Saturday, June 30, 2007

GL Analysis: Fun with the 421-a Developer Tax Break

Not all the changes made in Albany by the special interests and others that attacked the 421-a developer tax break legislation are bad ones. We have always believed that the huge tax abatements that developers receive are a holdover from a 1970s/80s mentality of desperation that fail to reflect in any way, shape or form the reality of New York City--and, especially, Brooklyn, in the 2000s. The tax break both provides an unnecessary giveaway of taxpayer money to developers and affluent buyers, it can serve as a taxpayer-financed tool to promote displacement. Residents in some neighborhoods are, in effect, contributing their taxes to the buildings that will force them out and the affluent buyers who won't have to pay property taxes for years to come.

One way to turn some of these lemons into lemonade, however, is to extend the exclusion zones that require developers to produce affordable housing in return for getting the tax breaks as widely as possible. For the Bloomberg Administration to object to the expansion of the exclusion zones pushes the limits of credulity. There are things in the bill to object to (keep reading), but the bigger exclusion zones are to be applauded. If you're not going to kill the developer welfare turkey known as 421-a, affordable housing should be a minimum requirement in every building anywhere in the city that gets one of these generous tax breaks. Failing that, the exclusion zones should be as big as possible. If anything, the bill in Albany still doesn't go far enough in adding gentrifying neighborhoods to the exclusion list. If the Bloomberg Administration succeeds in killing the added exclusion zones, it will be just as scandalous as the special tax breaks that Atlantic Yards supporters got written into the law.

In today's Atlantic Yards Report, Norman Oder takes a look at the 421-a issue in the context of Bushwick, the Village Voice investigation of displacement in the neighborhood and the marketing effort for the building at 358 Grove.

All that having been said, however, one of the more fascinating lessons in special interest perks is the creation of a slew of exemptions and special tax breaks for Atlantic Yards. So, who was responsible for Forest City Ratner's Christmas in June in Albany?

No Land Grab looks at the likely suspects identified so far:

The prevailing wisdom during the past week was that it was State Assemblyman Vito Lopez's fault. Lopez is the Chairman of the Assembly's Housing Committee that drafted the bill, a project supporter and has received campaign contributions from Bruce Ratner's brother and sister-in-law.

The NY Observer reports:

What the apparent contradictions in the bill represent are a series of horse trades that Mr. Lopez, a loping giant of a man who carries power like a running back headed to the end zone, brokered with fellow legislators.

Todays' NY Times advances a separate theory, which fingers the State Senate and the head of the Real Estate Board of NY (REBNY):

But many advocates, city officials and even some Senate Republicans are saying that Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, betrayed the city’s effort. By all accounts, Mr. Spinola, the leading industry lobbyist, played a major role in negotiating the compromises and the tax deals for Atlantic Yards and other developments that led to Senate approval.

There's a third theory that starts with Lopez and leads to Sheldon Silver's office. This week's Brooklyn Paper explains:

Lopez’s motivations for slipping in the Ratner-favoring clause are unclear. One source said that the Brooklyn Democratic Party boss might have done it as a favor to Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver. “Silver and [Forest City Ratner lobbyist] Bruce Bender are old friends,” said the source.

The exception is so outrageous that no-one seems to have the guts to stand up and take credit.

There is some irony in the $300 million in special Atlantic Yards tax breaks that are now at issue, if not the Bloomberg Administration's opposition to a great expansion of affordable housing provisions in the 421-a tax break bill. We have long believed that the entire Atlantic Yards process has been one of the most anti-particpatory, backroom, top-down and arrogant public processes we have seen in the United States. The process has been so wretched--and so corrosively divisive as a result of the way that it has stiffled real community input and discusision--that a generation of future planning students will be studying Atlantic Yards as a way to learn how not to do things. Why would anyone be surprised that the backroom wheeling and dealing has extended to slipping the project a few hundred extra million dollars in taxpayer money or to toying with increasing the income levels of those eligible for its affordable housing?

If anything, the 421-a skullduggery is the icing on an already nasty cake.

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