Archive for September, 2009

Runaround on Job Numbers for Stimulus-Financed City Point Project

September 18, 2009

Is the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) cooking up different sets of job numbers for the City Point project depending on its audience?

Conflicting figures in hearings, meetings, official documents, and the press over the past week are cause for some raised eyebrows at the very least.

City Point is a large mixed-use project planned for Downtown Brooklyn that was just approved for $20 million in tax-free financing in the form of Recovery Zone Facility Bonds (RZFBs), a new program created by the federal stimulus bill (ARRA). The bonds are intended to finance the project’s first phase, consisting of 184,000 square feet of retail space.

Brooklyn activists testified against the deal at a September 10 public hearing on grounds that EDC is failing to leverage the subsidies to ensure jobs will pay a living wage, provide benefits, and go to local residents. Activists also want to see 10 percent of space in the new facility set aside and made affordable for small businesses that were displaced to make way for City Point.

But it’s hard to stay focused on issues of job quality when you have to spend time sorting through the different claims on job numbers.

Here’s a breakdown:

Those who testified on the project did so based on a formal cost/benefit analysis posted on EDC’s website shortly before the hearing. In these documents, EDC projected that City Point will create 68 new permanent jobs and 108 construction jobs during the first phase of construction. (This round of bonds is only intended to finance the first phase, not the entire development.)

Less than a week later, on September 15, EDC staff told New York City Capital Resource Corporation (CRC) board members who were to vote on the allocation that the project would generate 208 permanent jobs and 328 construction jobs. (CRC is part of EDC.) According to EDC, these higher numbers incorporate jobs projected for a later phase of the project that has nothing to do with the current bond allocation, but which they believe will be indirectly catalyzed by completion of the first phase.

A majority of CRC board members voted to approve the financing.

EDC also touted the bigger numbers to the media, though a typo in their September 15 press release on the project explains why Amanda Fung reported in Crain’s New York Business that City Point would create 108 (rather than 208) permanent jobs, and 328 construction jobs.

These inconsistencies look especially bad in light of passionate participation at the three and a half hour hearing on September 10. Turnout was impressive. There was real debate. It was democracy in action.

But the EDC’s handling of these numbers undermines that process.

It’s misleading for EDC to promote figures that were not included in its official analysis, and that the public wasn’t given. Shouldn’t board members vote on the project based on the same numbers furnished to the public?

Bad Development Policy “Impacting” Cities During Recession

September 16, 2009

suburban tractAccording to a recent article, cities all over the country are engaging in a new disturbing trend as a response to stagnant new construction.  Marin, California; Manatee, Florida; Meridian, Idaho and Albuquerque, New Mexico are among a growing number of cities that have chosen to reduce, suspend, or cancel development impact fees, the charges imposed on new development by local governments to offset the cost of growth.  Impact fees pay for critical municipal services such as schools, infrastructure, and police and fire protection.  In 2008, the average fee for a single family residential unit was over $11,000.

The problem faced by developers in these cities is not that the cost of home construction is too high.  The problem is weak demand for new homes.  Further subsidizing new development will not address the problem of demand.  Eliminating impact fees is not going to jump start cities and towns out of economic recession.  It will only further burden local budgets and taxpayers at a time that they can scarcely afford it.

Recovery Act Accountability Round-up

September 15, 2009

ARRA logoSince Labor Day there has been a spate of new reports and other materials on Recovery Act issues. Here’s a round-up of these new items, which are being added to the resources pages of the website for States for a Transparent and Accountable Recovery (STAR Coalition).

