakers in Albany are considering eliminating the tip credit, which would dramatically increase payroll costs at restaurants and certainly trigger more job losses.

Is it any wonder that small businesses don’t feel that local government has their back?

If compliance with the law imposes perpetually-increasing costs of operation, businesses simply cannot raise prices at a rate that consumers will accept. Consequently, business owners are forced to cut costs wherever possible, including jobs. Preventing businesses from making those decisions will not save jobs; it will simply spell the end for many businesses.

The bottom-line: If lawmakers truly want to protect jobs, they must give regulatory relief to the businesses that provide those jobs and stop pretending that they can have it both ways.

***
Jessica Walker is President of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. On Twitter @jessinharlem & @ManhattanCofC.

 

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

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Policymakers Can’t Have It Both Ways If They Want to Save Jobs Sun, 05 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Film Studio, Tech Park, Yoga Retreat: Some Shuttered New York Prisons See New Life While Others Await Development https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8466-some-shuttered-new-york-prisons-see-new-life-while-others-await-development-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8466-some-shuttered-new-york-prisons-see-new-life-while-others-await-development-cuomo georgetown madisonida

Former Camp Georgetown Correctional Facility is expected to soon become Camp Brihat Yoga Retreat (photo: Madison County IDA)


As New York continues to drastically reduce its incarceration rate, many prisons have become surplus. The state prison population has fallen from its peak of approximately 72,600 in 1999 to 47,400 this year.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, under whom 24 prisons and juvenile detention centers have already been shuttered, introduced and passed legislation as part of the new state budget that would allow him to shut down two or three more prisons, depending on the number of beds in the prisons chosen. While the overall trend is a positive sign to many given the fight against mass incarceration and, according to executive chamber estimations, the additional closures could save state government tens of millions of dollars every year, prison closures can leave local economies vulnerable.

Some areas have historically relied on prisons for employment and as commerce centers. Local elected officials often fight prison closure plans, fearful of what a shuttered prison may mean for local jobs and economic activity. When prisons close, guards and administrators are often transferred to other facilities, meaning jobs remain but they change location. Local businesses lose customers and towns look for other means to boost their economies.

Repurposing prison facilities can cushion the loss of a ‘prison economy,’ and with the growing number of shuttered prisons around New York, the effort to spin prisons into new uses has become an enticing endeavor for both the public and private sectors.

Some former New York prison facilities have already found new life -- a film studio, an office park, a planned yoga retreat -- while others sit vacant, some for sale. One has been been converted into a venue where nonprofits serve formerly incarcerated people. Empire State Development (ESD), the state’s economic development wing, has been tasked with offloading the closed correctional facilities that have been shut down, as well as supporting the redevelopment of the communities they were located in. They have funded projects in all the regions where prisons were shut down.

While former downstate prisons are flourishing anew, the state faces challenges with many others. Most prisons successfully repurposed are within New York City, where there is more limited space and high demand for real estate, and a thriving economy. Repurposing prisons upstate is more often than not an uphill battle.

On the south shore of Staten Island, the former 900-bed Arthur Kill Correctional Facility was bought from the state for $7 million, with an additional $20 million also invested, by Broadway Stages, a film and television production company that has been part of Emmy winning shows like Master of None and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The company has converted the facility into a studio to film shows set in prisons like Orange is the New Black, also an Emmy winner. Previously, Broadway Stages filmed prison scenes upstate.

The purchase of the prison has brought roughly 1,000 jobs to the facility itself thus far, with that number expected to triple once the second phase of the facility is refurbished, according to Samara Schaum, a spokesperson for Broadway Stages.

Other prisons in New York City have been taken over by not-for-profit companies.

In the Bronx the former Fulton Correctional Facility was handed over by the state to the Osborne Foundation, which repurposed it as a community re-entry center, providing temporary housing and job training to former prisoners. About $9.5 million was required to refurbish the old building, for which Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.’s office and Empire State Development provided financial support.

The NoVo Foundation is also in the process of converting the closed Bayview Correctional Facility in Chelsea into “The Women’s Building.” which “will bring diverse organizations together, as they envision and build a better world for girls and women,” according to its website.

In a phone interview, a spokesperson for Empire State Development explained the two processes by which the state offloads prisons: through auction and requests for proposals.

