Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Early Steps -- and Bumps -- on the Road to a Greener City Economy

energy barge

In a nondescript basement office on Essex Street, sandwiched between a check-cashing place and a video store, three business partners nurture their fledgling solar panel company, poised hopefully on the cusp of opportunity.

Edward Yau, a civil engineer, and brothers Jack and Steve Shao, an economist and electrical engineer respectively, all in their 30s, created Tensor Energy Co. last summer. They plan to import Chinese-made solar panels to sell here, and also to provide technical and design support to homeowners and businesses looking to install the systems.

So far, business has been slow to start, but the partners have secured a few contracts for the spring -- a home in Brooklyn, another in Queens and two small commercial jobs. They see opportunity at "the intersection of government policy and public awareness," said Yau.

"2010 is an important year," he said. "We will have to kick start the business."

Much like this startup company, the Bloomberg administration's plan to create a green economy in New York based on jobs that directly improve the environment is gearing up as well. The administration said in October it that intends to double the city's green-sector jobs from 13,800 to 27,600 by 2018.

How successful the city will be or what specific jobs will materialize is difficult to pin down at this point. The city's Workforce Investment Board currently is evaluating how to track jobs created by the mayor's green economy plan, according to a spokesperson for the city Economic Development Corp.

Getting Off the Ground

In the absence of concrete numbers, Tokumbo Shobowale -- the former chief operating officer of the Economic Development Corp., who now works for Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Lieber -- sees momentum.

"All the policy is there and we're now putting in place infrastructure to make it happen," Shobowale said during a recent interview. "We're not in fourth gear cruising down the highway yet, but we are moving out of first and picking up speed."

He pointed to two projects funded this year by the Economic Development Corp. -- one a pilot program in Hunters Point in the Bronx to see how wind turbines work in the city and another providing grants totaling $200,000 to five institutions that agreed to invest additional money in solar-thermal heating systems, including New York Hospital Queens in Flushing and the Julliard School at Lincoln Center.

The push for more sustainable technologies has "now expanded beyond just environmental folks thinking about it, but people see the economic benefits as well," Shobowale said. "There are jobs to be created and businesses to be created out of this."

The Economic Development Corp. and its renewable energy projects are just pieces of the city's larger, multi-pronged plan for a greener economy. In its vision presented to the public last October, the city called on 10 agencies and departments -- including parks, buildings, the City University of New York and the mayor’s office -- to take on specific tasks.

The theory is that multiple programs run by different departments -- from tax incentives to career training to building code changes -- will fit together like cogs in a piece of machinery that eventually will churn out jobs.

Harnessed in that effort could be landscapers contracted to plant saplings as part of the Million Trees NYC initiative, retrained Wall Street types trading carbon emission allowances, or electricians finding new work retrofitting apartment buildings to make them more energy efficient.

Take, for instance, the project in Hunts Point, which was awarded to Urban Green Energy, a New York City wind turbine company with factories in China.

Nick Blitterswyk, the company’s co-founder and CEO, sees great potential for wind power in New York City. In fact, he said the city’s rooftops served as inspiration when he and his partner formed the company, which does business around the world. He is grateful that the city is exploring wind as an energy source. However, he said the current project -- to measure wind speeds from a warehouse roof and then to install one test turbine in May -- is small in scale. The company is using existing staff and has not hired anyone as a result of the contract, he said. Larger contracts here have been slow to materialize.

"We haven’t had as much pick-up as we'd like," Blitterswyk said. "There have been a lot of businesses that don't want to be first. They want to see it done first by someone else."

Shobowale said the turbine pilot program is just a first step. It allows the city to study the potential of wind power and then set protocol so its use can be expanded. Before the city can move to large-scale use of alternative energy sources such as wind turbines, he said, building codes need to be adjusted.

Changing the Code

The administration recognizes the need to make code changes in order to facilitate the greening of the city. A year and a half ago, the city commissioned a task force, led by the non-profit Urban Green Council, to recommend changes to building, construction and energy regulations to help the city meet the administration's goal of reducing New York's carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

The task force delivered its 600-page report to the mayor’s office and the office of Council Speaker Christine Quinn in February for their review and future action, said Russell Unger, executive director of the Urban Green Council. Several of the recommendations -- including one that suggests all new commercial tenant space over 10,000 square feet be metered for electricity -- were already included in the city's Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, which became law last December, he said.

One other piece of legislation stemming from the Green Council's report was adopted in March when the mayor signed into law a bill that creates an Interagency Green Team and Innovation Review Board whose mission will be to facilitate the use of new green technologies and construction techniques in the city.

The Green Council report's other recommendations range from requiring builders to insulate the exteriors of high-rise buildings to adding temperature controls individual apartments so residents no longer have to open windows in the winter to cool down overheated homes. "The vast majority of the proposed changes to the code would kick in when someone does construction or renovation," Unger said.

These code changes, if adopted, would lead to more jobs in the city, Unger said. He explained that as more people make energy-saving improvements to their buildings, the cost of materials will drop, leading even more people to take the same steps therefore driving the demand for more workers such as architects, engineers and heating and lighting specialists.

"If everyone is doing it, it is going to reduce the cost of materials therefore lowering the barrier to doing work," he said.

One setback in the mayor’s green economy plan came last December when the administration -- faced with intense opposition from building owners -- dropped a provision in the Greener, Greater Buildings legislation that would have required building owners to pay for capital improvements to increase energy efficiency.

Under the legislation that passed, larger buildings have to undergo energy audits but owners are not required to make improvements. As a result, a plan originally estimated to produce some 19,000 jobs would create far less than that by many estimates.

Finding the Buyers

The owners of Tensor, too, are anxious to see prices for green technology drop, especially in their area of solar PV panels. Even with federal, state and city tax incentives, Yau said homeowners still balk at the initial investment even if they will get most of it back through tax credits and abatements and savings on energy costs.

According to Yau, an average single-family home would need a four-kilowatt system, costing as much as $35,000. An immediate state rebate would cover $10,000, leaving the homeowners to make an investment of up to $25,000.

"There is a market," Yau said. "The people who are installing panels are more affluent and environmentally conscious. They have the cash but lot of people get sticker shock over the fact that they have to lay out $15,000 to $20,000."

To help overcome that, Yau said the administration could facilitate financing for homeowners who wanted to install alternative energy systems, and it could quickly institute those code changes.

"The city needs to make the lives of installers easier," he said. "This type of project is viewed like a home improvement. You need Building Department permits, and regulations are not necessarily geared to solar projects."

Yau thinks that he and his partner are on the right track in focusing their sights on the New York metropolitan area. With the West Coast way ahead in green energy, he sees a vacuum on the East Coast that needs filling, and any assistance from the city would be welcome.

"If there is a will, they can help make it happen," Yau said.

Vera Haller, the former editor-in-chief of amNew York and editor of, currently teaches journalism at Baruch College.

lawmakers seek to crack down on illegal hotels

A room in the so-called Candy Hostel, one of three apartment buildings now used a budget hotels.

The "Candy Hostel" on Manhattan's Upper West boasts of being New York City's "newest, sexiest, hippest and hottest boutique hostel." It offers amazingly cheap rates -- as low as $17 a night in a city where the average hotel charges $312 -- and only accepts payment in cash.

As alluring as that may be to tourists on a budget, the building, formally known as the Mount Royal, along with the nearby The Continental and Pennington are not as hospitable for long-time residents who call the single room occupancy buildings home.

"The city doesn�t protect us. What�s happening here is illegal," one man said. When asked to elaborate, he took a puff of his cigarette, then shook his head, and said that he could not comment any further because he was afraid of retaliation from his landlord.

For years, the owners of the three buildings -- ownership information remains murky as to who exactly they are -- have been renting out apartments to tourists, to make a greater profit than they can from the low-income tenants. The three, on 94th and 95th Streets, contain rent-stabilized apartments and are Single Room Occupancy buildings, or SROs where tenants typically share bathrooms and kitchens. The certificates of occupation for each building says that they are all Class A multiple dwellings, which means that they are classified as buildings for permanent residents.

Critics say that renting rooms out to tourists siphons away affordable housing for low-income New Yorkers. and the city regards such rentals as illegal. A recent statement by Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that such hotels "all too often create fire safety and security hazards and create quality of life concerns in residential neighborhood." This is because these residential buildings do not necessarily follow fire safety regulations that a legitimate hotel would have to follow.

The press release hailed bills in the state legislature that would help sharpen the definitions of transient and permanent occupancies, ambiguities that the building owners have taken advantage of to skirt the law. A bill also has been introduced in City Council.

Legal Standing

As of 2009, the number of such hotels in the city has 280 buildings, according to a report by the Illegal Hotels Working Group.

The law is sketchy regarding the definitions of transient and permanent occupancies. In 2007, the city obtained a preliminary injunction prohibiting the use of these three buildings as hotels. The city contended that short-term stays were illegal for buildings with Class A status and that stays of less than 30 days violated a zoning resolution that forbid "transient hotels" that were used "primarily for transient occupancy" from being located in a residential district.

