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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union
 

Opinion

Building a Better Buildings Department


Photo by Jason Kuffer
The Department of Buildings had issued 13 violations for this Manhattan site where a 2008 crane collapse killed seven people.

The tragic deaths this month of two veteran ironworkers at a West 83rd Street construction site were a shocking reminder of how perilous construction work can be in our city. What was not so shocking, unfortunately, was the trail of workplace violations that were issued by the city Department of Buildings at the site after the fatalities -- 11 in all, including eight, Class 1 violations, which are defined by the city as posing a "threat that severely affects life, health, [and] safety." In this case, that included failures to install vertical netting, guard rails and toe boards, all safety features intended to prevent serious falls.

No system of inspections is ever going to prevent every accident. But for too long the city's Department of Buildings has been plagued by bureaucratic inefficiency, allegations of corruption and missed warning signs at fatal construction sites. A big part of this problem, I believe, can be traced to the department's conflicting mission to both promote and police development. On the one hand, its agents are charged with issuing permits to allow new developments; on the other, its inspectors are called upon to issue violations at those same developments when problems arise.

 

There is a better way. The city should create an independent office of inspections, one that streamlines the inspection process but also removes any tension within the buildings department over its dual role.

This is an idea with broad and deep support. Both the city's business and labor communities have endorsed the concept of an independent inspection office, as did a task force set up by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as far back as 2000. And yet the issue remains unresolved, despite a well-documented history of lax -- and sometimes dangerous -- oversight problems.

City Hall's announcement this week that building permits would now include bar codes -- allowing residents to use smart phones to access information already available online-- is a welcome advance. But it falls well short of the major reform that is needed at the buildings department.

A History of Deadly Problems

The untimely deaths of veteran steelworkers Brett McEnroe, 49, and Roy Powell, 51, at the West 83rd Street site last week are only the latest examples. On March 15, 2008, a crane collapsed at a construction site in East Midtown, killing seven people; the Department of Buildings had issued 13 violations for this site. Two months later, a crane toppled over on the Upper East Side, killing two people at a site with 14 violations.

The common denominator in all these accidents was a lengthy backlog of open buildings department and Environmental Control Board violations, as well as a flurry of new ones issued in the wake of disaster.

A later report by my office found tens of thousands of Manhattan buildings to have serious safety or structural violations, including many schools and hospitals. The report also examined long-standing complaints about the erratic training of building department inspectors, as well as the antiquated system of hand-written violation records the agency still uses.

Taking Advantage of the Slump

It is time to reform the buildings department, and the time to do it is now, while the issuance of new building permits is down some 80 percent since 2006 as a result of the still-stalled economy. We must act now so that when good times do return -- as they always do in New York -- we will be ready with a modernized, streamlined Department of Buildings.

We need to establish an independent inspection office. We need to properly train our inspectors. And we need to arm them with handheld computers -- already used by other agencies -- so that information about violations can be swiftly relayed to other inspectors and property owners.

We know the next building boom is coming -- the New York Building Congress counted 692 "stalled" building sites in the five boroughs last October, many of them just waiting for the economy to turn the corner. Together, these projects represent hundreds of millions of dollars of unrealized investment -- and thousands of good paying construction jobs.

New York's building stock is the backbone of our urban infrastructure and is no less important than the roads and railways that keep us all connected. Failing to properly regulate its growth and safety is a risk we can no longer afford.

Scott Stringer is Manhattan borough president.

Experience Shows Living Wage Policies Work


After recently scuttling a bill that would require paid sick days, the Bloomberg administration and the business community now are training their sights on two more City Council proposals intended to help workers. The bills ask developers who receive major taxpayer subsidies to guarantee that the jobs their big projects create will pay decent wages.

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In its efforts to combat this initiative, the administration and its allies have raised a number of arguments. But examination of the facts shows that the objections have no basis in reality. Instead, New York's own experiences and those of other cities demonstrate that living-wage policies are important tools for ensuring that development delivers the middle-class jobs that communities -- and our economy -- need in order to recover and thrive.

The City Council Proposals

The City Council proposals would build on the city's current living-wage law, which was enacted in 1995 and broadened in 2002. It guarantees a $10 minimum wage plus benefits or the prevailing industry wage (whichever is higher) for certain types of service workers at companies that operate under contracts with city agencies. The new proposals (Intro 0018 and Intro 0251) would expand these successful local wage standards to workers employed on taxpayer-subsidized economic development projects.

Every year, the city awards many millions of dollars in tax breaks to promote growth across the five boroughs -- everything from the Hudson Yards project on the West Side, to the new Coney Island in Brooklyn. While these projects are touted for the jobs they will create, security guards and cashiers at subsidized projects often are paid just $8 or $9 per hour with no benefits.

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Under the City Council proposals, when developers seek such taxpayer subsidies, they would need to recruit tenants and building service contractors that will provide decently paying jobs. Specifically, on projects where developers receive subsidies, all workers would be required to be paid at least $10 per hour -- a very modest wage floor. And for building service workers -- for whom the standard wage in most large buildings in New York is more than $20 per hour -- developers would be required to match that prevailing industry wage.

Big Real Estate, Not Small Businesses

For starters, the administration says the bills would hurt small business. But the developers that receive these subsidies are about as far from small businesses as one can get. And the businesses they bring in as partners are typically major retail and hotel chains, not mom-and-pop shops.

In fact, small businesses generally oppose the city's policy of subsidizing big development projects, because it gives the chain stores an unfair advantage over local mom-and-pops that don't get tax breaks. That is why small-business groups like the Neighborhood Retail Alliance support the City Council's living-wage and prevailing-wage bills. They argue that if these big projects are going to be supported with taxpayer funds, they should at least pay their workers decently.

Developers Will Still Develop

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's other main argument is that it is unrealistic to ask developers to guarantee decent wages and that doing so will kill projects and jobs. That's a serious charge. But the experiences of New York and other major cities present compelling evidence to the contrary.

Although you would never know it from the mayor's rhetoric, Bloomberg has required wage standards on most major development projects across the city in order to win City Council support. This started in 2005 with the redevelopment of the Brooklyn waterfront in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Bloomberg, then–City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and developers signed an agreement to pay decent wages to the janitors and security guards who would eventually be employed in the buildings there. Far from killing any projects or jobs, the developers eagerly moved forward with new luxury high-rises up and down the waterfront. Today, buildings like the Toll Brothers' Northside Piers complex in Williamsburg operate profitably, while paying their janitors solid, middle-class wages.

Since 2005, the city has gone on to use similar standards on other major projects, such as the Willets Point, Coney Island and Domino Sugar factory redevelopments. There is no evidence that the wage guarantees have hurt the city's ability to recruit developers, or developers' ability to get financing or attract tenants for their projects.

But while New York has begun to make progress, it still must play catch-up to other cities in what it expects from businesses that benefit from taxpayers' largesse. Los Angeles, under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has been the national leader in making the creation of living-wage jobs a top priority. No major subsidized development project there goes forward without a living-wage standard -- not just for building service workers, but employees in all low-wage jobs that may be generated. Projects ranging from the Staples Center/L.A. Live sports-and-entertainment district and the Kodak Theater (host to the Academy Awards), to hotel and retail development projects have been built using living-wage standards.

Los Angeles' economic development agency has found that these standards have not prevented developers from balancing project budgets, getting financing, and finding anchor tenants. The employers that the city has partnered with on these projects include major hotel chains like Marriott, Ritz and the W; food-service contractors like HMS Host and Aramark; and retailers like Trader Joe's and Costco.

