In this issue:
- Summary of the Big Issues
- Lifting the Height Cap: REBNY allies with the Regional Plan Association
- Chicken Little NYC opens in a neighborhood near you!
- Roundup of Battles Across the City
- Recent Published Op-Eds by our Friends
- Work-from-home Help Needed
- Tidbits and Fun Stuff
- Eyesore and Monstrosity of the Week
- Donate to Human-scale NYC
The Summary: What to Do Now
- Pretty much every urbanist or preservation group in the city has been sending out action alerts about the folly of a NYS Senate proposal to lift the height (FAR) cap in New York City. They ask us to call our State legislators in both the Senate and Assembly. I called State Senator Brian Kavenough and Assembly person Deborah Glick. Their staff tells us there is no immediate threat as it would take both the Assembly and the Senate to pass such a bill. But it is strange that this issues arises again and again. Here is a handy link to the action alert that Landmark West! sent out with all the details and a quick way to send letters to the necessary elected officials. No harm reminding them how unpopular such a move would be.
- The Chair of the Landmarks Preservation has resigned, with much applause all around. But who will replace her? Call your City Council members and tell them we don’t want another proxy for the real estate industry running that show.
- To get the root of the the land use problems we face, we have to reform our city’s campaign finance law. Stay tuned in the next issue for some concrete and simple reform proposals and a summary of what some City Council members are already proposing.
- Charter Reform is the talk of the town. It refers to changing our City’s Constitution. It specifies the distribution of powers among Mayor, City Council, Borough Presidents, other Electeds, and City agencies. The City Council will be holding hearings on Charter Reform so watch for alerts. Our take: it is high time that New York residents get to be actual “citizens” in a more meaningful sense of the word instead of being treated with contempt by our electeds as a bunch of ‘Nimby’s’. First up: ask for charter reform that allows us to democratically elect community boards and BIDs…Why not? We already invisibly elect county committee members and hardly realize we are doing so, so how hard can it be to elect community boards and BID boards? Arguments against doing so seem not to hold water in these end times when we have reached the end of the effectiveness of representative democracy (recall the recent national debacle over the Electoral College and the Trump seizure of the White House as proof of my point). Time to give direct democracy a run.
Lifting the FAR Cap: What is Going On?
To our surprise, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) produced a document that promotes the idea that the FAR cap (basically a kind of height cap) should be lifted for the entire city in order to build more affordable housing. A lot about this is puzzling. Why lift the FAR cap when the existing FAR distribution that the 1961 Zoning Resolution provided can easily handle 11 million people without handing out fresh FAR to developers? And who said that the existing FAR was some limiting factor for the production of affordable housing, (except perhaps in downzoned Queens)?
And, dear RPA, why lift the cap when the city has yet to produce a plan – or even have a debate – about how much density a neighborhood can sustain before the quality of life deteriorates? Too much density (and too little) can kill the goose that lays the golden egg of great urbanity. It can just exacerbate the current trend of more residents leaving the city than those moving in (a trend that is now made up for by immigrants from foreign countries). And why lift the cap when we have not even had a meaningful public debate about how to distribute our current density in the present moment? Why do such a thing when the city is locked into a false economic theory that suggests (without evidence) that to have economic growth, the only possible strategy is to attract young, “intelligent” people from other parts of the country. That crazy theory says that to keep these “intelligent” people from going to Washington DC or Boston, we MUST build these young people lots of high-rise luxury housing with bowling alleys and swimming pools, and specifically in the hot neighborhoods of Manhattan and on the Brooklyn-Queens Waterfronts (as opposed to say, the Bronx or Staten Island or distant Queens). That’s the theory of growth, people. As silly as it seems, that is really it. One worrying thought about it: is “intelligent” supposed to be a code word for young, educated white college grads instead of black and brown immigrants from poor countries?
And what does the FAR cap have to do with affordable housing anyway? Instead of lifting the FAR cap, we need to have a conversation about a different, alternative, “gentler” affordable housing policy that doesn’t require either towers or ruining historic neighborhoods.
As a prelude to the debate which is sure to come, we present below a review of the 1943 Disney film, “Chicken Little” which has a lot to say about the present moment.
A NYC Version of Chicken Little Opens In New York:
Starring the Real Estate Board of New York as “Foxy Loxy”
Who is playing the role of Chicken Little?