But in 2009, a state appeals court decided that the building owners could continue renting units for short stays. Justice David Friedman ruled, "While the city's evidence demonstrates -- indeed defendants readily admit -- that a significant number of units in each building are (and have been for many decades) rented to tourists for periods of less than 30 days, the city made no showing that most of the units in any of the buildings are rented for such short-term occupancy."

An Economic Engine?

David Satnick of Loeb and Loeb LLP, who represented the Continental and the Pennington in the case said at the time that in light of the "current economic turmoil," owners of SRO hotels should be permitted to rent units to tourists because it , "generates tremendous income for the city by way of taxes." Scott E. Mullen, an attorney who represented The Mount Royal said the ruling was extremely important for the city's tourist industry.

Assemblymember Micah Kellner, who has supported legislation against such hotels does not agree. He has said, "Illegal hotels are terrible for New York City's reputation as a quality tourist destination."

Certainly, though, the hotels attract visitors. On a recent day a young Asian couple walked through the doorway of the Continental building toting a large purple suitcase. Brochures about visiting New York City tourist sites such as the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and the Bodies Exhibition were displayed right upon entry. Inside the lobby, people surf the Internet on their laptops. Three tourists from Europe, two from England and one from Ireland said they decided to stay at the Continental because the rates were so low: $120 for seven nights.

"If there wasn't a place as cheap as this, we may not have come to New York City," said a British tourist staying at the Continental, who said that the accommodations were fine. Or, she added, "we would have had to save more money and come at a later time."

The tourists did not realize the building was primarily residential. The Irish visitor said that he noticed approximately 30 tourists checking in at the lobby the night before. "I can see how that must be so annoying for the residents," he said.

By most accounts, the accommodations are modest at best. In reviews of the Candy Hostel on, many tourists complained of unclean shared bathrooms, rooms with rat traps, doors with broken locks, infestation of bed bugs and issues with payments. The Continental, called The Fresh Hostel had similar negative reviews.

Insecurity at Home

The long-term tenants have different concerns. According to the Cooper Square Committee, tenants living in these buildings feel less safe as strangers o in and out of their buildings. Housing Conservation Coordinators charges that landlords who operate these hotels often harass legitimate tenants to force them to make more rooms available for tourists.

"All they have to do is force out permanent, rent-stabilized residents. They do this by making tenants' life miserable through systematic harassment -- lockouts, threats, frivolous lawsuits -- they're very effective. Ultimately, for every building where landlords can operate an illegal hotel with impunity, we can count on those affordable units disappearing," Matt Wade, a tenant organizer at Goddard-Riverside Community Center's West Side SRO Law Project has said.

"Illegal hotels are kicking out tenants and taking much-needed apartments off the housing market," John Raskin, the director of organizing at Housing Conservation Coordinators has said.

On a recent drizzly March day, several tenants seemed fearful, declining to give their names to a reporter. When security guards noticed that I was speaking to residents, they asked me to leave the premises for "soliciting," and ultimately called the police on the grounds I was "harassing residents." One security guard followed me for two blocks until I was met by police officers who questioned me briefly.

If the tenants do move from these buildings, many will find it difficult to get another place to live. Marti Weithman, project director for Goddard Riverside SRO Law Project has said that tenants forced out of SRO units are low-income New Yorkers who may turn up in the homeless system.

Looking to Legislation

In light of such concerns, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried has introduced a bill that would clarify provisions relating to occupancy of such buildings. It calls for defining the term "permanent residence purposes" as occupancy by a "natural person" or family for 30 consecutive days or longer. This clarification is intended to clear up the ambiguities in the law . Currently, building owners say that the permanent or long-term residence requirement is met when the unit is leased by a corporate entity for more than 30 days, though it may occupied by actual persons for less than 30 days.

State Sen. Liz Krueger has proposed similar legislation in the State Senate."

Current penalties for the operators of such hotels are $800, regardless of the number of units being converted, the length of time the unit was used as a hotel room, or whether it was a repeat offense. Intro 534, introduced by Councilmember Gale Brewer, would increase the penalties for such violations from $1,000 to $,5000 for a first offense, and introduce a per-unit, per-day fine structure.

"Permanent residents who have to get up in the morning for work, and tourists who are on a tight budget and partying while on vacation, are not compatible 'living' next door to each other, sharing the bathroom, or meeting in the hallways," Brewer has said.

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

The owner of a storage facility near Columbia University has challenged the university's use of eminent domain to take his 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.

As New York City has reshaped itself over the past decade, the government has given private developers, such as Forest City Ratner, a powerful tool -- an eminent domain law that allows them to seize land from other property owners. Now some politicians believe the law needs change to protect property owners, such as Weinstein.

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has put together a package of legislation that would create a commission to review the state's eminent domain process, give land owners fair compensation for their property and establish an ombudsman who would help land owners whose property is targeted by eminent domain. Later this week Sen. Bill Perkins will unveil legislation that he says would change the state's eminent domain laws to better protect property owners. The situation in the legislature, along with a recent appellate court ruling that found the process the state used to take land for a Columbia University satellite campus in upper Manhattan was unconstitutional, could result in the first major changes to New York's eminent domain laws in more than 30 years.

The possibility that the state might finally redo its eminent domain laws -- laws that have remained the same as other states updated theirs -- has caught the interest of civil rights lawyers, property owners and advocates. But developers, real estate interests and some politicians fear changes could make it more difficult for the state to improve blighted neighborhoods in desperate need of investment, infrastructure and jobs.

"Eminent domain is an essential governmental tool that allows for the implementation of important development projects to the benefit of the public at large," Lisa Willner, public affairs manager for Empire State Development Corp., which oversees the state's eminent domain process, said in a statement.

As the legislature considers the law, Weinstein is fighting the taking of his land in court. He acknowledges his legal battle may be futile. "The Empire State Development Corp. rules as kings. We left England to get away from it, but they have the power of a sovereign," he said.

Defining Blight

The state can seize property it determines to be blighted. While the state generally heads up eminent domain projects, in some instances, such as the Atlantic Yards case, the developer's advocacy leads to the state's involvement.

State law defines blight as "substandard and insanitary." Land that is determined to be blighted can be given by the state to another private owner for the purpose of economic development. The state can also use blight determination to make way for public works projects such as roads.

According to attorney Michael Rikon, who represents property owners in the Willet's Point section of Queens, where the city is planning a major redevelopment, the term is so vague that the contractors used by the government basically make up formulas as they go along. "The definition of blight is so broad it could come down to cracks in the sidewalk. Even the mayor's townhouse could be blighted, because it only supports one family," he said.

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who represents Tuck-It-Away, a storage company that is fighting Columbia University's expansion plans, agrees. "Basically they are saying if there is a Motel 8 and Hilton comes along and says they can make the property more valuable, then it [the Motel 8] can be declared blighted." Many advocates, Siegel said, have begun saying the land in these cases should not be labeled "blighted," but "coveted."

Siegel calls eminent domain one of the premier civil rights issues of this century. "I really think it is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. It disproportionately impacts poor neighborhoods and people of color. It cuts across partisan lines," he said.

The Eyes of the Beholder

Of further concern to Rikon, Siegel and others is who makes the call. While the board of the Empire State Development Corp. technically determines whether a property is blighted, the agency hires a contractor who is paid millions of dollars to conduct the technical study and write a report. In the case of Columbia's campus expansion, the university and the development corporation used the same contractor, AKRF, at the same time. In the case of Atlantic Yards, AKRF worked for the developer, Forrest City Ratner, and then for the ESDC.

In his ruling against Columbia, Justice James Catterson described AKRF's study of land for the Columbia University project as "idiocy." Saying that the report cites such easily reparable problems as "unpainted block walls" and "loose awning supports" as blight, Catterson wrote in his majority decision, "We questioned [AKRF's] ability to provide 'objective advice' to the ESDC, particularly with respect to its preparation of the blight study."

Advocates say that the ESDC does not have to use AKRF as there are other qualified firms that do the same work. "Our judgment is that AKRF is the most qualified to do this work," a spokesperson for the ESDC told the New York Times.

For the Empire State Development Corp. to use evidence supplied by someone working for the contractor "seems like collusion. It doesn't seem fair, and sometimes perception is more important than fact. The entire process seems blighted," said Perkins.

AKRF defended its conduct. "As a firm of planners and analysts, AKRF's responsibility is the collection and assessment of data in an objective and thorough manner," a spokesman for the firm said. '"Any suggestion that the firm -- widely recognized as a trusted industry leader -- would compromise the quality of its work is incorrect."

"We need a more discrete definition of what is blight, not paid consultants who decide for themselves," said Michael Rikon, the Willet’s Point attorney. Rikon said landowners who have been through the process tell him. 'On the form for blight that consultants use there is one box for blighted and they check it.'" The process is much more complicated than checking a box. But critics say the formulas used almost always lead to the same conclusion -- and it's one that favors developers.

Changing the Process

According to Siegel, property owners only get one, very narrow chance to argue that their property should not be taken away from them. He said landowners in other states have more of an opportunity to challenge decisions. "As far as I can tell New York is the only state where you start at the appeals level," Siegel said. "You get 15 minutes to argue. There is no cross-examination. I think it is a violation of due process."