Auctions are handled by the state’s Office of General Services, with prisons sold to private bidders. When a prison becomes private property through auction, it has to go through environmental review and the applicable municipal land use approval process.

ESD prefers to put out requests for proposals to ensure that the sites are repurposed in ways that benefit the surrounding communities the most, according to the ESD spokesperson. “We try and figure out a use that is compatible with the community and compatible in terms of creating jobs,” said the spokesperson, who requested anonymity.

Last year, ESD put out a request for proposal for the shuttered Mount McGregor Correctional Facility in Saratoga, for which there has been one proposal to turn the facility into a resort. The Camp Chateaugay Correctional Facility was up for auction last year too. It appeared as though a Canadian company bought it for $600,000 to turn it into a Jewish summer camp. However, the deal fell through. The state tried selling it again, but the last date to submit a bid was November 8, 2018.

Some prisons change ownership but don’t see new life particularly quickly.

Gilbert Rybicki, a Canadian business person, bought the Lyon Mountain Facility, in remote Dannemora, New York through a 2013 auction for $140,000. The prison continues to sit vacant today.

“He bought the prison to influence the town of Dannemora,” said Town Supervisor Bill Chase. According to Chase, Rybicki has been in business with Dannemora indirectly for one of the town’s resources, ore sand -- a byproduct of iron ore mining, used in construction. Chase believes that Rybicki was hoping to obtain a contract for Dannemora’s ore sand himself, and bought the prison to turn it into an ore sand processing center. However, he was outbid at an auction for the ore sand contract.

Chase believes that the facility has a lot of potential and can be turned into a variety of things, including a car repair center in the garage the prison left behind, a gym using the prison’s old gym facility, or a drug treatment center. “I’ve even had some people try and help him do something with the building, but all he has done is put a sign out there trying to rent it,” said Chase.

Contacted by Gotham Gazette, Rybicki said he is still not sure what he will do with the facility, and will likely wait for the summer before making a decision.

Another prison buyer has ideas, but has had trouble making his vision a reality because of state bureaucracy, he said. Also in 2013, Shekhar Patel bought the former Camp Georgetown facility located an hour from Syracuse. He originally intended to turn it into a technology summer camp for middle and high school students. However, he changed his mind and now hopes to turn the facility into a yoga retreat, called Camp Brihat. But in order to make it functional for his purposes, Patel said he had to modify a wastewater treatment plant.

In April 2017, Patel requested a permit from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to modify the wastewater treatment plant and has spent the past two years following up, trying to get the state to act on his permit, he said. Patel finally received a response from the DEC on March 25 of this year.

The email from a DEC representative, Tara Blum, said, “Unfortunately due to other priorities, I have not had time to work on your SPDES permit modification. However, today I was directed by my supervisor, Tom Vigneault (he is copied on this email) to work on your facility, the Camp Brihat draft permit immediately.”

Patel was given a tentative acceptance for his permit request on April 11. He must now advertise the modification of the wastewater treatment in the local paper for a month and allow the public to comment on the modifications. The DEC will grant him the permit within the next month based on community reaction.

Patel was apparently lucky to have completed his purchase. Other prison sales are hindered by bureaucracy and conflict. In Franklin County, the sale of the Camp Gabriels Correctional Facility has been stalled as the facility belongs to one government agency while the land belongs to another. Camp Pharsalia, in Chenango County, lies on Forest Preserve land.

Because some of these facilities have not been sold or repurposed, the state has attempted to provide a cushion to the towns in which they reside.

In 2012 and 2014, Governor Cuomo introduced tax incentives and capital funding as part of the Economic Transformation Program (ETP) to aid communities impacted by prison closures. Roughly $82 million was expected to go to 15 communities impacted by prison closures.

In the Mohawk Valley, funds are going towards the Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Council, Marcy Nanocenter, Griffiss International Airport, and a river walk in the city of Rome. So far, almost $60 million of the ETP funding has been committed while almost $40 million has already been disbursed.

There are some hopeful signs for prison refurbishment upstate. The former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility in the town of Warwick was closed in 2011 and transferred to the Warwick Valley Local Development Corporation. The site is perhaps the most successful prison rehabilitation upstate, as several innovative companies have decided to build and invest there.

