Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/230 Fri, 18 Oct 2019 04:40:49 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Planning Chief on De Blasio Administration's Zoning for Growth, and the Need for More Housing in the Suburbs https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8834-city-planning-chief-on-how-de-blasio-administration-is-zoning-for-growth https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8834-city-planning-chief-on-how-de-blasio-administration-is-zoning-for-growth marisa lago city breakfast2

City Planning Director Marisa Lago (photo: May Vutrapongvatana)


In a Friday morning speech about how New York City’s limited space is used, Marisa Lago, director of the Department of City Planning, discussed some of the department’s approaches to the housing, employment, and equity challenges facing the city.

The city has a population of 8.4 million and is “the only older U.S. city that has surpassed its 1970s-era population peak,” said Lago, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to direct the Department of City Planning and chair the City Planning Commission in early 2017 after over three decades in city and federal government. The city has 4.5 million jobs, including 800,000 created between 2010 and 2018, she told the audience attending the CityLaw breakfast at New York Law School.

In the picture Lago painted Friday, the Department of City Planning is responsible for balancing New Yorkers’ personal and professional needs with the implications of broad, even global, economic changes in a way that makes room for long-term growth. The work often revolves around the limited resource of land, which is heavily regulated by zoning rules enshrined in law or controlled by property owners, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council.

“It’s important to remember that, despite the growth in population in the city, we still have the same 303 square miles of land,” Lago said. “So to grow sustainably and equitably, we have to build more housing and especially affordable housing, and we also have to create what I call ‘space for jobs.’”

Using zoning rules to expand housing and job production is a fixture in the lifecycle of big cities throughout the country and the world. Lago also pointed to the need for more housing development in the New York City suburbs. The prongs of Lago’s approach to city planning, which extend back before her tenure at the Department of City Planning to her predecessor, Carl Weisbrod, include utilizing and expanding flexibility in zoning, and embracing data-driven planning, she said.

Flexibility in Land Use
Flexibility in zoning is key for a city as large as New York to adjust to demographic shifts and technological developments that drive and are driven by changes in the economy. The space needs of so-called “classic sector” jobs, like finance, the arts, even some manufacturing, are different in the new economy of online shopping and changing consumer preferences.

Lago believes having the ability to shift land use regulations from generation to generation is essential for the city’s long-term economic viability. “Powerful as zoning is, it can’t stop the tide of a changing global economy,” she said.

One of Lago’s focuses is updating the city’s mid-century zoning of manufacturing districts outside of Manhattan that place limits on height and density and require a high degree of space dedicated to parking. DCP is looking for opportunities to reduce parking requirements in those districts that have public transit options, she said, “to provide a wider array of permitted densities that will allow manufacturing business to grow vertically and also to give more flexibility to the envelopes of buildings.”

“Sometimes the best thing that the city can do is to get outdated, overly-proscriptive zoning out of the way of businesses that want to construct space for jobs,” said Lago.

But the city’s existing zoning already allows for a high degree of flexibility to meet existing construction demands. As-of-right development is the “workhorse of producing both housing and space for jobs,” Lago said Friday. As-of-right development refers to proposed construction or repairs that comply with existing zoning requirements. They don’t need approval from the City Planning Commission and City Council to proceed, meaning they do not have to go through the city’s extensive land use review process (ULURP).

The city over the last decade has relied on as-of-right development to produce a significant proportion of its new housing stock. According to Lago, 80 percent of the new housing built since 2010 -- housing approximately 300,000 New Yorkers -- has been as-of-right.

“If we were like San Francisco, where practically every single development project has to go through discretionary project review, we would be producing far less housing, thus becoming increasingly unaffordable,” she said.

But in some cases, Lago is hoping to insert flexibility on a broad scale through new zoning instruments.

Climate resiliency has become a significant focus of city planners in the seven years since Superstorm Sandy left entire neighborhoods in need of repair and reconstruction. The city planning department is pursuing changes to land use requirements throughout the city’s floodplain to make it easier for home- and small business-owners to mitigate flood risk.

Currently, elevating buildings along the waterfront, a common response to flood risk, often violates building height requirements and moving mechanical equipment from basements to higher floors takes up valuable residential square footage, according to Lago. For the past seven years, DCP has had in place temporary emergency zoning regulations that remove some of these requirements and encourage better flood resiliency construction.

Under a new plan called Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency, DCP hopes to codify the temporary regulations. Lago said the new amendments will go into ULURP early next year.

“We’ve now had seven years of living with these temporary regs and we’ve learned a ton by reaching out extensively to neighborhood residents in the city’s various types of flood-prone areas,” she said.

When DCP feels zoning regulations need to be changed, it is common for the agency to try to harness the demand of private sector stakeholders. Rezoning, and especially upzoning -- zoning for added building height and/or density -- is often a negotiation between the city and the private landowner seeking to benefit from added capacity on the land.

Under the mayor’s signature housing policy, which is intended to create or preserve 300,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years, the city instituted Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) to ensure the creation of affordable housing in exchange for upzoning. MIH, which became law in 2016, is a permanent change to the city’s zoning code that requires a portion of housing units in newly upzoned plots or neighborhoods to be made permanently affordable. One of the criticisms of the plan is that the affordability standards in many cases are not truly affordable to local residents and do not reflect the demographics of the city.

Lago said housing production is essential to making the city affordable, even as it causes gentrification and displacement. “I think that we have to acknowledge that the fear of displacement and the fear of gentrification is real,” she said. But, “we also have to put the lie to the claim that if we build no more housing that somehow the city will become more affordable. That just is not true.” But in her prepared remarks she did not address the middle ground between those two thoughts, which is where one major critique of the de Blasio administration’s neighborhood rezoning and affordable housing policies resides: that they are not as helpful as they could or should be in addressing the city’s affordability crisis for the many New Yorkers who feel its crunch most acutely.

Asked about “actual” affordability in reference to this criticism during the question-and-answer session that followed her remarks, Lago cited programs administered by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development that create set-asides for extremely low-income people, the seniors, and formerly homeless people. In terms of the zoning regulations DCP and CPC have influence over, Lago defended the affordability tiers in many of the rezoned neighborhoods, which create “workforce housing” serving the needs of middle-income professionals like teachers and firefighters.

Data-Driven and Regional Planning
On Friday, Lago emphasized the importance of “community-informed, fact-based” city planning. She discussed recent examples of research-based analysis, which DCP has undertaken to inform its work.

This summer DCP released a study on retail-store vacancy that examined over 10,000 storefronts in 24 pedestrian-oriented shopping corridors across the five boroughs. The report found that the vacancy rate of storefronts was not uniform city-wide and the reasons for vacancy varied from neighborhood to neighborhood, according to Lago.

“This research that we have done is going to inform our neighborhood planning work and I hope the work of other policy-makers who may have non-zoning tools to address the needs of small-businesses throughout the city,” she said.

DCP has also used, Lago said, quantitative research to confirm what it had long-believed: that in a city with limited space and as many transit options as New York, tall buildings are essential for creating dense housing stock. It also reveals information about what range of building heights the city can allow to create the level of density needed to house the growing population, she said.

Lago described a study of new residential buildings completed by DCP in 2017. The study found one-to-six story buildings represented 87 percent of new buildings constructed that year but only a quarter of new units. By contrast, 22 percent of new housing units fell into just 18 high-rises above 40 storiess (one percent of the new residential buildings completed that year). The remaining half of units were in mid-rise buildings of 13 stories or more, all of which are in neighborhoods Lago considers “transit-rich.”

But the measurements are not always complete.