Perkins and Brodsky hope to address that issue in their legislation.

Brodsky has been working to change the eminent domain law for 10 years. "I don't think eminent domain should be stopped as a useful tool for the public good but with this pattern of private to private transfers I think the current laws may be inadequate. We need schools hospitals and libraries, but person-to-person transfer is an entirely different animal," he said.

One of Brodsky's bills would establish an eminent domain ombudsman "so that normal citizens are not overwhelmed." Brodsky also would like to see owners who lose their land in the eminent domain process be compensated 150 percent of the value of their property. "Anyone forced to hand over their property should share in the profits," said Brodsky. And Brodsky would create a process to review developer's plans to make sure the surrounding community would benefit. He also would create commission to review the scope and effectiveness of current laws, and would like to get rid of the finding of blight all together.

Perkins' bill is said to contain a provision that would change the definition of blight from substandard and insanitary to something more measureable, though what the new standard would be is not yet clear. The senator also would like to include a mechanism to ensure that developers follow up on their promise to the community and to review exactly what benefits the community can expect to enjoy from any project benefited by eminent domain.

The bill contains other tweaks, not yet announced, as well. Perkins says he expects bipartisan support in the Senate as well as help from the Assembly.

Amy Lavine, a staff attorney at the Albany Law School’s Government Law Center who helped Perkins put together his legislation, said it is not intended to disrupt the eminent domain process. "The definition of blight as it stands is very vague. We want to change that. The law increases transparency and accountability in the process. We are not interested in disrupting the process. We just want to make it better." Lavine said.

Thwarted Efforts

Change for New York's eminent domain process has been a long time coming. Over the years, legislators from both parties and both houses have tried in vain to make changes to the law to better protect private property owners only to find their efforts blocked by real estate interests.

In 1974, Rikon took part in a committee charged with making changes to the eminent domain process. "The last time New York changed the law was '77," said Rikon. "What happened was, when we got to the final version the city's lawyers and city corporation counsel eliminated a lot of provisions that they were against. That was 33 years ago. We really need to revise everything step by step."

Most states changed the process and the standards for applying eminent domain following a Supreme Court ruling in 2005. In Kelo v. City of New London [Connecticut], the court decided that a state can take property from a private owner and transfer it to another owner for the sake of economic development. Forty-three states then changed their laws to protect property owners. New York did not.

"Kelo caused a firestorm around eminent domain because people thought eminent domain could only be used for government projects. Kelo said that's not true. It can now be used for public betterment," said Siegel.

In 2009, four years after the monumental Kelo decision, the case was in the news again. The developer that was the beneficiary of the Supreme Court's decision pulled outof the city, and now New London has been left with barren lots.

After 30 years, some observers think Perkins will be able to seize upon public sentiment in an election year and force drastic changes in the law. Brodsky said it would be about time. ""I have been at this for 10 years. I did not jump in after Kelo. It would have been a good time to do this three years ago," he said.

"It could become a firestorm if Bill pushes the issue and more people join in. Folks are angry at politicians. This will be a ripe issue. I think Perkins is sensing that. I know it is certainty ripe with us and with our clients," said Siegel.

On the other side, the real estate industry and other businesses will likely work to preserve much of the state's eminent domain law. They proved this in 2005 in the wake of the Supreme Court's Kelo decision.

"We are alarmed," Kathryn Wylde, president of Partnership for New York, told the state Assembly in 2005, when legislation to alter eminent domain law was being considered. "Without the power to condemn private sites to support economic development projects, New York and other older urban centers could not have kept pace with demands for upgraded infrastructure, modern office facilities and an expanded housing stock."

Serious opposition to changing the process could very well come from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Advocates say the mayor's office has lobbied hard against such changes in the past. Recently in a New York Times article on the subject of eminent domain reform, Lisa Bova-Hiatt, a deputy chief at the New York City Law Department, said the city would not be opposed to "thoughtful change" but would oppose "ill considered action" sparked by hysteria.

Perkins right now is taking that as a good sign. "We welcome the mayor's help," he said, "I think it would be very valuable."

The governor could represent another obstacle. Following the decision by the appellate court that halted the Columbia expansion, Perkins called on Gov. David Paterson not to appeal the decision. He also asked the governor to institute a moratorium on eminent domain. "I remember standing with the Senate minority leader, now Gov. David Paterson, on the steps of city hall when the Kelo decision was announced. David was very concerned about the use of eminent domain back then," said Perkins.

Five years later, Paterson declined to heed Perkins' request, but Perkins hopes Paterson might still be convinced to join his cause.

Whatever the governor does, Perkins said he thinks the public is on his side. "I'm optimistic the public at this time is calling for reform. They want more reform," he said.

In Kingsbridge: Will Derailing a Bad Project Lead to a Good One?

If you only caught the last act of the show, it would be easy to attribute the City Council’s unprecedented 45-1 rejection of the Related Companies' "Shops at the Armory" to a unique alignment of the political planets. A third-term mayor, seemingly vulnerable after an unexpectedly close re-election; a City Council -- and its speaker -- eager to flex their muscles; and a Bronx borough president whose leadership star is on the rise.

But it took years of dogged community organizing and shrewd coalition-building around a clear vision for the city’s largest armory to position the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, or KARA, to take advantage of timing, luck and maybe begin re-writing the rules on how major development projects get done.


Having accomplished the unthinkable and by defeating a project backed by the administration, KARA and its allies are gearing up to re-imagine a future for the armory that puts community needs first, doesn’t strangle the neighborhood in traffic and delivers jobs capable of lifting Bronx residents out of poverty.

(The debte over the armory project has renewed the fight over the "living wage" in New York City. For more on the issue and whre ti stand in City Council, see The Living Wage After Kingsbirdge. And to find out where your coucil member stads, go here.)

'We Drove the Process'

In the usual New York scenario, developers tee up their projects, and work quietly with city agencies to line up financing and approvals, as they court political supporters. The New York City Charter-mandated Uniform Land Use Review Process, known as ULURP, requires that major development projects, zoning changes and transfers of city-owned property be reviewed by the affected community boards, the borough president, the City Planning Commission and the City Council. It sets deadlines for each step that create a six-month window for public review. Only the City Council vote and subsequent action by the mayor are binding.

Communities are typically caught flat-footed when the ULURP clock starts ticking: It’s hard to assess the situation, coalesce around a response and put a strategy in play before the 185-day timer runs down. Instead, changes needed for the project to gain final approval from the City Council are often embodied in 11-th hour side agreements, negotiated behind closed doors.

In the case of Kingsbridge, though, Pilgrim-Hunter recounts a 13-year campaign, spanning two administrations, that began when the community and clergy coalition demanded that the armory be redeveloped, and reached a clear and early consensus that redevelopment had to meet community needs.

"If we had a singular advantage, it was that we initiated the process, and we drove the process through to the end,” said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a leader of KARA and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.

Their 1995 plan was anchored by schools -- members put the Bronx’s most overcrowded school district together with the city’s largest vacant building and reached the obvious conclusion.

Kwasi Akyeampong, also a community resident and KARA member, recalls, "We had a vision of how the armory should be developed to benefit the community. We were steadfast; we held our elected officials accountable."

The coalition kept the armory high on its agenda, and held rallies, marches and press conferences to ensure that elected officials kept it on theirs as well. The activists pushed for the transfer of the armory’s ownership from the state to the city (1996) and forced the city to spend $30 million to restore the building's 260,000 square foot roof and stabilize its landmarked exterior (2000). They dragged a succession of school chancellors through the building and through the coalition's own research on non-city sources of school funding. Finally, they waited out the slow death of a sole-source agreement between the Giuliani administration and Basketball City (1999-2002) that would have turned the armory into a commercial sports complex.

In 2003, the Northwest Bronx Coalition presented the more market-savvy Team Bloomberg with a mixed-use proposal of its own that would have divided the massive space between schools, recreational space and retail. The coalition navigated the Bronx's challenging political terrain to bring the Department of Education, City Council and Assembly members, then-Borough President Adolfo CarriĂłn and the city’s Economic Development Corp. together on an agreement to put out a request for proposals from developers. In 2005, the Economic Development Corp. announced the formation of a task force, which it pledged to "consult" as it drafted the request for proposals. Community members were heartened, but wary.

Meanwhile, not far away, the same city and state officials were on a very different track as they moved Yankee Stadium through the environmental impact statement and land use processes at warp speed, rolling over near-unanimous community opposition. And a few blocks farther south, the Related Companies were negotiating with Economic Development Corp. to build a shopping mall on the old Bronx Terminal Market site. On the day of that council vote Related's attorneys e-mailed a "Community Benefits Agreement" to community representatives. It provides few real benefit and so far the record on actual delivery of the promised benefits has been sketchy.

