New York’s Robert Moses Moment

By Maurice Pinzon
New York City is having a Robert Moses moment at a time when real estate is hotter than Wall Street, and residents love their respective communities so much that they want to preserve them as much as possible.

On the far West Side of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, residents acknowledge the inevitability, and even the need, for development. But they are vehemently opposed to what they see as mega projects they say are imposed from above – from a citywide development vision of breathtaking scope proposed by the Bloomberg administration.

In other areas, such as in Queens and Staten Island, residents have called for a reversal of development through down zoning to “preserve the character” of neighborhoods, mostly of one to two-family homes. In these instances, lack of public transportation translates into disruptive levels of vehicular traffic or high-rise development that will wall in private houses.

The Bloomberg administration counters that its proposed projects are laying the foundation for a future New York economy that will create the jobs necessary to maintain the quality of life that makes the city so appealing in the first place. These same jobs would result in economic activity to fund City services and sustain low crime rates, fund the creation of new infrastructure, and reform and rebuild the school system.

Indeed, the Bloomberg administration, with its technocratic bent, seems to recognize how expendable jobs are in a digitalized world economy. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has pointed to Wall Street as exhibit number one, historically an important source of high paying jobs and tax revenue for the City. The Bloomberg administration perhaps anticipating the future loss of jobs due to automation or outsourcing, is trying to create jobs that are not easily exported, and many of these jobs lie in the tourism and media entertainment industries.

Nevertheless, New York residents seem ready to participate beyond the framework of the City’s established land use laws. The Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) appears far too engineered from the top according to a number of city residents New York News Network has spoken to over the last few months.

Even though there is an opportunity for public comment to the rezoning proposals, and they eventually are voted on by the City Council, many communities see City Council Speaker Gifford Miller as being too reactive to the Bloomberg administration’s proposals, sitting on the fence until pressured to respond.

For example, Speaker Miller waited and waited to take a clear position on the Sports and Convention Center, then inexplicably separated negotiations over the Hudson Yards rezoning and development from the Bloomberg administration’s proposal to develop the Hudson rail yards, where the administration was proposing the New York Sports and Convention Center.

The Bloomberg administration hopes to develop the Sports and Convention Center into a magnet that will attract economic development, the Jets, the Super Bowl, the 2012 Olympics, residential and commercial development, and more conventions to New York City.

Mr. Miller, who is a mayoral candidate, appears to be fighting the Bloomberg administration’s economic vision with last-minute objections such as his testimony before the MTA that its rail yards were being sold for too low a price to the Jets. Mr. Miller has also argued that part of the Bloomberg administration’s financing proposal for the stadium, a funding mechanism known as Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs), are an overreaching and an improper use of mayoral power. Yet these PILOTs were part of the Bloomberg administration’s original Hudson Yards rezoning proposal. The funding mechanism, in fact, has been in place throughout Mr. Miller’s tenure in the City Council, which began in 1996.

On the flip side, even though the real estate market is extremely robust, the Bloomberg administration maintains that the Sports and Convention Center is necessary for the economic development of the far West Side of Manhattan – just a few blocks from some of the nation’s – even the world’s – most valuable real estate.

Meanwhile, communities are caught in the middle of the struggle between both sides of City Hall, as Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Miller fight institutional, but increasingly, a narrower political battle over who will be mayor.

One group gathered in Williamsburg last Sunday to support a community development plan as an alternative to the Bloomberg administration’s proposals for the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area. The “community plan,” as they call it, includes much lower building densities and more public space.

Elana Levin, who attended the event, said, “Bloomberg has a larger plan – to turn our city into a playground for the super rich.” But many residents do not necessarily see Mr. Miller as a better alternative, unclear as to how much he is really opposed to the mayor’s specific development plans.

Furthermore, any vote by the City Council is now complicated, by subtle maneuvering over who will succeed Mr. Miller as speaker.

And so, on Sunday in Williamsburg, a marching band played joyous, and at times sad music, as they led a group of about 60 people through the increasingly prosperous streets of Williamsburg, stopping traffic along the way and forcing the New York Police Department to scramble to figure out what was happening.

The group ended up on a large lot by the waterfront overlooking Manhattan. There, Beka Economopoulos spoke to the crowd that had followed the music.

Ms. Economopoulos said, “This park is mapped into the Bloomberg plan. However, there’s no capital fund to procure it – to turn it into a park. If they don’t secure the funds after a couple of years, they get to develop on it and build more towers.”

Ms. Economopoulos continued by saying, “So today we’re gonna start the process of turning it into a park. We’re going to plant, eat food and enjoy a public space together. That’s all part of the community plan.”

Veronica, who gave only her first name, has lived in Williamsburg for about 10 years and she recalled how a few years back musicians would practice on Sundays in the lot where she was standing, when open space was not as restricted and when the community was not yet engulfed by an overheated real estate market.

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