Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Council Wants To Safeguard Power Lines From Future Storms


NEW YORK — Almost without fail, when a big storm hits the city, the power is knocked out somewhere. With Superstorm Sandy, it was much worse.

The day after the storm on Oct. 29, 2012, nearly 2 million resident were without electricity, with all of lower Manhattan south from 39th Street darkened along with large communities in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. Wind or falling trees or limbs took down about 140 miles of cable. A record storm surge inundated substations and underground equipment.  

In an effort to respond to the tremendous toll on the electrical system caused by the storm, the City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to explore moving vulnerable overhead power lines underground.

Councilman Leroy Comrie, deputy majority leader and a sponsor of the legislation, said in remarks before the vote that the greatest impact of any study would be on the outer boroughs where most overhead power lines are located. "When we have a storm or ice storm or wind or heavy rain, we are losing power in our communities," he said.

The bill would require the city's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability to gather data from public utilities and analyze it for outage patterns; determine the estimated cost of moving power lines underground; and recommend neighborhoods that would not be good candidates for moving power lines underground.

Consolidated Edison, the utility that operates much of the city's electrical infrastructure, is exploring its options for dealing with the problem of overhead wires.

At a Jan. 18 Council hearing on emergency planning and management during the storm, John Miksad, a senior vice president of electrical operations at Con Ed, said the utility was "looking at selective hardening," saying that the utility had looked at burying overhead lines in the past but that "it is very pricey."

"But we think perhaps targeted undergrounding may be something that is appropriate," he said in his prepared testimony. "We're also looking at other system designs, with different polls, different connectors, different wire that would be more storm resilient."

The director of the Office of Long-Term Planning, Sergej Mahnovski, has also underscored that underground wires may be part of the solution — but certainly not the only one — to improving the resiliency of the electrical system.

"Underground networks have their own weaknesses, including vulnerability to flooding and salt deposition in coastal areas," Mahnovski said in prepared testimony dated Jan. 18. "Underground feeders are also more subject to overheating under peak summer conditions."

Since power outages have been the bane of urban communities for so long, the debate surrounding burying power lines underground is long and rich and has largely focused on the high cost of doing so. So while Superstorm Sandy may have exposed the fragility of the city's electrical system in a much larger scope, there was little surprise in it.


How Hurricane Sandy May Have Finally Killed Albany's Convention Center Boondoggle


ALBANY, N.Y. — It’s been almost eight years in the making. Four governors have been in office since the planning officially got underway. The state has spent $12 million so far and allocated $75 million to it. The total cost is estimated to be around $220 million. But so far all there is to show for it is an empty parking lot in downtown Albany next to a Greyhound bus station that time forgot.

And that is likely all the New York State Convention Center is ever going to amount to because funding is expected to be zeroed out this year. Facing a looming $1 billion deficit that is expected to grow thanks to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, the state is likely to have more immediate concerns in the coming years. A convention center in Albany seems like a luxury when compared to the reconstruction and storm preparation needed in the five boroughs.

For the state to move forward on the convention center, it would have to commit to giving the remaining cash initially allocated for the project and to paying up to $9 million a year in rent to the authority. If, as it seems, the state cuts its funding for the project, then the saga of the convention center will become an example of how political patronage and state spending from the governor on down to the Assembly and Albany's mayor, can intersect and lead quite simply to waste. If somehow it becomes more than an empty lot, critics will still openly wonder why the state got itself into the convention center business — in Albany of all places.

Convention Authority Chair Gavin Donohue says Albany is a “capital of a state of 19 million people” that lacks,“a proper place to gather and do business.” Albany, meanwhile, is a city of around 97,000 people and over 700 abandoned buildings. Nevertheless, Donohue said he expects the center to boost the local economy and create jobs as well as be a convenient place for people with business in front of the Legislature to convene.

Assemblyman Jack McEneny, who also serves on the convention center board, said he believes the center will be funded.

“I expect to find an item for $75 million," he said. "The money has been there for several years. If it was zeroed out, if the item wasn’t there in the governor’s budget then it’s all over. Forget it. It would mean the governor is taking no ownership of it. I wouldn’t wait. I would resign from the board. But if the allocation is there, there is still hope.”

Cuomo failed to mention the Albany convention center in his State of the State speech this year when he debuted his plan for a privately funded convention center in Queens. At the time, Donohue told The Business Review he was “disappointed” by the omission.

When asked about funding for the convention center by the Times Union this October, Cuomo said he would defer to the area’s Economic Development Council. Cuomo created 10 of these councils last year. He said any discussion over cutting funding to the project would be made in consultation with the EDC. "You wouldn’t want the state to be funding a project they don’t believe in," he said.

Donohue says the convention center is totally separate from the EDC. “This is a unique thing. We have a separate funding source, separate funding in the budget," he said. "We were listed in their report but there is a pre-existing statute. If we were asking for money (from the EDC) and got turned down then I would be worried.”

Cuomo will set his budget priorities in his State of the State address in January, and won't unveil his budget until later.


It’s been called everything from Albany’s savior to a “white elephant” and a cash sink. It was Gov. George Pataki who first allocated $75 million for the project and it was Gov. David Paterson who released $10,000 to be spent on acquiring land in downtown Albany where the convention center would be built.

The convention center has it’s own authority made up of seven distinguished Albany residents. The Authority takes in more than $1 million a year from an Albany hotel tax.  It has two staff members — one who earns $118,890 a year and another who earns $77,626. Both employees are eligible for state pension benefits.

Critics, including a number of Albany Council members, have pointed out that Albany already has a convention center — it just so happens to be part of the Empire State Plaza (the megalith of urban design overseen by Gov. John Rockefeller that uprooted Albany communities and placed a gigantic concrete mall, concourse, state office buildings and underground system in the middle of the city’s downtown). But supporters of the new convention center insist that the existing convention center isn’t big enough to attract the kinds of conventions that would boost the city.

Critics like Albany Councilman Dominick Calsolaro have also noted that convention centers have historically been drags on local economies, have depressed business for existing hotels in the area, struggled to draw visitors and to pay for costs of operation. Those kind of results were achieved in cities like Boston, Chicago, Columbus Ohio, Dallas, Austin and Minneapolis — cities with a higher profile than Albany.

In fact, convention centers have been popping up and expanding across the country and competing for the same convention business. “Why did Minneapolis struggle to hit projected targets after it enlarged its convention center in 2002?” wrote Steven Malanga in for the Wall Street Journal in a December 2011 article titled “Have We Got a Convention Center to Sell You!”

"Other cities expanded right along with us,'' Minneapolis's convention center director, Jeff Johnson told the newspaper.

A study by Heywood T. Sanders of The University of Texas at San Antonio, Called "Convention Myths and Markets: A Critical Review of Convention Center Feasibility Studies" found that feasibility studies are bent to suit each individual market — with the outcome always being a recommendation to build or expand.

“This article reviews studies for more than 30 cities and demonstrates that they have been consistently flawed and misleading,” reads the description of the study. “Some analyses argue that successful convention centers need to expand to remain competitive. Others conclude that failing centers need to add space to succeed. Studies repeat the same positive findings verbatim from one city to another and fail to account for contradictory data. These market and feasibility studies thus offer no real basis for public investment and serve to bias public decision making and choice.”


So how did the state get involved in the convention center business? The long version is fairly complicated but the short version is two words: political patronage.

Gov. George Pataki set aside the cash for the convention center after die-hard lobbying by Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings who actually defied his party and endorsed Pataki in the 2002 election.

Jennings was a friend of now Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the convention center project has been called the baby of the 20-year mayor. He began talking about the project in 1997.

But it wasn’t just Jennings' connections to Pataki that made things move for the plan — Jennings got the money allocated — it took the power of the influential Assembly to get the money moving. Albany Assemblymen Ron Canestrari and Jack McEneny were both instrumental in getting the funding for the center during tough financial times.

Jennings and McEneny have touted the project as a way to revitalize Albany and insisted that the project would create construction jobs, service jobs and draw tourists in to the economically depressed city.

It was Gov. David Paterson who gave the project $10 million out of the allocated $75 million in 2008 — a year when the economy was collapsing and the state was digging itself out of a $15.4 billion deficit.