At a City Council oversight hearing in May, representatives of DCP and the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination revealed that the city has no procedure for assessing the accuracy of Environmental Impact Statements -- required when a proposed rezoning could potentially change the neighborhood -- after a project is complete. Council Members and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams have introduced a number of bills to improve this, including requiring a racial impact study to accompany rezoning proposals. The bill will mandate reporting on the potential effect the proposed rezoning would have on the racial make-up of the area.

Lago wants to see data-driven approaches to zoning expanded to the regional level by continuing the work of DCP’s regional planning office started by Weisbrod. The regional planning office is partnering with DCP counterparts in municipal governments throughout the New York City metropolitan area with the understanding that housing affordability depends on the supply of housing outside the five boroughs and that the city is the job center for the region. Lago says she hopes to continue to leverage regional data to inform the work and partnerships of local governments.

“In the city we understand that housing affordability is a major challenge, but we also have to be aware that the region as a whole is falling woefully behind on housing production,” Lago said. “Historically, the suburbs to our north and east have been affordable alternatives to city living, but for years these jurisdictions have allowed extremely restrictive zoning to curtail their housing production."

“Our goal is to bring regional knowledge to bare in our and in other governments’ local planning efforts,” she added.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Planning Chief on De Blasio Administration's Zoning for Growth, and the Need for More Housing in the Suburbs Sun, 06 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Assessing Alicia Glen's Impact on the City's Physical Landscape - Part II: 'Chunky and Funky' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8741-assessing-alicia-glen-impact-physical-landscape-of-new-york-city-chunky-funky-ferry https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8741-assessing-alicia-glen-impact-physical-landscape-of-new-york-city-chunky-funky-ferry mbdb ferry

Alicia Glen cristens a ferry (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


This is part two of a two-part series on former Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen's impact on the "built environment" of New York City. Jump to part one here.

Part one of this series focused on Glen's style and leadership broadly, as well as her legacy on housing, including the de Blasio administration's massive affordable housing plan, neighborhood rezonings, public housing, and more. This part deals with economic development, transit, and more.

‘Chunky and Funky,’ Utilizing City Space and Expanding the Transit Network
In spearheading economic development, the other half of her former title, Glen put her preference for “mixed-use” into practice, creating what she calls “chunky and funky” buildings.

“Maybe because I’m a little chunky and funky, I like to sort of think about the built environment in my own physique,” she joked. Unlike the traditional supertalls that have sprouted in Hudson Yards, for example, her approach involves different types of architecture to create new developments that can house offices, light manufacturing, retail and commercial space. In a very de Blasio lens, she’s also focused on utilizing publicly-owned land.

A prime example is Dock 72 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a 675,000-square-foot building being developed by Boston Properties and Rudin Development. 

“I think that as we started to get much more serious about growing the five-borough economy, I really wanted to think about what that would look like being respectful of and being able to experiment with different kinds of building typologies and the way in which neighborhoods work,” she added.

The city had made mistakes with rezonings in the past and lacked any real sense of mixed-use zoning, she said, necessitating new thinking about density and design. “I think there was real openness and excitement at [the Department of] City Planning and at [the Economic Development Corporation] and other places to do that, particularly because there had been 12 years of a very particular kind of planning director and design, not saying good or bad but it was a good opportunity to step back and say, huh?”

And she employed her approach in areas around the Queens waterfront, at places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn Army Terminal, and the Bush Terminal (now known as Industry City) in Sunset Park. These projects have aimed to revive old and out-of-use public assets -- particularly three massive geographic areas in Brooklyn -- and work with private companies to create thousands of jobs by encouraging new manufacturing and commercial uses in hubs of economic activity. Then, look at building housing around the edges of those areas.

Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a leading business group, had particular praise for the city’s investment in Brooklyn Navy Yard, which she called “arguably the best economic development project in the country.”

“At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, you've got a whole advanced manufacturing industry cluster that didn't exist before that has an impact throughout the city, where companies from throughout the city are partnering with them, whether it's the forefront of 3D robotics, AI, the Internet of Things. That's all happening at the Brooklyn Navy Yard,” Wylde said.

“That’s been our five-borough economy plan. You want to preserve these really great and unique spaces like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, like Brooklyn Army Terminal, like the Bush Terminal, like some of the other industrial parks but make sure that what’s going on there isn’t too limited so you can really ensure job intensification,” Glen said, also referencing projects in the Bronx and Queens. “So then again you don’t have a hub-and-spoke economy anymore. You want people to work and live in multiple mixed-use communities.”

Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect and former city planner under Mayor Bloomberg, said Glen’s “chunky and funky” building approach moved towards the diversification of office space and encouraged, especially in many of those projects in Brooklyn, the creation of what he calls “com-dustrial space that basically is a kind of a bridge-building between what's traditionally understood to be commercial space, and industrial or light manufacturing space.”

“And I think Alicia was very focused on that, because that's about diversification of the economy, it's about creating a broader range of jobs for the city of New York,” he said.

Other projects with similar goals include the Early-Stage Life Sciences funding initiative, a $150-million public-private partnership meant to launch a number of ventures by next year to spur growth of the life sciences industry in the city, and the 21-story Union Square Tech Training Center, where construction began earlier this month.

Dulchin of ANHD has a different take. “The problem with the Bloomberg administration’s approach to economic development was that it almost exclusively privileged creating high-paying professional level jobs and exacerbated the economic divide in the city. And the de Blasio approach has not been different enough,” he said. Advocates like Dulchin want more investment in promised but stalled job training programs that will benefit people from New York City who went through the city’s schools and perhaps public higher education, but need skills for middle-income jobs.

A crucial project, perhaps the most complicated that Glen negotiated, was the East Midtown rezoning, aimed at upgrading office stock in a crumbling 78-block section of Manhattan with ample opportunity and need for growth, particularly in terms of modern office space. It had failed under the Bloomberg administration but Glen got it over the finish line by finagling a deal that allows landmarked buildings to sell air rights, and mandates that developers make improvements to public transit and outdoor space.

“I witnessed up close her navigating the Midtown East rezoning through the political and urban planning, and economic environments,” said Mary Ann Tighe, CEO of the New York Tri-State Region for CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm and chair emeritus of the Real Estate Board of New York. “It had to serve a lot of different purposes. And sometimes, when you try to make real estate serve too many purposes, you end up with something that's a watered down version of what it should be. And in fact, I think she not only got a great outcome for the community, but I think she ended up doing something that is really important for the business community, and the commercial real estate owners of Midtown. She managed to make all our constituents come out ahead. How often do you see that happen?”

There are, of course, a number of both flashy and more muted projects that were achieved under Glen’s tenure. A conspicuous example is One Vanderbilt, a gleaming 73-story glass tower being constructed on the corner of 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue and set to be completed next year, right near where projects born of the East Midtown rezoning will soon proliferate.

There are the two apartment buildings in the Pier 6 development in Brooklyn, which include affordable housing and provide revenue for Brooklyn Bridge Park. “So not only do we have affordable housing in the fanciest, nicest part of New York City, Brooklyn Bridge Park is financially sustainable now in perpetuity. How about that for a victory?,” Glen said.

There’s the far-less remarked upon Landing Road Residence in the Bronx, which marries affordable housing with shelter for homeless people in the same building, using federal subsidies that would normally go to hotel rooms to place homeless people. “How about that as an unbelievable legacy?,” Glen asks. “And that building is up and gorgeous. That’s the only one in the country that’s ever been done and we’re going to do more of them. I’ve been working on that for 10 years. I’ve been trying to figure out how to leverage homeless housing subsidies to cross-subsidize affordable housing and we did it. So what are the critics gonna say about that?”

She rattles off a number of other initiatives. Funding the Delacorte Theater and the Lasker Rink in Central Park. The Universal Hip Hop Museum and the Hunts Point Food Market in the Bronx. The Garment District rezoning in Manhattan.

