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Why’s a Nice Man Like David Dinkins Running for Mayor?

Except for a 109-year-old woman and some of her family members, the Most Worshipful Enoch Grand Lodge in Bedford Stuyve­sant was nearly empty on a recent April night. The 17 people in the masonic hall’s main meeting room were waiting for David Dinkins, mayoral candi­date, to arrive to present a proclamation — on the oc­casion of her birthday — honoring Aunt Jannie Glover for living so long. As photo opportunities go, it was not shaping up to be a good one: one local television camera crew, one reporter, and one photographer. An organizer of the birthday party worried about the turnout: “There were a lot of people who were supposed to show up who didn’t. I don’t know what happened to them.”

When he arrived at 6:25, Dinkins ap­proached Aunt Jannie, who was sitting at a folding table, and introduced himself:

“Hello, Aunt Jannie, I’m David Din­kins. I’m the borough president of Manhattan.”

“Who?”

“I’m David Dinkins, the borough presi­dent of Manhattan. I’m here to give you this proclamation.”

“What?”

“I’m going to be the next mayor.”

“What?”

“I’m going to be the next mayor.”

“That’s nice,” a not-too-impressed Aunt Jannie responded.

Dinkins read the framed proclamation announcing April 20, 1989, to be Aunt Jannie Glover Day in Manhattan. That Glover, a Brooklyn resident, has never lived in Manhattan a day out of her 109 years does not really matter. This is, of course, an election year, and 109-year-­olds are not that easy to come by. Espe­cially ones with family members active in the Brooklyn Democratic organization.

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IN POLITICAL CLUBS, synagogues, civic associations, and church basements across New York City over the past few weeks, a familiar scene has been played out nightly. The three Democrats actively running for mayor — Dinkins, Comptrol­ler Harrison (Jay) Goldin, and banker/builder Richard Ravitch — are each given about 15 minutes to explain to crowds numbering as few as 25 people why they should be the one to replace Ed Koch, who has not yet begun to campaign.

Ravitch, hampered by his perennially hoarse voice and plodding monotone, reg­ularly has trouble holding a crowd, though his speech is thoughtful and his resume impressive. Goldin’s presentation, on the other hand, is a high-speed trip through the failures of Ed Koch’s admin­istration, a talk that often includes the recounting of a bicycle ride through Cen­tral Park during which Goldin’s son won­ders, “Daddy, would you like to see the pushers?” The comptroller, with his arms flailing about, sounds like a mix between Lowell Thomas on speed and Eddie Mur­phy’s Gumby character.

As the front-runner in the race — the latest Marist Institute poll shows him with a 12.5 per cent lead over Koch­ — Dinkins is often the most anticipated speaker at these forums.

In his standard address, the borough president focuses on crime and drugs as well as the poor planning and “crisis-to-­crisis management” of what he calls the “current administration,” to which he rarely attaches Koch’s name. But since he has yet to unveil detailed solutions for the major problems he identifies, Dinkins falls back on general, conceptual notions. Speaking last month before the Douglas King Democratic Club in Queens Village, for instance, he said, “We must expand the criminal justice system” to deal with jail over-crowding, and spoke of the need for a “greater police presence” at the lo­cal level. Referring to drug treatment and education, Dinkins said, “We’re not handling it right. We’ve got to find options for young people.” As to other problems, the often says, “I suggest that we can do better. And we must.”

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In his public appearances, Dinkins is careful not to stray too far from his stump speech, careful not to take any unnecessary chances this early in the campaign. While he ticks off various shortcomings in the city’s hospital and health care system, all Dinkins will say about quality of care is that city hospitals “are not doing nearly as well as they might.” Of course, the candidate must realize that the city’s health system is in abominable shape, but he does not choose to say this. When asked at an East Side candidates’ forum about the conditions in Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital, Din­kins appears surprised by the question. All he can offer the questioner is that “I’m distressed,” and that city emergency rooms have become the family doctor for many city families.

Dinkins also often avoids talking about how programs would be implemented, and what they would cost. And with bud­get restraints at the city, state, and feder­al levels-not to mention possible eco­nomic downturns, or even a recession­such a financial component has taken on added importance this election year. Din­kins’s desire to limit high school size to 1500 (some currently have more than 3500 students) and his desire for treat­ment on demand for substance abusers are commendable, but the candidate has yet to explain where the money would come from to pay for these programs.

Since announcing for mayor in Febru­ary, Dinkins has been badmouthed and second-guessed — behind the scenes — on everything from his choice of media ad­visers (the high-profile Washington team of David Doak and Bob Shrum) to his speaking style (“almost as boring as Ra­vitch,” according to one elected official), his lack of concrete proposals, and his supposedly slow-developing campaign apparatus. Although the Dinkins campaign is just beginning, the general wisdom seems to be that it’s already stalled. That the efforts of Ravitch, Goldin, Koch, and Republicans Rudolph Giuliani and Ron­ald Lauder cannot approach the organi­zation, volunteers, or enthusiasm gener­ated so far by the Dinkins campaign is rarely discussed. (Clearly, none of the other three Democrats could come close to mustering the horde of noisy supporters that greeted Dinkins at the overflow opening of his West 43rd Street head­quarters in late March.) These swipes at Dinkins may well come with the title of front-runner, but they are also surely rooted in an ugly mix of racial paternal­ism, jealously, and greed, especially from some of the city’s traditional political “handlers” who have been excluded from Dinkins’s campaign, and therefore left without a paycheck.

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But with polls showing Dinkins with large leads over his three Democratic op­ponents, this backbiting can be fairly eas­ily ignored by the candidate and his cam­paign. Bill Lynch, who served as Dinkins’s chief of staff before leaving to manage his mayoral campaign, says of his campaign apparatus, “We’re damn sure closer than anyone else. As far as I’m concerned, we’re where we should be at this point.”

In fact, campaign supporters — and sometimes Dinkins himself — sound as if the Democratic primary has already been won and that the real battle this fall is with Rudolph Giuliani, who might appear on two lines in November’s general elec­tion. In 15 campaign appearances attend­ed by the Voice over a recent two-week period, Dinkins uttered the word “Koch” only three times, while he often brought up Giuliani. His remarks at a Greenwich Village fund-raiser were typical. “I’m sure Rudy will get around to announcing someday and then it’ll be interesting to see him explain how he can be running as a Liberal and a Republican,” Dinkins said. “It should also be interesting to see him explain whether he’s been pleased with the Reaganism of the last eight years. Homelessness is a problem brought on by the Republicans in Washington. And let’s see him explain why the Justice Department he worked for did so little for civil rights.”

Compared to Goldin’s slashing attacks on Koch, Dinkins has been downright genteel when it comes to the mayor. “It has never been his style to scream at the top of his lungs,” one supporter says. “And I don’t think he’s going to get into a mud-slinging contest. He’s happy to leave that up to Jay [Goldin].” While the comptroller gleefully recounts episodes from the municipal corruption scandal, Dinkins only occasionally mentions “problems with the Talent Bank,” which, he says, “apparently was used for patron­age.” On the stump, Dinkins has not ut­tered the names Donald Manes, Stanley Friedman, or Meade Esposito, or even let on that, under the incumbent’s leader­ship, City Hall had been turned over to the county organizations. Calling Koch on these dangerous liaisons, of course, would be a sticky proposition since Dinkins himself is actively seeking the sup­port of the same three Democratic orga­nizations once headed by the aforementioned crooks.

The David Dinkins that David Dinkins wants voters to see is a man who can bring the city together, who cares about the city’s growing underclass, and who can do something about New York’s out-­of-control drug and crime problems. Dinkins is confident in crowds, patting shoulders, shaking hands, and calling ev­eryone “buddy” or “darling” if he does not already know their name. His facility with crowds serves him well, for the nature of the mayoral race forces Dinkins to put in appearances at some bizarre events. There was, for in­stance, the recent ritual at the Friar’s Club, where the candidate “celebrated” —  in the Milton Berle Room, no less — the release of another vanity book by Toast­master General Joey Adams. Dinkins purchased a copy of Joey’s Guaranteed to Make You Laugh, and chatted and posed for photos with such celebrities as Cindy Adams, Anthony Quinn, Dr. Ruth, How­ard Cosell, Morton Downey Jr., Alan King, and various old Borscht Belt come­dians. The mayoral candidate was one of only three blacks not serving drinks in the Uncle Miltie Room.

