A Master Plan For New York

For a city with a past as brilliant and a future as promising as New York’s, it’s troubling that there’s no vision in place for how the city is to be developed. At the moment, the city treats each potential development on an ad hoc basis, with no consistent view toward how a new building will fit into the neighborhood and the city at large. And real-estate developers have learned to exploit the zoning system-a system which, they argue with some justification, is outmoded and archaic. Rather than continue down this chaotic path, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council should create a master plan for all five boroughs and undertake a vigorous search for the right person or persons for the job. Decisions currently being made piecemeal will affect the city for the next 100 years; without a public commission with the power to articulate and implement a coherent policy, the shape the city takes will be determined by hundreds of isolated cases which have no relation to each other or the city as whole.

A current case in point is Red Hook, Brooklyn, where a developer wanted to bypass the area’s industrial zoning to build a luxury condominium. The developer received a waiver from the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals, whose five members are empowered to exempt developers from zoning restrictions where those restrictions impose undue economic hardship. Not surprisingly, the B.S.A. receives a proliferation of requests by developers for such waivers; critics of the B.S.A. note that the board approves four of out five requests from developers, and suggest that the board has become far too cozy with the real-estate industry. “There is an active underground rezoning going on in the city for guys who are rich enough or smart enough to know how to manipulate the system,” the president of the Municipal Art Society, Kent Barwick, told The New York Times . The B.S.A.’s defenders argue that the city’s zoning regulations, which are based on a framework stemming from the late 19th-century industrial city, simply make no sense for New York’s current needs, and that if developers were not allowed to build residential and retail properties in manufacturing zones, those areas would remain wastelands.

Both sides have valid points; but these decisions should be in the hands of a master planner, not a little-known board. This is no simple job. A master planner would have to tackle gentrification, population and tax issues covering everything from a new rental building going up to the current controversy over a Jets stadium on Manhattan’s West Side, with input from the Mayor, the City Council and the five boroughs.

The city has a pool of talented men and women, the world’s best and brightest. City Hall should do whatever is needed to put one of them in charge of the shape of the city to come.

Guy Velella: A Shameless Defense

Guy Velella is a longtime Republican State Senator from the Bronx. He also is in a lot of trouble.

Sometime next month, the Senator will stand trial on corruption charges, accused of accepting more than $100,000 in illegal payments. Fighting for his career and reputation, Mr. Velella is preparing to mount an aggressive-and expensive-defense.

Paying for that defense, of course, is always a problem, but Mr. Velella believes that he has the solution: He has dipped into his re-election campaign’s treasury to the tune of more than $400,000 to help pay for his criminal-defense lawyers.

Election law states that political candidates can use their campaign money for their campaigns only. This would seem fairly obvious, except for the numerous examples of politicians who used their campaign treasuries for all sorts of personal expenses unrelated to the task of getting elected. For example, Mr. Velella once dipped into his campaign treasury to pay for an alarm system for his home that cost almost $6,000.

The Senator’s staffers insist that the Board of Elections has, in the past, allowed public officeholders to help pay for their criminal defenses with campaign money. (What a shame, isn’t it, that this sort of behavior has a precedent?) That’s because, they say, the charges involve conduct relating to the Senator’s public office.

This is an absurd justification, and even though the practice technically is legal, the law should be changed. Unless things have really gotten out of hand in Albany, the job description of a State Senator does not include bribery (at least not officially). To suggest that the charges against Mr. Velella are related to the performance of his office is to betray a rather curious view of public service.

The Senator and others like him should pay for his legal defense just like the rest of us, with no reliance on the contributions given him by people who assumed, naïvely, that their money would be used to pay for campaigns. If Mr. Velella cannot afford the legal help he needs, he can start a defense fund. In that way, his contributors would know exactly what they’re paying for.

Campaign funds are campaign funds. They should not be used to pay for criminal-defense lawyers-or anything else, for that matter. Mr. Velella is fighting for his reputation, but he has a strange way of displaying his innocence.

Bill Perkins’ Ploy

In a bit of slick politicking disguised as big-heartedness, City Council member Bill Perkins is drafting legislation that would allow legal immigrants who are not U.S. citizens the right to vote in New York City elections. Why would Mr. Perkins be so willing to dilute the meaning of American citizenship? A cynic might suggest that he just wants to help Freddy Ferrer unseat Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2005, since Mr. Bloomberg has rightly come out against the legislation and can thus be portrayed as a villain to immigrant Asian and Latino communities. Not to mention there are an estimated one million legal immigrants who are not citizens in New York, most of whom would presumably pull the lever for whomever they perceived as their advocate.

New York City has a population that is 36 percent foreign-born, and across the city immigrants have revitalized neighborhoods, strengthened our work force and energized our economic, cultural and culinary life. New York welcomes and encourages immigrants-through our schools, social services and tolerant culture.

But the benefits that New York has received from immigration can be acknowledged without messing with the right to vote. As the Mayor said last week, “The essence of citizenship is the right to vote, and you should go about becoming a citizen before you get the right to vote.” A citizen has demonstrated his or her commitment to the nation and its values; the voting booth should not be open to anyone who decides to just settle in New York for a month or a year or two. The right to vote is an essential element in our democratic system, not a coupon you get for landing on these shores.