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Park Dollars Trump Good Jobs on the Waterfront!

September 5, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco

Joanne Witty
Joanne Witty

Brooklyn, NY – Any pretense that the stewards of Brooklyn Bridge Park are concerned with anything other than creating a luxurious recreational space on the waterfront that also generates oodles of cash, fell away on Wednesday morning during a Board of Directors meeting that saw one member practically scold the precious few representatives actually advocating for good jobs and responsible development at the sprawling public site. (Watch Video)

Steve Levin
Steve Levin.

“I don’t understand what our elected officials are doing here,” Brooklyn Bridge Park Board of Directors member Joanne Witty said. “And I would like an explanation from them.”

Witty’s visibly annoyed outburst occurred after a representative from State Senator Daniel Squadron’s office named John Raskin and later Councilman Steve Levin, announced their intention to vote against a leasing agreement involving the establishment of the Empire Stores Development site – 398,000 square feet of commercial and retail space in the DUMBO section of the park that will become a major revenue generator for the Brooklyn Bridge Park site.

Ultimately, only one other person on the 17-member Board of Directors – Ann Strahle – joined in and voted against the measure, citing concerns about the lack of prevailing wage jobs and reliable contractors.

But that was too much for Witty.

“I would like to know how they would propose fulfilling the maintenance obligations of this park which is the fiduciary duty of each of us as a board member,” Witty said. “Every dollar less that we collect from these development projects means a dollar less to maintain Brooklyn Bridge Park. And I wonder what these elected officials would suggest we do to make up those dollars, since we know that they don’t like the development in the park to begin with, and have tried on successive occasions to reduce it – and I assume will continue to do that in the future.”

Councilman Levin – who is up for re-election in the 33rd District and who had previously regretted the board's failure to  “proactively” seek prevailing wage language in Requests for Proposals [RFPs] issued for other areas of park development – argued that since the anticipated revenues derived from the Empire Stores lease agreement are higher than expected, consideration should now be given to hiring responsible developers and contractors who pay prevailing wages and benefits.

“What I have consistently proposed on all development site RFPs that have gone out as part of the park is that there be language that is written into the RFP at the get-go,” Councilman Levin said. “All of the responses to the RFP would factor into their calculations, the fact that there would be a prevailing wage job. This is more of an issue about the fact that this is a public benefit, this is a site that is in a public park. It is going to fetch a higher-end rent than what its cohorts in the neighborhood are fetching in terms of commercial space.”

Witty, however, immediately rebuffed Levin in no uncertain terms, saying what the councilman outlined, “makes no sense in terms of the finances of this park.”

“If we put it in the RFP it would just mean that we would get bids for less money, and we would have less money to maintain this park,” Witty said. “There are competing goods here. There is the public good of Brooklyn Bridge Park, and there is the public good of prevailing wages – and labor unions. I support labor unions. But I think that we have to consider the balance here, and you can’t ignore that.”

Witty also dismissed the idea that opening up public space for private development constitutes any type of extraordinary favor. 

“We’re not conferring a benefit on these developers,” Witty said. “They are paying us. That is the whole point. We are monetizing this value to benefit Brooklyn Bridge Park. That is a public good. You weigh that against your desire to have labor unions on these sites, and you have to make a choice. You can’t avoid the choice.”

Advocates of good jobs and responsible development that affords working men and women prevailing wages and benefits, view the erosion of labor standards both in Brooklyn and citywide as a dangerous “race to the bottom” that is steadily destroying the middle class. 

But Witty said that her “fiduciary duty is to make sure that we have enough money generated from these development sites to pay off our maintenance costs.”

“That’s a fixed number,” Witty told Levin. “So, if you get less money from these sites as you describe because you put it in the RFP, less money means less money to cover a fixed budget. There is no around that, Steve.”

The RFP concerning the Empire Stores development site went out in September of last year. The total lease agreement is valued at some $60 million, with annual revenues totaling more than $1.5 million. 

Another RFP involving resiential development at Pier 6 – a site which benefited from $21 million in Capital funding last year – has yet to be issued. 

Build Up NYC, the coalition of labor organizations hoping to influence the couse of development at Brooklyn Bridge Park, has spent the last several months identifying potential problems at the site involving developers and contractors with checkered histories and suspect building practices. Despite that, members of the group charge that the Brooklyn Bridge Park Board of Directors has consistently  ignored their concerns and even skated over official testimony delivered during the public session portion of previously-held Board of Directors meetings. 

The last, prompted those delivering fresh testimony at Wednesday's meeting to seek verbal assurance from President Regina Myer that their comments would be entered into the official minutes as stated – without being edited or abridged. 

Group spokesperson Daniel Walcott blasted the Brooklyn Bridge Park Board of Directors and said that upholding fair labor standards should be their concern, and not “cutting corners every which way you can.”

[Editor's Note: This story has been revised from an earlier posting.]

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