Friday, September 19, 2008

Privatizing another street: Extra Place

At the Housing committee of CB3, we learned that the Avalon development is arranging with the city to buy a little alley, once a street, called, wonderfully, Extra Place. The city demapped it years ago, leaving it technically an empty lot, which dumped it from the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation (DoT) into the lap of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Now HPD wants to palm it off to Avalon -- the three hulking glass developments on the CB3 side of Bowery & Houston that have become architects' and urban planners' most preferred examples of bad city design. Avalon is eager to beautify the alley in preparation for a string of sidewalk cafes along its length which, Avalon says, will benefit the entire public! Which is why they want to buy it ... to benefit the public.

If Avalon owns the street, the sidewalk cafes fall out of much city regulatory oversight, for which private benefit Avalon is willing to take on the burden of cleaning and maintaining the space. HPD doesn't want responsibility for this alley -- they handle housing, but Extra Place is really a street, regardless what the map says. So -- again, always for the public good -- the city wants to sell it to the trusted developer of New York's worst. Everyone is so interested in the public good, don't you feel pampered?

Insert cartoon of a heavy-lidded, half-asleep, slovenly, unwashed and unshaven municipal authority holding the public in it's pudgy hand with the other palm outstretched for the pay-off saying, "You want it? How much you give me for it?" to a bright-eyed, prim-suited gal with a gleam in her Gucci glasses and a shoulder pocketbook popping with wads of cash.

CB committee members were not so foolish as to buy this smartly wrapped bill of goods. Rallied into the field by Herman Hewitt, they went on indignant attack. Chair Fout and Militano and Prisant and Ratcliffe and Wieder -- each took an opportunity to whack Avalon for the sake of the public and against privatization. Inspiring. A Frank Capra moment. Over the orchestra the crash of cymbals: The representatives of the public defend the public realm!

Made up in part for the truly depressing presentation from the Department of Buildings earlier in the meeting. DoB sent some low-level buffer to tell us that either DoB doesn't have the information we seek about 180 Orchard or DoB isn't responsible for having such information or he didn't bring the information, or you could get it yourself on the web -- in short, don't bother DoB because DoB is exactly what everyone says it is: useless. Did we need DoB to come tell us this? I guess it's good to watch the department itself provide living proof of exactly how useless it is, just in case there was any doubt.

180 Orchard has been in construction for four years with only three stories built and nobody can say what is being built there, whether it has financing for completion, what its status is or what the future might hold. Meanwhile, it's hell for the local businesses and residents. Classic case of Developer's Blight.

Unfortunately, the committee tried to help DoB present its case. CB3 doesn't seem to have picked up the MO of the savvy political committee. When a failed agency under a cloud of scandal is called by a committee to present itself to the public, the committee members are supposed to sit forward in their seats, staring out at the public tight-lipped and grim-faced, while the publicly despised agency sweats it out in desperation. If the committee starts defending the agency or answering questions for the agency or even tries to show off that the committee knows more than the public about the agency, then the committee looks as if it's taking the side of a scandal-ridden crony against the public. That may impress the public with the committee's inside knowledge, but it sure as hell doesn't make the committee look good. It aggravates community distrust.

It's hard to keep silent. There's the temptation to display knowledge and give an impression of control. But that's unnecessary and counterproductive. It doesn't matter that there are reasons DoB doesn't have the information the public needs and wants: this is not a Panglossian best-of-all-possible DoB's. Let DoB sweat. After all, their commissioner just resigned under a scandal that hasn't been resolved and that needs resolution. Their regulations and operations need revision. There's nothing to be gained by being extra nice to them or helping them out of a jam. Put blame where blame is due. It's their moment in the hot spotlight; they're up for change. They don't need to be attacked. Just let 'em sweat! And then thank them very kindly for their presentation.

Watch how the U.S. congress does it. They are the jaded, cynical pros of Machiavellian silence. No one does it better.


Anonymous said...

Thank goodness for the CB3 whacking...Extra Place to Avalon can't happen.

And thanks for all your coverage of the CB3. I appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Hey I'm no fan of the jerks at Avalon. But just to make it clear - if Avalon is prohibited from buying the land, then it will remain an alley. Maybe it will be used for building service or maybe for garbage storage and collection. There will be no activity of any kind and no one will use it.

This is what the CB committee is fighting for? Preservation of a back alley? How is that better for the community than what Avalon is proposing? Just because the city maintains ownership of this useless tiny patch of land jutting into a block?

Did anyone suggest other arrangements such as a concession or revocable consent where the City retains ownership?

rob said...

Yes, other suggestions were made and HPD was asked to come back next month with alternatives including other community organizations.

Jeremy Sapienza said...

Avalon Bay's project sounds fine (though I agree their Houston development is horrible). You'd prefer it remain a crappy old alley just so some random layer of government can continue to own it? It's not even clear why public ownership is even good or important here.

rob said...

For sure I'd want to keep it public! If it's public, it's OURS. We have oversight. If it belongs to Avalon, it's theirs to promote their current or future businesses and their residents in any way that serves them.

Maybe the irony didn't make it through the print. Avalon doesn't want to buy this so it can serve the public good. They want the alley to serve Avalon and Avalon's vision of New York streetscape. Once it's sold to them, you and I have no more say in what happens to that alley beyond what stipulations are agreed to in the sale.

We're losing public spaces all over the city. Avalon's vision of the alley sure doesn't include me. It's all about providing a quaint city version of a suburban shopping mall park for Avalon residents, and a charming view for their windows. Their plan is prizewinningly awful. What's ironic is that they can't even see how bad it is.

Why should we sell OUR ownership of a street to a narrow private interest? If they want to "improve" it, they should make a deal that does not involve compromising public ownership in any way.

Unfortunately, the only way Avalon could beautify Extra Place would be by razing Avalon itself to the ground and restoring the old building they demolished to build it.