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SPEAKING AT THE Gramercy Park Syna­gogue last month, Dinkins recalled being raised in Trenton, New Jersey, by his mother, a manicurist and domestic work­er, and his grandmother. Dinkins’s par­ents were divorced in 1934, when he was six years old. “I remember we moved a lot. Often times, when the rent was due it was prudent to move,” he said. As a young man, Dinkins sold shopping bags on Eighth Avenue and 125th Street and worked washing cars and dishes. “I can’t remember being without a job,” he said. Dinkins served in the Marine Corps, but World War II ended while he was in boot camp. After graduating from Howard University with a mathematics degree, Dinkins entered Brooklyn Law School; he helped pay his tuition by working as the night manager of a Harlem liquor store. Dinkins maintained a private law practice from 1957 until 1975, when he became city clerk. After unsuccessful tries for the Manhattan borough presi­dency in 1977 and 1981 (he lost to Andrew Stein by less than three points), Dinkins was elected beep in 1985 by a two to one margin.

Unlike many, if not most, politicians, Dinkins does not tailor his speech to his audience. Speaking before the mostly white, middle-class John F. Kennedy Democratic Club in the stifling basement of a Jackson Heights Methodist church in April, Dinkins departed from his stump speech and began talking about the plight of the homeless. Dressed in a blue double-breasted suit and sweating profusely (Dinkins could break into a sweat riding the elevator in the Munici­pal Building), the candidate was unusual­ly forceful. “One day an elderly couple could be living in their apartment, the next day they’re out on the street. Some­one gets sick, the bills pile up, they fall behind on the rent and then” — snapping his fingers for emphasis — “just like that, they’re on the street.”

In fact, far from pandering to his audi­ence, Dinkins often does the opposite. In Jackson Heights, after discussing the homeless, Dinkins spoke about his 1984 and 1988 support of Jesse Jackson, not­ing that some Jews were distressed about “Jesse this and Jesse that. If I thought he was anti-Semitic I wouldn’t have sup­ported him.” The candidate then told of his longstanding support for Israel, his trip to the White Rose gravesite in Mu­nich while Ronald Reagan was in Bit­burg, and his courageous 1985 denuncia­tion of Louis Farrakhan.

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Similarly, when speaking to predomi­nantly black crowds, Dinkins often does not even mention Jackson’s name­ — though to do so would draw surefire ap­plause — despite the fact that Dinkins co-­chaired the reverend’s two presidential campaigns. Speaking at the monthly meeting of the predominantly black Fred­erick Douglass Club in Queens, Dinkins told the crowd of “my deep concerns for the safety and security of Israel,” as well his belief that IRA member Joe Doherty be released from prison and granted po­litical asylum.

It is rare for Dinkins to diverge from his controlled public persona. But when he does, his flashes of passion — like the ones he showed in the Jackson Heights church basement — can strongly affect crowds who view him simply as a quiet, reserved politician. On the other hand, Dinkins can also turn off crowds when his testy side appears. When pressed in public about an issue. Dinkins can be quick to snap back at a questioner.

At an endorsement meeting of the Cen­tral Brooklyn Independent Democrats, for instance, former liberal assemblyman Joe Ferris calmly asked Dinkins to ex­plain his vote in favor of the Atlantic Terminal development, an urban renewal project that, Ferris contended, would hurt poor people. “I can’t give you specifics on that, Joe. I really can’t remember,” Din­kins replied. Ferris pushed again for an explanation, pointing out that he believed the project would create more homeless families. “Now hold it,” Dinkins bel­lowed. “Look, if I asked you to remember the last time you ate egg for breakfast, you probably wouldn’t remember either.” An indignant Ferris was set to try a third time for an explanation, but he backed off. “That was a bullshit answer he gave to a serious question,” Ferris said. “We deserve better than that,” He added later. “Based on my experience with the man, in my gut, I’m troubled by him.” The former state legislator sat out CBID’s endorsement vote later that evening. Din­kins, as it turned out, did not need Ferris: the candidate won the club’s endorse­ment by a landslide.

But Dinkins has also been able to han­dle touchy subjects well. At a meeting last week of Manhattan’s Lexington Democratic Club, the second question directed at Dinkins seemed to be a plant: “Is it fair that you live in a large Mitchell-­Lama apartment when the city is in the midst of a major housing crisis?” a man asked. “Yes,” Dinkins replied, trying to dispose of the question. When the man then asked, “Is that a proper response for a public official?”, the candidate ex­plained that he, his wife, and his two children needed the space of a three-bed­room apartment when they moved into their Riverside Drive home years ago. “Nobody told us back then that someday we would be forced to move. My 430 neighbors feel the same way,” Dinkins said. He added, “I trust that you’ll ask Mayor Koch the same question about his rent-controlled apartment.”

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The question of Dinkins’s large, subsi­dized apartment is not considered a cam­paign negative since the man most likely to raise it — Ed Koch — is himself ware­housing a one-bedroom apartment on Washington Place in the Village. Koch has said he believes that Mitchell-Lama residents without families who live in large apartments should move into small­er ones to help ease the city’s housing shortage. Dinkins says that these tenants would undergo “extreme hardship” if forced to relocate.

There are, however, two “negatives” Dinkins will have to face in the upcoming campaign: the “tax question,” and the issue of race in an increasingly polarized city.

From 1969 to 1972, Dinkins did not file tax returns. Doak and Shrum are cur­rently “massaging” that issue, according to Lynch, since it is expected that some opponent (read: Koch) will use this 17-year-old episode against Dinkins. The borough president, who deftly handled the question at his February announce­ment, recently said. “I don’t think it’s unfair to be asked about it. I have never ever avoided making a full explanation.” Dinkins, who was forced to pay $15,000 in back taxes, says he believed some of his taxes were paid and that “it was one of those things that I was always going to take care of but sometimes I did not have all the funds or I did not have all the documents.”

One city campaign consultant says that Dinkins’s old tax problems will “definite­ly be used against him. It’s going to be a real item in the campaign. It doesn’t mat­ter that it’s ages old. The approach will be something like, ‘How can he handle billion-dollar budgets when he can’t even file his own taxes?'” “It only loses him votes, that’s for sure,” a party official agrees.

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A second, and perhaps a more serious “negative,” is race. Within his campaign, Dinkins’s ability to find support in the predominantly white neighborhoods of the outer boroughs is widely considered to be the key to a primary victory and the avoidance of a runoff election. Harlem congressman Charles Rangel says that while “a lot of New Yorkers might feel uncomfortable with a black mayor,” a number of white congressmen in the city delegation are close to defecting from Koch to Dinkins. Though he would not discuss individual names, Rangel says that some of these representatives “have not yet found ways to tell their constitu­ents that they want to leave Koch.” Ac­cording to Rangel, the only two congress­men who would find it “difficult to walk away from Koch” are Queens’s Gary Ack­erman and James Scheuer.

Brooklyn’s Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a member of the conservative Lubavitcher Hasidim community, says that “Ed Koch would have you believe that anyone who talks to Jesse Jackson is an anti-Semite. Don’t think that everyone out here agrees with that. The stereotype is that we are crazies out here, but that’s not the case. People understand that, politically, Din­kins needs to have Jesse near him.” Gold­stein, who is chairman of Community Board 9 in Crown Heights, adds, “The Jewish community outside of Manhattan has not seen much of David Dinkins. When he gets out into the communities, people will see that he doesn’t have horns on his head.”

As he addressed audiences about last month’s gang attack in Central Park, Dinkins referred to the arrested teen­agers as a band of “urban terrorists” who could have “attacked my wife, my daugh­ter.” While his proposals to combat at­tacks like these are thin — he has suggest­ed that unarmed park rangers (“Y’know, the guys with the hat”) become more involved in crime prevention — Dinkins has spoken out forcefully about the at­tack, though his words have been over­shadowed in the daily papers and the electronic media by the reactions of Ed Koch and Donald Tump.

In an interview last week, Dinkins said, “You’ve got to have a sister or daughter to feel this. It has shit to do with race. But it’s got everything to do with a real brutal fucking act. They not only raped her … but they beat the shit out of her. Now in that climate, I cannot get exercised about whether someone calls them a ‘wolfpack.'”

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Though Lynch and Dinkins dismiss the possibility that the Central Park attack will have a negative impact on the Din­kins campaign, five city politicians inter­viewed by the Voice said the event would probably hurt the Manhattan borough president. One city councilman said, “Strictly on racial terms, this does noth­ing to enhance [black] empowerment ar­guments.” Herman Badillo, a Dinkins foe, says that the park attack “has got to hurt him. It’s an unspoken disaster.” Lynch rejects this argument, contending that anyone who would be turned off to Din­kins because of the attack “probably wasn’t voting for him anyway.”