San Francisco, under Mayor Gavin Newsom, has used the same strategy with equal success. For example, the massive redevelopment of the city's Hunters Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point section announced this summer (which will include 635,000 square feet of retail, 2.6 million square feet of office and research space, 10,000 residential units, and a football stadium) will require living wages for all jobs in the project area. The Lennar Corp., the nation's second-largest homebuilder, eagerly sought city approval for the project. The city's living wage was so uncontroversial that there was virtually no mention of it during the public debate over the project.

Stalling With a Study

In an effort to delay action on the proposed bills, the Bloomberg administration has commissioned a million-dollar study of the impact that living-wage laws have had across the nation. The administration hired the nation's leading anti-minimum wage economist, David Neumark from the University of California at Irvine, to conduct the analysis. Neumark, who is affiliated with the Employment Policies Institute -- a lobbying group for low-wage employers seeking to keep wages low -- has staked out an extreme and controversial position on wage standards. He opposed even the modest increase in the federal minimum wage to $7.25.

Worse still, his research on living-wage policies has been exposed as fatally flawed. Rather than gather actual data on workers and businesses covered by living-wage policies, Neumark attempts to tease out the impact of such measures from general citywide employment data. However, as more careful economists have pointed out, in most of the cities that have adopted living-wage laws, the policy affects only a very small number of workers. And it simply is not possible to discern the impact -- whether positive or negative -- on such a tiny sliver of the labor market from general data.

Benefits of Living Wages

Last month, the Center for American Progress released an important new national study of living-wage laws that definitively debunked Neumark's findings. It puts to rest the real estate lobby's claims that living-wage policies have impeded job growth by creating an "anti-development" business climate. And it lends support to the large body of careful research over the past decade that has examined actual living-wage policies on the ground -- and documented substantial benefits, not just for workers but also for employers.

For example, in a case study of San Francisco International Airport, University of California economists found the living-wage policy there raised pay by an average of 22 percent for workers such as security screeners, cashiers and restaurant servers. At the same time, airport employers saw annual turnover for security screeners plummet from 94.7 percent to 18.7 percent, resulting in annual savings of $4,275 per employee in recruitment costs. Employers also reported improvements in employee performance, employee morale, and customer service.

Rebuilding the City’s Middle Class and Economy

Bloomberg has begun promoting New York's record of job growth as a model for the nation. But that job growth has produced an hourglass economy, with high-paying finance jobs at the top, low-wage service jobs at the bottom, and less and less for the city's eroding middle class.

Los Angeles has provided a road map for a pro-growth development strategy that expands the tax base and brings in new employers, while improving wages for hotel, retail, and service workers. New York needs to learn from this approach.

Producing more middle-class jobs is vital, not only for New York’s working families, but also for its economy. Because consumer demand powers our economy, a thriving middle class that can afford to spend money at local businesses is essential for sustaining growth. New York's recovery strategy must therefore include initiatives for rebuilding a base of good jobs at good wages for the workers who make the city run. The City Council’s living-wage and prevailing-wage proposals are a good place to start.

Paul K. Sonn is legal co-director of theNational Employment Law Project

The Charter Commission's Unfinished Business


The city has gone through many charters -- and revisions of charters -- since Peter Stuyvesant and his counsel prepared one in 1652. And, writes Scott Stringer, a lot more work needs to be done.

New York City voters will be deciding several proposals for City Charter reform on the November ballot -- and I urge all readers of the Gotham Gazette to participate in this year's election. It's crucial that the people's voice be heard on such issues, and we're fortunate that Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed a city Charter Revision Commission with intelligent, hard-working members who take their job seriously.

 

But I'm disappointed that voters will not be able to review a more comprehensive list of reforms this year -- changes that could have had a dramatic impact on everything from overcrowded schools and inefficient land use planning to innovative food use policies and the empowerment of our community boards. Indeed, I see this year's charter election as a missed opportunity. We have a mere handful of proposals before us this November, and no indication that a more thorough consideration of local government is in the offing.

With a 21-year-break since the last comprehensive charter revision, there was no need to rush the deliberate process of charter reform. And yet that's essentially what the commission did. It had a rare opportunity to engage New Yorkers in a careful re-thinking of our municipal constitution, but instead focused on getting a package before voters in this election.

Earlier this year my office released a 76-page report to the New York City Charter Revision Commission, outlining a series of comprehensive proposals for reform. The city could deal with these and other proposed changes and put them on the ballot next year -- but only if the mayor appoints and convenes a new commission. I strongly recommend that he do just that. With proper public hearings and input, we could finally have a long overdue discussion about the future of our city.

There are a number of instances where the current Charter Commission could have proposed action to remedy a problem facing New York but failed to do so. Here are just a few examples:

  • The issue of overcrowded schools, for example, shows no signs of abating. Every year we hear new horror stories of children unable to enroll in neighborhood schools because of a lack of space. The problem, as my office has shown in several reports, stems from a lack of planning. We revealed that, in one year, New York issued permits for residential construction that would bring 2,300 new students into Manhattan schools, but added only 143 new school seats.

The Department of Education may simply not be well equipped to do this critical planning, but other city agencies already have the expertise and data to plan. Therefore, my office proposed a charter revision requiring that an agency other than the Department of Education focus on this problem: The Department of City Planning would provide student enrollment projections; the Office of the Comptroller would conduct regular needs analyses on school capacity.

  • Our local Community Boardsare thriving in Manhattan, and they play an increasingly visible role in land use decisions. But they need better tools to represent our citizens. I proposed a charter amendment restoring the role of Community Boards as Community Planning Boards. Among a variety of recommendations, I suggested that each board should have the ability to hire a full-time urban planner. This would enable more robust community-based planning and give all of our neighborhoods a greater voice in decisions about New York’s future.
  • As borough president, I have spearheaded Go Green projects in East Harlem and the Lower East Side that promote more environmentally responsible policies and healthier and more sustainable food policy. Indeed, food is at the intersection of health, hunger and the local economy. Rates of diabetes and obesity rosean alarming 17 percent between 2002 and 2004. Today 1.6 million New Yorkers are on food stamps and 3.3 million have trouble affording food. That’s why I sponsored a proposal calling for a Department of Food and Markets to promote food access and economy, and make New Yorkers healthier.
  • For decades, the city's Department of Buildings has been plagued by corruption and dysfunction. Many buildings are notoriously unsafe, with only rare or sporadic inspections. In fall 2009, my office conducted a thorough review of open Department of Buildings and Environmental Control Board violations and foundthat there were nearly a quarter of a million open violations in Manhattan alone. A full third of those were considered "Class 1" or "hazardous." Violations in New York buildings remain open -- or unresolved -- for nearly five years on average. We can't keep waiting for tragedies to happen. I proposed a charter amendment transferring building inspection and remediation duties from the buildings department to a new and independent Office of Investigation.
  • The responsibilities of a borough president have evolved since the position was created in 1897. Today the charter mandates a key role in land use and capital budget decisions, contract oversight, strategic planning, oversight of community boards and appointments to key boards and commissions. The job is largely what you make it: In Manhattan I’ve launched Bank On, a program aimed at persuading thousands of unbanked New Yorkers to open accounts; we created a new 600-seat school as part of negotiations over NYU expansion; we opened a community asthma center in East Harlem that is one of the first of its kind.

    Although borough presidents are meant to be an independent check and balance to the mayor and City Council, their budgets are set and approved by those branches of government. I've proposed a charter amendment granting borough presidents independent budgetary authority, so these elected officials would have a freer hand. Another proposal would allow borough presidents to hire land use counsel to help them beef up planning reviews as they help shape the growth of our city.

    These are the kind of proposals that could and should be on the ballot next year, but only if Mayor Bloomberg appoints a new Charter Revision Commission. As borough president, I will continue to fight for meaningful charter reform, so we finally have a chance to tackle long overdue changes in the nation’s largest city. No one knows what needs to be improved in New York City’s government better than the 8 million people we’re supposed to serve. It's time to begin the conversation.