The site’s previous main occupier, Yard Sports Village, filed for bankruptcy, but new investors have been swarming in, according to Warwick Town Supervisor Michael Sweeton. The new businesses include the Hudson Valley Sports Complex, Craftify, a craft brewer has a production facility with a tasting room on site, Eden Restorations, which provides custom building restorations, Transtech, a company that puts bodies on buses, and Citiva, a medical marijuana producer whose site is currently under construction.

“It’s taken a little bit, but it is really rolling now and we really believe we are going to have it built out in the next year or two and we are really excited about that,” said Sweeton. “People are employed in the town and people are coming to the area as well.”

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by Ashad Hajela, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Film Studio, Tech Park, Yoga Retreat: Some Shuttered New York Prisons See New Life While Others Await Development Tue, 23 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Alicia Glen on Her Legacy as Deputy Mayor and the Future of New York City https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8434-alicia-glen-on-her-legacy-as-deputy-mayor https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8434-alicia-glen-on-her-legacy-as-deputy-mayor alicia glen deputy

Alicia Glen (photo: Paige Polk/Mayoral Photography Office)


After more than five years as New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, Alicia Glen recently left City Hall, having spearheaded a major affordable housing plan, efforts to diversify the city economy, and other aspects of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda, which she helped shape.

Glen oversaw the city’s troubled public housing authority, the implementation of a new ferry system, investments into public land to spur business development and the rezoning of East Midtown, and more. In a recent lengthy and wide-ranging interview, she reflected on her work as deputy mayor, the state of the city as she leaves its government, some of the unfinished work she started, and the fact that for an official with her portfolio, much of the legacy will not come to fruition for years.

Appearing on the What’s the [Data] Point? podcast from Citizens Budget Commission and Gotham Gazette, Glen also gave her take on the recently-opened Hudson Yards, what should be done with Rikers Island when the jails there are closed, the fallout from the undoing of the deal to bring Amazon to Queens, whether she might ever run for elected office herself, and more. Glen said that she came to the position with a different background from some of her predecessors in prior administrations, which fit the goals de Blasio had laid out as a candidate, to use the tools of government to fight inequality.

“I had come from a background of having really spent time on all sides of the issues,” Glen said. “I had been a legal services lawyer, I had worked in city government before, I had run an urban development platform that was focused on public-private partnerships, and I was really truly truly like a born and bred New Yorker who had grown up in a sort of lefty upper west side household and that was a major change.”

“I came in after three men who had come from Wall Street, as had I, but had come from sort of a different perspective,” she continued, “all terrific people in their own way, but I certainly felt a pressure of being a woman in this job with a difference in political perspective.”

“I am a woman and I think you do think about the world differently and how you structure deals. And clearly, I was a person in the administration who had come from more of a financial and pro-business background, but not to be conflated with somebody who had never actually been in the trenches working with all these issues, which I had been working on my whole life,” she said, explaining her perspective as she came into the job in 2014.

When asked about her mission coming into office, she said, “I think most people felt really positive about the city. I get it, people look and these big metrics and crime was down, tax collection was up. Things were generally good by those broad metrics. By the same token, it was clear that both the mayor’s election itself was a bit of a referendum on how some people were left out of the recovery, if you will, from both 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008.”

“We clearly were elected as change agents with a mandate,” she said.

[LISTEN: Alicia Glen on What's The [Data] Point?]

Until de Blasio named Vicki Been, a former city housing commissioner in his administration, as Glen’s successor, Glen was the only deputy mayor for housing and economic development in this mayor’s tenure. She helped design, redesign, and push ahead the administration's 300,000-unit affordable housing plan, which has coincided with changes to the city’s land use rules to help spur affordable housing and the upzonings of several neighborhoods. The plan has been criticized by some on the left as too broad, not targered enough on the lowest-income New Yorkers and those experiencing homelessness, with too many subsidized units for individuals of moderate and middle incomes.

“Many many folks, many communities felt not included in that good part of the story and [Mayor Bill de Blasio] came in on a platform of ways we can address those issues, and so for me, obviously, thinking about how we could make a real dent and shift into a more proactive stance both on inclusive economic development for job growth and a more five borough economy and thinking about what that meant in the 21st century and then obviously his signature initiative of trying to do something in housing that was much bigger than been done, even in prior administrations,” Glen said.