Canestrari and McEneny are influential people. Canestrari is Assembly Majority leader and McEneny is a member of LATFOR, the state redistricting commission. Both are senior members of the Assembly and important allies of Speaker Sheldon Silver. But that is coming to an end. Both members are retiring this year. Their retirement likely has a lot to do with why funding for the project seems to be in jeopardy.


Even Albany’s mayor has backed off on the project. At a meeting of the convention center authority in October, Jennings began publicly backing off the idea that the state would foot the bill for the entire convention center. "It's unrealistic for us to think that the state is going to free up a quarter of a billion dollars," Jennings was quoted as saying by the Albany Times Union.

Some observers believe that Jennings has read the political tea leaves. His friend Cuomo has advocated building a convention center in Queens, but private gambling interests would pay it for. Others say that Jennings has financial concerns of his own, since Albany’s budget is becoming hard to manage and he would rather have Cuomo increase aid for municipality funding rather than sink any cash into the convention center.

Calsolaro, who has consistently advocated the state to fund alternative economic development plans for the city, says he is sad to see the money go to waste. “The convention center has basically become a property management company over the last couple of years. They are overseeing closed parking lots and twiddling their thumbs," he said. "It has been seven years and they haven’t even put a shovel in the ground. It’s the longest running public works project where no construction has actually taken place.” The councilman would favor investment in rehabbilitating Albany’s hundreds of abandoned buildings or other economic initiatives for the city.

Donohue said the expects to see funding in the budget and plans to continue acquiring needed land for the project and perhaps invest in expanding existing sewer and electric lines in the area. He acknowledges that Cuomo may have bigger budget concerns.

“You always have to be concerned about that," he said. "The governor has a problem that is a big dollar problem and it is important but Albany is also important and I don’t think that has changed for the governor.”

Of course, if it seems the state is overwhelmed by the price tag, it could be revamped. The project has already undergone a number of revisions. The plans have been truncated over the past 7 years as development slowly moves forward. It could be that the convention center will live on in some form no matter what kind of funding the state decides to commit this year.

Chicken Little, a Ferris Wheel and Disorderly Development on Staten Island's North Shore


STATEN ISLAND — Exactly nine days after Superstorm Sandy devastated Staten Island, leaving 19 dead and hundreds without homes, about 150 Islanders made their way to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center to attend a meeting sponsored by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. 

The topic for the evening was not the EDC’s disaster recovery programs, bolstering the coastline to prevent future storm surges or potential dangers from the dozens of contaminated sites that line the North Shore and that were flooded during the storm.

Rather, the meeting that night centered on a new plan to build the world’s largest Ferris wheel on the St. George waterfront. Known as the New York Wheel, the ride will sit between the ferry terminal and the baseball stadium — in both areas that could flood during 100 and 500-year storms. Approximately, 1.5 miles north, Superstorm Sandy’s fierce waves washed a 712-ton oil tanker ashore.

The wheel is set to rise 84 feet higher than the Singapore Flyer, currently the title-holder for world’s largest Ferris wheel and will be accompanied by a 340,000-square-foot designer outlet retail complex and a 130,000-square-foot hotel.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the mega-project this September, saying it will bring much-needed economic development to the struggling North Shore of the island, which in 2010 had poverty rates 58 percent and unemployment rates 13 percent higher than in the rest of Staten Island.

Although a handful of residents, small business owners and union members at the Nov. 13 meeting on the development welcomed its promises of jobs and investment, more commonly, residents’ two-minute testimonies included adjectives like “insulting,” “outrageous” and “insensitive.”

"Part of our island was just devastated in the floodplains. And this is actually going to be built in the floodplain,” said local resident Stephanie Woodard. She called the structures “enormous, vulnerable.”

Officials with the company that will raise the New York Wheel assured meeting-goers that the structure would be designed to withstand 300-mile per hour winds and surges from storms as super-sized as those created by Sandy.

The rest of the complex, meanwhile, will be built to at least silver LEED certification and could actually help prevent damage from such storms, according to the company’s website. Furthermore,  the buildings will “include almost five acres of green roof” and a water capture system to absorb rainwater and release it on a controlled basis into the harbor, according to the site. “It is safe to say that our project significantly protects what is now an exposed and relatively old retaining wall at Richmond Terrace.”

However, Nancy Rooney, a nurse who attended the Nov. 13 meeting commented, "I think the timing is poor and we need to reconsider our priorities on this Island."

City Councilwoman Debi Rose, who said she “generally supports” the project, prefaced the meeting by stating that it “should have been postponed” in light of the fact that “Staten Island was ground zero for Hurricane Sandy.”

If the juxtaposition of the two events seems contradictory, closer observation of various land use plans and projects reveals that the New York Wheel tops a long line of seemingly contradictory development initiatives on the North Shore.

This 5-mile stretch of waterfront currently houses approximately 21 sites that are contaminated by previous or existing industrial development. All of them sit less than 70 feet from homes and along the shores of the Kill Van Kull, a tidal straight that is also part of the Diamond Alkali Superfund Site, the most costly cleanup ever undertaken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Long before Sandy hit, local activists were practically begging city officials, through emails, testimonies and public meetings, to better consider the effects of rising sea levels and climate change on the area. Beryl Thurman, president of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island, has raised concerns about the city’s inattention to climate change, sea level rise and storm surges so often that some colleagues refer to her as “Chicken Little.”

Now that Chicken Little’s sky has actually fallen, will the Bloomberg administration proceed with the proliferation of development projects set to punctuate its end? Or will Sandy signal the start of a more systematized and careful approach to development that takes seriously toxic legacies on the North Shore and the effects of climate change? Events on the North Shore over the past two weeks indicate that Sandy’s alarm bells are growing faint indeed.

Mixed Use and Then Some…

The North Shore has always been a “mixed use” neighborhood. During the industrial revolution, Staten Island's waterways became integral to the city's growing economy, and industries multiplied along the North Shore, which was already the borough’s most populous area. Although 1961 zoning laws required that new residences be protected from certain kinds of industries, the city did not require that existing industries build buffers between their operations and homes.

Today, thanks to its industrial past and present, the North Shore hosts three federal Superfund sites, 15 state Superfund sites, an over-capacity sewer treatment plant, an industrial salt plant and other chemical-using businesses like a furniture reupholstering company, home heating oil company and auto body shops. The North Shore is also home to one of the East Coast’s busiest ports, and hundreds of ships and diesel trucks visit the neighborhood daily.

In the wake of Sandy, local activists are calling for the city, state and federal government to answer their questions about whether — and to what degree — those contaminants were distributed by flood waters.
In an email to city officials, Victoria Gillen, president of Elm Park Civic Association and the North Shore Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, wrote, “The bigger question is WILL THERE BE TESTING? People often live right next to these operations ... Can we get some GENUINE responses regarding our toxic sites on Staten Island? … Were we and our families and businesses, exposed to toxins?”

One of Gillen’s major concerns is a former linseed oil manufacturing plant owned by Archer Daniels Midland, or ADM. From 1939 to 1942, ADM agreed to use a portion of their property on Staten Island to store 1,200 tons of high-grade uranium ore en route from the Belgian Congo to be used in building the atomic bomb. However, at some point (either during initial delivery or eventual shipment), uranium spilled on the waterfront property, leaving levels of radium and uranium contamination nearly 10 times higher than allowable standards in some places.

Seventy years later, in 2010, the EPA announced that the US Army Corps of Engineers would assess and clean the site, now referred to as the “Richmond Terrace Radiological Site.” Currently remediation is set to begin in 2014.  

Last month, Sandy’s waters inundated site, according to neighboring residents. In a post-Sandy statement, the EPA states that it does not “believe that any [of its short-term removal or long-term remedial] sites were impacted in ways that would pose a threat to nearby communities.” But some Staten Islanders remain highly concerned that future storms could unsettle and distribute radioactive contaminants from the site.

Local residents are now calling for the city to halt the development of approximately 89 two-family homes across the street from the radiological site. The houses will be in an “A” zone,  subject to a 100-year flood. Not only are residents worried that chemicals about the flooding, they say they are also concerned that the site may be located on a former wetland.  