Lynch also dismisses the suggestion that the announcement last week of At­torney General Robert Abrams’s endorse­ment of Dinkins was intended to counter any white hostility stemming from the Central Park attack. Lynch confirms, however, that the campaign had had the Abrams endorsement lined up for more than a month. But he says Dinkins decid­ed to announce the endorsement now ­rather than late in the summer and closer to the primary-to “give us some mo­mentum.” This reasoning seems suspect, however, since momentum — in the form of recent major union endorsements — is not in short supply in the Dinkins campaign.

The role that Jesse Jackson will play in the campaign is also being discussed. Last month, Dinkins said that his cam­paign “will surely draw people from all over the country. I’m sure he’ll [Jackson] be here.” Dinkins declined to discuss whether the question of Jackson’s in­volvement was a concern to his campaign strategists, though this is another issue Doak/Shrum are examining. “We want everybody to remember that this is David’s campaign,” Lynch says. “We don’t want him overshadowed by anyone.” A Brooklyn Jewish leader who supports Dinkins says, “If Jesse is here one or two weekends, that’ll be fine. I don’t think anybody in this community will have a problem with that. But if he’s here all the time, well, that’s another story.”

The Marist poll released in April gave Dinkins a favorable rating of 59.4 per cent, far ahead of Goldin (41.4) and Koch (40.5). His unfavorable rating was 9.1 per cent (Koch’s was a whopping 54 per cent), while 31.3 per cent of those polled said they were unsure or had never heard of Dinkins. The only major candidate in either party with a higher favorable rat­ing was Giuliani (74.3 per cent), who also had as low an unfavorable rating as Din­kins (9.0). A New York Newsday poll re­leased last Sunday showed that if the primary were held today, Dinkins would receive 38 per cent of the vote, compared with Koch’s 28 per cent. However, it’s worth noting that neither of these polls (nor any other surveys released to date) have asked voters about any of Dinkins’s potential “negatives,” including race and taxes. One Dinkins supporter says, “Be­cause David is a new face to many people, you don’t know what the downside, if there is one, might be.” On the other hand, as David Garth recently made clear, Ed Koch’s negatives are all well-­known.

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WITH THE GLARING exception of his steadfast support for the Board of Esti­mate (and then for weighted voting), Dinkins has been the most progressive — ­while still pragmatic — voice on the Board of Estimate in his three-plus years a borough president. He has opposed the berthing of a nuclear homeport in Staten Island, beat the mayor in a showdown over the construction of heavily subsi­dized luxury housing in Clinton, and fought for community interests in con­nection with proposed commercial and residential developments at Lincoln Cen­ter and the New York Coliseum. He has been the strongest voice on the board calling for additional funding for AIDS prevention programs and the most pas­sionate spokesman for the city’s growing homeless population. His staff — which West Side council-woman Ruth Messinger calls “the most extraordinarily skilled and racially integrated staff in my memo­ry” — features some of the city’s best housing, community service, and health advocates.

But despite his record as borough pres­ident and his inspired hiring decisions, many politicians and community leaders still have reservations about Dinkins. Al­though he has proven his independence on the board, Dinkins’s organization background (he was a district leader for 20 years and is a charter member — along with Basil Paterson, Percy Sutton, and Charles Rangel — of what is derisively re­ferred to as the “Harlem Gang”) still wor­ries some.

Oliver Koppell, a Bronx assemblyman who heads that county’s “reform” move­ment, says that he believes Dinkins is untested as an “administrative manager” and that the candidate has not been an “antiorganization politician. He comes out of a regular background. Jay [Gol­din], despite some of the ethical ques­tions, does come out of a reform background.”

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Herman Badillo is more critical, con­tending that Dinkins does not have “im­pressive credentials.” Badillo adds, “The mistake that he is making is that because Jesse got 45 per cent, that he too can get 45 per cent. In reality, Dinkins is closer to Denny Farrell than he is Bo Jackson. Dinkins doesn’t stir up the passion that’s needed.” Badillo’s comments are no sur­prise, since he holds Dinkins responsible for the Coalition for a Just New York’s last-minute support for Manhattan as­semblyman Herman “Denny” Farrell over Badillo in the 1985 mayoral race. (Far­rell’s entry into the race and his non-cam­paign helped Koch easily gain reelection.)

Dinkins dismisses Badillo as “not a factor” in this year’s election. (The Latin vote may be the key bloc in this year’s primary, and, according to both New York Newsday and a recent poll conduct­ed by Local 1199 — which supports Dinkins — the Manhattan borough president already holds a wide lead over the other Democratic candidates in the Latin com­munity.) “As for the betrayal he speaks of, I was never for him [Badillo],” Din­kins says. “I was supporting Carol Bella­my.” He adds that he has been unfairly slammed on the Farrell debacle: “The vote was 28 to 14 … including such peo­ple as Herb Daughtry and Roger Green voting for Denny. Will you tell me how, in that climate, this gets to be my fault? That’s the dumbest shit I ever heard of. It’s just plain asinine. And I have been carrying the weight for that from that day right down to now, right now, with The City Sun and certain others. So they can all take a running jump.”

However, even some of Dinkins’s sup­porters are worried about the lack of “passion” that Badillo cites. A Brooklyn community activist who supports Din­kins says, “I’m concerned that David start turning up the heat a bit. I think Lynch should be feeding him raw onions­in the morning.” Charles Rangel, howev­er, insists that Dinkins “has the ability to govern. I’ve heard this stuff about him being a wimp, being quiet. But I’ve known him too long. He is a former Ma­rine. And I have seen that former Marine take charge.”

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SOME OF THE BEST receptions Dinkins has received to date have been on Staten Island, which is not usually a hotbed of liberalism. It will be in white areas of the city like this where the Dinkins campaign must make that crucial crossover, accord­ing to Lynch.

On a recent Friday night, in a Knights of Columbus hall, Dinkins spoke to about 100 men gathered for the monthly meet­ing of the Amalgamated Transit Union. The ATU has been fighting against the explosion of private bus lines on the is­land and the city’s granting of franchises to out-of-state, non-union bus companies. Many of the bus drivers and mechanics in the crowd were dressed in their MTA uniforms, having come directly from work.

After being introduced by former city council president Paul O’Dwyer and Shir­ley Quill, the widow of former Transport Workers Union boss Mike Quill, Dinkins got a standing ovation as he walked to the podium. Wearing an ATU cap and baseball jacket, the Manhattan borough president looked very much like a Little League coach. Speaking below portraits of Christopher Columbus and Fulton Sheen, Dinkins drew sustained cheers when he told the predominantly white unionists that he opposed the city’s poli­cy of granting franchises to the out-of-­state firms. As he left the hall, Dinkins proudly displayed the jacket the union had given him, with the inscription, “Da­vid Dinkins, Mayor.”

At another Staten Island meeting — ­this time, a public hearing of Community Board 3 — Dinkins reiterated his support for the transit workers. After Dinkins had departed the auditorium, Ron Bell, the business manager for a longshoremen’s local at Howland Hook, told the crowd, “We have to change the city gov­ernment come November. And I person­ally feel that David Dinkins is the man.” Bell, who is white, received a large ova­tion from the audience. People like the union leader, with his gray hair and brown flannel shirt, were once Ed Koch’s core voters.

In less than a month, the Dinkins cam­paign will begin gathering nominating pe­tition signatures for the September primary. Though the bulk of these signatures — 10,000 are needed to qualify for the ballot — will surely be collected in minority neighborhoods like Harlem and Fort Greene, it will be in such areas as Riverdale, Stapleton, and Forest Hills that Dinkins’s campaign must take root. It is in these neighborhoods that Ed Koch’s base has eroded from under him. And it is in these neighborhoods that David Dinkins must prove he is the best alternative, something he has yet to accomplish. ❖

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The Bowery and the UDC: Letter Perfect

Across the street from the Commodore is the main branch of the Bowery Savings Bank, with $5 billion in assets, second largest savings bank in the country. The Bowery’s stake in the renovation of the Commodore is unmistakable. The Bowery stated that inter­est in an impassioned letter to the Board of Estimate supporting the Commodore project and warned that the hotel would become “a major blighting influence in midtown Man­hattan” unless renovated.