“The Lower Concourse deal in the Bronx, that’s gonna be a real game-changer because a lot of the other stuff that’s happening along the Bronx waterfront is a lot of market rate stuff, guys speculating,” she said. “But I said wow, the Lower Concourse project is really an opportunity for us to put our stamp on what we think mixed-income, mixed-use looks like.”

“Let’s just say that the hip hop museum’s going to be really great, but it’s not exactly the most profitable use on the planet, but we made those choices,” she said. “This is about community and what it looks like and what neighborhoods look like and celebrating the diversity of neighborhoods.”

Taking Transit Chances
It was Glen who thought of launching the city’s new ferry service, which now connects a variety of stops on several routes around the city’s waterfront, from Rockaway in Queens all the way to Soundview in the Bronx. It’s been popular, and is, as de Blasio likes to say, largely a whole new system of moving groups of people, but it has its fair share of criticism.

Though the mayor has pitched it as a “mass transit” alternative, it has relatively low ridership numbers and, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, the subsidy for each rider fare is currently $10.73, and could be as much as $24.75 for a new route between Downtown Manhattan and Coney Island. There are also concerns that the system is a vehicle for economic development along waterfront communities – notably, it is run by the Economic Development Corporation rather than the Department of Transportation – that will be a government-funded boon for real estate developers friendly with de Blasio and Glen.

While there are questions about the choice to focus on a ferry network, the subsidies, and the beneficiaries, there is no doubt that the system is also a key part of the Glen legacy on the physical landscape of the city.

“The ferries are going to be among the most visible things that you're going to see from her legacy,” said Chakrabarti. “And I know, they're controversial because of the subsidy levels, but you know, that's an age-old debate. All mass transit requires some form of subsidy...In order to expand the playing field, you've really got to change the way transit works. So by standing up a ferry system, expanding the Citi Bike network, that gives you far broader opportunities in terms of where new affordable housing can go, and where new jobs can go.”

Weisbrod said, “I think that was a very bold move. We are a waterfront city...and launching a citywide ferry system is no mean feat. I hope it becomes part of our transportation network for now permanently.”

Criticisms notwithstanding, within the next two years, there will be new ferry stops added to the system by expanding to Throggs Neck in the Bronx, connecting St. George on Staten Island with the west side of Manhattan, and linking Coney Island with Wall Street.

Glen also advanced the idea of a new streetcar running along waterfront communities between Brooklyn and Queens. Though the proposed $2.7 billion Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), first announced by de Blasio in his 2016 State of the City speech, has only moved in fits and starts, she’s confident that the project will eventually be a reality, even if it is delayed past its original timeline and now requires federal funding under revamped city plans.

The streetcar is also under the auspices of EDC, which moved ahead with the environmental review process for the project in April. That review is a precursor to the longer land use review procedure, which will likely be a far more complicated battle. But if it moves ahead, the BQX will eventually be a major new feature in the city landscape, and, if successful, could lead to other streetcar routes around the city. If those are built based on Glen’s BQX plan, the city’s streetcar system would be traced to her legacy.

Along with worries about its cost, there are also questions that the streetcar is redundant, considering existing subway and bus lines that run along the proposed route, and that one method used to finance its construction – capturing a slice of increased property taxes in its immediate vicinity – is tied to speeding along gentrification and more of a boost to real estate owners and developers than the commuting public. Concerns have also been raised about the BQX being added in areas prone to flooding.

Another piece of the Glen-de Blasio approach to expanding the transit network, is more bike share. It was in her time at Goldman Sachs just prior to joining the de Blasio administration that Glen first put together the funding for the Citi Bike deal, which created the first bike-share program in the city. Citi Bike docking stations are already major new features of the city’s physical landscape in any neighborhoods, as are the blue bikes dotting city roadways and bridges on many days.

Glen saw it as more than just a transportation alternative; like the subsequent ferry and BQX plans, it was also meant to spur economic growth and create jobs. After its launch in 2013, the bike network has expanded to more than 12,000 bikes with 750 stations located across the city.

In July, the city announced a massive planned expansion of the system, making 40,000 bikes available by 2023. By next year, there will finally be stations installed in the Bronx, while an expansion is underway further into Brooklyn and Queens. This was just after the program faced intense criticism: a report commissioned by New York Communities for Change and conducted by McGill University’s School of Urban Planning found that it currently disproportionately serves richer, whiter neighborhoods while ignoring low-income communities of color and transit deserts.

Women and What’s Next
Another economic development initiative with a physical manifestation that Glen launched is women.nyc, a mostly online resource center aimed at empowering women. Under its banner, Glen created She Built NYC, the campaign to install statues dedicated to women, especially important historical figures, and address the vast imbalance of those physical memorials across the city (of the 150 statues in public spaces across the city, only five are of women).

The first of those statues, of Brooklyn’s Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, will be erected in Prospect Park. Six others have also been announced – to be completed by 2022 – with the ultimate goal that 50% of all city statues represent women.

“The way you experience the world as a woman is very much informed by the built environment,” Glen said, recounting an anecdote about walking past a building with a construction sign that read, “Danger! Men Working Above.”

“And it took me a second to realize, why did I think that was so weird. I’ll tell you why that’s so weird. So what, women don’t know how to wash a f***ing window? Women can’t be dangerous and working above?” she said. “How do think that feels? How do you think that feels to be in the completely marginalized 51% of this city where almost every signal in the built environment is about men? So I’m having none of it.”

It’s why she believes the press has been tougher on her and other women. “I think you’re all incredibly biased about the way you cover women. I think women who are opinionated and powerful and trying to push something through are demonized,” she said. “And I think it’s a really holistic problem. That’s why I did women.nyc, it’s why we have to have women, women, women, women, women, women everywhere. Not one and done.”

She even left her stamp on Hudson Yards, a project that began under the Bloomberg administration and she has criticized (“It's not my personal favorite place. It's not a 'neighborhood' as they are characterizing it.”). Glen helped rename the public park at the development in honor of Bella Abzug, the former U.S. Representative and leader of the women’s rights movement.

In her new role at the Trust for Governors Island, Glen intends to continue that work. “I would certainly think that our public art and our statuary on Governor’s Island will certainly have a women’s bent,” she said. And that’s where she thinks a gondola from lower Manhattan could go.

Glen has also said she’ll continue working on She Built NYC and women.nyc in the months and years ahead, though some of that involvement may depend on what exactly she does next, after some time off (she hasn’t ruled out a run for mayor in the 2021 election, telling Gotham Gazette, "this town needs a woman mayor").

Glen said she wants to continue to be involved in the giant redevelopment envisioned at Sunnyside Yard in Queens, a project that she put into motion.

“People learned a lot of things from Battery Park City, learned something about the good and bad with the way that Roosevelt Island, Hudson Yards were done. To me, Sunnyside Yard is an opportunity to do large-scale planning with a mix of uses. It’s much more inclusive,” she said. In past interviews, she’s drawn a distinction with the more “male” architecture of Hudson Yards, something she’d avoid in Sunnyside. “Yeah, I’m not interested in having a lot of phallic symbols all around a statue that looks like a uterus,” she said, referring to the Vessel that sits at the center of the supertalls at Hudson Yards. “To me, that’s not really where I would go with this if I were running this town.”

Glen has few regrets about her time in the de Blasio administration. Though the vaunted Amazon deal fell through, and with it a massive Queens campus with 25,000 promised jobs and billions in expected revenue, she chalked it up to the tech firm’s mistakes rather than the administration’s. “I got it under my belt,” she said matter-of-factly of the deal.

The one failed land use deal that does continue to bother her is the site of the Long Island College Hospital, which is now on its way to becoming as-of-right market-rate luxury condos without affordable housing (at a site key to de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign), which she blames on opposition from City Council Member Brad Lander, who represents the district. “I’m really mad about LICH, I think that was a huge lost opportunity. I’m really mad about some of the local politics,” she said, echoing a previous point she’s made that led to a testy exchange with Lander.

