A Column of Political Commentary
By Arthur Z. Schwartz
A City Ready To Heal,Hudson River Park Air Rights, Hope for Public School Parents, Peace offering to Assembly Member Glick
A New Name. I launched this column a year ago following Hurricane Sandy and called it After the Storm. I was moved, in part, by the death of my close friend, John Kest, an activist whose vision the NY Times recently noted was at the core of Bill de Blasio’s candidacy. I was also moved by the fact that a few of our elected officials, and candidates worked overtime to help our suffering neighbors (Council Member Rosie Mendez, Corey Johnson, Yetta Kurland) and some (like Assembly Member Glick) just left town. However, the recent win of Bill de Blasio and Tish James in the city-wide election points to the importance of moving forward and not dwelling on the past; so to start the New Year I have renamed this column Out Shout.
A City Ready To Heal.January 1 marked a new era in New York City. Over the last 20 years our City has been led by two men, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, who, while remarkably different, shared three similarities. They both were intolerant of criticism and disdainful of opinions which differed with their own. Giuliani tried to keep people from expressingdifferences (like when he banned an ad from NY Magazine critical of him) and Bloomberg just ignored everyone else (although he was intolerant of Occupy Wall Street, perhaps because its message cut so close to home). Both believed in trickledown economics, catering to the wealthy, and developers, and not looking at the people of the City as the most important force in building a strong City. The result, post-Bloomberg, is a city truly divided between very few who have a lot and very many who have little, and a poverty level which sees 1.5 million New Yorkers barely making it by each day. The third thing they shared was an ability to build racial polarization. When 95% of Black voters, and an equally impressive percentage of Hispanic voters, vote for the candidate who speaks to the fear that so many have to just venture out on the street, and who speaks to the distrust that community has towards government, you know that something is wrong. Bill de Blasio will be a breath of fresh air; he is a man who cares, who isn’t arrogant, and who values the contributions of rank and file New Yorkers.
Hudson River Park Air Rights -With A Lot of Work WE Can Turn a Toad into a Prince. Perhaps the singularly most poorly thought out piece of legislation passed in 2013 was Deborah Glick’s middle of the night, secret amendments to the Hudson River Park Act. As Andrew Berman discussed in his article last month, the part of the legislation which allows the Hudson River Park Trust to sell its “air rights” is full of holes wide enough for developers to drive an aircraft carrier through.
Let’s begin with some definitions:
– What are air rights? Air rights, also known as development rights, are the maximum amount of floor area which can be built on a zoning lot. Unused development rights are often described as air rights. They exist “in the air” above what has been built.
– What does that mean in layman’s terms? Air rights are the amount of development potential you have that you haven’t used. For every square foot a property owner doesn’t use when building a building, that owner can sell his/her air rights to another building.
– What does it mean to “sell air rights”? The law allows for the transfer of unused development rights from one zoning lot to another in limited circumstances, usually only to a neighboring property. The Hudson River Park legislation allows them to be sold anywhere “within one block of the park’s eastern boundary.”
– Who determines the price of transferredair rights?It’s whatever developers are willing to pay; the right to build on thewaterfrontwill probably get a premium.
– Where are the air rights in the park? At least, according to the Trust (it is not spelled out in the legislation) air rights can be sold only from the piers that are designated for commercial use – like Chelsea Piers, Piers 40, 57 and 76. They do not come from the land.
What is ULURP? Short hand for the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. This is a process where government action goes through multiple layers of review. The New York City Charter requires certain actions that are reviewed by the City Planning Commission to proceed through ULURP). The Charter also established mandated time frames within which application review must take place. Key participants in the ULURP process are now the Department of City Planning (DCP) and Community Boards, the Borough Presidents, the City Planning Commission (CPC), the City Council and the Mayor. The greatest amount of public input comes through the Community Boards, but, unfortunately, its role is “advisory” and comes at the beginning of the process. The City Council really makes the final decision.
The sale of these air rights will be of great importance to the Park’s finances. While the very same Village/Chelsea legislators who sponsored this bill announced a redoubling of efforts to get Park funding from the same revenue stream that other parks –getting any revenue from Governor Cuomo will be close to impossible. It has been hard enough to get the capital funds needed to finish the construction of the park (the State and the City each gave $2 million last year, which basically brought construction to a halt). So it is important to make the process work to both get money into the park and keep West Street, and the block to the east, from being the home to too many enormous developments.
If we were going to see the air right sale unfold during the Bloomberg-Quinn era, I would say that the communities adjacent to the Park didn’t stand a chance. However, we have a new Mayor, Bill de Blasio, who believes in Community Boards having effective input, and believes in meaningful public participation. He is about to name five new members to the Board of the Hudson River Park Trust. We also have a new Borough President, Gayle Brewer. She not only plays a role in the process, she will appoint three new people to the Hudson River Park Trust Board. Most of the area has a new City Council Member, Corey Johnson, who is both a land use maven and Not Chris Quinn. It is a good setting for some creative community demands.
