Liberty for All? Board Disputes Bond Allocations

Intended to heal the economic injury inflicted on New York City by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, tax-free Liberty Bonds have introduced new kinds of suffering. Lately, they’ve had an effect similar to rubbing alcohol when it’s applied to an open wound: From the State Assembly to downtown community boards, the bonds have become an inflammatory issue.

At its Dec. 16 public meeting, Community Board 1 urged New York City and New York State to extend the Liberty Bond program and not to approve financing for any more commercial projects outside of lower Manhattan. Board members expressed outrage that funds are being allocated for commercial development elsewhere in the city when downtown businesses are still hurting.

“The money intended for downtown should be brought downtown,” said board member Bruce Ehrmann, speaking at the meeting.

Although board members acknowledged that the state was following the letter of the law-since, technically, it may use Liberty Bonds to subsidize $2 billion worth of commercial projects outside of lower Manhattan-they insisted that it was not respecting the law’s spirit.

“These funds were meant for the redevelopment of lower Manhattan,” said board member Jen Hensley, director of intergovernmental and community affairs for the Downtown Alliance, the local New York City business-improvement district. “That’s what they were intended for, and that’s how it should happen.”

Earlier in December, Congressional Democrats blasted Governor George Pataki for approving the sale of $400 million in Liberty Bonds to fund a new power plant in Astoria, Queens. In late September, the city gave preliminary approval to $650 million in Liberty Bond financing to help the Bank of America build an office in midtown. (Mayor Bloomberg and the Governor each control $2.8 billion in Liberty Bonds earmarked for commercial projects.)

The city is currently considering issuing $80 million in bonds for InterActiveCorp, an e-commerce company, to construct a new office building in Chelsea. Forest City Ratner, which in 2002 received $114 million in Liberty Bond proceeds to build an office tower in downtown Brooklyn for the Bank of New York, now wants another $150 million for a Times Square project.

At the same time, board members complained, hardly any money has been provided to finance commercial projects downtown. According to Good Jobs New York, an organization that advocates fiscal accountability, other than the $550 million slated for rebuilding the W.T.C. site and the financial center, only $50 million worth of Liberty Bonds has been allocated so far to new commercial projects-a South Street Seaport convention center and a downtown hotel to be developed by Robert De Niro and hotelier Ira Drukier.

At the meeting, board members also expressed frustration that nearly all of the $800 million in Liberty Bond financing so far used to subsidize residential projects in lower Manhattan has gone to build market-rate housing. Only about 5 percent of bond-financed apartments are being set aside for low- and moderate-income tenants.

“The unintended consequence of well-meaning legislation by our Congress is that it drove out 80-20,” said board member Ray O’Keefe, referring to the long-standing state program that offers residential developers tax relief in exchange for setting aside 20 percent of their new units for lower-income tenants. “This deal is better for developers.”

At the same time, thousands of affordable housing units will soon be lost downtown when low- and moderate-income housing complexes such as Southbridge Towers and Independence Plaza North go market-rate after the Mitchell Lama program limiting their rents expires. The $50 million that the Mayor and the Governor recently pledged to build approximately 300 new affordable-housing units in lower Manhattan will do little to offset that loss.

Hoping to reverse these trends, board members voted to lobby for an extension of the Liberty Bond program and to agitate for more affordable housing downtown. New York legislators are making a similar case to Congress. New York Representatives Charles Rangel and Amo Houghton introduced a bill in November to extend the tax-exempt bond-financing program from 2005 to 2010. Though the bill doesn’t include any language about affordable housing, the community board pledged to continue pressing that issue.

“If we don’t fight for subsidized housing, we’re not doing our job as a community board,” said board member Joe Lerner, a Southbridge Towers resident.

-Megan Costello

Heckscher Playground Gears Up For Face-Lift of a Lifetime

At 77 years old, and having undergone only minor nips and tucks over the decades, the Heckscher Playground in Central Park is way overdue for a face-lift. Finally, that full cosmetic overhaul-which comes with a price tag of $7 million, to be paid for with privately donated funds-seems imminent. After approving the Central Park Conservancy’s preliminary designs for the renovation in May, Community Board 7, at its Dec. 2 meeting, gave the green light to the fleshed-out plans.

Situated in the southwest section of Central Park just below the Sheep Meadow, the 30-acre area in question includes the Heckscher Playground, which is the largest-and, sadly, the most dilapidated-in the park; the six baseball fields and concession stand that make up the Heckscher Ballfields; a children’s carousel; four large bedrock outcroppings; and both pedestrian and equestrian paths.

Constructed in 1926, the playground hasn’t seen any major renovations since the late 1960′s and early 1970′s. Some of the facility’s wooden structures rotted to such an extent that they were subsequently removed. The new design aims to better integrate the physically segregated play area with the surrounding space by constructing a new multi-use play field in its center. New amenities will include swings, seesaws, slides and climbers, and special attention will be paid to safety concerns, particularly as they pertain to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Also, water-spray elements-which, according to Doug Blonsky, chief operating officer of the Central Park Conservancy, never worked the way they were intended to-will be revitalized. And new restrooms will be situated so that they are accessible to both the general public and playground users.

Clare Beckhardt, an Upper West Side resident who led the community effort to install the playground at West 67th Street and Central Park West, attested to the dire need for the overhaul. “It’s been a long time since that playground was built,” Ms. Beckhardt told The Observer . “My son is 40. He was about 5 years old when they first did that Heckscher Playground,” she added, referring to the last time renovations were done.

The Heckscher Ballfields have also suffered over time. Players must cope with the diamonds’ substandard irrigation systems, which haven’t been restored since 1980 and which pale in comparison to those of the Sheep Meadow and the Great Lawn, according to Mr. Blonsky. In addition to ameliorating the water-runoff problem, the restoration will include replacing surrounding equipment, such as bleachers, benches, drinking fountains and fencing.

Additionally, Mr. Blonsky said, the current arrangement of the pathways are redundant and confusing, which has led to “people trampling through the landscapes getting from one pathway to another, which has created a lot of erosion along the slopes.” Consequently, the paths will be rerouted to better accommodate foot traffic.

Not surprisingly, news of the renovation has been heartily received. Linda Blumberg, vice president for communications at the Central Park Conservancy, told The Observer : “If the project is fully approved, we will be delighted to tackle this part of the park.” And Board 7′s parks committee co-chair, Bob Herrmann, emphasized that the renovation “will be a benefit to the community.”

The proposal must still go through Board 5, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Art Commission before an anticipated ground-breaking in the spring of 2004 for the six-month project, which will be completed incrementally so that parts of the facility can be used throughout the construction period.

-Benjamin Ryan

Jan. 7: Board 4, St. Luke’s–

Roosevelt Hospital, 1000 10th Avenue, 6 p.m., 212-736-4536; Board 10, 163 West 125th Street, 6 p.m., 212-749-3105.