Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Redefining Economic Development

A fledgling coalition of some of the most prominent economic development groups in the city have been meeting over the last year to create a blueprint that offers a comprehensive and alternative vision of what development should look like in the Bloomberg era. “Re-Defining Economic Development” -- or RED NY, as this coalition’s efforts are called -- began as an attempt to make new development projects in the city more accountable. Its participants all have the conviction that New York’s prosperity should be shared more broadly throughout the city.

Planning Sessions

The roots of Re-Defining New York go back to a series of meetings in 2004 -– the Subsidy Accountability Strategy Session -- that were put together by Jobs with Justice New York, a group that organizes to support the rights of workers and increase their standard of living. At these meetings more than 40 organizations, including the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, Good Jobs New York and the Pratt Center for Community Development, attempted to figure out how to demand more public benefit from projects that received incentives and subsidies from the city and state coffers.

The sessions didn’t produce the landmark organizing campaign that the participants had hoped for. But it did highlight the considerable economic development activism across the city. And so more than a year later, at a meeting in November of 2005, Jobs with Justice, along with Good Jobs and Pratt, again invited dozens of activists to participate in a series of meetings, this time called Re-Defining Economic Development (RED NY).

At this November meeting, participants offered a look at their current campaigns for progressive economic development, including efforts to:

This gathering did not try to come up with a new city-wide campaign, but rather to coordinate existing organizing efforts. The ultimate goal was to craft a comprehensive template for the public and private pursuit of economic development in New York City that served the interests of New Yorkers with low and moderate incomes.

The Underbelly of New York’s Success

The perspective of the RED NY organizers was best captured in a presentation made by the executive director of the Pratt Center, Brad Lander (who is also co-founder of this community development topic page). Lander first described the economic development priorities of the Bloomberg administration as laid out in the administration’s own literature: To make New York City more livable so that residents, workers and business owners would want to be in New York; to create an environment in NYC that enables businesses to generate jobs and be competitive; to diversify the New York economy and make it less Manhattan-centric and less dependent on the financial services industry.

But then Lander juxtaposed these laudable priorities with the starker underbelly of economic life in New York City. Yes, over the past 15 years, the city has been resurgent in several ways, with a declining crime rate, improved public transportation, extensive neighborhood re-development, rising property values and expanding service and entertainment industries. But in that same time, the city has experienced more poverty and widening income disparities between rich and poor. Rising costs in housing, health and energy are making it increasingly difficult for people to survive. New York has seen a decline in industrial employment, a concentration of environmentally destructive uses and a corresponding lack of quality-of-life investments in low-income areas, and a continued flight of the middle class to the suburbs. Property, rather than the lives of working people, has become the center of discourse and thinking around economic development. To help make his point, Lander showed pictures from the Bloomberg administration’s development plan dominated by pictures of tall buildings and a smattering of shiny white faces.

Andrew Brent, a spokesman for the Bloomberg Administration’s Economic Development Corporation said that it would be a “complete mischaracterization of the Bloomberg Administration’s economic development plan” to suggest that it puts brick and mortar before people. “We’re creating jobs in all the five boroughs”, Brent said. “To me that’s putting people first.”

Although he said that it would be inappropriate to comment on RED New York until it officially presented its “blueprint”, Brent said that he didn’t interpret RED New York as being critical of the administration.

Next Steps

Since the November meeting of RED NY, a working group consisting of more than a dozen organizations has emerged to establish a set of principles that could possibly be “endorsed” by a broad range of organizing and advocacy groups in the city. One suggestion is that these principles could then be used to judge the candidates for governor, and encourage them to adopt a progressive platform on economic development. RED NY is also organizing training sessions designed to help people from different economic development disciplines establish common ground and a common understanding of the issues.

The greatest challenge for RED New York is to turn what is now an ambitious conversation about a new economic development “vision” into something that will have a measurable impact on people’s lives. One problem is that economic development means different things to different people. Those, for instance, working to provide health benefits for home care attendants in Flatbush may be hard pressed to be part of the same “blueprint” with those trying to preventing toxic dumping in the South Bronx or those pressuring a developer to provide job training in Harlem.

But Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, is very clear on the practical uses for a new economic development blueprint. The Fifth Avenue Committee is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to stop Bruce Ratner from demolishing six buildings en route to building the Nets stadium and hundreds of commercial and residential units over Atlantic Yards in downtown Brooklyn.

What de la Uz envisions is a set of standards for job creation, environmental impact, buy-in from the surrounding area, etc. that the city or a private developer could be held to whenever they planned to use public resources. In her opinion such a standard would have set a much higher bar for Ratner to clear before he was able to pursue the Nets Arena project. The surrounding neighborhood, in de la Uz’s opinion, would have had “real” community benefit “guarantees” instead of what she considers to be the highly questionable and unenforceable promises for job creation and affordable housing that Ratner was able to negotiate.

“This process is long overdue”, insisted de la Uz. “I wish we had the political will a year ago to implement what will eventually come out of the RED NY process.”

Mark Winston Griffith, co-director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project and a fellow at the Drum Major Institute, has been in charge of the community development topic page since its inception in 2003. 


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