The rotten political culture in New York has forced ordinary New Yorkers to become increasingly savvy at making their voices heard, particularly when it comes to big development projects. And it’s making a difference. Advocates in the Northwest Bronx, for example, led by the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), spent years organizing for a plan for the Armory that would bring good, permanent jobs to neighborhood residents. In a dramatic climax at the end of 2009 to their dogged efforts, they managed to defeat a proposal that fell short of these basic standards.
Blocking the city’s determination to take the low road represents remarkable progress, but what New York desperately needs is development policies that guarantee concrete benefits for local residents. Could a brand new crop of elected officials who are talking tough on accountable development provide a critical moment for advocates to finally accomplish just that?
Early signs are promising. Take the city’s new Comptroller John Liu, who spiced up February’s board meeting of the New York City Industrial Development Agency by voting ‘no’ on tax breaks for several projects, including a Western Beef grocery store proposed for the Bronx that, according to its application for benefits, would pay employees an average wage of about $19,000 a year with no benefits. Stating his concern that the current system lacks “clear processes and standards for project development and approval,” Liu pledged to “examine how scarce public resources are used to advance our City’s economic development.”
The proposed Western Beef would fulfill an urgent need for grocery retailers in this part of New York City, but Liu’s call to examine IDA’s way of doing things more closely could lead to more analysis of the consequences of subsidizing companies that pay poverty wages in order to address other legitimate problems such as food deserts.
Just over a week after his debut at the board meeting, Liu was at it again, suggesting in a bold op-ed in the Daily News that New York is behind other cities like Los Angeles and Milwaukee in embracing equitable economic development policies, a point neighborhood advocates have also fought hard to convey. He called for city developers to stop “stifling” neighborhood voices, and for remarkably high standards of transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness in Community Benefits Agreements, a promising tool that has thus far proven little more than a sham in New York City.
Other public officials appear to be hopping on the accountable development train, too. In another recent Daily News op-ed, the city’s newly-elected Public Advocate Bill de Blasio toughly proposed a citywide code of conduct for businesses that receive public subsidies, and called for requiring firms to pay a prevailing wage, and to stay neutral when workers try to form a union. These are all positive signs that some of the city’s newly elected officials may have gotten the message that voters have long been pushing. Now is a critical time for advocates to stay on alert and keep these officials on the right track.
Not to deny the handful of veteran public officials who have been pressing for policy reform, like Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who has been advocating for stronger accountability at the New York City Industrial Development Agency for some time now. Stringer’s appointee to the IDA board, Kevin Doyle, stands out as one of the few board members willing to ask challenging questions about IDA’s decision-making processes.
In addition to ensuring that large development projects are a boon to local residents, creating more equitable development policies will also help exorcise the larger culture of corruption that bedevils the city and state. This was most recently played out in the indictment of Bronx City Councilman Larry B. Seabrook on charges that he stole cash from the city through a series of money laundering schemes, including one connected with the new Yankee Stadium. It’s all too easy to view such scandals as the bad behavior of stray individuals, and stop there. But by condoning a process that excludes community input and encourages wheeling and dealing behind closed doors over transparent, democratic means, our current approach to development reinforces the very culture that incubates such tainted public officials.
Ordinary New Yorkers are clearly prepared to keep fighting for a different way. Hopefully Liu and de Blasio will do them justice by continuing to show real leadership on these issues, creating momentum for other elected officials to fall in line.