The classic version of the Chicken Little fable goes like this: a leaf falls on Chicken Little’s head. He runs to Loosey Goosey and Henny Penny and cries “The Sky Is Falling.” Soon all the farmyard is in a panic. Foxy Loxy stays calm and takes advantage of the hysteria, invites the animals into his den, and eats them all up.
Disney did a brilliant short animated version of the fable during World War II. It playfully merges the classic Chicken Little story with a “fox guarding the henhouse” sensibility. Foxy Loxy peers over a high protective wall and licks his chops and says, “Why have one when I can have them all?” But the animals are protected, not just by a giant wall, but by a heavy door, a lock and a farmer’s gun. So Foxy Loxy, being the clever one, finds a book on “psychology” and learns that “to influence the masses, aim at the least intelligent.” So he picks Chicken Little out from the crowd, blows smoke on the chick, throws a piece of wood on his head, pours water all over him, and whispers that “the sky is falling.”
The Disney narrator sneeringly tells us in an aside: “if you’re going to tell a lie, make it a big one.” When one of the characters, Cocky Locky, laughs at the notion that the sky is falling, Foxy Loxy finds a way to sideline Cocky Locky and gets the farm animals to break down the farmyard walls themselves as they rush to take cover in Foxy Loxy’s den. A link to this timeless short can be found on YouTube here (the short starts at the 54 second mark).
New York City has its own version of the Chicken Little fable. In it, REBNY whispers a ginned up story of Armageddon to a subset of libertarian academics, urban planners, and market urbanists, all of whom share anti-regulatory biases. The leaf takes the form of a breathless run-on sentence: “Rent is too damn high, population exploding, the masses are rent-burdened, Manhattan’s an island, Build Tall Now!”
In the city version of the story, New York’s progressive journalists and politicians and now the Regional Plan Association get the roles of Chicken Little, Loosey Goosey, and Henny Penny. The Real Estate Board of New York takes the part of Foxy Loxy. Foxy persuades everyone that to solve NY’s falling sky problem, New Yorkers should metaphorically break down the walls of the farmyard – perhaps by lifting the FAR cap on height, or getting rid of historic districts.
A close study Disney’s 8-minute film reveals how accurately it summarizes REBNY’s Chicken Little playbook for NYC.
Here are the playbook’s steps:
- Induce panic with exaggerated claims of imminent Armageddon, in this case, the rent “crisis.”
- Find ignorant proxies to help induce the panic. See step 6 below.
- Claim that feeding Foxy Loxy will prevent the pending Armageddon. How to feed Foxy? Break down the walls of the henhouse via a lift of the FAR cap; get rid of historic districts; weaken the Landmarks Preservation Commission; deregulate Foxy’s life; give away public land to Foxy; create new food sources for Foxy by decreeing buildable airspace above parks and rivers, transfer all that new airspace to poor hungry Foxy Loxy’s den so he can feed at will. And do it all for free.
- All the while, insist that feeding Foxy Loxy is for the “greater good”
- If pressed as to what that “greater good” might actually be, distract everyone by shouting a lot of words in a mixed up way, words known to stir liberal hearts. Words and phrases like “senior citizens,” “affordable housing,” “immigrants,” “homelessness,” “segregation,” and “bad millionaires on the Upper East Side” and “inequality” come to mind. Who cares if they have nothing to do with lifting the FAR cap or rezoning neighborhoods?
- Inflame the developing panic with fake “white papers” and pseudo scientific “reports” that demonize the farmyard gate, the henhouse in general, and especially the henhouse door and lock. Abuse statistics. Find obscure, unproven theories that support Foxy’s idea of a henhouse without doors and locks. Insist that the theories are real, proven, and scientific. Chicken Little and friends will be intimidated and never see through it all.
- Heavily fund election campaigns. Finance the research budgets of local real estate think tanks. Put Foxy Loxy on everyone’s board of directors. Bingo, no opposition!
- Demonize and insult anyone who disagrees with your story of Armageddon and the solution of going to Foxy’s den, just as Foxy Loxy demonized Cocky Locky. Use the word NIMBY a lot. That should do the job of making Foxy Loxy as fat as possible.
Round-Up of Neighborhood Battles (an incomplete listing)
All over the city residents are calling for greater regulation of real estate development industry, zoning that respects the scale and historic fabric of neighborhoods, and greater neighborhood involvement in the planning the future of their physical environment. Here is a partial round-up of the various battlegrounds. New Yorkers are organizing!