    Scott M. Stringer is Manhattan borough president.

Once Again, Term Limits Goes to the Voters


john liu
Eric Gioia, John Liu, David Weprin and Charles Barron -- then all members of the City Council --held a press conference to oppose extension of term limits in October 2008.

(This is the second article in a series of commentaries Gotham Gazette will run between now and Election Day on the charter proposals appearing on the November ballot.)

The issue of term limits has been a political hot potato in this city for the past 20 years. It has pitted the public against their elected officials and done significant damage to our democracy in the process. The latest chapter in this story will take place on Nov. 2 when voters will yet again get an opportunity to decide whether they want their city elected officials to have two or three terms.

That question and a number of others were put on the ballot by a Charter Revision Commission appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg this past March. The Charter Commission was created in the aftermath of the controversial decision by city elected officials to extend term limits to three terms in 2008. This action overturned the will of the people as expressed in two public referendums on the subject. In the first referendum, in 1993, the voters overwhelming expressed their support for a two term limit for all city elected officials. Not satisfied with that answer, the City Council in 1996 put another referendum on the ballot that would extend term limits to three terms. The voters soundly rejected that suggestion.

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This tumultuous history formed the backdrop for the work of the 2010 Charter Commission. Although the Charter Commission was charged with performing a top-to-bottom review of the New York charter, its first obligation was to address the term-limits question. I was one of the 15 members of the Charter Commission, and ironically, one of the few members who supports the general idea of term limits. However, regardless of their own personal beliefs, most members of the Charter Commission believed that, given the prior referendums and the public outrage over the way things were reversed in 2008, it was vitally important to our democracy for the voters to have an opportunity to settle this issue once and for all.

Although the term-limits issue will appear on the ballot as a single measure -- Question 1 -- actually is comprised of three separate questions, not one. The Charter Commission lumped them together as one question due to space limitations imposed on us by the Board of Elections. (The board has subsequently denied any such limitations, but that's the subject of another story.) The three parts of Question 1 attempt to address the public's request for a final, binding say on the issue of term limits for city officials. My belief is that we went a long way toward accomplishing that goal, but we failed to finish the job.

I believe that we did get it right on the first two parts of Question 1. Part one of the question gives voters the chance to decide whether we should return to a limit of two terms for all city elected officials. If the electorate rejects going back to two terms, then the current three-term limit will be retained. Part two of Question 1 would prohibit the City Council from altering the terms of elected officials currently holding office. This means that council members can only modify the term-limits law for future city officials, and not for themselves. In many respects, this closes the "loophole" that caused so much public outrage in 2008.

But it is part three of Question 1 that sparked the most debate and disagreement within the Charter Commission. That part provides that the proposed change back to two terms would apply only to city elected officials who were first elected at or after the 2010 general election. In other words, all incumbents who are not already in their third terms would be "grandfathered in" and will have the opportunity of serving three terms. Since the next City Council election will not take place until 2013, the two-term limit would not fully take effect until 2021.

It's my contention that this essentially creates a new "loophole" that will only perpetuate the public's lack of faith in government. It is also logically inconsistent with the other parts of Question 1. If we are providing the public with an option of two terms because of the outrage and loss of trust that was engendered by the 2008 change, then why would we extend this questionable windfall?

As stated in a Minority Report that I authored along with two fellow Charter Commissioners, "The 2008 change from two terms to three was made effective immediately. The change back from three to two -- if the voters approve it -- should be no different. Elected officials are not entitled to a certain number of terms. We see no justification for exempting any elected official from the two-term limit, should the voters reinstitute one."

I am not an advocate for government by referendum. We have all seen the chaos it has caused in California. We live in a representative democracy, and it works well for the most part. However, there are some areas of government that are so vulnerable to self-interest and self-dealing that the only way to bring about change is through a public referendum. For example, the City Council can currently raise its own pay. How many people believe it should have that right or that it will ever give up that power on its own accord? Similarly, incumbents will never willingly reduce their own terms, even if it means defying the will of the people who elected them.

That is why despite my own reservations about the effective date of the term limits provision, I strongly support it and urge voters to vote yes on ballot Question 1. It's an important first step toward reversing what happened in 2008 and restoring some of the trust that was lost along with it. Hopefully in the next year either a new charter commission or a public referendum will eliminate the exemption for incumbents and finish the job we started.

Anthony P. Cassino, a lawyer who lives in the Bronx, was a member of the 2010 Charter Revision Commission.

Full-Time Council Would Better Serve New Yorkers


New York City Council

We want and expect our City Council members to be the best and brightest our city has to offer, but it is becoming harder and harder to expect top-of-the-line professionals to choose public service. A recent Gotham Gazette article reported that many City Council members earn outside income, with some making substantial amounts. This suggests that New York City's council members should be full-time city employees. Such a change would go a long way to truly reforming our city government.

Currently, council members make $112,000 per year (I'm one of a handful of council members who doesn't receive a "lulu" for chairing a committee); our city's absurd tax burden just about cuts that in half. I own my home in my district, and that is an expensive undertaking even by New York City standards. By no means am I asking for sympathy, I feel that I’m a lucky one -- I live comfortably, and I'm very thankful for that.

 

Millions of New Yorkers no doubt pay their bills while earning less than their council member makes. Even though council members do have to disclose their incomes, the salary ranges they report have enormous variation -- sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. You could throw a dart at a board with random salaries on it and make a better guess at what your council member earns moonlighting.

A Council Member's Job

Rather than have all this vague disclosure, the city should mandate that council members put in 40-hour weeks to enable them to provide true, full-time constituent services. Along with that, the city should increase the pay for the position. We should have to fill out time sheets just as our subordinates do and account for our time. Of course, some of the members already devote far in excess of a 40-hour week to their districts and the city, and for that, I am grateful.

We need to make an investment in our city's legislative body that will ultimately make the council stronger and more responsive to the people. I consider myself a full-time council member, working over 60 hours a week for District 19. I come to my council office every day and go to every council meeting and attend meetings for six different committees. I meet with community leaders and constituents throughout the morning, deal with office matters and travel around my district and the city to events in the late afternoons and evenings, including weekends. My district office is open on weekends and has a late night each week to better serve the varied schedules of my constituents, and we also are available on the web; I even update my major events and happenings on Facebook and Twitter to keep people informed.

In saying this, I'm not digging for compliments. As I see it, I'm just doing my job. But technically, the role of council member is only a part-time position. Many of my colleagues work full- or part-time elsewhere, and who can blame them? They are accustomed to earning more than their council salaries in the private sector, and it's perfectly legal (assuming they avoid conflicts of interest, of course). And for many, the extra work is necessary to make ends meet.

The Full-time Advantage

Making the job full-time would give New Yorkers the complete attention from their elected officials that they deserve, and constituents would notice the difference. Council members would be more active in the community and be more hands-on in addressing their constituents' concerns. Leaders in business, law and other fields would be more inclined to run for public office and the entire city would benefit from the dedication.

Dozens of city department heads make over $200,000 per year, as well they should. They are top-shelf leaders and professionals who run complex agencies, supervising hundreds or thousands of personnel. Executive-level talent will earn at least twice this much, if not far more, in the private sector. And running New York City's bureaucratic, heavily regulated and sometimes archaic government is as challenging as any job you’ll find in the courtroom or on Wall Street.

We've seen the conflicts of interest that occur when elected officials run businesses on the side. For example, former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno was taken down by the blurring of the lines between outside income and political influence. It is not even the actual scandal or wrongdoing that will happen no matter how careful we are; a move toward full-time legislators would provide an atmosphere where even the very appearance of impropriety could not survive because influence peddling would have been largely stamped out.