Now out of government, Glen was asked if the affordable housing mix was the right one. Unsurprisingly, she said yes, arguing it is important that New York not become a “barbell city” with only wealthy and poor people. She touted the administration’s work on the “messy middle,” helping to provide moderate- and middle-income people with subsidized housing.

“There’s a natural inclination for people to say we should put every single dime and all the resources we have into serving our most vulnerable people,” she said. “But what kind of city are we going to be if literally people who make eighty to ninety thousand dollars a year cannot live here and are forced to commute two hours out of town.”

The de Blasio administration has been criticized for exclusively upzoning lower-income neighborhoods, communities of color, to both create more housing density and invest in local areas. Developers are thus allowed to build bigger, but have more affordable housing requirements in the mix.

“I continue to think the mayor’s position and our position was that you have to link density to more equitable growth and you have to buy into the notion of growth,” Glen said.

“We are now building a significant number of permanently affordable units across the city, both in private projects and neighborhood-wide rezoning. And that’s going to take a while to bake into the zeitgeist and for communities to realize that we meant it and that we have permanently changed the blueprint for how you do increased residential growth across the city,” she said.

“These are fights. Every single inch you have to fight, and you have to take. It takes political leadership and courage,” Glen continued. “There are several deals where I really wish the [City] Council had shown a little bit more guts around these issues and I really hope going forward people understand the tradeoff of some increase in density in order to assure we are proportionally building permanent affordable housing in New York City in the right deal for New Yorkers. I wish I could have done more of that.”

Asked which neighborhoods she would upzone if she could snap her fingers and do it -- a laughable concept given how notoriously contentious New York City land use decisions can be -- Glen returned to the list of neighborhood rezonings that the administration said it wanted to at least explore a few years ago, citing Flushing and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx as places she’d still like to see rezonings move ahead. The city has moved ahead on fewer than expected, though several major rezonings have happened, in places like East New York and East Harlem, with others on the docket for this year and beyond.

The city’s public housing authority, NYCHA, has had a tumultuous past few years, from charges of mismanagement to illegality, with questions about mold and lead paint remediation, and forged documents, plus ongoing sagas around buildings that are falling apart. Recently, NYCHA and the city entered into an agreement with federal authorities at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which includes a federal monitor of NYCHA.

Asked about her role on NYCHA and whether she saw it from the beginning as a key part of her portfolio, Glen said absolutely. “[I]t was 100% under me,” she said, while acknowledging it is a complicated situation given it is an authority, not a city agency. “I worked very closely with the chair of the housing authority and the staff there and we did make a lot of progress.”

“It is something we have to own in many ways, not literally because it’s a federal authority, but we have to own it in terms of what we see the future of New York City to be and the incredible resource that the housing authority can and should continue to be for low-income New Yorkers,” Glen said. “It is an enormously complex issue and, as I said, this is something, it took 80 years to get to where we were. If it takes four years to figure out how to have a housing authority in the 21st century given federal policy, that doesn’t feel good if you are the person living in the housing authority and your conditions are terrible and I would ever want to suggest that that isn’t a real issue, but systemically, it’s a very complicated issue.”

Glen expressed excitement about the “NYCHA 2.0” plan the administration announced at the end of last year, which includes a more aggressive program to build new housing on underused NYCHA land, housing that will be a mix of market-rate and affordable housing and the proceeds from the leases to developers will go into NYCHA repairs.

On economic development, Glen also highlighted investments that she believes will pay off long-term for the city, including development of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Brooklyn Army Terminal, key city assets that the city is now more fully utilizing to help spur job creation.

She also cited the rezoning of East Midtown to foster modernization and growth of the key office and retail hub. Glen worked with City Council Member Daniel Garodnick to pass a complicated rezoning of the area that had faltered, she noted, during the end of the Bloomberg administration.

Glen’s economic development legacy will also include her role in helping strike the deal, later undone, to bring an Amazon headquarters to New York City.

“I think Amazon underestimated what it would and should take to establish a major presence in New York City,” she said. “I think they misunderstood how much that needed to be front and center as they continued to engage.”

“At the end of the day, they may not be as sophisticated as they should be and it’s too bad because ultimately having up to 40,000 jobs would have been a very good thing for New York City,” Glen said.