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Bowery had a relationship with UDC. Its marketing vice-president, Pazel Jackson, had been appointed to the UDC board by Carey in 1975. UDC chairman Richard Ravitch was also a friend of the bank’s and would shortly be named to its Board of Trustees. Ravitch and Jackson voted for the UDC general pro­ject plan on the Commodore, as well as a batch of other resolutions authorizing aspects of the deal. When three resolutions went to the board in May 1978, making the project technically operative, Jackson voted for them (Ravitch had left the board by then). No one ever raised the issue of Jackson’s possible conflict, even after the Bowery became the second largest lender on the project, with almost a $15 million mortgage investment. Ra­vitch wasn’t named to the Bowery board un­til a month after he left UDC.

But the most curious aspect of the Bowery/UDC relationship is the striking similarity between letters sent by both to the city con­cerning the Commodore deal. Each letter makes the same four recommendations to the city on how to structure the deal. In several parts of the letters, the wording is identical.

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One of the issues on which the bank and UDC agreed — in almost exactly the same terms — was that Hyatt’s participation was re­quired. It is easy to understand why the Bow­ery took this position. Since critics of the Commodore plan, like the Citizens Union, had attacked it for ”subsidizing tourists at the upper end of the income scale,” it’s more difficult to explain UDC’s insistence on it as a condition for agency participation in the pro­ject. Neither Ravitch nor Jackson could ex­plain the striking similarities in the Bowery/UDC letters and positions. Nor would the Bowery tell me what its earnings or rate of in­terest was on the Commodore loans, one of three UDC projects it financed that were ap­proved by the Ravitch/Jackson board. ❖

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Richard Ravitch: Ties That Bind?

The Village Voice once called Richard Ravitch “the city’s most honorable builder.” That quote wound up cited in The New Yorker and even in the court records of the Penn Central bankruptcy case (by brokers ­representing Ravitch who were trying to im­press a judge then considering a Ravitch bid). Considering the competition, it wasn’t much of a compliment even then. But his recent record makes it impossible to repeat it. For one thing, Ravitch recently sold his third-generation family firm, HRH Construction Co., so he’s no longer a builder. More important, the Commodore story led me into a series of possible conflicts concerning his role as the unpaid chairman of the state’s Urban Development Corporation:

When Ravitch took over UDC, he brought in his company’s law firm with him — Barrett, Smith, Schapiro and Simon. Since 1975 UDC has paid the firm $1.5 million in fees. They remained counsel to HRH and Manhattan Plaza, Ravitch’s most important housing project, throughout Ravitch’s two-year at UDC. Ravitch told me he saw “no conflict.” This dual role placed a difficult ­burden upon the lawyers in determining what portions of their conversations with Ravitch were to be billed to UDC and what portions to Ravitch’s own company, HRH.

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Two weeks after Ravitch resigned from UDC, he sold HRH to Starrett Housing Co. Starrett would become UDC’s principal builder, with almost $150 million worth of contracts on UDC jobs. Indeed, after the sale by Ravitch, as a Starrett subsidiary, received the contract to build the Commodore, the largest UDC project approved while Ravitch headed the agency. As part of his agreement with Starrett, Ravitch divested himself of any interest in HRH projects like the Commodore (though he set up his own office at Starrett and began working jointly with them on a number of unrelated projects). Ravitch’s longtime partner, Irving Fisher, still president of HRH, is building the Commodore ­and has become both a major shareholder and chief officer of Starrett’s domestic construction activities. The rest of the HRH staff has gone with Fisher.

A week before Ravitch voted to approve UDC’s role in the Commodore in 1976, he wrote the state Board of Public Disclosure: “No part of HRH Construction Corporation’s business has any involvement in any project or activity currently subject to UDC jurisdiction and I do not anticipate that there will be any future dealing with matters subject to UDS jurisdiction [itals added].” A few months after this letter, Ravitch began negotiations with Starrett to sell HRH and Donald Trump began negotiations with Starett to build the Commodore. These negotiations proceeded simultaneously through late 1976 and early 1977, and when they concluded, Starrett owned HRH and Trump was com­mitted to use HRH as his Commodore build­er.

Trump and Ravitch — who are not friend­ly — say they did not talk to each other about their simultaneous bargaining with Starrett. Starrett isn’t answering any questions about what either said to them. Though Trump ne­gotiated with Starrett — not HRH — his con­tract ultimately was made with HRH and he didn’t switch to Starrett until the Starrett/HRH negotiations had begun.

This complicated intertwine may have also affected UDC policy. There were dozens of decisions affecting the Commodore being made at UDC while both the Ravitch and Trump negotiations with Starrett proceeded. Trump and Starrett are partners in major ventures and Trump is the largest equity investor in Starrett City (Ravitch says he was unaware of this relationship). Were Ravitch’s UDC to create problems for Trump’s Com­modore, it might have affected Ravitch’s ne­gotiations with Trump’s friends and business partners at Starrett. Were Starrett assured of a major institutional job like the Com­modore, it might have increased the firm’s interest in acquiring HRH.

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In addition to the Commodore, UDC was at various stages of negotiations on four other projects where Starrett eventually acted as developer or builder. The discussions be­tween UDC and Starrett regarding all of these projects were going on while Ravitch was still at UDC and negotiating with Star­rett himself.

Several months after UDC designated Starrett on these projects, the agency re­quested an after-the-fact opinion from the state Board of Public Disclosure on the pro­priety of these relationships. The ethics guidelines for UDC staff during Ravitch’s reign stressed the need to avoid “not only real compromises of integrity but also the ap­pearance of such conflicts or compromises” and barred direct or indirect financial interest that have “or might soon have a substantial business relationship with UDC.” But the board’s staff secretary managed a decision dated one day after the request and — in one paragraph — found no conflict. There are no public filings about the HRH/Starrett mer­ger; so there is no way to penetrate these ne­gotiations. But the appearance is there: can anyone be sure that Ravitch’s influence over UDC projects was not what Starrett thought it was acquiring when it was negotiating to take over HRH? ❖

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On Donald Barr, “The Captain Queeg of Dalton School”

Come Back, Captain Queeg: Thursday’s Massacre at Dalton

Some years are agreeable, some disagreeable. I long ago adjusted to that fact, but last winter as I sat on gas lines, the only cheering things I could fix on were the endless humiliation of Richard Nixon and the fact that my younger children were finally learning something — going to Dalton, a school I really liked. At least, I thought — sneaking cigarettes I supposedly had quit smoking — school is one thing I don’t have to worry about. Dalton under Donald Barr was a decent model of what a good school, public or private, should be: a place where children could learn what they needed to know on their way to becoming well-educated, self-sufficient people. This is what I think a school should be — certainly no less, and I suspect it should not be much more.

Over the years, I had thought about schools far too much. The first article I wrote appeared in this paper about seven years ago. It was an attack on the Elizabeth Irwin School at which one of my daughters was a new student, and it praised City and Country, another Village school where my other children still were. Writing that article was possibly the third biggest mistake I ever made. To begin with, I was dead wrong — not about Elizabeth Irwin which was narrow and aggressively Old-Left propagandist at the time. I have no knowledge of its present character but I always found it interesting that both Kathy Boudin (of the 11th Street explosion) and Angela Davis are alumnae. I was wrong about City and Country which, in its slack permissive fashion, had gone on for 50 years turning the children of bohemians and intellectuals into students with most of the learning behavior problems of inner-city children. The fact that it took the near-paralysis of the brains of my older children before I removed the two who were still there indicates exactly how wrong I was.

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The other part of my mistake was that, as a result of the article, it became impossible for my daughter to continue at Elizabeth Irwin and, since it was the middle of the term, they refused to release her transcript to another school unless tuition was paid for the entire year. I therefore paid two private school fees that year, making that piece easily the most costly I ever wrote.

My worst mistake, however, was that I had been wrong about what education is. I was still under the spell of Summerhill and the notion that a child knows what it should learn when I complained (again in this paper) that Donald Barr, then a fairly new headmaster, was “the Captain Queeg of the Dalton School.”

I have difficulty now remembering what it was I found so appalling — I suspect it was Barr’s attitude that the young must be protected from adults capitulating to the escalating demands of those young — an attitude I had come to endorse heartily by the time I came to Mr. Barr, hat in hand, to ask him to put together what permissive education had split asunder. In other words, I wanted my children in a real school.

This was four years ago when even some of the most traditional schools seemed to be softening, buckling at the seams under the onslaught of counter-cultural fevers. Yet at Dalton the kids were learning math, science, grammar, literature, and history in a sensible consecutive curriculum appropriate to age and ability.

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Meanwhile, my fifth-grader at still another school was studying, as his core subject for the fall term, China. That is, China since the most recent cultural revolution (this before Mr. Nixon’s visit to China — so that the only texts available for study were Quotations From Chairman Mao and an article from Life magazine). The core subject for that teacher’s class the term before had been “Drugs.” The Spring semester promised “Sex,” but happily the teacher left.