More broadly, Glen said she worries the city is headed in an anti-growth direction that could be harmful. “What’s keeping me up at night right now is this sort of swing to equating all development with this very negative connotation around gentrification,” she said. “What keeps me up at night is that a small majority of people could overly influence an agenda that starts to bake in anti-growth.”

This is part two of a two-part series on former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen's impact on the "built environment" of New York City. Jump to part one here.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Assessing Alicia Glen's Impact on the City's Physical Landscape - Part II: 'Chunky and Funky' Thu, 15 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Assessing Alicia Glen's Impact on the City’s Physical Space - Part I: 'We have completely changed the housing landscape' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8740-alicia-glen-impact-physical-landscape-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8740-alicia-glen-impact-physical-landscape-new-york-city Alicia Glen

Alicia Glen (photo: Paige Polk/Mayor's Office)


This is part one of a two-part series on former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen's impact on the "built environment" of New York City. Find part two -- on economic development, transit, and more -- here.

It’s the year 2026 in New York City. Hundreds of thousands of new units of rent-restricted apartments have been added to the city’s housing stock as the population continues to grow. Ferry boats cruise in the East River and on the Hudson. Gleaming office buildings rise in East Midtown. Downtown Far Rockaway is bustling. Construction of an entirely new neighborhood at Sunnyside Yard in Queens is well underway. Formerly decrepit industrial spaces along the Brooklyn waterfront house light manufacturing companies alongside co-working spaces, retail stores, and commercial businesses. A statue of Shirley Chisholm stands in Prospect Park. And perhaps, a gondola links the city’s financial center with the former military base on Governors Island.

This is the future Alicia Glen wants, the future for New York City -- where she was recently Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development -- that Glen designed. Rent-regulated apartments, ferry landings, modern midtown office space, a film production campus, monuments to female historical figures – they are all physical manifestations of the massive portfolio that Glen was given, crafted, and ran for nearly five-and-a-half years under Mayor Bill de Blasio before stepping down in March.

“I’m a built-environment person,” said Glen, in a recent hour-long interview at a coffee shop in Chelsea. “I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker and I’ve been working in the built environment and community development and real estate my whole life.”

A former Goldman Sachs executive, where she led the Urban Investment Group, who also worked in city government in the 1980s and ‘90s, Glen spearheaded the city’s affordable housing program, neighborhood rezonings, job-creation efforts, new ferry system, and planned light rail project; oversaw the city’s public housing authority and public parks department; and led the launch of an initiative to create monuments to prominent women; among a myriad of other duties.

The policies and projects that Glen initiated are already transforming the physical landscape of the city, and will continue to do so for generations to come, as is the case with each mayoral administration and the “built environment” legacy of its chief executive and top deputy for the elements of her portfolio.

As with the Bloomberg administration and other predecessors, many of Glen’s contributions will only be seen and gauged over time. The Bloomberg era saw almost 40% of the city rezoned, meaning new land use rules were adopted, often to spur more development, and brought sweeping changes to the city’s skyline. It gave the city the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Hudson Yards in Manhattan, and Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island, the latter two of which didn’t see a grand opening till well after Bloomberg was out of office.

A born-and-raised New Yorker and overtly optimistic if at times sharp-tongued booster for New York City, Glen prides herself on what she believes is a transformational record, to be fully revealed over decades, even if it comes with its share of critics and naysayers.

The housing plan may have the largest “affordable” units goal in city history, but critics say it doesn’t do nearly enough for those at lower incomes and people experiencing homelessness. The New York City Housing Authority’s operating budget may have been stabilized, but a deep backlog for maintenance and repairs remains, and a lead paint scandal erupted on her watch. The ferry system may be a new transit alternative for waterfront communities and millions of annual riders, but it’s heavily subsidized, serves a more affluent crowd than other “mass transit” options, and isn’t linked to the MTA fare system.

Glen was brought into the administration to translate de Blasio’s vision of equity into programmatic and built reality, blending her perspective as a builder and a real estate executive with the mayor’s socioeconomic mission, which she largely appears to share as a self-professed Upper West Side liberal. Much of the de Blasio-Glen model followed both of their prior work, leveraging the private market for public good; utilizing public space to broad economic benefit; taking a “balanced” approach to policy to keep developers in the game, businesses in the city, and the middle class in affordable homes.

To some critics, their pro-growth policies and strategic decisions -- from which neighborhoods they rezoned to launching the ferry program -- seemed to contradict the “tale of two cities” rhetoric that got de Blasio elected to office. Many on the left who were hopeful about de Blasio’s tenure use his appointment of Glen, and her Goldman Sachs background, as emblematic of a mayoralty far more moderate than envisioned and far too cozy with big real estate developers.

The de Blasio-Glen approach put into place a framework for long-term inclusive growth, some say, that eschews the grand, glitzy legacy projects for many inflection points toward a more fair and equitable city. “A lot of what I understood her to do was actually not necessarily something that would be superficially magnificent, but really was thought out right and it will have this lasting impact,” said Rachel Meltzer, chair of the urban policy program at the Milano School of Policy, Management, and Environment at the New School. “Because it is about how you integrate some of this stuff so that it becomes part of how the city works and operates...In that regard, I would hope it would be long-lasting. I think that's a smart approach.”

Glen explained that she was given immense responsibility, and leeway, by de Blasio to advance her vision.

“You have to remember, I was handed over a third of the government in a day, OK? And also the mayor, and I think he’d be the first person to admit this, he is not a person who focuses on the built environment,” Glen said. “That has never been his interest. I mean, he’s always been pro-development and thoughtful about development and the built environment, but he would always say he is much more interested in policy, service issues, education, however you characterize all that...One of the reasons why he chose me, and…we were very simpatico, was because I’m a person who has a track record of actually building things and getting things done in the built environment.”

Affordable Housing, Development & Neighborhood Change
One of the most prominent aspects of Glen’s legacy is the massive de Blasio “affordable housing” program that she took the lead in designing and implementing. The plan originally aimed to create or preserve 200,000 units of rent-regulated housing by 2024. It has been retooled twice, first to target more low-income housing and later expanded to a goal of 300,000 units by 2026. (Glen’s successor as deputy mayor, Vicki Been, formerly the housing commissioner under Glen, is expected to announce another new iteration of the plan in the coming months.)

In January, the administration announced that had already put $5.05 billion directly into the housing plan, and another $8.12 billion in bond financing; money that helps subsidize and incentivize the building and preservation of rent-capped units, which are available to tenants with a wide variety of incomes depending on individual city deals with landlords and developers.

On July 30, the city announced that it financed 25,299 affordable housing units in the just-completed 2019 fiscal year, meeting the annual goal but a drop from the 32,244 affordable homes that were financed in the previous fiscal year. The city said, though, that a record amount of housing was financed for the most vulnerable residents – homeless people, seniors, and those who need supportive services – part of a developing response to ongoing criticism about the plan’s designs.

According to the latest numbers from the city, the de Blasio administration has over five-plus years so far funded 43,930 new “affordable” (meaning rent-regulated in some way, though thresholds vary widely) homes and preserved another existing 91,507 “affordable” units into longer-term regulation, for a total of 135,437. In comparison, the Bloomberg administration built and preserved 165,000 “affordable” units over his 12 years in office.

But to the lay New Yorker, the affordable housing program isn’t always conspicuous. “I think some of Alicia's most important legacies may be somewhat invisible,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, associate professor of practice at Columbia GSAPP, founder of the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, and a former city planner under Bloomberg. “Housing preservation...that's a policy issue where you don't really see the physical legacy as much as her extension of the Citi Bike network. A lot of these things, I think, are issues that are going to be hard to see even though I think it's a very impactful legacy.”