But what does the undoing of the Amazon deal mean for New York City in terms of attracting companies? Not much, Glen said. While she acknowledged an anti-corporate energy as evidenced by the public backlash against the Amazon deal, she said, “what I worry about and what I’d say to all the advocates and folks who have been against Amazon is if you create an atmosphere that companies do want to participate in a smarter, more collaborative engagement process around workforce development and public benefits, if you send a message that folks are not welcome in those areas, all you’re going to do is send them back to Manhattan. Is that really what you wanted?”

However, she doesn’t see the failed Amazon deal disincentivizing other businesses from expanding into New York offices. “The fundamental reasons why Amazon wanted to be here are still here,” Glen said. “We still have the most extraordinarily diverse, educated talent pool and we have the coolest city.” She cited Google’s recent expansion in the city, which she said she helped negotiate over the course of years.

In terms of future projects, Glen still thinks the planned Brooklyn Queens Connector, or BQX, will happen, just that it won’t “happen on the original timeframe.” She also wants the city to look further into an aerial gondola to connect lower Manhattan and Governors Island. Glen wants a new soccer stadium in New York so New York FC doesn’t have to play in Yankee Stadium. She called development of Sunnyside Yard, “it’s the future,” explaining that “if you’re pro-growth, Sunnyside Yard is going to be the next great community.” Glen said it would be a “more scaled and a more inclusive version of Hudson Yards,” with a great “open space ratio” and the “best of the planning principles that the de Blasio administration embraces: true mixed use, but not scared of density.”

Asked about the newly-opened Hudson Yards development of office, retail, and residential space on the far west side of Manhattan, Glen said, “It's not my personal favorite place. It's not a 'neighborhood' as they are characterizing it.” But, she also called it an “extraordinarily important piece of the broader New York City economic puzzle” because of the new office space coming online. “Architecturally and design-wise,” however, “it seems very male to me,” she said. The investments made have “proven to be true” and provide an important revenue stream.

On the future of Rikers Island, where the jails are targeted for closure over the next several years, Glen said the administration had looked at it closely, including for housing development, but few things make “economic sense” for the island given “its in the flight path, it’s very hard to get to.”

“I think that Rikers Island could be and should be a place where there are a lot of really important city services that can be relocated there, so that we can free up some of the other spaces that could be more highly utilized for housing, for schools, for job creation,” she said. She also said there could be “an interesting deal to be made possibly with the Port [Authority], to sell it to them to do the next [LaGuardia Airport] runway.” She indicated she has several ideas for land swaps with the Port Authority.

As for her own future, Glen said she doesn’t know what the next thing will be yet, though she will continue to be involved as chair in one of her recently-launched initiatives, women.nyc, a multi-service platform for women, with a variety of resources, because, she said, “New York City really has the opportunity to be the place where women can succeed -- and to say that as such, to brand ourselves as such.”

Asked if she would ever run for elected office, Glen indicated it might be on the table. “Right now, I’m still recovering and trying to go to yoga a few times a week,” she said, but added: “I think I wouldn’t rule it out because the fact that New York City doesn’t have, right now, a lot of women candidates. There are an unbelievable number of young women out there who blow my mind every single day, but there’s still a dearth of women who have executive experience, have run complex organizations, who’ve had multiple experiences, both in politics and the private sector, and in the nonprofit sector. You know, it’s something I would obviously think about at the right time.”

[LISTEN: Alicia Glen on What's The [Data] Point?]

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by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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Alicia Glen on Her Legacy as Deputy Mayor and the Future of New York City Tue, 09 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Business Imbalance is Bad for the City https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8415-the-business-imbalance-is-bad-for-the-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8415-the-business-imbalance-is-bad-for-the-city business office

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The political imbalance in New York City between business and “anti-business” forces is becoming untenable.

What is happening here has been in the works for many years and was not difficult to predict. Rising income inequality and the perception of a corrupt ruling class brought us the Tea Party movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the 2016 presidential candidacies of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

As the nation gears up for the 2020 presidential race, rhetoric pitting “corporate interests” against “the people” is once again front and center. And this is cascading down to our local politics in a way that risks damaging our city’s economic potential.

“Business” has become such a bad word that some elected officials have shunned accepting campaign donations or even attending meetings and events that might suggest an affiliation. And public policy debates are increasingly premised on the notion that business is an adversary and somehow acting in nefarious ways.

