Friday, November 11, 2011

The SoHo Power Structure

“Politics is the skilled use of blunt objects.”
-- Lester Pearson

The levels of political power in SoHo, for the uninitiated, rest with elected politicians. Margaret Chin is the City Council member – having unseated Alan Gerson. And, in the Western section of SoHo, Speaker Quinn is the designated City Council representative covering the area from Thompson Street to the Hudson River as well as Hell's Kitchen. SoHo's boundaries arguably run as far West as Hudson Street, depending upon whose view you rely upon.
Gerson was ousted partly over his support for Bloomberg’s third term and partly because he thumbed his nose at Sean Sweeney – then, the President of Downtown Independent Democrats. Alan was a nice guy, a much used phrase that connotes friendliness but not political acumen.

Chin was elected over Gerson and competitor Pete Gleason, drawing heavy support from Chinatown. She was known as a housing activist and a Communist (in a former life), which only added to her persona as a supporter of the people. Lots of energy and drive characterizes her political approach to most things, but her bona fides as a strong SoHo supporter are giving way to the main concern of activists in SoHo – provincialism. The strong support of housing issues in SoHo and local issues such as the SoHo BID, leave a question mark about her fealty. Hopefully, that will change. However, rumors have surfaced, that Quinn will support a redistricting that takes SoHo away from Chin's Council seat.

Daniel Squadron, the State Senator, has been a pleasant surprise. He has done a great deal of work on housing issues and has been supportive of SoHo issues. The only criticism of Squadron is that trying to have a conversation with him, after having defeated Marty Connor – is like sitting down with a moving cyclone. In a previous conversation, we discussed Traffic danger, Housing, Billboards and Art preservation in SoHo. Those issues should be revisited. In addition, Quinn’s last legislation, which sanctions abuse and harassment against landlords – is inadequate and unenforceable. Squadron has a better understanding.

Quinn is a force to be reckoned with and despite the fact that she supported the DSNY garage she still has traction in SoHo. While she is often criticized for the Trump SoHo debacle, however, she did force Bayrock/Sapir, the developer, to accept a Restrictive Declaration -- which restricted continuous occupancy to 29 days in a row and only 120 days max per year. This effectively made it a hotel, not a condo. Few people will invest millions in an apartment that they cannot truly live in. And, successful lawsuits have resulted from buyers/tenants who realized that if you cannot live there and that if the developer was misinforming you about the number of sales -- you may want out. If Quinn becomes truly disentangled from Bloomberg, the fact that the Staten Island politicians are saying not unpleasant things about her – could pave the way for a more community-minded Mayor. A Democrat in office, for a change would be welcomed. Both Bloomberg and Giuliani won because of Staten Island support. This may neutralize the threat of success from Ray Kelly, the presumed Republican candidate for Mayor.

But, the real political power rests with the Downtown Independent Democrats. While only a few political clubs have maintained their presence, it is one of the exceptions to the generally waning power of clubs in Manhattan.
The hierarchy that really decides who runs for office – and who wins – rests with a few people. The President of the club is Jeanne Wilcke, Paul Newell is a District Leader, Adam Silvera is Vice President, Jim Stratton is also Vice President and Sean Sweeney is Treasurer. While they have several other elected leaders, some are newly elected.

The political decisions, candidate selection and interviews are primarily handled by Wilcke, Newell, Silvera, Stratton and Sweeney. Wilcke is the public face and leader of the club (keeping the troops in line), Silvera’s expertise is in judicial selection, Stratton is the political guru,
Newell is a strategist and Sweeney is in charge of the smoke-filled back room. Together they manage D.I.D.
As JFK once said, “Politics is the only game for adults.” And,apparently, they play well together.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

SoHo Politics - Musings

"Don't be afraid to see what you see."
-- Ronald Reagan

The professional pundits are already busy picking the next horse for Mayor. Among the favorites (at least in terms of frequency of media mention) are Christine Quinn, Bill Thompson, Bill DeBlasio, Ray Kelly and in the back of the pack, Scott Stringer. And, here's my reasoning, since it's anything BUT scientific, prescient, or even that reliable.