Glen said she came into her job aiming to avoid “endless analysis paralysis” and to obtain actionable results. “I was very clear that I wanted to have really concrete measurable impacts so that New Yorkers today and New Yorkers of the future can be like, ‘yeah, we’ve changed the blueprint of New York City,’ and that’s what I set out to do and I would argue we did it,” she said in discussing the affordable housing program.

The first major step in achieving that goal was wonky and technical, but essential -- the passage of two amendments to the city’s land use laws: Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA). Under MIH, the new regulations mandated that developers seeking to build taller, denser buildings than existing zoning allows -- thus in need of city approval to do so -- would have to include a certain percentage of units at specified caps on the rent. Importantly, this would also apply to rezoned neighborhoods, where the city changes land use rules for a larger geographic area than when, in most cases, a developer seeks a zoning change for a specific plot of land.

ZQA updated zoning and building design standards to encourage the creation of affordable senior housing and mixed-income housing, and to promote the growth of commercial and retail space.

The zoning changes allowed the city, under Glen’s leadership, to pursue rezonings in several neighborhoods targeted for greater housing density, as well as new retail space, park land, school seats, and other varied built-environment additions. The first of those was approved in East New York in April 2016, followed later by rezonings in Downtown Far Rockaway and East Harlem in 2017, and then the Jerome Avenue Corridor in the Bronx and part of Inwood in 2018.

Each of the rezonings will have significant long-term influence over what the neighborhoods involved look like, the make-up, functionality, and benefits of specific communities across the city. But while each also clearly offers certain community upgrades and potential for more, they also come with questions around enticing or accelerating gentrification, and whether communities of color are mainly those expected to welcome increased density as the city grows.

The East New York rezoning covered three main corridors: Atlantic Avenue, with a stretch of semi-industrial businesses but few residences; Fulton Street, a shopping corridor with two- to four-story buildings with stores and housing; and Pitkin Avenue, which contains two- to four- story residential buildings. Low-scale row-houses, semi-detached homes and small apartment buildings line the side streets. Under the rezoning, the character of those side streets will be preserved, while allowing mixed-use growth along the main corridors, including rent-restricted and mixed-income housing, moderate density industrial growth, and new retail and commercial space. That will mean taller buildings with new retail or community facilities on the ground floor: 6-8 story buildings on Liberty Avenue and Fulton Street; 8-10 story buildings on Pitkin; and 12-14 story buildings on Atlantic Avenue. And new residential development where earlier only manufacturing facilities could be located.

In East Harlem, the rezoning was meant to stave off market-rate development that threatened to accelerate displacement of existing residents already happening in the gentrifying neighborhood. The final plan established limits on building heights and density (owing to the City Council) while expanding residential development and promoting new commercial and industrial space.

On the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx, a slew of development is expected to take place, most of which will be mandated to include affordable housing. There’s the 14-story building at 1331 Jerome Avenue, with 255 units, including supportive housing. There’s the 17-story mixed-use building at Jerome Court, with 63,000 square feet of residential space, 52,000 square feet of community facility space, and 7,500 square feet of commercial space.

Similarly, in Downtown Far Rockaway, the city is financing several projects that will lead to mixed-income and affordable housing, while also creating new commercial and public spaces. At 1414 Central Avenue, construction has begun on 140 new units of affordable housing, 2,500 square feet of commercial space, and a new building to house the Community Church of the Nazarene. The city has also engaged the nonprofit developer Phipps Houses to redevelop Far Rockaway Village, to replace a shopping center with 450 units of affordable housing, 92,000 square feet of commercial space, and 23,000 square feet of public space. Another developer, The Community Builders, will create 224 units of affordable housing on a city-owned site, as well as 24,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space and 8,000 square feet of community space.

“I think it's something that's really not only the envy of other cities in the United States, but other places around the world, which are all struggling with the issue of affordable housing,” said Carl Weisbrod, the former head of the Department of City Planning and currently senior advisor at HR&A Advisors, of the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy. “Most successful cities are struggling with that issue,” said Weisbrod, who worked closely with Glen on many issues and projects, including the passage of MIH.

“I think that the housing program is just so large and central to the city's future, that that will be the centerpiece and a lot of these other accomplishments will help support that legacy,” Weisbrod added.

While each of those rezonings was focused on creating and preserving thousands of units of new affordable housing, they also came with a spate of prominent community, economic development, and infrastructure investments. In East New York, the city has already broken ground on a new 1,000-seat school, begun work on park expansions and new playground sites, and landmarked the Empire State Dairy Building.

In Downtown Far Rockaway, a new two-story 18,000-square-foot library is being built. The Jerome Avenue corridor will have two new elementary schools serving over 1,000 children, and new parks and playgrounds as well. Inwood will receive a library with a new universal pre-kindergarten facility, a youth STEM education center, a cultural and job training center, and two new waterfront parks.

The housing plan and the rezonings undertaken to help achieve it have earned de Blasio and Glen a significant amount of both praise and criticism.

Most of the criticism has come from the left, saying that the self-described progressive mayor has not really had a truly progressive approach to housing development. While some favor the new rules that make it obligatory for developers to build affordable housing, others say that rezonings have exacerbated gentrification and displacement in low-income communities of color and that the housing program does not sufficiently address the lowest-income New Yorkers, including many of the existing residents of the rezoned areas.

While some want to see more housing density in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, others believe de Blasio and Glen have been too pro-development in general.

“I think the ramifications of Alicia Glen's impact on the city are going to be felt for decades to come, in a very similar way that, you know, how Robert Moses reshaped the city of New York and not in a good way,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change. “Her policies to rezone low-income neighborhoods in New York City to allow developers to build luxury condo towers and unaffordable apartments for everyday New Yorkers is going to have lasting, lasting impact of displacing people of color and communities of color across the city, and I think it's going to actually further segregation across the entire region.”

Glen has faced the Moses comparison before, though she somewhat embraces it. “Well I’ve always said, that’s a complicated topic,” she said. “Someone once joked to me, ‘What do you think you’re Roberta Moses?’ Well sure If I can be a better, kinder, gentler, more inclusive, feminist city builder, yeah I’ll take that. Put that on a t-shirt. That’s fine.”

Westin said the focus on community rezonings effectively threw gasoline on the city’s gentrification crisis. He insisted the administration should have instead worked to sculpt smaller rezonings to maximize affordability and to ensure that housing goes to the families living in those neighborhoods. The result of the current approach? “Communities will definitely get richer and whiter, but entire communities will be displaced. East New York will not be East New York in ten years. A lot of those families will be gone. I think the same is true of Harlem and the same is true of the Bronx,” he said.

“You know what, in ten years, when you go to those neighborhoods, in the old days, sure you’d see development there but you wouldn’t see any sort of comprehensive neighborhood infrastructure being done because that wasn’t the way the city was doing business,” Glen said of such criticism. “So yeah, I feel pretty good about the fact that when I walk down the street, I see a lot of new buildings going up. There’s affordable housing in those buildings. That didn’t use to be the case. That’s not visible to the human eye but I know what I did and the brutal battles that we took on to get MIH, to get 421-a done. I didn’t sleep for six months. I mean, totally worth it.”

“We have completely changed the housing landscape in New York City in the most radical way,” she said of changes to the zoning code, “which is what’s allowing all the radicals to say it’s not good enough. So that’s great.”

Benjamin Dulchin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, is more ambivalent, noting that the effects of the rezonings may not be known for years. MIH, he said, created “the strongest-in-the-nation floor for what the private sector’s obligation is to affordable housing when the city upzones. And so that was really an important step that she played a key role in.”