- The Save Central Park non-profit asks that we stop shadowing Central Park with mega-buildings.
- Lower East Side Dwellers has been calling for enforcement of existing laws regulating noisy bars and the distribution of liquor permits. Read an older article about them here.
- Brooklynites have embarked on a battle to get the city to collect $750 million in unpaid Department of Building Fines. Uncollected fines are a subsidy that the public pays to real estate developers. Learn more here.
- Midtown and Garment District residents argue (rightly) that Tin Pan Alley be designated a historic district. Why does the city stall and ignore them?
- Upper West Siders ask that zoning lot mergers not be manipulated to evade zoning the intent and purpose of existing regulations. They are going to court over it and right is on their side. Here is the write-up from West Side Rag. Bizarrely, City agencies have agreed with the arguments of this group, but are letting the prime example of this abuse, 200 Amsterdam, go up anyway.
- Human-Scale NYC proposes campaign finance reform to get Big Real Estate out of the brains of our Municipal politicians, that we re-regulate air rights transfers by bringing back the old 1968 rule: if you gather TDRS on a site, you can’t go 20% higher than you would have prior to the transfer or zoning lot merger.
- Groups all over the city (example, Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts) ask that City Planning stop green-lighting developer projects that manipulate the zoning code to permit stilts and immense voids. Zoning expert George Janes has called the current abuses of the zoning code as “amounting to a de facto new code” that has been imposed “without public input.”
- Inwood Residents are trying to beat back one of the most ill-considered up-zoning efforts the city has ever come up with, well, it is certainly on any top ten list of city planning follies. Here is a link to Inwood Preservation’s Facebook page with some truly depressing visuals. Weep New York for the insanity that De Blasio and Bloomberg have unleashed on our great neighborhood.
- Brooklynites near downtown and Cobble Hill are trying to tame an insanely tall building at 80 Flatbush from destroying an historical streetscape. Here is a link to their website with their latest news (more hearings and testimony).
- Crown Heights and Prospect Park residents want to shrink a proposed building that will tower over the neighborhood and shadow Prospect Park. Here is a link to the group working on this. Brooklyn Botanic Garden recently came out in opposition to the tower as well.
- The Legal Aid Society is preparing a case that the East Harlem upzoning may be illegal. See the take on it offered by The Real Deal here. And Legal Aid Society also took on the Bedford Armory mess. Bravo Legal Aid Society!
- Long Island City residents built a local coalition to take on the massive over-development that characterizes that area which was massively built up without any infrastructure improvements in sewage treatment, schools, or parks. Here is a link to their website.
- A Bangladeshi community group in Jackson Heights continues to argue that owners of 1-2 family homes should not just be allowed to create attic, basement, and garage apartments, but should be encouraged to do so. Here is a link to their campaign page.
- Many court cases are grinding their way through the courts: Tribeca Trust’s lawsuit against the Landmarks Preservation Commission is in appeal, Brooklyn Bridge Park defense Fund’s fight is in the final legal stages; and Lower East Side/Two Bridges area residents are going to court over the un-calculated environmental impacts of the many huge towers that Bloomberg and De Blasio have autocratically imposed on their neighborhood. Here is a link to their newly reorganized merger/new group, Lower East Side Neighbors Organized. Upper West Siders are similarly engaged in legal action to prevent the Museum of Natural History from grabbing park land for their boondoggle of an extension.
- Chinatown Residents continue to ask City Planning to give their own neighborhood plan the time of day (has City Planning EVER listened to neighborhood residents, whose plans are usually far superior to whatever City Planning comes up with? Rarely. Some say they just don’t like be shown up by “non-experts” in planning. Here is a link.
- Greenwich Village residents have been fighting the crude City imposition of a out-of-context “Tech Hub” making a little “Midtown South via a rezoning of a stretch of the Village. Here is a link to the GVSHP letter/petition against this.
- Tribeca Trust won a zoning challenge against Cape Advisors who was inflating the math to build bigger than allowed on West Broadway.
- Historic Districts Council and Save Harlem Now have raised the hue and cry over an attempt by property owners to Harlem to carve out their properties from the proposed (too small) historic district! Here is a link to sign their letter protesting this.
- Washington Heights residents and Lower West Side residents alike continue to make their cases that the small historic districts they propose have merit, all made to a tone-deaf apparently incompetent Landmarks Preservation Commission that just ignores them, pooh-poohs their arguments, or just fobs them off with irrational argumentation. Here is a link to the the Washington Heights study. Terrace group, and here a link to good (older) newspaper article about the Lower West Side group.