Quinn is always in the news, like her or not. The phrase, "I don't care what you say about me, as long as you say something and spell my name right" comes to mind. She seems to have alienated a portion of SoHo on issues like the DSNY garage, Trump SoHo (Quinn actually forced the developer to accept occupancy restrictions), -- and apparently Slushgate has either been dropped or is going nowhere.
CityTime, which clearly is a major scandal, appears to have been contained by Bloomberg. Bill Thompson, isn't all that much in the news, but he ran last time and the desertion of fellow Democrats still stings -- since he clearly would have defeated Bloomberg. Bill DeBlasio has been running since the day he was elected as Public Advocate. He's a nice guy, very tall, and seems truly progressive. He has traction.

Ray Kelly is a Republican, has become the face of Bloomberg, and apparently has a higher security clearance than Obama. While the NYPD scandals and treatment of Occupy Wall Street seem a little less heavy handed than they were, his communication skills leave something to be desired. What New Yorkers do not want is a Police State nor a mini-Homeland Security Department in Manhattan. Not even all of the Police want that - just the overtime. That may be tolerable for other boroughs or surrounding counties, but Manhattan is a little different. The ability to fire a missle to down hostile aircraft in Manhattan is not a consoling thought. Keep in mind that the outlying boroughs like Staten Island have consistently picked our Mayor with Fire and Police family populations. Both Guiliani and Bloomberg took office thanks to the Molinari's.

Lastly, Scott Stringer, has been running since his first election as Borough President. His Rabbi is Jerry Nadler but his press coverage has waned. His original "Affordable Housing" push was welcomed in the community but seems to have gone nowhere recently.

To call these comments a scientific evaluation would be ludicrous. But, the funny thing about politics is, the more you discuss a candidate, the higher his/her visibility.

Which brings us to the Governor's race. The Governor's race?


Cuomo is doing well, publicity-wise. He's even gotten decent grades from Ed Koch and Henry Stern. Two people who REALLY knows their politics. And, they're too old to worry about whether the politicians dislike their views.

But, what's next?
First, with the help of Suffolk D.A. Thomas Spots (via the roasting of former legislator George Guldi), Cuomo's major future opponent, Steve Levy (Suffolk CE), has been neutralized. Levy was a major competitor for the Governor spot but agreed to step down after a pay-to-play allegation in which he turned over $4.1 million to the D.A. and dropped out. His former roommate and wedding guest, Ethan Ellner, a title closer, was ostensibly trading campaign contributions for title work.

That leaves us with the following scenario. Cuomo wants to be President and may actually get there via the V.P. route in the election after this. Probably not on the coming election but on the following ticket -- perhaps with Biden. Or, he might try it on his own.
So, who would then take the Governor's slot?
Okay, so this is a long-shot but the most visible, and seemingly-aggressive, and effective State politician is Schneiderman.

His stance on continuing the investigations of the banks over the mortgage mess has put him at the head of the class. Having listened to his politics at a political lunch was instructive. Pragmatism, combined with political acumen is his forte. At this early stage of the game, he gets high marks. When Cuomo is termed out, Eric Schneidermen looks eminently electable. If he succeeds in dismantling the settlement talks that former HPD Commissioner Shawn Donovan is pushing for Obama, and pursues real investigations that yield prosecutions and benefits for victims of foreclosures -- he will be at the head of the class.

Not to mention the fact that Schneiderman had, and still does have a formidable internet presence. A key to success.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The District Attorney Dilemma?

You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do.
Henry Ford

-- 1863 - 1947

With the media second-guessing Cy Vance, Jr. over a very high profile prosecution, the question becomes what is not known, as opposed to what IS known about the case. No one doubts that there was some form of sexual contact, but it becomes murky beyond that. The fact that the current statistics on rape in New York are frightening -- up by 62%, -- may be the subtext to this case, however. It’s the kind of crime and numbers that are very disturbing to women as well as men in a civilized society. D.A.’s are pressured by such alarming statistics.

What was essentially a slap on the wrist, in the recent case involving two police officers accused of rape, may have become the backdrop for potential criticism of the D.A. – despite the fact that Vance’s office vigorously prosecuted the case. But, what is more likely, is that the speeding to indictment of DSK, a powerful international politician, may have backfired. Strauss-Kahn, as head of the IMF and previously, perhaps, in line to run for President of France, is not a man without resources -- despite his obvious lapses of judgment. And, if there is an undercurrent to this matter, the speed of indictment, as against the rising numbers of sexual crimes in our city, helped create a public rush to judgment. The publicity, the media, loves a good Greek Tragedy – a man of high station brought low by hubris. And, schadenfreude, is not just a “disease” known to journalists and the paparazzi.
But, unlike other D.A.’s, Vance does support the original American theory of Justice – that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. It’s just that the media makes that concept unwieldy. In New York there are many media voices, but, in suburbs like the Hamptons, it speaks with one voice – a fearful one where the D.A. controls every utterance – or else.

