26 May 2009

CB2 Board Member Takes Dock Street Dumbo Project to Wood Shed

Andrew Stengel, a member of the Brooklyn’s Community Board #2 and its Land Use Committee and Dumbo resident, and who opposes Two Trees' Brooklyn Bridge-blocking Dock Street Dumbo project, which, despite local protests, is on its way to being approved, has written an open letter decrying the decision to let the building go forward. The letter was first printed on DumboNYC. I reprint it in full here, because it's so damn good, and it tells everyone what they need to know about this deeply wrong development, and the deeply perverted process that led to its getting the green light.

An Open Letter on the Proposed Dock Street Dumbo Project:

I am a Dumbo resident who sits on Brooklyn’s Community Board #2 and its Land Use Committee. I oppose the Dock Street Dumbo project, and when the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) application was before the our committee I proposed a resolution—that passed 10-1 with two abstentions —- to limit the development on the site to no higher than the 75-foot-high Brooklyn Bridge roadway, as the community board decreed unanimously in 2004. I am also the person who made the Freedom of Information (FOIL) request that resulted in the release of several troubling documents by New York City’s School Construction Authority (SCA).

The Dock Street developer and their high-priced lawyer-lobbyist-public relations retinue have claimed the project’s opposition is limited to a few people whose views of the Brooklyn Bridge are threatened. That is false. (For the record, my apartment does not face the Brooklyn Bridge.)

The opposition is about appropriate context in an area immediately adjacent to a National Historic Landmark where there are currently one- and two-story buildings, as well as large appropriations by New York City, i.e., taxpayer money, without what any sane person could claim is due diligence.

The Dock Street proposal is 18 stories tall, two stories higher than the 2004 version, and would rise to over 200 feet with mechanical. In addition, $400,00 in lobbying and undisclosed campaign fundraising by intermediaries raise the potential and ugly issue of pay-to-play politics.

I was heartened to read the coverage of the recent New York City Council hearing on Dock Street Dumbo and the attention paid to the documents I obtained from SCA. For those who are unfamiliar with FOIL, the law’s intent is actually written into the statute: “The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions.”

I filed the FOIL request because, as a taxpaying resident of New York City, I want to know how DOE allocated nearly $44 million to a public middle school and why it chose Dock Street Dumbo as the best site, as written in its Five-Year Capitol Plan released in November 2008.

Note to members of the New York City Council: be careful what you vote for because you may get it—without having all the information necessary to make your decision.

The FOIL request, which was made five months ago almost to the day, was actually two similar requests of the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and New York City School Construction Authority (SCA). I asked for all documents relating to a new middle school in Brooklyn’s District 13 or a new middle school at the Dock Street Dumbo Site dating back to 2004.

Why did the Council hearing not focus on documents from DOE? Because DOE did not turn over a single page of material relating to my request. Instead, DOE sent five pages of correspondence relating to a middle school in District 14. That is despite the conclusion in DOE’s Five-Year Capitol Plan (page 23) that: “The analysis indicates that five districts in Brooklyn will see growth over the next five years. District 13, contains a substantial surplus of space given current enrollment levels but is projected to need a school building in the DUMBO/Navy Yard/Fort Greene area. This is primarily due to projected housing growth.” And, the plan allocates $43.83 million to “PROJECT #1 @ DOCK ST.” (appendix C-7).

DOE obviously based this on something. The question is what and what are they potentially hiding?

And, thanks to SCA’s FOIL response, we know that the developer made SCA “a best and final offer” on May 20, 2008. (As an aside, Jed Walentas attempted to self-invoke one of the few exceptions to FOIL in that term sheet; at least SCA had the common sense to ignore that bogus claim.) That was the oldest document that SCA offered despite my request dating back to 2004. If that was the “best and final offer,” where are the records of prior negotiations? Are we to conclude that SCA did no due diligence as to alternative existing sites prior to entering into negotiations?

SCA has continually made the claim of a cost savings at Dock Street because a “core and shell” is being provided by the developer. But, when pressed at the recent hearing, SCA vice president Ross Holden admitted he couldn’t calculate it. Even if cost savings were not phantom, it would be moot if existing vacant buildings are considered for a middle school. Holden also admitted, “No one at all came to the SCA with a recommendation that would provide us with the…school at minimal costs.”

Contrary to SCA’s attitude it is their responsibility to find the best location for a middle school at the best deal for the City. Again, contrary to their assertion, several members of the community identified alternative existing sites for a potential school that SCA did not consider, including: One Brooklyn Bridge Place, which is in Brooklyn Bridge Park; the recently closed St. Charles Borroemo School on Sydney Place; and 470 Vanderbilt Avenue, which has over 700,000 square feet of vacant space. (One paper claimed that One Brooklyn Bridge could not house a school because that use is not included in the park plan. While correct, neither does the current zoning at Dock Street allow for a school, hence the need for the zoning changes. Just as Dock Street is going through ULURP, the park plan can be amended by the state.)