But he noted the concerns about the neighborhoods the administration chose, where displacement pressures already exist. “The way that they have focused on rezoning as a way of harnessing market forces may do more harm than good,” he said, cautiously.

Glen is not defensive, but rather defiant and self-assured in the face of critics. “We broke every record since records have been kept, and there are hundreds of amazing projects that are now fully occupied or out of the ground,” she said.

She continued: “I think that the vast majority of people, the real issue is, even with everything we’ve done, it’s not enough. Right? And that’s a true statement, sure. But what’s the alternative? To do nothing? To not try to make a big dent? So that’s why, yeah sure, we need more affordable housing. OK. I challenge anybody to tell me how you can do more and leverage resources and do anything at scale that we haven’t been able to do. I challenge anybody.”

She conceded that it’s a “fair position to take, that everything should be for the lowest income people, every dollar should be putting into serving the lowest,” but she disagrees with the notion.

“It’s everything we fought against. Everything we learned about the mistakes of the ‘60s and ‘70s where people were really stigmatized and very low-income people were crowded together,” she continued. “Most social scientists and urban economists and urban thinkers would agree that real mixed-income buildings and neighborhoods are much healthier ecosystems. The buildings themselves are healthier and certainly neighborhoods are healthier. So I’ve never believed...that the city’s sole role in development and housing is to serve only the lowest income. I just disagree with that philosophically, as does the mayor.”

“I think her primary legacy is really accelerating the process of gentrification and overdevelopment in New York, running roughshod over the wishes of local communities, and helping to turn City Hall into a pay-for-play revolving door for lobbyists and real estate interests,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, in a phone interview.

Berman has particular contempt for the administration’s record on historic preservation. “This has been one of the most preservation-unfriendly administrations in New York City in a very, very long time,” he said. “The only time the administration seems to show any interest in landmarks is when they can come up with a way for them to sell air-rights in order to increase the size of development in surrounding areas, sometimes at the expense of other landmarks.”

For preservationists like Berman, Glen had a rebuttal ready. “We landmarked more buildings in five years than the entire Bloomberg administration did in 12 years. So I don’t know what they’re complaining about,” she said. While Glen's point about a better record on landmarking than Bloomberg was correct, her timeframe was not. In de Blasio's first term, the city landmarked more buildings and sites than any other mayor in their first term other than Ed Koch. And in an apples-to-apples comparison with Bloomberg's administration, at this point in de Blasio's tenure, his administration has landmarked about 4,988 buildings and sites, 45% more than the 2,248 that Bloomberg did in the same time, according to a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission. 

“I’m not worried about being unpopular,” Glen said at one point in the interview, “because it’s not junior high school and I’m not running for prom queen. Everything I’ve ever done has been about doing something that’s good for New York. That’s been my only agenda, what other agenda could I have had. Why would I have given up all these other jobs?”

When it comes to the complicated issue of public housing, Glen’s legacy is far more shrouded. She inherited problems at the authority -- which she is quick to remind is under federal and state auspices, as well as city control -- that had been decades in the making but seemed to reach their zenith under the de Blasio administration. While she is not as readily associated with NYCHA, perhaps because it is an authority rather than a city agency, than her signature plans and projects, Glen acknowledges NYCHA was under her purview, wants credit for some of what has gone right there over the last five-plus years, and knows the crises are immense.

NYCHA faced a nearly $17 billion capital need in 2011, but that quickly grew to about $32 billion last year. Through various tools, including by turning over developments to private management, the administration has a plan to cover about $24 billion of that need, but it was only launched in December 2018, an updated version of a 2015 NYCHA plan Glen helped design.

Despite their putting more emphasis on and resources into NYCHA than their predecessors, conditions for the authority’s residents continued to be plagued. Major problems and scandals with basic building maintenance, crumbling roofs, lead paint, elevator breakdowns, heat and hot water outages, and more have made NYCHA a blight on the de Blasio-Glen record, even if those problems have been decades in the making and federal and state aid have been extremely limited.

Glen is hopeful that key elements of the NYCHA 2.0 plan, including new private housing development on underutilized NYCHA land that will provide revenue for the authority, will bear fruit.

This is part one of a two-part series on former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen's impact on the "built environment" in New York City. Read part two -- dealing with economic development, transit, and more -- here.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to note that Glen's comments on the de Blasio administration's preservation record compared to the Bloomberg administration were not entirely accurate. Additional context has also been provided.  

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Assessing Alicia Glen's Impact on the City’s Physical Space - Part I: 'We have completely changed the housing landscape' Wed, 14 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Improving Opportunity Zones to Truly Benefit Needy Communities in New York City https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8733-improving-opportunity-zones-to-truly-benefit-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8733-improving-opportunity-zones-to-truly-benefit-new-york-city childrens museum cojo

Speaker Johnson, the author, at a construction site (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Opportunity Zones, which were part of the 2017 federal tax package, have the potential to improve low-income communities. But the way they are currently structured, they will only benefit neighborhoods already in the midst of building booms and gentrification.

Here is how they are supposed to work: Investors get tax breaks if they invest in businesses and property development in low-income communities. In New York City, investors are eligible to save on state and local taxes in addition to their federal taxes.

Unfortunately, in a city like New York that already has substantial incentive programs across the city and has enjoyed relative economic success in recent years, these new incentives could end up mostly going to projects that would have happened anyway. 

Opportunity Zone neighborhoods like Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, and Gowanus are communities where private investment has already poured in, and seems poised to continue doing so even without the extra tax incentive - and as a result, they are expected to attract the majority of any Opportunity Zone investment that does happen. Our city does have neighborhoods that would benefit from the additional investment right now, but these aren’t them.

Displacement is a concern, too. 

The expected concentration of investment in a small handful of already-affluent (and often rapidly-changing) communities, and in high-end real estate, could accelerate many of the elements of gentrification that we are already struggling to keep up with. 

Fiscally, the program could be a huge loser for New Yorkers. 

With investors looking for the optimal combinations of high-profit and low-risk investments, and no requirements that investments deliver any public benefit, capital is likely to flow toward large, low-risk companies and high-end residential, commercial, or hotel development. In other words, not the intended targets, and not the people or businesses who could use help from the government. 

New York City taxpayers will bear a huge chunk of the cost. The city’s loss of tax revenue shares from Opportunity Zone tax breaks at the federal, state, and local levels could amount to $715 million just over the next five years – and much more over the following decades as investors continue to cash in on tax-free capital gains.

In New York, officials must make sure these Opportunity Zones help the right targets in the most vulnerable communities.

First, lawmakers in Albany must add localized criteria to the incentives. In order to be eligible for state- or city-level Opportunity Zone breaks, I am proposing that a project must be receiving substantial state or city government discretionary assistance, such as direct subsidy, land acquisition, or subsidized loans. This would help because local government agencies consider public benefit as a factor in dispensing discretionary assistance, so this change would enshrine a requirement of at least some benefit for local communities.

Second, we need to right-size other, complementary subsidies for projects. State and city agencies should consider Opportunity Zone equity sources as part of their due diligence process and allocation calculations when disbursing subsidy. This could prevent the unnecessary over-subsidizing of projects receiving both government assistance and Opportunity Zone tax breaks.

Third, we need robust monitoring at all levels. Federally, and at the state level, administrators must mandate transparency, monitor compliance, and evaluate results to ensure that Opportunity Zone incentives are used appropriately, fairly, and to the benefit of the public.

In cities like New York, this program could be a windfall for wealthy investors to little community benefit. But with action from state legislators, there is still a chance to salvage at least some benefit for New Yorkers who actually need it.

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Corey Johnson is the Speaker of the New York City Council. On Twitter @NYCSpeakerCoJo.

