Thursday, May 31, 2018

BDB & REBNY: A Noxious Co-Dependent Relationship Running NYC?

Update: This came in late Tuesday evening as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, but it must be mentioned. According to the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, the Landmarks Commission has backed off (for now at least) it's proposed rule changes which would have cut out public input because of widespread opposition. Actually, the email says LPC, "retreated from many of the most controversial elements of their proposed changes to the rules governing the landmarks public review and approval process." A 'stay tuned' seems in order......
I think it's pretty obvious: the Real Estate Board of NY (REBNY) has lost its mind, in part thanks to its co-dependent relationship with the government of the City of New York. It has been utterly enabled by Mayor Bill de Blasio and his chief henchperson, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen (full disclosure: my former high school friend)--who have given REBNY unfettered control of the city's public policy--because in the end, every issue, every policy, every edict is run through a real estate and land use filter. And if REBNY deems something unacceptable, well, by now we know the tune...If REBNY has a wish-list, then de Blasio and Glen have proceeded to check off item after item in the 'granted' column.

As with many such relationships, this kind of co-dependency breeds an unhealthy dynamic that leaves a path of damage in its wake--and I should know because this accurately describes in a nutshell the toxic marriage of my own parents. However, instead of being confined to immediate family members, we instead see it playing out on a much larger stage and scale deleteriously impacting the entire city.

I suppose this kind of situation organically creates the rapacious desire for fresh conquests, to push boundaries and because there are virtually no constraints or ramifications. Nothing is ever enough for developers and landlords: greater profits, greater greed, a continuous cacophony of "More, More, More" (and not in the lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek context of the Andrea True Connection.)

It's particularly surreal and quite Orwellian when we see how the administration is trying desperately to lift height caps imposed by a 1961 state law on residential buildings when in actuality, there have been few examples where developers haven't been able to build ridiculously tall buildings (commonly known as supertalls) using a combination of existing zoning regulations and loopholes. Just look around at the developments taking place all over the city, regardless of the neighborhood.

In a recent newsletter by Human Scale-NYC (HS-NYC), it's asked, "Why lift the cap when the city has yet to produce a plan--or even have a debate--about how much density a neighborhood can sustain before the quality of life deteriorates? Why do such a thing when the city is locked into a false economic theory that suggests (without evidence) that to have economic growth, the only possible strategy is to attract young, "intelligent" people... [so we have to build] lots of high-rise luxury housing...specifically in the hot neighborhoods of Manhattan and on the Brooklyn-Queens waterfronts...One worrying thought about it: Is "intelligent" supposed to be a code word for young, educated white college grads instead of black brown immigrants from poor countries?"

HS-NYC raises some very legitimate questions and points. As much as I hate the phrase "quality of life" and its implications thanks to its utter bastardization by Rudy Giuliani, it makes perfect sense in this regard. As the city keeps pushing development and especially out-of-scale development, the law of diminishing returns has to kick in at some point--though I think it can be argued it already has.  Though the evidence is ample, here are just a few examples: the overtaxed transit system which constantly breaks down from overuse and lack of investment; overcrowded public schools; a general lack of personal space and the encroachment of shadows caused by these supertalls, which are all facts of life today for NYers. 

(Ed. Note: I would maintain there is no neighborhood left in Manhattan that isn't 'hot'--thanks to the mayor's plan to rezone (i.e. upzone) the last few remaining communities comprised of mixed incomes and diverse populations (mostly of color): East Harlem and Inwood.

HS-NYC correctly point out the entire premise of the de Blasio housing plan is predicated on a theory which focuses on attracting usually white, but more importantly, predominantly the upper-middle class and wealthy.

This is wrong on so many levels, but as a native Manhattanite, I find the city's focus to attract people from other cities and states mystifying. In my lifetime, I can't remember a time when city government worked so hard to retain the residents already here, college educated or not, as it appears it's doing to appeal to outsiders.

The city and its allies like the Regional Plan Association and of course, REBNY, are using the veil of 'affordable housing' as the justification, but I think everybody sees through that facade after 5+ years of Bill de Blasio's tenure. As the Historic Districts Council wrote, "There is NOTHING (ed emphasis) in this bill regarding affordable housing, it only increases developers' already broad latitude to build. NYC does not have a housing shortage--there are nearly 250,000 empty units, or about 11% of the city's total rental apartments, which currently sit empty. There is enough housing for everyone, but developers build for maximum profit, not for people."