At a Staten Island Community Board 1 Local Area Committee meeting last Tuesday, November 21st, Dan Walsh of the Office of Environmental Remediation maintained that the site is not in a known wetland. The site is likely to undergo additional environmental review, however, considering that it is in a flood area close to known environmental hazards.

Seven blocks west, a second property faces similar controversies —  a self-storage facility where high levels of chemical compounds were recently found in vapor samples. The owners of the site have enrolled the facility in the New York City Brownfield Cleanup Program. Partial remediation to mitigate is set to begin next year. But, local activists claim that it, too, is located in a historic wetland and is likely to flood often.

For Thurman, plans to partially remediate chemicals at the site are inadequate because they do not address enough of its contaminants and do not “deal with the possibilities of sea level rising, storm surges and flooding conditions.”

During Sandy, all of the units on the first floor of the storage facility flooded, and customers suffered significant losses.

Joelle Morrison of Stapleton and her husband were storing belongings at the facility temporarily as they prepared to move into a new house. “About 20 percent [of our belongings] are left,” she said. “And it all has to be cleaned… It smells terrible. There were sewage plants nearby and God knows what else.”

Even further west, the EDC is partnering with the New York Container terminal to expand the site to include a 50-foot-deep container ship berth. That berth site, which includes two city-owned parcels, extends into approximately 16.38 acres of tidal wetlands that will require filling or dredging.

The expansion coincides with the raising of the Bayonne Bridge to accommodate so-called “post-panamax ships,” or massive supertankers that will soon be coming through the Panama Canal. Meanwhile, recent studies find that regularly sized container ships can emit almost the same amount of cancer and asthma-causing material chemicals as up to 50 million cars.

The EDC is currently preparing an environmental impact statement that it says will address the project’s impact on existing wetlands and other environmental implications, including air pollution from mobile sources such as cargo ships.

Sustainability Schizophrenia

Certainly, in dense urban spaces, especially industrial areas, competition between environmental, economic and other priorities is always fierce.

In a planning document entitled “The North Shore 2030,” the EDC outlines an ambitions set of goals for the 5-mile stretch of land: “Create and retain jobs in the active maritime industry; protect environmentally sensitive areas; enhance historic residential and commercial neighborhoods; provide greater public access to current and future recreational areas.”

The plan also notes that the area needs infrastructure improvements, including better stormwater drainage, sanitary sewers and traffic/road conditions.

Since the publication of the plan a year ago, industrial priorities emerge as clearly winning the race to the top of the EDC’s agenda. In particular, development practices support local activists’ claims that the current administration is paying insufficient attention to dangers from both climate change and environmental contaminants.

This past summer, the EDC announced its intent to designate portions of the North Shore as a new “Industrial Business Zone” or area “of land already used by the industrial sector that will be preserved for industrial purposes (as opposed to commercial and residential development).” Companies within these IBZs, or companies that relocate to them, are eligible for tax credits, enhanced sanitation services and employee training programs.

North Shore residents, however, were incensed to hear that their neighborhood might host more industries. “Bottom line: the areas with people of color, people without tremendous economic resources, are paying the price for Bloomberg's projects — while our taxes support these changes, we do not share in the benefits, and find ourselves, here on Staten Island, once again a dumping ground for the city's unwanted garbage,” wrote Gillen in a response to an editorial in Architect’s Newspaper.    

Also this summer, the Department of City Planning launched a new partnership with the Northfield Local Development Corporation on a state-funded “Brownfield Opportunity Area,” or BOA, grant to create a strategic plan for part of that same area. The BOA website states that project goals include “supporting new retail services and jobs, strengthening the working waterfront and providing needed amenities including open space and waterfront access." Importantly, the BOA is intended to “restore environmental quality to areas affected by industrial contaminants.”

But the areas designated for the BOA and the IBZ overlap. Thus, redevelopment stemming from the BOA will also have to comply with the IBZ, meaning redevelopment will have to prioritize industrial properties. The degree to which those types of properties will achieve the goal of restoring “environmental quality” to the area remains questionable.

As Thurman said, “We also don't want more industrial/manufacturing, which is going to poison us with contaminants and pollutants while being condoned by our officials … as something that is being done for the greater good.”

In other IBZs, the EDC has emphasized the need for bringing in industries that promote “environmentally friendly and efficient practices.” However, the EDC has provided no further details about whether it will seek such businesses on the North Shore, or what they would look like.

Taken together, the various plans and projects — the IBZ, the Container Terminal, the New York Wheel, the residential developments — promise to deliver more of what the North Shore already has.
Before development brings more business, more residents, more shoppers and more workers to the North Shore, residents want to know whether the city can first make the waterfront safer and more stable for those living and working there now.

“We need to bolster whatever efforts that are being made to prevent climate change issues from further damaging the shore line leading back to the residential communities,” Thurman said. “Nothing should be going on that waterfront unless they have a workable solution to combat climate change. Clearly we can do better than what we are doing, which amounts to continually shooting ourselves in the foot with poor choices.”


Melissa Checker is associate professor of Urban Studies at Queens College, and of Anthropology and Environmental Psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Images of New York Wheel, Staten Island development courtesy of the mayor's office and the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

From The Archives: Atlantic Yards


NEW YORK — The $1 billion Barclays Center — the frog-like stadium that is the centerpiece of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn — opened last Friday with a mega-concert from Jay-Z, protests and some surprisingly enthusiastic reviews.

But it wasn’t long ago that it was the most debated construction site in the city, with residents in the footprint of the big development fighting to stop it with lawsuits and the developer trying to mollify the discontent with so-far unmet promises of new housing, jobs and economic revitalization.

Gotham Gazette has been reporting on the development over the past several years, looking at the use of eminent domain, the environmental review process and open space.

Here are a few highlights from the archives:

Eminent Domain Changes Seek to Limit State's Power to Seize Property

When Henry Weinstein bought a commercial building at 752 Pacific St. in Brooklyn 1985 he never expected that 20 years later the government would want to take it away and give it to a developer. Weinstein said that he would be shocked if his land was being taken for a hospital, a bridge or a library. But seeing it seized to make way for Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project shakes his faith in the government. "This is the most un-American thing I have ever experienced," he said. By David Howard King. February 04, 2010.

Atlantic Yards and the Sustainability Test

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s long-term sustainability plan, (PlaNYC2030), is aimed at stemming global warming and promoting energy efficiency by concentrating new construction near transit hubs and using green building technology. At the same time, the mayor proposes to reduce traffic in densely developed areas with congestion pricing, to encourage bicycling, and to build new public open spaces in every neighborhood. Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn claims to do all of these things – along with providing thousands of new apartments and jobs and bringing a major league sports team, the NBA Nets, to Brooklyn. By Tom Angotti. June 2007.

Open Space in the Atlantic Yards Development

"A Garden of Eden grows in Brooklyn," announced the glossy brochure Brooklyn residents received in their mailboxes promoting the controversial Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn. The brochure borrowed the words of former New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp to promote developer Bruce Ratner's publicly subsidized mega-development slated to rise at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. In addition to building a Frank Gehry-designed basketball arena to bring the Nets to Brooklyn and 16 high-rises with up to 6,800 units of housing, the project promised open space and recreation for area with a severe shortage of parkland. By Anne Schwartz. August 2006.

Atlantic Yards: Through The Looking Glass

The Atlantic Yards story in Brooklyn is becoming a bit like the tale of Alice in Wonderland. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, everything appears backwards, Alice is caught up in a giant chess game of powerful players over which she has no control, and the characters she meets talk nonsense. By Tom Angotti. November 2005.


Image taken from Flickr user Blue387, used under Creative Commons license.

City Council approves NYU expansion plan for Greenwich Village


NEW YORK – An expansion plan by New York University that will transform the historic neighborhood of Greenwich Village with nearly two million square feet of additional space, mostly for students and research, has been approved by the City Council.

The 44-to-1 vote on the NYU plan was the most notable – and contentious – decision by the Council at yesterday's stated meeting.

Lawmakers also approved a bill that sponsors said would bring greater transparency to affordable housing developments paid for by the city and another measure that makes nearly 200 revisions to the plumbing code.

Opponents of the NYU expansion immediately decried the Council's approval of the plan, calling it an insult to the community.

Two of the main groups opposing it -- representing historic preservationists and the other faculty -- have hired an international law firm specializing in land use.