Labor Gets on Board

Community Benefits Agreements in Los Angeles and elsewhere have been successful. In New York, though, developers routinely use such agreements as cover for bad projects. In 2005, mindful of both scenarios -- and knowing that securing a seat at the table provided no assurance that the community would be served anything but crumbs -- 19 organizations founded KARA. They included the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, local housing and community organizations, and, in a departure from the standard community-vs.-developer playbook, labor with Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents porters, doormen and other property service workers; the NYC Building Trades; and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

KARA’s platform demanded that the armory’s redevelopment prioritize uses that would serve the community, including schools. It also called for union construction jobs with local hiring and apprenticeships, and insisted that permanent retail jobs in the completed project pay a living wage – defined by KARA as $10 per hour plus benefits.

KARA hoped that employees of the armory’s tenants would end up carrying union cards. Like other industries, retail has seen the unionized share of its workforce shrink dramatically since the mid-20th century. Most retailers today pay poverty wages; they often employ immigrants who are most vulnerable to exploitation.

For its part, the retail workers union had worked with community organizations before, joining with Make the Road by Walking in Bushwick and working with GOLES (Good Old Lower Eastside) to create the Retail Action Project in SoHo in support of workers fighting against wage theft and other abuses.

Before the decline of organized labor in the U.S., unions were a part of the social fabric. If unions are to grow -- or even survive -- in the new economy, they need to rebuild their links to communities, according to Jeff Eichler, the retail workers' representative to KARA. Forming alliances and supporting low-wage, non-unionized workers in communities like the Northwest Bronx are very much in the unions’ self-interest, Eichler said.

KARA forged an alliance that could level the playing field with Related -- even when it became clear that city government, which should have been wearing referee’s stripes, was unapologetically playing for the developer’s team. As City Environmental Quality Review and ULURP mandated reviews rolled on, KARA examined reams of documents, bringing in experts in planning, finance, and traffic. "We did our research and kept the politicians up to speed," said Ava Farkas, lead organizer for the armory campaign since 2005.

KARA invited elected officials to reaffirm their support for the alliance and its principles. More than 1,000 community members turned out at an October 2009 meeting to hear Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. call the fight for living wages in the armory a battle in "our new civil rights movement." Six weeks earlier, Díaz had gone off the standard ULURP script and sent a negative recommendation to the City Planning Commission, citing the armory project's devastating traffic impacts and effects on existing local retailers. He also criticized Related's refusal to commit to a living wage requirement or negotiate a binding community benefits agreement with KARA.

City Planning approved the project, despite its seeming deviation from PlaNYC’s sustainability principles (for example, generating 14,600 new car trips per day). Planning sent the project on to the City Council for committee hearings in November and to its historic rejection by the full council on December 9.

The Next Steps

Even as KARA and its allies celebrated (and as the Real Estate Board of New York threatened retribution), members voiced their frustration at having been able to block a bad project, but unable to transform it into a good one. They didn't lack of a vision of their own -- though in hindsight, Farkas and others wondered whether the community caved too quickly on letting retail dominate the armory mix. But the City Charter provides only the flimsiest tools -- 197a plans -- for proactive community planning. Instead, the land use process puts developers and mayoral agencies in the driver's seat, and leaves communities, community boards and the City Council strapped firmly into the back seat. Will any effort at charter revision open an opportunity to change this dynamic?

KARA clearly succeeded in putting living wages on the table – for city-subsidized projects, at least. Bronx members Annabel Palma and Oliver Koppel have introduced a living wage bill into the City Council. It’s unclear whether state legislation also would also be needed. But the momentum is there, maybe even enough to move a bill through Albany. Retail and other low-wage sectors are growing much faster than better paying sectors; if New York is going to accept -- and even subsidize that -- isn’t it in the public interest to make sure that families can survive on what those jobs pay?

A recent analysis by the Center for an Urban Future validates KARA's assertion that the Bronx already has more than its share of low-wage jobs; 42 percent of Bronx workers over age 18 earn less than $11.54 an hour. A mandate applying to all city-funded projects would eliminate the coercive choice between bad jobs and no jobs that developers keep offering to communities like the northwest Bronx.

The alliance between community and labor on the living wage issue provided a novel twist in the armory story -- even though the service employees and the building trades both peeled off to endorse the mall just before the council vote. Will those unions eventually broaden their definition of self-interest in the way that the retails workers seem to be doing?

Bronx communities have repeatedly been rolled by mega-development projects – the Croton Filtration Plant, Yankee Stadium and the Gateway Mall -- that have promised training and apprenticeships, then largely failed to deliver. A community that can mobilize effectively enough to get a "no" vote on such projects from its elected officials could be a formidable adversary -- or a powerful ally -- to a labor movement that may find itself in need of friends as the new green economy takes shape.

And what about Kingsbridge Armory? KARA is ready to go back to the drawing board, with an even clearer understanding of what the Bronx stands to lose, and to gain. Realizing the damage that a mega-mall would inevitably inflict, KARA and its allies are seeking a community-led vision that will maximize local benefits without destroying the neighborhood.

They won’t have to look far for a precedent. Another armory opened its doors to its host community this month, gracefully accommodating a women’s shelter, community space and a YMCA whose gym will also serve local kids during the school day. The redevelopment of Brooklyn’s Park Slope Armory took years to move from vision to reality, but KARA members are already asking "why not here?"

Joan Byron leads the Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Pratt Center for Community and Environmental Development. Byron and the Pratt Center worked with the North West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, and the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, during the Kingsbridge Armory campaign.

Sour Holiday

Image: Sour Holiday
Photo Courtney Gross


Holiday cheer seemed to echo across the country Friday when the U.S. Census Bureau announced retail sales had increased 1.3 percent in November compared to the previous month.

Strike up the carols, it seems like the holiday season has arrived.

But here in New York, storeowners are not celebrating so quickly. From Jamaica, Queens to Melrose in the Bronx, storeowners say they have yet to see eggnog-fueled shoppers, craving holiday deals and discounts.

Small business owners compare their customers to characters in a Charles Dickens novel -- invoking the image of Scrooge rather than Santa.

Shoppers aren't aggressively embracing merriness either.

Gloria Anderson, a resident of the South Bronx for "forever" and a great-grandmother, isn't buying presents for her adult children. While perusing nightlights at Youngland in the Bronx, Anderson said she is focusing solely on her three great-grandchildren and four grandchildren.

"I'm trying to," said Anderson when asked if she was cutting back. "I'm only buying for the children."

Because of this frugality, storeowners throughout the city are bracing for a bad holiday season that might force some of them to close their doors.

But maybe the city can do something to help?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made it a hallmark of his tenure at City Hall to try to create commercial hubs in every borough -- like in Jamaica and the South Bronx.

Gotham Gazette visited several of these commercial strips to see how small businesses and shoppers were holding up this holiday season. We asked what they think should be done to bring them holiday cheer. See our slideshow, Sour Holiday to find out what they said.

Foreclosures Continue to Threaten Neighborhoods

Predatory lending signs in Bedford Stuyvesant

Hugh Thomas stands tall (more than six feet) just outside of Jamaica's Neighborhood Housing Services -- a local nonprofit charged with solving the community's foreclosure crisis.

In reality, though, he is worn down.

Three years ago, the Queens resident, a native of the island of Jamaica, bought his first home for $460,000 -- a one-family house in St. Albans, to share with his wife, a health care technician at Woodhull Hospital, and raise his three children, two daughters and a son, ages 5, 10 and 15.

But Thomas, an air-conditioning and refrigerator repairman, got his slice of the American dream thanks to two sub-prime loans. Now, he laments, he is on the brink of losing it all. Come January, Thomas's monthly payments are set to increase by 25 percent -- enough to force this family of five, who lives on approximately $5,000 a month, back into renting.

"You try to make your family happy. You work hard and this is what happens," said Thomas, whose Jamaican accent is slight, but noticeable. He blames his sub-prime lender. "They trick you. A lot of my neighbors have lost their homes already."

Southeastern Queens, specifically Thomas's home turf, is ground zero for the city's foreclosure crisis. And the problem shows no signs of abating. Throughout the borough, foreclosure filings in the first three quarters of 2009 nearly surpassed the number of filings for all of 2008. Citywide, foreclosure filings for 2009 through September have already increased by 2 percent over all of 2008, according to data provided by New York University's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Almost 95 percent of those filings were in the outer boroughs clustered in minority areas, like Jamaica.

Months after the country's foreclosure crisis wreaked havoc in cities from Detroit to Las Vegas, the outer boroughs are feeling the cataclysm now more than ever. Experts and activists on the ground fear abandoned homes could replace promises of development, lower crime rates could start to reverse and property values in adjacent communities could plummet.

The city and state have responded by encouraging homeowners to see mortgage counselors gratis, funding the renovation of some bank-owned properties into affordable homes and expanding its original foreclosure rescue program to those beyond sub-prime loans.

But for some, including Thomas, these solutions may not be enough.

From Crisis to Catastrophe?

Roll over a community district to see the number of foreclosure filings per year. Data was provided by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Figures from 2009 only reflect the first three quarters of the year.

Walk down 88th Avenue in Jamaica. In just two blocks between 169th Street and 171st, according to RealtyTrac, five homes are in the process of foreclosure. One already has been taken over by the bank. A notice on one door, where weeds have grown over a narrow pathway, warns trespassers to keep out.

