Chairman Matthew Goldstein used a discussion about community benefits agreements (CBAs) at the charter revision commission’s June 24 Land Use forum in Queens to voice his conviction that real estate development and growth are essential to New York City’s economic future. He did not use the session to reveal which issues his commission will place on November’s ballot.
CBAs are “side deals” by which a real estate developer may agree to provide a public benefit to a community group, e.g., jobs, loans, unrelated contracts, in return for its support of a project. They are unregulated private agreements, negotiated by private parties outside of the ULURP framework, and can substantially increase a project’s cost.
Viewing the charter panel’s webcast felt like watching the Yankees on TV. Commission member Betty Chen pitched to invited panelists by asking them whether City Hall should involve itself in regulating CBAs. Hunter College planning professor Tom Angotti led off with a “yes,” arguing that the existence of CBAs and side agreements between the mayor’s office and community groups shows that ULURP alone can’t deal with all impacts of a development project. Co-panelists Christopher Collins and David Karnovsky loaded the bases, liberally faulting CBAs.
But it was panelist Vishaan Chakrabarti, batting clean-up, who knocked CBAs out of the ballpark, calling them “a grave threat to the economic growth of New York City” — and one that “fundamentally … could stop development in its tracks.”
This was Matthew Goldstein’s cue to abandon his usual moderator’s role to hypothesize about what New York could do to emulate Mumbai, London, and Shanghai, which Chakrabarti had cited as examples of development-friendly world cities. Goldstein bemoaned “the amount of time that important projects, like the Hudson Yards, in Manhattan, and like Moynahan Station … are taking to get done.”
Goldstein observed that New York’s long project development timetable “transports from one economic cycle to another economic cycle.” He asked “can we learn from other parts of the world where there is enormous development, where the time frames are compressed?” In urging panelists to respond, Goldstein suggested they “hold aside the political systems” while they proposed structural or regulatory changes that would help NYC accelerate development.
Chakrabarti quickly contrasted the U.S. with China, which, he said, had used economic stimulus funds for infrastructure improvements that included a game-changing high-speed rail line. He blamed America’s failure to do likewise on our environmental review process, saying “there’s simply too much political infighting around these very important issues that impact the growth of our cities.” Goldstein agreed.
Neither Goldstein nor Chakrabarti noted that one reason for the “political infighting” is that elected officials in cities such as New York represent constituents whose homes would have to be bulldozed to enable major infrastructure improvements.
Land use lawyer Paul D. Selver, the fifth invited panelist, concluded the panel’s performance by reminding the commission that America is relatively litigious and that “democracy is very messy.”
This discussion, starting shortly before the halfway mark of a 4-hour session, corroborated our own view of the 2010 charter revision commission: Its featured issue — term limits — is the price Michael Bloomberg must pay for Ron Lauder’s non-opposition to Bloomberg’s third term; but its core agenda is to facilitate future real estate development in New York City. And, after the Bloomberg administration stumbled badly last year over a CBA-encumbered Kingsbridge Armory Mall project, his 2010 charter revision commission may be seriously considering salving the mayor’s wounds by placing CBA regulation on November’s ballot.
More than an hour later, another issue seemed to capture attention: a presentation by Eddie Bautista of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, who used his three minutes of public speaking time to again urge the commission to act this year to improve the city’s Fair Share and 197a process.
Fair Share had been established under the 1989 charter to insure that communities would be notified of any agency plans to locate major facilities within their neighborhoods, and to establish a process by which such facilities could be allocated fairly across the city.
Bautista’s remarks drew the attention of commission member Hope Cohen. In response to her question, Bautista explained that the 1989 charter’s intent had been compromised by agency rule-making, which enabled mayoral agencies to omit proposed facility site locations from their mandated annual City-wide Statement of Needs listings. Encouraged, Bautista agreed to submit detailed recommendations to the commission after the session.
The final highlight of the evening came when Frank Morano, a youthful Staten Island resident who has spoken skillfully at every one of the charter commission’s ten public sessions, approached the microphone. Evidently, Morano’s dedication and verbal agility had stirred the curiosity of commission member Anthony Crowell, who asked Morano what he did for a living — even before Morano started to speak.
Morano replied that he worked in radio. “What kind of radio?”
“Talk, mostly, Morano added, I worked for WABC for many years.”
Crowell persisted: “What did you do for ABC?”
“I was a producer — for several different talk shows, including the Curtis Sliwa show.” After asking Morano what the point of his “Borscht Belt shtick” before the commission had been, Crowell finally relented, and Morano, unperturbed, congratulated Crowell and the commission for their public service and completed his testimony.
In our view, his suggestions did not impress the commission nearly as much as his silver tongue. A You Tube video seems likely.