Our public servants would be fully invested in one thing: public service. The time has come to ask our elected officials to make a full time commitment to the city and in turn, have the city make a full time commitment to them. It's about good government, it's about focused leaders -- it's about time.

Daniel J. Halloran, a Republican, represents Queens 19th District in the New York City Council.

Republicans, A Call to Arms


Photo from James Oddo 09
Councilmember James Oddo with fellow Republican Councilmember Vincent Ignizio

Five for fighting?

Not so much.

Go along to get along?

Don’t expect that either.

 

With the growth of the Republican delegation to five members and a potential shift further to the left in the rest of the City Council, increasingly folks are realizing that the Republican delegation I proudly lead is positioned at the crossroads of city government and as such will play a larger role in the goings on at City Hall.

If you are a fan of democracy, you should welcome this turn of events, as it will result in greater and more substantive debate and a louder, stronger voice shared by hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers (dare I say even more than that?).

Historically, and still true today, the City Council has not had the level of partisan vitriol that has played out in Albany and our nation’s capital. Perhaps that's because it's a unicameral legislature. Or, more bluntly, maybe it's because in the modern council there have been so few Republicans there was a need for us to simply coexist to exist. Whether it was Tom Ognibene and Peter Vallone Sr., or Gifford Miller, current Speaker Christine Quinn and I, the leaders of the two major parties in the council more often than not have found a way to transcend ideological differences in order to strive for common ground, coalitions and consensus.

There is great value in bipartisanship but make no mistake, those of us on the other side of the aisle have never been shrinking violets. In Joseph Heller’s stirring 1979 political novel, "Good as Gold," Ralph, a presidential aide, tells a job applicant, “This president doesn’t want ‘yes’ men. What we want are independent men of integrity who will agree with all our decisions after we make them.”

That will not be the 2010 incarnation of the Council’s GOP delegation. (Not that anyone who has been following the council, even in a cursory way, needs to be convinced of our approach.)

A Middle Class Agenda

For years, we have talked about the need for genuine structural fiscal integrity, focusing tax dollars on essential services and not having a city government that attempts to be all things to all people from cradle to grave. We have voted against tax increases at every turn, rejected misguided legislation that hurt small business and tried to ensure our actions reflected a sensitivity to a precious, yet threatened resource in New York City -- the hard-working middle class, who find it tougher and tougher to pay their bills, provide for their families and have a decent quality of life.

Sometimes we did it with humor, and at times with anger, and there was even one occasion where we did not get past the first course at a dinner at Gracie Mansion because we thought a statement needed to be made. But perhaps now, as a five-man delegation that will speak in a respectful, informed voice, we can team with an emboldened cadre of like-minded Democratic allies, who also have grown weary of seeing their constituents pay too dear a price for a city government that seems to take them for granted and taxes them into the ground.

While I believe that our words and deeds in the past have impacted the direction of this council in a positive way, we genuinely hope that in the coming term the positions of this delegation will be viewed as more than just a token protest vote.

Rather, it is our goal to make the most of the burgeoning influence of a coalition of centrist council members who are willing to stand up on behalf of taxpayers and small business owners who are under siege. We will be needed to enact legislation. We will be needed to stop counterproductive legislation from being passed. We will be needed to override bills or to stop bills rightly vetoed from being overridden. In short, true progress won’t happen without us and we will not squander the opportunity we have to effect change.

A quick example to illustrate my point.

In March 2004, I took to the floor of the Council Chambers amazed that all of my colleagues were seemingly nonplussed that we were about to enact a budget modification that in part was being implemented to allocate an additional $250 million dollars to the city’s Medicaid responsibilities. There was nary a peep! This from the same group of learned colleagues who literally spend weeks and months in hearings questioning agency heads, in budget negotiating team meetings debating the efficacy of just about every individual program the city institutes, and dare I say arguing in borough delegations as to what should be reflected as their priorities in the budget process. All this time and energy dedicated to a process, at the end of which, the council shifts only slightly more money than the aforementioned Medicaid budget modification that, but for my rant, would have gone without comment.

For too many of my colleagues, feeding the Medicaid monster a quarter of a billion dollars midyear was so acceptable as to not even warrant a query. Perhaps, this is why Medicaid and its three ugly “uncontrollable” sisters (pension and health care costs for city employees and debt service) have grown some 77 percent in the last eight years and are in large measure what is driving the daunting budget gaps we face for the next several years. It seems too often, the council forgets that it is a zero sum game and that every dollar spent on “A” is one less dollar available for police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, etc. More frustrating at times, is the simple truth that many members have very different priorities and their definition of “essential” services differs greatly from many New Yorkers.

Healthy Debate

It is the hope of this delegation that a healthier debate on this question will now ensue and decisions that are currently foregone conclusions and the result of what appears to us as reflexive, typical knee jerk reactions, will now have to be enacted after a fuller discussion in which Democrats and Republicans challenge the all-too-accustomed orthodoxy of the council.

We genuinely respect all of our colleagues regardless of political affiliation. Many of us in the council want to get to the same destination, but differ passionately on the route we take to get there. We appreciate that unlike the minority parties in other legislatures, we have been treated fairly and have been welcomed as vital members of this institution. We look at the happenings in Albany and thank the Lord we serve in an institution where getting the people’s business done is what matters, not the letter on our voter registration cards.

Speaker Quinn has continued and enhanced the standard set by Peter Vallone Sr. and Speaker Miller and has encouraged us to speak as forthrightly as we want. We have complex and difficult challenges ahead. We look forward to working with all 46 of our colleagues in fulfilling our duties and responsibilities.

James Oddo represents City Council district 50 on Staten Island and is the council's minority leader.

Re-enfranchising New Yorkers


The results from the primary elections on Sept. 15 were remarkable in two respects for those who worry about the health of democracy in New York.

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The electorate showed some spunk, or at least a measure of restiveness, rejecting five City Council incumbents in their bid for re-election. When you take a look at each race where the incumbent lost, it is easy enough to identify weaknesses. Each district has its own story, a blend of foible and miscalculation on the part of the incumbent, against the backdrop of the poor economy. It is also important to note that four of the ousted incumbents followed the lead of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Speaker Christine Quinn and voted to extend term limits last year (the fifth loser, Kenneth Mitchell from Staten Island, was not in office at the time of the vote). Many voters are still sour about the decision of the city's political establishment to change by local law what many voters viewed as an issue they had settled on in two referenda many years before.

Local politics is usually about getting a nice big slice of the pie for your neighborhood -- saving a fire house, some parking spots, or building a park or school -- but last month's election suggested that something quite different was in the air. The game is not just all about winning, but being fair. The decision to throw out term limits sticks in the collective throat of New Yorkers. That's the good news -- voters upset about process.

The second remarkable aspect of the election was the turnout. The final number is not in yet, but between 10 percent and 12 percent of registered Democrats came out on Sept. 15 to cast a vote. In last week's runoff primary for city comptroller and public advocate, the turnout was even lower, a little less than 8 percent. This is a startlingly low number. In the November 2008 general election (Barack Obama v. John McCain) 50 percent of all registered voters came out to vote; in the February Democratic primary for the presidential nomination (Obama v. Hillary Clinton) 33 percent of Democrats showed up.

The vitality of last year's political season has drained away. Recall that when the state legislature moved control of the city schools to the mayor in 2002, one of the most compelling arguments for changing the system was that local community school boards no longer worked, in part because no one was voting for members of the board. Voting percentages in school board contests in many neighborhoods often dipped into the same range as the turnout reported in the recent primary. Will the current system of closed primary elections in New York one day suffer from a crisis in legitimacy that we saw with school board elections? It certainly is tracking that way.