Council members said they had listened to residents and had worked with NYU to trim the size of the plan so that the low-rise nature of the Village would be protected while giving the school room to grow.

“I think this plan appropriately balances the need of an important university to grow and expand — which is good for our city — with the historic neighborhood it’s in," said Council Speaker Christine Quinn before yesterday's stated meeting.

Councilman Charles Barron was the only member to vote against the plan.

Margaret Chin, the councilwoman who represents the neighborhood, said the plan had been substantially modified since it was first proposed by NYU. She emphasized that it was 26 percent smaller than in its initial form.

She said that mechanisms would be created as part of the plan to make sure that NYU is held accountable during the construction. She also said access to open space had been preserved.

"We addressed a lot of the concern that was raised by the community board," she said.

But Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said the plan did not address the main concerns of the community that included affordable housing and the give-away of public land to the university.  

"This was really a slap in the face to the thousands of people who, I think in good faith really engaged with the process in the hopes that their concerns were heard. But they were clearly not," said Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

NYU President John Sexton said in a statement that the school was "very pleased" about the Council's vote.

He said the plan would create construction jobs and generate economic activity through increased research capacity for the university.

“This plan benefits not only NYU’s students and faculty," he said in the statement. "In very real and tangible ways, it benefits New York City."

There was little surprise to the approval by the Council, which had been expected since an influential committee weighed had given it the go-ahead last Tuesday.

The 20-year construction plan is expected to begin in 2014.

Vote by Council committee no surprise to NYU expansion opponents

nyu lg

Photo by Camillo Miller

NEW YORK – Disappointed but not surprised – that was the refrain from groups opposed to the expansion of New York University's Manhattan campus after an influential committee voted to recommend a modified version of the plan 19-1 earlier today.

Members of the groups said they were weighing their options in their struggle to hold-up the expansion – including by turning to the courts – and even proposed an alternate plan that they said would be more environmentally friendly.

The City Council is expected to follow the land use committee's recommendation and approve the measure that would allow the university to expand by 2.45 million square feet in Greenwich Village.

The decisive vote in the land use committee came when the Village's representative, Councilwoman Margaret Chin, spoke in favor of the modifications negotiated between a sub-committee and school officials.

Chin said the changes took into consideration the most pressing of the community's concerns.  

“Last month I didn't support the plan as presented,” she said. “But this new proposal strikes an appropriate balance. There were major modifications and significant concessions, and though not everyone gets what they want, it's a compromise.”

By comparison, Patrick Deer, an associate professor of English at NYU and a key member of NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, called the changes “cosmetic" (The name of the group is in reference to NYU president John Sexton).

Groups opposed to the measure said the committee and its members had failed to uphold their responsibilities to constituents.

“Too many on the council abdicate responsibility by saying they'll do whatever the council person who comes from the district calls for,” said Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “But they're elected to govern the entire city, not just part of it.”

Under the new plan, there will be a 21.6 percent reduction in density from the original application, with over half of that coming from two buildings: one at Washington Square Village, where density would be reduced "below grade"; and the proposed building at Mercer Street, where density would be "above grade."

The Washington Square Village would be reduced by 185,000 square feet – from 770,000 square feet to 585,000 square feet – while the Mercer Street building would be reduced from 250,000 square feet to 69,000 square feet.

The university will also set aside $150,000 of funding as a good faith measure to demonstrate their commitment to upkeep of open spaces in the expansion area, a key component that they say ensures the university will be able to pay if they go into default.

According to Lynn Brown, the senior vice president of NYU, the proposal was a win-win for the city and the school, and would add to the "fabric of the neighborhood and contribute to New York City's economic viability.”

The modified plans include a change in the height of some of the buildings, addressing concerns about blocking light and views – in particular, the building on the corner of Mercer Street and Bleecker Street will be lessened from 168-feet in height to 85-feet, which Chin applauded as a needed change.

The difference was demonstrated via two different images projected onto a screen that juxtaposed the sizes of the buildings. The images drew jeers from a frustrated crowd of anti-expansion advocates who wielded signs and used Occupy Wall Street hand signals to voice their opinion of what each speaker was saying.

Brown insisted the compromise “met the goals of addressing the community's needs,” calling the plan substantially different than the plan that was fought over in late June.

The lone dissenting vote came from Councilman Charles Barron, who encouraged his fellow land use committee members to “have the courage to vote no” on the proposal, which he argued failed to address a book-size list of complaints and concerns issued by the expansion's opposition.

“Did you read through all of the community's concerns?” he asked. “Because your presentation does not address any of them.”

These concerns, he said, stem from the air, water, and noise pollution that will come from the 20 years of construction that the expansion will take. “We need to listen to what the people who live in the neighborhood want and then send this back to the drawing board.”

While some other council members cited similar concerns – not to mention NYU's failure to act like a “good neighbor” in the past – they deferred to Chin, applauding her “hard work” in negotiating the compromise.

Even though she voted in favor of the changes, Councilwoman Inez Dickens had said Chin's reference to the “good faith” agreement with NYU regarding the neighborhood's concerns was insufficient.

“When we vote on this at the Council meeting next week, I want to see teeth in the enforcement,” Dickens said of NYU's responsibilities to maintain open space and work toward cleaner construction standards.

Ultimately, however, she said she would vote for the measure because “the area residents need those jobs.”

At least 25 percent of construction work must come locally from the area, the agreement mandates.

Meg Rooney, a graduate alumna actively involved with anti-expansion group that includes faculty, said they were committed to continuing the fight. But how exactly they would proceed was not yet clear, she said.

“There are a number of options,” she said, noting legal action was being considered.

Because of the number of faculty opposing the measure – over 40 departments have voted against the move – there has also been talk of a no-confidence vote in Sexton.  

Alicia Hurley, another vice-president at NYU who attended Tuesday's meeting, said more faculty supported the measure than opposed it.

Despite the number of departments opposed to the move, which include Stern Business School and the Economics department, the university has 170 departments.

Earlier that day, the faculty group had presented their own plan on the steps of City Hall just hours before the land use committee was scheduled to meet.

Called "Room for Everyone: NYU Faculty's Green Alternative to 2031," Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media, culture and communication, said it was a “green” plan in the “true sense of the word, unlike the "“green-washing” of the university's plan.

The proposal called for the re-purposing of space already owned by NYU that they said was either under- or inappropriately used.

The group pointed to administration buildings that could be moved out of the “core” of buildings in Greenwich Village, as one example, and a cafe that opened up in a school-owned building. This, added Deer, would accomplish the goal of expanding academic use of the available space.

The group of professors said that by NYU's own admission only 18 percent of the proposed buildings to be constructed in the next 10 years would go towards academic purposes, thereby undercutting the necessity of the expansion.

The remaining 82 percent would be for other uses, like a gym exclusively for student-athletes, a move that would allow the school to retain its NCAA credentials, as well as further administrative uses. More housing is also planned, but opponents questioned why it was required to be so close to campus.

The group also suggested the cost of the plan could well bankrupt the university. Most troubling, said Miller, was the lack of a business model explaining how the project would be paid for.

Although there is no definitive figure, NYU officials suggest the project will cost between $3 and $4 billion. Currently, NYU's endowment is at $2.83 billion, according to the faculty group.

NYU's Brown said the expansion plan is “essential” for the university to remain competitive.

She also said that concerns over funding were equally misplaced, adding that the university had successfully raised $3 billion in a fundraiser 4 years ago, an amount she is confident the school can easily exceed.

She also countered that NYU had built out at a rate of 200,000 to 300,000 square-feet per year over the past few years, and that the expansion plan would be consistent with that.

“We have some of the biggest real estate people on our board,” she continued. “They wouldn't let a project go forward if we couldn't pay for it.”

The university will provide “at least 7,500 square feet of the new Zipper building ground-floor space” to community use and a public atrium, according to information provided at yesterday's meeting.

An additional 6,000 square feet of “existing space for community use” will also be made available, they said.