We must not continue down this path at the local level.

The business community is a pivotal constituency in New York City’s continued success. For example, the real estate industry has a huge stake in keeping the city humming if for nothing else than because their assets are inextricably linked to the city’s prosperity. Employers here want New York’s quality of life to remain high so their best employees don’t move to other cities. Why wouldn’t we want them to be at the table?

Drowning out the voices of business enables the loud voices of an influential few to drive public policy – without adhering to the will of the many. Pushing out Amazon – which had support from a majority of New Yorkers to locate a new campus here – is a “prime” example. In that instance, several high-ranking elected officials refused to even meet with the company. Two-thirds of New Yorkers agree that the loss of Amazon, its projected 25,000 jobs, and its tens of billions of dollars in expected tax revenues is bad for our city.

Now there’s another issue that is playing out in a similar way.

The state currently allows restaurants in New York City to pay waiters $10 per hour, so long as tips ensure that the employee is earning at least the minimum wage (now $15 per hour) at the end of the day. It’s called the “tip credit,” and it enables restaurants – which often have notoriously low profit margins – to reduce their labor costs. Surveys show that tipped workers end up earning $25 per hour, on average, when tips are included. Some make even more.

The issue should be a no-brainer. Indeed, the vast majority of restaurant owners and their wait staffs want to maintain the current system. (When Maine phased out its tip credit in 2016, thousands of servers led the successful fight to restore it because their paychecks were diminishing.) But a well-funded contingent of celebrities and misinformed activists are trying to drown out these voices in order to eliminate the credit in New York – and sadly, it seems to be working.

Some elected officials are repeating inflammatory talking points, namely that waiters are somehow not earning the minimum wage under this system. That would be of paramount concern to me, as well, were it not absolutely false. Yet no one seems to be listening to the facts, so unwilling they are to believe that employers and their employees could actually be on the same side of an issue.

New York City loses when policy debates adhere to this ‘business versus anti-business’ divide, particularly when the business side is assumed to be biased and dismissed as a result. I am certainly not advocating for pay-to-play politics, which is unethical, illegal, and at odds with the development of smart public policy. We need robust, thoughtful solutions that will move New York forward, remembering that we all believe in a better, stronger city for the future.

This requires public servants to engage with all parties and then make determinations based on all of these points of view. If we don’t maintain that balance, and base decisions on facts and impartial analysis, poorly-informed public policies will increase – and New York City will be worse for it.

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Jessica Walker is President of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. On Twitter @jessinharlem & @ManhattanCofC.

 

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

 

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The Business Imbalance is Bad for the City Wed, 03 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [Data] Point? 5, with former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8386-what-s-the-data-point-5-with-former-deputy-mayor-alicia-glen https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8386-what-s-the-data-point-5-with-former-deputy-mayor-alicia-glen whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 69 -- 5, with former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

wtdp alica glen deputy mayorAlicia Glen was Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development under Mayor Bill de Blasio for more than five years, until she recently left the administration after being the chief architect of its signature affordable housing plan, a broad variety of economic development initiatives, and more. Glen joined the podcast (for the second time) for an "exit interview" on her legacy as deputy mayor, key issues facing the city and where the city is headed, the city's overall economic competitiveness, the Amazon deal that was undone, NYCHA, whether she would ever run for elected office herself, and other topics.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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What's The [Data] Point? 5, with former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen Tue, 26 Mar 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.”

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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
One Way to Keep Good, Middle-Class Jobs in New York https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8335-one-way-to-keep-good-middle-class-jobs-in-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8335-one-way-to-keep-good-middle-class-jobs-in-new-york wikimedia call center

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Long gone are the days when a family could live comfortably with a minimum wage job. In 1968, a worker making the federal minimum wage could support a partner and a child above the poverty line. Today, you can’t even support yourself and a child on it. Even with the recent increase to the minimum wage, hitting $15 an hour in New York City, it’s impossible for families in many parts of the state to live on minimum wage.

Economic anxiety has unfortunately become the new norm. Traditionally, most families’ golden ticket out of poverty was a solidly middle-class job, like at a call center. Those jobs, however, are increasingly being lost to corporate greed.

Since 2006, over 40,000 call center jobs were lost in New York. Forty thousand.

