Lessons of Willets Point: Will A New Mayor Do Development Differently?

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The bid to reshape Willets Point comprises some of the defining elements of the Bloomberg approach to development: looking beyond Manhattan and emphasizing environmental sustainability, pairing generous subsidies with the potential use of eminent domain, and bypassing the ULURP process as much as legally possible.

Photo by: Karla Ann Cote

The bid to reshape Willets Point comprises some of the defining elements of the Bloomberg approach to development: looking beyond Manhattan and emphasizing environmental sustainability, pairing generous subsidies with the potential use of eminent domain, and bypassing the ULURP process as much as legally possible.

The most embarrassing moment in New York City’s election season had nothing to do with Anthony Weiner.

It unfolded last spring at an Earth Day forum, where nine different mayoral contenders—including the eventual party nominees, Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota—were asked for a show of hands: Who among them supported the new Major League Soccer stadium proposed for Flushing Meadows-Corona Park?

All hands remained un-raised. When the next question turned to who opposed the stadium, once again, nobody lifted so much as a finger.

The scene didn’t inspire confidence, especially among New Yorkers who hoped the next mayor would bring a new era of transparency in development. Though de Blasio and Lhota eventually took stands on the soccer stadium, both of them—and every one of their opponents onstage that night—chose to avoid stating a position on a controversial, publicly subsidized project. Perhaps they didn’t see the point in raising their hands: Michael Bloomberg was a big fan of the plan, and for much of the last decade the mayor’s backing meant a deal was as good as done.

Bloomberg has been caricatured for his so-called “nanny-state” health initiatives—the bans on smoking, trans fats, and Big Gulps—but few of his policies have been as prescriptive or as far-reaching as those on land-use and development. Bloomberg’s handed developers free land, new infrastructure, and generous subsidies in the hopes of realizing wider benefits down the road. He’s already rezoned 37 percent of the city, and in his last year in office he’s aggressively pushed for more.

Bloomberg’s bucket list is long: He backs developers’ bid to build a dozen high-rises in Greenpoint, for example; he’s allocated $50 million to fund an arts center at the Hudson Yards; he wants to rezone 73 blocks of Midtown to allow for taller buildings; he’d like to lease property in public-housing complexes to create new market-rate housing.

Each of these proposals has backers and critics. What’s clear, though, is that little time has been provided for a real public discussion about the plans—a process where problems can be addressed, questions get answered, and people have a say in what happens to their city.

The flaws in the current land-use process are plainly evident in the results, from the decades-long tax breaks granted at the Hudson Yards to the lack of job guarantees in the $89 million just awarded to Fresh Direct, from the thousands of missing affordable-housing units that had been promised at Atlantic Yards and in Williamsburg to the bankrupt parking garages at Yankee Stadium built atop a public park. The next mayor will inherit costs and problems that could have likely been avoided with genuine public engagement.

Pre-empting a process

The public gets its chance to speak up during the city’s official vetting process known as ULURP, or the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. Created as part of the 1975 revision of the City Charter, ULURP was heralded as a great democratization of land-use, moving away from the era of Robert Moses and central-planning dictates by providing a framework for public scrutiny. But the ULURP process is completed in just seven months’ time, and during the Bloomberg years, the crucial deliberations over development have increasingly shifted to the period before ULURP, when negotiations take place between the mayoral administration and developers or their lobbyists.

All of the key decisions are sealed then, well before anyone outside of the backroom has a chance to weigh in. Projects pass through ULURP—moving from community boards to borough president to City Planning to the City Council—with a firm number of days allocated for each step. As done deals are served up to elected officials, the public hearings become theater. People might turn out in droves to ask questions and to testify—City Limits spoke to one attorney who recalled sitting through 13 hours of community board hearings on a single project—but the plans don’t fundamentally change. The clock ticks down on often-farcical proceedings.

“The only way communities can influence a large-scale project is to obstruct it,” explains Joan Byron, director of policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development. But obstruction is hard when up against money and power. “I’ve seen it only ever happen once, with the Kingsbridge Armory,” Byron says, referring to the neighborhood opposition that led to the City Council’s 2009 defeat of a Bloomberg administration plan to put a shopping mall in that landmarked Bronx building (a new plan featuring an ice center is going forward). “Developers are sophisticated at picking potential supporters and peeling them away from coalitions that might otherwise successfully oppose plans.”

In the last decade, side agreements—independent from ULURP—became a common method to move controversial projects toward approvals, as community groups and politicians made separate pacts with the administration or developers in return for their support. Whether these deals were contained in memoranda of understanding or community benefits agreements, they weren’t subject to formal review.