Matt Hunger, a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist, writes on everything from municipal issues to the arts and sports. He can be reached at matt.hunger(at) 

NYC tax break helps owners improve luxury condos, report says

j51apts lg

Photo courtesy edgeplot

ALBANY, N.Y. – A nearly 60-year-old New York City program designed to help landlords improve conditions for tenants in hardscrabble living conditions has strayed so far from its original purpose that owners commonly use it to fix up co-ops and condos, says a report released earlier today

The J-51 program has become one of the city's most expensive incentives, costing $256 million in 2011, according to the report by the Community Service Society of New York, a 165-year-old group that does advocacy and research to address poverty. 

Even as the cost of the program increased 50 percent from 2001 to 2011, the number of apartments improved under the project only increased by 7 percent, the report said. And the apartments being improved aren't are all broken down hovels--some of them are luxury apartments. 

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration is expected to introduce a bill in the state Legislature today that would renew the program, which expired at the end of last year, with some changes that could possibly restrict the use of the abatement for condos and apartments. The administration did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Jack Freund, vice president of the Rent Stabilization Association, said the group believes the policy continues to be useful to rental housing. 

“Given the very high level of real estate taxes, the program provides incentives to work to get the tax burden down," he said, adding that with the city's support he expected the bill to pass in Albany.  

Hilary Klein, lead organizer with the community-based organization Make the Road New York, said the city is giving tax breaks to landlords who make unnecessary improvements just to drive up the cost of their apartments.

“In spite of the original intentions behind it, J-51 functioned as a giveaway for landlords. It is enabling gentrification and displacement,” Klein said. “Our overall perspective is that it should not be renewed and that the resources would be used better elsewhere for other types of housing enforcement."  

“J-51 is helping to subsidize high-end, luxury apartments in places like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant that are obscenely unaffordable for the low and moderate-income New Yorkers,” said David R. Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society, in a statement. “It’s time to overhaul J-51 so that eligible property owners who receive tax exemptions and abatements are actually making improvements to affordable housing stock that otherwise would not occur.”

The abatement applies to buildings with a total of 709,000 apartments. Over a third of "dwelling units” in the city fall under the program, so a great deal of New Yorkers have been touched by the program in some way. 

But, according to the report's authors, the program has grown unwieldy and amorphous. Owners who convert apartments into coops and condos qualify for the benefit for three years after conversions are finished.

In fact, no one had to apply to make improvements under the abatement, the report said. Owners whose property met the qualifications were simply due the write-off regardless of whether they would have made the improvements themselves. 

The expiration of the abatement has set off a bit of a showdown between real estate and tenant groups. The latter want to see the abatement renewed without any changes, while some tenant groups want to see the abatement altered and used as a bargaining chip in Albany to get concessions on rent legislation they prefer. Still other tenant advocates would simply like to see the abatement expire.

Thomas Waters, a housing policy analyst at CSS who co-authored the report, says the city’s housing situation has changed dramatically since the abatement was created and amended.

The program was created in 1955 with the aim of converting coldwater tenements -- flats featuring a sink with only cold water -- into more modern apartments. 

In signing the program into law, Mayor Robert Wagner described J-51 as being designed “to encourage improvement of substandard dwellings and in a way to aid in providing decent living quarters for those who are unfortunate enough to be obliged to live in substandard housing built many years ago and lacking the ordinary decencies and comforts of modern dwellings.” 

The J-51 program works in three ways. First, owners who make eligible improvements to existing buildings qualify for exemptions and pay a reduced property tax. That amount is based on the value of the building before the improvements for 10 years and after that the new value is phased in over four years. Second, some owners receive abatements that reduce the overall amount of property tax they pay until almost all of what they spent on improvements has been reimbursed to them over a number of years. 

Some owners can actually qualify for both an exemption and an abatement depending on the kind of improvements they make. 

Government-assisted buildings and formerly city-owned buildings get 34-year tax abatements. 

Waters says he thinks the program needs to be refocused, but said that after undertaking his study “it is hard to say what J-51 does.”

NYU's Controversial Expansion

Photo provided by New York University

New York University took back its place in the center of New York’s university expansion controversies by submitting its NYU 2031 expansion proposal to the city last month.

The ambitious plan adds 6 million new square feet of academic and residential space. 2.5 million will be in Greenwich Village, NYU’s historic home, spread across four buildings near Washington Square Park. The rest of the expansions will take place along the health corridor on 1st avenue, Downtown Brooklyn (for NYU-owned Polytech Institute) and Governor’s Island.

The university says that it needs this space to grow and compete and that its plans are community-friendly. John Beckman, Vice President of NYU said that by “incorporating spaces that no one would meaningfully count as open spaces now -- like roadways, parking areas, and fenced in areas -- into our renovation of the open space, we actually add open space on the two blocks even with the footprint of a new building.”

It will also create jobs, including 2,400 construction jobs over the next 20 years, generating an extra $490 million for New York’s economy, according to the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce. Some laborers and construction workers supported the plan and urged officials to sign off on it.

But opponents of the plan which include local residents, tenant associations, community boards and even some NYU faculty, say that by removing what little space the community has left and flooding it with thousands of new students would ruin the village as a neighborhood and that 20 years of construction would fill their lives with noise and pollution. NYU requires multiple zoning waivers for the plan to go forward.

University Growth

New York City already has the most college students of any city in the nation, including Boston, and their population keeps rising. Many universities across the city are aggressively expanding their campuses and student bodies.

Columbia University is already building in northern Manhattan, while Cornell University will soon build a satellite campus on Roosevelt Island. NYU-owned Polytech is spreading throughout Metrotech Plaza in downtown Brooklyn, having recently acquired several floors of space from a Bruce Rattner owned building, with more on the way. Fordham University expanded its Lincoln Center campus and CUNY is growing as well, with new buildings at John Jay and City College, with a new community college on the way.

“Universities benefit greatly from being in the city,” said Sharon Haar, an architecture professor at the Univ. of Illinois at Chicago who wrote the book “City as a Campus.” She said that despite some conflicts over space, universities feed cities with high tech industry and skilled service jobs and in turn, benefit from being in the city by tapping into its culture, infrastructure and body of potential students.

The NYU expansion is the largest single development plan the village has ever seen. In size and expense, it’s comparable with Columbia’s expansion, which also added 6 million square feet of space which cost about $6.3 billion.

But the challenges differ. Columbia’s expansion ran into opposition from several firmly-rooted private businesses which challenged the Empire State Development Corporation’s eminent domain in court. The court ruled against the businesses in 2010 and ruled again, recently, that the corporation may be given power to evict the tenants, if the sides fail to reach an agreement. NYU’s plan won’t involve eminent domain but public land, which earned it more enemies from Greenwich Village and beyond.

Pros and Cons

“It’s clear that the overwhelming sentiment from Lower Manhattan residents, as well as from NYU’s own faculty, workers, students and tenants, is against the scheme,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

NYU’s Beckman countered with a university-commissioned poll of 600 NYC voters held in 2011, which found that 70 percent of respondents favored the expansion. The poll also found that the Greenwich Village project which accounts for 2.5 million square feet out of the total, was the most popular among respondents. The plan was phrased as “the creation of a new public school in the Village and new open spaces and parks.”

Beckman also said that no upzoning would take place and that the ratio of the buildings floors to lot size would not be altered. However, the buildings do require zoning changes and the demapping or elimination of certain streets, squares and gardens. In response to suggestions that NYU build elsewhere, like the financial district, Beckman said that more than half of the planned expansion was already happening outside the village. But this is not enough for many.

Residents say that parks and other open spaces are getting destroyed rather than created and point to the fact that current zoning regulations. Furthermore, the influx of 10,000 to 12,000 students and staff can overwhelm local supermarkets and basic services, said Kelly Magee, a spokeswoman for Councilwoman Margaret Chin who represents the district.

“Tearing down gardens and houses and building a huge tower on top of that, that’s not expansion, that’s desecration of a neighborhood,” a community resident said at a city hall rally against the proposal.

Residents also worry about the debris, pollution and noise that will accompany the construction for the next 19 years. After similar concerns were raised in upper manhattan, Columbia pledged to make its construction site as environmentally friendly as possible by using special construction equipment to minimize dust and soot. It’s unclear whether NYU would attempt the same thing in Greenwich Village but the residents don’t look forward to any prolonged construction on such a scale.