The situation has moved from bad to seriously egregious, again, thanks to the Cart Blanche granted by the de Blasio administration. Developers have become emboldened, constantly pushing the lines away from the public good, away from basic necessities like sunlight, air and public space, and away even from common sense. And, this madness now extends to selling publicly-owned assets like library branches to private developers--which once was utterly inconceivable...

The most recent example is the proposed mixed-used development including double towers--one of which is roughly the size of the Chrysler building--"planned" (a term I use facetiously as the city does no actual planning) for the middle of brownstone-dominated residential Brooklyn, around Fort Greene and Boerum Hill. The developer wants to triple existing zoning while delaying the mandatory inclusionary housing. You can listen here to an interview with one of the leading activists opposing this development which I produced for WBAI Radio's The Morning Show. 

If this proposal wasn't bad enough on it's face, it's being facilitated by a little-known government agency that was dormant until 2010 when Michael Bloomberg's administration resuscitated it--but there is no ambiguity as to why it was brought back or how it's being used. The idea behind 80 Flatbush Towers--and allowing such monstrous buildings where they really ought not to be--is perhaps the second most cliched justification for out-of-context development, just behind the affordable housing excuse: schools.

In the case of Flatbush Towers, two small schools are being proposed using public land and the accompanying air rights---an enormous boon to the developer and its partners. (They are asking for the equivalent of $300+ million in free air rights from the city and state.) There is also enormous concern the development will encourage such a large influx of people to the area that the new schools will "barely cover" the new population and actually result in a net LOSS of school seats.

Meanwhile, everything that we recognize as truly unique to NYC--from the longstanding independent small businesses, to the architecture, to the divergent and multicultural populations reflected in every walk of life including the cornucopia of food choices, to our very own heritage--is being systematically dismantled block by block, street by street, community by community. I've previously written on EAP about the loss of unofficial landmarks, like Indian Row in the East Village, the garment center and diamond district. 

The latest in danger of being added to this list is Tin Pan Alley, considered the birthplace of popular music and a bastion of NYC culture and history. Here is a Morning Show interview with one of the organizers trying to save TPA

Because of encroaching over-development and the peculiar circumstance of existing zoning which encourages hotel construction, it's well past time for the Department of City Planning (DCP) to intervene and stop the glut of hotels. The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has twice rejected landmarking designation because it has deemed the area lacking in architectural style--but have you ever walked around the neighborhood? If anything, the architecture is astounding. 

Tin Pan Alley and the larger at-risk area surrounding it called NoMad includes gems like "pre-Civil War Italianite row houses" and turn-of-the century buildings built in the "neo-Renaissance and/or Beaux Arts styles."  Throw in the historical significance of the block(s) and the case for protection is self-explanatory.  


What's been occurring--and permitted to occur by the city--at 85 Bowery in Chinatown is beyond a travesty. We've been consistently covering the plight of these tenants for the better part of two years on The Morning Show--something few local journalistic organizations can credibly maintain.

The evicted tenants resumed their hunger strike on May 30th, in their latest attempts to bring pressure to get back home. February 1st was the ostensible deadline the city gave the landlord to make "repairs" but here we are, in June. The city has done little-to-nothing to enforce its own time frame; meanwhile, dozens of people who are legally entitled to their apartments are still homeless.

According to organizers, the city keeps permitting the landlord to delay and stonewall--the repairs being the questionable justification to evict the rent-regulated tenants in the first place--after he spent years trying to shirk his responsibilities AND tried to illegally evict them.  

The city's Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) agency ignored the case for two years, after a 2016 Housing Court order mandated the fixes based on poor conditions. The city's Department of Buildings (DOB) and others like HPD even stood by as the landlord disposed into dumpsters tenants' belongings.

The entire drama is particularly galling because it's being played out during the administration of our self-described 'progressive' mayor---who has repeatedly failed to intervene on behalf of these beleaguered tenants and demand his own government agencies do their damned jobs. This is the same man whose initial campaign for the office focused on social justice and on the whole 'Tale of Two Cities' theme, apparently just a big canard that snookered voters and the press alike.

Update: The organizers of #85 Bowery have a 4pm Victory March planned for today at the entrance to City Hall.