My elder daughter, unable to get into any four-year college (even Syracuse turned her down), was at a junior college in New Hampshire where she finally learned to punctuate and turn in acceptable work on time (something second-graders at Dalton seem to know.)

Further, my younger daughter was at New Lincoln failing a few courses (among them “peak experience”) when New Lincoln decided to shut down for at least two weeks and perhaps for the rest of the term in a gesture of protest against the Kent State and Jackson State shootings. When I commented at a parents’ meeting that I thought it misguided and hardly meaningful to turn teenagers loose to roam the streets — especially since my daughter was failing peak experience and algebra and would therefore not have a chance to pull up her grades — I was, as I recall, booed for my reactionary position. The school, in effect, did close down for some weeks, the peak experience teacher never returning at all.

Thus we came to Dalton. A number of people we knew were surprised that we were sending our boys there. For some time Dalton had been the apotheosis of the New York private school of its genre — neither the Waspy old traditional school, nor the permissive alternative school, but something in between. Many of the parents are rich or famous — sometimes both — and often too doting. As Mr. Barr once said in one of his recurring lectures to parents, “This is the kind of school in which a child evinces an interest in photography at breakfast and by dinner he has a Nikon.”

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Nonetheless, in addition to sizable numbers of students on scholarship, there are many children of less affluent writers, academics, and other professionals at Dalton because despite its defects of over-size and over-privilege, Dalton has become the school where the intellectual action is. And of course this has been because of Donald Barr, the cranky, eccentric headmaster who held back the tide of the ’60s at Dalton, striding the corridors of his school in a rumpled suit, wearing in his lapel an American flag pin which was likely an affront to almost everybody.

The word around town was that Barr was an authoritarian bastard, that the kids hated him. Yet looking at stories about him in the school newspaper, at cartoons, one saw that the relationship the students had with Barr was the sort one generation use to have with another — a kind of natural enmity mixed with grudging admiration. At least with Mr. Barr, they knew who the grown-up was. My guess is that former students will be telling stories about him long after the trendy principals who were “on the side of the child” are forgotten.

Shortly after we became parents at Dalton, the first attempt by some trustees to oust Barr erupted in an explosion that reverberated through the pages of the New York Times, Time, and New York magazine. The parents were alerted to the putsch by a letter sent out by, among others, Norman Podhoretz, David Susskind, and Sidney Lumet — all parents who were opposed to the move but, like the rest of the parents, had no power to prevent it.

Dalton is governed by a self-perpetuating board of trustees. There is only nominal direct representation of the parent body, so nominal that the trustees are accountable for their actions to no one but themselves. In one sense this is good because it frees the board from the modish pressures that parents tend to bring to bear on an elected board. But it can also leave parents in the position of waking up one morning to find their school turned upside down on the whim of the oligarchy.

This, in fact, is what happened to those who had sent their children to the pre-Barr Dalton, a much smaller progressive school — not wildly academic, but strong on the arts. Or, as one alumna member of the board put it, “It used to be such a nice school. The children played with animals…” It was a warm, almost sweet school until one day the parents turned and found what seemed to be a martinet in charge, the school size doubled, computers installed, and no one caring whether their children had friends in their classes or not.

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The kind of individualized attention the new Dalton was pushing was based far less on the child’s psycho-social development than on his intellectual readiness for a given subject. The old Dalton parents had, in effect, had their school changed utterly by a board of trustees who, it turned out, never knew exactly what it was getting with Barr. As one of the old trustees (also a parent) said, “When we hired him we didn’t know we were getting a dictator.”

A number of the old teachers and parents left, and others took their places. But still, not everyone was happy.

As I said before, by the spring of 1971 some trustees had had enough of Barr. There was angry talk that he had been hasty in expelling sixth graders who were running a nasty shakedown ring, that he had expelled others because of drug distributing, and that some of the kids so treated were children of parents too powerful to accept this kind of behavior from a schoolmaster.

The parents, however, overwhelmingly supported Barr, who strode dramatically into a crucial PTA meeting to make his case, thus kicking off the fight to retain him. “And now,” Barr said, taking leave of the assembled parents, “I have to go to a meeting of the trustees who are gathered in the basement — where they belong.”

Fortunately, at that time, the board had a number of members who did not want to violate the intensely expressed will of a parental majority and, in the face of a prodigious pro-Barr mail, phone, and telegram campaign which used enough high-quality time and energy to have easily elected a congressman, the trustees allowed their board to be reconstituted and a new board came into being.

We then relaxed, secure in the knowledge that our irascible headmaster was doing his job, that fifth-graders would still have their choices of 10 languages including Greek, Chinese, and Russian, that students would still read aloud the dress regulations (no sneakers, no jeans) in a German accent, and that the younger students would still tell each other that if you were very bad, you would get sent to Mr. Barr’s office where he would talk to you and give you a lollipop.

Then, two months ago, one of my sons came home from school with the word that Mr. Barr was leaving. It was the first I had heard of it. An article in the Times the next morning reported that Mr. Barr had resigned in a dispute with the trustees which “seemed to center on the question of where the board’s authority should yield to the headmaster’s judgment.”

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The Times continued by noting that “Richard Ravitch, a construction company executive who is president of the board of trustees,” had said that “ ‘My sense of trusteeship and my understanding of the requirements of the state law and the bylaws of the school all say to me that it is the obligation of the trustees of an institution to make all the policies.’ ”

What new headmaster of any worth could possibly be attracted to Dalton after that statement?

I had known Mr. Ravitch previously as a Dalton parent and as the head of that construction company which has brought into being, among other developments. Waterside — that great hulk sitting on six acres of the East River — which now, out of pure malice, I hope remains unrented forever. Further back, I recall, during the 1968 Democratic primaries, Ravitch, one evening at the McCarthy Cabaret, poorly supported the unfortunate Hubert Humphrey in a debate with partisans of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.

I bring this up now because I remember thinking Ravitch was a jackass then, but I hardly expected he would be in charge of the only good school I had ever found for my children. Or as someone said on hearing the news, “I thought I was sending my children to Donald Barr’s school, not to Richard Ravitch’s.” Dalton has lost the man who made it extraordinary because Mr. Ravitch, welding his “sense of trusteeship” like a club, precipitated Donald Barr’s resignation.

Of course there had been issues in dispute between some trustees and Mr. Barr. There always were. Barr is a natural adversary. These trustees felt that because contributions to the school had fallen off (money to Israel and the Nixon economy) and costs had risen, cuts in courses and personnel were necessary. In response to the push for economies, Barr had carefully worked out to the approval of most of the trustees a plan for eliminating certain courses that did no real damage to the school’s academic standards. In fact, several trustees have said that meetings between Barr and the board had, in the months preceding his resignation, been so relatively calm that they had seen no auguries of trouble. Even when an evaluation of the school had been ordered by the board, Barr went along — not cheerily, but he went along. After all, there had been other evaluations before.

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As I understand it, what brought about the fatal confrontation was that, on the Thursday of the week before the resignation was announced, Richard Ravitch had prepared a letter to the Dalton faculty which urged the teachers to talk freely to the outside evaluation committee when it appeared at the school. Barr, however, was convinced that the letter could well have been interpreted by the faculty (who already knew that some teachers would not be returning because of the cuts) as an invitation for them to participate in a general back-stabbing in an attempt to influence the evaluation committee as to who should stay and who should be cut adrift.

Barr refused to distribute the Ravitch letter unless it was rephrased. Ravitch ignored the concern of the man he considered his hireling and ordered Barr’s assistant to place the letter in the teachers’ boxes instantly. In the battle of wills that followed, Barr resigned. He may well have been too quick to resign — but it is clear that Ravitch made no move to reject the resignation and, in fact, was manifestly pleased at this turn of events.

When a parent called after hearing of the resignation to ask why no effort had been made to get Barr to reconsider, Ravitch answered, “Believe me, it’s the best thing that could have happened to the school.”

Later, Ravitch tried to tell another irate parent that Barr had quit because he didn’t want an evaluation of the school. “But did you try to persuade him of the need for an evaluation?” the parent asked.

“Of course not,” said Ravitch, “would you tell you cleaning woman why you wanted her to do something?”

A few weeks ago, a faculty member at the University of Chicago was told of the Dalton situation. He was astonished. “Barr made that into one of the best schools in the country,” he said, “and now they’re getting rid of him?”