  • OMB Watch, our partner in both the STAR Coalition and the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery, issued Recovery Act Transparency: Implementation and Current Issues. The paper notes that the Obama Administration is creating a disclosure system for ARRA spending that could be a model for federal expenditures of all kinds, but it finds that, as of today, the effort has “a long way to go.” OMB Watch expresses particular frustration at the inconsistency of data being reported on Recovery.gov and on USASpending.gov. Among the other deficiencies cited is the absence of plans for reporting on the quality of jobs created by ARRA spending and the uncertainty about how much data on spending impacts (including equity measures) will be collected and reported.
  • The Council of Economic Advisers issued its first quarterly report on the economic impact of ARRA. It estimates that, as of the end of August, $151.4 billion of the total $787 billion in the Act had been outlaid or gone to taxpayers and businesses in the form of tax reductions. It calculated that, as a result, there are about 1 million more people working than would have been the case without the stimulus. A table on page 19 of the report breaks that number down by sector (professional and business services has the most) and a table on page 22 gives estimates by states (California is first with 139,700).
  • The Government Accountability Office released an ARRA report in the form of testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. It focused on stimulus spending flowing through state and local governments. GAO found that, as of late August, the U.S. Treasury Department had outlayed about $45 billion of the estimated $49 billion projected for use in states and localities in the current fiscal year. The largest amounts are in the form of increased Medicaid FMAP funding and the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund.  GAO repeated its recommendation that states be given additional flexibility and funding to carry out their audit responsibilities under ARRA.
  • Also new is a database of applications for the discretionary grants available for promoting rural broadband.

Brooklyn Activists Fight Use of Stimulus Bonds for Gentrification Plan

September 8, 2009

Thanks to the federal stimulus bill, a new tax-exempt bond has hit the market: “Recovery Zone Facility Bonds” (RZFBs). And while that phrase might make your eyes glaze over, keep reading, because initial indicators of how these bonds might be allocated in New York City are cause for heightened alert.

RZFBs are one of several new bond programs created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). As the name suggests, they must be used for projects within designated “recovery zones,” the boundaries of which are determined by the bond issuer (in New York State this means Industrial Development Agencies) based on indicators of “economic distress.”

RZFBs are a type of private activity bond that make commercial and industrial projects easier to finance because the bondholder does not have to pay federal, state, or local taxes on interest generated by the deal, and is thus willing to accept a lower interest rate.

It’s difficult to evaluate the RZFB program so far because states across the country—including New York—are still grappling with how to take advantage of it. New York City is the exception. The Bloomberg Administration has started things off with a bang by selecting a controversial project in downtown Brooklyn called “City Point” to receive financing through these new bonds. If the deal goes down, City Point developer Albee LLC would receive $20 million in tax-free financing for a shopping mall that will likely be anchored by a big box store such as Target.

This isn’t the first round of public money sought by this project—subsidies were approved in 2007, but then fell through due to difficulty in securing financing after the economic meltdown. Now, Albee LLC is looking to the stimulus bill for help.

Advocacy groups on the ground, led by Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), are experiencing déja-vu. Having resisted the 2007 deal, they will oppose this round of subsidies on many of the same grounds at a public hearing scheduled for September 10. But they will have plenty to beef about without reminding the city that the site was home to the old Albee Square Mall, which was demolished in 2007 to make way for City Point. That demolition displaced scores of longtime local business that catered mostly to Brooklyn’s black community. Those stores were at odds with the city’s vision of a newly gentrified downtown, which favors chains like H&M and Bed Bath and Beyond. None of the displaced businesses were given the option to return once the new facility is built, and no requirements for local hiring or living-wage jobs were tied to the 2007 deal, despite fervent protest.

This history lesson should be the backdrop to the bigger question of whether retail development should ever receive public financing. Asking whether more Targets and Wal-Marts are really what so-called distressed communities really need is not a radical question at this point. It is well established that such economic development strategies amount to a subsidization of poverty, since retail jobs are among the lowest-paid. As an alternative, FUREE is pushing for an affordable grocery store in downtown Brooklyn, which is lacking in healthy food options.

Good Jobs New York is keeping an eye on the City Point project, as more communities across the country recognize the dangers of subsidies for retail development, and are organizing to avoid them. There may be a bright spot to this story in the Bronx: The Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment plan—also slated to receive public subsidies—is emerging as a model of how development in New York City might be done. Due to effective community organizing, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz recently announced his commitment to signing a Community Benefits Agreement with the developer that includes a living wage, local hiring and community space among a long list of points. So stay tuned!

Note: This item is crossposted on the Good Jobs First’s STAR Coalition blog. (more…)

Standing Strong at the Kingsbridge Armory

September 8, 2009

esnuestroIn a move rarely seen in The Bronx lately, an elected official is standing up for the creation of good jobs and accountable development. Newly elected Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has voted no on a land use proposal to build a subsidized mall inside the Kingsbridge Armory because the developer refused to sign a community benefits agreement.