Hopeton Prendergast, a resident of 89th Avenue for seven years, says it's not uncommon to see the remnants of homes lost every week -- furniture, clothing and lives strewn along the curb.

"Every week you got someone's stuff on the street," said Prendergast, who was hanging out outside a local convenience store advertising soda and cold beer. "Some of them have children."

Those homeowners account for 1,589 foreclosure filings in Jamaica this year through Sept. 30, 2009, according to the Furman Center. In neighboring Queens Village, there have been 1,077. The trend trickles down the city's eastern border, spreading south to Canarsie in Brooklyn. (See our map above for a breakdown of foreclosures by year since 2007 per community district).

But just a river away, Greenwich Village and SoHo have seen only 31 filings through September.

The isolated pockets of foreclosure filings, experts say, reveal the number of homeowners in default has multiplied mostly in minority neighborhoods. Areas like Bedford Stuyvesant or East New York have seen 12 times the number of defaults as Midtown. Canarsie and Flatlands, have almost 800 foreclosure filings this year -- nearly five times the number seen so far in Brooklyn Heights in 2009.

Experts attribute this disparity, in part, to the fact that minority homeowners were much more likely to receive sub-prime loans than white borrowers, and thus more likely to default on them. According to a report released last week by the Furman Center, the percentage of black borrowers in New York City with subprime loans in 2007 -- the height of lending -- was seven times that of white borrowers.

In Jamaica, the city's foreclosure epicenter, nearly 75 percent of all residents are black and only 1.6 percent are white. Mortgage counselors there say homebuyers currently in trouble had gone through a local lender and usually received a sub-prime loan. Few went to a national bank -- which are few and far between in that area of Queens -- for a mortgage, said housing counselors.

For many community activists and nonprofits, the foreclosure numbers have resonated.

"I hate this map," Neighborhood Housing Services interim Chief Executive Officer Bernell Grier said at a recent forum. Behind her, a map pinpointed areas of foreclosure filings by district. Southeastern Queens had too many black dots to count. "I hate it because when you look at the concentration of where the dots are and when you know these communities, what have really been hardest hit have been communities of color and ethnic populations. These communities are being really devastated."

The problem, however, doesn’t end there. Experts predict the city could see a 33 percent increase in foreclosure filings by year's end compared to 2008. While some of it can be attributed to a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures enacted by the State Legislature at the end of last year, the crisis has spread from financially unstable homebuyers caught by catchy sub-prime slogans to those affected by the city's 10.3 percent employment rate.

With hours cut and jobs lost, dreams of homeownership disappear too.

A Nonprofit Approach

Inside Neighborhood Housing Services of Jamaica some homeowners wait more than a half hour to be seen. On one of the lime-green walls, a poster from the city's new advertising campaign targeting the financially burdened asks, "Debt stress? You're not alone. We can help you."

Housing counselors enter the waiting room and take homeowners back one by one. Most meetings last an hour. Each counselor reviews a new client's paperwork and makes a budget. "How much is your water?" one counselor asks. "How much is your cell phone?"

These counselors are at the intersection of city, state and federal programs -- all of which attempt to tame the flood of foreclosures, some with more success than others. Neighborhood Housing Services goes through every property owner's crisis one at a time, working with lenders to renegotiate the terms of the mortgage -- a process that can take up to three months, counselors say. In New York, it takes at least a year for a home to go through the foreclosure process.

In Jamaica, Neighborhood Housing Services have seen about 500 people this year and successfully secured an affordable mortgage agreement for 100 of them. The mortgages can be renegotiated under a federal program known as "Making Home Affordable," established by the Obama administration in March. Under the program, only 2,000 of 500,000 loan modifications have been made permanent, according to a review by Congress last month. Those numbers have spurred the Obama adminsitration to announce a new campaign to apply pressure to lenders to modify more mortgages.

Back in Jamaica, another 300 modifications are under review, counselors said.

Cerinelly Disla and Helen Maxwell are just two of the counselors based at Neighborhood Housing Services. So far this year, they say, they've been booked up.

This nonprofit is one in a network established by the Bloomberg administration last year called the Center for New York City Neighborhoods. The center and its partners, which include Legal Services NYC and the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, provide free advice and legal services to homeowners at risk of foreclosure. This center has been the administration's primary response to the foreclosure crisis.

And so far, it has had varied success. Citywide, said Executive Director Michael Hickey, the center has seen 6,000 homeowners since July 2008. Of those 1,400 have applied for loan modifications. Only 25 percent of those changes have actually been approved by the lender.

"Those numbers are not as high as we'd like them to be," said Hickey, saying banks are inundated with requests and overwhelmed. "We're trying to make an elegant solution out of chaos."

The center also helps coordinate mortgage settlement conferences -- a state-mandated court negotiation between both the homeowner and the lender aimed at finding a solution between the parties before the foreclosure process kicks off. According to a report released by the center last month, these conferences have been ineffective in New York so far, resulting in a compromise in just 3 percent of cases out of nearly 800 surveyed. The conferences have been far more successful in other areas, particularly Philadelphia.

Earlier this month, the state expanded the program to require conferences for all foreclosure proceedings. Previously it only applied to those with sub-prime loans. The state expansion will put sanctions on lenders who appear at conferences unprepared to negotiate, correcting a major defect in the original program, said Hickey. It also will require courts to report on the conferences' effectiveness. While not a "panacea," the revisions are a good start, Hickey added.

Elsewhere, the Bloomberg administration has allocated $24 million of its federal stimulus funding to a local nonprofit, Restored Homes. The group is gearing up to purchase more than 100 foreclosed properties in 45 targeted ZIP codes -- from Jamaica to Staten Island's North Shore. Starting in January, said Executive Director Salvatore D'Avola, it will renovate and sell the former bank-owned properties for between 80 and 120 percent of the area's median income.

The effort is an attempt to avert a '70s-era like crisis, when tax foreclosures inundated neighborhoods and abandoned properties sprinkled blocks. Even so, Restored Homes only targets a small percentage of the bank-foreclosed homes. In 2006, lenders had acquired 280 foreclosed properties citywide, according to the Furman Center's Executive Director Sarah Gerecke. Two years later, about 1,800 properties have been acquired, she said.

"It's a small impact," said D'Avola. But, he continued, "We're going to make that impact as great as possible."

Those familiar with the program are less confident. One affiliate said lenders have hesitated to sell foreclosed properties at a discount. As a result, Restored Homes may have to pare down the renovations or sell the properties at a higher cost.

More Government Intervention?

Despite these programs, residents, community leaders and experts fear neighborhoods, particularly those that have been hard hit, like Jamaica, will struggle to recover from not only the initial foreclosure crisis, but its side-effects.

Ingrid Gould Ellen, co-director of the Furman Center, says higher rates of foreclosures can precipitate other problems that lead to disinvestment in neighborhoods, such as high vacancy rates, a potential increase in crime and elevated levels of mobility in the neighborhood's schools. A study by the Furman Center last year found areas with more foreclosures can have spillover effects on adjacent property values, effectively discounting other properties in the area. In effect, Ellen says, foreclosures disrupt neighborhoods by more than just boarding up doorways and emptying mailboxes.

"We made so much progress in so many neighborhoods since the late 1970s," said Ellen. "The worry now is in certain areas the foreclosure crisis is threatening to undermine that progress and reverse it."

Although anecdotally residents and housing activists and even the area's City Council member say there has been an uptick in crime thanks to more vacant properties, police department statistics show crime in Jamaica has decreased by more than 16 percent from 2008 to 2009. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, another high foreclosure area, overall crime is down by more than 16 percent, although felony assaults are up by 14 percent.

Fears have also been sparked over how the crisis will affect renters. Last month, Ann Bragg, a resident of East Harlem and a leader at advocacy group Community Voices Heard, received a letter saying her landlord, who owns dozens of buildings throughout Upper Manhattan, was starting the foreclosure process. Now she wonders what will happen to the building’s conditions and her neighbors as a result.

“Do we get sold off and traded again to another predatory investor group who only cares about making more money?” Bragg asked at a City Council hearing on foreclosures last week. “And in the meanwhile, what will happen to our services and quality of life? Do we suffer even more through the cold winter without basic services or repairs while hungry investors get to receive returns on their investments?”

Besides the programs already offered for defaulted homeowners, officials have said little on how to handle hard hit neighborhoods moving forward. Last week, City Council members were at a loss at how to help.

“I unfortunately believe we have patchwork policies,” said Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito of East Harlem. “I’m trying to figure our how we can tackle this.”

But it’s somewhat a waiting game. While foreclosure filings have increased dramatically since 2005, actual foreclosures have remained steady, say experts. That could be because banks are waiting to see if property values will recover before they acquire defaulted homes, which would allow banks to sell them for more at auction later. Stakeholders are encouraging officials to pressure banks to let residents stay and, in the meantime, ease up on homeowners –- such as forgiving water and sewer liens for those in default.

"We’re possibly going to live through a long tail in terms of the possible distress to these communities," said Hickey of the Center for New York City Neighborhoods. "The solutions that should have been to protect these communities were not there. Best you can do [now] is go through one loan at a time and fix it."