They are also worried about the area belonging increasingly to NYU, which is the source of local gripes. “The shared open spaces that NYU currently stewards have broken fences, dirty walls, poor lighting, collapsed concrete and derelict play spaces,” said resident Ellen Moran. “They have given Greenwich Village broken fences, broken promises and broken contracts. Let’s not add broken government to the list.”

Suspicion towards the university is uncomfortable for some faculty members who live in the neighborhood and oppose the plan. Some turned out to rallies to oppose the expansion but many didn’t want to reveal their names for fear of going against the will of the university.

“It’s not really NYU – it’s the administration and the board of trustees that hatched this plan,” said an associate humanities professor, who declined to identify himself because he was concerned about backlash from the university leadership for himself and his department. “We’re completely devastated.”

He added that the expansion is detrimental because it will be funded with basic tuition which will put NYU students even deeper in debt. NYU students are $659 million in debt, the highest in the country for a non-profit university, exceeding the GDP of several nation states.

Beckman said that the expansion will be funded through a combination of philanthropy, financing, and the use of working capital. “We always take account of tuition in all our financial decision-making; if we don't think a project is affordable, we don't do it -- it's that simple,” he said.


Opponents mounted a political campaign, bombarding elected officials with letters opposing the plan and staged several rallies at city hall to oppose the expansion.

The plan is currently under review with Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, who has two more weeks to go over it. Stringer is known as an ally of university expansions in Manhattan, helping broker agreements for the expansions of Columbia and Fordham. But he remained elusive on what he would do about NYU. Stringer makes no binding decisions on zoning but his advice can carry weight among lawmakers.

“To address some of the issues they care about, I have to look at what small business thinks about this project, what larger city economic issues, how we educate our kids, so there’s a lot that goes into the system,” he said.

Councilwoman Chin took a slightly stronger tone. “I have serious concerns about the University’s expansion plan. NYU has asked for a lot, and I am not sure they need it all,” she said. Magee said that Chin is currently reviewing the plan and talking with all parties to try to come up with the best possible solution.

After Stringer, the plan will go to City Planning for 60 days, after which it will go to the City Council for final review and a vote. This gives the different sides several months to try to convince elected officials.

“History shows that anything that NYU wants, NYU will get,” said Berman. “The only way to stop it is to prevent them from doing it.”

Foreclosures Leave Apartment Buildings in Need of Repair

Little Pakistan
Photos by Chris Opfer
Tenants want the bank that foreclosed on this building on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope to start putting up money to make much-needed repairs.

The housing bubble may have burst a few years ago, but many New Yorkers -- and the buildings they live in -- can still feel the pain. An estimated 30,000 foreclosures are pending in courts in the five boroughs, with many cases lingering for years as owners and lenders abandon the properties and leave renters to cope with woeful and often dangerous conditions.

While much of the attention during the crisis has focused on owners of single-family dwellings who cannot meet their mortgage payments and end up losing their homes, thousands of renters whose landlords default also have their homes at risk. Recent litigation and a push for new legislation have combined to shine a light on this situation, but changes are not coming soon enough for residents whose homes are literally falling apart.

"It's a widespread problem in the city," said City Councilmember Brad Lander, who introduced legislation to tackle the issue last spring. "With foreclosures, you wind up with this long limbo period where the owner basically just stops taking care of the building. There are quite a few buildings where tenants have had to live without things like heat and hot water as a result."

Looking for Relief

Many of those tenants have turned to the courts to try to force banks to take responsibility for the properties on which they foreclose. Last month, residents of a 20-apartment building on Longfellow Avenue in the Bronx that is currently in the midst of foreclosure proceedings filed a motion seeking to compel New York Community Bank to put up the money necessary to carry out much needed repairs. The building fell into disrepair shortly after it was purchased in 2007 by a company identified as 1255 Longfellow LLC with a $1.1 million loan. Since then the city has issued the building 117 housing code violations including sporadic heat and hot water during winter months, widespread mold and caving ceilings.

In May, six elderly and or disabled tenants of a small rent-regulated apartment building in Brooklyn that is currently in foreclosure proceedings filed a similar motion. They claim that they have been forced to lived with deteriorating conditions, including intermittent heat and hot water, a leaking roof in danger of collapse and an unsecured front door, since the building's owner defaulted on a $1.85 million mortgage more than two years ago.

As in the Bronx, these tenants want the court to force the bank to put up the money necessary to make the building habitable. Both cases are bolstered by the precedent set last year when the Bronx Supreme Court ordered a bank in a foreclosure action to advance $2.5 million for the purposes of making repairs at 10 overleveraged and dilapidated apartment buildings.

The Brooklyn building sits smack dab in the heart of Fifth Avenue -– Park Slope's bustling main thoroughfare -– across the street from a hip Thai restaurant and around the corner from a new, white table-clothed steakhouse. Inside, it is worlds away from the brownstones, boutique shops and organic coffee houses that helped earn Park Slope the New York Magazine's "Most Livable Neighborhood in New York" titlelast year.

According to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the property currently has 109 outstanding housing code violations (up from 91 at the time the tenants filed their motion), ranging from inadequate lighting near the front entryway and crumbling plaster to mold, exposed electrical wire and mice infestation. That's not to mention the broken lights and windows as well as cracked floor tiles in individual apartments. In July, the former owner -- 294 5th Ave. Associates LLC -- was ranked second on Public Advocate Bill deBlasio's list of the city's worst landlords.

Residents of this Park Slope apartment building say the locks on both front doors remain broken.

More than four months have passed since the motion was filed and the building's front door remains unsecured, the locks on both the front and interior door broken. "That's always been a problem. They fix it and then all of a sudden it's damaged again," said Raymond Jimenez, a retired butcher who has lived in his fourth floor apartment for 48 years. Although a court-appointed receiver recently hired workers to resurface the building's roof, leaks continue.

Recipe for Disaster

The scenario leading up to such cases generally went as follows: A landlord obtained a mortgage and purchased an apartment building during the booming 1990s or early 2000s, often for more than the property was worth. In the Park Slope case, "the owner got a mortgage for $1.85 million. The most that the property could have supported was probably about $500,000," says Brent Meltzer, an attorney for South Brooklyn Legal Services who represents the tenants.

By 2008 or so, the housing market began to dive, and the property was no longer worth as much as the owner paid for it. Operating costs such as water and insurance also increased dramatically, making it difficult for landlords to cover their costs. In rent regulated buildings, the owners were limited in how much they could raise rent, and even in buildings that were not regulated, the market kept landlords from increasing rents. This left the landlords to choose between using rent proceeds to meet mortgage payments or for the building's maintenance and repair. The former inevitably won out, but many owners still could not pay the mortgage, and so the lending bank eventually foreclosed on the property.

A bank that forecloses on a property does not officially become the property owner -- with both the right and responsibility to enter the building and perform necessary maintenance and repairs -- until the legal process is completed. During the intervening months or years, the property and its tenant remains in a no man's land of sorts, according to Lander, whose district stretches from the Columbia Waterfront to Borough Park and includes Park Slope. "The bank brings the foreclosure, the owner essentially walks away and there's no one left to take care of the building," he said.

The court typically appoints a receiver to collect rent and use the money to perform limited maintenance, but not necessarily to make significant physical improvements. "The receiver is not there to fix up the building and make it better. Its role is basically to do general upkeep," Meltzer said.

In the Brooklyn case, the court didn't appoint a receiver until almost a year after the foreclosure suit began. A court order limits him from spending more than $2,000 on a single repair without the bank's consent.

Physical problems often occur in these rent regulated apartment buildings facing foreclosure both because the buildings are typically older and require substantial maintenance and because the relatively low rent income made it difficult for landlords to make major repairs.

Money for Maintenance

The foreclosure process, said Meltzer, is messy. "Everyone is trying to point the finger at someone else. Meanwhile, the tenants are just sort of stuck sitting there without repairs being done," he said.

In an effort to change that City Council is considering three bills. Intro 494, proposed by Lander, would require a bank seeking foreclosure to post a bond to cover the cost of any emergency repairs along with fees and fines for housing code violations. Housing committee chair Erik Dilan has two measures: Intro 500, which would make a bank seeking to foreclose on an apartment building responsible for maintaining the property, and Intro 501, which would require a bank bringing a foreclosure action to register with the city housing department within 10 days after it initiate the action.