This must come as a shock to Related Companies, which plans to develop the mall and has gotten subsidies and sweetheart real estate deals from the city in the past. Related was awarded the contract to purchase the armory from the mayoral-controlled Economic Development Corporation for the bargain basement price of $5 million. The armory is a landmarked building that spans an entire city block, has a new roof, and is directly across the street from a subway and bus lines. 

The city seemed to move in the right direction in 2006 by involving community leaders in developing a Request for Proposal and including language that applicants supporting a living wage provision for the permanent jobs associated with the project will be viewed favorably. But after that the community hasn’t been involved.

Diaz’s vote doesn’t mean the proposal can’t happen; the project now moves through the city’s 60-day labyrinthine land-use approval process that includes hearings and votes by the City Planning Commission and the City Council. If other elected officials follow Diaz’s lead, the city could leverage the subsidies to bring Related back to table with the community and still hammer out an agreement.

For nearly a decade the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition advocated for community use of the armory. In 2005 the group joined with the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union to create the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), which called for a project that creates living wage jobs,  promotes retail that doesn’t compete with long-time businesses and builds much-needed community, educational and recreational space for neighborhood youth.

The Borough President’s stance comes not a moment too soon. Unfettered, subsidized development has grown rampant in The Bronx: Gateway Mall (developed by Related) near Yankee Stadium and the Water Filtration Plant have not brought promised jobs, have run far over budget and/or have moved forward in the land use process under the guise of fake Community Benefit Agreements.

Kudos to Diaz for standing up for his constituents and hopefully setting a new standard that won’t allow subsidizing mega developments to come at the expense of locally owned stores and diminished wages, taxes and jobs.

Struggling Chicago finds $25 million for United Airlines

September 3, 2009

Last month, the City of Chicago offered a substantial tax increment finance (TIF) subsidy of $25 million to an ailing United Airlines (UAL) if it promised to relocate its operations center to the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower). Use of TIF as a relocation incentive is problematic given net new jobs are not being created and TIF is intended to help revitalize downtrodden areas, not encourage occupancy in skyscrapers.

The TIF subsidy encourages UAL to leave its current operations center next door to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, shifting commutation patterns for 2,800 employees –employees who probably use airport facilities.  The operations center used to house UAL’s headquarters between 1961 and 2006 until the city gave tax breaks and incentives to UAL for a new office in the Loop. Why would an airline relocate its operations center 19 miles away from the world’s 4th busiest airport?

Historically, Chicago and outlying suburbs use incentives in controversial ways. In 1989, Sears, Roebuck & Co. announced that it was seeking to relocate from the Sears Tower to cut costs (see page 36 of our 2003 report, A Better Deal for Illinois). The State of Illinois feared losing $411 million in income taxes (from 5,400 jobs) and 2,200 ripple-effect jobs if they left Illinois. An affluent suburb 29 miles northwest of the Loop put together what was the largest subsidy package ever in Illinois history at $178 million. The state not only chipped in but expanded the definition of ‘blight’ in Illinois’ TIF law so that the wealthy suburb could buy 786 acres of land with TIF bonds to be repaid out of Sears’ property taxes.

Although Sears promised to make up shortfalls in the property tax revenues (and did in 1998 and 2001), missing was a clawback relating to the 5,400 jobs which the state based its incentive rationale on from the get-go. Sears never approached the original employment number, which begs the question: did it move out of necessity or to avoid paying for mass layoffs and the negative media attention?

The City of Chicago is in a pinch. Two recent winters have threatened the city’s budget to the brink of collapse and forced the mayor to lease the city’s parking meters to a private entity for 75 years. Despite city coffers in ruin, TIF funds overflow. A new report by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless shows TIF-funded units are disproportionately sold or rented to high-income households. Recent investigations indicate that TIF dollars are awarded on dubious basis in lieu of need in a city full of questionable zoning practices. Moreover, a recent $10.4 million TIF deal fell through, leaving the city without the jobs it paid for. Despite this, the city resists passing TIF sunshine laws.

Chicago’s 158 TIF districts covering 30 percent of the city are diverting revenues that would otherwise keep schools solvent, plow streets, maintain public transit, and fix potholes. TIF has strayed from revitalizing distressed communities and is instead being used to shuffle tax base across the region. Moving jobs does not create new jobs. TIF reform is long overdue in Illinois.


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