So how do we begin?
I am pushing for the Hudson River Park Advisory Council to band together with the three affected Community Boards (1, 2, and 4), and sign an agreement with the Trust that it will run all aspects of the air rights sales through the ULURP process, and that it will decline any proposal rejected by the affected community Board. That agreement could also settle most of the questions raised by the coalition pulled together by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
The Boards would work together with the Borough President’s Office, and its land use staff, in addition to Council Member Johnson, and key community groups, to identify sites which the communities believe should be the recipient of air rights, and the limitations on those sales – in terms of height and bulk. Finally, the Boards and the Trust not only would strive towards shaping the sale, but also any subsequent zoning changes, perhaps requiring the buyer to do more than just pay a certain price per square foot; that could mean extra money for the Park. It could also bring about utilization of part of the affected space for some needed public purpose such as dedicating floors of the St. John’s terminal to use as a hospital. Or maybe the developer would contribute money to some other needed community project sort of like the Rudins did at St. Vincent’s. I say “sort of” because the Rudins contributed far too little given the enormity of their project. How about if Fortress Financial, which wants to develop the St. John Terminal, give $50 million or $100 million to building some hospital floors on top of the O’Toole building, across from the old St. Vincent’s siteas an alternative to putting a hospital in a flood zone (which is where St. Johns is).
There is another term you may hear in this discussion: “General Project Plan.” This is an alternative to the ULURP process where the State seizes private property, institutes changes in zoning and other requirements, and then for a price, hands it back to a private developer. This happened at the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. Although this process does involve some public review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, the final decision gets made by the Governor, the Assembly Speaker, and the President Pro-Tem of the Senate (the “famous 3 men in a room”) and I, for one, believe that my proposal to do a Community Board-Trust Agreement, with a guaranteed ULURPprocess, would be far preferable. Frankly, do we want Governor Cuomo,Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos deciding the future of Pier 40 or any other parcel in our community?
Many need to fall into place for this to happen. However, it will not happen if we just ask questions. Or gripe. Or protest. We need everyone on board. In the end we could get a refurbished Pier 40, lots of ballfields, a hospital. A livable Community!
Hope for Public School Parents
Sara Hendricks reportedlast month about the potential for change under Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty. I have clients who aren’t just going to ride on hope. They have engaged the current Mayor, and his Board, which is the most parent-unfriendly leadership our school system ever had, and given Mayor de Blasio a vehicle to wipe out some of the excesses of the past 4 years.
In one case, the NYC Parents Union, Class Size Matters, and the NY Communities for Change filed suit (with me as their lawyer) over the Department of Education policy which allows charter schools to occupy public school space without paying rent. These schools receive funds from the School District to pay rent and then don’t pay. They use the funds to lower class size and make school nicer, but always share their building with a public school without such extra funds. The result is a separate and unequal education. State Law says that Charter Schools can rent public school space “at cost.” The Independent Budget Office says that that cost is $100, million per year. The case is 2 years old and is before a judge for decision. It will survive into the de Blasio administration. He will have to decide how to deal with it. Our hope is that the City will change sides and join our team.
I have also filed two new suits, one suit in State Supreme Court, and one before the State Education Commissioner, on behalf ofPublic Advocate-elect Tish James, seeking to undo 42 decisions made by the lame duck Board of Education in October to co-locate over 100 schools – everyone over vociferous parent opposition. This policy, which largely involves squeezing a Charter School into a fully occupied public school building, hurts all of the students. This time around the co-locations were rushed through with meaningless “public hearings” just days before the Board voted. If any governmental action was ever arbitrary and capricious this takes the cake. These cases, and the follow-up litigation we will be filing in Federal Court (on behalf of disadvantaged learning disabled students), will be inherited by Mayor de Blasio. We have high hopes for a rapid settlement, leading to an era where parents elect genuine Community Education Councils who are given a real voice in running the schools their kids attend.
More on Glick/Moving Forward
I know that my last piece here, and a similar one in the Villager, caused Assembly Member Glick great anguish. My writing was not a personal attack, it was a political critique. I continue to be unhappy with our Assembly Member, and her slavish loyalty to the leadership in the Assembly, but I won’t start the New Year with another attack. She will be re-elected this year to her 25th and 26th year in the Assembly unless some candidate comes forward to challenge her. It is my hope that the Air Rights debacle might open her up more to a more open style. I am ready, as your District Leader, to work together if she is.
Next month, I hope to announce plans for a new organization in the Village – Downtown area, called Audacity 66, and for my creation of Deputy District Leader positions. I will also talk about my resignation from the State Democratic Committee. Stay tuned.
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village, and Vice Chair of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council.