Damn it, if only Hubert Humphrey had been elected, he might have appointed Richard Ravitch ambassador to South Vietnam and Donald Barr would still be headmaster of Dalton.

 

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Vanguard of the Senate Revolution

Carl Kruger, state senator from Brooklyn’s most southern reaches, barreled up the thruway to Albany last week in his black 2008 Cadillac sedan. He was in a hurry to get there because, thanks to the Democrats finally winning control of the State Senate this year-Hurray! Power to the People!-he has a great deal to say these days about bills and budgets.

This influence stems from his new position as chairman of the mighty Senate Finance Committee. In fact, now that this blessed new day has dawned, and the Senate is no longer a Republican graveyard of progressive hopes and dreams, Kruger is the people, and the people have finally got the power.

His elevation to the finance post brought a cheer the likes of which has not been heard since the 1960s, when the Senate had its last brief taste of Democratic control: “All the way with Chairman K.!” they roared.

The Chairman is 59 years old, built like a fireplug, and the possessor of a Brooklyn mouth that roars. Here he was late last week, thundering on the telephone about this latest attack on the people: the push to charge tolls on drivers crossing the East River. The idea was advanced by Richard Ravitch, the former MTA chief, as a way to keep fares low for the millions who ride subways and buses. The governor embraced it. The Assembly’s leader, Sheldon Silver, re-jiggered the numbers so that the bridge toll was roughly that of a subway fare. His members, he said, were good to go. None of this fooled Chairman Kruger.

“This is not just a battle over the so-called Ravitch rescue plan for the MTA,” says Kruger, biting off his words like Hugo Chavez firing up the masses. “This is a feeding frenzy by the Manhattan elite at the expense of the outer boroughs!”

Thanks to the people’s victory at the polls last fall, this is not empty talk. Kruger now commands the vast arsenal of legislative weapons enjoyed by the Senate majority-weaponry that was once aimed at the people’s interests by Republican reactionaries, but which is now rightly aimed at their true enemies.

“I am prepared to use the full subpoena power of the finance committee,” said the Chairman. His target? Nothing less than the MTA itself.

“The goal is to have them open their books, pull up the venetian blinds, and shed some sunlight on that dark and musty entity that they call the MTA,” he said.

I ask you: Could Chavez himself have said it any better?

Part of his anger at the agency, the Chairman acknowledges, is personal: The district he represents has long been shortchanged by the mass transit system. True, as the blatantly pro-MTA Daily News pointed out last week, there are 20 subway stations in the neighborhoods Kruger represents, serving some 109,000 riders daily. But, as the Chairman understands, the personal is political. What the newspapers don’t tell you is this sad fact:

“When they built the subways, we were not only ignored, we were treated like we didn’t exist,” he says. “We have an antiquated bus network that drops us off at the Flatbush Junction. That’s it.”

Because of this second-class-citizen status, local residents like the Chairman must rely on vehicles like his mighty Cadillac to get around. Not to say he doesn’t sometimes use a Metrocard. At least twice last year, Kruger bought monthly transit passes at $81 apiece. This fact is proven by his campaign expense reports, which show that he used those funds to purchase the passes. In fact, when the New York Post (another MTA mouthpiece) pulled a silly stunt last week by asking to see the Metrocards of Kruger and his Senate allies, the Chairman quickly shamed the paper by pulling an envelope right out of his pocket.

“Do I have a Metrocard? Yes, I do,” he told us last Thursday, moments before the Post pranksters caught up with him. “Sometimes it goes empty. My most use is not so much the subway because the subway takes me nowhere.”

We rest our case. A man of the people who clearly speaks the people’s language.

Equally committed to waging this battle is the Chairman’s very close ally, Pedro Espada Jr. Espada, 56, is a former boxer and knows how to fight. The people’s Democratic revolution in the Senate quickly recognized his many talents. Since joining the new majority, Espada’s titles include: Vice Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee; Vice President of the Senate for Urban Policy; Chairman of the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction & Community Development; and Chairman of the Senate Task Force on Bronx Economic Development.

The newest Bronx state senator was too busy last week to get on the phone with the Voice. In fact, he has been so busy that he has not even had time to open an office in his northern Bronx district. True, he is the only newly elected state senator without a district office, but that is totally irrelevant. What he has been doing has been fighting for the people, on this MTA issue and other matters.

You can get a taste of his fighting spirit-which is very much like Chairman Kruger’s-from an excellent clip available on his State Senate website, in which he uses the new video equipment that the Democrats appropriated from the old Republican misleaders. In the clip, the Vice Chairman explains what he and his fellow senators are trying to accomplish with their own MTA funding proposal, one that does not include any miserable bridge tolls and which sharply cuts the amount of payroll tax included in the so-called Ravitch rescue plan.

But let him speak for himself:

“It is a very responsible proposal,” he says, speaking into his Senate-financed camera. “What it did not do is give the MTA a blank check. It seeks the MTA to be accountable, to be responsible, to be transparent, and to really undergo the kind of auditing that any corporation or agency should undergo before it starts asking for more money.”

In a separate statement issued last week, and forwarded by his press aide, Espada said that all this talk about imminent fare hikes is really just a scare tactic. “I believe there is ample time for Albany to step in and prevent these massive fare hikes and service cuts,” he said. But, with the people’s money, it is most important to be careful, he said. “Fiscal prudence must prevail,” he stated.

Espada knows whereof he speaks. At the exact same time that he is insisting on transparency from the transit agency, he is doing the same with the State Board of Elections. The agency has been giving him a hard time about the fact that he has yet to file what it deems proper campaign expense statements from his 2008 primary and general election contests.

Actually, if the board’s lawyers would only listen, they would see that Espada has already made several filings for a committee called “Espada for the People” (what else would you call it?). OK, there was a slight oversight in that the committee had the wrong designation-a political action committee, versus an election committee-but is that really important? It is all being straightened out.

And the fact that there were no expenditures at all listed on his “11-day pre-primary” filing? Or that the general election reports are still among the missing? Again, this is the kind of nit-picking that only bureaucratic pinheads would engage in.

What do they think he is? The MTA?

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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History Lesson

A new stadium for the Jets is crucial, the Bloomberg administration argues, in order to jump-start long-stalled development atop the West Side rail yards. “Eighty years of history demonstrates that there was not a lot of interest [there],” Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff told a City Council hearing last week.

In fact, the recent past of the Hudson rail yards is littered with failed attempts at vast new projects. None other than the former owners of Madison Square Garden proposed in the mid 1980s that they be allowed to construct a “world-class sports and entertainment center” above the yards. The Garden, owned at the time by Gulf+Western Inc., proposed that, using private funds, it would create a new arena there, along with a huge office and apartment complex built by the real estate firm Olympia and York.

Former MTA chairman Richard Ravitch said that legendary New York sports executive (and former Jets owner) Sonny Werblin personally broached the idea to him. The plan fell apart, however, when the City Planning Commission said the proposed zoning was too dense. (Last month the city approved a zoning density at twice that level for most of the rail yards.) Another former suitor for the site, Ravitch said, was the American Stock Exchange.

Thirty years earlier, in 1956, another renowned New Yorker, William Zeckendorf Sr., proposed an even more grandiose plan for the yards: a new convention hall, a merchandise mart, and a “Television City.” Proving that there are no new ideas under the sun, the master builder also wanted to erect the world’s tallest skyscraper there. He called it “Freedom Tower” and it was to stand 1,750 feet tall—just 26 feet shorter than the Freedom Tower envisioned by architect Daniel Libeskind for the World Trade Center site.

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Stadium Fear Factor

One of the toughest critics of the mayor’s plan to create a $1.7 billion stadium for the New York Jets is Richard Ravitch, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority who is credited with rescuing the city’s subway system in the early 1980s. Before he headed the MTA, Ravitch was a successful real estate developer, and although he is long out of that business, lately he has been telling his old pals something they don’t usually hear: that a lot of them agree with his stadium criticism but don’t have the nerve to say so.

It is a rare instance in which a blue-ribbon member of the development fraternity, never known for outspoken courage, has broken ranks to denounce one of City Hall’s most sacred cows. While most builders have remained mum on the subject, Ravitch has been speaking out forcefully against the stadium, arguing that the proposed deal shortchanges both the MTA, which owns the site, and taxpayers.

Ravitch made that point at a recent luncheon of the Real Estate Board of New York, a group comprising the city’s most powerful builders.

“I was invited to express my point of view,” Ravitch told the Voice last week. “And I told them why I thought the stadium was a mistake. I also asked them why they were supporting it.” That question didn’t bring much of a response, so Ravitch tried to provoke one. “I mentioned that there were some people in the room who tell me privately that they agree with me, but they won’t say so publicly. I asked them ‘Why?’ ” Nobody said anything.