A nationwide phenomenon, CBAs allowed communities to deal directly with developers. But controversy dogged New York City’s CBAs. Though praise greeted the recent pact reached between neighborhood groups and the ice-center developer at the Kingsbridge site, other benefits agreements were negotiated by elected officials, with little or no community participation. When the City Council approved a government-subsidized shopping mall at the old Bronx Terminal Market in 2006, for example, local Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo read out the names of 13 groups that took part in negotiations for the project’s CBA, without acknowledging that most of them had refused to sign the deal. The Atlantic Yards agreement involved groups that had received funding from the developer, Forest City Ratner.

These CBAs were so compromised that Comptroller John Liu convened a task force in 2010 to address the “string of broken promises to communities and questionable involvement by some government officials.”

While Bloomberg slammed CBAs, calling them “an attempt by a small group of people to demand some ransom,” he actively supported the side deals that furthered his favored plans, even signing the disputed Atlantic Yards CBA as a witness. New York’s boom in questionable benefits contracts was largely an outgrowth of the lack of public engagement during the planning process. The CBA looked like the only avenue open for neighborhood involvement, though the participants at the table often didn’t represent the community.

Rushing in Flushing

Nowhere was the end-of-the-Bloomberg-era desperation as evident as in the three projects proposed for Flushing Meadows Corona Park: The Major League Soccer stadium, an expansion of the National Tennis Center, and a 1.4 million-square-foot shopping mall west of Citi Field, which had suddenly become central to the city’s plan to redevelop Willets Point.


Read the rest of this series:
Part 2:
Trading Parkland for Developer’s Donation
Part 3:
Relocation Fears for Workers


All three of the proposed Flushing Meadows projects aimed to take parkland, but, in an apparent rush to the finish line, none offered plans to replace that parkland. Replacing parkland is a requirement under applicable state and federal laws. The two projects that moved forward—the tennis center and the shopping mall—included side agreements with local City Council member Julissa Ferreras to fund a new nonprofit dedicated to park maintenance. Ferreras says she created this nonprofit with the participation of two groups, New Yorkers for Parks and the Fairness Coalition of Queens, a collection of community organizations.

Just two days before the City Council’s October vote on the Willets Point redevelopment plan, Rev. Patrick Young, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of East Elmhurst, co-authored an op-ed in the Daily News calling on elected officials to vote “no,” mostly because “our communities and city leaders” should “have more time to create a better development proposal.”

The current plan bore little resemblance to the one approved by the City Council in 2008—a “ghost plan,” according to Young. To Young and other critics, Bloomberg was once again gaming ULURP by seeking the Council’s OK on only amendments to the prior land-use application. While these amendments went through ULURP, the 1.4 million-square-foot shopping mall skipped it, and the new plan had scaled back dramatically on previous promises of affordable housing: The 2008 deal approved by the City Council called for 1,920 such units, but the new plan provides only 875. The city maintained this would be just the first phase of a larger development with more housing sometime in the future, but no one asked the community what they thought about that. “Everything was done in a backroom,” complains Young.

New mayor, different path?

The audacity of the mayor’s final development campaign has been unprecedented. “I can’t recall any comparable push by lame-duck mayors to cement their ‘legacies’ with such chutzpah,” says Tom Angotti, a professor of urban planning at Hunter College. Angotti had worked in city government under Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani, and he was on the inside when two of those administrations drew to a close. “It really does seem that Bloomberg is trying to make it difficult for the next mayor to take a different path,” he says.

But will the next mayor take a different path? The candidates have their own ideas, but both de Blasio and Lhota would essentially build on Bloomberg’s development agenda, supporting such current initiatives as the rezoning of Midtown and the expansion of public-private partnerships in parks. De Blasio has even said the Flushing Meadows soccer stadium is “worth discussing” if the league provides funds to fix up the rest of the park. Both candidates would allow new construction on public-housing property, though de Blasio insists any towers must contain affordable housing and Lhota says developers would not be allowed to take playgrounds.

A 75-page policy document on de Blasio’s campaign website lays out a platform that appears to be a bold departure from the Bloomberg years, proposing “broad reform of all tax breaks” granted in the name of economic development, converting affordable-housing incentives for developers into “hard-and-fast rules,” and requiring the payment of $10-an-hour living wages by developers receiving subsidies of more than $1 million. (The living wage was already mandated in 2012 legislation passed by the City Council, but it only withstood an administration-backed court challenge in July.)