It is not just the fact that roughly 2.5 million Democrats stayed home. Another 711,000 independents (17 percent of all voters) are ineligible to vote to any closed party primary. About 482,000 Republicans and 130,000 third party registrants cannot participate in the all-important Democratic primary too. So, we are left with about 8 percent of the total registered electorate picking the local legislature in the closed Democratic primary election on September 15, since the winners are virtually a lock to win the general election races in all but three of the 51 districts in the November general election

The Case for Nonpartisan Elections

Francis Barry makes the case in The Scandal of the Reform that nonpartisan elections can bring the franchise back to voters who are not registered Democrats. "Why," he asks, "exclude independent voters from the first round of voting [the closed primary] if that is the decisive election?" Messy empirical and practical arguments aside, this is a compelling argument on its face. As new generations of voters entering the polity valuing their independence and refusing to commit to one political party or the other, the numbers of the effectively disenfranchised will only climb.

Most cities have nonpartisan elections; Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami are among the larger ones on the list. Municipal elected officials in nonpartisan cities still participate in partisan politics; Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a stalwart Democrat who is plotting a run for governor in his party's primary. In another nonpartisan city, Jersey City, Mayor Jerramiah Healy ran with the backing of the Hudson County Democratic machine. A point that is often lost is that nonpartisan election schemes can vary greatly; some cities allow candidates to identify themselves as partisans, others do not.

Bloomberg likes nonpartisan elections too, but he focuses more on the managerial quality of local government, along the lines of Fiorello LaGuardia's old chestnut that there is no partisan way to pick up the garbage. In 2003, Bloomberg established a charter commission under the chairmanship of Frank Macchiarola, the president of St. Francis College, to investigate and make recommendations for a nonpartisan election plan for the city. The commissioners worked hard, but faced overwhelming opposition from "reform" groups in New York. (I use the quotations here because Barry is not buying into the conventional nomenclature.)

Bloomberg's charter commission recommended giving candidates the option of indentifying their party affiliation if they chose, but opening the election to all registered voters, thus eliminating the closed party primary. If you are concerned about a crowded election contest that will produce a winner with 10 percent to 15 percent of the vote, no worries -- we can employ instant runoff techniques where voters can select their second and third choices. The top finishers can be paired off with the additional preferences supplied by voters and a winner with a legitimate majority can be crowned. (For more on instant runoff voting, see The Wonkster.)

Voters overwhelmingly rejected Macchiarola's plan for nonpartisan elections, 70 percent to 30 percent. But only 13 percent of registered voters bothered to show up for the off-year election of 2003, and many had ties to the unions, interest groups and political clubs that benefit from the status quo and know how to pull the levers of the current system to their advantage. They were loathe to expand the electorate and risk the surrender of power.

The Limits of 'Reform'

In a style reminiscent of the restaurant scene in Goodfellas in which we are introduced to Henry Hill's partners in crime in an extended panning shot, Barry describes a fundraiser in South Street Seaport for NYPIRG where he indentifies the good government players who came to pay their respects. The crowd at the fundraiser included the leadership of NYU's Brennan Center, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the Citizens Union -- almost all of them liberal Democrats. (Citizens Union's sister organization, Citizens Union Foundation, publishes Gotham Gazette.) Barry argues that the city's reform community is more interested in advancing a liberal Democratic policy agenda than in process questions -- putting the living wage before ballot access, so to speak -- and the reform groups are more than willing to accommodate the city's incumbents and political insiders to get the job done.

"Good government leaders preach the virtues of process purity until that process works against them," writes Barry. "Then they break their own rules and hope no one notices." The city's public interest groups may cloak themselves in the language of the common good, but by Barry's lights they are just pigs at the city's trough, slopping up power and influence.

It was not always this way. In the age of Tammany, good government groups advocated the nonpartisan ballot as a method of combating the corruption of the political machines, even as they often surrendered to their nativist impulses and sought to restrict citizenship and ballot access. But Barry is no fan of the old-fashioned progressives, and he appreciates the way the county organizations brought immigrants into the political system.

Barry argues that things took a really bad turn when the mass politics base of the county organizations and political clubs began hollowing out after World War II -- the rank and file stopped going to meetings and making decisions. Political consultants become the new party bosses, and today elected officials try to build small machines devoted to their reelection and advancement. These new, candidate-centered machines are devoted to keeping people off the ballot with arcane petitioning procedures, rather than expanding the choices for voters and the electorate itself. And the good government groups are largely quiet about it.

Barry works for Bloomberg and served on the staff of the several charter commissions that considered the proposals for nonpartisan elections. Much of this hard work is evidenced in the book, as he demolishes conventional arguments in political science that claim that partisan elections mobilize voters and encourage minority voting. This political science folklore is based on a few dusty studies that are decades-old. Political scientists have been trained to love the theory of strong party government -- it is a tough habit to break.

Barry's work is full of wisdom about local politics. His well-written history of the machine/reform dynamic over the last 150 years is balanced and fair. He casts a critical eye on the city's campaign finance system, arguing that it has not increased political competition. One campaign operative told me, cracking wise, that the program should be renamed the printers and consultants relief act. The generous public matching system has lined the pockets of the political professionals, but has not increased political competition in any structural way. Anyone who got a stack full of useless campaign junk mail this fall sees their tax dollars at work.

Barry says that nonpartisan elections very well might create a more cooperative spirit in City Hall, and embolden rank and file legislators to break with orthodoxy. I am not so sure -- many cities, after all, have nonpartisan municipal elections and are just slogging it out like we do in the Big Apple. The best case for the adoption of nonpartisan elections is the principled one, removed from any impact it may have: Nonpartisan elections give more people the opportunity to exercise, in a meaningful way, the most fundamental right and obligation in a democracy, the vote.

Richard Flanagan is associate professor of political science at the College of Staten Island and co-directs the Center for the Study of Staten Island there. He is co-author of Staten Island Politics: Conservative Bastion in a Liberal City (forthcoming).

Zoning without Planning


Photo (cc) mikebot
Luxury condos like Schaefer Landing block easy public access to the waterfront and once unfettered views of the skyline.

Amanda Burden, chairperson of the New York City Planning Commission, boasts that since 2002, the city has completed a record 94 rezonings, creating the most sweeping revision of land use regulations throughout the city's five boroughs since the Zoning Resolution was rewritten in 1961. This massive rezoning effort supports the development priorities of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in 2007 introduced PlaNYC2030, a long-term plan to incorporate almost 1 million more residents by the year 2030.

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The city's rezoning frenzy, though, highlights two fundamental problems with its approach to our neighborhoods. One is that the zoning is not based on any comprehensive review of community needs and priorities or any long-range planning. In other words, it's zoning without a plan.

The second and related problem is that, while the rezonings mainly create short-term opportunities for real estate development in neighborhoods where there is intense speculation, the city's planners falsely promote them as being aimed at preservation. In the endless succession of community meetings that go into the rezonings, the city's experts offer colorful slide presentations and discourses on technical details in an effort -- often successful -- to obscure matters. In fact, though, these rezonings are scams.

The principle culprit in this professional land use swindle is the Department of City Planning, the agency that Burden directs and that provides the staff for the 13-person City Planning Commission that she chairs. The Planning Commission officially sets the policy but it relies heavily on recommendations by the planning department staff and is dominated by mayoral appointees (7 out of 13).

Department of Real Estate

The Department of City Planning is the custodian of the city's zoning but for most of its recent history has rarely done any comprehensive planning for and with the city's neighborhoods. It might more appropriately be called the Department of Zoning or, better yet, the Department of Real Estate.