Ravitch said the reason for the silence was obvious.

“They don’t want to get into a fight with the mayor, or with Dan Doctoroff,” he said referring to the powerful deputy mayor for economic development who has declared construction of the stadium the linchpin for West Side development as well as bringing the 2012 Olympics to New York. “I think it’s assumed it is because they do business with the city,” he said.

Speaking on the same subject last week with WNYC talk show host Brian Lehrer, Ravitch had an even more graphic explanation for the closed-mouth syndrome: “They’re in the witness protection program,” he said.

Ravitch demonstrated his own development chops years ago when he built the Waterside towers on the East River, Manhattan Plaza on West 42nd Street, and a concrete colossus at West 33rd Street and Tenth Avenue that straddles the commuter rail tracks beneath it and which now houses the Daily News and other media tenants. As MTA chairman he later created the vast Long Island Rail Road yards across the street, stretching all the way to Twelfth Avenue. The western portion of what’s called the Hudson Yards is now the designated site for the new stadium that would house the New York Jets, and possibly the Olympic games.

When he laid out the yards, Ravitch was mindful that this vast swath of midtown was a valuable MTA asset and would one day be developed. Drawing on his experience building the 33rd Street office tower, he ordered footings constructed along the tracks so as to make it easier to build above the lines without disrupting rail traffic. Over the years, the yards have drawn sporadic but intense developer interest (see sidebar).

Now, whether they say so out loud or not, the city’s developers understand that the rail yards site is worth far more than either the $100 million the Jets have offered to pay for it, or the $300 million that the MTA has said it is seeking, Ravitch insists. “Anybody who knows anything about this business knows that this site is developable,” he said.

Months before the MTA was forced to release its own appraisal that found the site was worth more than $900 million, Ravitch told a hearing held by State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky that the price tag was around $1 billion.

“I am not in the business anymore but I know what developers pay,” he told the Voice. That claim seemed justified last week when the owners of Madison Square Garden made a last-minute offer of $600 million to the MTA, saying they would construct a mixed-use community of offices and residential towers there.

Mayor Bloomberg and Doctoroff have dismissed the offer as grandstanding by a competitor bent on sinking not just the stadium but the Olympics as well. “It is just an outrage,” the mayor said last week in Staten Island. But Ravitch, who said he had no way of knowing whether the Garden’s offer was sincere, insisted that if the site were placed on the open market it would bring legitimate bids far larger than that made by the Jets.

“If they really open up the process they will get a lot of proposals,” said Ravitch. “And it will be a funny irony, because they will get a lot of offers from developers outside of New York.”

Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, which has offered its own alternative scheme for the site, agrees. “There is enormous and vastly increased developer interest in the site just over the last few months,” he said. Since the Garden’s proposal made the news, developers have been calling in from outside the city, Yaro said. “I can’t mention names, but there have been discussions with some of the biggest developers in the world.”

Yaro also agrees that there is good reason to be fearful of the administration’s response to dissenters. Last year, Doctoroff lobbied the RPA heavily not to oppose him on the West Side. “We were under all kinds of pressure,” Yaro said. “Our board members were as well.” Two members, Keyspan Energy and developer Jerry Speyer, both quit the board after Doctoroff’s arm-twisting, according to Yaro.

“There is a reign of terror in this town,” Yaro said. “The litmus test is ‘Do you support the Olympics?’ If so, then you can do business with the city.”

Ravitch said his own decision to speak out emerged when he realized the MTA was facing a crisis almost as severe as the one he confronted when he took over the agency in 1979. “This is a crucial time for them,” he said of the MTA’s leadership. “I think they have come up with a very legitimate budget plan but the political system hasn’t responded. The mayor’s people voted against the plan at the MTA board level, which shocked me. And then the governor’s response wasn’t adequate. So there is the MTA in desperate need of billions of dollars, and they are asking the chairman to give away an asset worth that much money for next to nothing.”

For Ravitch, 71, it is the first time he has entered a public policy debate since his failed 1989 bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination, when his candidacy won admiring editorials but little popular support.

“I just decided I have been involved in this city for my whole life, and if I wasn’t willing to speak up, why the hell would I expect anyone else to?” he said.

Veteran transit advocate Gene Russianoff said he had tried in the past to get Ravitch to speak out on transit issues without success. “If someone was going to say what Richard Ravitch’s legacy was for the city, it would be that he made the trains infinitely better,” said Russianoff. “He killed himself to get that money to turn the system around. I think he feels like, ‘I’ll be damned if I’ll sit by while they screw it up.’ “

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Terminal Solution

About two years ago, Daniel Doctoroff, the millionaire private investment whiz who now serves as the city’s $1-a-year deputy mayor for economic development, decided to ask a real estate development company run by a longtime friend for recommendations about a thorny city problem called the Bronx Terminal Market.

The market is that ragtag jumble of buildings just south of Yankee Stadium, sprawled along 31 acres of city-owned waterfront property. It is where many of the city’s Hispanic bodegas buy their wholesale produce and, as such, it is an important business site for the city. But since 1972, when the administration of then-Mayor John Lindsay signed a remarkable low-rent, 99-year lease on the site, the market has been in the hands of David Buntzman, an aging but wily businessman whose stewardship of the market has been deplored by generations of city officials. “The place has been an economic cesspool,” said former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, who tried for years to figure out a way to get Buntzman out and a new manager in.

This month, the city quietly announced that it had succeeded in doing just that. Related Companies, the developer of the shimmering new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle and several other city projects, has bought out the remainder of Buntzman’s lease for $42.5 million. Related will develop a million-plus-square-foot retail shopping facility on the site, officials said. There had been no open bidding, or the usual request for proposals, because Buntzman held control of the lease and the transaction between him and Related was a private one, officials said.

As it happens, city officials acknowledged this week, Related is the same firm that Doctoroff originally asked, back in 2002, for advice on what to do there. “The deputy mayor sought Related’s input on the economics of what was possible at the Bronx Terminal Market site,” said City Hall spokesperson Jennifer Falk. “Related reviewed the site at his request,” she added. “This was unpaid work, with no fees. They concluded there was potential for development.”

That initial look-see by Related may well have been what prompted the firm’s interest in taking over the market, Falk said. “But even if the idea was sparked by [Related’s] discussion with the deputy mayor,” she added, “in the end, the deputy mayor had no ability to influence the decision the Buntzmans made.”

And when Buntzman and Related informed City Hall that they were trying to reach a deal, Falk added, Doctoroff promptly stepped aside. “He did not participate in the negotiations after that,” she said.

As well he might. As Newsday and The New York Sun have pointed out, Doctoroff has long-standing ties to Related’s chairman and chief executive officer, Stephen Ross. The two men both owned shares at one point in the New York Islanders hockey club. They were also top directors of NYC2012, the nonprofit organization founded by Doctoroff to bring the summer Olympic Games to the city. The two are so close that just days before Doctoroff became deputy mayor, Ross personally guaranteed a $3.2 million loan to the Olympics group so that Doctoroff could get back the start-up money he had personally loaned the committee.

Doctoroff’s relationship with Ross and Related was of sufficient concern that, in February 2002, a month after taking office, he asked the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board how he should handle matters involving them. A preliminary ruling was provided that April, Falk said, followed by a formal response in June 2002. In its letter, the board ruled that there was no conflict of interest for the simple reason that Doctoroff’s transaction with Ross predated his city service. It did, by four days.

As the board’s letter laid out the chronology, on December 27, 2001, M&T Bank agreed to assume the new $3.2 million loan for NYC2012. That same day Doctoroff was repaid with an equal amount from the committee (he forgave about $800,000 more he had originally loaned the group, the letter stated). The next day, December 28, the bank asked for someone to guarantee its new loan. Ross—described by the board as “one of the most active board members and fundraisers for NYC2012″—stepped forward.

On January 1, 2002, Doctoroff was sworn in as deputy mayor. At some point that spring, Doctoroff was presented with a laundry list of outstanding economic development issues, including the nettlesome problem of how to deal with the market. According to several current and former city officials familiar with the matter, the city was then debating its strategies: whether it should continue slugging it out with Buntzman in court, where it was trying to condemn his lease; try to convince Buntzman to take on a joint venture partner; or get an outside party to simply buy out Buntzman’s interest in the property. The last two options had long been on the table, but Buntzman was so viscerally disliked by city officials in the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations that no one during those years wanted him to gain yet another windfall. Doctoroff’s response was to call his friends at Related Companies to see what they thought.

