These days, Bob Lieber works late, is gaining weight, took no vacation this summer, and has no time off in sight.
The bustle comes as the 54-year-old deputy mayor for economic development is busy pushing, pulling and dragging a set of major Bloomberg-backed development projects toward execution, including three top ones characterized not by the invisible hand of the free market so often espoused by the mayor, but by a more heavy government hand.
Though Mr. Bloomberg is no laissez faire diehard by any means, the three projects—the revitalization of Coney Island; the redevelopment of the industry-heavy Willets Point area by Shea Stadium; and the creation of up to 5,000 units of mostly middle-income housing at Hunter’s Point South by Long Island City—seem to have far more city involvement and restrictions than those typical of the economic development agenda of the self-described fiscally conservative mayor. To date, that agenda has focused around rezonings of areas such as Manhattan’s far West Side, Jamaica and the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront, where the city allows private landowners to develop thousands of housing units and millions of feet of office space.
But now, with the city’s toughest projects saved for the homestretch and resistance coming from the City Council and other groups, the administration seems to have felt a need to shift course for Willets Point, Coney Island and Hunter’s Point South in order to fit the financial and political realities of the day.
Mr. Lieber, the deputy mayor, denied a shift, saying the projects match the broader economic development strategy of the Bloomberg administration. The rezoning of the far West Side, for instance, included at least $3 billion in public infrastructure investment, he noted.
“I don’t think Willets and Hunter’s Point South and Coney Island are necessarily without precedent,” he said. “The model is taking on big projects, the scope and magnitude of which haven’t ever been tackled before by city government.”
At Willets Point, where the city plans a complete overhaul of the 61-acre industrial site that would replace auto repair shops with housing and retail, the administration is threatening the use of eminent domain to acquire the property in the footprint, which would ultimately be signed over to a private developer. The city has shunned the traditional approach—rezoning the land to allow the existing property owners to develop it themselves—because it says the heavy remediation and installation of infrastructure require all the land to be taken at once.
At Coney Island, which the Bloomberg administration wants to revitalize to become a year-round entertainment hub, the proposal’s centerpiece is city-owned parkland that would be contracted out to an amusement-park operator of the city’s choosing. The catch? The city doesn’t own the land, and wants to buy it from the existing landowners, at least one of whom is resistant.
The parkland proposal marks a shift from an initial strategy, which involved working with the landowners—Joseph Sitt of Thor Equities in particular, given that he owns most of the land—to create a privately owned amusement hub, consistent with the area’s history. However, Mr. Sitt was opposed to the city’s vision and demanded to build housing in the main amusement district; the city was intent on moving a strip of parkland to the amusement area.
And at Hunter’s Point South, where the administration wants residential towers where 60 percent of the residents are middle-income earners, a plan is being considered in which a city-controlled entity would be responsible for owning and developing the buildings.
The plan aims for tax-free financing—without that, the city says, the project would be substantially more costly—and the city would contract out duties such as construction and building management. But the concept of city government building and operating housing—not done on any large scale since when the NYCHA housing projects were built—has drawn concerns from Councilman Eric Gioia and some housing advocates, who worry about the inefficient nature of such a government-run project.
GIVEN THE COMPLEX nature of the three projects, it’s perhaps not surprising that they have been left to the end of Mr. Bloomberg’s final term; the relatively easier projects with broader consensus topped the list earlier on.
“We’ve moved beyond the low-hanging fruit, and these involve I guess what I would call a more aggressive government position because these are really harder, more involved projects,” said Steve Malanga, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute.
City Hall’s countdown clock also surely has had an effect on the decision to add regulations and restrictions from which the administration once may have shied away. Mr. Lieber has a mandate from his boss to get these projects in the ground before the administration exits at the end of 2009. While Mr. Lieber’s predecessor, Daniel Doctoroff, pushed back against unions and Council members trying to wrest concessions and restrictions on developments such as Willets Point, Mr. Lieber has taken what many involved in discussions describe as a more conciliatory approach, with the aim of forward movement.
Fueling the mad rush to implement is a fear that future mayors will have a new set of priorities and abandon the Bloomberg-era projects. Messrs. Bloomberg and Lieber have both said their goal is to bring projects so far along that they are virtually irreversible. For instance, at Coney Island, the city wants to enshrine the amusement area in parkland, a designation that would require an act of the State Legislature to remove.
“You have to get these things to a point where they have to be able to be self-sustaining thereafter,” Mr. Lieber said, referring to a need to get through the approvals process this term, and thus sign on necessary constituent groups.
Not that there’s an outcry for the administration to back off.
Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, the city’s major landlord and developer group, said he generally supports the more hands-on approach of the latter-day Bloomberg projects, particularly with Willets Point and Hunter’s Point South. And Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, the city’s main business advocacy group, voiced strong support for pushing the projects before the sun sets on the administration.
“I’ve watched these sites sit for so many years,” she said. “I just think that they’re right to try to take advantage of the momentum and to move them, and these projects require significant public investment.”
Of course, obstacles are many. The approvals quest comes as the bulk of the Council eyes different elective offices in 2008 or 2009, and the financial markets hardly lend a dime to developers, casting doubt on whether any ground could be broken even if projects win approval.
At Willets Point, for instance, 30 Council members—a majority—signed a letter on Tuesday saying they were warning of a “doomed fate” for the project unless changes were made, including a greater commitment to below-market-rate housing. Even if its plan makes it through the Council, the city currently plans to select a developer in 2009, and the value of bids would clearly be limited by the inclement lending market.
And at Coney Island, the city still needs to reach a deal with Mr. Sitt, the major landowner, if it is to create a revitalized amusement district under its current plan.
For all, said Mr. Lieber, “the dialogue is ongoing.”
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