The required timeline for a agency response to a FOIL request is 20 days. Both DOE, which ignored my query, and SCA responded late. FOIL also allows for an appeal for denial of access to records, which I made on March 3. Agencies have 10 business days to reply to an appeal. The only response I received was from DOE on April 23, noting that it would conduct another search with a response for May 25.

DOE and SCA have yet to comply fully with my original FOIL request. However, the timeline for ULURP requires a vote in the City Council 50 days after the receiving the report by the City Planning Commission. That would be on or about June 12. I have now taken the last step under the law to compel DOE and SCA to respond. The silence from DOE and SCA leave the impression that they are trying to run out the clock until after the vote.

Sunday’s New York Times featured a column from Jim Dwyer that pointed out campaign contributions to New York City Councilwoman Melinda Katz, Chair the Land Use Committee. Dwyer wrote that the contributions were made: “Just before new rules severely limited campaign contributions by companies doing business with the city.” While there are new rules that limit the campaign contributions by individuals who are “doing business” with the City, there remains a giant loophole.

Under the City’s “doing business” restrictions phased in over 2008, those who are seeking City contracts or have filed a ULURP application are limited to a contribution of $400 for a citywide office like mayor, comptroller or public advocate, for the primary and general election combined. Everybody else can give a maximum of $4,950 for a citywide office. However, there is nothing that prevents those who are “doing business” with the City from fundraising on behalf of a candidate, which is commonly know as an “intermediary.” And when intermediaries raise money for candidates in the City, the disclosure requirement is virtually meaningless.

David and Jed Walentas, the developers of Dock Street Dumbo, serve on the Finance Committee for Melinda Katz for New York City Comptroller (see attached invites for 2007 and 2008). Members of campaign finance committees typically act as intermediaries raising money from friends and associates.
Have the father-son developers raised contributions for the comptoller candidate and if so how much? The statute is written so loosely that neither they nor the campaign is required to disclose the amount, if anything.

The 2007 law that created the “doing business” contribution limits, defined an intermediary as not including: “…any hosts of a campaign sponsored fundraising event paid for in whole or in part by the campaign. Where there are multiple individual hosts for a non-campaign sponsored event, the hosts shall designate one such host as the intermediary.”

In other words, if somebody raises money for an event that is paid at least in part by a City campaign, the intermediary is not required to report the funds raised. And, if the event is private, where there are multiple hosts, only one intermediary is named—even if that person did not raise all the money. That is the equivalent of defining a duck as duck, unless it walks like a duck or quacks like a duck.

This conspicuous loophole in the City’s campaign finance law, intended or not, should be closed. Connecticut, which banned all contributions from the equivalent of those who do business with the state after a number of corruption scandals, also banned fundraising by those parties. The City should extend the “doing business” contribution limits to intermediary fundraising and require complete disclosure.

In conclusion, I do not support the Dock Street Dumbo project for the reasons I outlined. I hope that the public, and more important, the City Council, will receive all the information from DOE and SCA about the site selection and budget process for Dock Street Dumbo before the final vote.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies wrote that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Unfortunately, much of the process around Dock Street Dumbo has proceeded mostly when the only light is that of the moon.

Andrew Stengel

1 comment:

Unknown said...

As Two Trees' land use counsel, one of the consultants to whom Andrew Stengel refers in his open letter, I'm surprised he didn't share any of these concerns when he came over to say hello to me at the City Council hearing on the Dock Street plan. It's not that I don't understand the opponents' frustration with the approval process. What I don't appreciate is the attitude that their failure at every step leading up to the City Council means that the process is flawed - the fact is that their argument is unpersuasive because other people who review the actual, accurate, proposal consistently don't see things their way.

Here's what led up to the Council hearing: The Community Board approved the project 30-7, the first time they have ever supported a Two Trees zoning application in 25 years. The Borough President approved the proposed zoning although he recommended a different building form which would have been even taller than the Walentas proposal. The City Planning Commission approved the plan with a small reduction in height by a vote of 9-2; even the two 'no' votes supported a building twice the height of what Andrew had proposed at the community board.

The reason for this was captured by the Observer's Eliot Brown in his report on the public hearing: "At the City Council on May 21, members had to interrupt the Walentas family's architect midway through a presentation to find just which building on a 3-D model was being proposed" because the building is entirely contextual and reflects the right relationship between the Brooklyn Bridge and the massive Gair-Sweeney buildings which surround it.

Having had their inaccurate renderings and arguments debunked by the Brooklyn Paper and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, opponents are like Chico Marx in Duck Soup, crying out, "Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

So, desperate opponents have now taken to throwing mud at Two Trees, the School Construction Authority and the City Council. But they can't obscure that fact that their opposition campaign is funded and led by many (not all) who care mostly about losing their private views or that the school space being donated by Two Trees would otherwise cost the City millions of dollars to acquire and build. Whatever the flaws in the process, they aren't enough to justify depriving the neighborhood of additional housing (including some for low income families), a middle school for 300 students, jobs, more retail activity, and parking for residents and visitors to Brooklyn Bridge Park. Dock Street DUMBO should be judged on its merits - and the fact that project opponents have gone so ruthlessly negative tells me only that they know the merits favor approval.