“Deputy Mayor Doctoroff did indeed reach out to Related in 2002 for their development thoughts on the market,” confirmed Jesse Masyr, a lawyer for Related.

Richard Ravitch, the former chairman of the MTA, said he was working on a similar track. Ravitch was invited to serve as a mediator between Buntzman and the city by the judge overseeing the long-stalled court case. Ravitch said that he tried to convince Buntzman to “take on a partner and make a development proposal to the city.” The problem, Ravitch said, was that the Buntzman family didn’t trust the city. In an effort to convince them that a settlement could be reached, Ravitch said that he brought Michael Lehrman, one of Buntzman’s grandsons, to City Hall to meet with Doctoroff. At that point, Ravitch said, Related hadn’t entered the picture.

Shortly thereafter, however, the development firm commenced talks with Buntzman, and, according to Ravitch, “Dan absented himself then because of his relationship with Steve Ross.”

There was yet another happy coincidence. It turned out that Buntzman’s grandson Lehrman went to the University of Michigan with Related president Jeff Blau. What’s more, the Buntzman family will remain a partner in the Bronx site even after Related’s mega-shopping center is built. That’s because grandson Lehrman is a limited partner in the new Related entity, Related lawyers confirmed.

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Zero at Ground Zero

In late July, Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Pataki, and HUD Secretary Mel Martinez held a press conference at Thomas Paine Park, near Ground Zero, to announce a $50 million federally funded program to build 300 units of downtown affordable housing for working families. As welcome as the new construction is, the announcement struck many of lower Manhattan’s current moderate-income residents as a prickly paradox.

A day later, a couple hundred tenants, mostly from Independence Plaza North (IPN), the 1,329-unit, city-supervised-and-subsidized, three-tower project on Ground Zero’s border, rallied on the steps of City Hall to support a bill just introduced by Council Speaker Gifford Miller. IPN’s 3,500 residents were notified in June that new owner Laurence Gluck—just 24 hours after he completed his $100 million purchase of the complex—had filed papers to withdraw the project from the Mitchell- Lama program, a move that would free him to charge sizzling market rents.

That could potentially cost downtown a thousand more affordable units than what the ballyhooed announcement promises, making Tribeca the latest example of the ongoing loss of tens of thousands of affordable apartments citywide, caused by conversions like Gluck’s. Indeed, as bold as the mayor’s $3 billion, 65,000-unit, five-year housing construction plan is, it doesn’t address the shocking erosion of the city’s existing moderate stock, prompted by a loophole in federal and state laws that allows developers to buy their way out of rent regulation 20 years after their projects open.

Spending $300,000 in public funds per new apartment, while speculators grab more than that in profits on each unit they convert, is such bad municipal business that it may provoke our businessman mayor to focus his future efforts on preservation as much as new construction. Since Bloomberg spent last Wednesday in a campaign-mode swing through Queens, he might also recognize, as potential opponent Miller clearly does, the political gold mine these threatened projects are, with thousands of residents making voting decisions on the basis of who best helps them defend their homes.

Independence Plaza has a special claim on the city’s conscience. The twin towers collapsed, as tenant association president Neil Fabricant puts it, on “our doorstep.” Toxic fumes penetrated their doors and windows for months; they lived with masks in their own homes. Residents evacuated; kids were moved from school to school. Barges that hauled the wreckage woke them at 4 a.m. every day. Asbestos readings alarmed their families. IPN’s response was so courageous it was featured in The Washington Post, on the BBC, and even in the Johns Hopkins University Journal at the mayor’s alma mater. With more than 20 percent of Tribeca’s total population, the complex is a third black and Latino. Twenty-two percent of the residents are poor enough to qualify for individual rent subsidies.

IPN owner Gluck, who also owns the old Daily News building, made a name for himself in Mitchell-Lama circles in 2000 when he and a partner, Joseph Chetrit, bought Park West Village on the Upper West Side. They were limited in how high they could raise rents at Park West, since it was built in 1961, long before a January 1, 1974, cutoff point in state law. All Mitchell-Lama projects built before that date revert to rent stabilization if the owner takes them out of the program after 20 years, while those built after it, like IPN, can go to market rents. Despite stabilization, Gluck and Chetrit’s tactics provoked a rent strike and successful lawsuit. Another Chetrit project, Westgate, a post-1973 complex and the first to opt out of the program, experienced double and triple rent boosts prior to a legal settlement.

It’s this kind of history that’s gotten the City Council’s attention. Though the state legislature launched the program in the 1950s, and 60 of the Mitchell-Lamas here are state rental projects regulated exclusively by the State Department of Housing and Community Renewal, another 25,000 are city assisted and supervised by the city’s Housing Preservation and Development agency (HPD), including IPN. It’s only those projects—especially the 13,000 post-1973 units—that Miller’s bill can help. The bill can’t block the opt-outs, since they’re expressly permitted under state law, but it tries to make them less attractive to owners.

The bill requires owners to give 18-month notice of their intention to opt out, instead of the current 12 months, and allows HPD to conduct a “community impact study” of any opt-out, paid for by a $1,000 per-unit fee imposed on the landlord. It also sets up a public hearing and review process to determine if an owner has “substantially complied” with Mitchell-Lama regulations, imposing penalties if they’ve failed, as well as mitigation payments for any “adverse effects.” Miller’s bill covers IPN—since it applies to any incomplete conversion—but will not save it.

That’s why Alan Gerson, the councilman whose district includes the project, has been talking to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff about another solution. Gerson wants Liberty Bonds and other funds cobbled together to finance a tenant association takeover of IPN, by eminent domain if necessary. He says it can become “a model for a citywide trust fund,” though some of the federal funds involved are restricted to the Ground Zero area. Gerson adds that other bills—including ones that may extend the Miller bill protections to tens of thousands of other, mostly federal, projects—are also planned.

Only Albany, however, can actually pass legislation that would stem the growing tide of Mitchell-Lama conversions, with 39 developments already opting out and another 11 eligible or near eligible to do so. The assembly passes one-house bill after one-house bill about this problem, but the Republican senate, which collected 237,000 in Common Cause-identified real estate contributions since 2002, has so far stonewalled. Their logic is that the legislature cannot break the opt-out “contract” it made with the owners, even though a federal court has already ruled in one pivotal case that the owner “failed to demonstrate that the state legislature intended the Mitchell-Lama Law to give rise to constitutionally protected contractual obligations.”

The mayor has said nothing about Miller’s bill, Gerson’s proposal, or the senate’s recalcitrance. HPD issued a “no objection” letter clearing the way for Gluck’s opt-out over the howls of IPN tenants. The governor, who joined in the announcement of affordable downtown units, endorsed the senate’s recent eight-year extension of the rent control laws even though it did not include any of the assembly’s language extending stabilization to the post-1973 Mitchell-Lamas.

Yet it’s not as if protecting these projects is a matter of partisan ideology. A 22-member national commission appointed by both parties in the Congress—and headed by two New Yorkers, Richard Ravitch and Susan Molinari—came to exactly the same conclusion. Their Millennial Housing Commission report, issued in May 2002, noted that 81,000 federally assisted units in NYC will see their protected status expire by September 2004, adding that “nearly all” are “at direct risk of being lost.” Also citing the thousands of disappearing Mitchell-Lama units, the report says “the situation threatens to greatly accelerate NYC’s overall housing emergency.”

The Ravitch commission, which endorsed extending stabilization to post-1973 buildings, warned that Bloomberg’s “well-received plan to create 65,000 new units” might “simply replace the equivalent number of Mitchell-Lama units that are now at serious risk of being lost to affordability.” A businessman who once ran for mayor, Ravitch says it’s “imperative that city-assisted affordable units—which can be preserved by city action—receive the city’s urgent attention.” His commission favors the use of federal trust funds to acquire “imperiled” projects, similar to Gerson’s fund for city projects.

Ravitch’s “crucial challenge” is also an enormous political opportunity for Bloomberg, who can structure a response that will literally reach into the living rooms of core communities. Though IPN has been knocking at Doctoroff’s door for a year, only the council has responded, and with a bill that merely slows rent escalations. Mitchell-Lama owners have raked millions off these projects for decades—with 1 percent mortgages, guaranteed profits, and puny up-front investments. It’s time the tenants who are the glue of neighborhoods came first. V


Research assistance: Michael Anstendig, Ross Goldberg, Phineas Lambert, Naomi Lindt, Brittany Schaeffer, and Jessica Silver-Greenberg