On the surface, it sounds so simple, so enticing. The City bids out a behemoth 110 year old drill hall in southern Crown Heights to be re-purposed for much-needed recreation. The drawings from the winning bidder show basketball courts, dancing classes, an indoor swimming pool, spaces for community groups to meet or host productions. The City's engine for Public-Private partnerships, the Economic Development Corporation, leads the way. After all, it knows how to get things done. While the City itself can't always be relied upon to produce big, big projects, EDC has a pretty solid track record. Sounds good so far, yes?
Over the years NYC EDC has been responsible for shepherding and helping finance everything from our beloved Lakeside Center to the Harlem River Park, the updated Whitehall Ferry Terminal, the Brooklyn Cyclones' MCU Ballpark and hundreds of projects throughout the City that make the City the City. Their secret? Land. It's all stuff that's on City-owned land. They essentially try to make the "best" use of what the City already has - land - to keep jobs here, bring jobs here, create housing opportunities and build civic amenities for all New Yorkers - not just for the super-rich. They issue bonds and provide financing and expertise. And it could be argued that the EDC's previous incarnations helped stave off the worst of the NYC downfall and abandonment of the '60s and '70s. You know, white flight, job flight, manufacturing flight, flight flight...all the stuff that led to the kind of poverty-choked decay that seems such a distant memory now. Unemployment is low; wages are up, housing is tight, land is scarce. It's a far cry, though not without its own set of Big Apple sized problems.
So that's the EDC, for better or not so. A lot of the coolest parts of the City owe their existence to it. And sometimes, fair to say, it bulldozes over the City's history. In the name, mind you, of progress. And sometimes EDC ushers in visions of the future that look like this:
|BFC rendering - proposed|
Enter the other Armory acronym - BFC. Easy to get them mixed up. But BFC is not the EDC. BFC Partners is the Developer. They're known for doing a lot of, der, developments. They do what developers do, better or worse. They make money by building stuff - a bunch in Staten Island, the East Village, now Brooklyn. (Important to note - without developers, in essence, you got no City as we know it. Folks who work for the City understand that Developers are as key to the City's economy as manure is to farming. A lot of times it stinks, but it's hard to grow without it.) Like many Developers, BFC has gotten pretty good at making money. Finding "undervalued" land and making it more valuable. The very act of development, it could be argued, is the stuff of gentrification, in the broadest sense. As land becomes more valuable, as the properties ON the land become more valuable, the surrounding neighborhood's living costs rise. The poorest folks get priced out. The newcomers stay for awhile, and even some of them
eventually get priced out. Conversely, sometimes the bet doesn't pay off. (Don't cry; there are ways of shedding those losses, believe you me and your current president). Continental Capitalism does its thing as its done since the days of the Dutch. What was worth a few guilders and a bucket of tulip bulbs is now worth a few hundred million dollars and seat on the Board of the Met.
|BFC Rendering - Proposed|
As I wandered the massive spaces and hidden tombs of the Bedford-Union Armory last night as part of a CB9 ULURP tour, led by (don't get confused) both BFC and
EDC, I couldn't help but be reminded of a simple fact. No project HAS to go the way it usually goes. We could, at any time, decide that our priorities for a given project are a) not to make money or b) not even to break even. We could decide to c) spend money. Yep. Tax money, the money that's MADE through gentrification and value-addition. And we could do so to, say, alleviate human suffering, build colleges or medical centers, house the homeless, or create new public spaces and amenities that aren't intended to pay for themselves but rather to make the City a more livable place for people of modest means, thereby shining dignity upon all our brethren and standing as a beacon to the entire nation. And if you do it right - and there's no assurances you would - you might just end up ennobling the Great Experiment of New York City, which in many ways stands as one of America's greatest living achievements. I'm not being ironic here - I believe this to the core of my being. Now, one might fall on one's face trying, of course. But guess what? For-profit and break-even projects fall apart ALL THE TIME. Folks brush themselves off and start again. Just because you can make it work out on paper doesn't mean it works out in real life. So yes, NYC COULD think big, like government did in the first age of public housing and the New Deal and the creation of Medicaid/Medicare and (this one always blows my mind) create a system of Upstate reservoirs that easily brings potable water to millions and millions of thirsty people who speak 200 languages and come in every conceivable size, shape, color, creed, sexual identity and (gulp) political philosophy.