Meanwhile, after leaving Riker’s Island, Strauss-Kahn hired one of the best criminal lawyers in the country and some of the best investigators on the planet. And, he also hired a prestigious “consulting” firm of former Intelligence officers to work on the case. You don’t want former U.S. Attorneys, Secret Service Special Agents, retired CIA, and FBI investigative specialists on your ass if you have anything to hide. And, apparently, the victim did. Spooks are smart and dispassionate about their business. When they are in private practice -- you don’t want to go there. As occurred in the recent retaliatory strike against Bin Laden, a “dish served cold” is an appropriate phrase that comes to mind.

But, what needs to be remembered here is that Cy Vance, Jr. ran for office as a Progressive. And during an interview we had several years ago in SoHo, what was clear about him is that he had purpose and was on a mission to open up the D.A.’s office, modernize it, and bring it to the people in the community. He has been doing that. Bob Morgenthau supported Vance and he was the clear choice over Leslie Crocker-Snyder, a Conservative take-no-prisoners, former Judge.

During an interview of former D.A. Bob Morgenthau, known as “the Boss” he spoke of the heritage of the Hogan office and his groundbreaking DNA indictments in absentia – which preserved the statute of limitations on rape. In his nineties, though, he had had enough and wanted Vance to take his place.
Richard Aborn, who has done a tremendous job as head of the Citizen’s Crime Commission was also in the running, but had a less cohesive campaign organization. He was, nevertheless, an impressive Progressive candidate as well as an attractive candidate for the office. In our interview he was clearly a powerful presence.

If the Manhattan D.A. made mistakes, the Hobson’s choice here may have been in deciding to not allow Strauss-Kahn to leave the country as opposed to speedily presenting the case for indictment as justification. While there was a fear that he would flee, he was an internationally known politician. He is not Roman Polanski. The vision of the Port Authority Police, whose most difficult work is patrolling the Holland Tunnel entrance for “terrorists,” dragging the President of the IMF off of a plane – is more akin to a Leslie Nielsen movie – than high-stakes law enforcement.

Cy Vance is a District Attorney who is ethical and effective. His office may have erred on the side of caution and had the good grace to face the music personally. The Media is not always kind. But, in Manhattan, at least, it is not owned. Freedom of the Press is alive and well – unlike Suffolk County where it is owned and operated by the District Attorney.

Cy Vance will heal from this, at worst, sin of omission and we should be grateful to have a District Attorney who deals in Justice, not in retaliation and intimidation to do his job.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Selling Out SoHo

First, came the printing factories, warehouses and commercial loft buildings. Before it was “SoHo” it was really just a place where you could pick up cartons of commercial paper arrange to store goods, or get floor tickets printed and bound for use on the Stock Exchange. Then, after World War ll, use of large spaces for painting began to transform the lofts into ad hoc living spaces. “Fixture fee” was the financial term used for evaluating what to pay an artist for his improved space. Of course, what arrived after the arts assault and cultural infiltration that followed the post-Warhol era was the immense real estate development wave. That real estate tsunami was accompanied by a new commercial phase that included the retail expansion of Bloomingdale's, Chanel, and numerous Hotels. The "Manufacturing" zoning has continued to permit completely inappropriate development. Although many original artists have remained and are coop or condo owners there is still the bohemian air about SoHo and remnants of the original street art still can be found— even though they receive no protection from the City.

The perspective held by the political structure downtown, however, diverges from the reality of SoHo as a community. Individual politicians have some sense of the residents but the Community Board fails in that regard. There are only are a very few members from SoHo on Community Board #2 and its needs are often overlooked in favor of a more populated, more recognized group of an older Greenwich Village community. This is nothing new. However, recently there has been some gnashing of teeth over the handling of the SoHo BID. Spearheaded by a real estate group, Newmark, along with Thor Equities, Aurora Capital, and other landlords such as PEP Realty and supported by Uptown social interests like Mary Balaban, it is represented by hired consultant Barbara Cohen who are pressing for a Business Improvement District. The $700,000 budget, to be collected from businesses, commercial interests and coop and condo boards, is intended to clean streets and upgrade tourist-friendly activities. The area is focused on Broadway from Houston to Canal streets. Like the bike enthusiasts who destroyed SoHo's streets who live outside of Manhattan, this is another example of monied philosophy telling us what we should want.