That means 40,000 families have had to face the emotional and financial stress of losing a job. It’s not as though the need for call center jobs has decreased; the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 5% growth rate for customer service representative jobs between 2016 and 2026.

Unfortunately, there has been an upward trend of massive corporations looking to ship these jobs elsewhere so they can pay workers less and often find better tax incentives. Outsourcing work to other parts of the country or abroad has become a common corporate tactic to reduce costs. Middle class jobs are replaced with cheaper labor (often with subpar working conditions).

With the Trump administration’s tax cuts last year, outsourcing has become even more attractive to corporations, accelerating the process. The law rewards corporations with tax cuts and incentives for profits made overseas, with corporations paying as little as half or less of the corporate tax rate on profits earned abroad as they would here at home.

This is why I support the New York State Call Center Jobs Act, a bill that would finally prevent companies from being rewarded for outsourcing these good jobs elsewhere.

In January, AT&T announced it was closing a call center in Syracuse, eliminating 150 jobs. The workers in the call center had just two weeks to decide whether to accept a severance package or relocate.

Call center jobs are critical lifelines to sustain a robust middle class and it’s important we recognize that moving these jobs out of state has devastated families and communities across New York. We can no longer allow corporations to line their own pockets at the expense of hard-working New Yorkers.

This bill would help New York protect call center jobs at employers with 50 or more full-time or full-time equivalent employees. Employers would be required to notify the Public Service Commission if they intend to relocate at least 30% of call volume in a year. Those companies would lose all grants, loans, tax benefits, and state contracts, since our government should not be giving tax dollars to companies that are leaving the state. It would also ensure that all call center work related to state business is performed by New York companies.

This legislation passed last year in the Assembly and had considerable support in the Senate. Now that the Senate leadership has changed, we can and should get this done this year. I urge my fellow legislators to do what is right and protect New York’s middle class.

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Senator Jessica Ramos represents State District 13, which includes the Queens neighborhoods of Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and parts of Astoria and Woodside. On Twitter @JessicaRamos.

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

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One Way to Keep Good, Middle-Class Jobs in New York Mon, 11 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Amazon Was Never Going to Create 25,000 Jobs in Queens https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8327-amazon-was-never-going-to-create-25-000-jobs-in-queens https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8327-amazon-was-never-going-to-create-25-000-jobs-in-queens gov mayor lic

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


Now that Governor Amazon Cuomo is grovelling for Amazon to come back to New York, it’s important to remember that the original sin of the “HQ2” deal is still true: Amazon was never going to bring 25,000 jobs to Long Island City.

That might surprise people, particularly since that number and its related economic activity have been the central arguments used to defend the deal. But to be clear, Amazon never actually promised to bring 25,000 jobs. Period. Go look for it.

Supporters point out that Amazon would get the full package of tax incentives, which are available to any company, only if it created the 25,000 jobs. That's absolutely true, but it proves the point. It shows that Amazon didn't need or really want the job incentives. Instead, it played off our failed economic development policies to get what it actually wanted.

What Amazon did care about, what it wanted more than anything, and what it would have gotten in the deal was a shiny new East River campus quickly, quietly, and cheaply.

First, Amazon didn't want to engage with the community or be a good neighbor. All of this would have taken a lot of time, but the real issue was that it would have involved making promises to the community that Amazon had no intention of ever making. The minimal promises it did make were entirely on its terms (and changed only slightly after pushback before Amazon finally walked).

Second, Amazon didn't want to pay the full cost of acquiring the choice land that it wanted to build its campus or go through the city’s land use review process (ULURP). That would have involved stringing together multiple lots at fair market value and convincing the city to sell public land. That would have meant more engagement with the public (and the City Council) and more commitments.

Third, Amazon knew it had to hire union labor for constructing and servicing the campus, but didn’t want to pay for it. More importantly, it didn’t want that to be a backdoor to unionizing its own larger workforce, especially in distribution centers. As much as some supporters have pointed to the construction and building-service jobs as evidence that Amazon was willing to work with unions, it was a political necessity to do so and had the added bonus of splitting the labor movement in New York. Amazon was never going to allow unionization in its Staten Island or other distribution centers as part of the deal.