Waiting Game

Back in Jamaica, Thomas is still scrounging for help. When his mortgage payments increase by 25 percent in January, he knows his family will no longer be able to get by.

"I'm trying to get help before it happens, but I'm hitting a brick wall everywhere I go," he said moments after seeing a housing counselor.

For now, policymakers plan to help those who can afford their homes with a small modification to stay in them. If rejected, experts say the city should help get these residents new housing, but ensure their neighborhoods are not trampled in the meantime.

"Policy shouldn’t be directed at keeping all residents in every home. It can't be," said Ellen. "If they really can't, we want to figure out how they can exit as gracefully as possible."

Kingsbridge Armory and the Dance Around ULURP

Image from Curbed

This month the City Council will be the scene of a showdown in a long-brewing battle between one of the city's biggest developers on one side and a tight coalition of labor and community groups on the other. The issue at the center of the battle is living wages – setting a minimum of $10 per hour for full-time employees at the project site. The outcome could set a precedent for future development deals.

Beyond that and the fate of a Bronx community, the dispute also calls into question the issue of agreements negotiated between community groups and developers and the city's entire land use review process. Is this really a path-breaking effort to require living wages at all public projects, as labor representatives claim? Or is it the familiar last act of a scripted dance around the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure in which developers sign on to non-binding concessions to win City Council approval of the deal at hand.

From Armory to Mall

The project this time involves the Kingsbridge Armory, the biggest armory in the nation. On Oct. 19, the City Planning Commission approved a deal giving the Related Companies, one of the city's largest developers, control of the now-vacant armory. Related plans to convert it to a shopping mall.

Related is buying the city's property, appraised at $20 million, for a quarter that amount. The city also has promised a giant package of tax incentives.

In return, a coalition of labor and community groups, the Kingsbridge Area Community Alliance, or KARA, wants Related to sign a Community Benefits Agreement that commits businesses in the mall to pay at least $10 per hour plus benefits and hire local residents. The agreement would exclude a supermarket that could kill local stores. The alliance also wants Related to provide discounted community space and a public plaza at the armory site.

Related has said it could agree to most of this, and the company has claimed it only hires union labor for construction. But Related has stopped short of agreeing to a living wage for all employees at mall businesses.

Although such Community Benefits Agreements may not be enforceable, their use has been growing as government, which is not a party to them, looks the other way. Projects at Bronx Terminal Market and Willets Point went to the City Council with community and labor groups threatening to stop them. They passed after last-minute concessions spelled out in the separate agreements. The City Council has rarely turned back a land use proposal supported by the mayor.

The ULURP Ballet

In the first action in the land use process for the Kingsbridge project, Community Board 7 approved the project. The board placed several conditions on its approval, but the City Council could approve the project without adopting any of them. Despite that, Related has signaled it will agree to some of the conditions, including establishment of an ongoing community advisory group, free wi-fi in the mall and a World Peace Atrium, and has said it is open to establishing a youth recreational facility as proposed by the community board.

The community board supports a supermarket in the mall. A local grocery store group that employs 400 unionized workers opposes the market.

Then, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. came out against the project. He complained that Related has not responded seriously to his concerns about traffic issues and the impact the mall would have on local businesses. This suggests that, with some concessions by Related, the borough president might not oppose a final deal.

In any case, the deal can go through without him. Even though representatives of three other borough presidents and the public advocate voted against the project at the City Planning Commission, the majority of mayoral appointees guaranteed support for the project. And if the community board, City Planning Commission and City Council approve the mall, the borough president's vote would not matter. The council member representing the Bronx district where the armory is located, Maria Baez, is a lame duck noted for her extensive absences. Since the full council usually defers to the members in whose district projects are located, there is likely to be a leadership vacuum.

Labor's Interests

If past agreements can serve as a guide, a community benefits agreement could help win City Council approval even though Community Benefit Agreements are not formally part of the land use review process and could prove difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. Those who question the agreements say they tend to reduce the importance of official public forums and favor back-room deals involving developers, government officials and selected community representatives.

City government has long maintained that such agreements are of dubious legality and can undermine the decision-making process set out in the city's charter. But the Bloomberg administration has turned a blind eye to these side agreements when they give an extra boost to unpopular projects like Yankee Stadium. And many community organizations see them as useful tools for extracting concessions from developers.

The agreements also raise the issue of who really represents the community. This has emerged as a key issue in the Kingsbridge saga where a critical question is whether, by focusing on the living wage as the make-or-break issue, labor has put its interests ahead of those of community based groups. Union involvement also highlights the chasm between organized construction workers and the service workers who will work in the mall and make less than half the average construction wage.

Out in front on the living wage issue is the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, backed by a broad array of union locals and the construction trades as well as the AFL-CIO. According to Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a community activist with KARA, the living wage also is a community issue "because we live in the poorest urban county in the nation and we need good jobs with living wages."

But Crain's recently reported that the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York "supports the development of the Kingsbridge Armory and all necessary approvals for this project by the New York City Council," without insisting that living wages be guaranteed for service workers. This raises a question about whether labor is really united on the issue.

Fred Lemoine, vice president of the building trades in the Bronx, said the construction unions simply wanted to clarify the position taken by the Central Labor Council supporting KARA and the agreement but "stopping short of drawing a line in the sand." With construction jobs way down in the current economy, these locals are sending a clear message that they support the plans for the mall. Project supporters will surely see this as a split in labor that can only help them at the City Council.

Even if labor got everything it has asked for, would it truly be getting a living wage? It is demanding only $10 an hour. While slightly higher than the minimum wage, this would put the average full-time salary just under the Bronx's already low average per capita income. While labor has demanded the promised jobs be full-time with benefits (in which case they pay go up to $11.50 per hour), those crucial details could get lopped off the list as the finale approaches.

The Community's Interests

Despite community support for labor, labor's demands seem to have eclipsed the concerns of community groups. The first community meetings about the armory in 2003 ended with a consensus that the priority in redevelopment should be additional schools, since classes in the district suffer from severe overcrowding, and other community facilities. After an initial promise to build schools on the site, the Department of Education backed out.

Instead, the city's Economic Development Corp. issued a request for proposals that favored market-based development and eventually accepted Related's bid. Six members of KARA took part in shaping the Request for Proposals, which could make it difficult for the group to mount any strong opposition now.

In the end, by reducing the land use issue to one of economic development, Related and its City Hall backers may have deflected discussion away from the more far-reaching issues of long-term sustainability. The armory project is the latest of several giant suburban-style malls that are getting dropped into the city's dense fabric without the roads and infrastructure that the suburbs enjoy. The onslaught of well-capitalized national chains moving into subsidized space threatens the very survival of existing small and medium-sized businesses in the area.

These developments also encourage greater dependency on auto use. The new mall would include 400 paid parking spaces, and the borough president and some community groups, instead of prioritizing better transit, are fighting for the lots to be free, which would spur even greater auto use.

Neither the land use process nor the debate over the community benefits process dealt with these vital issues of long-term sustainability. They, along with other planning issues, escaped scrutiny at the City Planning Commission, where they should have been the prime focus. In sum, the big loser in the whole dispute over the Kingsbridge Armory may be the land use review process itself.

The City Council is expected to vote in November and take a bow for putting on a good show in the final act of this familiar ballet that usually surrounds big development deals.

Tom Angotti is professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.

Going for the Gold

Photo by Kimberlee Hewitt for
Bloomberg, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, and NYC2012 announce Olympic Village design winners.

One hallmark of Michael Bloomberg's tenure, journalist Joyce Purnick writes in her new biography of the mayor, has been to pursue "bold projects full of political risk." That includes shaking up the city's schools and all but banning smoking. The following edited excerpt from "Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics" (PublicAffairs) looks at one instance where Bloomberg could not make his vision a reality.

Michael Bloomberg wanted his mayoralty to be defined by big moves -- the ban on smoking, the revitalizing of the schools and, most spectacular of all, luring the 2012 Olympics to New York.

New York has never hosted the Olympic Games. The very idea of staging the Olympics in New York drew yawns. While New Yorkers backed the idea of the Olympics bid, there was no excitement, no wellspring of support for it in the city.

Doctoroff's Dream

Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff was having none of New York's trademark diffidence. He'd had a light-bulb moment in 1994, while watching a World Cup soccer match at Giants Stadium. "The stands were packed with screaming, flag-waving Italian and Bulgarian New Yorkers. I wondered, why hasn't New York ever hosted the Olympic games?"

Doctoroff founded NYC 2012 to promote an Olympics bid. Bloomberg became a donor, a board member and his mentor. Tall and handsome, Doctoroff left a managing partnership of an investment firm to join the administration as the mayor's $1-a-year deputy for economic development. Bloomberg was profoundly influenced by him -- unduly so, as far as critics were concerned.

Doctoroff knew that mishandled, the Olympics could be a drain on the city's finances. But handled right, the games could remake a city. As Doctoroff saw it, sections of New York would stir to life in preparation for the games through upgraded zoning and improvements.