Zoning is a regulatory scheme for controlling the built environment, the physical shell that contains our vibrant human communities. Zoning is not the same as planning but should be based on planning. The city planning department, though, treats the Zoning Resolution itself as the plan for the city.

That view focuses only on the physical dimensions of buildings and plots of land. It doesn't start with the needs of the people who live, work and pass through our neighborhoods. It doesn't address public places, how people relate to the land and one another, and the needs and problems that arise from these relations. There is no place in zoning for the flora and fauna, the natural environment within which we live. While these may be mentioned in the cumbersome environmental impact statements that accompany rezonings, those documents also have little to do with real long-term environmental and health issues.

Community planning, as distinct from zoning, looks at all of these things and lays out visions for the long-term future. There are well over 70 community plans in New York City, many more plans than city planning has done, and while 10 of them have been officially approved, the city has done little to promote and implement them. (I discuss this further in my book, New York For Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate.) In several instances, such as Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the department has undermined the community's plans with its rezoning scams.

These scams come in four major varieties: affordable housing, building height, mixed use and waterfront access. In many instances, all are used at once.

The Affordable Housing Scam

In lower-income neighborhoods facing gentrification, city planning has upzoned -- increased opportunities for development -- to encourage the influx of new residents with higher incomes. This creates a ripple effect that jacks up land values and rents, forcing out people living in public and private affordable housing. Activists working to stabilize the neighborhood so that the people can afford to stay would probably oppose that scenario. So to sell the rezoning, the city latched on to and co-opted an idea that first came from the neighborhoods - inclusionary zoning -- and twisted it to serve the interests of the developers.

Under inclusionary zoning, the city would require that a certain percentage of new homes in an area be affordable. Here, though, is how New York's inclusionary zoning scam works. In designated areas ripe for development, the city changes the zoning to allow more development but offers potential developers the option of getting a bonus of 20 percent more floor area if they agree to make 20 percent of the homes affordable to people with low- and moderate-incomes.

The Department of City Planning's public relations campaigns give the impression that if their rezoning passes, affordable housing will get developed. The problem, though is in the details:

-- The inclusionary zoning is strictly voluntary, at the discretion of the developer. Housing advocates have pointed out that, when inclusionary zoning has been successful, it has applied to all developers everywhere in the municipality. That way it can't favor one neighborhood over another. It also has been mandatory for the simple reason that if it's voluntary, the affordable housing may not get built, particularly in today's real estate market. Many developers won't even be bothered with affordable housing even when the market is up.

-- Affordable housing is normally built with public subsidies -- that's right, it doesn't cost the developers and, in fact, they can make money on it. These subsidies are limited, especially in hard times when the demand for affordable housing goes up and available subsidies go down.

-- The affordable housing often is not affordable. The zoning requires that 20 percent of the units be affordable to households making up to 80 percent of the Area Median Income, a federal index for the region. Invariably, the median income for the entire metropolitan area is much higher than the median income for city neighborhoods facing gentrification pressures. For example, the median income in Harlem is half the Area Median Income. As a result, the recently approved 125th Street rezoning would produce units affordable to only 5 percent of Harlem households -- if they ever get built.

The Building Height Scam

In neighborhoods dominated by low- to mid-rise buildings, city planning's upzonings encounter legitimate concerns from residents who fear that the new construction will be out of scale and tower over existing buildings. The planning department thus invented the myth that a rezoning, even when it increases the amount of building space, puts a cap on building heights and replaces zoning that has no height cap.

In such cases the new zoning -- called contextual zoning -- does indeed have an explicit height cap and other provisions that consider existing buildings in the surrounding area. But the older non-contextual zoning also had an implicit height cap that in practice kept tall buildings from being built. Whether it's the old or new zoning, developers can only build so high because the amount of floor area they can build is limited.

If the new zoning permits more floor area it may encourage property owners to demolish smaller buildings and build taller ones -- even with the new height limit.

This is exactly what happened with the 125th Street. Portions of this major thoroughfare had one to three-story commercial buildings before the rezoning even though, in theory, only the sky was the limit. Now they can be replaced with 20-story buildings.

The Mixed-Use Scam

In neighborhoods like Greenpoint and Williamsburg that have had rich mixtures of industry, commerce and housing, rezoning schemes face opposition from people who believe that mixed use should be preserved and industry should not be forced out to build bedroom communities. Greenpoint and Williamsburg spent over 12 years preparing their neighborhood plans that proposed to preserve mixed use.

Not long after the City Planning Commission and City Council approved these plans, the Department of City Planning came out with a proposal to rezone large swaths of industrially zoned land for residential and mixed use. The problem is the new mixed-use zones allow for both residential and industrial uses to compete with one another. But in a hot market, like the one in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, no developers in their right mind would build for industrial tenants when they can sell or rent residential property for 10 times the price. In effect, the mixed-use zoning was a back-door residential rezoning.

The Waterfront Access Scam

In waterfront areas, residents worry that new development will block public access to the waterfront. According to waterfront zoning, all residential and commercial developers on the waterfront must provide a public promenade and preserve access corridors to the waterfront. The Department of City Planning uses these provisions to promote upzoning for new development on the waterfront, claiming that new residential or commercial development will provide public access

In reality, the city does not seriously consider creating public parks or placing waterfront land in some sort of trust. Even worse, city planning claims that the new development must be high-rise and sufficiently upscale so that developers can afford to build the public access. But the more high-rise and luxury the new development is, the more likely it is that the public promenade will become an exclusive backyard for the residents in the luxury towers.

The Department of City Planning used the waterfront access scam in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, where new buildings going up are indeed becoming exclusive enclaves. A new public waterfront park proposed by residents and reluctantly promised when the neighborhood was rezoned has not been built.

The residents of Greenpoint and Wiliamsburg had a vision of a mixed-use low to mid-rise waterfront with public access -- not rows of luxury housing. Instead, it has seen its neighborhood, hit by the inclusionary zoning, building height, mixed use and waterfront access scams and its hard-fought community plans undermined.

A Future for Planning

History will determine whether the optimistic growth scenario behind the department's rezonings and the mayor's 2030 plan survive the current burst in the real estate bubble. But neighborhoods throughout the city will nonetheless have to live for some time with the zoning in place.

This is a good time for the city to rethink its approach to both community planning and citywide planning, starting with the real needs and priorities of its residents and workers instead of the amount of floor area that can be built. It is also a good time to shift the main focus of development from lower-income neighborhoods that have experienced intense displacement pressures to the many low-density outlying neighborhoods that were down-zoned by the department.

This would require a complete turnaround in the way the Department of City Planning deals with community boards and community organizations. Instead of wearing out people with endless informational meetings and public hearings -- sessions that result in few, if any, actual changes to the city's plans -- how about a real dialogue between residents and government about the needs and priorities of communities? How about planning for long-term sustainability, from the top-down and from the bottom-up?

Tom Angotti teaches urban affairs and planning, is director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development and co-editor of Progressive Planning Magazine.

On the Gowanus, Say 'No' to Superfund


Photo (cc) Bryan Bruchman
Would Superfund status radically slow down the commercial development of the waterfront?

The one thing that everyone with an interest in the Gowanus Canal can agree on is that it needs to be cleaned up.

But the three important questions are: (1) what needs to be done, (2) why, and (3) when? It is the city and not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that has the correct answers to these critical questions: (1) address the sewage overflow issue, (2) because it is the contaminant most affecting quality of life, and (3) do it now.

The city's plan would address the current leading contaminant of the Gowanus Canal that most affects the quality of life of those who live and work in the area -- the raw sewage that runs into the canal when the combined (storm and sanitary) sewer system overflows. Upgrading and modernizing the flushing tunnel and pumping station, as well as selective dredging and capping of exposed sediments, can begin under the city's plan this fall; the city has allocated at least $175 million to accomplish this urgent goal.