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

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Improving Opportunity Zones to Truly Benefit Needy Communities in New York City Tue, 13 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Preparing Our City’s Youth for the World of Work Through CareerReady NYC https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8700-preparing-our-city-s-youth-for-the-world-of-work-through-careerready-nyc https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8700-preparing-our-city-s-youth-for-the-world-of-work-through-careerready-nyc may first richard buery deputy

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


In recent years, New York City has racked up a series of impressive gains within the systems that prepare our youth for work and careers. The question is whether this progress will be enough for the city’s youth to navigate a rapidly changing labor market and achieve steady work and economic security. 

While the economic expansion of recent years has swept many young adults into the workforce, most of these new workers are not on pathways to upward mobility. Part of that is the nature of the jobs, almost all of which are part-time, low-paying, or both. But another factor is work readiness -- employers do not feel students are generally well-prepared for the world of work. One recent survey found that while 96 percent of college academic officers felt their institutions effectively prepare students for the workforce, only 11 percent of business leaders agreed. 

With education and skills requirements for high-paying positions continuing to rise, and automation potentially pushing low-skilled workers even further toward the economic margins, there’s a real chance things could get significantly worse. In fact, recent research estimates that one in every three jobs in New York City could become mostly or totally automated, with lower- and middle-income jobs at greatest risk. The workers in those jobs are overwhelmingly women and people of color.  

To address these challenges and help New York City’s youth prepare for steady work and economic security,  Mayor de Blasio has launched CareerReady NYC. This initiative prioritizes and connects the raw ingredients of career success: academic attainment, work experience, time management, critical thinking, communications, and teamwork. By linking up the subsystems of public education, youth employment, and postsecondary education, we can improve the odds for young people who might not have the strong family or community support networks to make meaning from unconnected academic and work experiences. 

Developed over a two-year period by leaders from city government, the public school system, CUNY, employers, philanthropy, and community-based organizations, CareerReady NYC reflects two core truths. First, “school” and “work” are vital and complementary inputs to growing up, and should be supported as such. Second, when it comes to the success of our youth, everyone has skin in the game, and everyone needs to pitch in on their behalf. 

The good news: there’s a lot of success to build upon. High school graduation and college readiness rates are the highest yet recorded. CUNY has rededicated itself to student success, with substantial investments in programs such as ASAP (Accelerated Success in Associate Programs) that are helping students to complete degrees. The Summer Youth Employment Program, a mainstay of life in the five boroughs since 1963, is putting more than twice as many young New Yorkers to work in 2019 as it did just six years ago. Finally, New York City is blessed with the strongest and most generous philanthropic partners of any city in America.

With all that in mind, the city is making a pledge through CareerReady NYC to begin to manage these programs to reflect the reality that they serve the same young people, and work toward providing more and better career guidance in school and work experiences outside of it. Our hope is that the Department of Education and CUNY will continue to embrace the goal of career readiness for their students, prioritizing career awareness, career exploration, and work-based learning.

We’re calling upon employers to participate by hosting student site visits, serving as guest speakers, providing financial support, taking interns, and ultimately hiring well-prepared graduates.

Finally, we’re asking private funders and service providers to sustain their support of youth development through resources, sharing best practices, and feeding back insights from the field to continuously improve programs and policy. 

Over the years, far-sighted civic leaders in and out of government have taken concerted action to stabilize New York City’s finances, dramatically improve public safety, expand infrastructure to support a growing population, and address the ramifications of climate change. 

The young people of New York deserve a similarly visionary approach to how we help them prepare for success in the world of work. This investment will pay off in both economic and moral terms: a broader-based and more sustainable prosperity, and a community in which we live up to our professed values of equal opportunity for all. 

***
Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives J. Phillip Thompson is responsible for spearheading a diverse collection of priority initiatives for New York City.

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

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Preparing Our City’s Youth for the World of Work Through CareerReady NYC Thu, 25 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo’s Getting His Belmont Arena, But the Numbers Don’t Add Up https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8687-cuomo-s-getting-his-belmont-arena-but-the-numbers-don-t-add-up https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8687-cuomo-s-getting-his-belmont-arena-but-the-numbers-don-t-add-up belmont park redev

Belmont arena rendering (rendering: Sterling Project Development)


Delayed appraisal, dubious benefits analysis, interest-free financing complicate rosy outlook

Three lessons from the long battle over Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn are that promises of huge financial benefits deserve skepticism, that independent studies trump promotional ones, and that scenarios should be presented as a range of outcomes, rather than just the best case.

Unfortunately, those lessons have been ignored regarding the new sports-and-entertainment arena complex planned at Belmont Park in western Nassau County, with the New York Islanders as anchor tenant and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, surely anticipating a big ribbon-cutting in 2021, as the chief cheerleader.

The near-final step toward approval of “the transformational $1.26 billion Belmont Park Redevelopment Project” came in a Cuomo press release July 8 announcing that a new Long Island Rail Road station would help serve the project, which also includes a hotel and “luxury outlet stores.” (That retail, as I explain below, might be the priority for the Islanders’ owners.)

The press release came with a chorus of praise—the new station might lessen the likelihood of arena-related traffic chaos—but left seeds for doubt.

Unfortunately, as the project comment period ends August 1 and approval votes loom soon after, the Cuomo administration has obfuscated public assistance for the station and an overall deal that gives the developers the project land essentially rent-free, while presenting an economic benefits analysis with glaring gaps, and delaying the delivery of promised data.

Who’s paying for the station?
The estimated cost of the station is $105 million. According to the press release, “The arena developer will cover $97 million— 92 percent of the total cost — and the State will invest $8 million.” The developer is New York Arena Partners, or NYAP, involving Sterling Equities, the Scott Malkin Group (Islanders’ owners), Madison Square Garden, and the Oak View Group.

That scenario was belied by a “Fiscal and Economic Benefits” report attached to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (or Final EIS), which said NYAP would initially contribute $30 million for that new station, then pay $67 million over the course of 30 years.

That sounds like the equivalent of interest-free financing, a huge bonus for the developer. Unfortunately for the public, Newsday, Long Island’s dominant newspaper, initially accepted Cuomo’s framing, while an editorial columnist echoed Cuomo’s take, gaining an enthusiastic tweet from a spokesperson for Empire State Development (ESD), Cuomo’s economic development authority, who essentially called alternative explanations fake news.

By contrast, Neil deMause, writing in Gothamist, estimated that the financing offered a $33 million public bonus to the developers.

To me, it recalled the 2009 deal in which Forest City Ratner, which had bid $100 million for the right to build over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard in Brooklyn, negotiated relaxed terms: permission to put $20 million down (for the parcel necessary for the Barclays Center), then pay, over 21 years, the equivalent of $80 million in 2009 dollars: approximately $173 million, at an implied 6.5% interest rate.

Four days after Cuomo’s announcement, Newsday reported that NYAP was, in fact, getting the equivalent of interest-free financing for the station, and was essentially getting the entire 43-acre site in exchange for payments being reinvested into project infrastructure. One sports economist quoted in the story thought the rail deal was fair while another thought the deal might stimulate the economy, even if the land was a bargain. 

New public revenue?
I have more doubts, and not just because of Cuomo’s record on transparency. Consider: the ESD board meeting July 8 to accept the Final EIS was scheduled with exactly one business day’s notice, a decision that provoked project opponents to protest to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).

According to Cuomo’s press release, the state-commissioned analysis “found the new arena, hotel and retail village will generate nearly $50 million in new public revenue per year and produce $725 million in annual economic output” (spending, apparently).

Sure, building on underutilized land adds significant jobs and tax revenues, especially from the retail, but Cuomo’s numbers deserve scrutiny rather than blind endorsement.

