Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Issues and Politics

As Community Board #2 awaits the results of deliberations and voting by the Nominating Committee, Board Members as well as residents of SoHo, NoHo, Little Italy, Hudson Square and Greenwich Village watch in anticipation of a reformed Community Board.

While Brad Hoylman is widely expected to be the only candidate for Chair and Jo Hamilton and Bo Riccobono for 1st and 2nd Vice Chair are running with Sheelah Feinberg - there are always surprises. The difference this year is that a reform slate is likely to be the slate recommended by the Nominating Committee. It is no longer an uphill battle to root out entrenched, self-interested, business Members of the Board.

But, the problem with reformers is that they are driven by a desire to correct inequities and unethical behavior. Once the threat to Democracy has subsided or has been reduced, reformers relax and don't push as hard - just when they should pressure for even greater improvements. Tammany Hall, for example, counted on that fact of life and would simply wait out the reform movement. Community Boards are tremendous vehicles for pushing change. An effective Board can pass resolutions in tandem with sister Boards, which can give elected officials a clear and effective message. "Get to work to solve this problem or face being thrown out of office." With dangerous air pollution caused by a choking level of traffic congestion, a lack of police interest in controlling quality of life issues, a rapidly expanding influx of bars in some neighborhoods, the proliferation of illegal billboards, and the threat of over-development to entire neighborhoods - the need for leadership has never been greater. SoHo and Hudson Square have no parks for their children, yet the HRPT may allow "Vegas On the Hudson" to take away the ball fields on Pier 40. Washington Square Park is slated to be renovated but leadership in brokering a truce with the community is sadly lacking. The NYU co-generation plan is tearing at Greenwich Village and NoHo while more and more of the community is eaten up by the University. And, zoning in Hudson Square has been so ignored that Trump is building a 45-story hotel/condo in an area where commercial and residential buildings are less than half that size.

It is also rumored that Trump's brother is involved in a behind the scenes attempt to assemble a parcel on Watts, Broome and Varick Street for yet another colossal development - not unlike the Mark Epstein hotel/condo project in the works for 515 Greenwich Street. Speaker Quinn's office, as yet, has no credible time table for what activists are demanding for this area - a change to contextual zoning for Hudson Square and the western part of SoHo.

Maria Derr, the current Chair of Community Board #2 is a politician. Her two-year stint was primarily a political move. As the heir to a political family name, her objective was, and is, to take a first step towards being taken seriously as a political candidate. Whether she was effective or not, liked or not, interested in her job or not - is an irrelevancy. She became Chair of Community Board #2 for two years and can now focus on her next political move - which is rumored to be taking a shot at Deborah Glick's Assembly seat.

Derr could never be classified as a reformer. She ran for Chair at the suggestion - some say, the instructions of - Bob Rinaolo - previously known as the self-appointed Godfather of Community Board #2 who advertised the fact that he sometimes carried a copy of The Prince in his back pocket when he went to meetings. While currently off the Board, some believe he is still running the show for some people still on the Board.

Derr and Rinaolo, as well as a number of their bar owner/Chamber of Commerce allies controlled the Board for political gain and influence, and also for occasional financial gain through business dealings.

They were politically driven and had power. They were not driven by issues that affect the community even when it appeared that they were immersed in controversies. It was always the politics and the power.

Now, with the ascent of Brad Hoylman, who is widely expected to become the next Chair, there is some anticipation that Issues will once again become the focus for decisions made on the Board.

Candidly, however, Holyman is also well known as someone who wishes to run for City Council. He previously ran for the seat currently held by Alan Gerson in District #1. He is both highly intelligent and ambitious.

He is also known as someone who wants to heal old wounds and reach out to those on the Board who have been at loggerheads throughout the Bar/Chamber of Commerce vs. Community maelstrom that lasted for a few years. While reform of Board membership has proceeded, there are still remnants of the Tammany-style club and hangers-on that still listen for whispers from Rinaolo & Co., to give them their marching orders. Ray Lee, a Derr associate, is expected to remain in a sensitive post as Chair of the Business Committee -- the source of tremendous community contentiousness over liquor licenses. And, Phil Mouquinho is expected to become Vice Chair of the Zoning Committee. Arthur Schwartz, another of the Rinaolo/Derr team, is rumored to have been awarded the Chair of Waterfront.