(For an opposing viewpoint on cleanup of the Gowanus Canal, see Brooklyn's Lavender Lake Needs Superfund.)

This work, combined with the city's requirement that private developers build new storm water systems when they develop properties along the canal, will dramatically reduce the sewage overflows that are today the primary source of pollution of the canal. In addition -- just as a Superfund designation would do -- the city will compel the parties responsible for the decades-long pollution of the canal to contribute money to finance additional dredging of the sediments at no expense to taxpayers. The city, officials have said, will work collaboratively with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to complete this cleanup. Rejecting a counterproductive Superfund designation will not mean excluding the federal government from a central role in the cleanup.

Taking Care of Sewage

The chief concerns of area residents are the odors and unsightly floatables in the canal caused by combined sewer overflows. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency has no intention (affirmed publicly by its Region 2 Director Walter Mugdan) to address the issue of sewage in the canal. The agency plans to dredge only the sediments at the bottom of the canal. While this is an important objective, the cost to remove all of these sediments is staggering and, notably, these sediments are not affecting area residents.

A Superfund designation could put on hold the city's efforts to address the important sewage issue. And given the Superfund's track record at other polluted waterways, even the sediments may not be removed for 25 years or more -- witness last week's news that, after a quarter-century, the dredging of the Superfund-designated Hudson River is just now set to begin!

Let's be clear: Sediments at the bottom of the canal pose no threat to human health unless humans come in contact with those sediments on a regular basis. That would happen only if an individual purposely and repeatedly dove to the bottom of the waterway. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency plans to ignore the sewage that runs into the canal during heavy rainfall and instead spend $400 million on dredging sediments at the bottom of the canal that are not impacting people.

Plans Put on Hold

More broadly -- based upon empirical evidence from other similar Superfund designations of waterways that have multiple parties responsible for their pollution -- what path would this cleanup be likely to follow if the Gowanus was designated a Superfund site?

The first step is for the federal government to conduct analyses of the condition of the canal. The Environmental Protection Agency has some seed money to accomplish this. During this period all plans for city remediation of the canal as well as private investment would be put on hold because no one would be willing to spend money until the agency's expectations for the cleanup are clear.

Further, during this time it will be unlikely that government authorities would be willing to issue permits for anyone to do work along the canal. So, there would be no private investment to create new infrastructure that would separate storm water from the combined sewer system. The city's plans for the pumping station, flushing tunnel and selective dredging and capping of exposed sediments to be performed by the Army Corps of Engineers also would likely be stalled. As such, there would be no improvement in the quality of life for nearby residents and workers because the sewage and exposed sediments would not be addressed. In fact, the $15 million budgeted by the Army Corps of Engineers would be rescinded if a Superfund designation were to occur, city officials have said.

Years of Lawsuits

Also at this time, the federal government will be looking for "potentially responsible parties" to determine who may be liable for past pollution. This is necessary because the agency does not have money to fund a cleanup of the canal. The federal government would sue these "parties" to raise this money. Decades, yes decades, of litigation would ensue, because those that are sued would just turn around and sue others to defray their costs.

The Environmental Protection Agency will not come up with $400 million by going after private parties. There are no Exxon/Mobils or General Electrics involved here -- no deep pockets. Take a look at most of the property owners and businesses currently on the canal and who have been there historically. It is impossible to imagine how the agency could suggest that it could raise $400 million them.

However, the potential does exist to raise the money by going after the city and the utility, National Grid. Should the federal government sue the city and National Grid to raise the money that it is unable to obtain otherwise (arguing they are potentially liable parties) we would all be able to thank the agency for higher taxes and utility charges when the city and National Grid seek to recoup these monies. (National Grid took over Brooklyn Union Gas, whose coal gasification plant has been blamed for some of the canal's pollution.) And while this litigation is going on, the city would not be able to pursue its current cleanup plans and National Grid would cease the voluntary cleanup it has initiated as a part of the state's brownfields program.

While the analyses grind on and the lawsuits and countersuits rage, the condition of the canal would deteriorate. Twenty years from now, the area would likely look like it does today -- or worse. One only has to look into other Superfund projects like the Hudson and Passaic rivers. Both of these were designated as Superfund sites in the 1980s; neither has seen any cleanup activity commence in more than 25 years.

So let's have the city, state, and private sector -- working with the Environmental Protection Agency -- get going on the cleanup without all of the wasted time and endless litigation that inevitably accompany a Superfund designation.

David Von Spreckelsen is a senior vice president of Toll Brothers and a member of the Clean Gowanus Now! Coalition - a group of two-dozen developers and property owners along the canal. †Toll Brothers received ULURP approval for a zoning change for a mixed-use project along the canal from the City Council earlier this year. The project will include 450 market rate and inclusionary housing units.

Brooklyn's Lavender Lake Needs Superfund


Photo (cc) Pro-Zak

After almost 150 years of industrial use and decades of raw sewage discharges from New York City's combined sewer system, the Gowanus Canal has become one of the nation's most contaminated bodies of water. The putrid sediments at the bottom of the canal contain PCBs, heavy metals, pesticides, volatile organic compounds, sewage solids and coal tar wastes. Adding to this toxic legacy, the manufactured gas plants, cement factories, oil refineries, tanneries, chemical plants and other industries that have called the canal home also have left behind underground plumes of pollution and contaminated the land and the groundwater, which continues to leach toxins into the canal.

On April 8, 2009, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal to include the Gowanus Canal in the federal Superfund Program, which cleans up hazardous sites. This followed a request from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which acknowledged that cleaning up the Gowanus would be too complicated for the state to handle. Soon after the Environmental Protection Agency's announcement, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his opposition to the agency's proposal, saying the city could handle the job.

(For an opposing viewpoint on cleanup of the Gowanus Canal, see On the Gowanus, Say 'No' to Superfund.)

How Superfund Works

The federal Superfund program was created in 1980 in response to public outrage over the threat that toxic waste sites such as Love Canal and Valley of the Drums posed to human health and the environment. Superfund provides the EPA with authority to respond to releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment and to clean up many of the country's most contaminated sites.

About 70 percent of site cleanups are paid for by parties thought to be responsible for the pollution. EPA has power under Superfund to force the responsible parties to clean up a site or risk penalties, including having to pay EPA three times the cost of any remediation financed by the trust. However, if the responsible party cannot be found or has gone bankrupt, the Superfund trust can pay for the remediation of highly contaminated sites. Once a site is listed on a National Priorities List, the EPA can use money from the fund to fully investigate the extent of contamination, perform a remediation feasibility study and work on the site. Unfortunately, the Superfund trust is no longer funded by taxes on polluting industries and now relies on $1.2 billion in yearly congressional funding.

A Comprehensive Cleanup

After decades of environmental abuse, the Gowanus Canal is poised to leave behind its history as the "lavender lake," so called because of the color industrial waste tinged its waters, and be redeveloped into a community offering, housing, retail and recreational opportunities. With input from many active community organizations, the current redevelopment proposals envision neighborhoods focused on a clean canal with parks, a public promenade, and increased access to and use of the water.

With this future as a backdrop, the Gowanus Canal must be cleaned up in a comprehensive and thorough manner. Various individual plans address some of the environmental problems in the canal and surrounding area, but none of these proposals deals with the contamination in the canal itself or seeks a comprehensive solution to the continued leaching of pollutants from contaminated sites into the canal.

Several sites in the area are in the process of being cleaned up under state Department of Environmental Conservation supervision, including the future Whole Foods site at Third Street and Third Avenue, the Toll Brothers site on Bond Street, and the Public Place site at Fifth and Smith streets. The city also has plans to reduce the volume of combined sewer overflows that enter the canal and to rehabilitate the flushing tunnel that pushes cleaner water into the canal from New York Harbor.