Or, you could create a bunch of market rate condos, a bunch of below-market means-tested rentals (i.e. affordable housing), and a public/private recreational center that costs around $10 a month for memberships, with breaks for kids and seniors and maybe others. You could, essentially, play it safe. Not necessarily horrible, or inherently evil. Maybe even pretty darn good. And by doing so, you could help BFC Partners make a boat-load of money. On the one hand, you have an incredible Crown Heights resource - land, building, history, nearly unlimited potential. On the other hand, you have a bullet pointed prospectus and an achievable plan to turn the whole site around in a couple of years, barring a financial collapse or terrorist attack or both. Safe or visionary. Which would YOU choose?
There are many activists working overtime to "Kill the Deal." They might just be able to oust incumbent City Councilperson Laurie Cumbo as a result - her capable and popular challenger Ede Fox is building her campaign around tarring Laurie as a tool for developers and gentrification (not fair, in my view - this stuff is too nuanced to be so glib) and it seems to be working. Laurie's been blindsided by her own early acquiescence on this project, and her slow change of heart on the issue may have cost her deeply. At her State of the Union speech on Thursday, look for the activists from Bertha Lewis's Black Institute and NY Communities for Change (think Acorn renamed) and the Crown Heights Tenants Union and union leaders to be doing their best to intimidate and castigate and, yep, "Kill the Deal." The activists feel, with good reason I think, that the City is selling the neighborhood short, by not thinking big, and not thinking about how $$$ already budgeted to homeless housing should and could be going to low-income permanent housing, thus lowering the numbers of homeless. Okay, that reasoning is not entirely sound or as straight-up as it's portrayed, but sound enough to be worth a listen (because not all sounds are worth a listen natch). And the chanters claim that the high-cost condos will speed-up the neighborhood's already monsoon gentrification. And while these claims of secondary displacement are hard to prove, since there are too many variable to do a controlled study, they're certainly plausible, and anyway, the fear felt by many current residents is very real indeed. Another 16-story building of condos doesn't sound like the kind of plan that takes their
needs to heart. And don't forget the NIMBYists! They don't like change, especially at the cost to light, views, architectural integrity, though they're usually okay with a new sit-down restaurant or two. Or as (I kid you not) the C in BFC partners, Don Capoccia delicately put it
"once New Yorkers get their own housing sorted out its like screw everybody else." I'm actually floored by the deep truth in that statement, and plan on using it myself and probably not crediting the Don. Btw, Don is an openly gay die-hard Republican, who says NYC is the most anti-development City in the world. The world is complicated, man. But
don't get me started on the F guy. I mean, F that guy, Joseph Ferarri or whatever the punk's name is. Massive Trumper. But he's a NYC Real Estate guy...you expected more? The idea of him pocketing green off City land turns my tummy. And it's a BIG tummy!
Is the Q neutral? Maybe I kinda was at first, if I was honest, but only because I'm cynical and figured NOTHING would happen if we walked away from this deal. I mean I think it's really, really important to get a rec center happening, and the economy could give way before anything at all happens. But then I asked myself...don't we have enough money to do the rec center already? The City has a budget of nearly $100 billion dollars a year. Just picture a pile of a million dollars. Then picture it again and again up to a thousand. Now do that again 100 times. Oh who am I kidding. Let's bring out the visuals! I'll leave you with this...
|$10,000 in $100 bills|
|$1 million in $100 bills|
|$1 billion in $100 bills, a pallet, and a person with no gonads|
|$10 billion in $100 bills|
|$1 trillion in $100 bills|
|$1 trillion dollars, again|
|$15 trillion - why not? It'll warm your huddled masses if you light it on fire|
By the way, I'm almost MORE into seeing the Statue of Liberty on a football field than trying to visualize $15 trillion dollars next to a 747. C'est moi.
It is dead.
Wow. Okay, so the neighborhood that pissed and moaned about having no resources for youth and seniors now says, "no thanks," to an enormous resource. Brilliant.
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