While the Board weighs Issues that beg to be addressed, Political animals are still quite active.

Arthur Schwartz, formerly a District Leader was displaced by Brad Holyman. Despite the fact that less than a year ago Holyman decapitated Schwartz as District Leader -- with the help of Tom Duane, Deborah Glick and Speaker Quinn --Schwartz resurrected himself by winning the largely ceremonial position of Democratic Committeeman after spending heavily on the campaign. None other than Allen Roskoff (of Arty Strickler's CB2 Anonymous Letter fame) was rumored to have helped him spin the web of words that carried the day. Larry Moss and the politicians who supported him were stunned when it happened and Schwartz is still reaping the benefits. He is now "advising" political aspirants to fall in line lest there be consequences for their actions.

While Schwartz has arguably done a decent job with his committee work and in running the Advisory to the HRPT, he, too, is a supremely political animal. Issues are secondary to political moves. And, having blown off the Speaker, the Assemblywoman and the Senator, he's flexing his muscles.

Has Brad Hoylman responded only to the politics of the situation? Is Schwartz's ascendancy (by remaining a committee Chair on the new Board in spite of a vicious political rivalry) a measure of Hoylman's reaching out to the various factions on the Board? Or, is this about the realities of local politics - about control and balance of power via County Committee slots on downtown clubhouse political tickets?

What we will all have to ponder is this: Will the community see its Issues addressed and confronted or will residents have to sit by and watch another two year long Dog and Pony show as personal political goals are fulfilled?

Attention should now be carefully paid to the process. Issues should now move the Board, not Politics and personalities who wish to accumulate power.

Stay tuned Rangers.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Issues of the Day

The current issues of importance Downtown are many and varied.

The Department of Sanitation garage and fuel storage proposal at Spring and Greenwich is an ongoing community issue that clearly will not be quickly resolved. The destruction of Hudson Square as a viable community is at stake and activists and organizations such as the Friends of Hudson Square have weighed in and it appears that this will be a long litigious road. While a breakthrough is possible and certainly to be hoped for, there is nothing currently to suggest that.

Pier 40 is another community focus that has been a difficult matter for SoHo, Hudson Square and Greenwich Village - as well as Tribeca. Over the last 5 years at least five development proposals have been seriously considered. In fact, nearly three years ago Community Board #2 supported one plan to develop the 14-acre pier only to be rejected by the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT). The reasoning behind the rejection by the Trust was that the plan had a financial weakness involving a $30 million hole that needed to be plugged with public money.

This week a public forum was conducted at PS 41 in the Village to review and comment upon two new RFPs (development plans) that made it through the HRPT initial review and was also discussed by the HRPT Advisory Committee, a community-oriented group which makes recommendations to the HRPT. It is purely advisory, however, and has no decision-making power.

The public meeting, which had to turn people away at the door, was packed with over two thousand people, 300 of which were children hoping to emphasize the need to keep the ballfields in an area with virtually no park space.

Activists, youth sports organizations, environmentalists, elected officials and residents made their feelings known about the two proposals.

The Camp Group proposal was aimed primarily and providing sports fields, swimming, and kid-friendly uses, in addition to parking.

The Related proposal provided for a multitude of venues, not the least of which was Cirque Du Soleil, restaurants, entertainment facilities and sports fields.

While neither developer won the audience hands down, there was no doubt that maintaining the existing ball fields (which cost the HRPT $5 million less than 2 years ago), was primary in the minds of the hundreds of young people that came out for the hearing.

The Camp Group came closer to what is near and dear to the hearts of those with kids downtown but was still not an overwhelming success.

The Related proposal, described by Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) as "Vegas on the Hudson" and clearly an unsuitable location for such a $600 million business deal.

The pier needs to be repaired and that is one of the reasons why the development of Pier 40 is becoming more urgent. While it may not fall into the water soon, at least 10 percent of the 1500 pilings needs serious attention. As time goes on, less and less of the pier will be functionally able to be used. Ergo, the need for a developer - or, an infusion of cash to properly replace the infrastructure. To the tune of about $35 million.