The state's fiscal estimates ignore the cost of additional public services and infrastructure, as well as the value of various tax exemptions. Unbiased agencies, like the New York City Independent Budget Office, typically weigh benefits and costs. The watchdog group Reinvent Albany has asked ESD for an analysis of Belmont subsidies, without results. (In Streetsblog, Reinvent Albany also raised several questions about the new train station, including operating costs and cost overruns.)

Moreover, the report by BJH Advisors performed for Cuomo doesn’t consider “whether the spending and jobs are moving from one site presently in New York State to the new project location.” That’s said to be reasonable, “given the type and unique nature of the retail uses and the newly generated demand for hotel and accommodation services.” 

Maybe, but that excludes the nearby Nassau Coliseum, clearly an arena rival, as explained below. 

The new luxury outlet mall
And if, as the state says, “there are currently no direct comparable development [sic] to Value Retail's luxury outlet product within the United States,” shouldn’t the developers of such high-end retail be paying for the land?

We haven’t heard much about Value Retail, founded by Islanders’ co-owner Malkin, but Belmont would represent the first United States example of a successful European chain, of which Bicester Village, not far from London, is now the United Kingdom’s second-busiest attraction and generates more sales per square foot than any retail outlet in the world. 

Consider: at 315,000 square feet, if Belmont achieves sales at $2,000 per square foot, that means annual revenue of $630 million, and big success for Value Retail, which typically charges brands 12.5% of sales: meaning $78.8 million in annual rent given that estimated revenue. (Is $2,000 per square foot realistic? Well, sales at less-exclusive Woodbury Common, as of early 2018, were $1,624 per square foot, and Bicester achieved sales of $4,000 per square foot, as of 2016. Even at Woodbury Common results, the Belmont numbers would be formidable.)

No wonder Value Retail founder Malkin has let Islanders’ co-owner Jon Ledecky be the public face of the project. 

Rent goes back into the project
Beyond the rail station financing and tax breaks, the Cuomo administration has figured out how to mask significant public help for what was long portrayed as an “entirely privately funded” project. (Now, I suppose it’s “almost entirely privately funded.”)

Along with that initial $30 million payment for the station, NYAP will pay $20 million upfront for Project Site infrastructure. However, these payments fulfill the developer’s seemingly sweet land lease: announced at just $40 million to control 43 acres for 49 years.

So, instead of paying New York for the site, that money—plus an extra $10 million—goes back into the project.

What about the appraisal?
Is the land worth just $40 million (or even $50 million)? The annual payment, per acre, is but 10 percent of the cost paid for the right to build a “racino” at Aqueduct, another racetrack. In March 2018, ESD promised the Village Voice an appraisal would be done before “the conclusion of the environmental review in 2019.”

Apparently appraisals exist. ESD, in the Response to Comments Chapter of the Final EIS released July 8, said that “The transaction between ESD and the Applicant is a fair market transaction confirmed by appraisals received by ESD.” 

However, ESD has not released them. Despite that July 8 statement, Newsday reported five days later that an appraisal would be complete “in the coming weeks”—just in time for the final approval votes.

The Belmont process suffers from opacity, as I’ve written. A rival bidder for the site withdrew in 2017, citing (to Long Island Business News) “extraordinary requirements, preconditions and reviews” that pointed to a wired deal for a hockey arena; LIBN’s editor opined that the state “only solicited proposals tailor-made for the Islanders and their well-heeled backers.”

Impact on the Coliseum
The claim that spending and jobs won’t move within the state has a huge blind spot: the county-owned Nassau Coliseum, less than ten miles away. The state review fudges the new arena’s likely devastating impact on the Islanders’ former (and now part-time) home, which, after being downsized and renovated, seats only 13,900 for hockey—too small for the National Hockey League—and up to 15,000 for concerts. 

The new arena would seat 18,000 for hockey and up to 19,000 for concerts—and, of course, would contain many more luxury suites. Unlike Barclays, announced in 2012 as the Islanders’ new permanent home as of 2015 but making an awkward fit for the team, it would be built to accommodate hockey.

Asked in the public comment period about the need for another arena, the state responded, “The arena would meet the demand for larger events that cannot be hosted at smaller venues such as Nassau Coliseum.”

Well, it might meet the demand for Islanders games. But it’s dubious that the Coliseum couldn’t host “larger events.” Even at Barclays, which offers far better transit access and a denser population nearby, only a few supernova performers, like Jay-Z and Barbra Streisand, have consistently sold out, while concerts averaged between 9.711 and 11,944 over the first four years, as I reported. Even the Belmont Final EIS (Chapter 7) notes that non-sporting events at Barclays averaged 8,468.

Nonetheless, the Final EIS Project Description chapter quotes the Belmont arena developer without question: “In addition to the approximately 44 to 60 New York Islanders home games, NYAP envisions approximately 145 non-NHL arena event days annually, including: approximately 50 marquee concert/entertainment event days that would fully utilize the arena’s space (approximately 19,000 seats); approximately 65 large to medium event days (utilizing between 6,000 and 11,500 seats), such as Disney on Ice, Cirque Du Soleil, E-Sports, or high school sports; and approximately 30 small or non-ticketed event days (3,500 seats or fewer).” 

“Assuming the above-described events were to sell out at the utilization levels indicated, attendance on arena event days would average approximately 15,000 patrons,” the document states. That’s extremely dubious. Even Madison Square Garden—the region’s premier event venue, in the heart of Manhattan—falls short, averaging 14,825 for non-sporting events, as acknowledged elsewhere in the Final EIS.

If the attendance estimates are overblown, that also lowers the expected number of jobs, and tax revenue from new spending, further undermining the projections.

Dancing around the damage
Another commenter during the environmental review asked how, if visitors to non-sporting events are expected—according to a previous project document—from “a catchment area of no more than a 20-30 minute drive to the arena,” Belmont would compete with the Coliseum. 

The ESD response acknowledged that the arenas “would overlap significantly,” but asserted that “both venues attract visitors from throughout the entire MSA [Metropolitan Statistical Area], which is significantly large enough to absorb the additional supply of events and entertainment.”

That’s an astounding leap of logic. The MSA, while it contains 20 million people, extends to New Jersey and even Pennsylvania. How many people would travel long distances to attend shows at Belmont? Remember, many Islanders fans decided they had little interest in attending weeknight games at Barclays, the team’s temporary home, given the travel commitment. In other words, demand depends on logistics.

The response, however, continued in fantasyland: “One venue might focus on larger shows, both venues could host the same acts on different nights, or perhaps host events marketed at different audiences.”

Sure, events are marketed to different audiences. But most shows too big for the Coliseum don’t exist, as attendance figures show. As to hosting “the same acts on different nights,” that’s not just dubious business practice—why would an arena coordinate with a rival?—but also a logistical nightmare: why would an act that has loaded in equipment and sets move nearby for a second performance?

Where’s the audience?
The Final EIS Socioeconomic Conditions chapter claims that “the Nassau Coliseum would continue to focus on smaller-scale events than those hosted at the Barclays Center and the proposed [Belmont] arena.” When that passage appeared in the Draft EIS, I pointed out—in a January op-ed for the Daily News—that the Coliseum relies on family shows, which Belmont plans to pursue.

That contention remains un-rebutted. Instead, both the Draft and Final documents confidently assert, “Overall, the metro area is considered sufficiently large to comfortably absorb additional non-sporting events from the proposed arena without having a significant impact on the existing venues.” 

Such passive-voice phrasing, backed by no independent analysis, severely undermines the claim and further undermines the credibility of the state review.

***
Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the daily blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report and is working on a book about the project. On Twitter @AYReport.

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

Note: this piece has been updated: the original version referenced the 15,000 attendance estimate without including the Islanders' games, and didn't clarify that the MSG attendance figures were for non-sporting events.

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Cuomo’s Getting His Belmont Arena, But the Numbers Don’t Add Up Tue, 23 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
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

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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