The measures' supporters and tenants’ attorneys reason that banks should be responsible for the conditions at foreclosure properties because they helped create those conditions by providing "overleveraged" loans, mortgages with a monthly payment that cannot possibly be covered by rental income.

"The problem over the past five years has been the banks bankrolling this," Ian Davie, a Legal Services attorney representing the Bronx tenants, said. "It's very straight forward: The income from the building can't support the debt service on the mortgage."

New York Community Bank, the city’s largest multifamily lender, is also one of the largest overleveraged loan bankrollers, according to Davie. In June, city Housing Commissioner Matthew M. Wambua wrote a letter to the bank, imploring it to take action to improve the conditions at a number of distressed properties in the bank's portfolio. Noting that the bank's "holdings are some of the most distressed properties in New York," said the buildings cost the city money by lowering nearby property values (and tax revenue) and requiring increased police, fire and sanitation services. Wambusa went on to warn the bank, "It cannot be the responsibility of the City of New York to subsidize irresponsible property owners."

But not everyone agrees that a foreclosing bank should be responsible for building upkeep and maintenance. "If enacted, the legislation will discourage financial institutions from extending mortgages in the city, as they will then face monetary obligations that have become completely unpredictable and wholly disproportionate to their mortgage investment,” says Christopher H. Palmer of Cullen and Dykman, LLP, the law firm representing New York Community Bank in the Bronx litigation.

In an April hearing on the bills deputy housing Commissioner Ruthanne Visnauskas questioned the legality of requiring a bank that doesn’t technically own a building to enter it and make repairs. Visnauskas also expressed concern that "the obligations imposed by 494 and 500 may discourage lenders from providing mortgages" and "imposing financial requirements may deter lenders from foreclosing altogether."

Palmer says that lawmakers should instead focus on speeding up foreclosure proceedings and requiring that a receiver be appointed immediately after the proceedings are initiated. "We need to expedite and streamline the New York foreclosure process if we are going to return these distressed properties back to responsible ownership and better management," he said.

Perhaps the one thing that everyone agrees on is that the foreclosure process leaves tenants in a precarious situation.

Jimenez pays $152 a month for his apartment. While renters paying 10 times as much or more for their apartments may have a hard time empathizing with him, Meltzer said there are a host of reasons why they should be concerned about him and his neighbors. "No matter how much they're paying, no one should be living without heat or hot water, especially elderly and disabled tenants and especially in New York City," Meltzer said.

The Park Slope tenants, he said, have earned their homes. "Don’t forget, this was a different neighborhood 10 years ago. This wasn’t Park Slope, this was Gowanus. These are the people who stabilized the neighborhood when New York was falling apart. They lived there in the '70s and '80s when people who are living there now wouldn't dare to," he said.

So Meltzer, Lander, Davie and others plan to continue working on behalf of these and similar tenants. "This is a problem that's not going to go away anytime soon," Davie said. "We will certainly keep trying to fight to hold banks accountable."

9/11: 10 Years of Reporting

From the morning that the planes struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Gotham Gazette has been covering the efforts of New Yorkers to cope with the unthinkable, to rebuild their city and to adjust to a new, often frightening time. For three years, Gotham Gazette provided intensive coverage of the efforts to recover and then rebound in Rebuilding NYC, and though less intensive, our reporting on the myriad of issues raised by the attacks has continued.

Below we offer some selections from our 10 years of coverage – from Sept, 11, 2001 through today. We apologize for any formatting glitches in the older stories.

Photo by Brian Boyd

Twin Towers Account: An account from lower Manhattan of the first few awful hours after the attack. (Sept. 11, 2001)

Immigrants Under Attack: Sept. 11 have had a sharp impact on many Americans. But for immigrants and members of some minority groups, including Arab Americans and Muslims, the effects have been particularly dire. (Oct. 1, 2001).

Everybody Loves New York -- For Now: Almost as soon as the hijacked airliners hit the Twin Towers, Americans began reaching out to New York, feeling shock and horror, expressing support, trying somehow to help. The city that much of America once loved to hate was now the subject of sympathy, admiration and even affection. (Oct. 15, 2001)

Not Always as Sweet: Debbie Almontaser, an activist and educator, writes of life as a Muslim in New York before and after 9/11. (Fall 2001)

Living Near Ground Zero: Many of the people who live in Tribeca, the financial district and tucked into lofts hidden above store fronts around City Hall soon returned to their homes. Three months after they fled from the unimaginable, they have returned to live with the inescapable. (December 2001)

Photo by ocad 123

The Fire Department: The terrorist attacks had perhaps their most devastating impact on the fire department. The police department lost 23 and the Port Authority lost 37 uniformed officers. But 343 firefighters died. (Dec. 3, 2001)

The 'New" New York Skyline: Architecture critic Paul Goldberger discusses what New Yorkers feel and face as they struggle to make their city whole. (Jan. 25, 2002)

Art and Artists After September 11: Jon Stewart moderates a discussion with Karin Batten, Spalding Gray, Susan Sarandon and Wendy Wassertsein. (May 2002)

Rebuilding by Consensus: Nine months after the attacks, New Yorkers imagined what they wanted to see in lower Manhattan. (June 10, 2002)

freedom tower

A Conversation with Daniel Libeskind: The architect, whose design was then a finalist for the trade center site, discuses his plan and the ideas behind it. (Feb. 20, 2003)

Virtual Tour of the Chosen Design: An in-depth look at Daniel Libeskind's original design for the World Trade Center site. (March 2003)

A Year with Libeskind: The winning design for the trade center site evolves. (March 1, 2004)

Mapping Ground Zero: Dozens of ways of looking at lower Manhattan, past, present and future.

9/11 and Inappropriate Art: Harsh words and controversies flare over what can be displayed near Ground Zero. (Sept. 9, 2005)

ground zero
Photo by Matt Morgan

The Heroes of 9/11 Are Getting Sick: Working at Ground Zero seems to have been even more dangerous than initially suspected, say health researchers as rescue workers die from illnesses that seem to be related to working on "the pile." But James Zadroga's death in particular has redirected attention to a problem that, experts say, will likely continue for decades. (Jan. 30, 2006)

The Price of Increased Surveillance: Eighty-two police cameras didn't thwart the 2010 Times Square bomb attempt. But in response, the mayor called for more cameras. Will technology keep us safe? Take away rights? Or both?

9/11 memorial
Photo by Matt Morgan

9/11 Memorial Nears Completion: On the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the National September 11th Memorial will open to the public, marking the end of a complex, drawn-out and sometimes chaotic process. (July 14, 2011)

Letting History Speak for Itself: An interview with memorial designer Michael Arad. (July 15, 2011)

Improving the Zadroga Act: Those who rushed to the World Trade Center site right after the 9/11 attacks hope a new report will boost their demands to aid fellow responders who now suffer from cancer. (Sept. 6, 2011)

Progress on Fulton Street: After delays and cost overruns that threatened to all but destroy the project, parts of the Lower Manhattan transit hub have started to open. (Sept. 7, 2011)

Tallying the Losses: Some sense of the almost incalculable impact of 9/11 can be gained from then numbers. Andrew Beveridge offers a statistical portrait of our losses – personal and economic. (Sept. 8, 2011)

Mayor Still Looks to Building and Zoning to Ease Housing Crunch

hunters point
Photo by Leonem
Hunters Point is one of the developments the administration hopes will boost the supply of affordable housing in the city – but how convenient or affordable will it be?

Albany last month finally found a way to continue rent regulations in the city. But the new regulations barely address the bigger issues facing housing in the city -- long-term affordability for most tenants and homeowners.

The city's long-term sustainability plan, PlaNYC2030, does acknowledge that challenge. And in its update released earlier this year, the Bloomberg administration takes these efforts a bit further, acknowledging the importance of saving housing and the neighborhoods where people live. However, that too falls short because the mayor still puts the priority on zoning to promote new housing and gives short shrift to preserving our neighborhoods.

After the Bubble

On the bright side, New York City is doing better overall than many other cities, according to a recent report by NYU's Furman Center, though comparisons can prove difficult because New York's housing, with so many large rental buildings, differs from that of most other cities. Recent announcements of some major new luxury apartment and office deals seem to suggest New York is a long way from any catastrophic collapse.