If the Gowanus Canal is listed on Superfund's National Priority List, these projects will continue under state supervision as planned. However, the EPA has stated that the most important task of any cleanup would be to stop the upland leaching of pollution into the canal. In addition, according to the agency, existing clean-up projects must be coordinated with the remediation plan for the canal. This coordination may delay some development projects.

The ultimate goal must be a comprehensive and thorough cleanup of the canal, rather than a piecemeal approach by state and city agencies with different priorities. While not a perfect solution, a Superfund designation will provide the best chance for a thorough cleanup of the canal, so that this unique waterway can serve as the centerpiece of a revitalized neighborhood where residents can enjoy the canal itself and the surrounding land, free of concerns over the public health threat of any toxic pollutants lurking beneath the surface.

The Lowe's Home Improvement store on Second Avenue serves as an example of the dangers associated with cleaning up contaminated land without comprehensive planning. The Lowe's was built on the site of a former manufactured gas plant and was remediated under the State Brownfields Program. Although Lowe's conducted a cleanup prior to starting construction, published reports state that Lowe's did not address the entire site and that coal tar contamination has now migrated toward the supermarket next door. Without a comprehensive cleanup plan for the canal there is a danger that other sites will not be adequately remediated, leading to the continued pollution of land, groundwater and the canal.

The City's Plan

When Bloomberg announced his opposition to listing the canal as a Superfund site, he indicated that the city would come up with an alternative plan that would achieve virtually the same goal, but without the perceived stigma that "Superfund" carries. The administration has not released final details but promises that its alternative will be supervised by the EPA, will study the canal's contamination to the same extent that Superfund would and will achieve a cleanup to the same standards. The city has also proposed having the parties responsible for the contamination pay for a portion of the cleanup and is seeking funding for dredging of the canal from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

With a price tag for the cleanup that could reach $300 million to $400 million, it remains uncertain whether responsible parties would pick up part of the costs and whether money from the Army Corps would provide sufficient funding. Any cleanup that does not list the canal on the National Priority List would not allow the EPA or anyone else to use money from the Superfund trust to study the extent of contamination, pay for cleanup if necessary or compel the original polluters to do the cleanup themselves.

Although the city has provided few specifics about its proposal, any alternative to Superfund would lose the tools and funding of the Superfund program, while gaining few if any advantages. This is why Superfund presents the best mechanism for retiring the Gowanus Canal's "lavender lake" stigma once and for all.

Joshua S. Verleun is a staff attorney at Riverkeeper, Inc.

The Great School Debate


Gotham Gazette image by YH Huang
Has mayoral control of schools saved our classrooms? Or should Bloomberg stay out?

With the law establishing mayoral control of the New York City school system set to expire at the end of June, parents, educators and other concerned New Yorkers have widely varying opinions over the successes and failures of the current system and whether it should remain as is, be tweaked or totally rehauled. On May 11, Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette's publisher, along with the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, held a forum on the issue.

Moderated by Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch, it featured:

Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director, Make the Road NY

Rev. David Brawley, co-chair, East Brooklyn Congregations

Joel Klein, chancellor, New York City Department of Education

Monica Major, president, Community Education Council, District 11

Michael Mulgrew, chief operating officer, United Federation of Teachers

Joseph Viteritti, former executive director, Commission on School Governance

The following are edited comments excerpted from their discussion.

Who's In Charge?

"To me, the most essential feature of mayoral control is that the mayor chooses a majority of members of the school board. ... In a few places where they call it mayoral control, I wouldn't call it mayoral control. For example in Oakland, the mayor picks three members of a 10-person board. I don't think that's control. In Baltimore, mayors share that with the governor. I don't think that's control." -- Joseph Viteritti

"The question of governance is fundamentally whether the mayor will have the same authority over the school system that he or she has over safety, over health, over finances. The present structure is sound and I worry that, as we try to improve the system, we undermine it and create divided authority. The mayor has to be able to support a majority of the members [of the Panel for Education Policy] and they serve at his pleasure. No terms." -- Joel Klein

"The form of mayoral control we have in New York is the most extreme. You don't have a space for parents and students and stakeholders to participate in the debate." --Ana Marie Archila

"It's not a burden for a chancellor to have to make a persuasive case [to a board with a majority of mayoral appointees]. That's an opportunity to make your case." -- Viteritti

"We're New Yorkers. We like to debate. That's' what we do. In our proposal, we have 14 members on the [Panel on Educational Policy]. Every policy should have some debate. The mayor would only have to swing two votes. If there is an issue, isn't it better as a city if we have some debate?" -- Michael Mulgrew

"I am old enough to remember Mayor Giuliani and young enough to know I'll have kids in school when there will be mayors I don't like." --Archila

"We have got to be bold. A mayor may or may not be bold, but if he or she doesn't have the authority, thee is going to be special interest capture." -- Klein

The Bottom Line

"It's a not a question of how we hold the mayor accountable. The discussion should be how do we insure students who historically have fallen through the cracks do not continue to fall through the cracks." -- Archila

"If we had this debate under the old system there would be no room because everyone who made a paychecks on the backs of our children would want to be here." -- David Brawley

"Not a single person on the panel has said we want to go back to the old system. We want to move forward. Everyone here has the best interests of the children at heart. We are all trying to do the best thing for out children and the city as a whole." -- Mulgrew

A Place for Parents

"We need to make sure our public institutions can hear the public." -- Archila

"One of the things that the old board did well -- and there weren't many of them --- was force a public conversation." --Viteritti

"Parents come out to complain, and they're frustrated, Some don't have the resources to properly advocate for their children." -- Monica Major

"When you have parents, teachers and students working together, then you have a successful school. [At the hearings the UFT held,] parents in every neighborhoods no matter what the demographics said 'we feel shut out of the system'." -- Mulgrew

"People think trying to participate in the current system is not a good use of their time." -- Viteritti

"In the old days, you had the debate but no results." -- Brawley

"We're the only system that does a parent poll. A few people claim they speak to parents. I like to listen to all of them." -- Klein

We should make sure that when parents organize, they're not treated as a special interest." -- Archila

"I don't think parents are a special interest, but people kid themselves when they say they speak for parents." -- Klein

Looking at the Numbers

"This is the Mark Twain, lies, damns lies and statistics part of the program." -- Mulgrew

"To use [test scores] to evaluate a governance system is not a good idea." -- Viteritti

"In East New York, the percentage of student passing the state reading tests is up by 16 points. One reason that is happening is the chancellor is willing to make hard decisions." --Brawley

"Our students are closing in on the rest of the state. After a decade of stagnation in this city, we are making real change." -- Klein

"These grades [on the school report cards] do not match what is going on in the city. They are based on a metric you can't explain to parents." -- Major

An Outside Eye

"[Oversight by the Independent Budget Office is needed] to make sure we all have information about performance and to make sure the money goes where it really needs to go." -- Archila

"I'm confident about the data...and I'm happy to have an outside body investigate." -- Klein

To Tweak or to Tinker?

"Mayoral control creates a capacity for change that didn't exist before. I support a strong system of mayoral control, but it can also have checks and balances." -- Viteritti

"I hope the system remains as it is. Tweaking is one thing. Tinkering is another." -- Brawley

"What we hope happens is that New York City has a better system because it can always be better, We are talking about Albany here, so it would leave it up to anyone to tell me what is going to happen." -- Mulgrew

"The state legislature is trying to figure it out. I hope their debate is as robust as our conversation." -- Archila

"This is as robust a debate as can possibly happen." -- Klein



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