- Preservationists and other smart people are still fighting a sneak-effort to force rule changes through the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Call you City Councilmember and tell them to use their power to put an end to this creepy foolishness. There is no need to change the rules now when they are being rammed through by proxies for the real estate industry. They also remove public oversight from the Commission, which is the last thing we need right now.
Help Wanted: Crowd-sourced research projects.
We welcome “stay at home” wannabe investigative reporters to help us out.
Project 1: Lobbyists and the Conflict of Interest Problem on Community Boards
Council Member Antonio Reynoso bravely called community boards “political cesspools.” Is he right? Are you tired of community boards who don’t speak for your neighborhood? Does it bother you that members serve 20 or more years? Do you see astonishing conflicts of interests, like lobbyists being appointed? We are collecting examples, by Borough, of lobbyists and other appointees with inherent conflicts of interests who are now serving on Community Boards.
The gold standard to beat is CB1 in Manhattan, where a Vice President for Government Affairs of the Real Estate Board of New York actually co-chairs a land-use committee.
So please, email us your stories and examples and we will publish a round-up of what we learn in a future issue.
Project 2: City Council Members, Borough Presidents, and Real Estate Money: Who Takes What?
One of our members has opened a research front looking into campaign contributions from the “Skyscraper Industrial Complex” to Borough Presidents and Council members. This work involves a lot of data coding from the Campaign Finance Board website.
Recent Op-eds Published by Our Friends
There have been a flurry of good op-eds in the local papers these days, many of them about the resignation (much needed) of the Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair. Here is a round-up of links if you want to read some excellent analysis.
- Professor of urban planning Arturo Sanchez analyses brilliantly ways in which public hearings get manipulated to generate the desired political outcome in the newspaper Queens Latino here.
- Lynn Ellsworth (Tribeca Trust and Humanscale NYC) writes in Broadsheet Daily about what we need in a new Landmarks Chair here, in a short called “We Got What We Wished for, Now What?”
- Susan Nials takes on REBNY nonsense in a fiery letter to Crain’s, followed up by CB 5 member Layla Law-Gilko’s pointed analysis of REBNY propaganda in Crain’s, found here. (Crain’s has firewalls but if you close and relaunch your browser you should be able to read both).
- Labor organizer Ray Rogers wrote a wonderful letter to the Daily News, reprinted here. Is the Real Estate Board of New York our city’s version of the National Rifle Association (NRA)? Methinks it is a perfect analogy.
Tidbits and Fun Stuff
- Is De Blasio actually a progressive? Jillian Jonas argues that he is most certainly not – on her blog, ‘Ethics Ain’t Pretty’ here.
- Howard Weinberg sent in a link here to an amazing video of artist’s Rosie Walunas’s artistic reckoning with a tall building coming up to block her view from her studio.
- Tom Wolf died and we salute him for many things, among them his hilarious send-up of the pretentious and idiotic theorizing of architects in “From Bauhaus to Our House” and a Times editorial from years back, excoriating the Landmarks Preservation Commission for inaction and siding with the bad guys much too often. Read it here. The Times would never print it in this era.
- In an “tragedies that happen in the worst of times” scenario, mall-developer Brookfield bought four retail condos on Bleecker Street, meaning a Mom and Pop revival is unlikely to happen anytime soon over there. The mallification of Manhattan continues. Read about it here.
- And more on the bad news front, Speaker Corey Johnson hires a real estate lobbyist as as staffer (here). Gale Brewer’s land use staffer who did much of face-to-face work with communities and community boards took her secrets acquired in government and walked them over to be a Vice President for REBNY, our own Foxy Loxy. (Isn’t there a rule about that kind of revolving door?)
- While right-wing theorists like Edward Glaeser think our housing “crisis” is due to too much zoning, NIMBYism (in the form of anyone who disagrees with Glaeser) and excess regulation in general, wiser people know that most of the loss of affordable housing is because of excess landlord power. That power prevents us from extending the rent stabilization program. Finally someone at the Times covers this issue (about fifteen years too late, but hey, who is counting) in a relatively more balanced way and very detailed way, here.
Eyesore and Monstrosity of the Week
The prize this week goes to a building going up in Flatbush, shown here. Thanks to a friend in Flatbush for reminding us of how the nightmare is happening all over the city.
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