The search for a developer is partly driven by the need for the infusion of cash to do the work necessary to repair the pier.

But, as Al Ferrer, representative of Greenwich Village Little League, Downtown United Soccer Club and P3 (Pier, Park and Playground) has recently pointed out - the search for public or private funds to repair the structure of the pier is what is most important here. That should be the focus - not the seemingly unending search for a developer in hopes that a plan, any plan, will somehow be acceptable to the community and residents, and drag along that $35 million to get the job done.

The Electeds, residents, the non-profits, the philanthropists and perhaps Wall Street needs to get together to solve this problem. Whether it be bonds (with an exception in the HRP act), a massive fundraiser or a conservancy - the $35 million should be found so that Downtown has a park and ball fields.

What had once been considered by the HRPT (after the most recent previous round of developments had failed) uses could be added to a fundamentally sound pier. To augment the ball fields and parking with other uses - once the structure is sound. The ballfields at $5 million and parking should stay as they are to provide uninterruped use. SoHo and Hudson Square have no parks for its young children.

The Trump SoHo site is buzzing again after lying dormant for many weeks. The Department of Buildings issued a building permit for this mega-structure as was anticipated and now the fun begins.

Having negotiated a restrictive declaration that ostensibly prevents the owner of a condo unit in this hotel from staying for more than 29 days in a row, the City allowed the beginning of the end of Hudson Square.

One community observer wrote about this "deal" made with the Trump people, saying that....

"the voluntary restrictive "Declaration" that Bayrock/Sapir made last week is what the Department of Buildings claim was the basis for their affirmative decision. It's a self-policing sham! The declaration is full of holes and needs to be attacked systematically. The whole thing hinges on self-regulation. The managing company is to maintain a database that blows the whistle on the inhabitants. But the inhabitants via their condo board is who hires the managing company. This is like the fox guarding the hen house.... The check on the managing company is if complaints are received by the city then the city's Independent Private Sector Inspector General provision can kick in and an IPSIG can be hired by the condo to look into it. That's like the wolf guarding the fox guarding the hen house... If anybody were ever prosecuted for overstaying under this procedure, I'll eat my hat...."

Of course, there are a few issues here.

The immediate issue surrounding the entire distasteful scenario is that the City was asleep at the switch. While people like David Reck of Friends of Hudson Square and Andrew Berman of GVSHP have been lobbying for years to change the zoning in Hudson Square - it has not served the Bloomberg administration's purpose to limit development or business.

That's why we have movie crews jamming our streets, billboards plastered all over our architecture and why we have a Trump SoHo going up.

It's money in many pockets. While Bloomberg may have enough of his own, Governor or Presidential campaigns are done with OPM. And, then there are the many Doctoroffs that don't have $4 Billion of their own to play with.

So, key people were not asleep at the switch, they were just dozing.

Trump, money, influence, favors, money.

One phone call could have killed this project. But, it was never made.

With one eye on his bank account and the other on either the Governor's Mansion or Pennsylvania Avenue, there is no third eye to protect communities downtown.

The real issue, for the future, since there's another not yet announced 38-story condo/hotel in the pipeline only two blocks from Trump SoHo (by Mark Epstein) - is contextual zoning for Hudson Square and western SoHo.

Since the Trump deals have already been made and the arrangements, wink-wink, nod-nod, have been set in stone, it is the speed with which downtown residents can push through a change in zoning that matters most.

When a community is sold out, the ripples are felt a long way away.

Borough President Stringer came out early against this project, as did Deborah Glick. Speaker Quinn has begun to address the issue, which lies within her City Council seat district. Tony Avella, of the Land Use Committee at City Council actually walked the picket line protesting the development - talk about guts.

But Bloomberg has been all smiles over a fellow billionaire that is destroying our City.

And, while the Molinari Republicans have purchased the last two mayors of New York, Giuliani and Bloomberg (and continued to pollute downtown by virtue of the Verrazano one way toll), think about how happy Staten Islanders would be with a 50-story condo-hotel located on Bay Street.