Thursday, February 7, 2008

How City Government Failed the People

How City Government Failed the People
By Tony Avella

While some are rejoicing at the City Council’s approval of the Columbia expansion/Manhattanville rezoning applications, many others, including myself, are astonished by the failure of the land use approval process to protect the West Harlem neighborhood and afford the community true input into the project.

Despite seven hours of public testimony on this application and the 197-a plan submitted by Manhattan Community Board 9, not a single change was made by the City Council on the Columbia proposal. Think about it­—Columbia’s idea to utterly change forever 17 acres in West Harlem was not amended in any way shape or form at the City Council level.

Many people believed from the beginning that “the fix was in.” Judging from the fact that no modifications were made despite outstanding community issues and that City Council leadership rushed the vote, their beliefs seem to be right on target.Without question, Columbia wields significant political influence extending into the mayoral administration and the City Council. The presence of former Mayor David Dinkins sitting alongside University President Lee Bollinger during Columbia’s presentation before my zoning and franchises subcommittee public hearing clearly demonstrates the power they enjoy.

Under the Uniformed Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), a specific timetable for approval is spelled out. The City Council had until January to vote. Yet, we voted within a week after the public hearing, hardly enough time to consider the seven hours of testimony. Why? Because it was politically adventitious for some to dispose of this controversial project quickly and at a time when most people are focused on the holiday season so as not to negatively affect future political aspirations.

Let’s not forget the other glaring failure of the land use process. Under the city charter, neighborhood organizations, such as community boards, can create a planning document for their area, known as a 197-a plan. Unfortunately, neighborhoods can often take years, to develop a 197-a plan and obtain city approval only to learn that the plan carries no force of law. In other words, no one has to pay any attention to it.

That absurdity was brought to the forefront during this application process. CB9, beginning in 1991, sought and developed such a plan. To the dismay of the community, its plan finally underwent the ULURP public review process at the same time as the Columbia expansions application. In a move that defies logic, the City Council approved both, despite the Columbia plan’s inconsistency with the community 197-a plan.

In addition, under ULURP, the local community board has authority to conduct a public hearing on land use items and make recommendations. As such, it is part of the official approval process, although its recommendation is not mandatory .

In the case of the Columbia project, CB9 was shut out of any negotiations, because the city set up a local development corporation. It was the LDC that negotiated directly with Columbia arranging the Community Benefits Agreement. As a result, legitimate community issues and concerns presented by CB9 were not addressed. In my opinion, not only does this violate the land use approval process, it makes a mockery of community input.

This is a back-door approach, which enabled the city and interested parties to negotiate in private, without public scrutiny.

The failure of the process allowed such important issues as the misuse of eminent domain, the preservation of important historic buildings within the designated development area, and the construction of a level three biological laboratory in the midst of seismically active flood plain in Manhattan, to go unanswered.

The City Council and the administration have now set a dangerous precedent for the use of eminent domain. In the future, any powerful developer or politically connected institution, such as Columbia, can tell the city it has a better use for your property. As a result, no property owner in the city should feel safe.

Indeed, this policy is already being considered and employed in other parts of the city—in downtown Brooklyn (the Ratner/Nets Stadium project) and in Willets Point, Queens.

Institutions such as Columbia serve a vital purpose in our city, but they cannot be allowed to destroy the very fabric of the community they serve. The time has come to revisit how we conduct planning in this city. It’s about time we give the citizenship of this city a true voice in the planning process. Let us hope that the Columbia approval will serve as a rallying cry from New Yorkers that this can never happen again. Government is here to serve the people—not the powerful and influential institutions.

The author is the council member of District 19—Northeast Queens. He is running for mayor of New York City in 2006

NB - Although I agree with most of what Tony Avella asserts I must clarify that the LDC was not created by the City, I have no idea where he got that piece of misinformation.

Quite on the contrary, the establishment of an LDC is called for in CB9M's 197-a Plan and it was by a Resolution of CB9M specifically authorizing the Chairman, (me), and the 2nd Vice Chair Pat Jones along with Maritta Dunn representing Manhattanville Housing, Sarah Martin representing General Grant Housing and Julio Batista representing the HDFC Council ( within CB9M there are 140 HDFC cooperatives and some 40 buildings in the pipeline to become HDFC cooperatives), who were the incorporators of the LDC.

Susan Russell, CM Robert Jackson's chief of staff and Matthew Wambua representing the Mayor's Office facilitated discussions with several City agencies and Corporation Counsel, so that the LDC would be accepted as the sole negotiator of a CBA with Columbia. This was a resolution from CB9M taken to avoid every Tom, Dick and Harry from all over the country to get their mtts into something that was and still is of concern to the Community District 9 residents.

For that LDC purpose each identifiable segment of the population was given seats in the LDC particularly those most impacted, including the property owners and the commercial and residential tenants within the target area, and these individuals would represent the interests of the various segments of the population.

Under the By-Laws we created, seats for the local elected were to become available on January 2008, that at the time, we estimated to be beyond the ULURP period.

On June 1st 2006 I resigned from the LDC as I felt that morally, as CB9M Chairman, I should not be involved in negotiating a CBA as I was to oversee the CB9M ULURP. CB9M retained two seats and Ted Kovaleff was appoiinted by the Executive Committee to replacae me in the LDC. A couple of weeks later the elected officiasl under the leadership of Congressman Rangel demanded and got seated on the LDC.

So three things should be clear:
1. CB9M created the LDC.
2. CB9M resolved that only local residents would negotiate a CBA through the LDC.
3. CB9M's and my intent, were to eliminate from the process those interest that were not indigeneous to CB9M local residents.

Except for the premature interference by the elected officials the LDC was totally a creation of CB9M. - JRM

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