His centerpiece was an ambitious plan to transform a neglected section of Manhattan from 30th to 42nd Street west of Eighth Avenue into a sparkling new neighborhood. The Olympics plan was to be a catalyst for new roads, a Park Avenue-like boulevard, office towers, hotels, luxury apartment buildings, parks, a subway extension and expansion of the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

At the heart of the plan would be a "multi-use facility" with a retractable roof to lure the Olympics, return the Jets football team from New Jersey and accommodate conventions. The Jets were to contribute to the stadium's cost, but it would take at least $600 million more in public funds and the approval of the state power brokers in Albany -- the infamous "three men in a room."

Enter Sheldon Silver

Just about any major undertaking in New York State involves the governor and the leaders of the two legislative chambers. They control the obscure Public Authorities Control Board that must coordinate all public spending, and any one of the three has veto power.

Gov. George Pataki, a Bloomberg ally, posed no problem. The leader of the Republican-dominated Senate, Joseph Bruno, could probably be won over if the leader of the Assembly came along. Unfortunately for Doctoroff and Bloomberg, the third member of the Albany troika was the speaker of the Democratic Assembly, the powerful, elusive and cagey Sheldon Silver.

When it comes to almost anything of political importance in New York State, the frustrating guessing game is always, what will Shelly do? Silver knows politics like Bloomberg knows finances. It took the mayor a while to realize it, but he had met his match.

The Final Hurdle

Doctoroff and Bloomberg, impatiently pursuing the Olympics, ignored the local community boards, bypassed the City Council and focused instead on gaining support from high-rolling business executives and construction union.

Their strategy, however efficient, failed to build consensus. Their project arrived in Albany with few allies, leaving Silver even more flexibility than usual.

Developing the far West Side of Manhattan was not to Silver's liking. He wanted state resources funneled to Lower Manhattan. Ground Zero lies in the heart of his district, as does Chinatown, which suffered greatly after 9/11. Months passed before Bloomberg and Doctoroff realized the speaker had to be energetically wooed -- and by the time they tried it was too late.

Courting Silver

The Olympics plan had plenty of opposition, as development always does in New York. Community residents and some city planners were sure that an Olympics-size stadium was far from the best use of such valuable land, while businesses and leaders of industrial unions embraced it as a generator of jobs and economic activity.

The battling factions might have neutralized each other if not for the most potent of the opposition. It came from the rich and powerful Dolan family. The Dolans, Silver contributors, control Cablevision and Madison Square Garden. They saw the stadium as competition to their arena and mounted a costly campaign against it.

Silver raised concerns about the plan but portrayed himself as neutral, the better to wrench a series of concessions from Bloomberg. As his associates winced, Bloomberg attended the bris of two Silver grandsons, paid a condolence calls when the speaker's brother died, renewed his support for a new public school downtown and endorsed a package of generous business subsidies for lower Manhattan.

The day before the crucial vote, Bloomberg and Silver both attended a charity breakfast in the Roosevelt Hotel. The two met in a side room and the mayor pushed, cajoled, persuaded and refused to give up.

Next day, Silver and Bruno's representatives to the Albany control board abstained from voting to fund the stadium. And so it died. When asked it the stadium deal was really done, Silver replied with a wicked grin, "It was never alive."

Bloomberg was furious. "You think you have an agreement with him and then Shelly sticks out his hand and says, 'Wait a minute. One more thing.' The city suffered at Silver's hand," he charged.

New York's Olympics submission no longer had its dream stadium. The Olympics dream collapsed, and the designation finally went to London.

The stadium failure stands as Bloomberg's greatest miscalculation and embarrassment. Doctoroff and Bloomberg misjudged not just the politicians but also ordinary people.

The public did not want that stadium. One poll found that 58 percent of New Yorkers opposed the stadium and an even larger percentage was less likely to vote for Bloomberg because of it.

Paradoxically, by shattering Bloomberg's Olympics dream, Sheldon Silver saved Mike Bloomberg from himself. His veto was cast five months before Election Day. It removed the greatest obstacle to the mayor's election.

"We sent flowers to Shelly Silver," said William Cunningham, Bloomberg’s first-term communications director. "Big, red roses."

From the book Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics by Joyce Purnick. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

Correction: Due to an editing error at Gotham Gazette, this article originally said the stadium vote was five days before Election Day; it was five months.


Democratic Mayoral Candidates Would Plan from the Bottom Up

As they seek to chip away at Mayor Michael Bloomberg's many advantages in this year's mayoral race, his challengers hope to find votes in communities throughout the city where residents may see the mayor as having ignored grassroots, neighborhood-level politics. While Bloomberg's campaign mailings and releases stress the city's diverse population, interests and communities, his big picture approach, his opponents charge, ignores the importance of civic involvement at the community level.

City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. and City Councilmember Tony Avella, the two candidates in September's Democratic primary, are waging increasingly strong challenges to Bloomberg in the city's hundreds of neighborhoods. And Green Party candidate Billy Talen continues to raise his faux preacher's voice in the five boroughs. Many of the concerns moving the debate have to do with neighborhoods. After all, issues like zoning, neighborhood preservation, and affordable housing are surely among the most important ones on the streets where New Yorkers live and work.

I asked the two Democratic contenders for their views about Bloomberg's policies and how they would do things differently in the city's neighborhoods. I also asked them for their views on the role of community boards and the planning and budget process.

While both candidates criticize Bloomberg for being a "top-down" mayor and want a larger role for communities, Avella is the one with a long record of advocating community involvement. As chair of the council's Zoning and Franchises subcommittee, Avella has staked out a role as one of the most consistent critics of Bloomberg's land use policies. Though Thompson may have the edge on Avella in the polls, when it comes to neighborhoods Avella seems to have been there longer and ready to go much farther.

On the other hand, based on their responses to questions, it is hard to find substantive areas where Thompson and Avella disagree, and the differences may be more in the degree to which they want to break with the Bloomberg years and its imperial mayoralty.

Neighborhood Needs

Both Democratic contenders believe Bloomberg has ignored the specific concerns of individual neighborhoods.

"I don't think Bloomberg believes New York City neighborhoods have their own needs," Avella said.

Thompson said, "The mayor too often acts unilaterally, with no collaborative planning or community engagement. He has decided what the communities' priorities should be without talking to community boards and spending any time in these neighborhoods."

As examples of what he sees as the mayor's disregard, Avella cites the administration's extensive rezoning of city neighborhoods and notes that he opposed controversial rezonings such as 125th Street in Harlem and the recent Coney Island plan, which he said "will destroy that area's amusement character." But, in Avella's view, the problem goes beyond individual plans to the mayor's underlying approach. "Real estate controls the agenda. They [the city's planners] don't do planning, and they are reactive to real estate development," he said.

Avella said he supports rezoning in general and points to his backing of contextual rezonings in Queens, which are intended to reshape new development so it will be more consistent with existing buildings in the area. But, he said, the administration puts pressure on neighborhoods to allow new development in order to get the contextual rezoning they want from the city. "Communities should get protection without having to give something up," he said.

Avella also slammed the city's mixed-use zoning, which allows a combination of residential and industrial uses in a community, as "a dismal failure that resulted in the destruction of the manufacturing base."


Thompson shares many of the same views. "Much of the zoning and rezoning we see today has been driven by the mayor's desire to create real estate wealth, not to improve the lives of people in these communities," he said. "These rezonings have zoned out of existence nearly 20 percent of our available manufacturing space. Just imagine if instead of focusing so intently on zoning and real estate we had instead worked to create affordable housing, infrastructure, schools and jobs."

The Community's Voice

Avella has been a vocal critic of developer-initiated and controlled plans such as Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. He also opposed the plan for redevelopment of Willets Point in Queens, prepared by the city's Economic Development Corp. Avella's approach favors "bottom up" planning that involves local residents and businesses and does not resort to the use of eminent domain to promote private real estate projects

To accomplish this, he has been a vocal advocate for community-based planning and has worked with the Municipal Art Society to craft legislation that would support communities that do their own plans. "I've been saying these things all along. Other cities are ahead of us. Community planning sets the stage for all of the issues in neighborhoods. We shouldn't just give neighborhoods opportunities to plan but also the funding to address their needs," he said.

There are around 100 community-based plans in New York City, but according to the citywide Task Force on Community-based Planning they do not receive sufficient support from city government. (I am a member of the Task Force).

Thompson also calls for more -- and more strongly supported -- community plans. "Community-based planning that includes input from local community boards, elected officials, and other stakeholders is incredibly important and, like community board budget priorities, should be better incorporated into an overall citywide framework," he said. "Once developed, zoning changes and siting of facilities should be considered in the context of these collaboratively created plans."

"Urban planning," said Thompson, "is about so much more than real estate or finding ways to accommodate population growth. It's about stepping back, looking at our city and asking ourselves what do we want New York City to look like in 10, 20 or 30 years. We should decide what we want our communities to look like first and then develop toward that goal. We need a vision of a livable city, not an accommodation, and I believe that comprehensive neighborhood plans are required, not merely zoning changes."