Residents are against the BID and many really don't see why SoHo needs streets and sidewalks maintained by a private group with special interests when we have a City Agency charged with cleaning our streets and maintaining our neighborhoods. As far as enticing more tourists, that's really a stretch. The bottom line is that this really is a real estate and socially-inspired project, you know, those kind of potentially smarmy arrangements that have deep tentacles, promises of campaign contributions and, dare we say, actual cash being proffered? As more tourists are lured to SoHo, bringing more buses, trucks and autos, air quality is further degraded -- overburdening our very limited parking -- and making it less of a community and more of a shopping excursion destination. In fact, Broadway is safer for buses. Only one lane is left for trucks and passenger vehicles. Who does this BID benefit? Certainly, not the residents of SoHo. The efforts of the Community Board clearly show that nothing is returned to the residents. It took nearly 10 years of asking the Board to support bringing back the Bob Bolles sculptures implanted in the asphalt in the early days of SoHo -- unceremoniously ripped out by the Parks Department. Nothing was ever done by Community Board #2. Only when a major developer arrives on the scene and money is spread around, do they take an interest. Isn't that suspicious? Artists showing their works on the street in SoHo are routinely arrested and guerilla art has, for years, been allowed to deteriorate.

When the mom and pop stores have to close up due to higher rents, when artists have had to leave SoHo due to the exorbitant rental escalation costs and lack of dedicated space, when politicians fail to be supportive in the attack against rent stabilized tenants, the answer is simple: political will is nowhere to be found. Only lip service remains. Real Estate interests and Commercial landlords are behind this BID. Not residents.

The Community Board has failed to hear the residents of SoHo in the past. In this instance, through a convoluted number of hastily called meetings and misinformation, the residents had almost no say in the adoption of the BID. The first Community Board meeting, for which there was virtually no notice, only a few residents appeared at Zoning Committee and spoke clearly about their objection. The follow-up Full Board meeting where residents turned out in force, there was overwhelming opposition from the community. Instead of being summarily rejected, however, it was "tabled" through an artful amendment introduced by former Board Chair Brad Hoylman. The Chair of Zoning committee, David Reck, apparently felt obligated to support the BID at the Community Board despite the clear and overwhelming opposition. His handling of this is a clear example of the Stockholm Effect in government service. He has developed close ties to developers and real interests and is often antagonistic to residents and their views appearing in front of his committee.

Following that evening a the Full Board, meetings with no notice and no little participation were held, finally ending up in front of Amanda Burden and numerous commissioners at the Department of City Planning, the next step in this process of "arranged" approval. The Chair of Community Board 2, Jo Hamilton spoke with only two representatives of SoHo present due to the lack of notice. Hamilton, despite the overwhelming rejection of the Board she represents, spoke in favor of the BID and Burden knowingly readily accepted her position -- and, of course, the BID was approved. Brad Hoylman, former Chair of Community Board #2 also inadvertently supported the BID by craftily keeping it alive despite serious community objections. Since the BID was clearly rejected by the Board, "tabling" the issue at the Full Board simply kept it alive for Hamilton to later support on her own as Chair. Hoylman, himself, is an executive at a powerful non-profit real estate advocacy group whose founder is David Rockefeller. We have not heard from any of these quarters in protecting tenants or SoHo. Interestingly, Hoylman had planned to run for Christine Quinn's City Council seat (in an area which encompasses the western portion of SoHo) but was sidetracked by the candidacy of popular candidates Yetta Kurland and Andrew Berman -- and the term-limits fiasco which kept Quinn in her position and Bloomberg in office.

Either SoHo needs a Community Board which clearly represent its interests -- or members from SoHo should resign from the Community Board as a result of this contemptuous treatment. While this cannot be clearly considered corruption, it has the odor of deal made all along the chain of command. Borough President Scott Stringer, who professes to be concerned with affordable housing -- and who ultimately approves the membership of all Community Boards -- needs to address this longstanding issue. City Planning is a creature of Bloomberg and should be dismantled.