By “promising” 25,000 jobs, Amazon got everything it wanted in the Memorandum of Understanding with the city and the state. It bypassed the City Council and real public review when the governor deemed “HQ2” a General Project Plan. It got its riverside campus when the mayor effectively turned over public land on a sweetheart lease (unquestionably saving Amazon hundreds of millions of dollars that weren’t and haven’t been included in the cost of incentives) while also killing a private development that included affordable housing and was going through the proper land-use channels. And Amazon got a flat out cash transfer of $325 million (with a possibility of up to $500 million) to cover costs of using union labor on construction.

Still, Amazon never had to deliver the jobs. To be sure, it was going to have a large workforce in Long Island City by consolidating several thousand employees already in New York and transferring more from Seattle. There is also no doubt that it would have hired some new employees locally. But there were no real promises of how many, at what salary, or from what communities. That just means we were going to give a competitive edge to Amazon by subsidizing an abstract total of jobs at a time when job growth is fine in the city.

As we've seen with Foxconn in Wisconsin, General Electric in Massachusetts, and just about every development project Governor Cuomo has produced (and his Economic Development Corporation has justified), the promised jobs and economic activity from these incentives rarely materialize, whether the companies get all of them or not. However, the public is always on the hook and companies almost never are.

Amazon exploits these policies all the time with its distribution centers (see Florida, Texas, California). They promise direct and indirect job creation that never happens. Amazon knew it wasn’t going to deliver 25,000 jobs and would never be held accountable for failing to. Amazon wanted its New York campus and simply took the flawed logic of our economic development policies to their extreme to get it.

Let’s not forget the bad faith Amazon showed when it originally announced the "contest" in September 2017. Remember, back then it wasn’t for 25,000 jobs -- it was for 50,000 jobs. Amazon and the media moved on quickly from that bait and switch, but we shouldn’t.

Amazon prides itself on being data-driven and strategic (yet: counterpoint), which means it’s safe to assume that the D.C. area and New York City had already been selected - making the whole idea of a “second headquarters” bogus from the beginning.

But why not announce a “contest” saying you’re going to create 50,000 jobs and have every city and state fall over themselves to compete for it? Amazon got a year’s worth of free advertising. It got reams of data from cities for future expansion and whatever else it may attempt. It forced New York and Virginia to offer billions for something it was already going to do and could easily afford.

Most importantly, Amazon got New York and Virgina to turn over land for campuses quickly and with no public review.

Back in December, I wrote about how I thought the Amazon deal was in trouble. Then, as now, it was clear that the deal was negotiated in bad faith from the beginning, that it would not actually do what the mayor, the governor, and Amazon said it would do, and it would not hold Amazon accountable for when it inevitably failed to live up to its vague end of the bargain. That is all still true.

Amazon is incapable of being a good partner. Everybody knows that now. Everybody knows how it treats its workers, its home city, and who it does business for. If it really needed a home for 25,000 jobs in New York City, it would have negotiated in good faith and worked through the concerns of the community it was moving into.

Instead, it wanted an insulated campus apart from the community paid for by the community, and bailed when it wasn’t served on a platter. Activists and a few steadfast local politicians accomplished a great public service by showing the real face of Amazon.  

More importantly, the “HQ2” ordeal shows the fatal flaws in our economic development policies that Amazon so cleverly exploited. Taxpayers spend $90 billion a year pitting cities against each other for unsubstantiated job numbers, which only works out for corporations and their shareholders.

This is done instead of solving the cities’ actual problems like the lack of affordable housing, overcrowded schools, a crumbling transportation system, and skyrocketing child- and health-care costs. It goes without saying that investing in this public infrastructure would also lead to new, bottom-up job creation -- many more than 25,000 -- for all kinds of New Yorkers, new residents, and new businesses.

As his recent grovelling has proven, Governor Amazon Cuomo has been guilty of this more than anyone. He values the optics of a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the East River with Jeff Bezos over the hard work that it takes to create actual jobs. Let’s hope Amazon’s bad faith trumps the governor’s and they stay gone.

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Peter Harrison is a member of NYC-DSA and CEO/Co-founder of homeBody, a public benefit startup. On Twitter @PeteHarrisonNYC.

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

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Amazon Was Never Going to Create 25,000 Jobs in Queens Tue, 05 Mar 2019 05:00:00 +0000