Grassroots Government

The city's 59 community boards provide a means for those kinds of local concerns to be heard and considered. Both Democratic candidates state they would strengthen the panels, whose role is advisory, and they assailed the mayor's efforts to weaken, if not eliminate them.

In particular, Thompson criticized the mayor's effort - later withdrawn -- to cut an average of $35,000 from the budgets of individual community boards, which average less than $200,000.

"I strongly opposed these cuts." Thompson said. "Community boards are the primary way most New Yorkers participate in and interact with our city government. They are also a vital source of information for millions of New Yorkers. …. We need to invest more time and resources in training community board members."

Beyond that, both contenders think the city should listen to the community boards. "I would absolutely change the way the city deals with community boards," said Avella. "They're going to have some real power."

For example, community boards submit annual budget priorities, but according to Avella, "the city doesn't pay any attention to their budget priorities. Nobody knows the community better than the people who live there. I have proposed that community budget priorities be included in community plans and implemented."

Thompson sees community board members as "knowledgeable, dedicated, conscientious and passionate. They understand the process, needs, issues and character of our communities better than anyone. That's why community board budget priorities must be better incorporated into the overall city budget framework."

The City's Plan

In his almost eight years as a "big picture" mayor, Bloomberg's biggest picture item has been PlaNYC2030, the long-term sustainability plan he unveiled on Earth Day 2007.

"Great press release," says Avella. "PlaNYC2030 is a nice outline with a lot of good things in it but they don't lead to changes. Except for congestion pricing, which really won't affect the environment" -- and which, of course, failed to win approval from the state legislature.

Thompson, on the other hand, criticizes the mayor's plan because it "is all about infrastructure, not people. There is scant mention of the need for affordable housing, even though the plan anticipates a million more New Yorkers by the year 2030. We certainly need a long-term plan to meet our city's anticipated population growth. But that plan must consider and incorporate economic development, affordable housing, job creation and expansion of human services."

The Big Picture and the Hood

In many respects, PlaNYC2030 encapsulates the mayor's top down, big picture approach, which has won him fans in much of the business community and part of the media. On the big-picture questions of the budget, government efficiency and long-term sustainability, Bloomberg, to them, seemed a natural. So it is not surprising that the leading pundits and pollsters have rushed to confirm the election as a "done deal." But voters tend to view city politics as both a top down and bottom up process. For Democrats, a key question may well be whether their calls to strengthen the role of communities will make a difference on Election Day.

Tom Angotti is [rofessor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.

Closing the Landmarks Loophole

Photo from Save St. Brigid
St. Brigid's Church in the lower east side was recently saved from demolition by an independent wealthy donor.

Correction: When first published a caption in this story originally said St. Brigid's Church was saved by a landmark designation. It was in fact saved by an independent donor. This story also incorrectly said that an owner of a property could get a landmark designation overturned if it could show economic hardship. The owner could only appeal to get his or her permits back, if they were withdrawn by a landmark designation.

The battle between preservationists and building owners in New York City seems perennial. To an average observer, this struggle escalated over the last 15 years as two consecutive pro-development mayoral administrations and a red-hot real estate market combined to make building construction accelerate at a pace that has made heads spin. Despite their tremendous efforts, proponents of historic landmarking have witnessed countless examples of architecturally important buildings renovated, altered or destroyed.

At the very core of the city's land-marking laws overseen by the 11-member Landmarks Preservation Commission lies a fundamental paradox that allows one city agency to function in virtual isolation from what another agency may be doing. The landmarks commission must give advance notice of possible designation to a building owner -- or for a historic district, owners. This, along with the time lag before any landmarks proposal goes on the calendar for consideration, creates a de facto loophole in the law.

Specifically, the Department of Buildings can grant work permits even when the landmarks commission has a building within its sights, a trick that has given more than a few developers time to alter a building sufficiently to make preservation irrelevant. Much has been written over the years discussing this loophole, including an editorial in the New York Times last December, urging legislators and the mayor to take action to prevent this from continuing. Now, some members of the City Council are heeding that call.

Closing the Loophole

Manhattan Councilmember Rosie Mendez has a bill, which she first submitted to the Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses subcommittee in 2007, that seeks to improve communications between the landmarks commission and the buildings department.

The legislation requires that landmarks notify the buildings department, when a property has been "calendared" for designation as a landmark and, conversely, that the buildings department tells the landmarks commission when it has received applications for work on a building being considered for landmarks status. The buildings department also would have to inform the landmarks commission when it receives applications for work on buildings that have been calendared for designation as a landmark. If a building eventually is designated as a landmark, the bill would revoke permits for façade work previously issued by the buildings department.

Calendaring refers to the scheduling of a full Landmarks Preservation Commission public hearing on a property. Only the commission chair can determine whether or not a property comes before the entire commission. The landmarks commission does have 40 days from the time a property owner applies for a building permit in which it can decide to designate a property and so stop the permit from being issued.

Intro. 542A was given its second public hearing in June after languishing for two years following an initial one. "We're hoping this time ... we're getting through," said Mendez's chief of staff, Lisa Kaplan, who said she is unsure what the bill's current status is. "It's not clear where were going from here," she said, adding that the council's legal team is reviewing the bill's wording.

It is also unclear exactly why the bill received another hearing after all this time. Andrew Doba, a spokesperson for Council Speaker Christine Quinn, said the legislative process takes time "to get things to where we want them to be ... where there is widespread consensus." Doba added, "There are quite a lot of moving parts in this ... complicated bill."

The East Village Example

Mendez was spurred by the long-running fight to preserve the CHARAS building in her East Village district. That former public school had been converted into a community and arts center and was subsequently sold by the Giuliani administration. Even though community activists successfully rallied to convince the landmarks commission to award CHARAS landmark status, the new owner took advantage of pre-existing permits to remove vital architectural characteristics after the designation.

Many preservation groups support the proposed changes in Mendez's bill. In testimony at the June hearing, Andrea Goldwyn, director of public policy for the New York Landmarks Conservancy, cautioned, that what she-called "pre-emptive" permits should not be allowed to prevent or circumvent the designation of worthy historical sites and structures."

For its part, the landmarks commission has expressed some support for Intro. 542-A. In his testimony, commission counsel Mark Silberman said, "The bill attempts to address a serious issue, of property owners pulling permits for inappropriate work in an attempt to foil landmark designation. Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence."

Opposing Arguments

The legislation would allow a property owner to have the permit withdrawal overturned by the city's Board of Standards and Appeals if it would cause the owner economic hardship or if the owner has already made a significant investment in the property. Despite this, the Real Estate Board of New York testified against 542A arguing that the proposed appeals process would be "very expensive." Even in the event the Board of Standards finds in a developer's favor, the Real Estate Board argued, the lag between the challenge and the decision would create delays, cost the developer money and could jeopardize financing.

The bill "would impede development and renovation, delay many desirable projects and reduce construction jobs," the board's representatives testified. "It’s simply unfair to owners working in good faith to rescind a validly issued permit and it’s hardly a recipe for lowering development costs and revitalizing our economy."

A Question of Timing

Meanwhile, Queens Councilmember Tony Avella has submitted two landmarks-related bills, while wrangling with city lawyers on a third. That bill would go even farther than Mendez's, essentially overriding the buildings department and allowing the suspension of existing work permits. "There's no reason why it's [not] in the public interest to drop demolition permits" at any point during the landmarking process, Avella observed.

Landmarking activists have repeatedly expressed concern about the timing and sequence of buildings department work permits on one hand and landmarks status on the other. In an April letter to Robert Tierney, landmarks commission chair, about the pending South Village Historic District, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation executive director Andrew Berman wrote that his organization has "very strong concerns about ... the very real potential for further and accelerated losses depending upon how the designation of the first phase of the proposed district is handled."

While testifying against 542A, the Real Estate Board of New York also addressed the time factor. "Building calendaring can come unexpectedly and quickly, making the building permits [a] meaningless pieces of paper. ... It is not always clear what buildings the [commission] is considering," it said.

The situation for owners and developers gets even dicier, the board testified, because the commission may leave matters open-ended. "After calendaring, it’s unclear when, if ever, they will make a decision about the designation. ... Some buildings that had not been designated after several reviews still have gotten reviewed again. Years of preparation work and expenditures on the part of a developer can be lost in a few weeks when the [landmark commission] decides to take yet another look at a property."

Avella's Intro. 1034 creates a specific timeframe for the landmarking process and directs the commission to schedule (calendar) a nominated building for consideration within 90 days, after which a public meeting must be held. If at that meeting three or more commissioners agree with the designation, the commission would have 60 days to make it official.

Avella's other bill, submitted in 2008, requires "experience-based qualifications" for landmarks commissioners. As presently written, the landmarks law requires the commission to be comprised of at least three architects, one historian, one city planner or landscape architect, and one realtor along with at least one resident of each borough. As Avella pointed out, there's no requirement for any member to have experience with historic preservation. The closest they get, Avella said, "is the historian -- but [no one] has to have any knowledge of our historical or architectural heritage."

Jillian Jonas is a freelance journalist focusing on local and national politics, government and public policy. She is a former national political analyst for U.P.I.

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