Despite these hopeful signs, a raft of problems still afflicts housing in New York. Three years after the housing bubble burst, hundreds of construction sites around the city remain stalled. Developers face a shortage of cash, and banks are reluctant to finance purchases. Also, cuts to federal rent subsidies are hurting both tenants and building owners. Public housing is broke, and the city housing authority is looking for private partners to bail it out. Other staples of affordable housing in New York, such as the Mitchell-Lama program, have dwindled after decades of private sellouts.

In a flat economy with high unemployment, tenants and some homeowners in the city face big tax bites. Many homeowners grapple with mortgage debt, while housing values remain stagnant. There are some 40,000 homeless peopleliving in shelters, over 9,000 households currently affected by foreclosures, about 700 buildings vacated by city order and a record-high stock of what experts euphemistically call "distressed housing" -- homes that are poorly maintained, over-mortgaged and in deep trouble.. And the Rent Stabilization Association reports that last year over 13,000 apartments were decontrolled and thus less likely to remain affordable.

According to the Real Deal, "Home prices declined between the last quarter of 2010 and the first of 2011 in every borough except Queens where housing prices were flat but remain about one third lower than peak values in the fourth quarter of 2006 and mid-2007." And the Wall Street Journal reported that many condos and homes in the city have borrowed more than the current value of the property.

As both housing advocates and real estate investors are quick to point out, housing is not just about a roof over your head, it is about having a home in a decent living environment, or "location, location, location" to use the real estate industry phrase. And affordable neighborhoods are in trouble.

During the real estate bubble, many tenants and homeowners in affordable apartments and homes that were subsidized with public money either took cash incentives to move or were pushed out of their homes. This fractured their connections to friends and neighborhood, a prime element in the city's lively communities. A mix of long-time residents was replaced by a homogeny of young singles seeking the "authentic" neighborhoods that are no more. The remaining affordable neighborhoods are looking at the possibility of more overcrowding, less money for building maintenance and more vacant buildings.

Gaps in the Plan

Looking at the city's long-term housing plan, you would never know there had been a bubble or that we cannot simply build our way out of any crisis. The PlaNYC2030 four-year update, released on Earth Day this year, is all about building hope and enabling new apartment construction. With its penchant for numerical targets, the plan focuses on how many homes the city plans to create and preserve by stimulating growth through zoning changes.

One of the plan's goals is to have completed 165,000 affordable units by 2014. Almost two thirds of these will be renovations of existing units, and only one third will be the result of new construction. All accounts suggest that numerical goal will be met, though it's not clear what is expected to happen after that – almost certainly under the next mayor, who may very well ignore this administration’s plan altogether.

As commendable as the accomplishments may be, meeting the 2014 target will not solve the city's more deep-rooted affordable housing problems. The city’s housing plan is all about increasing supply, mostly by encouraging market-rate development, yet the real crisis has been the loss of existing affordable units. If the past is prelude to the future then the city may end up losing more affordable housing than it is able to create. The mayor has on many occasions claimed that attracting more people with higher incomes is a sign of a successful city, yet more upscale housing is likely to increase rents and house values in existing affordable neighborhoods.

The emphasis on encouraging new construction flows from the prediction that almost a million more people will live in New York by 2030. The 2010 census refuted the city's optimistic population projection -- although the city charges that the census undercounted in many neighborhoods. However, the jury is still out, and the optimistic estimate of growth looks more like a goal to be attained than a challenge to be met. (See my 2007 analysis, which cited PlaNYC2030's departure from standard projection methods).

To house these additional New Yorkers, the administration hopes to build more housing near transit stops and on cleaned-up industrial land. It claims that this "transit-oriented development" (defined in the plan as projects within a half mile of mass transit, which covers 70 percent of the city) and "brownfields reclamation" (cleaning up and building on abandoned industrial sites) will help achieve the mayor’s goal of a "greener, greater New York."

However, Brian Paul and Melissa Checker, both writing in Gotham Gazette, have questioned how effective these strategies will be. As evidence of what they hope to accomplish, the city's planners point to large-scale projects for new development such as Hunters Point and Willets Point in Queens. It is a bit of stretch to call either of them transit-oriented when they are expected to include substantial parking and will have to rely on the declining fortunes of bus transit in the outer boroughs.

Then there is the issue of who will be able to afford to live there. Some projects , including Hunters Point, define affordable by using the official area median income, which is almost twice as high as the median in New York City. Thus, most people with low incomes will not be able to afford these homes. Another large project slated for affordable housing, Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, has yielded only a basketball arena after some eight years of planning.

The most telling map in the 2030 plan update housing section shows the concentration of "affordable" homes created under the mayor's New Housing Marketplace plan since 2004. They are concentrated in the neighborhoods in central Brooklyn and upper Manhattan that have experienced intense gentrification and where many more affordable units have been lost. The map only shows the number of new units added, not those that have been lost, ignoring the fact that some of these neighborhoods now have fewer moderately priced homes than they did in 2004.

The new version of the 2030 plan does acknowledge the significant erosion of affordability guarantees (like those provided by the Mitchell-Lama program), and at one point proposes extension of these guarantees. It remains to be seen whether efforts to do this will gain any traction in years to come.

A Nod to Neighborhoods

One of the admirable changes to the mayor's long-term plan is that the housing section is now called Housing and Neighborhoods. Missing in the earlier version was any idea that housing is only one aspect of the quality of life in the hundreds of diverse city neighborhoods.

As welcome as this change may be, when you dig into the plan's content, it's hard to find any major role for neighborhoods. The mayor remains focused on bringing in new housing -- not on a set of neighborhood plans for improving housing, or a plan in which both City Hall and communities participate. There is no clear role for community-based organizations, civic groups or community boards. The city’s 59 community boards, though poorly funded and lacking official power, are the only official institutions at the neighborhood level.

Although the 2030 update proposes a Greener Greater Communities initiative and mentions a particular example involving community groups in East New York, this focuses on energy conservation, open space and other environmental improvements without necessarily addressing the big question of affordability in a neighborhood that has very high levels of foreclosures. The plan's contribution to community involvement is summed up in the proposal to create a web site, Change By Us, that would encourage people to organize to solve problems by providing them with information. To the thousands of dedicated housing activists around the city who are already organizing and whose real problem is not information but more support from public agencies, this could sound a bit patronizing. Perhaps what is needed is a better way advocates for affordable housing can help shape city housing policy so that it truly strengthens neighborhoods.

In the 2030 plan update, zoning remains the main tool for promoting new housing development as it has been in the last decade. The City Planning Department boasts of having completed a record 100 rezoning plans in that time period.

The plan does not address, even briefly, concerns that zoning changes may have contributed to the wave of gentrification and displacement or fueled the real estate frenzy, as strongly hinted in another report by NYU's Furman Center. That study showed how zoning changes protected many white, middle class neighborhoods by reducing options for new development, while concentrating growth in lower-income communities of color, the very neighborhoods where large numbers of people are being priced out of their apartments. The city's inclusionary zoning policy, which gives developers bonuses for building affordable housing, has produced less than 2,000 units over the last decade while more than 200,000 affordable units were lost.

Of the 11 initiatives listed in the Housing and Neighborhoods section of the updated PlaNYC2030, the last two are the most important because they focus on preservation and not new development. The first, initiative 10, sets a goal to "preserve and upgrade existing housing," and identifies new and beefed-up programs to finance building rehabilitation; it proposes strengthening existing affordability guarantees so that they last longer. Also, the Small Owner Repair Program and other initiatives would help preserve 34,000 housing units through 2014.

Initiative 11 is potentially the more path-breaking because it aims to "proactively protect the quality of neighborhoods and housing." The plan commits the city to the important task of identifying distressed properties. Its goal is to evaluate 1,000 at-risk buildings in three years, most likely only a fraction of the total.

The two short paragraphs dedicated to this item provide little sense of where this is going. Overall, these two initiatives could represent a welcome change in focus by the Bloomberg administration. It remains to be seen, however, whether they are an afterthought or a genuine move to strike out in a new direction, away from a focus on new development and toward greater emphasis on preservation.

Tom Angotti is director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development and co-editor of Progressive Planning Magazine.

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
Gotham Gazette: 
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast Max Politics Podcast