Yet de Blasio’s critics recall his support in the City Council for Bloomberg’s most controversial rezonings and taxpayer-subsidized real estate deals, including the undemocratic processes that put new pro sports facilities in the South Bronx and Brooklyn. Some in his former Council district remember de Blasio’s backing of the Atlantic Yards and its dubious Community Benefits Agreement, the rezoning of Fourth Avenue, and the failed attempt by a luxury housing developer to build along the banks of the polluted Gowanus Canal. (De Blasio has responded that 30 percent of the units in the Gowanus project would have been set aside as affordable, before developers backed away once the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the canal a Superfund site.)

Critics also have ridiculed his ties to real estate developers, who donated $300,000 to his primary campaign and discount some of his fiercest anti-Bloomberg rhetoric. Donation bundlers for de Blasio include officials from such high-profile developers as the Related Companies ($9,000), L + M ($13,850), Extell ($11,050), Tully ($10,100), Toll Brothers ($5,000), and Forest City Ratner ($13,600), none of whom show up as intermediaries for Lhota. Atlantic Yards boss Bruce Ratner co-chaired de Blasio’s 50th birthday fundraiser.

An aggressive approach

In a July speech at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, de Blasio discussed Atlantic Yards, the massive commercial and residential project fed by approximately $200 million from the city on top of various other subsidies. Opposition to the project went beyond the usual charges of cronyism and “Not in My Back Yard” complaints—many believed Bloomberg had subverted the city charter, as he avoided the ULURP local planning process by having the state, not the city, oversee Atlantic Yards.

“To say it faced opposition in the neighborhoods I represented would be an understatement,” de Blasio said. But he added that he backed the project for its promises of “good jobs and affordable housing.”

A decade later, the developer, Forest City Ratner, has not delivered on its housing pledges, and it’s just found a new investor for most of the undeveloped site. Atlantic Yards’ basketball arena may have closed on its second season before the first 181 affordable units—or just 8 percent of the avowed total—finally become available next winter.

De Blasio has advocated an aggressive approach to future building in New York, “maximizing development” with more neighborhood-wide upzonings to increase the amount of buildable space—and to allow projects to proceed without seeking approvals—in return for mandatory affordable housing.

While de Blasio swears he’ll “do a lot better job at driving a hard bargain with the real estate industry,” private developers will likely deliver on more affordable housing only by drawing from the same well of tax breaks, free land, and other government giveaways that were a hallmark of the Bloomberg administration. If he doesn’t want to provide subsidies, de Blasio will have to allow more building in exchange for the affordable units.

In the NYU speech, de Blasio called for less debate over development: “We can’t afford a process rife with delays, subject to knee-jerk NIMBY-ism, and tangled in bureaucracy.” He’d like to provide “speed and predictability” to builders before the ULURP clock kicks in, “accelerating” land-use proposals by issuing responses from city agencies in just “30 to 60 days.”

Lhota agrees with de Blasio on the need to continue rezonings to encourage housing development, though he’d like to slow down the pace “until we start seeing results from the rezonings we’ve recently accomplished.”

De Blasio has pledged to “sidestep the development dog-and-pony show” by bringing communities into the process early. But the exact role he envisions for community input is unclear—he hasn’t responded to questions for this article—but it doesn’t appear that “no” will be a valid answer. In the NYU speech, de Blasio said, “As officials, we have to distinguish between the voices of ‘not here, not ever’ and the constructive input of a community that knows its own needs.”

It’s also not clear how this process would differ from the negotiations over “concessions” that developers currently engage in with community representatives and elected officials, usually before the start of ULURP. A case can be made that these discussions weaken the public process as well, because they take place behind closed doors. Some advocate for ULURP reforms that would give a greater voice to community boards, which are closer to the ground, and have a better and long-standing knowledge of neighborhood issues, but lack a real vote. The votes of borough presidents similarly don’t count under ULURP—they are advisory—giving the deliberations an air of empty formalism.

The done deal

With two months left in the Bloomberg administration, a host of development projects and neighborhood re-zonings—including the plans for Greenpoint and East Midtown—are barreling through ULURP toward decisive City Council votes.

If the battle over Willets Point is any indication, many people in these communities will feel their voices haven’t been heard.

“The process was not people- and community-oriented,” says Young. “It was all about the needs of the developers and the unions, and that’s amazing considering the subsidies that are coming from taxpayers. The people who are paying for this don’t have a voice in the process, and we call ourselves a democracy.”

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute with support from the Puffin Foundation.